Henry Dunbar, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 6

Clement Austin’s Diary.

“To-day I close a volume of the rough, careless, imperfect record which I have kept of my life. As I run my fingers through the pages of the limp morocco-covered volume, I almost wonder at my wasted labour; — the random notes, jotted down now and then, sometimes with long intervals between their dates, make such a mass of worthless literature. This diary-keeping is a very foolish habit, after all. Why do I keep this record of a most commonplace existence? For my own edification and improvement? Scarcely, since I very rarely read these uninteresting entries; and I very much doubt if posterity will care to know that I went to the office at ten o’clock on Wednesday morning; that I couldn’t get a seat in the omnibus, and was compelled to take a Hansom, which cost me two shillings; that I dined tête-à-tête with my mother, and finished the third volume of Carlyle’s ‘French Revolution’ in the course of the evening. Is there any use in such a journal as mine? Will the celebrated New Zealander, that is to be, discover the volumes amidst the ruins of Clapham? and shall I be quoted as the Pepys of the nineteenth century? But then I am by no means as racy as that worldly-minded little government clerk; or perhaps it may be that the time in which I live wants the spice and seasoning of that golden age of rascality in which my Lady Castlemain’s white petticoats were to be seen flaunting in the wind by any frivolous-minded lounger who chose to take notes about those garments.

“After all, it is a silly, old-fogeyish habit, this of diary-keeping; and I think the renowned Pepys himself was only a bachelor spoiled. Just now, however, I have something more than cab-drives, lost omnibuses, and the perusal of a favourite book to jot down, inasmuch as my mother and myself have lately had all our accustomed habits, in a manner, disorganized by the advent of a lady.

“She is a very young lady, being, in point of fact, still at a remote distance from an epoch to which she appears to look forward as a grand and enviable period of existence. She has not yet entered what she calls her ‘teens,’ and two years must elapse before she can enter them, as she is only eleven years old. She is the only daughter of my only sister, Marian Lester, and has been newly imported from Sydney, where my sister Marian and her husband have been settled for the last twelve years. Miss Elizabeth Lester became a member of our family upon the first of July, and has since that time continued to make herself quite at home with my mother and myself. She is rather a pretty little girl, with very auburn plaits hanging in loops at the back of her head. (Will the New Zealander and his countrymen care to know the mysteries of juvenile coiffures in the nineteenth century?) She is a very good little girl, and my mother adores her. As for myself, I am only gradually growing resigned to the fact that I am three-and-thirty years of age, and the uncle of a bouncing niece, who plays variations upon ‘Non più mesta.’

“And ‘Non più mesta’ brings me to another strange figure in the narrow circle of my acquaintance; a figure that had no place in the volume which I have just closed, but which, in the six weeks’ interval between my last record and that which I begin to-day, has become almost as familiar as the oldest friends of my youth. ‘Non più mesta’— I hear my niece strumming the notes I know so well in the parlour below my room, as I write these lines, and the sound of the melody brings before me the image of a sweet pale face and dove-like brown eyes.

“I never fully realized the number and extent of feminine requirements until a hack cab deposited my niece and her deal travelling-cases at our hall-door. Miss Elizabeth Lester seemed to want everything that it was possible for the human mind to imagine or desire. She had grown during the homeward voyage; her frocks were too short, her boots were too small, her bonnets tumbled off her head and hung forlornly at the back of her neck. She wanted parasols and hair-brushes, frilled and furbelowed mysteries of muslin and lace, copybooks, penholders, and pomatum, a backboard and a pair of gloves, drawing-pencils, dumb-bells, geological specimens for the illustration of her studies, and a hundred other items, whose very names are as a strange language to my masculine comprehension; and, last of all, she wanted a musical governess. The little girl was supposed to be very tolerably advanced in her study of the piano, and my sister was anxious that she should continue that study under the superintendence of a duly-qualified instructress, whose terms should be moderate. My sister Marian underlined this last condition. The buying and making of the new frocks and muslin furbelows seemed almost to absorb my mother’s mind, and she was fain to delegate to me the duty of finding a musical governess for Miss Lester.

“I began my task in the simplest possible way by consulting the daily newspapers, where I found so many advertisements emanating from ladies who declared themselves proficients in the art of music, that I was confused and embarrassed by the wealth of my resources: but I took the ladies singly, and called upon them in the pleasant summer evenings after office hours, sometimes with my mother, sometimes alone.

“It may be that the seal of old-bachelorhood is already set upon me, and that I am that odious and hyper-sensitive creature commonly called a ‘fidget;’ but somehow I could not find a governess whom I really felt inclined to choose for my little Lizzie. Some of the ladies were elderly and stern; others were young and frivolous; some of them were uncertain as to the distribution of the letter h. One young lady declared that she was fonder of music than anything in the world. Some were a great deal too enthusiastic, and were prepared to adore my little niece at a moment’s notice. Many, who seemed otherwise eligible, demanded a higher rate of remuneration than we were prepared to give. So, somehow or other, the business languished, and after the researches of a week we found ourselves no nearer a decision than when first I looked at the advertisements in the Times supplement.

“Had our resources been reduced, we should most likely have been much easier to please; but my mother said, that as there were so many people to be had, we should do well to deliberate before we came to any decision. So it happened that, when I went out for a walk one evening, at the end of the second week in July, Miss Lester was still without a governess. She was still without a governess: but I was tired of catechizing the fair advertisers as to their qualifications, and went out on this particular evening for a solitary ramble amongst the quiet Surrey suburbs, in any lonely lanes or scraps of common-land where the speculating builder had not yet set his hateful foot. It was a lovely evening; and I, who am so much a Cockney as to believe that a London sunset is one of the grandest spectacles in the universe, set my face towards the yellow light in the west, and walked across Wandsworth Common, where faint wreaths of purple mist were rising from the hollows, and a deserted donkey was breaking the twilight stillness with a plaintive braying. Wandsworth Common was as lonely this evening as a patch of sand in the centre of Africa; and being something of a day-dreamer, I liked the place because of its stillness and solitude.

“Something of a dreamer: and yet I had so little to dream about. My thoughts were pleasant, as I walked across the common in the sunset; and yet, looking back now, I wonder what I thought of, and what image there was in my mind that could make my fancies pleasant to me. I know what I thought of, as I went home in the dim light of the newly-risen moon, the pale crescent that glimmered high in a cloudless heaven.

“I went into the little town of Wandsworth, the queer old-fashioned High Street, the dear old street, which seems to me like a town in a Dutch picture, where all the tints are of a sombre brown, yet in which there is, nevertheless, so much light and warmth. The lights were beginning to twinkle here and there in the windows; and upon this July evening there seemed to be flowers blooming in every casement. I loitered idly through the street, staring at the shop-windows, in utter absence of mind while I thought —

“What could I have thought of that evening? and how was it that I did not think the world blank and empty?

“While I was looking idly in at one of those shop-windows — it was a fancy-shop and stationer’s — a kind of bazaar, in its humble way — my eye was attracted by the word ‘Music;’ and on a little card hung in the window I read that a lady would be happy to give lessons on the piano-forte, at the residences of her pupils, or at her own residence, on very moderate terms. The word ‘very’ was underscored. I thought it had a pitiful look somehow, that underscoring of the adverb, and seemed almost an appeal for employment. The inscription on the card was in a woman’s hand, and a very pretty hand — elegant but not illegible, firm and yet feminine. I was in a very idle frame of mind, ready to be driven by any chance wind; and I thought I might just as well turn my evening walk to some account by calling upon the proprietress of the card. She was not likely to suit my ideas of perfection, any more than the other ladies I had seen; but I should at least be able to return home with the consciousness of having made another effort to find an instructress for my niece.

“The address on the card was, ‘No. 3, Godolphin Cottages.’ I asked the first person I met to direct me to Godolphin Cottages, and was told to take the second turning on my right. The second turning on my right took me into a kind of lane or by-road, where there were some old-fashioned, semi-detached cottages, sheltered by a row of sycamores, and shut in by wooden palings. I opened the low gate before the third cottage, and went into the garden — a primly-kept little garden, with a grass-plat and miniature gravel-walks, and with a grotto of shells and moss and craggy blocks of stone in a corner. Under a laburnum-tree there was a green rustic bench; and here I found a young lady sitting reading by the dying light. She started at the sound of my footsteps on the crisp gravel, and rose, blushing like one of the cabbage-roses that grew near her. The blush was all the more becoming to her inasmuch as she was naturally very pale. I saw this almost immediately, for the bright colour faded out of her face while I was speaking to her.

“‘I have come to inquire for a lady who teaches music,’ I said; ‘I saw a card, just now, in the High Street, and as I am searching for an instructress for my little niece, I took the opportunity of calling. But I fear I have chosen an inconvenient time for my visit.’

“I scarcely know why I made this apology, since I had omitted to apologize to the other ladies, on whom I had ventured to intrude at abnormal hours. I fear that I was weak enough to feel bewildered by the pensive loveliness of the face at which I looked, and that my confidence ebbed away under the influence of those grave hazel eyes.

“The face is so beautiful — as beautiful now that I have learned the trick of every feature, though even now I cannot learn all the varying changes of expression which make it ever new to me, as it was that evening when it beamed on me for the first time. Shall I describe her — the woman whom I have only known four weeks, and who seems to fill all the universe when I think of her? — and when do I not think of her? Shall I describe her for the New Zealander, when the best description must fall so far below the bright reality, and when the very act of reducing her beauty into hard commonplace words seems in some manner a sacrilege against the sanctity of that beauty? Yes, I will describe her; not for the sake of the New Zealander, who may have new and extraordinary ideas as to female loveliness, and may require a blue nose or pea-green tresses in the lady he elects as the only type of beautiful womanhood. I will describe her because it is sweet to me to dwell upon her image, and to translate that dear image, no matter how poorly, into words. Were I a painter, I should be like Claude Melnotte, and paint no face but hers. Were I a poet, I should cover reams of paper with wild rhapsodies about her beauty. Being only a cashier in a bank, I can do nothing but enshrine her in the commonplace pages of my diary.

“I have said that she is pale. Hers is that ivory pallor which sometimes accompanies hazel eyes and hazel-brown hair. Her eyes are of that rare hazel, that soft golden brown, so rarely seen, so beautiful wherever they are seen. These eyes are unvarying in their colour; it is only the expression of them that varies with every emotion, but in repose they have a mournful earnestness in their look, a pensive gravity that seems to tell of a life in which there has been much shadow. The hair, parted above the most beautiful brow I ever looked upon, is of exactly the same colour as the eyes, and has a natural ripple in it. For the rest of the features I must refer my New Zealander to the pictures of the old Italian masters — of which I trust he may retain a handsome collection; — for only on the canvases of Signori Raffaello Sanzio d’Urbino, Titian, and the pupils who emulated them, will he find that exquisite harmony, that purity of form and tender softness of outline, which I beheld that summer evening in the features of Margaret Wentworth.

“Margaret Wentworth — that is her name. She told it me presently, when I had explained to her, in some awkward vague manner, who I was, and how it was I wanted to engage her services. Throughout that interview, I think I must have been intoxicated by her presence, as by some subtle and mysterious influence, stronger than the fumes of opium, or the juice of lotus flowers. I only know that after ten minutes’ conversation, during which she was perfectly self-possessed, I opened the little garden-gate again, very much embarrassed by the latch on one hand, and my hat on the other, and went back out of that little paradise of twenty feet square into the dusty lane.

“I went home in triumph to my mother, and told her that I had succeeded at last in engaging a lady who was in every way suitable, and that she was coming the following morning at eleven o’clock to give her first lesson. But I was somewhat embarrassed when my mother asked if I had heard the lady play; if I had inquired her terms; if I had asked for references as to respectability, capability, and so forth.

“I was fain to confess, with much confusion, that I had not done any one of these things. And then my mother asked me why, in that case, did I consider the lady suitable — which question increased my embarrassment by tenfold. I could not say that I had engaged her because her eyes were hazel, and her hair of the same colour; nor could I declare that I had judged of her proficiency as a teacher of the piano by the exquisite line of her pencilled eyebrows. So, in this dilemma, I had recourse to a piece of jesuitry, of which I was not a little proud. I told my dear mother that Miss Wentworth’s head was, from a phrenological point of view, magnificent, and that the organs of time and tune were developed to an unusual degree.

“I was almost ashamed of myself when my mother rewarded this falsehood by a kiss, declaring that I was a dear clever boy, and such a judge of character, and that she would rather confide in a stranger, upon the strength of my instinct, than, upon any inferior person’s experience.

“After this I could only trust to the chance of Miss Wentworth’s proficiency; and when I went home from the city upon the following afternoon, my mind was far less occupied with the business events of the day than with abstruse speculations at to the probabilities with regard to that young lady’s skill upon the piano-forte. It was with an air of supreme carelessness that I asked my mother whether she had been pleased with Miss Wentworth.

“‘Pleased with her!’ cried the good soul; ‘why, she plays magnificently, Clement. Such a touch, such brilliancy! In my young days it was only concert-players who played like that; but nowadays girls of eighteen and twenty sit down, and dash away at the keys like a professor. I think you’ll be charmed with her, Clem’—(I’m afraid I blushed as my mother said this; had I not been charmed with her already?)—‘when you hear her play, for she has expression as well as brilliancy. She is passionately fond of music, I know; not because she went into any ridiculous sentimental raptures about it, as some girls do, but because her eyes lighted up when she told me what a happiness her piano had been to her ever since she was a child. She gave a little sigh after saying that; and I fancied, poor girl, that she had perhaps known very little other happiness.’

“‘And her terms, mother?’ I said.

“‘Oh, you dear commercial Clem, always thinking of terms!’ cried my mother.

“Heaven bless her innocent heart! I had asked that sordid question only to hide the unreasoning gladness of my heart. What was it to me that this hazel-eyed girl was engaged to teach my little niece ‘Non più mesta’? what was it to me that my breast should be all of a sudden filled with a tumult of glad emotions, and thus shrink from any encounter with my mother’s honest eyes?

“‘Well, Clem, the terms are almost ridiculously moderate,’ my mother said, presently. ‘There’s only one thing that’s at all inconvenient, that is to say, not to me, but I’m afraid you’ll think it an objection.’

“I eagerly asked the nature of this objection. Was there some cold chill of disappointment in store for me, after all?

“‘Well, you see, Clem,’ said my mother, with some little hesitation, ‘Miss Wentworth is engaged almost all through the day, as her pupils live at long distances from one another, and she has to waste a good deal of time in going backwards and forwards; so the only time she can possibly give Lizzie is either very early in the morning or rather late in the evening. Now I should prefer the evening, as I should like to hear the dear child’s lessons; but the question is, would you object to the noise of the piano while you are at home?’

“Would I object? Would I object to the music of the spheres? In spite of the grand capabilities for falsehood and hypocrisy which had been developed in my nature since the previous evening, it was as much as I could do to answer my mother’s question deliberately, to the effect that I didn’t think I should mind the music-lessons much.

“‘You’ll be out generally, you know, Clem,’ my mother said.

“‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘of course, if I found the music in any way a nuisance.’

“Coming home from the City the next day, I felt like a schoolboy who turns his back upon all the hardships of his life, on some sunny summer holiday. The rattling Hansom seemed a fairy car, that was bearing me in triumph through a region of brightness and splendour. The sunlit suburban roads were enchanted glades; and I think I should have been scarcely surprised to see Aladdin’s jewelled fruit hanging on the trees in the villa gardens, or the gigantic wings of Sinbad’s roc overshadowing the hills of Sydenham. A wonderful transformation had changed the earth to fairy land, and it was in vain that I fought against the subtle influence in the air around me.

“Oh, was I in love, was I really in love at last, with a young lady whose face I had only looked upon eight-and-forty hours before? Was I, who had flirted with the Miss Balderbys; and half lost my heart to Lucy Sedwicke, the surgeon’s sister; and corresponded for nearly a year with Clara Carpenter, with the sanction of both our houses, and everything en règle, only to be jilted ignominiously for the sake of an evangelical curate? — was I, who had railed at the foolish passion —(I have one of Miss Carpenter’s long tresses in the desk on which I am writing, sealed in a sheet of letter-paper, with Swift’s savage inscription, ‘Only a woman’s hair,’ on the cover)— was I caught at last by a pair of hazel eyes and a Raffaellesque profile? Were the wings that had fluttered in so many flames burnt and maimed by the first breath of this new fire? I was ashamed of my silly fancy in one moment, and proud of my love in the next. I was ten years younger all of a sudden, and my heart was all a-glow with chivalrous devotion for this beautiful stranger. I reasoned with myself, and ridiculed my madness, and yet yielded like the veriest craven to the sweet intoxication. I gave the driver of the Hansom five shillings. Had I not a right to pay him a trifle extra for driving me through fairy-land?

“What had we for dinner that day? I have a vague idea that I ate cherry tart and roast veal, fried soles, boiled custard, and anchovy sauce, all mixed together. I know that the meal seemed to endure for the abnormal period of half-a-dozen hours or so; and yet it was only seven o’clock when we adjourned to the drawing-room, and Miss Wentworth was not due until half-past seven. My niece was all in a flutter of expectation, and ran out of the drawing-room window every now and then to see if the new governess was coming. She need not have had that trouble, poor child, had I been inclined to give her information; since, from the chair in which I had seated myself to read the evening papers, I could see the road along which Miss Wentworth must come. My eyes wandered very often from the page before me, and fixed themselves upon this dusty suburban road; and presently I saw a parasol, rather a shabby one, and then a slender figure coming quickly towards our gate, and then the face, which I am weak enough to think the most beautiful face in Christendom.

“Since then Miss Wentworth has come three times a week; and somehow or other I have never found myself in any way bored by ‘Non più mesta,’ or even the major and minor scales, which, as interpreted by a juvenile performer, are not especially enthralling to the ear of the ordinary listener. I read my books or papers, or stroll upon the lawn, while the lesson is going on, and every now and then I hear Margaret’s — I really must write of her as Margaret; it is such a nuisance to write Miss Wentworth — pretty voice explaining the importance of a steady position of the wrist, or the dexterous turning over or under of a thumb, or something equally interesting. And then, when the lesson is concluded, my mother rouses herself from her after-dinner nap, and asks Margaret to take a cup of tea, and even insists on her accepting that feminine hospitality. And then we sit talking in the tender summer dusk, or in the subdued light of a shaded lamp on the piano. We talk of books; and it is wonderful to me to find how Margaret’s tastes and opinions coincide with mine. Miss Carpenter was stupid about books, and used to call Carlyle nonsensical; and never really enjoyed Dickens half as much as she pretended. I have lent Margaret some of my books; and a little shower of withered rose-leaves dropped from the pages of ‘Wilhelm Meister,’ after she had returned me the volume. I have put them in an envelope, and sealed it. I may as well burn Miss Carpenter’s hair, by the way.

“Though it is only a month since the evening on which I saw the card in the window at Wandsworth, Margaret and I seem to be old friends. After a year Miss Carpenter and I were as far as ever — farther than ever, perhaps — from understanding each other; but with Margaret I need no words to tell me that I am understood. A look, a smile, a movement of the graceful head, is a more eloquent answer than the most elaborate of Miss Carpenter’s rhapsodies. She was one of those girls whom her friends call ‘gushing;’ and she called Byron a ‘love,’ and Shelley an ‘angel:’ but if you tried her with a stanza that hasn’t been done to death in ‘Gems of Verse,’ or ‘Strings of Poetic Pearls,’ or ‘Drawing-room Table Lyrics,’ she couldn’t tell whether you were quoting Byron or Ben Jonson. But with Margaret — Margaret — sweet name! If it were not that I live in perpetual terror of the day when the dilettante New Zealander will edit this manuscript, I think I should write that lovely name over and over again for a page or so. If the New Zealander should exercise his editorial discretion, and delete my raptures, it wouldn’t matter; but I might furnish him with the text for an elaborate disquisition on the manners and customs of English lovers. Let me be reasonable about my dear love, if I can. My dear love — do I dare to call her that already, when, for anything I know to the contrary, there may be another evangelical curate in the background?

“We seem to be old friends; and yet I know so little of her. She shuns all allusion to her home or her past history. Now and then she has spoken of her father; always tenderly, but always with a sigh; and I fancy that a deepening shadow steals over her face when she mentions that name.

“Friendly as we are, I can never induce her to let me see her home, though my mother has suggested that I should do so. She is accustomed to go about by herself, she says, after dark, as well as in the daytime. She seems as fearless as a modern Una; and that would indeed be a savage beast which could molest such a pure and lovely creature.”

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