The Story of a Lie, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Chapter VI— The Prodigal Father Goes on from Strength to Strength

WE will not follow all the steps of the Admiral’s return and installation, but hurry forward towards the catastrophe, merely chronicling by the way a few salient incidents, wherein we must rely entirely upon the evidence of Richard, for Esther to this day has never opened her mouth upon this trying passage of her life, and as for the Admiral — well, that naval officer, although still alive, and now more suitably installed in a seaport town where he has a telescope and a flag in his front garden, is incapable of throwing the slightest gleam of light upon the affair. Often and often has he remarked to the present writer: ‘If I know what it was all about, sir, I’ll be — ‘ in short, be what I hope he will not. And then he will look across at his daughter’s portrait, a photograph, shake his head with an amused appearance, and mix himself another grog by way of consolation. Once I heard him go farther, and express his feelings with regard to Esther in a single but eloquent word. ‘A minx, sir,’ he said, not in anger, rather in amusement: and he cordially drank her health upon the back of it. His worst enemy must admit him to be a man without malice; he never bore a grudge in his life, lacking the necessary taste and industry of attention.

Yet it was during this obscure period that the drama was really performed; and its scene was in the heart of Esther, shut away from all eyes. Had this warm, upright, sullen girl been differently used by destiny, had events come upon her even in a different succession, for some things lead easily to others, the whole course of this tale would have been changed, and Esther never would have run away. As it was, through a series of acts and words of which we know but few, and a series of thoughts which any one may imagine for himself, she was awakened in four days from the dream of a life.

The first tangible cause of disenchantment was when Dick brought home a painter’s arsenal on Friday evening. The Admiral was in the chimney-corner, once more ‘sirrupping’ some brandy and water, and Esther sat at the table at work. They both came forward to greet the new arrival; and the girl, relieving him of his monstrous burthen, proceeded to display her offerings to her father. Van Tromp’s countenance fell several degrees; he became quite querulous.

‘God bless me,’ he said; and then, ‘I must really ask you not to interfere, child,’ in a tone of undisguised hostility.

‘Father,’ she said, ‘forgive me; I knew you had given up your art — ’

‘Oh yes!’ cried the Admiral; ‘I’ve done with it to the judgment-day!’

‘Pardon me again,’ she said firmly, ‘but I do not, I cannot think that you are right in this. Suppose the world is unjust, suppose that no one understands you, you have still a duty to yourself. And, oh, don’t spoil the pleasure of your coming home to me; show me that you can be my father and yet not neglect your destiny. I am not like some daughters; I will not be jealous of your art, and I will try to understand it.’

The situation was odiously farcical. Richard groaned under it; he longed to leap forward and denounce the humbug. And the humbug himself? Do you fancy he was easier in his mind? I am sure, on the other hand, that he was acutely miserable; and he betrayed his sufferings by a perfectly silly and undignified access of temper, during which he broke his pipe in several pieces, threw his brandy and water in the fire, and employed words which were very plain although the drift of them was somewhat vague. It was of very brief duration. Van Tromp was himself again, and in a most delightful humour within three minutes of the first explosion.

‘I am an old fool,’ he said frankly. ‘I was spoiled when a child. As for you, Esther, you take after your mother; you have a morbid sense of duty, particularly for others; strive against it, my dear — strive against it. And as for the pigments, well, I’ll use them, some of these days; and to show that I’m in earnest, I’ll get Dick here to prepare a canvas.’

Dick was put to this menial task forthwith, the Admiral not even watching how he did, but quite occupied with another grog and a pleasant vein of talk.

A little after Esther arose, and making some pretext, good or bad, went off to bed. Dick was left hobbled by the canvas, and was subjected to Van Tromp for about an hour.

The next day, Saturday, it is believed that little intercourse took place between Esther and her father; but towards the afternoon Dick met the latter returning from the direction of the inn, where he had struck up quite a friendship with the landlord. Dick wondered who paid for these excursions, and at the thought that the reprobate must get his pocket money where he got his board and lodging, from poor Esther’s generosity, he had it almost in his heart to knock the old gentleman down. He, on his part, was full of airs and graces and geniality.

‘Dear Dick,’ he said, taking his arm, ‘this is neighbourly of you; it shows your tact to meet me when I had a wish for you. I am in pleasant spirits; and it is then that I desire a friend.’

‘I am glad to hear you are so happy,’ retorted Dick bitterly. ‘There’s certainly not much to trouble YOU.’

‘No,’ assented the Admiral, ‘not much. I got out of it in time; and here — well, here everything pleases me. I am plain in my tastes. ‘A PROPOS, you have never asked me how I liked my daughter?’

‘No,’ said Dick roundly; ‘I certainly have not.’

‘Meaning you will not. And why, Dick? She is my daughter, of course; but then I am a man of the world and a man of taste, and perfectly qualified to give an opinion with impartiality — yes, Dick, with impartiality. Frankly, I am not disappointed in her. She has good looks; she has them from her mother. So I may say I CHOSE her looks. She is devoted, quite devoted to me — ’

‘She is the best woman in the world!’ broke out Dick.

‘Dick,’ cried the Admiral, stopping short; ‘I have been expecting this. Let us — let us go back to the “Trevanion Arms” and talk this matter out over a bottle.’

‘Certainly not,’ went Dick. ‘You have had far too much already.’

The parasite was on the point of resenting this; but a look at Dick’s face, and some recollection of the terms on which they had stood in Paris, came to the aid of his wisdom and restrained him.

‘As you please,’ he said; ‘although I don’t know what you mean — nor care. But let us walk, if you prefer it. You are still a young man; when you are my age — But, however, to continue. You please me, Dick; you have pleased me from the first; and to say truth, Esther is a trifle fantastic, and will be better when she is married. She has means of her own, as of course you are aware. They come, like the looks, from her poor, dear, good creature of a mother. She was blessed in her mother. I mean she shall be blessed in her husband, and you are the man, Dick, you and not another. This very night I will sound her affections.’

Dick stood aghast.

‘Mr. Van Tromp, I implore you,’ he said; ‘do what you please with yourself, but, for God’s sake, let your daughter alone.’

‘It is my duty,’ replied the Admiral, ‘and between ourselves, you rogue, my inclination too. I am as matchmaking as a dowager. It will be more discreet for you to stay away to — night. Farewell. You leave your case in good hands; I have the tact of these little matters by heart; it is not my first attempt.’

All arguments were in vain; the old rascal stuck to his point; nor did Richard conceal from himself how seriously this might injure his prospects, and he fought hard. Once there came a glimmer of hope. The Admiral again proposed an adjournment to the ‘Trevanion Arms,’ and when Dick had once more refused, it hung for a moment in the balance whether or not the old toper would return there by himself. Had he done so, of course Dick could have taken to his heels, and warned Esther of what was coming, and of how it had begun. But the Admiral, after a pause, decided for the brandy at home, and made off in that direction.

We have no details of the sounding.

Next day the Admiral was observed in the parish church, very properly dressed. He found the places, and joined in response and hymn, as to the manner born; and his appearance, as he intended it should, attracted some attention among the worshippers. Old Naseby, for instance, had observed him.

‘There was a drunken-looking blackguard opposite us in church,’ he said to his son as they drove home; ‘do you know who he was?’

‘Some fellow — Van Tromp, I believe,’ said Dick.

‘A foreigner, too!’ observed the Squire.

Dick could not sufficiently congratulate himself on the escape he had effected. Had the Admiral met him with his father, what would have been the result? And could such a catastrophe be long postponed? It seemed to him as if the storm were nearly ripe; and it was so more nearly than he thought.

He did not go to the cottage in the afternoon, withheld by fear and shame; but when dinner was over at Naseby House, and the Squire had gone off into a comfortable doze, Dick slipped out of the room, and ran across country, in part to save time, in part to save his own courage from growing cold; for he now hated the notion of the cottage or the Admiral, and if he did not hate, at least feared to think of Esther. He had no clue to her reflections; but he could not conceal from his own heart that he must have sunk in her esteem, and the spectacle of her infatuation galled him like an insult.

He knocked and was admitted. The room looked very much as on his last visit, with Esther at the table and Van Tromp beside the fire; but the expression of the two faces told a very different story. The girl was paler than usual; her eyes were dark, the colour seemed to have faded from round about them, and her swiftest glance was as intent as a stare. The appearance of the Admiral, on the other hand, was rosy, and flabby, and moist; his jowl hung over his shirt collar, his smile was loose and wandering, and he had so far relaxed the natural control of his eyes, that one of them was aimed inward, as if to watch the growth of the carbuncle. We are warned against bad judgments; but the Admiral was certainly not sober. He made no attempt to rise when Richard entered, but waved his pipe flightily in the air, and gave a leer of welcome. Esther took as little notice of him as might be.

‘Aha! Dick!’ cried the painter. ‘I’ve been to church; I have, upon my word. And I saw you there, though you didn’t see me. And I saw a devilish pretty woman, by Gad. If it were not for this baldness, and a kind of crapulous air I can’t disguise from myself — if it weren’t for this and that and t’other thing — I— I’ve forgot what I was saying. Not that that matters, I’ve heaps of things to say. I’m in a communicative vein to-night. I’ll let out all my cats, even unto seventy times seven. I’m in what I call THE stage, and all I desire is a listener, although he were deaf, to be as happy as Nebuchadnezzar.’

Of the two hours which followed upon this it is unnecessary to give more than a sketch. The Admiral was extremely silly, now and then amusing, and never really offensive. It was plain that he kept in view the presence of his daughter, and chose subjects and a character of language that should not offend a lady. On almost any other occasion Dick would have enjoyed the scene. Van Tromp’s egotism, flown with drink, struck a pitch above mere vanity. He became candid and explanatory; sought to take his auditors entirely into his confidence, and tell them his inmost conviction about himself. Between his self-knowledge, which was considerable, and his vanity, which was immense, he had created a strange hybrid animal, and called it by his own name. How he would plume his feathers over virtues which would have gladdened the heart of Caesar or St. Paul; and anon, complete his own portrait with one of those touches of pitiless realism which the satirist so often seeks in vain.

‘Now, there’s Dick,’ he said, ‘he’s shrewd; he saw through me the first time we met, and told me so — told me so to my face, which I had the virtue to keep. I bear you no malice for it, Dick; you were right; I am a humbug.’

You may fancy how Esther quailed at this new feature of the meeting between her two idols.

And then, again, in a parenthesis:—

‘That,’ said Van Tromp, ‘was when I had to paint those dirty daubs of mine.’

And a little further on, laughingly said perhaps, but yet with an air of truth:—

‘I never had the slightest hesitation in sponging upon any human creature.’

Thereupon Dick got up.

‘I think perhaps,’ he said, ‘we had better all be thinking of going to bed.’ And he smiled with a feeble and deprecatory smile.

‘Not at all,’ cried the Admiral, ‘I know a trick worth two of that. Puss here,’ indicating his daughter, ‘shall go to bed; and you and I will keep it up till all’s blue.’

Thereupon Esther arose in sullen glory. She had sat and listened for two mortal hours while her idol defiled himself and sneered away his godhead. One by one, her illusions had departed. And now he wished to order her to bed in her own house! now he called her Puss! now, even as he uttered the words, toppling on his chair, he broke the stem of his tobacco-pipe in three! Never did the sheep turn upon her shearer with a more commanding front. Her voice was calm, her enunciation a little slow, but perfectly distinct, and she stood before him as she spoke, in the simplest and most maidenly attitude.

‘No,’ she said, ‘Mr. Naseby will have the goodness to go home at once, and you will go to bed.’

The broken fragments of pipe fell from the Admiral’s fingers; he seemed by his countenance to have lived too long in a world unworthy of him; but it is an odd circumstance, he attempted no reply, and sat thunderstruck, with open mouth.

Dick she motioned sharply towards the door, and he could only obey her. In the porch, finding she was close behind him, he ventured to pause and whisper, ‘You have done right.’

‘I have done as I pleased,’ she said. ‘Can he paint?’

‘Many people like his paintings,’ returned Dick, in stifled tones; ‘I never did; I never said I did,’ he added, fiercely defending himself before he was attacked.

‘I ask you if he can paint. I will not be put off. CAN he paint?’ she repeated.

‘No,’ said Dick.

‘Does he even like it?’

‘Not now, I believe.’

‘And he is drunk?’ — she leaned upon the word with hatred.

‘He has been drinking.’

‘Go,’ she said, and was turning to re-enter the house when another thought arrested her. ‘Meet me to-morrow morning at the stile,’ she said.

‘I will,’ replied Dick.

And then the door closed behind her, and Dick was alone in the darkness. There was still a chink of light above the sill, a warm, mild glow behind the window; the roof of the cottage and some of the banks and hazels were defined in denser darkness against the sky; but all else was formless, breathless, and noiseless like the pit. Dick remained as she had left him, standing squarely upon one foot and resting only on the toe of the other, and as he stood he listened with his soul. The sound of a chair pushed sharply over the floor startled his heart into his mouth; but the silence which had thus been disturbed settled back again at once upon the cottage and its vicinity. What took place during this interval is a secret from the world of men; but when it was over the voice of Esther spoke evenly and without interruption for perhaps half a minute, and as soon as that ceased heavy and uncertain footfalls crossed the parlour and mounted lurching up the stairs. The girl had tamed her father, Van Tromp had gone obediently to bed: so much was obvious to the watcher in the road. And yet he still waited, straining his ears, and with terror and sickness at his heart; for if Esther had followed her father, if she had even made one movement in this great conspiracy of men and nature to be still, Dick must have had instant knowledge of it from his station before the door; and if she had not moved, must she not have fainted? or might she not be dead?

He could hear the cottage clock deliberately measure out the seconds; time stood still with him; an almost superstitious terror took command of his faculties; at last, he could bear no more, and, springing through the little garden in two bounds, he put his face against the window. The blind, which had not been drawn fully down, left an open chink about an inch in height along the bottom of the glass, and the whole parlour was thus exposed to Dick’s investigation. Esther sat upright at the table, her head resting on her hand, her eyes fixed upon the candle. Her brows were slightly bent, her mouth slightly open; her whole attitude so still and settled that Dick could hardly fancy that she breathed. She had not stirred at the sound of Dick’s arrival. Soon after, making a considerable disturbance amid the vast silence of the night, the clock lifted up its voice, whined for a while like a partridge, and then eleven times hooted like a cuckoo. Still Esther continued immovable and gazed upon the candle. Midnight followed, and then one of the morning; and still she had not stirred, nor had Richard Naseby dared to quit the window. And then, about half-past one, the candle she had been thus intently watching flared up into a last blaze of paper, and she leaped to her feet with an ejaculation, looked about her once, blew out the light, turned round, and was heard rapidly mounting the staircase in the dark.

Dick was left once more alone to darkness and to that dulled and dogged state of mind when a man thinks that Misery must now have done her worst, and is almost glad to think so. He turned and walked slowly towards the stile; she had told him no hour, and he was determined, whenever she came, that she should find him waiting. As he got there the day began to dawn, and he leaned over a hurdle and beheld the shadows flee away. Up went the sun at last out of a bank of clouds that were already disbanding in the east; a herald wind had already sprung up to sweep the leafy earth and scatter the congregated dewdrops. ‘Alas!’ thought Dick Naseby, ‘how can any other day come so distastefully to me?’ He still wanted his experience of the morrow.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30