On a certain day of lashing rain in the December of last year, and between the hours of nine and ten in the morning, Mr. Edward Challoner pioneered himself under an umbrella to the door of the Cigar Divan in Rupert Street. It was a place he had visited but once before: the memory of what had followed on that visit and the fear of Somerset having prevented his return. Even now, he looked in before he entered; but the shop was free of customers.
The young man behind the counter was so intently writing in a penny version-book, that he paid no heed to Challoner’s arrival. On a second glance, it seemed to the latter that he recognised him.
‘By Jove,’ he thought, ‘unquestionably Somerset!’
And though this was the very man he had been so sedulously careful to avoid, his unexplained position at the receipt of custom changed distaste to curiosity.
‘“Or opulent rotunda strike the sky,”’ said the shopman to himself, in the tone of one considering a verse. ‘I suppose it would be too much to say “orotunda,” and yet how noble it were! “Or opulent orotunda strike the sky.” But that is the bitterness of arts; you see a good effect, and some nonsense about sense continually intervenes.’
‘Somerset, my dear fellow,’ said Challoner, ‘is this a masquerade?’
‘What? Challoner!’ cried the shopman. ‘I am delighted to see you. One moment, till I finish the octave of my sonnet: only the octave.’ And with a friendly waggle of the hand, he once more buried himself in the commerce of the Muses. ‘I say,’ he said presently, looking up, ‘you seem in wonderful preservation: how about the hundred pounds?’
‘I have made a small inheritance from a great aunt in Wales,’ replied Challoner modestly.
‘Ah,’ said Somerset, ‘I very much doubt the legitimacy of inheritance. The State, in my view, should collar it. I am now going through a stage of socialism and poetry,’ he added apologetically, as one who spoke of a course of medicinal waters.
‘And are you really the person of the — establishment?’ inquired Challoner, deftly evading the word ‘shop.’
‘A vendor, sir, a vendor,’ returned the other, pocketing his poesy. ‘I help old Happy and Glorious. Can I offer you a weed?’
‘Well, I scarcely like . . . ‘ began Challoner.
‘Nonsense, my dear fellow,’ cried the shopman. ‘We are very proud of the business; and the old man, let me inform you, besides being the most egregious of created beings from the point of view of ethics, is literally sprung from the loins of kings. “De Godall je suis le fervent.” There is only one Godall. — By the way,’ he added, as Challoner lit his cigar, ‘how did you get on with the detective trade?’
‘I did not try,’ said Challoner curtly.
‘Ah, well, I did,’ returned Somerset, ‘and made the most incomparable mess of it: lost all my money and fairly covered myself with odium and ridicule. There is more in that business, Challoner, than meets the eye; there is more, in fact, in all businesses. You must believe in them, or get up the belief that you believe. Hence,’ he added, ‘the recognised inferiority of the plumber, for no one could believe in plumbing.’
‘A propos,’ asked Challoner, ‘do you still paint?’
‘Not now,’ replied Paul; ‘but I think of taking up the violin.’
Challoner’s eye, which had been somewhat restless since the trade of the detective had been named, now rested for a moment on the columns of the morning paper, where it lay spread upon the counter.
‘By Jove,’ he cried, ‘that’s odd!’
‘What is odd?’ asked Paul.
‘Oh, nothing,’ returned the other: ‘only I once met a person called M’Guire.’
‘So did I!’ cried Somerset. ‘Is there anything about him?’
Challoner read as follows: ‘MYSTERIOUS DEATH IN STEPNEY. An inquest was held yesterday on the body of Patrick M’Guire, described as a carpenter. Doctor Dovering stated that he had for some time treated the deceased as a dispensary patient, for sleeplessness, loss of appetite, and nervous depression. There was no cause of death to be found. He would say the deceased had sunk. Deceased was not a temperate man, which doubtless accelerated death. Deceased complained of dumb ague, but witness had never been able to detect any positive disease. He did not know that he had any family. He regarded him as a person of unsound intellect, who believed himself a member and the victim of some secret society. If he were to hazard an opinion, he would say deceased had died of fear.’
‘And the doctor would be right,’ cried Somerset; ‘and my dear Challoner, I am so relieved to hear of his demise, that I will — Well, after all,’ he added, ‘poor devil, he was well served.’
The door at this moment opened, and Desborough appeared upon the threshold. He was wrapped in a long waterproof, imperfectly supplied with buttons; his boots were full of water, his hat greasy with service; and yet he wore the air of one exceeding well content with life. He was hailed by the two others with exclamations of surprise and welcome.
‘And did you try the detective business?’ inquired Paul.
‘No,’ returned Harry. ‘Oh yes, by the way, I did though: twice, and got caught out both times. But I thought I should find my — my wife here?’ he added, with a kind of proud confusion.
‘What? are you married?’ cried Somerset.
‘Oh yes,’ said Harry, ‘quite a long time: a month at least.’
‘Money?’ asked Challoner.
‘That’s the worst of it,’ Desborough admitted. ‘We are deadly hard up. But the Pri —- Mr. Godall is going to do something for us. That is what brings us here.’
‘Who was Mrs. Desborough?’ said Challoner, in the tone of a man of society.
‘She was a Miss Luxmore,’ returned Harry. ‘You fellows will be sure to like her, for she is much cleverer than I. She tells wonderful stories, too; better than a book.’
And just then the door opened, and Mrs. Desborough entered. Somerset cried out aloud to recognise the young lady of the Superfluous Mansion, and Challoner fell back a step and dropped his cigar as he beheld the sorceress of Chelsea.
‘What!’ cried Harry, ‘do you both know my wife?’
‘I believe I have seen her,’ said Somerset, a little wildly.
‘I think I have met the gentleman,’ said Mrs. Desborough sweetly; ‘but I cannot imagine where it was.’
‘Oh no,’ cried Somerset fervently: ‘I have no notion — I cannot conceive — where it could have been. Indeed,’ he continued, growing in emphasis, ‘I think it highly probable that it’s a mistake.’
‘And you, Challoner?’ asked Harry, ‘you seemed to recognise her too.’
‘These are both friends of yours, Harry?’ said the lady. ‘Delighted, I am sure. I do not remember to have met Mr. Challoner.’
Challoner was very red in the face, perhaps from having groped after his cigar. ‘I do not remember to have had the pleasure,’ he responded huskily.
‘Well, and Mr. Godall?’ asked Mrs. Desborough.
‘Are you the lady that has an appointment with old —’ began Somerset, and paused blushing. ‘Because if so,’ he resumed, ‘I was to announce you at once.’
And the shopman raised a curtain, opened a door, and passed into a small pavilion which had been added to the back of the house. On the roof, the rain resounded musically. The walls were lined with maps and prints and a few works of reference. Upon a table was a large-scale map of Egypt and the Soudan, and another of Tonkin, on which, by the aid of coloured pins, the progress of the different wars was being followed day by day. A light, refreshing odour of the most delicate tobacco hung upon the air; and a fire, not of foul coal, but of clear-flaming resinous billets, chattered upon silver dogs. In this elegant and plain apartment, Mr. Godall sat in a morning muse, placidly gazing at the fire and hearkening to the rain upon the roof.
‘Ha, my dear Mr. Somerset,’ said he, ‘and have you since last night adopted any fresh political principle?’
‘The lady, sir,’ said Somerset, with another blush.
‘You have seen her, I believe?’ returned Mr. Godall; and on Somerset’s replying in the affirmative, ‘You will excuse me, my dear sir,’ he resumed, ‘if I offer you a hint. I think it not improbable this lady may desire entirely to forget the past. From one gentleman to another, no more words are necessary.’
A moment after, he had received Mrs. Desborough with that grave and touching urbanity that so well became him.
‘I am pleased, madam, to welcome you to my poor house,’ he said; ‘and shall be still more so, if what were else a barren courtesy and a pleasure personal to myself, shall prove to be of serious benefit to you and Mr. Desborough.’
‘Your Highness,’ replied Clara, ‘I must begin with thanks; it is like what I have heard of you, that you should thus take up the case of the unfortunate; and as for my Harry, he is worthy of all that you can do.’ She paused.
‘But for yourself?’ suggested Mr. Godall —‘it was thus you were about to continue, I believe.’
‘You take the words out of my mouth,’ she said. ‘For myself, it is different.’
‘I am not here to be a judge of men,’ replied the Prince; ‘still less of women. I am now a private person like yourself and many million others; but I am one who still fights upon the side of quiet. Now, madam, you know better than I, and God better than you, what you have done to mankind in the past; I pause not to inquire; it is with the future I concern myself, it is for the future I demand security. I would not willingly put arms into the hands of a disloyal combatant; and I dare not restore to wealth one of the levyers of a private and a barbarous war. I speak with some severity, and yet I pick my terms. I tell myself continually that you are a woman; and a voice continually reminds me of the children whose lives and limbs you have endangered. A woman,’ he repeated solemnly —‘and children. Possibly, madam, when you are yourself a mother, you will feel the bite of that antithesis: possibly when you kneel at night beside a cradle, a fear will fall upon you, heavier than any shame; and when your child lies in the pain and danger of disease, you shall hesitate to kneel before your Maker.’
‘You look at the fault,’ she said, ‘and not at the excuse. Has your own heart never leaped within you at some story of oppression? But, alas, no! for you were born upon a throne.’
‘I was born of woman,’ said the Prince; ‘I came forth from my mother’s agony, helpless as a wren, like other nurselings. This, which you forgot, I have still faithfully remembered. Is it not one of your English poets, that looked abroad upon the earth and saw vast circumvallations, innumerable troops manoeuvring, warships at sea and a great dust of battles on shore; and casting anxiously about for what should be the cause of so many and painful preparations, spied at last, in the centre of all, a mother and her babe? These, madam, are my politics; and the verses, which are by Mr. Coventry Patmore, I have caused to be translated into the Bohemian tongue. Yes, these are my politics: to change what we can, to better what we can; but still to bear in mind that man is but a devil weakly fettered by some generous beliefs and impositions, and for no word however nobly sounding, and no cause however just and pious, to relax the stricture of these bonds.’
There was a silence of a moment.
‘I fear, madam,’ resumed the Prince, ‘that I but weary you. My views are formal like myself; and like myself, they also begin to grow old. But I must still trouble you for some reply.’
‘I can say but one thing,’ said Mrs. Desborough: ‘I love my husband.’
‘It is a good answer,’ returned the Prince; ‘and you name a good influence, but one that need not be conterminous with life.’
‘I will not play at pride with such a man as you,’ she answered. ‘What do you ask of me? not protestations, I am sure. What shall I say? I have done much that I cannot defend and that I would not do again. Can I say more? Yes: I can say this: I never abused myself with the muddle-headed fairy tales of politics. I was at least prepared to meet reprisals. While I was levying war myself — or levying murder, if you choose the plainer term — I never accused my adversaries of assassination. I never felt or feigned a righteous horror, when a price was put upon my life by those whom I attacked. I never called the policeman a hireling. I may have been a criminal, in short; but I never was a fool.’
‘Enough, madam,’ returned the Prince: ‘more than enough! Your words are most reviving to my spirits; for in this age, when even the assassin is a sentimentalist, there is no virtue greater in my eyes than intellectual clarity. Suffer me, then, to ask you to retire; for by the signal of that bell, I perceive my old friend, your mother, to be close at hand. With her I promise you to do my utmost.’
And as Mrs. Desborough returned to the Divan, the Prince, opening a door upon the other side, admitted Mrs. Luxmore.
‘Madam and my very good friend,’ said he, ‘is my face so much changed that you no longer recognise Prince Florizel in Mr. Godall?’
‘To be sure!’ she cried, looking at him through her glasses. ‘I have always regarded your Highness as a perfect man; and in your altered circumstances, of which I have already heard with deep regret, I will beg you to consider my respect increased instead of lessened.’
‘I have found it so,’ returned the Prince, ‘with every class of my acquaintance. But, madam, I pray you to be seated. My business is of a delicate order, and regards your daughter.’
‘In that case,’ said Mrs. Luxmore, ‘you may save yourself the trouble of speaking, for I have fully made up my mind to have nothing to do with her. I will not hear one word in her defence; but as I value nothing so particularly as the virtue of justice, I think it my duty to explain to you the grounds of my complaint. She deserted me, her natural protector; for years, she has consorted with the most disreputable persons; and to fill the cup of her offence, she has recently married. I refuse to see her, or the being to whom she has linked herself. One hundred and twenty pounds a year, I have always offered her: I offer it again. It is what I had myself when I was her age.’
‘Very well, madam,’ said the Prince; ‘and be that so! But to touch upon another matter: what was the income of the Reverend Bernard Fanshawe?’
‘My father?’ asked the spirited old lady. ‘I believe he had seven hundred pounds in the year.’
‘You were one, I think, of several?’ pursued the Prince.
‘Of four,’ was the reply. ‘We were four daughters; and painful as the admission is to make, a more detestable family could scarce be found in England.’
‘Dear me!’ said the Prince. ‘And you, madam, have an income of eight thousand?’
‘Not more than five,’ returned the old lady; ‘but where on earth are you conducting me?’
‘To an allowance of one thousand pounds a year,’ replied Florizel, smiling. ‘For I must not suffer you to take your father for a rule. He was poor, you are rich. He had many calls upon his poverty: there are none upon your wealth. And indeed, madam, if you will let me touch this matter with a needle, there is but one point in common to your two positions: that each had a daughter more remarkable for liveliness than duty.’
‘I have been entrapped into this house,’ said the old lady, getting to her feet. ‘But it shall not avail. Not all the tobacconists in Europe . . .’
‘Ah, madam,’ interrupted Florizel, ‘before what is referred to as my fall, you had not used such language! And since you so much object to the simple industry by which I live, let me give you a friendly hint. If you will not consent to support your daughter, I shall be constrained to place that lady behind my counter, where I doubt not she would prove a great attraction; and your son-in-law shall have a livery and run the errands. With such young blood my business might be doubled, and I might be bound in common gratitude to place the name of Luxmore beside that of Godall.’
‘Your Highness,’ said the old lady, ‘I have been very rude, and you are very cunning. I suppose the minx is on the premises. Produce her.’
‘Let us rather observe them unperceived,’ said the Prince; and so saying he rose and quietly drew back the curtain.
Mrs. Desborough sat with her back to them on a chair; Somerset and Harry were hanging on her words with extraordinary interest; Challoner, alleging some affair, had long ago withdrawn from the detested neighbourhood of the enchantress.
‘At that moment,’ Mrs. Desborough was saying, ‘Mr Gladstone detected the features of his cowardly assailant. A cry rose to his lips: a cry of mingled triumph . . .’
‘That is Mr. Somerset!’ interrupted the spirited old lady, in the highest note of her register. ‘Mr. Somerset, what have you done with my house-property?’
‘Madam,’ said the Prince, ‘let it be mine to give the explanation; and in the meanwhile, welcome your daughter.’
‘Well, Clara, how do you do?’ said Mrs. Luxmore. ‘It appears I am to give you an allowance. So much the better for you. As for Mr. Somerset, I am very ready to have an explanation; for the whole affair, though costly, was eminently humorous. And at any rate,’ she added, nodding to Paul, ‘he is a young gentleman for whom I have a great affection, and his pictures were the funniest I ever saw.’
‘I have ordered a collation,’ said the Prince. ‘Mr. Somerset, as these are all your friends, I propose, if you please, that you should join them at table. I will take the shop.’
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Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:13