Harry, as he walked away from the house in Bolton street, hardly knew whether he was on his heels or his head. Burton had told him not to dress —“We don’t give dress dinner parties, you know. It’s all in the family way with us —”and Harry, therefore, went direct from Bolton street to Onslow Crescent. But, though he managed to keep the proper course down Piccadilly, he was in such confusion of mind tbat he hardly knew whither he was going. It seemed as though a new form of life had been opened to him, and that it had been opened in such a way as almost necessarily to engulf him. It was not only that Lady Ongar’s history was so terrible, and her life so strange, but that he himself was called upon to form a part of that history, and to join himself in some sort with that life. This countess, with her wealth, her rank, her beauty, and her bright intellect, had called him to her, and told him that he was her only friend. Of course he had promised his friendship. How could he have failed to give such a promise to one whom he had loved so well? But to what must such a promise lead, or rather to what must it not have led had it not been for Florence Burton? She was young, free, and rich. She made no pretence of regret for the husband she had lost, speaking of him as though in truth she hardly regarded herself as his wife. And she was the same Julia whom he had loved, who had loved him, who had jilted him, and in regret for whom he had once resolved to lead a wretched, lonely life! Of course she must expect that he would renew it all — unless, indeed, she knew of his engagement. But if she knew it, why had she not spoken of it?
And could it be that she had no friends; that everybody had deserted her; that she was alone in the world? As he thought of it all, the whole thing seemed to him to be too terrible for reality. What a tragedy was that she had told him! He thought of the man’s insolence to the woman whom he had married and sworn to love, then of his cruelty, his fiendish, hellish cruelty; and lastly of his terrible punishment. “I stuck to him through it all,” she had said to him; and then he endeavored to picture to himself that bedside by which Julia Brabazon, his Julia Brabazon, had remained firm, when hospital attendants had been scared by the horrors they had witnessed, and the nerves of a strong man, of a man paid for such work, had failed him!
The truth of her word throughout he never doubted; and, indeed, no man or woman who heard her could have doubted. One hears stories told that to oneself, the hearer, are manifestly false; and one hears stories as to the truth or falsehood of which one is in doubt; and stories again which seem to be partly true and partly untrue. But one also hears that of the truth of which no doubt seems to be possible. So it had been with the tale which Lady Ongar had told. It had been all as she had said; and had Sir Hugh heard it — even Sir Hugh, who doubted all men and regarded all women as being false beyond a doubt — even he, I think, would have believed it.
But she had deserved the sufferings which had come upon her. Even Harry, whose heart was very tender toward her, owned as much as that. She had sold herself, as she had said of herself more than once. She had given herself to a man whom she regarded not at all, even when her heart belonged to another — to a man whom she must have loathed and despised when she was putting her hand into his before the altar. What scorn had there been upon her face when she spoke of the beginning of their married miseries. With what eloquence of expression had she pronounced him to be vile, worthless, unmanly; a thing from which a woman must turn with speechless contempt. She had now his name, his rank, and his money, but she was friendless and alone. Harry Clavering declared to himself that she had deserved it-and, having so declared, forgave her all her faults. She had sinned, and then had suffered; and, therefore, should now be forgiven. If he could do aught to ease her troubles, he would do it — as a brother would for a sister.
But it would be well that she should know of his engagement. Then he thought of the whole interview, and felt sure that she must know it. At any rate he told himself that he was sure. She could hardly have spoken to him as she had done, unless she had known. When last they had been together, sauntering round the gardens at Clavering, he had rebuked her for her treachery to him: Now she came to him almost open-armed, free, full of her cares, swearing to him that he was her only friend! All this could mean but one thing — unless she knew that that one thing was barred by his altered position.
But it gratified him to think that she had chosen him for the repository of her tale; that she had told her terrible history to him. I fear that some small part of this gratification was owing to her rank and wealth. To be the one friend of a widowed countess, young, rich, and beautiful, was something much out of the common way. Such confidence lifted him far above the Wallikers of the world. That he was pleased to be so trusted by one that was beautiful, was, I think, no disgrace to him; although I bear in mind his condition as a man engaged. It might be dangerous, but that danger in such case it would be his duty to overcome. But in order that it might be overcome, it would certainly be well that she should know his position.
I fear he speculated as he went along as to what might have been his condition in the world had he never seen Florence Burton. First he asked himself, whether, under any circumstances, he would have wished to marry a widow, and especially a widow by whom he had already been jilted. Yes; he thought that he could have forgiven her even that, if his own heart had not changed; but he did not forget to tell himself again how lucky it was for him that his heart was changed. What countess in the world, let her have what park she might, and any imaginable number of thousands a year, could be so sweet, so nice, so good, so fitting for him as his own Florence Burton? Then he endeavored to reflect what happened when a commoner married the widow of a peer. She was still called, he believed, by her own title, unless she should choose to abandon it. Any such arrangement was now out of the question; but he thought that he would prefer that she should have been called Mrs. Clavering, if such a state of things had come about. I do not know that he pictured to himself any necessity — either on her part or on his, of abandoning anything else that came to her from her late husband.
At half-past six, the time named by Theodore Burton, he found himself at the door in Onslow Crescent, and was at once shown up into the drawing-room. He knew that Mr. Burton had a family, and he had pictured to himself an untidy, ugly house, with an untidy, motherly woman going about with a baby in her arms. Such would naturally be the home of a man who dusted his shoes with his pocket-handkerchief. But to his surprise he found himself in as pretty a drawing-room as he remembered to have seen; and seated on a sofa, was almost as pretty a woman as he remembered. She was tall and slight, with large brown eyes and well-defined eyebrows, with an oval face, and the sweetest, kindest mouth that ever graced a woman. Her dark brown hair was quite plain, having been brushed simply smooth across the forehead, and then collected in a knot behind. Close beside her, on a low chair, sat a little fair-haired girl, about seven years old, who was going through some pretence at needlework; and kneeling on a higher chair, while she sprawled over the drawing-room table, was another girl, some three years younger, who was engaged with a puzzle-box.
“Mr. Clavering,” said she, rising from her chair; “I am so glad to see you, though I am almost angry with you for not coming to us sooner. I have heard so much about you; of course you know that.” Harry explained that he had only been a few days in town, and declared that he was happy to learn that he had been considered worth talking about.
“If you were worth accepting you were worth talking about.”
“Perhaps I was neither,” said he.
“Well; I am not going to flatter you yet. Only as I think our Flo is without exception the most perfect girl I ever saw, I don’t suppose she would be guilty of making a bad choice. Cissy, dear, this is Mr. Clavering.”
Cissy got up from her chair, and came up to him. “Mamma says I am to love you very much,” said Cissy, putting up her face to be kissed.
“But I did not tell you to say I had told you,” said Mrs. Burton, laughing.
“And I will love you very much,” said Harry, taking her up in his arms.
“But not so much as Aunt Florence — will you?”
They all knew it. It was clear to him that everybody connected with the Burtons had been told of the engagement, and that they all spoke of it openly, as they did of any other everyday family occurrence. There was not much reticence among the Burtons. He could not but feel this, though now, at the present moment, he was disposed to think specially well of the family because Mrs. Burton and her children were so nice.
“And this is another daughter?”
“Yes; another future niece, Mr. Clavering. But I suppose I may call you Harry; may I not? My name is Cecilia. Yes, that is Miss Pert.”
“I’m not Miss Pert,” said the little soft round ball of a girl from the chair. “I’m Sophy Burton. Oh, you musn’t tittle.”
Harry found himself quite at home in ten minutes; and, before Mr. Burton had returned, had been taken upstairs into the nursery to see Theodore Burton, Junior, in his cradle, Theodore Burton, Junior, being as yet only some few months old. “Now you’ve seen us all,” said Mrs. Burton, “and we’ll go downstairs and wait for my husband. I must let you into a secret, too. We don’t dine till past seven; you may as well remember that for the future. But I wanted to have you for half an hour to myself before dinner, so that I might look at you, and make up my mind about Flo’s choice. I hope you won’t be angry with me?”
“And how have you made up your mind?”
“If you want to find that out, you must get it through Florence. You may be quite sure I shall tell her; and I suppose I may be quite sure she will tell you. Does she tell you everything?”
“I tell her everything,” said Harry, feeling himself, however, to be a little conscience-smitten at the moment, as he remembered his interview with Lady Ongar. Things had occurred this very day which he certainly could not tell her.
“Do — do; always do that,” said Mrs. Burton, laying her hand affectionately on his arm. “There is no way so certain to bind a woman to you, heart and soul, as to show her that you trust her in everything. Theodore tells me everything. I don’t think there’s a drain planned under a railway bank but that he shows it me in some way; and I feel so grateful for it. It makes me know that I can never do enough for him. I hope you’ll be as good to Flo as he is to me.”
“We can’t both be perfect, you know.”
“Ah, well! of course, you’ll laugh at me. Theodore always laughs at me when I get on what he calls a high horse. I wonder whether you are as sensible as he is?”
Harry reflected that he never wore cotton gloves. “I don’t think I am very sensible,” said he. I do a great many foolish things, and the worst is, that I like them.”
“So do I. I like so many foolish things.”
“Oh, mamma!” said Cissy.
“I shall have that quoted against me, now, for the next six months, whenever I am preaching wisdom in the nursery. But Florence is nearly as sensible as her brother.”
“Much more so than I am.”
“All the Burtons are full up to their eyes with good sense. And what a good thing it is! Who ever heard of any of them coming to sorrow? Whatever they have to live on, they always have enough. Did you ever know a woman who has done better with her children, or has known how to do better, than Theodore’s mother? She is the dearest old woman.” Harry had heard her called a very clever old woman by certain persons in Stratton, and could not but think of her matrimonial successes as her praises were thus sung by her daughter-in-law.
They went on talking, while Sophy sat in Harry’s lap, till there was heard the sound of a key in the latch of the front door, and the master of the house was known to be there. “It’s Theodore,” said his wife, jumping up and going out to meet him. “I’m so glad that you have been here a little before him, because now I feel that I know you. When he’s here, I shan’t get in a word.” Then she went down to her husband, and Harry was left to speculate how so very charming a woman could ever have been brought to love a man who cleaned his boots with his pocket-handkerchief.
There were soon steps again upon the stairs, and Burton returned, bringing with him another man, whom he introduced to Harry as Mr. Jones. “I didn’t know my brother was coming,” said Mrs. Burton, “but it will be very pleasant, as of course I shall want you to know him.” Harry became a little perplexed. How far might these family ramifications be supposed to go? Would he be welcomed, as one of the household, to the hearth of Mrs. Jones; and if of Mrs. Jones, then of Mrs. Jones’s brother? His mental inquiries, however, in this direction, were soon ended by his finding that Mr. Jones who a bachelor.
Jones, it appeared, was the editor, or sub-editor, or co-editor, of some influential daily newspaper. “He is a night bird, Harry —” said Mrs. Burton. She had fallen into the way of calling him Harry at once, but he could not on that occasion bring himself to call her Cecilia. He might have done so had not her husband been present, but he was ashamed to do it before him. “He is a night bird, Harry,” said she, speaking of her brother, “and flies away at nine o’clock that he may go and hoot like an owl in some dark city haunt that he has. Then, when he is himself asleep at breakfast time, his hootings are being heard round the town.”
Harry rather liked the idea of knowing an editor. Editors were, he thought, influential people, who had the world very much under their feet — being, as he conceived, afraid of no men, while other men are very much afraid of them. He was glad enough to shake Jones by the hand, when he found that Jones was an editor. But Jones, though he had the face and forehead of a clever man, was very quiet, and seemed almost submissive to his sister and brother-in-law.
The dinner was plain, but good, and Harry after a while became happy and satisfied, although he had come to the house with something almost like a resolution to find fault. Men, and women also, do frequently go about in such a mood, having unconscionably from some small circumstance, prejudged their acquaintances, and made up their mind that their acquaintances should be condemned. Influenced in this way, Harry had not intended to pass a pleasant evening, and would have stood aloof and been cold, had it been possible to him; but he found that it was not possible; and after a little while he was friendly and joyous, and the dinner went off very well. There was some wild fowl, and he was agreeably surprised as he watched the mental anxiety and gastronomic skill with which Burton went through the process of preparing the gravy, with lemon and pepper, having in the room a little silver pot, and an apparatus of fire for the occasion. He would as soon have expected the Archbishop of Canterbury himself to go through such an operation in the dining-room at Lambeth as the hard-working man of business whom he had known in the chambers of the Adelphi.
“Does he always do that, Mrs. Burton?” Harry asked.
“Always,” said Burton, “when I get the materials. One doesn’t bother oneself about a cold leg of mutton, you know, which is my usual dinner when we are alone. The children have it hot in the middle of the day.”
“Such a thing never happened to him yet, Harry,” said Mrs. Burton.
“Gently with the pepper,” said the editor. It was the first word he had spoken for some time.
“Be good enough to remember that, yourself, when you are writing your article to-night.”
“No, none for me, Theodore, said Mrs. Burton.
“I have dined really. If I had remembered that you were going to display your cookery, I would have kept some of my energy, but I forgot it.”
“As a rule,” said Burton, “I don’t think women recognize any difference in flavors. I believe wild duck and hashed mutton would be quite the same to my wife if her eyes were blinded. I should not mind this, if it were not that they are generally proud of the deficiency. They think it grand.”
“Just as men think it grand not to know one tune from another,” said his wife.
When dinner was over, Burton got up from his seat. “Harry,” said he, “do you like good wine?” Harry said that he did. Whatever women may say about wild fowl, men never profess an indifference to good wine, although there is a theory about the world, quite as incorrect as it is general, that they have given up drinking it. “Indeed I do,” said Harry. “Then I’ll give you a bottle of port,” said Burton, and so saying he left the room.
“I’m very glad you have come to-day,” said Jones, with much gravity. “He never gives me any of that when I’m alone with him; and he never, by any means, brings it out for company.”
“You don’t mean to accuse him of drinking it alone, Tom?” said his sister, laughing.
“I don’t know when he drinks it; I only know when he doesn’t.”
The wine was decanted with as much care as had been given to the concoction of the gravy, and the clearness of the dark liquid was scrutinized with an eye that was full of anxious care. “Now, Cissy, what do you think of that? She knows a glass of good wine when she gets it, as well as you do Harry, in spite of her contempt for the duck.”
As they sipped the old port, they sat round the dining-room fire, and Harry Clavering was forced to own to himself that he had never been more comfortable.
“Ah,” said Burton, stretching out his slippered feet, “why can’t it all be after-dinner, instead of that weary room at the Adelphi?”
“And all old port?” said Jones.
“Yes, and all old port. You are not such an ass as to suppose that a man in suggesting to himself a continuance of pleasure suggests to himself also the evils which are supposed to accompany such pleasure. If I took much of the stuff I should get cross and sick, and make a beast of myself but then what a pity it is that it should be so.”
“You wouldn’t like much of it, I think,” said his wife.
“That is it,” said he. “We are driven to work because work never palls on us, whereas pleasure always does. What a wonderful scheme it is when one looks at it all. No man can follow, pleasure long continually. When a man strives to do so, he turns his pleasure at once into business, and works at that. Come, Harry, we musn’t have another bottle, as Jones would go to sleep among the type.” Then they all went up stairs together. Harry, before he went away, was taken again up into the nursery, and there kissed the two little girls in their cots. When he was outside the nursery door, on the top of the stairs, Mrs. Burton took him by the hand. “You’ll come to us often,” said she, “and make yourself at home here, will you not?” Harry could not but say that he would. Indeed he did so without hesitation, almost with eagerness, for he had liked her and had liked her house. “We think of you, you know,” she continued, “quite as one of ourselves. How could it be otherwise when Flo is the dearest to us of all beyond our own?”
“It makes me so happy to hear you say so,” said he.
“Then come here and talk about her. I want Theodore to feel that you are his brother; it will be so important to you in the business that it should be so.” After that he went away, and as he walked back along Piccadilly, and then up through the regions of St. Giles to his house in Bloomsbury Square, he satisfied himself that the life of Onslow Crescent was a better manner of life than that which was likely to prevail in Bolton Street.
When he was gone his character was of course discussed between the husband and wife in Onslow Crescent. “What do you think of him?” said the husband.
“I like him so much! He is so much nicer than you told me — so much pleasanter and easier; and I have no doubt he is as clever, though I don’t think he shows that at once.”
“He is clever enough; there’s no doubt about that.”
“And did you not think he was pleasant?”
“Yes; he was pleasant here. He is one of those men who get on best with women. You’ll make much more of him for awhile than I shall. He’ll gossip with you and sit idling with you for the hour together, if you’ll let him. There’s nothing wrong about him, and he’d like nothing better than that.”
“You don’t believe that he’s idle by disposition? Think of all that he has done already.”
“That’s just what is most against him. He might do very well with us if he had not got that confounded fellowship; but having got that, he thinks the hard work of life is pretty well over with him.”
“I don’t suppose he can be so foolish as that, Theodore.”
“I know well what such men are, and I know the evil that is done to them by the cramming they endure. They learn many names of things — high-sounding names, and they come to understand a great deal about words. It is a knowledge that requires no experience and very little real thought. But it demands much memory; and when they have loaded themselves in this way, they think that they are instructed in all things. After all, what can they do that is of real use to mankind? What can they create?”
“I suppose they are of use.”
“I don’t know it. A man will tell you, or pretend to tell you — for the chances are ten to one that he is wrong — what sort of lingo was spoken in some particular island or province six hundred years before Christ. What good will that do any one, even if he were right? And then see the effect upon the men themselves! At four-and-twenty a young fellow has achieved some wonderful success, and calls himself by some outlandish and conceited name — a double first, or something of the kind. Then he thinks he has completed everything, and is too vain to learn anything afterward. The truth is, that at twenty-four no man has done more than acquire the rudiments of his education. The system is bad from beginning to end. All that competition makes false and imperfect growth. Come, I’ll go to bed.”
What would Harry have said if he had heard all this from the man who dusted his boots with his handkerchief?
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14