This etext was produced by Pat Castevans
By George Meredith
XXI. GIVES A GLIMPSE OF WHAT POOR VILLANIES THE STORY CONTAINS XXII. EDWARD TAKES HIS COURSE
XXIII. MAJOR PERCY WARING
XXIV. WARBEACH VILLAGE CHURCH
XXV. OF THE FEARFUL TEMPTATION WHICH CAME UPON ANTHONY HACKBUT, AND OF HIS MEETING WITH DAHLIA
XXVI. IN THE PARK
XXVII. CONTAINS A STUDY OF A FOOL IN TROUBLE XXVIII. EDWARD’S LETTER
XXIX. FURTHERMORE OF THE FOOL
Mrs. Boulby’s ears had not deceived her; it had been a bet: and the day would have gone disastrously with Robert, if Mrs. Lovell had not won her bet. What was heroism to Warbeach, appeared very outrageous blackguardism up at Fairly. It was there believed by the gentlemen, though rather against evidence, that the man was a sturdy ruffian, and an infuriated sot. The first suggestion was to drag him before the magistrates; but against this Algernon protested, declaring his readiness to defend himself, with so vehement a magnanimity, that it was clearly seen the man had a claim on him. Lord Elling, however, when he was told of these systematic assaults upon one of his guests, announced his resolve to bring the law into operation. Algernon heard it as the knell to his visit.
He was too happy, to go away willingly; and the great Jew City of London was exceedingly hot for him at that period; but to stay and risk an exposure of his extinct military career, was not possible. In his despair, he took Mrs. Lovell entirely into his confidence; in doing which, he only filled up the outlines of what she already knew concerning Edward. He was too useful to the lady for her to afford to let him go. No other youth called her “angel” for listening complacently to strange stories of men and their dilemmas; no one fetched and carried for her like Algernon; and she was a woman who cherished dog-like adoration, and could not part with it. She had also the will to reward it.
At her intercession, Robert was spared an introduction to the magistrates. She made light of his misdemeanours, assuring everybody that so splendid a horseman deserved to be dealt with differently from other offenders. The gentlemen who waited upon Farmer Eccles went in obedience to her orders.
Then came the scene on Ditley Marsh, described to that assembly at the Pilot, by Stephen Bilton, when she perceived that Robert was manageable in silken trammels, and made a bet that she would show him tamed. She won her bet, and saved the gentlemen from soiling their hands, for which they had conceived a pressing necessity, and they thanked her, and paid their money over to Algernon, whom she constituted her treasurer. She was called “the man-tamer,” gracefully acknowledging the compliment. Colonel Barclay, the moustachioed horseman, who had spoken the few words to Robert in passing, now remarked that there was an end of the military profession.
“I surrender my sword,” he said gallantly.
Another declared that ladies would now act in lieu of causing an appeal to arms.
“Similia similibus, &c.,” said Edward. “They can, apparently, cure what they originate.”
“Ah, the poor sex!” Mrs. Lovell sighed. “When we bring the millennium to you, I believe you will still have a word against Eve.”
The whole parade back to the stables was marked by pretty speeches.
“By Jove! but he ought to have gone down on his knees, like a horse when you’ve tamed him,” said Lord Suckling, the young guardsman.
“I would mark a distinction between a horse and a brave man, Lord Suckling,” said the lady; and such was Mrs. Lovell’s dignity when an allusion to Robert was forced on her, and her wit and ease were so admirable, that none of those who rode with her thought of sitting in judgement on her conduct. Women can make for themselves new spheres, new laws, if they will assume their right to be eccentric as an unquestionable thing, and always reserve a season for showing forth like the conventional women of society.
The evening was Mrs. Lovell’s time for this important re-establishment of her position; and many a silly youth who had sailed pleasantly with her all the day, was wrecked when he tried to carry on the topics where she reigned the lady of the drawing-room. Moreover, not being eccentric from vanity, but simply to accommodate what had once been her tastes, and were now her necessities, she avoided slang, and all the insignia of eccentricity.
Thus she mastered the secret of keeping the young men respectfully enthusiastic; so that their irrepressible praises did not (as is usual when these are in acclamation) drag her to their level; and the female world, with which she was perfectly feminine, and as silkenly insipid every evening of her life as was needed to restore her reputation, admitted that she belonged to it, which is everything to an adventurous spirit of that sex: indeed, the sole secure basis of operations.
You are aware that men’s faith in a woman whom her sisters discountenance, and partially repudiate, is uneasy, however deeply they may be charmed. On the other hand, she maybe guilty of prodigious oddities without much disturbing their reverence, while she is in the feminine circle.
But what fatal breath was it coming from Mrs. Lovell that was always inflaming men to mutual animosity? What encouragement had she given to Algernon, that Lord Suckling should be jealous of him? And what to Lord Suckling, that Algernon should loathe the sight of the young lord? And why was each desirous of showing his manhood in combat before an eminent peacemaker?
Edward laughed–“Ah-ha!” and rubbed his hands as at a special confirmation of his prophecy, when Algernon came into his room and said, “I shall fight that fellow Suckling. Hang me if I can stand his impudence! I want to have a shot at a man of my own set, just to let Peggy Lovell see! I know what she thinks.”
“Just to let Mrs. Lovell see!” Edward echoed. “She has seen it lots of times, my dear Algy. Come; this looks lively. I was sure she would soon be sick of the water-gruel of peace.”
“I tell you she’s got nothing to do with it, Ned. Don’t be confoundedly unjust. She didn’t tell me to go and seek him. How can she help his whispering to her? And then she looks over at me, and I swear I’m not going to be defended by a woman. She must fancy I haven’t got the pluck of a flea. I know what her idea of young fellows is. Why, she said to me, when Suckling went off from her, the other day, “These are our Guards.” I shall fight him.”
“Do,” said Edward.
“Will you take a challenge?”
“I’m a lawyer, Mr. Mars.”
“You won’t take a challenge for a friend, when he’s insulted?”
“I reply again, I am a lawyer. But this is what I’ll do, if you like. I’ll go to Mrs. Lovely and inform her that it is your desire to gain her esteem by fighting with pistols. That will accomplish the purpose you seek. It will possibly disappoint her, for she will have to stop the affair; but women are born to be disappointed–they want so much.”
“I’ll fight him some way or other,” said Algernon, glowering; and then his face became bright: “I say, didn’t she manage that business beautifully this morning? Not another woman in the world could have done it.”
“Oh, Una and the Lion! Mrs. Valentine and Orson! Did you bet with the rest?” his cousin asked.
“I lost my tenner; but what’s that!”
“There will be an additional five to hand over to the man Sedgett. What’s that!”
“No, hang it!” Algernon shouted.
“You’ve paid your ten for the shadow cheerfully. Pay your five for the substance.”
“Do you mean to say that Sedgett–” Algernon stared.
“Miracles, if you come to examine them, Algy, have generally had a pathway prepared for them; and the miracle of the power of female persuasion exhibited this morning was not quite independent of the preliminary agency of a scoundrel.”
“So that’s why you didn’t bet.” Algernon signified the opening of his intelligence with his eyelids, pronouncing “by jingos” and “by Joves,” to ease the sudden rush of ideas within him. “You might have let me into the secret, Ned. I’d lose any number of tens to Peggy Lovell, but a fellow don’t like to be in the dark.”
“Except, Algy, that when you carry light, you’re a general illuminator. Let the matter drop. Sedgett has saved you from annoyance. Take him his five pounds.”
“Annoyance be hanged, my good Ned!” Algernon was aroused to reply. “I don’t complain, and I’ve done my best to stand in front of you; and as you’ve settled the fellow, I say nothing; but, between us two, who’s the guilty party, and who’s the victim?”
“Didn’t he tell you he had you in his power?”
“I don’t remember that he did.”
“Well, I heard him. The sturdy cur refused to be bribed, so there was only one way of quieting him; and you see what a thrashing does for that sort of beast. I, Algy, never abandon a friend; mark that. Take the five pounds to Sedgett.”
Algernon strode about the room. “First of all, you stick me up in a theatre, so that I’m seen with a girl; and then you get behind me, and let me be pelted,” he began grumbling. “And ask a fellow for money, who hasn’t a farthing! I shan’t literally have a farthing till that horse ‘Templemore’ runs; and then, by George! I’ll pay my debts. Jews are awful things!”
“How much do you require at present?” said Edward, provoking his appetite for a loan.
“Oh, fifty–that is, just now. More like a thousand when I get to town. And where it’s to come from! but never mind. ‘Pon my soul, I pity the fox I run down here. I feel I’m exactly in his case in London. However, if I can do you any service, Ned–“
Edward laughed. “You might have done me the service of not excusing yourself to the squire when he came here, in such a way as to implicate me.”
“But I was so tremendously badgered, Ned.”
“You had a sort of gratification in letting the squire crow over his brother. And he did crow for a time.”
“On my honour, Ned, as to crowing! he went away cursing at me. Peggy Lovell managed it somehow for you. I was really awfully badgered.”
“Yes; but you know what a man my father is. He hasn’t the squire’s philosophy in those affairs.”
“‘Pon my soul, Mr. Ned, I never guessed it before; but I rather fancy you got clear with Sir Billy the banker by washing in my basin–eh, did you?”
Edward looked straight at his cousin, saying, “You deserved worse than that. You were treacherous. You proved you were not to be trusted; and yet, you see, I trust you. Call it my folly. Of course (and I don’t mind telling you) I used my wits to turn the point of the attack. I may be what they call unscrupulous when I’m surprised. I have to look to money as well as you; and if my father thought it went in a–what he considers–wrong direction, the source would be choked by paternal morality. You betrayed me. Listen.”
“I tell you, Ned, I merely said to my governor–“
“Listen to me. You betrayed me. I defended myself; that is, I’ve managed so that I may still be of service to you. It was a near shave; but you now see the value of having a character with one’s father. Just open my writing-desk there, and toss out the cheque-book. I confess I can’t see why you should have objected–but let that pass. How much do you want? Fifty? Say forty-five, and five I’ll give you to pay to Sedgett–making fifty. Eighty before, and fifty–one hundred and thirty. Write that you owe me that sum, on a piece of paper. I can’t see why you should wish to appear so uncommonly virtuous.”
Algernon scribbled the written acknowledgment, which he despised himself for giving, and the receiver for taking, but was always ready to give for the money, and said, as he put the cheque in his purse: “It was this infernal fellow completely upset me. If you were worried by a bull-dog, by Jove, Ned, you’d lose your coolness. He bothered my head off. Ask me now, and I’ll do anything on earth for you. My back’s broad. Sir Billy can’t think worse of me than he does. Do you want to break positively with that pretty rival to Peggy L.? I’ve got a scheme to relieve you, my poor old Ned, and make everybody happy. I’ll lay the foundations of a fresh and brilliant reputation for myself.”
Algernon took a chair. Edward was fathoms deep in his book.
The former continued: “I’d touch on the money-question last, with any other fellow than you; but you always know that money’s the hinge, and nothing else lifts a man out of a scrape. It costs a stiff pull on your banker, and that reminds me, you couldn’t go to Sir Billy for it; you’d have to draw in advance, by degrees anyhow, look here:–There are lots of young farmers who want to emigrate and want wives and money. I know one. It’s no use going into particulars, but it’s worth thinking over. Life is made up of mutual help, Ned. You can help another fellow better than yourself. As for me, when I’m in a hobble, I give you my word of honour, I’m just like a baby, and haven’t an idea at my own disposal. The same with others. You can’t manage without somebody’s assistance. What do you say, old boy?”
Edward raised his head from his book. “Some views of life deduced from your private experience?” he observed; and Algernon cursed at book-worms, who would never take hints, and left him.
But when he was by himself, Edward pitched his book upon the floor and sat reflecting. The sweat started on his forehead. He was compelled to look into his black volume and study it. His desire was to act humanely and generously; but the question inevitably recurred: “How can I utterly dash my prospects in the world?” It would be impossible to bring Dahlia to great houses; and he liked great houses and the charm of mixing among delicately-bred women. On the other hand, lawyers have married beneath them–married cooks, housemaids, governesses, and so forth. And what has a lawyer to do with a dainty lady, who will constantly distract him with finicking civilities and speculations in unprofitable regions? What he does want is a woman amiable as a surface of parchment, serviceable as his inkstand; one who will be like the wig in which he closes his forensic term, disreputable from overwear, but suited to the purpose.
“Ah! if I meant to be nothing but a lawyer!” Edward stopped the flow of this current in Dahlia’s favour. His passion for her was silent. Was it dead? It was certainly silent. Since Robert had come down to play his wild game of persecution at Fairly, the simple idea of Dahlia had been Edward’s fever. He detested brute force, with a finely-witted man’s full loathing; and Dahlia’s obnoxious champion had grown to be associated in his mind with Dahlia. He swept them both from his recollection abhorrently, for in his recollection he could not divorce them. He pretended to suppose that Dahlia, whose only reproach to him was her suffering, participated in the scheme to worry him. He could even forget her beauty–forget all, save the unholy fetters binding him. She seemed to imprison him in bare walls. He meditated on her character. She had no strength. She was timid, comfort-loving, fond of luxury, credulous, preposterously conventional; that is, desirous more than the ordinary run of women of being hedged about and guarded by ceremonies–“mere ceremonies,” said Edward, forgetting the notion he entertained of women not so protected. But it may be, that in playing the part of fool and coward, we cease to be mindful of the absolute necessity for sheltering the weak from that monstrous allied army, the cowards and the fools. He admitted even to himself that he had deceived her, at the same time denouncing her unheard-of capacity of belief, which had placed him in a miserable hobble, and that was the truth.
Now, men confessing themselves in a miserable hobble, and knowing they are guilty of the state of things lamented by them, intend to drown that part of their nature which disturbs them by its outcry. The submission to a tangle that could be cut through instantaneously by any exertion of a noble will, convicts them. They had better not confide, even to their secret hearts, that they are afflicted by their conscience and the generosity of their sentiments, for it will be only to say that these high qualities are on the failing side. Their inclination, under the circumstances, is generally base, and no less a counsellor than uncorrupted common sense, when they are in such a hobble, will sometimes advise them to be base. But, in admitting the plea which common sense puts forward on their behalf, we may fairly ask them to be masculine in their baseness. Or, in other words, since they must be selfish, let them be so without the poltroonery of selfishness. Edward’s wish was to be perfectly just, as far as he could be now–just to himself as well; for how was he to prove of worth and aid to any one depending on him, if he stood crippled? Just, also, to his family; to his possible posterity; and just to Dahlia. His task was to reconcile the variety of justness due upon all sides. The struggle, we will assume, was severe, for he thought so; he thought of going to Dahlia and speaking the word of separation; of going to her family and stating his offence, without personal exculpation; thus masculine in baseness, he was in idea; but poltroonery triumphed, the picture of himself facing his sin and its victims dismayed him, and his struggle ended in his considering as to the fit employment of one thousand pounds in his possession, the remainder of a small legacy, hitherto much cherished.
A day later, Mrs. Lovell said to him: “Have you heard of that unfortunate young man? I am told that he lies in great danger from a blow on the back of his head. He looked ill when I saw him, and however mad he may be, I’m sorry harm should have come to one who is really brave. Gentle means are surely best. It is so with horses, it must be so with men. As to women, I don’t pretend to unriddle them.”
“Gentle means are decidedly best,” said Edward, perceiving that her little dog Algy had carried news to her, and that she was setting herself to fathom him. “You gave an eminent example of it yesterday. I was so sure of the result that I didn’t bet against you.”
“Why not have backed me?”
The hard young legal face withstood the attack of her soft blue eyes, out of which a thousand needles flew, seeking a weak point in the mask.
“The compliment was, to incite you to a superhuman effort.”
“Then why not pay the compliment?”
“I never pay compliments to transparent merit; I do not hold candles to lamps.”
“True,” said she.
“And as gentle means are so admirable, it would be as well to stop incision and imbruing between those two boys.”
“Which?” she asked innocently.
“Suckling and Algy.”
“Is it possible? They are such boys.”
“Exactly of the kind to do it. Don’t you know?” and Edward explained elaborately and cruelly the character of the boys who rushed into conflicts. Colour deep as evening red confused her cheeks, and she said, “We must stop them.”
“Alas!” he shook his head; “if it’s not too late.”
“It never is too late.”
“Perhaps not, when the embodiment of gentle means is so determined.”
“Come; I believe they are in the billiard room now, and you shall see,” she said.
The pair were found in the billiard room, even as a pair of terriers that remember a bone. Mrs. Lovell proposed a game, and offered herself for partner to Lord Suckling.
“Till total defeat do us part,” the young nobleman acquiesced; and total defeat befell them. During the play of the balls, Mrs. Lovell threw a jealous intentness of observation upon all the strokes made by Algernon; saying nothing, but just looking at him when he did a successful thing. She winked at some quiet stately betting that went on between him and Lord Suckling.
They were at first preternaturally polite and formal toward one another; by degrees, the influence at work upon them was manifested in a thaw of their stiff demeanour, and they fell into curt dialogues, which Mrs. Lovell gave herself no concern to encourage too early.
Edward saw, and was astonished himself to feel that she had ceased to breathe that fatal inciting breath, which made men vindictively emulous of her favour, and mad to match themselves for a claim to the chief smile. No perceptible change was displayed. She was Mrs. Lovell still; vivacious and soft; flame-coloured, with the arrowy eyelashes; a pleasant companion, who did not play the woman obtrusively among men, and show a thirst for homage. All the difference appeared to be, that there was an absence as of some evil spiritual emanation.
And here a thought crossed him–one of the memorable little evanescent thoughts which sway us by our chance weakness; “Does she think me wanting in physical courage?”
Now, though the difference between them had been owing to a scornful remark that she had permitted herself to utter, on his refusal to accept a quarrel with one of her numerous satellites, his knowledge of her worship of brains, and his pride in his possession of the burdensome weight, had quite precluded his guessing that she might haply suppose him to be deficient in personal bravery. He was astounded by the reflection that she had thus misjudged him. It was distracting; sober-thoughted as he was by nature. He watched the fair simplicity of her new manner with a jealous eye. Her management of the two youths was exquisite; but to him, Edward, she had never condescended to show herself thus mediating and amiable. Why? Clearly, because she conceived that he had no virile fire in his composition. Did the detestable little devil think silly duelling a display of valour? Did the fair seraph think him anything less than a man?
How beautifully hung the yellow loop of her hair as she leaned over the board! How gracious she was and like a Goddess with these boys, as he called them! She rallied her partner, not letting him forget that he had the honour of being her partner; while she appeared envious of Algernon’s skill, and talked to both and got them upon common topics, and laughed, and was like a fair English flower of womanhood; nothing deadly.
“There, Algy; you have beaten us. I don’t think I’ll have Lord Suckling for my partner any more,” she said, putting up her wand, and pouting.
“You don’t bear malice?” said Algernon, revived.
“There is my hand. Now you must play a game alone with Lord Suckling, and beat him; mind you beat him, or it will redound to my discredit.”
With which, she and Edward left them.
“Algy was a little crestfallen, and no wonder,” she said. “He is soon set up again. They will be good friends now.”
“Isn’t it odd, that they should be ready to risk their lives for trifles?”
Thus Edward tempted her to discuss the subject which he had in his mind.
She felt intuitively the trap in his voice.
“Ah, yes,” she replied; “it must be because they know their lives are not precious.”
So utterly at her mercy had he fallen, that her pronunciation of that word “precious” carried a severe sting to him, and it was not spoken with peculiar emphasis; on the contrary, she wished to indicate that she was of his way of thinking, as regarded this decayed method of settling disputes. He turned to leave her.
“You go to your Adeline, I presume,” she said.
“Ah! that reminds me. I have never thanked you.”
“For my good services? such as they are. Sir William will be very happy, and it was for him, a little more than for you, that I went out of my way to be a matchmaker.”
“It was her character, of course, that struck you as being so eminently suited to mine.”
“Can I tell what is the character of a girl? She is mild and shy, and extremely gentle. In all probability she has a passion for battles and bloodshed. I judged from your father’s point of view. She has money, and you are to have money; and the union of money and money is supposed to be a good thing. And besides, you are variable, and off to-morrow what you are on to-day; is it not so? and heiresses are never jilted. Colonel Barclay is only awaiting your retirement. Le roi est mort; vive le roi! Heiresses may cry it like kingdoms.”
“I thought,” said Edward, meaningly, “the colonel had better taste.”
“Do you not know that my friends are my friends because they are not allowed to dream they will do anything else? If they are taken poorly, I commend them to a sea-voyage–Africa, the North-West Passage, the source of the Nile. Men with their vanity wounded may discover wonders! They return friendly as before, whether they have done the Geographical Society a service or not. That is, they generally do.”
“Then I begin to fancy I must try those latitudes.”
“Oh! you are my relative.”
He scarcely knew that he had uttered “Margaret.”
She replied to it frankly, “Yes, Cousin Ned. You have made the voyage, you see, and have come back friends with me. The variability of opals! Ah! Sir John, you join us in season. We were talking of opals. Is the opal a gem that stands to represent women?”
Sir John Capes smoothed his knuckles with silken palms, and with courteous antique grin, responded, “It is a gem I would never dare to offer to a lady’s acceptance.”
“It is by repute unlucky; so you never can have done so.
“Exquisite!” exclaimed the veteran in smiles, “if what you deign to imply were only true!”
They entered the drawing-room among the ladies.
Edward whispered in Mrs. Lovell’s ear, “He is in need of the voyage.”
“He is very near it,” she answered in the same key, and swam into general conversation.
Her cold wit, Satanic as the gleam of it struck through his mind, gave him a throb of desire to gain possession of her, and crush her.
The writing of a letter to Dahlia had previously been attempted and abandoned as a sickening task. Like an idle boy with his holiday imposition, Edward shelved it among the nightmares, saying, “How can I sit down and lie to her!” and thinking that silence would prepare her bosom for the coming truth.
Silence is commonly the slow poison used by those who mean to murder love. There is nothing violent about it; no shock is given; Hope is not abruptly strangled, but merely dreams of evil, and fights with gradually stifling shadows. When the last convulsions come they are not terrific; the frame has been weakened for dissolution; love dies like natural decay. It seems the kindest way of doing a cruel thing. But Dahlia wrote, crying out her agony at the torture. Possibly your nervously organized natures require a modification of the method.
Edward now found himself able to conduct a correspondence. He despatched the following:–
“My Dear Dahlia,–Of course I cannot expect you to be aware of the bewildering occupations of a country house, where a man has literally not five minutes’ time to call his own; so I pass by your reproaches. My father has gone at last. He has manifested an extraordinary liking for my society, and I am to join him elsewhere –perhaps run over to Paris (your city)–but at present for a few days I am my own master, and the first thing I do is to attend to your demands: not to write ‘two lines,’ but to give you a good long letter.
“What on earth makes you fancy me unwell? You know I am never unwell. And as to your nursing me–when has there ever been any need for it?
“You must positively learn patience. I have been absent a week or so, and you talk of coming down here and haunting the house! Such ghosts as you meet with strange treatment when they go about unprotected, let me give you warning. You have my full permission to walk out in the Parks for exercise. I think you are bound to do it, for your health’s sake.
“Pray discontinue that talk about the alteration in your looks. You must learn that you are no longer a child. Cease to write like a child. If people stare at you, as you say, you are very well aware it is not because you are becoming plain. You do not mean it, I know; but there is a disingenuousness in remarks of this sort that is to me exceedingly distasteful. Avoid the shadow of hypocrisy. Women are subject to it–and it is quite innocent, no doubt. I won’t lecture you.
“My cousin Algernon is here with me. He has not spoken of your sister. Your fears in that direction are quite unnecessary. He is attached to a female cousin of ours, a very handsome person, witty, and highly sensible, who dresses as well as the lady you talk about having seen one day in Wrexby Church. Her lady’s-maid is a Frenchwoman, which accounts for it. You have not forgotten the boulevards?
“I wish you to go on with your lessons in French. Educate yourself, and you will rise superior to these distressing complaints. I recommend you to read the newspapers daily. Buy nice picture-books, if the papers are too matter-of-fact for you. By looking eternally inward, you teach yourself to fret, and the consequence is, or will be, that you wither. No constitution can stand it. All the ladies here take an interest in Parliamentary affairs. They can talk to men upon men’s themes. It is impossible to explain to you how wearisome an everlasting nursery prattle becomes. The idea that men ought never to tire of it is founded on some queer belief that they are not mortal.
“Parliament opens in February. My father wishes me to stand for Selborough. If he or some one will do the talking to the tradesmen, and provide the beer and the bribes, I have no objection. In that case my Law goes to the winds. I’m bound to make a show of obedience, for he has scarcely got over my summer’s trip. He holds me a prisoner to him for heaven knows how long–it may be months.
“As for the heiress whom he has here to make a match for me, he and I must have a pitched battle about her by and by. At present my purse insists upon my not offending him. When will old men understand young ones? I burn your letters, and beg you to follow the example. Old letters are the dreariest ghosts in the world, and you cannot keep more treacherous rubbish in your possession. A discovery would exactly ruin me.
“Your purchase of a black-velvet bonnet with pink ribands, was very suitable. Or did you write ‘blue’ ribands? But your complexion can bear anything.
“You talk of being annoyed when you walk out. Remember, that no woman who knows at all how to conduct herself need for one moment suffer annoyance.
“What is the ‘feeling’ you speak of? I cannot conceive any ‘feeling’ that should make you helpless when you consider that you are insulted. There are women who have natural dignity, and women who have none.
“You ask the names of the gentlemen here:–Lord Carey, Lord Wippern (both leave to-morrow), Sir John Capes, Colonel Barclay, Lord Suckling. The ladies:–Mrs. Gosling, Miss Gosling, Lady Carey. Mrs. Anybody–to any extent.
“They pluck hen’s feathers all day and half the night. I see them out, and make my bow to the next batch of visitors, and then I don’t know where I am.
“Read poetry, if it makes up for my absence, as you say. Repeat it aloud, minding the pulsation of feet. Go to the theatre now and then, and take your landlady with you. If she’s a cat, fit one of your dresses on the servant-girl, and take her. You only want a companion–a dummy will do. Take a box and sit behind the curtain, back to the audience.
“I wrote to my wine-merchant to send Champagne and Sherry. I hope he did: the Champagne in pints and half-pints; if not, return them instantly. I know how Economy, sitting solitary, poor thing, would not dare to let the froth of a whole pint bottle fly out.
“Be an obedient girl and please me.
“Your stern tutor,
“Edward the First.”
He read this epistle twice over to satisfy himself that it was a warm effusion, and not too tender; and it satisfied him. By a stretch of imagination, he could feel that it represented him to her as in a higher atmosphere, considerate for her, and not so intimate that she could deem her spirit to be sharing it. Another dose of silence succeeded this discreet administration of speech.
Dahlia replied with letter upon letter; blindly impassioned, and again singularly cold; but with no reproaches. She was studying, she said. Her head ached a little; only a little. She walked; she read poetry; she begged him to pardon her for not drinking wine. She was glad that he burnt her letters, which were so foolish that if she could have the courage to look at them after they were written, they would never be sent. He was slightly revolted by one exclamation: “How ambitious you are!”
“Because I cannot sit down for life in a London lodging-house!” he thought, and eyed her distantly as a poor good creature who had already accepted her distinctive residence in another sphere than his. From such a perception of her humanity, it was natural that his livelier sense of it should diminish. He felt that he had awakened; and he shook her off.
And now he set to work to subdue Mrs. Lovell. His own subjugation was the first fruit of his effort. It was quite unacknowledged by him: but when two are at this game, the question arises–“Which can live without the other?” and horrid pangs smote him to hear her telling musically of the places she was journeying to, the men she would see, and the chances of their meeting again before he was married to the heiress Adeline.
“I have yet to learn that I am engaged to her,” he said. Mrs. Lovell gave him a fixed look,–
“She has a half-brother.”
He stepped away in a fury.
“Devil!” he muttered, absolutely muttered it, knowing that he fooled and frowned like a stage-hero in stagey heroics. “You think to hound me into this brutal stupidity of fighting, do you? Upon my honour,” he added in his natural manner, “I believe she does, though!”
But the look became his companion. It touched and called up great vanity in his breast, and not till then could he placably confront the look. He tried a course of reading. Every morning he was down in the library, looking old in an arm-chair over his book; an intent abstracted figure.
Mrs. Lovell would enter and eye him carelessly; utter little commonplaces and go forth. The silly words struck on his brain. The book seemed hollow; sounded hollow as he shut it. This woman breathed of active striving life. She was a spur to black energies; a plumed glory; impulsive to chivalry. Everything she said and did held men in scales, and approved or rejected them.
Intoxication followed this new conception of her. He lost altogether his right judgement; even the cooler after-thoughts were lost. What sort of man had Harry been, her first husband? A dashing soldier, a quarrelsome duellist, a dull dog. But, dull to her? She, at least, was reverential to the memory of him.
She lisped now and then of “my husband,” very prettily, and with intense provocation; and yet she worshipped brains. Evidently she thirsted for that rare union of brains and bravery in a man, and would never surrender till she had discovered it. Perhaps she fancied it did not exist. It might be that she took Edward as the type of brains, and Harry of bravery, and supposed that the two qualities were not to be had actually in conjunction.
Her admiration of his (Edward’s) wit, therefore, only strengthened the idea she entertained of his deficiency in that other companion manly virtue.
Edward must have been possessed, for he ground his teeth villanously in supposing himself the victim of this outrageous suspicion. And how to prove it false? How to prove it false in a civilized age, among sober- living men and women, with whom the violent assertion of bravery would certainly imperil his claim to brains? His head was like a stew-pan over the fire, bubbling endlessly.
He railed at her to Algernon, and astonished the youth, who thought them in a fair way to make an alliance. “Milk and capsicums,” he called her, and compared her to bloody mustard-haired Saxon Queens of history, and was childishly spiteful. And Mrs. Lovell had it all reported to her, as he was-quite aware.
“The woman seeking for an anomaly wants a master.”
With this pompous aphorism, he finished his reading of the fair Enigma.
Words big in the mouth serve their turn when there is no way of satisfying the intelligence.
To be her master, however, one must not begin by writhing as her slave.
The attempt to read an inscrutable woman allows her to dominate us too commandingly. So the lordly mind takes her in a hard grasp, cracks the shell, and drawing forth the kernel, says, “This was all the puzzle.”
Doubtless it is the fate which women like Mrs. Lovell provoke. The truth was, that she could read a character when it was under her eyes; but its yesterday and to-morrow were a blank. She had no imaginative hold on anything. For which reason she was always requiring tangible signs of virtues that she esteemed.
The thirst for the shows of valour and wit was insane with her; but she asked for nothing that she herself did not give in abundance, and with beauty super-added. Her propensity to bet sprang of her passion for combat; she was not greedy of money, or reckless in using it; but a difference of opinion arising, her instinct forcibly prompted her to back her own. If the stake was the risk of a lover’s life, she was ready to put down the stake, and would have marvelled contemptuously at the lover complaining. “Sheep! sheep!” she thought of those who dared not fight, and had a wavering tendency to affix the epithet to those who simply did not fight.
Withal, Mrs. Lovell was a sensible person; clearheaded and shrewd; logical, too, more than the run of her sex: I may say, profoundly practical. So much so, that she systematically reserved the after-years for enlightenment upon two or three doubts of herself, which struck her in the calm of her spirit, from time to time.
“France,” Edward called her, in one of their colloquies.
It was an illuminating title. She liked the French (though no one was keener for the honour of her own country in opposition to them), she liked their splendid boyishness, their unequalled devotion, their merciless intellects; the oneness of the nation when the sword is bare and pointing to chivalrous enterprise.
She liked their fine varnish of sentiment, which appears so much on the surface that Englishmen suppose it to have nowhere any depth; as if the outer coating must necessarily exhaust the stock, or as if what is at the source of our being can never be made visible.
She had her imagination of them as of a streaming banner in the jaws of storm, with snows among the cloud-rents and lightning in the chasms:– which image may be accounted for by the fact that when a girl she had in adoration kissed the feet of Napoleon, the giant of the later ghosts of history.
It was a princely compliment. She received it curtseying, and disarmed the intended irony. In reply, she called him “Great Britain.” I regret to say that he stood less proudly for his nation. Indeed, he flushed. He remembered articles girding at the policy of peace at any price, and half felt that Mrs. Lovell had meant to crown him with a Quaker’s hat. His title fell speedily into disuse; but, “Yes, France,” and “No, France,” continued, his effort being to fix the epithet to frivolous allusions, from which her ingenuity rescued it honourably.
Had she ever been in love? He asked her the question. She stabbed him with so straightforward an affirmative that he could not conceal the wound.
“Have I not been married?” she said.
He began to experience the fretful craving to see the antecedents of the torturing woman spread out before him. He conceived a passion for her girlhood. He begged for portraits of her as a girl. She showed him the portrait of Harry Lovell in a locket. He held the locket between his fingers. Dead Harry was kept very warm. Could brains ever touch her emotions as bravery had done?
“Where are the brains I boast of?” he groaned, in the midst of these sensational extravagances.
The lull of action was soon to be disturbed. A letter was brought to him.
He opened it and read–
“Mr. Edward Blancove,–When you rode by me under Fairly Park, I did not know you. I can give you a medical certificate that since then I have been in the doctor’s hands. I know you now. I call upon you to meet me, with what weapons you like best, to prove that you are not a midnight assassin. The place shall be where you choose to appoint. If you decline I will make you publicly acknowledge what you have done. If you answer, that I am not a gentleman and you are one, I say that you have attacked me in the dark, when I was on horseback, and you are now my equal, if I like to think so. You will not talk about the law after that night. The man you employed I may punish or I may leave, though he struck the blow. But I will meet you. To-morrow, a friend of mine, who is a major in the army, will be down here, and will call on you from me; or on any friend of yours you are pleased to name. I will not let you escape. Whether I shall face a guilty man in you, God knows; but I know I have a right to call upon you to face me.
“I am, Sir,
Edward’s face grew signally white over the contents of this unprecedented challenge. The letter had been brought in to him at the breakfast table. “Read it, read it,” said Mrs. Lovell, seeing him put it by; and he had read it with her eyes on him.
The man seemed to him a man of claws, who clutched like a demon. Would nothing quiet him? Edward thought of bribes for the sake of peace; but a second glance at the letter assured his sagacious mind that bribes were powerless in this man’s case; neither bribes nor sticks were of service. Departure from Fairly would avail as little: the tenacious devil would follow him to London; and what was worse, as a hound from Dahlia’s family he was now on the right scent, and appeared to know that he was. How was a scandal to be avoided? By leaving Fairly instantly for any place on earth, he could not avoid leaving the man behind; and if the man saw Mrs. Lovell again, her instincts as a woman of her class were not to be trusted. As likely as not she would side with the ruffian; that is, she would think he had been wronged–perhaps think that he ought to have been met. There is the democratic virus secret in every woman; it was predominant in Mrs. Lovell, according to Edward’s observation of the lady. The rights of individual manhood were, as he angrily perceived, likely to be recognized by her spirit, if only they were stoutly asserted; and that in defiance of station, of reason, of all the ideas inculcated by education and society.
“I believe she’ll expect me to fight him,” he exclaimed. At least, he knew she would despise him if he avoided the brutal challenge without some show of dignity.
On rising from the table, he drew Algernon aside. It was an insufferable thought that he was compelled to take his brainless cousin into his confidence, even to the extent of soliciting his counsel, but there was no help for it. In vain Edward asked himself why he had been such an idiot as to stain his hands with the affair at all. He attributed it to his regard for Algernon. Having commonly the sway of his passions, he was in the habit of forgetting that he ever lost control of them; and the fierce black mood, engendered by Robert’s audacious persecution, had passed from his memory, though it was now recalled in full force.
“See what a mess you drag a man into,” he said.
Algernon read a line of the letter. “Oh, confound this infernal fellow!” he shouted, in sickly wonderment; and snapped sharp, “drag you into the mess? Upon my honour, your coolness, Ned, is the biggest part about you, if it isn’t the best.”
Edward’s grip fixed on him, for they were only just out of earshot of Mrs. Lovell. They went upstairs, and Algernon read the letter through.
“‘Midnight assassin,'” he repeated; “by Jove! how beastly that sounds. It’s a lie that you attacked him in the dark, Ned–eh?”
“I did not attack him at all,” said Edward. “He behaved like a ruffian to you, and deserved shooting like a mad dog.”
“Did you, though,” Algernon persisted in questioning, despite his cousin’s manifest shyness of the subject “did you really go out with that man Sedgett, and stop this fellow on horseback? He speaks of a blow. You didn’t strike him, did you, Ned? I mean, not a hit, except in self-defence?”
Edward bit his lip, and shot a level reflective side-look, peculiar to him when meditating. He wished his cousin to propose that Mrs. Lovell should see the letter. He felt that by consulting with her, he could bring her to apprehend the common sense of the position, and be so far responsible for what he might do, that she would not dare to let her heart be rebellious toward him subsequently. If he himself went to her it would look too much like pleading for her intercession. The subtle directness of the woman’s spirit had to be guarded against at every point.
He replied to Algernon,–
“What I did was on your behalf. Oblige me by not interrogating me. I give you my positive assurance that I encouraged no unmanly assault on him.”
“That’ll do, that’ll do,” said Algernon, eager not to hear more, lest there should come an explanation of what he had heard. “Of course, then, this fellow has no right–the devil’s in him! If we could only make him murder Sedgett and get hanged for it! He’s got a friend who’s a major in the army? Oh, come, I say; this is pitching it too stiff. I shall insist upon seeing his commission. Really, Ned, I can’t advise. I’ll stand by you, that you may be sure of–stand by you; but what the deuce to say to help you! Go before the magistrate…. Get Lord Elling to issue a warrant to prevent a breach of the peace. No; that won’t do. This quack of a major in the army’s to call to-morrow. I don’t mind, if he shows his credentials all clear, amusing him in any manner he likes. I can’t see the best scheme. Hang it, Ned, it’s very hard upon me to ask me to do the thinking. I always go to Peggy Lovell when I’m bothered. There–Mrs. Lovell! Mistress Lovell! Madame! my Princess Lovell, if you want me to pronounce respectable titles to her name. You’re too proud to ask a woman to help you, ain’t you, Ned?”
“No,” said Edward, mildly. “In some cases their wits are keen enough. One doesn’t like to drag her into such a business.”
“Hm,” went Algernon. “I don’t think she’s so innocent of it as you fancy.”
“She’s very clever,” said Edward.
“She’s awfully clever!” cried Algernon. He paused to give room for more praises of her, and then pursued:
“She’s so kind. That’s what you don’t credit her for. I’ll go and consult her, if positively you don’t mind. Trust her for keeping it quiet. Come, Ned, she’s sure to hit upon the right thing. May I go?”
“It’s your affair, more than mine,” said Edward.
“Have it so, if you like,” returned the good-natured fellow. “It’s worth while consulting her, just to see how neatly she’ll take it. Bless your heart, she won’t know a bit more than you want her to know. I’m off to her now.” He carried away the letter.
Edward’s own practical judgement would have advised his instantly sending a short reply to Robert, explaining that he was simply in conversation with the man Sedgett, when Robert, the old enemy of the latter, rode by, and, that while regretting Sedgett’s proceedings, he could not be held accountable for them. But it was useless to think of acting in accordance with his reason. Mrs. Lovell was queen, and sat in reason’s place. It was absolutely necessary to conciliate her approbation of his conduct in this dilemma, by submitting to the decided unpleasantness of talking with her on a subject that fevered him, and of allowing her to suppose he required the help of her sagacity. Such was the humiliation imposed upon him. Further than this he had nothing to fear, for no woman could fail to be overborne by the masculine force of his brain in an argument. The humiliation was bad enough, and half tempted him to think that his old dream of working as a hard student, with fair and gentle Dahlia ministering to his comforts, and too happy to call herself his, was best. Was it not, after one particular step had been taken, the manliest life he could have shaped out? Or did he imagine it so at this moment, because he was a coward, and because pride, and vanity, and ferocity alternately had to screw him up to meet the consequences of his acts, instead of the great heart?
If a coward, Dahlia was his home, his refuge, his sanctuary. Mrs. Lovell was perdition and its scorching fires to a man with a taint of cowardice in him.
Whatever he was, Edward’s vanity would not permit him to acknowledge himself that. Still, he did not call on his heart to play inspiriting music. His ideas turned to subterfuge. His aim was to keep the good opinion of Mrs. Lovell while he quieted Robert; and he entered straightway upon that very perilous course, the attempt, for the sake of winning her, to bewilder and deceive a woman’s instincts.
Over a fire in one of the upper sitting-rooms of the Pilot Inn, Robert sat with his friend, the beloved friend of whom he used to speak to Dahlia and Rhoda, too proudly not to seem betraying the weaker point of pride. This friend had accepted the title from a private soldier of his regiment; to be capable of doing which, a man must be both officer and gentleman in a sterner and less liberal sense than is expressed by that everlasting phrase in the mouth of the military parrot. Major Percy Waring, the son of a clergyman, was a working soldier, a slayer, if you will, from pure love of the profession of arms, and all the while the sweetest and gentlest of men. I call him a working soldier in opposition to the parading soldier, the, coxcomb in uniform, the hero by accident, and the martial boys of wealth and station, who are of the army of England. He studied war when the trumpet slumbered, and had no place but in the field when it sounded. To him the honour of England was as a babe in his arms: he hugged it like a mother. He knew the military history of every regiment in the service. Disasters even of old date brought groans from him. This enthusiastic face was singularly soft when the large dark eyes were set musing. The cast of it being such, sometimes in speaking of a happy play of artillery upon congregated masses, an odd effect was produced. Ordinarily, the clear features were reflective almost to sadness, in the absence of animation; but an exulting energy for action would now and then light them up. Hilarity of spirit did not belong to him. He was, nevertheless, a cheerful talker, as could be seen in the glad ear given to him by Robert. Between them it was “Robert” and “Percy.” Robert had rescued him from drowning on the East Anglian shore, and the friendship which ensued was one chief reason for Robert’s quitting the post of trooper and buying himself out. It was against Percy’s advice, who wanted to purchase a commission for him; but the humbler man had the sturdy scruples of his rank regarding money, and his romantic illusions being dispersed by an experience of the absolute class-distinctions in the service, Robert; that he might prevent his friend from violating them, made use of his aunt’s legacy to obtain release. Since that date they had not met; but their friendship was fast. Percy had recently paid a visit to Queen Anne’s Farm, where he had seen Rhoda and heard of Robert’s departure. Knowing Robert’s birthplace, he had come on to Warbeach, and had seen Jonathan Eccles, who referred him to Mrs. Boulby, licenced seller of brandy, if he wished to enjoy an interview with Robert Eccles.
“The old man sent up regularly every day to inquire how his son was faring on the road to the next world,” said Robert, laughing. “He’s tough old English oak. I’m just to him what I appear at the time. It’s better having him like that than one of your jerky fathers, who seem to belong to the stage of a theatre. Everybody respects my old dad, and I can laugh at what he thinks of me. I’ve only to let him know I’ve served an apprenticeship in farming, and can make use of some of his ideas- -sound! every one of ’em; every one of ’em sound! And that I say of my own father.”
“Why don’t you tell him?” Percy asked.
“I want to forget all about Kent and drown the county,” said Robert. “And I’m going to, as far as my memory’s concerned.”
Percy waited for some seconds. He comprehended perfectly this state of wilfulness in an uneducated sensitive man.
“She has a steadfast look in her face, Robert. She doesn’t look as if she trifled. I’ve really never seen a finer, franker girl in my life, if faces are to be trusted.”
“It’s t’ other way. There’s no trifling in her case. She’s frank. She fires at you point blank.”
“You never mentioned her in your letters to me, Robert.”
“No. I had a suspicion from the first I was going to be a fool about the girl.”
Percy struck his hand.
“You didn’t do quite right.”
“Do you say that?”
Robert silenced him with this question, for there was a woman in Percy’s antecedent history.
The subject being dismissed, they talked more freely. Robert related the tale of Dahlia, and of his doings at Fairly.
“Oh! we agree,” he said, noting a curious smile that Percy could not smooth out of sight. “I know it was odd conduct. I do respect my superiors; but, believe me or not, Percy, injury done to a girl makes me mad, and I can’t hold back; and she’s the sister of the girl you saw. By heaven! if it weren’t for my head getting blind now when my blood boils, I’ve the mind to walk straight up to the house and screw the secret out of one of them. What I say is–Is there a God up aloft? Then, he sees all, and society is vapour, and while I feel the spirit in me to do it, I go straight at my aim.”
“If, at the same time, there’s no brandy in you,” said Percy, “which would stop your seeing clear or going straight.”
The suggestion was a cruel shock. Robert nodded. “That’s true. I suppose it’s my bad education that won’t let me keep cool. I’m ashamed of myself after it. I shout and thunder, and the end of it is, I go away and think about the same of Robert Eccles that I’ve frightened other people into thinking. Perhaps you’ll think me to blame in this case? One of those Mr. Blancoves–not the one you’ve heard of–struck me on the field before a lady. I bore it. It was part of what I’d gone out to meet. I was riding home late at night, and he stood at the corner of the lane, with an old enemy of mine, and a sad cur that is! Sedgett’s his name–Nic, the Christian part of it. There’d just come a sharp snowfall from the north, and the moonlight shot over the flying edge of the rear-cloud; and I saw Sedgett with a stick in his hand; but the gentleman had no stick. I’ll give Mr. Edward Blancove credit for not meaning to be active in a dastardly assault.
“But why was he in consultation with my enemy? And he let my enemy–by the way, Percy, you dislike that sort of talk of ‘my enemy,’ I know. You like it put plain and simple: but down in these old parts again, I catch at old habits; and I’m always a worse man when I haven’t seen you for a time. Sedgett, say. Sedgett, as I passed, made a sweep at my horse’s knees, and took them a little over the fetlock. The beast reared. While I was holding on he swung a blow at me, and took me here.”
Robert touched his head. “I dropped like a horse-chestnut from the tree. When I recovered, I was lying in the lane. I think I was there flat, face to the ground, for half an hour, quite sensible, looking at the pretty colour of my blood on the snow. The horse was gone. I just managed to reel along to this place, where there’s always a home for me. Now, will you believe it possible? I went out next day: I saw Mr. Edward Blancove, and I might have seen a baby and felt the same to it. I didn’t know him a bit. Yesterday morning your letter was sent up from Sutton farm. Somehow, the moment I’d read it, I remembered his face. I sent him word there was a matter to be settled between us. You think I was wrong?”
Major Waring had set a deliberately calculating eye on him.
“I want to hear more,” he said.
“You think I have no claim to challenge a man in his position?”
“Answer me first, Robert. You think this Mr. Blancove helped, or instigated this man Sedgett in his attack upon you?”
“I haven’t a doubt that he did.”
“It’s not plain evidence.”
“It’s good circumstantial evidence.”
“At any rate, you are perhaps justified in thinking him capable of this: though the rule is, to believe nothing against a gentleman until it is flatly proved–when we drum him out of the ranks. But, if you can fancy it true, would you put yourself upon an equal footing with him?”
“I would,” said Robert.
“Then you accept his code of morals.”
“That’s too shrewd for me: but men who preach against duelling, or any kind of man-to-man in hot earnest, always fence in that way.”
“I detest duelling,” Major Waring remarked. “I don’t like a system that permits knaves and fools to exercise a claim to imperil the lives of useful men. Let me observe, that I am not a preacher against it. I think you know my opinions; and they are not quite those of the English magistrate, and other mild persons who are wrathful at the practice upon any pretence. Keep to the other discussion. You challenge a man–you admit him your equal. But why do I argue with you? I know your mind as well as my own. You have some other idea in the background.”
“I feel that he’s the guilty man,” said Robert.
“You feel called upon to punish him.”
“No. Wait: he will not fight; but I have him and I’ll hold him. I feel he’s the man who has injured this girl, by every witness of facts that I can bring together; and as for the other young fellow I led such a dog’s life down here, I could beg his pardon. This one’s eye met mine. I saw it wouldn’t have stopped short of murder–opportunity given. Why? Because I pressed on the right spring. I’m like a woman in seeing some things. He shall repent. By–! Slap me on the face, Percy. I’ve taken to brandy and to swearing. Damn the girl who made me forget good lessons! Bless her heart, I mean. She saw you, did she? Did she colour when she heard your name?”
“Very much,” said Major Waring.
“Was dressed in–?”
“Black, with a crimson ribbon round the collar.”
Robert waved the image from his eyes.
“I’m not going to dream of her. Peace, and babies, and farming, and pride in myself with a woman by my side–there! You’ve seen her–all that’s gone. I might as well ask the East wind to blow West. Her face is set the other way. Of course, the nature and value of a man is shown by how he takes this sort of pain; and hark at me! I’m yelling. I thought I was cured. I looked up into the eyes of a lady ten times sweeter–when?–somewhen! I’ve lost dates. But here’s the girl at me again. She cuddles into me–slips her hand into my breast and tugs at strings there. I can’t help talking to you about her, now we’ve got over the first step. I’ll soon give it up.
“She wore a red ribbon? If it had been Spring, you’d have seen roses. Oh! what a stanch heart that girl has. Where she sets it, mind! Her life where that creature sets her heart! But, for me, not a penny of comfort! Now for a whole week of her, day and night, in that black dress with the coloured ribbon. On she goes: walking to church; sitting at table; looking out of the window!
“Will you believe I thought those thick eyebrows of hers ugly once–a tremendous long time ago. Yes; but what eyes she has under them! And if she looks tender, one corner of her mouth goes quivering; and the eyes are steady, so that it looks like some wonderful bit of mercy.
“I think of that true-hearted creature praying and longing for her sister, and fearing there’s shame–that’s why she hates me. I wouldn’t say I was certain her sister had not fallen into a pit. I couldn’t. I was an idiot. I thought I wouldn’t be a hypocrite. I might have said I believed as she did. There she stood ready to be taken–ready to have given herself to me, if I had only spoken a word! It was a moment of heaven, and God the Father could not give it to me twice The chance has gone.
“Oh! what a miserable mad dog I am to gabble on in this way.–Come in! come in, mother.”
Mrs. Boulby entered, with soft footsteps, bearing a letter.
“From the Park,” she said, and commenced chiding Robert gently, to establish her right to do it with solemnity.
“He will talk, sir. He’s one o’ them that either they talk or they hang silent, and no middle way will they take; and the doctor’s their foe, and health they despise; and since this cruel blow, obstinacy do seem to have been knocked like a nail into his head so fast, persuasion have not a atom o’ power over him.”
“There must be talking when friends meet, ma’am,” said Major Waring.
“Ah!” returned the widow, “if it wouldn’t be all on one side.”
“I’ve done now, mother,” said Robert.
Mrs. Boulby retired, and Robert opened the letter.
It ran thus:–
“Sir, I am glad you have done me the favour of addressing me temperately, so that I am permitted to clear myself of an unjust and most unpleasant imputation. I will, if you please, see you, or your friend; to whom perhaps I shall better be able to certify how unfounded is the charge you bring against me. I will call upon you at the Pilot Inn, where I hear that you are staying; or, if you prefer it, I will attend to any appointment you may choose to direct elsewhere. But it must be immediate, as the term of my residence in this neighbourhood is limited.
Major Waning read the lines with a critical attention.
“It seems fair and open,” was his remark.
“Here,” Robert struck his breast, “here’s what answers him. What shall I do? Shall I tell him to come?”
“Write to say that your friend will meet him at a stated place.”
Robert saw his prey escaping. “I’m not to see him?”
“No. The decent is the right way in such cases. You must leave it to me. This will be the proper method between gentlemen.”
“It appears to my idea,” said Robert, “that gentlemen are always, somehow, stopped from taking the straight-ahead measure.”
“You,” Percy rejoined, “are like a civilian before a fortress. Either he finds it so easy that he can walk into it, or he gives it up in despair as unassailable. You have followed your own devices, and what have you accomplished?”
“He will lie to you smoothly.”
“Smoothly or not, if I discover that he has spoken falsely, he is answerable to me.”
“To me, Percy.”
“No; to me. He can elude you; and will be acquitted by the general verdict. But when he becomes answerable to me, his honour, in the conventional, which is here the practical, sense, is at stake, and I have him.”
“I see that. Yes; he can refuse to fight me,” Robert sighed. “Hey, Lord! it’s a heavy world when we come to methods. But will you, Percy, will you put it to him at the end of your fist–‘Did you deceive the girl, and do you know where the girl now is?’ Why, great heaven! we only ask to know where she is. She may have been murdered. She’s hidden from her family. Let him confess, and let him go.”
Major Waring shook his head. “You see like a woman perhaps, Robert. You certainly talk like a woman. I will state your suspicions. When I have done so, I am bound to accept his reply. If we discover it to have been false, I have my remedy.”
“Won’t you perceive, that it isn’t my object to punish him by and by, but to tear the secret out of him on the spot–now–instantly,” Robert cried.
“I perceive your object, and you have experienced some of the results of your system. It’s the primitive action of an appeal to the god of combats, that is exploded in these days. You have no course but to take his word.”
“She said”–Robert struck his knee–“she said I should have the girl’s address. She said she would see her. She pledged that to me. I’m speaking of the lady up at Fairly. Come! things get clearer. If she knows where Dahlia is, who told her? This Mr. Algernon–not Edward Blancove–was seen with Dahlia in a box at the Playhouse. He was there with Dahlia, yet I don’t think him the guilty man. There’s a finger of light upon that other.”
“Who is this lady?” Major Waring asked, with lifted eyebrows.
At the name, Major Waring sat stricken.
“Lovell!” he repeated, under his breath. “Lovell! Was she ever in India?”
“I don’t know, indeed.”
“Is she a widow?”
“Ay; that I’ve heard.”
Robert entered upon the task with a dozen headlong exclamations, and very justly concluded by saying that he could give no idea of her; but his friend apparently had gleaned sufficient.
Major Waring’s face was touched by a strange pallor, and his smile had vanished. He ran his fingers through his hair, clutching it in a knot, as he sat eyeing the red chasm in the fire, where the light of old days and wild memories hangs as in a crumbling world.
Robert was aware of there being a sadness in Percy’s life, and that he had loved a woman and awakened from his passion. Her name was unknown to him. In that matter, his natural delicacy and his deference to Percy had always checked him from sounding the subject closely. He might be, as he had said, keen as a woman where his own instincts were in action; but they were ineffective in guessing at the cause for Percy’s sudden depression.
“She said–this lady, Mrs. Lovell, whoever she may be–she said you should have the girl’s address:–gave you that pledge of her word?” Percy spoke, half meditating. “How did this happen? When did you see her?”
Robert related the incident of his meeting with her, and her effort to be a peacemaker, but made no allusion to Mrs. Boulby’s tale of the bet.
“A peacemaker!” Percy interjected. “She rides well?”
“Best horsewoman I ever saw in my life,” was Robert’s ready answer.
Major Waring brushed at his forehead, as in impatience of thought.
“You must write two letters: one to this Mrs. Lovell. Say, you are about to leave the place, and remind her of her promise. It’s incomprehensible; but never mind. Write that first. Then to the man. Say that your friend–by the way, this Mrs. Lovell has small hands, has she? I mean, peculiarly small? Did you notice, or not? I may know her. Never mind. Write to the man. Say–don’t write down my name–say that I will meet him.” Percy spoke on as in a dream. “Appoint any place and hour. To-morrow at ten, down by the river–the bridge. Write briefly. Thank him for his offer to afford you explanations. Don’t argue it with me any more. Write both the letters straight off.”
His back was to Robert as he uttered the injunction. Robert took pen and paper, and did as he was bidden, with all the punctilious obedience of a man who consents perforce to see a better scheme abandoned.
One effect of the equality existing between these two of diverse rank in life and perfect delicacy of heart, was, that the moment Percy assumed the lead, Robert never disputed it. Muttering simply that he was incapable of writing except when he was in a passion, he managed to produce what, in Percy’s eyes, were satisfactory epistles, though Robert had horrible misgivings in regard to his letter to Mrs. Lovell–the wording of it, the cast of the sentences, even down to the character of the handwriting. These missives were despatched immediately.
“You are sure she said that?” Major Waring inquired more than once during the afternoon, and Robert assured him that Mrs. Lovell had given him her word. He grew very positive, and put it on his honour that she had said it.
“You may have heard incorrectly.”
“I’ve got the words burning inside me,” said Robert.
They walked together, before dark, to Sutton Farm, but Jonathan Eccles was abroad in his fields, and their welcome was from Mistress Anne, whom Major Waring had not power to melt; the moment he began speaking praise of Robert, she closed her mouth tight and crossed her wrists meekly.
“I see,” said Major Waring, as they left the farm, “your aunt is of the godly who have no forgiveness.”
“I’m afraid so,” cried Robert. “Cold blood never will come to an understanding with hot blood, and the old lady’s is like frozen milk. She’s right in her way, I dare say. I don’t blame her. Her piety’s right enough, take it as you find it.”
Mrs. Boulby had a sagacious notion that gentlemen always dined well every day of their lives, and claimed that much from Providence as their due. She had exerted herself to spread a neat little repast for Major Waring, and waited on the friends herself; grieving considerably to observe that the major failed in his duty as a gentleman, as far as the relish of eating was concerned.
“But,” she said below at her bar, “he smokes the beautifullest–smelling cigars, and drinks coffee made in his own way. He’s very particular.” Which was reckoned to be in Major Waring’s favour.
The hour was near midnight when she came into the room, bearing another letter from the Park. She thumped it on the table, ruffling and making that pretence at the controlling of her bosom which precedes a feminine storm. Her indignation was caused by a communication delivered by Dick Curtis, in the parlour underneath, to the effect that Nicodemus Sedgett was not to be heard of in the neighbourhood.
Robert laughed at her, and called her Hebrew woman–eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth woman.
“Leave real rascals to the Lord above, mother. He’s safe to punish them. They’ve stepped outside the chances. That’s my idea. I wouldn’t go out of my way to kick them–not I! It’s the half-and-half villains we’ve got to dispose of. They’re the mischief, old lady.”
Percy, however, asked some questions about Sedgett, and seemed to think his disappearance singular. He had been examining the handwriting of the superscription to the letter. His face was flushed as he tossed it for Robert to open. Mrs. Boulby dropped her departing curtsey, and Robert read out, with odd pauses and puzzled emphasis:
“Mrs. Lovell has received the letter which Mr. Robert Eccles has addressed to her, and regrets that a misconception should have arisen from anything that was uttered during their interview. The allusions are obscure, and Mrs. Lovell can only remark, that she is pained if she at all misled Mr. Eccles in what she either spoke or promised. She is not aware that she can be of any service to him. Should such an occasion present itself, Mr. Eccles may rest assured that she will not fail to avail herself of it, and do her utmost to redeem a pledge to which he has apparently attached a meaning she can in no way account for or comprehend.”
When Robert had finished, “It’s like a female lawyer,” he said. “That woman speaking, and that woman writing, they’re two different creatures– upon my soul, they are! Quick, sharp, to the point, when she speaks; and read this! Can I venture to say of a lady, she’s a liar?”
“Perhaps you had better not,” said Major Waring, who took the letter in his hand and seemed to study it. After which he transferred it to his pocket.
“To-morrow? To-morrow’s Sunday,” he observed. “We will go to church to-morrow.” His eyes glittered.
“Why, I’m hardly in the mood,” Robert protested. “I haven’t had the habit latterly.”
“Keep up the habit,” said Percy. “It’s a good thing for men like you.”
“But what sort of a fellow am I to be showing myself there among all the people who’ve been talking about me–and the people up at Fairly!” Robert burst out in horror of the prospect. “I shall be a sight among the people. Percy, upon my honour, I don’t think I well can. I’ll read the Bible at home if you like.”
“No; you’ll do penance,” said Major Waring.
“Are you meaning it?”
“The penance will be ten times greater on my part, believe me.”
Robert fancied him to be referring to some idea of mocking the interposition of religion.
“Then we’ll go to Upton Church,” he said. “I don’t mind it at Upton.”
“I intend to go to the church attended by ‘The Family,’ as we say in our parts; and you must come with me to Warbeach.”
Clasping one hand across his forehead, Robert cried, “You couldn’t ask me to do a thing I hate so much. Go, and sit, and look sheepish, and sing hymns with the people I’ve been badgering; and everybody seeing me! How can it be anything to you like what it is to me?”
“You have only to take my word for it that it is, and far more,” said Major Waring, sinking his voice. “Come; it won’t do you any harm to make an appointment to meet your conscience now and then. You will never be ruled by reason, and your feelings have to teach you what you learn. At any rate, it’s my request.”
This terminated the colloquy upon that topic. Robert looked forward to a penitential Sabbath-day.
“She is a widow still,” thought Major Waring, as he stood alone in his bed-room, and, drawing aside the curtains of his window, looked up at the white moon.
When the sun takes to shining in winter, and the Southwest to blowing, the corners of the earth cannot hide from him–the mornings are like halls full of light. Robert had spent his hopes upon a wet day that would have kept the congregation sparse and the guests at Fairly absent from public devotions.
He perceived at once that he was doomed to be under everybody’s eyes when he walked down the aisle, for everybody would attend the service on such a morning as this.
Already he had met his conscience, in so far as that he shunned asking Percy again what was the reason for their going to church, and he had not the courage to petition to go in the afternoon instead of the morning.
The question, “Are you ashamed of yourself, then?” sang in his ears as a retort ready made.
There was no help for it; so he set about assisting his ingenuity to make the best appearance possible–brushing his hat and coat with extraordinary care.
Percy got him to point out the spot designated for the meeting, and telling him to wait in the Warbeach churchyard, or within sight of it, strolled off in the direction of the river. His simple neatness and quiet gentlemanly air abashed Robert, and lured him from his intense conception of abstract right and wrong, which had hitherto encouraged and incited him, so that he became more than ever crestfallen at the prospect of meeting the eyes of the church people, and with the trembling sensitiveness of a woman who weighs the merits of a lover when passion is having one of its fatal pauses, he looked at himself, and compared himself with the class of persons he had outraged, and tried to think better of himself, and to justify himself, and sturdily reject comparisons. They would not be beaten back. His enemies had never suggested them, but they were forced on him by the aspect of his friend.
Any man who takes the law into his own hands, and chooses to stand against what is conventionally deemed fitting:–against the world, as we say, is open to these moods of degrading humility. Robert waited for the sound of the bells with the emotions of a common culprit. Could he have been driven to the church and deposited suddenly in his pew, his mind would have been easier.
It was the walking there, the walking down the aisle, the sense of his being the fellow who had matched himself against those well-attired gentlemen, which entirely confused him. And not exactly for his own sake–for Percy’s partly. He sickened at the thought of being seen by Major Waring’s side. His best suit and his hat were good enough, as far as they went, only he did not feel that he wore them–he could not divine how it was–with a proper air, an air of signal comfort. In fact, the graceful negligence of an English gentleman’s manner had been unexpectedly revealed to him; and it was strange, he reflected, that Percy never appeared to observe how deficient he was, and could still treat him as an equal, call him by his Christian name, and not object to be seen with him in public.
Robert did not think at the same time that illness had impoverished his blood. Your sensational beings must keep a strong and a good flow of blood in their veins to be always on a level with the occasion which they provoke. He remembered wonderingly that he had used to be easy in gait and ready of wit when walking from Queen Anne’s Farm to Wrexby village church. Why was he a different creature now? He could not answer the question.
Two or three of his Warbeach acquaintances passed him in the lanes. They gave him good day, and spoke kindly, and with pleasant friendly looks.
Their impression when they left him was that he was growing proud.
The jolly butcher of Warbeach, who had a hearty affection for him, insisted upon clapping his hand, and showing him to Mrs. Billing, and showing their two young ones to Robert. With a kiss to the children, and a nod, Robert let them pass.
Here and there, he was hailed by young fellows who wore their hats on one side, and jaunty-fashioned coats–Sunday being their own bright day of exhibition. He took no notice of the greetings.
He tried to feel an interest in the robins and twittering wrens, and called to mind verses about little birds, and kept repeating them, behind a face that chilled every friendly man who knew him.
Moody the boat-builder asked him, with a stare, if he was going to church, and on Robert’s replying that perhaps he was, said “I’m dashed!” and it was especially discouraging to one in Robert’s condition.
Further to inspirit him, he met Jonathan Eccles, who put the same question to him, and getting the same answer, turned sharp round and walked homeward.
Robert had a great feeling of relief when the bells were silent, and sauntered with a superior composure round the holly and laurel bushes concealing the church. Not once did he ponder on the meeting between Major Waring and Mr. Edward Blancove, until he beheld the former standing alone by the churchyard gate, and then he thought more of the empty churchyard and the absence of carriages, proclaiming the dreadful admonition that he must immediately consider as to the best way of comporting himself before an observant and censorious congregation.
Major Waring remarked, “You are late.”
“Have I kept you waiting?” said Robert.
“Not long. They are reading the lessons.”
“Is it full inside?”
“I dare say it is.”
“You have seen him, I suppose?”
“Oh yes; I have seen him.”
Percy was short in his speech, and pale as Robert had never seen him before. He requested hastily to be told the situation of Lord Elling’s pew.
“Don’t you think of going into the gallery?” said Robert, but received no answer, and with an inward moan of “Good God! they’ll think I’ve come here in a sort of repentance,” he found himself walking down the aisle; and presently, to his amazement, settled in front of the Fairly pew, and with his eyes on Mrs. Lovell.
What was the matter with her? Was she ill? Robert forgot his own tribulation in an instant. Her face was like marble, and as she stood with the prayer-book in her hand, her head swayed over it: her lips made a faint effort at smiling, and she sat quietly down, and was concealed. Algernon and Sir John Capes were in the pew beside her, as well as Lady Elling, who, with a backward-turned hand and disregarding countenance, reached out her smelling-bottle.
“Is this because she fancies I know of her having made a bet of me?” thought Robert, and it was not his vanity prompted the supposition, though his vanity was awakened by it. “Or is she ashamed of her falsehood?” he thought again, and forgave her at the sight of her sweet pale face. The singing of the hymns made her evident suffering seem holy as a martyr’s. He scarce had the power to conduct himself reverently, so intense was his longing to show her his sympathy.
“That is Mrs. Lovell–did you see her just now?” he whispered.
“Ah?” said Major Waring.
“I’m afraid she has fainted.”
But Mrs. Lovell had not fainted. She rose when the time for rising came again, and fixing her eyes with a grave devotional collectedness upon the vicar at his reading-desk, looked quite mistress of herself–but mistress of herself only when she kept them so fixed. When they moved, it was as if they had relinquished some pillar of support, and they wavered; livid shades chased her face, like the rain-clouds on a grey lake-water. Some one fronting her weighed on her eyelids. This was evident. Robert thought her a miracle of beauty. She was in colour like days he had noted thoughtfully: days with purple storm, and with golden horizon edges. She had on a bonnet of black velvet, with a delicate array of white lace, that was not suffered to disturb the contrast to her warm yellow hair. Her little gloved hands were both holding the book; at times she perused it, or, the oppression becoming unendurable, turned her gaze toward the corner of the chancel, and thence once more to her book. Robert rejected all idea of his being in any way the cause of her strange perturbation. He cast a glance at his friend. He had begun to nourish a slight suspicion; but it was too slight to bear up against Percy’s self-possession; for, as he understood the story, Percy had been the sufferer, and the lady had escaped without a wound. How, then, if such were the case, would she be showing emotion thus deep, while he stood before her with perfect self-command?
Robert believed that if he might look upon that adorable face for many days together, he could thrust Rhoda’s from his memory. The sermon was not long enough for him; and he was angry with Percy for rising before there was any movement for departure in the Fairly pew. In the doorway of the church Percy took his arm, and asked him to point out the family tombstone. They stood by it, when Lady Elling and Mrs. Lovell came forth and walked to the carriage, receiving respectful salutes from the people of Warbeach.
“How lovely she is!” said Robert.
“Do you think her handsome?” said Major Waring.
“I can’t understand such a creature dying.” Robert stepped over an open grave.
The expression of Percy’s eyes was bitter.
“I should imagine she thinks it just as impossible.”
The Warbeach villagers waited for Lady Elling’s carriage to roll away, and with a last glance at Robert, they too went off in gossiping groups. Robert’s penance was over, and he could not refrain from asking what good his coming to church had done.
“I can’t assist you,” said Percy. “By the way, Mr. Blancove denies everything. He thinks you mad. He promises, now that you have adopted reasonable measures, to speak to his cousin, and help, as far as he can, to discover the address you are in search of.”
“That’s all?” cried Robert.
“That is all.”
“Then where am I a bit farther than when I began?”
“You are only at the head of another road, and a better one.”
“Oh, why do I ever give up trusting to my right hand–” Robert muttered.
But the evening brought a note to him from Algernon Blancove. It contained a dignified condemnation of Robert’s previous insane behaviour, and closed by giving Dahlia’s address in London.
“How on earth was this brought about?” Robert now questioned.
“It’s singular, is it not?” said Major blaring; “but if you want a dog to follow you, you don’t pull it by the collar; and if you want a potato from the earth, you plant the potato before you begin digging. You are a soldier by instinct, my good Robert: your first appeal is to force. I, you see, am a civilian: I invariably try the milder methods. Do you start for London tonight? I remain. I wish to look at the neighbourhood.”
Robert postponed his journey to the morrow, partly in dread of his approaching interview with Dahlia, but chiefly to continue a little longer by the side of him whose gracious friendship gladdened his life. They paid a second visit to Sutton Farm. Robert doggedly refused to let a word be said to his father about his having taken to farming, and Jonathan listened to all Major Waring said of his son like a man deferential to the accomplishment of speaking, but too far off to hear more than a chance word. He talked, in reply, quite cheerfully of the weather and the state of the ground; observed that the soil was a perpetual study, but he knew something of horses and dogs, and Yorkshiremen were like Jews in the trouble they took to over-reach in a bargain. “Walloping men is poor work, if you come to compare it with walloping Nature,” he said, and explained that, according to his opinion, “to best a man at buying and selling was as wholesome an occupation as frowzlin’ along the gutters for parings and strays.” He himself preferred to go to the heart of things: “Nature makes you rich, if your object is to do the same for her. Yorkshire fellows never think except of making theirselves rich by fattening on your blood, like sheep-ticks.” In fine, Jonathan spoke sensibly, and abused Yorkshire, without hesitating to confess that a certain Yorkshireman, against whom he had matched his wits in a purchase of horseflesh, had given him a lively recollection of the encounter.
Percy asked him what he thought of his country. “I’ll tell you,” said Jonathan; “Englishmen’s business is to go to war with the elements, and so long as we fight them, we’re in the right academy for learnin’ how the game goes. Our vulnerability commences when we think we’ll sit down and eat the fruits, and if I don’t see signs o’ that, set me mole-tunnelling. Self-indulgence is the ruin of our time.”
This was the closest remark he made to his relations with Robert, who informed him that he was going to London on the following day. Jonathan shook his hand heartily, without troubling himself about any inquiries.
“There’s so much of that old man in me,” said Robert, when Percy praised him, on their return, “that I daren’t call him a Prince of an old boy: and never a spot of rancour in his soul. Have a claim on him–and there’s your seat at his table: take and offend him–there’s your seat still. Eat and drink, but you don’t get near his heart. I’ll surprise him some day. He fancies he’s past surprises.”
“Well,” said Percy, “you’re younger than I am, and may think the future belongs to you.”
Early next morning they parted. Robert was in town by noon. He lost no time in hurrying to the Western suburb. As he neared the house where he was to believe Dahlia to be residing, he saw a man pass through the leafless black shrubs by the iron gate; and when he came to the gate himself the man was at the door. The door opened and closed on this man. It was Nicodemus Sedgett, or Robert’s eyes did him traitorous service. He knocked at the door violently, and had to knock a second and a third time. Dahlia was denied to him. He was told that Mrs. Ayrton had lived there, but had left, and her present address was unknown. He asked to be allowed to speak a word to the man who had just entered the house. No one had entered for the last two hours, was the reply. Robert had an impulse to rush by the stolid little female liar, but Percy’s recent lesson to him acted as a restraint; though, had it been a brawny woman or a lacquey in his path, he would certainly have followed his natural counsel. He turned away, lingering outside till it was dusk and the bruise on his head gave great throbs, and then he footed desolately farther and farther from the house. To combat with evil in his own country village had seemed a simple thing enough, but it appeared a superhuman task in giant London.
It requires, happily, many years of an ordinary man’s life to teach him to believe in the exceeding variety and quantity of things money can buy: yet, when ingenuous minds have fully comprehended the potent character of the metal, they are likely enough to suppose that it will buy everything: after which comes the groaning anxiety to possess it.
This stage of experience is a sublime development in the great souls of misers. It is their awakening moment, and it is their first real sense of a harvest being in their hands. They have begun under the influence of the passion for hoarding, which is but a blind passion of the finger-ends. The idea that they have got together, bit by bit, a power, travels slowly up to their heavy brains. Once let it be grasped, however, and they clutch a god. They feed on everybody’s hunger for it. And, let us confess, they have in that a mighty feast.
Anthony Hackbut was not a miser. He was merely a saving old man. His vanity was, to be thought a miser, envied as a miser. He lived in daily hearing of the sweet chink of gold, and loved the sound, but with a poetical love, rather than with the sordid desire to amass gold pieces. Though a saving old man, he had his comforts; and if they haunted him and reproached him subsequently, for indulging wayward appetites for herrings and whelks and other sea-dainties that render up no account to you when they have disappeared, he put by copper and silver continually, weekly and monthly, and was master of a sum.
He knew the breadth of this sum with accuracy, and what it would expand to this day come a year, and probably this day come five years. He knew it only too well. The sum took no grand leaps. It increased, but did not seem to multiply. And he was breathing in the heart of the place, of all places in the world, where money did multiply.
He was the possessor of twelve hundred pounds, solid, and in haven; that is, the greater part in the Bank of England, and a portion in Boyne’s Bank. He had besides a few skirmishing securities, and some such bits of paper as Algernon had given him in the public-house on that remarkable night of his visit to the theatre.
These, when the borrowers were defaulters in their payments and pleaded for an extension of time, inspired him with sentiments of grandeur that the solid property could not impart. Nevertheless, the anti-poetical tendency within him which warred with the poetical, and set him reducing whatsoever he claimed to plain figures, made it but a fitful hour of satisfaction.
He had only to fix his mind upon Farmer Fleming’s conception of his wealth, to feel the miserable smallness of what seemed legitimately his own; and he felt it with so poignant an emotion that at times his fears of death were excited by the knowledge of a dead man’s impotence to suggest hazy margins in the final exposure of his property. There it would lie, dead as himself! contracted, coffined, contemptible!
What would the farmer think when he came to hear that his brother Tony’s estate was not able to buy up Queen Anne’s Farm?–when, in point of fact, he found that he had all along been the richer man of the two!
Anthony’s comfort was in the unfaltering strength of his constitution. He permitted his estimate of it to hint at the probability of his outlasting his brother William John, to whom he wished no earthly ill, but only that he should not live with a mitigated veneration for him. He was really nourished by the farmer’s gluttonous delight in his supposed piles of wealth. Sometimes, for weeks, he had the gift of thinking himself one of the Bank with which he had been so long connected; and afterward a wretched reaction set in.
It was then that his touch upon Bank money began to intoxicate him strangely. He had at times thousands hugged against his bosom, and his heart swelled to the money-bags immense. He was a dispirited, but a grateful creature, after he had delivered them up. The delirium came by fits, as if a devil lurked to surprise him.
“With this money,” said the demon, “you might speculate, and in two days make ten times the amount.”
To which Anthony answered: “My character’s worth fifty times the amount.”
Such was his reply, but he did not think it. He was honest, and his honesty had become a habit; but the money was the only thing which acted on his imagination; his character had attained to no sacred halo, and was just worth his annual income and the respect of the law for his person. The money fired his brain!
“Ah! if it was mine!” he sighed. “If I could call it mine for just forty or fifty hours! But it ain’t, and I can’t.”
He fought dogged battles with the tempter, and beat him off again and again. One day he made a truce with him by saying that if ever the farmer should be in town of an afternoon he would steal ten minutes or so, and make an appointment with him somewhere and show him the money-bags without a word: let him weigh and eye them: and then the plan was for Anthony to talk of politics, while the farmer’s mind was in a ferment.
With this arrangement the infernal Power appeared to be content, and Anthony was temporarily relieved of his trouble. In other words, the intermittent fever of a sort of harmless rascality was afflicting this old creature. He never entertained the notion of running clear away with the money entrusted to him.
Whither could an aged man fly? He thought of foreign places as of spots that gave him a shivering sense of its being necessary for him to be born again in nakedness and helplessness, if ever he was to see them and set foot on them.
London was his home, and clothed him about warmly and honourably, and so he said to the demon in their next colloquy.
Anthony had become guilty of the imprudence of admitting him to conferences and arguing with him upon equal terms. They tell us, that this is the imprudence of women under temptation; and perhaps Anthony was pushed to the verge of the abyss from causes somewhat similar to those which imperil them, and employed the same kind of efforts in his resistance.
In consequence of this compromise, the demon by degrees took seat at his breakfast-table, when Mrs. Wicklow, his landlady, could hear Anthony talking in the tone of voice of one who was pushed to his sturdiest arguments. She conceived that the old man’s head was softening.
He was making one of his hurried rushes with the porterage of money on an afternoon in Spring, when a young female plucked at his coat, and his wrath at offenders against the law kindled in a minute into fury.
“Hands off, minx!” he cried. “You shall be given in charge. Where’s a policeman?”
“Uncle!” she said.
“You precious swindler in petticoats!” Anthony fumed.
But he had a queer recollection of her face, and when she repeated piteously: “Uncle!” he peered at her features, saying,–
“No!” in wonderment, several times.
Her hair was cut like a boy’s. She was in common garments, with a close-shaped skull-cap and a black straw bonnet on her head; not gloved, of ill complexion, and with deep dark lines slanting down from the corners of her eyes. Yet the inspection convinced him that he beheld Dahlia, his remembering the niece. He was amazed; but speedily priceless trust in his arms, and the wickedness of the streets, he bade her follow him. She did so with some difficulty, for he ran, and dodged, and treated the world as his enemy, suddenly vanished, and appeared again breathing freely.
“Why, my girl?” he said: “Why, Dahl–Mrs. What’s-your-name? Why, who’d have known you? Is that”–he got his eyes close to her hair; “is that the ladies’ fashion now? ‘Cause, if it is, our young street scamps has only got to buy bonnets, and–I say, you don’t look the Pomp. Not as you used to, Miss Ma’am, I mean–no, that you don’t. Well, what’s the news? How’s your husband?”
“Uncle,” said Dahlia; “will you, please, let me speak to you somewhere?”
“Ain’t we standing together?”
“Oh! pray, out of the crowd!”
“Come home with me, if my lodgings ain’t too poor for you,” said Anthony.
“Uncle, I can’t. I have been unwell. I cannot walk far. Will you take me to some quiet place?”
“Will you treat me to a cab?” Anthony sneered vehemently.
“I have left off riding, uncle.”
“What! Hulloa!” Anthony sang out. “Cash is down in the mouth at home, is it? Tell me that, now?”
Dahlia dropped her eyelids, and then entreated him once more to conduct her to a quiet place where they might sit together, away from noise. She