Birds of Prey, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 2

The Easy Descent

Amongst the many imprudences of which Horatio Paget — once a cornet in a crack cavalry regiment, always a captain in his intercourse with the world — had been guilty during the course of a long career, there was none for which he so bitterly reproached himself as for a certain foolish marriage which he had made late in his life. It was when he had thrown away the last chance that an indulgent destiny had given him, that the ruined fop of the Regency, the sometime member of the Beef-steak Club, the man who in his earliest youth had worn a silver gridiron at his button-hole, and played piquet in the gilded saloons of Georgina of Devonshire, found himself laid on a bed of sickness in dingy London lodgings, and nearer death than he had ever been in the course of his brief military career; so nearly gliding from life’s swift-flowing river into eternity’s trackless ocean, that the warmest thrill of gratitude which ever stirred the slow pulses of his cold heart quickened its beating as he clasped the hand that had held him back from the unknown region whose icy breath had chilled him with an awful fear. Such men as Horatio Paget are apt to feel a strange terror when the black night drops suddenly down upon them, and the “Gray Boatman’s” voice sounds hollow and mysterious in the darkness, announcing that the ocean is near. The hand that held the ruined spendthrift back when the current swept so swiftly oceanward was a woman’s tender hand; and Heaven only knows what patient watchfulness, what careful administration of medicines and unwearying preparation of broths and jellies and sagos and gruels, what untiring and devoted slavery, had been necessary to save the faded rake who looked out upon the world once more, a ghastly shadow of his former self, a penniless helpless burden for any one who might choose to support him.

“Don’t thank me,” said the doctor, when his feeble patient whimpered flourishing protestations of his gratitude, unabashed by the consciousness that such grateful protestations were the sole coin with which the medical man would be paid for his services; “thank that young woman, if you want to thank anybody; for if it had not been for her you wouldn’t be here to talk about gratitude. And if ever you get such another attack of inflammation on the lungs, you had better pray for such another nurse, though I don’t think you’re likely to find one.”

And with this exordium, the rough-and-ready surgeon took his departure, leaving Horatio Paget alone with the woman who had saved his life.

She was only his landlady’s daughter; and his landlady was no prosperous householder in Mayfair, thriving on the extravagance of wealthy bachelors, but an honest widow, living in an obscure little street leading out of the Old Kent-road, and letting a meagrely-furnished little parlour and a still more meagrely-furnished little bedroom to any single gentleman whom reverse of fortune might lead into such a locality. Captain Paget had sunk very low in the world when he took possession of that wretched parlour and laid himself down to rest on the widow’s flock-bed.

There is apt to be a dreary interval in the life of such a man — a blank dismal interregnum, which divides the day in which he spends his last shilling from the hour in which he begins to prey deliberately upon the purses of other people. It was in that hopeless interval that Horatio Paget established himself in the widow’s parlour. But though he slept in the Old Kent-road, he had not yet brought himself to endure existence on that Surrey side of the water. He emerged from his lodging every morning to hasten westward, resplendent in clean linen and exquisitely-fitting gloves, and unquestionable overcoat, and varnished boots.

The wardrobe has its Indian summer; and the glory of a first-rate tailor’s coat is like the splendour of a tropical sun — it is glorious to the last, and sinks in a moment. Captain Paget’s wardrobe was in its Indian summer in these days; and when he felt how fatally near the Bond-street pavement was to the soles of his feet, he could not refrain from a fond admiration of the boots that were so beautiful in decay.

He walked the West-end for many weary hours every day during this period of his decadence. He tried to live in an honest gentlemanly way, by borrowing money of his friends, or discounting an accommodation-bill obtained from some innocent acquaintance who was deluded by his brilliant appearance and specious tongue into a belief in the transient nature of his difficulties. He spent his days in hanging about the halls and waiting-rooms of clubs — of some of which he had once been a member; he walked weary miles between St James’s and Mayfair, Kensington Gore and Notting Hill, leaving little notes for men who were not at home, or writing a little note in one room while the man to whom he was writing hushed his breath in an adjoining chamber. People who had once been Captain Paget’s fast friends seemed to have simultaneously decided upon spending their existence out of doors, as it appeared to the impecunious Captain. The servants of his friends were afflicted with a strange uncertainty as to their masters’ movements. At whatever hall-door Horatio Paget presented himself, it seemed equally doubtful whether the proprietor of the mansion would be home to dinner that day, or whether he would be at home any time next day, or the day after that, or at the end of the week, or indeed whether he would ever come home again. Sometimes the Captain, calling in the evening dusk, in the faint hope of gaining admittance to some friendly dwelling, saw the glimmer of light under a dining-room door, and heard the clooping of corks and the pleasant jingling of glass and silver in the innermost recesses of a butler’s pantry; but still the answer was — not at home, and not likely to be home. All the respectable world was to be out henceforth for Horatio Paget. But now and then at the clubs he met some young man, who had no wife at home to keep watch upon his purse and to wail piteously over a five-pound note ill-bestowed, and who took compassion on the fallen spendthrift, and believed, or pretended to believe, his story of temporary embarrassment; and then the Captain dined sumptuously at a little French restaurant in Castle-street, Leicester-square, and took a half-bottle of chablis with his oysters, and warmed himself with chambertin that was brought to him in a dusty cobweb-shrouded bottle reposing in a wicker-basket.

But in these latter days such glimpses of sunshine very rarely illumined the dull stream of the Captain’s life. Failure and disappointment had become the rule of his existence — success the rare exception. Crossing the river now on his way westward, he was wont to loiter a little on Waterloo Bridge, and to look dreamily down at the water, wondering whether the time was near at hand when, under cover of the evening dusk, he would pay his last halfpenny to the toll-keeper, and never again know the need of an earthly coin.

“I saw a fellow in the Morgue one day — a poor wretch who had drowned himself a week or two before. Great God, how horrible he looked! If there was any certainty they would find one immediately, and bury one decently, there’d be no particular horror in that kind of death. But to be found like that, and to lie in some riverside deadhouse down by Wapping, with a ghastly placard rotting on the rotting door, and nothing but ooze and slime and rottenness round about one — waiting to be identified! And who knows, after all, whether a dead man doesn’t feel that sort of thing?”

It was after such musings as these had begun to be very common with Horatio Paget that he caught the chill which resulted in a very dangerous illness of many weeks. The late autumn was wet and cold and dreary; but Captain Paget, although remarkably clever after a certain fashion, had never been a lover of intellectual pursuits, and imprisonment in Mrs. Kepp’s shabby parlour was odious to him. When he had read every page of the borrowed newspaper, and pished and pshawed over the leaders, and groaned aloud at the announcement of some wealthy marriage made by one of his quondam friends, or chuckled at the record of another quondam friend’s insolvency — when he had poked the fire savagely half a dozen times in an hour, cursing the pinched grate and the bad coals during every repetition of the operation — when he had smoked his last cigar, and varnished his favourite boots, and looked out of the window, and contemplated himself gloomily in the wretched little glass over the narrow chimney-piece — Captain Paget’s intellectual resources were exhausted, and an angry impatience took possession of him. Then, in defiance of the pelting rain or the lowering sky, he flung his slippers into the farthest corner — and the farthest corner of Mrs. Kepp’s parlour was not very remote from the Captain’s arm-chair — he drew on the stoutest of his varnished boots — and there were none of them very stout now — buttoned his perfect overcoat, adjusted his hat before the looking-glass, and sallied forth, umbrella in hand, to make his way westward. Westward always, through storm and shower, back to the haunts of his youth, went the wanderer and outcast, to see the red glow of cheery fires reflected on the plate-glass windows of his favourite clubs; to see the lamps in spacious reading-rooms lit early in the autumn dusk, and to watch the soft light glimmering on the rich bindings of the books, and losing itself in the sombre depths of crimson draperies. To this poor worldly creature the agony of banishment from those palaces of Pall Mall or St. James’s-street was as bitter as the pain of a fallen angel. It was the dullest, deadest time of the year, and there were not many loungers in those sumptuous reading-rooms, where the shaded lamps shed their subdued light on the chaste splendour of the sanctuary; so Captain Paget could haunt the scene of his departed youth without much fear of recognition: but his wanderings in the West grew more hopeless and purposeless every day. He began to understand how it was that people were never at home when he assailed their doors with his fashionable knock. He could no longer endure the humiliation of such repulses, for he began to understand that the servants knew his errand as well as their masters, and had their answers ready, let him present himself before them when he would: so he besieged the doors of St. James’s and Mayfair, Kensington Gore and Netting Hill, no longer. He knew that the bubble of his poor foolish life had burst, and that there was nothing left for him but to die.

It seemed about this time as if the end of all was very near. Captain Paget caught a chill one miserable evening on which he returned to his lodging with his garments dripping, and his beautiful varnished boots reduced to a kind of pulp; and the chill resulted in a violent inflammation of the lungs. Then it was that a woman’s hand was held out to save him, and a woman’s divine tenderness cared for him in his dire extremity.

The ministering angel who comforted this helpless and broken-down wayfarer was only a low-born ignorant girl called Mary Anne Kepp — a girl who had waited upon the Captain during his residence in her mother’s house, but of whom he had taken about as much notice as he had been wont to take of the coloured servants who tended him when he was with his regiment in India. Horatio Paget had been a night-brawler and a gamester, a duellist and a reprobate, in the glorious days that were gone; but he had never been a profligate; and he did not know that the girl who brought him his breakfast and staggered under the weight of his coal-scuttle was one of the most beautiful women he had ever looked upon.

The Captain was so essentially a creature of the West-end, that Beauty without her glitter of diamonds and splendour of apparel was scarcely Beauty for him. He waited for the groom of the chambers to announce her name, and the low hum of well-bred approval to accompany her entrance, before he bowed the knee and acknowledged her perfection. The Beauties whom he remembered had received their patent from the Prince Regent, and had graduated in the houses of Devonshire and Hertford. How should the faded bachelor know that this girl, in a shabby cotton gown, with unkempt hair dragged off her pale face, and with grimy smears from the handles of saucepans and fire-irons imprinted upon her cheeks — how should he know that she was beautiful? It was only during the slow monotonous hours of his convalescence, when he lay upon the poor faded little sofa in Mrs. Kepp’s parlour — the sofa that was scarcely less faded and feeble than himself — it was then, and then only, that he discovered the loveliness of the face which had been so often bent over him during his delirious wanderings.

“I have mistaken you for all manner of people, my dear,” he said to his landlady’s daughter, who sat by the little Pembroke-table working, while her mother dozed in a corner with a worsted stocking drawn over her arm and a pair of spectacles resting upon her elderly nose. Mrs. Kepp and her daughter were wont to spend their evenings in the lodger’s apartment now; for the invalid complained bitterly of “the horrors” when they left him.

“I have taken you for all sorts of people, Mary Anne,” pursued the Captain dreamily. “Sometimes I have fancied you were the Countess of Jersey, and I could see her smile as she looked at me when I was first presented to her. I was very young in the beautiful Jersey’s time; and then there was the other one — whom I used to drink tea with at Brighton. Ah me! what a dull world it seems nowadays! The King gone, and everything changed — everything — everything! I am a very old man, Mary Anne.”

He was fifty-two years of age; he felt quite an old man. He had spent all his money, he had outlived the best friends of his youth; for it had been his fate to adorn a declining era, and he had been a youngster among elderly patrons and associates. His patrons were dead and gone, and the men he had patronised shut their doors upon him in the day of his poverty. As for his relations, he had turned his back upon them long ago, when first he followed in the shining wake of that gorgeous vessel, the Royal George. In this hour of his penniless decline there was none to help him. To have outlived every affection and every pleasure is the chief bitterness of old age; and this bitterness Horatio Paget suffered in all its fulness, though his years were but fifty-two.

“I am a very old man, Mary Anne,” he repeated plaintively. But Mary Anne Kepp could not think him old. To her eyes he must for ever appear the incarnation of all that is elegant and distinguished. He was the first gentleman she had ever seen. Mrs. Kepp had given shelter to other lodgers who had called themselves gentlemen, and who had been pompous and grandiose of manner in their intercourse with the widow and her daughter; but O, what pitiful lacquered counterfeits, what Brummagem paste they had been, compared to the real gem! Mary Anne Kepp had seen varnished boots before the humble flooring of her mother’s dwelling was honoured by the tread of Horatio Paget, but what clumsy vulgar boots, and what awkward plebeian feet had worn them! The lodger’s slim white hands and arched instep, the patrician curve of his aquiline nose, the perfect grace of his apparel, the high-bred modulation of his courteous accents — all these had impressed Mary Anne’s tender little heart so much the more because of his poverty and loneliness. That such a man should be forgotten and deserted — that such a man should be poor and lonely, seemed so cruel a chance to the simple maiden: and then when illness overtook him, and invested him with a supreme claim upon her tenderness and pity — then the innocent girl lavished all the treasures of a compassionate heart upon the ruined gentleman. She had no thought of fee or reward; she knew that her mother’s lodger was miserably poor, and that his payments had become more and more irregular week by week and month by month. She had no consciousness of the depth of feeling that rendered her so gentle a nurse; for her life was a busy one, and she had neither time nor inclination for any morbid brooding upon her own feelings.

She protested warmly against the Captain’s lamentation respecting his age.

“The idear of any gentleman calling hisself old at fifty!” she said — and Horatio shuddered at the supererogatory “r” and the “hisself,” though they proceeded from the lips of his consoler; —“you’ve got many, many years before you yet, sir, please God,” she added piously; “and there’s good friends will come forward yet to help you, I make no doubt.”

Captain Paget shook his head peevishly.

“You talk as if you were telling my fortune with a pack of cards,” he said. “No, my girl, I shall have only one friend to rely upon, if ever I am well enough to go outside this house; and that friend is myself. I have spent the fortune my father left me; I have spent the price of my commission; and I have parted with every object of any value that I ever possessed — in vulgar parlance, I am cleaned out, Mary Anne. But other men have spent every sixpence belonging to them, and have contrived to live pleasantly enough for half a century afterwards; and I daresay I can do as they have done. If the wind is tempered to the shorn lamb, I suppose the hawks and vultures take care of themselves. I have tried my luck as a shorn lamb, and the tempest has been very bitter for me; so I have no alternative but to join the vultures.”

Mary Anne Kepp stared wonderingly at her mother’s lodger. She had some notion that he had been saying something wicked and blasphemous; but she was too ignorant and too innocent to follow his meaning.

“O, pray don’t talk in that wild way, sir,” she entreated. “It makes me so unhappy to hear you go on like that.”

“And why should anything that I say make you unhappy, Mary Anne?” asked the lodger earnestly.

There was something in his tone that set her pale face on fire with unwonted crimson, and she bent very low over her work to hide those painful blushes. She did not know that the Captain’s tone presaged a serious address; she did not know that the grand crisis of her life was close upon her.

Horatio Paget had determined upon making a sacrifice. The doctor had told him that he owed his life to this devoted girl; and he would have been something less than man if he had not been moved with some grateful emotion. He was grateful; and in the dreary hours of his slow recovery he had ample leisure for the contemplation of the woman to whom he owed so much, if his poor worthless life could indeed be much. He saw that she was devoted to him; that she loved him more truly than he had ever been conscious of being loved before. He saw too that she was beautiful. To an ugly woman Captain Paget might have felt extremely grateful; but he could never have thought of an ugly woman as he thought of Mary Anne Kepp. The end of his contemplation and his deliberation came to this: She was beautiful, and she loved him, and his life was utterly wretched and lonely; so he determined on proving his gratitude by a sublime sacrifice. Before the girl had lifted her face from the needlework over which she had bent to hide her blushes, Horatio Paget had asked her to be his wife. Her emotion almost overpowered her as she tried to answer him; but she struggled against it bravely, and came to the sofa on which he lay and dropped upon her knees by his side. The beggar-maid who was wooed by a king could have felt no deeper sense of her lover’s condescension than that which filled the heart of this poor simple girl as she knelt by her mother’s gentleman lodger.

“I— to be your wife!” she exclaimed. “O, surely, sir, you cannot mean it?”

“But I do mean it, with all my heart and soul, my dear,” answered the Captain. “I’m not offering you any grand chance, Mary Anne; for I’m about as low down in the world as a man can be. But I don’t mean to be poor all my life. Come, my dear, don’t cry,” he exclaimed, just a little impatiently — for the girl had covered her face with her hands, and tears were dropping between the poor hard-working fingers —“but lift up your head and tell me whether you will take a faded old bachelor for your husband or not.”

Horatio Paget had admired many women in the bright years of his youth, and had fancied himself desperately in love more than once in his life; but it is doubtful whether the mighty passion had ever really possessed the Captain’s heart, which was naturally cold and sluggish, rarely fluttered by any emotion that was not engendered of selfishness. Horatio had set up an idol and had invented a religion for himself very early in life; and that idol was fashioned after his own image, and that religion had its beginning and end in his own pleasure. He might have been flattered and pleased by Miss Kepp’s agitation; but he was ill and peevish; and having all his life been subject to a profound antipathy to feminine tearfulness, the girl’s display of emotion annoyed him.

“Is it to be yes, or no, my dear?” he asked, with, some vexation in his tone.

Mary Anne looked up at him with tearful, frightened eyes.

“O, yes, sir, if I can be of any use to you, and nurse you when you are ill, and work for you till I work my fingers to the bone.”

She clenched her hands spasmodically as she spoke. In imagination she was already toiling and striving for the god of her idolatry — the GENTLEMAN whose varnished boots had been to her as a glimpse of another and a fairer world than that represented by Tulliver’s-terrace, Old Kent-road. But Captain Paget checked her enthusiasm by a gentle gesture of his attenuated hands.

“That will do, my dear,” he murmured languidly; “I’m not very strong yet, and anything in the way of fuss is inexpressibly painful to me. Ah, my poor child,” he exclaimed, pityingly, “if you could have seen a dinner at the Marquis of Hertford’s, you would have understood how much can be achieved without fuss. But I am talking of things you don’t understand. You will be my wife; and a very good, kind, obedient little wife, I have no doubt. That is all settled. As for working for me, my love, it would be about as much as these poor little hands could do to earn me a cigar a day — and I seldom smoke less than half a dozen cigars; so, you see, that is all so much affectionate nonsense. And now you may wake your mother, my dear; for I want to take a little nap, and I can’t close my eyes while that good soul is snoring so intolerably; but not a word about our little arrangement, Mary Anne, till you and your mother are alone.”

And hereupon the Captain spread a handkerchief over his face and subsided into a gentle slumber. The little scene had fatigued him; though it had been so quietly enacted, that Mrs. Kepp had slept on undisturbed by the brief fragment of domestic drama performed within a few yards of her uneasy arm-chair. Her daughter awoke her presently, and she resumed her needlework, while Mary Anne made some tea for the beloved sleeper. The cups and saucers made more noise to-night than they were wont to make in the girl’s careful hands. The fluttering of her heart seemed to communicate itself to the tips of her fingers, and the jingling of the crockery-ware betrayed the intensity of her emotion. He was to be her husband! She was to have a gentleman for a husband; and such a gentleman! Out of such base trifles as a West-end tailor’s coat and a West-end workman’s boots may be engendered the purest blossom of womanly love and devotion. Wisely may the modern philosopher cry that the history of the world is only a story of old clothes. Mary Anne had begun by admiring the graces of Stultz and Hoby, and now she was ready to lay down her life for the man who wore the perishing garments.

Miss Kepp obeyed her lover’s behest; and it was only on the following day, when she and her mother were alone together in the dingy little kitchen below Captain Paget’s apartments, that she informed that worthy woman of the honour which had been vouchsafed to her. And thereupon Mary Anne endured the first of the long series of disappointments which were to arise out of her affection for the penniless Captain. The widow was a woman of the world, and was obstinately blind to the advantages of a union with a ruined gentleman of fifty. “How’s he to keep you, I should like to know,” Mrs. Kepp exclaimed, as the girl stood blushing before her after having told her story; “if he can’t pay me regular? — and you know the difficulty I have had to get his money, Mary Anne. If he can’t keep hisself, how’s he to keep you?”

“Don’t talk like that, mother,” cried the girl, wincing under her parent’s practical arguments; “you go on as if all I cared for was being fed and clothed. Besides, Captain Paget is not going to be poor always. He told me so last night, when he ——”

He told you so!” echoed the honest widow with unmitigated scorn; “hasn’t he told me times and often that I should have my rent regular after this week, and regular after that week, and have I ever had it regular? And ain’t I keeping him out of charity now? — a poor widow-woman like me — which I may be wanting charity myself before long: and if it wasn’t for your whimpering and going on he’d have been out of the house three weeks ago, when the doctor said he was well enough to be moved; for I ast him.”

“And you’d have turned him out to die in the streets, mother!” cried Mary; “I didn’t think you was so ‘artless.”

From this time there was ill-feeling between Mrs. Kepp and her daughter, who had been hitherto one of the most patient and obedient of children. The fanatic can never forgive the wretch who disbelieves in the divinity of his god; and women who love as blindly and foolishly as Mary Anne Kepp are the most bigoted of worshippers. The girl could not forgive her mother’s disparagement of her idol — the mother had no mercy upon her daughter’s folly; and after much wearisome contention and domestic misery — carefully hidden from the penniless sybarite in the parlour — after many tears and heart-burnings, and wakeful nights and prayerful watches, Mary Anne Kepp consented to leave the house quietly one morning with the gentleman lodger while the widow had gone to market. Miss Kepp left a piteous little note for her mother, rather ungrammatical, but very womanly and tender, imploring pardon for her want of duty; and, “O, mother, if you knew how good and nobel he is, you coudent be angery with me for luving him has I do, and we shall come back to you after oure marige, wich you will be pade up honourabel to the last farthin’.”

After writing this epistle in the kitchen, with more deliberation and more smudging than Captain Paget would have cared to behold in the bride of his choice, Mary Anne attired herself in her Sabbath-day raiment, and left Tulliver’s-terrace with the Captain in a cab. She would fain have taken a little lavender paper-covered box that contained the remainder of her wardrobe, but after surveying it with a shudder, Captain Paget told her that such a box would condemn them anywhere.

“You may get on sometimes without luggage, my dear,” he said sententiously; “but with such luggage as that, never!”

The girl obeyed without comprehending. It was not often that she understood her lover’s meaning, nor did he particularly care that she should understand him. He talked to her rather in the same spirit in which one talks to a faithful canine companion — as Napoleon III. may talk to his favourite Nero; “I have great plans yet unfulfilled, my honest Nero, though you may not be wise enough to guess their nature. And we must have another Boulevard, old fellow; and we must settle that little dispute about Venetia; and we must do something for those unfortunate Poles, eh — good dog?” and so on.

Captain Paget drove straight to a registrar’s office, where the new Marriage Act enabled him to unite himself to Miss Kepp sans façon, in presence of the cabman and a woman who had been cleaning the door-step. The Captain went through the brief ceremonial as coolly as if it had been the settlement of a water-rate, and was angered by the tears that poor Mary Anne shed under her cheap black veil. He had forgotten the poetic superstition in favour of a wedding-ring, but he slipped a little onyx ring off his own finger, and put it on the clumsier finger of his bride. It was the last of his jewels — the rejected of the pawnbrokers, who, not being learned in antique intaglios, had condemned the ring as trumpery. There is always something a little ominous in the bridegroom’s forgetfulness of that simple golden circle which typifies an eternal union; and a superstitious person might have drawn a sinister augury from the subject of Captain Paget’s intaglio, which was a head of Nero — an emperor whose wife was by no means the happiest of women. But as neither Mary Anne nor the registrar, neither the cabman nor the charwoman who had been cleaning the door-step, had ever heard of Nero, and as Horatio Paget was much too indifferent to be superstitious, there was no one to draw evil inferences: and Mary Anne went away with her gentleman husband, proud and happy, with a happiness that was only disturbed now and then by the image of an infuriated mother.

Captain Paget took his bride to some charming apartments in Halfmoon-street, Mayfair; and she was surprised to hear him tell the landlady that he and his wife had just arrived from Devonshire, and that they meant to stay a week or so in London, en passant, before starting for the Continent.

“My wife has spent the best part of her life in the country,” said the Captain, “so I suppose I must show her some of the sights of London in spite of the abominable weather. But the deuce of it is, that my servant has misunderstood my directions, and gone on to Paris with the luggage. However, we can set that all straight to-morrow.”

Nothing could be more courteously acquiescent than the manner of the landlady; for Captain Paget had offered her references, and the people to whom he referred were among the magnates of the land. The Captain knew enough of human nature to know that if references are only sufficiently imposing, they are very unlikely to be verified. The swindler who refers his dupe to the Duke of Sutherland and Baring Brothers has a very good chance of getting his respectability accepted without inquiry, on the mere strength of those sacred names.

From this time until the day of her death Mary Anne Paget very seldom heard her husband make any statement which she did not know to be false. He had joined the ranks of the vultures. He had lain down upon his bed of sickness a gentlemanly beggar; he arose from that couch of pain and weariness a swindler.

Now began those petty shifts and miserable falsifications whereby the birds of prey thrive on the flesh and blood of hapless pigeons. Now the dovecotes were fluttered by a new destroyer — a gentlemanly vulture, whose suave accents and perfect manners were fatal to the unwary. Henceforth Horatio Cromie Nugent Paget flourished and fattened upon the folly of his fellow-men. As promoter of joint-stock companies that never saw the light; as treasurer of loan-offices where money was never lent; as a gentleman with capital about to introduce a novel article of manufacture from the sale of which a profit of five thousand a year would infallibly be realized, and desirous to meet with another gentleman of equal capital; as the mysterious X.Y.Z. who will — for so small a recompense as thirty postage-stamps — impart the secret of an elegant and pleasing employment, whereby seven-pound-ten a-week may be made by any individual, male or female; — under every flimsy disguise with which the swindler hides his execrable form, Captain Paget plied his cruel trade, and still contrived to find fresh dupes. Of course there were occasions when the pigeons were slow to flutter into the fascinating snare, and when the vulture had a bad time of it; and it was a common thing for the Captain to sink from the splendour of Mayfair or St. James’s-street into some dingy transpontine hiding-place. But he never went back to Tulliver’s-terrace, though Mary Anne pleaded piteously for the payment of her poor mother’s debt. When her husband was in funds, he patted her head affectionately, and told her that he would see about it — i.e. the payment of Mrs. Kepp’s bill; while, if she ventured to mention the subject to him when his purse was scantily furnished, he would ask her fiercely how he was to satisfy her mother’s extortionate claims when he had not so much as a sixpence for his own use.

Mrs. Kepp’s bill was never paid, and Mary Anne never saw her mother’s face again. Mrs. Paget was one of those meek loving creatures who are essentially cowardly. She could not bring herself to encounter her mother without the money owed by the Captain; she could not bring herself to endure the widow’s reproaches, the questioning that would be so horribly painful to answer, the taunts that would torture her poor sorrowful heart.

Alas for her brief dream of love and happiness! Alas for her foolish worship of the gentleman lodger! She knew now that her mother had been wiser than herself, and that it would have been better for her if she had renounced the shadowy glory of an alliance with Horatio Cromie Nugent Paget, whose string of high-sounding names, written on the cover of an old wine-book, had not been without its influence on the ignorant girl. The widow’s daughter knew very little happiness during the few years of her wedded life. To be hurried from place to place; to dine in Mayfair to-day, and to eat your dinner at a shilling ordinary in Whitecross-street to-morrow; to wear fine clothes that have not been paid for, and to take them off your back at a moment’s notice when they are required for the security of the friendly pawnbroker; to know that your life is a falsehood and a snare, and that to leave a place is to leave contempt and execration behind you — these things constitute the burden of a woman whose husband lives by his wits. And over and above these miseries, Mrs. Paget had to endure all the variations of temper to which the schemer is subject. If the pigeons dropped readily into the snare, and if their plumage proved well worth the picking, the Captain was very kind to his wife, after his own fashion; that is to say, he took her out with him, and after lecturing her angrily because of the shabbiness of her bonnet, bought her a new one, and gave her a dinner that made her ill, and then sent her home in a cab, while he finished the evening in more congenial society. But if the times were bad for the vulture tribe — O, then, what a gloomy companion for the domestic hearth was the elegant Horatio! After smiling his false smile all day, while rage and disappointment were gnawing at his heart, it was a kind of relief to the Captain to be moody and savage by his own fireside. The human vulture has something of the ferocity of his feathered prototype. The man who lives upon his fellow-men has need to harden his heart; for one sentiment of compassion, one touch of human pity, would shatter his finest scheme in the hour of its fruition. Horatio Paget and compassion parted fellowship very early in the course of his unscrupulous career. What if the pigeon has a widowed mother dependent on his prosperity, or half a dozen children who will be involved in his ruin? Is the hawk to forego his natural prey for any such paltry consideration as a vulgar old woman or a brood of squalling brats?

Captain Paget was not guilty of any persistent unkindness towards the woman whose fate he had deigned to link with his own. The consciousness that he had conferred a supreme honour oh Mary Anne Kepp by offering her his hand, and a share of his difficulties, never deserted him. He made no attempt to elevate the ignorant girl into companionship with himself. He shuddered when she misplaced her h’s and turned from her peevishly, with a muttered oath, when she was more than usually ungrammatical: but though he found it disagreeable to hear her, he would have found it troublesome to set her right; and trouble was a thing which Horatio Paget held in gentlemanly aversion. The idea that the mode of his existence could be repulsive to his wife — that this low-born and low-bred girl could have scruples that he never felt, and might suffer agonies of remorse and shame of which his coarser nature was incapable — never entered the Captain’s mind. It would have been too great an absurdity for the daughter of plebeian Kepps to affect a tenderness of conscience unknown to the scion of Pagets and Cromies and Nugents. Mary Anne was afraid of her elegant husband; and she worshipped and waited upon him in meek silence, keeping the secret of her own sorrows, and keeping it so well that he never guessed the manifold sources of that pallor of countenance and hollow brightness of eye which had of late annoyed him when he looked at his wife. She had borne him a child — a sweet girl baby, with those great black eyes that always have rather a weird look in the face of infancy; and she would fain have clung to the infant as the hope and consolation of her joyless life. But the vulture is not a domestic bird, and a baby would have been an impediment in the rapid hegiras which Captain Paget and his wife were wont to make. The Captain put an advertisement in a daily paper before the child was a week old; and in less than a fortnight after Mary Anne had looked at the baby face for the first time, she was called upon to surrender her treasure to an elderly woman of fat and greasy aspect, who had agreed to bring the infant up “by hand” in a miserable little street in a remote and dreary district lying between Vauxhall and Battersea.

Mary Anne gave up the child uncomplainingly, as meekly as she would have surrendered herself if the Captain had brought a masked executioner to her bedside, and had told her a block was prepared for her in the adjoining chamber. She had no idea of resistance to the will of her husband. She endured her existence for nearly five years after the birth of her child, and during those miserable years the one effort of her life was to secure the miserable stipend paid for the little girl’s maintenance; but before the child’s fifth birthday the mother faded off the face of the earth. She died in a miserable lodging not very far from Tulliver’s-terrace, expiring in the arms of a landlady who had comforted her in her hour of need, as she had comforted the ruined gentleman. Captain Paget was a prisoner in Whitecross-street at the time of his wife’s death, and was much surprised when he missed her morning visits, and the little luxuries she had been wont to bring him.

He had missed her for more than a week, and had written to her twice — rather angrily on the second occasion — when a rough unkempt boy in corduroy waited upon him in the dreary ward, where he and half a dozen other depressed and melancholy men sat at little tables writing letters, or pretending to read newspapers, and looking at one another furtively every now and then. There is no prisoner so distracted by his own cares that he will not find time to wonder what his neighbour is “in for.”

The boy had received instructions to be careful how he imparted his dismal tidings to the “poor dear gentleman;” but the lad grew nervous and bewildered at sight of the Captain’s fierce hook-nose and scrutinising gray eyes, and blurted out his news without any dismal note of warning.

“The lady died at two o’clock this morning, please, sir; and mother said I was to come and tell you, please, sir.”

Captain Paget staggered under the blow.

“Good God!” he cried, as he dropped upon a rickety Windsor chair, that creaked under his weight; “and I did not even know that she was ill!”

Still less did he know that all her married life had been one long heart-sickness — one monotonous agony of remorse and shame.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/braddon/mary_elizabeth/birds_of_prey/book2.2.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31