Forget-me-not, by Marjorie Bowen

Prologue

She took off her glove and glanced at the wedding ring which she had no right to wear; this irritated her companion. As he opened the door of the musty, private parlour of the inn he reflected that many of her actions since he had eloped with her had irritated him; a bad beginning.

He endeavoured to reassure himself by a full look at her beauty and elegance. Mary Showler accepted with pleasure this admiration that was tinged by doubt and reluctance. Still displaying the slim hand with the gold band that he had given her that morning, she sat composedly at ease, ignoring her homely surroundings, the dark room with a dusty case of prize fish, a shelf with pewter tankards, a new engraving of the girlish Queen in her coronation robes.

Young Morrison decided that Mary Showler was worth the trouble; a beauty, if ever there was one . . . a woman of taste, too; he liked her gown of deep indigo blue glaces silk, so neatly buttoned to the slim figure.

She was aware of his approval and smiled; her toilette had cost her all she possessed in the world. She had never worn such clothes before, nothing but the plainest attire was permitted the teachers at Miss Le Moine’s Academy for Young Ladies.

“Well,” she said, still smiling, “so far successful, Robert! Can we get any refreshment here? And when do you expect your sister?”

He did not like that; she should not have forced an explanation when she ought to have understood the situation without a word. To gain time he rang the bell and ordered coffee, she, smiling always, considering him with furtive steadiness the awhile.

They had been travelling together since morning and the tedious intimacy had not increased her esteem for him; she realised that she would have to be very careful, very patient. He was pampered, wilful, bad tempered, an indulged sensualist, and worse than any of this, she feared, with a real sinking of the heart, that he was stupid.

But he was wealthy and the next-of-kin to a duke; Mary Showler made her smile soft and engaging as she poured the coffee and offered the cakes.

“Are you not fatigued, Robert? The train was so wearisome! When shall we proceed?”

“Well, I have to see to a few arrangements.” He stared moodily into his coffee cup. She considered all he did and said with an intense, secret interest which she did not for a second mistake for the repulsions and attractions of love (though he had for her, on occasion, a strong physical appeal) she was anxious to know, to understand and to please him because he represented to her a unique chance of escaping an intolerable life and of achieving all she desired.

He was a well-built, rather clumsy young man with thick, closely curling fair hair and whiskers, blunt features and pale grey eyes. He rose abruptly, with an uneasy grin, and said:

“I shall be back in half an hour — pray command what you wish.”

She granted smiling leave; she had no cause to suspect his good faith; she was, indeed, quite sure of him, in the way a clever woman feels sure of a stupid man whose passions she has skilfully roused and never satisfied.

As soon as she was alone she rose and looked in the dim flyblown mirror beside the window on which was a crisp pattern of frost.

The wearisome travelling had not impaired her appearance; she had a gift of neatness. She was twenty-three and looked seventeen; delicately she took off the poult de sole bonnet that it had been such an extravagance for her to buy, and studied her head and face rising against that dingy background. This was the first time that she had been able to insist on, to emphasise her good looks; hitherto she had been always in eclipse, effaced, a nonentity.

She was satisfied with her scrutiny, with her fine small features, long neck, silky hair falling in ringlets of a delicate auburn brown. Only her forehead was rather high, her lashes too light and her slightly prominent eyes, too steady, too brilliant. But she knew very well how to remedy these defects, how to drop the curls on her brow, how to veil her eyes . . .

She tied the bonnet under her chin, arranged the black lace becomingly round the brim and returned to the table where a dirty copy of ‘The Times’ lay. She picked it up and read an account of the funeral of Napoleon I: the great Emperor’s remains had just been received, with incredible pomp, in Paris.

Mary Showler was passionately Bonapartist and loathed the bourgeois King whose elevation had ruined her family. Her face became discontented, almost violent in expression; there was so much of which she was capable and she had been so completely frustrated. To soothe herself she opened her reticule and drew out her lover’s gift ‘to amuse her on the journey,’ ‘Forget-me-not,’ an elegant volume of prose, verse and fine engravings. Her glance caught an account of the miseries of governesses; she turned over the pages, she knew enough about that subject. Her gaze rested on the frontispiece — the young Queen again, a girl younger than herself, with the same childlike features. Mary Showler shut up the book. As she returned it impatiently to her reticule a silver thimble rolled out; this was wreathed with myosotis and the words ‘Forget-me-not’ in bright enamel; her lover had given it to her with the book and had seemed to congratulate himself on a pretty fancy. Her thanks had been as ardent as was now the scorn with which she thrust both these sentimental objects out of sight and returned to her newspaper, which she could no longer resist though it tormented her. She had the sheet on her knee when young Morrison returned with a cigar between his lips; she noted instantly that he did not remove this and that he had been drinking.

“I wish I were in Paris now,” she said; “a grand moment for a Bonapartist!” As he did not answer she continued with a rising accent of drama; “How I detest this Louis Philippe! I should like to pull him down!”

He laughed. “You, Mary! That’s rather ambitious, my dear! I think the King of the French is too firmly fixed! Besides,” he added with sudden ill humour, “women have no need to be interested in such things.”

That warned her; she sat rebuked, crumpled the paper up, cast it down; nothing must irritate or bore him — until she had him safe.

“Has your sister arrived?” she asked sweetly.

“No.” He looked at her with a slight defiance. “Perhaps she won’t come.”

“Then,” said Mary Showler, “what are we going to do? We can’t stay here together.” She urged his silence. “Perhaps I could get a room somewhere in the village? But surely your sister will come? You said, Robert, that you could rely on her.”

“And you thought, of course, that you could rely on me?”

“Of course.” Her voice was tender; she tried to soothe his obvious discontent; no doubt he was vexed by his sister’s defection, and so was she, but she concealed this: “Never mind — we can manage.”

Young Morrison caressed his tight, curly, blond whiskers.

“I suppose so,” he said sulkily.

She waited, in an attitude of graceful abnegation, for his childish temper to pass; she was not really uneasy for she had never quite believed in the staunch loyalty of Lady Hayes that her brother had so often sworn to. Was it likely that an aristocrat would welcome a Mary Showler as a sister-inlaw? No, the poor orphan had relied on herself; though she had had no help at all in the affair she believed she had managed very well from the first moment she had had the luck to attract the attention of Robert Morrison — she, demure in the Bath streets with her posse of pupils, he, idling in his Tilbury with a roving eye for a pretty female shape . . . secret meetings, a secret correspondence, a dramatic passion, a complete decorum, the man enmeshed until he proposed elopement, marriage . . .

She had relied on all that he had promised her, not because she had much respect for his honesty, but because she knew he was infatuated. Therefore she had left everything for him. They were to be married tomorrow at St. Mary’s, Paddington, where, he said, he had had the banns called — oh, quite safely, no one knew him, no one would think of looking for him in such an out of the way place . . . There would be a night to put in; they could not get from Bath to London in time for a marriage, but his favourite, his indulgent sister, Amy Hayes, would meet her and chaperone her till the wedding morning; afterwards, he had a really charming cottage ready for her at Twickenham . . .

No need, Mary Showler thought, to upset these convenient agreeable plans because Lady Hayes had proved cowardly or false.

“Where were we to have stayed?” she asked pleasantly. “You said you had found rooms for us with an old servant. Cannot I go there? It is getting late and really I cannot remain much longer, dear, in this common inn.”

She longed to comment on his cigar; odious to smoke in front of her! but she dared not object to anything — yet.

“We’ll have a little talk first, Mary.” He spoke with clumsy abruptness, then lost patience. “Damn it, you make it deuced awkward!”

“Do I?” She was meek, was sweet, but he suspected her, feared that she was intelligent. He knew that she was well educated, that might be ignored; but that shrewd flash in her gold eyes, that edge to her words, that curl to her lip! He did not want a vixen, a damned blue stocking; she was going to be clever and difficult. He was profoundly irritated; she ought to have shown alarm, confusion, there should have been tears, supplications by now. That mood he could have dealt with, but this poise, that erect head, that steady glance . . . equal to equal. All the brandy he had taken could not arm him against her. He cursed the extraordinary infatuation that had involved him with Mary Showler.

“Look here,” he blurted out, “you don’t really think that I am going to marry you?”

She did not lower her gaze. In a second she had taken in and tasted to the full the bitterness of her own lunatic mistake, and recovered her serenity.

“Aren’t you?” she whispered.

“Well — it stands to reason — confound it, you know who I am-”

“And you know who I am, penniless, defenceless — that makes it easy for you, Robert.”

He took, with clumsy eagerness, this opening.

“If I do, it isn’t because you told me. Your tale was all lies —”

“I told you there was a mystery, that I was quite alone —”

“Mystery!” He was glad to fasten this quarrel on her. “You said you were Mary Showler, your father an English doctor, and that your mother was a daughter of one of Bonaparte’s marshals — ruined, of course — in exile, all the rest of it —”

“Stop!” She rose, checking his stupid triumph. “What has this to do with our marriage?” He frowned at her coolness. “You don’t intend to marry me?”

“No.”

“Why all these falsehoods, then?”

“I suppose you expected some consideration for your damned delicacy —”

“Why are you treating me like this? What do you want from me? What have you found out about me?”

These questions and the manner in which she delivered them revealed her as the powerful personality he had always suspected her to be. Intensely annoyed, he replied:

“Your mother was never married, no need for you to be.”

“Ah, so you found out that? Made enquiries?”

“I’m not a fool, my dear.”

“No, I have been the fool.” She sat down and shaded her face with her hand; she was in a terrible situation and did not see how she could extricate herself. Her limbs trembled from shock and the effort she made to maintain her control and for a moment rage at her own folly consumed her. She had not had much experience, but she had read, observed, deeply and she ought not to have been deceived like a girl from a convent. Vanity had misled her; it is so easy for a woman to over-estimate the force of the passion she inspires.

As she sat there, her face hidden by her frivolous bonnet and her slim hand, she was calculating rapidly, desperately — but her attitude seemed one of complete, miserable defeat, and though she was not a person easily to inspire pity nor he one to feel it, he was touched by a certain compassion for the woman whom he had so cleverly caught.

He put his cigar into his coffee cup and crossed over to her.

“Look here, Mary, I’m sorry if I spoke unkindly — you know I’m fond of you — I meant all I said — except the marriage — and you ought to have guessed.”

“Ought I?” She dropped her hand, but did not raise her face. “Why, then, did you trouble to mention marriage to me?” This was the sort of answer he did not like; it was detestable for a woman to be logical.

“You may take it as a compliment, I suppose, my dear — I thought you wanted to at least keep up appearances — and you can’t blame me for playing your own game, for you told me a lot of nonsense about yourself.”

She did not reply, and he continued, half ill-tempered, half conciliatory, to justify himself; she paid no heed to his arguments, but what did impress her was his tone. At Bath he had always treated her as a gentlewoman, now he definitely spoke to an inferior, a creature already declasse, of the demimonde. Anger at her own folly merged into unspeakable anger at his insolence, yet she knew that, in his own estimation, he was being generous.

“Don’t be sulky, Mary, and spoil everything. There isn’t another woman I’ve ever met for whom, I’d take the trouble I’ve taken for you.”

“The trouble?” She raised her head and looked at him. “Was it so difficult to tell a few lies?”

“Oh, come now, I’ve been after you for weeks.” Resentment at her coolness goaded him into adding: “You were supposed to be fond of me, weren’t you? Seems to me that all you were thinking of was the advantages you were hoping for —”

She easily extricated herself from this.

“I was prepared to be your wife, Robert — I don’t know I’m prepared to be any man’s mistress.” She rose, unable any longer to control her violent wrath. “You offer me this vulgar — this bitter insult — then expect me to still be-fond of you?”

Young Morrison was impressed; she had, in that moment of stung pride, the lure of the unattainable. She was really lovely, flushed with a fever of passion, and he wanted her; wanted to tame her, break her, leave her . . . but that last, not for a long while yet; she would make a fine show before his friends. He took her wrists and began to woo her, thickly, insistently; he was in earnest, as he had been in earnest at Bath.

Mary Showler stood rigid, not listening, her head turned aside. She earned forty pounds a year, in eighteen months she had saved twenty pounds; it had all been spent on the clothes she wore. There were five shillings in her purse, she had nothing else in the world. Her sole relative was her grandfather, a fierce, bitter, penurious old man who had already told her that she could starve for all he cared. In leaving Miss Le Moine’s establishment in such a manner she had lost her character; in what way besides teaching could she earn even a pittance?

She was roused from these bitter reflections by the young man dropping her hands and exclaiming violently:

“Why don’t you answer? What have you got to say?”

She looked vaguely at him.

“What am I supposed to answer? I did not hear what you said.”

She knew that she ought to soothe, to flatter Robert Morrison even now, but she had not sufficient self-control to do this, and he for a moment almost lost his complacency before her cold hostility.

He recovered himself with a flare of temper.

“Very well, I’ll leave you here. No doubt you’ll find your way back to the paths of virtue without my help —”

At that she forced herself to say:

“I am very cold. And tired. I have had a great shock. You must forgive me if I am rather — stupid.”

This confession of weakness and the sight of that charming head as she flung off her bonnet, restored his good humour. She was a prize and worth an effort, and, after all, she had taken it pretty well, no hysterics, nor reproaches, not a single tear; he had got off lightly. As he rang the bell he was congratulating himself that he knew how to manage a woman.

His haughty orders to the waiter got lamp and fire hastily lit, wine and food on the table and the announcement that the best bedroom had been warmed and aired for “your honour if your honour is staying the night.”

“Yes, we’ll stay,” said Robert Morrison. “We have missed the train and my wife is tired.”

He ordered more brandy, and, as soon as it came, drank eagerly; warmth began to spread from the fire. Mary Showler drank a glass of sherry, took off her shawl and held her hands to the flames. She knew that she ought to refuse this man’s company with horror, to fly from him at once, anywhere, but she remained in the easy chair by the fire, sipping another glass of sherry, eating bread, ham and macaroons, and thinking deeply; her childlike features did not betray the agonised bitterness of her thoughts.

Protected by the company of the waiter, Robert Morrison made a good meal and emptied his glass every time it was replenished. Mary Showler stole a look now and then at his thick red neck with the dusting of blond hair, at his blunt, handsome features, at his heavy, robust body in the fashionable clothes; a brute, who had behaved to her like a scoundrel, but she did not regard him wholly with repugnance. He was better company than Miss Le Moine or her pupils. Even silent, absorbed in his meal he pleased her more than did the affections of feminine gentility.

When he had finished and the table was cleared, he approached her in smiling good humour and asked her if she had made up her mind?

“About what, Robert?”

“Don’t put me off, there’s a good creature — look here, who are you?”

“All I told you was true, except that my parents weren’t married — my grandfather was one of Napoleon’s officers —”

“But not a marshal, eh? Never mind, what’s your name?”

“Did you not remind me that I was nameless? I was christened Lucille, my mother was a Mademoiselle Clery. My father, till he died, gave me a good education. I took an English name for teaching, that of an ancestress. Despite me, as you will,” she added. “I have never been treated before as you have treated me.”

He ignored that.

“Well, Mary Showler, or Lucille Clery, I think you are much too smart and pretty to be a miserable governess and I mean to treat you very well — I’ll give you an apartment in Paris and a handsome allowance. You can have a cabriolet and keep a maid — I shan’t marry till I can help it — come, I really want you and you could do no better —”

He took hold of her, muttering some endearments, pulling her close. His breath, tainted by tobacco and spirits, was on her face, and she felt the full contact of his body, powerful, warm, full of strength and passion. This was not displeasing to her after a narrow, cloistered life, excluded from all touch of masculinity. She was conscious of a certain relief to her agony in this embrace of the man who had caused it. At last her fatigue, her rage, her shame melted into tears; she was shaken by sobs in his arms and he was gratified. This was true feminine surrender; his caresses became quick, violent, he muttered promises that were quite sincere; he meant to spend a lot of money on her. For a while she endured this, took comfort in this. But she was icy proud, strictly bred, not sensual, not in love with him; she stifled her tears as rage and humiliation surged uppermost in her heart, and wrenched away the thick fingers fondling her throat, her ears, her curls, her breasts.

“I can’t — I can’t,” she muttered, shuddering violently and turning away. “I won’t be treated like this —” She added something in French that he sensed was an expression of hatred. Startled and disgusted, the young man drew back; was she such a prize? Her features were distorted, and her vivid repugnance chilled and offended him. He, too, mustered some dignity.

“As you please. I’ve never forced a woman. Good-bye, if you like. If you change your mind I shall be upstairs.”

He left her, making an effort over the lurch in his gait. Mary Showler sat down before the opal globe of the lamp that cast a circle of light over the dirty cups, the stubbed out cigar. Through her humiliation she tried to see the advantages . . . What had he offered her? Paris, a carriage, a maid, a ‘handsome allowance’; no one else had ever offered her anything at all. She liked Paris, Tortoni, the Maison d’or, the opera, the theatre, in the demimonde she might, surely, have some success, throw over, perhaps, Morrison and find some other man more clever, more influential . . . yet it was detestable to accept less than marriage, to become an outcast at this fool’s bidding!

But the alternative? To return to the slavery that was called teaching, classed with the housekeeper, the lady’s maid, keyed down to vapid, sub-acid feminine gentilities and futilities! Mary Showler wished to attach herself to men’s destinies, to their passions, their splendours, their vices.

She glanced up at the portrait of the young Queen — a silly vacant face with pale full eyes and a baby mouth, too like her own, she thought . . . what luck some women had, what luck!

She thrust her fingers into her fine ringlets; the heat of the lamp was on her flushed face, the smell of the paraffin in her nostrils. Fatigue and grief began to overcome her anger, her shame.

The man upstairs would be kind to her if she was submissive; he desired her if he did not love her. It was better to be degraded by a carnal passion than to be ignored; of what use was this chastity, this honour she had been told to rate so high?

Aloud she asked herself: “What use?”

A woman must never give her body except as the final gift of a life-long, a perfect love. Who was going to love Mary Showler like that? A bastard orphan, penniless, friendless . . . young Morrison’s behaviour had taught her what she might expect from gentlemen; she could not bear to think of any union with one who was not a gentleman. “It was cruel to educate me better than my birth.” The sense of her great loneliness overwhelmed her; no one to help, no one to care, many to scold, to mock, to condemn; she began to think with relief of the man waiting upstairs, to wish for his brutal caresses that would at least stun thought.

She rose, picked up her bonnet, her tartan scarf, her shawl, her reticule, went out into the brown varnished passage. A waiter, yawning, was coming out of the coffee-room opposite; he seemed surprised to see her. Through the open door behind him she saw the bleak face of a clock; it was far later than she had thought, her trance-like musing must have been very long. Robert Morrison, she reflected instantly, had not come back to urge her decision.

“Has my husband gone out?”

“No, Madam, he is upstairs — your room is that with the brass knocker at the head of the stairs —”

“I can find it. Is there a little closet or chamber that I could have to myself?”

“Oh yes, Madam, that at the side.”

“Thank you.” Her air of authority quelled his curiosity, but his dull eyes stared after her as if he guessed something of her sordid story.

Mary Showler went upstairs, passed the door with the brass knocker and entered the one beside it, a cold room with white everywhere, walls, bed cover, curtains. She took off her shawl, shuddering, combed her hair, bathed her face and stood still a moment to gather her courage, staring at herself in a mirror that hung beneath a pink china plaque showing John Wesley preaching, then went softly and raised the brass knocker. As there was no reply, she entered.

It was a large room; a fire was burning low on the hearth, a lamp, turned down, was on a table by the window; an unstrapped valise lay on the floor. She put her hand before her eyes.

“Robert, I’ve come.”

No reply; she advanced to the large bed from which the curtains were looped back; he was lying there, fully dressed, asleep.

Mary Showler crossed to the lamp and turned up the flame, returned to the bed and tried to wake the young man.

His face was congested, he was snoring heavily; bottles and glasses were on the night table. She saw that he was not asleep, but drunk.

He had not cared enough to keep sober to wait for her; disappointed at her delay, he had drunk himself into insensibility; first his love and then his lust had left her cheated, bereft. He was not able to receive the sacrifice she had, at such cost to her pride, come to make: she could not even forget her torments in his coarse embraces. The affair had become worse than tragic — ridiculous.

Her desire for the sensational, the dramatic was frustrated; she had meant to fling herself into his arms with at least simulated passion . . .

She bent over him with an expression of loathing that sharpened her features painfully; how ugly he was in his stupor! She marked every defect in his face. The thick hair and whiskers were straw colour on the purplish skin, his mouth had fallen open and was twitching; to her he was vile, obscene.

“You miserable blackguard,” she whispered, “sale bete —”

She withdrew, hastened to the other room, panting, trembling, tied on her bonnet, flung on scarf and shawl, snatched up her reticule, remembered . . . only five shillings . . .

She was back in his room again, swift and concentrated in her actions. His merino coat hung over a chair; she went through the pockets — some guineas in a beaded purse. She took these and fled, hovered for a moment on the wide landing till the passage below was empty, then descended, escaped unobserved and was out in the raw damp of the December night.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:28