“This morning Arabel and I, and he with us,” Miss Barrett wrote, “went in a cab to Vere Street where we had a little business, and he followed us as usual into a shop and out of it again, and was at my heels when I stepped up into the carriage. Having turned, I said ‘Flush,’ and Arabel looked round for Flush — there was no Flush! He had been caught up in that moment, from under the wheels, do you understand?” Mr. Browning understood perfectly well. Miss Barrett had forgotten the chain; therefore Flush was stolen. Such, in the year 1846, was the law of Wimpole Street and its neighbourhood.
Nothing, it is true, could exceed the apparent solidity and security of Wimpole Street itself. As far as an invalid could walk or a bath-chair could trundle nothing met the eye but an agreeable prospect of four-storeyed houses, plate-glass windows and mahogany doors. Even a carriage and pair, in the course of an afternoon’s airing, need not, if the coachman were discreet, leave the limits of decorum and respectability. But if you were not an invalid, if you did not possess a carriage and pair, if you were — and many people were — active and able-bodied and fond of walking, then you might see sights and hear language and smell smells, not a stone’s- throw from Wimpole Street, that threw doubts upon the solidity even of Wimpole Street itself. So Mr. Thomas Beames found when about this time he took it into his head to go walking about London. He was surprised; indeed he was shocked. Splendid buildings raised themselves in Westminster, yet just behind them were ruined sheds in which human beings lived herded together above herds of cows — “two in each seven feet of space.” He felt that he ought to tell people what he had seen. Yet how could one describe politely a bedroom in which two or three families lived above a cow-shed, when the cow-shed had no ventilation, when the cows were milked and killed and eaten under the bedroom? That was a task, as Mr. Beames found when he came to attempt it, that taxed all the resources of the English language. And yet he felt that he ought to describe what he had seen in the course of an afternoon’s walk through some of the most aristocratic parishes in London. The risk of typhus was so great. The rich could not know what dangers they were running. He could not altogether hold his tongue when he found what he did find in Westminster and Paddington and Marylebone. For instance, here was an old mansion formerly belonging to some great nobleman. Relics of marble mantelpieces remained. The rooms were panelled and the banisters were carved, and yet the floors were rotten, the walls dripped with filth; hordes of half-naked men and women had taken up their lodging in the old banqueting-halls. Then he walked on. Here an enterprising builder had pulled down the old family mansion. He had run up a jerry-built tenement house in its place. The rain dripped through the roof and the wind blew through the walls. He saw a child dipping a can into a bright-green stream and asked if they drank that water. Yes, and washed in it too, for the landlord only allowed water to be turned on twice a week. Such sights were the more surprising, because one might come upon them in the most sedate and civilised quarters of London —“the most aristocratic parishes have their share.” Behind Miss Barrett’s bedroom, for instance, was one of the worst slums in London. Mixed up with that respectability was this filth. But there were certain quarters, of course, which had long been given over to the poor and were left undisturbed. In Whitechapel, or in a triangular space of ground at the bottom of the Tottenham Court Road, poverty and vice and misery had bred and seethed and propagated their kind for centuries without interference. A dense mass of aged buildings in St. Giles’s was “wellnigh a penal settlement, a pauper metropolis in itself.” Aptly enough, where the poor conglomerated thus, the settlement was called a Rookery. For there human beings swarmed on top of each other as rooks swarm and blacken tree-tops. Only the buildings here were not trees; they were hardly any longer buildings. They were cells of brick intersected by lanes which ran with filth. All day the lanes buzzed with half-dressed human beings; at night there poured back again into the stream the thieves, beggars, and prostitutes who had been plying their trade in the West End. The police could do nothing. No single wayfarer could do anything except hurry through as fast as he could and perhaps drop a hint, as Mr. Beames did, with many quotations, evasions and euphemisms, that all was not quite as it should be. Cholera would come, and perhaps the hint that cholera would give would not be quite so evasive.
But in the summer of 1846 that hint had not yet been given; and the only safe course for those who lived in Wimpole Street and its neighbourhood was to keep strictly within the respectable area and to lead your dog on a chain. If one forgot, as Miss Barrett forgot, one paid the penalty, as Miss Barrett was now to pay it. The terms upon which Wimpole Street lived cheek by jowl with St. Giles’s were laid down. St. Giles’s stole what St. Giles’s could; Wimpole Street paid what Wimpole Street must. Thus Arabel at once “began to comfort me by showing how certain it was that I should recover him for ten pounds at most.” Ten pounds, it was reckoned, was about the price that Mr. Taylor would ask for a cocker spaniel. Mr. Taylor was the head of the gang. As soon as a lady in Wimpole Street lost her dog she went to Mr. Taylor; he named his price, and it was paid; or if not, a brown paper parcel was delivered in Wimpole Street a few days later containing the head and paws of the dog. Such, at least, had been the experience of a lady in the neighbourhood who had tried to make terms with Mr. Taylor. But Miss Barrett of course intended to pay. Therefore when she got home she told her brother Henry, and Henry went to see Mr. Taylor that afternoon. He found him “smoking a cigar in a room with pictures”— Mr. Taylor was said to make an income of two or three thousand a year out of the dogs of Wimpole Street — and Mr. Taylor promised that he would confer with his “Society” and that the dog would be returned next day. Vexatious as it was, and especially annoying at a moment when Miss Barrett needed all her money, such were the inevitable consequences of forgetting in 1846 to keep one’s dog on a chain.
But for Flush things were very different. Flush, Miss Barrett reflected, “doesn’t know that we can recover him”; Flush had never mastered the principles of human society. “All this night he will howl and lament, I know perfectly,” Miss Barrett wrote to Mr. Browning on the afternoon of Tuesday, the 1st September. But while Miss Barrett wrote to Mr. Browning, Flush was going through the most terrible experience of his life. He was bewildered in the extreme. One moment he was in Vere Street, among ribbons and laces; the next he was tumbled head over heels into a bag; jolted rapidly across streets, and at length was tumbled out — here. He found himself in complete darkness. He found himself in chillness and dampness. As his giddiness left him he made out a few shapes in a low dark room — broken chairs, a tumbled mattress. Then he was seized and tied tightly by the leg to some obstacle. Something sprawled on the floor — whether beast or human being, he could not tell. Great boots and draggled skirts kept stumbling in and out. Flies buzzed on scraps of old meat that were decaying on the floor. Children crawled out from dark corners and pinched his ears. He whined, and a heavy hand beat him over the head. He cowered down on the few inches of damp brick against the wall. Now he could see that the floor was crowded with animals of different kinds. Dogs tore and worried a festering bone that they had got between them. Their ribs stood out from their coats — they were half famished, dirty, diseased, uncombed, unbrushed; yet all of them, Flush could see, were dogs of the highest breeding, chained dogs, footmen’s dogs, like himself.
He lay, not daring even to whimper, hour after hour. Thirst was his worst suffering; but one sip of the thick greenish water that stood in a pail near him disgusted him; he would rather die than drink another. Yet a majestic greyhound was drinking greedily. Whenever the door was kicked open he looked up. Miss Barrett — was it Miss Barrett? Had she come at last? But it was only a hairy ruffian, who kicked them all aside and stumbled to a broken chair upon which he flung himself. Then gradually the darkness thickened. He could scarcely make out what shapes those were, on the floor, on the mattress, on the broken chairs. A stump of candle was stuck on the ledge over the fireplace. A flare burnt in the gutter outside. By its flickering, coarse light Flush could see terrible faces passing outside, leering at the window. Then in they came, until the small crowded room became so crowded that he had to shrink back and lie even closer against the wall. These horrible monsters — some were ragged, others were flaring with paint and feathers — squatted on the floor; hunched themselves over the table. They began to drink; they cursed and struck each other. Out tumbled, from the bags that were dropped on the floor, more dogs — lap dogs, setters, pointers with their collars still on them; and a giant cockatoo that flustered and dashed its way from corner to corner shrieking “Pretty Poll,” “Pretty Poll,” with an accent that would have terrified its mistress, a widow in Maida Vale. Then the women’s bags were opened, and out were tossed on to the table bracelets and rings and brooches such as Flush had seen Miss Barrett wear and Miss Henrietta. The demons pawed and clawed them; cursed and quarrelled over them. The dogs barked. The children shrieked, and the splendid cockatoo — such a bird as Flush had often seen pendant in a Wimpole Street window — shrieked “Pretty Poll! Pretty Poll!” faster and faster until a slipper was thrown at it and it flapped its great yellow-stained dove-grey wings in frenzy. Then the candle toppled over and fell. The room was dark. It grew steadily hotter and hotter; the smell, the heat, were unbearable; Flush’s nose burnt; his coat twitched. And still Miss Barrett did not come.
Miss Barrett lay on her sofa in Wimpole Street. She was vexed; she was worried, but she was not seriously alarmed. Of course Flush would suffer; he would whine and bark all night; but it was only a question of a few hours. Mr. Taylor would name his sum; she would pay it; Flush would be returned.
The morning of Wednesday the 2nd September dawned in the rookeries of Whitechapel. The broken windows gradually became smeared with grey. Light fell upon the hairy faces of ruffians lying sprawled upon the floor. Flush woke from a trance that had veiled his eyes and once more realised the truth. This was now the truth — this room, these ruffians, these whining, snapping, tightly tethered dogs, this murk, this dampness. Could it be true that he had been in a shop, with ladies, among ribbons, only yesterday? Was there such a place as Wimpole Street? Was there a room where fresh water sparkled in a purple jar; had he lain on cushions; had he been given a chicken’s wing nicely roasted; and had he been torn with rage and jealousy and bitten a man with yellow gloves? The whole of that life and its emotions floated away, dissolved, became unreal.
Here, as the dusty light filtered in, a woman heaved herself off a sack and staggered out to fetch beer. The drinking and the cursing began again. A fat woman held him up by his ears and pinched his ribs, and some odious joke was made about him — there was a roar of laughter as she threw him on the floor again. The door was kicked open and banged to. Whenever that happened he looked up. Was it Wilson? Could it possibly be Mr. Browning? Or Miss Barrett? But no — it was only another thief, another murderer; he cowered back at the mere sight of those draggled skirts, of those hard, horny boots. Once he tried to gnaw a bone that was hurled his way. But his teeth could not meet in stony flesh and the rank smell disgusted him. His thirst increased and he was forced to lap a little of the green water that had been spilt from the pail. But as Wednesday wore on and he became hotter and more parched and still more sore, lying on the broken boards, one thing merged in another. He scarcely noticed what was happening. It was only when the door opened that he raised his head and looked. No, it was not Miss Barrett.
Miss Barrett, lying on the sofa in Wimpole Street, was becoming anxious. There was some hitch in the proceedings. Taylor had promised that he would go down to Whitechapel on Wednesday afternoon and confer with “the Society.” Yet Wednesday afternoon, Wednesday evening passed and still Taylor did not come. This could only mean, she supposed, that the price was going to be raised — which was inconvenient enough at the moment. Still, of course, she would have to pay it. “I must have my Flush, you know,” she wrote to Mr. Browning. “I can’t run any risk and bargain and haggle.” So she lay on the sofa writing to Mr. Browning and listening for a knock at the door. But Wilson came up with the letters; Wilson came up with the hot water. It was time for bed and Flush had not come.
Thursday the 3rd of September dawned in Whitechapel. The door opened and shut. The red setter who had been whining all night beside Flush on the floor was hauled off by a ruffian in a moleskin vest — to what fate? Was it better to be killed or to stay here? Which was worse — this life or that death? The racket, the hunger and the thirst, the reeking smells of the place — and once, Flush remembered, he had detested the scent of eau de cologne — were fast obliterating any clear image, any single desire. Fragments of old memories began turning in his head. Was that the voice of old Dr. Mitford shouting in the field? Was that Kerenhappock gossiping with the baker at the door? There was a rattling in the room and he thought he heard Miss Mitford tying up a bunch of geraniums. But it was only the wind — for it was stormy today — battering at the brown paper in the broken window pane. It was only some drunken voice raving in the gutter. It was only the old hag in the corner mumbling on and on and on as she fried a herring in a pan over a fire. He had been forgotten and deserted. No help was coming. No voice spoke to him — the parrots cried “Pretty Poll, Pretty Poll” and the canaries kept up their senseless cheeping and chirping.
Then again evening darkened the room; the candle was stuck in its saucer; the coarse light flared outside; hordes of sinister men with bags on their backs, of garish women with painted faces, began to shuffle in at the door and to fling themselves down on the broken beds and tables. Another night had folded its blackness over Whitechapel. And the rain dripped steadily through a hole in the roof and drummed into a pail that had been stood to catch it. Miss Barrett had not come.
Thursday dawned in Wimpole Street. There was no sign of Flush — no message from Taylor. Miss Barrett was very much alarmed. She made enquiries. She summoned her brother Henry, and cross-examined him. She found out that he had tricked her. “The archfield” Taylor had come according to his promise the night before. He had stated his terms — six guineas for the Society and half a guinea for himself. But Henry, instead of telling her, had told Mr. Barrett, with the result, of course, that Mr. Barrett had ordered him not to pay, and to conceal the visit from his sister. Miss Barrett was “very vexed and angry.” She bade her brother to go at once to Mr. Taylor and pay the money. Henry refused and “talked of Papa.” But it was no use talking of Papa, she protested. While they talked of Papa, Flush would be killed. She made up her mind. If Henry would not go, she would go herself: “ . . . if people won’t do as I choose, I shall go down tomorrow morning, and bring Flush back with me,” she wrote to Mr. Browning.
But Miss Barrett now found that it was easier to say this than to do it. It was almost as difficult for her to go to Flush as for Flush to come to her. All Wimpole Street was against her. The news that Flush was stolen and that Taylor demanded a ransom was now public property. Wimpole Street was determined to make a stand against Whitechapel. Blind Mr. Boyd sent word that in his opinion it would be “an awful sin” to pay the ransom. Her father and her brother were in league against her and were capable of any treachery in the interests of their class. But worst of all — far worse — Mr. Browning himself threw all his weight, all his eloquence, all his learning, all his logic, on the side of Wimpole Street and against Flush. If Miss Barrett gave way to Taylor, he wrote, she was giving way to tyranny; she was giving way to blackmailers; she was increasing the power of evil over right, of wickedness over innocence. If she gave Taylor his demand, “ . . . how will the poor owners fare who have not money enough for their dogs’ redemption?” His imagination took fire; he imagined what he would say if Taylor asked him even for five shillings; he would say, “you are responsible for the proceedings of your gang, and you I mark — don’t talk nonsense to me about cutting off heads or paws. Be as sure as that I stand here and tell you, I will spend my whole life in putting you down, the nuisance you declare yourself — and by every imaginable means I will be the death of you and as many of your accomplices as I can discover — but you I have discovered and will never lose sight of. . . . ” So Mr. Browning would have replied to Taylor if he had had the good fortune to meet that gentleman. For indeed, he went on, catching a later post with a second letter that same Thursday afternoon, “. .. it is horrible to fancy how all the oppressors in their several ranks may, if they choose, twitch back to them by the heartstrings after various modes the weak and silent whose secret they have found out.” He did not blame Miss Barrett — nothing she did could be anything but perfectly right, perfectly acceptable to him. Still, he continued on Friday morning, “I think it lamentable weakness. . . . ” If she encouraged Taylor who stole dogs, she encouraged Mr. Barnard Gregory who stole characters. Indirectly, she was responsible for all the wretches who cut their throats or fly the country because some blackmailer like Barnard Gregory took down a directory and blasted their characters. “But why write this string of truisms about the plainest thing in the world?” So Mr. Browning stormed and vociferated from New Cross twice daily.
Lying on her sofa, Miss Barrett read the letters. How easy it could have been to yield — how easy it would have been to say, “Your good opinion is worth more to me than a hundred cocker spaniels.” How easy it would have been to sink back on her pillows and sigh, “I am a weak woman; I know nothing of law and justice; decide for me.” She had only to refuse to pay the ransom; she had only to defy Taylor and his society. And if Flush were killed, if the dreadful parcel came and she opened it and out dropped his head and paws, there was Robert Browning by her side to assure her that she had done right and earned his respect. But Miss Barrett was not to be intimidated. Miss Barrett took up her pen and refuted Robert Browning. It was all very well, she said, to quote Donne; to cite the case of Gregory; to invent spirited replies to Mr. Taylor — she would have done the same had Taylor struck her; had Gregory defamed her — would that they had! But what would Mr. Browning have done if the banditti had stolen her; had her in their power; threatened to cut off her ears and send them by post to New Cross? Whatever he would have done, her mind was made up. Flush was helpless. Her duty was to him. “But Flush, poor Flush, who has loved me so faithfully; have I a right to sacrifice him in his innocence, for the sake of any Mr. Taylor’s guilt in the world?” Whatever Mr. Browning might say, she was going to rescue Flush, even if she went down into the jaws of Whitechapel to fetch him, even if Robert Browning despised her for doing so.
On Saturday, therefore, with Mr. Browning’s letter lying open on the table before her, she began to dress. She read his “one word more — in all this, I labour against the execrable policy of the world’s husbands, fathers, brothers and domineerers in general.” So, if she went to Whitechapel she was siding against Robert Browning, and in favour of fathers, brothers and domineerers in general. Still, she went on dressing. A dog howled in the mews. It was tied up, helpless in the power of cruel men. It seemed to her to cry as it howled: “Think of Flush.” She put on her shoes, her cloak, her hat. She glanced at Mr. Browning’s letter once more. “I am about to marry you,” she read. Still the dog howled. She left her room and went downstairs.
Henry Barrett met her and told her that in his opinion she might well be robbed and murdered if she did what she threatened. She told Wilson to call a cab. All trembling but submissive, Wilson obeyed. The cab came. Miss Barrett told Wilson to get in. Wilson, though convinced that death awaited her, got in. Miss Barrett told the cabman to drive to Manning Street, Shoreditch. Miss Barrett got in herself and off they drove. Soon they were beyond plate-glass windows, the mahogany doors and the area railings. They were in a world that Miss Barrett had never seen, had never guessed at. They were in a world where cows are herded under the bedroom floor, where whole families sleep in rooms with broken windows; in a world where water is turned on only twice a week, in a world where vice and poverty breed vice and poverty. They had come to a region unknown to respectable cab-drivers. The cab stopped; the driver asked his way at a public-house. “Out came two or three men. ‘Oh, you want to find Mr. Taylor, I daresay!’” In this mysterious world a cab with two ladies could only come upon one errand, and that errand was already known. It was sinister in the extreme. One of the men ran into a house, and came out saying that Mr. Taylor “‘wasn’t at home! but wouldn’t I get out?’ Wilson, in an aside of terror, entreated me not to think of such a thing.” A gang of men and boys pressed round the cab. “Then wouldn’t I see Mrs. Taylor?” the man asked. Miss Barrett had no wish whatever to see Mrs. Taylor; but now an immense fat woman came out of the house, “fat enough to have had an easy conscience all her life,” and informed Miss Barrett that her husband was out: “might be in in a few minutes, or in so many hours — wouldn’t I like to get out and wait?” Wilson tugged at her gown. Imagine waiting in the house of that woman! It was bad enough to sit in the cab with the gang of men and boys pressing round them. So Miss Barrett parleyed with the “immense feminine bandit” from the cab. She said Mr. Taylor had her dog; Mr. Taylor had promised to restore her dog; would Mr. Taylor bring back her dog to Wimpole Street for certain that very day? “Oh yes, certainly,” said the fat woman with the most gracious of smiles. She did believe that Taylor had left home precisely on that business. And she “poised her head to right and left with the most easy grace.”
So the cab turned round and left Manning Street, Shoreditch. Wilson was of opinion that “we had escaped with our lives barely.” Miss Barrett herself had been alarmed. “Plain enough it was that the gang was strong there. The society, the ‘Fancy’ . . . had their roots in the ground,” she wrote. Her mind teemed with thoughts, her eyes were full of pictures. This, then, was what lay on the other side of Wimpole Street — these faces, these houses. She had seen more while she sat in the cab at the public-house than she had seen during the five years that she had lain in the back bedroom at Wimpole Street. “The faces of those men!” she exclaimed. They were branded on her eyeballs. They stimulated her imagination as “the divine marble presences,” the busts on the bookcase, had never stimulated it. Here lived women like herself; while she lay on her sofa, reading, writing, they lived thus. But the cab was now trundling along between four-storeyed houses again. Here were the familiar doors and windows: the avenue of pointed brick, the brass knockers, the regular curtains. Here was Wimpole Street and number fifty. Wilson sprang out — with what relief to find herself in safety can be imagined. But Miss Barrett, perhaps, hesitated a moment. She still saw “the faces of those men.” They were to come before her again years later when she was sitting on a sunny balcony in Italy. 5 They were to inspire the most vivid passages in Aurora Leigh. But now the butler had opened the door, and she went upstairs to her room again.
Saturday was the fifth day of Flush’s imprisonment. Almost exhausted, almost hopeless, he lay panting in his dark corner of the teeming floor. Doors slammed and banged. Rough voices cried. Women screamed. Parrots chattered as they had chattered to widows in Maida Vale, but now evil old women merely cursed at them. Insects crawled in his fur, but he was too weak, too indifferent to shake his coat. All Flush’s past life and its many scenes — Reading, the greenhouse, Miss Mitford, Mr. Kenyon, the bookcases, the busts, the peasants on the blind — had faded like snowflakes dissolved in a cauldron. If he still held to hope, it was to something nameless and formless; the featureless face of someone he still called “Miss Barrett.” She still existed; all the rest of the world was gone; but she still existed, though such gulfs lay between them that it was impossible, almost, that she should reach him still. Darkness began to fall again, such darkness as seemed almost able to crush out his last hope — Miss Barrett.
In truth, the forces of Wimpole Street were still, even at this last moment, battling to keep Flush and Miss Barrett apart. On Saturday afternoon she lay and waited for Taylor to come, as the immensely fat woman had promised. At last he came, but he had not brought the dog. He sent up a message — Let Miss Barrett pay him six guineas on the spot, and he would go straight to Whitechapel and fetch the dog “on his word of honour.” What “the archfiend” Taylor’s word of honour might be worth, Miss Barrett could not say; but “there seemed no other way for it”; Flush’s life was at stake; she counted out the guineas and sent them down to Taylor in the passage. But as ill luck would have it, as Taylor waited in the passage among the umbrellas, the engravings, the pile carpet and other valuable objects, Alfred Barrett came in. The sight of the archfiend Taylor actually in the house made him lose his temper. He burst into a rage. He called him “a swindler, and a liar and a thief.” Thereupon Mr. Taylor cursed him back. What was far worse, he swore that “as he hoped to be saved, we should never see our dog again,” and rushed out of the house. Next morning, then, the blood-stained parcel would arrive.
Miss Barrett flung on her clothes again and rushed downstairs. Where was Wilson? Let her call a cab. She was going back to Shoreditch instantly. Her family came running to prevent her. It was getting dark. She was exhausted already. The adventure was risky enough for a man in health. For her it was madness. So they told her. Her brothers, her sisters, all came round her threatening her, dissuading her, “crying out against me for being ‘quite mad’ and obstinate and wilful — I was called as many names as Mr. Taylor.” But she stood her ground. At last they realised the extent of her folly. Whatever the risk might be they must give way to her. Septimus promised if Ba would return to her room “and be in good humour” that he would go to Taylor’s himself and pay the money and bring back the dog.
So the dusk of the 5th of September faded into the blackness of night in Whitechapel. The door of the room was once more kicked open. A hairy man hauled Flush by the scruff of his neck out of his corner. Looking up into the hideous face of his old enemy, Flush did not know whether he was being taken to be killed or to be freed. Save for one phantom memory, he did not care. The man stooped. What were those great fingers fumbling at his throat for? Was it a knife or a chain? Stumbling, half blinded, on legs that staggered, Flush was led out into the open air.
In Wimpole Street Miss Barrett could not eat her dinner. Was Flush dead, or was Flush alive? She did not know. At eight o’clock there was a rap on the door; it was the usual letter from Mr. Browning. But as the door opened to admit the letter, something rushed in also: Flush. He made straight for his purple jar. It was filled three times over; and still he drank. Miss Barrett watched the dazed, bewildered dirty dog, drinking. “He was not so enthusiastic about seeing me as I expected,” she remarked. No, there was only one thing in the world he wanted — clean water.
After all, Miss Barrett had but glanced at the faces of those men and she remembered them all her life. Flush had lain at their mercy in their midst for five whole days. Now as he lay on cushions once more, cold water was the only thing that seemed to have any substance, any reality. He drank continually. The old gods of the bedroom — the bookcase, the wardrobe, the busts — seemed to have lost their substance. This room was no longer the whole world; it was only a shelter; only a dell arched over by one trembling dock-leaf in a forest where wild beasts prowled and venomous snakes coiled; where behind every tree lurked a murderer ready to pounce. As he lay dazed and exhausted on the sofa at Miss Barrett’s feet the howls of tethered dogs, the screams of birds in terror still sounded in his ears. When the door opened he started, expecting a hairy man with a knife — it was only Mr. Kenyon with a book; it was only Mr. Browning with his yellow gloves. But he shrank away from Mr. Kenyon and Mr. Browning now. He trusted them no longer. Behind those smiling, friendly faces were treachery and cruelty and deceit. Their caresses were hollow. He dreaded even walking with Wilson to the pillar-box. He would not stir without his chain. When they said, “‘Poor Flush, did the naughty men take you away?’ he put up his head and moaned and yelled.” A whip cracking sent him bolting down the area-steps into safety. Indoors he crept closer to Miss Barrett on the sofa. She alone had not deserted him. He still kept some faith in her. Gradually some substance returned to her. Exhausted, trembling, dirty and very thin he lay on the sofa at her feet.
As the days passed and the memory of Whitechapel grew fainter, Flush, lying close to Miss Barrett on the sofa, read her feelings more clearly than ever before. They had been parted; now they were together. Indeed they had never been so much akin. Every start she gave, every movement she made, passed through him too. And she seemed now to be perpetually starting and moving. The delivery of a parcel even made her jump. She opened the parcel; with trembling fingers she took out a pair of thick boots. She hid them instantly in the corner of the cupboard. Then she lay down as if nothing had happened; yet something had happened. When they were alone she rose and took a diamond necklace from a drawer. She took out the box that held Mr. Browning’s letters. She laid the boots, the necklace and the letters all in a carpet-box together and then — as if she heard a step on the stair — she pushed the box under the bed and lay down hastily, covering herself with her shawl again. Such signs of secrecy and stealth must herald, Flush felt, some approaching crisis. Were they about to fly together? Were they about to escape together from this awful world of dog-stealers and tyrants? Oh, that it were possible! He trembled and whined with excitement; but in her low voice Miss Barrett bade him be quiet, and instantly he was quiet. She was very quiet too. She lay perfectly still on the sofa directly any of her brothers or sisters came in; she lay and talked to Mr. Barrett as she always lay and talked to Mr. Barrett.
But on Saturday, the 12th of September, Miss Barrett did what Flush had never known her do before. She dressed herself as if to go out directly after breakfast. Moreover, as he watched her dress, Flush knew perfectly well from the expression on her face that he was not to go with her. She was bound on secret business of her own. At ten Wilson came into the room. She also was dressed as if for a walk. They went out together; and Flush lay on the sofa and waited for their return. An hour or so later Miss Barrett came back alone. She did not look at him — she seemed to notice nothing. She drew off her gloves and for a moment he saw a gold ring shine on one of the fingers of her left hand. Then he saw her slip the ring from her hand and hide it in the darkness of a drawer. Then she laid herself down as usual on the sofa. He lay by her side scarcely daring to breathe, for whatever had happened, and something had happened, it must at all costs be concealed.
At all costs the life of the bedroom must go on as usual. Yet everything was different. The very movement of the blind as it drew in and out seemed to Flush like a signal. And as the lights and shadows passed over the busts they too seemed to be hinting and beckoning. Everything in the room seemed to be aware of change; to be prepared for some event. And yet all was silent; all was concealed. The brothers and sisters came in and out as usual; Mr. Barrett came as usual in the evening. He looked as usual to see that the chop was finished, the wine drunk. Miss Barrett talked and laughed and gave no sign when anyone was in the room that she was hiding anything. Yet when they were alone she pulled out the box from under the bed and filled it hastily, stealthily, listening as she did so. And the signs of strain were unmistakable. On Sunday the church bells were ringing. “What bells are those?” somebody asked. “Marylebone Church bells,” said Miss Henrietta. Miss Barrett, Flush saw, went deadly white. But nobody else noticed anything.
So Monday passed, and Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday. Over them all lay a blanket of silence, of eating and talking and lying still on the sofa as usual. Flush, tossing in uneasy sleep, dreamt that they were couched together under ferns and leaves in a vast forest; then the leaves were parted and he woke. It was dark; but in the darkness he saw Wilson come stealthily into the room, and take the box from beneath the bed and quietly carry it outside. This was on Friday night, the 18th of September. All Saturday morning he lay as one lies who knows that at any moment now a handkerchief may drop, a low whistle may sound and the signal will be given for death or for life. He watched Miss Barrett dress herself. At a quarter to four the door opened and Wilson came in. Then the signal was given — Miss Barrett lifted him in her arms. She rose and walked to the door. For a moment they stood looking round the room. There was the sofa and by it Mr. Browning’s armchair. There were the busts and the tables. The sun filtered through the ivy leaves and the blind with peasants walking blew gently out. All was as usual. All seemed to expect a million more such moments to come to them; but for Miss Barrett and Flush this was the last. Very quietly Miss Barrett shut the door.
Very quietly they slipped downstairs, past the drawing-room, the library, the dining-room. All looked as they usually looked; smelt as they usually smelt; all were quiet as if sleeping in the hot September afternoon. On the mat in the hall Catiline lay sleeping too. They gained the front door and very quietly turned the handle. A cab was waiting outside.
“To Hodgson’s,” said Miss Barrett. She spoke almost in a whisper. Flush sat on her knee very still. Not for anything in the whole world would he have broken that tremendous silence.
5 “The faces of those men were to come back to her on a sunny balcony in Italy.” Readers of Aurora Leigh — but since such persons are nonexistent it must be explained that Mrs. Browning wrote a poem of this name, one of the most vivid passages in which (though it suffers from the distortion natural to an artist who sees the object once only from a four-wheeler, with Wilson tugging at her skirts) is the description of a London slum. Clearly Mrs. Browning possessed a fund of curiosity as to human life which was by no means satisfied by the busts of Homer and Chaucer on the washing- stand in the bedroom.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01