Part 3 out of 8
unmoved physiognomy and her readiness to confront any sort of
responsibility, which already characterized her, long before she
became a ruthless theorist. Relieved, his mission accomplished,
Fyne closed hastily the door of the sitting-room.
But before long both Fynes became frightened. After a period of
immobility in the arms of Mrs. Fyne, the girl, who had not said a
word, tore herself out from that slightly rigid embrace. She
struggled dumbly between them, they did not know why, soundless and
ghastly, till she sank exhausted on a couch. Luckily the children
were out with the two nurses. The hotel housemaid helped Mrs. Fyne
to put Flora de Barral to bed. She was as if gone speechless and
insane. She lay on her back, her face white like a piece of paper,
her dark eyes staring at the ceiling, her awful immobility broken by
sudden shivering fits with a loud chattering of teeth in the shadowy
silence of the room, the blinds pulled down, Mrs. Fyne sitting by
patiently, her arms folded, yet inwardly moved by the riddle of that
distress of which she could not guess the word, and saying to
herself: "That child is too emotional--much too emotional to be
ever really sound!" As if anyone not made of stone could be
perfectly sound in this world. And then how sound? In what sense--
to resist what? Force or corruption? And even in the best armour
of steel there are joints a treacherous stroke can always find if
chance gives the opportunity.
General considerations never had the power to trouble Mrs. Fyne
much. The girl not being in a state to be questioned she waited by
the bedside. Fyne had crossed over to the house, his scruples
overcome by his anxiety to discover what really had happened. He
did not have to lift the knocker; the door stood open on the inside
gloom of the hall; he walked into it and saw no one about, the
servants having assembled for a fatuous consultation in the
basement. Fyne's uplifted bass voice startled them down there, the
butler coming up, staring and in his shirt sleeves, very suspicious
at first, and then, on Fyne's explanation that he was the husband of
a lady who had called several times at the house--Miss de Barral's
mother's friend--becoming humanely concerned and communicative, in a
man to man tone, but preserving his trained high-class servant's
voice: "Oh bless you, sir, no! She does not mean to come back.
She told me so herself"--he assured Fyne with a faint shade of
contempt creeping into his tone.
As regards their young lady nobody downstairs had any idea that she
had run out of the house. He dared say they all would have been
willing to do their very best for her, for the time being; but since
she was now with her mother's friends . . .
He fidgeted. He murmured that all this was very unexpected. He
wanted to know what he had better do with letters or telegrams which
might arrive in the course of the day.
"Letters addressed to Miss de Barral, you had better bring over to
my hotel over there," said Fyne beginning to feel extremely worried
about the future. The man said "Yes, sir," adding, "and if a letter
comes addressed to Mrs. . . . "
Fyne stopped him by a gesture. "I don't know . . . Anything you
"Very well, sir."
The butler did not shut the street door after Fyne, but remained on
the doorstep for a while, looking up and down the street in the
spirit of independent expectation like a man who is again his own
master. Mrs. Fyne hearing her husband return came out of the room
where the girl was lying in bed. "No change," she whispered; and
Fyne could only make a hopeless sign of ignorance as to what all
this meant and how it would end.
He feared future complications--naturally; a man of limited means,
in a public position, his time not his own. Yes. He owned to me in
the parlour of my farmhouse that he had been very much concerned
then at the possible consequences. But as he was making this
artless confession I said to myself that, whatever consequences and
complications he might have imagined, the complication from which he
was suffering now could never, never have presented itself to his
mind. Slow but sure (for I conceive that the Book of Destiny has
been written up from the beginning to the last page) it had been
coming for something like six years--and now it had come. The
complication was there! I looked at his unshaken solemnity with the
amused pity we give the victim of a funny if somewhat ill-natured
"Oh hang it," he exclaimed--in no logical connection with what he
had been relating to me. Nevertheless the exclamation was
However at first there were, he admitted, no untoward complications,
no embarrassing consequences. To a telegram in guarded terms
dispatched to de Barral no answer was received for more than twenty-
four hours. This certainly caused the Fynes some anxiety. When the
answer arrived late on the evening of next day it was in the shape
of an elderly man. An unexpected sort of man. Fyne explained to me
with precision that he evidently belonged to what is most
respectable in the lower middle classes. He was calm and slow in
his speech. He was wearing a frock-coat, had grey whiskers meeting
under his chin, and declared on entering that Mr. de Barral was his
cousin. He hastened to add that he had not seen his cousin for many
years, while he looked upon Fyne (who received him alone) with so
much distrust that Fyne felt hurt (the person actually refusing at
first the chair offered to him) and retorted tartly that he, for his
part, had NEVER seen Mr. de Barral, in his life, and that, since the
visitor did not want to sit down, he, Fyne, begged him to state his
business as shortly as possible. The man in black sat down then
with a faint superior smile.
He had come for the girl. His cousin had asked him in a note
delivered by a messenger to go to Brighton at once and take "his
girl" over from a gentleman named Fyne and give her house-room for a
time in his family. And there he was. His business had not allowed
him to come sooner. His business was the manufacture on a large
scale of cardboard boxes. He had two grown-up girls of his own. He
had consulted his wife and so that was all right. The girl would
get a welcome in his home. His home most likely was not what she
had been used to but, etc. etc.
All the time Fyne felt subtly in that man's manner a derisive
disapproval of everything that was not lower middle class, a
profound respect for money, a mean sort of contempt for speculators
that fail, and a conceited satisfaction with his own respectable
With Mrs. Fyne the manner of the obscure cousin of de Barral was but
little less offensive. He looked at her rather slyly but her cold,
decided demeanour impressed him. Mrs. Fyne on her side was simply
appalled by the personage, but did not show it outwardly. Not even
when the man remarked with false simplicity that Florrie--her name
was Florrie wasn't it? would probably miss at first all her grand
friends. And when he was informed that the girl was in bed, not
feeling well at all he showed an unsympathetic alarm. She wasn't an
invalid was she? No. What was the matter with her then?
An extreme distaste for that respectable member of society was
depicted in Fyne's face even as he was telling me of him after all
these years. He was a specimen of precisely the class of which
people like the Fynes have the least experience; and I imagine he
jarred on them painfully. He possessed all the civic virtues in
their very meanest form, and the finishing touch was given by a low
sort of consciousness he manifested of possessing them. His
industry was exemplary. He wished to catch the earliest possible
train next morning. It seems that for seven and twenty years he had
never missed being seated on his office-stool at the factory
punctually at ten o'clock every day. He listened to Mrs. Fyne's
objections with undisguised impatience. Why couldn't Florrie get up
and have her breakfast at eight like other people? In his house the
breakfast was at eight sharp. Mrs. Fyne's polite stoicism overcame
him at last. He had come down at a very great personal
inconvenience, he assured her with displeasure, but he gave up the
The good Fynes didn't dare to look at each other before this
unforeseen but perfectly authorized guardian, the same thought
springing up in their minds: Poor girl! Poor girl! If the women
of the family were like this too! . . . And of course they would be.
Poor girl! But what could they have done even if they had been
prepared to raise objections. The person in the frock-coat had the
father's note; he had shown it to Fyne. Just a request to take care
of the girl--as her nearest relative--without any explanation or a
single allusion to the financial catastrophe, its tone strangely
detached and in its very silence on the point giving occasion to
think that the writer was not uneasy as to the child's future.
Probably it was that very idea which had set the cousin so readily
in motion. Men had come before out of commercial crashes with
estates in the country and a comfortable income, if not for
themselves then for their wives. And if a wife could be made
comfortable by a little dexterous management then why not a
daughter? Yes. This possibility might have been discussed in the
person's household and judged worth acting upon.
The man actually hinted broadly that such was his belief and in face
of Fyne's guarded replies gave him to understand that he was not the
dupe of such reticences. Obviously he looked upon the Fynes as
being disappointed because the girl was taken away from them. They,
by a diplomatic sacrifice in the interests of poor Flora, had asked
the man to dinner. He accepted ungraciously, remarking that he was
not used to late hours. He had generally a bit of supper about
half-past eight or nine. However . . .
He gazed contemptuously round the prettily decorated dining-room.
He wrinkled his nose in a puzzled way at the dishes offered to him
by the waiter but refused none, devouring the food with a great
appetite and drinking ("swilling" Fyne called it) gallons of ginger
beer, which was procured for him (in stone bottles) at his request.
The difficulty of keeping up a conversation with that being
exhausted Mrs. Fyne herself, who had come to the table armed with
adamantine resolution. The only memorable thing he said was when,
in a pause of gorging himself "with these French dishes" he
deliberately let his eyes roam over the little tables occupied by
parties of diners, and remarked that his wife did for a moment think
of coming down with him, but that he was glad she didn't do so.
"She wouldn't have been at all happy seeing all this alcohol about.
Not at all happy," he declared weightily.
"You must have had a charming evening," I said to Fyne, "if I may
judge from the way you have kept the memory green."
"Delightful," he growled with, positively, a flash of anger at the
recollection, but lapsed back into his solemnity at once. After we
had been silent for a while I asked whether the man took away the
girl next day.
Fyne said that he did; in the afternoon, in a fly, with a few
clothes the maid had got together and brought across from the big
house. He only saw Flora again ten minutes before they left for the
railway station, in the Fynes' sitting-room at the hotel. It was a
most painful ten minutes for the Fynes. The respectable citizen
addressed Miss de Barral as "Florrie" and "my dear," remarking to
her that she was not very big "there's not much of you my dear" in a
familiarly disparaging tone. Then turning to Mrs. Fyne, and quite
loud "She's very white in the face. Why's that?" To this Mrs. Fyne
made no reply. She had put the girl's hair up that morning with her
own hands. It changed her very much, observed Fyne. He, naturally,
played a subordinate, merely approving part. All he could do for
Miss de Barral personally was to go downstairs and put her into the
fly himself, while Miss de Barral's nearest relation, having been
shouldered out of the way, stood by, with an umbrella and a little
black bag, watching this proceeding with grim amusement, as it
seemed. It was difficult to guess what the girl thought or what she
felt. She no longer looked a child. She whispered to Fyne a faint
"Thank you," from the fly, and he said to her in very distinct tones
and while still holding her hand: "Pray don't forget to write fully
to my wife in a day or two, Miss de Barral." Then Fyne stepped back
and the cousin climbed into the fly muttering quite audibly: "I
don't think you'll be troubled much with her in the future;" without
however looking at Fyne on whom he did not even bestow a nod. The
fly drove away.
CHAPTER FIVE--THE TEA-PARTY
"Amiable personality," I observed seeing Fyne on the point of
falling into a brown study. But I could not help adding with
meaning: "He hadn't the gift of prophecy though."
Fyne got up suddenly with a muttered "No, evidently not." He was
gloomy, hesitating. I supposed that he would not wish to play chess
that afternoon. This would dispense me from leaving my rooms on a
day much too fine to be wasted in walking exercise. And I was
disappointed when picking up his cap he intimated to me his hope of
seeing me at the cottage about four o'clock--as usual.
"It wouldn't be as usual." I put a particular stress on that
remark. He admitted, after a short reflection, that it would not
be. No. Not as usual. In fact it was his wife who hoped, rather,
for my presence. She had formed a very favourable opinion of my
This was the first I ever heard of it. I had never suspected that
Mrs. Fyne had taken the trouble to distinguish in me the signs of
sagacity or folly. The few words we had exchanged last night in the
excitement--or the bother--of the girl's disappearance, were the
first moderately significant words which had ever passed between us.
I had felt myself always to be in Mrs. Fyne's view her husband's
chess-player and nothing else--a convenience--almost an implement.
"I am highly flattered," I said. "I have always heard that there
are no limits to feminine intuition; and now I am half inclined to
believe it is so. But still I fail to see in what way my sagacity,
practical or otherwise, can be of any service to Mrs. Fyne. One
man's sagacity is very much like any other man's sagacity. And with
you at hand--"
Fyne, manifestly not attending to what I was saying, directed
straight at me his worried solemn eyes and struck in:
"Yes, yes. Very likely. But you will come--won't you?"
I had made up my mind that no Fyne of either sex would make me walk
three miles (there and back to their cottage) on this fine day. If
the Fynes had been an average sociable couple one knows only because
leisure must be got through somehow, I would have made short work of
that special invitation. But they were not that. Their undeniable
humanity had to be acknowledged. At the same time I wanted to have
my own way. So I proposed that I should be allowed the pleasure of
offering them a cup of tea at my rooms.
A short reflective pause--and Fyne accepted eagerly in his own and
his wife's name. A moment after I heard the click of the gate-latch
and then in an ecstasy of barking from his demonstrative dog his
serious head went past my window on the other side of the hedge, its
troubled gaze fixed forward, and the mind inside obviously employed
in earnest speculation of an intricate nature. One at least of his
wife's girl-friends had become more than a mere shadow for him. I
surmised however that it was not of the girl-friend but of his wife
that Fyne was thinking. He was an excellent husband.
I prepared myself for the afternoon's hospitalities, calling in the
farmer's wife and reviewing with her the resources of the house and
the village. She was a helpful woman. But the resources of my
sagacity I did not review. Except in the gross material sense of
the afternoon tea I made no preparations for Mrs. Fyne.
It was impossible for me to make any such preparations. I could not
tell what sort of sustenance she would look for from my sagacity.
And as to taking stock of the wares of my mind no one I imagine is
anxious to do that sort of thing if it can be avoided. A vaguely
grandiose state of mental self-confidence is much too agreeable to
be disturbed recklessly by such a delicate investigation. Perhaps
if I had had a helpful woman at my elbow, a dear, flattering acute,
devoted woman . . . There are in life moments when one positively
regrets not being married. No! I don't exaggerate. I have said--
moments, not years or even days. Moments. The farmer's wife
obviously could not be asked to assist. She could not have been
expected to possess the necessary insight and I doubt whether she
would have known how to be flattering enough. She was being helpful
in her own way, with an extraordinary black bonnet on her head, a
good mile off by that time, trying to discover in the village shops
a piece of eatable cake. The pluck of women! The optimism of the
And she managed to find something which looked eatable. That's all
I know as I had no opportunity to observe the more intimate effects
of that comestible. I myself never eat cake, and Mrs. Fyne, when
she arrived punctually, brought with her no appetite for cake. She
had no appetite for anything. But she had a thirst--the sign of
deep, of tormenting emotion. Yes it was emotion, not the brilliant
sunshine--more brilliant than warm as is the way of our discreet
self-repressed, distinguished, insular sun, which would not turn a
real lady scarlet--not on any account. Mrs. Fyne looked even cool.
She wore a white skirt and coat; a white hat with a large brim
reposed on her smoothly arranged hair. The coat was cut something
like an army mess-jacket and the style suited her. I dare say there
are many youthful subalterns, and not the worst-looking too, who
resemble Mrs. Fyne in the type of face, in the sunburnt complexion,
down to that something alert in bearing. But not many would have
had that aspect breathing a readiness to assume any responsibility
under Heaven. This is the sort of courage which ripens late in life
and of course Mrs. Fyne was of mature years for all her unwrinkled
She looked round the room, told me positively that I was very
comfortable there; to which I assented, humbly, acknowledging my
undeserved good fortune.
"Why undeserved?" she wanted to know.
"I engaged these rooms by letter without asking any questions. It
might have been an abominable hole," I explained to her. "I always
do things like that. I don't like to be bothered. This is no great
proof of sagacity--is it? Sagacious people I believe like to
exercise that faculty. I have heard that they can't even help
showing it in the veriest trifles. It must be very delightful. But
I know nothing of it. I think that I have no sagacity--no practical
Fyne made an inarticulate bass murmur of protest. I asked after the
children whom I had not seen yet since my return from town. They
had been very well. They were always well. Both Fyne and Mrs. Fyne
spoke of the rude health of their children as if it were a result of
moral excellence; in a peculiar tone which seemed to imply some
contempt for people whose children were liable to be unwell at
times. One almost felt inclined to apologize for the inquiry. And
this annoyed me; unreasonably, I admit, because the assumption of
superior merit is not a very exceptional weakness. Anxious to make
myself disagreeable by way of retaliation I observed in accents of
interested civility that the dear girls must have been wondering at
the sudden disappearance of their mother's young friend. Had they
been putting any awkward questions about Miss Smith. Wasn't it as
Miss Smith that Miss de Barral had been introduced to me?
Mrs. Fyne, staring fixedly but also colouring deeper under her tan,
told me that the children had never liked Flora very much. She
hadn't the high spirits which endear grown-ups to healthy children,
Mrs. Fyne explained unflinchingly. Flora had been staying at the
cottage several times before. Mrs. Fyne assured me that she often
found it very difficult to have her in the house.
"But what else could we do?" she exclaimed.
That little cry of distress quite genuine in its inexpressiveness,
altered my feeling towards Mrs. Fyne. It would have been so easy to
have done nothing and to have thought no more about it. My liking
for her began while she was trying to tell me of the night she spent
by the girl's bedside, the night before her departure with her
unprepossessing relative. That Mrs. Fyne found means to comfort the
child I doubt very much. She had not the genius for the task of
undoing that which the hate of an infuriated woman had planned so
You will tell me perhaps that children's impressions are not
durable. That's true enough. But here, child is only a manner of
speaking. The girl was within a few days of her sixteenth birthday;
she was old enough to be matured by the shock. The very effort she
had to make in conveying the impression to Mrs. Fyne, in remembering
the details, in finding adequate words--or any words at all--was in
itself a terribly enlightening, an ageing process. She had talked a
long time, uninterrupted by Mrs. Fyne, childlike enough in her
wonder and pain, pausing now and then to interject the pitiful
query: "It was cruel of her. Wasn't it cruel, Mrs. Fyne?"
For Charley she found excuses. He at any rate had not said
anything, while he had looked very gloomy and miserable. He
couldn't have taken part against his aunt--could he? But after all
he did, when she called upon him, take "that cruel woman away." He
had dragged her out by the arm. She had seen that plainly. She
remembered it. That was it! The woman was mad. "Oh! Mrs. Fyne,
don't tell me she wasn't mad. If you had only seen her face . . . "
But Mrs. Fyne was unflinching in her idea that as much truth as
could be told was due in the way of kindness to the girl, whose fate
she feared would be to live exposed to the hardest realities of
unprivileged existences. She explained to her that there were in
the world evil-minded, selfish people. Unscrupulous people . . .
These two persons had been after her father's money. The best thing
she could do was to forget all about them.
"After papa's money? I don't understand," poor Flora de Barral had
murmured, and lay still as if trying to think it out in the silence
and shadows of the room where only a night-light was burning. Then
she had a long shivering fit while holding tight the hand of Mrs.
Fyne whose patient immobility by the bedside of that brutally
murdered childhood did infinite honour to her humanity. That vigil
must have been the more trying because I could see very well that at
no time did she think the victim particularly charming or
sympathetic. It was a manifestation of pure compassion, of
compassion in itself, so to speak, not many women would have been
capable of displaying with that unflinching steadiness. The
shivering fit over, the girl's next words in an outburst of sobs
were, "Oh! Mrs. Fyne, am I really such a horrid thing as she has
made me out to be?"
"No, no!" protested Mrs. Fyne. "It is your former governess who is
horrid and odious. She is a vile woman. I cannot tell you that she
was mad but I think she must have been beside herself with rage and
full of evil thoughts. You must try not to think of these
abominations, my dear child."
They were not fit for anyone to think of much, Mrs. Fyne commented
to me in a curt positive tone. All that had been very trying. The
girl was like a creature struggling under a net.
"But how can I forget? she called my father a cheat and a swindler!
Do tell me Mrs. Fyne that it isn't true. It can't be true. How can
it be true?"
She sat up in bed with a sudden wild motion as if to jump out and
flee away from the sound of the words which had just passed her own
lips. Mrs. Fyne restrained her, soothed her, induced her at last to
lay her head on her pillow again, assuring her all the time that
nothing this woman had had the cruelty to say deserved to be taken
to heart. The girl, exhausted, cried quietly for a time. It may be
she had noticed something evasive in Mrs. Fyne's assurances. After
a while, without stirring, she whispered brokenly:
"That awful woman told me that all the world would call papa these
awful names. Is it possible? Is it possible?"
Mrs. Fyne kept silent.
"Do say something to me, Mrs. Fyne," the daughter of de Barral
insisted in the same feeble whisper.
Again Mrs. Fyne assured me that it had been very trying. Terribly
trying. "Yes, thanks, I will." She leaned back in the chair with
folded arms while I poured another cup of tea for her, and Fyne went
out to pacify the dog which, tied up under the porch, had become
suddenly very indignant at somebody having the audacity to walk
along the lane. Mrs. Fyne stirred her tea for a long time, drank a
little, put the cup down and said with that air of accepting all the
"Silence would have been unfair. I don't think it would have been
kind either. I told her that she must be prepared for the world
passing a very severe judgment on her father . . . "
"Wasn't it admirable," cried Marlow interrupting his narrative.
"Admirable!" And as I looked dubiously at this unexpected
enthusiasm he started justifying it after his own manner.
"I say admirable because it was so characteristic. It was perfect.
Nothing short of genius could have found better. And this was
nature! As they say of an artist's work: this was a perfect Fyne.
Compassion--judiciousness--something correctly measured. None of
your dishevelled sentiment. And right! You must confess that
nothing could have been more right. I had a mind to shout "Brava!
Brava!" but I did not do that. I took a piece of cake and went out
to bribe the Fyne dog into some sort of self-control. His sharp
comical yapping was unbearable, like stabs through one's brain, and
Fyne's deeply modulated remonstrances abashed the vivacious animal
no more than the deep, patient murmur of the sea abashes a nigger
minstrel on a popular beach. Fyne was beginning to swear at him in
low, sepulchral tones when I appeared. The dog became at once
wildly demonstrative, half strangling himself in his collar, his
eyes and tongue hanging out in the excess of his incomprehensible
affection for me. This was before he caught sight of the cake in my
hand. A series of vertical springs high up in the air followed, and
then, when he got the cake, he instantly lost his interest in
Fyne was slightly vexed with me. As kind a master as any dog could
wish to have, he yet did not approve of cake being given to dogs.
The Fyne dog was supposed to lead a Spartan existence on a diet of
repulsive biscuits with an occasional dry, hygienic, bone thrown in.
Fyne looked down gloomily at the appeased animal, I too looked at
that fool-dog; and (you know how one's memory gets suddenly
stimulated) I was reminded visually, with an almost painful
distinctness, of the ghostly white face of the girl I saw last
accompanied by that dog--deserted by that dog. I almost heard her
distressed voice as if on the verge of resentful tears calling to
the dog, the unsympathetic dog. Perhaps she had not the power of
evoking sympathy, that personal gift of direct appeal to the
feelings. I said to Fyne, mistrusting the supine attitude of the
"Why don't you let him come inside?"
Oh dear no! He couldn't think of it! I might indeed have saved my
breath, I knew it was one of the Fynes' rules of life, part of their
solemnity and responsibility, one of those things that were part of
their unassertive but ever present superiority, that their dog must
not be allowed in. It was most improper to intrude the dog into the
houses of the people they were calling on--if it were only a
careless bachelor in farmhouse lodgings and a personal friend of the
dog. It was out of the question. But they would let him bark one's
sanity away outside one's window. They were strangely consistent in
their lack of imaginative sympathy. I didn't insist but simply led
the way back to the parlour, hoping that no wayfarer would happen
along the lane for the next hour or so to disturb the dog's
Mrs. Fyne seated immovable before the table charged with plates,
cups, jugs, a cold teapot, crumbs, and the general litter of the
entertainment turned her head towards us.
"You see, Mr. Marlow," she said in an unexpectedly confidential
tone: "they are so utterly unsuited for each other."
At the moment I did not know how to apply this remark. I thought at
first of Fyne and the dog. Then I adjusted it to the matter in hand
which was neither more nor less than an elopement. Yes, by Jove!
It was something very much like an elopement--with certain unusual
characteristics of its own which made it in a sense equivocal. With
amused wonder I remembered that my sagacity was requisitioned in
such a connection. How unexpected! But we never know what tests
our gifts may be put to. Sagacity dictated caution first of all. I
believe caution to be the first duty of sagacity. Fyne sat down as
if preparing himself to witness a joust, I thought.
"Do you think so, Mrs. Fyne?" I said sagaciously. "Of course you
are in a position . . . " I was continuing with caution when she
struck out vivaciously for immediate assent.
"Obviously! Clearly! You yourself must admit . . . "
"But, Mrs. Fyne," I remonstrated, "you forget that I don't know your
This argument which was not only sagacious but true, overwhelmingly
true, unanswerably true, seemed to surprise her.
I wondered why. I did not know enough of her brother for the
remotest guess at what he might be like. I had never set eyes on
the man. I didn't know him so completely that by contrast I seemed
to have known Miss de Barral--whom I had seen twice (altogether
about sixty minutes) and with whom I had exchanged about sixty
words--from the cradle so to speak. And perhaps, I thought, looking
down at Mrs. Fyne (I had remained standing) perhaps she thinks that
this ought to be enough for a sagacious assent.
She kept silent; and I looking at her with polite expectation, went
on addressing her mentally in a mood of familiar approval which
would have astonished her had it been audible: You my dear at any
rate are a sincere woman . . . "
"I call a woman sincere," Marlow began again after giving me a cigar
and lighting one himself, "I call a woman sincere when she
volunteers a statement resembling remotely in form what she really
would like to say, what she really thinks ought to be said if it
were not for the necessity to spare the stupid sensitiveness of men.
The women's rougher, simpler, more upright judgment, embraces the
whole truth, which their tact, their mistrust of masculine idealism,
ever prevents them from speaking in its entirety. And their tact is
unerring. We could not stand women speaking the truth. We could
not bear it. It would cause infinite misery and bring about most
awful disturbances in this rather mediocre, but still idealistic
fool's paradise in which each of us lives his own little life--the
unit in the great sum of existence. And they know it. They are
merciful. This generalization does not apply exactly to Mrs. Fyne's
outburst of sincerity in a matter in which neither my affections nor
my vanity were engaged. That's why, may be, she ventured so far.
For a woman she chose to be as open as the day with me. There was
not only the form but almost the whole substance of her thought in
what she said. She believed she could risk it. She had reasoned
somewhat in this way; there's a man, possessing a certain amount of
sagacity . . . "
Marlow paused with a whimsical look at me. The last few words he
had spoken with the cigar in his teeth. He took it out now by an
ample movement of his arm and blew a thin cloud.
"You smile? It would have been more kind to spare my blushes. But
as a matter of fact I need not blush. This is not vanity; it is
analysis. We'll let sagacity stand. But we must also note what
sagacity in this connection stands for. When you see this you shall
see also that there was nothing in it to alarm my modesty. I don't
think Mrs. Fyne credited me with the possession of wisdom tempered
by common sense. And had I had the wisdom of the Seven Sages of
Antiquity, she would not have been moved to confidence or
admiration. The secret scorn of women for the capacity to consider
judiciously and to express profoundly a meditated conclusion is
unbounded. They have no use for these lofty exercises which they
look upon as a sort of purely masculine game--game meaning a
respectable occupation devised to kill time in this man-arranged
life which must be got through somehow. What women's acuteness
really respects are the inept "ideas" and the sheeplike impulses by
which our actions and opinions are determined in matters of real
importance. For if women are not rational they are indeed acute.
Even Mrs. Fyne was acute. The good woman was making up to her
husband's chess-player simply because she had scented in him that
small portion of 'femininity,' that drop of superior essence of
which I am myself aware; which, I gratefully acknowledge, has saved
me from one or two misadventures in my life either ridiculous or
lamentable, I am not very certain which. It matters very little.
Anyhow misadventures. Observe that I say 'femininity,' a privilege-
-not 'feminism,' an attitude. I am not a feminist. It was Fyne who
on certain solemn grounds had adopted that mental attitude; but it
was enough to glance at him sitting on one side, to see that he was
purely masculine to his finger-tips, masculine solidly, densely,
I did glance at him. You don't get your sagacity recognized by a
man's wife without feeling the propriety and even the need to glance
at the man now and again. So I glanced at him. Very masculine. So
much so that "hopelessly" was not the last word of it. He was
helpless. He was bound and delivered by it. And if by the obscure
promptings of my composite temperament I beheld him with malicious
amusement, yet being in fact, by definition and especially from
profound conviction, a man, I could not help sympathizing with him
largely. Seeing him thus disarmed, so completely captive by the
very nature of things I was moved to speak to him kindly.
"Well. And what do you think of it?"
"I don't know. How's one to tell? But I say that the thing is done
now and there's an end of it," said the masculine creature as
bluntly as his innate solemnity permitted.
Mrs. Fyne moved a little in her chair. I turned to her and remarked
gently that this was a charge, a criticism, which was often made.
Some people always ask: What could he see in her? Others wonder
what she could have seen in him? Expressions of unsuitability.
She said with all the emphasis of her quietly folded arms:
"I know perfectly well what Flora has seen in my brother."
I bowed my head to the gust but pursued my point.
"And then the marriage in most cases turns out no worse than the
average, to say the least of it."
Mrs. Fyne was disappointed by the optimistic turn of my sagacity.
She rested her eyes on my face as though in doubt whether I had
enough femininity in my composition to understand the case.
I waited for her to speak. She seemed to be asking herself; Is it
after all, worth while to talk to that man? You understand how
provoking this was. I looked in my mind for something appallingly
stupid to say, with the object of distressing and teasing Mrs. Fyne.
It is humiliating to confess a failure. One would think that a man
of average intelligence could command stupidity at will. But it
isn't so. I suppose it's a special gift or else the difficulty
consists in being relevant. Discovering that I could find no really
telling stupidity, I turned to the next best thing; a platitude. I
advanced, in a common-sense tone, that, surely, in the matter of
marriage a man had only himself to please.
Mrs. Fyne received this without the flutter of an eyelid. Fyne's
masculine breast, as might have been expected, was pierced by that
old, regulation shaft. He grunted most feelingly. I turned to him
with false simplicity. "Don't you agree with me?"
"The very thing I've been telling my wife," he exclaimed in his
extra-manly bass. "We have been discussing--"
A discussion in the Fyne menage! How portentous! Perhaps the very
first difference they had ever had: Mrs. Fyne unflinching and ready
for any responsibility, Fyne solemn and shrinking--the children in
bed upstairs; and outside the dark fields, the shadowy contours of
the land on the starry background of the universe, with the crude
light of the open window like a beacon for the truant who would
never come back now; a truant no longer but a downright fugitive.
Yet a fugitive carrying off spoils. It was the flight of a raider--
or a traitor? This affair of the purloined brother, as I had named
it to myself, had a very puzzling physiognomy. The girl must have
been desperate, I thought, hearing the grave voice of Fyne well
enough but catching the sense of his words not at all, except the
very last words which were:
"Of course, it's extremely distressing."
I looked at him inquisitively. What was distressing him? The
purloining of the son of the poet-tyrant by the daughter of the
financier-convict. Or only, if I may say so, the wind of their
flight disturbing the solemn placidity of the Fynes' domestic
atmosphere. My incertitude did not last long, for he added:
"Mrs. Fyne urges me to go to London at once."
One could guess at, almost see, his profound distaste for the
journey, his distress at a difference of feeling with his wife.
With his serious view of the sublunary comedy Fyne suffered from not
being able to agree solemnly with her sentiment as he was accustomed
to do, in recognition of having had his way in one supreme instance;
when he made her elope with him--the most momentous step imaginable
in a young lady's life. He had been really trying to acknowledge it
by taking the rightness of her feeling for granted on every other
occasion. It had become a sort of habit at last. And it is never
pleasant to break a habit. The man was deeply troubled. I said:
"Really! To go to London!"
He looked dumbly into my eyes. It was pathetic and funny. "And you
of course feel it would be useless," I pursued.
He evidently felt that, though he said nothing. He only went on
blinking at me with a solemn and comical slowness. "Unless it be to
carry there the family's blessing," I went on, indulging my chaffing
humour steadily, in a rather sneaking fashion, for I dared not look
at Mrs. Fyne, to my right. No sound or movement came from that
direction. "You think very naturally that to match mere good, sound
reasons, against the passionate conclusions of love is a waste of
intellect bordering on the absurd."
He looked surprised as if I had discovered something very clever.
He, dear man, had thought of nothing at all.
He simply knew that he did not want to go to London on that mission.
Mere masculine delicacy. In a moment he became enthusiastic.
"Yes! Yes! Exactly. A man in love . . . You hear, my dear? Here
you have an independent opinion--"
"Can anything be more hopeless," I insisted to the fascinated little
Fyne, "than to pit reason against love. I must confess however that
in this case when I think of that poor girl's sharp chin I wonder if
. . . "
My levity was too much for Mrs. Fyne. Still leaning back in her
chair she exclaimed:
As if mysteriously affected by her indignation the absurd Fyne dog
began to bark in the porch. It might have been at a trespassing
bumble-bee however. That animal was capable of any eccentricity.
Fyne got up quickly and went out to him. I think he was glad to
leave us alone to discuss that matter of his journey to London. A
sort of anti-sentimental journey. He, too, apparently, had
confidence in my sagacity. It was touching, this confidence. It
was at any rate more genuine than the confidence his wife pretended
to have in her husband's chess-player, of three successive holidays.
Confidence be hanged! Sagacity--indeed! She had simply marched in
without a shadow of misgiving to make me back her up. But she had
delivered herself into my hands . . . "
Interrupting his narrative Marlow addressed me in his tone between
grim jest and grim earnest:
"Perhaps you didn't know that my character is upon the whole rather
"No, I didn't know," I said with a grin. "That's rather unusual for
a sailor. They always seemed to me the least vindictive body of men
in the world."
"H'm! Simple souls," Marlow muttered moodily. "Want of
opportunity. The world leaves them alone for the most part. For
myself it's towards women that I feel vindictive mostly, in my small
way. I admit that it is small. But then the occasions in
themselves are not great. Mainly I resent that pretence of winding
us round their dear little fingers, as of right. Not that the
result ever amounts to much generally. There are so very few
momentous opportunities. It is the assumption that each of us is a
combination of a kid and an imbecile which I find provoking--in a
small way; in a very small way. You needn't stare as though I were
breathing fire and smoke out of my nostrils. I am not a women-
devouring monster. I am not even what is technically called "a
brute." I hope there's enough of a kid and an imbecile in me to
answer the requirements of some really good woman eventually--some
day . . . Some day. Why do you gasp? You don't suppose I should be
afraid of getting married? That supposition would be offensive . .
"I wouldn't dream of offending you," I said.
"Very well. But meantime please remember that I was not married to
Mrs. Fyne. That lady's little finger was none of my legal property.
I had not run off with it. It was Fyne who had done that thing.
Let him be wound round as much as his backbone could stand--or even
more, for all I cared. His rushing away from the discussion on the
transparent pretence of quieting the dog confirmed my notion of
there being a considerable strain on his elasticity. I confronted
Mrs. Fyne resolved not to assist her in her eminently feminine
occupation of thrusting a stick in the spokes of another woman's
She tried to preserve her calm-eyed superiority. She was familiar
and olympian, fenced in by the tea-table, that excellent symbol of
domestic life in its lighter hour and its perfect security. In a
few severely unadorned words she gave me to understand that she had
ventured to hope for some really helpful suggestion from me. To
this almost chiding declaration--because my vindictiveness seldom
goes further than a bit of teasing--I said that I was really doing
my best. And being a physiognomist . . . "
"Being what?" she interrupted me.
"A physiognomist," I repeated raising my voice a little. "A
physiognomist, Mrs. Fyne. And on the principles of that science a
pointed little chin is a sufficient ground for interference. You
want to interfere--do you not?"
Her eyes grew distinctly bigger. She had never been bantered before
in her life. The late subtle poet's method of making himself
unpleasant was merely savage and abusive. Fyne had been always
solemnly subservient. What other men she knew I cannot tell but I
assume they must have been gentlemanly creatures. The girl-friends
sat at her feet. How could she recognize my intention. She didn't
know what to make of my tone.
"Are you serious in what you say?" she asked slowly. And it was
touching. It was as if a very young, confiding girl had spoken. I
felt myself relenting.
"No. I am not, Mrs. Fyne," I said. "I didn't know I was expected
to be serious as well as sagacious. No. That science is farcical
and therefore I am not serious. It's true that most sciences are
farcical except those which teach us how to put things together."
"The question is how to keep these two people apart," she struck in.
She had recovered. I admired the quickness of women's wit. Mental
agility is a rare perfection. And aren't they agile! Aren't they--
just! And tenacious! When they once get hold you may uproot the
tree but you won't shake them off the branch. In fact the more you
shake . . . But only look at the charm of contradictory perfections!
No wonder men give in--generally. I won't say I was actually
charmed by Mrs. Fyne. I was not delighted with her. What affected
me was not what she displayed but something which she could not
conceal. And that was emotion--nothing less. The form of her
declaration was dry, almost peremptory--but not its tone. Her voice
faltered just the least bit, she smiled faintly; and as we were
looking straight at each other I observed that her eyes were
glistening in a peculiar manner. She was distressed. And indeed
that Mrs. Fyne should have appealed to me at all was in itself the
evidence of her profound distress. "By Jove she's desperate too," I
thought. This discovery was followed by a movement of instinctive
shrinking from this unreasonable and unmasculine affair. They were
all alike, with their supreme interest aroused only by fighting with
each other about some man: a lover, a son, a brother.
"But do you think there's time yet to do anything?" I asked.
She had an impatient movement of her shoulders without detaching
herself from the back of the chair. Time! Of course? It was less
than forty-eight hours since she had followed him to London . . . I
am no great clerk at those matters but I murmured vaguely an
allusion to special licences. We couldn't tell what might have
happened to-day already. But she knew better, scornfully. Nothing
"Nothing's likely to happen before next Friday week,--if then."
This was wonderfully precise. Then after a pause she added that she
should never forgive herself if some effort were not made, an
"To your brother?" I asked.
"Yes. John ought to go to-morrow. Nine o'clock train."
"So early as that!" I said. But I could not find it in my heart to
pursue this discussion in a jocular tone. I submitted to her
several obvious arguments, dictated apparently by common sense but
in reality by my secret compassion. Mrs. Fyne brushed them aside,
with the semi-conscious egoism of all safe, established, existences.
They had known each other so little. Just three weeks. And of that
time, too short for the birth of any serious sentiment, the first
week had to be deducted. They would hardly look at each other to
begin with. Flora barely consented to acknowledge Captain Anthony's
presence. Good morning--good night--that was all--absolutely the
whole extent of their intercourse. Captain Anthony was a silent
man, completely unused to the society of girls of any sort and so
shy in fact that he avoided raising his eyes to her face at the
table. It was perfectly absurd. It was even inconvenient,
embarrassing to her--Mrs. Fyne. After breakfast Flora would go off
by herself for a long walk and Captain Anthony (Mrs. Fyne referred
to him at times also as Roderick) joined the children. But he was
actually too shy to get on terms with his own nieces.
This would have sounded pathetic if I hadn't known the Fyne children
who were at the same time solemn and malicious, and nursed a secret
contempt for all the world. No one could get on terms with those
fresh and comely young monsters! They just tolerated their parents
and seemed to have a sort of mocking understanding among themselves
against all outsiders, yet with no visible affection for each other.
They had the habit of exchanging derisive glances which to a shy man
must have been very trying. They thought their uncle no doubt a
bore and perhaps an ass.
I was not surprised to hear that very soon Anthony formed the habit
of crossing the two neighbouring fields to seek the shade of a clump
of elms at a good distance from the cottage. He lay on the grass
and smoked his pipe all the morning. Mrs. Fyne wondered at her
brother's indolent habits. He had asked for books it is true but
there were but few in the cottage. He read them through in three
days and then continued to lie contentedly on his back with no other
companion but his pipe. Amazing indolence! The live-long morning,
Mrs. Fyne, busy writing upstairs in the cottage, could see him out
of the window. She had a very long sight, and these elms were
grouped on a rise of the ground. His indolence was plainly exposed
to her criticism on a gentle green slope. Mrs. Fyne wondered at it;
she was disgusted too. But having just then 'commenced author,' as
you know, she could not tear herself away from the fascinating
novelty. She let him wallow in his vice. I imagine Captain Anthony
must have had a rather pleasant time in a quiet way. It was, I
remember, a hot dry summer, favourable to contemplative life out of
doors. And Mrs. Fyne was scandalized. Women don't understand the
force of a contemplative temperament. It simply shocks them. They
feel instinctively that it is the one which escapes best the
domination of feminine influences. The dear girls were exchanging
jeering remarks about "lazy uncle Roderick" openly, in her indulgent
hearing. And it was so strange, she told me, because as a boy he
was anything but indolent. On the contrary. Always active.
I remarked that a man of thirty-five was no longer a boy. It was an
obvious remark but she received it without favour. She told me
positively that the best, the nicest men remained boys all their
lives. She was disappointed not to be able to detect anything
boyish in her brother. Very, very sorry. She had not seen him for
fifteen years or thereabouts, except on three or four occasions for
a few hours at a time. No. Not a trace of the boy, he used to be,
left in him.
She fell silent for a moment and I mused idly on the boyhood of
little Fyne. I could not imagine what it might have been like. His
dominant trait was clearly the remnant of still earlier days,
because I've never seen such staring solemnity as Fyne's except in a
very young baby. But where was he all that time? Didn't he suffer
contamination from the indolence of Captain Anthony, I inquired. I
was told that Mr. Fyne was very little at the cottage at the time.
Some colleague of his was convalescing after a severe illness in a
little seaside village in the neighbourhood and Fyne went off every
morning by train to spend the day with the elderly invalid who had
no one to look after him. It was a very praiseworthy excuse for
neglecting his brother-in-law "the son of the poet, you know," with
whom he had nothing in common even in the remotest degree. If
Captain Anthony (Roderick) had been a pedestrian it would have been
sufficient; but he was not. Still, in the afternoon, he went
sometimes for a slow casual stroll, by himself of course, the
children having definitely cold-shouldered him, and his only sister
being busy with that inflammatory book which was to blaze upon the
world a year or more afterwards. It seems however that she was
capable of detaching her eyes from her task now and then, if only
for a moment, because it was from that garret fitted out for a study
that one afternoon she observed her brother and Flora de Barral
coming down the road side by side. They had met somewhere
accidentally (which of them crossed the other's path, as the saying
is, I don't know), and were returning to tea together. She noticed
that they appeared to be conversing without constraint.
"I had the simplicity to be pleased," Mrs. Fyne commented with a dry
little laugh. "Pleased for both their sakes." Captain Anthony
shook off his indolence from that day forth, and accompanied Miss
Flora frequently on her morning walks. Mrs. Fyne remained pleased.
She could now forget them comfortably and give herself up to the
delights of audacious thought and literary composition. Only a week
before the blow fell she, happening to raise her eyes from the
paper, saw two figures seated on the grass under the shade of the
elms. She could make out the white blouse. There could be no
"I suppose they imagined themselves concealed by the hedge. They
forgot no doubt I was working in the garret," she said bitterly.
"Or perhaps they didn't care. They were right. I am rather a
simple person . . . " She laughed again . . . "I was incapable of
suspecting such duplicity."
"Duplicity is a strong word, Mrs. Fyne--isn't it?" I expostulated.
"And considering that Captain Anthony himself . . . "
"Oh well--perhaps," she interrupted me. Her eyes which never
strayed away from mine, her set features, her whole immovable
figure, how well I knew those appearances of a person who has "made
up her mind." A very hopeless condition that, specially in women.
I mistrusted her concession so easily, so stonily made. She
reflected a moment. "Yes. I ought to have said--ingratitude,
After having thus disengaged her brother and pushed the poor girl a
little further off as it were--isn't women's cleverness perfectly
diabolic when they are really put on their mettle?--after having
done these things and also made me feel that I was no match for her,
she went on scrupulously: "One doesn't like to use that word
either. The claim is very small. It's so little one could do for
her. Still . . . "
"I dare say," I exclaimed, throwing diplomacy to the winds. "But
really, Mrs. Fyne, it's impossible to dismiss your brother like this
out of the business . . . "
"She threw herself at his head," Mrs. Fyne uttered firmly.
"He had no business to put his head in the way, then," I retorted
with an angry laugh. I didn't restrain myself because her fixed
stare seemed to express the purpose to daunt me. I was not afraid
of her, but it occurred to me that I was within an ace of drifting
into a downright quarrel with a lady and, besides, my guest. There
was the cold teapot, the emptied cups, emblems of hospitality. It
could not be. I cut short my angry laugh while Mrs. Fyne murmured
with a slight movement of her shoulders, "He! Poor man! Oh come .
. . "
By a great effort of will I found myself able to smile amiably, to
speak with proper softness.
"My dear Mrs. Fyne, you forget that I don't know him--not even by
sight. It's difficult to imagine a victim as passive as all that;
but granting you the (I very nearly said: imbecility, but checked
myself in time) innocence of Captain Anthony, don't you think now,
frankly, that there is a little of your own fault in what has
happened. You bring them together, you leave your brother to
She sat up and leaning her elbow on the table sustained her head in
her open palm casting down her eyes. Compunction? It was indeed a
very off-hand way of treating a brother come to stay for the first
time in fifteen years. I suppose she discovered very soon that she
had nothing in common with that sailor, that stranger, fashioned and
marked by the sea of long voyages. In her strong-minded way she had
scorned pretences, had gone to her writing which interested her
immensely. A very praiseworthy thing your sincere conduct,--if it
didn't at times resemble brutality so much. But I don't think it
was compunction. That sentiment is rare in women . . . "
"Is it?" I interrupted indignantly.
"You know more women than I do," retorted the unabashed Marlow.
"You make it your business to know them--don't you? You go about a
lot amongst all sorts of people. You are a tolerably honest
observer. Well, just try to remember how many instances of
compunction you have seen. I am ready to take your bare word for
it. Compunction! Have you ever seen as much as its shadow? Have
you ever? Just a shadow--a passing shadow! I tell you it is so
rare that you may call it non-existent. They are too passionate.
Too pedantic. Too courageous with themselves--perhaps. No I don't
think for a moment that Mrs. Fyne felt the slightest compunction at
her treatment of her sea-going brother. What HE thought of it who
can tell? It is possible that he wondered why he had been so
insistently urged to come. It is possible that he wondered
bitterly--or contemptuously--or humbly. And it may be that he was
only surprised and bored. Had he been as sincere in his conduct as
his only sister he would have probably taken himself off at the end
of the second day. But perhaps he was afraid of appearing brutal.
I am not far removed from the conviction that between the
sincerities of his sister and of his dear nieces, Captain Anthony of
the Ferndale must have had his loneliness brought home to his bosom
for the first time of his life, at an age, thirty-five or
thereabouts, when one is mature enough to feel the pang of such a
discovery. Angry or simply sad but certainly disillusioned he
wanders about and meets the girl one afternoon and under the sway of
a strong feeling forgets his shyness. This is no supposition. It
is a fact. There was such a meeting in which the shyness must have
perished before we don't know what encouragement, or in the
community of mood made apparent by some casual word. You remember
that Mrs. Fyne saw them one afternoon coming back to the cottage
together. Don't you think that I have hit on the psychology of the
situation? . . . "
"Doubtless . . . " I began to ponder.
"I was very certain of my conclusions at the time," Marlow went on
impatiently. "But don't think for a moment that Mrs. Fyne in her
new attitude and toying thoughtfully with a teaspoon was about to
surrender. She murmured:
"It's the last thing I should have thought could happen."
"You didn't suppose they were romantic enough," I suggested dryly.
She let it pass and with great decision but as if speaking to
"Roderick really must be warned."
She didn't give me the time to ask of what precisely. She raised
her head and addressed me.
"I am surprised and grieved more than I can tell you at Mr. Fyne's
resistance. We have been always completely at one on every
question. And that we should differ now on a point touching my
brother so closely is a most painful surprise to me." Her hand
rattled the teaspoon brusquely by an involuntary movement. "It is
intolerable," she added tempestuously--for Mrs. Fyne that is. I
suppose she had nerves of her own like any other woman.
Under the porch where Fyne had sought refuge with the dog there was
silence. I took it for a proof of deep sagacity. I don't mean on
the part of the dog. He was a confirmed fool.
"You want absolutely to interfere . . . ?" Mrs. Fyne nodded just
perceptibly . . . "Well--for my part . . . but I don't really know
how matters stand at the present time. You have had a letter from
Miss de Barral. What does that letter say?"
"She asks for her valise to be sent to her town address," Mrs. Fyne
uttered reluctantly and stopped. I waited a bit--then exploded.
"Well! What's the matter? Where's the difficulty? Does your
husband object to that? You don't mean to say that he wants you to
appropriate the girl's clothes?"
"Well, but you talk of a painful difference of opinion with your
husband, and then, when I ask for information on the point, you
bring out a valise. And only a few moments ago you reproached me
for not being serious. I wonder who is the serious person of us two
She smiled faintly and in a friendly tone, from which I concluded at
once that she did not mean to show me the girl's letter, she said
that undoubtedly the letter disclosed an understanding between
Captain Anthony and Flora de Barral.
"What understanding?" I pressed her. "An engagement is an
"There is no engagement--not yet," she said decisively. "That
letter, Mr. Marlow, is couched in very vague terms. That is why--"
I interrupted her without ceremony.
"You still hope to interfere to some purpose. Isn't it so? Yes?
But how should you have liked it if anybody had tried to interfere
between you and Mr. Fyne at the time when your understanding with
each other could still have been described in vague terms?"
She had a genuine movement of astonished indignation. It is with
the accent of perfect sincerity that she cried out at me:
"But it isn't at all the same thing! How can you!"
Indeed how could I! The daughter of a poet and the daughter of a
convict are not comparable in the consequences of their conduct if
their necessity may wear at times a similar aspect. Amongst these
consequences I could perceive undesirable cousins for these dear
healthy girls, and such like, possible causes of embarrassment in
"No! You can't be serious," Mrs. Fyne's smouldering resentment
broke out again. "You haven't thought--"
"Oh yes, Mrs. Fyne! I have thought. I am still thinking. I am
even trying to think like you."
"Mr. Marlow," she said earnestly. "Believe me that I really am
thinking of my brother in all this . . . " I assured her that I
quite believed she was. For there is no law of nature making it
impossible to think of more than one person at a time. Then I said:
"She has told him all about herself of course."
"All about her life," assented Mrs. Fyne with an air, however, of
making some mental reservation which I did not pause to investigate.
"Her life!" I repeated. "That girl must have had a mighty bad time
"Horrible," Mrs. Fyne admitted with a ready frankness very
creditable under the circumstances, and a warmth of tone which made
me look at her with a friendly eye. "Horrible! No! You can't
imagine the sort of vulgar people she became dependent on . . . You
know her father never attempted to see her while he was still at
large. After his arrest he instructed that relative of his--the
odious person who took her away from Brighton--not to let his
daughter come to the court during the trial. He refused to hold any
communication with her whatever."
I remembered what Mrs. Fyne had told me before of the view she had
years ago of de Barral clinging to the child at the side of his
wife's grave and later on of these two walking hand in hand the
observed of all eyes by the sea. Pictures from Dickens--pregnant
"A very singular prohibition," remarked Mrs. Fyne after a short
silence. "He seemed to love the child."
She was puzzled. But I surmised that it might have been the
sullenness of a man unconscious of guilt and standing at bay to
fight his "persecutors," as he called them; or else the fear of a
softer emotion weakening his defiant attitude; perhaps, even, it was
a self-denying ordinance, in order to spare the girl the sight of
her father in the dock, accused of cheating, sentenced as a
swindler--proving the possession of a certain moral delicacy.
Mrs. Fyne didn't know what to think. She supposed it might have
been mere callousness. But the people amongst whom the girl had
fallen had positively not a grain of moral delicacy. Of that she
was certain. Mrs. Fyne could not undertake to give me an idea of
their abominable vulgarity. Flora used to tell her something of her
life in that household, over there, down Limehouse way. It was
incredible. It passed Mrs. Fyne's comprehension. It was a sort of
moral savagery which she could not have thought possible.
I, on the contrary, thought it very possible. I could imagine
easily how the poor girl must have been bewildered and hurt at her
reception in that household--envied for her past while delivered
defenceless to the tender mercies of people without any fineness
either of feeling or mind, unable to understand her misery, grossly
curious, mistaking her manner for disdain, her silent shrinking for
pride. The wife of the "odious person" was witless and fatuously
conceited. Of the two girls of the house one was pious and the
other a romp; both were coarse-minded--if they may be credited with
any mind at all. The rather numerous men of the family were dense
and grumpy, or dense and jocose. None in that grubbing lot had
enough humanity to leave her alone. At first she was made much of,
in an offensively patronising manner. The connection with the great
de Barral gratified their vanity even in the moment of the smash.
They dragged her to their place of worship, whatever it might have
been, where the congregation stared at her, and they gave parties to
other beings like themselves at which they exhibited her with
ignoble self-satisfaction. She did not know how to defend herself
from their importunities, insolence and exigencies. She lived
amongst them, a passive victim, quivering in every nerve, as if she
were flayed. After the trial her position became still worse. On
the least occasion and even on no occasions at all she was scolded,
or else taunted with her dependence. The pious girl lectured her on
her defects, the romping girl teased her with contemptuous
references to her accomplishments, and was always trying to pick
insensate quarrels with her about some "fellow" or other. The
mother backed up her girls invariably, adding her own silly,
wounding remarks. I must say they were probably not aware of the
ugliness of their conduct. They were nasty amongst themselves as a
matter of course; their disputes were nauseating in origin, in
manner, in the spirit of mean selfishness. These women, too, seemed
to enjoy greatly any sort of row and were always ready to combine
together to make awful scenes to the luckless girl on incredibly
flimsy pretences. Thus Flora on one occasion had been reduced to
rage and despair, had her most secret feelings lacerated, had
obtained a view of the utmost baseness to which common human nature
can descend--I won't say e propos de bottes as the French would
excellently put it, but literally e propos of some mislaid cheap
lace trimmings for a nightgown the romping one was making for
herself. Yes, that was the origin of one of the grossest scenes
which, in their repetition, must have had a deplorable effect on the
unformed character of the most pitiful of de Barral's victims. I
have it from Mrs. Fyne. The girl turned up at the Fynes' house at
half-past nine on a cold, drizzly evening. She had walked
bareheaded, I believe, just as she ran out of the house, from
somewhere in Poplar to the neighbourhood of Sloane Square--without
stopping, without drawing breath, if only for a sob.
"We were having some people to dinner," said the anxious sister of
She had heard the front door bell and wondered what it might mean.
The parlourmaid managed to whisper to her without attracting
attention. The servants had been frightened by the invasion of that
wild girl in a muddy skirt and with wisps of damp hair sticking to
her pale cheeks. But they had seen her before. This was not the
first occasion, nor yet the last.
Directly she could slip away from her guests Mrs. Fyne ran upstairs.
"I found her in the night nursery crouching on the floor, her head
resting on the cot of the youngest of my girls. The eldest was
sitting up in bed looking at her across the room."
Only a nightlight was burning there. Mrs. Fyne raised her up, took
her over to Mr. Fyne's little dressing-room on the other side of the
landing, to a fire by which she could dry herself, and left her
there. She had to go back to her guests.
A most disagreeable surprise it must have been to the Fynes.
Afterwards they both went up and interviewed the girl. She jumped
up at their entrance. She had shaken her damp hair loose; her eyes
were dry--with the heat of rage.
I can imagine little Fyne solemnly sympathetic, solemnly listening,
solemnly retreating to the marital bedroom. Mrs. Fyne pacified the
girl, and, fortunately, there was a bed which could be made up for
her in the dressing-room.
"But--what could one do after all!" concluded Mrs. Fyne.
And this stereotyped exclamation, expressing the difficulty of the
problem and the readiness (at any rate) of good intentions, made me,
as usual, feel more kindly towards her.
Next morning, very early, long before Fyne had to start for his
office, the "odious personage" turned up, not exactly unexpected
perhaps, but startling all the same, if only by the promptness of
his action. From what Flora herself related to Mrs. Fyne, it seems
that without being very perceptibly less "odious" than his family he
had in a rather mysterious fashion interposed his authority for the
protection of the girl. "Not that he cares," explained Flora. "I
am sure he does not. I could not stand being liked by any of these
people. If I thought he liked me I would drown myself rather than
go back with him."
For of course he had come to take "Florrie" home. The scene was the
dining-room--breakfast interrupted, dishes growing cold, little
Fyne's toast growing leathery, Fyne out of his chair with his back
to the fire, the newspaper on the carpet, servants shut out, Mrs.
Fyne rigid in her place with the girl sitting beside her--the
"odious person," who had bustled in with hardly a greeting, looking
from Fyne to Mrs. Fyne as though he were inwardly amused at
something he knew of them; and then beginning ironically his
discourse. He did not apologize for disturbing Fyne and his "good
lady" at breakfast, because he knew they did not want (with a nod at
the girl) to have more of her than could be helped. He came the
first possible moment because he had his business to attend to. He
wasn't drawing a tip-top salary (this staring at Fyne) in a
luxuriously furnished office. Not he. He had risen to be an
employer of labour and was bound to give a good example.
I believe the fellow was aware of, and enjoyed quietly, the
consternation his presence brought to the bosom of Mr. and Mrs.
Fyne. He turned briskly to the girl. Mrs. Fyne confessed to me
that they had remained all three silent and inanimate. He turned to
the girl: "What's this game, Florrie? You had better give it up.
If you expect me to run all over London looking for you every time
you happen to have a tiff with your auntie and cousins you are
mistaken. I can't afford it."
Tiff--was the sort of definition to take one's breath away, having
regard to the fact that both the word convict and the word pauper
had been used a moment before Flora de Barral ran away from the
quarrel about the lace trimmings. Yes, these very words! So at
least the girl had told Mrs. Fyne the evening before. The word tiff
in connection with her tale had a peculiar savour, a paralysing
effect. Nobody made a sound. The relative of de Barral proceeded
uninterrupted to a display of magnanimity. "Auntie told me to tell
you she's sorry--there! And Amelia (the romping sister) shan't
worry you again. I'll see to that. You ought to be satisfied.
Remember your position."
Emboldened by the utter stillness pervading the room he addressed
himself to Mrs. Fyne with stolid effrontery:
"What I say is that people should be good-natured. She can't stand
being chaffed. She puts on her grand airs. She won't take a bit of
a joke from people as good as herself anyway. We are a plain lot.
We don't like it. And that's how trouble begins."
Insensible to the stony stare of three pairs of eyes, which, if the
stories of our childhood as to the power of the human eye are true,
ought to have been enough to daunt a tiger, that unabashed
manufacturer from the East End fastened his fangs, figuratively
speaking, into the poor girl and prepared to drag her away for a
prey to his cubs of both sexes. "Auntie has thought of sending you
your hat and coat. I've got them outside in the cab."
Mrs. Fyne looked mechanically out of the window. A four-wheeler
stood before the gate under the weeping sky. The driver in his
conical cape and tarpaulin hat, streamed with water. The drooping
horse looked as though it had been fished out, half unconscious,
from a pond. Mrs. Fyne found some relief in looking at that
miserable sight, away from the room in which the voice of the
amiable visitor resounded with a vulgar intonation exhorting the
strayed sheep to return to the delightful fold. "Come, Florrie,
make a move. I can't wait on you all day here."
Mrs. Fyne heard all this without turning her head away from the
window. Fyne on the hearthrug had to listen and to look on too. I
shall not try to form a surmise as to the real nature of the
suspense. Their very goodness must have made it very anxious. The
girl's hands were lying in her lap; her head was lowered as if in
deep thought; and the other went on delivering a sort of homily.
Ingratitude was condemned in it, the sinfulness of pride was pointed
out--together with the proverbial fact that it "goes before a fall."
There were also some sound remarks as to the danger of nonsensical
notions and the disadvantages of a quick temper. It sets one's best
friends against one. "And if anybody ever wanted friends in the
world it's you, my girl." Even respect for parental authority was
invoked. "In the first hour of his trouble your father wrote to me
to take care of you--don't forget it. Yes, to me, just a plain man,
rather than to any of his fine West-End friends. You can't get over
that. And a father's a father no matter what a mess he's got
himself into. You ain't going to throw over your own father--are
It was difficult to say whether he was more absurd than cruel or
more cruel than absurd. Mrs. Fyne, with the fine ear of a woman,
seemed to detect a jeering intention in his meanly unctuous tone,
something more vile than mere cruelty. She glanced quickly over her
shoulder and saw the girl raise her two hands to her head, then let
them fall again on her lap. Fyne in front of the fire was like the
victim of an unholy spell--bereft of motion and speech but obviously
in pain. It was a short pause of perfect silence, and then that
"odious creature" (he must have been really a remarkable individual
in his way) struck out into sarcasm.
"Well? . . . " Again a silence. "If you have fixed it up with the
lady and gentleman present here for your board and lodging you had
better say so. I don't want to interfere in a bargain I know
nothing of. But I wonder how your father will take it when he comes
out . . . or don't you expect him ever to come out?"
At that moment, Mrs. Fyne told me she met the girl's eyes. There
was that in them which made her shut her own. She also felt as
though she would have liked to put her fingers in her ears. She
restrained herself, however; and the "plain man" passed in his
appalling versatility from sarcasm to veiled menace.
"You have--eh? Well and good. But before I go home let me ask you,
my girl, to think if by any chance you throwing us over like this
won't be rather bad for your father later on? Just think it over."
He looked at his victim with an air of cunning mystery. She jumped
up so suddenly that he started back. Mrs. Fyne rose too, and even
the spell was removed from her husband. But the girl dropped again
into the chair and turned her head to look at Mrs. Fyne. This time
it was no accidental meeting of fugitive glances. It was a
deliberate communication. To my question as to its nature Mrs. Fyne
said she did not know. "Was it appealing?" I suggested. "No," she
said. "Was it frightened, angry, crushed, resigned?" "No! No!
Nothing of these." But it had frightened her. She remembered it to
this day. She had been ever since fancying she could detect the
lingering reflection of that look in all the girl's glances. In the
attentive, in the casual--even in the grateful glances--in the
expression of the softest moods.
"Has she her soft moods, then?" I asked with interest.
Mrs Fyne, much moved by her recollections, heeded not my inquiry.
All her mental energy was concentrated on the nature of that
memorable glance. The general tradition of mankind teaches us that
glances occupy a considerable place in the self-expression of women.
Mrs. Fyne was trying honestly to give me some idea, as much perhaps
to satisfy her own uneasiness as my curiosity. She was frowning in
the effort as you see sometimes a child do (what is delightful in
women is that they so often resemble intelligent children--I mean
the crustiest, the sourest, the most battered of them do--at times).
She was frowning, I say, and I was beginning to smile faintly at her
when all at once she came out with something totally unexpected.
"It was horribly merry," she said.
I suppose she must have been satisfied by my sudden gravity because
she looked at me in a friendly manner.
"Yes, Mrs. Fyne," I said, smiling no longer. "I see. It would have
been horrible even on the stage."
"Ah!" she interrupted me--and I really believe her change of
attitude back to folded arms was meant to check a shudder. "But it
wasn't on the stage, and it was not with her lips that she laughed."
"Yes. It must have been horrible," I assented. "And then she had
to go away ultimately--I suppose. You didn't say anything?"
"No," said Mrs. Fyne. "I rang the bell and told one of the maids to
go and bring the hat and coat out of the cab. And then we waited."
I don't think that there ever was such waiting unless possibly in a
jail at some moment or other on the morning of an execution. The
servant appeared with the hat and coat, and then, still as on the
morning of an execution, when the condemned, I believe, is offered a
breakfast, Mrs. Fyne, anxious that the white-faced girl should
swallow something warm (if she could) before leaving her house for
an interminable drive through raw cold air in a damp four-wheeler--
Mrs. Fyne broke the awful silence: "You really must try to eat
something," in her best resolute manner. She turned to the "odious
person" with the same determination. "Perhaps you will sit down and
have a cup of coffee, too."
The worthy "employer of labour" sat down. He might have been awed
by Mrs. Fyne's peremptory manner--for she did not think of
conciliating him then. He sat down, provisionally, like a man who
finds himself much against his will in doubtful company. He
accepted ungraciously the cup handed to him by Mrs. Fyne, took an
unwilling sip or two and put it down as if there were some moral
contamination in the coffee of these "swells." Between whiles he
directed mysteriously inexpressive glances at little Fyne, who, I
gather, had no breakfast that morning at all. Neither had the girl.
She never moved her hands from her lap till her appointed guardian
got up, leaving his cup half full.
"Well. If you don't mean to take advantage of this lady's kind
offer I may just as well take you home at once. I want to begin my
After a few more dumb, leaden-footed minutes while Flora was putting
on her hat and jacket, the Fynes without moving, without saying
anything, saw these two leave the room.
"She never looked back at us," said Mrs. Fyne. "She just followed
him out. I've never had such a crushing impression of the miserable
dependence of girls--of women. This was an extreme case. But a
young man--any man--could have gone to break stones on the roads or
something of that kind--or enlisted--or--"
It was very true. Women can't go forth on the high roads and by-
ways to pick up a living even when dignity, independence, or
existence itself are at stake. But what made me interrupt Mrs.
Fyne's tirade was my profound surprise at the fact of that
respectable citizen being so willing to keep in his home the poor
girl for whom it seemed there was no place in the world. And not
only willing but anxious. I couldn't credit him with generous
impulses. For it seemed obvious to me from what I had learned that,
to put it mildly, he was not an impulsive person.
"I confess that I can't understand his motive," I exclaimed.
"This is exactly what John wondered at, at first," said Mrs. Fyne.
By that time an intimacy--if not exactly confidence--had sprung up
between us which permitted her in this discussion to refer to her
husband as John. "You know he had not opened his lips all that
time," she pursued. "I don't blame his restraint. On the contrary.
What could he have said? I could see he was observing the man very
"And so, Mr. Fyne listened, observed and meditated," I said.
"That's an excellent way of coming to a conclusion. And may I ask
at what conclusion he had managed to arrive? On what ground did he
cease to wonder at the inexplicable? For I can't admit humanity to
be the explanation. It would be too monstrous."
It was nothing of the sort, Mrs. Fyne assured me with some
resentment, as though I had aspersed little Fyne's sanity. Fyne
very sensibly had set himself the mental task of discovering the
self-interest. I should not have thought him capable of so much
cynicism. He said to himself that for people of that sort
(religious fears or the vanity of righteousness put aside) money--
not great wealth, but money, just a little money--is the measure of
virtue, of expediency, of wisdom--of pretty well everything. But
the girl was absolutely destitute. The father was in prison after
the most terribly complete and disgraceful smash of modern times.
And then it dawned upon Fyne that this was just it. The great
smash, in the great dust of vanishing millions! Was it possible
that they all had vanished to the last penny? Wasn't there,
somewhere, something palpable; some fragment of the fabric left?
"That's it," had exclaimed Fyne, startling his wife by this
explosive unseating of his lips less than half an hour after the
departure of de Barral's cousin with de Barral's daughter. It was
still in the dining-room, very near the time for him to go forth
affronting the elements in order to put in another day's work in his
country's service. All he could say at the moment in elucidation of
this breakdown from his usual placid solemnity was:
"The fellow imagines that de Barral has got some plunder put away
This being the theory arrived at by Fyne, his comment on it was that
a good many bankrupts had been known to have taken such a
precaution. It was possible in de Barral's case. Fyne went so far
in his display of cynical pessimism as to say that it was extremely
He explained at length to Mrs. Fyne that de Barral certainly did not
take anyone into his confidence. But the beastly relative had made
up his low mind that it was so. He was selfish and pitiless in his
stupidity, but he had clearly conceived the notion of making a claim
on de Barral when de Barral came out of prison on the strength of
having "looked after" (as he would have himself expressed it) his
daughter. He nursed his hopes, such as they were, in secret, and it
is to be supposed kept them even from his wife.
I could see it very well. That belief accounted for his mysterious
air while he interfered in favour of the girl. He was the only
protector she had. It was as though Flora had been fated to be
always surrounded by treachery and lies stifling every better
impulse, every instinctive aspiration of her soul to trust and to
love. It would have been enough to drive a fine nature into the
madness of universal suspicion--into any sort of madness. I don't
know how far a sense of humour will stand by one. To the foot of
the gallows, perhaps. But from my recollection of Flora de Barral I
feared that she hadn't much sense of humour. She had cried at the
desertion of the absurd Fyne dog. That animal was certainly free
from duplicity. He was frank and simple and ridiculous. The
indignation of the girl at his unhypocritical behaviour had been
funny but not humorous.
As you may imagine I was not very anxious to resume the discussion
on the justice, expediency, effectiveness or what not, of Fyne's
journey to London. It isn't that I was unfaithful to little Fyne
out in the porch with the dog. (They kept amazingly quiet there.
Could they have gone to sleep?) What I felt was that either my
sagacity or my conscience would come out damaged from that campaign.
And no man will willingly put himself in the way of moral damage. I
did not want a war with Mrs. Fyne. I much preferred to hear
something more of the girl. I said:
"And so she went away with that respectable ruffian."
Mrs. Fyne moved her shoulders slightly--"What else could she have
done?" I agreed with her by another hopeless gesture. It isn't so
easy for a girl like Flora de Barral to become a factory hand, a
pathetic seamstress or even a barmaid. She wouldn't have known how
to begin. She was the captive of the meanest conceivable fate. And
she wasn't mean enough for it. It is to be remarked that a good
many people are born curiously unfitted for the fate awaiting them
on this earth. As I don't want you to think that I am unduly
partial to the girl we shall say that she failed decidedly to endear
herself to that simple, virtuous and, I believe, teetotal household.
It's my conviction that an angel would have failed likewise. It's
no use going into details; suffice it to state that before the year
was out she was again at the Fynes' door.
This time she was escorted by a stout youth. His large pale face
wore a smile of inane cunning soured by annoyance. His clothes were
new and the indescribable smartness of their cut, a genre which had
never been obtruded on her notice before, astonished Mrs. Fyne, who
came out into the hall with her hat on; for she was about to go out
to hear a new pianist (a girl) in a friend's house. The youth
addressing Mrs. Fyne easily begged her not to let "that silly thing
go back to us any more." There had been, he said, nothing but
"ructions" at home about her for the last three weeks. Everybody in
the family was heartily sick of quarrelling. His governor had
charged him to bring her to this address and say that the lady and
gentleman were quite welcome to all there was in it. She hadn't
enough sense to appreciate a plain, honest English home and she was
better out of it.
The young, pimply-faced fellow was vexed by this job his governor
had sprung on him. It was the cause of his missing an appointment
for that afternoon with a certain young lady. The lady he was
engaged to. But he meant to dash back and try for a sight of her
that evening yet "if he were to burst over it." "Good-bye, Florrie.
Good luck to you--and I hope I'll never see your face again."
With that he ran out in lover-like haste leaving the hall-door wide
open. Mrs. Fyne had not found a word to say. She had been too much
taken aback even to gasp freely. But she had the presence of mind
to grab the girl's arm just as she, too, was running out into the
street--with the haste, I suppose, of despair and to keep I don't
know what tragic tryst.
"You stopped her with your own hand, Mrs. Fyne," I said. "I presume
she meant to get away. That girl is no comedian--if I am any
"Yes! I had to use some force to drag her in."
Mrs. Fyne had no difficulty in stating the truth. "You see I was in
the very act of letting myself out when these two appeared. So
that, when that unpleasant young man ran off, I found myself alone
with Flora. It was all I could do to hold her in the hall while I
called to the servants to come and shut the door."
As is my habit, or my weakness, or my gift, I don't know which, I
visualized the story for myself. I really can't help it. And the
vision of Mrs. Fyne dressed for a rather special afternoon function,
engaged in wrestling with a wild-eyed, white-faced girl had a
certain dramatic fascination.
"Really!" I murmured.
"Oh! There's no doubt that she struggled," said Mrs. Fyne. She
compressed her lips for a moment and then added: "As to her being a
comedian that's another question."
Mrs. Fyne had returned to her attitude of folded arms. I saw before
me the daughter of the refined poet accepting life whole with its
unavoidable conditions of which one of the first is the instinct of
self-preservation and the egoism of every living creature. "The
fact remains nevertheless that you--yourself--have, in your own
words, pulled her in," I insisted in a jocular tone, with a serious
"What was one to do," exclaimed Mrs. Fyne with almost comic
exasperation. "Are you reproaching me with being too impulsive?"
And she went on telling me that she was not that in the least. One
of the recommendations she always insisted on (to the girl-friends,
I imagine) was to be on guard against impulse. Always! But I had
not been there to see the face of Flora at the time. If I had it
would be haunting me to this day. Nobody unless made of iron would
have allowed a human being with a face like that to rush out alone
into the streets.
"And doesn't it haunt you, Mrs. Fyne?" I asked.
"No, not now," she said implacably. "Perhaps if I had let her go it
might have done . . . Don't conclude, though, that I think she was
playing a comedy then, because after struggling at first she ended
by remaining. She gave up very suddenly. She collapsed in our
arms, mine and the maid's who came running up in response to my
calls, and . . . "
"And the door was then shut," I completed the phrase in my own way.
"Yes, the door was shut," Mrs. Fyne lowered and raised her head
I did not ask her for details. Of one thing I am certain, and that
is that Mrs. Fyne did not go out to the musical function that
afternoon. She was no doubt considerably annoyed at missing the
privilege of hearing privately an interesting young pianist (a girl)
who, since, had become one of the recognized performers. Mrs. Fyne
did not dare leave her house. As to the feelings of little Fyne
when he came home from the office, via his club, just half an hour
before dinner, I have no information. But I venture to affirm that
in the main they were kindly, though it is quite possible that in
the first moment of surprise he had to keep down a swear-word or
The long and the short of it all is that next day the Fynes made up
their minds to take into their confidence a certain wealthy old
lady. With certain old ladies the passing years bring back a sort
of mellowed youthfulness of feeling, an optimistic outlook, liking
for novelty, readiness for experiment. The old lady was very much
interested: "Do let me see the poor thing!" She was accordingly
allowed to see Flora de Barral in Mrs. Fyne's drawing-room on a day
when there was no one else there, and she preached to her with
charming, sympathetic authority: "The only way to deal with our
troubles, my dear child, is to forget them. You must forget yours.
It's very simple. Look at me. I always forget mine. At your age
one ought to be cheerful."
Later on when left alone with Mrs. Fyne she said to that lady: "I
do hope the child will manage to be cheerful. I can't have sad
faces near me. At my age one needs cheerful companions."
And in this hope she carried off Flora de Barral to Bournemouth for
the winter months in the quality of reader and companion. She had
said to her with kindly jocularity: "We shall have a good time
together. I am not a grumpy old woman." But on their return to
London she sought Mrs. Fyne at once. She had discovered that Flora
was not naturally cheerful. When she made efforts to be it was
still worse. The old lady couldn't stand the strain of that. And
then, to have the whole thing out, she could not bear to have for a
companion anyone who did not love her. She was certain that Flora
did not love her. Why? She couldn't say. Moreover, she had caught
the girl looking at her in a peculiar way at times. Oh no!--it was
not an evil look--it was an unusual expression which one could not
understand. And when one remembered that her father was in prison
shut up together with a lot of criminals and so on--it made one
uncomfortable. If the child had only tried to forget her troubles!
But she obviously was incapable or unwilling to do so. And that was
somewhat perverse--wasn't it? Upon the whole, she thought it would
be better perhaps -
Mrs. Fyne assented hurriedly to the unspoken conclusion: "Oh
certainly! Certainly," wondering to herself what was to be done
with Flora next; but she was not very much surprised at the change
in the old lady's view of Flora de Barral. She almost understood
What came next was a German family, the continental acquaintances of
the wife of one of Fyne's colleagues in the Home Office. Flora of
the enigmatical glances was dispatched to them without much
reflection. As it was not considered absolutely necessary to take
them into full confidence, they neither expected the girl to be
specially cheerful nor were they discomposed unduly by the
indescribable quality of her glances. The German woman was quite
ordinary; there were two boys to look after; they were ordinary,
too, I presume; and Flora, I understand, was very attentive to them.
If she taught them anything it must have been by inspiration alone,
for she certainly knew nothing of teaching. But it was mostly
"conversation" which was demanded from her. Flora de Barral
conversing with two small German boys, regularly, industriously,
conscientiously, in order to keep herself alive in the world which
held for her the past we know and the future of an even more
undesirable quality--seems to me a very fantastic combination. But
I believe it was not so bad. She was being, she wrote, mercifully
drugged by her task. She had learned to "converse" all day long,
mechanically, absently, as if in a trance. An uneasy trance it must
have been! Her worst moments were when off duty--alone in the
evening, shut up in her own little room, her dulled thoughts waking
up slowly till she started into the full consciousness of her
position, like a person waking up in contact with something
venomous--a snake, for instance--experiencing a mad impulse to fling
the thing away and run off screaming to hide somewhere.
At this period of her existence Flora de Barral used to write to
Mrs. Fyne not regularly but fairly often. I don't know how long she
would have gone on "conversing" and, incidentally, helping to
supervise the beautifully stocked linen closets of that well-to-do
German household, if the man of it had not developed in the
intervals of his avocations (he was a merchant and a thoroughly
domesticated character) a psychological resemblance to the
Bournemouth old lady. It appeared that he, too, wanted to be loved.
He was not, however, of a conquering temperament--a kiss-snatching,
door-bursting type of libertine. In the very act of straying from
the path of virtue he remained a respectable merchant. It would
have been perhaps better for Flora if he had been a mere brute. But
he set about his sinister enterprise in a sentimental, cautious,
almost paternal manner; and thought he would be safe with a pretty
orphan. The girl for all her experience was still too innocent, and
indeed not yet sufficiently aware of herself as a woman, to mistrust
these masked approaches. She did not see them, in fact. She
thought him sympathetic--the first expressively sympathetic person
she had ever met. She was so innocent that she could not understand
the fury of the German woman. For, as you may imagine, the wifely
penetration was not to be deceived for any great length of time--the
more so that the wife was older than the husband. The man with the
peculiar cowardice of respectability never said a word in Flora's
defence. He stood by and heard her reviled in the most abusive
terms, only nodding and frowning vaguely from time to time. It will
give you the idea of the girl's innocence when I say that at first
she actually thought this storm of indignant reproaches was caused
by the discovery of her real name and her relation to a convict.
She had been sent out under an assumed name--a highly recommended
orphan of honourable parentage. Her distress, her burning cheeks,
her endeavours to express her regret for this deception were taken
for a confession of guilt. "You attempted to bring dishonour to my
home," the German woman screamed at her.
Here's a misunderstanding for you! Flora de Barral, who felt the
shame but did not believe in the guilt of her father, retorted
fiercely, "Nevertheless I am as honourable as you are." And then
the German woman nearly went into a fit from rage. "I shall have
you thrown out into the street."
Flora was not exactly thrown out into the street, I believe, but she
was bundled bag and baggage on board a steamer for London. Did I
tell you these people lived in Hamburg? Well yes--sent to the docks
late on a rainy winter evening in charge of some sneering lackey or
other who behaved to her insolently and left her on deck burning
with indignation, her hair half down, shaking with excitement and,
truth to say, scared as near as possible into hysterics. If it had
not been for the stewardess who, without asking questions, good
soul, took charge of her quietly in the ladies' saloon (luckily it
was empty) it is by no means certain she would ever have reached
England. I can't tell if a straw ever saved a drowning man, but I
know that a mere glance is enough to make despair pause. For in
truth we who are creatures of impulse are not creatures of despair.
Suicide, I suspect, is very often the outcome of mere mental
weariness--not an act of savage energy but the final symptom of
complete collapse. The quiet, matter-of-fact attentions of a ship's
stewardess, who did not seem aware of other human agonies than sea-
sickness, who talked of the probable weather of the passage--it
would be a rough night, she thought--and who insisted in a
professionally busy manner, "Let me make you comfortable down below
at once, miss," as though she were thinking of nothing else but her
tip--was enough to dissipate the shades of death gathering round the
mortal weariness of bewildered thinking which makes the idea of non-
existence welcome so often to the young. Flora de Barral did lie
down, and it may be presumed she slept. At any rate she survived
the voyage across the North Sea and told Mrs. Fyne all about it,
concealing nothing and receiving no rebuke--for Mrs. Fyne's opinions
had a large freedom in their pedantry. She held, I suppose, that a
woman holds an absolute right--or possesses a perfect excuse--to
escape in her own way from a man-mismanaged world.
What is to be noted is that even in London, having had time to take
a reflective view, poor Flora was far from being certain as to the
true inwardness of her violent dismissal. She felt the humiliation
of it with an almost maddened resentment.
"And did you enlighten her on the point?" I ventured to ask.
Mrs. Fyne moved her shoulders with a philosophical acceptance of all
the necessities which ought not to be. Something had to be said,
she murmured. She had told the girl enough to make her come to the
right conclusion by herself.
"And she did?"
"Yes. Of course. She isn't a goose," retorted Mrs. Fyne tartly.
"Then her education is completed," I remarked with some bitterness.
"Don't you think she ought to be given a chance?"
Mrs. Fyne understood my meaning.
"Not this one," she snapped in a quite feminine way. "It's all very
well for you to plead, but I--"
"I do not plead. I simply asked. It seemed natural to ask what you
"It's what I feel that matters. And I can't help my feelings. You
may guess," she added in a softer tone, "that my feelings are mostly
concerned with my brother. We were very fond of each other. The
difference of our ages was not very great. I suppose you know he is
a little younger than I am. He was a sensitive boy. He had the
habit of brooding. It is no use concealing from you that neither of
us was happy at home. You have heard, no doubt . . . Yes? Well, I
was made still more unhappy and hurt--I don't mind telling you that.
He made his way to some distant relations of our mother's people who
I believe were not known to my father at all. I don't wish to judge
I interrupted Mrs. Fyne here. I had heard. Fyne was not very
communicative in general, but he was proud of his father-in-law--
"Carleon Anthony, the poet, you know." Proud of his celebrity
without approving of his character. It was on that account, I
strongly suspect, that he seized with avidity upon the theory of
poetical genius being allied to madness, which he got hold of in
some idiotic book everybody was reading a few years ago. It struck
him as being truth itself--illuminating like the sun. He adopted it
devoutly. He bored me with it sometimes. Once, just to shut him
up, I asked quietly if this theory which he regarded as so
incontrovertible did not cause him some uneasiness about his wife
and the dear girls? He transfixed me with a pitying stare and
requested me in his deep solemn voice to remember the "well-
established fact" that genius was not transmissible.
I said only "Oh! Isn't it?" and he thought he had silenced me by an
unanswerable argument. But he continued to talk of his glorious
father-in-law, and it was in the course of that conversation that he
told me how, when the Liverpool relations of the poet's late wife
naturally addressed themselves to him in considerable concern,
suggesting a friendly consultation as to the boy's future, the
incensed (but always refined) poet wrote in answer a letter of mere
polished badinage which offended mortally the Liverpool people.
This witty outbreak of what was in fact mortification and rage
appeared to them so heartless that they simply kept the boy. They
let him go to sea not because he was in their way but because he
begged hard to be allowed to go.
"Oh! You do know," said Mrs. Fyne after a pause. "Well--I felt
myself very much abandoned. Then his choice of life--so
extraordinary, so unfortunate, I may say. I was very much grieved.
I should have liked him to have been distinguished--or at any rate
to remain in the social sphere where we could have had common
interests, acquaintances, thoughts. Don't think that I am estranged
from him. But the precise truth is that I do not know him. I was
most painfully affected when he was here by the difficulty of
finding a single topic we could discuss together."
While Mrs. Fyne was talking of her brother I let my thoughts wander
out of the room to little Fyne who by leaving me alone with his wife
had, so to speak, entrusted his domestic peace to my honour.
"Well, then, Mrs. Fyne, does it not strike you that it would be
reasonable under the circumstances to let your brother take care of
"And suppose I have grounds to think that he can't take care of
himself in a given instance." She hesitated in a funny, bashful
manner which roused my interest. Then:
"Sailors I believe are very susceptible," she added with forced
I burst into a laugh which only increased the coldness of her
"They are. Immensely! Hopelessly! My dear Mrs. Fyne, you had
better give it up! It only makes your husband miserable."
"And I am quite miserable too. It is really our first difference .
. . "
"Regarding Miss de Barral?" I asked.
"Regarding everything. It's really intolerable that this girl
should be the occasion. I think he really ought to give way."
She turned her chair round a little and picking up the book I had
been reading in the morning began to turn the leaves absently.
Her eyes being off me, I felt I could allow myself to leave the
room. Its atmosphere had become hopeless for little Fyne's domestic
peace. You may smile. But to the solemn all things are solemn. I
had enough sagacity to understand that.
I slipped out into the porch. The dog was slumbering at Fyne's
feet. The muscular little man leaning on his elbow and gazing over
the fields presented a forlorn figure. He turned his head quickly,
but seeing I was alone, relapsed into his moody contemplation of the
I said loudly and distinctly: "I've come out to smoke a cigarette,"
and sat down near him on the little bench. Then lowering my voice:
"Tolerance is an extremely difficult virtue," I said. "More
difficult for some than heroism. More difficult than compassion."
I avoided looking at him. I knew well enough that he would not like
this opening. General ideas were not to his taste. He mistrusted
them. I lighted a cigarette, not that I wanted to smoke, but to
give another moment to the consideration of the advice--the
diplomatic advice I had made up my mind to bowl him over with. And
I continued in subdued tones.
"I have been led to make these remarks by what I have discovered
since you left us. I suspected from the first. And now I am
certain. What your wife cannot tolerate in this affair is Miss de
Barral being what she is."
He made a movement, but I kept my eyes away from him and went on
steadily. "That is--her being a woman. I have some idea of Mrs.
Fyne's mental attitude towards society with its injustices, with its
atrocious or ridiculous conventions. As against them there is no
audacity of action your wife's mind refuses to sanction. The
doctrine which I imagine she stuffs into the pretty heads of your
girl-guests is almost vengeful. A sort of moral fire-and-sword
doctrine. How far the lesson is wise is not for me to say. I don't
permit myself to judge. I seem to see her very delightful disciples
singeing themselves with the torches, and cutting their fingers with