Two Years Ago, by Charles Kingsley

Chapter xii.

A Peer in Trouble.

Somewhere in those days, so it seems, did Mr. Bowie call unto himself a cab at the barrack-gate, and, dressed in his best array, repair to the wilds of Brompton, and request to see either Claude or Mrs. Mellot.

Bowie is an ex-Scots–Fusilier, who, damaged by the kick of a horse, has acted as valet, first to Scoutbush’s father, and next to Scoutbush himself. He is of a patronising habit of mind, as befits a tolerably “leeterary” Scotsman of forty-five years of age and six-feet three in height, who has full confidence in the integrity of his own virtue, the infallibility of his own opinion, and the strength of his own right arm; for Bowie, though he has a rib or two “dinged in,” is mighty still as Theseus’ self; and both astonished his red-bearded compatriots, and won money for his master, by his prowess in the late feat of arms at Holland House.

Mr. Bowie is asked to walk into Sabina’s boudoir (for Claude is out in the garden), to sit down, and deliver his message: which he does after a due military salute, sitting bolt upright in his chair, and in a solemn and sonorous voice.

“Well, madam, it’s just this, that his lordship would be very glad to see ye and Mr. Mellot, for he’s vary ill indeed, and that’s truth; and if he winna tell ye the cause, then I will — and it’s just a’ for love of this play-acting body here, and more’s the pity.”

“More’s the pity, indeed!”

“And it’s my opeenion the puir laddie will just die, if nobody sees to him; and I’ve taken the liberty of writing to Major Cawmill mysel’, to beg him to come up and see to him, for it’s a pity to see his lordship cast away, for want of an understanding body to advise him.”

“So I am not an understanding body, Bowie?”

“Oh, madam, ye’re young and bonny,” says Bowie, in a tone in which admiration is not unmingled with pity.

“Young indeed! Mr. Bowie, do you know that I am almost as old as you?”

“Hoot, hut, hut —” says Bowie, looking at the wax-like complexion and bright hawk-eyes.

“Really I am. I’m past five-and-thirty this many a day.”

“Weel, then, madam, if you’ll excuse me, ye’re old enough to be wiser than to let his lordship be inveigled with any such play-acting.”

“Really he’s not inveigled,” says Sabina, laughing. “It is all his own fault, and I have warned him how absurd and impossible it is. She has refused even to see him; and you know yourself he has not been near our house for these three weeks.”

“Ah, madam, you’ll excuse me: but that’s the way with that sort of people, just to draw back and draw back, to make a poor young gentleman follow them all the keener, as a trout does a minnow, the faster you spin it.”

“I assure you no. I can’t let you into ladies’ secrets; but there is no more chance of her listening to him than of me. And as for me, I have been trying all the spring to marry him to a young lady with eighty thousand pounds; so you can’t complain of me.”

“Eh? No. That’s more like and fitting.”

“Well, now. Tell his lordship that we are coming; and trust us, Mr. Bowie: we do not look very villainous, do we?”

“Faith, ‘deed then, and I suppose not,” said Bowie, using the verb which, in his cautious, Scottish tongue, expresses complete certainty. The truth is, that Bowie adores both Sabina and her husband, who are, he says, “just fit to be put under a glass case on the sideboard, like twa wee china angels.”

In half an hour they were in Scoutbush’s rooms. They found the little man lying on his sofa, in his dressing-gown, looking pale and pitiable enough. He had been trying to read; for the table by him was covered with books; but either gunnery and mathematics had injured his eyes, or he had been crying; Sabina inclined to the latter opinion.

“This is very kind of you both; but I don’t want you, Claude. I want Mrs. Mellot. You go to the window with Bowie.”

Bowie and Claude shrugged their shoulders at each other, and departed.

“Now, Mrs. Mellot, I can’t help looking up to you as a mother.”

“Complimentary to my youth,” says Sabina, who always calls herself young when she is called old, and old when she is called young.

“I didn’t mean to be rude. But one does long to open one’s heart. I never had any mother to talk to, you know; and I can’t tell my aunt; and Valencia is so flighty; and I thought you would give me one chance more. Don’t laugh at me, I say. I am really past laughing at.”

“I see you are, you poor creature,” says Sabina, melting; and a long conversation follows, while Claude and Bowie exchange confidences, and arrive at no result beyond the undeniable assertion; “it is a very bad job.”

Presently Sabina comes out, and Scoutbush calls cheerfully from the sofa:—

“Bowie, get my bath and things to dress; and order me the cab in half an hour. Good-bye, you dear people, I shall never thank you enough.”

Away go Claude and Sabina in a hack-cab.

“What have you done?”

“Given him what he entreated for — another chance with Marie.”

“It will only madden him all the more. Why let him try, when you know it is hopeless.”

“Why, I had not the heart to refuse, that’s the truth; and besides, I don’t know that it is hopeless.”

“All the naughtier of you, to let him run the chance of making a fool of himself.”

“I don’t know that he will make such a great fool of himself. As he says, his grandfather married an actress, and why should not he?”

“Simply because she won’t marry him.”

“And how do you know that, sir? You fancy that you understand all the women’s hearts in England, just because you have found out the secret of managing one little fool.”

“Managing her, quotha! Being managed by her, till my quiet house is turned into a perfect volcano of match-making. Why, I thought he was to marry Manchestrina.”

“He shall marry who he likes; and if Marie changes her mind, and revenges herself on this American by taking Lord Scoutbush, all I can say is, it will be a just judgment on him. I have no patience with the heartless fellow, going off thus, and never even leaving his address.”

“And because you have no patience, you think Marie will have none?”

“What do you know about women’s hearts? Leave us to mind our own matters.”

“Mr. Bowie will kill you outright, if your plot succeeds.”

“No, he won’t. I know who Bowie wants to marry; and if he is not good, he shan’t have her. Besides, it will be such fun to spite old Lady Knockdown, who always turns up her nose at me. How mad she will be! Here we are at home. Now, I shall go and prepare Marie.”

An hour after, Scoutbush was pleading his cause with Marie; and had been met, of course, at starting, with the simple rejoinder —

“But, my lord, you would not surely have me marry where I do not love?”

“Oh, of course not; but, you see, people very often get love after they are married:— and I am sure I would do all to make you love me. I know I can’t bribe you by promising you carriages and jewels, and all that:— but you should have what you would like — pictures and statues, and books — and all that I can buy — Oh, madam, I know I am not worthy of you — I never have had any education as you have!”—

Marie smiled a sad smile.

“But I would learn — I know I could — for I am no fool, though I say it: I like all that sort of thing, and — and if I had you to teach me, I should care about nothing else. I have given up all my nonsense since I knew you; indeed I have — I am trying all day long to read — ever since you said something about being useful, and noble, and doing one’s work:— I have never forgotten that, madam, and never shall; and you would find me a pleasant person to live with, I do believe. At all events, I would — oh, madam — I would be your servant, your dog — I would fetch and carry for you like a negro slave!”

Marie turned pale, and rose.

“Listen to me, my lord; this must end. You do not know to whom you are speaking. You talk of negro slaves. Know that you are talking to one!”

Scoutbush looked at her in blank astonishment.

“Madam? Excuse me: but my own eyes —”

“You are not to trust them; I tell you fact.”

Scoutbush was silent. She misunderstood his silence: but went on steadily.

“I tell you, my lord, what I expect you to keep secret: and I know that I can trust your honour.”

Scoutbush bowed.

“And what I should never have told you, were it not my only chance of curing you of this foolish passion. I am an American slave!”

“Curse them! Who dared make you a slave?” cried Scoutbush, turning as red as a game-cock.

“I was born a slave. My father was a white gentleman of good family: my mother was a quadroon; and therefore I am a slave; — a negress, a runaway slave, my lord, who, if I returned to America, should be seized, and chained, and scourged, and sold. — Do you understand me?”

“What an infernal shame!” cried Scoutbush, to whom the whole thing appeared simply as a wrong done to Marie.

“Well, my lord?”

“Well, madam?”

“Does not this fact put the question at rest for ever?”

“No, madam! What do I know about slaves? No one is a slave in England. No madam; all that it does is to make me long to cut half-a-dozen fellows’ throats —” and Scoutbush stamped with rage. “No, madam, you are you: and if you become my viscountess, you take my rank, I trust, and my name is yours, and my family yours; and let me see who dare interfere!”

“But public opinion, my lord?” said Marie, half-pleased, half-terrified to find the shaft which she had fancied fatal fall harmless at her feet.

“Public opinion? You don’t know England, madam! What’s the use of my being a peer, if I can’t do what I like, and make public opinion go my way, and not I its? Though I am no great prince, madam, but only a poor Irish viscount, it’s hard if I can’t marry whom I like — in reason, that is — and expect all the world to call on her, and treat her as she deserves. Why, madam, you will have all London at your feet after a season or two, and all the more if they know your story: or if you don’t like that, or if fools did talk at first, why we’d go and live quietly at Kilanbaggan, or at Penalva, and you’d have all the tenants looking up to you as a goddess, as I do, madam. — Oh, madam, I would go anywhere, live anywhere, only to be with you!”

Marie was deeply affected. Making all allowances for the wilfulness of youth, she could not but see that her origin formed no bar whatever to her marrying a nobleman; and that he honestly believed that it would form none in the opinion of his compeers, if she proved herself worthy of his choice; and, full of new emotions, she burst into tears.

“There, now, you are melting: I knew you would! Madam! Signora?” and Scoutbush advanced to take her hand.

“Never less,” cried she, drawing back. “Do not; — you only make me miserable! I tell you it is impossible. I cannot tell you all. — You must not do yourself and yours such an injustice! Go, I tell you!”

Scoutbush still tried to take her hand.

“Go, I entreat you,” cried she, at her wits’ end, “or I will really ring the bell for Mrs. Mellot!”

“You need not do that, madam,” said he, drawing himself up; “I am not in the habit of being troublesome to ladies, or being turned out of drawing-rooms. I see how it is —” and his tone softened; “you despise me, and think me a vain, frivolous puppy. — Well; I’ll do something yet that you shall not despise!” And he turned to go.

“I do not despise you; I think you a generous, high-hearted gentleman — nobleman in all senses.”

Scoutbush turned again.

“But, again, impossible! I shall always respect you; but we must never meet again.”

She held out her hand. Little Freddy caught and kissed it till he was breathless, and then rushed out, and blundered over Sabina in the next room.

“No hope?”

“None.” And though he tried to squeeze his eyes together very tight, the great tears would come dropping down.

Sabina took him to a sofa, and sat him down while he made his little moan.

“I told you that she was in love with the American.”

“Then why don’t he come back and marry her! Hang him, I’ll go after him and make him!” cried Scoutbush, glad of any object on which to vent his wrath.

“You can’t, for nobody knows where he is. Now do be good and patient; you will forget all this.”

“I shan’t!”

“You will; not at first, but gradually; and marry some one really more fit for you.”

“Ah, but if I marry her I shan’t love her; and then, you know, Mrs. Mellot, I shall go to the bad again, just as much as ever. Oh, I was trying to be steady for her sake!”

“You can be that still.”

“Yes, but it’s so hard, with nothing to hope for. I’m not fit to take care of myself. I’m fit for nothing, I believe, but to go out and be shot by those Russians; and I’ll do it!”

“You must not; you are not strong enough. The doctors would not let you go as you are.”

“Then I’ll get strong; I’ll —”

“You’ll go home, and be good.”

“Ain’t I good now?”

“Yes, you are a good, sensible fellow, and have behaved nobly, and I honour you for it, and Claude shall come and see you every day.”

That evening a note came from Scoutbush.

“DEAR MRS. MELLOT— Whom should I find when I went home, but Campbell? I told him all; and he says that you and everybody have done quite right, so I suppose you have; and that I am quite right in trying to get out to the East, so I shall do it. But the doctor says I must rest for six weeks at least. So Campbell has persuaded me to take the yacht, which is at Southampton, and go down to Aberalva, and then round to Snowdon, where I have a little slate-quarry, and get some fishing. Campbell is coming with me, and I wish Claude would come too. He knows that brother-in-law of mine, Vavasour, I think, and I shall go and make friends with him. I’ve got very merciful to foolish lovers lately, and Claude can help me to face him; for I am a little afraid of genuises, you know. So there we’ll pick up my sister (she goes down by land this week), and then go on to Snowdon; and Claude can visit his old quarters at the Royal Oak at Bettws, where he and I had that jolly week among the painters. Do let him come, and beg La Signora not to be angry with me. That’s all I’ll ever ask of her again.”

“Poor fellow! But I can’t part with you, Claude.”

“Let him,” said La Cordifiamma. “He will comfort his lordship; and do you come with me.”

“Come with you! Where!”

“I will tell you when Claude is gone.”

“Claude, go and smoke in the garden. Now?”

“Come with me to Germany, Sabina.”

“To Germany? Why on earth to Germany?”

“I— I only said Germany because it came first into my mind. Anywhere for rest; anywhere to be out of that poor man’s way.”

“He will not trouble you any more; and you will not surely throw up your engagement?”

“Of course not!” said she, half peevishly. “It will be over in a fortnight; and then I must have rest. Don’t you see how I want rest?”

Sabina had seen it for some time past. That white cheek had been fading more and more to a wax-like paleness; those black eyes glittered with fierce unhealthy light; and dark rings round them told, not merely of late hours and excitement, but of wild passion and midnight tears. Sabina had seen all, and could not but give way, as Marie went on.

“I must have rest, I tell you! I am beginning — I can confess all to you — to want stimulants. I am beginning to long for brandy and water — pah! — to nerve me up to the excitement of acting, and then for morphine to make me sleep after it. The very eau de Cologne flask tempts me! They say that the fine ladies use it, before a ball, for other purposes than scent. You would not like to see me commence that practice, would you?”

“There is no fear, dear.”

“There is fear! You do not know the craving for exhilaration, the capability of self-indulgence, in our wild Tropic blood. Oh, Sabina, I feel at times that I could sink so low — that I could be so wicked, so utterly wicked, if I once began! Take me away, dearest creature, take me away, and let me have fresh air, and fair quiet scenes, and rest — rest — oh, save me, Sabina!” and she put her hands over her face, and burst into tears.

“We will go, then: to the Rhine, shall it be? I have not been there now for these three years, and it will be such fun running about the world by myself once more, and knowing all the while that —” and Sabina stopped; she did not like to remind Marie of the painful contrast between them.

“To the Rhine? Yes. And I shall see the beautiful old world, the old vineyards, and castles, and hills, which he used to tell me of — taught me to read of in those sweet, sweet books of Longfellow’s! So gentle, and pure, and calm — so unlike me!”

“Yes, we will see them; and perhaps —”

Marie looked up at her, guessing her thoughts, and blushed scarlet.

“You, too, think then, that — that —” she could not finish her sentence.

Sabina stooped over her, and the two beautiful mouths met.

“There, darling, we need say nothing. We are both women, and can talk without words.”

“Then you think there is hope!”

“Hope? Do you fancy that he is gone so very far? or that if he were, I could not hunt him out? Have I wandered half round the world alone for nothing?”

“No, but hope — hope that —”

“Not hope, but certainty; if some one I know had but courage.”

“Courage — to do what!”

“To trust him utterly.”

Marie covered her face with her hands, and shuddered in every limb.

“You know my story. Did I gain or lose by telling my Claude all?”

“I will!” she cried, looking up pale but firm. “I will!” and she looked steadfastly into the mirror over the chimney-piece, as if trying to court the reappearance of that ugly vision which haunted it, and so to nerve herself to the utmost, and face the whole truth.

In little more than a fortnight, Sabina and Marie, with maid and courier (for Marie was rich now), were away in the old Antwerpen. And Claude was rolling down to Southampton by rail, with Campbell, Scoutbush, and last, but not least, the faithful Bowie; who had under his charge what he described to the puzzled railway-guard as “goads and cleiks, and pirns and creels, and beuks and heuks, enough for a’ the cods o’ Neufundland.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56