First published in The Spirit of the Times, December 1887.
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She is at the present time, as I have every reason to believe, the most distinguished woman in England — she has never written a novel.
I first saw her on board of our steamship, bound from New York to Liverpool. She was accompanied by her dog; and there occurred a little difference of opinion between the commander of the vessel and herself.
The captain began it with his customary politeness:
‘Excuse me, Miss: I must beg you to submit to a little disappointment. You can’t have your dog with you in the saloon. Dogs are not allowed, on board our ships, among the passengers.’
To this the young lady answered: ‘And pray, sir, — if these tyrannical regulations are to be carried out — where is my dog to go?’
‘Your dog is to go Miss, to the butcher.’
I declare it on my word of honour, she did actually express her opinion in those terms to the only absolute despot now to be found on the face of the earth — the commander of a ship, afloat on his own vessel. What an ill-natured man might have done under these circumstances I hardly like to guess. Our captain’s sweet temper saw the humorous side of the insult offered to him; he burst out laughing. I stepped up, before the lady’s answer could express itself in stronger language still, and tried the effect of polite explanation.
‘The butcher at sea.’ I said, ‘is like the butcher on shore. In spite of his calling, Miss, he is not, generally speaking, of a bloodthirsty disposition. Our man here is accustomed to take care of passenger’s dogs. He will let you see your dog whenever you please; and the one risk you pet will be likely to run is the risk of being too well fed. May I be allowed to lead you to the forward part of the vessel, so that you can judge for yourself?’
We were rolling, at the time, as usual in all well-regulated Atlantic steam ships. I took the greatest care of our charming passenger; and she took the greatest care of her dog.The captain gave me a look as we passed him. I was sacrificing some of the precious time included in my turn of rest below. He attributed this act of folly (as he afterwards told me) to the influence of love at first sight. Having suffered, as will be presently seen, from concealment of the truth by other persons, I am all the readier to speak frankly of myself. The captain’s interpretation of my conduct was undeniably correct. While the young lady, the butcher, and the dog were all three in course of arriving at a friendly understanding, I reached a conclusion in my own private mind. ‘Whether she is above me, or whether she is below me,’ I said to myself, ‘is something which remains to be discovered. But this I know already. Either I have found my wife, or I shall live and die an unmarried man.’
Who am I? And who is she?
I am Evan Fencote, first officer of the ship, and third son of a country gentleman; left a widower at my birth. He spent all his money in a great lawsuit, and died leaving barely enough to pay his debts and to bury him. I had to get my own living, and I got it at sea. My stature is five feet ten inches; my age is thirty-two; my temper is considered impetuous — and that is all I have to say for myself on the present occasion.
My young lady is Miss Mira Ringmore, daughter of an Englishman established in business in the United States. Her father had recently married for the second time. The new wife hated Miss Ringmore and Miss Ringmore hated the new wife. Being of age, and having her own little income (inherited from her mother), she had nothing to do but to please herself. Happening to notice our ship in the harbour — dressed in flags in honour of the captain’s birthday — she took a fancy to our pretty colours; felt an impulse to go back to the old country with us; and followed the lead of her own feelings at a day’s notice. Having friends on the other side — I mean in England — she purposed to visit them, beginning with her maternal aunt, a single lady whose kindness she remembered with gratitude in the time when she was a child.
As for her personal appearance. I can call it delicious. Her colour is dark; her stature is (I say it thankfully) not remarkable in the matter of height, and not encumbered by what I particularly dislike in a young woman, excess of flesh. Her manner I may describe as modestly irresistible. And I sum up the list of her perfections when I declare that she is not sick at sea.
How other men pay their addresses to women, and pave the way for favourable consideration of a proposal of marriage, I have not contrived to discover. Never yet has a friend come in my way who could tell me how he made himself acceptable, in the days of his courtship, to his wife. The obstacles to success, in the case of my own love-affair, raised perpetually by my professional duties on board, would, I am inclined to believe, have disheartened and defeated me if I had been left to contend against them single-handed. Let me be permitted to thank my stars for having provided me with two powerful friends, whose generous assistance was rendered to me in my hour of need.
One of them was the captain; and the other was the dog.
‘He is so kind, he is so attentive, and he offers us the great advantage of being a steady married man.’ Hundreds of times I have heard these words spoken of my commanding officer by fathers, husbands and brothers when circumstances compelled them to let their female relatives cross the Atlantic alone. As a guardian of the fair sex, afloat, our captain was, I firmly believe, without an equal in the honourable profession to which he belonged. He made kind inquiries, through their cabin doors, when the ladies were ill below; his gallant arm was ready for them when they got well enough to promenade the deck: and he exercised a fascinating influence over their timid appetites, when they ventured to appear at the dinner table for the first time. His experience of the sex, obtained in this way, (and in other ways not so well known to me) was ready for any emergency that might call on it. I was myself indebted to his instructions for precious private interviews with Miss Ringmore; and, let me add, it was not the captain’s fault that consequences followed which the most cautious man in existence must have failed to foresee.
Never neglecting his own duties, our commander never permitted neglect on the part of his subordinates. After waiting a day, and satisfying himself that his chief officer attended to the service of the ship as devotedly as ever, he favoured me, in private, with invaluable advice.
‘If I was in love with that young lady,’ he said, ‘do you know how I should recommend myself to her favourable notice?’
‘I can’t say I do, sir.’
‘In your place, Evan, I should begin by making a friend of the dog.’
From the lips of Solomon himself wiser words than those never dropped. I at once relieved the butcher of the trouble of feeding the dog. He was a clever little smooth haired terrier of the English breed. Miss Mira found her favourite pleased and flattered, when she saw us together, and was naturally pleased and flattered herself. A common ground of sympathy was, in this way, established between us. I stole time from my sleep and stole time from my meals, and made the most of my opportunities. To crown all, the captain favoured me with another offering from his stores of good advice:
‘The art of making love, my friend, has one great merit — it succeeds by simple means. Are you acquainted with the means?’
‘I am afraid not, sir.’
‘Then listen to me. Bear in mind, Evan, that the sex (excepting the blackguard members, of course) hates violence. In making your advances, gain ground by fine degrees; never let a loud word or sudden action escape you. The serpentine way succeeded with the first woman, in the Garden of Eden; and it has succeeded with her posterity from that time to this.’
I followed the serpentine way as cleverly as I could. But the truth is, I was too fond of her to prove myself worthy of my instructions. If I try to put on record the various steps by which I advanced to my end, I may possibly produce a sort of guide book to the art of making love at sea. How useful it may be to passengers crossing the Atlantic!
First Day: The dog is the subject of conversation. Miss Mira tells anecdotes of his affectionate disposition and his rare intelligence. I listen with interest. A message arrives which informs me that the first officer is wanted. The little terrier whines when I get up to go. His mistress caresses him, and looks at me with approving smiles. ‘He is almost as fond of you as he is of me,’ she says. — First step forward in Miss Mira’s affections.
Second Day: The story of my life forms the new subject of conversation. I tell it as shortly as possible. Miss Mira is interested when she hears that I am the son of a ruined father, who was once a country gentleman. She puts an intelligent question: ‘Why do I follow an arduous profession, which exposes me to be drowned, when my father’s surviving friends must be persons with influence who might do something better for me?’ I can only reply that a man, like myself, who is alone in the world, feels no interest in improving his position. We look at each other. Miss Mira’s attention devotes itself, with some appearance of confusion, to the dog on her lap. — Second step forward.
Third Day: The story of my young lady’s life came, next. She begins, however, by noticing (with a woman’s nicety of observation) that there is a change in my dress. I have just been relieved from my watch on deck; and I happen to be wearing a warmer waistcoat than usual, knitted in bright-coloured wool. ‘You made your waistcoat, Mr Fencote?’ ‘Mrs Jennet made it.’ ‘And who is Mrs Jennet?’ ‘A grateful woman, Miss Ringmore.’ ‘A young woman?’ ‘No: an old woman.’ ‘And why was she grateful to you?’ There is but one way in which I can answer this last question. I am obliged to mention a common place event in the life of every good swimmer employed on board ship. One of our boys, being in danger of drowning, I happen to save his life. He mentions the circumstance to a grateful old grandmother, and my waistcoat ends the story. With some difficulty, I induce Miss Ringmore to drop the subject and talk of herself. Her social prospects are not very brilliant; she can only hope to be kindly received by her good aunt. Name of the aunt, Miss Urban; station in life, mistress of a ladies’ school since the death of her elder sister who founded the establishment; address, Lewk-Bircot, West Riding, Yorkshire; attractions of Lewk-Bircot, beautiful scenery in the neighbourhood. The first officer is eager to visit the scenery; and the fair passenger would be pleased to show it to him, as a means of expressing her sense of his kindness. — Third step.
Fourth Day: A gentle breeze, a fine sun, a bright sea. She comes on deck at the time when we are passing a large merchantman, under all sail. Impressed by that fine sight, she encourages me to tell her the names of the ship’s masts and sails. After the first few moments her attention begins to wander: she listens absently. I express the fear that she must be getting tired of the voyage. Answer, ‘If I could feel tired of the voyage, I should be ungrateful indeed to You.’ — Fourth step.
Fifth Day: A dreadful blank. She has got a nervous headache, and the doctor keeps her in her cabin. But she is good enough to correspond with me. That is to say, she sends me a slip of paper with a line written on it in pencil. ‘Pray take care of my little dog.’ — Fifth step.
Sixth Day: Perfect recovery of the invalid. The dog is still an invaluable friend to me; the care I have taken of him is gratefully acknowledged. Beyond this circumstance my recollections of the sixth day do not carry me. In whatever way I may have gained my next step in advance, it ceases to be of any importance by comparison with the great, I may say final, event which made a new man of me in four and twenty hours more.
Seventh Day: When we meet on this grand occasion she notices that I am not in good spirits. I own that my mind is ill at ease. Our voyage is coming to an end. On the next evening the ship will probably be passing the Fastnet light, off the Irish Coast. ‘I hope you won’t be offended.’ I venture to say: ‘my spirits sink, Miss Ringmore, at the prospect of bidding you goodbye.’ She makes no reply in words; her eyes rest on me for a moment and then look away again. I find it quite impossible to explain the effect which she produces on me. The captain’s excellent advice loses its hold on my mind. I forget the importance of making my advances by fine degrees. I become incapable of taking the serpentine way with this charming creature which once succeeded with Mother Eve in the Garden of Eden. What I intend to say is, that the happiness of my life depends on persuading Miss Mira to let me be her husband. What I actually do say, it is impossible for me to relate. She understands me, although I am incapable of understanding myself. There is one private place of retreat, and one only, on the deck of an ocean steamship in the day time. Between the after end of the vessel, called the taff rail, and the stout little wooden house which shelters the man at the helm, lucky lovers may sometimes find an unoccupied and unobserved interval of space. There I receive my reply: and there we register her favourable decision in our first kiss. My own impression is that the dog, at the other end of the ship, sees (or smells) reason to be jealous of me. He howls furiously. We have no alternative but to hurry to the butcher’s quarters and comfort him. Who is the author of the remark, that serious things and comic things tread close on each other’s heels? What a first officer that great observer would have made!
Mira’s interests were my interests now.
Her sudden departure from New York had rendered it impossible to communicate by letter with her aunt. When the vessel reached Liverpool, my first proceeding was to send a telegraphic message, in her name, to Miss Urban: ‘Expect me by the afternoon train; explanations when we meet.’ I begged hard to be allowed to travel with her. In this case I deserved a refusal, and I got what I deserved.
‘It is quite bad enough,’ Mira said, ‘for me to take Miss Urban by surprise. I must not venture to bring a stranger with me, until I have secured a welcome for him by telling my aunt of our marriage engagement. When she has heard all that I can say in your favour, expect a letter from me with an invitation.’
‘May I hope for your letter to-morrow?’
She smiled at my impatience. ‘I will do all I can,’ she said kindly, ‘to hurry my aunt.’
Some people, as I have heard, feel presentiments of evil when unexpected troubles are lying in wait for them. No such forebodings weighed on Mira’s mind or on mine. When I put her into the railway carriage, she asked if I had any message for her aunt. I sent my love. She laughed over my audacious familiarity, as gaily as a child.
The next day came, and brought with it no letter. I tried to quiet my impatience by anticipating the arrival of a telegram. The day wore on to evening, and no telegram appeared.
My first impulse was to follow Mira, without waiting for a formal invitation from her aunt. On reflection, however, I felt that such a headlong proceeding as this might perhaps injure me in Miss Urban’s estimation. There was nothing for it but to practise self-restraint, and hope to find myself rewarded on the next morning.
I was up and ready at the door of the lodging to take my expected letter from the postman’s hand. There were letters for other people in the house — nothing had arrived for me. For two hours more I waited on the chance of getting a telegram, and still waited in vain. My suspense and anxiety were no longer to be trifled with. Come what might of it, I resolved to follow Mira to her aunt’s house.
There was no difficulty in discovering Miss Urban. Everybody at Lewk-Bircot knew the schoolmistress’s spacious and handsome establishment for young ladies. The fear had come to me, in the railway, that Mira might not have met with the reception which she had anticipated, and might have left her aunt, under a sense of injury only too natural in a high-spirited young woman. In horrid doubt, I asked if Miss Ringmore was at home. When the man servant said ‘Yes, sir,’ so great was my sense of relief that I protest I could have hugged him.
I was shown into a little drawing-room, while the servant took my card upstairs. The window looked out on a garden. It was the hour of recreation: the young ladies were amusing themselves. They failed to interest me. The one object I cared to look at was the door of the room. At last it was opened; suddenly, violently opened. Mira came in with such an altered expression in her face, such a singular mingling in her eyes and confusion in her manner, that I stood like a fool, looking at her in silence. She was the first to speak.
‘Why have you come here?’ That was what she said to me.
A man of my temper, finding himself treated in this way by any woman — and especially when she is a woman whom he adores — feels the serious necessity of preserving his self-control. Instead of complaining of the ungracious welcome that I had received, I told her how I had waited, and what I had suffered: and I said in conclusion: ‘Surely, you might make some allowance for the anxieties of a man who loves you, left without news of you.’
You might have been content with writing to me,’ she answered.
‘I couldn’t have waited for the reply.’
‘Because your silence alarmed me. Come, come, Mira! speak as plainly to me as I have spoken to you. I appear to have arrived at an unfortunate time. Is your aunt ill?’
‘Does she object to your marrying me?’
‘She is too kind and too just to object to a person whom she has never seen.’
That something had gone wrong nevertheless, and that there were reasons for not letting me know what it was, admitted by this time of no doubt. I took Mira’s hand, led her to the sofa, and made her sit down by me. Then I ventured on one more inquiry, the last.
‘Have you changed your mind?’ I asked her. ‘Are you sorry you promised to be my wife?’
All her own pretty self came back in an instant. She put her arm round my neck, and rested her head on my shoulder, and began to cry. How would a landsman have taken such an answer as this? A sailor received it with gratitude; repaid it with kisses; and then remembered what was due to his dear’s peace of mind.
‘It’s plain to me,’ I said, ‘that I ought not to have come here without first asking leave. Let me set that right. My heart’s at ease about you now: I’ll go back again at once, and wait for our next meeting till you allow of it.’ She looked at me, surprised to find that I was such a biddable man. I said: ‘My darling, I will do anything to please you; and whether you choose to tell me your secrets, or whether you prefer keeping them to yourself, will make no difference to me. I shall believe in you all the same.’
She came close to me, and laid her hands on my shoulders. her hands trembled.
‘Suppose,’ she said, ‘that you see things and hear things which you don’t understand, will your confidence in me take my good faith for granted, without asking for an explanation?’
‘I won’t even wish for an explanation.’
Somewhere or other, I have read of the language of flowers. Mira stood up on tiptoe, and thanked me in the language of kisses. I had my hat in my hand ready to go. She took it away.
‘You are to stay here with me,’ she said, ‘and be introduced to my aunt?’
Was this pleasant change of purpose a reward? It was that and something more; it proved to be the first of many tests to which my sincerity was submitted. No fear of this troubled me at the time! I was too happy to think of consequences.
The door of the room was opened again. A tall, elegant woman came in, looking neither old nor young. She was dressed plainly in dark coloured garments; there were furrows on her handsome face, and tinges of grey in her fine thick hair, which gave me the idea of a person who had seen troubled days in the course of her life. She had a slip of paper in her hand and gave it to Mira with these words:
‘Here is a list of invitations to the party, my dear. If you will write on the cards we can send them round to my friends this evening.’ As she laid the cards on the writing-table she noticed me. ‘Who is this gentleman?’
‘I have already spoken of him, aunt. He is the gentleman to whom I am engaged. Evan, let me present you to Miss Urban.’
The grand schoolmistress shook hands with me civilly enough. She was a little majestic in offering her congratulations; but I had heard of the manners of the old school and took it for granted that I saw them now. I made my apologies for having presumed to present myself without a formal invitation.
Miss Urban’s lofty courtesy paid me a compliment, in reply: ‘Excuses are quite needless, Mr Fencote. You might have been sure of your welcome from Mrs Motherwell and from me.’
I looked round the room. No other lady was to be seen. ‘Where is Mrs Motherwell?’ I asked.
Miss Urban lifted her hand — a large strong hand that looked capable of boxing little girls’ ears — and smiling sweetly, waved it towards Mira.
There is Mrs Motherwell,’ she said.Mira heard her, and never denied it. I looked backwards and forwards from the aunt to the niece and from the niece to the aunt. In the infernal confusion of the moment I presumed to correct the schoolmistress, I said:
‘No. Miss Ringmore.’
Miss Urban assumed the duties of correction on her side.
‘Mrs Motherwell, formerly Miss Ringmore,’ she reminded me. ‘Are you doing me the honour, sir, of attending to what I say?’
I was not attending. My eyes and my mind were both fixed on Mira. To my dismay, she kept her back turned on me — afraid, evidently afraid, to let me see her face. A second opportunity had been offered to her of denying that she was a married woman — and again she was silent, when silence meant a confession of guilt. It is all very well to say that a man is bound to restrain himself, no matter how angry he may be, in the presence of a woman. There are occasions on which it is useless to expect a man to restrain himself. I was certainly loud, I dare say I was fierce.
‘You have infamously deceived me.’ I called out: ‘I loved you. I trusted you. You are a heartless woman!’
Instead of looking at me, she looked at her aunt. I saw reproach in her eyes; I saw anger in the flush of her face. I heard her say to herself: ‘Cruel! cruel!’
The schoolmistress — Lord! how I hated her — interfered directly. ‘I can’t allow you, Mr Fencote, to frighten my niece. Control yourself, or I must ask you to leave the room.’
In justice to myself, I took the woman’s advice. The most stupid thing I could possibly do would be to give her an excuse for turning me out. Besides, I now had an object in view, in which I was especially interested. I may have been a brute, or I may have been a fool. The prospect of avenging my wrongs on Mira’s husband presented the first ray of comfort which had dawned on me yet.
‘Is Mr Motherwell in the house?’ I inquired.
To this the schoolmistress replied mysteriously.
‘Mr Motherwell is in the last house of all.’
‘What do you mean, ma’am?’
‘I mean the churchyard.’
‘A widow?’ I burst out.
‘What else should she be, sir?’
I was determined to have it, in words — and from Mira’s own lips. ‘Are you a widow?’ I asked.
She turned round, and faced me. What thoughts had been in her mind, up to that time, it was impossible for me to divine. I could only see that she was mistress of herself again — a little pale perhaps: and (I did really think) a little sorry for me.
‘Evan,’ she began gently, ‘what did we say to each other, before my aunt came in?’
She was my charming girl, before her aunt came in. She was my deceitful widow now. I remembered that, and remembered nothing more. ‘I don’t understand you,’ I said.
My face no doubt showed some perplexity. It seemed to amuse her; she smiled. What are women made of? Oh, if my father had only sent me to be educated in a monastery and brought up to the business (whatever it may be) of a monk! She remembered everything: ‘I led you to suppose, Evan, that things might happen here for which you were not at all prepared, and I asked you if your confidence in me would take my good faith for granted, without wanting an explanation. And how did you answer me? You even went beyond what I had expected. You declared that you would not even wish for an explanation. Has my memory misled me?’
‘Did you mean what you said?’
‘Will you be as good as your word?’
The aunt and niece looked at each other. I am not skilled in interpreting looks which pass between women — and it is, I dare say, natural to be suspicious of what we cannot understand. Anyway, I found myself making a cautious reply.
‘You have put me to a hard trial,’ I said. ‘All through our voyage, you have kept back the truth. You even accepted my proposal of marriage, without taking me into your confidence. After the discoveries that I have made in this room, how can I engage to be as good as my word, when I don’t know what confessions may be coming next. I can promise to try — and that’s all.’
‘It’s all that I have a right to expect.’ Saying that, Mira turned away to the window.
Miss Urban consulted her watch. A deep-toned bell was rung at the same time in the lower part of the house. The schoolmistress begged me to excuse her. ‘Our young ladies,’ she explained, ‘are returning to their studies; my duties are waiting for me.’ Passing her niece, on her way out of the room, she whispered something. I could only hear Mira’s reply: ‘I can’t do it! I won’t do it!’ Her aunt considered a little, and came back to me.
‘Mr Fencote,’ she said, ‘do you like little boys?’
I had got so distrustful of both of them, that I made another cautious reply to this effect:
‘Suppose I say Yes, or suppose I say No, what difference does it make?’
‘Ask my niece.’
Only three words! Having spoken them, Miss Urban attempted to leave the room. I stopped her; my dull mind was beginning to be enlightened by something like a gleam of truth.
‘You began it,’ I told her: ‘I shall not ask your niece to explain what you mean — I shall ask you. What am I to understand by your talking of little boys?’
‘I ought to have mentioned one little boy, Mr Fencote.’
‘Who is he?’
She pointed to Mira, still standing at the window.
‘Mrs Motherwell’s little boy,’ she answered; ‘the sweetest child I ever met with.’
I had been holding the schoolmistress by the arm, to prevent her from leaving me. My hand dropped. She must have made her way out; I neither saw her, nor heard her.
Having already suffered the shock of discovering that Mira had been a married woman, it would seem likely to most people that I might have been prepared to hear next of the existence of her child. I was not prepared; I felt the revelation of the child — why, God only knows — more keenly than I had felt the revelation of her husband. At that horrid moment, not a word would pass my lips. In the silence that had now fallen on us, Mira confronted me once more. Something in my face — I am afraid, something cruel — appeared to strike her with terror. She burst, poor soul, into wild entreaties:
‘Evan! don’t look at me like that. Try, dear, to do me justice. If you only knew what my position is! Believe me you are wrong to trust to appearances. I love you, my darling. I love you with all my heart and soul. Oh, he doesn’t believe me! There’s no enduring this. Come what may of it, I don’t care; I’ll tell you —’
‘Tell me nothing more,’ I said, ‘I have heard enough.’
It was beyond what I could bear, to see what I saw at that moment; I made for the door. She called me back with a cry of misery:
‘You’re not going to leave me?’
When I look back now at that miserable time, I thank God that my heart was moved with pity for her, and that I gave her my promise to return. I could do no more. My head was in a whirl; my longing for solitude and quiet was not to be told in words. I ran down the stairs. At one end of the hall, a glass door led into the garden; not a creature was to be seen there. The bright flowers, the fine old trees looked like glimpses of Heaven after what I had gone through. In a minute more, I was breathing the fresh air: I was sheltered under the peaceful shade.
As for the state of my mind, I can say no more about it than I have said already.
If I can trust my memory I may, however, mention that my thoughts were now more busy with Miss Urban than with her niece. I had turned a deaf ear to Mira’s entreaties at the time; but they had their own irresistible influence when I found myself alone; and they led me to the conviction that the schoolmistress must be answerable for what had befallen me since I entered her house. How was she answerable? To find the right reply to this, was the one obstacle that no effort of mine could overcome. There was a provocation in constantly trying, and constantly failing, to hit on a reasonable interpretation of what Mira had said, which ended in making me too restless to remain in my place of repose. I left the pleasant shade, and wandered away; still battling with my difficulties, and neither knowing nor caring whither I went.
On a sudden, I found myself called back to present things, oddly enough, by a pull at my coat-tail.
Looking around, I discovered a little boy who seemed to be about five or six years of age — a really pretty child, with bright merry eyes and beautiful dark red hair. Here no doubt was the fatal creature who had caused me such suffering when I heard who his mother was. If he had not spoken first, I am afraid I should have gone on without taking any notice of him.
‘Do come, sir, and see my garden.’
He took hold of my hand as he preferred that request, and he looked up in my face with a smile, so innocent and so pretty, that Herod himself must have felt the charm of it.
We took the way to his garden, ‘My little man,’ I said, ‘suppose you tell me your name?’
‘The boys call me Blazes — because of my red hair.’
‘Have you no other name besides that?’
‘Yes; I’m Kit.’
‘Well, Kit, and who do you belong to?’
‘I belong to Aunt Urban.’
‘Have you got no father and mother?’
‘I don’t know that I’ve got a father. They tell me mother lives far away, somewhere.’
‘Have you any playfellows?’
The child shook his head: ‘I’m left to play by myself. Here’s my garden.’
It was a barren little spot in a corner between two walls. Kit’s pride in his few sickly-looking flowers, and his small crookedly directed walks, might have made some people laugh; it made me feel readier to cry.
‘I hope you like my garden?’ the boy said.
‘Indeed I do like it.’
‘And you call me a good boy?’
‘I like to be praised — I don’t get much of it,’ poor little Kit confessed. He took up his small toy spade. ‘I want to make a new walk. You’re a goodnatured fellow. Will you help me?’
I marked out the course of a new path, and left him hard at work on it. The sooner we separated the better it would be for me: the poor boy innocently embittered my mind against the mother who had deserted him — who had ignored his existence at the very time when she had promised to be my wife. I was afraid to go back to her until I had mastered my own indignation by the help of time.
Walking straight on, and still failing to compose myself, experience reminded me of the comforting and companionable friend of man through the journey of life. In a moment more, my pipe and pouch were in my hand — but I had lost or mislaid the means of lighting the tobacco. While I was still vainly searching my pockets, I noticed a thin blue column of smoke rising through a clump of trees on my left hand. Advancing in that direction, I reached the limit of the grounds and discovered a gate with the customary Lodge by the side of it.
An old woman was knitting at an open window. I asked her if she would kindly give me a light for my pipe.
‘Surely, sir,’ was the cheerful reply. ‘Please come round to the door.’
She was waiting for me on the threshold. When I approached her, she lifted her withered brown hands in amazement. Her brightening face made her look ten years younger directly. ‘Lord bless us and save us, Mr Fencote, don’t you know me?’
I was near enough to her now to make a likely guess. ‘Not Mrs Jennet?’ I said.
‘Come in, sir! come in! Who but Mrs Jennet should it be?’ She insisted on placing me in her own arm chair; and she spoke of her grandson, ‘thriving and married and happy, when he might have been dead at the bottom of the sea, sir, but for you.’ I listened with every appearance of interest that I could command, and flattered myself that I had concealed the state of my mind from the good old soul who was so honestly glad to see me. It soon appeared that I was mistaken.
‘You don’t look like your own bright and cheery self, sir. Has anything happened to trouble you at the school-house?’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘something has happened to trouble me.’
Why I suddenly changed my mind, and owned the truth in this offhand way, I hardly know. People sometimes act on impulses which they are not themselves able to explain. That I had no distinct purpose in view, I am quite sure; the result that I produced took me completely by surprise.
My old friend eyed me attentively. ‘Any misunderstanding, sir, between my mistress and you?’ she asked. ‘I make no doubt you’re a friend of Miss Urban’s, or why should you be here in the grounds?’
‘I can’t call myself a friend of Miss Urban,’ I said; ‘I was only introduced to her about an hour ago.’
The temperature of Mrs Jennet’s curiosity rose a little higher.
‘Will it be considered a liberty,’ she went on, ‘if I ask who made you and Miss Urban known to one another?’
Now, when it was probably too late, prudence suggested the necessity of speaking with reserve. I refrained from mentioning Mira’s name.
‘The person who introduced me,’ I answered, ‘was a young lady.’
Mrs Jennet’s eyes fastened on me with an expression of dismay; Mrs Jennet’s voice sank to a whisper.
‘Miss Urban’s niece?’ she said.
‘Perhaps some relation of yours?’
‘She may be.’
‘May be? What does that mean?’
‘It means that she may be a very near relation of mine — if I marry her.’
That reply put an end to all further hesitation, on Mrs Jennet’s side and on mine. ‘I know what has happened now,’ she said; ‘as well as if I had seen you and heard you. Mr Fencote, I warned my mistress, at the time, that she might expect to meet with some such ill-luck as the misfortune that has fallen on her now. When that telegram surprised us with the news that her niece was coming, I resisted temptation; I didn’t say “I told you so” — I only thought it. Ha! I don’t doubt that you have been hardly dealt with. But there’s another person — you know who she is! — whom I pity more than I pity you. No! you mustn’t tempt me to enter into particulars. What am I to do,’ the poor woman asked, ‘between you who saved my grandson’s life, and my mistress who trusts me after thirty years spent in her service? Why don’t you ask the young lady to tell you that miserable story?’
‘I don’t want to distress the young lady,’ I said. ‘My temper is quieter by this time. I find I’m too fond of my darling to desert her. Whether you take me into your confidence, or whether you don’t — I’ll marry her all the same.’
Mrs Jennet seemed to be strongly impressed by this.
‘Upon you soul, sir?’ she said solemnly.
‘Upon my soul,’ I answered.
What had I done to make the good old dame as reckless of consequences as I was, let others find out. ‘Light your pipe,’ she said; ‘and I’ll tell you all about it.’
‘A great deal of mischief is sometimes done, sir,’ Mrs Jennet began, ‘among pleasure parties who go to enjoy themselves at the seaside. It was in the Midsummer holidays, six or seven years ago (I don’t rightly recollect which), that we went wrong. When I say We I only mean the eldest Miss Urban, who was then alive — the youngest Miss Urban, now mistress of the school — and my old self, in past days lady’s maid, and afterwards keeper of the gate. My health was not as good in those days as it is now. So the two Misses Urban, as good creatures as ever lived, took me with them to the seaside. We had been about a fortnight in comfortable lodgings, when Miss Esther, (who was the eldest one) says to me: “I’m afraid my sister is going to do a very foolish thing.” You will not be surprised to hear, sir, that a man was at the bottom of it. Also, that he was thought to be a perfect gentleman. Also, that he was handsome and clever and reputed to be well born. Also, that Miss Arabella (that is to say the present Miss Urban) was determined to marry him — and did marry him.’
‘And they are now separated,’ I ventured to guess. ‘And Miss Arabella has returned to her maiden name?’
‘Worse than that, Mr Fencote. She never was married at all. A lady — a perfect lady if ever there was one yet — heard where the newly-married couple had gone for their honeymoon. She says to my mistress, breaking it very kindly to her: ‘I am his victim, and you are his victim; look at my marriage certificate.” You will ask if he was caught and punished. Not he! Early in the morning, the wretch said he was going out for a walk. He never came back, and has never been heard of since. It all happened within the six weeks of the Midsummer holidays; a hundred miles, and more, away from this place. We were saved, owing to those circumstances, from a scandal that might have ruined the school; and, like foolish women, we thought ourselves well out of it. Who could have foreseen, sir, that more misfortunes were going to fall on us? The first of them was the death of the eldest Miss Urban. The second — well some people might blame me for calling it a misfortune. What else is it, I should be glad to know, when a single lady, left sole mistress of a thriving school for girls, finds herself in a way to be a mother — cheated out of her lawful marriage by a villain who went to church with her, the husband of another woman?’
I thought of the little lovable boy whom I had left at work in his garden. But I had not courage enough to speak of him; remembering with shame how cruelly my headlong anger had injured Mira in my thoughts.
‘There’s but little more for me to say,’ Mrs Jennet resumed. ‘You don’t need to be told that a time came when the “health” of the mistress obliged her to leave the management of the school, for a few weeks, to the teachers, and that I was the servant who attended her. But please notice this: I am not to blame for the story which Miss Urban’s cleverness made up (when the child was put out at nurse) to save her reputation. From first to last, I was against that story. Miss Mira was then settled in America with her father and mother, and there was no prospect of the parents or the daughter returning to the old country. What does my mistress do but turn her niece into “Mrs Motherwell, a widow,’ living abroad, and obliged by circumstances to confide her little boy to the care of her aunt in England. That lie succeeded very well. But I have had a good education, Mr Fencote; and I was taught to observe things, before family troubles forced me to take to domestic service. This I have noticed, that lies turn traitors, in the long run, against the very people whom they have served. Miss Urban found this to be true, when your young lady unexpectedly returned to England. Ah, sir, I see what you are thinking of!’
I was thinking of the first interview between the aunt and the niece — and of how my intrusion must have complicated their deplorable position towards each other.
These were Mrs Jennet’s last words:
‘Miss Urban sent for me to bear witness, before her niece, to the cruel deception by which she had suffered. It was the only excuse she could offer by way of appeasing Miss Mira’s indignation — natural indignation, just indignation, I say! The next thing was to offer atonement, so far as it could be done. My mistress proposed to retire from the school, and to sell the business; and to live out her life (with her boy) among strangers. Until this could be done, she threw herself, as the saying is, on Miss Mira’s mercy. “It rests with you,” she said, going down on her knees, “to promise to keep up the deception for a few weeks, or to ruin me for life.” You know how it ended. In having the chance of getting that noble young woman for your wife, I consider you, sir, to be the luckiest man I ever set eyes on. And remember this, if you had not said that your mind was made up to marry her — or, to put it more plainly still, if you had not shown yourself ready to trust her, when you were quite ignorant of what had really happened — not one word of all that I have said to you would have passed my lips. Now I have spoken my mind — and there is an end of it.’
There is an end of it also, so far as this narrative is concerned.
It is plainly needless to describe what happened when I got back to the house. Results alone are important enough to deserve notice. Mrs Jennet paid the penalty of taking me into her confidence by the loss of her situation, and entered my service on the spot. She accompanied Mira when we went back to Liverpool to be married. Miss Urban, safe in our silence on the subject of her private affairs, was left in possession of her school, her reputation, and her (adopted) son. At the time when I write my confession — offering it as a valuable lesson to my children, and inventing nothing in it but names of persons and places — my wife and I are old people; little Kit has become a fine man and a thorough sailor; our aunt and our good housekeeper have long since been reconciled in death; and I have been, for a quarter of a century past, the happiest man that ever drew a prize in the lottery of marriage.
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