As this is not a history of the British constitution, it does not concern it to relate how or why West Lynne got into hot water with the House of Commons. The House threatened to disfranchise it, and West Lynne under the fear, went into mourning for its sins. The threat was not carried out; but one of the sitting members was unseated with ignominy, and sent to the right about. Being considerably humiliated thereby, and in disgust with West Lynne, he retired accordingly, and a fresh writ was issued. West Lynne then returned the Hon. Mr. Attley, a county nobleman’s son; but he died in the very midst of his first session, and another writ had to be issued.
Of course the consideration now was, who should be the next lucky man fixed upon. All the notables within ten miles were discussed, not excepting the bench justices. Mr. Justice Hare? No! he was too uncompromising, he would study his own will, but not that of West Lynne. Squire Pinner? He never made a speech in his life, and had not an idea beyond turnips and farming stock. Colonel Bethel? He had no money to spend upon an election. Sir John Dobede? He was too old. “By a good twenty years,” laughed Sir John, to himself. “But here we stand, like a pack of noodles, conning over the incapables, and passing by the right one,” continued Sir John. “There’s only one man amongst us fit to be our member.”
“Who’s that?” cried the meeting.
A pause of consternation — consternation at their collective forgetfulness — and then a loud murmur of approaching to a shout, filled the room. Archibald Carlyle. It should be no other.
“If we can get him,” cried Sir John. “He may decline, you know.”
The best thing, all agreed, was to act promptly. A deputation, half the length of the street — its whole length, if you include the tagrag and bobtail that attended behind — set off on the spur of the moment to the office of Mr. Carlyle. They found that gentleman about to leave it for the evening, to return home to dinner; for, in the discussion of the all-important topic, the meeting had suffered time to run on to a late hour; those gentlemen who dined at a somewhat earlier one had, for once in their lives, patiently allowed their dinners and their stomachs to wait — which is saying a great deal for the patience of a justice.
Mr. Carlyle was taken by surprise. “Make me your member?” cried he, merrily. “How do you know I should not sell you all?”
“We’ll trust you, Carlyle. Too happy to do it.”
“I am not sure that I could spare the time,” deliberated Mr. Carlyle.
“Now, Carlyle, you must remember that you avowed to me, no longer than last Christmas, your intention of going into parliament some time,” struck in Mr. Justice Herbert. “You can’t deny it.”
“Some time! — yes,” replied Mr. Carlyle; “but I did not say when. I have no thoughts of it yet awhile.”
“You must allow us to put you in nomination — you must, indeed, Mr. Carlyle. There’s nobody else fit for it. As good send a pig to the House as some of us.”
“An extremely flattering reason for proposing to shift the honor upon me,” laughed Mr. Carlyle.
“Well, you know what we mean, Carlyle; there’s not a man in the whole county so suitable as you, search it to the extremity of its boundaries — you must know there is not.”
“I don’t know anything of the sort,” returned Mr. Carlyle.
“At any rate, we shall do it, for we have determined upon having you. When you walk into West Lynne tomorrow, you’ll see the walks alive with placards, ‘Carlyle forever!’”
“Suppose you allow me until tomorrow to consider of it, and defer the garnishing of the walls a day later,” said Mr. Carlyle, a serious tone peeping out in the midst of his jocularity.
“You do not fear the expenses?”
It was but a glance he returned in answer. As soon as the question had been put — it was stupid old Pinner who propounded it — they had felt how foolish it was. And indeed the cost would be a mere nothing, were there no opposition.
“Come, decide now, Carlyle. Give us your promise.”
“If I decide now, it will be in the negative,” replied Mr. Carlyle. “It is a question that demands consideration. Give me till tomorrow for that, and it is possible that I may accede to your request.”
This was the best that could be made of him, and the deputation backed out, and as nothing more could be done, departed to their several dinner-tables. Mr. Dill, who had been present, remained rubbing his hands with satisfaction, and casting admiring glances at Mr. Carlyle.
“What’s the matter, Dill?” asked the latter; “you look as though you were pleased at this movement, and assumed that I should accept it.”
“And so you will, Mr. Archibald. And as to the looking pleased, there’s not a man, woman or child in West Lynne who won’t do that.”
“Don’t make too sure, Dill.”
“Of which, sir — of your becoming our member, or of the people looking pleased?”
“Of either,” laughed Mr. Carlyle.
He quitted the office to walk home, revolving the proposition as he did so. That he had long thought of some time entering parliament was certain, though no definite period of the “when” had fixed itself in his mind. He saw not why he should confine his days entirely to toil, to the work of his calling. Pecuniary considerations did not require it, for his realized property, combined with the fortune brought by Barbara, was quite sufficient to meet expenses, according to their present style of living. Not that he had the least intention of giving up his business; it was honorable, as he conducted it, and lucrative, and he really liked it. He would not have been condemned to lead an idle life for the world; but there was no necessity for his being always at it. Mr. Dill made as good a principal as he did, and — if length of service and experience might be counted — a better one. He could safely be left to manage during the time it would be necessary for him, Mr. Carlyle, to be in London. He would rather represent West Lynne than any other spot on the face of the earth, no matter what might be the other’s importance; and, as West Lynne was now in want of a member, perhaps his opportunity had come. That he would make a good and efficient public servant, he believed; his talents were superior, his oratory persuasive, and he had the gift of a true and honest spirit. That he would have the interest of West Lynne, at heart was certain, and he knew that he should serve his constituents to the very best of his power and ability. They knew it also.
Before Mr. Carlyle had reached East Lynne, he had decided that it should be.
It was a fine spring evening. The lilac was in bloom, the hedges and trees were clothed in their early green, and all things seemed full of promise. Even Mr. Carlyle’s heart was rejoicing in the prospect opened to it; he was sure he should like a public life; but in the sanguine moments of realization or of hope, some dark shade will step in to mar the brightness.
Barbara stood at the drawing-room window watching for him. Not in her was the dark shade; her dress was a marvel of vanity and prettiness, and she had chosen to place on her fair hair a dainty headdress of lace — as if her hair required any such ornament! She waltzed up to Mr. Carlyle when he entered, and saucily held up her face, the light of love dancing in her bright blue eyes.
“What do you want?” he provokingly asked, putting his hands behind him, and letting her stand there.
“Oh, well — if you won’t say good-evening to me, I have a great mind to say you should not kiss me for a week, Archibald.”
He laughed. “Who would be punished by that?” whispered he.
Barbara pouted her pretty lips, and the tears positively came into her eyes. “Which is as much as to say it would be no punishment to you. Archibald, don’t you care for me?”
He threw his arms around her and clasped her to his heart, taking plenty of kisses then. “You know whether I care not,” he fondly whispered.
But now, will you believe that that unfortunate Lady Isabel had been a witness to this? Well, it was only what his greeting to her had once been. Her pale face flushed scarlet, and she glided out of the room again as softly as she had entered it. They had not seen her. Mr. Carlyle drew his wife to the window, and stood there, his arms round her waist.
“Barbara, what should you say to living in London for a few months out of the twelve?”
“London? I am very happy where I am. Why should you ask me that? You are not going to live in London?”
“I am not sure of that. I think I am for a portion of the year. I have had an offer made me this afternoon, Barbara.”
She looked at him, wondering what he meant — wondering whether he was serious. An offer? What sort of an offer? Of what nature could it be?
He smiled at her perplexity. “Should you like to see M. P. attached to my name? West Lynne wants me to become its member.”
A pause to take in the news; a sudden rush of color, and then she gleefully clasped her hands round his arm, her eyes sparkling with pleasure.
“Oh, Archibald, how glad I am! I knew how you were appreciated, and you will be appreciated more and more. This is right; it was not well for you to remain what you are for life — a private individual, a country lawyer.”
“I am perfectly contented with my lot, Barbara,” he seriously said. “I am too busy to be otherwise.”
“I know that; were you but a laboring man, toiling daily for the bread you eat, you would be contented, feeling that you were fulfilling your appointed duty to the utmost,” she impulsively said; “but, Archibald, can you not still be a busy man at West Lynne, although you do become its representative?”
“If I could not, I should never accept the honor, Barbara. For some few months of the year I must of necessity be in town; but Dill is an efficient substitute, and I can run down for a week or so between times. Part of Saturday, Sunday, and part of Monday, I can always pass here, if I please. Of course these changes have their drawbacks, as well as their advantages.”
“Where would be the drawbacks in this?” she interrupted.
“Well,” smiled Mr. Carlyle, “in the first place, I suppose you could not always be with me.”
Her hands fell — her color faded. “Oh, Archibald!”
“If I do become their member, I must go up to town as soon as elected, and I don’t think it will do for my little wife to be quitting her home to travel about just now.”
Barbara’s face wore a very blank look. She could not dissent from Mr. Carlyle’s reasoning.
“And you must remain in London to the end of the session, while I am here! Separated! Archibald,” she passionately added, while the tears gushed into her eyes. “I could not live without you.”
“Then what is to be done? Must I decline it?”
“Decline it! Oh, of course not! I know we are looking on the dark side of things. I can go very well with you for a month — perhaps two.”
“You think so?”
“I am sure so. And, mind you must not encourage mamma to talk me out of it. Archibald,” she continued, resting her head upon his breast, her sweet face turned up beseechingly to his, “you would rather have me with you, would you not?”
He bent his own down upon it. “What do you think about it, my darling?”
Once more — an opportune moment for her to enter — Lady Isabel. Barbara heard her this time, and sprang away from her husband. Mr. Carlyle turned round at the movement, and saw Madame Vine. She came forward, her lips ashy, her voice subdued.
Six months now had she been at East Lynne, and had hitherto escaped detection. Time and familiarity render us accustomed to most things — to danger among the rest; and she had almost ceased to fear recognition, living — so far as that point went — far more peaceably than she had done at first. She and the children were upon the best of terms. She had greatly endeared herself to them; she loved them, and they loved her — perhaps nature was asserting her own hidden claims.
She felt very anxious about William. He seemed to grow weaker, and she determined to make her fears known to Mr. Carlyle.
She quitted the parlor. She had heard Mr. Carlyle come in. Crossing the hall, she tapped softly at the drawing-room door, and then as softly entered. It was the moment of Mr. Carlyle’s loud greeting to his wife. They stood together heedless of her.
Gliding out again, she paced the hall, her hands pressed upon her beating heart. How dared that heart rise up in sharp rebellion at these witnessed tokens of love? Was Barbara not his wife? Had she not a legal claim to all his tenderness? Who was she that she should resent them in her jealousy? What, though they had once been hers, hers only, had she not signed and sealed her own forfeit of them, and so made room for Barbara?
Back to the gray parlor, there she stood, her elbow on the mantelpiece, her eyes hidden by her hand. Thus she remained for some minutes, and Lucy thought how sad she looked.
But Lucy felt hungry, and was casting longing glances to the tea-table. She wondered how long her governess meant to keep it waiting. “Madame Vine,” cried she presently, “don’t you know that tea is ready?”
This caused Madame Vine to raise her eyes. They fell on the pale boy at her feet. She made no immediate answer, only placed her hand on Lucy’s shoulder.
“Oh, Lucy dear, I— I have many sorrows to bear.”
“The tea will warm you, and there is some nice jam,” was Miss Lucy’s offered consolation.
“Their greeting, tender as it may be, is surely over by this time,” thought Lady Isabel, an expression something like mockery curving her lips. “I will venture again.”
Only to see him with his wife’s face on his breast, and his lips bent upon it. But they had heard her this time, and she had to advance, in spite of her spirit of misery and her whitened features.
“Would you be so good sir, as to come and look at William?” she asked in a low tone, of Mr. Carlyle.
“What for?” interjected Barbara.
“He looks very ill. I do not like his looks. I am fearing whether he can be worse than we have thought.”
They went to the gray parlor, all three of them. Mr. Carlyle was in first, and had taken a long, silent look at William before the others entered.
“What is he doing on the floor?” exclaimed Barbara, in her astonishment. “He should not lie on the floor, Madame Vine.”
“He lays himself down there at the dusk hour, and I cannot get him up again. I try to persuade him to use the sofa, but it is of no use.”
“The floor will not hurt him,” said Mr. Carlyle. This was the dark shade: his boy’s failing health.
William opened his eyes. “Who’s that — papa?”
“Don’t you feel well, William?”
“Oh, yes, I’m very well; but I am tired.”
“Why do you lie down here?”
“I like lying here. Papa, that pretty white rabbit of mine is dead.”
“Indeed. Suppose you get up and tell me all about it.”
“I don’t know about it myself yet,” said William, softly rising. “The gardener told Lucy when she was out just now: I did not go; I was tired. He said —”
“What has tired you?” interrupted Mr. Carlyle, taking hold of the boy’s hand.
“Oh, nothing. I am always tired.”
“Do you tell Mr. Wainwright that you are tired?”
“No. Why should I tell him? I wish he would not order me to take that nasty medicine, that cod liver oil.”
“But it is to make you strong, my boy.”
“It makes me sick. I always feel sick after it, papa. Madame Vine says I ought to have cream. That would be nice.”
“Cream?” repeated Mr. Carlyle, turning his eyes on Madame Vine.
“I have known cream to do a great deal of good in a case like William’s,” she observed. “I believe that no better medicine can be given; that it has in fact no substitute.”
“It can be tried,” said Mr. Carlyle.
“Pray give your orders, Madame Vine, for anything you think may be beneficial to him,” Mrs. Carlyle added. “You have had more experience with children than I. Joyce —”
“What does Wainwright say?” interrupted Mr. Carlyle, speaking to his wife, in his low tone.
“I do not always see him when he comes, Archibald. Madame Vine does, I believe.”
“Oh, dear!” cried Lucy, “can’t we have tea? I want some bread and jam.”
Mr. Carlyle turned round, smiled and nodded at her. “Patience is good for little girls, Miss Lucy. Would you like some bread and jam, my boy?”
William shook his head. “I can’t eat jam. I am only thirsty.”
Mr. Carlyle cast a long and intent look at him, and then left the room. Lady Isabel followed him, her thoughts full of her ailing child.
“Do you think him very ill, sir?” she whispered.
“I think he looks so. What does Mr. Wainwright say?”
“He says nothing to me. I have not inquired his true condition. Until to-night it did not come to me that there was any apprehension.”
“Does he look so much worse to-night?”
“Not any worse than customary. Latterly he had looked just like this in the evening. It was a remark of Hannah’s that roused my alarm: she thinks he is on the road to death. What can we do to save him?”
She clasped her hands as she spoke, in the intensity of her emotion. She almost forgot, as they stood there together talking of the welfare of the child, their child, that he was no longer her husband. Almost, not quite, utterly impossible would it be for her wholly to forget the dreadful present. Neither he nor the child could again belong to her in this world.
A strange rising of the throat in her wild despair, a meek courtesy, as she turned from him, his last words ringing in her ears: “I shall call in further advice for him, Madame Vine.”
William was clinging round Mrs. Carlyle, in a coaxing attitude, when she reentered the gray parlor. “I know what I could eat, mamma, if you’d let me have it,” cried he, in answer to her remonstrance that he must eat something.
“What could you eat?”
“Cheese! Cheese with tea!” laughed Mrs. Carlyle.
“For the last week or two he has fancied strange things, the effect of a diseased appetite,” exclaimed Madame Vine; “but if I allow them to be brought in he barely tastes them.”
“I am sure, mamma, I could eat some cheese now,” said William.
“You may have it,” answered Mrs. Carlyle.
As she turned to leave the room, the impatient knock and ring of a visitor was heard. Barbara wondered who could be arriving at that, their dinner hour. Sailing majestically into the hall, her lips compressed, her aspect threatening, came Miss Carlyle.
Now it turned out that Miss Corny had been standing at her own window, grimly eyeing the ill doings of the street, from the fine housemaid opposite, who was enjoying a flirting interview with the baker, to the ragged urchins, pitch-polling in the gutter and the dust. And there she caught sight of the string, justices and others, who came flowing out of the office of Mr. Carlyle. So many of them were they that Miss Corny involuntarily thought of a conjuror flinging flowers out of a hat — the faster they come, the more it seems there are to come. “What on earth is up?” cried Miss Corny, pressing her nose flat against the pane, that she might see better.
They filed off, some one way, some another. Miss Carlyle’s curiosity was keener than her appetite, for she stayed on the watch, although just informed that her dinner was served. Presently Mr. Carlyle appeared and she knocked at the window with her knuckles. He did not hear it; he had turned off at a quick pace toward home. Miss Corny’s temper rose.
The clerks came out next, one after another; and the last was Mr. Dill. He was less hurried than Mr. Carlyle had been, and heard Miss Corny’s signal.
“What in the name of wonder, did all that stream of people want at the office?” began she, when Mr. Dill had entered in obedience to it.
“That was the deputation, Miss Cornelia.”
“The deputation to Mr. Archibald. They want him to become their new member.”
“Member of what?” cried she, not guessing at the actual meaning.
“Of parliament, Miss Corny; to replace Mr. Attley. The gentlemen came to solicit him to be put in nomination.”
“Solicit a donkey!” irascibly uttered Miss Corny, for the tidings did not meet her approbation. “Did Archibald turn them out again?”
“He gave them no direct answer, ma’am. He will consider of it between now and tomorrow morning.”
“Consider of it!” shrieked she. “Why, he’d never, never be such a flat as to comply. He go into parliament! What next?”
“Why should he not, Miss Corny? I’m sure I should be proud to see him there.”
Miss Corny gave a sniff. “You are proud of things more odd than even John Dill. Remember that fine shirt front! What has become of it? Is it laid up in lavender?”
“Not exactly in lavender, Miss Corny. It lies in the drawer; for I have never liked to put it on since, after what you said.”
“Why don’t you sell it at half-price, and buy a couple of good useful ones with the money?” returned she, tartly. “Better that than keep the foppish thing as a witness of your folly. Perhaps he’ll be buying embroidered fronts next, if he goes into that idle, do-nothing House of Commons. I’d rather enter myself for six months at the treadmill.”
“Oh, Miss Corny! I don’t think you have well considered it. It’s a great honor, and worthy of him. He will be elevated above us all, as it were, and he deserves to be.”
“Elevate him on a weathercock!” raged Miss Corny. “There, you may go. I’ve heard quite enough.”
Brushing past the old gentleman, leaving him to depart or not, as he might please, Miss Carlyle strode upstairs, flung on her shawl and bonnet, and strode down again. Her servant looked considerably surprised, and addressed her as she crossed the hall.
“Your dinner, ma’am?” he ventured to say.
“What’s my dinner to you?” returned Miss Corny, in her wrath. “You have had yours.”
Away she strode. And thus it happened that she was at East Lynne almost as soon as Mr. Carlyle.
“Where’s Archibald?” began she, without ceremony, the moment she saw Barbara.
“He is here. Is anything the matter?”
Mr. Carlyle, hearing the voice, came out and she pounced upon him with her tongue.
“What’s this about your becoming the new member for West Lynne?”
“West Lynne wishes it,” said Mr. Carlyle. “Sit down, Cornelia.”
“Sit down yourself,” retorted she, keeping on her feet. “I want my question answered. Of course you will decline?”
“On the contrary, I have made up my mind to accept.”
Miss Corny untied the strings of her bonnet, and flung them behind her.
“Have you counted the cost?” she asked, and there was something quite sepulchral in her solemn tone.
“I have given it consideration, Cornelia; both as regards money and time. The expenses are not worth naming, should there be no opposition. And if there is any —”
“Ay!” groaned Miss Corny. “If there is?”
“Well? I am not without a few hundred to spare for the playing,” he said, turning upon her the good-humored light of his fine countenance.
Miss Carlyle emitted some dismal groans.
“That ever I should have lived to see this day! To hear money talked of as though it were dirt. And what’s to become of your business?” she sharply added. “Is that to be let run to rack and ruin, while you are kicking up your heels in that wicked London, under plea of being at the House night after night?”
“Cornelia,” he gravely said, “were I dead, Dill could carry on the business just as well as it is being carried on now. I might go into a foreign country for seven years and come back to find the business as flourishing as ever, for Dill could keep it together. And even were the business to drop off — though I tell you it will not do so — I am independent of it.”
Miss Carlyle faced tartly round upon Barbara.
“Have you been setting him on to this?”
“I think he had made up his mind before he spoke to me. But,” added Barbara, in her truth, “I urged him to accept it.”
“Oh, you did! Nicely moped and miserable you’ll be here, if he goes to London for months on the stretch. You did not think of that, perhaps.”
“But he would not have me here,” said Barbara, her eyelashes becoming wet at the thought, as she unconsciously moved to her husband’s side. “He would take me with him.”
Miss Carlyle made a pause, and looked at them alternately.
“Is that decided?” she asked.
“Of course it is,” laughed Mr. Carlyle, willing to joke the subject and his sister into good-humor. “Would you wish to separate man and wife, Cornelia?”
She made no reply. She rapidly tied her bonnet-strings, the ribbons trembling ominously in her fingers.
“You are not going, Cornelia? You must stay to dinner, now that you are here — it is ready — and we will talk this further over afterward.”
“This has been dinner enough for me for one day,” spoke she, putting on her gloves. “That I should have lived to see my father’s son throw up his business, and change himself into a lazy, stuck-up parliament man!”
“Do stay and dine with us, Cornelia; I think I can subdue your prejudices, if you will let me talk to you.”
“If you wanted to talk to me about it, why did you not come in when you left the office?” cried Miss Corny, in a greater amount of wrath than she had shown yet. And there’s no doubt that, in his not having done so, lay one of the sore points.
“I did not think of it,” said Mr. Carlyle. “I should have come in and told you of it tomorrow morning.”
“I dare say you would,” she ironically answered. “Good evening to you both.”
And, in spite of their persuasions, she quitted the house and went stalking down the avenue.
Two or three days more, and the address of Mr. Carlyle to the inhabitants of West Lynne appeared in the local papers, while the walls and posts convenient were embellished with various colored placards, “Vote for Carlyle.” “Carlyle forever!”
Wonders never cease. Surprises are the lot of man; but perhaps a greater surprise had never been experienced by those who knew what was what, than when it went forth to the world that Sir Francis Levison had converted himself from — from what he was — into a red-hot politician.
Had he been offered the post of prime minister? Or did his conscience smite him, as was the case with a certain gallant captain renowned in song? Neither the one nor the other. The simple fact was, that Sir Francis Levison was in a state of pecuniary embarrassment, and required something to prop him up — some snug sinecure — plenty to get and nothing to do.
Patch himself up he must. But how? He had tried the tables, but luck was against him; he made a desperate venture upon the turf, a grand coup that would have set him on his legs for some time, but the venture turned out the wrong way, and Sir Francis was a defaulter. He began then to think there was nothing for it but to drop into some nice government nest, where, as I have told you, there would be plenty to get and nothing to do. Any place with much to do would not suit him, or he it; he was too empty-headed for work requiring talent; you may have remarked that a man given to Sir Francis Levison’s pursuits generally is.
He dropped into something good, or that promised good — nothing less than the secretaryship to Lord Headthelot, who swayed the ministers in the upper House. But that he was a connection of Lord Headthelot’s he never would have obtained it, and very dubiously the minister consented to try him. Of course a condition was, that he should enter parliament the first opportunity, his vote to be at the disposal of the ministry — rather a shaky ministry — and supposed, by some, to be on its last legs. And this brings us to the present time.
In a handsome drawing-room in Eaton Square, one sunny afternoon, sat a lady, young and handsome. Her eyes were of violet blue, her hair was auburn, her complexion delicate; but there was a stern look of anger, amounting to sullenness, on her well-formed features, and her pretty foot was beating the carpet in passionate impatience. It was Lady Levison.
The doings of the past had been coming home to her for some time now — past doings, be they good or be they ill, are sure to come home, one day or another, and bring their fruits with them.
In the years past — many years past now — Francis Levison had lost his heart — or whatever the thing might be that, with him, did duty for one — to Blanche Challoner. He had despised her once to Lady Isabel — as Lord Thomas says in the old ballad; but that was done to suit his own purpose, for he had never, at any period, cared for Lady Isabel as he had cared for Blanche. He gained her affection in secret — they engaged themselves to each other. Blanche’s sister, Lydia Challoner, two years older than herself suspected it, and taxed Blanche with it. Blanche, true to her compact of keeping it a secret, denied it with many protestations. “She did not care for Captain Levison; rather disliked him, in fact.” “So much the better,” was Miss Challoner’s reply; for she had no respect for Captain Levison, and deemed him an unlikely man to marry.
Years went on, and poor, unhappy Blanche Challoner remained faithful to her love.
He played fast and loose with her — professing attachment for her in secret, and visiting at the house; perhaps he feared an outbreak from her, an exposure that might be anything but pleasant, did he throw off all relations between them. Blanche summoned up her courage and spoke to him, urging the marriage; she had not yet glanced at the fear that his intention of marrying her, had he ever possessed such, was over. Bad men are always cowards. Sir Francis shrank from an explanation, and so far forgot honor as to murmur some indistinct promise that the wedding should be speedy.
Lydia Challoner had married, and been left a widow, well off. She was Mrs. Waring; and at her house resided Blanche. For the girls were orphans. Blanche was beginning to show symptoms of her nearly thirty years; not the years, but the long-continued disappointment, the heart-burnings, were telling upon her. Her hair was thin, her face was pinched, her form had lost its roundness. “Marry her, indeed!” scoffed to himself Sir Francis Levison.
There came to Mrs. Waring’s upon a Christmas visit a younger sister, Alice Challoner, a fair girl of twenty years. She resided generally with an aunt in the country. Far more beautiful was she than Blanche had ever been, and Francis Levison, who had not seen her since she was a child, fell — as he would have called it — in love with her. Love! He became her shadow; he whispered sweet words in her ear; he turned her head giddy with its own vanity, and he offered her marriage. She accepted him, and preparations for the ceremony immediately began. Sir Francis urged speed, and Alice was nothing loth.
And what of Blanche? Blanche was stunned. A despairing stupor took possession of her; and, when she woke from it, desperation set in. She insisted upon an interview with Sir Francis, and evade it he could not, though he tried hard. Will it be believed that he denied the past — that he met with mocking suavity her indignant reminders of what had been between them? “Love! Marriage? Nonsense! Her fancy had been too much at work.” Finally, he defied her to prove that he had regarded her with more than ordinary friendship, or had ever hinted at such a thing as a union.
She could not prove it. She had not so much as a scrap of paper written on by him; she had not a single friend or enemy to come forward and testify that they heard him breathe to her a word of love. He had been too wary for that. Moreover there was her own solemn protestations to her sister Lydia that there was not anything between her and Francis Levison; who would believe her if she veered round now, and avowed these protestations were false? No; she found that she was in a sinking ship; one there was no chance of saving.
But one chance did she determine to try — an appeal to Alice. Blanche Challoner’s eyes were suddenly and rudely opened to the badness of the man, and she was aware now how thoroughly unfit he was to become the husband of her sister. It struck her that only misery could result from the union, and that, if possible, Alice should be saved from entering upon it. Would she have married him herself, then? Yes. But it was a different thing for that fair, fresh young Alice; she had not wasted her life’s best years in waiting for him.
When the family had gone to rest, and the house was quiet, Blanche Challoner proceeded to her sister’s bedroom. Alice had not begun to undress; she was sitting in a comfortable chair before the fire, her feet on the fender, reading a love letter from Sir Francis.
“Alice, I am come to tell you a story,” she said quietly. “Will you hear it?”
“In a minute. Stop a bit,” replied Alice. She finished the perusal of the letter, put it aside, and then spoke again. “What did you say, Blanche? A story?”
Blanche nodded. “Several years ago there was a fair young girl, none too rich, in our station of life. A gentleman, who was none too rich either, sought and gained her love. He could not marry; he was not rich, I say. They loved on in secret, hoping for better times, she wearing out her years and her heart. Oh, Alice! I cannot describe to you how she loved him — how she has continued to love him up to this moment. Through evil report she clung to him tenaciously and tenderly as the vine clings to its trellis, for the world spoke ill of him.”
“Who was the young lady?” interrupted Alice. “Is this a fable of romance, Blanche, or a real history?”
“A real history. I knew her. All those years — years and years, I say — he kept leading her on to love, letting her think that his love was hers. In the course of time he succeeded to a fortune, and the bar to their marriage was over. He was abroad when he came into it, but returned home at once; their intercourse was renewed, and her fading heart woke up once more to life. Still, the marriage did not come on; he said nothing of it, and she spoke to him. Very soon now, should it be, was his answer, and she continued to live on — in hope.”
“Go on, Blanche,” cried Alice, who had grown interested in the tale, never suspecting that it could bear a personal interest.
“Yes, I will go on. Would you believe, Alice, that almost immediately after this last promise, he saw one whom he fancied he should like better, and asked her to be his wife, forsaking the one to whom he was bound by every tie of honor — repudiating all that had been between them, even his own words and promises?”
“How disgraceful! Were they married?”
“They are to be. Would you have such a man?”
“I!” returned Alice, quite indignant at the question. “It is not likely that I would.”
“That man, Alice is Sir Francis Levison.”
Alice Challoner gave a start, and her face became scarlet. “How dare you say so, Blanche? It is not true. Who was the girl, pray? She must have traduced him.”
“She has not traduced him,” was the subdued answer. “The girl was myself.”
An awkward pause. “I know!” cried Alice, throwing back her head resentfully. “He told me I might expect something of this — that you had fancied him in love with you, and were angry because he had chosen me.”
Blanche turned upon her with streaming eyes; she could no longer control her emotion. “Alice, my sister, all the pride is gone out of me; all the reticence that woman loves to observe as to her wrongs and her inward feelings I have broken through for you this night. As sure as there is a heaven above us, I have told you the truth. Until you came I was engaged to Francis Levison.”
An unnatural scene ensued. Blanche, provoked at Alice’s rejection of her words, told all the ill she knew or heard of the man; she dwelt upon his conduct with regard to Lady Isabel Carlyle, his heartless after-treatment of that unhappy lady. Alice was passionate and fiery. She professed not to believe a word of her sister’s wrongs, and as to the other stories, they were no affairs of hers, she said: “what had she to do with his past life?”
But Alice Challoner did believe; her sister’s earnestness and distress, as she told the tale, carried conviction with them. She did not very much care for Sir Francis; he was not entwined round her heart, as he was round Blanche’s; but she was dazzled with the prospect of so good a settlement in life, and she would not give him up. If Blanche broke her heart — why, she must break it. But she need not have mixed taunts and jeers with her refusal to believe; she need not have triumphed openly over Blanche. Was it well done? Was it the work of an affectionate sister! As we sow, so shall we reap. She married Sir Francis Levison, leaving Blanche to her broken heart, or to any other calamity that might grow out of the injustice. And there sat Lady Levison now, her three years of marriage having served to turn her love for Sir Francis into contempt and hate.
A little boy, two years old, the only child of the marriage, was playing about the room. His mother took no notice of him; she was buried in all-absorbing thought — thought which caused her lips to contract, and her brow to scowl. Sir Francis entered, his attitude lounging, his air listless. Lady Levison roused herself, but no pleasant manner of tone was hers, as she set herself to address him.
“I want some money,” she said.
“So do I,” he answered.
An impatient stamp of the foot and a haughty toss. “And I must have it. I must. I told you yesterday that I must. Do you suppose I can go on, without a sixpence of ready money day after day?”
“Do you suppose it is of any use to put yourself in this fury?” retorted Sir Francis. “A dozen times a week do you bother me for money and a dozen times do I tell you I have got none. I have got none for myself. You may as well ask that baby for money as ask me.”
“I wish he had never been born!” passionately uttered Lady Levison; “unless he had had a different father.”
That the last sentence, and the bitter scorn of its tone, would have provoked a reprisal from Sir Francis, his flashing countenance betrayed. But at that moment a servant entered the room.
“I beg your pardon, sir. That man, Brown, forced his way into the hall, and —”
“I can’t see him — I won’t see him!” interrupted Sir Francis backing to the furthest corner of the room, in what looked very like abject terror, as if he had completely lost his presence of mind. Lady Levison’s lips curled.
“We got rid of him, sir, after a dreadful deal of trouble, I was about to say, but while the door was open in the dispute, Mr. Meredith entered. He has gone into the library, sir, and vows he won’t stir till he sees you, whether you are sick or well.”
A moment’s pause, a half-muttered oath, and the Sir Francis quitted the room. The servant retired, and Lady Levison caught up her child.
“Oh, Franky dear,” she wailed forth, burying her face in his warm neck. “I’d leave him for good and all, if I dared; but I fear he might keep you.”
Now, the secret was, that for the last three days Sir Francis had been desperately ill, obliged to keep his bed, and could see nobody, his life depending upon quiet. Such was the report, or something equivalent to it, which had gone in to Lord Headthelot, or rather, to the official office, for that renowned chief was himself out of town; it had also been delivered to all callers at Sir Francis Levison’s house; the royal truth being that Sir Francis was as well as you or I, but, from something that had transpired touching one of his numerous debts, did not dare to show himself. That morning the matter had been arranged — patched up for a time.
“My stars, Levison!” began Mr. Meredith, who was a whipper-in of the ministry, “what a row there is about you! Why, you look as well as ever you were.”
“A great deal better today,” coughed Sir Francis.
“To think that you should have chosen the present moment for skulking! Here have I been dancing attendance at your door, day after day, in a state of incipient fever, enough to put me into a real one, and could neither get admitted nor a letter taken up. I should have blown the house up today and got in amidst the flying debris. By the way, are you and my lady two just now?”
“Two?” growled Sir Francis.
“She was stepping into her carriage yesterday when they turned me from the door, and I made inquiry of her. Her ladyship’s answer was, that she knew nothing either of Francis or his illness.”
“Her ladyship is subject to flights of distemper,” chafed Sir Francis. “What desperate need have you of me, just now? Headthelot’s away and there’s nothing doing.”
“Nothing doing up here; a deal too much doing somewhere else. Attley’s seat’s in the market.”
“And you ought to have been down there about it three or four days ago. Of course you must step into it.”
“Of course I shan’t,” returned Sir Francis. “To represent West Lynne will not suit me.”
“Not suit you? West Lynne! Why, of all places, it is most suitable. It’s close to your own property.”
“If you call ten miles close. I shall not put up for West Lynne, Meredith.”
“Headthelot came up this morning,” said Mr. Meredith.
The information somewhat aroused Sir Francis. “Headthelot? What brings him back?”
“You. I tell you, Levison, there’s a hot row. Headthelot expected you would be at West Lynne days past, and he has come up in an awful rage. Every additional vote we can count in the House is worth its weight in gold; and you, he says are allowing West Lynne to slip through your fingers! You must start for it at once Levison.”
Sir Francis mused. Had the alternative been given him, he would have preferred to represent a certain warm place underground, rather than West Lynne. But, to quit Headthelot, and the snug post he anticipated, would be ruin irretrievable; nothing short of outlawry, or the queen’s prison. It was awfully necessary to get his threatened person into parliament, and he began to turn over in his mind whether he could bring himself to make further acquaintance with West Lynne. “The thing must have blown over for good by this time,” was the result of his cogitations, unconsciously speaking aloud.
“I can understand your reluctance to appear at West Lynne,” cried Mr. Meredith; “the scene, unless I mistake, of that notorious affair of yours. But private feelings must give way to public interests, and the best thing you can do is to start. Headthelot is angry enough as it is. He says, had you been down at first, as you ought to have been, you would have slipped in without opposition, but now there will be a contest.”
Sir Francis looked up sharply. “A contest? Who is going to stand the funds?”
“Pshaw! As if we should let funds be any barrier! Have you heard who is in the field?”
“No,” was the apathetic answer.
“Carlyle!” uttered Sir Francis, startled. “Oh, by George, though! I can’t stand against him.”
“Well, there’s the alternative. If you can’t, Thornton will.”
“I should run no chance. West Lynne would not elect me in preference to him. I’m not sure, indeed, that West Lynne would have me in any case.”
“Nonsense! You know our interest there. Government put in Attley, and it can put you in. Yes, or no, Levison?”
“Yes,” answered Sir Francis.
An hour’s time, and Sir Francis Levison went forth. On his way to be conveyed to West Lynne? Not yet. He turned his steps to Scotland Yard. In considerably less than an hour the following telegram, marked “Secret,” went down from the head office to the superintendent of police at West Lynne.
“Is Otway Bethel at West Lynne? If not; where is he? And when will he be returning to it?”
It elicited a prompt answer.
“Otway Bethel is not at West Lynne. Supposed to be in Norway. Movements uncertain.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55