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THE IRRATIONAL KNOT
BY BERNARD SHAW BEING
THE SECOND NOVEL
OF HIS NONAGE
TO THE AMERICAN EDITION OF 1905
This novel was written in the year 1880, only a few years after I had exported myself from Dublin to London in a condition of extreme rawness and inexperience concerning the specifically English side of the life with which the book pretends to deal. Everybody wrote novels then. It was my second attempt; and it shared the fate of my first. That is to say, nobody would publish it, though I tried all the London publishers and some American ones. And I should not greatly blame them if I could feel sure that it was the book’s faults and not its qualities that repelled them.
I have narrated elsewhere how in the course of time the rejected MS. became Mrs. Annie Besant’s excuse for lending me her ever helping hand by publishing it as a serial in a little propagandist magazine of hers. That was how it got loose beyond all possibility of recapture. It is out of my power now to stand between it and the American public: all I can do is to rescue it from unauthorized mutilations and make the best of a jejune job.
At present, of course, I am not the author of The Irrational Knot. Physiologists inform us that the substance of our bodies (and consequently of our souls) is shed and renewed at such a rate that no part of us lasts longer than eight years: I am therefore not now in any atom of me the person who wrote The Irrational Knot in 1880. The last of that author perished in 1888; and two of his successors have since joined the majority. Fourth of his line, I cannot be expected to take any very lively interest in the novels of my literary great-grandfather. Even my personal recollections of him are becoming vague and overlaid with those most misleading of all traditions, the traditions founded on the lies a man tells, and at last comes to believe, about himself _to_ himself. Certain things, however, I remember very well. For instance, I am significantly clear as to the price of the paper on which I wrote The Irrational Knot. It was cheap–a white demy of unpretentious quality–so that sixpennorth lasted a long time. My daily allowance of composition was five pages of this demy in quarto; and I held my natural laziness sternly to that task day in, day out, to the end. I remember also that Bizet’s Carmen being then new in London, I used it as a safety-valve for my romantic impulses. When I was tired of the sordid realism of Whatshisname (I have sent my only copy of The Irrational Knot to the printers, and cannot remember the name of my hero) I went to the piano and forgot him in the glamorous society of Carmen and her crimson toreador and yellow dragoon. Not that Bizet’s music could infatuate me as it infatuated Nietzsche. Nursed on greater masters, I thought less of him than he deserved; but the Carmen music was–in places–exquisite of its kind, and could enchant a man like me, romantic enough to have come to the end of romance before I began to create in art for myself.
When I say that _I_ did and felt these things, I mean, of course, that the predecessor whose name I bear did and felt them. The I of to-day is (? am) cool towards Carmen; and Carmen, I regret to say, does not take the slightest interest in him (? me). And now enough of this juggling with past and present Shaws. The grammatical complications of being a first person and several extinct third persons at the same moment are so frightful that I must return to the ordinary misusage, and ask the reader to make the necessary corrections in his or her own mind.
This book is not wholly a compound of intuition and ignorance. Take for example the profession of my hero, an Irish-American electrical engineer. That was by no means a flight of fancy. For you must not suppose, because I am a man of letters, that I never tried to earn an honest living. I began trying to commit that sin against my nature when I was fifteen, and persevered, from youthful timidity and diffidence, until I was twenty-three. My last attempt was in 1879, when a company was formed in London to exploit an ingenious invention by Mr. Thomas Alva Edison–a much too ingenious invention as it proved, being nothing less than a telephone of such stentorian efficiency that it bellowed your most private communications all over the house instead of whispering them with some sort of discretion. This was not what the British stockbroker wanted; so the company was soon merged in the National Telephone Company, after making a place for itself in the history of literature, quite unintentionally, by providing me with a job. Whilst the Edison Telephone Company lasted, it crowded the basement of a huge pile of offices in Queen Victoria Street with American artificers. These deluded and romantic men gave me a glimpse of the skilled proletariat of the United States. They sang obsolete sentimental songs with genuine emotion; and their language was frightful even to an Irishman. They worked with a ferocious energy which was out of all proportion to the actual result achieved. Indomitably resolved to assert their republican manhood by taking no orders from a tall-hatted Englishman whose stiff politeness covered his conviction that they were, relatively to himself, inferior and common persons, they insisted on being slave-driven with genuine American oaths by a genuine free and equal American foreman. They utterly despised the artfully slow British workman who did as little for his wages as he possibly could; never hurried himself; and had a deep reverence for anyone whose pocket could be tapped by respectful behavior. Need I add that they were contemptuously wondered at by this same British workman as a parcel of outlandish adult boys, who sweated themselves for their employer’s benefit instead of looking after their own interests? They adored Mr. Edison as the greatest man of all time in every possible department of science, art and philosophy, and execrated Mr. Graham Bell, the inventor of the rival telephone, as his Satanic adversary; but each of them had (or pretended to have) on the brink of completion, an improvement on the telephone, usually a new transmitter. They were free-souled creatures, excellent company: sensitive, cheerful, and profane; liars, braggarts, and hustlers; with an air of making slow old England hum which never left them even when, as often happened, they were wrestling with difficulties of their own making, or struggling in no-thoroughfares from which they had to be retrieved like strayed sheep by Englishmen without imagination enough to go wrong.
In this environment I remained for some months. As I was interested in physics and had read Tyndall and Helmholtz, besides having learnt something in Ireland through a fortunate friendship with a cousin of Mr. Graham Bell who was also a chemist and physicist, I was, I believe, the only person in the entire establishment who knew the current scientific explanation of telephony; and as I soon struck up a friendship with our official lecturer, a Colchester man whose strong point was pre-scientific agriculture, I often discharged his duties for him in a manner which, I am persuaded, laid the foundation of Mr. Edison’s London reputation: my sole reward being my boyish delight in the half-concealed incredulity of our visitors (who were convinced by the hoarsely startling utterances of the telephone that the speaker, alleged by me to be twenty miles away, was really using a speaking-trumpet in the next room), and their obvious uncertainty, when the demonstration was over, as to whether they ought to tip me or not: a question they either decided in the negative or never decided at all; for I never got anything.
So much for my electrical engineer! To get him into contact with fashionable society before he became famous was also a problem easily solved. I knew of three English peers who actually preferred physical laboratories to stables, and scientific experts to gamekeepers: in fact, one of the experts was a friend of mine. And I knew from personal experience that if science brings men of all ranks into contact, art, especially music, does the same for men and women. An electrician who can play an accompaniment can go anywhere and know anybody. As far as mere access and acquaintance go there are no class barriers for him. My difficulty was not to get my hero into society, but to give any sort of plausibility to my picture of society when I got him into it. I lacked the touch of the literary diner-out; and I had, as the reader will probably find to his cost, the classical tradition which makes all the persons in a novel, except the comically vernacular ones, or the speakers of phonetically spelt dialect, utter themselves in the formal phrases and studied syntax of eighteenth century rhetoric. In short, I wrote in the style of Scott and Dickens; and as fashionable society then spoke and behaved, as it still does, in no style at all, my transcriptions of Oxford and Mayfair may nowadays suggest an unaccountable and ludicrous ignorance of a very superficial and accessible code of manners. I was not, however, so ignorant as might have been inferred at that time from my somewhat desperate financial condition.
I had, to begin with, a sort of backstairs knowledge; for in my teens I struggled for life in the office of an Irish gentleman who acted as land agent and private banker for many persons of distinction. Now it is possible for a London author to dine out in the highest circles for twenty years without learning as much about the human frailties of his hosts as the family solicitor or (in Ireland) the family land agent learns in twenty days; and some of this knowledge inevitably reaches his clerks, especially the clerk who keeps the cash, which was my particular department. He learns, if capable of the lesson, that the aristocratic profession has as few geniuses as any other profession; so that if you want a peerage of more than, say, half a dozen members, you must fill it up with many common persons, and even with some deplorably mean ones. For “service is no inheritance” either in the kitchen or the House of Lords; and the case presented by Mr. Barrie in his play of The Admirable Crichton, where the butler is the man of quality, and his master, the Earl, the man of rank, is no fantasy, but a quite common occurrence, and indeed to some extent an inevitable one, because the English are extremely particular in selecting their butlers, whilst they do not select their barons at all, taking them as the accident of birth sends them. The consequences include much ironic comedy. For instance, we have in England a curious belief in first rate people, meaning all the people we do not know; and this consoles us for the undeniable secondrateness of the people we do know, besides saving the credit of aristocracy as an institution. The unmet aristocrat is devoutly believed in; but he is always round the corner, never at hand. That _the_ smart set exists; that there is above and beyond that smart set a class so blue of blood and exquisite in nature that it looks down even on the King with haughty condescension; that scepticism on these points is one of the stigmata of plebeian baseness: all these imaginings are so common here that they constitute the real popular sociology of England as much as an unlimited credulity as to vaccination constitutes the real popular science of England. It is, of course, a timid superstition. A British peer or peeress who happens by chance to be genuinely noble is just as isolated at court as Goethe would have been among all the other grandsons of publicans, if they had formed a distinct class in Frankfurt or Weimar. This I knew very well when I wrote my novels; and if, as I suspect, I failed to create a convincingly verisimilar atmosphere of aristocracy, it was not because I had any illusions or ignorances as to the common humanity of the peerage, and not because I gave literary style to its conversation, but because, as I had never had any money, I was foolishly indifferent to it, and so, having blinded myself to its enormous importance, necessarily missed the point of view, and with it the whole moral basis, of the class which rightly values money, and plenty of it, as the first condition of a bearable life.
Money is indeed the most important thing in the world; and all sound and successful personal and national morality should have this fact for its basis. Every teacher or twaddler who denies it or suppresses it, is an enemy of life. Money controls morality; and what makes the United States of America look so foolish even in foolish Europe is that they are always in a state of flurried concern and violent interference with morality, whereas they throw their money into the street to be scrambled for, and presently find that their cash reserves are not in their own hands, but in the pockets of a few millionaires who, bewildered by their luck, and unspeakably incapable of making any truly economic use of it, endeavor to “do good” with it by letting themselves be fleeced by philanthropic committee men, building contractors, librarians and professors, in the name of education, science, art and what not; so that sensible people exhale relievedly when the pious millionaire dies, and his heirs, demoralized by being brought up on his outrageous income, begin the socially beneficent work of scattering his fortune through the channels of the trades that flourish by riotous living.
This, as I have said, I did not then understand; for I knew money only by the want of it. Ireland is a poor country; and my father was a poor man in a poor country. By this I do not mean that he was hungry and homeless, a hewer of wood and a drawer of water. My friend Mr. James Huneker, a man of gorgeous imagination and incorrigible romanticism, has described me to the American public as a peasant lad who has raised himself, as all American presidents are assumed to have raised themselves, from the humblest departments of manual labor to the loftiest eminence. James flatters me. Had I been born a peasant, I should now be a tramp. My notion of my father’s income is even vaguer than his own was–and that is saying a good deal–but he always had an income of at least three figures (four, if you count in dollars instead of pounds); and what made him poor was that he conceived himself as born to a social position which even in Ireland could have been maintained in dignified comfort only on twice or thrice what he had. And he married on that assumption. Fortunately for me, social opportunity is not always to be measured by income. There is an important economic factor, first analyzed by an American economist (General Walker), and called rent of ability. Now this rent, when the ability is of the artistic or political sort, is often paid in kind. For example, a London possessor of such ability may, with barely enough money to maintain a furnished bedroom and a single presentable suit of clothes, see everything worth seeing that a millionaire can see, and know everybody worth knowing that he can know. Long before I reached this point myself, a very trifling accomplishment gave me glimpses of the sort of fashionable life a peasant never sees. Thus I remember one evening during the novel-writing period when nobody would pay a farthing for a stroke of my pen, walking along Sloane Street in that blessed shield of literary shabbiness, evening dress. A man accosted me with an eloquent appeal for help, ending with the assurance that he had not a penny in the world. I replied, with exact truth, “Neither have I.” He thanked me civilly, and went away, apparently not in the least surprised, leaving me to ask myself why I did not turn beggar too, since I felt sure that a man who did it as well as he, must be in comfortable circumstances.
Another reminiscence. A little past midnight, in the same costume, I was turning from Piccadilly into Bond Street, when a lady of the pavement, out of luck that evening so far, confided to me that the last bus for Brompton had passed, and that she should be grateful to any gentleman who would give her a lift in a hansom. My old-fashioned Irish gallantry had not then been worn off by age and England: besides, as a novelist who could find no publisher, I was touched by the similarity of our trades and predicaments. I excused myself very politely on the ground that my wife (invented for the occasion) was waiting for me at home, and that I felt sure so attractive a lady would have no difficulty in finding another escort. Unfortunately this speech made so favorable an impression on her that she immediately took my arm and declared her willingness to go anywhere with me, on the flattering ground that I was a perfect gentleman. In vain did I try to persuade her that in coming up Bond Street and deserting Piccadilly, she was throwing away her last chance of a hansom: she attached herself so devotedly to me that I could not without actual violence shake her off. At last I made a stand at the end of Old Bond Street. I took out my purse; opened it; and held it upside down. Her countenance fell, poor girl! She turned on her heel with a melancholy flirt of her skirt, and vanished.
Now on both these occasions I had been in the company of people who spent at least as much in a week as I did in a year. Why was I, a penniless and unknown young man, admitted there? Simply because, though I was an execrable pianist, and never improved until the happy invention of the pianola made a Paderewski of me, I could play a simple accompaniment at sight more congenially to a singer than most amateurs. It is true that the musical side of London society, with its streak of Bohemianism, and its necessary toleration of foreign ways and professional manners, is far less typically English than the sporting side or the political side or the Philistine side; so much so, indeed, that people may and do pass their lives in it without ever discovering what English plutocracy in the mass is really like: still, if you wander in it nocturnally for a fitful year or so as I did, with empty pockets and an utter impossibility of approaching it by daylight (owing to the deplorable decay of the morning wardrobe), you have something more actual to go on than the hallucinations of a peasant lad setting his foot manfully on the lowest rung of the social ladder. I never climbed any ladder: I have achieved eminence by sheer gravitation; and I hereby warn all peasant lads not to be duped by my pretended example into regarding their present servitude as a practicable first step to a celebrity so dazzling that its subject cannot even suppress his own bad novels.
Conceive me then at the writing of The Irrational Knot as a person neither belonging to the world I describe nor wholly ignorant of it, and on certain points quite incapable of conceiving it intuitively. A whole world of art which did not exist for it lay open to me. I was familiar with the greatest in that world: mighty poets, painters, and musicians were my intimates. I found the world of artificial greatness founded on convention and money so repugnant and contemptible by comparison that I had no sympathetic understanding of it. People are fond of blaming valets because no man is a hero to his valet. But it is equally true that no man is a valet to his hero; and the hero, consequently, is apt to blunder very ludicrously about valets, through judging them from an irrelevant standard of heroism: heroism, remember, having its faults as well as its qualities. I, always on the heroic plane imaginatively, had two disgusting faults which I did not recognize as faults because I could not help them. I was poor and (by day) shabby. I therefore tolerated the gross error that poverty, though an inconvenience and a trial, is not a sin and a disgrace; and I stood for my self-respect on the things I had: probity, ability, knowledge of art, laboriousness, and whatever else came cheaply to me. Because I could walk into Hampton Court Palace and the National Gallery (on free days) and enjoy Mantegna and Michael Angelo whilst millionaires were yawning miserably over inept gluttonies; because I could suffer more by hearing a movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony taken at a wrong tempo than a duchess by losing a diamond necklace, I was indifferent to the repulsive fact that if I had fallen in love with the duchess I did not possess a morning suit in which I could reasonably have expected her to touch me with the furthest protended pair of tongs; and I did not see that to remedy this I should have been prepared to wade through seas of other people’s blood. Indeed it is this perception which constitutes an aristocracy nowadays. It is the secret of all our governing classes, which consist finally of people who, though perfectly prepared to be generous, humane, cultured, philanthropic, public spirited and personally charming in the second instance, are unalterably resolved, in the first, to have money enough for a handsome and delicate life, and will, in pursuit of that money, batter in the doors of their fellow men, sell them up, sweat them in fetid dens, shoot, stab, hang, imprison, sink, burn and destroy them in the name of law and order. And this shews their fundamental sanity and rightmindedness; for a sufficient income is indispensable to the practice of virtue; and the man who will let any unselfish consideration stand between him and its attainment is a weakling, a dupe and a predestined slave. If I could convince our impecunious mobs of this, the world would be reformed before the end of the week; for the sluggards who are content to be wealthy without working and the dastards who are content to work without being wealthy, together with all the pseudo-moralists and ethicists and cowardice mongers generally, would be exterminated without shrift, to the unutterable enlargement of life and ennoblement of humanity. We might even make some beginnings of civilization under such happy circumstances.
In the days of The Irrational Knot I had not learnt this lesson; consequently I did not understand the British peerage, just as I did not understand that glorious and beautiful phenomenon, the “heartless” rich American woman, who so thoroughly and admirably understands that conscience is a luxury, and should be indulged in only when the vital needs of life have been abundantly satisfied. The instinct which has led the British peerage to fortify itself by American alliances is healthy and well inspired. Thanks to it, we shall still have a few people to maintain the tradition of a handsome, free, proud, costly life, whilst the craven mass of us are keeping up our starveling pretence that it is more important to be good than to be rich, and piously cheating, robbing, and murdering one another by doing our duty as policemen, soldiers, bailiffs, jurymen, turnkeys, hangmen, tradesmen, and curates, at the command of those who know that the golden grapes are _not_ sour. Why, good heavens! we shall all pretend that this straightforward truth of mine is mere Swiftian satire, because it would require a little courage to take it seriously and either act on it or make me drink the hemlock for uttering it.
There was the less excuse for my blindness because I was at that very moment laying the foundations of my high fortune by the most ruthless disregard of all the quack duties which lead the peasant lad of fiction to the White House, and harness the real peasant boy to the plough until he is finally swept, as rubbish, into the workhouse. I was an ablebodied and ableminded young man in the strength of my youth; and my family, then heavily embarrassed, needed my help urgently. That I should have chosen to be a burden to them instead was, according to all the conventions of peasant lad fiction, monstrous. Well, without a blush I embraced the monstrosity. I did not throw myself into the struggle for life: I threw my mother into it. I was not a staff to my father’s old age: I hung on to his coat tails. His reward was to live just long enough to read a review of one of these silly novels written in an obscure journal by a personal friend of my own (now eminent in literature as Mr. John Mackinnon Robertson) prefiguring me to some extent as a considerable author. I think, myself, that this was a handsome reward, far better worth having than a nice pension from a dutiful son struggling slavishly for his parent’s bread in some sordid trade. Handsome or not, it was the only return he ever had for the little pension he contrived to export from Ireland for his family. My mother reinforced it by drudging in her elder years at the art of music which she had followed in her prime freely for love. I only helped to spend it. People wondered at my heartlessness: one young and romantic lady had the courage to remonstrate openly and indignantly with me, “for the which” as Pepys said of the shipwright’s wife who refused his advances, “I did respect her.” Callous as Comus to moral babble, I steadily wrote my five pages a day and made a man of myself (at my mother’s expense) instead of a slave. And I protest that I will not suffer James Huneker or any romanticist to pass me off as a peasant boy qualifying for a chapter in Smiles’s Self Help, or a good son supporting a helpless mother, instead of a stupendously selfish artist leaning with the full weight of his hungry body on an energetic and capable woman. No, James: such lies are not only unnecessary, but fearfully depressing and fundamentally immoral, besides being hardly fair to the supposed peasant lad’s parents. My mother worked for my living instead of preaching that it was my duty to work for hers: therefore take off your hat to her, and blush.[A]
It is now open to anyone who pleases to read The Irrational Knot. I do not recommend him to; but it is possible that the same mysterious force which drove me through the labor of writing it may have had some purpose which will sustain others through the labor of reading it, and even reward them with some ghastly enjoyment of it. For my own part I cannot stand it. It is to me only one of the heaps of spoiled material that all apprenticeship involves. I consent to its publication because I remember that British colonel who called on Beethoven when the elderly composer was working at his posthumous quartets, and offered him a commission for a work in the style of his jejune septet. Beethoven drove the Colonel out of the house with objurgation. I think that was uncivil. There is a time for the septet, and a time for the posthumous quartets. It is true that if a man called on me now and asked me to write something like The Irrational Knot I should have to exercise great self-control. But there are people who read Man and Superman, and then tell me (actually to my face) that I have never done anything so good as Cashel Byron’s Profession. After this, there may be a public for even The Irrational Knot; so let it go.
LONDON, _May_ 26, 1905.
[Footnote A: James, having read the above in proof, now protests he never called me a peasant lad: that being a decoration by the sub-editor. The expression he used was “a poor lad.” This is what James calls tact. After all, there is something pastoral, elemental, well aerated, about a peasant lad. But a mere poor lad! really, James, _really_–!!!]
P.S.–Since writing the above I have looked through the proof-sheets of this book, and found, with some access of respect for my youth, that it is a fiction of the first order. By this I do not mean that it is a masterpiece in that order, or even a pleasant example of it, but simply that, such as it is, it is one of those fictions in which the morality is original and not readymade. Now this quality is the true diagnostic of the first order in literature, and indeed in all the arts, including the art of life. It is, for example, the distinction that sets Shakespear’s Hamlet above his other plays, and that sets Ibsen’s work as a whole above Shakespear’s work as a whole. Shakespear’s morality is a mere reach-me-down; and because Hamlet does not feel comfortable in it, and struggles against the misfit, he suggests something better, futile as his struggle is, and incompetent as Shakespear shews himself in his effort to think out the revolt of his feeling against readymade morality. Ibsen’s morality is original all through: he knows well that the men in the street have no use for principles, because they can neither understand nor apply them; and that what they can understand and apply are arbitrary rules of conduct, often frightfully destructive and inhuman, but at least definite rules enabling the common stupid man to know where he stands and what he may do and not do without getting into trouble. Now to all writers of the first order, these rules, and the need for them produced by the moral and intellectual incompetence of the ordinary human animal, are no more invariably beneficial and respectable than the sunlight which ripens the wheat in Sussex and leaves the desert deadly in Sahara, making the cheeks of the ploughman’s child rosy in the morning and striking the ploughman brainsick or dead in the afternoon; no more inspired (and no less) than the religion of the Andaman islanders; as much in need of frequent throwing away and replacement as the community’s boots. By writers of the second order the readymade morality is accepted as the basis of all moral judgment and criticism of the characters they portray, even when their genius forces them to represent their most attractive heroes and heroines as violating the readymade code in all directions. Far be it from me to pretend that the first order is more readable than the second! Shakespear, Scott, Dickens, Dumas _pere_ are not, to say the least, less readable than Euripides and Ibsen. Nor is the first order always more constructive; for Byron, Oscar Wilde, and Larochefoucauld did not get further in positive philosophy than Ruskin and Carlyle, though they could snuff Ruskin’s Seven Lamps with their fingers without flinching. Still, the first order remains the first order and the second the second for all that: no man who shuts his eyes and opens his mouth when religion and morality are offered to him on a long spoon can share the same Parnassian bench with those who make an original contribution to religion and morality, were it only a criticism.
Therefore on coming back to this Irrational Knot as a stranger after 25 years, I am proud to find that its morality is not readymade. The drunken prima donna of a bygone type of musical burlesque is not depicted as an immoral person, but as a person with a morality of her own, no worse in its way than the morality of her highly respectable wine merchant in _its_ way. The sociology of the successful inventor is his own sociology too; and it is by his originality in this respect that he passes irresistibly through all the readymade prejudices that are set up to bar his promotion. And the heroine, nice, amiable, benevolent, and anxious to please and behave well, but hopelessly secondhand in her morals and nicenesses, and consequently without any real moral force now that the threat of hell has lost its terrors for her, is left destitute among the failures which are so puzzling to thoughtless people. “I cannot understand why she is so unlucky: she is such a nice woman!”: that is the formula. As if people with any force in them ever were altogether nice!
And so I claim the first order for this jejune exploit of mine, and invite you to note that the final chapter, so remote from Scott and Dickens and so close to Ibsen, was written years before Ibsen came to my knowledge, thus proving that the revolt of the Life Force against readymade morality in the nineteenth century was not the work of a Norwegian microbe, but would have worked itself into expression in English literature had Norway never existed. In fact, when Miss Lord’s translation of A Doll’s House appeared in the eighteen-eighties, and so excited some of my Socialist friends that they got up a private reading of it in which I was cast for the part of Krogstad, its novelty as a morally original study of a marriage did not stagger me as it staggered Europe. I had made a morally original study of a marriage myself, and made it, too, without any melodramatic forgeries, spinal diseases, and suicides, though I had to confess to a study of dipsomania. At all events, I chattered and ate caramels in the back drawing-room (our green-room) whilst Eleanor Marx, as Nora, brought Helmer to book at the other side of the folding doors. Indeed I concerned myself very little about Ibsen until, later on, William Archer translated Peer Gynt to me _viva voce_, when the magic of the great poet opened my eyes in a flash to the importance of the social philosopher.
I seriously suggest that The Irrational Knot may be regarded as an early attempt on the part of the Life Force to write A Doll’s House in English by the instrumentality of a very immature writer aged 24. And though I say it that should not, the choice was not such a bad shot for a stupid instinctive force that has to work and become conscious of itself by means of human brains. If we could only realize that though the Life Force supplies us with its own purpose, it has no other brains to work with than those it has painfully and imperfectly evolved in our heads, the peoples of the earth would learn some pity for their gods; and we should have a religion that would not be contradicted at every turn by the thing that is giving the lie to the thing that ought to be.
WELWYN, _Sunday, June_ 25, 1905.
THE IRRATIONAL KNOT
At seven o’clock on a fine evening in April the gas had just been lighted in a room on the first floor of a house in York Road, Lambeth. A man, recently washed and brushed, stood on the hearthrug before a pier glass, arranging a white necktie, part of his evening dress. He was about thirty, well grown, and fully developed muscularly. There was no cloud of vice or trouble upon him: he was concentrated and calm, making no tentative movements of any sort (even a white tie did not puzzle him into fumbling), but acting with a certainty of aim and consequent economy of force, dreadful to the irresolute. His face was brown, but his auburn hair classed him as a fair man.
The apartment, a drawing-room with two windows, was dusty and untidy. The paint and wall paper had not been renewed for years; nor did the pianette, which stood near the fireplace, seem to have been closed during that time; for the interior was dusty, and the inner end of every key begrimed. On a table between the windows were some tea things, with a heap of milliner’s materials, and a brass candlestick which had been pushed back to make room for a partially unfolded cloth. There was a second table near the door, crowded with coils, batteries, a galvanometer, and other electrical apparatus. The mantelpiece was littered with dusty letters, and two trays of Doulton ware which ornamented it were filled with accounts, scraps of twine, buttons, and rusty keys.
A shifting, rustling sound, as of somebody dressing, which had been audible for some minutes through the folding doors, now ceased, and a handsome young woman entered. She had thick black hair, fine dark eyes, an oval face, a clear olive complexion, and an elastic figure. She was incompletely attired in a petticoat that did not hide her ankles, and stays of bright red silk with white laces and seams. Quite unconcerned at the presence of the man, she poured out a cup of tea; carried it to the mantelpiece; and began to arrange her hair before the glass. He, without looking round, completed the arrangement of his tie, looked at it earnestly for a moment, and said, “Have you got a pin about you?”
“There is one in the pincushion on my table,” she said; “but I think it’s a black one. I dont know where the deuce all the pins go to.” Then, casting off the subject, she whistled a long and florid cadenza, and added, by way of instrumental interlude, a remarkably close imitation of a violoncello. Meanwhile the man went into her room for the pin. On his return she suddenly became curious, and said, “Where are you going to-night, if one may ask?”
“I am going out.”
She looked at him for a moment, and turned contemptuously to the mirror, saying, “Thank you. Sorry to be inquisitive.”
“I am going to sing for the Countess of Carbury at a concert at Wandsworth.”
“Sing! You! The Countess of Barbury! Does she live at Wandsworth?”
“No. She lives in Park Lane.”
“Oh! I beg her pardon.” The man made no comment on this; and she, after looking doubtfully at him to assure herself that he was in earnest, continued, “How does the Countess of Whatshername come to know _you_, pray?”
A long pause ensued. Then she said: “Stuff!”, but without conviction. Her exclamation had no apparent effect on him until he had buttoned his waistcoat and arranged his watch-chain. Then he glanced at a sheet of pink paper which lay on the mantelpiece. She snatched it at once; opened it; stared incredulously at it; and said, “Pink paper, and scalloped edges! How filthily vulgar! I thought she was not much of a Countess! Ahem! ‘Music for the People. Parnassus Society. A concert will be given at the Town Hall, Wandsworth, on Tuesday, the 25th April, by the Countess of Carbury, assisted by the following ladies and gentlemen. Miss Elinor McQuinch’–what a name! ‘Miss Marian Lind’–who’s Miss Marian Lind?”
“How should I know?”
“I only thought, as she is a pal of the Countess, that you would most likely be intimate with her. ‘Mrs. Leith Fairfax.’ There is a Mrs. Leith Fairfax who writes novels, and very rotten novels they are, too. Who are the gentlemen? ‘Mr. Marmaduke Lind’–brother to Miss Marian, I suppose. ‘Mr. Edward Conolly’–save the mark! they must have been rather hard up for gentlemen when they put _you_ down as one. The Conolly family is looking up at last. Hm! nearly a dozen altogether. ‘Tickets will be distributed to the families of working men by the Rev. George Lind’–pity they didnt engage Jenny Lind on purpose to sing with you. ‘A limited number of front seats at one shilling. Please turn over. Part I. Symphony in F: Haydn. Arranged for four English concertinas by Julius Baker. Mr. Julius Baker; Master Julius Abt Baker; Miss Lisette Baker (aged 8); and Miss Totty Baker (aged 6-1/2)’. Good Lord! ‘Song: Rose softly blooming: Spohr. Miss Marian Lind.’ I wonder whether she can sing! ‘Polonaise in A flat major: Chopin’–what rot! As if working people cared about Chopin! Miss Elinor McQuinch is a fool, I see. ‘Song: The Valley: Gounod.’ Of course: I knew you would try that. Oho! Here’s something sensible at last. ‘Nigger melody. Uncle Ned. Mr. Marmaduke Lind, accompanied by himself on the banjo.’
Dum, drum. Dum, drum. Dum, drum. Dum– ‘And there was an ole nigga; and his name was Uncle Ned; An’ him dead long ago, long ago.
An’ he had no hair on the top of his head In the place where the wool ought to grow,’
Mr. Marmaduke Lind will get a double _encore_; and no one will take the least notice of you or the others. ‘Recitation. The Faithful Soul. Adelaide Proctor. Mrs. Leith Fairfax.’ Well, this certainly is a blessed attempt to amuse Wandsworth. _Another_ reading by the Rev.—-“
Here Conolly, who had been putting on his overcoat, picked the program deftly from his sister’s fingers, and left the room. She, after damning him very heartily, returned to the glass, and continued dressing, taking her tea at intervals until she was ready to go out, when she sent for a cab, and bade the driver convey her to the Bijou Theatre, Soho.
Conolly, on arriving at the Wandsworth Town Hall, was directed to a committee room, which served as green-room on this occasion. He was greeted by a clean shaven young clergyman who protested that he was glad to see him there, but did not offer his hand. Conolly thanked him briefly, and went without further ceremony to the table, and was about to place his hat and overcoat on a heap of similar garments, when, observing that there were some hooks along the wall, he immediately crossed over and hung up his things on them, thereby producing an underbred effect of being more prudent and observant than the rest. Then he looked at his program, and calculated how soon his turn to sing would come. Then he unrolled his music, and placed two copies of Le Vallon ready to his hand upon the table. Having made these arrangements with a self-possession that quite disconcerted the clergyman, he turned to examine the rest of the company.
His first glance was arrested by the beauty of a young lady with light brown hair and gentle grey eyes, who sat near the fire. Beside her, on a lower chair, was a small, lean, and very restless young woman with keen dark eyes staring defiantly from a worn face. These two were attended by a jovial young gentleman with curly auburn hair, who was twanging a banjo, and occasionally provoking an exclamation of annoyance from the restless girl by requesting her opinion of his progress in tuning the instrument. Near them stood a tall man, dark and handsome. He seemed unused to his present circumstances, and contemptuous, not of the company nor the object for which they were assembled, but in the abstract, as if habitual contempt were part of his nature.
The clergyman, who had just conducted to the platform an elderly professor in a shabby frock coat, followed by three well-washed children, each of whom carried a concertina, now returned and sat down beside a middle-aged lady, who made herself conspicuous by using a gold framed eyeglass so as to convey an impression that she was an exceedingly keen observer.
“It is fortunate that the evening is so fine,” said the clergyman to her.
“Yes, is it not, Mr. Lind?”
“My throat is always affected by bad weather, Mrs. Leith Fairfax. I shall be so handicapped by the inevitable comparison of my elocution with yours, that I am glad the weather is favorable to me, though the comparison is not.”
“No,” said Mrs. Fairfax, with decision. “I am not in the least an orator. I can repeat a poem: that is all. Oh! I hope I have not broken my glasses.” They had slipped from her nose to the floor. Conolly picked them up and straightened them with one turn of his fingers.
“No harm done, madam,” said he, with a certain elocutionary correctness, and rather in the strong voice of the workshop than the subdued one of the drawing-room, handing the glasses to her ceremoniously as he spoke.
“Thank you. You are very kind, very kind indeed.”
Conolly bowed, and turned again toward the other group.
“Who is that?” whispered Mrs. Fairfax to the clergyman.
“Some young man who attracted the attention of the Countess by his singing. He is only a workman.”
“Indeed! Where did she hear him sing?”
“In her son’s laboratory, I believe. He came there to put up some electrical machinery, and sang into a telephone for their amusement. You know how fond Lord Jasper is of mechanics. Jasper declares that he is a genius as an electrician. Indeed it was he, rather than the Countess, who thought of getting him to sing for us.”
“How very interesting! I saw that he was clever when he spoke to me. There is so much in trifles–in byplay, Mr. Lind. Now, his manner of picking up my glass had his entire history in it. You will also see it in the solid development of his head. That young man deserves to be encouraged.”
“You are very generous, Mrs. Leith Fairfax. It would not be well to encourage him too much, however. You must recollect that he is not used to society. Injudicious encouragement might perhaps lead him to forget his real place in it.”
“I do not agree with you, Mr. Lind. You do not read human nature as I do. You know that I am an expert. I see men as he sees a telegraph instrument, quite uninfluenced by personal feeling.”
“True, Mrs. Leith Fairfax. But the heart is deceitful above all things and des–at least I should say–er. That is, you will admit that the finest perception may err in its estimate of the inscrutable work of the Almighty.”
“Doubtless. But really, Mr. Lind, human beings are _so_ shallow! I assure you there is nothing at all inscrutable about them to a trained analyst of character. It may be a gift, perhaps; but people’s minds are to me only little machines made up of superficial motives.”
“I say,” said the young gentleman with the banjo, interrupting them: “have you got a copy of ‘Rose softly blooming’ there?”
“I!” said Mrs. Fairfax. “No, certainly not.”
“Then it’s all up with the concert. We have forgotten Marian’s music; and there is nothing for Nelly–I beg pardon, I mean Miss McQuinch–to play from. She is above playing by ear.”
“I _cannot_ play by ear,” said the restless young lady, angrily.
“If you will sing ‘Coal black Rose’ instead, Marian, I can accompany you on the banjo, and back you up in the chorus. The Wandsworthers–if they survive the concertinas–will applaud the change as one man.”
“It is so unkind to joke about it,” said the beautiful young lady. “What shall I do? If somebody will vamp an accompaniment, I can get on very well without any music. But if I try to play for myself I shall break down.”
Conolly here stepped aside, and beckoned to the clergyman.
“That young man wants to speak to you,” whispered Mrs. Fairfax.
“Oh, indeed. Thank you,” said the Rev. Mr. Lind, stiffly. “I suppose I had better see what he requires.”
“I suppose you had,” said Mrs. Fairfax, with some impatience.
“I dont wish to intrude where I have no business,” said Conolly quietly to the clergyman; “but I can play that lady’s accompaniment, if she will allow me.”
The clergyman was too much afraid of Conolly by this time–he did not know why–to demur. “I am sure she will not object,” he said, pretending to be relieved by the offer. “Your services will be most acceptable. Excuse me for one moment, whilst I inform Miss Lind.”
He crossed the room to the lady, and said in a lower tone, “I think I have succeeded in arranging the matter, Marian. That man says he will play for you.”
“I hope he _can_ play,” said Marian doubtfully. “Who is he?”
“It is Conolly. Jasper’s man.”
Miss Lind’s eyes lighted. “Is that he?” she whispered, glancing curiously across the room at him. “Bring him and introduce him to us.”
“Is that necessary?” said the tall man, without lowering his voice sufficiently to prevent Conolly from hearing him. The clergyman hesitated.
“It is quite necessary: I do not know what he must think of us already,” said Marian, ashamed, and looking apprehensively at Conolly. He was staring with a policemanlike expression at the tall man, who, after a vain attempt to ignore him, had eventually to turn away. The Rev. Mr. Lind then led the electrician forward, and avoided a formal presentation by saying with a simper: “Here is Mr. Conolly, who will extricate us from all our difficulties.”
Miss McQuinch nodded. Miss Lind bowed. Marmaduke shook hands good-naturedly, and retired somewhat abashed, thrumming his banjo. Just then a faint sound of clapping was followed by the return of the quartet party, upon which Miss Lind rose and moved hesitatingly toward the platform. The tall man offered his hand.
“Nonsense, Sholto,” said she, laughing. “They will expect you to do something if you appear with me.”
“Allow _me_, Marian,” said the clergyman, as the tall man, offended, bowed and stood aside. She, pretending not to notice her brother, turned toward Conolly, who at once passed the Rev. George, and led her to the platform.
“The original key?” he enquired, as they mounted the steps.
“I dont know,” she said, alarmed.
For a moment he was taken aback. Then he said, “What is the highest note you can sing?”
“I can sing A sometimes–only when I am alone. I dare not attempt it before people.”
Conolly sat down, knowing now that Miss Lind was a commonplace amateur. He had been contrasting her with his sister, greatly to the disparagement of his home life; and he was disappointed to find the lady break down where the actress would have succeeded so well. Consoling himself with the reflexion that if Miss Lind could not rap out a B flat like Susanna, neither could she rap out an oath, he played the accompaniment much better than Marian sang the song. Meanwhile, Miss McQuinch, listening jealously in the green-room, hated herself for her inferior skill.
“Cool, and reserved, is the modern Benjamin Franklin,” observed Marmaduke to her.
“Better a reserved man who can do something than a sulky one who can do nothing,” she said, glancing at the tall man, with whom the clergyman was nervously striving to converse.
“Exquisite melody, is it not, Mr. Douglas?” said Mrs. Fairfax, coming to the clergyman’s rescue.
“I do not care for music,” said Douglas. “I lack the maudlin disposition in which the taste usually thrives.”
Miss McQuinch gave an expressive snap, but said nothing; and the conversation dropped until Miss Lind had sung her song, and received a round of respectful but not enthusiastic applause.
“Thank you, Mr. Conolly,” she said, as she left the platform. “I am afraid that Spohr’s music is too good for the people here. Dont you think so?”
“Not a bit of it,” replied Conolly. “There is nothing so very particular in Spohr. But he requires very good singing–better than he is worth.”
Miss Lind colored, and returned in silence to her seat beside Miss McQuinch, feeling that she had exposed herself to a remark that no gentleman would have made.
“Now then, Nelly,” said Marmaduke: “the parson is going to call time. Keep up your courage. Come, get up, get up.”
“Do not be so boisterous, Duke,” said Marian. “It is bad enough to have to face an audience without being ridiculed beforehand.”
“Marian,” said Marmaduke, “if you think Nelly will hammer a love of music into the British workman, you err. Lots of them get their living by hammering, and they will most likely resent feminine competition. Bang! There she goes. Pity the sorrows of a poor old piano, and let us hope its trembling limbs wont come through the floor.”
“Really, Marmaduke,” said Marian, impatiently, “you are excessively foolish. You are like a boy fresh from school.”
Marmaduke, taken aback by her sharp tone, gave a long whispered whistle, and pretended to hide under the table. He had a certain gift of drollery which made it difficult not to laugh even at his most foolish antics, and Marian was giving way in spite of herself when she found Douglas bending over her and saying, in a low voice:
“You are tired of this place. The room is very draughty: I fear it will give you cold. Let me drive you home now. An apology can be made for whatever else you are supposed to do for these people. Let me get your cloak and call a cab.”
Marian laughed. “Thank you, Sholto,” she said; “but I assure you I am quite happy. Pray do not look offended because I am not so uncomfortable as you think I ought to be.”
“I am glad you are happy,” said Douglas in his former cold tone. “Perhaps my presence is rather a drawback to your enjoyment than otherwise.”
“I told you not to come, Sholto; but you would. Why not adapt yourself to the circumstances, and be agreeable?”
“I am not conscious of being disagreeable.”
“I did not mean that. Only I do not like to see you making an enemy of every one in the room, and forcing me to say things that I know must hurt you.”
“To the enmity of your new associates I am supremely indifferent, Marian. To that of your old friends I am accustomed. I am not in the mood to be lectured on my behavior at present; besides, the subject is hardly worth pursuing. May I gather from your remarks that I shall gratify you by withdrawing?”
“Yes,” said Marian, flushing slightly, and looking steadily at him. Then, controlling her voice with an effort, she added, “Do not try again to browbeat me into telling you a falsehood, Sholto.”
Douglas looked at her in surprise. Before he could answer, Miss McQuinch reappeared.
“Well, Nelly,” said Marmaduke: “is there any piano left?”
“Not much,” she replied, with a sullen laugh. “I never played worse in my life.”
“Wrong notes? or deficiency in the sacred fire?”
“I believe your song comes next,” said the clergyman to Conolly, who had been standing apart, listening to Miss McQuinch’s performance.
“Who is to accompany me, sir?”
“Oh–ah–Miss McQuinch will, I am sure,” replied the Rev. Mr. Lind, smiling nervously. Conolly looked grave. The young lady referred to closed her lips; frowned; said nothing. Marmaduke chuckled.
“Perhaps you would rather play your own accompaniment,” said the clergyman, weakly.
Conolly shook his head decisively, and said, “I can do only one thing at a time, sir.”
“Oh, they are not very critical: they are only workmen,” said the clergyman, and then reddened deeply as Marmaduke gave him a very perceptible nudge.
“I’ll not take advantage of that, as I am only a workman myself,” said Conolly. “I had rather leave the song out than accompany myself.”
“Pray dont suppose that I wish to be disagreeable, Mr. Lind,” said Miss McQuinch, as the company looked doubtfully at her; “but I have disgraced myself too completely to trust my fingers again. I should spoil the song if I played the accompaniment.”
“I think you might try, Nell,” said Marmaduke, reproachfully.
“I might,” retorted Miss McQuinch; “but I wont.”
“If somebody doesnt go out and do something, there will be a shindy,” said Marmaduke.
Marian hesitated a moment and then rose. “I am a very indifferent player,” she said; “but since no better is to be had, I will venture–if Mr. Conolly will trust me.”
“If you would rather not,” said Miss McQuinch, shamed into remorse, “I will try the accompaniment. But I am sure to play it all wrong.”
“I think Miss McQuinch had better play,” said Douglas.
Conolly looked at Marian; received a reassuring glance; and went to the platform with her without further ado. She was not a sympathetic accompanist; but, not knowing this, she was not at all put out by it. She felt too that she was, as became a lady, giving the workman a lesson in courtesy which might stand him in stead when he next accompanied “Rose, softly blooming.” She was a little taken aback on finding that he not only had a rich baritone voice, but was, as far as she could judge, an accomplished singer.
“Really,” she said as they left the platform, “you sing most beautifully.”
“One would hardly have expected it,” he said, with a smile.
Marian, annoyed at having this side of her compliment exposed, did not return the smile, and went to her chair in the green-room without taking any further notice of him.
“I congratulate you,” said Mrs. Leith Fairfax to Conolly, looking at him, like all the rest except Douglas, with a marked access of interest. “Ah! what wonderful depth there is in Gounod’s music!”
He assented politely with a movement of his head.
“I know nothing at all about music,” said Mrs. Fairfax.
“Very few people do.”
“I mean technically, of course,” she said, not quite pleased.
A tremendous burst of applause here followed the conclusion of the first verse of “Uncle Ned.”
“_Do_ come and listen, Nelly,” said Marian, returning to the door. Mrs. Fairfax and Conolly presently went to the door too.
“Would you not like to help in the chorus, Nelly?” said Marian in a low voice, as the audience began to join uproariously in the refrain.
“Not particularly,” said Miss McQuinch.
“Sholto,” said Marian, “come and share our vulgar joy. We want you to join in the chorus.”
“Thank you,” said Douglas, “I fear I am too indifferent a vocalist to do justice to the occasion.”
“Sing with Mr. Conolly and you cannot go wrong,” said Miss McQuinch.
“Hush,” said Marian, interposing quickly lest Douglas should retort. “There is the chorus. Shall we really join?”
Conolly struck up the refrain without further hesitation. Marian sang with him. Mrs. Fairfax and the clergyman looked furtively at one another, but forbore to swell the chorus. Miss McQuinch sang a few words in a piercing contralto voice, and then stopped with a gesture of impatience, feeling that she was out of tune. Marian, with only Conolly to keep her in countenance, felt relieved when Marmaduke, thrice encored, entered the room in triumph. Whilst he was being congratulated, Douglas turned to Miss McQuinch, who was pretending to ignore Marmaduke’s success.
“I hope, Miss McQuinch,” he said in a low tone, “that you will be able to relieve Marian at the piano next time. You know how she dislikes having to play accompaniments for strangers.”
“How mean it is of you to be jealous of a plumber!” said Miss McQuinch, with a quick glance at him which she did not dare to sustain, so fiercely did he return it.
When she looked again, he seemed unconscious of her presence, and was buttoning his overcoat.
“Really going at last, Sholto?” said Marian. Douglas bowed.
“I told you you wouldnt be able to stand it, old man,” said Marmaduke. “Mrs. Bluestockings wont be pleased with you for not staying to hear her recite.” This referred to Mrs. Fairfax, who had just gone upon the platform.
“Good night,” said Miss McQuinch, shortly, anxious to test how far he was offended, but unwilling to appear solicitous for a reconciliation.
“Until to-morrow, farewell,” he said, approaching Marian, who gave him her hand with a smile: Conolly looking thoughtfully at him meanwhile. He left the room; and so, Mrs. Fairfax having gone to the platform to recite, quiet prevailed for a few minutes.
“Shall I have the pleasure of playing the accompaniment to your next song?” said Conolly, sitting down near Marian.
“Thank you,” said Marian, shrinking a little: “I think Miss McQuinch knows it by heart.” Then, still anxious to be affable to the workman, she added, “Lord Jasper says you are a great musician.”
“No, I am an electrician. Music is not my business: it is my amusement.”
“You have invented something very wonderful, have you not?”
“I have discovered something, and I am trying to invent a means of turning it to account. It will be only a cheap electro-motor if it comes to anything.”
“You must explain that to me some day, Mr. Conolly. I’m afraid I dont know what an electro-motor means.”
“I ought not to have mentioned it,” said Conolly. “It is so constantly in my mind that I am easily led to talk about it. I try to prevent myself, but the very effort makes me think of it more than ever.”
“But I like to hear you talk about it,” said Marian. “I always try to make people talk shop to me, and of course they always repay me by trying to keep on indifferent topics, of which I know as much–or as little–as they.”
“Well, then,” said Conolly, “an electro-motor is only an engine for driving machinery, just like a steam engine, except that it is worked by electricity instead of steam. Electric engines are so imperfect now that steam ones come cheaper. The man who finds out how to make the electric engine do what the steam engine now does, and do it cheaper, will make his fortune if he has his wits about him. Thats what I am driving at.”
Miss Lind, in spite of her sensible views as to talking shop, was not interested in the least. “Indeed!” she said. “How interesting that must be! But how did you find time to become so perfect a musician, and to sing so exquisitely?”
“I picked most of it up when I was a boy. My grandfather was an Irish sailor with such a tremendous voice that a Neapolitan music master brought him out in opera as a _buffo_. When he had roared his voice away, he went into the chorus. My father was reared in Italy, and looked more Italian than most genuine natives. He had no voice; so he became first accompanist, then chorus master, and finally trainer for the operatic stage. He speculated in an American tour; married out there; lost all his money; and came over to England, when I was only twelve, to resume his business at Covent Garden. I stayed in America, and was apprenticed to an electrical engineer. I worked at the bench there for six years.”
“I suppose your father taught you to sing.”
“No. He never gave me a lesson. The fact is, Miss Lind, he was a capital man to teach stage tricks and traditional renderings of old operas; but only the exceptionally powerful voices survived his method of teaching. He would have finished my career as a singer in two months if he had troubled himself to teach me. Never go to Italy to learn singing.”
“I fear you are a cynic. You ought either to believe in your father or else be silent about him.”
“Why! Surely we should hide the failings of those we love? I can understand now how your musical and electrical tastes became mixed up; but you should not confuse your duties. But please excuse me:” (Conolly’s eyes had opened a little wider) “I am lecturing you, without the least right to. It is a failing of mine which you must not mind.”
“Not at all. Youve a right to your opinion. But the world would never get on if every practical man were to stand by his father’s mistakes. However, I brought it on myself by telling you a long story. This is the first opportunity I ever had of talking about myself to a lady, and I suppose I have abused it.”
Marian laughed. “We had better stop apologizing to one another,” she said. “What about the accompaniments to our next songs?”
Meanwhile Marmaduke and Miss McQuinch were becoming curious about Marian and Conolly.
“I say, Nelly,” he whispered, “Marian and that young man seem to be getting on uncommonly well together. She looks sentimentally happy, and he seems pleased with himself. Dont you feel jealous?”
“Jealous! Why should I be?”
“Out of pure cussedness. Not that you care for the electric man, but because you hate any one to fall in love with any one else when you are by.”
“I wish you would go away.”
“Why? Dont you like me?”
“I _loathe_ you. Now, perhaps you understand me.”
“That’s a nice sort of thing to say to a fellow,” said Marmaduke, roused. “I have a great mind to bring you to your senses as Douglas does, by not speaking to you for a week.”
“I wish you would let me come to my senses by not speaking to me at all.”
“Oh! Well, I am off; but mind, Nelly, I am offended. We are no longer on speaking terms. Look as contemptuous as you please: you will be sorry when you think over this. Remember: you said you loathed me.”
“So I do,” said Elinor, stubbornly.
“Very good,” said Marmaduke, turning his back on her. Just then the concertinists returned from the platform, and a waiter appeared with refreshments, which the clergyman invited Marmaduke to assist him in dispensing. Conolly, considering the uncorking of bottles of soda water a sufficiently skilled labor to be more interesting than making small talk, went to the table and busied himself with the corkscrew.
“Well, Nelly,” said Marian, drawing her chair close to Miss McQuinch, and speaking in a low voice, “what do you think of Jasper’s workman?”
“Not much,” replied Elinor, shrugging her shoulders. “He is very conceited, and very coarse.”
“Do you really think so? I expected to find you delighted with his unconventionality. I thought him rather amusing.”
“I thought him extremely aggravating. I hate to have to speak to people of that sort.”
“Then you consider him vulgar,” said Marian, disappointed.
“N–no. Not vulgarer than anybody else. He couldnt be that.”
“Sherry and soda, Marian?” said Marmaduke, approaching.
“No, thank you, Marmaduke. Get Nelly something.”
“As Miss McQuinch and I are no longer on speaking terms, I leave her to the care of yonder scientific amateur, who has just refused, on teetotal grounds, to pledge the Rev. George in a glass of eighteen shilling sherry.”
“Dont be silly, Marmaduke. Bring Nelly some soda water.”
“Do nothing of the sort,” said Miss McQuinch.
Marmaduke bowed and retired.
“What is the matter between you and Duke now?” said Marian.
“Nothing. I told him I loathed him.”
“Oh! I dont wonder at his being a little huffed. How _can_ you say things you dont mean?”
“I do mean them. What with his folly, Sholto’s mean conceit, George’s hypocrisy, that man’s vulgarity, Mrs. Fairfax’s affectation, your insufferable amiability, and the dreariness of those concertina people, I feel so wretched that I could find it in my heart to loathe anybody and everybody.”
“Nonsense, Nelly! You are only in the blues.”
“_Only_ in the blues!” said Miss McQuinch sarcastically. “Yes. That is all.”
“Take some sherry. It will brighten you up.”
“Dutch courage! Thank you: I prefer my present moroseness.”
“But you are not morose, Nelly.”
“Oh, stuff, Marian! Dont throw away your amiability on me. Here comes your new friend with refreshments. I wonder was he ever a waiter? He looks exactly like one.”
After this the conversation flagged. Mrs. Fairfax grew loquacious under the influence of sherry, but presently a reaction set in, and she began to yawn. Miss McQuinch, when her turn came, played worse than before, and the audience, longing for another negro melody, paid little attention to her. Marian sang a religious song, which was received with the respect usually accorded to a dull sermon. The clergyman read a comic essay of his own composition, and Mrs. Fairfax recited an ode to Mazzini. The concertinists played an arrangement of a quartet by Onslow. The working men and women of Wandsworth gaped, and those who sat near the door began to slip out. Even Miss McQuinch pitied them.
“The idea of expecting them to be grateful for an infliction like that!” she said. “What do people of their class care about Onslow’s quartets?”
“Do you think that people of any class, high or low, would be gratified by such an entertainment?” said Conolly, with some warmth. No one had sufficient spirit left to reply.
At last the concertinists went home, and the reading drew to a close. Conolly, again accompanied by Marian, sang “Tom Bowling.” The audience awoke, cheered the singer heartily, and made him sing again. On his return to the green-room, Miss McQuinch, much affected at the fate of Bowling, and indignant with herself for being so, stared defiantly at Conolly through a film of tears. When Marmaduke went out, the people also were so moved that they were ripe for laughter, and with roars of merriment forced him to sing three songs, in the choruses of which they joined. Eventually the clergyman had to bid them go home, as Mr. Lind had given them all the songs he knew.
“I suppose you will not come with us, Duke,” said Marian, when all was over, and they were preparing to leave. “We can drop you at your chambers if you like; but you will have to sit on the box. Mrs. Leith Fairfax, George, Nelly, and I, will be a carriageful.”
Marmaduke looked at his watch. “By Jove!” he cried, “it is only ten. I forgot how early we began to-night. No thank you, Marian: I am not going your way; but you may take the banjo and keep it until I call. Ta ta!”
They all went out together; and the ladies, followed by the clergyman, entered their carriage and drove away, leaving Marmaduke and Conolly standing on the pavement. Having shared the success of the concert, each felt well disposed to the other.
“What direction are you going in?” said Marmaduke.
“Westminster Bridge or thereabouts,” replied Conolly. “This place is rather out of the way.”
“Have you anything particular to do before you turn in for the night?”
“Nothing at all.”
“Then I’ll tell you what it is, old man. Lets take a hansom, and drive off to the Bijou. We shall just be in time to see Lalage Virtue in the burlesque; and–look here! I’ll introduce you to her: youre just the sort of chap she would like to know. Eh?”
Conolly looked at him, nodded, and burst out laughing. Marmaduke, who had set him down as a cool, undemonstrative man, was surprised at his hilarity for a moment, but presently joined in it. Whilst they were both laughing a hansom appeared, and Conolly, recovering himself, hailed the driver.
“We shall get on together, I see,” said Marmaduke, jumping into the cab. “Hallo! The Bijou Theatre, Soho, and drive as fast as you can afford to for half a sovereign.”
“Right you are, sir,” replied the driver, whipping his horse.
The rattling of the cab silenced Conolly; but his companion persisted for some time in describing the burlesque to which they were going, and particularly the attractions of Mademoiselle Lalage Virtue, who enacted a principal character therein, and with whom he seemed to be in love. When they alighted at the theatre Marmaduke payed the cabman, and Conolly took advantage of this to enter the theatre and purchase two stall tickets, an arrangement which Lind, suddenly recollecting his new friend’s position, disapproved of, but found it useless to protest against. He forgot it on hearing the voice of Lalage Virtue, who was at that moment singing within; and he went to his stall with his eyes turned to the stage, treading on toes and stumbling as children commonly do when they walk in one direction and look in another. An attendant, who seemed to know him, proffered a glass for hire. He took it, and leveled it at Mademoiselle Lalage, who was singing some trivial couplets much better than they deserved. Catching sight of him presently, she greeted him with a flash of her dark eye that made him writhe as though his heart had received a fillip from a ponderable missile. She did not spare these roguish glances. They darted everywhere; and Conolly, looking about him to note their effect, saw rows of callow young faces with parted lips and an expression which seemed to have been caught and fixed at the climax of a blissful chuckle. There were few women in the stalls, and the silly young faces were relieved only by stupid old ones.
The couplets ended amidst great applause. Marmaduke placed his glass on his knees, and, clapping his hands vigorously, turned to his companion with a triumphant smile, mutely inviting him to clamor for a repetition of the air. But Conolly sat motionless, with his arms folded, his cheek flushed, and his brow lowered.
“You dont seem used to this sort of thing,” said Lind, somewhat disgusted.
“It was well sung,” replied Conolly “–better than most of these blackguards know.”
“Then why dont you clap?”
“Because she is not giving herself any trouble. That sort of thing, from a woman of her talent, is too cheap to say ‘thank you’ for.”
Marmaduke looked at him, and began to think that he was a priggish fellow after all. But as the burlesque went on, Mademoiselle Lalage charmed away this disagreeable impression. She warbled in an amorous duet, and then sang the pleasures of champagne; tossing her head; waving a gilt goblet; and, without the least appearance of effort, working hard to captivate those who were to be won by bold smiles and arch glances. She displayed her person less freely than her colleagues, being, not more modest, but more skilful in the art of seduction. The slang that served for dialogue in her part was delivered in all sorts of intonations, now demure and mischievous, anon strident and mock tragic. Marmaduke was delighted.
“What I like about her is that she is such a genuine little lady,” he said, as her exit released his attention. “With all her go, she is never a bit vulgar. Off the stage she is just the same. Not a spark of affectation about her. It is all natural.”
“You know her, then?” said Conolly.
“I should think I do,” replied Marmaduke, energetically. “You have no idea what a rattling sort she is.”
“To you, who only see her occasionally, no doubt she gives–as a rattling sort–a heightened charm to the order, the refinement, the–the beauty of the home life which you can enjoy. Excuse my introducing such a subject, Mr. Lind; but would you bring your cousin–the lady who sang to-night at the concert–to see this performance?”
“I would if she asked me to,” said Marmaduke, somewhat taken aback.
“No doubt. But should you be surprised if she asked you?”
“Not a bit. Fine ladies are neither such fools nor such angels as you–as some fellows think. Miss Lind’s notion is to see everything. And yet she is a thoroughly nice woman too. It is the same with Lalage there. She is not squeamish, and she is full of fun; but she knows as well as anybody how to pull up a man who doesnt behave himself.”
“And you actually think that this Lalage Virtue is as respectable a woman as your cousin?”
“Oh, I dont bother myself about it. I shouldnt have thought of comparing them if you hadnt started the idea. Marian’s way is not the other one’s way, and each of them is all right in her own way. Look here. I’ll introduce you to Lalage. We can pick up somebody else to make a party for you, and finish with a supper at Jellicoe’s.”
“Are you privileged to introduce whom you like to Miss Lalage?”
“Well, as to that, she doesnt stand much on ceremony; but then, you see, that cuts two ways. The mere introducing is no difficulty; but it depends on the man himself whether he gets snubbed afterward or not. By the bye, you must understand, if you dont know it already, that Lalage is as correct in her morals as a bishop’s wife. I just tell you, because some fellows seem to think that a woman who goes on the stage leaves her propriety behind as a matter of course. In fact, I rather thought so myself once. Not that you wont find loose women there as well as anywhere else, if you want to. But dont take it for granted, that’s all.”
“Well,” said Conolly, “you may introduce me, and we can consider the supper afterwards. Would it be indiscreet to ask how you obtained your own introduction? You dont, I suppose, move in the same circle as she; and if she is as particular as your own people, she can hardly form promiscuous acquaintanceships.”
“A man at the point of death does not stop to think about etiquet. She saved my life.”
“Saved your life! That sounds romantic.”
“There was precious little romance about it, though I owe my being alive now to her presence of mind. It happened in the rummest way. I was brought behind the scenes one night by a Cambridge chum. We were painting the town a bit red. We were not exactly drunk; but we were not particularly sober either; and I was very green at that time, and made a fool of myself about Lalage: staring; clapping like a madman in the middle of her songs; getting into the way of everybody and everything, and so on. Then a couple of fellows we knew turned up, and we got chatting at the wing with some girls. At last a fellow came in with a bag of cherries; and we began trying that old trick–you know–taking the end of a stalk between your lips and drawing the cherry into the mouth without touching it with your hand, you know. I tried it; and I was just getting the cherry into my mouth when some idiot gave me a drive in the waistcoat. I made a gulp; and the cherry stuck fast in my throat. I began to choke. Nobody knew what to do; and while they were pushing me about, some thinking I was only pretending, the girls beginning to get frightened, and the rest shouting at me to swallow the confounded thing, I was getting black in the face, and my head was bursting: I could see nothing but red spots. It was a near thing, I tell you. Suddenly I got a shake; and then a little fist gave me a stunning thump on the back, that made the cherry bounce out against my palate. I gasped and coughed like a grampus: the stalk was down my throat still. Then the little hand grabbed my throat and made me open my mouth wide; and the cherry was pulled out, stalk and all. It was Lalage who did this while the rest were gaping helplessly. I dont remember what followed. I thought I had fainted; but it appears that I nearly cried, and talked the most awful nonsense to her. I suppose the choking made me hysterical. However, I distinctly recollect the stage manager bullying the girls, and turning us all out. I was very angry with myself for being childish, as they told me I had been; and when I got back to Cambridge I actually took to reading. A few months afterward I made another trip to town, and went behind the scenes again. She recognized me, and chaffed me about the cherry. I jumped at my chance; I improved the acquaintance; and now I know her pretty well.”
“You doubt whether any of the ladies that were with us at the concert would have been equally useful in such an emergency?”
“I should think I do doubt it, my boy. Hush! Now that the ballet is over, we are annoying people by talking.”
“You are right,” replied Conolly. “Aha! Here is Miss Lalage again.”
Marmaduke raised his opera-glass to his eyes, eager for another smile from the actress. He seemed about to be gratified; for her glance was travelling toward him along the row of stalls. But it was arrested by Conolly, on whom she looked with perceptible surprise and dismay. Lind, puzzled, turned toward his companion, and found him smiling maliciously at Mademoiselle Lalage, who recovered her vivacity with an effort, and continued her part with more nervousness than he had ever seen her display before.
Shortly before the curtain fell, they left the theatre, and re-entered it by the stage door.
“Queer place, isnt it?” said Lind.
Conolly nodded, but went forward like one well accustomed to the dingy labyrinth of old-fashioned stages. Presently they came upon Lalage. She was much heated by her exertions, thickly painted, and very angry.
“Well?” she said quarrelsomely.
Marmaduke, perceiving that her challenge was not addressed to him, but to Conolly, looked from one to the other, mystified.
“I have come to see you act at last,” said Conolly.
“You might have told me you were coming. I could have got you a stall, although I suppose you would have preferred to throw away your money like a fool.”
“I must admit, my dear,” said Conolly, “that I could have spent it to much greater advantage.”
“Indeed! and you!” she said, turning to Lind, whose deepening color betrayed his growing mortification: “what is the matter with _you_?”
“I have played a trick on your friend,” said Conolly. “He suggested this visit; and I did not tell him of the relation between us. Finding us on terms of familiarity, if not of affection, he is naturally surprised.”
“As I have never tried to meddle with your private affairs,” said Marmaduke to Lalage, “I need not apologize for not knowing your husband. But I regret—-“
The actress laughed in spite of her vexation. “Why, you silly old thing!” she exclaimed, “he is no more my husband than you are!”
“Oh!” said Marmaduke. “Indeed!”
“I am her brother,” said Conolly considerately, stifling a smile.
“Why,” said Mademoiselle Lalage fiercely, raising her voice, “what else did you think?”
“Hush,” said Conolly, “we are talking too much in this crowd. You had better change your dress, Susanna, and then we can settle what to do next.”
“You can settle what you please,” she replied. “I am going home.”
“Mr. Lind has suggested our supping together,” said Conolly, observing her curiously.
Susanna looked quickly at them.
“Who is Mr. Lind?” she said.
“Your friend, of course,” said Conolly, with an answering flash of intelligence that brought out the resemblance between them startlingly. “Mr. Marmaduke Lind.”
Marmaduke became very red as they both waited for him to explain.
“I thought that you would perhaps join us at supper,” he said to Susanna.
“Did you?” she said, threateningly. Then she turned her back on him and went to her dressing-room.
“Well, Mr. Lind,” said Conolly, “what do you think of Mademoiselle Lalage now?”
“I think her annoyance is very natural,” said Marmaduke, gloomily. “No doubt you are right to take care of your sister, but you are very much mistaken if you think I meant to act badly toward her.”
“It is no part of my duty to take care of her,” said Conolly, seriously. “She is her own guardian, and she has never been encouraged to suppose that her responsibility lies with any one but herself.”
“It doesnt matter now,” said Marmaduke; “for I intend never to speak to her again.”
Conolly laughed. “However that may turn out,” he said, “we are evidently not in the mood for further conviviality, so let us postpone the supper to some other occasion. May I advise you not to wait until Susanna returns. There is no chance of a reconciliation to-night.”
“I dont want any reconciliation.”
“Of course not; I had forgotten,” replied Conolly, placably. “Then I suppose you will go before she has finished dressing.”
“I shall go now,” said Marmaduke, buttoning his overcoat, and turning away.
“Good-night,” said Conolly.
“Good-night,” muttered Marmaduke, petulantly, and disappeared.
Conolly waited a moment, so that he might not overtake Lind. He then went for a cab, and waited at the stage door until his sister came down, frowning. She got into the hansom without a word.
“Why dont you have a brougham, instead of going about in cabs?” he said, as they drove away.
“Because I like a hansom better than a brougham; and I had rather pay four shillings a night and travel comfortably, than thirteen and be half suffocated.”
“I thought the appearance of—-“
“There is no use in your talking to me. I cant hear a word you say going over these stones.”
When they were alone together in their drawing-room in Lambeth, he, after walking up and down the room a few times, and laughing softly to himself, began to sing the couplets from the burlesque.
“Are you aware,” she inquired, “that it is half past twelve, and that the people of the house are trying to sleep.”
“True,” said he, desisting. “By the bye, I, too, have had my triumphs this evening. I shared the honors of the concert with Master Lind, who was so delighted that he insisted on bringing me off to the Bijou. He loves you to distraction, poor devil!”
“Yes: you made a nice piece of mischief there. Where is he?”
“Gone away in a rage, swearing never to speak to you again.”
“Hm! And so his name is Lind, is it?”
“Didnt you know?”
“No, or I should have told you when I read the program this evening. The young villain pretended that his name was Marmaduke Sharp.”
“Ah! The name reminds me of one of his cousins, a little spitfire that snaps at every one who presumes to talk to her.”
“His cousins! Oh, of course; you met them at the concert. What are they like? Are they swells?”
“Yes, they seem to be. There were only two cousins, Miss McQuinch and a young woman named Marian, blonde and rather good looking. There was a brother of hers there, but he is only a parson, and a tall fellow named Douglas, who made rather a fool of himself. I could not make him out exactly.”
“Did they snub you?”
“I dont know. Probably they tried. Are you intimate with many of our young nobility under assumed names?”
“Steal a few more marches to the Bijou, and perhaps you will find out.”
“Good-night! Pardon my abrupt departure, but you are not the very sweetest of Susannas to-night.”
“By the bye,” said Conolly, returning, “this must be the Mr. Duke Lind who is going to marry Lady Constance Carbury, my noble pupil’s sister.”
“I am sure it matters very little whom he marries.”
“If he will pay us a visit here, and witness the working of perfect frankness without affection, and perfect liberty without refinement, he may find reason to conclude that it matters a good deal. Good-night.”
Marian Lind lived at Westbourne Terrace, Paddington, with her father, the fourth son of a younger brother of the Earl of Carbury. Mr. Reginald Harrington Lind, at the outset of his career, had no object in life except that of getting through it as easily as possible; and this he understood so little how to achieve that he suffered himself to be married at the age of nineteen to a Lancashire cotton spinner’s heiress. She bore him three children, and then eloped with a professor of spiritualism, who deserted her on the eve of her fourth confinement, in the course of which she caught scarlet fever and died. Her child survived, but was sent to a baby farm and starved to death in the usual manner. Her husband, disgusted by her behavior (for she had been introduced by him to many noblemen and gentlemen, his personal friends, some one at least of whom, on the slightest encouragement, would, he felt sure, have taken the place of the foreign charlatan she had disgraced him by preferring), consoled himself for her bad taste by entering into her possessions, which comprised a quantity of new jewellery, new lace, and feminine apparel, and an income of nearly seven thousand pounds a year. After this, he became so welcome in society that he could have boasted with truth at the end of any July that there were few marriageable gentlewomen of twenty-six and upward in London who had not been submitted to his inspection with a view to matrimony. But finding it easy to delegate the care of his children to school principals and hospitable friends, he concluded that he had nothing to gain and much comfort to lose by adding a stepmother to his establishment; and, after some time, it became the custom to say of Mr. Lind that the memory of his first wife kept him single. Thus, whilst his sons were drifting to manhood through Harrow and Cambridge, and his daughter passing from one relative’s house to another’s on a continual round of visits, sharing such private tuition as the cousins with whom she happened to be staying happened to be receiving just then, he lived at his club and pursued the usual routine of a gentleman-bachelor in London.
In the course of time, Reginald Lind, the eldest child, entered the army, and went to India with his regiment. His brother George, less stolid, weaker, and more studious, preferred the Church. Marian, the youngest, from being constantly in the position of a guest, had early acquired habits of self-control and consideration for others, and escaped the effects, good and evil, of the subjection in which children are held by the direct authority of their parents.
Of the numerous domestic circles of her father’s kin, that with which she was the least familiar, because it was the poorest, had sprung from the marriage of one of her father’s sisters with a Wiltshire gentleman named Hardy McQuinch, who had a small patrimony, a habit of farming, and a love of hunting. In the estimation of the peasantry, who would not associate lands, horses, and a carriage, with want of money, he was a rich man; but Mrs. McQuinch found it hard to live like a lady on their income, and had worn many lines into her face by constantly and vainly wishing that she could afford to give a ball every season, to get a new carriage, and to appear at church with her daughters in new dresses oftener than twice a year. Her two eldest girls were plump and pleasant, good riders and hearty eaters; and she had reasonable hopes of marrying them to prosperous country gentlemen.
Elinor, her third and only other child, was one of her troubles. At an early age it was her practice, once a week or thereabouts, to disappear in the forenoon; be searched anxiously for all day; and return with a torn frock and dirty face at about six o’clock in the afternoon. She was stubborn, rebellious, and passionate under reproof or chastisement: governesses had left the house because of her; and from one school she had run away, from another eloped with a choir boy who wrote verses. Him she deserted in a fit of jealousy, quarter of an hour after her escape from school. The only one of her tastes that conduced to the peace of the house was for reading; and even this made her mother uneasy; for the books she liked best were fit, in Mrs. McQuinch’s opinion, for the bookcase only. Elinor read openly what she could obtain by asking, such as Lamb’s Tales from Shakespear, and The Pilgrim’s Progress. The Arabian Nights Entertainments were sternly refused her; so she read them by stealth; and from that day there was always a collection of books, borrowed from friends, or filched from the upper shelf in the library, beneath her mattress. Nobody thought of looking there for them; and even if they had, they might have paused to reflect on the consequences of betraying her. Her eldest sister having given her a small workbox on her eleventh birthday, had the present thrown at her head two days later for reporting to her parents that Nelly’s fondness for sitting in a certain secluded summer-house was due to her desire to read Lord Byron’s poetry unobserved. Miss Lydia’s forehead was severely cut; and Elinor, though bitterly remorseful, not only refused to beg pardon for her fault, but shattered every brittle article in the room to which she was confined for her contumacy. The vicar, on being consulted, recommended that she should be well whipped. This counsel was repugnant to Hardy McQuinch, but he gave his wife leave to use her discretion in the matter. The mother thought that the child ought to be beaten into submission; but she was afraid to undertake the task, and only uttered a threat, which was received with stubborn defiance. This was forgotten next day when Elinor, exhausted by a week of remorse, terror, rage, and suspense, became dangerously ill. When she recovered, her parents were more indulgent to her, and were gratified by finding her former passionate resistance replaced by sulky obedience. Five years elapsed, and Elinor began to write fiction. The beginning of a novel, and many incoherent verses imitated from Lara, were discovered by her mother, and burnt by her father. This outrage she never forgave. She was unable to make her resentment felt, for she no longer cared to break glass and china. She feared even to remonstrate lest she should humiliate herself by bursting into tears, as, since her illness, she had been prone to do in the least agitation. So she kept silence, and ceased to speak to either of her parents except when they addressed questions to her. Her father would neither complain of this nor confess the regret he felt for his hasty destruction of her manuscripts; but, whilst he proclaimed that he would burn every scrap of her nonsense that might come into his hands, he took care to be blind when he surprised her with suspicious bundles of foolscap, and snubbed his wife for hinting that Elinor was secretly disobeying him. Meanwhile her silent resentment never softened, and the life of the family was embittered by their consciousness of it. It never occurred to Mrs. McQuinch, an excellent mother to her two eldest daughters, that she was no more fit to have charge of the youngest than a turtle is to rear a young eagle. The discomfort of their relations never shook her faith in their “naturalness.” Like her husband and the vicar, she believed that when God sent children he made their parents fit to rule them. And Elinor resented her parents’ tyranny, as she felt it to be, without dreaming of making any allowances for their being in a false position towards her.
One morning a letter from London announced that Mr. Lind had taken a house in Westbourne Terrace, and intended to live there permanently with his daughter. Elinor had not come down to breakfast when the post came.
“Yes,” said Mrs. McQuinch, when she had communicated the news: “I knew there was something the matter when I saw Reginald’s handwriting. It must be fully eighteen months since I heard from him last. I am very glad he has settled Marian in a proper home, instead of living like a bachelor and leaving her to wander about from one house to another. I wish we could have afforded to ask her down here oftener.”
“Here is a note from Marian, addressed to Nelly,” said Lydia, who had been examining the envelope.
“To Nelly!” said Mrs. McQuinch, vexed. “I think she should have invited one of you first.”
“Perhaps it is not an invitation,” said Jane.
“What else is it likely to be, child?” said Mrs. McQuinch. Then, as she thought how much pleasanter her home would be without Elinor, she added, “After all, it will do Nelly good to get away from here. She needs change, I think. I wish she would come down. It is too bad of her to be always late like this.”
Elinor came in presently, wearing a neglected black gown; her face pale; her eyes surrounded by dark circles; her black hair straggling in wisps over her forehead. Her sisters, dressed twinlike in white muslin and gold lockets, emphasized her by contrast. Being blond and gregarious, they enjoyed the reputation of being pretty and affectionate. They had thriven in the soil that had starved Elinor.
“There’s a letter for you from Marian,” said Mrs. McQuinch.
“Thanks,” said Elinor, indifferently, putting the note into her pocket. She liked Marian’s letters, and kept them to read in her hours of solitude.
“What does she say?” said Mrs. McQuinch.
“I have not looked,” replied Elinor.
“Well,” said Mrs. McQuinch, plaintively, “I wish you _would_ look. I want to know whether she says anything about this letter from your uncle Reginald.”
Elinor plucked the note from her pocket, tore it open, and read it. Suddenly she set her face to hide some emotion from her family.
“Marian wants me to go and stay with her,” she said. “They have taken a house.”
“Poor Marian!” said Jane. “And will you go?”
“I will,” said Elinor. “Have you any objection?”
“Oh dear, no,” said Jane, smoothly.
“I suppose you will be glad to get away from your home,” said Mrs. McQuinch, incontinently.
“Very glad,” said Elinor. Mr. McQuinch, hurt, looked at her over his newspaper. Mrs. McQuinch was huffed.
“I dont know what you are to do for clothes,” she said, “unless Lydia and Jane are content to wear their last winter’s dresses again this year.”
The faces of the young ladies elongated. “That’s nonsense, mamma,” said Lydia. “We cant wear those brown reps again.” Women wore reps in those days.
“You need not be alarmed,” said Elinor. “I dont want any clothes. I can go as I am.”
“You dont know what you are talking about, child,” said Mrs. McQuinch.
“A nice figure you would make in uncle Reginald’s drawing-room with that dress on!” said Lydia.
“And your hair in that state!” added Jane.
“You should remember that there are others to be considered besides yourself,” said Lydia. “How would _you_ like _your_ guests to look like scarecrows?”
“How could you expect Marian to go about with you, or into the Park? I suppose—-“
“Here, here!” said Mr. McQuinch, putting down his paper. “Let us have no more of this. What else do you need in the Park than a riding habit? You have that already. Whatever clothes you want you had better get in London, where you will get the proper things for your money.”
“Indeed, Hardy, she is not going to pay a London milliner four prices for things she can get quite as good down here.”
“I tell you I dont want anything,” said Elinor impatiently. “It will be time enough to begrudge me some decent clothes when I ask for them.”
“I dont begrudge—-“
Mrs. McQuinch’s husband interrupted her. “Thats enough, now, everybody. It’s settled that she is to go, as she wants to. I will get her what is necessary. Give me another egg, and talk about something else.”
Accordingly, Elinor went to live at Westbourne Terrace. Marian had spent a month of her childhood in Wiltshire, and had made of Elinor an exacting friend, always ready to take offence, and to remain jealous and sulky for days if one of her sisters, or any other little girl, engaged her cousin’s attention long. On the other hand, Elinor’s attachment was idolatrous in its intensity; and as Marian was sweet-tempered, and more apt to fear that she had disregarded Elinor’s feelings than to take offence at her waywardness, their friendship endured after they were parted. Their promises of correspondence were redeemed by Elinor with very long letters at uncertain intervals, and by Marian with shorter epistles notifying all her important movements. Marian, often called upon to defend her cousin from the charge of being a little shrew, was led to dwell upon her better qualities. Elinor found in Marian what she had never found at her own home, a friend, and in her uncle’s house a refuge from that of her father, which she hated. She had been Marian’s companion for four years when the concert took place at Wandsworth.
Next day they were together in the drawing-room at Westbourne Terrace: Marian writing, Elinor at the pianoforte, working at some technical studies, to which she had been incited by the shortcoming of her performance on the previous night. She stopped on hearing a bell ring.
“What o’clock is it?” she said, after listening a moment. “Surely it is too early for a visit.”
“It is only half past two,” replied Marian. “I hope it is not anybody. I have not half finished my correspondence.”
“If you please, Miss,” said a maid, entering, “Mr. Douglas wants to see you, and he wont come up.”
“I suppose he expects you to go down and talk to him in the hall,” said Elinor.
“He is in the dining-room, and wishes to see you most particular,” said the maid.
“Tell him I will come down,” said Marian.
“He heard me practising,” said Elinor, “that is why he would not come up. I am in disgrace, I suppose.”
“Nonsense, Nelly! But indeed I have no doubt he has come to complain of our conduct, since he insists on seeing me alone.”
Miss McQuinch looked sceptically at Marian’s guileless eyes, but resumed her technical studies without saying anything. Marian went to the dining-room, where she found Douglas standing near the window, tall and handsome, frock coated and groomed to a spotless glossiness that established a sort of relationship between him and the sideboard, the condition of which did credit to Marian’s influence over her housemaids. He looked intently at her as she bade him good morning.
“I am afraid I am rather early,” he said, half stiffly, half apologetically.
“Not at all,” said Marian.
“I have come to say something which I do not care to keep unsaid longer than I can help; so I thought it better to come when I could hope to find you alone. I hope I have not disturbed you. I have something rather important to say.”
“You are the same as one of ourselves, of course, Sholto. But I believe you delight in stiffness and ceremony. Will you not come upstairs?”
“I wish to speak to you privately. First, I have to apologize to you for what passed last night.”
“Pray dont, Sholto: it doesnt matter. I am afraid we were rude to you.”
“Pardon me. It is I who am in fault. I never before made an apology to any human being; and I should not do so now without a painful conviction that I forgot what I owed to myself.”
“Then you ought to be ashamed of yourself–I mean for never having apologized before. I am quite sure you have not got through life without having done at least one or two things that required an apology.”
“I am sorry you hold that opinion of me.”
“How is Brutus’s paw?”
“Yes. That abrupt way of changing the subject is what Mrs. Fairfax calls a display of tact. I know it is very annoying; so you may talk about anything you please. But I really want to hear how the poor dog is.”
“His paw is nearly healed.”
“I’m so glad–poor old dear!”
“You are aware that I did not come here to speak of my mother’s dog, Marian?”
“I supposed not,” said Marian, with a smile. “But now that you have made your apology, wont you come upstairs? Nelly is there.”
“I have something else to say–to you alone, Marian. I entreat you to listen to it seriously.” Marian looked as grave as she could. “I confess that in some respects I do not understand you; and before you