One may suppose that a prematurely aged, oily little man; a poet in bad circumstances; a decrepit butterfly chained to a disappointed inkstand, will not put out strenuous energies to retain his ancient paramour when a robust young man comes imperatively to demand his mother of him in her person. The colloquy was short between Diaper Sandoe and Richard. The question was referred to the poor spiritless lady, who, seeing that her son made no question of it, cast herself on his hands. Small loss to her was Diaper; but he was the loss of habit, and that is something to a woman who has lived. The blood of her son had been running so long alien from her that the sense of her motherhood smote her now with strangeness, and Richard’s stern gentleness seemed like dreadful justice come upon her. Her heart had almost forgotten its maternal functions. She called him Sir, till he bade her remember he was her son. Her voice sounded to him like that of a broken-throated lamb, so painful and weak it was, with the plaintive stop in the utterance. When he kissed her, her skin was cold. Her thin hand fell out of his when his grasp relaxed. “Can sin hunt one like this?” he asked, bitterly reproaching himself for the shame she had caused him to endure, and a deep compassion filled his breast.
Poetic justice had been dealt to Diaper the poet. He thought of all he had sacrificed for this woman—the comfortable quarters, the friend, the happy flights. He could not but accuse her of unfaithfulness in leaving him in his old age. Habit had legalized his union with her. He wrote as pathetically of the break of habit as men feel at the death of love; and when we are old and have no fair hope tossing golden locks before us, a wound to this our second nature is quite as sad. I know not even if it be not actually sadder.
Day by day Richard visited his mother. Lady Blandish and Ripton alone were in the secret. Adrian let him do as he pleased. He thought proper to tell him that the public recognition he accorded to a particular lady was, in the present state of the world, scarcely prudent.
“’Tis a proof to me of your moral rectitude, my son, but the world will not think so. No one character is sufficient to cover two—in a Protestant country especially. The divinity that doth hedge a Bishop would have no chance in contact with your Madam Danaë. Drop the woman, my son. Or permit me to speak what you would have her hear.”
Richard listened to him with disgust.
“Well, you’ve had my doctorial warning,” said Adrian, and plunged back into his book.
When Lady Feverel had revived to take part in the consultations Mrs. Berry perpetually opened on the subject of Richard’s matrimonial duty, another chain was cast about him. “Do not, oh, do not offend your father!” was her one repeated supplication. Sir Austin had grown to be a vindictive phantom in her mind. She never wept but when she said this.
So Mrs. Berry, to whom Richard had once made mention of Lady Blandish as the only friend he had among women, bundled off in her black-satin dress to obtain an interview with her, and an ally. After coming to an understanding on the matter of the visit, and reiterating many of her views concerning young married people, Mrs. Berry said: “My lady, if I may speak so bold, I’d say the sin that’s bein’ done is the sin o’ the lookers-on. And when everybody appear frightened by that young gentleman’s father, I’ll say—hopin’ your pardon—they no cause be frighted at all. For though it’s nigh twenty year since I knew him, and I knew him then just sixteen months—no more—I’ll say his heart’s as soft as a woman’s, which I’ve cause for to know. And that’s it. That’s where everybody’s deceived by him, and I was. It’s because he keeps his face, and makes ye think you’re dealin’ with a man of iron, and all the while there’s a woman underneath. And a man that’s like a woman he’s the puzzle o’ life! We can see through ourselves, my lady, and we can see through men, but one o’ that sort—he’s like somethin’ out of nature. Then I say—hopin’ be excused—what’s to do is for to treat him like a woman, and not for to let him ‘ave his own way—which he don’t know himself, and is why nobody else do. Let that sweet young couple come together, and be wholesome in spite of him, I say; and then give him time to come round, just like a woman; and round he’ll come, and give ’em his blessin’, and we shall know we’ve made him comfortable. He’s angry because matrimony have come between him and his son, and he, woman-like, he’s wantin’ to treat what is as if it isn’t. But matrimony’s a holier than him. It began long long before him, and it’s be hoped will endoor long’s the time after, if the world’s not coming to rack—wishin’ him no harm.”
Now Mrs. Berry only put Lady Blandish’s thoughts in bad English. The lady took upon herself seriously to advise Richard to send for his wife. He wrote, bidding her come. Lucy, however, had wits, and inexperienced wits are as a little knowledge. In pursuance of her sage plan to make the family feel her worth, and to conquer the members of it one by one, she had got up a correspondence with Adrian, whom it tickled. Adrian constantly assured her all was going well: time would heal the wound if both the offenders had the fortitude to be patient: he fancied he saw signs of the baronet’s relenting: they must do nothing to arrest those favourable symptoms. Indeed the wise youth was languidly seeking to produce them. He wrote, and felt, as Lucy’s benefactor. So Lucy replied to her husband a cheerful rigmarole he could make nothing of, save that she was happy in hope, and still had fears. Then Mrs. Berry trained her fist to indite a letter to her bride. Her bride answered it by saying she trusted to time. “You poor marter,” Mrs. Berry wrote back, “I know what your sufferin’s be. They is the only kind a wife should never hide from her husband. He thinks all sorts of things if she can abide being away. And you trusting to time, why it’s like trusting not to catch cold out of your natural clothes.” There was no shaking Lucy’s firmness.
Richard gave it up. He began to think that the life lying behind him was the life of a fool. What had he done in it? He had burnt a rick and got married! He associated the two acts of his existence. Where was the hero he was to have carved out of Tom Bakewell!—a wretch he had taught to lie and chicane: and for what? Great heavens! how ignoble did a flash from the light of his aspirations make his marriage appear! The young man sought amusement. He allowed his aunt to drag him into society, and sick of that he made late evening calls on Mrs. Mount, oblivious of the purpose he had in visiting her at all. Her man-like conversation, which he took for honesty, was a refreshing change on fair lips.
“Call me Bella: I’ll call you Dick,” said she. And it came to be Bella and Dick between them. No mention of Bella occurred in Richard’s letters to Lucy.
Mrs. Mount spoke quite openly of herself. “I pretend to be no better than I am,” she said, “and I know I’m no worse than many a woman who holds her head high.” To back this she told him stories of blooming dames of good repute, and poured a little social sewerage into his ears.
Also she understood him. “What you want, my dear Dick, is something to do. You went and got married like a—hum!—friends must be respectful. Go into the Army. Try the turf. I can put you up to a trick or two—friends should make themselves useful.”
She told him what she liked in him. “You’re the only man I was ever alone with who don’t talk to me of love and make me feel sick. I hate men who can’t speak to a woman sensibly.—Just wait a minute.” She left him and presently returned with, “Ah, Dick! old fellow! how are you?”—arrayed like a cavalier, one arm stuck in her side, her hat jauntily cocked, and a pretty oath on her lips to give reality to the costume. “What do you think of me? Wasn’t it a shame to make a woman of me when I was born to be a man?”
“I don’t know that,” said Richard, for the contrast in her attire to those shooting eyes and lips, aired her sex bewitchingly.
“What! you think I don’t do it well?”
“Charming! but I can’t forget. . . . ”
“Now that is too bad!” she pouted.
Then she proposed that they should go out into the midnight streets arm-inarm, and out they went and had great fits of laughter at her impertinent manner of using her eye-glass, and outrageous affectation of the supreme dandy.
“They take up men, Dick, for going about in women’s clothes, and vice versaw, I suppose. You’ll bail me, old fellaa, if I have to make my bow to the beak, won’t you? Say it’s becas I’m an honest woman and don’t care to hide the—a—unmentionables when I wear them—as the t’others do,” sprinkled with the dandy’s famous invocations.
He began to conceive romance in that sort of fun.
“You’re a wopper, my brave Dick! won’t let any peeler take me? by Jove!”
And he with many assurances guaranteed to stand by her, while she bent her thin fingers trying the muscle of his arm, and reposed upon it more. There was delicacy in her dandyism. She was a graceful cavalier.
“Sir Julius,” as they named the dandy’s attire, was frequently called for on his evening visits to Mrs. Mount. When he beheld Sir Julius he thought of the lady, and “vice versaw,” as Sir Julius was fond of exclaiming.
Was ever hero in this fashion wooed?
The woman now and then would peep through Sir Julius. Or she would sit, and talk, and altogether forget she was impersonating that worthy fop.
She never uttered an idea or a reflection, but Richard thought her the cleverest woman he had ever met.
All kinds of problematic notions beset him. She was cold as ice, she hated talk about love, and she was branded by the world.
A rumour spread that reached Mrs. Doria’s ears. She rushed to Adrian first. The wise youth believed there was nothing in it. She sailed down upon Richard. “Is this true? that you have been seen going publicly about with an infamous woman, Richard? Tell me! pray, relieve me!”
Richard knew of no person answering to his aunt’s description in whose company he could have been seen.
“Tell me, I say! Don’t quibble. Do you know any woman of bad character?”
The acquaintance of a lady very much misjudged and ill-used by the world, Richard admitted to.
Urgent grave advice Mrs. Doria tendered her nephew, both from the moral and the worldly point of view, mentally ejaculating all the while: “That ridiculous System! That disgraceful marriage!” Sir Austin in his mountain solitude was furnished with serious stuff to brood over.
The rumour came to Lady Blandish. She likewise lectured Richard, and with her he condescended to argue. But he found himself obliged to instance something he had quite neglected. “Instead of her doing me harm, it’s I that will do her good.”
Lady Blandish shook her head and held up her finger. “This person must be very clever to have given you that delusion, dear.”
“She is clever. And the world treats her shamefully.”
“She complains of her position to you?”
“Not a word. But I will stand by her. She has no friend but me.”
“My poor boy! has she made you think that?”
“How unjust you all are!” cried Richard.
“How mad and wicked is the man who can let him be tempted so!” thought Lady Blandish.
He would pronounce no promise not to visit her, not to address her publicly. The world that condemned her and cast her out was no better—worse for its miserable hypocrisy. He knew the world now, the young man said.
“My child! the world may be very bad. I am not going to defend it. But you have some one else to think of. Have you forgotten you have a wife, Richard?”
“Ay! you all speak of her now. There’s my aunt: ‘Remember you have a wife!’ Do you think I love any one but Lucy? poor little thing! Because I am married am I to give up the society of women?”
“Isn’t she a woman?”
“Too much so!” sighed the defender of her sex.
Adrian became more emphatic in his warnings. Richard laughed at him. The wise youth sneered at Mrs. Mount. The hero then favoured him with a warning equal to his own in emphasis, and surpassing it in sincerity.
“We won’t quarrel, my dear boy,” said Adrian. “I’m a man of peace. Besides, we are not fairly proportioned for a combat. Ride your steed to virtue’s goal! All I say is, that I think he’ll upset you, and it’s better to go a slow pace and in companionship with the children of the sun. You have a very nice little woman for a wife—well, good-bye!”
To have his wife and the world thrown at his face, was unendurable to Richard; he associated them somewhat after the manner of the rick and the marriage. Charming Sir Julius, always gay, always honest, dispersed his black moods.
“Why, you’re taller,” Richard made the discovery.
“Of course I am. Don’t you remember you said I was such a little thing when I came out of my woman’s shell?”
“And how have you done it?”
“Grown to please you.”
“Now, if you can do that, you can do anything.”
“And so I would do anything.”
“Then” . . . his project recurred to him. But the incongruity of speaking seriously to Sir Julius struck him dumb.
“Then what?” asked she.
“Then you’re a gallant fellow.”
“Isn’t it enough?”
“Not quite. You were going to say something. I saw it in your eyes.”
“You saw that I admired you.”
“Yes, but a man mustn’t admire a man.”
“I suppose I had an idea you were a woman.”
“What! when I had the heels of my boots raised half an inch,” Sir Julius turned one heel, and volleyed out silver laughter.
“I don’t come much above your shoulder even now,” she said, and proceeded to measure her height beside him with arch up-glances.
“You must grow more.”
“‘Fraid I can’t, Dick! Bootmakers can’t do it.”
“I’ll show you how,” and he lifted Sir Julius lightly, and bore the fair gentleman to the looking-glass, holding him there exactly on a level with his head. “Will that do?”
“Yes! Oh, but I can’t stay here.”
“Why can’t you?”
“Why can’t I?”
He should have known then—it was thundered at a closed door in him, that he played with fire. But the door being closed, he thought himself internally secure.
Their eyes met. He put her down instantly.
Sir Julius, charming as he was, lost his vogue. Seeing that, the wily woman resumed her shell. The memory of Sir Julius breathing about her still, doubled the feminine attraction.
“I ought to have been an actress,” she said.
Richard told her he found all natural women had a similar wish.
“Yes! Ah! then! if I had been!” sighed Mrs. Mount, gazing on the pattern of the carpet.
He took her hand, and pressed it.
“You are not happy as you are?”
“May I speak to you?”
Her nearest eye, setting a dimple of her cheek in motion, slid to the corner toward her ear, as she sat with her head sideways to him, listening. When he had gone, she said to herself: “Old hypocrites talk in that way; but I never heard of a young man doing it, and not making love at the same time.”
Their next meeting displayed her quieter: subdued as one who had been set thinking. He lauded her fair looks. “Don’t make me thrice ashamed,” she petitioned.
But it was not only that mood with her. Dauntless defiance, that splendidly befitted her gallant outline and gave a wildness to her bright bold eyes, when she would call out: “Happy? who dares say I’m not happy? D’you think if the world whips me I’ll wince? D’you think I care for what they say or do? Let them kill me! they shall never get one cry out of me!” and flashing on the young man as if he were the congregated enemy, add: “There! now you know me!”—that was a mood that well became her, and helped the work. She ought to have been an actress.
“This must not go on,” said Lady Blandish and Mrs. Doria in unison. A common object brought them together. They confined their talk to it, and did not disagree. Mrs. Doria engaged to go down to the baronet. Both ladies knew it was a dangerous, likely to turn out a disastrous, expedition. They agreed to it because it was something to do, and doing anything is better than doing nothing. “Do it,” said the wise youth, when they made him a third, “do it, if you want him to be a hermit for life. You will bring back nothing but his dead body, ladies—a Hellenic, rather than a Roman, triumph. He will listen to you—he will accompany you to the station—he will hand you into the carriage—and when you point to his seat he will bow profoundly, and retire into his congenial mists.”
Adrian spoke their thoughts. They fretted; they relapsed.
“Speak to him, you, Adrian,” said Mrs. Doria. “Speak to the boy solemnly. It would be almost better he should go back to that little thing he has married.”
“Almost?” Lady Blandish opened her eyes. “I have been advising it for the last month and more.”
“A choice of evils,” said Mrs. Doria’s sour-sweet face and shake of the head.
Each lady saw a point of dissension, and mutually agreed, with heroic effort, to avoid it by shutting their mouths. What was more, they preserved the peace in spite of Adrian’s artifices.
“Well, I’ll talk to him again,” he said. “I’ll try to get the Engine on the conventional line.”
“Command him!” exclaimed Mrs. Doria.
“Gentle means are, I think, the only means with Richard,” said Lady Blandish.
Throwing banter aside, as much as he could, Adrian spoke to Richard. “You want to reform this woman. Her manner is open—fair and free—the traditional characteristic. We won’t stop to canvass how that particular honesty of deportment that wins your approbation has been gained. In her college it is not uncommon. Girls, you know, are not like boys. At a certain age they can’t be quite natural. It’s a bad sign if they don’t blush, and fib, and affect this and that. It wears off when they’re women. But a woman who speaks like a man, and has all those excellent virtues you admire—where has she learned the trick? She tells you. You don’t surely approve of the school? Well, what is there in it, then? Reform her, of course. The task is worthy of your energies. But, if you are appointed to do it, don’t do it publicly, and don’t attempt it just now. May I ask you whether your wife participates in this undertaking?”
Richard walked away from the interrogation. The wise youth, who hated long unrelieved speeches and had healed his conscience, said no more.
Dear tender Lucy! Poor darling! Richard’s eyes moistened. Her letters seemed sadder latterly. Yet she never called to him to come, or he would have gone. His heart leapt up to her. He announced to Adrian that he should wait no longer for his father. Adrian placidly nodded.
The enchantress observed that her knight had a clouded brow and an absent voice.
“Richard—I can’t call you Dick now, I really don’t know why”—she said, “I want to beg a favour of you.”
“Name it. I can still call you Bella, I suppose?”
“If you care to. What I want to say is this: when you meet me out—to cut it short—please not to recognize me.”
“Do you ask to be told that?”
“Certainly I do.”
“Then look: I won’t compromise you.”
“I see no harm, Bella.”
“No,” she caressed his hand, “and there is none. I know that. But,” modest eyelids were drooped, “other people do,” struggling eyes were raised.
“What do we care for other people?”
“Nothing. I don’t. Not that!” snapping her finger, “I care for you, though.” A prolonged look followed the declaration.
“You’re foolish, Bella.”
“Not quite so giddy—that’s all.”
He did not combat it with his usual impetuosity. Adrian’s abrupt inquiry had sunk in his mind, as the wise youth intended it should. He had instinctively refrained from speaking to Lucy of this lady. But what a noble creature the woman was!
So they met in the park; Mrs. Mount whipped past him; and secrecy added a new sense to their intimacy.
Adrian was gratified at the result produced by his eloquence.
Though this lady never expressed an idea, Richard was not mistaken in her cleverness. She could make evenings pass gaily, and one was not the fellow to the other. She could make you forget she was a woman, and then bring the fact startlingly home to you. She could read men with one quiver of her half-closed eye-lashes. She could catch the coming mood in a man, and fit herself to it. What does a woman want with ideas, who can do thus much? Keenness of perception, conformity, delicacy of handling, these be all the qualities necessary to parasites.
Love would have scared the youth: she banished it from her tongue. It may also have been true that it sickened her. She played on his higher nature. She understood spontaneously what would be most strange and taking to him in a woman. Various as the Serpent of old Nile, she acted fallen beauty, humorous indifference, reckless daring, arrogance in ruin. And acting thus, what think you?—She did it so well because she was growing half in earnest.
“Richard! I am not what I was since I knew you. You will not give me up quite?”
“I am not so bad as I’m painted!”
“You are only unfortunate.”
“Now that I know you I think so, and yet I am happier.”
She told him her history when this soft horizon of repentance seemed to throw heaven’s twilight across it. A woman’s history, you know: certain chapters expunged. It was dark enough to Richard.
“Did you love the man?” he asked. “You say you love no one now.”
“Did I love him? He was a nobleman and I a tradesman’s daughter. No. I did not love him. I have lived to learn it. And now I should hate him, if I did not despise him.”
“Can you be deceived in love?” said Richard, more to himself than to her.
“Yes. When we’re young we can be very easily deceived. If there is such a thing as love, we discover it after we have tossed about and roughed it. Then we find the man, or the woman, that suits us:—and then it’s too late! we can’t have him.”
“Singular!” murmured Richard, “she says just what my father said.”
He spoke aloud: “I could forgive you if you had loved him.”
“Don’t be harsh, grave judge! How is a girl to distinguish?”
“You had some affection for him? He was the first?”
She chose to admit that. “Yes. And the first who talks of love to a girl must be a fool if he doesn’t blind her.”
“That makes what is called first love nonsense.”
He repelled the insinuation. “Because I know it is not, Bella.”
Nevertheless she had opened a wider view of the world to him, and a colder. He thought poorly of girls. A woman—a sensible, brave, beautiful woman seemed, on comparison, infinitely nobler than those weak creatures.
She was best in her character of lovely rebel accusing foul injustice. “What am I to do? You tell me to be different. How can I? What am I to do? Will virtuous people let me earn my bread? I could not get a housemaid’s place! They wouldn’t have me—I see their noses smelling! Yes: I can go to the hospital and sing behind a screen! Do you expect me to bury myself alive? Why, man, I have blood: I can’t become a stone. You say I am honest, and I will be. Then let me tell you that I have been used to luxuries, and I can’t do without them. I might have married men—lots would have had me. But who marries one like me but a fool? and I could not marry a fool. The man I marry I must respect. He could not respect me—I should know him to be a fool, and I should be worse off than I am now. As I am now, they may look as pious as they like—I laugh at them!”
And so forth: direr things. Imputations upon wives: horrible exultation at the universal peccancy of husbands. This lovely outcast almost made him think she had the right on her side, so keenly her Parthian arrows pierced the holy centres of society, and exposed its rottenness.
Mrs. Mount’s house was discreetly conducted: nothing ever occurred to shock him there. The young man would ask himself where the difference was between her and the women of society? How base, too, was the army of banded hypocrites! He was ready to declare war against them on her behalf. His casus belli, accurately worded, would have read curiously. Because the world refused to lure the lady to virtue with the offer of a housemaid’s place, our knight threw down his challenge. But the lady had scornfully rebutted this prospect of a return to chastity. Then the form of the challenge must be: Because the world declined to support the lady in luxury for nothing! But what did that mean? In other words: she was to receive the devil’s wages without rendering him her services. Such an arrangement appears hardly fair on the world or on the devil. Heroes will have to conquer both before they will get them to subscribe to it.
Heroes, however, are not in the habit of wording their declarations of war at all. Lance in rest they challenge and they charge. Like women they trust to instinct, and graft on it the muscle of men. Wide fly the leisurely-remonstrating hosts: institutions are scattered, they know not wherefore, heads are broken that have not the balm of a reason why. ’Tis instinct strikes! Surely there is something divine in instinct.
Still, war declared, where were these hosts? The hero could not charge down on the ladies and gentlemen in a ballroom, and spoil the quadrille. He had sufficient reticence to avoid sounding his challenge in the Law Courts; nor could he well go into the Houses of Parliament with a trumpet, though to come to a tussle with the nation’s direct representatives did seem the likelier method. It was likewise out of the question that he should enter every house and shop, and battle with its master in the cause of Mrs. Mount. Where, then, was his enemy? Everybody was his enemy, and everybody was nowhere. Shall he convoke multitudes on Wimbledon Common? Blue Policemen, and a distant dread of ridicule, bar all his projects. Alas for the hero in our day!
Nothing teaches a strong arm its impotence so much as knocking at empty air.
“What can I do for this poor woman?” cried Richard, after fighting his phantom enemy till he was worn out.
“O Rip! old Rip!” he addressed his friend, “I’m distracted. I wish I was dead! What good am I for? Miserable! selfish! What have I done but make every soul I know wretched about me? I follow my own inclinations—I make people help me by lying as hard as they can—and I’m a liar. And when I’ve got it I’m ashamed of myself. And now when I do see something unselfish for me to do, I come upon grins—I don’t know where to turn—how to act—and I laugh at myself like a devil!”
It was only friend Ripton’s ear that was required, so his words went for little: but Ripton did say he thought there was small matter to be ashamed of in winning and wearing the Beauty of Earth. Richard added his customary comment of “Poor little thing!”
He fought his duello with empty air till he was exhausted. A last letter written to his father procured him no reply. Then, said he, I have tried my utmost. I have tried to be dutiful—my father won’t listen to me. One thing I can do—I can go down to my dear girl, and make her happy, and save her at least from some of the consequences of my rashness.
“There’s nothing better for me!” he groaned. His great ambition must be covered by a house-top: he and the cat must warm themselves on the domestic hearth! The hero was not aware that his heart moved him to this. His heart was not now in open communion with his mind.
Mrs. Mount heard that her friend was going—would go. She knew he was going to his wife. Far from discouraging him, she said nobly: “Go—I believe I have kept you. Let us have an evening together, and then go: for good, if you like. If not, then to meet again another time. Forget me. I shan’t forget you. You’re the best fellow I ever knew, Richard. You are, on my honour! I swear I would not step in between you and your wife to cause either of you a moment’s unhappiness. When I can be another woman I will, and I shall think of you then.”
Lady Blandish heard from Adrian that Richard was positively going to his wife. The wise youth modestly veiled his own merit in bringing it about by saying: “I couldn’t see that poor little woman left alone down there any longer.”
“Well! Yes!” said Mrs. Doria, to whom the modest speech was repeated, “I suppose, poor boy, it’s the best he can do now.”
Richard bade them adieu, and went to spend his last evening with Mrs. Mount.
The enchantress received him in state.
“Do you know this dress? No? It’s the dress I wore when I first met you—not when I first saw you. I think I remarked you, sir, before you deigned to cast an eye upon humble me. When we first met we drank champagne together, and I intend to celebrate our parting in the same liquor. Will you liquor with me, old boy?”
She was gay. She revived Sir Julius occasionally. He, dispirited, left the talking all to her.
Mrs. Mount kept a footman. At a late hour the man of calves dressed the table for supper. It was a point of honour for Richard to sit down to it and try to eat. Drinking, thanks to the kindly mother nature, who loves to see her children made fools of, is always an easier matter. The footman was diligent; the champagne corks feebly recalled the file-firing at Richmond.
“We’ll drink to what we might have been, Dick,” said the enchantress.
Oh, the glorious wreck she looked.
His heart choked as he gulped the buzzing wine.
“What! down, my boy?” she cried. “They shall never see me hoist signals of distress. We must all die, and the secret of the thing is to die game, by Jove! Did you ever hear of Laura Fenn? a superb girl! handsomer than your humble servant—if you’ll believe it—a ‘Miss’ in the bargain, and as a consequence, I suppose, a much greater rake. She was in the hunting-field. Her horse threw her, and she fell plump on a stake. It went into her left breast. All the fellows crowded round her, and one young man, who was in love with her—he sits in the House of Peers now—we used to call him ‘Duck’ because he was such a dear—he dropped from his horse to his knees: ‘Laura! Laura! my darling! speak a word to me!—the last!’ She turned over all white and bloody! ‘I—I shan’t be in at the death!’ and gave up the ghost! Wasn’t that dying game? Here’s to the example of Laura Fenn! Why, what’s the matter? See! it makes a man turn pale to hear how a woman can die. Fill the glasses, John. Why, you’re as bad!”
“It’s give me a turn, my lady,” pleaded John, and the man’s hand was unsteady as he poured out the wine.
“You ought not to listen. Go, and drink some brandy.”
John footman went from the room.
“My brave Dick! Richard! what a face you’ve got!”
He showed a deep frown on a colourless face.
“Can’t you bear to hear of blood? You know, it was only one naughty woman out of the world. The clergyman of the parish didn’t refuse to give her decent burial. We are Christians! Hurrah!”
She cheered, and laughed. A lurid splendour glanced about her like lights from the pit.
“Pledge me, Dick! Drink, and recover yourself. Who minds? We must all die—the good and the bad. Ashes to ashes—dust to dust—and wine for living lips! That’s poetry—almost. Sentiment: ‘May we never say die till we’ve drunk our fill!’ Not bad—eh? A little vulgar, perhaps, by Jove! Do you think me horrid?”
“Where’s the wine?” Richard shouted. He drank a couple of glasses in succession, and stared about. Was he in hell, with a lost soul raving to him?
“Nobly spoken! and nobly acted upon, my brave Dick! Now we’ll be companions. ‘She wished that heaven had made her such a man.’ Ah, Dick! Dick! too late! too late!”
Softly fell her voice. Her eyes threw slanting beams.
“Do you see this?”
She pointed to a symbolic golden anchor studded with gems and coiled with a rope of hair in her bosom. It was a gift of his.
“Do you know when I stole the lock? Foolish Dick! you gave me an anchor without a rope. Come and see.”
She rose from the table, and threw herself on the sofa.
“Don’t you recognize your own hair! I should know a thread of mine among a million.”
Something of the strength of Samson went out of him as he inspected his hair on the bosom of Delilah.
“And you knew nothing of it! You hardly know it now you see it! What couldn’t a woman steal from you? But you’re not vain, and that’s a protection. You’re a miracle, Dick: a man that’s not vain! Sit here.” She curled up her feet to give him place on the sofa. “Now let us talk like friends that part to meet no more. You found a ship with fever on board, and you weren’t afraid to come alongside and keep her company. The fever isn’t catching, you see. Let us mingle our tears together. Ha! ha! a man said that once to me. The hypocrite wanted to catch the fever, but he was too old. How old are you, Dick?”
Richard pushed a few months forward.
“Twenty-one? You just look it, you blooming boy. Now tell me my age, Adonis!—Twenty—what?”
Richard had given the lady twenty-five years.
She laughed violently. “You don’t pay compliments, Dick. Best to be honest; guess again. You don’t like to? Not twenty-five, or twenty-four, or twenty-three, or—see how he begins to start!—twenty-two. Just twenty-one, my dear. I think, my birthday’s somewhere in next month. Why, look at me, close—closer. Have I a wrinkle?”
“And when, in heaven’s name!” . . . he stopped short.
“I understand you. When did I commence for to live? At the ripe age of sixteen I saw a nobleman in despair because of my beauty. He vowed he’d die. I didn’t want him to do that. So to save the poor man for his family, I ran away with him, and I dare say they didn’t appreciate the sacrifice, and he soon forgot to, if he ever did. It’s the way of the world!”
Richard seized some dead champagne, emptied the bottle into a tumbler, and drank it off.
John footman entered to clear the table, and they were left without further interruption.
“Bella! Bella!” Richard uttered in a deep sad voice, as he walked the room.
She leaned on her arm, her hair crushed against a reddened cheek, her eyes half-shut and dreamy.
“Bella!” he dropped beside her. “You are unhappy.”
She blinked and yawned, as one who is awakened suddenly. “I think you spoke,” said she.
“You are unhappy, Bella. You can’t conceal it. Your laugh sounds like madness. You must be unhappy. So young, too! Only twenty-one!”
“What does it matter? Who cares for me?”
The mighty pity falling from his eyes took in her whole shape. She did not mistake it for tenderness, as another would have done.
“Who cares for you, Bella? I do. What makes my misery now, but to see you there, and know of no way of helping you? Father of mercy! it seems too much to have to stand by powerless while such ruin is going on!”
Her hand was shaken in his by the passion of torment with which his frame quaked.
Involuntarily a tear started between her eyelids. She glanced up at him quickly, then looked down, drew her hand from his, and smoothed it, eying it.
“Bella! you have a father alive!”
“A linen draper, dear. He wears a white neck-cloth.”
This article of apparel instantaneously changed the tone of the conversation, for he, rising abruptly, nearly squashed the lady’s lap-dog, whose squeaks and howls were piteous, and demanded the most fervent caresses of its mistress. It was: “Oh, my poor pet Mumpsy, and he didn’t like a nasty great big ugly heavy foot on his poor soft silky—mum—mum—back, he didn’t, and he soodn’t that he—mum—mum—soodn’t; and he cried out and knew the place to come to, and was oh so sorry for what had happened to him—mum—mum—mum—and now he was going to be made happy, his mistress make him happy—mum—mum—mum—moo-o-o-o.”
“Yes!” said Richard, savagely, from the other end of the room, “you care for the happiness of your dog.”
“A course se does,” Mumpsy was simperingly assured in the thick of his silky flanks.
Richard looked for his hat. Mumpsy was deposited on the sofa in a twinkling.
“Now,” said the lady, “you must come and beg Mumpsy’s pardon, whether you meant to do it or no, because little doggies can’t tell that—how should they? And there’s poor Mumpsy thinking you’re a great terrible rival that tries to squash him all flat to nothing, on purpose, pretending you didn’t see; and he’s trembling, poor dear wee pet! And I may love my dog, sir, if I like; and I do; and I won’t have him ill-treated, for he’s never been jealous of you, and he is a darling, ten times truer than men, and I love him fifty times better. So come to him with me.”
First a smile changed Richard’s face; then laughing a melancholy laugh, he surrendered to her humour, and went through the form of begging Mumpsy’s pardon.
“The dear dog! I do believe he saw we were getting dull,” said she.
“And immolated himself intentionally? Noble animal!”
“Well, we’ll act as if we thought so. Let us be gay, Richard, and not part like ancient fogies. Where’s your fun? You can rattle; why don’t you? You haven’t seen me in one of my characters—not Sir Julius: wait a couple of minutes.” She ran out.
A white visage reappeared behind a spring of flame. Her black hair was scattered over her shoulders and fell half across her brows. She moved slowly, and came up to him, fastening weird eyes on him, pointing a finger at the region of witches. Sepulchral cadences accompanied the representation. He did not listen, for he was thinking what a deadly charming and exquisitely horrid witch she was. Something in the way her underlids worked seemed to remind him of a forgotten picture; but a veil hung on the picture. There could be no analogy, for this was beautiful and devilish, and that, if he remembered rightly, had the beauty of seraphs.
His reflections and her performance were stayed by a shriek. The spirits of wine had run over the plate she held to the floor. She had the coolness to put the plate down on the table, while he stamped out the flame on the carpet. Again she shrieked: she thought she was on fire. He fell on his knees and clasped her skirts all round, drawing his arms down them several times.
Still kneeling, he looked up, and asked, “Do you feel safe now?”
She bent her face glaring down till the ends of her hair touched his cheek.
Said she, “Do you?”
Was she a witch verily? There was sorcery in her breath; sorcery in her hair: the ends of it stung him like little snakes.
“How do I do it, Dick?” she flung back, laughing.
“Like you do everything, Bella,” he said, and took a breath.
“There! I won’t be a witch; I won’t be a witch: they may burn me to a cinder, but I won’t be a witch!”
She sang, throwing her hair about, and stamping her feet.
“I suppose I look a figure. I must go and tidy myself.”
“No, don’t change. I like to see you so.” He gazed at her with a mixture of wonder and admiration. “I can’t think you the same person—not even when you laugh.”
“Richard,” her tone was serious, “you were going to speak to me of my parents.”
“How wild and awful you looked, Bella!”
“My father, Richard, was a very respectable man.”
“Bella, you’ll haunt me like a ghost.”
“My mother died in my infancy, Richard.”
“Don’t put up your hair, Bella.”
“I was an only child!”
Her head shook sorrowfully at the glistening fire-irons. He followed the abstracted intentness of her look, and came upon her words.
“Ah, yes! speak of your father, Bella. Speak of him.”
“Shall I haunt you, and come to your bedside, and cry, ”Tis time’?”
“Dear Bella! if you will tell me where he lives, I will go to him. He shall receive you. He shall not refuse—he shall forgive you.”
“If I haunt you, you can’t forget me, Richard.”
“Let me go to your father, Bella—let me go to him tomorrow. I’ll give you my time. It’s all I can give. O Bella! let me save you.”
“So you like me best dishevelled, do you, you naughty boy! Ha! ha!” and away she burst from him, and up flew her hair, as she danced across the room, and fell at full length on the sofa.
He felt giddy: bewitched.
“We’ll talk of everyday things, Dick,” she called to him from the sofa. “It’s our last evening. Our last? Heigho! It makes me sentimental. How’s that Mr. Ripson, Pipson, Nipson?—it’s not complimentary, but I can’t remember names of that sort. Why do you have friends of that sort? He’s not a gentleman. Better is he? Well, he’s rather too insignificant for me. Why do you sit off there? Come to me instantly. There—I’ll sit up, and be proper, and you’ll have plenty of room. Talk, Dick!”
He was reflecting on the fact that her eyes were brown. They had a haughty sparkle when she pleased, and when she pleased a soft languor circled them. Excitement had dyed her cheeks deep red. He was a youth, and she an enchantress. He a hero; she a female will-o’-the-wisp.
The eyes were languid now, set in rosy colour.
“You will not leave me yet, Richard? not yet?”
He had no thought of departing.
“It’s our last night—I suppose it’s our last hour together in this world—and I don’t want to meet you in the next, for poor Dick will have to come to such a very, very disagreeable place to make the visit.”
He grasped her hand at this.
“Yes, he will! too true! can’t be helped: they say I’m handsome.”
“You’re lovely, Bella.”
She drank in his homage.
“Well, we’ll admit it. His Highness below likes lovely women, I hear say. A gentleman of taste! You don’t know all my accomplishments yet, Richard.”
“I shan’t be astonished at anything new, Bella.”
“Then hear, and wonder.” Her voice trolled out some lively roulades. “Don’t you think he’ll make me his prima donna below? It’s nonsense to tell me there’s no singing there. And the atmosphere will be favourable to the voice. No damp, you know. You saw the piano—why didn’t you ask me to sing before? I can sing Italian. I had a master—who made love to me. I forgave him because of the music-stool—men can’t help it on a music-stool, poor dears!”
She went to the piano, struck the notes, and sang —
“‘My heart, my heart—I think ’twill break.’
“Because I’m such a rake. I don’t know any other reason. No; I hate sentimental songs. Won’t sing that. Ta-tiddy-tiddy-iddy—a . . . e! How ridiculous those women were, coming home from Richmond!
‘Once the sweet romance of story
Clad thy moving form with grace;
Once the world and all its glory
Was but framework to thy face.
Ah, too fair!—what I remember,
Might my soul recall—but no!
To the winds this wretched ember
Of a fire that falls so low!’
“Hum! don’t much like that. Tum-te-tum-tum—accanto al fuoco—heigho! I don’t want to show off, Dick—or to break down—so I won’t try that.
‘Oh! but for thee, oh! but for thee,
I might have been a happy wife,
And nursed a baby on my knee,
And never blushed to give it life.’
“I used to sing that when I was a girl, sweet Richard, and didn’t know at all, at all, what it meant. Mustn’t sing that sort of song in company. We’re oh! so proper—even we!
‘If I had a husband, what think you I’d do?
I’d make it my business to keep him a lover;
For when a young gentleman ceases to woo,
Some other amusement he’ll quickly discover.’
“For such are young gentlemen made of—made of: such are young gentlemen made of!”
After this trifling she sang a Spanish ballad sweetly. He was in the mood when imagination intensely vivifies everything. Mere suggestion of music sufficed. The lady in the ballad had been wronged. Lo! it was the lady before him; and soft horns blew; he smelt the languid night-flowers; he saw the stars crowd large and close above the arid plain: this lady leaning at her window desolate, pouring out her abandoned heart.
Heroes know little what they owe to champagne.
The lady wandered to Venice. Thither he followed her at a leap. In Venice she was not happy. He was prepared for the misery of any woman anywhere. But, oh! to be with her! To glide with phantom-motion through throbbing street; past houses muffled in shadow and gloomy legends; under storied bridges; past palaces charged with full life in dead quietness; past grand old towers, colossal squares, gleaming quays, and out, and on with her, on into the silver infinity shaking over seas!
Was it the champagne? the music? or the poetry? Something of the two former, perhaps: but most the enchantress playing upon him. How many instruments cannot clever women play upon at the same moment! And this enchantress was not too clever, or he might have felt her touch. She was no longer absolutely bent on winning him, or he might have seen a manoeuvre. She liked him—liked none better. She wished him well. Her pique was satisfied. Still he was handsome, and he was going. What she liked him for, she rather—very slightly—wished to do away with, or see if it could be done away with: just as one wishes to catch a pretty butterfly, without hurting its patterned wings. No harm intended to the innocent insect, only one wants to inspect it thoroughly, and enjoy the marvel of it, in one’s tender possession, and have the felicity of thinking one could crush it, if one would.
He knew her what she was, this lady. In Seville, or in Venice, the spot was on her. Sailing the pathways of the moon it was not celestial light that illumined her beauty. Her sin was there: but in dreaming to save, he was soft to her sin—drowned it in deep mournfulness.
Silence, and the rustle of her dress, awoke him from his musing. She swam wave-like to the sofa. She was at his feet.
“I have been light and careless to-night, Richard. Of course I meant it. I must be happy with my best friend going to leave me.”
Those witch underlids were working brightly.
“You will not forget me? and I shall try . . . try. . . . ”
Her lips twitched. She thought him such a very handsome fellow.
“If I change—if I can change. . . . Oh! if you could know what a net I’m in, Richard!”
Now at those words, as he looked down on her haggard loveliness, not divine sorrow but a devouring jealousy sprang like fire to his breast, and set him rocking with horrid pain. He bent closer to her pale beseeching face. Her eyes still drew him down.
“Bella! No! no! promise me! swear it!”
“Lost, Richard! lost for ever! give me up!”
He cried: “I never will!” and strained her in his arms, and kissed her passionately on the lips.
She was not acting now as she sidled and slunk her half-averted head with a kind of maiden shame under his arm, sighing heavily, weeping, clinging to him. It was wicked truth.
Not a word of love between them!
Was ever hero in this fashion won?
Last updated Tuesday, January 12, 2016 at 15:11