Should I peer into Firmin’s privacy, and find the key to that secret? What skeleton was there in the closet? We know that such skulls are locked up in many gentlemen’s hearts and memories. Bluebeard, for instance, had a whole museum of them — as that imprudent little last wife of his found out to her cost. And, on the other hand, a lady, we suppose, would select hers of the sort which had carried beards when in the flesh. Given a neat locked skeleton cupboard, belonging to a man of a certain age, to ascertain the sex of the original owner of the bones, you have not much need of a picklock or a blacksmith. There is no use in forcing the hinge, or scratching the pretty panel. We know what is inside — we arch rogues and men of the world. Murders, I suppose, are not many — enemies and victims of our hate and anger, destroyed and trampled out of life by us, and locked out of sight: but corpses of our dead loves, my dear sir — my dear madam — have we not got them stowed away in cupboard after cupboard, in bottle after bottle? Oh, fie! And young people! What doctrine is this to preach to them, who spell your book by papa’s and mamma’s knee? Yes, and how wrong it is to let them go to church, and see and hear papa and mamma publicly on their knees, calling out, and confessing to the whole congregation, that they are sinners! So, though I had not the key, I could see through the panel and the glimmering of the skeleton inside.
Although the elder Firmin followed me to the door, and his eyes only left me as I turned the corner of the street, I felt sure that Phil ere long would open his mind to me, or give me some clue to that mystery. I should hear from him why his bright cheeks had become hollow, why his fresh voice, which I remember so honest and cheerful, was now harsh and sarcastic, with tones that often grated on the hearer, and laughter that gave pain. It was about Philip himself. that my anxieties were. The young fellow had inherited from his poor mother a considerable fortune — some eight or nine hundred a year, we always understood. He was living in a costly, not to say extravagant manner. I thought Mr. Philip’s juvenile remorses were locked up in the skeleton closet, and was grieved to think he had fallen in mischief’s way. Hence, no doubt, might arise the anger between him and his father. The boy was extravagant and headstrong; and the parent remonstrant and irritated.
I met my old friend Dr. Goodenough at the club one evening; and as we dined together I discoursed with him about his former patient, and recalled to him that day, years back, when the boy was ill at school, and when my poor mother and Phil’s own were yet alive.
Goodenough looked very grave.
“Yes,” he said, “the boy was very ill; he was nearly gone at that time — at that time — when his mother was in the Isle of Wight, and his father dangling after a prince. We thought one day it was all over with him; but — ”
“But a good doctor interposed between him and pallida mors.”
“A good doctor? a good nurse! The boy was delirious, and had a fancy to walk out of window, and would have done so, but for one of my nurses. You know her.”
“What! the Little Sister?”
“Yes, the Little Sister.”
“And it was she who nursed Phil through his fever, and saved his life? I drink her health. She is a good little soul.”
“Good!” said the doctor, with his gruffest voice and frown. — (He was always most fierce when he was most tender-hearted.) “Good, indeed! Will you have some more of this duck? — Do. You have had enough already, and it’s very unwholesome. Good, sir? But for women, fire and brimstone ought to come down and consume this world. Your dear mother was one of the good ones. I was attending you when you were ill, at those horrible chambers you had in the Temple, at the same time when young Firmin was ill at Grey Friars. And I suppose I must be answerable for keeping two scapegraces in the world.”
“Why didn’t Dr. Firmin come to see him?”
“Hm! his nerves were too delicate. Besides, he did come. Talk of the — ”
The personage designated by asterisks was Phil’s father, who was also a member of our club, and who entered the dining-room, tall, stately, and pale, with his stereotyped smile, and wave of his pretty hand. By the way, that smile of Firmin’s was a very queer contortion of the handsome features. As you came up to him, he would draw his lips over his teeth, causing his jaws to wrinkle (or dimple if you will) on either side. Meanwhile his eyes looked out from his face, quite melancholy and independent of the little transaction in which the mouth was engaged. Lips said, “I am a gentleman of fine manners and fascinating address, and I am supposed to be happy to see you. How do you do?” Dreary, sad, as into a great blank desert, looked the dark eyes. I do know one or two, but only one or two faces of men, when oppressed with care, which can yet smile all over.
Goodenough nods grimly to the smile of the other doctor, who blandly looks at our table, holding his chin in one of his pretty hands.
“How do?” growls Goodenough. “Young Hopeful well?”
“Young Hopeful sits smoking cigars till morning with some friends of his,” says Firmin, with the sad smile directed towards me this time. “Boys will be boys.” And he pensively walks away from us with a friendly nod towards me; examines the dinner-card in an attitude of melancholy grace; points with the jewelled hand to the dishes which he will have served, and is off, and simpering to another acquaintance at a distant table.
“I thought he would take that table,” says Firmin’s cynical confrère.
“In the draught of the door? Don’t you see how the candle flickers? It is the worst place in the room!”
“Yes; but don’t you see who is sitting at the next table?”
Now at the next table was a n-blem-n of vast wealth, who was growling at the quality of the mutton cutlets, and the half-pint of sherry which he had ordered for his dinner. But as his lordship has nothing to do with the ensuing history, of course we shall not violate confidence by mentioning his name. We could see Firmin smiling on his neighbour with his blandest melancholy, and the waiters presently bearing up the dishes which the doctor had ordered for his own refection. He was no lover of mutton-chops and coarse sherry, as I knew, who had partaken of many a feast at his board. I could see the diamond twinkle on his pretty hand, as it daintily poured out creaming wine from the ice-pail by his side — the liberal hand that had given me many a sovereign when I was a boy.
“I can’t help liking him,” I said to my companion, whose scornful eyes were now and again directed towards his colleague.
“This port is very sweet. Almost all port is sweet now,” remarks the doctor.
“He was very kind to me in my school-days; and Philip was a fine little fellow.”
“Handsome a boy as ever I saw. Does he keep his beauty? Father was a handsome man — very. Quite a lady-killer — I mean out of his practice!” adds the grim doctor. “What is the boy doing?”
“He is at the university. He has his mother’s fortune. He is wild and unsettled, and I fear he is going to the bad a little.”
“Is he? Shouldn’t wonder!” grumbles Goodenough.
We had talked very frankly and pleasantly until the appearance of the other doctor, but with Firmin’s arrival Goodenough seemed to button up his conversation. He quickly stumped away from the dining-room to the drawing-room, and sate over a novel there until time came when he was to retire to his patients or his home.
That there was no liking between the doctors, that there was a difference between Philip and his father, was clear enough to me: but the causes of these differences I had yet to learn. The story came to me piecemeal; from confessions here, admissions there, deductions of my own. I could not, of course, be present at many of the scenes which I shall have to relate as though I had witnessed them; and the posture, language, and inward thoughts of Philip and his friends, as here related, no doubt are fancies of the narrator in many cases; but the story is as authentic as many histories, and the reader need only give such an amount of credence to it as he may judge that its verisimilitude warrants.
Well, then, we must not only revert to that illness which befell when Philip Firmin was a boy at Grey Friars, but go back yet farther in time to a period which I cannot precisely ascertain.
The pupils of old Gandish’s painting academy may remember a ridiculous little man, with a great deal of wild talent, about the ultimate success of which his friends were divided. Whether Andrew was a genius, or whether he was a zany, was always a moot question among the frequenters of the Greek Street billiard-rooms, and the noble disciples of the Academy and St. Martin’s Lane. He may have been crazy and absurd; he may have had talent, too: such characters are not unknown in art or in literature. He broke the Queen’s English; he was ignorant to a wonder; he dressed his little person in the most fantastic raiment and queerest cheap finery; he wore a beard, bless my soul! twenty years before beards were known to wag in Britain. He was the most affected little creature, and, if you looked at him, would pose in attitudes of such ludicrous dirty dignity, that if you had had a dun waiting for money in the hall of your lodging-house, or your picture refused at the Academy — if you were suffering under ever so much calamity — you could not help laughing. He was the butt of all his acquaintances; the laughing-stock of high and low; and he had as loving, gentle, faithful, honourable a heart as ever beat in a little bosom. He is gone to his rest now; his palette and easel are waste timber; his genius, which made some little flicker of brightness, never shone much, and is extinct. In an old album, that dates back for more than a score of years, I sometimes look at poor Andrew’s strange wild sketches. He might have done something had he continued to remain poor; but a rich widow, whom he met at Rome, fell in love with the strange errant painter, pursued him to England, and married him in spite of himself. His genius drooped under the servitude: he lived but a few short years, and died of a consumption, of which the good Goodenough’s skill could not cure him.
One day, as he was driving with his wife in her splendid barouche through the Haymarket, he suddenly bade the coachman stop, sprang over the side of the carriage before the steps could be let fall, and his astonished wife saw him shaking the hands of a shabbily-dressed little woman who was passing — shaking both her hands, and weeping, and gesticulating. and twisting his beard and mustachios, as his wont was when agitated. Mrs. Montfitchet (the wealthy Mrs. Carrickfergus she had been, before she married the painter), the owner of a young husband, who had sprung from her side, and out of her carriage, in order to caress a young woman passing in the street, might well be disturbed by this demonstration; but she was a kind-hearted woman, and when Montfitchet, on reascending into the family coach, told his wife the history of the person of whom he had just taken leave, she cried plentifully too. She bade the coachman drive straightway to her own house: she rushed up to her own apartments, whence she emerged, bearing an immense bag full of wearing apparel, and followed by a panting butler, carrying a bottle-basket and a pie: and she drove off, with her pleased Andrew by her side, to a court in St. Martin’s Lane, where dwelt the poor woman with whom he had just been conversing.
It had pleased heaven, in the midst of dreadful calamity, to send her friends and succour. She was suffering under misfortune, poverty, and cowardly desertion. A man, who had called himself Brandon when he took lodgings in her father’s house, had married her, brought her to London, tired of her, and left her. She had reason to think he had given a false name when he lodged with her father: he fled, after a few months, and his real name she never knew. When he deserted her, she went back to her father, a weak man, married to a domineering woman, who pretended to disbelieve the story of her marriage, and drove her from the door. Desperate, and almost mad, she came back to London, where she still had some little relics of property that her fugitive husband left behind him. He promised, when he left her, to remit her money; but he sent none, or she refused it — or, in her wildness and despair, lost the dreadful paper which announced his desertion, and that he was married before, and that to pursue him would ruin him, and he knew she never would do that — no, however much he might have wronged her.
She was penniless then — deserted by all — having made away with the last trinket of her brief days of love, having sold the last little remnant of her poor little stock of clothing — alone, in the great wilderness of London, when it pleased God to send her succour in the person of an old friend who had known her, and even loved her, in happier days. When the Samaritans came to this poor child, they found her sick and shuddering with fever. They brought their doctor to her, who is never so eager as when he runs up a poor man’s stair. And, as he watched by the bed where her kind friends came to help her, he heard her sad little story of trust and desertion.
Her father was a humble person, who had seen better days; and poor little Mrs. Brandon had a sweetness and simplicity of manner which exceedingly touched the good doctor. She had little education, except that which silence, long-suffering, seclusion, will sometimes give. When cured of her illness, there was the great and constant evil of poverty to meet and overcome. How was she to live? Goodenough got to be as fond of her as of a child of his own. She was tidy, thrifty, gay at times, with a little simple cheerfulness. The little flowers began to bloom as the sunshine touched them. Her whole life hitherto had been cowering under neglect, and tyranny, and gloom.
Mr. Montfitchet was for coming so often to look after the little outcast whom he had succoured that I am bound to say Mrs. M. became hysterically jealous, and waited for him on the stairs as he came down swathed in his Spanish cloak, pounced on him, and called him a monster. Goodenough was also, I fancy, suspicious of Montfitchet, and Montfitchet of Goodenough. Howbeit, the doctor vowed that he never had other than the feeling of a father towards his poor little protégée, nor could any father be more tender. He did not try to take her out of her station in life. He found, or she found for herself, a work which she could do. “Papa used to say no one ever nursed him so nice as I did,” she said. “I think I could do that better than anything, except my needle, but I like to be useful to poor sick people best. I don’t think about myself then, sir.” And for this business good Mr. Goodenough had her educated and employed.
The widow died in course of time whom Mrs. Brandon’s father had married, and her daughters refused to keep him, speaking very disrespectfully of this old Mr. Gann, who was, indeed, a weak old man. And now Caroline came to the rescue of her old father. She was a shrewd little Caroline. She had saved a little money. Goodenough gave up a country-house, which he did not care to use, and lent Mrs. Brandon the furniture. She thought she could keep a lodging-house and find lodgers. Montfitchet had painted her. There was a sort of beauty about her which the artists admired. When Ridley the Academician had the small-pox, she attended him, and caught the malady. She did not mind; not she. “It won’t spoil my beauty,” she said. Nor did it. The disease dealt very kindly with her little modest face. I don’t know who gave her the nickname, but she had a good roomy house in Thornhaugh Street, an artist on the first and second floor; and there never was a word of scandal against the Little Sister, for was not her father in permanence sipping gin-and-water in the ground-floor parlour? As we called her “the Little Sister,” her father was called “the Captain” — a bragging, lazy, good-natured old man — not a reputable captain — and very cheerful, though the conduct of his children, he said, had repeatedly broken his heart.
I don’t know how many years the Little Sister had been on duty when Philip Firmin had his scarlet fever. It befell him at the end of the term, just when all the boys were going home. His tutor and his tutor’s wife wanted their holidays, and sent their own children out of the way. As Phil’s father was absent, Dr. Goodenough came, and sent his nurse in. The case grew worse, so bad that Dr. Firmin was summoned from the Isle of Wight, and arrived one evening at Grey Friars — Grey Friars so silent now, so noisy at other times with the shouts and crowds of the playground.
Dr. Goodenough’s carriage was at the door when Dr. Firmin’s carriage drove up.
“How was the boy?”
“He had been very bad. He had been wrong in the head all day, talking and laughing quite wild-like,” the servant said.
The father ran up the stairs.
Phil was in a great room, in which were several empty beds of boys gone home for the holidays. The windows were opened into Grey Friars Square. Goodenough heard his colleague’s carriage drive up, and rightly divined that Phil’s father had arrived. He came out, and met Firmin in the anteroom.
“Head has wandered a little. Better now, and quiet;” and the one doctor murmured to the other the treatment which he had pursued.
Firmin step in gently towards the patient, near whose side the Little Sister was standing.
“Who is it?” asked Phil.
“It is I, dear. Your father,” said Dr. Firmin, with real tenderness in his voice.
The Little Sister turned round once, and fell down like a stone by the bedside.
“You infernal villain!” said Goodenough, with an oath, and a step forward. “You are the man!”
“Hush! The patient, if you please, Dr. Goodenough,” said the other physician.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:13