“Fame is the spur, that the clear spirit doth raise
(That last infirmity of noble minds),
To scorn delights, and live laborious days:
But the fair guerdon, when we hope to find,
And think to burst out into sudden blaze,
Comes the blind Fury with abhorred shears,
And slits the thin spun life.”
The Paris express (a long, black, heavily laden train) was drawn up by a platform in the station at Bâle; half a glance into the lighted carriages was sufficient to discover that they were full. As it happened to be the middle of September, and the great tourist horde were wending their way homeward, every berth, and almost every seat, had its particular occupant. In a reserved first-class compartment were two ladies, a canary, and a quantity of parcels of the description known to porters as “hand baggage.” The elder woman had snow-white hair, heavy black brows, a large hooked nose, and a loud voice; her name was Mrs. Pegrim, a British matron of credit and renown; the other, her niece, was a pretty girl, with a slim, graceful figure and a pair of rather wistful brown eyes.
“Now, Maria,” said her aunt, in a harsh key, “you must just bustle out and get me a couple of pillows. It’s all through your shocking carelessness that we failed to order a sleeper in time. I am positively certain that every bone in my body will be sore when I get to Paris tomorrow morning.”
“Very well, Aunt Selina,” replied the girl, as she rose and reached for her hat. “I will do my best; but you know we only wait here a few minutes.”
“Put your head out and look for the man, and call ‘Oreiler’ at the top of your voice,” commanded her relative.
“There are none to be seen,” returned the niece as she leaned from the window.
“Then call the guard.”
But the guard was not to be seen either.
“You will have to get out, Maria. Don’t be so lazy. There, I think I see the man wheeling the pillows right at the far end of the platform, beside that train to Strasburg,—run! run! run!”
Thus exhorted, Maria climbed lightly down and hurried along the platform, but ere she had reached half-way, there was a loud “toot-toot,” and the Paris Rapide began slowly to wind its ponderous body out of the station. An excited old lady leant from a carriage window, shrieking, “Attendez! attendez!” but all in vain, her cries were swallowed up by the tunnel and darkness.
Maria Talbot stood and helplessly watched her aunt and the express steadily disappear. It was nine o’clock at night; she was alone and penniless. Her money, keys, and ticket were all in a little hand-bag en route to France. What was to become of her?
As far as she knew there was not another train for twelve hours, and even if there was one within the next five minutes, she had not the means to pay her fare. She sought out the station-master, who merely shrugged his broad shoulders and opened his hands. If Miss Talbot had been a mislaid portmanteau, or even a basket trunk, he might have exhibited some concern, but a forsaken and penniless damsel was not his affair. She made her way into the salle d’attente and sat down, and tried to think of some way out of this desperate fix.
Maria Talbot was Mrs. Pegrim’s niece and companion, the latter a post she had filled since her father’s death two years previously; her aunt was a rich, childless old woman, who travelled the continent from Christmas to Christmas, accompanied by Maria and a maid. When things went well, Mrs. Pegrim praised herself most heartily; when they went ill, she invariably blamed her niece,—she was blaming her now, as she thundered along in a jolting carriage, minus her pillows and with a canary bird for her sole associate.
How was the girl to get on? She must telegraph from Paris, and wait at the “Continental” for another day. What an abominable nuisance, instead of going direct to Pau, as she had intended!
Meanwhile, Maria sat in the waiting-room with her bare hands clasped before her, looking very pale, very pretty, and very forlorn. Every one appeared to be bustling about: trains had discharged whole troops of passengers, the refreshment-rooms were thronged; no one seemed to notice Maria till, at length, a slight, foreign-looking man, with quiet, observant eyes, happened to catch sight of her.
A girl—English—sitting alone, and without luggage, without even a bag or an umbrella,—what did it mean? She was evidently extremely miserable. He glanced around. No; she appeared to have no belongings. After all, it was no business of his. He walked away as far as the door, then something drove him back; some latent spirit of chivalry, the spirit of his Poitou ancestors, sprang to life, and he went straight up to her and said, as he doffed his cap,—
“Excuse me, but can I be of any service to you?”
“Thank you,” she answered, nervously. “I am afraid not. I have been dreadfully stupid, and lost my train to Paris. I got out to fetch pillows, and it went on—and left me here.”
“There is another, and slower, at eleven o’clock. I am going by it as far as Rheims.”
“But I have no money,” was her blunt announcement.
“I shall be delighted to be your banker, if you will allow me.”
Maria looked at him thoughtfully; he was unquestionably a gentleman. From beneath his level brows a pair of steady dark eyes returned her gaze unflinchingly.
“If you will only try and imagine that I am not a stranger, and believe that I am entirely at your service.”
Maria coloured deeply and smiled shyly.
“Shall we go and look for something to eat?” he suggested. “I have been travelling, by sea and land, since four o’clock.”
“Sea?” she repeated, incredulously.
“Well, or on a lake; and there was a good bit of sea on. You looked quite chilled; I am sure a bowl of soup, or a cup of hot coffee, would do you no end of good. Pray come.”
Maria Talbot felt compelled to acquiesce, though, of course, it was dreadfully improper. What would Aunt Selina say to her supping alone with a nameless stranger? What an adventure it was altogether! And to Maria adventures were rare, and—low be it spoken—not unwelcome. She and this benevolent Englishman shared a little round table, and were waited on by a German attendant, who addressed them as “Monsieur” and “Madame.” Maria blushed to the roots of her pretty hair, but seeing that the mistake had evidently been unnoticed by her vis-à-vis, she recovered her composure, and, being cold and hungry, gladly welcomed a bowl of soup and a roll of bread. In the full glare of the gas-light she observed that her companion was of about thirty years of age; his manners, dress, and accent were those of an English gentleman, and his pleasant air put her completely at her ease; but his crisp, black locks, straight, black brows, and deep-set, dark eyes, not to speak of his olive skin, pointed to a foreign parentage. His features were well cut, his head admirably set upon his shoulders, his figure was slight, his well-tanned hands were absurdly slender; he wore a greyish suit and cap, and a signet-ring upon his little finger.
And he, for his part, had been secretly scrutinising the charming girl he had befriended.
A lady about two- or three-and-twenty, by no means a fin-de-siècle young woman, unassertive, timid, and extremely pretty; her hair and eyes were the same shade of brown, her complexion was perfect; as she thawed a little, and talked, he noticed that she had beautiful teeth, a rippling, merry laugh, and one enchanting dimple. She wore a blue serge coat and skirt, a sailor-hat with a black ribbon, and no gloves.
After supper they went out and walked up and down the platform, and he gathered that the young lady and her aunt rambled aimlessly about the continent, and were now en route to spend the winter at Pau; that she was fond of books and music; that, in spite of a little droop at the corner of her lips, she had a latent vein of happy, youthful spirits, and that she was an orphan.
On her side, Miss Talbot gleaned that this foreign-looking Englishman lived in London, and spent two months every year in Switzerland; that he spoke French like a native. He was rather an amusing companion, and eleven o’clock and their train arrived much sooner than she expected. He secured her a carriage with but one other companion (a lady rolled up in shawls and presumably asleep), and brought her her ticket and pillows.
“I shall see you again to-morrow morning at Rheims. You will be sure to come and say good-bye and give me your address? Won’t you?” she urged.
At this, the prone figure opposite stirred sluggishly, and two eyes slowly emerged from a woollen wrap.
“Yes, I will be certain to come,” he replied, as he took off his cap, said “Good-night,” and hurried away. And presently Miss Talbot removed her hat, laid her head upon the pillows, and was soon fast asleep.
But the man sat wide awake, with his coat-collar up round his ears, smoking cigarettes and looking steadfastly out on the moonlight and the flying flat country.
It was barely light when the train slackened down at Rheims Station, and John Harland (for that was the Englishman’s name) sprang out and got together his small amount of baggage.
Then he went in search of a certain first-class carriage, “pour dames seuls,” and found a bare-headed young lady, sitting erect and looking expectantly out of the window. In the dim light he saw the pretty little locks fluttering about her forehead, and her soft, smiling eyes.
“Good-morning,” he said, briskly. “I hope you slept pretty well?”
“Yes, thank you. Have you brought me your card?”
The lady opposite, with her head enveloped in a knitted shawl, figuratively pricked up her ears. This was nice maidenly behaviour. So much for trusting English girls to travel alone.
“Here it is,” he answered, fumbling at his pocket-book. He would have liked to have asked the young lady’s name, but dared not venture.
“Thank you a thousand times,” said Maria, rising and frankly offering her hand, as she heard again the fatal “toot-toot.” “I will write to you to-morrow.”
And in another moment the train had carried her away. She leaned out of the window and nodded her head; then sat down and proceeded to examine the card. It was blank! Yes, blank,—on both sides,—and she owed the stranger three pounds!
Meanwhile, Harland secured a conveyance and was driven off to a hotel, and as he jolted along he opened his pocket-book, and discovered that he had mixed up his printed cards with a few blank ones.
“I’ll bet anything I’ve given her a blank one,” he muttered. “Just my bad luck.”
To do him justice, Harland was not regretting his lost three pounds, but the lost identity of the pretty girl with the brown eyes, who had been his companion for two hours, in Bâle Station.
John de Savignac Harland was a literary man, who spent ten months of the year in London chambers, the remaining two in a peaceful retreat which he had discovered on the shores of Lake Zug. Here, far from the madding crowd, he boated, fished, climbed mountains, explored the neighbourhood; or, if indisposed for locomotion, abandoned himself to the charms of the shady old garden of the Hôtel de la Lune, and read and wrote and smoked. The garden verged upon the lake, beside a little wooden pier, at which a steamer touched four times a day, landing and embarking a few passengers and a large amount of local produce, such as cheese and fruit.
The inn was inexpensive, the fare plain but good, the rooms scrupulously clean, smoking in bed was not objected to, and, on the whole, Mr. Harland found his quarters entirely to his taste. The simple pleasures to be enjoyed at this sequestered spot did not, however, appeal to the ordinary tourist, whether doing Switzerland and back for five guineas, or making a prolonged visit, but a few French and German families resorted thither annually, in search of a little bathing and boating for le père de famille and the children, and a pleasant holiday from house-keeping for madam herself. If you care to examine the big book which lies open on a table in the entrance hall, you may read among the recent arrivals,—
“Monsieur et Madame Mouton, avec ses trois filles, Amiens.”
“Mons. et Madame Bigot, avec leur fils, Paris.”
“Herr R. Baggentoss mit familie, Bâle.”
And in a firm back-hand writing,—
“J. de S. Harland, London.”
And this was the only English name for several columns.
For three successive years Harland had enjoyed this retreat, which afforded a complete contrast to his life in London, when he worked half the night, rarely walked a mile, and lived at high pressure all day long. There was as much difference between the two phases of existence as there was between the hoarse roar of the Strand and the soft lapping of the lake against the garden wall. Under the lime-trees were many little green tables, where the visitor at the Hôtel de la Lune sat and sipped coffee and beer, or read, worked, and played dominos. One of these tables had come to be looked upon as Mr. Harland’s exclusive property, and here, of a morning, he would write for hours, whilst Madame Mouton and her three little girls,—Melanie, Cosette, and Marie, all invariably arrayed in pink pinafores,—and Madame Bigot and Anatole, chattered round another. When the noise became too uproarious, Madame Mouton would raise a plump forefinger and glance expressively at a distant figure; for it had somehow leaked out, that “Ce Monsieur Anglais était un homme de lettres.”
“Ce monsieur,” was a great favourite with the children, and some of his club friends would have rubbed their eyes in amazement, had they beheld Harland balanced high on a see-saw, against two long-legged little girls, shouting and gesticulating with the best, or suffering himself to be chased round and round the trees and arbors by a whole pack of screaming children, and exhibiting a fleetness of foot and an agility in doubling and turning that a very hare might have envied.
Harland doubtless inherited his wiry frame, his dark skin, along with his second name, from his maternal ancestor,—a certain Gaspard de Savignac, a young French engineer officer of noble family, who, following the fortunes of Charles Edward, had been taken prisoner of war, and had languished for a time in Carlisle Castle; later, when en parole, he had fallen captive to the charms of a pretty English girl, and for her sake had abandoned faith, family, and France. The De Savignacs did nothing by halves. The old marquise, his mother had herself come over to England, after the peace, and sought out her eldest son. She discovered him, with his wife and child, living in London, in two shabby rooms, and with an air of inflexible authority commanded him to abandon both and return forthwith with her to France.
“We do not recognise this person,” she announced, pointing the finger of scorn at her pale daughter-in-law. “As we did not accord our consent, your marriage is null and that child illegitimate. Nevertheless, we are prepared to provide for him; and suitably to pension off this woman. I have come to offer you your parent’s forgiveness,—to restore to you rank, wealth, liberty. I give you your choice between these”—and here she drew herself up and with withering scorn surveyed the squalid lodging and the shabby girl—“and this. Be so good as to make your selection now.”
“Madame ma mère,” he answered, with a profound bow, and taking his wife’s hand, “it is made.”
“Then,” cried his mother, rising in great wrath, “reflect once more: you shall be cast off forever if you abide with this heretic and foreigner,—cast off, precisely as if you had died the death of a coward and traitor. Never again shall your name be even whispered within the walls of the Chateau de Savignac.” But Gaspard, with all due humility and respect, remained immovable, and the marquise, having solemnly presented the family with her curse, suffered herself to be conducted to her coach with elaborate respect, and subsequently bowed away, by her stubborn son, who remained bareheaded until she was out of sight.
Gaspard, the disinherited, prospered, despite the curse, but the great De Savignac family were wiped out during the revolution, and of their castles, hotels, and estates, all that now bears their ancient name is the old ruined Chateau de Savignac, in Poitou. The English branch flourished, and every generation furnished gallant soldiers to the state, until the sole surviving De Savignac was killed in an Indian hill fight, and the last descendant of a noble line, who had helped to make history, had fought for France for centuries, and carried their heads haughtily even in high places, was represented by this dark-eyed Englishman, who wrote for his daily bread by the waters of Lake Zug.
One afternoon early in August, John Harland was sitting on the wall at the foot of the garden, contemplating with lazy gaze the great event of the day,—the approach of the four o’clock boat from Zug. Anatole Bigot, his worshipper and shadow, stood beside him, holding in his hand a forked stick, from which depended no less than twenty-eight dace, nearly a finger in length. He had been out fishing with “ce cher Monsieur de Savignac,” as he called him, and this was the magnificent result! As for Monsieur de Savignac, at the present moment he was filled with a delicious sense of peace, partly absorbed from his surroundings, and partly from the consciousness of having accomplished a good day’s work.
As the “William Tell” drew up by the pier, he noticed, with disagreeable astonishment, that quite a number of passengers were preparing to disembark. And why? Why could they not go on to Arth? he asked himself, irritably. What on earth were they stopping for?
First came four sunburnt men, all with light knapsacks and bicycles.
“They won’t stay,” muttered their selfish countryman to himself.
Two American ladies, who halted on the pier and deliberately consulted a Baedecker, then gazed around. No; nothing remarkable to be seen.
These were followed by a battered middle-aged woman, wearing a shrunken woollen skirt and a dusty felt hat. Her eager face was tanned to the colour of a tomato, her hands were gloveless, and in them she carried an untidy hold-all, a faded red netted bag, full of miscellaneous odds and ends, an alpenstock, and an umbrella. As she proceeded she dropped portions of her load, staring about her in that helpless aimless fashion which invariably rouses the just ire of a self-respecting traveller. Next came an important old lady, wearing a long travelling cloak, a plumed bonnet, and a pair of blue spectacles. She was leaning on the arm of a tall girl in white, and followed by a collie dog, a maid, and a heavily laden porter.
“And they won’t stay,” repeated Harland, with a deep sigh of relief.
The latest arrivals presently came into the garden, and from a distance Harland mentally summed them up as “wealthy old woman, pet dog, maid, and companion.”
He was still sitting upon the wall as the latter approached. Somehow this young lady was familiar to him,—where had he seen her? Yes, their recognition was mutual, and instantaneous. Here was the girl whom he had befriended at Bâle railway station just two years previously.
“What a delightful place, Maria!” remarked the old lady, in a loud, strident voice, as she removed her glasses (thereby displaying a pair of piercing black eyes) and sat down. “I wonder if the tea is drinkable? Perhaps I’d better have chocolate, eh? Tell the woman to bring a clean table-cloth; and see if there is such a thing as a footstool in the place.”
“Aunt Selina,” answered the girl, who had approached Harland, “this is the gentleman who rescued me at Bâle that time I was left behind.”
Harland descended hastily from his seat and removed his cap.
“Oh!” exclaimed the old lady. “Well, I’m sure I’m vastly obliged to you, sir; I’ve been in your debt for a couple of years,” and as she gazed at him she actually began to fumble in her pocket. “Why in the world did you give my niece a blank card, Mr.—Mr.?”
“Harland,” he supplemented,—“John Harland. I must offer a tardy apology for my mistake: the light was bad, and I was not aware of my stupidity till afterwards.”
“It’s just the sort of thing my niece would do herself,” said Mrs. Pegrim. “I am very glad we have happened to come across you. Are you staying here?”
“Yes; I have been here for some weeks. Have you made a long journey to-day?”
“Only from Zurich. I am not equal to much exertion. I have been ordered complete rest. This appears to be a nice, peaceful spot. In me you see an old woman who seeks complete repose.”
Harland saw in her an old woman with a large, hooked nose, flashing black eyes, thick black brows, and snow-white hair. Probably she had once been a beauty (in a bold imperial style); her voice was far reaching and harsh, and had an irritating effect upon his nerves. The niece, however, was a remarkably pretty specimen of the purest English type. Her features were delicately cut, her complexion dazzlingly white and pink, her abundant hair was of a bright brown, and her eyes matched it exactly,—lovely eyes with pencilled brows and dark lashes. As they gravely looked into his own, John Harland felt a conviction that these were the very eyes for which he had been searching all his life. The aunt’s raucous voice and overbearing mien were redeemed by her niece’s sweet brown eyes, and in a short time John Harland (who at home was looked upon as a misogynist and cynic) was exploiting his own popularity as a means of providing Mrs. Pegrim with cushions, foot-stools, and anxious attendance.
He, who never partook of afternoon tea, nevertheless soon found himself sitting at the little green table with his two countrywomen, cutting bread-and-butter, and handing cups, as if he had been a member of the family for years!
At dinner John Harland discovered, as he seated himself, that the Mouton family had been separated. Madame Mouton sat next to him, and her seat was occupied by the English lady (who was susceptible to draughts), and she and her niece were established exactly opposite to him. The dowager had made quite an elaborate toilet: she wore a rich black satin gown, her capless white locks were arranged over a high cushion, her fingers glittered with splendid rings, and she exhibited as many jingling bangles as any girl. During the long and anxious pause which ensued between the soup and the appearance of a dish of Lake Zug trout, Mrs. Pegrim fell into voluble conversation with Madame Mouton, who, however much she might be impressed by the admirable toilet of her vis-à-vis, was bitterly resenting having been turned out of a seat which she had occupied for two months; moreover, she had gathered from the femme de chambre that this “Anglaise” (who was not in the least of the usual type of sojourners at the Hôtel de la Lune) had some idea of making a stay, and had calmly suggested that, in the present crowded state of the Hôtel, some of the swarm of children should find bedrooms at an adjacent inn, “Le Cygne.” Therefore she determined to throw cold water on madam’s warm admiration of the restful locality, the charms of the Hôtel, and the surrounding scenery.
Mrs. Pegrim spoke French (through her nose) with much fluency, and Harland listened with unfeigned amusement to Monsieur Mouton’s insidious depreciation of the place.
“It is very triste, madam! Nothing for ladies to do, I assure you; no distractions, no shops, kursaal, nor carriages; certainly if you care for bathing or boating and fishing,—va!” being positively certain that she did not lend herself to such sports. The more he decried the Hôtel, the more enthusiastic Mrs. Pegrim became, from pure contrariety. Had he praised it, she would undoubtedly have gone away. In the end, the conversation assumed quite a personal complexion, as she said,—
“Yes, it is quite out of the world. But I see a beautiful lake, with steamers plying to and fro. There is a railway station just at the top of the hill. And if it is dull and miserable, I am amazed that monsieur and his charming family have remained here for so long.”
“Caught,” said Harland to himself.
“And were it the gay place monsieur supposes me to require, I should not stay a day; but as I find that is just what I seek,—a veritable haven of repose,—I shall go to the bureau immediately after déjeuner to-morrow, and engage rooms for a month.” Then she turned sharply to her niece and said, “What are you doing, Maria, cutting up meat for that dog at table? How often have I told you that I will not allow it; you know how I dislike it. Your dog will be properly fed downstairs.”
“But, indeed, Aunt Selina, I don’t think he got any dinner yesterday,” pleaded the girl.
“If he did not, so much the better; it will do him good; he is much too fat,” remarked Mrs. Pegrim, who was herself making a repast that was highly flattering to the hotel cuisine.
“But, Aunt Selina——”
“There, now, don’t argue, don’t argue,” sharply interrupted her relative. And then, turning to her neighbour, she began to rally him on his indifferent appetite.
Harland glanced at the niece; her eyes met his, and she instantly lowered them, in order to hide two brimming tears; her lip trembled a little, and he noted that the preparations on her plate had ceased.
“Never mind,” he said, boldly; “I know the cook intimately, and I’ll see that your dog has a good dinner.”
“Thank you,” she answered, half under her breath; her mouth took an upward curve; the niece when she smiled was lovely.
Meanwhile, her aunt was taking the lead in conversation, now declaiming in vivacious French, again relating personal experiences in English (Mrs. Pegrim was invariably the heroine of all her own stories). She appeared to be in possession of the latest news from both capitals, to have all the society topics at her fingers’ ends; conversation was her forte, society her element. It was really amazing to see this glib-tongued matron completely extinguish with her eloquence those of her sex, whether old or young, and rivet the undivided attention of the company solely upon her own antique person.
When various dishes of green plums and black cherries had been discussed, serviettes folded, and chairs scraped back, Mrs. Pegrim expressed her desire to have coffee upon the veranda. It took some time to accomplish her wishes, and when Maria had posed her in a comfortable arm-chair, with her café noir beside her and an appreciative listener on either hand, she hurried away to look after poor Hero, who, owing to his size and imposing frill, was tied by a clothes-line to a table outside the kitchen door.
Maria was late—she found Hero already making an excellent meal, whilst the dark-eyed man looked on with his hands in his pockets and a pipe in his mouth, and the little French boy stood beside him leaning on his arm.
“Oh, so you are before me,” she exclaimed, “and you have given him his dinner.”
“I generally endeavour to carry out my promises,” he answered, rather stiffly, “and I am fond of dogs.”
“Are you? So am I.”
“Anatole,” he said, suddenly addressing the boy, “will you go and fetch a big bowl of water?” Then to Maria, “He is a remarkably handsome collie; I like his sable coat and great white ruff. What do you call him—when he is at home?
“Hero, at home and abroad.”
“Umph! a fancy name. To my mind, Laddie, or Yarrow, or Tweed, would be more suitable. Is he the Hero of a hundred fights?
“No, he never fights; he is a gentleman.”
“Don’t you find it a bit awkward carting him about the world? he is so big.”
“Yes. My aunt says she believes he is still growing, and people at hotels grumble a good deal; but I am afraid he cannot make himself any smaller.”
“However small he may make you feel.”
“Yes, but I could not bear to part with him. He is a piece of my old home, though I dare say he would be happier in England.”
“Yes. I should imagine that he would prefer a moor to being tied to the leg of a table in a Swiss inn. He must find railway carriages and steamboats rather irksome.”
“I don’t think he minds much, so long as he is with me.”
“Then you believe in disinterested devotion?”
“Oh, I’ve almost given up believing in anything,” was his rather startling reply. “My most cherished ideals have been dragged from me, including Shakespeare.”
Maria stared at him in puzzled amazement, and then said,—
“I have had Hero since he was six weeks old. I’m very fond of him, I treat him kindly, and I would be greatly surprised if he was not fond of me.”
“Well, animals may, and probably do, reciprocate affection, but in our world ‘il y a toujours un qui baise, et un qui tend la joue!’”
Miss Talbot was gazing thoughtfully across the lake, with the setting sun shining on her beautiful hair; for quite a moment there was dead silence, then she turned to him suddenly, and said, with unexpected vehemence,—
“How I do hate that detestable quotation!”
“Nevertheless it is founded on fact,” he answered, doggedly. “Ah, here comes the water at last.”
“I’ve been a long time, Monsieur de Savignac,” said he; “but I could not find a bowl, so I brought my own washing-basin.”
“Thank you, mon brave! I don’t suppose the dog—or, indeed, most people,—would know the difference.”
“Why, I thought you were English,” exclaimed the girl.
“And so I am, but the children here like to call me by my second name, and I have a good many French ancestors.”
“Well, now I must go back to my aunt,” said the girl, with an involuntary and possibly unconscious sigh. “Be a good boy, Hero,” stroking his head, “and I will come and take you for a run before I go to bed.”
“Maria,” suddenly cried a shrill falsetto voice from the veranda above, and Mrs. Pegrim leant over, and beckoned with her fan. “What are you doing down there all this time? Oh, the dog, of course! Had you not better come up and assist Simpson to unpack?”
No one knew better how to “faire marcher son monde,” as she expressed it, than Mrs. Pegrim. Every person, and every thing, in the hitherto peaceful Hôtel yielded to the demands of the talkative old English woman with the loud voice and large nose, from Madame Mouton, who had totally succumbed and relinquished her favourite place at table, Monsieur, who might be seen grovelling on all fours underneath the said piece of furniture, wildly groping for a footstool, and Anatole Bigot, who had been thrust forth to sleep at the “Cygne” in order to make room for Mrs. Pegrim’s maid, to Professor Baggentoss, who, nolens volens, played chess with the lady every evening, when his soul was languishing for a comfortable pipe upon the pier.
As for John Harland, Mrs. Pegrim appeared to believe that the fact of having owed him money for two years gave her the right to everything belonging to him,—his time, his arm, his patience, his English papers and new books,—of which he received an enviable supply,—and last, but not least, to his little table in the garden. The morning after the arrival of the English ladies, when Harland came with his portfolio to take up his usual seat, at his usual resort,—a table which was invariably held sacred to him,—he found it littered with scraps of silk, patterns, a workbasket, several French novels, and a plate of cherry-stones, and before it sat established, with chair and cushion, no less a person than Mrs. Pegrim.
“Ah!” she cried, putting down her book—“Les Mensonges”—and gaily brandishing a pink paper fan in his direction, “those children,” pointing to the demoiselles Mouton, “actually wanted to drive me away: they declared that this was your table.” And she laughed. “I told them that it was Frau Woog’s table, and that I meant to stick to it.”
Harland smiled (a painfully rigid performance) and said nothing. He was accustomed to this particular spot; habit was second nature, and he was convinced that he could not write a line at any other table in the garden; but when he looked into his supplanter’s bold black eyes, he had not the courage to storm the position; at last he ventured to say,—
“They call it my table because I have had it for three seasons, and I really don’t think I should feel at home elsewhere; and if it is all the same to you to—to take another——” He paused suggestively, and glanced at half a dozen.
“No, my dear man, it would not be all the same to me. I like this situation. If you and I have no other taste in common, we have the same in tables. This one seems quite an old acquaintance: it is not too high, not too near those children, it is within easy distance of the house, yet retired; it suits me admirably. You will have to go farther afield, I’m afraid,—place aux dames, you know.” And she leant her elbows on the coveted article, and looked up into his face and laughed, as she said, “J’y suis et j’y reste.”
Well, at any rate, Harland could not collect his ideas with that voice in his immediate neighbourhood. So, with a rather forced smile and a nod, he walked off, carrying away his writing-case, his ink-bottle, and his discomfiture, followed by the amazed gaze of the six eyes belonging to the demoiselles in pink pinafores. So the old Anglaise had taken Monsieur de Savignac’s table and driven him away, and he had gone without a word. “Quel miracle!” He went up to his own room and sat down at the open window overlooking garden and gleaming lake, but even here a voice appeared to ascend—or was it fancy—from below, like the word of command. It appeared to his sensitive imagination that as long as Mrs. Pegrim was on the premises, or within earshot, his literary powers were absolutely paralysed. How he wished she would go! but again, when he thought of her pretty, sprightly niece, how he wished she would stay! Miss Talbot’s magnetic personality, her sweet eyes, her low laugh, made ample amends for her overpowering and imperious relative.
They invariably met at Hero’s dinner (the dog was a kind of mutual attraction). Harland suggested the best directions in which he might be taken for his daily exercise, and now and then he and Anatole Bigot happened, quite accidentally (?), to come upon the pair; then ensued a delightful walk homeward by the lake shore or down the mountain, and during one of these walks the lady had let fall the name “Brandon.” Brandon Court had been in her late father’s parish. Harland had been at Rugby with the Brandons, and Tom was his special friend. From the Brandons, the talk had drifted to books. These walks proved dull enough to poor Anatole, who desired to have the exclusive company of his “cher Monsieur de Savignac,” instead of which he did nothing but talk to the English girl with the big dog. No, they talked of books, books, books, whilst he and the big dog slouched disconsolately beside them. It was Greek to Anatole to hear that “the present generation of readers finds its keenest interest in psychology and the handling of words,” that “the old novel, which was composed entirely from imagination and romance, was extinct as the Dodo,” that “everything tended to pessimism and melancholy endings,” which statement Miss Talbot vigorously contradicted. Then Monsieur de Savignac had called her an “optimist,” which sounded like a bad name, and she had only smiled; but when he had remarked that “it had been the lot of woman to release the novel of the period from the bonds of decency,” she had become quite en colère; her cheeks had grown scarlet and her eyes had flashed; then Monsieur de Savignac had joked, and she had laughed, too, and said if he dared to say such a thing again she would set her dog on him. And they had talked of two men called “Georges Sand” and “George Eliot” until they came to the very door of the Hôtel, and talked all the way upstairs, even when the dinner-bell was sounding; and whatever the argument was, the English miss had boasted that she had had the last word!
At any rate, Anatole had not had one word, whether first or last, since they had had the misfortune to overtake her in the walnut woods.
Long walks were not in Mrs. Pegrim’s line. She took short promenades up the road behind the village, or sat in a hay-field, or made an excursion by steamer. She read her novels in the garden, and played bezique, lotto, and écarté with ardour, and made herself most agreeable to her fellow-inmates; gave presents to the children, flattered their mothers, entertained their fathers with sprightly remarks and anecdotes, and became in a short time the queen of the Hôtel de la Lune. Plenty of money, a powerful will, and a pleasant tongue had raised her to the throne.
However, Mrs. Pegrim’s tongue was not always honeyed; occasionally it proved to be as bitter as gall to her niece and her maid, and, in fact, to any one who ran counter to her wishes. Not that Maria Talbot ever dreamt of contradicting her aunt, but she insisted on keeping a great useless brute of a collie, and Mrs. Pegrim hated dogs. She was so agreeable and good humoured to her hotel friends that it was amazing how violent and arbitrary she could be with her niece. She treated her precisely as if she was a child of ten, and yet demanded of her the service of two grown-up women. No one noticed this so much as John Harland; he had arrived at the conclusion that this lively old lady was “joie de rue, douleur de maison”; he caught sharp speeches, brusque orders, and black looks. Miss Talbot had divined his mental verdict, and had taken upon herself to apologise for her relative.
“You see,” she explained, “Aunt Selina has always been spoiled. She was a great beauty in her day, and no one ever said no to her.”
“No more than they do now,” he promptly rejoined.
“And she is not strong; she suffers from nervous irritability, and it does her good to scold me,” she added, with a smile.
But Harland did not smile; neither Mrs. Pegrim’s former beauty nor her present state of health made the smallest impression upon him; he had decided that she was a disagreeable, worldly old witch, who got all she wanted from main force of character, and who bullied her niece from mere force of habit; and he was right. Mrs. Pegrim drove a hard bargain, and was obtaining far greater comforts and better attendance than more generous and amiable guests, and she never hesitated to ask for what she required or to summon “monsieur” or “madame” to her presence. Most people gave way to her abominable selfishness sooner than encounter her terrible tongue.
One afternoon Mrs. Pegrim decided to go for a long drive. She sent in to Kassnacht and ordered a carriage, and generously offered a seat to Madame Bigot. The two ladies drove off in great state and their best summer mantles from the Hôtel, and proceeded slowly up the steep hill, the coachman walking with the reins in his hands. Presently they overtook, and passed, Miss Talbot, Frau Baggentoss, Mr. Harland, and Anatole, who were bound for a climb up the Rigi, and saluted them with gay smiles and a gracious waving of brilliant parasols.
Five minutes later, as they were approaching the arch under the railway bridge, a wild whistle and the thunder of an approaching train was heard. Harland, who noted that the horse in the carriage was a young and excitable creature, ran up, for he saw that the driver, who was walking at the full length of the reins, would have no control over him should he not stand the train, and his fears were amply fulfilled. As the thunder of the carriages passed over the bridge with a hollow boom, the terrified animal plunged madly to one side and ran up the bank. There was a succession of ear-splitting shrieks as the vehicle reeled, locked, capsized! Harland was just in time to seize and drag out Mrs. Pegrim (Madame Bigot, more active, jumped), when the frantic horse turned about and galloped madly down the hill with the reversed victoria banging at his heels, scattering the walking party to the four winds, and kicking the carriage to bits. As he continued his career, the hill road was strewn with cushions, shawls, parasols, and scraps of harness.
Mrs. Pegrim had fainted from sheer fright; she had escaped by a miracle. Madame Bigot had sprained her ankle rather badly. After a long delay, and much gesticulation and commiseration, the two ladies, who had set out so jauntily, were conveyed back to the hotel on Jost Nadon’s flat hay-cart, drawn by his industrious brown cow.
Mrs. Pegrim was slightly bruised, her nerves were terribly shaken, and she kept her room and her bed for several days, with her niece in close attendance. During these days Mr. Harland was good enough to exercise Miss Talbot’s collie, and allow him to accompany him on twenty-mile tramps over the mountain, among the orchards and brown chalets, where Harland had several acquaintances. As he came into the garden one evening before dinner, he was aware of an unfamiliar figure in a voluminous blue cloak, making imperative signals from an arm-chair; it proved to be Mrs. Pegrim, the potentate of the Hôtel, looking surprisingly old and shrunken and subdued.
“Come over here, Mr. Harland,” she said, tremulously, “I want to talk to you.”
“I hope you are better?” he asked, as he stood before her. “I am glad to see you out.”
“I should never have been seen again, excepting as a corpse, only for you, Mr. Harland. You and I are quite aware of that, are we not? I have to thank you for my life.”
“Oh, Mrs. Pegrim, it was nothing.”
“But I think it was a great deal, and I do thank you most heartily. Life is sweet even to a woman of seventy, and though I have often talked of dying, I never realised what death would be like, until that carriage crashed over with me, and I knew that I should be dragged at the horse’s heels. Then I felt some one grasp me and pull me out from among the wheels. That person was you.”
“I am very glad that I happened to be on the spot.”
“Well, it was a great piece of good luck for me. I feel dreadfully shaken still, and I don’t know how I shall ever get into a carriage again. I believe I shall have to be taken away from here on Jost Nadon’s cow-cart” And she laughed, a shrill, mirthless laugh.
“Are you thinking of moving immediately?”
“I don’t know. I like the place and I sleep well, but one cannot spend the whole season in one poky little inn. I stayed here at first—shall I tell you why?—because Madame Mouton was so exceedingly anxious that I should move on. Contradiction invariably rouses me. And then Maria is fond of this spot.”
Harland’s heart beat several degrees faster.
“She likes it because—you will never guess why.”
He knew very well why he liked it. Could her reason be a similar one? He waited in breathless impatience.
“Because of the dog,” was the unexpected explanation. “You see, she can take him such nice long walks, and there are no bicycles on the road, and he enjoys rambling over the mountains. What he enjoys, she enjoys. She is a slave to that wretched animal.”
“Well, he is a magnificent collie, and a faithful, gentle beast.”
“Oh, well enough, but I dislike dogs. With Maria it is a case of ‘love me, love my dog.’ He was given to her as a puppy, by a scamp she was foolishly fond of.”
Harland felt himself colouring; the intelligence had administered a painful shock; he could not have imagined fair, smiling, serene Miss Talbot being “foolishly” fond of anyone, much less “a scamp;” and, moreover, he felt that he had no business to listen to a history of her love-affairs; it was almost as bad as reading her letters. So he gave his chair an impatient push back on the gravel, and said,—
“Do you think Miss Talbot would like you to tell this sort of thing to a stranger?”
“Tut, tut, my dear man! How brusque you are! Don’t other people notice it, eh?”
“Yes,” with an awkward laugh; “I enjoy a wide celebrity for plain speaking.”
“Celebrity or not, you are no stranger to Maria, seeing you have saved her aunt’s life; and, besides, what I am telling you is no secret; all the world—our world—knows that three years ago, when Maria was twenty, she became engaged to an officer who used to come into her part of the world as a youth, a fascinating, good-for-nothing fellow, handsome, and undeniably well born; but handsome is that handsome does. He made a dupe and a fool of Maria Talbot. And so I hear that you know the Brandon boys?”
“I know the Brandon men,” he corrected.
“Well, they are still boys in my eyes. Give me your arm,” she said, suddenly rising to her feet. “Dinner is never punctual, and I should like to take a little turn before I sit down to weak soup and strong cheese. The Brandons are connections of ours; they could tell you all about Maria.”
“But really, Mrs. Pegrim,” he protested, “it is a matter of no interest——”
“Now, don’t say of no interest to you,” she interrupted, tightening her grip upon his arm. “An honest man should always be thankful to hear how a girl has escaped from the clutches of a rascal. Maria was my brother’s only child,—he was rector of Brandon,—and really at seventeen she was as pretty as a rose. This Borrodaile came, saw, conquered. She would not look at anyone else. They were not bound in any way, merely old playfellows, and that sort of rubbish, but when Maria was twenty she became engaged to Captain Borrodaile. Her father died shortly before the wedding-day, which was, of course, postponed, and Captain Borrodaile went out to India. He was to return in a year’s time, but three years have elapsed and there is no sign of him. He was frittering away all Maria’s girlhood, but thank God that’s at an end now,” exclaimed the old lady, piously. “I never approved of the match from the first. Norris Borrodaile was head over ears in debt, and, though a man of birth, you could never believe a word he said. I could not endure him, and I hate his dog.”
“And where is Captain Borrodaile at present?”
“In India,—the very best place for him. I hope he will remain there, and in the very hottest part of it”
“I remember a Borrodaile at Rugby, a fair, good-looking fellow. He was older than I, and not in my house.”
“Oh, indeed, his looks were the only thing he had to recommend him. I declare,” now drawing a deep breath, “that when I think of Borrodaile, and all his lies and his letters, his plausible excuses and villainies, and all the chances of happiness that he has cost Maria, I sometimes feel the blood rush to my head, and as if I were going to have a fit! However, thank goodness, it’s all at an end now. A la bonne heure!” she added, in her every-day key. “There is the bell at last. I hope there is something fit to eat. Come, you shall have the honour of taking me in to dinner.”
The party at the Hôtel de la Lune had been reinforced by another old dowager, who was travelling with a mere maid. She proved to be that delightful godsend to Mrs. Pegrim, a congenial spirit. They approved the same doctors, doctrines, and diet, were equally well connected and wealthy, and Madame Jupon had the honour of making dresses for them both. Need more be said? Thus it came to pass that, these two being engrossed in one another’s society, Maria was comparatively released, and, urged by her anxious aunt, went long, long walks, escorted by John Harland. They even ascended the Rigi, lunched at the Hôtel, and made several expeditions on Lake Zug, accompanied by Anatole (“kindly lent for the occasion by Madame Rigot”).
However delightful these excursions might be, and were, to Harland, Miss Talbot, and Hero, Anatole was inexpressibly bored. English literature, the phases of life, and various social questions were absolutely without interest for him. Still, an excellent lunch was some alleviation, and in the matter of fishing-tackle and story-books his “cher Monsieur de Savignac” had behaved with a splendid generosity, which made his attendance well worth his while.
To tell the truth, John Harland had fallen deeply in love with Maria Talbot. She had not the vaguest suspicion of the situation, and treated him with something of the camaraderie which she once accorded to the Brandon boys, and frequently found herself wishing that she had some real claim upon him, or that he was her brother. She had never had a brother. No; but Mr. Harland had a sister, and it was to this fact that much of his hesitation and conflicting impulses were due. His father had left him a small but certain income derived from a family estate, and he had given up all idea of practising at the bar, and had thrown himself heart and soul into the pursuit of literature. As he wrote what he liked, and when he liked, he wrote well, and his work was strong and earnest, his style finished. He had a passion for le mot juste; his circumstances were easy and his success assured. His sister Armantine, known as “Tina,” had made a most unfortunate marriage. Her husband was a wealthy man named Sabel, of foreign extraction, who had lived for years in princely state, and then suddenly had been convicted of an enormous amount of fraud, a matter of hundreds of thousands of pounds. He had attempted to escape, been caught, tried, and sentenced to ten years penal servitude. His furious creditors seized everything, and his wife and four children were actually beggars, and worse, for they were disgraced. A man may be a pauper and yet have an unstained name.
Naturally, Mrs. Sabel (who now called herself Smith) cast herself and her trouble upon her brother’s shoulders, and he accepted the burthen as a matter of course. He sought out a small furnished house for her at Clifton, where he installed her with two servants. She knew nothing of house-keeping, and in every-day matters was helpless as a child. She barely recognised a shoulder of mutton when she saw it, but she was a really excellent judge of old lace and furs, and in the capacity of running up a bill for inconsidered trifles she had no equal.
Harland sent the three boys to a good day-school, hunted up a kindergarten for the little girl, guaranteed to allow his sister five hundred pounds a year, and flattered himself that she would be able to make it do. In this he was miserably mistaken. Tina, a large, fair, rather handsome woman, was as indolent as she was helpless and extravagant. As long as her brother sent her cheques, she never attempted to put her shoulder to the wheel. Why should she? She had never been brought up to pinch and screw. John had no one belonging to him but her and her children, he earned gold as fast as his pen could fly, it was the easiest way in the world of making money, and a few pounds more or less were not of the slightest consequence to him.
So Mrs. Smith wore some of her former finery (handsome velvet and furs), received visitors, who were considerably impressed by her languid airs and her splendid sables, went out to teas, gave dainty luncheon parties, and led all her little world to suppose that her husband was abroad. To do her justice, Tina honestly believed that her brother had a handsome yearly income, which came to him with as little exertion as did her own, and that he occasionally sat down for half an hour and turned off an article, as easily as he would the handle of a barrel-organ.
Mrs. De Savignac Smith (she had taken the family title to correct her less distinguished name) never guessed at her brother’s long hours of toil, the strenuous effort to keep his banker’s account to the good, or that now, when necessity spurred him to write for the sake of money, half the ease and spontaneity of former days had refused to associate with his mercenary pen.
To his acquaintances he appeared to live well within his income. Harland occupied good chambers, wore a good coat, belonged to a good club, and spent a couple of months abroad every year. He was on the staff of a notable daily paper, he wrote pungent articles for the magazines, he had private means. They never guessed that he had a family to support, three growing boys at school, or that he dreaded his sister’s letters and her Christmas bills as much as any harassed pater familias. Tina’s epistles were never agreeable reading; they were either one long grumble at her hard lot and dull existence, or clamouring for “an advance,” or fretful complaints of the servants or the boys, and they almost invariably enclosed some pressing bill. She positively seemed to enjoy being in debt, and the fact that she had a long account appeared to be her chief reason for adding to it. Mrs. Smith rarely could resist a bargain, or the generous impulse to give some one a treat or a present,—at her brother’s expense.
One Christmas her demands had been so unreasonable that Harland had gone down to Clifton and had a somewhat distressing interview. He had brought his usual gifts for his niece and nephews, but he gave nothing to their mother, save a very sharp piece of his mind.
“Have you any idea what I have paid for you this year, Tina?” he asked, with a grave face.
“No, I’m sure I have not,” she returned, carelessly, as she arranged her fringe in a mirror. “I never keep accounts. What is the good? What’s spent is spent.”
“And you have spent this year close on nine hundred pounds. Now, I cannot continue this.”
“Nine hundred. Why I’m certain I’ve never had anything like that,” she protested, with angry incredibility. “The rent is only seventy.”
“Yes, besides taxes, schooling, clothes——”
“We must be dressed; we cannot go about like savages.”
“You must, but your draper’s and dress-maker’s bills need not to come to two hundred pounds.”
“There were the boys’ top coats and boots.”
“Yes, I paid for those separately. Now, listen to me, Tina, and never mind your hair. Have you ever thought of what would happen if I were to die?”
“Well, no; but you are not going to die, I should hope.” And she turned about, and stared at him.
“But supposing that I were to die soon, and before the boys were able to do anything. It is well to be prepared, you know. I have made up my mind to insure my life.”
“Insure your life!” Then, with a sudden gleam of interest, “But why, when your income will come to me?”
“Not at all; it’s entailed property. You had the money in the funds.”
“Yes; Sabel had ten thousand,” she muttered, in a sulky tone. “I call it very hard lines that I’m cut off from inheriting.”
“I shall allow you exactly five hundred a year, Tina, and not a penny more, for I really cannot manage it.”
“Then,” suddenly sitting up and looking straight at him, “you are going to be married!”
“No, I am not”
“Well,” still staring at him for some time in silence, “I believe you,” with a laugh. “You are not a ladies’ man. I shall never, never forget what you said to poor Miss Skinder at our fancy ball.”
“I don’t even remember Miss Skinder.”
“Don’t you? Well, she will never forget you. She went up to you in her gown, all sewn over with playing-cards, and you asked her what she was? She answered, ‘Vingt et un,’ and you said, ‘Oh, are you, really? Well, I should have taken you for trente et quarante!’”
“I don’t believe I ever said anything so brutal.”
“Yes, you did. Are you going to take us all to the theatre to-night?”
“I believe I am. And now, Tina, you will remember what I say? I really am in earnest. You will try and manage a little better, won’t you?”
“Yes, yes, yes! how you do preach! What an awful husband you would be! It is a mercy that you are such a determined old bachelor; that there is no chance of your worrying some unfortunate woman to death.”
At the end of the following year John was still steadfast to his declaration. He took no notice of bold, piteous, or even frantic appeals. The strain had been lifted from his mind, and he was now able to work occasionally at the magnum opus of his life, the darling of his mental self that was rarely out of his thoughts, his great play, also his great secret.
Just before midsummer his sister suddenly presented herself in his chambers, flurried, dusty, and excited. She had come to announce the complete collapse of his financial scheme and to inform him that “there were bailiffs in her house, awaiting the payment of four hundred and eleven pounds!”
Poor Harland! He figuratively tore his hair and—paid. Now he had established Tina in lodgings, the boys at boarding-schools, and all expenditures passed through his own hands.
To a man who was thinking of taking a penniless wife Tina and her family were a serious encumbrance, and he was never free from a chilly fear that some day Tina might again appear to him, pale and hysterical, and figuratively overwhelm him with unexpected debts.
Thanks to Mrs. Seton Clapperton’s fascinations, Maria was released from close personal attendance on her aunt; who abandoned herself exclusively to the delights of a new and absorbing friendship. Maria was at best but a poor and timid conversationalist, and her relative gladly handed her over to Madame Bigot, Frau Professorin Baggentoss, Mr. Harland, or anyone who would take the trouble of talking to her. Meanwhile, she played cribbage and bezique with her charming acquaintance, walked with her, talked to her, and poured all her joys, sorrows, and complaints into her sympathetic ears. She held back nothing with regard to her bodily ailments, her favourite investments, or her candid opinion of her numerous acquaintances (which opinions the perfidious lady subsequently disclosed with truly fatal results).
This flame of mutual admiration blazed so brightly that it illuminated the entire circle, and there was actually some question of these two ardent souls joining forces for the remainder of their days, for each appeared to be indispensable to the happiness of the other. Alas! from what insignificant matters do grave affairs arise,—a trifling dispute over a salt-cellar at a table d’hôte led to a fierce altercation, complete disenchantment, and undying animosity.
But whilst their mutual appreciation was still at its height, one warm August evening Mrs. Pegrim and Mrs. Clapperton descended to the garden after dinner in order to enjoy the soft breeze from the water and the fragrance of the dewy flowers, in exchange for the roast-meat-laden atmosphere of the salle à manger and the penetrating souvenir of fried onions.
“If you like to sit near us while you smoke, Mr. Harland, you may,” was Mrs. Pegrim’s gracious notification to Harland, who had followed Maria, who had followed her aunt. “Your cigar will keep the insects away.”
“Thank you, but I am going on the pier,” he answered. And then to Maria, “It is much cooler there, and I advise you to come, too. You will find it far fresher than here, under the trees, and this garden is alive with mosquitoes.”
It was a lovely evening: the sun had set, the whole lake and hills were bathed in a sort of holy twilight, save where a halo round the shoulder of the Rigi heralded the rising of a full moon.
“The mosquitoes have arrived here too,” remarked Harland, as he and Miss Talbot stood side by side upon the pier. “Let us take to the water and disappoint them; in other words, here is Jost Nadon’s boat; I will row you out into the middle of the lake, and then we can drift about in the moonlight. Well, will you come?”
“There is nothing I should like so much,” returned the lady, but, casting an anxious look towards the garden, “my aunt thinks the lake is dangerous after sun-down.”
“Yes, of course, I should not dream of asking her to boat with me by moonlight,” rejoined the tempter, with a sedate twinkle in his eye; “but you are not rheumatic.” And, seeing her still hesitate, “Ah, it is very plain that you do not understand the nature and joys of disobedience. Come, come, Miss Talbot, I will bear all the blame, if blame there is.” And thus tempted to recklessness, Maria gathered up her white skirt, thereby displaying the celebrated “Talbot” foot and ankle, and meekly stepped down into Jost Nadon’s white boat.
For some time there was not a sound save the steady rise and fall of oars and the little rattle of the rollocks, and when the pair had gone half-way across the lake, Harland stopped, rested upon his oars, and looked at his companion. She was leaning back, with her hands clasped, and a faraway expression of rapt ecstasy upon her lovely upturned face; undoubtedly there was a truly emotional spirit under that exterior of unruffled calm.
“I see you are in a twilight mood,” he observed.
“I don’t know what you mean by a twilight mood,” she exclaimed, rousing herself with an effort.
“You were thinking of something pleasant, either past or to come. You were mentally contemplating something that never was on sea or shore.”
She had been thinking of Norris, and some of his tender words and looks, but she mendaciously answered,—
“I was thinking how happy the people must be who live on these shores. If I were one of them, I should enjoy every moment of my life. What do you say?”
“Perhaps as a Swiss farmer I might be satisfied. I saw one come into the bank at Lucerne the other day,—a good-looking, open-faced youth; he waited patiently whilst I was writing a cheque, and I noticed him carefully counting over to himself a pile of exceeding dirty notes for a thousand francs each; his face was radiant. I must confess that I envied him. He was happy; possibly he enjoys every moment of his life.”
“And you do not?”
“I don’t see how one can, when one looks outside one’s self at the misery there is in the world. The groans of all creation were never so poignant as now.”
“Oh, do you think so? Surely people are better off and more prosperous than ages ago,—two hundred or three hundred years back.”
“In what manner?”
“In those days people were hanged for petty thefts, sheep stealing, and forgery, were thrown into prison for debt, and remained there all their lives. Look at the great hospitals and institutions nowadays, the spread of education, the alleviation of pain, the means of locomotion. People can go about for a few pounds, and see other parts of this beautiful world, that in former days were chained down to their own hideous little town or sleepy village. Then, consider the scientific discoveries,—electricity, for instance.”
“Yes, several of its own discoveries have startled humanity, though some have been guessed at, but abandoned, by the heathen Chinee. If we have advanced in civilisation and comfort, the population has increased, too; it has doubled in Europe in the last fifty years, and its labours have increased ten- to fifty-fold. How all this enormous ever-gathering multitude is to be fed is the awful problem of the overcrowded age. The greatest happiness of the greatest number is a magnificent object, but how to achieve it seems an insoluble enigma. I believe we are alive to our shortcomings and endeavouring to do better; that is one sign of the times. We may not accomplish much, but we do strive, and hope that, if not in our own time, at any rate in the dim future, other human beings may not come into the world to curse God and die. Now have I preached you to sleep, Miss Talbot?”
“No; these great subjects are far beyond my poor wits. I suppose there is, then, nothing for it but patience.”
“Bah! Patience is often only another name for indolence; every man should help his fellow, the strong give a hand to the weak.”
“Women can do much, too.”
“At any rate, in these days they think they can do everything, especially since their apostle Ibsen has sounded the bugle, Advance!”
“You are always bitterly cynical when you speak of women en masse, or the woman question.”
“Am I?” he responded, with a short laugh. “China, the fossil of civilisation, has settled the woman question once for all.”
“What do you mean?”
“She has relegated your sex to a place from which they cannot stir. The fashion of foot-binding had its intention. A woman with two maimed extremities cannot stray far!” And he nodded his head with significance.
Maria removed her hat and ruffled up her hair with both hands, whilst he continued:
“They have been told that the custom is imperative, a token of position, and the lover assures his mistress that her hobble is as graceful as the waving willow-tree. But, of course, that is merely his craft. Then, among the poorer classes, they dispose of surplus girls by the crude means of drowning or sale. When the boat population at Canton displays a basket at the mast-head, it is a sign that there is a girl in the market. Surely such a signal might often be run up with propriety in our own country.”
“Don’t say such horrible things, Mr. Harland,” cried Maria, with some heat. “Pray, have you brought me out onto the middle of the lake, where I am absolutely helpless and cannot escape, on purpose to tell me sour, disagreeable opinions of my own sex? In these days women and girls are not cumberers of the ground, but earn their own livelihood and accomplish their own lives. A woman has as much right to live her own life as a man.”
“Ah, so you have been reading Ibsen, too! He has blown out the brains of half your sex.”
“I am so glad you acknowledge that we have some brains to blow out,” answered the lady, stiffly.
“A woman’s sphere is home; there she is supreme. It is man’s portion to go forth and work, and meet the doubts, perplexities, and conflicts of life.”
“I entirely differ with both your opinions. I beg to say that at home a woman is not supreme. Your ideas are those of the Middle Ages, when men went out to joust and fight and hunt, and woman sat at the top of the castle doing miles of tapestry with miserable materials. Even in recent times the brothers of a family received expensive educations, and went into the world to seek their fortunes, whilst the girls who remained behind were supposed to pickle, make shirts, to marry,—if occasion offered; if not, to settle down into old maids, living on their fathers and brothers, and exhausting the family resources.”
“An old maid in a family is often indispensable.”
“Yes, from your point of view,—as nurse, house-keeper, drudge, scapegoat. But now old maids—the name is no longer a stigma—support themselves and sometimes their relatives. I think it must be delightful to be able to earn money, and to be independent.”
“And to belong to a club, and to have a cheque-book and a latch-key.”
“Yes; especially the latch-key.”
“Well, Miss Talbot, one lives and learns. I had not the smallest idea that you were a new woman.”
“Nor am I. My education has not been sufficiently completed, nor have I the firmness and independence of character necessary to the type. But those who can earn their own living, relieve their fathers and brothers of their maintenance, help the poor, carry the burthens of the weak, enjoy the lives and faculties that God has given them, have my most sincere respect, sympathy, and admiration.”
“Hear, Hear, Hear!” said Harland, softly clapping his hands. “In spite of your modest self-depreciation, I shall see you on a platform yet. May I ask if your aunt is aware of your views?”
“I don’t know. But surely you have observed that she is not particularly interested in my opinions.”
“I am aware that she abhors biking; but this is ten times worse! Some day you will join the noble army of——”
“Mr. Harland,” interrupted his companion, hastily, “if you are going to say ‘the shrieking sisterhood,’ I shall,” and she gave a little laugh, as she added, “leave the boat.”
“I suppose you would like to live in chambers with another woman.”
“No; I shall always be the useful domestic character of which you so kindly approve.”
“You amaze me! Given the opportunity, will you not seize your liberty, and act up to your aspirations?”
“When necessary every woman should work,” was her evasive reply. “No one should be a drag on a man; it humiliates her, and it is extremely hard upon him.”
“Nonsense!” impatiently; “you talk in the abstract. It is so easy to lay down principles; when it comes to facts, it is another matter.”
“And I am talking nonsense.”
“Now, please don’t be affronted. Had you not better put your hat on? you will catch cold.”
“Thank you, no; I require to keep my head cool.”
“Are you a good listener?”
“Have you not discovered that?”
“Then let me tell you a story.”
“A true story?”
“Yes, a true story, and a short story, copyright reserved.”
She nodded gravely, and he continued:
“There was once upon a time a brother and sister. She was several years the elder of the two. Their father was a gentleman of moderate fortune. His daughter married, rather against his wishes, a wealthy financier. At his death he left her ten thousand pounds, and to his son a small family property. The son had pursuits and ambitions, and he and his sister drifted apart; their tastes were entirely dissimilar. She enjoyed luxury and all that money could bestow, little knowing that she was living from day to day on the brink of a volcano. The eruption came; her husband fled a disgraced man, who had falsified books and swindled thousands, and her home fell over her with a crash. The creditors seized everything save her personal effects,—jewelry, plate, books, presents,—and so great was the general indignation against her, who unwittingly had been living for years on the hard-earned investments of hundreds now ruined, that she seemed not to have a single friend in the wide world. Even her servants had had their hard-earned savings swept away. In such a strait she naturally turned to her brother. No one else stood between her and absolute destitution. She had no power of earning a living; all her capacities lay in the direction of spending. She could really do nothing, if it came to the last pinch, but sell flowers and matches. How could she support herself and five children? How does your theory work?”
“It would work admirably, if she had energy and health.”
“But she had no more energy than Frau Rosenstock” (a stout and phlegmatic lady whose sole interest was centred in her meals, and who never had been known to extend her walk beyond the garden).
“And the brother, what did he do? Did he rise to the occasion?”
“Yes, to the best of his power. He, I understand, provided her with a fairly comfortable home, and has educated her children.”
“It must cost him a considerable sum, but I suppose he is well off, and does not miss it.”
“He had sufficient for himself and his own pursuits, but to maintain his sister and her children he has been obliged to abandon his ambitions and to work hard.”
“And pray where is his sister’s husband all this time? How can he endure to think of another man supporting his family?”
“He cannot, as it happens, help himself. He is working out a term of years in prison.”
“And your friend must struggle on, under this load. I hope his sister is endeavouring to lighten it in some degree?”
“Is she not extraordinarily grateful?”
“I cannot answer that question, but I can tell you that she is exceedingly discontented. Now, what do you say to that short story?”
“I say that your friend must be a good man, and that you are fortunate to know him.”
Harland laughed. “You call him good because he keeps his sister from the workhouse?”
“I call him good because he has relinquished his own aims and taken up the burthen of others. Believe me, he will have his reward.”
“Miss Talbot among the prophetesses!”
“Is not more surprising than to find Mr. Harland among the preachers,” she retorted.
The moon was shining full overhead as Harland once more began to row.
“Look, we are drifting, drifting,” said Maria.
Yes, he was drifting, drifting into love with this girl, who, as she sat in the stern of the boat, bareheaded, her beauty idealised by the cool glory of the risen moon, made a picture that Harland would carry in his heart until his dying day.
“We ought to be going back, please, Mr. Harland. My aunt will be wondering what has become of me, and what we are doing?”
“She will never dream that we have been raving at one another, out in the middle of Lake Zug? Let us stay a little longer and talk,—
‘Of ships and sealing wax,
> And how the sea is boiling hot,
> And whether pigs have wings?’”
“Don’t be so absurd. I really do wish to return; it must be ten o’clock.”
“Ah, I see you have a cultivated conscience. Very well, your orders shall be obeyed.”
As he spoke he turned the boat slowly round and began rowing back to the pier with strong, steady strokes.
“How well he rows!” thought Maria, dreamily. It was a graceful accomplishment when a man was a good oarsman. Could Norris row? How delightful it would have been had he been her companion on the lake that heavenly night! This Mr. Harland was an odd, interesting man; he seemed rather alone in the world; perhaps he had had an unfortunate love-affair, and that was why he was so cynical. There was a strange foreign grace about his actions, and, in spite of all his brusqueness, he had a certain courtly air. He was handsome, to those who admired dark complexions. She believed his cynicism was but skin deep, and after Norris,—oh, miles and miles,— Miss Talbot preferred him to any man of her acquaintance.
She wished that he was her brother. Perhaps some day he would come across a nice girl, and fall in love again. She should like him to marry a friend of hers. She was, however, abruptly aroused from her agreeable reverie by the sight of two shawled figures on the pier, and a familiar voice came ringing sharply over the water calling,—
“Maria! Maria! Maria!”
Then, when the white boat of Jost Nadon was once more moored at the steps, Mrs. Pegrim exclaimed,—
“Upon my word, Maria, I really wonder at you! Pray, what have you been doing?”
“Enjoying the moonlight,” returned her niece, with unexpected nonchalance. “It has been delightful. We have been drifting about the lake.”
“We merely went out to disappoint the mosquitoes, Mrs. Pegrim,” explained Harland. “I knew you would approve of that, and I told Miss Talbot, who was led away by me, that you would hold her blameless.”
“Oh, did you, indeed, Mr. Harland?” said Mrs. Pegrim, with an angry sniff. “Well, your defrauded mosquitoes came back and made a violent onslaught on us. I am sure that to-morrow we shall look as if we were sickening for the measles. Good-night. Come along, Maria.” And this time, Maria was “led away” by her aunt.
Moonlight boating on the lake was strictly forbidden to Maria, but Mrs. Pegrim occasionally allowed her niece to avail herself of Mr. Harland’s escort upon terra firma. They climbed up the hills among the orchards, or explored quaint little brown villages by the lake shore, with Hero as their sole chaperon, for Anatole had struck. They walked too far and too fast; they talked English all the time; they refused to linger in order to look for chestnuts, lizards, or even slow worms; and, altogether, “ces promenades se trouvaient fort ennuyant.” Nevertheless, the couple managed to maintain their cheerfulness, despite his absence, and found much to say to each other. Harland had confided to his companion the great secret of his life,—his play; he had even given her a vigorous description of its outlines; more than this, he had humbly confessed that he himself was the hero of the true short story he had related to her in the boat. He acknowledged, with deep contrition, that the picture had been painted in too vivid colours, that he had glorified a truly commonplace action, merely in order to strengthen an argument, and that he had felt overwhelmed with shame when she had called him “a good man.” Miss Talbot listened in silence to his eager protestations, his eloquent excuses for his sister, his blame for his own egotistical bragging, and put two and two together. As long as John Harland had this millstone of a family round his neck he could never really succeed in literature, and his ambitions and his talents would figuratively remain at the bottom of the deep sea.
She, on her part, opened her mind to him, and talked freely of her past, spoke of her father and brother; he learned the names of their friends and neighbours, aye, the very villagers; but that of Norris Borrodaile never crossed her lips. It was the play of Hamlet, minus the prince of Denmark. Harland (from information received) easily supplied the character out of his own fertile imagination. He had not known Miss Talbot many days before he discovered that she was a delightful pianist. Her rendering of Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann, and Chopin was exquisitely sympathetic; her clear touch brought the most heart-searching, heart-thrilling music out of an elderly piano in the salle à manger, a piano which had once upon a time been a fine instrument, and but rarely been touched by a more accomplished performer. Maria’s one talent was music, and this her aunt fostered for her own ends, and gave her niece lessons from the best masters, whenever during their erratic wanderings they came to any town with a musical reputation. The old lady was fond of music, and Maria was her private harper, her orchestrion which she could order to play or wind up, at pleasure.
Mrs. Pegrim had her favourites, which were not necessarily Maria’s pet pieces. She liked lively airs, gavottes, waltzes, marches, light operas. Maria, in her opinion, was too partial to dismal things, that nearly set a person crying, or thinking of all their dead relations. Russian, Czech, and Finnish melodies, and wild Hungarian dances. Many a pleasant hour had Harland spent upon the balcony smoking, whilst Miss Talbot, playing, soothed his soul with her enchanting gift and exorcised the twin spirits of depression and dissatisfaction. Sometimes she performed whilst a room full of grown people and children danced right merrily. Sometimes she played to Mrs. Clapperton and her aunt, who called out numerous remarks and corrections in order to display her own knowledge of technicalities (which was absolutely nil). Sometimes she played to Harland alone, and then he asked for his especial favourite: it was Raff’s “Fileuse,” a dreamy, murmuring, vibrating refrain, of which he never seemed to tire. Another of his encores was the first part of “the overture to William Tell,” and as he was in William Tell’s own neighbourhood, and within ten minutes’ walk of the spot on which he shot his country’s tyrant, this air appeared to be particularly appropriate. Some fin-de-siècle individuals declare that William Tell is as much a myth as Jupiter and Hercules, but such was not the opinion of John Harland, and the bold patriot who struck the first blow for freedom in Alldorf market-place was the object of his implicit faith and respect.
Mrs. Pegrim clung to the little ceremony of afternoon tea, in all countries and climates, with the tenacity of a fanatical devotee, and it was the duty of Maria to preside at this function, and to ascertain that the water was boiling and that the cream was not sour.
The garden by the lake afforded a beau-ideal spot for tea-drinking on an August afternoon, and the company at other tables, who were partaking of beer, coffee, or iced sodas, according to their nationalities, imparted a pleasant flavour of Bohemianism to the strictly British meal.
Maria’s aunt was a lady of sudden caprices and unquestioned commands. One afternoon, as she put down her third cup, she said, with her usual irrelevance,—
“That reminds me that you have never finished the pretty view from the Rigi, Maria,—I mean from among the first woods,—and I have promised it to Mrs. Clapperton. The weather may break at any time, and it will then remain as it is. You are so fond of leaving things half done. Now, what I suggest is this: that you take advantage of this lovely afternoon and start off, and finish the sketch. What do you say?”
“I’m afraid it is rather too late to-day, Aunt Selina. It is now four o’clock; it will take me an hour to walk up to the wood, and you know we dine at seven.”
“Don’t we always dine at seven?” demanded Mrs. Pegrim. “If you start at once, without arguing and making objections, you will have an hour to go and come, and half an hour for painting, which will be ample. Now,” continued her aunt, when she reappeared with hat, alpenstock, and paint-box, “don’t be late on any account. Recollect that you have to assist me to dress. (Mrs. Pegrim’s maid had met with an accident, and was confined to her bed). “If you do not loiter on the way, you can easily be here by ten minutes to seven.”
“Very well, Aunt Selina, I will do my best,” replied her slave, in a meek voice.
“Your best! You must do exactly what you are told. If you are not here by the first gong, I shall be excessively annoyed. Now, be off at once.” And Mrs. Pegrim rose to her feet and almost drove her niece out of the garden.
John Harland, though ostensibly immersed in “Bijou,” a novel which Madame Bigot had lent him, had lost nothing of the little scene. If he had offered to accompany Miss Talbot, and carry her painting-materials, his offer would possibly have been declined; he was aware that occasionally she preferred to enjoy her own company undisturbed; and if he had volunteered his escort, Mrs. Pegrim would have compelled him to remain behind; but if he had wished to remain behind, undoubtedly she would have forced him to go. He knew her peculiarities thoroughly. He was nevertheless making up his mind to saunter towards the Rigi by and by, and waylay the fair artist en route home, and for once luck actually played into his hands.
Emma, the maid, now came into the garden, cautiously approached Mrs. Pegrim, and made some announcement to that lady, who uttered a loud exclamation.
“What do you think that girl has done?” she demanded, excitedly, of her friend and Harland. “Gone off to sketch, and left every one of her brushes behind! Anatole!” she called out; “come here, mon petit chou, I have an errand for you.” But Anatole was not to be beguiled; even the splendid bribe of twenty-five centimes failed to fire his ardour. He preferred to remain where he was, and complete an ingenious contrivance for catching lizards. So it ended in hypocritical Harland, with the air of conferring an immense favour, carrying Miss Talbot’s forgotten paint-brushes up the mountain-side.
So obedient were he and Miss Talbot to Mrs. Pegrim’s behests, that they might have been a couple of well-conducted children, instead of a man and woman no longer in their first youth. Harland’s thoughts, however, were very far from those of a docile and disciplined boy. His mind was full of revolutionary notions, his ideas were figuratively shouting the Marseillaise. He was consumed with a burning desire to restore Miss Talbot to her aunt under the flag of Liberté! Egalité! Fraternité!
Meanwhile, he climbed the mountain so rapidly that Miss Talbot had barely realised her oversight, when he joined her at the edge of the first wood.
“How good of you!” she exclaimed, as he held up the paint-brushes. “You really are the most obliging person I have ever come across.”
“So your aunt tells me,” he rejoined, drily. “It is a fatal mistake to win such a reputation. Sometimes I am obliged to do an ill-natured thing, just to show that I am not a fool.”
“Oh, Mr. Harland,” returned Maria, who was busily engaged in arranging her paint-box. “Why do you malign yourself? You could not do an ill-natured thing if you tried.”
“One never knows what he can do until he tries,” he answered with a short laugh.
Seeing that Miss Talbot was now absorbed in her sketch, and that it was likely to be a more lengthy business than Mrs. Pegrim had anticipated, he wandered away, accompanied by Hero, whilst Hero’s mistress washed in Lake Zug and its charming surroundings. It was half-past six o’clock by the time the little picture had received its last touches, but Maria, in blissful ignorance of the hour, rose, closed her paint-box, and called to her companions. The trio were about half-way down the mountain, walking in Indian file, when the chapel clock in the village beneath them clove the air with seven slow strokes.
“Seven o’clock,” cried Maria. “Impossible! Oh, my aunt will be so vexed.” And she commenced to scramble downward at a headlong pace.
“Stop,” cried Harland, “or you will get a bad fall. There is surely no occasion to risk your life, or broken bones. We are late, and would only now come in for cold soup and scraps. Let us sit down on this log and give them all a fair start. When we arrive, Frau Woog will serve us up a dainty little dinner.”
“Yes, for you; but I——” And Maria’s thoughts flew to her aunt making her toilet single-handed, unaccustomed, hot, and furious.
“But you will get sour kail through the reek.”
“I don’t understand you, but I know this, that I ought not to delay an instant.” And as she spoke she stumbled.
“There! you see, the more haste the worst speed. Do rest. You really look dead tired.”
“I am. Walking down hill is worse than walking up. My knees feel as if they were made of cotton-wool. I must rest for a few minutes.”
And as she spoke she seated herself on a log, about a mile above the celebrated Höhle Gasse and Tell’s chapel. “All the same I know I am doing wrong,” she said, glancing up at Harland. “What do you say?”
“First, I say that you may as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb; secondly, that you had much better arrive when dinner is over; thirdly, that at this end of the century it is an anachronism to see a grown-up woman in a moral pinafore. May I ask if you have ever been your own mistress for one day?”
She hesitated, and then replied, “No; now that I come to think of it, never.”
“Now that you think of it,” he repeated. “Were I in your place, it would have occurred to me rather frequently. I have been my own master since I was twenty.”
“A good master?”
“What an odd question! Let me endeavour to answer it frankly. Yes, a fairly good master in some ways; in others, especially formerly, no, but a hard, inflexible tyrant, who drove, scourged, and starved John De Savignac Harland.”
“And why did you ill-treat yourself?”
“Because I was ambitious, and mortified the flesh, and strained every nerve and muscle, in order to write my name in the temple of fame. I don’t strike you as particularly ambitious now, do I?”
“No. Pray what has happened to your ambition?”
“It received a death-blow some time ago, and is almost moribund; but whilst it lived it urged me on with relentless hand, and parted me from many pleasures. I was never suffered to enjoy hours of idleness, to travel, to cultivate friendships or the society of women. Since I left off jackets I have not talked so much to any woman as to you.”
If this was intended as a compliment, Miss Talbot received it in silence; her attention was apparently centred on a girl who was struggling up the hill with a load of grass on her back.
“Have I bored you to death?” he continued.
“You know the definition of a bore?” She looked at him interrogatively. “A man who insists on talking about himself, and will not allow you to do likewise.”
“But that does not hold good among friends. I have not many friends,” she continued, as if speaking to herself.
“How is that?”
“I scarcely know. Perhaps it is because my aunt does not care for our relations, and we have been roaming about for the last two years, from the Riviera to Switzerland, from Switzerland to Italy,—you know the round?”
“Not in that sense, thank goodness.”
“And one drops out of people’s memories at home.”
“But don’t you make friends out here?”
“Hôtel friends?” she exclaimed, interrogatively. “No; on the contrary, I am afraid we have made a good many hotel enemies.”
Harland’s expressive eyes notified that he was not surprised, and in response to that glance Maria hastened to add,—
“You see, my aunt was a spoilt child, and as a spoilt child she grew up. She is a spoilt child still. As a general rule, people are most indulgent and kind.”
“I gather that her pretensions are not universally admitted, and that there are exceptions to the rule.”
“Yes,” with an involuntary laugh. “There was a lady at Venice who opened a door as fast as Aunt Selina closed it, and they made such a terrible commotion that the proprietor requested that they would both leave the hotel. Then on another occasion my aunt lost an umbrella, and accused a lady of taking it. That was a most exciting experience; the whole pension was convulsed, and divided into two factions; however, it turned out that my aunt had the missing umbrella all the time safely stowed in a corner of her wardrobe.”
“And, of course, she made an ample apology?”
“No; she dislikes making apologies. She went away instead. Another time she had a dreadful quarrel with a laundress; but the dispute over whist at Montreux was certainly the worst of all.”
“Then I may conclude that she does not patronise the same hotel a second time,” remarked Harland, expressively.
“No; but you know she is rather an invalid, and ill-health makes her restless and irritable, and allowance should be made.”
“Yes, undoubtedly, for bodily infirmities; but your aunt strikes me as a remarkably vigorous and able-bodied old lady. Her appetite is excellent, her faculties are keen. I fail to see why other people’s lives should be made uncomfortable merely because she has the misfortune to be a deplorable ego maniac.”
“Oh, Mr. Harland,” exclaimed Maria, surveying him with a pair of startled eyes. “Please do not say such dreadful things.”
“Why not, when they are the truth? Does Mrs. Pegrim not make your life a misery to you? Did you not spend all this fine afternoon acting as her secretary, and then, when too late, were you not despatched on a long, toilsome excursion entirely for her pleasure?—an excursion to be made against time,—and are you not, with the best intentions, late, and at this moment secretly dreading the scolding that unquestionably awaits you?”
Maria rose, was about to speak, but Harland cut her short with a quick gesture of his hand.
“No, I’ve no patience,” he continued. “I’m not like you. It enrages me to see a woman who has, as she confesses, enjoyed her own good days, has had her lovers, her social conquests and successes, her well-sheltered, luxurious life of seventy-odd years, demand yet more, and figuratively devour, bit by bit, another woman’s youth and happiness. I declare it makes me think of an ogress!”
“Mr. Harland,” broke in Maria, with flashing eyes, “do you wish to quarrel with me?”
“Yes, and no. I desire to arouse you to a sense of what you are doing. The bondage has become second nature, your senses are benumbed; your aunt demands your entire abnegation as her right. She will carry you in her chains for the next twenty years. Well-cared-for people live long. Then, when you are set free, you will be a feeble creature, with all vitality sucked out of you. From such a fate I would release you.”
“And pray what is my condition or fate to you? Why are you so anxious to release me?”
“Because—--” He paused for a second, and then added, “I love you.”
“Oh, no, no, no!” cried Maria, waving him away with her hands. Then she suddenly sat down and covered her face with them.
“Why may I not say it?” he demanded, after an expressive silence. “There is an old warning, Go not to meet thy fate, it is seeking thee, and three weeks ago, when you followed your aunt into the Hôtel garden, I knew that my fate had found me.”
“I seem to have known Norris Borrodaile all my life,” began Miss Talbot, rather shyly, as they walked side by side along a grassy path in the walnut woods. “He used to spend his vacations with the Brandons, because his mother and Mrs. Brandon were old friends, and as the squire was our cousin, and I was a good deal at the Court as a child, he and I were always friends, and he called me his little sweetheart even then.”
“And how old were you?”
“I was about eight, and Norris was eighteen. Afterwards he went to Sandhurst, and we never met again until he came down to Brandon for partridge-shooting, just before he went to India.” A long and expressive pause. Miss Talbot walked on for about one hundred yards without once opening her lips. Possibly she was leaving it to John Harland’s vivid imagination to fill in the brilliant picture of love’s young dream; but suddenly the St. Gotthard express to Italy came thundering along below, and roused her sharply from her reflections. “We were not engaged,” she resumed, “but he gave me a dog and his photograph, and I gave him mine, and I promised not to forget him. You see he was not well off, and I had no money until I came of age,” she added, as an explanation.
“I quite understand,” assented her listener, drily.
“When I was eighteen my aunt took me to London, and I enjoyed my season, but she was vexed because I would not marry to please her; but I saw no one to please me as well as Norris. In two years’ time he arrived home unexpectedly. There had been some trouble about money, and you know people hate to have to pay the debts of their relations, and everyone seemed to turn their backs on Norris. He came to Brandon. He was handsomer than ever,—tall, fair, and cheery, with such a soldierly air.”
“Exactly the opposite to me,” thought her companion.
“His cousin, Lord Saxonhurst, who lived in our county, would not receive him. He was dreadfully angry about something or other, but Norris was welcomed at the Court. He had not forgotten me, and he came to the Rectory and told me all his troubles, and I used to mend his gloves, just as in old days. The Brandons always declared that with Norris it was ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ which I could vouch was not the case. They said he was ‘casual,’ which was another of their mistakes. Of course, I knew that he was careless about money and correspondence, but who is faultless?” she demanded, with pale eloquence. “At this time I came of age, and my mother’s fortune of four hundred a year became my own; it was well invested in Australian banks, and as we could afford to marry I was engaged to Norris, and everyone was pleased. As for me, I was supremely happy; in my eyes there was no one like Norris,—he was perfect.”
“The soul of reckless bravery and spotless honour,” quoted Harland, half to himself.
“It was arranged that I was to accompany Norris to India, and our wedding-day was fixed, when my father died quite suddenly. It appeared that he had invested and lost all my money and most of his own, and the shock brought on an apoplectic attack which killed him. I need not tell you that our wedding was postponed, and, Norris’s leave being up, he went back to India alone; but his regiment was coming home in a year’s time, and we agreed to wait. You see I was but little more than one and twenty. I had plenty of time “
“Yes,” rather bitterly, “to wait.”
“And then I came to live with Aunt Selina.” Another pause, and she continued, more hurriedly,—
“Norris wrote to me constantly, for him, for Norris loathes the sight of a pen. His regiment came home without him. He could not afford to return, and exchanged. He is saving up, I know, and some day he will send for me to join him.”
“He corresponds with you, of course.”
“Oh, yes, but very irregularly; sometimes for months I have not had one line; this is what makes Aunt Selina so angry. She does not believe in him, but I do. His silence means nothing. Once he was silent for three years, and came back unchanged.”
Harland pictured to himself a lovely girl of twenty, full of flattering trustfulness, in delightful contrast to a clan of cold-hearted connections, who doubtless had had to pay through the nose on behalf of the brilliant prodigal.
“Thank you, Miss Talbot, for telling me all this. I see that my case is—hopeless.”
“Quite,” was her laconic reply.
“And we shall drift apart, and never hear of one another again.”
“I shall never forget you, Mr. Harland, nor this peaceful retreat; after our storms and buffetings it seems a veritable haven of rest. I shall often recall our walks and talks, and I shall ever take the deepest interest in all you write.”
“Will you write to me?” Then, as the reply was long in coming, he added, “Or would he object?”
“No, no; he is no more jealous than I am, but Aunt Selina might think it improper, and——”
“Yes, yes, I understand,” he interrupted, quickly.
“But can I do anything else to please you?” she inquired.
“Yes; you can make me a promise: will you do so?”
“Certainly, with great pleasure, if it is practicable.”
“It is this: should anything ever come between you and Captain Borrodaile——”
“Mr. Harland! how can you be so cruel?” she exclaimed, coming to a full stop. “You mean, if one of us were to die.”
“No, I was not thinking of death, exactly.”
“But nothing else can separate us; and if Norris were to die, I should not long survive him.”
“It is not so easy to follow the dead,” he answered; “but it is not a question of”—and he added the last words significantly—“death. Should you change your minds, should anything else come between you——”
She caught her breath and waited.
“Will you let me know? and will you marry me?”
“What would be the good of making such a foolish promise,” she asked, “when I know that I shall never fulfil it?”
“Granting that, I will take the risk. You offered just now to do anything in your power to please me, and all I ask is—an—empty promise.”
“Empty, indeed! How can you expect me, a betrothed girl, to give such an absurd pledge?”
“I am aware that your faith in your lover is so absolute that the promise is as empty as air; nevertheless it will be a consolation to me. I asked you for bread, I am thankful to accept a stone.”
“Then, in that case, you are welcome to the stone, but I cannot understand your frame of mind, nor how an absolutely worthless pledge can please you. Norris has always been my ideal; should time or circumstances separate us, I shall still believe in him, even when I am a bent and grey-haired old woman.”
“And even as a bent and grey-haired old woman I shall claim you,” rejoined her companion, resolutely.
And Maria began to realise that she had awakened a deep-seated passion in a man of indomitable will. They had now emerged from the Höhle Gasse, and were descending the steep road above the Hôtel, and Maria said,—
“Shall you return next year to the Hôtel de la Lune?”
“No,” with unexpected vehemence. “Never again.”
“And why not?”
“Because it will be a haunted hotel, a garden with a ghost,—the ghost of what might have been.”
“No, it never could have been,” rejoined the young lady, with emphasis. “Not unless I had known you, and liked you, when I was six years old. Please do not waste your love on me.”
“It will not be wasted. It never harms a man to love a good woman,” he replied.
Maria shook her head and turned away.
On one point her companion realised that Maria could be firm as a rock, strong as death, and that point was Norris Borrodaile. It was strange that these worthless scamps so frequently received the faith and love of the best of women. By this time they had reached the entrance of the Hôtel, and Harland, with great gallantry, accompanied his companion into the drawing-room. There they discovered Mrs. Pegrim and her friend in animated conversation.
“Oh, Maria,” cried her aunt, “there you are at last. What do you think,—we are off to-morrow. Mrs. Clapperton has had a telegram from some friends who are at the Schwetzerhof at Lucerne, and she declares she must join them, and that you and I must go with her. So I have wired for rooms, and Johan Smidt has gone off to order us two carriages.”
“But what about Simpson, Aunt Selina?”
“Oh, she can easily be left. Frau Woog will look after her, and she can follow us in a week. You are quite efficient enough for a ‘pis aller,’ and, when one comes to think of it, it is really too absurd to waste half the season attending on a maid who sprained her ankle for her own pleasure. By the way, you have had no dinner. You had better get something at once. I’ve told them to keep your soup and roast mutton. Meanwhile, just go out on the balcony of the salle à manger and fetch me my blue cloak, and when you have brought me that and have had some soup, I think you had better get some packing done to-night.”
John Harland was standing on the balcony when Maria appeared. Her face looked a little troubled, even by starlight.
“Our drifting apart has come sooner than I expected,” she said, as she approached him. “My aunt has arranged to leave here to-morrow morning.”
“To-morrow!” he repeated, incredulously.
“Yes, at one o’clock. I must go, for I have all the packing to do.”
“And then this—for I shall not see you alone again—is good-bye.”
“I am afraid so,” she answered, quietly.
“Then good-bye,” he said, taking her hand. “God bless you. I have to thank you for one thing. You have restored my faith in womankind. Auf wiedersehen.”
Then he raised her hand to his lips and dropped it, and she, in answer to a cry of “Maria!” vanished through the window and was seen no more.
At one o’clock, thanks to her niece’s unremitting labour, Mrs. Pegrim was enabled to depart, the bill was paid, the servants had been “remembered,” and an extra carriage was loaded up with luggage, besides the usual stack of boxes which were tied on behind. The old lady was ready, reticule in hand. Mrs. Pegrim’s friends were all assembled round her carriage, in order to speed her. Her enemies had collected in the garden, and were glaring over the railings. She herself was all broad smiles for everyone, including Harland, who stood bare-headed by the door, looking unusually grave.
“I never thought that I should see you pull such a long face at my departure. I declare, I feel much flattered,” said the old lady, in her most sprightly manner. “I hope we shall meet again some day. Please see that my letters are forwarded to the Schwetzerhof. The dog, of course, must run.”
“Well, good-bye, old fellow,” said Harland, patting Hero on the head. “I wonder if you would know me if we were to ever meet again. Good-bye, Mrs. Pegrim. Good-bye,” looking at Maria.
There was a violent cracking of whips, a whirling of wheels, a nodding of Mrs. Pegrim’s feathers, an adieu suprême des mouchoirs, and they were gone, and John Harland walked slowly back into the garden, feeling that life was a blank.
In four weeks’ time what a change had come over him! He was another man. He endeavoured to write, but even in the welcome silence, and at his own table such an attempt was abortive. He took out the white boat, and rowed across the lake, rowed until he was dog tired, but he returned with no appetite for the meal of the day, and restless as ever. After dinner he went up the hill and looked over towards Lucerne,—Maria was there! Yes, and on the lake, and in the garden of the Hôtel de la Lune, and up the hill-side, in short, Maria was everywhere. Already she haunted John Harland.
To the great surprise of Frau Woog (who had deemed the recent departure to be a joyful event to her English habitué), the very next morning Mr. Harland announced his immediate business in London. The idyll in the lakeside garden had come to an end.
To explain how it came to pass that Maria Talbot had been abandoned by her lover, and had fallen into the clutches of her aunt, it is necessary to give a short sketch of her parentage and career. Her father, the Reverend Eustace Talbot, enjoyed for many years the family living of Brandon, as well as a high reputation and a moderate fortune. He was a tall, square-shouldered, handsome man, with the family hooked nose and dark hawk-like eyes, even more ostentatiously pronounced than in the case of his only sister, Mrs. Pegrim.
And if he was not, like the lady in the epitaph, “bland, passionate, and deeply religious,” he was “genial, quick-tempered, and strictly orthodox in his views.” He kept an energetic curate (married), a cob which was the envy of his bishop, was liberal to the poor of the parish, preached every Sunday for fifteen minutes, by his own watch, was a man of considerable weight in his county, and belonged to the Athenaeum Club. His favourite newspapers were the Times, the Guardian, and the Financial News. The latter he invariably opened first, tore it open, in fact, and plunged into its contents, frequently leaving his breakfast to cool. The fact was, that the Reverend Eustace Talbot had a settled conviction that he was a born financier, a long-headed, long-sighted genius, who was gifted with a sort of second sight with regard to the result of investments and an unerring instinct with respect to the whereabouts of “good things.” It was an undeniable fact that there were certain solid grounds for his belief. The reverend speculator had bought in and sold out with a boldness that would have staggered a timid operator, and, instead of burning his fingers, had added various handsome sums to his patrimony.
This excellent divine would undoubtedly have been both shocked and incensed had any one ventured to whisper the word “gambling”; nevertheless, he did gamble most assiduously in stocks and shares (not only with his own, but with his daughter’s fortune, of which he was trustee), and his telegrams afforded quite a nice little addition to the takings of the local office.
Mr. Talbot and his only child lived in a large rust-coloured Queen Anne vicarage, which stood in the midst of delightful old-world grounds and gardens. His wife had died when her little girl was six years old, having contracted a fever when visiting in the parish; it was from her that Maria had inherited her sweet temper and her pretty face.
Maria was the apple of her father’s eye; he could not endure her out of his sight. A visiting governess instructed her in music and French, Mr. Talbot himself undertook English and arithmetic, and the Brandon boys (near neighbours and connections who lived at the Court) taught her to ride, to play cricket, and to run wild. When Maria was about thirteen, her Aunt Pegrim made one of her dreaded visitations to the Rectory, visits which disorganised the establishment for weeks. She was horrified at her niece’s “shortcomings” and “goings on,” and insisted upon carrying her off and establishing her at a superior school in London, where the child would have the advantage of being “under her own eye” and the privilege of spending from Saturday till Monday under her aunt’s roof. Maria’s manners became gradually toned down, her musical talents developed, and at seventeen she was returned to Brandon and her clamouring parent a so-called finished young lady.
Mrs. Pegrim, when not in her first youth, had given her taper hand to a wealthy elderly banker, partner in the firm of “Pegrim & Price”; he was a little man, with bright mouse-like eyes and timid domestic manners, who was never permitted to forget that his arrogant spouse had, in her own opinion, married beneath her. He did not long survive to enjoy her patronage, but after a few years departed this life, leaving her a well-endowed widow, with the house in Eaton Place, as well as one in Brighton, and a substantial share in the banking business.
But all this had happened before Maria was born. At eighteen Miss Talbot was the prettiest girl in the parish, and her disposition and her prospects were as sunny as her face. It was about this juncture that Norris Borrodaile happened to arrive on a visit to Brandon Court. Norris was now a lieutenant in the Sandshire Scouts and eight-and-twenty years of age, a tall gentlemanly looking young man, with delightful manners and a pair of surprisingly haunting eyes. These same eyes were not slow to discover the charming nymph in the Rectory pew.
So the little long-legged tomboy had grown up to be quite a beauty! Her name was Mabel—Marion—no, he had it,—Maria. Well, he would go round and call in the afternoon. Sunday afternoons were deadly at the Court, as the squire set his face against golf or tennis. He would recall himself to her memory, and claim her as an old playfellow. What better basis could there be for a gentle rural flirtation?
By five o’clock Mr. Borrodaile was strolling round the grounds accompanied by Maria. He had been introduced to the jackdaw, the white rabbits, the cob, and the donkey, and, for his own part, he had already introduced some new ideas, new hopes, and new fears to the pretty but unsophisticated maiden who walked at his left hand. When he raced across the park (being somewhat late for dinner) he carried away with him a certain portion of Maria’s heart. Then ensued the grand ball at the Court, and Miss Talbot’s début. She wore a smart white gown (all the way from Bond Street), and looked charmingly young and radiant, and enjoyed an unqualified success. Yes, and one evening of unalloyed happiness.
She danced six times with Norris Borrodaile (who kept her programme), she sat out with him among the palms in the conservatory, she gave him one of her flowers, and he promised her a collie pup. Then there was a luncheon party at the Rectory, lawn tennis at the Court, a casual meeting in the village, and some meetings—which were not casual—in the park. To make a long story short, when Norris went back to his regiment he carried with him Maria’s faltering admission that “his love was returned,” though there was no formal engagement between them. When she had pleaded for permission to tell her father, Norris had declared in his most impassioned manner that such a step would be fatal to their hopes.
“I have my way to make yet,” he proclaimed. “I’m only a poor sub; your father would kick me out of the house for my cheek. When I get my company, I’ll go to him; meanwhile, we understand each other, darling, don’t we?”
“Yes,” she faltered; “but I’m sure—father—would soon——”
Norris waved her aside, as he said, “You are not bound to me in any way, but I know you will be true; as for me, you will never be out of my thoughts, no matter where I am.” And in ten minutes he had talked this misguided and tearful little girl into a condition of acquiescence and beatitude, although it was good-bye for the present, for he was on the point of leaving the Court. However, they understood each other—that was the main point, and he would often run down for a day Here the sudden entrance of the rector put an end to his protestations and promises.
Shortly after Mr. Borrodaile’s return to his regiment he was ordered out to India (from which country there is no running back for a day or two), and thus he lost sight of his lady-love—or, rather, of the lady who believed she was his love—for years. It had been arranged that there was to be no correspondence, for if Norris had one prudent instinct, it was this, “never commit yourself on paper.” Poor Mrs. Pegrim, who intended her lovely niece to make a brilliant match,—how sorely she was disappointed! She presented Maria at Court. She carried her to many balls. Little did she dream of the insidious Borrodaile, or how Maria’s heart was effectually barricaded against all assaults. She had begun the season with bright hopes, but ere it waned she returned her niece upon her father’s hands as hopeless. Maria had refused two most excellent offers, and nearly broken her aunt’s heart. Miss Talbot was much admired (even in her own county); many young men vied in endeavouring to win her good graces; but Miss Talbot, though always so bright and merry and popular, would never listen to a word of love. And then, as she vainly believed, Miss Talbot received her just reward, for Captain Borrodaile once more arrived in England. His return was somewhat in the character of the prodigal son, but no fatted calf was slain in his honour. To tell the truth, Norris had been getting into trouble, and had come home on a year’s leave, in order to recruit,—not merely his health, but his finances and his reputation. He had made Gurrumpore too hot to hold him, and was anxious to give the atmosphere time to cool. There had been a disagreeable little incident about a lady, a row at some lotteries; there were debts, creditors, and angry letters. Captain Borrodaile was home en penitence; his cousin, Lord Saxonhurst, refused to receive him, and even his friends at the Court guessed that there was a screw loose. Nothing makes a certain class of young men more humble and amenable than the knowledge of having empty pockets; and Norris had come to Brandon Court, grateful for the invitation and firmly resolved to be a good boy. Here his friends looked on him rather coldly; their manners were slightly constrained. The one glorious exception was Maria Talbot, who received him with blushes and brimming eyes, and was apparently fully prepared to take up the thread of their acquaintance. And he? Well, he had forgotten the colour of her eyes and the name of the collie pup which he had given her. However, it all came back. Grave looks and closed doors found a delightful contrast in the ever genial Rectory. Maria believed in him—in a man who did not believe in himself. She gave him self-esteem, heart, confidence, for Maria had adored him. She had grown surprisingly pretty, and was no longer countrified, and she was extremely popular in the county and with the Brandons. The rector was said to be a wealthy man, and Maria would have her mother’s fortune when she came of age.
Egad! he might do worse.
Captain Borrodaile saw, with a penetrating mental glance, that nothing would so speedily rehabilitate him as his engagement to the rector’s daughter. And Captain Borrodaile was right: the news was received with approval by everyone save Mrs. Pegrim. A nice girl like Miss Talbot, who had been well brought up, was of good family, and had a useful little income, would be the making of Norris. Marriage, of course, would steady him. The engagement was looked upon as the solemn turning over of a new leaf in his career, and the fatted calf was killed at last. The rector (poor ignorant divine) was well pleased. No gossiping revelations had reached his ears, and Borrodaile was a man of good birth. As for Maria, she trod on air. Norris, whatever he might prove to be as a husband, was an ideal lover. And Norris was proud of his choice. Maria was the uncrowned queen of beauty of the neighbourhood, and nothing makes some men value a woman more than the openly expressed admiration of their own sex.
The year’s leave had almost expired. Bridal preparations went on apace, for Norris was to take his wife out to India, and rejoin in the character of a sober married man, who had cast all his little sins behind him. Presents poured in. Mrs. Pegrim (reluctantly) sent lace,—family flounces; Lord Saxonhurst contributed a pearl necklace, the Brandons a silver tea set, when suddenly the whole house of cards collapsed. The rector was seized with an apoplectic fit, and died within two hours. After his funeral it transpired that, anxious to increase and multiply Maria’s fortune, he had embarked in some risky investments, and was involved to the whole extent of his own and Maria’s thousands, which were accordingly swept away under the name of “liabilities.” All that remained to Maria Talbot was an income of sixty pounds a year.
The wedding, of course, was postponed. Norris’s leave expired, and he returned to the East alone, leaving his fiancée in charge of her aunt until better days should dawn. Maria went to live in London, and at first Captain Borrodaile wrote by every mail; his letter was a thick stout packet, crammed with endearing names; by degrees it became more and more slender, as if his love was fading, till finally it wasted from a post-card into nothing. Maria’s epistles rarely varied in quantity, but her face began to look a little anxious. On Indian mail days she was wont to pace her room, awaiting the postman, with two burning spots on her cheeks and a sickening fear at her heart. Two years went by, and there was no date yet fixed about her joining her fiancé; her presents and trousseau had been silver-papered and packed away, and Maria found ample occupation for her wits in inventing excuses for Norris and suitable answers to her aunt’s caustic questions, which were of the following embarrassing description:
“Why does not Captain Borrodaile write?” “Why has he not remembered your birthday?” “Why has he exchanged, instead of coming home with his regiment?”
Three years had elapsed, and Mrs. Pegrim’s patience was completely exhausted, and Maria began to feel sick at heart.
Little did she guess, as she posted her carefully written letter, how it would lie unopened on Norris’s table, and eventually be consigned to the waste-paper basket unread. Captain Borrodaile’s bearer was familiar with these neglected epistles, and had come to look upon them as some new form of bill; his sahib never opened bills. And people began to look askance at Maria; other girls, her contemporaries, had become engaged, and were married. Poor Miss Talbot was looking very thin and anxious. Had she been jilted?
During the years abroad, Maria rarely heard a word of Indian news,—never heard that Norris had left the service and become trainer and adviser to a wealthy native prince.
Still she remained faithful, although she had returned her wedding-presents and ceased to write. She had his ring, his picture, and his dog. Her aunt scolded her mercilessly, and held her up to public scorn as a girl who had thrown away her chances for the sake of a heartless scamp; a girl who was wasting her youth, and would die an old maid. But, nevertheless, Maria was staunch; still she framed excuses to herself for Norris’s neglect. The fact that he had once been absent for two years and never sent her a sign or token, and yet returned as loyal as ever, was the strongest argument that her faithful heart repeated to her fainting hopes.
Three years had elapsed since the idyll by the Swiss lake, and during that time John Harland and Miss Talbot had met face to face but once. He was a busy man, toiling unceasingly, not now for pure pleasure and fame, but grinding laboriously at the mill for the benefit of his sister, who had developed into a veritable incubus, or old woman of the sea, or daughter of the horse-leech,—in short, into anything that represents a dead weight and insatiable demands.
Mrs. Smith had come up to London in search of a little variety, her excuse being Jack’s sea-kit. (Jack was a promising lad of sixteen, and was about to make his first voyage in a sailing-ship.) She was stopping at the Grand Hôtel, and the afternoon after her arrival her brother called to see her.
As he approached the drawing-room he gathered that someone was playing the piano, and presently the performance resolved itself into an air that recalled a certain balcony, a moonlight night, and a girl within playing, with exquisite touch and yearning sympathy, that soul-moving melody, “La Fileuse,” by Raff. As he turned the door-handle, the whole scene rose as distinctly before his mental eyes as its same plaintive wailing accompaniment was present to his ears. The room appeared to be empty, save for the pianist, and there sitting at the great white grand piano was Maria Talbot!
She instantly ceased playing, and uttered a low exclamation of surprise.
“I might have known that it was you,” he said, as he approached, “for you play that thing differently from anyone I’ve ever heard.”
She smiled, and they surveyed one another for a few seconds. She wore a little flowery bonnet and a fashionable, much-beruffled cape, but her pretty colour had faded, and her face looked worn and rather sad. No; this elegantly dressed Maria was not the lady of the lake. And he? She found that his appearance was altered, not only by the London man’s garb of frock coat, faultlessly fitting clothes, and delicately tinted tie,—for she always connected him with flannels and a sailor-hat,—but, besides this, his face was older and harder, and there was a sprinkling of grey hairs among his close-clipped raven locks.
“It carried me straight back into the salle à manger at the Hôtel de la Lune,” he continued.
“Ah! have you ever been there since?”
“Never, as I told you, to stay. Once, for a few hours, I revisited the Glimpses of the Moon.”
“I think a place never seems as nice the second time.” Then, colouring vividly, “No doubt you found that your delightful recollections were all moonshine?”
“Not at all. Frau Woog, Carl Nadon, and the old boatman were pleased to see me. The De la Chaises were there as usual. Anatole Bigot now goes to the Lycée, gives himself airs, and is above dace. Josef Kopps’s white horse is fatter than ever. The big yellow rose-tree is dead, and everyone asked for you.”
“For me,” coming away from the piano and standing in the window; “it was extremely kind of them, but why should they ask news of me from you?”
“I’m afraid your own imagination must supply the answer.” After a short silence he added, “Perhaps it was because they noticed that we were good friends.”
“Perhaps so. What did they ask?”
“Well, for one thing, they wished to know if you were married?” And he glanced at her interrogatively.
“No, I am not.” And she coloured rather deeply; then, in a sprightly tone, “And you?”
“Oh, I shall never marry,” he answered, shortly; “and it is time for me to enquire for my good friend your aunt? How is she, and where is she?”
“She is in the hands of the dentist at the present moment. I am expecting her to call for me very shortly. We are going out together to an afternoon tea.”
“May I offer you my deepest condolences?”
“Oh, but it is at Walton House. We shall have first-rate music. Joachim is to play, and Madame Razzi Dazzi, the Polish soprano, will sing: her voice is perfectly heavenly! Have you heard her?”
“Yes. I don’t mind hearing her, if she would only sing behind a screen.”
“I see you are just as sarcastic as ever. I suppose you are very busy?”
“Yes; much too busy.”
“I was delighted with that little book of yours,—’Crumbs from a Rich Man’s Table.’”
“Pray, how did you know that I wrote it? It’s authorship is regarded as one of the great secrets of the century.”
“I recognized it by little bits of you that peeped out here and there.”
“Like a beggar’s skin through his rags.”
“Please don’t call your book names, for I love it. I cannot say that it was very like you.”
“Cela va sans dire, for if it were, you certainly would withhold your commendations.”
“What I mean is this,—that it is so full of pity, and tenderness, and encouragement.”
“Yes; it made me happy, it made me laugh, and it made me cry. I have read it three times, and I have bought it. Can I say more?”
“No; it would be quite impossible to offer a greater proof of admiration, for all my best friends get it from the library. You find the author much inferior to his offspring?” he asked.
“Well, you know that you are a dreadful pessimist.”
“I have never taken a jocular view of life, but I don’t think I am a pessimist.”
“Oh, I have not forgotten some of your sayings!”
“You have not made a collection of them?” he enquired, with affected dismay.
She laughed as she shook her head.
“May I ask what humble reflections of mine have had the honour to be stored in your memory?”
“You said, ‘youth is a blunder, manhood a struggle, old age a regret.’”
“Pardon me, you are confusing me with Lord Beaconsfield. Nevertheless, I maintain that in this overcrowded age existence is a struggle, and the whirl and vertigo of the frenzied life of one who is, so to speak, ‘in it’ is appalling to contemplate. I am merely speaking of the rich.”
“And the poor?”
“Don’t let us talk of them now. Tell me of your own life,—has it changed at all?”
“No; I still live with my aunt,”—she hesitated,—“and——”
“And I can imagine the rest.”
“Perhaps you imagine too much.”
“Perhaps. And how is my dear friend Hero?”
“He is very well, thank you.”
“Also—the other—may I be permitted to enquire for him?”
“Thank you,” and she grew rather white, “he is well—when I heard last—two years ago. Now please tell me about yourself. How is your sister and her children?”
“They are all flourishing. The children growing up like beanstalks. The eldest boy is going to sea. I have got him a good berth. My sister is staying here now, and I am waiting for her at the present moment.”
“I suppose you are still her sole support.”
“I must say I think it is very hard.”
“Other people’s lots are harder, and, after all, I am alone, you see.”
“And your play. How does it progress?”
“It is at a standstill. I am a journalist now, not an author. My rôle is destructive, not creative. I don’t think I have it in me to write another word to it. It will never be finished now, unless a genie will come and carry me away on a carpet, and place me in some lovely marble palace, surrounded by exquisite scenery, soft airs, and silence. Then the lost spirit of inspiration may return and visit me once more.”
“Who knows but the genie may appear some day.”
“Yes; who knows what is written in the uncut pages of destiny? Have you seen anything of the Brandons?”
“Yes, I met Tom about six months ago, and he was talking about you.”
“I am sorry he could not find a livelier topic. I am dining with him to-morrow night, and I shall ask him what he said.”
“He said nothing that you might not have listened to with pleasure, except——”
“Oh, yes, there is, of course, an except.”
“Excepting that, although you were so fierce with your tongue and pen, you were quite ridiculously tender-hearted; that you were notoriously under the thumb of your landlady, and actually bullied by your cat, a black creature who is called ‘King Cole’, and who calmly occupies your best arm-chair, and is said to dislike smoking.”
“Tom shall hear of this! However, you can’t throw stones. Miss Talbot. What about Hero’s favourite walks and biscuits?”
“Yes; but don’t you think that he is rather above a cat?”
“I am not so sure of that. The cat has, for instance, nine lives, and was a sacred animal, and worshipped by the Egyptians, in those remote ages when they were independent, wealthy, and cultivated. Pray, what have you got to say for dogs?”
“That the dog is man’s best friend. And let me recall Ulysses, if you will plunge into ancient history; no one remembered and recognised him but his dog, Argus.”
“Well, then let us cry quits, and each lead our cat and dog life. I should like to introduce my protégé to yours.”
“Unless you are anxious to get rid of him, I should strongly recommend you not to try the experiment.”
At this moment the door opened, and a tall, fair woman literally sailed in. She had a large pasty face, which looked as if it had been rolled out, and perhaps had once been handsome, and was expensively arrayed in silks and furs.
Mrs. Smith stared incredulously for a moment as she caught sight of her brother, who was gaily conversing with a pretty woman who was seated on the sofa. When he had shaken hands, she said,—
“Oh, John, I’m so sorry you’ve had to wait, but I’ve just been to a matinée at the Lyceum. Mrs. Jones insisted that I should go.”
“This is my sister, Mrs. Smith, Miss Talbot,” explained John.
Mrs. Smith made a lofty bow, which implied that she did not approve of her bachelor brother having agreeable tête-à-têtes with nice-looking young women. She never dreamt for a second that this elegant-looking girl had heard the whole of her history, and was aware that she was not Mrs. Smith at all, and that her husband was a convict in Parkhurst prison.
“I suppose you are both waiting for friends, and have made each other’s acquaintance?” enquired Mrs. Smith, with a patronising smile.
“Oh, no,” answered Harland; “Miss Talbot and I have known each other for a long time.”
“Did you like the play?” enquired Maria, politely.
“Yes, what I could see of it for the hats. I found it quite thrilling. I’m so fond of going to the theatre, and I have so little opportunity now. Once I used to go regularly three times a week, and always had two stalls at the opera.”
“I suppose you are staying here?”
“Yes, on the second floor. I never will go higher, for fear of fire. I think I saw you at breakfast this morning with an old lady.”
At this instant the identical old lady came into the room, wrapped in a splendid seal-skin cloak, and looking both cold and querulous.
“Dear me, Maria,” she began, “why on earth did you not come and wait in the hall, instead of bringing me all the way upstairs?”
“I did sit in the hall, aunt, but it was rather cold. Do you not remember Mr. Harland, at the Hôtel de la Lune? And this is his sister, Mrs. Smith.”
“Oh! the Hôtel de la Lune,” bowing to them rather stiffly. “Was not that on Lake Geneva, where there was such an overpowering smell of cabbage-water?”
“No, madam; the Hôtel was on the shores of Lake Zug, where you used to enjoy sitting in the garden by the pier.”
“Ah, yes, to be sure. I’ve a shocking memory for faces, though I do recollect names. Is this your wife?” suddenly turning to Mrs. Smith and putting up her glasses.
“No, no, your sister. Staying here, I suppose?”
“Yes, just for the inside of a week,” replied Mrs. Smith, “to do the theatres.”
“We leave for home to-morrow. Maria, I hope you are quite ready. We shall be most shockingly late at Lady Kingsnorth’s, and the carriage is waiting. Good-bye; so pleased to have met you again, Mr. Harrison. Good-bye,” to his sister. And taking Maria’s arm, and thus curtailing possible adieux, she marched her away. Harland hastened to open the door for the pair, and as he did so he looked at Miss Talbot, and received her parting glance, which was rather confusing: it seemed to him that her eyes looked straight into his, with a mixture of resolve and regret.
He watched her across the landing, tenderly supporting her aunt. Evidently the old love had not returned, and Maria was in durance still. So, for that matter, was he: his own task-mistress was awaiting him on the drawing-room hearth-rug, with a whip in the shape of a large blue bill. But of their two tyrants, Maria’s was the worst. Maria was a galley-slave, whilst he enjoyed a certain amount of liberty.
Time had demonstrated to Miss Talbot, with great effectiveness, that youth is “a mockery, king of snow.” Since we last saw her, she is woefully changed; the lovely Maria of the Hôtel de la Lune, with her burnished brown hair and rose-leaf complexion, is not the Maria of her present residence, Regency Square, Brighton. Stern duty and failing hope have been her daily companions, and smiling pleasure has not deigned to glance at her for years. Youth is quitting her, and at the age of twenty-nine she is now resignedly settling down into the humble rôle of a spiritless old maid. Miss Talbot has become a little faded and a little worn; her pretty dimple is extinct; she looks much older than her years, and she feels at least fifty.
And what of Miss Talbot’s lovers,—of Norris Borrodaile and John Harland?
For four years Maria had kept a brave heart and shown a bold front, but at last there arrived a time when the whisperings of common sense became loud and clamorous, and when hope itself languished and expired. Yes, hope was dead. Sometimes when Mrs. Pegrim’s “nervous” attacks had been particularly severe, and when she had been persistently jeering at “old maids” and “old dogs,” Maria would tell Hero privately, as she dropped her tears upon his white frill, “that if he and she were dead it would be a merciful release for them both.”
What a pitiless enemy poverty, genteel poverty, can prove! It was poverty that had compelled Maria to fall under the yoke of an ill-tempered, exacting old woman, whose selfishness was as colossal as her mind was narrow, to accompany her in her wanderings, to read to her, nurse her, amuse her, fight her battles, apologise for her insolence, dispute her bills, and secure her comfort.
Maria was not sorry when her aunt had set her face homeward, in order, as she tragically expressed it, to “die in her own country,” never knowing, she declared, when death would claim her,—she was seventy-five years of age,—and desiring to be laid to rest in her native soil. At Mentone, her favourite continental resort, the cemetery was almost full and, what Mrs. Pegrim considered in the light of a personal grievance, all the sunniest corners had already been secured. She therefore came to reside in a house of her own, at Brighton, a dull, old-fashioned abode, which had been in the Pegrim family since George the Third was king. Maria had now served her aunt for seven years, and the spring of her youth was completely broken. Mrs. Pegrim’s infirmity (nervous irritation) had developed to an alarming extent, and her frequent “attacks” proved as exhausting to herself as they were distressing to her miserable companion; and with regard to her domestics, there was a black mark against Mrs. Pegrim’s name in most of the local registry offices.
As her aunt would not tolerate Hero as an inmate, and as Maria declined to give him away, or even to have him poisoned, she had taken lodgings for him (and herself) in Regency Square, where, as she gave little or no trouble and took her meals elsewhere, the terms were moderate. Each morning at half-past eight o’clock she arrived at Charlotte Villa, there to read letters and answer them, to sew, to house-keep, to be questioned, railed at, and brow-beaten. After lunch she returned to the square, in order to take old Hero for his daily walk; then she resumed her duties until ten, when, having administered to Mrs. Pegrim her gruel and her drops, she returned home, letting herself in with a latch-key, and finding Hero awaiting her upon the mat. Maria Talbot never knew what it was to enjoy a holiday, nor was she ever permitted to be ill. If she looked pale or tired, her relative resented it as a personal grievance, and raged for half an hour. Only for the dog, Maria would have thrown up what Mrs. Pegrim was pleased to term “her luxurious home” and taken a situation, but she knew that she could not expect to find an employer who would receive old Hero; he was so big, for one thing, and so feeble and asthmatic, for another. When he was young and admired, Mrs. Pegrim had tolerated him; now that he was neither, his very name was a source of irritation, and his mistress was compelled to live in apartments entirely on his account, and a terrible hole these lodgings made in her scanty income; but Maria never grudged the expense, since it was the price of Hero’s company, and afforded her a veritable harbour of refuge. Here, in the little sitting-room on the third story, she was far from the sound of a querulous voice ever calling, “Maria, Maria, Maria.”
Hero had been the means of closing several doors to his mistress: one or two pleasant town houses would have gladly welcomed her alone, but from the dog she would not be parted. “Well, it was the poor woman’s mania,” people declared; “she was quite crazy upon the subject of a wretched old collie.” Her aunt said so (and she should know); and that “if anyone would give him a nice arsenic sandwich, it would be a really kindly act.”
Her old neighbours of the Court would have been glad to receive Maria, dog and all, but here Mrs. Pegrim intervened. She happened to be at feud with the Brandons concerning a certain family picture, which had led to an inflammatory correspondence. Maria was her adopted daughter (for this occasion only), and with her consent she should never darken their doors. When Mrs. Pegrim embarked on a quarrel, she gave no quarter and never made peace; in fact, she figuratively put the kettle on the fire when she declared war, according to the significant custom of the Blackfeet Indians. And thus Maria Talbot was cut off from everyone of her connections, for her aunt was hostile to them all.
There is no doubt that No. 202 is one of the best houses in Regency Square, Brighton; its large, solid, and imposing exterior fills satisfactorily the eye; moreover, its brasses do not shine, they blink; its steps are a model to all and a reproach to many; finally, its blinds are brand new, and beneath them we have glimpses of snowy lace curtains and flourishing palms. A well-appointed brougham stands before the door, a corpulent, elderly pug waits beside it, in readiness for his daily drive. The pug is no poor man’s dog; this particular specimen wears a supremely purse-proud air: he looks like some gouty alderman with his supercilious nose and ample waist-coat, and is unquestionably sitting at the entrance of his own domain. We are therefore not a little surprised to observe, over the hall fan-light, a small white card on which is inscribed the word “apartments.”
A tall, soldier-like man, who happened to be strolling by, halted as he caught sight of the notice, and threw a rapid glance over the premises, a glance which included both attics and basement. As he paused, the door opened, and an aged gentleman tottered down the steps, supported by the arm of a man-servant, who having heaved him into the carriage with practised dexterity, supplied him with air-cushions, furs, and the society of the pug. Meanwhile, the stranger moved on, and made a leisurely round of the square, in order to leave the coast clear at No. 202. As he walked along he inspected various other houses, and mentally compared them with 202, which issued from the ordeal with triumph.
“Yes, I’ll try it,” he muttered to himself, as he rang the bell sharply and waited.
This would-be lodger was about forty years of age, a tall, square-shouldered man, with an admirable figure set off to advantage by a well-cut, brown tweed coat and knickerbockers; his extremities were incased in box cloth leggings, and his boots were a work of art. His complexion was bronzed, his features statuesque, his eyes dark grey, deeply set, and expressive. Altogether his appearance was striking and distinguished, but a close observer might note that the lines in the face were heavily scored, the glance from those handsome eyes occasionally hard and cold; the mouth—that tell-tale feature—was concealed by a short brown beard carefully trimmed in the prevailing fashion. His name was Captain Norris Saxonhurst Borrodaile, late of Her Majesty’s Matchlocks. He had returned from India within the last twelve months, and was chiefly living upon his relations and his reputation. Captain Borrodaile was evidently of an impatient nature, for as he waited he drummed upon the white step with a restless heel. In a reasonably short time the door was opened by a neat little woman in black, with timid manners, and pretty, fawn-like eyes.
“Got rooms to let?” he asked, abruptly.
“Yes, sir,—the drawing-room floor.”
“Can I see them?” stepping inside as he spoke.
“Certainly, if you will please walk this way.”
Captain Borrodaile removed his cap (he was getting a little bald), put down his stick, and noisily followed her upstairs.
“Nice easy stairs,” he noted, “and good carpets.”
“This is the drawing-room,” explained his conductress, and she opened the door into a fine cheerful apartment, with an air of modest complacency.
Luxurious easy-chair, yes; writing-table, yes; spring-seated sofa, yes; and the bedroom behind was equally comfortable. Moreover, the terms mentioned were moderate and inclusive, even of boot-cleaning and cruet.
“These rooms are just the very thing,” he said to himself. Capital position and appearance; looked twice as costly as they happened to be, and were within a convenient distance of the Hôtel Metropole, where his particular attraction had taken up her quarters. Yes, he would secure them.
As he stood upon the landing outside the drawing-room door, with his back to the light, making searching inquiries into the subjects of valeting and coals, a lady came downstairs, a tall, slim woman, in walking-dress, followed by a handsome, but infirm collie, a poor old gentleman with a grey muzzle and a pair of weary sunken eyes. The lady scarcely looked at the stranger, but his sharp glance took her in exhaustively, from the crown of her faded hat to the tip of her shabby shoe.
As she passed by and hurriedly descended the next flight, he drew a long, gasping breath, and exclaimed, aloud,—
“By God! it’s Maria.”
Miss Smee, the landlady’s daughter, a timid little person and a primitive Methodist, raised her eyes to his with a deprecatory glance, to which he answered with the question,—
“Who is that lady?”
“Miss Talbot, sir.”
“Does she live here?”
“Yes; she has had the rooms above for several years but she is absent all day.”
“Humph! what damned bad luck!” And he paused reflectively.
These were by far the best apartments in every respect that he had as yet come across. Maria had not recognised him, and she was absent all day.
“Is your mother a good cook?” he demanded, in a sharp key.
“Yes, sir. Lord Augustus Woolpen, who has the dining-rooms, is very particular.”
“I daresay. But I don’t eat chicken broth and gruel. Can she make decent soup and black coffee?”
“Yes, sir,” she answered, submissively.
His next question was particularly addressed to Miss Smee, and proved to be somewhat startling; it was,—
“Can you hold your tongue?”
“Yes, sir,” she returned, and then added, in a faltering voice, “when it’s not against my conscience.”
“All right, then. Now, look here, I’ll come for three weeks, on condition that you never mention my name to the lady upstairs.”
“Very well, sir,” rather stiffly, for Fanny Smee was no gossip, and it seemed to her that the request was both insolent and superfluous.
“Then mind you, that’s a promise, and you will find that it will be worth your while to keep it. I’ll not forget you when I go, but give you a good tip.”
Fanny Smee became very red, and then very white: this coarse allusion to “tips” was unparalleled in her experience, and repugnant to her self-respect.
She was Miss Smee, who took orders, superintended, dusted, and occasionally opened the door. Tips were the perquisites of Jane and Rosa. She was about to reply, when her companion continued,—
“I’ll have my traps sent around in an hour’s time. Hotels are infernally expensive,” he remarked, as he walked downstairs. “I shall be dining out to-night, but you can get me some fish for breakfast,—sole,—coffee, and no eggs; on any account I can’t stand town eggs, not even in salad.”
“Very well, sir,” she meekly acquiesced, as they stood face to face in the hall. “And your name, please?”
“Oh, by Gad! I was nearly forgetting that. My name is Captain Borrodaile,—Norris Borrodaile,—retired army man, you know. You can pay the porter when he comes.”
So saying, he resumed his cap, took his stick out of the umbrella-stand, and his departure. No sooner had the door closed upon him than Fanny Smee staggered back and sat down upon one of the hall chairs (an unprecedented action). There was not a tinge of colour in her face now; she looked not merely white, but scared, as she repeated to herself, in a sort of awestruck whisper,—
Fanny Smee, the landlady’s daughter, was a soft, quiet little body, neat and quick in all her movements, and keenly sympathetic. Miss Talbot had not been living in Regency Square for four years with the photograph of a singularly handsome officer on her dressing-table, her sitting-room chimney-piece, not to speak of the little stand by her bedside, without having mentioned his name,—aye, and opened her heart to Fanny. Her greatest comfort and pleasure was to have a quiet talk at night, over the fire, with a listener who greedily drank in every word, and knew to an hour when they had met, and what she wore, and what he had said. She had heard of those first years of waiting, of the joy of his return, a joy which was so overwhelming that it swallowed the days of sorrow and anxiety, and memory knew them no more. The same event would happen again, Fanny was fully convinced. Her own mother had been engaged for six years. But Miss Talbot’s engagement (or shadow of engagement) had endured for a longer period.
Maria, with the blood of Crusaders in her veins, as Mrs. Pegrim dinned continually into her ears, nevertheless treated Fanny as a friend and equal. The poor woman had no intimates; companions to irascible, exacting old ladies have few social opportunities. Her own contemporaries were married, with families growing up around them, and had forgotten all about Maria, save her luckless love-affair. So Maria confided in gentle little Fanny Smee, showed her her treasures, such as photographs, faded flowers, a fan, a pencil-case, and enlisted her good-will for the old dog; and Fanny, never having experienced the faintest shadow of a personal romance, took an amazing interest in this ancient and second-hand romance.
Although Miss Maria had long, long relinquished all hopes of a letter (and how hard those hopes had died God alone knew), Miss Smee was still expectant, and carefully examined each batch which was delivered to 202. What fluttering pulses, what palpitations, had those Indian missives from Lord Augustus’s grandson occasioned her!
And now, here, instead of a letter, was the man himself. Miss Smee went up to her own little bower and locked the door; she had a palpitation of the heart this time in real earnest.
How different was Captain Borrodaile to the picture her imagination had painted! Even his fiancée had not recognised him. How hard and lined his face was. What quick, sharp eyes he had,—eyes that nothing escaped, eyes that had recognised Miss Maria. He was still good-looking, his figure was fine, he wore his clothes well, and spoke with an air of well-bred hauteur, and as if accustomed to command the best of everything. This hard-hearted man of fashion, who had wasted all a woman’s youth and deserted her years, now desired to conceal the fact that there was but a floor between them. Oh, poor, deluded Miss Maria. And Fanny buried her face in her pillows and enjoyed a comfortable cry. After some time she dried her eyes, went downstairs, and informed her mother that “the drawing-rooms were let to an officer for three weeks, and that he was very particular about his cooking and catering, and liked a fire in his bedroom.”
“And who is he? Any one we know?” enquired Mrs. Smee, looking over her glasses.
“No; he came quite by accident, and—and—” She hesitated.
“His name is Captain Borrodaile, and he has asked me not to mention it to Miss Maria.”
“Goody me! whatever did he mean? As if you talked of one lodger to another. And why Miss Maria?”
“He saw her going out I believe he knew her long ago.”
“Oh, I see, I see. And they had some sort of a quarrel, no doubt. Well, that’s not our affair. Tell Sara it’s time to be seeing after his lordship’s tea. You’d better have a cup yourself, Fanny,” again surveying her over her spectacles. “You look a bit out of sorts,—the face-ache, eh?”
Fanny shook her head and escaped into the pantry, whilst Mrs. Smee, who employed two maids and a boy, as well as a daughter, dropped back into her easy-chair and her newspaper.
Maria, having unconsciously passed by her old and only love, went out quickly, in order to make the most of Hero’s hour. Having executed a trifling commission in the King’s Road, she walked on to the pier, and, finding a secluded and sheltered nook, sat down with her dog at her feet.
Ostensibly, she was gazing out upon the heaving channel, for the wind was fresh; in reality, she was conscious of no outward object. This was her twenty-ninth birthday, and she was looking steadily into the past. What an existence hers had been for the last seven years! And time brought no alleviation of her lot; her life was but a dull, colourless affair, untouched by pleasant interests, much less by the modern current of women’s activities, impossible to alter the present dreary round, the thankless daily task, and her heart seemed to swell with passionate discontent and a sense of undeserved misery.
Then she thought of Norris. She had, like a gambler, staked all on one throw, and lost. Even her stock of faith and patience had been swept away. If he had only written, as she had repeatedly and piteously entreated, and told her that he desired to release her from her engagement; but no, he had not sent one line, or even one word. Yes; Hope had whispered that this was “because he considers that you are bound to him, as your ring says, ‘for ever.’” But then Hope never dreamt of that vast accumulation of unopened letters, which collected in a certain waste-paper basket, and had, in company with their companions, the bills, been carried out into the compound and there burnt by the sweeper, to the huge delight of the syce’s children. In one envelope there had been something hard; the envelope was covered with stamps, but, after all, it was only a little picture of a “Miss Sahib,” which the sweeper generously bestowed upon the syce’s boy, Buldoo, and to this day Maria’s portrait decorates a mud interior in the hills of far Kumoan.
Yes, this was Maria’s birthday, and her spirits were at a low ebb. She was in her thirtieth year, and what ages it was since her twenty-first birthday!—a whole century seemed to lie between the two anniversaries. Then her father was alive, she had had a happy home, many friends, and a lover. She had been loaded with gifts and good wishes. To-day, home, friends, lover, had vanished, and no one remembered her, much less her birthday. She had allowed herself one treat, and she had come out to the open air to enjoy it. It was merely the re-perusal of one of Norris’s most impassioned letters; this particular epistle had come to her, with a lovely bouquet of flowers, just nine years previously, and it began,—
“My own, own darling.”
She had brought a little bag of sweet biscuits for old Hero (that was to be his indulgence), and settled herself down in a sheltered corner, to enjoy her own. Maria Talbot was yielding to a weakness that she believed she had conquered,—she had put away her ring. Yes, she had not looked at one of her treasured letters for more than six months, and if she could wring even a few drops of pleasure from what had once been a perennial source of happiness, who was to blame her?
In glancing over this yellow old letter, which she could have repeated off by heart, a feeble echo of the emotion she had once experienced might thrill her still. Before her eyes had come to the foot of her first page, a mischievous little gust of wind came flying round the corner, and rudely snatched her treasure from her hand. Then it played with it contemptuously, and whirled it along the planking, whilst Maria, in a frenzy of anxiety, dashed after her valuable piece of paper. It might have been a cheque for one thousand pounds, so desperate were her efforts to recover it, but the southwest wind appeared to take a malicious delight in allowing it to caper provokingly almost within her reach, and, just as her hand was extended to seize it, whisk it away, merely to tantalise her once more.
Finally the breeze, weary of its childish amusement, gave the letter one parting puff, which blew it up, up, up,—it was going out to sea! It had all but gone, when a tall and pretty girl, who was approaching from the far end of the pier, jumped at and caught the runaway epistle. Then she paused and looked about for the owner, and had not long to wait, ere Miss Talbot eagerly claimed it, expressing her profound thanks in a series of breathless gasps.
“Well, I reckoned it was someone’s property, when I saw it sailing right away,” drawled the tall girl, in a strong American accent. She was at least five feet ten in height, but carried herself with extraordinary grace. She wore a blue cloth tailor-made coat and gown and a sailor-hat. Her hair was fair, with a dash of red in it, and dressed loosely in the French style; her nose was a delicate aquiline; her smiling mouth displayed two rows of milk-white teeth, while the direct gaze of her dark-blue eyes seemed to look straight into a person’s soul.
Miss Maimie Virginia Fontaine’s home was in Baltimore, but she had recently come over to Europe, along with her father, a wealthy and cultivated man. Miss Fontaine was an independent young lady in every sense of the word, for she had inherited a fortune of four million dollars from her maternal grandmother. Mr. and Miss Fontaine were staying at the Hôtel Metropole, where she had already become known as “the American heiress.”
“Let me hold your gossamer whilst you fix yourself up,” she said to Maria, whose recent struggle with the wind had left her somewhat dishevelled. “You did get blown about in your paper chase, didn’t you?”
“Yes, indeed, I did,” handing over her cloak.
“I believe you English women never stir without a water-proof; it’s a thing I’ve no use for. I had one for a couple of years, and I never put it on once.”
“Why? Does it never rain in America?”
“Oh, my! I should just think it did! but when it rains I never go out,—see?”
“Then you must spend a good deal of your time indoors.”
“Not much; but I reckon I should, if I sojourned in England. I’d have to live in rubbers and a gossamer. I’m thinking of giving away all my best hats and sacks; the weather has been perfectly awful! Is this nice big creature your dog?”
“Yes; I’ve had him for twelve years.”
“I love dogs. Poor old boy, he does look a bit tottery. We mustn’t go too fast. By the way, may I walk with you? It’s rather dull work being out on this pier alone.”
“I shall be delighted to have your company,” answered Maria, who was taken by the nameless charm of the stranger’s look and manner.
“You see, it’s this way: father has brought me over to this side, but he don’t care about moving on; now, I always like to be going round.”
“Then, have you not been anywhere?”
“Not much; of course, I’ve been in London and Paris and down the Rhine, and we did Switzerland and the Italian lakes, and that’s about all.”
“And don’t you call that a great deal?” enquired Maria, in astonishment.
“Why, no, considering that we landed on the fifteenth of June, and that this is the fifteenth of October. And it has all been deadly, dragging work. I wanted badly to go to Sweden and to Constantinople, but I couldn’t do it. Father would get to a place, and there he would stick, and I declare I used to fear I’d never get him aboard the cars again; and then when I have dragged him up to see some view, and I’m awfully enthused, why he just laughs; then I go for him straight.”
Maria halted, her horror possibly depicted in her face; her eyes met the sparkling blue ones of her companion, half closed between their curling black lashes,—a trick of Miss Maimie’s when she smiled.
“Why, it’s only my way of talking,” she said. “I mean that I scold him well. I adore my old daddy, though he declares that I have nearly killed him, toting him over Europe, and he has come down here for a rest, which means that he is working away at his own fad now.”
“And what is that?”
“You’d never guess. It’s heraldry. He is crazy about it. When a man gets bitten that way, the stamp craze,—no, nor the post-card craze, nor any craze, don’t come near it.”
“I never heard of it before.”
“No; but if you make my father’s acquaintance you will hear of nothing else. What first set him off was our own ancestors. They started him properly. “
“I don’t think I understand. I thought——”
“Ah,” interrupted the other, “I suppose you thought we had no ancestors in America. Well, you are quite wrong. We Southern folk have just as many as we can do with, being descended from some of the best old English families. Our family were royalists, and greatly interested my father at first, and now he has gone back, and back, until we come out somewhere near Canterbury in the tenth century. And he takes up other people’s pedigrees, and if you only show him a spoon, he is off,—no, not with the spoon, but with a long history about the crest and coat of arms.”
“I never supposed that pedigree had any interest for Americans.”
“It has for the Southerners, I can assure you; and the difference between them and the Northerners is this: up there, the first thing they ask about a man is, ‘How much money is he worth?’ and down South they say, ‘What is his family?’ It’s plain you’ve never heard of the F. F. V.’s or First Families of Virginia.”
“No, never, till now,” said Maria. “Then my aunt would prefer the South, for pedigree is her passion. Do you know many people in Brighton?”
“Only two or three men, and the folks in the Hôtel. There are some very attractive women; they don’t dress much for dinner, though,—just a black skirt and a silk waist.”
“A silk waist?” repeated her companion; “what is that?”
“It’s what you call a body. I’m sure ‘waist’ sounds much more refined. My maid is a pretty good hand at waists, but her skirts are just miserable. She has played the very witches with a good black satin. However, I’m getting a couple of cycling skirts made here; they will be just divine. Do you bicycle?”
“No; and I’m quite certain that I never could learn.”
“Why, I’d soon teach you, I know; it’s as easy as falling off a log.”
“Oh, yes, the falling off is easy,” retorted Maria, with a gaiety that surprised herself.
“I’ve got two wheels, a ‘Singer’ and a ‘Humber;’ suppose you come back with me, and try one of them right away?”
“It’s extremely kind of you to offer, but I believe, if I could learn, that I should like it immensely, but I am companion to my aunt, who lives here, and this is the only time in the day that she can spare me, when I take my old dog for a walk.”
“But what do you do with all the other hours?”
“I read to her, and write letters, and arrange her work, and go out with her bath-chair, and play cribbage and backgammon.”
“Land! I don’t think I should like it, unless I got long holidays. I suppose she is a sweet old lady, with gold spectacles and snow-white hair, and wears a little lace shawl, and always calls you ‘love?’”
“No;” and Maria actually laughed, as she replied, “she is not quite that kind of old lady, and she always calls me Maria. And now I’m afraid I must say good-bye, as this is my turning.”
“Well, then, au revoir. I hope you will come and see me at the Metropole,” said the stranger, holding out her hand. “My name is Maimie Fontaine.”
“And mine is Maria Talbot.”
“Mrs. Talbot, I conclude.”
“Oh, no,” reddening a little; then she added, with a laugh, “I am an old maid.”
“Not so very old. Come now, I should judge you to be not more than thirty-five.”
“I am twenty-nine to-day.” A pause. Miss Fontaine recovered herself, and exclaimed,—
“Then I wish you many, many happy returns of it. See, I’d like to offer you a little present, just for luck,” she added, impulsively, touched by an expression in the other woman’s sad brown eyes. She herself had everything,—youth, wealth, good looks, not a wish unfulfilled. She felt ashamed to think of her own huge helping of fortune’s favour, whilst this poor lady, with the pretty worn face, had not been vouchsafed one crumb.
“No, no; oh, please do not think of such a thing,” protested Maria, nervously. “I really could not——”
“I always have my own way, I do assure you,” returned Miss Fontaine, who was wrestling with a bunch of charms. “Look at this.” And she held out on the palm of her dainty glove a tiny four-leaved shamrock; one of the leaves slipped back, and on the reverse was inscribed, in gold on white enamel, the two words,—
“Won’t you accept it to please me?” urged the girl, with a coaxing smile.
Maria’s eyes filled with unexpected tears. It was so seldom that gifts, or gracious little acts, were forced upon her now.
“Thank you,” she murmured, with trembling lips; “I accept it gratefully. You have given me a very happy birthday, and, though I may never see you again, I shall never forget you.”
“Why, I reckon you are bound to remember me anyhow, as having the quickest tongue you ever heard in your life. No one gets in a word when I’m talking. I don’t give ’em a chance. As to seeing me, you are coming to spend a day. I’ll write and fix it, and you just please tell your aunt—that only calls you ‘Maria’—that if she refuses you a holiday, I shall be as mad as hops.” And, with a significant nod and a delightful smile, Miss Fontaine turned her pretty face in the direction of the Metropole and, so to speak, floated away. Maria stood still for a moment and gazed after her. What a perfect figure! a royal carriage! what a gliding, graceful gait! That extraordinary but charming girl seemed to have passed like a flash of sunlight through her otherwise leaden-clouded birthday.
Meanwhile, Maimie was rapidly approaching her destination, and as she walked lightly along she said to herself,—
“Poor soul, she looks as if she had known some great sorrow, some love trouble, no doubt; that letter began ‘Darling.’ It flew right into my face, and I couldn’t help seeing it. She must have been handsome once; even now her face is interesting and refined. She attracts me a good deal, and that’s a fact. I am sure she is well born, but not well off; her dress did not cost ten dollars, and her gloves were worn white. She has a sort of bullied look, too. I wonder if her aunt is an old cat?” Here she came to a sudden dead halt.
“Well, Maimie Fontaine, you are an owl! You’ve never got her address, and how are you going to fix a day for her to come? Just like you!”
And, overwhelmed with disgust at her own oversight, Miss Fontaine ran up the steps of the hotel.
“What is the matter with you, Fanny?” asked Miss Maria.
“The last two or three days you have not been yourself; you look pale and flagged. I’m sure you are doing too much.”
“Oh, no, Miss Maria,” she protested, in some confusion; “I am quite well.”
“At any rate, come and sit down and rest for a few minutes, and I will make you a nice cup of cocoa.”
“I cannot, indeed, miss, I have not a moment to spare.”
“It’s that horrid man in the drawing-room! I never knew such an unreasonable, selfish creature: he rings his bell every few minutes, and I’m certain he has an awful temper, from the way in which he jerks it; and he keeps such hours!”
“Oh, miss, he is not much worse than other gentlemen; though I must say, breakfast at eleven makes it a little bit awkward for doing his rooms and his marketing.”
“And at what hour does he dine?”
“He mostly dines out. I believe he has friends staying at the Metropole.”
“What a pity that he does not stay there too!” remarked Miss Maria. She had taken an antipathy to this fellow-lodger, who, with his numerous requirements, violent bell-ringing, and loud imperative voice, kept the whole establishment at “attention.”
It was a strange, a “most striking” experience for poor little Fanny to go straight from the presence of one of these old lovers into that of the other. To stand in the overpowering glare of Miss Maria’s idol, and two minutes later to find herself talking to his unconscious worshipper. He was undeniably an exigeant inmate, never hesitated to give trouble, would order up fresh toast over and over again, until it was exactly to his liking, and sent down his boots half a dozen times, until Sara was in tears, and the boy in open, impudent rebellion, suggesting that “the old buster had better come down and do them himself!”
The youth was rebuked, and gave warning; and this was a serious business, for he was a good boy.
Yes, Captain Borrodaile belonged to the same “school” as Mrs. Pegrim, and thoroughly understood the art of making himself comfortable. He was selfish to the core, and had a ruthless, tyrannical tongue. Once, when his cutlets were singed, he spoke so sharply that Miss Smee assured herself that, if Miss Maria could only have heard him, she must have admitted that she had had a lucky escape. What would Miss Maria have said if she had seen him give old Hero a savage kick, as he lay on the hall mat, patiently waiting for his beloved mistress and his daily walk. And yet Captain Borrodaile would be charming when it suited him, and for this also Fanny Smee could vouch. One afternoon he had sent in a magnificent supply of flowers, fruit, and cakes; these he had followed in person, and with many particular and exasperating injunctions. He expected two young ladies to tea, and he actually stood over the trembling and flurried Fanny whilst she nervously arranged vases and set the table to his satisfaction.
The young ladies duly arrived,—one extremely tall, handsome, and beautifully dressed; the other stout, serge-clad, and jovial. Captain Borrodaile received them as if he was their bond-slave, and entertained them like a prince, not only with choice sandwiches, dainty cakes, and caravan tea, but with a wealth of amusing stories, and the merry, ringing laugh of the tall girl with the blue, blue eyes echoed up and down the stairs.
“What’s all this about?” said Hero to Banjo, the pug, whom he met in the brick hall. They were tolerably good friends, though Hero secretly despised the pug for his airs, his greediness, and his love of gossip, whilst Banjo, on the other hand, scarcely veiled his lofty contempt for the collie’s poverty and social insignificance. He merely nodded when they met out of doors, or walked by with a mere jerk of his tail, and he would not have been seen speaking to him in the King’s Road, no, not for a whole roast chicken.
“It’s that nuisance, the bald captain; he has ladies to tea,” replied Banjo, in his thick, throaty voice.
“Ladies! What for?”
“Oh, I know. I heard all about it at the club. He has tracked down an American heiress and followed her. She has millions.”
“Yes; she is at the Metropole, and he dines there every night, because he says the cooking is so vile here.”
“Oh, that’s what he calls it?”
“And now he has this girl to tea, and has laid in all sorts of tempting dainties, and is making himself extremely agreeable upstairs, as you may hear.”
“I wish he would make himself agreeable downstairs. He always kicks me, if he gets the chance.”
“He had better not let your mistress catch him,” gurgled the pug. “I say, how attentive she is to you,—chops up your food, brushes your coat, studies your tastes. Do you know that, in some ways, I’d like to belong to her.”
“I daresay you would,” answered Hero, with an expression of irony that was totally wasted on his listener.
“Martin, my man, is dreadfully careless; he often forgets to brush me, or give me water, and, though he knows I’m so fond of game, I never taste it, unless the old gentleman gives it to me off his own plate. Would you believe it, the other day that vulgar boor actually offered me nearly half of a most delicious cold grouse, and then took it away, made a hideous grimace, and said,—
“‘Yah! don’t you wish you may get it?’ I could have bitten him.”
“I’m sure of it. Here’s your master’s tea coming.”
“Oh, so it is,” rising; “and I must be off, he will be expecting me.”
“He will; you’d better hurry for the cream,” retorted the old dog, as he curled himself up and closed his eyes.
At last the three weeks, the period of Captain Borrodaile’s tenancy, came to a end, during which time Fanny Smee had lived, so to speak, in a powder-mill; but, as they kept such different hours, the once “happy couple” had never chanced to meet. From his drawing-room Captain Borrodaile had seen Maria and her dog walking in the square, as he stood in the window reflectively picking his teeth.
“By George,” he exclaimed, “she must be everyday of thirty, and, gad, she looks it! and that old brute must be the identical collie pup in his dotage. She always had a good figure and a good air. Maria has blue blood in her veins. She is shockingly shabby,—what a hat! Companion to a lady, I’m told, and a devilish dull one, no doubt. She’s not likely ever to be companion to a gentleman. By Jove! when I think of it, I treated her pretty badly; but little Mrs. Moffat, the judge’s wife, laughed me out of the whole thing. And those stacks of letters, which I never answered. They say letters answer themselves, and it’s an A 1 idea, and quite true. After some years, my silence acted as the ‘cease fire.’ What a lot of money she must have wasted on stationery! But I believe some women love letter-writing, even if their letters are neither answered nor read.”
“I suppose I have changed,” walking over to the pier glass, and calmly contemplating his own reflection. “When she last saw me, most of my hair was on my head; now it’s on my chin. Well, Norris, my boy, you are not as handsome as you were, but you are devilish interesting, and that comes to the same thing.
“I wonder what Maimie means to do? I’ve made some progress, though it was a very expensive affair; that dining at the Metropole was a real good move. She looks magnificent of an evening, and knows how to dress. She makes the other women seem like dowdy pigmies. I never saw her in better form than last night, in that wine-coloured gown. Her head and throat have the real patrician air, and anyone might take her for a princess born, until she opens her mouth and twangs out some awful expression, such as ‘Shucks!’ I think the old man is all right. Heraldry is the straight tip with him, and, now that he has got hold of my pedigree, it will keep him amused for some time. It is a really sound and marketable article, and I only wish my pass-book was as good reading. I daresay Fontaine will be on for letting Maimie go ‘off.’ She is a couple of stone over his weight; too fond of ‘toting’ him round. Gossip gives her eight, but say four millions,—that is a respectable fortune, even in the States. I think it is all right. She has given me her photograph, accepted my bouquets, my theatre tickets, and attentions, and I believe it’s on the cards that she will accept me. The day they lost their way near Bavano was a good business for me. Yes, I think Maimie will say ‘Yes,’ and why not?” with a glance at his own reflection. “I’m presentable, well-bred, only forty, I am a gentleman, and, what is important, when Cousin Clement ‘sends in his checks,’ as they call it, I shall be Lord Saxonhurst, of Hurst Royal. Miss Maimie will like to be ‘my lady,’ though a lady she will never be. She talks too much and too fast; she gesticulates like a French femme de chambre. She expresses herself in outrageous language, and is altogether as go-ahead as an Atlantic liner. However, I might do worse.” And he laughed, as he cast a commiserating glance on a somewhat disconsolate-looking figure that was still pacing the square followed by a feeble old dog.
Captain Borrodaile was standing in his sitting-room, with his back to the fire, holding converse with himself.
“Fontaine will be coming up to town in about ten days. Maimie said her father would be completely rested by that time. He wants to be near the Herald’s College, and she is bored to death here. So I shall not be down again. Who would have thought of Maria and me being under the same roof, and not once meeting. ‘Ships that pass in the night,’ was nothing to it.”
Then he rang the bell to summon Miss Smee and his account.
“Get a cab?” he asked, in his usual brusque manner.
“This the bill? Um—um—um,” looking over the items.
“That ham was deuced dear, and deuced bad. What’s this, cream eighteen pence?—oh, I remember. The laundress. She ought to be wrung out and ironed; I could wash better myself. However, on the whole, I’ve been pretty comfortable. My things gone down, eh?—rugs, umbrella, suit-case? Just look, will you?”
Miss Smee, eager to speed the parting guest, instantly obeyed. When she re-entered the room Captain Borrodaile was standing on the hearth-rug with a kind of grim smile upon his face, and a card-case in his hand.
“I see you’ve kept your promise,” he remarked, “or, by Jove! I’d have found myself in a tight place, eh?”
Miss Smee stood before him, her eyes meekly downcast and her hands folded. Little did he suspect that she was trembling all over with rage.
“Here’s five shillings for yourself,” throwing with a lordly air two half-crowns upon the table, “and my card. When I’ve cleared out of the place I want you to take it up to Miss Talbot, with my compliments.”
Miss Smee coloured deeply and drew back. Here, indeed, was the refinement of cruelty. The two half-crowns were secret service money, and represented the noble price of her silence.
“Thank you, no, sir,” waving her hand in the direction of the silver. “And as for the card I’d rather not have anything to say to it.”
“Really!” with a look of insolent amusement “Then I will give the card and the tip to Sara.”
The announcement rather staggered poor Fanny, who, after a moment’s hesitation, nerved herself to reply, “Then in that case, sir, I think it will be better to give the card to me.”
“So second thoughts are best, are they?” he exclaimed, with a short laugh, as he handed her a card on which was inscribed,—
Captain Norris S. Borrodaile
Late Royal Matchlocks
Cock Horse Club
and pencilled in the corner was P. P. C. As he scribbled he had said to himself, with a snigger,—
“At any rate, after this, she cannot say that I have not taken my congé.”
Fanny Smee glanced at the pasteboard in her hand. She saw the pencilled letters, and she understood. Occasionally, quiet, demure little Fanny could be surprisingly sharp.
“One need not go from bad to worse,” she burst out, furiously.
“What’s that? Oh, I say,” pulling out his watch, “I’ve run it rather fine. Good-bye; perhaps I’ll come back some day,—on the same terms.” And he snatched up his cap and strode out of the room, leaving Miss Smee with his card in her trembling hand. She did not descend to speed him,—Sara could do that. Presently she heard the door shut, and as the fly drove off she went to the window and looked after it.
“I hope he may never come back. He shall not come here, at any rate.”
Then she glanced once more at the card in her hand.
“I suppose I must give it to her,” she continued, aloud. “I wonder if I dared to burn it?” And she looked longingly at the fire. “Perhaps it’s all for the best,” she muttered, turning away. “It will open her eyes, if it does nothing else. I’ll just leave it in front of the clock upon her chimney-piece, and she will find it whenever she comes home.”
Miss Talbot, for a wonder, happened to be at home, and was standing with her hat on, arranging her veil before the glass in her little sitting-room.
“What is it, Fanny?” turning quickly round; then catching sight of the card, “A visitor for me?”
But Miss Smee who was deadly pale, made no reply, other than handing her the pasteboard.
“Thank God!” she gasped, after a moment’s expressive silence, and her companion was struck by the strange look in her eyes and the wonderful light on her face. “Where is he?” she continued, making a hasty dash towards the door.
Miss Smee, however, by a rapid counter-march, placed herself directly in front of it, and said,—
“He is not here.”
“Not here? Then how do you come by this?” extending the card in her trembling hand. “Oh, Fanny, can’t you speak? How dare you keep me waiting, after all these years.”
“Miss Talbot, I’m sure I don’t know how I’m to break it to you.”
“Not ill, oh, not——” Miss Talbot had seized Fanny’s arm, but her voice failed her. Evidently it had been reserved for Captain Borrodaile to exploit the dramatic possibilities of the common visiting-card.
“Oh, no; he is as well as you are,” returned Fanny, with an air of angry disgust. “He—has been here this three weeks, and has just gone back to London.”
And she turned away her face for very shame, as she hurriedly added, “He was the gentleman in the drawing-room.”
“I—I don’t—understand you,” faltered Miss Talbot, in a husky voice, as she grasped the back of a chair.
“No, Miss, you did not recognise him, but he knew you at a glance. He saw you on the stairs the day he took the rooms.”
“Oh, yes, yes, I remember,—the tall man in knickerbockers. Oh, go on, go on.”
“And he made me promise that I would never mention his name to you, as long as he was here.”
“Oh, Fanny,” cried her friend, with as heart-rending an expression as if it had been, Et tu, Brute!
“Well, but Miss Maria, what could I do? I could not send away three guineas a week; this house carries a heavy rent; and I had a sort of mad notion that I’d bring you together, or that the old dog might have done it,—just like what you read of in novels. So I agreed to hold my tongue, and I humbly confess that I was a fool.”
“And do you mean to tell me that all these weeks Captain Borrodaile knew that I lived in the same house,—and in the rooms just over him?”
“He did,” said Fanny, emphatically. “And, Miss Maria, it’s not one flight, but ten stories that you are above him. He is no gentleman.”
Maria threw out her hands in speechless protest.
“No,” now pouring forth her long-pent up vial of wrath. “No man is a hero to those that wait on him. Captain Borrodaile is a hard, cruel, selfish wretch! Wait, Miss, wait, and I’ll bring you a glass of water,” for Miss Talbot had suddenly dropped into a chair, looking exceedingly white. “He is not fit to black your boots; he is not worth another thought. Here, put him out of your mind, like this.” And she unexpectedly snapped up the card and threw it into the grate.
“Fanny, I wish you wouldn’t,” expostulated Miss Talbot, when she had choked down half a tumbler full of water. “How can I put out of my head a man I’ve known since I was a child?”
“Well, Miss,” cried Fanny, who was no longer a meek and self-effacing person, but a little black fury, “if you consider him worthy, after such cold-blooded, wicked treatment, I must say that I think you have no common self-respect, and no spirit. I’m just speaking to you now as woman to woman, face to face.” The emotions and strain of the last three weeks had told severely upon Miss Smee’s nerves, and worn her temper somewhat threadbare.
“No, I’ve no spirit,” responded Maria, bursting into tears; “any that I ever had left me years ago.”
“Then you’d better see about getting a new one. If some people will lie in the dust, and put up with anything, it’s just tempting others to trample on them; and I believe some folks like to be trampled on.”
“But you know very well that he has seemed part of my life.” And Maria looked up at Captain Borrodaile’s photograph with streaming eyes.
“He is not the least like that now,” said Fanny, ruthlessly. “Why, you did not recognise him, nor could you, for he is getting bald on the top of his head, his face is as lined as a railway map, and—grand climax—I shouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t dye his moustache!”
“And so that was Norris whom I saw! I never, never dreamt of meeting him, and I scarcely even glanced at him. Oh, why did I not look again? Our first meeting, after so many years.”
“But he did not wish to meet you,” interrupted Fanny, impatiently; “he said so, as plain as words could speak.”
“Some one has been making mischief. I was always certain of it. Perhaps he was told of Mr. Warren’s attentions, or of—of a gentleman we met abroad; but I’m sure I never encouraged either of them.”
“He wouldn’t have cared a straw if you had.”
“And India is so far away,” moaned Miss Talbot, “and a girl is so powerless. Such a little thing may turn a man’s heart from her. Just a few ill-natured words. And then a man has so many distractions, and temptations to forget. Fanny, you must not be hard on him. I will write to him. What was the address on the card?”
“I don’t know,” she answered, sullenly. “I never looked at it.” (Oh, Fanny Smee! and you a Sunday-school teacher!)
“Well, at any rate, he is safely back in England. We are in the same country, that’s one comfort.”
“You were in the same house,—was that a comfort?” demanded the implacable Fanny, in a somewhat sharp key.
A long reflective silence, and then Maria said,—
“You must let me go down and look at his rooms before you do them up.”
“Miss Talbot, I really thought you had more sense. What——”
But expostulation was useless. Miss Talbot was already en route downstairs.
She gently pushed open the drawing-room door and walked in.
There was the Daily Telegraph, flung in two parts, upon the floor, a half-smoked cigar on the chimney-piece, an envelope that looked as if it had enclosed a bill addressed to Captain Borrodaile, and a quantity of dead flowers. Maria moved about noiselessly, as if she were on consecrated ground, or in the presence of death.
“One would think he was dead,” remarked Fanny, angrily. “And I almost wish he was.”
“Fanny!” ejaculated Miss Talbot, with wide-eyed horror.
“Well, yes, knowing Captain Borrodaile has been a mighty bad thing for my soul, Miss Maria, whatever it was for yours, and evil communications have corrupted my manners. He has filled me with hatred and malice, and all sorts of unchristian feelings. Sometimes I felt inclined to fly at him; and I declare, one evening, he was carrying on in such a way, with his sneering and snapping, that it was all I could do not to shoot him with the soda-water bottle. I wish to goodness that I had shut the door in his handsome wicked face!”
“What is this in the blotter?” asked Miss Talbot, on whom this tirade had been completely lost; and she held up an envelope of silver paper, evidently containing a photograph. This latter she slowly drew out, in a gingerly manner, and at once recognised Maimie Fontaine! Maimie, wearing a splendid evening gown, and a bewitching expression; Maimie, the embodiment of radiant youth, brilliant beauty, and irresistible charm. Yes, it was undoubtedly a capital likeness. And poor, shabby, faded Maria acknowledged the fact with a half-stifled sigh.
And this charming girl, who had unwittingly stolen her lover, had given her for luck the motto “Soyez heureux.”
“Oh, that’s the American beauty,” explained Fanny. “She came to tea here last Saturday, along with another lady. Captain Borrodaile made no end of a fuss. He got in about fifteen shillings’ worth of flowers, and he could neither settle them his own way nor let me do them mine. Yes,” in answer to Miss Talbot’s brown eyes, now opened to their widest extent, “she sat in that chair there and poured out the tea. She is wonderfully pretty, and I never did behold such a beautiful hat and gown. Oh, such a silk petticoat! I saw it as she got out of the fly. I never heard anyone talk so fast, and as she talked she waved her hands up and down all the time; but she had a good look in her eyes, and I do hope that she can see through Captain Borrodaile.”
“Because he was always with her. I’ve met them walking together, over and over again, and he dined with her people every night at the Metropole.”
“Did he? Well, I have met Miss Fontaine. She seems a very nice girl, but I don’t think Captain Borrodaile can care much for her, or he would not have left her photograph behind.”
“Oh, dear, Miss Maria, how you do cling to a straw! It’s not her he cares for, but her money. She has millions, they say.”
“Fanny, how venomous you can be! Why should he not care for her for herself? She may care for him.”
“I hope not, for her own sake,” retorted Fanny Smee, fiercely. “Is it not enough for him to have spoiled your life, Miss Maria? Have you no human feeling for yourself, no indignation against him?”
“Somehow, Fanny, I feel stunned. I cannot take it all in yet.” And she sat down on the arm-chair on which Captain Borrodaile had so recently reclined, with Maimie Fontaine’s photograph in her hand.
Meanwhile, Fanny briskly set to work to tidy the room. She spread out the paper, and emptied on it all the withered flowers, which she had removed from their vases, dusted away cigar ashes, put chairs into their places. She had had her “say,” and felt profoundly relieved. Meanwhile, Maria followed her movements with a dreamy gaze.
Of course, she had long realised, when she listened to common sense, that all was at an end between her and Norris, and she had anticipated that some time or other the announcement of his marriage would give her foolish faith its coup de grace; but in her most pessimistic moments it had never occurred to her that he would live under the same roof for three weeks and not make himself known. Much less had she expected to discover that her pretty new acquaintance was her supplanter.
Well, the sooner she brought these two facts home to herself, and cast out all her recollections and expectations, the better. If she ever gave another thought to Norris Borrodaile, she deserved to be consigned to some home for ladies of weak intellect and reduced circumstances. Whilst she was figuratively pulling herself together, and framing stern resolutions, the clock struck twelve, and this middle-aged Cinderella started to her feet.
“Oh, there is twelve o’clock,” she exclaimed, “and I promised to be back half an hour ago.” And so saying, she rushed out of the room and upstairs in search of her veil and gloves.
“Do I look as if I had been crying?” she asked, anxiously, of Fanny, who had followed her in hot haste.
“Well, as I always speak the truth, I cannot say that you don’t, Miss, and I do hope they are the last tears you will ever shed for that heartless man. I saw the old dog in the hall one day, lying on the mat, and as he nearly tripped him up, he gave the poor creature such a cruel kick.”
“No, no, Fanny, he couldn’t!—the little collie pup that he brought me with his own hands, and kissed upon the top of its head.” And she choked, remembering the happy summer morning in the Rectory garden, when she sat in the bower at the end of the rose walk and saw a handsome young man, in a straw hat, approaching her with a whole world of love in his eyes and a little fluffy creature in his arms.
“Yes, he said he hated every domestic animal, excepting a good cook.”
“There must be some mistake.” And Miss Talbot gravely confronted her. “The man you describe is not the least like Captain Borrodaile. Are you sure you are not exaggerating in what you have told me? You don’t think you are prejudiced.”
“I declare to you most solemnly, Miss Talbot, that I have not overstated one single word. “
Maria stood for a second on the landing, with her eyes on Fanny’s face; her own had grown white. Then, without another syllable, she ran downstairs.
“Miss Maria always declares that I have no sense of humour,” remarked Miss Smee, as she possessed herself of Maimie Fontaine’s picture; “and I don’t think I have. Still, it’s not quite so bad as having no sense at all. And where that man is concerned, Miss Talbot is not in her right mind. I’ll just take this pretty picture up and set it beside his on her mantel-piece; though, may be, with Miss Maria seeing is not believing.”
“Well, what’s the news?” enquired Banjo, as he found Hero lying at the foot of the stairs.
“Good news,—Borrodaile is gone.”
“You mean the bald captain. Who was he?”
“He was the man who broke the drawing-room bell and my first owner.”
Banjo goggled in supreme amazement.
“Yes, he bought me for fifteen shillings, and gave me to Miss Talbot.”
“Not much of a present,” sneered the pug; then hastened to add, in a nervous key, “I mean the fifteen shillings.”
“No, and I daresay if he had known I was so saleable, he would have kept me. The Duke of Bosworth offered fifty guineas for me when I was two years old and exhibited at the Crystal Palace.”
“Oh, those dogs’ shows are shockingly mixed. All the same, I must confess that I should like to belong to a duke, or—even a duchess.”
“I’d much rather belong to Miss Talbot. She shares everything with me, and I know all her troubles.”
“I’m thankful to say my old man keeps his troubles to himself,” responded Banjo. “My gout is just as much as I can stand. Tell me this: is Borrodaile the fellow who was engaged to Miss Talbot for years and years, and then chucked her?”
“Yes; and I’d like to tear him limb from limb!” assented Hero, savagely.
“Ah, my friend, your teeth are not what they were. Now, that is one pull I have in living with people of good family,—they don’t do these caddish things,” remarked Banjo, swelling out his cheeks.
“Oh, yes, they do. Borrodaile has good blood in his veins; he is heir to Lord Saxonhurst”
“You don’t say so!” in a shocked voice. “And you have a bad opinion of him!”
“I hated him always from the first evening Miss Talbot made him kiss me on the top of my head,—the day he brought me,—and he said he would rather kiss her.”
“Faugh!” exclaimed Banjo; “that sort of talk makes me feel ill. Thank goodness, no one ever attempts to kiss me, or take any of that sort of liberties. I say! I believe I smell roast pheasant,” he added, holding his nose high in the air. “Lady Bane sent my old man a brace two days ago. I’ll just run down to the kitchen and find out.”
“You ought to be a turnspit,” sneered Hero.
“What, that horrid kitchen creature?”
“Yes; he is chained up to the roast meat for hours, and I’m sure you would enjoy that.”
Exit Banjo, in affronted silence. It was beneath his dignity to offer any reply.
Charlotte Villa, the residence of Mrs. Pegrim, was a large, cheerless looking, detached house. The exterior had not been painted for years, and long dark streaks resembling tears streamed down its melancholy grey walk. The interior was to correspond: the rooms were low and gloomy, and the atmosphere was, to say the least of it, stuffy, for Mrs. Pegrim’s horror of draughts had not diminished, but increased. Maria turned the handle of the hall door and entered; her aunt was in the drawing-room, and in a very bad humour. And why not? The daily paper had not yet arrived, and she had received an exorbitant bill from her wine merchant (which came to exactly double the amount which Mrs. Pegrim had reckoned upon when she added up her monthly accounts on the back of an envelope).
Therefore Miss Talbot figuratively walked into a lion’s den when she came within her aunt’s private precincts, and in a very short time was, so to speak, slain and devoured.
Mrs. Pegrim’s temper has not altered for the better since she reigned as absolute monarch at the Hôtel de la Lune, and her appearance has scarcely changed, though she now no longer “wears her hair,” so to speak, but a dainty little knot of ribbon and lace, which she calls a cap. This, as well as her handsome gowns, is home-made. Mrs. Pegrim is so fortunate as to have secured the service of a first-rate French maid, whom she considers a “most superior person,” and who certainly turns out from her hands one of the smartest old dowagers who ever bowed with complacency from a tire-wheeled Bath-chair.
Mademoiselle Julie Torchon is a native of Toulon, who has been in Mrs. Pegrim’s employment for three years, an unparalleled length of service. She is a woman of five-and thirty, with a sallow skin, thin, mobile features, and a pair of keen, dark eyes (one of which is slightly fixed). Her black brows are marvellously arched, her abundant dark hair (turned off over a cushion) grows down in a deep peak upon her forehead, her smile is insidious and occasionally sinister,—at a pinch, Mademoiselle Julie might pass as the graceful twin sister of Monsieur Mephistophele. In spite of her sallow skin and stiff eye, mademoiselle presents a really charming appearance, and thoroughly understands making the best of herself. She has a slight and elegant figure, and the art of wearing her clothes well. Moreover, she is an accomplished milliner, and speaks English as easily as her native tongue, though she sometimes addresses Mrs. Pegrim in a mixed jargon of both languages. Her mistress has publicly boasted of her “invaluable Julie,” and frankly drawn comparisons between her and her niece, to the latter’s disadvantage. To tell the truth, the artful maid had lost no opportunity of poisoning the old lady’s mind against the meek kinswoman (who was generally considered to be her heiress), and the old lady, who so loudly trumpeted Torchon’s fame, would have been excessively astonished had she been assured that in her secret heart she was a little afraid of her treasure. Nevertheless, such was the painful fact. The first time she had set about scolding Julie (which was at a very early period in their acquaintance), no sooner did she commence to storm and rant than Mademoiselle Torchon’s eyes had assumed an expression which had thoroughly frightened Mrs. Pegrim, whose heart was not nearly so bold as in days of yore. Glaring, she discovered, could be out-glared, and, from angry mutterings, she had gradually subsided into dismayed silence, nervously debating within herself whether she would ring for Maria, as usual, and hand over to her the accustomed dismissal and scene.
However, the victor was determined to hold her ground, and, thanks to the timely introduction of “a duck of a bonnet” and a few words of flattery, Mademoiselle Torchon remained to rule. “The old woman had had her lesson,” she said to herself, and everything now would go au galop. In six months’ time Julie had become indispensable; within a year she was an acknowledged power. She further strengthened her position by introducing an ally into the household in the shape of that important individual the cook, a personal friend of her own, a shrivelled little elderly Frenchwoman, in whom the thrift of her nation, and the cult of the “stocking,” had developed into an insatiable rage for gain; “avarice” was written on her lips. Although she was already a woman of large savings, Madame Michel would do anything for money.
“Madame” was an admirable cook, and proved a Godsend to poor harassed Maria. She rarely spoke, and was almost stone deaf, having lost her hearing through a severe illness; however, she was most intelligent, had quick eyes and a nimble pen, and was remarkably punctual, economical, and quiet, spending most of her leisure in her own or Julie’s apartment. As for Julie, she dressed and undressed her mistress, and otherwise saw but little of her. She occupied a comfortable sitting-room, in which she wrote letters, read novels, and manufactured (at her convenience) dainty bonnets and elegant gowns. She enjoyed leisure, liberty, and an immunity from scolding, as well as a salary of forty pounds a year, and led a far more agreeable life than Mrs. Pegrim’s niece, who read, wrote, “amused,” and was generally railed at from morning till night, receiving in return “a home” and a couple of sovereigns at Christmas.
Mrs. Pegrim had settled down at Brighton. Her people had been former residents, and as such she demanded, and received, respect. She was in the best “set,” and extremely exclusive, though her chief intimates were principally old matrons, maids, and widows of her own standing. To these she was a really delightful companion. She was well informed in both ancient and modern (society) history. She had met interesting people, and experienced some odd adventures, the carriage accident in Switzerland not being forgotten. She was liberal to local charities, played a good hand at whist (though a little given to bottling her trumps), and had the peerage at her fingers’ ends, as well as the ramifications and vicissitudes of the great county families; held the master-key to no end of cupboards, and could give a lively description of not a few skeletons. To listen to her and her neighbour, Mrs. Hannibal, eagerly discussing genealogy was a sore trial to Maria’s patience; to hear that Mary Ambridge’s second girl was going to marry Clarence Grogan, the eldest son of Sir Septimus Grogan, and how his mother was a Markland, sister to the Countess of Shelton, and Cecilia Shelton’s second girl had made such a fine match with young Eggleslade of the Blues, her own cousin; that is to say, his great-grandfather. When this kind of thing had gone on for an hour, Maria, in desperation, would make some excuse and effect her escape, unless, as occasionally happened, her aunt would remark,—
“Maria, this is not a jeune fille story. You may go upstairs and help Torchon, or take your work into the dining-room.”
Even the affairs of people who were not in her own class, as she expressed it, interested Mrs. Pegrim, and, though she would not condescend to know second-rate society, its affairs engrossed her attention, particularly if they happened to be at all piquant and exciting. She liked, also, to hear of other folks’ illnesses, symptoms, and treatment, the accounts of handsome funerals, and a satisfactory disposition of huge fortunes by will. She took a certain interest in politics, but nothing appealed to her more keenly than the news of a great marriage, unless it was a notorious divorce case.
As brilliant matches and short engagements were not likely to be particularly agreeable topics to her niece, she dwelt on these always, and with a persistence that deadened the sore. I am sorry to record that, if there was a special topic from which Mrs. Pegrim knew that her companion shrank, that was the one subject she invariably selected, and lashed the quivering raw with her stinging old tongue.
Picture Maria on to-day of all days, her brain bewildered and almost reeling from the recent shock, her heart sick and faint, endeavouring to recall her scattered faculties, whilst her aunt sat over against her dictating a letter equally full of vigour and venom.
“Now, Maria, have you said that I am greatly surprised that a firm of their pretensions do not keep their books better?”
“Yes, Aunt Selina.”
“Have you said that if such a deplorable instance of carelessness ever recurs, that I shall immediately remove my custom?”
“Yes, aunt, I have written all that.”
“Have you said that there was no allowance for two hampers returned?”
“Yes, Aunt Selina.”
“And to forward six dozen of same claret as last.”
“Yes, aunt,” acquiesced Maria; “but—but——”
Maria, who had been carefully studying the account, replied,—
“But I think it is this claret that has made the difference in the bill. I have been looking at their price-list, and I see that it is one hundred and five shillings a dozen.”
“Nonsense! I don’t believe it Here, give me the book,” snatching it from her. “You are more stupid than ever to-day—if that were possible. What’s it called?”
“Um—Château-Margaux. Yes, so it is,” in a sorely vexed tone. “Then, you idiot, what do you mean by allowing me to have such expensive wine, when you know perfectly well that I can’t afford it? that my income is reduced by one-half, owing to the fall in my rents, and the iniquities of my tenants; that the expenses of my establishment are enormous, and that I shall probably end my days in the work-house. You did it on purpose to ruin me; it’s all your fault. You allow the house-keeping bills to run up, and run up, because you are too lazy to look after them, and I have to pay.” (As Mrs. Pegrim drank the wine, it was certainly only reasonable that she should pay.)
“But, indeed, aunt, you chose this claret yourself. I recollect your marking it in the price-list in the other book.”
“Yes, that’s so like you, to shuffle off everything on my shoulders. Is it probable that I would drink claret at eight shillings sixpence a bottle?” (It was not at all improbable. )
“I remember your saying that you had tasted this claret at Lady Flora Flemming’s, and intended to order a supply.”
“And I remember nothing of the sort! I suppose you will tell me I’m in my dotage next. Bring the other price-list.”
Maria brought it, handed it over submissively, and pointed to “Clarets.”
Yes, and there was “Château-Margaux,” distinctly marked with a cross in violet ink, Mrs. Pegrim’s own sign manual. She alone used ink of that colour.
“Well, I think you might have let me know the ruinous price,” she gasped (this was in plain figures before her eyes), “but, as everyone says, you have not the smallest consideration for me. Of course, if you were the least like other people’s nieces, you would have poisoned that stinking old dog years ago, and come and lived under my roof. There is that nice little room above Torchon’s, and it would have been much more respectable than tramping to and fro all weathers to your lodgings. Now, don’t look at me like that, for I won’t have it; that’s how you always upset me. And you know very well how bad it is for me to be agitated in any way.”
“My dear aunt,” answered Maria, “I thought we had settled the question of the dog, and the lodgings, long ago. What am I to do about this letter, for the post goes out immediately, and you wished it to be answered at once.”
“Send a cheque, destroy your letter,” said the old lady, with an air of absolute ferocity. “You’ve just wasted the whole morning, and given me quite a palpitation, as usual. Well, mark my words, when I’m dead and gone you’ll be sorry that you did not show a little more sympathy for an old woman.”
This was a speech that Maria had heard for about the hundredth time. She sat with her pen in her hand, her head slightly bowed, till the storm had passed over; but it was one of Mrs. Pegrim’s favourite exercises to bait her niece, though the amusement was monotonous, for her niece never showed fight, and had no more spirit than a sheep. At this instant the door softly opened, and a woman who had a spirit entered quietly, bearing in her hand a smart bonnet.
“Ah, so there you are, Julie!” exclaimed Mrs. Pegrim, in a totally different key. “I see you got the mauve feathers after all; it really does look most stylish. Just remove my cap, and I’ll try it on.”
In a few moments the bonnet was on Mrs. Pegrim’s head, and she was looking at herself admiringly in a large hand-glass, which Julie held before her. She surveyed herself first from one point of view, then from another. “I declare it is hard to say which side I like the best I don’t know when I’ve had a bonnet that suited me so well. Eh, Julie, what do you think?”
“You are very easy to suit, ma’am, and easy to please,” replied Julie, demurely.
“Everyone does not think so,” she said, with ferocious significance. “Maria, if you have stamped those letters, you can run across to the pillar; it’s coming on to rain, so be quick.”
When Miss Talbot had left the room, Mademoiselle Julie removed the bonnet with an air of almost reverential tenderness, and said,—
“You are looking a little tired, madame; I’m afraid you have been troubled about something.”
“I’ve had a most unpleasant time over some accounts. Miss Talbot is so careless, and does not study my interests.”
“No; any one can see that, and that mademoiselle is only thinking of her own affairs.”
“What do you mean, Julie? She has no lover now.”
“No,” with a commiserating shrug. “Je le sais bien, and it’s rather a difficult thing to mention. Tenez, écoutez, madame, et vous comprendrez pourquoi j’ose vous parler ainsi. I mean, that she is a good bit taken up with thinking of the time when, enfin, everything will be her own— here.”
“Taisez-vous donc,” cried Mrs. Pegrim, “she is coming.”
It may appear strange that a lady of Mrs. Pegrim’s education and birth should condescend to criticise and discuss with a domestic the shortcomings of her own relative.
However, if people will search their experiences, perhaps they will admit that such a condition of affairs is possible, when the mistress is an old woman, who has an irascible temper and a loose tongue, and the maid a clever, crafty individual, and who is armed with a dominating personality and an inflexible purpose.
And in Mademoiselle Torchon’s case things were made so ridiculously simple, the opportunity was quite too tempting to be resisted. The old lady was such a tartar, and yet such an arrant coward, the niece (and heiress) a heartbroken drudge, a worm who never turned, who, had she possessed one grain of sense and spirit, would have revolted and shaken off her chains years ago, and thereby gained her tyrant’s respect and consideration.
It was too late to change now. The fetters of habit had eaten into her very bones. Miss Talbot sowed, another—even Julie Torchon—would reap. The smooth-tongued, deferential Julie was resolved to be Mrs. Pegrim’s heiress.
Yes, matters were ripening: the aunt was tired, so she believed, of her niece, who was not amusing or good-looking, whose vitality appeared dormant, who was dowdy and monotonous in her dress, nervous in her manners, and never brought her home one single morsel of interesting or even startling intelligence. “If only,” said Julie to herself, “the old lady and her niece would quarrel, and the niece would leave the house.” Then she, Julie Torchon, would take good care that Miss Talbot never set foot in Charlotte Villa again.
That same afternoon, about four o’clock, “Mrs. Hannibal” was announced, and a little woman, with gold spectacles and white curls, and carrying a chinchilla muff the size of a busby, trotted in,—an excellent and single-hearted creature, whose sole weaknesses were gossip and old lace.
“Sarah Hannibal! I’m truly rejoiced to see you,” cried Mrs. Pegrim, effusively. “I’ve not been out to-day, on account of the east wind; no one has been here to call. I’ve had nothing but bills, and Maria, there, is as dull as a last year’s almanac.”
“Oh, tut, tut! you must not say that. I consider Maria remarkably clever.” And she nodded at Maria, who, after finding her an easy-chair, had once more renewed a struggle with her aunt’s knitting.
“She’s well read, if you mean that, thanks to me, and well educated, too, but Maria would tell you herself that she is as stupid as an owl, in most ways.”
“I am, indeed, Mrs. Hannibal,” confessed Maria, with rather a sickly smile.
“Nonsense! why your water-colour sketches are very clever, and I don’t know anyone whose playing gives me so much pleasure; besides that, you manage this household entirely, and——”
“Never mind talking to Maria, my dear woman,” clamoured Mrs. Pegrim; “you have not come to see her. Now, have you any news?”
“No, I don’t think so,” the good lady’s invariable announcement before producing a budget.
“You need not tell me about floods in Hungary, or riots in Belgium, or fighting in South Africa,—those sorts of things have no interest for me.”
“I’m quite aware of that, my good friend. You like local intelligence, society scandals, and causes célèbres, don’t you? I know your taste for local news. Peploe, the butcher, has been fined for allowing his pony to stand unattended; it ran away, not for the first time, and smashed up a bicycle and a Bath-chair.”
“Glad I wasn’t in the Bath-chair!” cried Mrs. Pegrim.
“Well, luckily it was empty. Then yesterday I went into a bazaar and tea, for the Hot Pot Indian Mission. Mrs. Carson made a point of my going. I could not get out of it. Such an appalling mixture!”
“Yes, I know,—the sort of place where you involuntarily keep your hand on your pocket”
“My dear, no; it is where you are expected to put your hand in your pocket.”
“And pray what did you buy?”
“A baby’s knitted jacket; price, half a crown.”
“And what will you do with it?”
“Goodness knows!” Then, with a merry twinkle in her eye, “Perhaps someday I shall present it to Maria.”
“Really, Jane Hannibal, you are too vulgar!”
“The Marigolds have arrived at the Metropole,” she continued, utterly unabashed.
“Dear me! Now, this is news! I thought they were going to remain in Paris. I must get a brougham and go and call. How is Lord Marigold,—as oppressively dull as ever?”
“Probably. Hastings and the eldest girl are with them.”
“Let me see. She must be nineteen. There are no opportunities for English girls in Paris, and I suppose Ursula has not much of a dot. What is she like?”
“Not the least like her charming mother. A little tub of a figure, what the French call ‘bulotte’, and no style whatever.”
“Dear me, that is a pity, and tall girls all the fashion!”
“And apropos of ‘dot’ and style, she has a wonderful repoussoir in an American who is also at the Metropole.”
“But I’m not the least interested in American girls. We hear a great deal too much about them.”
“You would be in this particular girl, if you were to see her. She is so amusing and natural, and full of vitality and life.”
Mrs. Pegrim shook her head impatiently.
“She is tall and wonderfully good-looking, something in the style of Pamela Lumley. You remember her?—the same long neck, well-set-on head, sort of floating gait, and tireless animation.”
“A most exhausting sort of creature.”
“I was dining at the Metropole last night with my nephew, Lacklands; he was immensely struck. She dresses almost too magnificently; her toilettes are such that the other women cannot eat their dinners, nor take their eyes off her. She is doing Europe with her father, and has four million dollars in her own right.”
“Good gracious! You had better get an introduction to her at once. She will be a providence for Lacklands.”
“Alas, my dear kind adviser, I am just too late. She is figuratively bespoken; at least, she is accompanied everywhere by a good-looking military man, who appears to be intensely devoted. He was dining with them last night.”
To the first portion of the conversation Maria had listened with rather languid attention; now she ceased to pick up stitches, for her hands shook so nervously that she dropped more than she recovered. She knew what was coming, and, pushing her chair more into the shade, awaited the moment when Mrs. Hannibal would pronounce a certain name, in an agony of choking suspense.
“He appeared to be quite at home, and seemed to give himself airs of proud proprietorship. I heard her thanking him for flowers, and I sat near them, and she certainly had a lovely bouquet,—orchids and violets.”
“Oh, a bouquet is nothing in America; it stands for no more than handing a chair. All is not lost yet. Did you hear who the man was?”
“Lacklands knows him slightly, and says he goes everywhere; indeed, I saw him speaking to the Marigolds. Let me think. His name began with a B,—Captain Barendale —no; now I have it,—it was Borrodaile.”
“Borrodaile!” screamed the other. “Was he tall, square-shouldered, with grey eyes and a good nose?”
“He was rather bald, and wore a short brown beard.”
“Ah, I thought I knew him; but it’s not the same.” And she glanced over at Maria out of the corner of her eye.
“This man’s people come from Hurst Royal, in Hampshire, for he and Lacklands had stayed there together. He is related to the Saxonhursts. “
“Then it is the man!” she cried, half rising. “Of course he has lost his hair; all the Saxonhursts go bald quite early.”
“Early! This man was at least forty!”
“Yes, that settles it. Maria, I hope you have been listening to us?” And she turned and looked fixedly at her niece.
“Yes, aunt,” she answered, in a low breathless tone.
“‘Yes, aunt’ I’m sick to death of your ‘Yes, aunt,”Yes, aunt.’ Jane Hannibal, do you know who this Captain Borrodaile is? He is the scoundrel who has been engaged to Maria. He jilted her ages ago, and she has believed in him and waited for him for seven years.”
“Jilted Maria!” repeated Mrs. Hannibal, in an awed undertone.
“Aunt Selina,” said Maria, with eyes alight, and rising as she spoke, “can you not be silent?”
“Silent! Do you mean that you order me to hold my tongue, miss?”
“I only implore you to leave my affairs alone. I have never complained; why should you do so?”
“Mrs. Hannibal,” turning on the other lady, whose muff had rolled unnoticed to her feet, such was her extreme amazement, “may I implore you not to mention what my aunt has told you?”
Her aunt lay back in her chair, with her hands clutching the arms, staring at Maria with feelings totally beyond the sphere of words.
“Of course, of course. You may certainly depend on me, Maria. It shall never pass my lips. No man is worth waiting seven years for, and, I must say, I did not like his face.”
“And the chances she has thrown away!” broke in Mrs. Pegrim, who was never hors de combat for long. “Montague Beerhop, the great brewer, wild to marry her,—a man who has since married Lady Cordelia Foxtrap. And there was young Forde, and a charming man we met at Nice, and hosts of others; and you see what she has gained by her constancy. After wasting the whole of her youth, the wretch actually comes heiress-hunting in the very place she lives in.”
“Please, please, Aunt Selina, let us say no more about it,” pleaded Maria.
“Stuff and nonsense! I intend to say a great deal more about it. Tell me one thing, Maria: did you know that he was here?”
“And since when?”
“Only since this morning.”
“And now I only want you to tell me just one thing more. Have you come to your senses? Have your eyes been opened? Have you given him up?”
Maria, who was still standing in the middle of the room, looked from her aunt to Mrs. Hannibal and back again; then her pale, stiff lips pronounced, with some difficulty, the syllable,—
Then she made her way out of the room, and as Torchon met her on the stairs and noted her stricken and agitated appearance, she was filled with the joyful conviction that the “row” had come at last. But the poor woman was destined to suffer a cruel disappointment, when she softly enquired if “anything” was the matter. Miss Talbot merely muttered the word “headache,” and passed on.
In the meanwhile the two old ladies were both on the qui vive. This was something within their own ken, far more interesting than local news, or items from the Court Journal. This event—viz., the arrival and courtship of Captain Borrodaile—was a little bit of a ‘human document’ for Mrs. Pegrim, and Maria’s ancient love-affair was a profoundly interesting illumination to Mrs. Hannibal, with whom she was a favourite.
“Well, to think of it!” she exclaimed, picking up her muff. “Maria constant to this man for years and years, and bearing her disappointment so nobly! The Spartan boy and the fox was a joke to her.”
“She has broken my heart with her nonsense,” returned her aunt, peevishly. “You would never believe that she was once a lovely girl, and could have made a magnificent match; when I look at her now, I declare I don’t realise that she is the same person. As to the fox, I don’t think he would have made much of Maria. She has such an extraordinarily thick skin. Now, my dear, will you kindly ring for tea?”
For once Mrs. Pegrim was kind enough to forego her niece’s attendance at dinner, and Maria was permitted to return home with the plea of “a bad headache.” As a rule, her aunt never recognised her headaches, but this was a special occasion. It is not every day that a man who has bound a girl to him for the best part of her youth returns to her neighbourhood, absolutely ignoring her existence, and in the character of suitor to another.
Maria entrenched herself in her own little room, with Hero for her companion, and there sat down, figuratively, to examine the fragments of her shattered idol. She did not shed one single tear, but she did a stranger thing,—lighted two candles on the dressing-table, and, with her head resting on her hands, gravely contemplated, yes, and occasionally addressed, her own reflection!
She was looking into the face of a woman whose life had been a failure, a woman who had staked her youth and lost. Was she not a pitiful, contemptible creature, who had followed an ignis fatuus for years? Love was surely a fata morgana, which the heart pursues in vain, and yet believes in.
It was mere waste of time to dwell upon the past. She must make a fresh start, and give her mind to the future. “She had neither beauty nor youth,” so said the glass, nor was the decline of her youth likely to see the dawn of her intellect. Poor, middle-aged Maria, toiling, struggling, disillusioned, and bearing all the burden of the day, without one spark of hope to glimmer across her path. To-night she appeared to have reached a stage when she stood upon a hill-top and looked down on one side into the valley of youth, from which she had emerged; on the other hand, she gazed into the rocky barren vale of old age, and it seemed to her that she had one foot in it already. Her vision was clearer than it had ever been,—she was no longer blind, or even near-sighted. She sat up all night taking leave of various once-treasured companions. She made a dangerously big blaze of letters, papers, dead flowers, and photographs. Sara marvelled at the unusual heap of ashes in Miss Talbot’s grate, and wondered what Miss Talbot had done with those photographs of the handsome officer in uniform which had never yet been put away; but Fanny Smee’s face was radiant with satisfaction. She was in a position to account for both.
“But three shillings a pound seems rather expensive,” protested Miss Talbot to a fruiterer who was weighing out some fine grapes.
“Oh, no. You see, Mrs. Pegrim always prefers the very best, and these only came in an hour ago.”
At this instant there was a sound of rapid footsteps, a swish of silk, a vague perfume of violets, and a tall figure entered the shop and stood beside Maria.
“I was admiring the flowers in the window, and I caught sight of you, Miss Talbot,” said Maimie Fontaine, in her eager drawl. “How do you do? Bargaining for grapes?”
“Yes, for my aunt She is not very well.”
Then to the fruiterer’s assistant,—
“I’ll have two pounds of the black ones, if you please, and I’ll take them with me.”
“And I’ll take that bunch of white chrysanthemums. Don’t they look like boiled rice? And that big knot of violets,” added Maimie. “Please tie them all up together. “
Presently the two ladies, carrying their several purchases, left the shop in company.
“I can’t tell you how mad I was with myself for not remembering to ask you for your address,” began Maimie.
“I’ve looked about for you every day, and never once caught sight of you till now.”
“Well, I’m not often out at fashionable hours, you see,” answered Maria.
“And you have been ill, now, haven’t you? Your face looks thin.”
“My face is always thin,” responded the other, “and I’m never ill.”
“Oh, you lucky girl! Now, I’m delicate, though you might not think so, and I’ve traded on it all my life. I’m coming a good piece of the way home with you. Do let me carry those grapes?”
“Certainly not. Do let me carry those flowers?”
“No, you don’t! But I’m going to have these books.” And, before Maria could divine her intention, she suddenly possessed herself of three library volumes, which were strapped together.
“What do you mean about trading?” asked the latter, after a short silence.
“Just this: as a child I’d got to have my own way, for fear I’d get convulsions; and as I grew up everyone at home gave in to me from habit, so I naturally expected the whole world to make room for me. I tell you I’ve had some severe shocks, for I can’t bear anyone to go against me.”
“I wonder how you and my aunt would agree?” exclaimed Maria, with a little laugh.
“Is not your aunt Mrs. Pegrim, a high and mighty old lady, with smart clothes?”
“Well, yes, my aunt dresses well.”
“Then I saw her when she was calling on some folks at the Metropole, and somehow I didn’t feel as if I’d be drawn to her. I should think that she has a temper like a pepper-pot.”
“She is generally considered a most agreeable old lady.”
“Nevertheless, she looks disagreeable. I cannot say I was quite well impressed; but don’t mind me; I always say out just what I think. Daddy says I speak first, and think afterwards, but that’s a mistake.”
“You have remained longer here than you expected?”
“Why, yes, I’ve been having rather a good time. A man we met abroad took me off father’s hands, and showed me around. See?”
“Yes, I understand,” returned Maria, with a pale smile.
“No, indeed, you don’t understand,” retorted the other quickly. “It’s not what you suppose. Goodness alive!” Here she stopped, snatched out her purse, and put half a crown into the hand of a shivering old man who was selling groundsell. “He, I mean our travelling acquaintance, was very attentive and attractive. I don’t deny that, but most men seem to like me—or rather my dollars. I did my best to shift him off to another girl, for I don’t intend ever to get married.”
“What nonsense!” exclaimed her companion, impatiently. “Of course, you will marry some day. I know that the typical American girls have what is called a lovely time, and that the whole of mankind, and all older women, bow down to you like Joseph’s brethren to Joseph’s sheaf of corn. So that, naturally, you like your reign to be as long as it is glorious. “
“Ah, but you must not take me for a typical American girl,” cried Maimie. “They are much softer, and more refined. I’m not even like a Southern, though I was raised in Virginia.”
“It makes no difference to me,” said Maria, “for I would not know a Southern girl from a Northern.”
“Well, a Southern girl is rather indolent, and fond of lying in a hammock; she has wonderful grace and beauty, is a brilliant conversationalist, and has perfectly splendid manners,—just the opposite to me, you see. I was too delicate to go to school, and I ran wild from the time when I used to gallop about the woods on a stick horse, among the whirling leaves, till I was a girl of fourteen, with two or three real horses of my own. I picked up no end of odd words and slang, and they stick to me still. My Auntie Fee corrects me, but it’s no manner of good.”
“Have you no sisters?”
“No; I had a little sister, who died when she was a year old, and my mother died when she was born. A mother is a terrible loss to a girl. You see she is her natural friend and confidante. My mother was a lovely, sweet woman, and I cannot recall her a bit, except that she had fair hair.” And Maimie sighed, then once more rattled on: “My auntie, who lives with us, is father’s sister; she is quite different from yours, and I’m sure she had an awful time with me, I was such a wild, lunatic sort of child; the fact of being told not to do a thing made me want to do it that instant, and when it came to a struggle, I always felt that I must get the best of her, or die. The only way she ever kept me in bounds was to put me on my honour; of course, when she put me on my honour I was done.”
“Does she ever put you on your honour now?” enquired Maria, to whom her companion was a revelation.
“Well, sometimes. She is a dear old auntie, and, I am glad to say, is no match-maker.”
“That must be a great comfort.”
“It certainly is; but I live in the same city with the artfullest old match-maker in the States. Thank goodness she has no bachelor sons, or I’d have been married off years ago.”
“She must be a very remarkable person.”
“I should say so. She is a world’s wonder. Her name is Mrs. Bullett. She has no special social distinction, and she is not particularly clever, except in her own line; and as to looks, she is just like a fox, with a small chin, high cheek bones, a sharp nose, and reddish hair. She has three plain, commonplace daughters, and yet I declare to you that nothing daunted her, and she got them the three richest husbands in the city,—for Caroline, an uneducated elderly widower, that no one ever suspected of great wealth but Mrs. Bullett. She had made her enquiries before roping him on; for her second daughter she discovered a cousin of his, who, though sixty years of age, was a perfect plum for Julia, who was dreadfully stupid; and for Arianna, the youngest, she decided upon a handsome young man with seven million dollars. It was no manner of use his trying to escape, and avoiding all places and entertainments where there was any chance of his meeting her. He could not keep out of her way. So he fled to Jamestown, on the Atlantic coast, and she shut up her house and followed him there. And what do you think he said to my cousin George,—‘I tell you that I’m just scared to death of Mrs. Bullett. I know she will get me yet.’ And George advised him that, in that case, the sooner he put the seas between him and her the better; so he shipped himself for Antwerp, and spent a whole year in Europe.”
“Yes; in fact, he ran away?”
“That is so. The poor fellow came back at the end of twelve months, hoping Mrs. Bullett had forgotten him; but he was sorely mistaken, her memory was as fresh as ever. She had her eye upon him still. He went off to the White Mountains that hot weather, and fell ill at a hotel. When she heard of this, she packed her traps and followed him up, and nursed him, and in the fall he was married off to Arianna Bullett.”
“And now Arianna’s mamma is at rest at last.”
“Not a bit of it! She has a grown-up granddaughter, such a dowdy, unattractive girl. She has tried her at home, and she is not a success, and she has tried her round at different watering-places, and she was not a success there, either: so what do you think Mrs. Bullett did? She came to see me one day, and said, for she makes no secret of her plans, ‘I’m just going to take Zelie over to Europe and marry her right away to one of the aristocracy. You ask your papa to let you come along with me, and I’ll get you a good husband too!”
“And what did you say to this noble offer?”
“Why, nothing. I could not speak for laughing. I laughed, and I laughed, and I laughed. When I get these fits on, there is no stopping. I was nearly tickled to death at the bare idea of Mrs. Bullett husband-hunting for me. I became downright hysterical in the end, and I reckon she felt real mad at seeing me lying back there holding my two sides, not able to speak a word, and so, finally, she got up and flounced out.”
“Has she carried out her threat and taken Zelie over to Europe?”
“I believe she has; but, thank goodness, I have not met them.”
“Do you live in the country now?”
“No; we live in Baltimore, not in our old family home in South Carolina. You see, my grandfather was ruined in the war, and he could not afford to keep it up. He had no money, and no slaves left. We lived there till my maternal grandfather died, and left me a great deal of money from mining stock in Montana, and poor, deserted Fontaine is all tumbling to pieces, with the wild turkeys roosting in the upper rooms.”
“Dear me, that seems to be a great pity.”
“It is so; and I have often a hankering to go down South where I was raised, and where I ran wild. Perhaps I may live at Fontaine yet.”
“I suppose it is lovely down there?”
“Yes; all the States are lovely to me.”
“I should like to see the South,” said Maria, “and the Yosemite Valley and Yellowstone Park; but do you know that I have not the least desire to visit Niagara?”
“Well, I tell you what, Niagara is a very handsome piece of water. Ah! is that where you live? I suppose you dare not ask me to come in? I’d like to have another look at your aunt.”
Maria coloured with embarrassment, as she said,—
“She is not feeling very well this morning.”
“Um-um, I understand. Now, when are you coming round to spend a day with me? Will Friday suit you, and can you be at the Metropole at half-past twelve?”
“Thank you very much, but I cannot say for certain.”
“You’ve got to ask her first? Just so. Land! how I should hate it. Then you will send me a line, won’t you? and we will go biking.”
“Biking!” repeated Maria, in a doubtful tone; “but I’m afraid you will find me a very awkward pupil. I’m so stupid now at learning things, and I can’t believe I have any nerve left. “
“Oh, yes, you will be all right, once you are out of the wobbly stage, and can turn alone; it comes like swimming, and you are so light and slight, you will learn in no time.”
“I shall never be able to steer, you will see. Whenever I meet a vehicle, I know that I shall lose my head, and make for it, straight.”
“You have got to keep your wits in a town, I allow. Going slick along a good country track is heavenly,—one feels like flying,—but I confess that once or twice, in the streets, when I’ve gotten mixed up with the traffic, I’ve been just scared cold! However, I must not keep you, for I see your aunt at the window. These flowers are for you,” thrusting them into her hand with a sudden movement “Good-bye. Au revoir.” And Miss Fontaine was gone.
“Now, where did you scrape acquaintance with that girl?” demanded her relative, the instant Maria had entered the drawing-room.
“I met her on the pier one day; she picked up a letter of mine which was being blown away.”
“I see; and so you picked her up!”
“These are the grapes, Aunt Selina, the best I could find. Will you have some?”
“Never mind the grapes at present,” said Mrs. Pegrim, austerely. “I should have thought that Miss Fontaine was about the very last girl in the world you would have desired to know.”
“I like her very much,” returned Maria, firmly. “She has a kind heart and a generous nature.”
“Yes; that will appeal to you at once. No doubt she has already offered you several practical illustrations of her liberality. I noticed that she gave you that fine bouquet of flowers.” And she eyed them jealously.
“Oh, Aunt Selina! How can you say such things!” cried Maria, with unexpected spirit. “As if I only liked Miss Fontaine because I hoped she would make me presents. Have I even given you reason to believe that I am that sort of creature?”
“Now don’t be insolent, Maria. You quite forget yourself. Tell me truthfully, are those flowers the only gift she has ever made you?”
Maria thought of the charm, and became scarlet.
“Ah! I see; your face is sufficient reply. You need not have been so righteously indignant. What did she give you?”
“Merely a little charm for my bangle.”
“Where is it, pray?”
“I have not got it here; it is at home.”
“How many times am I to tell you that this is your home, the other place your lodgings!”
“And may I ask how often you have met Miss Fontaine?”
“And each time a present!” And her little eyes gleamed. “I believe you will find it quite a lucrative acquaintance.”
“I have no desire for her gifts, and I shall be very glad if you will accept these flowers, Aunt Selina,” answered Maria, with a diplomacy worthy of Torchon herself.
Mrs. Pegrim sniffed them approvingly, and then said,—
“Very well, I’ve not had fresh flowers since Monday, and you have no place to keep them.”
“I’ve no wish for her presents,” repeated Maria; “but I do enjoy her company, and she told me to ask you if you can spare me to lunch with her on Friday at the Metropole?”
“I see; the flowers were a sprat to catch a salmon. I cannot think where your pride has gone to, Maria, not that you ever had much; nor how you can endure her society. If a man had jilted me——” Then she stopped, arrested by an unusual expression in her niece’s eyes.
“Very well, you shall go. I’ll ask Jane Hannibal in to lunch. As for Miss Fontaine, I saw her the day I called on the Marigolds,—she was in the drawing-room. I thought she had rather a lofty air for the granddaughter of a planter, a slave-owner. However, she is handsome, and she was magnificently dressed. Fine feathers make fine birds. She was having tea with Lady Marigold, and swept about as if she owned the whole place. As to her expressions, I never heard anything to approach them.”
“She was brought up in the South among niggers, and has picked up their slang.”
“So I should imagine, and their manners, too. She contradicted me flatly twice.”
“She has never been contradicted, she told me; she was a delicate child, and rather spoiled.”
“I’ve no patience with spoiled children. Louisa Marigold thinks her perfectly delightful, and has quite taken her up. Such a mistake, to adopt this young swan when she has her own ugly duckling on hand. Miss Fontaine is handsome, she has a well-set-on head and beautiful hands. I always look at a woman’s hands. I can’t think how she came by hers. Louisa Marigold declares that she has very good blood in her veins, and is descended from one of the best families in England,—the Ardens of Arden,—Royalists who settled in Carolina in the time of the Commonwealth, and brought all the household gods with them. So I suppose she gets her airs and her carriage from the Ardens, and her manners and customs from the niggers.”
“Oh, no, Aunt Selina. Did you see Mr. Fontaine?”
“No, but I believe that he is an inoffensive, wealthy, and quite presentable person, and much occupied in the study of heraldry. I understand that he worships the sole of Miss Fontaine’s slipper, which figuratively rests upon his neck.”
“She is devoted to her father,” protested Maria, “and I know——”
“Nothing whatever about her,” snapped Mrs. Pegrim. “Well, if you are going to this lunch, I should like to hear what you intend to wear. You are certain to meet the Marigolds, and they are such a gossiping pack, that if you look shabby, they will go about telling everyone that it is my fault. Whereas, they cannot possibly guess the truth, which is, that you spend the whole of your income on a wretched old dog. Dear me, I often wonder if he has as many lives as a cat, or is he ever going to die?”
“Oh, Aunt Selina, please, please don’t say that.”
“Well, for my own credit you must look decent. What have you got that is fit to be seen?” And she surveyed Maria over her glasses. “Nothing respectable, I do believe. I am sick of the sight of your grey tweed, your black serge, your brown jacket, which fits like a sack, and your hat, which might be an old potato-basket. None of my gowns would fit you, and, besides, they are Torchon’s perquisite. There is my handsome velvet cloak, with the jetted passementerie, which I can lend you, and my sable boa and muff.”
“Oh, no, thank you, Aunt Selina,” replied Maria, struggling desperately to keep her countenance, when she conjured up a vision of herself in her aunt’s best visiting garments. “I shall get my hat trimmed, and I shall do very well.”
“Nonsense! Pray, don’t pit your opinion against mine, as usual. You will not do very well. Jane Hannibal has told me one or two nasty things people have said about your being so shabby, as if, as I told her, I had anything to do with it, when you have plenty of money, and will spend it all in your own way and against my wishes. I’ve got some very good ostrich feathers I will give you, and there is a piece of mauve silk, you can have for a blouse; it’s too pale to suit me; and I shall make you a present of four pounds.”
“Oh, thank you very much, Aunt Selina,” said Maria, who felt overwhelmed by such unexpected munificence. But she did not know that one or two of the “nasty” remarks had rankled Mrs. Pegrim. She had been furious to hear that Lady Forkedwitt had declared that Mrs. Pegrim’s maid was dressed like a duchess, and her niece like a maid.”
“Oh, yes, it’s all very well to say ‘thank you, Aunt Selina;’ but give me deeds, not words. I’m sure no aunt has ever done as much for a niece as I have done for you,—given you a luxurious home, bought you a new piano” (to play to her), “subscribed to two libraries” (in order that she might read to her), “allowed you to live in rooms, and at the greatest inconvenience to myself. I pay for your washing, stationery, and travelling expenses, and I make you handsome presents. And you know very well that you have not a soul in the world to give you a penny but me, and that your mother’s people have never done anything for you.”
“But they are so poor themselves,” faltered Maria. “There is only Cousin Augusta, and she is very badly off.”
“I don’t believe it; it’s just an excuse. They are selling off coats and skirts at Blanks. You might get something there, as you are lucky enough to have what is called ‘a stock figure.’ Ring for Torchon, I want to ask about those feathers.”
The feathers were duly searched for and produced. Mrs. Pegrim had a provokingly long memory in her maid’s estimation, and asked for odds and ends of silk, lace, and materials that an old person of her age ought naturally to have forgotten.
When Miss Talbot presented herself before her aunt on Friday forenoon, wearing a new black hat, a smart silk blouse, which Torchon had helped to make (for the more Miss Talbot went out, the better for her schemes, and she had assisted her con amore), Mrs. Pegrim lifted up her jewelled hands and exclaimed, “Well, I must confess that dress does wonders. Why, that hat has taken years off your age! You don’t look more than five-and-twenty.” And she surveyed her niece with an accession of respect, due to her wearing of fine feathers. This still handsome woman in the well-cut skirt and coat, the becoming plumed hat and veil, was not the poor, dowdy, dejected creature that she had been accustomed to harry and brow-beat daily.
“Upon my word, if I were to meet you in the streets, I should not know you! Oh, Maria, Maria,” in a tone of anguish and reproach, “why did you make such an awful muddle of your life?” And she held up her withered cheek for Maria’s parting salute.
“Will you lunch with us to-day, Miss Fontaine?” enquired Lady Marigold.
“Thank you, no; I’ve company; that is to say, I’m expecting a friend to spend the afternoon with me.”
“Oh, dear! Ursula and Hastings will be so dreadfully disappointed; they wanted you to bike with them to Rottingdean, and are having quite a wheel party to tea,—some of the Black Dragoons.”
“I’m sorry; but you see I can’t put off Miss Talbot.”
“Is she an old friend?”
“Oh, no; quite a recent acquaintance; but I like her immensely. She lives here with an aunt, and doesn’t have much of a time, and she’s a sweet, nice girl.”
“You don’t mean Mrs. Pegrim’s niece.”
“Well, no, I shouldn’t think she had ‘much of a time,’ as you call it. Why, the poor creature is a perfect slave to one of the most selfish, exacting old women who ever existed. A poor relation, a companion without a salary. I pity her with all my soul.”
“But I thought Mrs. Pegrim was a particular friend of yours?”
“Oh, dear, no. I’ve known her all my life, and I’d rather be her friend than her enemy,—she has got a tongue. “
“Well, I shouldn’t wonder if she had.”
“She is rich and very well connected. Maria Talbot is of good birth, and was once quite a beauty.”
“She’s still nice-looking, but she has a worn face.”
“And no wonder. She was engaged for years to a man who jilted her.”
“Scotland!” ejaculated Miss Fontaine.
“Yes, it’s well known. The poor girl led an awful life with her aunt, and, like Pandora, hope was all she had to sustain her, and even hope played her false.” And Maria’s story was once more related at full length. “So they agreed to wait. She waited, and she may be waiting still, for all I know,” concluded Lady Marigold.
“I should hope not!” exclaimed Maimie, who was gravely interested.
“If Mrs. Pegrim is to be believed, she could have married well, but she still held fast to her ideal.”
“Who was he, or is he?”
“I can’t just remember his name, and I suppose he is still in India.”
“I wouldn’t have thought she was such a fool. Why, I’d tire of a man in two days. Fancy waiting for him for years, and then getting left! It’s enough to make a girl slap her grandmother! If I knew him, I’d steal his hair, I declare I would!” she announced, sweeping up and down, and gesticulating with her small, nervous hands. Lady Marigold lay back in her arm-chair and laughed immoderately at this excitable American, whose dark-blue eyes actually seemed to flash fire, and whose severely cut features became suddenly rigid and fierce.
“I took to Miss Talbot the moment I set eyes on her. She looked so good, and as if she had had great trouble, and I thought to myself, what a contrast to you, Maimie Fontaine, who have had everything you wanted, ever since you were born. So what I thought was this, What shall I do with her this afternoon? I’d like to give her a real nice treat.”
“Do nothing. A quiet hour or two will be the greatest treat that you can offer her,” was the significant reply.
At this moment the door was thrown open, and a man announced “Miss Talbot,” who, with the self-confidence derived from a becoming toilet and a silk-lined skirt, made quite an effective entrée. Maria was tall, slight, and, without having the magnificent carriage of Maimie Fontaine, bore herself gracefully. Her face was worn, and usually lacked colour and animation, but to-day the anticipation of enjoyment had brought a brighter tinge to her complexion, and she recalled to Lady Marigold’s rather languid recollection the pretty Miss Talbot who had enjoyed quite a social success ten seasons ago. When Maria and her friend had exchanged greetings, she rose up and said,—
“Do you remember me, Miss Talbot? I have known your aunt all my life, and she brought you to a party at our house some years ago, in Grosvenor Place.”
“I recollect it very well, Lady Marigold, and how much I enjoyed it, and how kind you were in getting me partners,” returned Maria.
“There was not much difficulty about them,” replied Lady Marigold with agreeable emphasis.
“Ursula,” to a short stout girl who had appeared, “this is Miss Talbot; we are talking of old times. Miss Talbot, I don’t think you have ever met my daughter Ursula.”
“Oh, dear, no,” said Ursula, putting out a cold, podgy hand; “I fancy Miss Talbot did not visit the nursery.”
“I should not think she did! had something better to do,” said Maimie, with a laugh. “Come along with me,” to Maria; “luncheon is served.” And presently the two were sharing a dainty little table and a dainty little meal in the large salle à manger, a most delightful change from Mrs. Pegrim’s dreary drab dining-room.
“Is not Lady Marigold handsome? I like her so much,” said Maimie, helping herself to red pepper. “She is so young for her age, and so broad in her views. Now, her daughter is just the opposite. Her handshake gives me fits. She is as funny as a performing rooster, with her put-on airs and conceits; and, besides all that, she is stupid, and as plain as an old mud fence.”
“I don’t know anything about Ursula, but Lady Marigold is handsome and charming. I thought she would be sure to have forgotten me. I’ve not seen her, except for a day at Cannes, for years and years. “
“Maybe she has heard about you,” suggested the other; “that jogs up folks’ memories.”
“There was nothing to hear,” protested Maria. “I’ve led a most monotonous life, as commonplace as a high road.”
“No turnpikes?” questioned Maimie, looking up with her sudden direct glance.
“Two deaths, if those are what you would call turnpikes.”
“Well, yes, where people are stopped and pay the debt to nature. I am not becoming highflown. Just look at those people under the far window. I never saw such table-manners,—the old man in the beard has nearly swallowed his knife. Have another cutlet? No? I wish I could give you my own ideal lunch,—crab salad and ‘Rhuty-tuty’ ice-cream.”
“Such a meal would be another name for murder, as far as I’m concerned,” said Maria, with twinkling eyes.
“Here comes dad at last! How late you are, dear,” she observed to a tall, square-shouldered gentleman with grey hair and a high-bred, clean-shaven face, who now joined them. “Father, this is my friend, Miss Talbot. Miss Talbot, this is Everhard P. Fontaine, the most indulged parent in Europe.”
“Very pleased to see you, Miss Talbot. I need not tell you that Maimie means exactly the opposite of what she says. Excuse my being so late: the post has just come in, and detained me.” And he placed a large packet on the table beside him.
“You look as if you had gotten a big cheque in your mail,” remarked his daughter.
“I’ve had a big piece of good news, and that amounts to the same thing,—a letter from your uncle George.”
Maimie instantly stretched out a slim and eager hand.
“No, no, not now. I can tell you all about it. Young George has been uncommonly lucky, and has got into a real good thing in Columbia.”
Miss Talbot noticed that Maimie’s eyes sparkled and her colour increased.
“It means a good deal of money.”
“And how is my dear uncle?”
“Miss Talbot, have you an uncle?”
“No, not one.”
“Oh, then I’m better off. I’ve one worth fifty ordinary uncles. Such a splendid character. He never thinks of himself; he is so unselfish, and always doing for others. He is so kind-hearted and thoughtful, people fancy he is soft; but don’t you believe it. He can be firm as a rock when he ought to be firm. He is a noble character, and, though he is not wealthy, he is just universally beloved, eh, dad?”
Mr. Fontaine smiled, and nodded his head. He was not a man of many words, a gentleman descended from a cavalier family, who cherished a high and dignified ideal of life, and as a youth had fought gallantly in the great Civil War.
“And I’d like to tell you this: If I ever come across a man of the same pattern as my uncle George, I’ll just marry him right away. He’ll have no say at all.” Now gesticulating with a quick downward wave of her hand: “He wouldn’t have a sign of a show.”
Mr. Fontaine looked over at Miss Talbot and laughed, and she exclaimed,—
“Why you told me the other day you would never marry.”
“Neither shall I, for there ain’t another like my uncle in the whole wide world.”
“That’s a poor lookout, isn’t it, Miss Talbot?” said Mr. Fontaine. “And I am sure you are thinking that there is not such another girl as this in the whole of creation.”
“Don’t you be praising me up before my face, father,” said Maimie, with a saucy jerk of her chin.
“You quite mistake me, my dear.”
“I mean that I am sure you are the most extraordinary specimen of a girl that Miss Talbot ever came across. I only hope you have not scandalised her too much.”
“Well, I’d like Miss Talbot to know that I’m daily expecting to be requested to leave the hotel. Yesterday you stood upon the steps and harangued a man for beating his horse. Another time, you brought in a little beggar and gave him dinner.”
“He was not a beggar, only a newsboy.”
“You have horrified Mrs. Butterscotch and her family.”
“I don’t care”—snapping her fingers—”that for what they think of me!”
“And this morning, when I was sitting behind the Times, and you came in, I heard her say,—
“‘Here’s this terrible American girl again.’”
“My dear father, you should have wrapped her head up in the paper. Mrs. Butterscotch don’t know how to treat servants. She speaks to them as if they were dogs. Not like my dear uncle George, who took off his hat to one of the old darkies one day when he asked him how he did. And a man who was with him said,—
“‘What? You don’t mean that you take off your hat to a negro?’
“‘Why, certainly,’ he said; ‘I’m not going to allow a servant to be more polite than I am.’”
“What are you going to do this afternoon?” enquired Mr. Fontaine.
“I was thinking of giving Miss Talbot a lesson on my bike, but maybe it is too muddy. I’ll take her for a drive,—that is, if you’d care for it?” turning to Maria.
“Yes, I should, very much, indeed.”
“We will go out to Rottingdean. And, dad, will you please order the landau? You can come too, if you like.”
“Thank you, no. I suppose you will be in to tea?”
“Yes, dear. C. Y. K.,” she said, as she nodded her head at him. And, taking Maria by the arm, she led her out of the room.
“What does C. Y. K. mean?” was Maria’s rather natural enquiry, as they proceeded upstairs.
“Consider yourself kissed. It is shocking slang,” answered Maimie, opening the door into a large bedroom, which was an embodiment of luxury and elegance, the luxury being supplied by the hotel, whilst the elegant personal effects were the property of Miss Maimie V. Fontaine. There was the usual exhibition of silver and tortoise-shell on the toilet-table, an immense array of dainty boots and shoes, a big jewel-case, half a dozen framed photos, a pile of books, and a littered writing-table. On the bed lay a hat and sable-trimmed cape, in which a smart maid was waiting to invest her mistress.
“Never mind, thank you, Mitchell, if you will please just button my boots.” Here Maimie kicked off her shoes, and held out a slender foot with a fine instep. “No, I shall not require anything else, thank you,” she added presently, as she stood up.
“I see you have been going around my picture-gallery,” she continued, turning to Maria. “That is my dear uncle George on the dressing-table, and Aunt Flo, and Cousin Virginia. That girl in the furs is my greatest friend, but her photograph does not do her justice. She has features like a statue, a perfectly dead-white skin, that never tans or freckles, and a lovely pink colour, and she is just the brightest thing I know. The old darky lady, with the wide mouth and turban, is my nurse, mammy Hannah, and I almost think I can hear her saying, ‘Honey, when your auntie comes home, I’ll lay she’ll have a settlement with you!’”
“And who is this?” enquired Maria, holding up the photograph of a strikingly handsome young man, with level brows, a square chin, and a felt sombrero pulled over his eyes,—“this photograph, which has been hidden all by itself under the looking-glass as if it was in disgrace?”
“Oh, that?” exclaimed Maimie, raising her eyebrows; “that is only young George, my cousin. I’m sure I don’t know why I carry his picture round, as I haven’t any sort of use for him.”
As she concluded, Maimie seized her French toque, placed it upon her head, and stabbed it quite viciously with a large hat-pin.
“At any rate, he is very good-looking,” said Maria. “I like the expression of his eyes.”
“Oh, my, yes, George has good eyes.”
“And I’m certain he is a man you could trust.”
“That’s so; but what are you to do with a man that won’t trust you?” As Maimie asked this question, there was something plaintive in her tone. “George is straight, and that’s more than we can say for some. Pity he is so poor.” And as she tossed open her glove-sachet she heaved a little sigh, and added to herself the words, “and proud. See here, Miss Talbot, I like you. I hope you are going to like me?”
“I’m not going to,—I do.”
“There’s no of course; lots of folks can’t bear me. I’m sorry, but I can’t help it. There’s Lady Pipeclay and Mrs. Butterscotch, for instance. I’m a queer specimen of a Southern girl. They are generally very soft, and gentle, and indolent, and most brilliant conversationalists. Just the dead opposite to me, whose conversation is half slang, and who can hardly sit in the same chair for two minutes. You are more like a South Carolina girl than I am.”
“But I really don’t think I’m indolent, and I’m not a brilliant conversationalist,” protested Maria, with a laugh.
“Any way, you are my opposite. Extremes meet, and that’s why I’m drawn to you, and that’s why I am going to call you Maria, if you don’t mind.”
“No, indeed; I shall like it.”
“Miss Talbot makes me think somehow of earls, and executions on Tower Hill. Yes, we are as opposite as day and night.”
“I am dark, you are fair; I am middle-aged, you are young; and in many ways I am afraid I offer a painful contrast to——”
“Now, just let me speak,” interrupted Maimie, with a quick emphatic gesture of her forefinger. “I always express what I feel; you, whatever you may feel, express nothing; I am talkative, you are silent; I am a restless, impulsive hoyden, you are refined and self-possessed; I am a Catherine wheel, you are the evening star.”
She paused and surveyed her friend with her head on one side, and said, “No, I’m quite sane, and that was a real pretty speech. Besides all this, I’ve had a beautiful time, ever since I was born; all manner of love and good fortune has fallen to my lot. I’ve scarcely ever shed a tear for myself, except with rage. Whilst I’ve basked in the sun, you have been in the shade, and home love and happy days don’t seem to pass your way.”
“No, not for years, that is true.”
“Well, now I want you to have a change. I’m going to take hold and bustle up your aunt.”
“Maimie, if you do you will regret it,” said Maria, bursting into an irrepressible laugh.
“That’s right. I like to see you laugh. Yes, if that old lady does not change her ways, there’ll be trouble. I’ve always felt drawn to you, as I’ve said a number of times, especially since I found your name was Maria.”
“Why, I think my name is hideous!”
“Well, it is not just my favourite, but my little sister, that I told you of, was called Maria, too, and so it seems familiar and dear.”
“What a pity that she died!”
“Yes; I was only five years old, and I remember her well. I was terribly taken up with my little sister, and I used to watch her and wait on her most of my time, and I was learning nursery hymns when she was sitting on Auntie Flo’s knee, such as ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star,’ and she got mixed with them somehow. When she died, very suddenly, and I saw her looking so white, and so pure, and so still, I felt just heart-broken and used to go away into corners and cry all by myself. And on starlight nights I’d run outside,—not far, for I was too great a coward,—and choose the very brightest star I could find, and look in it for my little sister. I was certain that she was in a star, and that her face would smile at me. And I never looked at the stars through a pane of glass, for I could not bear anything to be between us for the world; and besides, I thought she might not be able to see me. I kept up that fancy until I was a great big girl, and do you know that even now, when I look at the stars, they recall my little sister.” And as Maimie raised her eyes to Maria’s, they were dim with unshed tears. Maria’s eyes were moist, too, when she thought of that lonely little motherless child on the Southern plantation.
“You and I are going to be friends, are we not?”
“Yes, I hope so.”
“Then here is your badge.” And she held out a pretty gold curb bracelet with a padlock. “I got this for you. I noticed you had no bracelets,—nothing but an old silver bangle. “
“Dear Maimie, you are too good, but I cannot take it.”
“My aunt saw you giving me the flowers.”
“And took them, I expect. Bless her!”
“She does not like me to accept gifts.”
“No; she gives you so many herself.”
“She said unpleasant things, I do assure you. I’d rather not, dear Maimie.”
“And I’d rather you should, dear Maria. And if you will not wear my little gift, I can just tell you that I’ll say very unpleasant things. And what is more, I intend to go and have a talk with that old lady, and, seriously, I shall be awfully hurt if you won’t take this little gift. You never get nice presents, and I’m just loaded up with them.”
Finally Maria yielded, and allowed the bangle to be locked upon her wrist. It was really exceedingly pretty. She had often longed for a nice heavy curb chain, and here it was! How did Maimie divine her thoughts? She put the question into words.
“I saw you looking at mine, and a nod is as good as a wink,” shaking up her bangle with its charms. “I say, has that little shamrock brought you any luck as yet?”
Maria’s lip quivered. Since the charm had come into her possession she had passed through the valley of lost illusions, through hours of solitary anguish, when the whole bitter truth had risen up and stabbed her again and again. Since the amulet had been hers, she had lost what she had been living for for years. Her last glimpse of hope had been cruelly extinguished. Now the great struggle was over, but for a time she had felt as if she must be swept out into the black sea of despair, until this good, sweet girl had stretched out a vigorous hand and drawn her back. The consciousness of all this passed through her mind in a second, whilst Maimie’s direct glance appeared to question her gravely. Therefore she made a supreme effort, as she answered,—
“It has brought me the happiness of knowing you.”
“Ah! so you can make pretty speeches, too. Well, my dear Maria, may I be the forerunner of many friends, and of much good fortune. Come along, the carriage has been waiting for ages, and we had better be making tracks.”
The luncheon at the Metropole proved to be the commencement of a series of pleasant little festivities for Maria. She had dined several times with the Americans, and had formed one of a party to the theatre with them and the Marigolds. Mrs. Pegrim vouchsafed to leave a card upon Miss Fontaine, although she could not quite make up her mind whether she approved of her or not; but as she and the Marigolds appeared to be inseparable, and she had four—some said eight—million dollars, and was already most popular in society, Mrs. Pegrim succumbed to circumstances, and graciously permitted Maria to enjoy her company, as she was determined that Louisa Marigold (who was a shocking gossip) should not have it in her power to go away and talk.
These days, when Miss Talbot was abroad, were Julie Torchon’s golden opportunities. Her mistress complained to her of her niece’s neglect, and consulted her gravely with respect to her own social duties.
“I suppose I must do something,” she grumbled; “the Marigolds will expect it. I’m too old to give dinner-parties, but not too old to go to them, so I’ll have a nice tea, all laid in the dining-room, and you shall pour it out, and Potter can get in another man,—that Verger that he knows,—and when Miss Fontaine goes to tea, I particularly wish you to notice the way her sleeves are made,—‘shirred,’ she calls it. I wish to have my chiffon body exactly the same.”
“Oui, madame, ça c’est bien simple; but how shall I know cette demoiselle?”
“By her dreadful American twang, and by a way she has of filling up a whole room and concentrating all attention on herself. I suppose I must ask Lady Wilhelmina,—I do hope she will not shock her,—and old Sir Thomas and Lady Blane, and the Canon and Mrs. Latimer,—about thirty altogether, I think, and for Tuesday.”
Tremendous were the preparations for Tuesday. Such a getting upstairs of old china and silver, and such a decorating of tables and arranging of flowers, had rarely been known in Charlotte Villa. Upon Maria, of course, fell the greater part of the work, including shopping, and by four o’clock on Tuesday she was ready to sink with fatigue, whilst her aunt, who had not ventured upon any exertion other than scolding, sat looking the picture of a handsome old lady, free from every earthly care, and thoroughly prepared to enjoy her own party, and to make herself extremely agreeable.
Soon the drawing-room was crowded; out in the hall were a few of those rarities, men’s hats and caps; in the library quite a pile of winter mantles. Men were, as usual, in a minority of five to one. Mrs. Pegrim was quite proud to count among her guests Sir Thomas Blane, the Canon, the Honourable Hastings Marigold, who came with his mother and sister, Mr. Fontaine, Lady Wilhelmina’s son, young Egerton from Sandhurst, and the Canon’s nephew, Dr. Herbert, with his brother, Captain Herbert, who was at home on leave. The old lady’s eyes sparkled, and her smile was thoroughly genial as she shook hands with one man after another.
Deluded old woman! It is not your sponge cake and scalding tea which have attracted these gallants, but the expectation of meeting the American girl, with her odd expressions, her pretty frocks, her pretty face, and her millions. Nearly all the company had arrived, many had already had tea, and were established in a solemn circle when “Mr. and Miss Fontaine” were announced.
There was a momentary and significant pause in the weather gabble, as Miss Fontaine followed her name into the room. Most of the women’s eyes were fixed upon her toilet, which was dark-blue velvet trimmed with sables, and notably her hat,—so wonderfully striking, yet simple. (No, no, dear ladies, that shape, and that particular shade, can only be obtained at one shop in Paris.) The men’s eyes, for the most part, were fastened upon the pretty animated face beneath the velvet brim.
Miss Fontaine was full of gay spirits and conversation, and provided ample entertainment for both eye and ear. She greeted all those of her acquaintance with her usual sunny smile and warm handshake, and was presently conducted into the dining-room by Hastings Marigold, and followed by the Canon and quite a crowd of men, who suddenly remembered that they had not had tea.
Miss Fontaine instantly fell in raptures over the silver tea-equipage, at which Julie (with one eye on the lady) demurely presided, and said to Maria, “My, what a lovely old set! and that sweet little cream-jug, it’s just too cunning for anything. I do envy you this old family silver. Father says that ours was all melted down at Oxford, for King Charles, and so we have none.”
“None!” he echoed. “Why, daughter, what’s the matter with what we have got?”
“Oh, modern; that doesn’t count I’m just madly in love with that coffee-pot, Maria. I suppose these will all be yours some day—eh?” Which remark, with Maria’s (invented) reply, was conscientiously reported to Mrs. Pegrim that same evening as she was putting on her night-cap.
When Maria, her friend, and quite a long queue of men returned to the drawing-room, they discovered that the social atmosphere had fallen below zero. Mrs. Wain felt affronted that she had not been presented to Lady Marigold, who sat upon the sofa beside Mrs. Meadows, a mere ’squire’s daughter, whilst her father was a baron. Egerton, who fancied that he was quite grown up, and possessed an evening dress-suit and an incipient moustache, was frowning and fuming because Ursula Marigold had asked him, across the room, “if he had been at Mrs. Bronberry’s children’s party?” As for Lady Blane and Mrs. Hannibal, they had come to loggerheads about a sermon and a certain preacher, whose views Lady Blane considered shockingly broad church.
“Oh, yes, Mrs. Hannibal,” said Lady Blane, who was looking greatly heated (whether by tea or temper, who shall say?), “you cannot deny my authority, and you have not got a leg to stand on.’”
“On the contrary,” retorted Mrs. Hannibal, “I have dozens. I’m a regular centipede, and could speak on this subject for hours.”
“Heaven forbid!” piously ejaculated a neighbour.
“And this I maintain,” continued Lady Blane, impressively, and unintentionally raising her voice to a kind of scream, “that it is extremely impious to advocate such doctrines as Mr. Staples preaches, when we all know perfectly well”—and here she glanced at the crowd in the doorway—“that it’s only the fear of hell that keeps young men in any bounds at all.”
Maria noted that the two old foes had unluckily met, that Lady Marigold looked amused, Ursula supercilious, Tom Egerton black, Mr. Wain still blacker, and the rest of the assembled company were bored to death and glancing boldly towards the clock.
“Is this a typical English tea?” whispered Maimie, as she smilingly surveyed the gloomy company. “I wish you could see our pink teas at home in Baltimore.”
“I wish to goodness I was in Baltimore this moment,” said Maria; “this is awful.”
“Pairs and pairs of wet blankets. I declare it’s downright tragic. However, it’s your aunt’s show, so I say nothing.”
“I must go and separate those two, when I can make room. I wonder what is the matter with Mrs. Wain?”
“She looks as if she had toothache.”
“No, I am certain that she is affronted.”
“I’ll go and introduce papa to her, and he will soon make her smile.”
As Maimie came near Mrs. Pegrim in order to carry out her benevolent endeavour, the old lady said, “I suppose this is not like your American teas, Miss Fontaine?”
“No, not much; they are generally all young people; at least, it’s according to the hostess’s age, and men never are invited.”
“And pray what would you call this?”
“Dear me, what a fine word! What do you do at receptions?”
“We have music, sometimes.”
“Oh, I’m afraid we have not such talent here, and this affair is, entre nous, becoming deadly dull. I’ve seen General Allen look twice at his watch, and twice at his wife. Can you sing, or do anything? If you can, give it a little of your own spirit, it will be a charity. I wish Maria had some of your go.”
(“If she had,” said Mamie to herself, “she would have been out of this years and years ago,” but aloud she merely answered) “If you wish, I will sing, with pleasure.”
And she walked over to the open piano, sat down, and, removing her jingling bangles, began to play a dreamy little prelude.
The American girl was going to perform, and there was an immediate silence, the silence of expectation, and those who were about to rise and leave settled themselves once more in their seats.
Miss Fontaine had a sweet, clear, and pleasing organ; it was not of great power or compass, but every note rang full and true as a golden coin, and every syllable was distinct. Miss Fontaine sang with the irresistible charm of sympathy, and this was her song, which was from “Gentleman Joe:”
“When I hear de banjo strumming
My memory starts a-humming
A lullaby I listened to
When just a little coon;
And it do seem a pity
I can never recollec’ de words,
But only just de toon.
“When dat simple song I’m humming,
Such fancies keep a-coming,
And floating fro’ my head like
Silver clouds across de moon;
And de world in which I’m living
Seems so tender and forgiving,
Just like de world seemed long ago,
When I was but a coon.
“I neber heard no oder
Sing dat song except my mudder,
And I seem to hear her whispering
Fro’ de music ob dat toon;
And de tears come up and blind me,
Just becos it do remind me
I had never heard de words she sang
Since I was just a coon.
“I can hear my mudder sighing
Fro’ de toon, as if she’s trying
To tell me dat she’s watching me
And ain’t fergot her coon.
And sometimes when I’m sleeping,
In my dreams the thoughts come creeping
Dat some day I’ll hear her sing again
De words dat fit de toon.”
This song, which was received with loud applause, was followed by “The Little Kansas Dancer,” a spirited American patriotic song, and “My Dusky Southern Bride”, and then, in spite of clamorous applicants for “more, more, only just one more,” Miss Fontaine resolutely gathered up her bangles and rose from the instrument.
After the music had ceased it was still but five o’clock, and it became known that the rain was coming down like a water-spout, and Miss Fontaine suggested to Hastings Marigold that they should all (who pleased) play some game pour passer le temps. The matter was cautiously broached to Mrs. Pegrim. “Games at a tea!” She had never heard of such a thing; but yes, certainly, if Miss Fontaine wished it;” undoubtedly it was some American custom (in which she was mistaken). It was merely Miss Maimie’s custom to undertake to amuse herself and others. Her exuberant spirits and irrepressible vitality soon set the ball rolling, and young and old soon found themselves playing a game called “Buz.” It was amusing to see the manner in which these stolid elderly English people threw themselves into it, and their peals and peals of laughter startled the demure Torchon, as she sat at her post before the tea-urn. As for Mrs. Pegrim, she enjoyed herself immensely. Her sharp wit brought her well to the front, and she rivalled Miss Fontaine on her own ground, but she neither recognised herself, her drawing-room, nor her company. There was Lady Wilhelmina quite dangerously excited, and General Allen, usually so silent and surly, bawling at the pretty American at the top of his voice. How swift she was in all her movements, how smart in her answers! Her charming personality seemed to dominate the room. Everyone appealed to her (especially the men), and really a new-comer (a stranger) might readily be led to suppose that Miss Fontaine was the hostess, for the chief interest and the chief entertainment seemed to be centred in her. Meanwhile, Mrs. Pegrim had never been surrounded by such merry guests, and there was an involuntary exclamation of regret when Lady Blane’s carriage was announced.
Mrs. Pegrim was overwhelmed with congratulations on the success of her party, and received them with complacent smiles; but when the first warm flush of triumph had faded, she recalled to mind that it was Miss Fontaine who had made it go off so brilliantly, Miss Fontaine who had sung her national songs, and gone about with a merry word to this acquaintance, a little joke to that; who had taken upon her graceful shoulders the colossal weight of a deadly dull tea-party, and turned it into a magnificent success. Her famous tea, where they had played games and the American girl had sung so charmingly, was dinned into Mrs. Pegrim’s ears for weeks. “The American girl,” now she came to think of it, had been much too forward and had quite thrust her out of her own place. In future she would take good care never to make such a rash proposal to an utter stranger, as to ask her “to make a party go off,” and she resolved to keep Miss Fontaine strictly in her place.
The dinner given by Lady Marigold was a large one, and chiefly in honour of the Fontaines, who had entertained her repeatedly. It included Mrs. Pegrim and Miss Talbot, the colonel of the Black Dragoons and his handsome wife, several of the officers, two sisters, the Ladies Scrineshank, Canon and Mrs. Latimer,—in all twenty persons.
Mrs. Pegrim dedicated no less than three mortal hours to her toilet, and absorbed the whole attention of Julie and Maria, who rushed away at the last moment and scrambled into her gown, a black veteran, still respectable and trimmed with scarlet geraniums. She wore her hair in a new and more youthful style, and Hero, who saw her off, admired her immensely.
But Maimie, in white and silver, outshone everyone: she looked absolutely magnificent, like the bride of some great Prince, though she wore no ornament save a string of small pearls. Mrs. Pegrim half hoped that she would deck herself with many diamonds, and thus lend her a handle for severe criticism. Hastings Marigold took in Miss Fontaine, who sat directly opposite to this secret enemy, who contemplated the young couple reflectively. There was an air of premeditation about this which she did not relish. Surely Louisa Marigold did not want this overpowering American for a daughter-in-law? Maria fell to the lot of one of the dragoons, who found her an agreeable partner. To tell the truth, Maimie had infused some of her own vitality into her new friend.
The table was exquisitely decorated with flowers from Marigold Park. The perusal of the menu was appetising, and the expectations it raised were agreeably fulfilled. Everything went off very pleasantly until dessert, although Mrs. Pegrim was not sure, as the daughter of a baronet, that she ought not to have had more precedence, but she did not suffer this thought to taint the entrées or poison the game. Everything was admirably done; she had collected a fund of news, and the brilliant affair had recalled old days and old delights.
Mrs. Pegrim noticed that (as usual) Miss Fontaine was far too prominent, and talked too much. She had endeavoured to give her several severe snubs, but her efforts had not been successful. When she caught scraps of what Maimie was saying, she would occasionally lean over and join in the conversation; but sometimes the conversation was out of her reach, as, for instance, when the heiress held forth on “clams” and “clam-bake” parties.
“I don’t care so much for good-good people,” remarked this astounding young woman; “but those who could be bad if they liked and are good are much more interesting and sympathetic.”
“And are you among the good people?” sneered Mrs. Pegrim, sharp-shooting across the flowers.
“My father thinks I am; but I can only tell you this, that when I’m good, I’m very good, and when I’m bad, I’m horrid!”
“Of course, Mr. Fontaine only sees the very, very good side?”
“Yes; in his eyes I’m just the finest thing in the whole world.” And Maimie looked over at the old lady with one of her merriest and sunniest glances. But something in the expression of Mrs. Pegrim’s eyes caused her gay smile to fade, for in those twinkling little orbs she read scorn, dislike, hostility.
This brilliant, triumphant young creature, in the silver-and-crêpe gown, with milk-white throat and arms, a wealth of shining hair, and penetrating honest eyes,—stirred up dark depths of envy, hatred, and malice in the elder woman’s heart. She had taken a dislike to her the very first time that they had met, and this dislike, fostered by social jealousy, had grown, especially within the last hour, into the proportions of a giant.
If to be a lovely girl, on the threshold of womanhood, surrounded by all the graces of wealth, pure in heart, steadfast in faith, strong in undefeated hopes, and filled with irresistible good-will towards her fellow-creatures, was one of the “finest things in the whole world,” assuredly Miss Maimie V. Fontaine was that fine thing.
Maimie Fontaine was charmed with Brighton, and no longer expressed a wish to “move on.” She had made various charming acquaintances, the Black Dragoons were about to give a ball, and on the whole, she was having a “beautiful time.”
Five weeks had elapsed since Captain Borrodaile’s departure; his frequent notes had received but curt replies. He had been shooting in the Midlands, and part of the time he had been in town. One afternoon he ran down to “London at the sea-side,” in order to expedite Miss Fontaine’s departure. Here at the hotel he discovered, to his intense disgust, that Maimie was not at home; she had accompanied Lady Marigold and a large party to Hastings for the day.
He therefore decided to return immediately, and take up his quarters at the Metropole. London was too far for the base of his operations, and he was anxious to press his suit, since his creditors were pressing him, without further delay.
Old Hero was failing perceptibly, and failing fast; it became more of an exertion to ascend to the third story; his asthma was distressing to witness; each day his walk with his mistress was more and more of an effort than a delight. The pier now was too distant, and he accompanied her painfully round the square. His condition was not lost on Maria, as she walked with her old friend, whose steps seemed daily to become feebler and feebler; hot tears sometimes trickled down inside her veil.
It seemed to her that she was now leading three lives,—one life at Charlotte Villa, another at the Metropole, a third at home. With old Hero would pass away the very last tie that held her to her youth. In what recollections and scenes he had taken part, from the day when he had been placed in her arms, a fluffy little bewildered creature, with a blue ribbon round his neck!
He had been her companion when she had taken those never-to-be-forgotten walks through Brandon Woods with him; when he had bidden her an agitated farewell, Hero had been present; it was Hero who had gone with her to post her weekly letter, Hero who had waited with her with his ears cocked for the postman’s footstep. To Hero she had imparted her joys and sorrows. He had seen her tears, he had shared her weary pilgrimages abroad, he had represented home to her, and now he was leaving her at last.
Sometimes Maimie came and shared their walk, and brought him dainties, and assured Maria that the old dog was better; but Maria noted the gasping breath, the sunken eye, the feeble gait, and was not to be comforted.
She spent many an hour of the night beside him; her very presence was an alleviation of his sufferings.
“One would have thought that he was a human being,” said Fanny Smee, “to see Miss Talbot sitting on the floor beside him, holding his paw, or raising him in her arms when he fought for breath.”
Her care had its reward: he seemed a little easier; and, one afternoon, as he lay alone on a rug, Banjo, the pug, called up to see him.
“Sorry you have been so seedy. Are you better?” he enquired, seating himself.
“No, I shall never be better.”
“Oh, nonsense; you must not get so low; while there’s life there’s hope,” said Banjo, in his throaty voice.
“I’ve lived my span of time, a long one, twelve years, and that is a great age for a dog.”
“And you’ve had a comfortable home and a happy life, eh?”
“A comfortable home, certainly.”
“And you can’t say you have not been happy.”
“My mistress has had a sad life, and what has touched her has touched me.”
“What stuff! it’s just like a collie to talk that kind of rot. There is an absurd picture of a collie in his lordship’s room, with his silly old head stuck on a coffin, when he ought to have been looking about for another master, and making himself agreeable. It’s called ‘The Shepherd’s Chief Mourner.’”
“Pugs are cold-blooded creatures, and more like frogs than dogs,” muttered Hero, half to himself.
“Dogs have their own troubles, which, goodness knows, are heavy enough, without taking those of humans on their shoulders.”
“And pray what are your troubles,—not enough gravy, collar shabby?”
“Oh, of course, you sneer and think yourself superior, because your family are said to be extraordinarily clever with sheep. I’ve also heard that some of them can play cards, and that there are quite a number of them on the stage. Let me tell you that it’s a great mistake to let humans find out that you are clever; they make you work for them and put you into their pocket, so to speak.”
“Well, at any rate, you have no concealments from them; they would not have made much out of you,” growled old Hero. “Yes, you may have that custard pudding, I can’t touch it,” following the pug’s languishing glances with his sad old eyes.
“If it’s flavoured with vanilla, neither can I.” Then, delicately tasting, “No, it’s all right, and uncommonly good; pity you can’t eat it,” gobbling eagerly.
Hero turned away his head in weary disgust.
“Thanks, old man,” said Banjo, coming back, licking his lips. “I was uncommonly hungry. Would you believe it, that all I’ve had to-day was a saucer of bread and milk, and the milk was sour. Yes, Martin neglects me shamefully; that’s one of my troubles. You have never known what it is to be neglected in all your life.”
“It’s always been share and share alike with you and Maria.”
“Who are you calling Maria?”
“Well, Miss Talbot. I wonder if she’d take me on after—ahem!—you know. She will miss you a good deal at first, of course. You see, I’m more portable than you are; easily carried, not delicate, understand the art of effacing myself; the aunt would never object to me. My manners to the aged are considered very happy, I’ve had ample experience. My old man is dropping into his dotage, and his cough is getting on my nerves; whereas your mistress is young, she thoroughly sympathises with dogs, she is well born, and, though she is as poor as a rat now, will have her aunt’s fortune; his lordship said so for a fact.” And Banjo paused, completely out of breath.
“Is this the errand that has brought you here, to enquire, as servants say, after the place?”
“Well no, not exactly, but it just occurred to me when I saw——” He paused.
“Yes, I know. I’m an intelligent collie. You saw chicken soup, puddings, all coming in this direction.”
“Ah, my dear fellow, you must always have your joke,” rejoined the pug in his best bluff manner. “But I know what a tender heart your mistress has, and if you’d let me just come up and sit with you every evening she’d get to know me; she would see that I was a friend of yours, and, later on, I would—console her.”
“Not you! You are not her sort in the least. She can’t bear pugs,” said old Hero, “nor any kind of lapdog-”
Banjo swelled out his baggy cheeks and creased up his forehead.
“Of course, I make allowances for your state of health, but——”
“But—we will not discuss the subject any further. No, don’t go yet; go on, you amuse me. Tell me, what are your other grievances?”
“Well, for one, there is a pug who lives at Hove, quite a common fellow, with only one kink in his tail and but two moles, no trace—fancy that—no trace! Would you believe it, he told a friend of mine that he is my nephew!”
“And why not?”
“Why he is only a cur. He lives with second-rate people; he is not worth a sixpence. Look at my trace, my moles. I am worth twenty-five pounds!”
“Oh, no, not now, since you have grown both stout and grey,” protested Hero.
“Well, I grant that my skin is not as loose as it was; say fifteen. If this story gets out, and is believed, my position with well-bred dogs will be seriously injured. I live in a state of misery: what with the old man’s cough and this worry, I get no sleep at night.”
“And is there anything in it?”
“Between ourselves, and I know you never talk, I think there is. My sister Judy, who was amazingly plain, was given away to a nurse, and I have a hideous suspicion that this low creature, who associates with a ragamuffin fox-terrier, who has twice been up in a police court, who speaks to butchers’ dogs, and actually goes out with a perambulator, may be her son.”
“How terrible!” ejaculated Hero, with mock compassion.
“Yes, is it not?” whined Banjo, in all good faith. “And another trouble is this: I’m told on all sides that pugs are going out.”
“Out of fashion.”
“Come, that is very serious,” said Hero, gravely.
“Yes. These wretched chows, and miserable little German cat-dogs, are quite the rage now; it’s really too bad, introducing foreigners.”
“But surely you were foreigners?”
“Oh, dear, no, not to speak of. Why, my direct ancestor came over with William of Orange.”
“I thought you were going to say William the Conqueror. If you came from Holland, but I don’t believe you did, you are well out of it. You should see how the dogs there are made to work for their living. “
“Work for their living!” repeated Banjo, in tragic accents.
“Don’t be alarmed; not pugs, for they are useless, neither useful nor ornamental, but the real dogs. They draw all the milk-carts, the fruit-carts, and the fish-carts.”
“Draw milk-carts,” echoed Banjo, his goggle eyes nearly standing out of their sockets. “I never heard of such a thing as a dog working. How ridiculous!” And he threw back his head and laughed consumedly. Banjo’s laugh was a rich gurgle which sounded exactly like decanting a bottle of wine.
“At any rate, all my people work, and work hard, and are much respected.” Here Hero gasped and gasped, and the pug looked on helplessly till the paroxysm was over.
“Ah, asthma is a dreadful thing,” he remarked. “I’m glad it’s not in my family. You inherit it from some foolish ancestor, who got his death on those great bleak Scotch moors, or sitting out all day under a wet rock, chasing sheep through a searching cold mist. Now, I shall be carried off by gout; it’s in my system, and occasionally I feel a slight twinge in the ball of my left hind foot.”
Then he got up and goggled out at the window. “Ah, there’s the carriage at last, and I must be trotting; but I’ll come up and see you again.”
“It won’t be the least use; she wouldn’t have you as a gift.”
“Well, at any rate, I suppose I may pay you a friendly visit without any arrière pensée?”
“Yes, do come, Banjo, you amuse me; but mind this, I cannot promise you custard pudding every day.”
“Don’t mention it, dear old boy. I come to see you, not to look for pudding,” returned the visitor, as he gave his tail three wags, and briskly departed. But as he laboured downstairs, Banjo closed one eye, put his tongue out, and remarked to himself,—
“When she sees the empty plate, she is sure to give him more to-morrow.”
Since Lady Marigold’s dinner-party, Maria had seen but little of her friend. She had been kept in close attendance upon her aunt, and, when her aunt could spare her, on old Hero. Mrs. Pegrim had now thoroughly made up her mind with respect to Miss Fontaine; in her opinion she belonged to the most odious type of pushing Yankee adventuress, and was by no means a suitable companion for her well-brought-up niece. Nevertheless, one damp afternoon, Maria, who had been despatched to do some domestic errands, stole a few moments in order to call at the Metropole and see her friend. She was ushered up to Miss Fontaine’s private sitting-room, a retreat but rarely affected by that sociable young lady.
Here she discovered Maimie seated at a writing-table scattered over with letters, leaning back in her chair, with her hands tightly elapsed behind her head, and her gaze fixed upon the ceiling. So absorbed in contemplation was she that her visitor was actually within two yards of her before she was aware of her presence.
“Scotland!” she exclaimed, jumping to her feet; “what a start you gave me; and how glad I am to see you and your dear old blue waterproof! I’ve not laid eyes upon either of you for four whole days; and I was afraid to go to your aunt’s, for I know she cannot bear the sight of me. Now, sit down at once, and tell me all about yourself. In the first place, how is old Hero?”
“No better, I’m afraid,” replied Maria, tremulously.
“Poor old boy, it’s this horrid weather; I feel it myself. I sent him round some soup.”
“I know you did. It was very kind of you, and he drank every drop of it—by deputy. What have you been doing?” she continued, glancing at the wild confusion. “Making up your accounts?”
“No, my dear; I’ve been struggling with something ten times more difficult. I have been trying to make up my mind.”
“Yes,” rejoined Maria; “about the new style of hairdressing, and whether you will wear it right on the top of your head, with a brooch in the back of it, or fluffed out over your ears, with a curl in the middle of your forehead? I admit that it’s a solemn question.”
“I declare, Maria, you are getting real smart, but you are wrong. I am trying to make up my mind between two men.”
“Do you mean between two lovers?” asked her friend, after an expressive pause.
“Well, I reckon it figures out to something of that sort, and, between ourselves, I cannot arrive at any conclusion. As fast as I straighten out my mind quite flat in one direction, it jumps up in another, like a bit of wire. I’m a paltry sort of creature; I’ve all sorts of moods, and, though my will is pretty firm, my fancy is a butterfly, and it wants someone stronger than me to catch it and pin it down. “
“I suppose I can be of no use as a butterfly net?”
“Not much,” replied Maimie, who suddenly rose up and began to pace the room. “You see it’s like this: sometimes I feel sure I’m a butterfly, and then again I’m so wretched that I know that I must be a human being. Sometimes I declare to myself, I will accept an Englishman who is handsome, charming, amusing, and has a magnetic personality, and declares that he cannot live without me.”
“Oh, yes, I believe that is the usual formula.”
“He is descended from an ancient family, is heir to a pretty title and a fine old place; he is a true gentleman, and dances divinely, even the new two-step.”
“Dear me, what a list of attractions!” exclaimed her listener. “Are there no drawbacks?”
“Well, he is not rich, though that is of no importance; he is not young,—I should think he is close on forty; anyway, he looks forty in the morning, and I have only known him for three months.”
“Happy the wooing,” began the other.
“No, no, no! I like to summer and winter a person before I give myself away.”
“You did not summer and winter me. And now for the other?”
“Oh, the other”—with a shrug of her shoulders that was very expressive, Maimie walked to the end of the room and back—“is one of my own people, who has known me ever since I could speak. I talked early, as you may guess. He loves me, and loathes my money; he has not made a pile; he has not gotten courtly manners, nor an ancestor who fought at Hastings, but he is a good, brave gentleman. Now, what do you say?”
“I say that I should like to ask how this question fits in with your solemn announcement that you would never marry at all?”
“Oh, that, my dear,” answered Maimie, with a wave of her delicate hand, “was just another mood.”
“And in your present vein you are weighing the rival merits of two men. When you think of one, you feel you are a butterfly; when you think of the other, you are a miserable human being. But why decide just now?”
“Because one of them is pressing for an answer,—the Englishman,—and I cannot tell what to say. When I have been cool to him, I am sorry afterwards; and when I have not been cool, I am still more sorry; not that I am one of those girls who spoil men.”
“What do you mean, Maimie?”
“I mean that when a woman openly adores a man she just brings out all the weak points in his character; she makes him believe he is perfect. He naturally agrees, and makes no effort to control his shortcomings, and develops his selfishness until it becomes his second nature. A woman can govern a man, and should do so for his good.”
“These are indeed most benevolent sentiments.”
“Are they not? But to return to my own affairs. If I send away my lord to be, perhaps I shall repent it for years, and be hankering after the flesh-pots of England, hankering after my lost coronet. Don’t you think a coronet would become me?” And she snatched up a large pen-wiper and stuck it on her head.
“I think it would become you to be serious, unless the whole thing is a joke.”
“But what on earth am I to do?”
“Surely you need not make up your mind at once.”
“No; but I must do so very shortly. You see, I have had this Englishman on the string for some time. I believe I’ve encouraged him some. We are going home in two months, and I’ve got to either chain him up for life or let him go. He is here now.”
“What, in this hotel?”
“Yes; he came four days ago, and I shall have to give him an answer, one way or another, before we go to Paris.”
“Well, I sincerely hope that he is a good man.”
“I hope so, even more sincerely.”
“And that you will do nothing precipitately.”
“What do you advise?”
“That if you must marry at all, marry the man you love.”
Maimie took another turn through the room, and then, pausing dramatically before her friend, she said,—
“Maria Talbot, do you believe in cutting off your nose to spite another person?”
“No,” she answered promptly, “I certainly do not.”
“Not even if it half killed the other person, and smashed them up for life?”
“No, not even then. And I am sorry to find that your boasted benevolence is but skin deep.”
“Perhaps I may marry an earl after all, and one who is not heir to a title. There’s a puzzle for you, Maria. As for the Englishman, you ought to back him, for it will keep me near you all my life. I like him, and I daresay I should grow fond of him in time.”
“Yes, as one grows fond of a horse, or a house, a pair of old shoes.”
“Or, a dog, Maria. No, I’m not nearly as much attached to him as you are to Hero.”
“Then, in that case, I don’t think you ought to marry him. And, Maimie, are you not going to tell me his name?”
“No, not yet; it is one you have never heard. We met him abroad.”
“Oh, did you? Well, now, I really must go,” said Maria, rising as she spoke.
“Dear me, I wish you could stay; but I suppose, in the language of nurse Hannah, if I don’t let you go ‘your auntie will have a fine settlement with you.’ To-morrow is the evening of the Black Dragoons’ ball. How I wish you were coming with us!”
“I have not been to such a girlish thing as a ball for years, but I wish I was going, just to see you dance. I’m afraid I shall not be able to look in for several days. Meanwhile, Maimie, don’t do anything rash.”
“Wait, I’m coming downstairs with you,” said Maimie taking her arm. “I’d like to know what you mean by the expression rash?”
“Don’t spoil your cousin George’s life.”
“Now who has been talking to you about George?” interrupted the other, with a curious tremor in her voice.
“No one besides yourself.”
“But I never told you anything about him.”
As the pair paced slowly downstairs, side by side, arm in arm, a tall, well-set-up gentleman was standing in the hall with his back to them, talking to another man. This other man’s interested gaze beyond him caused him to turn round, and he found himself face to face with Miss Fontaine and another lady, a dowdy figure in a long blue waterproof. Instantly his face grew white and rigid, as he recognised Maria Talbot. There were the two girls, arm in arm, and apparently on terms of the closest intimacy,— the old love and the new.
In blissful ignorance of this grave complication, Maimie gaily beckoned to him.
“Captain Borrodaile,” she said, “I wish to present you to a particular friend of mine,—Miss Talbot.”
Borrodaile, with a fixed smile, hard frozen upon his face, looked at Maria, in order to take his cue from her. It lay in her power to ruin him. Would she? But Maria, who had instantly grasped the situation, hardly raised her eyes, and made a scarcely perceptible inclination of her head. Then, turning to her friend, she said, in a hurried, strangled sort of voice,—
“Maimie, please don’t keep me. I really must go.”
“What’s this?” demanded Maimie, in her most playful manner. “Stop a few seconds. You English are so stiff, you know. You two have got to like each other; I insist upon it.”
But Maria was already half-way across the hall. Before Maimie could reach the door she was gone, had fled down the steps, and oh, it was such a wet night! Miss Fontaine stood for some moments looking out upon the splashing rain and listening to its pattering on the glass porch. What had come to Maria? Maria, who was growing so cheery and like other people, and not to mind meeting strangers one bit.
She gave up the puzzle in despair, and went slowly off to the drawing-room, where in a short time she was joined by Captain Borrodaile, who had meanwhile been to the bar, where he had drunk off a glass of raw brandy to steady his nerves for this critical interview.
How much did she know?
Captain Borrodaile discovered Miss Fontaine gracefully established in one corner of a large Chesterfield sofa, studying the Paris edition of the New York Herald. She was looking particularly charming in a picturesque dark velvet garment (which might be either a tea-gown or a fancy dress). He was resolved not to lose her without a determined struggle. To think of her having made the acquaintance of Maria, of all people in the wide world! What infernal bad luck! There were seemingly three courses open to him,—one was to persuade the Fontaines to leave Brighton at once; another, to make immediate mischief between the ladies; the third, to throw himself upon the mercy of his old love. Of these, the first was by far the most feasible. His cousin, Clement Saxonhurst, a saturnine old man who was childless and made no secret of his detestation of his heir, might perhaps forward his suit by inviting the Americans to Hurst Royal, to which he was passionately attached. It would give him supreme satisfaction to know that, instead of being succeeded by an impecunious individual, he would be followed by a man with millions at his back, who could not merely keep up the place, but would restore the glories of the past. These ideas were chasing one another through Borrodaile’s excited brain as he approached and took a seat near to Miss Fontaine.
He would write to Saxonhurst that very post; there was not a moment to lose; another meeting between the friends would be fatal to his prospects, and must be avoided at all hazards.
“You must find Brighton very attractive,” he said, with laboured playfulness.
“Well, yes, I do, and that’s a fact,” was her prompt reply. And she looked at him over her newspaper with a pair of smiling eyes. “Lots of acquaintances, nice excursions, biking, balls, dinners, teas.”
“You don’t mean to tell me that you patronise teas?”
“No, not often. I was at one the other day, and it was perfectly awful.”
“I should think you must have pretty well exhausted Brighton. I thought you were coming up to London?”
“Yes, so did I. I did not expect to like Brighton so much.”
“And you never remembered your promise to me?”
“Oh, yes; but, you see, I’ve been having such a beautiful time here.”
“Breaking hearts, as usual.”
“Oh, dear, no,” waving her hand with an easy disclaimer; “but I’ve gotten a few good women friends.”
“Rather of mushroom growth, I should say.”
“I don’t know that. People fall into love, and why should they not fall into friendship?”
“Yes, with men. I don’t believe in friendship between women.”
“Oh, don’t you?” with arched brows.
“It is always one-sided,—one gives, the other takes.”
“Friendship should be give and take, just like marriage.”
“That’s a sound sentiment.”
“All the same, I never take.”
“That means that you give.”
She nodded gaily.
“I wish you would give me something.”
As she surveyed him with a well-assumed air of innocent interrogation, he continued,—
“Only a little bit of hope.” And he leaned towards her and endeavoured to possess himself of her hand.
“Oh, don’t let us get into serious talk now,” she exclaimed, suddenly springing up. “I’m not in a serious mood. How I wish they would give a dance here! This is a capital place, so slick.” And this exasperating creature actually hummed a little tune and began to waltz. Then all at once she came to a full stop, and walked straight back to where Borrodaile was sitting with folded arms and knitted brows.
“I want to tell you something,” she began abruptly, “about Miss Talbot.”
“I’d much rather you would talk to me about yourself.”
“By and by. But I want to tell you this first of all. Such a pitiful story,”
“My dear Miss Fontaine,” he interposed, “I find the world gloomy enough without listening to other people’s pitiful stories.”
“But you will listen to this, to please me, won’t you?” she urged, coaxingly, as she stood with her hands loosely clasped behind her back. “And as you—er—like me, sympathise.”
“Now for it,” thought Borrodaile, as he nodded affirmatively and abandoned himself to his fate.
“I daresay you would scarcely believe that Miss Talbot was once lovely,” began his tormentor. “When she was eighteen she met a man who stole her heart right away. But he only made love to her; he did not propose. However, three years later he came back, and they were engaged, and were on the eve of being married when a family affliction put a stop to the wedding. Are you attending? So he sailed to the East alone, only for a year, but he never returned, and she clung to her faith in him, in spite of everyone, as she clung to a dog he gave her, for eight long years.”
“More fool she,” muttered Borrodaile, under his breath.
“What do you think of a man like that? I believe if I were to meet him, I’d just go straight in and fight him, the miserable, sneaking, heartless miscreant!” And as Maimie spoke, she looked quite fierce. “I declare, you seem quite confused,” she continued. “You don’t mean to say that you know him?”
“How should I know him, when you don’t even give his name? But I daresay there is another side to the question,—there always is.”
“Oh, yes, the side of the wolf,” she retorted, scornfully.
“Probably the poor beggar was run in? How do you know that he did not find her letters stupid, ill-tempered, vixenish, narrow; or that she just clung on to him with the tenacity of a limpet, long after he had given her to understand by his silence that he was tired of her, and sick to death of the whole thing?”
“I declare you might be in his counsel, you are so eloquent.”
“I am merely standing up for my own sex, you see. I like to defend the absent.”
“Oh, do you?” exclaimed the girl, who was a little staggered by this imposing sentiment.
“Is it not better to put an end to a thing, than to continue what would lead to the life-long misery of two people?”
“Yes; but this man never did put an end to it. He kept up a sort of dropping fire of letters over years.”
“I suppose the lady has poured out her soul into your ears?”
“I don’t know about pouring out her soul, but she has never once even hinted at her love-affairs.”
Borrodaile gave a sort of irrepressible gasp of relief. Maria was always reserved.
“And I can assure you, that if I were one of that man’s friends I should feel pretty cheap; and I should just like to have a chance of looking him square in the face and telling him what I think of him.”
Borrodaile avoided her full gaze, and said, with a short laugh,—
“And what about all the men who are maltreated by your sex? I’m sure, if I had time to make it out, I could furnish you with a long butcher’s bill.”
“Men can mostly take care of themselves, but girls are helpless. I knew one, near Rochester, so pretty, just the brightest thing I ever saw; her fiancé went away to New Orleans and never came back. She was far too proud to show her feelings, but she just turned in and died.”
“May I ask what has put all these dismal stories into your mind to-night?”
“I don’t know. I’ve not been out these two days, and that makes me low and moped.”
“You will be all right after dinner.”
“I don’t feel as if I wanted any,” she answered; then walked across and flung herself into a large chair. Though her speech was crude, every movement was grace itself. As she sat erect, her pretty wrists and hands dangling over the arms, she looked at him with a wistfulness that was absolutely pathetic, as she said, “I’d give anything for a box of Huyler’s candies.”
“I’ve brought you some chocolates.”
“I don’t care for them, thank you. If I only had a box of Huyler’s, I’d make my dinner here, and now. Candies are to me what smoking is to men. I feel riz and overwrought to-night, and I want some real good sweets to soothe me.”
Although Miss Fontaine had distinguished Captain Borrodaile with her hand for four waltzes at the recent ball, yet he was dissatisfied. He had a disagreeable conjecture that this honour was due to the fact that he, like herself, was an incomparable dancer, that they both went together with a certain delightful “swing,” in which she revelled, and not to any particular partiality for his society. He was not making the progress which he had anticipated. Maimie absolutely refused to be serious; when he became sentimental, she stared; when he made love, she laughed. Was ever such a volatile, maddening, bewitching creature sent into the world to be the plague of man? She fought off his attentions, baffled his arrangements for a tête-à-tête, and distributed her smiles among a large circle. In his opinion Miss Fontaine knew far too many people, men especially. He must endeavour to inveigle her away to London. Here she was too conspicuous, and too much admired. There was young Callendar, of the Black Dragoons, who was head over ears in love with her, as well as Hastings Marigold, who was his deadly enemy and rival. Then, at one word from Maria, the whole of his little scheme would be blown into the air. Maria had never been one to talk; would she spare him? He was in a critical position, and no mistake, this time, but it was not his first experience of similar situations; he was rather more than less of an adept at extricating himself from such dilemmas.
For great emergencies, great expedients, Captain Borrodaile boldly made up his mind to go and see his old love. Yes, once his influence with her was boundless; he would put it to the test again. Certainly he had treated Maria abominably. He ought to have written and broken off everything after the first six months, instead of which he had gone on writing to her at long intervals, for years, and twice—but this was only known to themselves—Maria had helped him with money. That in one way his fate was in her hands was not an altogether comfortable reflection, but Maria would never use her power in his disfavour. She was always meek. She had welcomed him back once, and when he deserved no welcome, with open arms. Who could tell but that she would forgive him all?
“A woman, a dog, and a walnut tree,
The more you beat them, the better they be.”
“Gad, I’ll have a shot. If Maria will keep her mouth shut and stand by me, the thing is done, but if she tells a long rigmarole to Maimie, I am done. And Maimie will be here for at least a week longer.
“I’m sorry now that I sent up that card. I never dreamt that I should come back, or that Maimie could stand the place for more than a few days. Never shut a door behind you,—that’s a sound motto; and I shut a door in 202 when I raised the devil in that little black vixen, Miss Smee. Thank goodness, Maria has no spirit, and I’ll just go round and see her quietly after dusk, and I expect I’ll be able to talk her over.” It was a fact that Captain Borrodaile had a genius for certain kinds of delicate operations, and his boldness was of a metal unsurpassed where women were concerned.
Miss Smee happened to be absent at a teacher’s tea, and Sara opened the door and received Captain Borrodaile with a smile, which testified that his recent gift of five shillings was still fresh in her memory. She ushered him upstairs to the little sitting-room on the third floor, knocked, opened the door, and, in her matter-of-fact voice, announced “Captain Borrodaile.”
The apartment was dimly lit by a shaded lamp, the old dog lay stretched out before the fire, and Maria sat with her elbows on the table, her head resting on her hands, apparently doing nothing. She was thinking of the past, and when she slowly lifted her head, here was the chief figure of that past standing before her. Maria was not startled, but perfectly composed. Since her aunt had driven her out of her house that morning, after a scene of which Maimie (who had subsequently been thrust forth) had received a very meagre and inadequate description, life seemed incapable of further surprises.
She raised her weary eyes and saw a tall figure, in a light water-proof coat, but his face was in the shade, the lamp’s rays being concentrated upon the table.
“Il n’y a que les morts qui ne reviennent pas,” said Borrodaile, solemnly. “I am sure you will wonder why I have dared to come and see you,” he said, and paused; then went on as if with an effort, “but I felt that I must see you face to face even at the risk of your displeasure. I have much to say to you.”
Miss Talbot once more veiled her eyes with one hand, and with the other pointed to a chair.
Ready to snatch at any straw, Captain Borrodaile interpreted this as a faint indication of welcome, and immediately put down his cap and took a seat.
“You and I, Maria, have not spoken to one another face to face for nine long years.”
She gave a little shiver, and he resumed.
“I am not surprised that our meeting should overpower you. You know that I was here in this very house for three weeks, and watched you frequently, but I did not dare to ask for an interview; my courage—er—failed me.”
“And what has brought you now?”
“An irresistible force has mastered me and driven me to your feet. Of the past I am reluctant to speak, and yet, Maria, if you would but listen to me patiently for a short time, you might not think so hardly of me. You were always generous,—will you hear me?”
She bowed her head in silence.
“When our boy and girl engagement took place, nine years ago, I was desperately in love with you, and I remained so till after a time your memory became blurred. A young fellow in India, a mere boy as I was, full of high spirits and irrepressible vitality, I threw myself headlong into a whirlpool of pleasure. I was what is called a pretty boy. I came across a woman who made a fool of me. I confess that I suffer from organic weakness of will, and after I had been constant to you for twelve months,—a long time, Maria, if you could only have realised the life out there, and its temptations,—this woman came: she was absolutely irresistible; she set herself against you, and she won.”
“A married woman?”
“Yes, but married to a regular brute. Then my letters dropped off. I had not the nerve to write you the truth, but I thought you might read between the lines. Sometimes, when I was down on my luck, or I had a bad go of fever, I began writing to you again, but all the time I knew we could never be married. You see, you had not a penny, and as for me, I had been going the pace and was entirely in the hands of the soucars. They drew half my pay. The brutes would not allow me to leave the country. When my battalion went home, I was obliged to exchange, and then I was stuck fast, tied hand and foot to India, for years. Racing and lotteries played the very devil with me. I had no luck, and I grew quite reckless. I believed I should leave my bones out there, when a cousin died, and I became the next heir to the Saxonhurst estates. I also came in for a certain small income, so a year ago I threw up my billet and came home. I give you my solemn word of honour, Maria, that I thought you had given me up and put me out of your mind the last four years. Of course, I knew that we swore that it was to be for ever and ever, and inscribed it on your ring, but that was mere boy-and-girl stuff. You know that nothing lasts. We are a man and woman now. I believe the Brandons are furious; at any rate, they take no notice of me, and never ask me to the shoots; but if they and you would only believe it, I did the very best thing for us both. You were far, far happier at home, living in a good climate, with a wealthy aunt, than traipsing half over India after a man who was up to his neck in debt. Where I made an unpardonable mistake was in not writing and telling you plainly the sober truth; but my courage failed me. I could not bear to give you pain. I’m far more tenderhearted than you would believe, and once, when I saw one of my syces throw a live rat into the fire, I caned him within an inch of his life.”
“So I went on writing, and writing, as you know, long after I looked upon you as anything but my best friend.”
It was terribly uphill work, talking to a woman who sat perfectly still, with her face in the shade, and never opened her lips, and to whose thoughts he had no clue.
“So I see you have the old dog still,” he remarked, in another tone, and he stooped down and and put his hand on Hero, then exclaimed, with a violent start and in a harsh, shrill key, “Why, good Lord, he is dead!”
“I’m awfully sorry; poor old chappie! I’m sure you are dreadfully cut up, Maria. Do you remember the day I brought him to you in the summer-house?”
“Well, Maria, we have known each other for twenty years” (occasionally Captain Borrodaile’s memory was surprisingly convenient), “and if no longer young lovers, we are old friends; at any rate, I have always looked upon you as my best and dearest friend, whatever you may consider me, and you have every reason to think badly of me, I am aware. I was ashamed to see you or write to you latterly, and that is as true as I am sitting here. “
“And may I ask what has so suddenly inspired your confidence and courage?” And Maria turned and looked at him fixedly.
“The fact that I know you to be a good, noble, and generous woman, and that, after all that has come and gone between us, I feel that I may rely upon you before any other living soul. “
“And why am I thus honoured?”
Captain Borrodaile did not like this tone, but he went on, for de l’audace, de l’audace was his motto. Nothing venture, nothing have!
“Simply because you have given me a magnificent proof of your friendship in never mentioning my name to Maimie Fontaine. You and she, of all people in the world, have come together, and are friends.”
“Yes, we are friends,” assented Maria, in a low voice.
“I came because I was impelled to see you; because—well—one’s first love dies hard, if it ever dies, and because I wanted to tell you how grateful I am for your noble forbearance.”
“Is not gratitude said to be an anticipation of favours to come?”
“By George, no!” now rising and approaching the table; then, with a sudden action he swept off the lampshade, saying, “Maria, I must see your face, for—for I cannot recognise your speech. My Maria was neither reserved nor cynical.”
“Your Maria, as you call her, is dead, as dead as old Hero,” answered Miss Talbot, with an unexpected spirit. And the rigidity of her attitude and the tightness with which her lips were pressed together sobered his mood.
“When did she die?” he stammered.
“Perhaps she may revisit the earth again.”
“No, please God, never,” she replied, in a quiet, determined tone.
“Still, to drop these foolish metaphors, you bear me no ill-will; your deeds are far kinder than your words.”
“And you, in the language of tradesmen, are anxious for a continuance of past favours; that is to say, the favour of holding my tongue.”
“Egad, you put it bluntly, Maria, but that is just it. Your silence will serve me more than anything.”
“To forward your marriage with Miss Fontaine?”
“Well, yes. She is an extraordinary girl, has very high-flown ideas, and believes that a man should love but once, and all that sort of nonsense.”
“I am very fond of Maimie. She has been a blessing, a God-send to me. Do you think it right for me to allow her to marry a man that I know to be weak, dishonourable, and insincere, and who confesses to dissipation and debt?”
“Oh, I say, come now! I’m not worse than many others, nor half as bad as some. You’ve lived such a narrow, one-sided sort of existence, among parsons and frumpish old women, that you expect a man to be the sheepish sort of fellow one reads about in a Sunday-school story. He is not; indeed he is more or less of a roaring lion. I must marry money. It’s a duty to my family, since I shall be the head of it before long and the property is greatly encumbered.”
“You call marrying Maimie Fontaine a duty?”
“Well, it will be a case in which, for once, duty and inclination go hand in hand. I am fond of her. She is a charming and attractive girl, though her looks are not a patch on what yours used to be. The peerage is largely recruited from America, and when she gets some of the raw edges rubbed off, and drops her awful nigger slang, she will do. That girl has enough vitality to turn a motor car. I should tell you that someone has good-naturedly told her your story, leaving out the scoundrel’s name, and that she is death upon the man. She repeated it all to me in a sort of frenzy of indignation, marching about the room, and declaiming like Lady Macbeth, and if she were to hear further particulars the results would be disastrous.”
“And how do you know that further details may not come to her ears?”
“There is no tongue to whisper it save yours. You have always been extremely reserved about your own affairs and mine.”
“That is true,” with a rather bitter smile; “but this reserve has not extended to my aunt.”
“So, then you will speak?” he asked, with visible agitation. “You know you have it in your power to ruin my prospects. This will indeed be a magnificent revenge, and—and,” in a broken voice, “I cannot say that I do not deserve it.”
His unexpected humility touched Maria’s frozen heart, and, although she heartily despised him, the influence of a once dominating personality was beginning to make itself felt. Norris’s eyes were as expressive, and his tongue as persuasive, as of old.
“My aunt and I have had a difference of opinion. She has forbidden me her house.”
“Yes,” now confronting him with a certain austere dignity. “I shall be leaving Brighton immediately.”
She rose as she spoke, for he was still standing, and looked expressively at the door.
“Then you will give me your promise,” he said, extending his hand across the table. “You will not stand in my way, my dearest,—you will let bygones be bygones?”
“No, no, no! she shall never shake hands with you!” interrupted a rapid voice, which spoke with a twang. And Maimie Fontaine, who had entered the room just in time to hear the last appeal, came to the little table with a quick decisive step and placed herself between them.
“So you are the man!” exclaimed Miss Fontaine, turning on Norris Borrodaile a beautiful, scornful face and a pair of eyes resembling two blue flames. Her recent walk in the wind and wet had released some of her curls and given her a vivid colour. Maimie had never looked handsomer.
“And you told me that you did not know him. I must say you are the first Englishman I’ve come across that had no regard for truth. What are you doing here? And what have you got to say for yourself, sir?”
“Really, Miss Fontaine, making allowance for your—er—eccentricities, may I ask what my private business with an old friend has to do with you?”
“A good deal. She is my friend, too. You’ve been begging her to hold her tongue about old times, I reckon. Yes, and old loves. In my country, girls who have been cruelly jilted don’t, as a rule, turn into old friends.”
“Miss Fontaine, you have thrust yourself into a matter which really does not affect you. I’ve made my explanations to Miss Talbot. She has been good enough to receive them. It is a question between her and me, not between myself and you.”
“That’s just plumb trash! She has suffered years and years for you; you come back when you want something of her, not”—pointing a judicial finger—“an hour before. I believe you would talk her round to anything, if you just got time; but I won’t have it. I’m made different. She’s is my friend, and I mean to see this thing straight through. You were engaged to her, were you not?”
Captain Borrodaile nodded.
“And just going to be married, when her father died, left them in difficulties, you—you cleared out.”
“That’s an entirely wrong version of the story. I was obliged to go. I went with Maria’s consent, alone.”
“True, but you never came back to her; and whilst you were having a splendid time she was eating her heart out for years. Hope deferred maketh the heart sick,—that’s in the Bible!”
“Miss Fontaine quoting the scriptures is indeed as amazing as it is edifying.”
“Perhaps you are comparing me to a certain person who can also quote the scriptures?”
“Perhaps,” regarding her with a look of cool speculation.
“Well, I may be, as you hint, a devil; but even if I am, I’ve got no use for you, so you can just go right away,” pointing to the door. “Maria, I’ve taken this business into my own hands, I’m acting for you.”
“Maria,” said Borrodaile, “I cannot believe that this—ahem—lady is your mouth-piece. I shall see you again.”
“Never!” cried Maimie, passionately. “I wonder you don’t shrivel up with shame. You shall never see her again!”
“What do you say, Maria?” turning to her. “Will you not speak to me? Miss Fontaine, I am aware, is capable of talking for a dozen, much less two; nevertheless, I should like to hear the sound of your voice.”
Maria, who had never been able to interpose one remark, turned to Captain Borrodaile and said,—
“I have only one word to say to you, and that is, Goodbye.”
For nearly a whole moment he remained speechless. At last he found his voice.
“Good-bye,” he echoed, with a low bow.
Then he walked across the room, flung the door wide, and departed, without casting one glance in the direction of Maimie, whom he ignored as completely as if she were a mere piece of furniture.
“That’s all right,” she exclaimed, emphatically. “When he saw me here, he knew he’d got to skip.”
Mr. Fontaine and Mr. Harland had made one another’s acquaintance in London, in the rooms of a mutual friend. They had met at a pleasant little club dinner, and subsequently travelled down to Brighton in the same corridor compartment. Here Mr. Fontaine had dropped a few casual words about his daughter, and Harland gathered that she did not always care to accompany her father when he rushed up to town, and that a lady in the same hotel took care of her. At dinner Harland found that he was within two or three yards of the American, who was seated at an adjoining table vis-à-vis to one of the most striking-looking young women he had ever beheld. Her air and dress testified to refinement and wealth; her brocade gown was unquestionably the work of an artiste; it was cut to display the white throat, round which was clasped a turquoise necklet, which rose and fell with the almost breathless utterances of its wearer. She was talking incessantly, in a low tone, gesticulating with her hands, paying no attention whatever to her dinner, and evidently labouring under intense excitement.
When the meal was over, Harland followed Mr. Fontaine and his tall daughter into the vestibule, where he was formally presented to the latter.
“Excuse me, Miss Fontaine,” he said, after they had exchanged a few trivial sentences, “but, as I walked behind you, I happened to hear you mention the names of two friends of mine,—Miss Talbot and Hero. Can you tell me anything about them?”
“I just reckon that I can. You’ve come to the right person. I’ll tell you a heap about them, but not here,” with an expressive gesture, “for, when I think of them, I get so worked up that I forget myself and my company manners. If you will come and have coffee in our parlour, you shall hear all about them right away.”
Harland accepted this invitation with alacrity, and, relinquishing all idea of his after-dinner smoke, presented himself in Miss Fontaine’s sitting-room. She was already there before him. What a handsome girl! She made a truly brilliant picture as she awaited by the chimney-piece, on which she had placed her untasted coffee.
“Well,” she began, “you have not been long. Please help yourself to coffee. You may smoke; I only wish I could. I reckon it would calm me, and I want soothing badly, I do assure you.”
“Are you a friend of Miss Talbot’s?”
“Yes, I am; and she is pretty short of friends, I can tell, you. Where did you know her?”
“We met in Switzerland, five years ago.”
“Ah, yes; you write. I’ve heard Maria speak of you.” And, thus reassured, Maimie began, and related with great volubility Maria’s life with her aunt, her old dog’s banishment, her own disastrous attachment and unshaken faith. She spoke with eloquence, an eloquence she probably could not have commanded on her own account. As she proceeded, her words drove her as usual into motion, and she paced to and fro with her graceful, undulating step. Suddenly she paused and said,—
“And now I think I may as well tell you, Mr. Harland, seeing that you are nigh as old as father” (John Harland started, but his start was unnoticed), “that this fine lover of Miss Talbot’s was following me here”—she choked, and then added—“for my dollars.
“He had forgotten Maria years ago, clean,” throwing out her hands with a sweeping gesture. “We met him in Italy last June. He knew the language, and we did not. He just toted us round along with him, and we got real friendly. You see, he is as attractive and handsome as anything; his manners are just princely; he is full of conversation, knows half the nobility, shoots here and shoots there, and always says the right thing.”
“And I gather that you liked him?”
“All women do—before they know him. Now I know him for a mean, dishonourable, double-faced coward. Oh, talk of poor white trash! He is trash, if you like.”
John Harland made no attempt to speak, but merely nodded, whilst Maimie talked on, in a rapid, fragmentary way.
“And Maria Talbot knew that he was paying me attention, and never said one word. I actually introduced them in the hall below. I knew the story,—all but the wretch’s name,—and, would you believe it? here in this very room, and sitting there on that sofa, I raged and raved to him against Maria’s lover, never dreaming that he was the man.”
“And what did he say?”
“Oh, he defended the ‘absent’, as he called himself. He told me a whole string of lies. I always thought an Englishman’s code of honour was so high, but when I come across a specimen like that, I tell you I feel discouraged.”
“You need not be afraid that you will often come across his equal,” replied Harland, anxious for his country’s credit. “Our code of honour is high, but we have our black sheep as well as other nations.”
“I went to see Maria this evening,” resumed Miss Fontaine, “and I found that he had forestalled me. He had come, after nine years, to beg that she would let by-gones be by-gones, and keep their secret from me. Can your mind grasp anything so audacious?” And she paused and gazed into his face with a pair of dark-blue eyes filled with fire. “I arrived just in time to hear him.”
“And Miss Talbot, what did she say?”
“She was just as if turned into stone, for the old dog is dead: he was stretched out on the rug between them. I think, what with her aunt and her other troubles, her heart is about broken.”
Harland, who was leaning on the chimney-piece, gave his elbow such a violent jerk that he upset Miss Fontaine’s coffee. When this little accident had been set straight, he said,—
“So Borrodaile has jilted her, and her aunt has cast her off. What is to become of her?”
“I saw Mrs. Pegrim this evening, and I ventured to give her my opinion of her conduct.”
“Après?” with a quick lift of his brows.
“Well, Maria often said that her aunt and I agreed like fire and water; and it’s a solid fact, for the old lady put me out.” And there was a dancing glitter in Maimie’s beautiful eyes. “But she is certain to take Maria back, for she cannot get on without her; but I hope Maria will be firm, for I require a companion myself, and I’m sure she will be far happier with me than with old Mrs. Pegrim.”
“She might easily be that.”
“You see, it’s this way,” continued Maimie, in an explanatory tone: “Father does not like my going about alone, and he cannot always be tied to me. He declares that I am too remarkable looking, which, with all deference to my dear dad, is just plumb trash; but he has a notion I ought to have some companion, and here is one to my hand. He likes Miss Talbot, and I love her. She is, besides, everything that is suitable, lady-like, well born, good-looking, and just the right age,—between a young girl and a frump. I wanted her to come right away with me to-night, but she would not hear of it; however, I intend to fetch her tomorrow evening.”
“Can you give me her address?”
“Why, of course I can,—202 Regency Square, third story. You appear to take a curious interest in Miss Talbot’s affairs?”
“Yes; I have a higher interest than mere curiosity.”
“Perhaps you are one of the gentlemen that Mrs. Pegrim was always fretting about, that wanted to marry Maria?”
“I am. I may as well confess, to put it in your own words, that I have always wanted to marry Maria. “
“Land!” exclaimed Maimie, and there was a dead silence, during which they searched each other’s eyes with a new curiosity.
“And may I ask, what have you done with Captain Borrodaile?” enquired Harland, at last.
“I know what I’d like to have done with him,” she answered, sharply,—“had him tarred and feathered!”
“But, failing that gratification, what has been his fate?”
“His fate was to go aboard the first express-train for London, and I reckon that he won’t show his face in Brighton as long as Maimie Fontaine is likely to be found here.”
Although Mr. Harland was naturally most anxious to see Miss Talbot, yet he did not venture to call before half-past two the following afternoon, walking off his impatience round and round the square.
The door was opened to him by Miss Smee, who was either suffering from a bad cold in the head, or else had been crying quite recently. Fortunately for him, Fanny was favourably impressed by the appearance of this thin, dark gentleman. He had a nice voice, but what could he want with Miss Talbot?
“Yes, sir, she is at home,” she answered. “I’m not sure whether she will see anyone to-day, at least a stranger. “
“I am not a stranger, and I think she will see me. Will you kindly take her my card?”
Fanny had a rooted distrust of visiting-cards, and answered, “If you will just tell me your name, I will announce you, sir.”
Maria was in the drawing-room. Mrs. Smee had insisted on her moving down to an apartment in which every square foot did not loudly recall memories of her old companion.
She was sitting, writing, with her back to the door, when Fanny announced “Mr. Harland,” and he, as he entered, noted that as she stooped over her letter her shoulders had a dejected expression, as if the burthen laid upon them had been greater than they could bear. She rose quickly and turned towards him, a faint colour in her face and a light in her eye, as she said,—
“Mr. Harland! I am very glad to see you.”
“It is some time since we have met, is it not?” he said. “About four years.”
“Yes. Won’t you sit down? Are you staying in Brighton?”
“I just ran down for a little change.”
“No doubt you have been working too hard?”
“Yes. I like hard work, but it does not like me, and I’ve been sent here to blow the ink out of my system.”
A slight pause, and then he continued:
“I am staying at the Metropole, where I met Miss Fontaine. Her father and I are acquainted; he and I are fellow-members of the Shakespearian Society. She has been telling me all about you.”
“All?” echoed Maria, with an air of blank dismay.
“Well,” in a more cautious key, “that my poor old friend Hero is dead.”
“Yes; he was buried this morning in the garden.”
“Had I known, I would have attended the funeral.”
Maria made no answer; her eyes were brimming with tears. He noticed that her face had a worn and haggard expression, and that time had written premature lines upon her cheeks and brow.
“If you will allow me, I will exact the privilege of a friend, and write his epitaph and erect his tombstone.”
“Thank you; you are very kind, indeed——”
“But I am not sure if Mrs. Smee, who is a Methodist, would approve of a tombstone, although she was very fond of poor Hero.”
“Why, what harm is there in a plain stone to mark where he lies?”
“No harm in the stone: it seems most ungracious of me to bargain in this way, and you will be very careful about the inscription?”
“It shall be in Latin. Will that please you?”
“Yes, for it cannot displease Mrs. Smee.”
“Then I shall arrange about it at once. I am afraid you will miss the old dog.”
“Yes, I do; I shall. I have not many old friends.”
“But you have a brand-new and staunch one in Miss Fontaine.”
“Yes; she is a dear, kind, warm-hearted girl. She actually wants me to go and live with her.”
“I understand that your aunt is quite—may I say, herself?”
Maria smiled faintly. “I see that Maimie has told you a great deal. She and my aunt are not kindred spirits.”
“I should be amazed if they were.”
“My aunt had taken a great dislike to Hero since he grew infirm. She says she never could understand people being sentimental about worn-out old animals.”
“Yes, I think I can hear her saying it.”
“And she was angry with me for coming here to nurse him yesterday—is, I should say, for I called this morning, and was refused admittance—it seemed so odd—by a servant I had engaged myself. There I stood on the steps, and he said, ‘Not at home,’ just as if he had never seen me before.”
“But what does it mean? Surely, for such a trifling disobedience, Mrs. Pegrim would not shut her doors on you.”
“I should tell you that when I went to her yesterday morning, at my usual hour, I knew that the old dog was going fast, his poor eyes seemed to follow me everywhere, and implore me to stay with him just for one day,—his last day. And I begged Aunt Selina—perhaps not very discreetly—to allow me to return, and to excuse me for once; but she would not hear of it. She became dreadfully excited, and said I was neglecting her, and that I was to choose, then and there, between her and the dog.”
“And you chose the dog.”
“Yes, or his eyes would have haunted me as long as I lived.”
“You can be very tenacious, I know,” he added, significantly.
Miss Talbot coloured vividly, then continued with,—
“I know that, putting affection for me on one side——”
“Yes, we will consider that as being all on one side.”
“Oh, Mr. Harland, how bitter you are! I am in many ways indispensable to my aunt. I have known her since I was born, and I have lived with her for seven years.”
“I am aware that you have served her for seven years,” he corrected, with caustic significance.
“And she really cannot do without me; and I also know that her little, little outbursts are but temporary; and although I believe that she would probably cut me off with a shilling, as she has often threatened, yet I never thought she would actually turn me out of doors! I keep her accounts, answer her letters, read aloud, know what kind of books she likes from the library; I understand her ailments, and am a good nurse; I do the house-keeping, and pay the books, arrange flowers, and, above all things, keep her out of draughts.”
“What a long list of duties!”
“I’m afraid you will think me extremely conceited, but I am sure my aunt will not be able to replace me immediately. She is very fidgety, as you know, and at present must be suffering great inconvenience; that is why I cannot understand her strange message.”
“But I can understand it,” said Harland, emphatically. “I believe that your aunt would be very thankful to have you back again, but there is someone who is working against you, and whose interest it is to keep you out of the house. Now, who is that person? Think.”
“I cannot—no—unless—could it be Julie, her maid? I don’t fancy that Julie has ever liked me.”
“Does your aunt like Mademoiselle Julie?”
“I am not certain. I suspect that she is just a little bit afraid of her. She never scolds her, and allows her a wonderful amount of liberty. Julie is a good milliner.”
“And your aunt would appreciate that?”
“Yes, indeed; but otherwise she does very little. She is by no means what is called ‘a useful maid,’ and I have often wondered why my aunt, who is really rather exigeante, keeps her.”
“I can answer that question, too. Julie is no doubt a confidential maid; has possibly a strong will and a soft tongue.”
“Yes; but, pray, how did you know?”
“Mademoiselle Julie may not be particularly useful to your aunt, but your aunt will be extremely useful to her. Unless I am much mistaken, she has designs on her fortune, and now that you have, so to speak, ‘given yourself away’ and left the house, she will never suffer you to return, but will reign in your stead,—your aunt’s jailer and heiress.”
“Mr. Harland! I really wonder if what you say is true?”
“I am afraid you will find it is so. It is now a question of whether you or the Frenchwoman is the stronger. Mrs. Pegrim,—pray do excuse me for saying this,—like all bullies, is an arrant coward at heart. If you had shown the least fight, or symptom of having a will of your own, she would have been quite fond of you, and you would have had a far happier existence.”
“But I did resist her the other day, and you see the result.”
“Ah, that was because it was too late. She had no belief in your revolt. You should have figuratively risen seven years before.”
“Yes, and embarked upon a seven years’ war?”
“No; there would have been but one brief engagement, and peace with honour. By the way, have you made up your mind with respect to Miss Fontaine’s proposition? Shall you accept it?”
“No. I was just writing a letter to my aunt; I am sure she will require me.”
“And you wish to return to her! The Order of Flagellants has lost a fanatical member in Miss Talbot. But supposing that Mademoiselle Julie desires to hold the citadel?”
“Of which we have no proof.”
“Will you accept Miss Fontaine’s offer?”
“No, I think not; tempting as it is, it would only be a temporary arrangement.”
“Why should you think so?”
“Because Maimie, of course, will marry, and marry before long.”
“Have you any particular husband in your mind’s eye?”
“May I be permitted to share the mental vision?”
“No; but I will give you a hint. American men best understand American girls.”
“That is so, as Miss Fontaine would say. Much of her speech is dark to me, and, beautiful, brilliant, and wealthy as she is, I should not care to be her husband.”
“And pray why not?”
“She is too full of enthusiasm and vitality for a middle-aged fossil, and, moreover, she would not be content with the domestic hearth, but always insist upon ‘toting’ me around.”
“I don’t think so. She will be the sunlight of her own home, and make it delightfully happy.”
“Yes, if she gets hold of the right man,” said Harland. “But to return to your own affairs: Miss Talbot, I hope you will not think I am impertinent or officious, but I have a special interest in them; in fact, I have always had an interest in them since that evening when we walked down the Rigi, and were so late for dinner.”
“Supposing that your aunt declines to reinstate you as a companion; that you decline to be companion to Miss Fontaine, may I offer you a third alternative? Will you be my companion? I understand that the story you once were so good as to confide to me has been concluded, and that—the book is closed.”
“And knowing this, Mr. Harland,” she said, in a low, husky voice, “would you marry a woman who has given all her best years to a worthless object, the history of whose fatuity and desertion is well known? I am not celebrated for having been a beauty, an heiress, a great musician, a successful writer; I am only”—and she stood up and gravely confronted him—“that poor Miss Talbot who was jilted.”
“Yes, and who subsequently married John Harland,” he added, briskly, as he rose and took her hand and looked long into her eyes.
“No, no,” vainly endeavouring to draw away her fingers. “John Harland’s friends expect him to do something better than marry an almost penniless middle-aged woman, who has wasted her youth in a foolish dream, and whom her wealthy aunt has just turned out of doors.”
“But this is all sheer nonsense, Maria,” he exclaimed, impatiently. “I challenge every word of your statement. “
“Mr. Harland, you are a truthful man,” drawing away her hand. “Is not your offer suggested by pity?”
“I swear upon my honour, upon my soul, that it is not; that it is purely selfish considerations that have prompted me to come here to-day.”
“Yes, I am extremely selfish. I may refer you to my club for my character. I came here solely in my own interests. Why should I not be happy? Why should I not have a wife that will exactly suit me? whose tastes and ideas are a reflex of my own?”
“Why not, indeed?”
“Whose character I have studied,—a privilege rarely accorded before marriage,—who is good-tempered, truthful, honourable, a tender nurse in sickness, a charming companion in health, and who, to crown all, has never been accustomed to have a will of her own.”
“If this is intended as a sketch of me, Mr. Harland?”
“Can’t you say John?”
“Very well, then, John Harland, you are miserably mistaken, especially in the last item. I have a will of my own, as you will discover. I will not be your wife, but I will be your friend.”
“I see nothing to prevent your being both.”
“Ah, I am of keener and longer vision. I take a great interest in you.”
“I am truly thankful for small mercies.”
“I read every word you write. I cut out all press notices. I possess many articles you have written. I am proud of you. Your praises are music in my ears. You must marry well, a cultivated woman of wealth and position, who will forward your aims in the world.”
“Money and position cannot ensure happiness.”
“No, but it can ensure ease and leisure. You can travel far, you can buy rare books, you can be your own master, and the cares of your sister’s family will be lifted from your shoulders.”
“On the contrary, with a rich and presumably fashionable wife, my cares would be increased, Miss Talbot,” he added, after a moment’s hesitation. “I am resolved to claim your promise.”
“What promise, Mr. Harland?”
“The so-called empty promise you gave me that summer evening, when we walked together down the Rigi, the night before you went away. A promise that, under a certain improbable contingency, you would marry me.”
“An empty promise, indeed,” she replied. “And, to be quite candid with you, I have never thought of it since. Surely you cannot claim a promise that you yourself declare to be empty?”
“But I can, I do; and ever since I have heard that the other—had—withdrawn, I have looked upon you as my future wife.”
“You are surely not in earnest?”
“Yes, I surely am, and in deadly earnest.”
“But there must be two to a bargain. I have never, never contemplated you as anything but a pleasant, kind friend, and I have never thought of my foolish pledge.”
“But you will?”
“No, no,” shaking her head.
“Nevertheless, you are my fate; you cannot evade it. I knew it the day, five years ago, when you came into the Hôtel garden,—such a pretty girl, with soft, grave eyes. I suspected it and fled. I might as well have endeavoured to escape from my shadow. And this fact was borne in upon me when I sat opposite to you at dinner, and those same eyes looked at me through two tears,—yes, exactly as they do now. Come, Maria,” he said, taking her hand, “you may just as well make the best of it; there is no armour against fate.”
“It cannot be,” she answered, softly. “I have never thought of you—like that.”
“Then the sooner you begin to think of me like that the better.”
“No, no, no.”
“But how, or where, are you going to live?”
“I believe I shall return to my aunt sooner or later.”
“Then look here: I will make a solemn league and covenant with you. I will undertake not to attempt to see you (unless you send for me) for six months. I will write to you once a week, if I may, and keep you supplied with literature. At the end of six months I shall arrive to claim your definite answer, although at this very moment you are my promised wife.”
They stood for some seconds confronting each other, both silent and pale. At last he said,—
“Well, then, Maria, I shall take silence for consent.” And as he spoke these words, the door opened and Fanny Smee announced,—
And John Harland, without anything further than a brief greeting and good-bye, got himself downstairs and out of the house. He had gathered from Miss Maimie’s expressive blue eyes that the American girl was his friend. All the same, he felt, as she would have expressed it, “discouraged”.
The explanation of Mrs. Pegrim’s obduracy as offered by John Harland was surprisingly correct. The grand “row” long hoped for by Torchon had come at last, and her day had dawned. The old lady, over her toilette, poured out a lava-like stream of her wrongs, and recapitulated the recent “scene,” with many exaggerations regarding Miss Talbot’s words and looks.
Mademoiselle Torchon, who had already caught the drift of the interview, accorded her mistress her almost tearful sympathy, and said, as she smoothed her soft locks with a baby brush,—
“I wonder—and I’ve often said it before, madame—that you stood as much as you did, being desolated and neglected for a common brute beast, and Miss Talbot always carrying herself with such hauteur, and refusing your charming beaded cape and your brown kid gloves. I’m sure if ever anyone was an angel of goodness to a niece, madame, it is yourself,—so kind and thoughtful. And on very bad nights always a cab home to her lodgings, and everyone that comes here taking her for the mistress of the house.”
“Oh, nonsense, Julie. Why everyone knows me, and that it is my house.”
“Pardon, not strangers; par exemple, l’Américaine and another that came just asked tout bonnement for Miss Talbot; not a word of you, madame.”
“Well, at any rate, they shall not come here again, neither shall Miss Talbot—at present.”
Julie did not like this little addition “at present,” and hastened to exclaim,—
“Oh, ma chère dame, I did hope that you could be firm, and like my last mistress, the Countess of Milestone, who, when she said a thing, never changed, jamais, jamais.”
Here she put on Mrs. Pegrim’s pet cap, who, looking at her reflection, said to herself that she, at any rate, would emulate the countess.
“You sent a message to Potter to say that I was ‘not at home’ if Miss Talbot called?”
“Mais certainement, madame. I gave him your orders.”
“And did you tell him to go in and ask Mrs. Hannibal to step over?”
“Yes; but she has gone off to London. I think you may remember she is expecting some friends from China.”
“Dear me, her nephew and family; how tiresome! She will be away for a fortnight. Well, now, I am ready to go down, I suppose; the cook will understand about dinner,—something in the usual style, eh?”
“Why, of course, my lady,” arranging a shawl over her shoulders.
“And—I shall have to read the paper to myself,” continued Mrs. Pegrim, querulously. Julie would have liked to have shaken her. She did not appear to realise that she could not eat her cake and have it. Banish her niece, and still retain her good offices.
As she went grumbling downstairs on Julie’s arm, she espied a boy sitting in the hall.
“Who is he? What is he doing there, Potter?” she screamed. “How dare you leave him alone with the umbrellas?”
“He is a messenger, ma’am, who has just brought this note,” answered Potter, as he handed it to her on a salver.
“Oh, dear!” with a little start. “Why, it’s from Maria.” And she took it up and carried it into the drawing-room, where she sat down, as if completely exhausted.
Mademoiselle Julie remained, and glanced significantly at the unopened letter. There was that in her expression which showed her mistress that here was a crisis at which she needed to bear herself with as much dignity. In her own heart she would have liked to open and read the note, but somehow she dared not attempt it as long as the Frenchwoman was present
“I don’t know what to do about this,” she began, with a helpless gesture.
“Well, madame, if you were Lady Milestone, I know what she would have done before now.”
“Just put it in an envelope and send it back to where it came. You will be pestered ten times a day if you don’t.”
“But I’m afraid—will you see——”
“Here is a nice large envelope,” continued Julie, approaching from the writing-table, “that will just hold it. It’s not right that a lady in your delicate health should be worried in this way. I’m sure Mrs. Hannibal would say so. I only wish Lady Milestone were here to advise you.”
“Well, you really think it’s the best thing?” now slowly putting the note into the envelope. “I’d better get you to address it”
“If you please, no, madame; I’ll do anything else but that. If Miss Talbot saw my handwriting, she’d think I’d been putting you against her—here is the pen, with a nice nib—when, as everyone knows, she has brought it all on herself, thanks to her infatuation and neglect.”
“That’s true, Julie. Give this to the boy, and just see that he has taken nothing away; and you may get me my glass of port and biscuit.”
For three long wet days—and very long days they proved to Mrs. Pegrim—Julie ministered to the old lady and nursed her wrath, but never before had she realised the onerous tasks that had fallen to Miss Talbot, and by night-time she was, as she expressed it to Bates, the housemaid, ”tout à fait défaillie,” for the old woman’s wants and fancies were beyond everything. She could not endure to see any other person sitting down, or enjoying a moment’s relaxation. No; she instantly thought of a task or an errand, something to fetch, knitting to arrange, a letter to write, a cushion, spectacles, coals,—a ceaseless, unslackening round of uninteresting and irritating tasks.
At the end of four days, during which there had been but few letters, and no visitors save Miss Fontaine and Mr. Harland and Miss Talbot, to all of whom admittance was denied, Julie was almost at the end of her patience. If this sort of life were to continue for months and years, she would lose her health and be driven out of her senses. So far, however, she had had one pleasant memory to look back on,—she had had the satisfaction of seeing Mrs. Pegrim burn her will. The great matter now was to prevail upon her to execute another. And who shall say what eloquence she called to her assistance, nor how many lies and fulsome flatteries? but it is a fact that one night Mrs. Pegrim wrote out a will on a sheet of paper, testifying that she was of sound mind, and left everything of which she died possessed (house and furniture, linen and plate, personal clothing, investments in funds, deposit at bank) to her dear friend Julie, with the exception of a legacy of five hundred pounds to Maria Talbot free of legacy duty. This, however, she flatly refused to sign. Julie had brought her horse to the water, but she could not make the animal drink. Mrs. Pegrim had always cherished an idea that it was unlucky to sign a will until the last moment, and stoutly resisted all her “friend’s” blandishments.
“It won’t take two minutes to write my name, and if you pester me any more, I declare I’ll throw it into the fire,” she exclaimed, with a flash of her old temper. “You’d better take care of it, and lock it up.”
Julie took great care of it, and locked it away among her own effects. The next question was, How long would the old lady last? “Longer than my patience,” said Julie to herself.
Mrs. Hannibal returned, and was amazed to hear of the domestic revolution at Charlotte Villa. She did not accord her approval of the coup-d’état, for she was fond of Maria, and though Julie Torchon sought her favour, and even went so far as to offer to trim her caps, yet Mrs. Hannibal was staunch. When Jane Hannibal had heard the history of her neighbour’s domestic wars, and of Maria’s enormities, she exclaimed,—
“Well, Selina, I suppose you know your own business best, and if you like to cut off your nose to spite your face, I’m sure I can’t help you. I think you had no right to treat Maria so. Why should she not have leave to go and stay away for a day? How she spent it, whether with cat or dog, is not the question. You have come to look upon her as a servant, and worse, for a servant has her day out, and every second Sunday, not to speak of wages, and Maria had nothing—no, not even thanks. After all, she is a free woman, and has sixty pounds a year of her own. She can live in a small way on that, and be her own mistress.”
“She’ll starve,” cried her aunt, in a tone that was shrill with passion.
“Oh, no; she can pay visits, now the dog is dead. The question is, What are you going to do? When will you get another companion? You can’t live alone, with servants; it’s not respectable.”
Mrs. Pegrim’s spoon trembled angrily in her saucer. She had anticipated sympathy, and here she was being lectured, not to say scolded; expected a fish, and here was a stinging serpent. It had been on the tip of her tongue to tell Jane that she had destroyed her will, but Jane in her present frame of mind was not ripe for this intelligence.
“Why, you yourself were always saying that Maria ought to poison that dog, and live here, and now you turn about and contradict yourself.”
“I never eat my words, and I say it still, solely because it was wretched work for her, trudging to and fro in all weathers, and wasting all her little income on lodging money, and going just as shabby,—why her clothes are not half as fine as my table-maid wears on Sunday. And now, Selina, what are you going to do? You won’t like sitting here all these winter nights alone?”
“Oh, Julie comes in.”
“Tut, tut; that wouldn’t do at all. She may be an excellent person in her place, which is elsewhere. And who reads to you, writes notes, makes your little cups of food? If you have really done with Maria, there is Mrs. Clarendon’s second daughter, just come home. She fell ill in Germany,—the climate was too severe,—and she would be glad of the place.”
“Humph! I daresay she would,” snorted Mrs. Pegrim.
“And you ought to be thankful to get her. She is a gentlewoman, and most accomplished.”
“So was Maria. I don’t know anyone whose playing I liked better.”
“But what is the use of saying all this, when you’ve expelled Maria?” cried Mrs. Hannibal, impatiently. “You will want someone at once.”
“Well, if I am to have a companion, the sooner the better. There are seven serials running in the magazines, and I shall be getting behindhand. I suppose she is a sensible girl, and will understand how to keep me out of draughts?”
“Oh, of course. She is accustomed to old people. Shall I walk round and send her to see you to-morrow?”
“I suppose she will expect a salary?”
“Well, I should suppose so!” rather drily.
“I believe she had eighty pounds a year in her last place.”
“Eighty fiddlesticks!” screamed Mrs. Pegrim. “Why, I was thinking of her board and washing and twenty.”
“Then, I can only assure you that you need not think of it. The duties of attending on old people are wearing and onerous,—hot rooms, long hours, monotonous life, all these must be taken into consideration. Perhaps, if you gave her a day at home once a week, she would come for something less.”
“She may not suit me.”
“Well, if not, there is Lizzie Evans. She is a little older.”
“A little,—she is five-and-forty. No, no, she would not do.”
“And Mrs. Macnight’s cousin, I’m sure she would take a situation.”
“I would not have her as a gift—she is hideous!”
“Then I’d strongly advise you to think of Edith Clarendon. You know her address. Shall I write?”
“No, thank you; I’ll write myself,” rejoined Mrs. Pegrim, who wished to lay the scheme before Julie. “I’ll write first thing in the morning, after I have slept upon it.”
“Where are you going to in such a hurry?”
“I’m going round to see Maria,” was the courageous reply.
“Oh, indeed!” And Mrs. Pegrim sniffed.
“I wonder if she would come to me as a companion,” said the old lady, staring reflectively at her companion.
“Jane Hannibal! Do you wish to affront me?”
“Well, I suppose you will have no objection to my asking her on a visit, eh?” She paused with her hand upon the door-handle and looked back, but Mrs. Pegrim’s only answer, if such it could be termed, was to glare at her over her spectacles, then through them, and once more over them; finally, take up a book in angry silence.
Mademoiselle Julie evidently approved of Mrs. Hannibal’s scheme: a companion who could have no expectations, and would relieve her of many distasteful duties, would be a truly welcome inmate. She even went so far as to hint (very gently) at a liberal salary, and a room on the second floor.
“Unless there was considerable inducement,” she said to herself, “flesh and blood could not stand it.” And, as it turned out, her prognostication was lamentably correct, for although the terms were liberal, and the bedroom comfortable, flesh and blood (as personified by Miss Clarendon) only stood it for the space of three days. She was succeeded by Miss Evans, who, being very poor, and anxious to help her mother, remained for a whole fortnight; but during that time her eyes were generally red. She was a gentle girl, unaccustomed to a “temper”, and Mrs. Pegrim’s constant scoldings affected her health and spirits. The sad fate of these unfortunates became widely known, and the inflammable nature of Mrs. Pegrim’s temperament, her nagging, her cruel personal remarks, her incessant requirements, were soon public property.
“How was it that ‘poor Miss Talbot’ had put up with such a life for year?” people asked of one another.
The flattering inference drawn was that Miss Talbot must be an angel!
Her aunt had quarrelled with her, her old favourite was dead. She now took her walks alone (when not with the American heiress), and all at once attentions began to be showered on “poor Miss Talbot” Offers of a drive, baskets of flowers, invitation to dinners descended upon her in showers. Fanny Smee was quite triumphant over all the attention that Miss Maria was receiving, and all the callers who drove up and left cards. One visitor, however, had never returned,—the one whom Fanny in her own mind had named “the nice gentleman”.
Among the visitors was Mrs. Hannibal: she came in a Bath-chair, wearing her chinchilla furs, and found Maria at home, sitting by the fire.
“You don’t mean to say you’ve got a new dog!” was her first exclamation, as she advanced into the room and pointed with a tragic finger to where Banjo squatted directly in front of the blaze.
“Oh, dear, no; the pug belongs to Lord Augustus, but he sometimes comes upstairs to keep me company.” Banjo’s respect for Maria had greatly increased since she had been the recipient of so many attentions in the shape of visits, invitations, flowers, and game. Occasionally he arrived to dinner, and, for the sake of his old friend, was made welcome.
“He and old Hero were friends,” added Maria.
“Oh; and old Hero was the means of your being turned out. It’s a sad pity, in some ways.”
“Yes; it is very good of you to come and see me, Mrs. Hannibal. I’m afraid Aunt Selina will be vexed with you.”
“Not a bit of it. I always liked you, and I’ve been giving your aunt a rare scolding.”
“Scolded Aunt Selina!”
“And why not? If she had had more scoldings when she was a young woman, it would have been no harm. She won’t have you back, at any price.”
“No. She would not see me, and she returned my note unopened. Still, I think she must miss me.”
“I’m positive of that. She is going to see about getting a companion. She has an idea of Miss Clarendon.”
“She is a nice, bright girl.”
“And your aunt will not spare the rubs.”
“I think Aunt Selina does not mean to be so cross; it’s just habit and nervous irritability.”
“And now, Maria, what are your own plans?”
“I’m looking out for a situation as secretary and amanuensis to an old lady or gentleman.”
“I think I’d try an old gentleman this time, my dear, if I were you.”
“Miss Fontaine has asked me to live with her, but, though I am very fond of her, it would not do. She is so gay and happy, and enjoys every hour of her life.”
“Which is more than you can say.”
“Yes; I should only be a wet blanket. I tell her that some day I shall go over and see her in America, and pay her a long visit.”
“I have not noticed her about the last few days.”
“No; she has gone to Paris, but will be back again shortly.”
“And now, Maria, I want to ask you a plain question: how are you off for money?”
“Very well for the present, thank you.”
“I suppose you are speaking the truth, because you know I shall be dreadfully hurt if you don’t borrow from an old woman that has more than she knows what to do with.”
“I would borrow from you before anyone, if I wanted it, you may be sure. Perhaps I may yet.”
“And I want you to come and stay a month with me.”
“Mrs. Hannibal, you are very kind.”
“And you will come?”
“For a week, if I may.”
“No, you may not. Great Patience! what is this?” as the door was flung open, and Sara and Miss Smee staggered in, carrying a case two feet long and a foot and a half broad, evidently very heavy.
“This has just come for you, Miss Talbot, carriage paid, and been left by the railway van. I can’t think what it can be, for even wedding-cake don’t weigh like this.”
“Let us open it at once,” cried Mrs. Hannibal, eagerly; “there’s a poker.”
“Oh, I’ll get the turn-screw and hammer,” replied Miss Smee, who liked things to be done decently and in order.
“It’s not dynamite, eh?”
“No; I’m not afraid,” said Maria. “I don’t think anyone wants to blow me up.”
“I should have thought you were pretty well used to it,” added the other, slyly. “Now, now the lid is off. Straw, eh? and—a newspaper—what a mess it will make on the carpet! A tombstone, as I live.”
Yes, John Harland had kept his word, and here lay a small white marble headstone, on which was engraved,—
DIED NOVEMBER THE 12TH
Quis novet si spiritus
Eiliorum Adam ascendat
“What is all this about Adam?” enquired Mrs. Hannibal.
“I am sure I don’t know. I cannot read Latin, but I will ask Mr. Harland.”
“Harland, Harland, who is he? Oh, I think I remember,—he was a gentleman who was very attentive to you and your aunt at some place abroad.”
“Yes; he paid my aunt the attention of saving her life.”
“Dear me! I gathered that it was to you he paid attention; but this settles it.”
“Why should you think that?”
Mrs. Hannibal pointed dramatically to the tombstone.
“Oh, he was a friend of old Hero’s, and this offering points to the very opposite of your idea, for I once heard him say that marriage was the grave of love.”
The tombstone was erected without question in Mrs. Smee’s back garden, where it had a fairly prominent effect, and shortly afterwards Miss Talbot left the square to pay her promised visit to Mrs. Hannibal, and crafty Mrs. Hannibal lost no time in establishing relations between aunt and niece. To tell the truth, Mrs. Pegrim missed Maria more and more sorely every day. The shortcomings of others, their tears, indignation, and incapacity, had opened her eyes to the treasure she had so wantonly relinquished. The servants did precisely as they pleased, doors were left wide open all over the house, the fire was never as she liked it, her Benger’s food was invariably cold, her letters were in woful arrears, and, worse than all, she was constantly alone. So, when Mrs. Hannibal mentioned, in an off-hand manner, that she would bring Maria in to see her, Mrs. Pegrim figuratively leaped at the idea.
“Of course, she comes to this house, Jane, not as my niece, but as your friend, and you know that I am always very pleased to see any friend of yours.”
In this ridiculous manner did Mrs. Pegrim salve her self-respect and face a severe crisis with promptitude and decision.
“Good-evening,” she said, quite affably, when Maria entered and once more beheld the familiar tea-table and her aunt’s too familiar knitting. “Maria, on a certain subject we will not speak, but you may kiss me.” And she held up her cheek.
“I hope you are well, aunt?”
“Now, isn’t that just like you, to ask such a silly question! How can I possibly be well, after all the worry and trouble I have had? I assure you, when that Clarendon young woman turned upon me, like a tigress, and gave me a palpitation of the heart, that I did not get the better of it for days, and—yes, you may well look about—when the other imbecile was dusting a picture, she knocked down my beautiful yellow vase, and she let the bath run all over the house one day: it was pouring down the stairs like a cataract; and another time I felt a terrible chill, and, would you believe it, there were two inches of the long window wide open. I wonder I did not get my death. However, let us talk of something else. You may as well make tea.”
After tea, Maria moved quietly about, putting the room to rights; she cut a novel, and settled her aunt’s knitting; and when she was preparing to leave, Mrs. Pegrim said,—
“I’ll tell you what, Maria, I’ve been thinking you may as well come in to-morrow morning and read to me. Come about eleven. I know you have nothing to do, and I’ve a heap of letters”—pointing to a pile—“that must be answered. “
“Very well, Aunt Selina, I will come at eleven. Goodnight.”
When Miss Talbot presented herself at eleven o’clock the following day, she was admitted by Potter, who had evidently received fresh instructions. Julie secretly rebelled at seeing Miss Talbot set foot in the house, after all her conduct! But it was Miss Talbot or nobody, and she was certainly better than no one. She would only come in the daytime, and now that the will had been destroyed, she was harmless; moreover, Mademoiselle Torchon felt a conviction that if she held the reins too tightly Mrs. Pegrim might break away from her control. Once more she would resume her own special and easy labours. Miss Talbot would accomplish the rest. She, however, had the privilege of putting the old lady to bed. Mrs. Pegrim was always milder and more amenable when in deshabille, and without stiff brocades and diamonds, and other little matters indispensable to her appearance, was shorn of half her strength; in these weak moments Julie administered a cup of delicious milk gruel, flavoured with port wine, as well as a few subtle flatteries and innuendoes.
“I think it right to tell you, Maria,” said Mrs. Pegrim, as Maria was stamping a great pile of letters, “that after your—ahem!—heartless conduct to me, a month ago, I destroyed my will. You understand,” she added, significantly.
“Yes, aunt, I understand.”
“But if you like to come back, and resume all your duties, you may do so. I cannot expect Jane Hamilton to give you up her spare room, and I do not wish to have you here” (that is to say, Julie Torchon had been inflexible when the old lady had made the suggestion); “but I shall, in future, pay for your apartments,—fifteen shillings a week, is it not?”
“Yes, thank you, Aunt Selina.”
Thus did Maria Talbot place her neck once more under the yoke, and it soon became noised abroad that Mrs. Pegrim had forgiven her niece.
Miss Maimie Fontaine and her father returned from Paris, where the former had spent a delightful time. She declared that she had seen everything and been everywhere, from down in the sewers to the top of the Eiffel tower, and from the Café des Morts to La Comédie Française. She brought back with her a quantity of new frocks, capes, and hats, and had not forgotten her friend Maria.
When Mrs. Pegrim beheld a beautiful muff-chain, a painted gauze fan, some exquisite pocket-handkerchiefs, and a large box of bonbons, she sniffed expressively, but made no other remark. Miss Fontaine had heard by letter of Maria’s reinstallation, and loaded her with reproaches, as well as gifts, when her friend came to see her.
“Maria Talbot,” she cried, as she sprang up from the floor, where she sat among a number of open boxes. “Oh, you real bad, bad, girl! I just wonder you dare come near me! When I got your letter I was as mad as hops. How could you bring yourself to go back into the house of bondage?”
“I’m accustomed to it, you see,” answered Maria, with a smile.
“Well, you are a crank! Just like a tame hare we once had: we reared it and gave it its liberty, but it always came back; it did not understand freedom, and freedom is thrown away on you.”
“She is my own relation, you see.”
“If she was mine, I should see very little of her. I tell you, Maria, those French women know how to dress, and put their clothes on, my word they do. There was a lady at the theatre just in front of us: she wore a pale-blue gown, done with jet. I declare to you it brought the tears of envy to my eyes. I mean to have one like it, or perish in the attempt. I suppose you have heard nothing more of Captain Borrodaile?”
“I thought I saw him on the platform at Amiens, but I may have been mistaken. He will come out all right, you’ll see. Hypocrites prosper everywhere, except in story-books.”
“My dear Maimie, don’t let us talk about him.”
“Very well, then, whom shall we discuss?”
“Your cousin George. I’d like to hear something about him.”
“Isn’t this a lovely pink silk waist?” asked Maimie, as she shook out a ravishing blouse. “As for Cousin George, he has been making a pile of money, so his father writes.”
“Does he not write himself?”
“No; he is real vexed with me, first of all because of a riddle.”
“Oh, a riddle! Your riddles seem to have the unfortunate knack of offending people. You remember the one you gave my aunt about cats?”
“Yes; but George was different: I asked him if he knew when love was deformed? Of course he couldn’t guess, so I told him, ‘When it’s all on one side.’ He was hopping mad, for people used to say that he was very sweet on me. See? He took that for a sort of final answer, and I no more thought of it in that way, and I would not have said it to him for the whole round world, for George was middling poor and awful proud, and though I knew right well he liked me, he always stood back, on account of my wretched dollars; so it was a bit awkward, you see? And then, by bad luck I gave another man his dance that very same evening, and so he just took what you call his congé, and went right away out West, without so much as S.Y.L.—that means ‘see you later’—or even good-bye. Now, isn’t that a cute little necktie? and this fur? I’m just loaded up with presents for the old folks at home.”
“What are you taking your uncle?”
“A set of Russian furs and a real grandfather’s clock, and Auntie Fee a seal-skin sack.”
“Seal-skin sack! What can she do with it?”
“Why, wear it, you silly goose,—it’s a coat.”
“And what are you going to give your cousin George?”
“Just nothing at all; no, and if I’d gone and stayed over here it would have served him right.”
“Then I know what you are going to give him.”
“No, you don’t!” snapped Maimie, with a flash of her eyes.
“Maria Talbot! What makes you say such things? You are the most audacious woman I ever came across!”
“I’m quite sure no one would know me by that name,” rejoined Maria demurely. “It is getting on for tea-time and I must be off. I don’t see a clock here; what is the time?”
“Oh, it’s not more than four, and, talking of time and clocks, I had such a scene with a French porter.” And Maimie threw back her head and laughed. “I asked him what time the train started, and he answered, ‘Fifteen past twenty-two.’ ‘Fifteen minutes past twenty-two hours!’ I just screamed at him. ‘Who ever heard of such a thing? I ask you a polite question, and you ridicule me.’ I can tell you that I rowed, and you know that when I once begin to talk in good earnest I’d like to see. the person who could get a word in. The clamour brought father, two porters, an interpreter, and Cook’s man upon the scene, and after a bit, when I was drawing breath, father managed to explain to me that it was just the way the trains’ times were put down abroad, and that the porter meant no harm whatever; so of course I begged his pardon, and, as it appeared I had frightened him very much, I gave him five francs, as a pour boire.”
“I declare I should be afraid to travel with you, Maimie.”
“Why so? Everyone is very civil to me,” said Maimie, now going to a wardrobe and taking down a short fur-lined cape with a high collar. “I’m going to walk back with you, Maria Talbot.”
“But it’s a wretched damp afternoon.”
“I don’t mind a bit, and I must make the most of the time I have with you.”
“I shall miss you dreadfully, Maimie.”
“Yes; and I don’t pity you one bit, when you could come right away with us and be just like my own sister, instead of deliberately putting your neck under the yoke again.”
“But Aunt Selina is my nearest relative. I’ve been with her, off and on, since I was a child, and I always intended to live with her unless——”
“And that unless has never come off; but there may be another,—for instance, that nice Mr. Harland. Why cannot you make him happy?”
“Mr. Harland has quite enough to maintain without a penniless wife. Besides, I don’t care for him in that way, and after so many years.”
“Of wasting your love on an unworthy object, you cannot bring yourself to bestow it on one who is an honourable, upright, and unselfish gentleman! Upon my word, such men are not to be despised, and I have a very good mind to marry John Harland myself!” And she burst into a peal of laughter which proved to be so infectious that Maria laughed too.
“You have no time to lose, then, as you sail in a fortnight. Maimie, I don’t know how I shall get on without you, you have brought me so many happy days. That was a lucky birthday for me when I met you. You will surely come back next fall?”
“Yes, I hope so. Father will want to have another good spell at heraldry at the Herald’s College, and I shall come here, of course. I would come if it was for nothing else than to gratify my curiosity, and to see how long you mean to hold out against John Harland. You are bound to marry him.”
“You said this moment that you intended to marry him yourself?”
“Oh, that was only my little joke. I wouldn’t have dared to say it in earnest. I know that John Harland is in love with you. When a man comes and raves to one about a woman, it means nothing; but when he is quiet, and goes mooning round, you just look out for stars. John Harland is too clever. I always feel that he is reading me off like a story-book, studying my atrocious style, making notes of my shortcomings, and would certainly cut me up only that I happen to suit your taste. He would never do for me, and besides——” She paused. They were now standing at the nearest corner to Charlotte Villa. Maimie did not presume to venture farther.
“Besides,” repeated Maria. She looked straight at Maimie, but Maimie’s eyes were fixed upon a fly with luggage, which had just splashed by, and Maimie’s face turned white, then suddenly flushed with a quick hot blush, and then flashed into a new radiance. Then the cab stopped abruptly, and a tall young man in grey sprang out and came rapidly towards them, towards Maimie, that is to say; his eyes were solely for her, and Maria instantly recognised the original of that photograph which was kept in disgrace under the looking-glass. Yes, this handsome, eager traveller was undoubtedly “Cousin George.”
“Goodness alive, George Erle!” exclaimed Maimie, “where have you come from? What on the face of the earth has brought you here?”
“I believe I’ve come,” he answered, “to fetch you home.”
“Good land! I’d like to know——”
Here Maria drew back and left the two lovers standing in the rain, and quietly effected her escape.
She saw it all: George had made his fortune at last, and the word “besides” and Maimie’s pallor, indicated that she had made her choice.
In ten days’ time Mr. and Miss Fontaine and Mr. Erle were among the passengers who left for New York by the “City of Paris.”
Mrs. Pegrim’s daily prognostication that “her servants would be the death of her” was a prophecy that no one, least of all she herself, expected to be fulfilled, but a loose stair-rod that Bates, the housemaid, had neglected to fasten, caught her foot and precipitated her from the top to the bottom of a steep flight, where she lay a helpless bundle. Maria, who had been out, opened the hall door a few minutes later, to discover her aunt and shawls inextricably mixed up with the hall mat, and ran, horror-struck, to her assistance. The old lady sat up, straightened her cap; no bones were broken, but she had received a great shock and not a few bruises. Mrs. Pegrim was carried to her arm-chair, and revived with smelling salts and a glass of wine; and presently professed herself completely restored, and angrily declined the offices of a doctor.
“I’ve broken no bones. I did not fall on my head. Those good Axminster carpets saved me, and I’m not much the worse, only that I shall be terribly stiff to-morrow. An old woman of my age has no business to toboggan down the stairs. Maria do you remember the tobogganing at Montreux?”
“Yes, aunt; but I’m sure you are more shaken than you will admit. Let me help you up to bed.”
“No, no,” she answered, peevishly. “I’ll get enough of bed some day, and as long as I can stay out of it I shall. You need not look so frightened, but tell Potter to send up tea directly.”
The evening was spent as usual, in reading aloud and playing games. Mrs. Pegrim’s criticisms were as much to the point as usual, and she played backgammon with amazing spirit, snapping up Maria’s men and rattling out her double “sizes”, as she called them, with vigorous satisfaction. Maria was always glad to remember that her aunt had been milder than she ever remembered her; that she seemed anxious to recall old times, and even got up and walked over and surveyed her own picture, an oil painting of a handsome, dark, haughty-looking girl in white satin.
“No one would ever think that I’d come to be such a shrivelled-up pippin of an old woman. That was taken just before I married Pegrim.”
“You were always a handsome woman, Aunt Selina.”
“Yes; Pegrim was very proud of my arms and my ears,” she continued. “Maria,” looking at her niece, who stood beside her, holding a candle, “you’ve got my ears, and your mother’s eyes, but you will never be—or rather never were—a patch on either of us.”
“No, Aunt Selina, I am sure I was no great beauty.”
“Oh, you were well enough. There, that will do. I suppose you must be going home, and it’s a wet night.” As Maria stooped to kiss her aunt, she put up her hand and stroked her cheek with two fingers, saying, “Come; you are not such a bad girl after all!”
Mrs. Pegrim never attempted these little caresses and compliments in the presence of Julie. Maria rang the bell for her aunt’s gruel, picked up some letters which were to be posted on her way home, and then went into a little cloak-room in order to put on what Mrs. Pegrim called her “things”. As she passed once more through the hall, she noticed her aunt, who was about to mount the stairs on Julie’s arm. The old lady waved her free hand in answer to Maria’s final good-bye, and thus the two, whose lives had been bound together for so long, parted—for ever.
The next morning, about half-past seven, when Miss Talbot was dressing, Fanny Smee entered her room with her face wearing an unusually solemn expression. “Miss Talbot,” she said, “your aunt’s man, Mr. Potter, has just come in a fly. He has been sent to fetch you.”
“Oh, then she was injured by that fall,” said Maria, hastily twisting up her still beautiful hair. “I was afraid it was worse than she admitted. I hope Potter fetched the doctor before he came on to me?”
“Yes, miss—ahem!” It seemed to be Fanny Smee’s rôle to break things to Miss Talbot. How was she to tell her that Potter had probably given the undertaker a call? She could not just blurt out, “Mrs. Pegrim is dead,” so she said,—
“He is—no great hurry, miss.”
“No, he never is,” returned Maria, proceeding to button her boots. “Please get me out my dress, Fanny.” Then, looking up quickly, “Oh, no, not the old black serge. My aunt has forbidden it “
But seeing Fanny deliberately hunt out a black silk blouse, place it and the skirt upon a chair, she stopped and said,—
“You don’t mean that my aunt is—dead?”
“Yes, miss, and I did not know how to say so. She passed away in her sleep about three o’clock this morning, so the doctor says.”
“Poor Aunt Selina!” exclaimed Maria, with tears in her eyes. “That is just as she always wished to die, and not to be bedridden; but, oh, it is awfully sudden.” And she sat down and rested her face in her hand. “Well,” raising her eyes to Fanny, “I am glad to say that we were never better friends than last night. She patted my cheek and said I was not such a bad girl after all.”
“Bad girl!” repeated Fanny, indignantly. “You’ve just been a saint to her, and that’s as sure as you will catch your death of cold, unless you put on your gown. Why, who else could have stood it for years but a saint. There was Miss Evans,—why, they say she slapped her, and——”
“Now, Fanny, I cannot let you say such things; everyone has an infirmity of some kind.”
“Some twice as many as others.”
“And in many ways she was kind to me, and—I shall always remember that.”
“I hope she has remembered you, Miss Talbot, and left you every shilling she had in the world.”
“She has not left me a penny.”
Fanny opened her mouth, but was powerless to articulate, so great was her horror at this information.
“No; when I went back she told me that she had destroyed her will, and asked me if I understood. I replied that I did; and I imagine that her fortune has gone to some charities. I shall get a situation through Mrs. Hannibal.”
A knock at the door: it was Sara with a cup of tea and a bit of toast. By this time Miss Talbot was quite ready, and, as she dressed entirely in black, Sara gathered that she was now in possession of the sad intelligence.
Potter received Miss Talbot with unusual respect. Mrs. Pegrim was dead,—vive la Reine. He ushered her to the fly with much empressement, and then mounted the box. It was a lovely April morning. As they drove through the streets the houses were opening, and blinds were drawn up, but at Charlotte Villa when they arrived someone was going from room to room pulling down all the blinds, and the undertaker’s men were fastening a long crêpe weeper to the knocker of the hall door.
Julie received Maria on the upper landing. She wore a black mourning gown and an expression to correspond, and was looking strangely white and haggard; her air gave one the impression of something suppressed, and her lips were working convulsively.
“Julie, this is dreadful about my aunt,—so very sad, so sudden. How did if occur?”
Julie cleared her throat and replied,—
“She rang the bell about two o’clock, and when I went in she was sitting up in bed, and said she felt very faint, and to get her some brandy. I got it for her, and I called up Bates and Madame Michel at once, and sat up with her; and then she told me to put the light out of her eyes, as she felt a little better, and she turned upon her side, and said we were to leave her, as she thought she would sleep; and presently she dozed off. When I went in early this morning she was lying as I left her, but quite dead. She had been dead for hours; the doctor said it was the heart, and he has given a certificate. I suppose you will like to see her?”
“Yes, of course.”
“I’ve locked up all her drawers and papers.”
“Oh, have you, Julie? You should have left that to me.”
“Pardon! but I thought it best; and I suppose, miss, you will write to people and arrange matters for the funeral?”
As soon as the news of Mrs. Pegrim’s death was made known, many friendly offers of assistance and good-will were proffered to her niece (and heiress). Maria was quite overwhelmed with letters and civilities. She took up her quarters (temporarily) with Mrs. Hannibal, as the old lady was particularly insistent, and would, in fact, listen to neither reason nor refusal; but she spent most of her time at Charlotte Villa, answering correspondence and otherwise finding plenty of occupation. On one of these occasions, as she sat alone in the drawing-room, she heard loud, shrill female voices, and a sound of scuffling and rushing in a bedroom directly overhead; then a door banged. She sat and wondered; finally, she came to the conclusion that it would be useless to ring the bell and make inquiries, as within twenty-four hours her authority, such as it was, over the household would cease.
The funeral was over. It had taken place a week previously, and been a most elaborate and imposing affair. The hearse, with four black horses, was followed by six handsome mourning coaches and an immense train of private carriages, gradually dwindling away into mere flies. Mrs. Pegrim would have been highly gratified, had she been in a position to witness her own obsequies. After the funeral there came the reading of the will, which ceremony did not prove to be a lengthy business, for, although Mr. Broadscreed, the lawyer of the Talbot family, had produced a large and imposing document, which boasted of no less than three codicils, of what did this avail, when Mr. Fleece, a third-rate attorney, with a pair of gimlet eyes that looked as if they had taken his nose into custody, so closely were they set to that dissipated feature, produced a more recent testament,—a small sheet of Silurian note-paper, written in the old lady’s own large, sprawling hand, duly signed by her, and witnessed by Madame Michel and Susan Jane Bates.
The witnesses were both present, wearing their new mourning gowns, and expressions to correspond. Madame Michel, a little Frenchwoman, with a leathery skin, china-blue eyes, and a collected, self-centred air, sat with her hands tightly folded over the ear-trumpet in her lap. Next to her was Susan Bates, a tall, handsome girl, who now and then uttered a dry, convulsive sob, due to her overwrought conviction that she had been the death of the old lady, and that, as she had tragically announced to an acquaintance, “her blood was on her hands.”
However, Susan was not only of a weak and excitable temperament, which was easily worked upon; she was a ravenous devourer of sensational literature, and was a firm believer in omens, luck, and ghosts. Next to her sat Potter, looking as solemn as an undertaker, and a little aloof from this trio was Mademoiselle Julie, her sallow hands locked rigidly in her lap, her eyes meekly downcast. She had assumed (with conspicuous success) the air of modest virtue which is about to receive its well-deserved reward. In a few moments’ time Mademoiselle Torchon, lady’s maid, was in a position to keep a lady’s maid herself,—aye, and a coachman, a footman, and a man cook into the bargain, if so disposed.
The little will, on a sheet of stone-grey note-paper, stated that, being of sound mind, Mrs. Pegrim left all she possessed to her dear and devoted friend and nurse, Julie Marie Torchon, with the exception of the sum of five hundred pounds, which were to be given, free of legacy duty, to the testator’s niece, Maria Katherine Talbot.
Signed, Selina Pegrim.
Witnessed by Manette Michel and Susan Jane Bates.
And that was all.
As soon as Mr. Fleece’s voice had ceased, there was an ominous murmur among the connections and very distant relatives who had not been on terms with the deceased for years, but who had, nevertheless, nourished vague but sweet hopes that they might have been “remembered”, for some reason or other best known to each particular individual’s private conviction.
Potter’s expression sank from profoundly respectful regret into the deepest gloom. The reverend gentleman, Canon Latimer, who had anticipated a handsome legacy for the Old Women’s Home, and, at the very least, a new church clock, was struck dumb; and Dr. Bland, who had reckoned upon a couple of thousand for the Hospital, looked stupefied with amazement. It was known to more than one that Mrs. Pegrim was a wealthy old lady, more so than was generally supposed; although people who are stingy in small outlay (and Mrs. Pegrim was very near in the matter of cab-hire, tea, string, and gas) usually obtain a great reputation for wealth. For many years she had lived well within her income, and, besides this, had inherited a large amount from a Talbot who had died in Australia (and this money, at any rate, should have gone to Maria). Mrs. Pegrim had savings in the Funds, and many shares in several of the best paying lines of American railways. She owned house property in Brighton and Hastings (land she had always set her face against). Taking everything into consideration, including the heart-breaking death duties, Mademoiselle Torchon would come into possession of about eighty thousand pounds.
Mr. Broadscreed, the family solicitor, looked fixedly at Miss Talbot. So did Mr. Harland, who had come from London to attend the funeral (and was reported to have been a great favourite with the deceased lady, and to have had strong personal claims upon her).
Miss Talbot bore the blow amazingly well; this was the universal verdict. At first she looked grave and surprised, but this expression was a matter of seconds; now she was as perfectly calm and composed as if she were merely assisting at domestic devotions (and indeed the reading of a will, with rows of silent people, including the household, all ranged on chairs, and one man reading aloud, does, at a distance, bear a distinct resemblance to family worship. The contents of the will are occasionally the results of another description of family worship).
Mr. Fleece got up and came across, in order to confer in low whispers with Mr. Broadscreed, who looked almost as if he had been visited by some kind of mental shock, and who helplessly fingered the bulky packet before him. What was the good of it? Its grandly turned sentences, its seals and stamps, were null and void, thanks to that flippant-looking sheet of grey note-paper which Mr. Fleece had in his grasp. As for Mr. Fleece’s employer, she sat immovable, her face like stone, her eyes fixed upon her own hands; the only sign of life or movement was the quivering of her wide nostrils, the nostrils of a Calmuc.
At last the fierce glare of public opinion became too scorching for her self-command; all eyes had been fastened upon her, and the language of those eyes was violent.
And at the very zenith of her triumph, Mademoiselle Torchon found that the situation was untenable, the eye battery too severe; it literally drove her off the field, and, affecting to be overcome with emotion, she rose from her seat and went softly, but swiftly, out of the room.
And then the storm burst, and raged with thunders and lightnings, around the persons of the two lawyers.
“Of course, you will dispute the will?” exclaimed one. “It’s a manifest case of undue influence,” said another. “Your name and address, ma’am, if you please,” said a sharp voice to the last speaker. “Your remark is libellous and actionable, and I am here in the capacity of Mademoiselle Torchon’s lawyer and representative.”
This announcement had a remarkable effect, and the hubbub somewhat abated. Maria followed Torchon’s example. She left the room with Mrs. Hannibal, who was shaking all over with excitement and indignation, and loudly giving her opinion of “a cockatrice” and “a swindler” in a manner that was likely to embroil her with Mr. Fleece.
“Take me out of this, Maria!” she exclaimed, as they stood for a moment in the drawing-room. “This is Torchon’s house now! To think of it! No, I can’t bear to think of it. She has everything,—your aunt’s very picture is hers. She will sell it by auction, and she will have all the old silver, and the Chantilly lace flounces! Oh, it’s too iniquitous! I cannot believe that Selina was sane when she made that will. Oh, I don’t know when I’ve had such a shock.” And she burst into hysterical tears.
“Now, dear Mrs. Hannibal, you really must not let yourself be so upset,” said Maria, as she led her down the doorsteps,—Maria, whose fortitude appeared to be extraordinary. “So far as I am concerned, I never expected Aunt Selina to leave me any money.”
“But she had left you the bulk of her fortune,” interrupted Mrs. Hannibal. “She told me so a hundred times, little, as she always said, as you deserved it. She made wills and codicils, but they always came to the same thing in the end. She could not bear the idea of her money going back to the Pegrims. She left you at least three thousand a year, all her furniture, jewelry, pictures, and silver plate. The black Chantilly lace and her sable boa she left to me. But what is my loss to yours?”
Mrs. Hannibal’s ejaculations and lamentations had only ceased upon the threshold of her own door.
“You are coming in, of course, Maria?”
“Not now. I must go back to the square for an hour or two. I’ve an appointment with a friend, but I will come to you later if I may.”
“If you may! What stuff! Why, Maria, you know you are going to live here; at any rate, this is your home for as long as you like to share it with me.” And the old lady squeezed her hand. “We can talk over your affairs this evening. I must say, I never could bear that Torchon. She used to remind me of Miss Gwilt in Armadale. Ah, I suppose you don’t know who I mean. And she is forty times worse, although she has not tried to marry anybody—yet. Well, well, I don’t know when I’ve been so upset. I’ll just go and lie down after I’ve had a cup of tea.” And she tottered into her own hall, and there Maria left her.
The dining-room at Charlotte Villa was the scene of some very lively discussions after Miss Talbot and many other ladies had retired.
Mr. Broadscreed was no match for Mr. Fleece, any more than is a hoary old roach for a hungry young pike; and the comparison is not inapt, for Mr. Fleece had the reputation of being mixed up with several very “fishy” transactions.
Mr. Broadscreed hated having anything to do with him, and was as dreadfully averse to being associated with “that fellow Fleece” (who had worsted him sorely on several occasions) as was the roach reluctant to foregather with the pike. He made no fight; he was an easy-going, rather timorous old gentleman, accustomed to clients whose affairs were both commonplace and comfortable. He was not used to a client who, having drawn up several proper and well-engrossed testaments, likely to give general satisfaction (and duly consigned to a brown tin box in his office with the name “Talbot” painted upon it in white letters), goes in an underhand way and makes a will on a sheet of paper, leaving all her fine property to a foreign servant, who has placed the matter in the hands of a low ruffian like Fleece. He figuratively washed his large white hands of the whole transaction.
But to Mr. Broadscreed’s speechless amazement, a complete stranger, a slight, dark gentleman, appeared upon the scene, who was evidently prepared to support the cause of his client, and to seize the weapons which he was about to lay down.
“When was this will made?” demanded this gentleman.
“Drawn out four months ago, in her own hand, and signed by her.”
“When was it signed?”
“May I ask what interest you have in the question?” demanded Fleece, with sudden ferocity.
“The interest of Miss Talbot.”
“A relative, I presume?”
“No; merely a friend.”
“Oh, a friend; a gentleman, unmarried, no doubt, who is the lady’s friend.”
“If you make another remark like that I shall thrash you within an inch of your life. “
“Your name and address, if you please?”
“It will be time enough for that when you take out the summons, and I do assure you that I shall have first-rate value for my five pounds.”
“I call upon you, Mr. Broadscreed, and you, Mr. Latimer, and you, General Blaine, to witness that I am threatened by an insolent and nameless stranger, and that in the discharge of my professional duties.”
“Come, come, we have had enough of your complaints here, and this is not the sessions, where you can frighten timid witnesses——”
“Gentlemen, I appeal——”
“Mr. Fleece, I desire to know, as does Mr. Broadscreed, the date of the execution of the will. The whole thing is most informal, and as it is now would not stand for a moment in the eyes of sound law, or in the Doctors’ Commons.”
“Oh, ho! You appear to know all about it.”
“Oh, yes; I am a barrister, and I hope I do know all about it.”
“I see: you scent a good case.”
“Another such remark, and you will not find yourself in good case.”
Mr. Fleece measured this audacious meddler with his little watery eyes. He was of middle height, and spare, but his shoulders and arms hinted an unpleasant amount of muscular development.
“The press shall hear of this,” blustered Fleece.
“Yes,” answered the other, calmly, “it shall. I am on the press.”
“According to yourself, you are everything that is convenient. The next thing, you will tell us that you are the common hangman!”
“Well, as you mention it, I should find the common hangman more or less convenient just now. However, I do not intend to leave this room until I have seen Miss Susan Bates and heard what she has to say about yonder document. You had better grant me this trifling request, for I assure you that I am a persistent individual.”
“A stranger has no right to meddle with family interests, has he Broadscreed? Now, I leave it to you. This person, who says he is a press man and a barrister, has as much business to come in here asking for proofs and witnesses as a beggar out of the street Now, as a fellow-professional, and townsman, I put it to you,—has he?”
“Well, no, I must agree with Mr. Fleece, sir. You have not. You decline to give your name.”
“No, not to you.”
“And you admit that you are no relative, or even connected with the family.”
“I was once the means of saving the life of Mrs. Pegrim.”
Mr. Broadscreed shook his head, and Fleece gave a sharp laugh, like the bark of a dog.
“I am a friend of Miss Talbot’s.”
“For that matter, we are all her friends.”
A pause; the stranger’s lips tightened; he glanced round the room. Those present were General Blaine, Canon Latimer, Admiral Hanky, Tom Brandon, and an austere-looking widow lady with a remarkably long upper lip, whose name was Snink, née Pegrim. These, as well as the two lawyers comprised the audience.
Then he spoke out, in a clear, hard voice.
“My name is John Harland, of the Middle Temple, barrister-at-law, and Miss Talbot is my promised wife.”
A dead silence.
And then Fleece gave a sort of guffaw, and cried, “I knew it, I——” But a glance from Harland, and the remainder of his speech died away into a sort of mutter.
“And now,” continued Harland, “perhaps you will be good enough to call Madame Michel and Susan Bates.”
Madame Michel, fortified by her lust for money, as well as her ear-trumpet, which answered as a shield and buckler against searching questions, duly made her appearance, accompanied by Susan, who, for her part, had been fortified by a glass of Mrs. Pegrim’s sounded port and a word of encouragement from Mademoiselle Julie.
Meantime, Mademoiselle Julie paced the upper landing in a frenzy of anxiety, whilst the battle raged below. This was the worst hour of the worst day, she assured herself, with clenched teeth and hands. Once this was over, all would be well, all would be hers, save Fleece’s large fee and the still larger fee to the two women.
The evidence of the witnesses was not to be shaken. Susan Bates’s tears and Madame Michel’s ear-trumpet brought them triumphantly through the ordeal of John Harland’s brusque questions and inquisitorial eyes, and Julie Torchon was duly established as Mrs. Pegrim’s heiress.
“Here was the nice gentleman once more,” said Miss Smee to herself, as she ushered Harland up to the drawing-room, which had now become Miss Talbot’s sitting-room. Her former apartment above was too full of painful memories. It was there she had received Borrodaile’s P. P. C. card, his visit, and her love its death-blow; there Hero had died, as well as all the illusions of her youth.
“Here I am, straight from the field of action,” said Harland, as soon as the door had closed upon Fanny Smee. “I have fought your battle, and lost it.”
“What battle?” she asked, in bewilderment.
“The battle of right against might; the affair of the two wills, the ‘scrap of paper.’ Might is too strong for me at present.”
“Why, of course it is. What can have put it into your head to think otherwise?”
“Because I have a fixed idea in my head that the other is a fraud.”
Maria gave a stifled exclamation.
“Yes; but I cannot prove it now. My presentiments about Mademoiselle Julie have been more than handsomely fulfilled, for this was what she was working for, and you see she has succeeded, and succeeded, so far as I can gather from that wool-brained old Broadscreed, to about eighty thousand pounds sterling. “
“I had no idea that my aunt was so rich.”
“No, I can readily believe that; she gave you no reason to suspect it.”
“Ah, here comes tea. You will be glad of a cup after your recent exertions. Fleece is notorious; he is always engaged in queer cases; he is said to be violent and unscrupulous, and witnesses will agree to anything that he wishes them to say, they are in such deadly terror.”
“He had no terrors for me. The boot was on the other foot. I notice that he did not walk away, but took a fly.”
“Why, what have you been doing?”
“Threatening to thrash him soundly; and one of your connections, a widow lady with a long chin and a large satin bag,—I suppose you did not notice it——”
“No, indeed; but I am aware that nothing escapes you. Do you take sugar?”
“No sugar, thank you. The bag was so large, it filled my eye, and it occurred to me that she had brought it with the express purpose of carrying away her legacy. This provident lady was the only female present, and when our words ran high I saw her looking out of the window for the police.”
“The police rarely pass Charlotte Villa.”
“Ah, then I suppose your cook was a married woman, but Susan Bates is a comely girl. To return to her. She is Torchon’s cheval de bataille, her sheet-anchor, and, unless I’m greatly mistaken, her tool. My theory is—would you like to hear it?”
“Yes, I should; but I may as well tell you that I knew ever since Hero died that Aunt Selina had cut me off with a shilling. She told me she would when we had that dreadful scene in her bedroom, and I knew that she had destroyed her will. You see, after all, she relented and left me five hundred pounds.”
“Ah, that was merely Torchon’s art, just a sop to public opinion, and to throw justice off the scent; but I am not so easily bamboozled. Now for my opinion, gratis: I believe that your aunt did destroy her will. She was rather fond of burning wills, and they are an expensive kind of fuel. I gathered from Broadscreed that she had already executed five, one of which, the last but one, he produced. In great excitement, and influenced by Torchon, who strained every nerve, we may be certain, the old lady executed the holograph and gave it to Torchon to keep, and either forgot it or was afraid to claim it. She intended no doubt to make another, for a few days before her death she wrote to Broadscreed to draw up one on the usual lines.”
“I never heard of that till this instant.”
“She was taken suddenly ill, and God knows what threats or entreaties Julie employed to induce her to sign her name to that paper. She had the old lady alone, and in her power, for hours. A woman with those lips is capable of anything. I believe in physiognomy; her will is as strong as yours is weak. She has the jaw of the criminal classes.”
“Oh, Mr. Harland, you—you don’t mean that you think she—she—she——”
“Put your aunt to death? No, no; no need. She was on her death-bed, but I should not be surprised if she used force. She obtained the assistance of her compatriot, the little withered cook, who is no doubt a partner in the business, and of Bates, who is in her power for some reason or other. Bates’s signature is flurried. The document was thus legalized, if Bates would stand to her guns. It is in Bates’s power to break the will, but she stands between Julie and Fleece; in other words, between the devil and the deep sea; and, of the two, Julie is not the deep sea.”
Maria smiled, and then said, “It was very kind of you to take all this trouble about me.”
“In Mr. Fleece’s opinion I was far too kind, and by no means disinterested. I stood old Broadscreed’s blunderings and timorous bleatings as long as I could; he was desperately afraid of the wolf. He was going to allow you to be a very easy victim, until I interfered. Canon, General, Admiral, had all said severe things in a vague sort of way. Just the final firing before an enemy retreats and leaves treasure and baggage on the field, and then I came up to the attack, an unexpected free lance. Fleece thought I was much too free, and we exchanged several nasty thrusts. He refused to summon Bates, and, actually backed up by old Broadscreed, declined to allow me to meddle in the matter at all, and demanded my right to interfere. I told him that I had saved Mrs. Pegrim’s life, and he scoffed aloud, as was natural. I told him that I was a friend of Miss Talbot’s, and he grinned so significantly that I felt inclined to heave the ink-bottle at his head. At last I gave him a sufficient reason, and I had my way.”
“And what was your sufficient reason?”
“I have come to tell it to you,” he said, putting his cup and saucer upon the tray and rising to his feet, “and I hope it will be as effective with you as with him. I said that Miss Talbot was—my promised wife. “
Maria gave a slight gasp, which was followed by a dead, almost sepulchral, silence.
“Yes; I can see that you are too angry for words.”
“And you, John Harland,” she answered, pushing her chair back and also rising, “are just the most audacious man that ever lived.”
“Ah! You are talking exactly like Maimie Fontaine. She has acted on you like a stimulant, and imparted some of her own spirit. Now, pray listen to me.”
“It seems that I do nothing but listen to you.”
“You know, when I was here before, you said you would consider the matter; in fact, although no promise or ring passed between us, I looked upon the question as settled. You acknowledged that you cared for me, and I thought that was sufficient. As to a formal engagement, I can understand your scruples. Some people are engaged, and never married. Now, we can be married without being engaged.”
“You are too ridiculous! I have not made up my mind—yet.”
“I know that for too many years your mind has been made up for you; that you are quite incapable of coming to any definite conclusion when your own affairs are concerned. You look at one side of a case, then at the other, till the whole thing becomes one great blur. If you do choose, you invariably yearn after what you have rejected. You are like the man described by a certain Dublin Jarvey, who drove a fare to a street in which two rival hotels faced each other, and, being asked his opinion, said, ‘Please yourself, sir. Whichever you go to, you’ll be wishing you were in the other.’ Seriously, Maria, I believe that the effort of making up your mind almost amounts, in your case, to physical pain, the apparatus has become so rusty.”
“I suppose you want to take the trouble off my hands?”
“I wish to take all your troubles off your hands. I am afraid your aunt’s business is hopeless. Her affairs will afford a truly scandalous warning to weak-minded old ladies, and a subject of gossip for months. Now, with regard to my affairs; light is beginning to dawn. Sabel’s time will be up in twelve months. I went down to Parkhurst and saw him. He has been employed in the office, has an irreproachable record, and his imprisonment has had an exceedingly sobering effect upon his character. He is anxious to emigrate to South Africa, and to take his family with him. Of course, I shall assist him, but after that my cares are at an end. Now, I suggest that you marry me, the sooner the better, and come up to London, share my chambers, and my labours if you like. We will have plenty of new books, good music, pleasant society. We shall take holidays abroad, and, in short, I believe that you will find that life will be an agreeable change. You shall do as you please, wear what you please, say what you please, spend what you please, in consideration of your playing me Raff’s ‘Fileuse’ once a week. In short, you shall be monarch of all you survey. Your right there is none to dispute!”
“And what about the black cat?”
“I will, if you wish, find him another comfortable situation. Can I say more?”
“Yes, you can: you can give up smoking.”
Harland’s face became grave.
After a moment’s silence: “I will give up smoking. But you seemed rather to like it than otherwise—once upon a time.”
“Oh, I have changed in a great number of ways since then. Once upon a time, I could not eat an oyster; now I love them. Once upon a time, pink was my favourite colour; now I cannot endure it.”
Harland looked at her with a puzzled expression in his eyes. At this instant the door was opened, and Miss Smee introduced “Mr. Brandon.”
“Halloo, John! you here?” he said. “Well, Maria, I thought I’d come in and pay you a visit. I’m stopping over the night, and my mother will want to hear all about you.”
“I am delighted to see you, Tom,” she answered. Maria looked well in black, and really was recovering her pretty colour: now she was a free woman, she would pick up her looks.
“Of course, we have had no communication with Mrs. Pegrim for ages, as you know, and she wouldn’t let you come to the Court; but I hope you will make up for lost time, eh?”
“Thank you, Tom. I should like to see the dear old place again, of all things; and how are the ’squire and your mother?”
“First rate, going as strong as ever; but they will be in a fine state when they hear about this blessed old will. It’s monstrous. Are you not going to fight it?”
“No, I think not; it’s rather hard scrambling for the money of dead people.”
“Oh, is that your point of view? But John will fight it. He made a good innings just now. I say, John,” to John, who was looking vaguely out of the window, “I retain you as counsel next time I’m in a scrape.”
“I daresay, but I never undertake criminal cases.”
“It looked like a criminal case to-day, by Jove! You had that Bates girl in a sky-blue funk; she went white to the lips when you murmured the word ‘perjury.’”
“Yes; but she had been well plied with Dutch courage, in the shape of port-wine, and stuck to her facts. She got it by heart that Mrs. Pegrim had sat up in bed and signed the paper herself, and pointed to where she was to write her name, and that when she lay down she said that she was glad it was done, and told Miss Torchon to kiss her.”
“That, to my mind, stamps the whole affair,” said Tom. “Mrs. Pegrim was as proud as Lucifer. She might, for pure cussedness, leave eighty thousand pounds to her maid, but she would never condescend to her kisses. By the way, I shall have one piece of good news to take back to the mater,” and he looked from Maria to John with much significance.
“Oh,” began Harland, “you must not be too precipitate; you know all is fair in love and war.”
“Do you mean to tell me that what you announced was just an impudent fabrication to bluff them?”
“If—if it concerned me,” faltered Maria, “it was perfectly true.” And she glanced at Harland, and grew perfectly crimson.
“True!” repeated Tom, jumping up. “I’m delighted to hear it. Give me your hand, Maria. Now you have got one of the best fellows that ever lived.” And, without the smallest apology, he kissed her on the cheek, a privilege never yet accorded to John Harland. “Last time I kissed you, Maria, was in the apple-orchard under the mistletoe.”
“Yes, when you came back from school with the mumps.”
“Yes, and you scratched my face. The governor and the mater will be pleased. John is the mater’s white-headed boy. I say, old fellow, I’m going to be your best man.” And he gave him a blow on his back that would have knocked a weaker man into the fireplace.
“Thank you, Tom. I’ll do as much for you.”
“And when is it to be? Anything settled?”
“No, not yet.”
“Excepting that he is to be allowed to keep his cat and his pipe.”
“And his old friends, and his temper,” chimed in Tom. “I suppose you are going up to-morrow by the nine-five?”
“What has become of the beautiful American, Miss Waterspout?”
“You mean Fontaine. She is going to be married to a cousin.”
“And thus keep the dollars at the other side.”
“Yes; but she is coming over here next fall. I believe she was thinking at one time of settling here for good. She was well out of that.”
Tom paused with the word “Borrodaile” on his lips. He remembered that his old playfellow was well out of “that” also.
“And so the poor old dog is dead?”
“Yes; and how is Stafford, the cob, and the white horse, Peacock?”
“Dead, too; but riding is giving way to biking.”
“Do you bike?”
“Do I eat? Do I sleep? Do I tree my boots? I should just rather think that I do; and you will have to learn—I’m sure, if I know Mrs. Pegrim, you never have learnt—when you come to the Court, unless John objects. Well now I must be off. Are you coming my way? Not yet,” and he gave a significant laugh. “I suppose you will turn up to dinner, and I’ll see that they have the champagne in ice to drink your health. Good-bye, Maria. I expect you will have a letter of ten sheets from the mater day after to-morrow. Good-bye.”
“Well,” said John, when he had seen his friend off the premises (precisely like the master of the house), and returned to find Maria standing beside the fire, “I must say that you got me out of that very neatly; but I will not hold you to your word. I see that I’ve taken too much for granted; that I am imposing my strong will upon your weak one. You are a handsome girl: you will find your old friends flock around you now; you will do better than marry an inky old journalist, and——”
“And though, as you say, I’ve got you out of it neatly, in one sense, you want to get out of it in another?”
He made no reply.
“But you shall not. You made a public statement to-day, on your own responsibility, and I shall hold you to it. Stop! if you are going to be demonstrative, I shall ring the bell.”
“Go on, then. I’m not going to be demonstrative.”
“I like you very much.”
“Bah! you like buttered toast in the same degree.”
“But I always looked on you as my friend. Your ideas suited me; I never could be dull with you; and when you went away I always felt sorry. But I never thought of you once as my lover and my future husband, until the time you came here before Christmas.”
“And since then, may I hope that the idea has been growing on you?”
“Yes; but you must grant me a little more time, won’t you? You could not think much of a woman who, after giving her faith and love to one man for years, and finds her idol is—is——”
“Brass,” promptly suggested Harland.
“No: shattered—turns round serenely and instantly sets up another in its place.”
“I most earnestly beg that you will not attempt to turn me into an idol, Maria.”
“No; but in six months’ time if I may, and if you are still in the same mind——”
“I have been in the same mind for five years and eight months.”
“Then I shall turn you into my very dear husband.”
Whereupon John Harland, taking Maria Talbot’s hand in his, kissed her on the lips. And she did not ring the bell!
The house and effects of the late Mrs. Pegrim was duly disposed of by auction, the sale lasting three days, and the amount realised increased Mademoiselle Torchon’s thousands. There is an idea that when the owner is deceased, his belongings fetch a higher price than if he were still alive to be gratified by the sums fetched by his household gods. At any rate, the bids at Mrs. Pegrim’s auction ran into what were considered fabulous figures, and not a few ladies got into hot water at home in consequence of the “bargains” they had picked up at the auction at Charlotte Villa.
The great drawing-room was the scene of some spirited contests, and, had it been permitted to the late resident to revisit these spheres, how gratified she would have been to witness the rancorous struggle there ensued between Lady Flatte and Mrs. Boyd for the possession of her card-table, or the breathless excitement which attended the competition for her dish-covers! Bidders were seated in close double rows round the room, and coveted articles were brought in one after another and displayed upon the dining-room table. No one would have believed that the house contained so much really good solid furniture, but Mrs. Pegrim had been in the habit of frequenting auctions herself, and had carried off many (to her) useless articles in the teeth of opposition. The sale, so to speak, “raged” for three days, and it was only on the fourth morning that ingress and egress were possible without a collision. Miss Talbot became the owner of her aunt’s picture for a mere song. John Harland purchased the piano and a certain portion of the family silver, which went at an exorbitant figure. Mrs. Hannibal found herself the happy possessor of her late friend’s Bath-chair and the Chantilly lace flounces. The sable boa did not make its appearance, and had doubtless been reserved to adorn Mademoiselle Torchon’s somewhat sallow neck.
Maria paid a lengthy visit to Mrs. Hannibal, and one or two other friends, and was married from Brandon Park in the month of September. It was quite a smart affair. Mrs. Brandon insisted on this, backed up by Mrs. Erle, late Miss Fontaine. She and “George” were conspicuous features at the ceremony,—a strikingly ornamental couple. Maimie’s costume was equally striking. Her vitality was undiminished, and she had given a practical manifestation of her interest in the wedding by crossing the “herring-pond” in order to be present at the ceremony. John Harland had entertained a fond but foolish vision of an early marriage in some London church, both bride and bridegroom in travelling costume, and then taking the eleven o’clock boat train for Dover and the continent, but this dream was never fulfilled. He found himself marshalled by Tom Brandon, waiting in a crowded and beautifully decorated church, and finally seeing Maria Talbot, stately in white satin and lace, led up the aisle by the ’squire, and followed by six pretty children bridesmaids. All Maria’s own girl friends were married; not a few of them among the company in the pews. Did Maria, as she knelt beside John Harland, think once of that other man, who had often worshipped with her in that church, and who was to have been her husband?
Twelve months had elapsed since Mrs. Pegrim’s death, and the tale of her extraordinary will was becoming a little faded; even the several versions of the reason of her whim happened to be exhausted.
Maria and John Harland occupied a flat on the Embankment, and were extremely happy. Although John had still to support his sister (who was furious at his marriage, and declined to be present at the wedding), and to work unremittingly, his labours were lightened by his amanuensis, Maria. She entered con amore into every word he wrote or dictated. This employment was ten times more engrossing than answering the dull epistles of Mrs. Pegrim’s female correspondents, whose key-note was the weather and the reiteration of ailments of a deadly monotony. Maria had made their little home as pretty as it was comfortable,—flowers, pictures, work, and her piano enlivened what had once been a bachelor’s den, and King Cole received the change of furniture with good-natured toleration. His master declared that King Cole’s strongest point was his droll sense of humour, whilst Maria contested that his strongest point and ruling passion was his appetite. Nor was the King the only animal in the flat. Perhaps some will be surprised to learn that Banjo, the pug, had been added to the establishment; in other words, he had come after the situation, and got it. When he and Martin, the man-servant, were mutually thrown out of a good place by the death of Lord Augustus Woolpen, Maria, who happened to be at the Square, noticed Banjo sitting at the foot of the stairs, collarless, neglected, and looking dreadfully worried, with his poor little baggy face shrivelled up into a most woe-begone expression.
“His master is dead, you see,” explained Fanny, “and no one will have him, Miss Maria—I beg pardon, Mrs. Harland; and indeed I might remember, too, seeing I was at the wedding, and we have a big bit of the cake still.”
“But poor Banjo, Fanny: why will no one have him?”
“Well, you see, ma’am, he is old and selfish, and he has always been very rude and insulting to the tradespeople. Only for that the greengrocer would have taken him, for he rather fancies pugs; but he wouldn’t have Banjo at no price. No, not even as a favour to mother, for she do hate him! I’m afraid we will have to keep him, just out of charity.”
All this was very, very hard for a respectable pug to bear. To hear that he had been refused by a greengrocer, and was merely being kept out of charity! He a pug with the required loose skin and three beautiful moles, and who had cost twenty-five pounds! As he sat at the foot of the stairs, with the tears streaming down his little black face, he looked the picture of forlorn middle age and fallen fortunes. Tender-hearted Maria, of course, took compassion on him, and said,—
“Well, Fanny, as he was a friend of dear old Hero’s, I will take him away with me and give him a good home.”
“You will find him a dreadful bother, miss. And as to being Hero’s friend, I’m not so sure of that. You may as well leave him here, and the one tombstone will do for the two of them. We will bury him with Hero when he dies.”
“No, no; I should not wish Hero to be disturbed, and I rather like Banjo. If he will only get on with the cat, he will be very happy.”
“Yes; but would the cat get on with him?”
Cole received the intruder with round-eyed amazement, actually too astounded to offer warlike demonstrations, and then Maria took the King on her lap and told him a long, long story,—of how a poor little dog was homeless and friendless and old, and how she relied upon her dear King Cole to be hospitable and kind to the stranger.
King Cole evidently understood the circumstances, and shared the rug, the cream, the chicken, as became a man of the world and a gentleman; but he treated the visitor with a mixture of lofty condescension and splendid disdain, and Banjo frequently complained to another (somewhat second-rate) pug in the same flats that “it was rather hard that a dog of his age and value should be obliged to live under the disagreeable rule of a black tom-cat! However, Banjo had a comfortable home, a nice warm coat, a padded basket, and a new silver collar; but he detested living on a mere flat landing. He found it dreadfully trying to be so far from the park, in whose neighbourhood he had many old friends, so he loftily assured his new acquaintance. It was too long a walk. Of course, he could not go in a ’bus; though Mrs. Harland lifted him in her arms one day, he had instantly struggled down and got out, and run home. He had always been accustomed to a carriage and two men-servants. With Maria it had been different, and he, of course, made allowance for her. She was a woman who had never been accustomed to a large establishment. Well, there was no use in expecting too much. Perhaps Harland’s play would turn out well and be a big thing! (It is incredible how animals gossip about their owner’s affairs! Banjo had often talked over Harland’s literary prospects with the cheap pug on the third floor, and arrived at the conclusion that his master was a rising man. He might ride in Maria’s carriage yet!
It was a March afternoon, and Maria was writing by the dim light, whilst John, with the cat on his knee and a pipe in his mouth, was enjoying a well-earned rest.
“We will dine at the Berkeley to-night, Mrs. Harland, and go to the theatre. Have you any objection?”
“No; only I’ve ordered dinner at home.”
“And I note by your voice that it is not to be wasted. All right; but we will do the theatre. I have two tickets for ‘The Catspaw.’”
“Oh, John, how delightful! And you know how I’ve been longing to see it. I hear it’s splendid; that when the curtain falls you wish the whole play would begin over again.”
“And breakfast be served in the theatre.”
“Don’t be ridiculous! Have you not heard it immensely praised?”
“Why, certainly; it’s first-rate, I believe, the great success of the year. I’ve been trying to get two stalls for the last ten days.”
Maria made no reply beyond a heavy sigh.
“Sigh no more, Maria; that sigh of yours nearly knocked over the screen.”
“Did I sigh?”
“Yes, a most magnificent stage sigh. State your wishes, my lady, and they shall be carried out, even unto the half of my kingdom.”
“I was sighing for you, John.”
“Thank you, dear; but why can’t I do my own sighs?”
“You need not smile. I was thinking of your play: it is splendid as far as it has gone; it only wants two acts more.”
“Only two acts more,—a mere bagatelle.”
“And when do you think they will be written?”
“How long has it been on the stocks?”
“Seven years, more or less.”
“Seven years,”—a pause. “Well, Virgil was eleven years writing the ‘Aeneid.’”
“Maria! you are a mine of information; and it is very nice of you to mention me in the same breath with Virgil. He wrote in a critical atmosphere, and no doubt was a gentleman of leisure; but, if it comes to time, I know a man who has been fifteen years writing a book about a particular kind of worm. Time, however, is not always essential to good work. Sir Walter Scott wrote ‘Woodstock’ in six weeks, and Robbie Burns knocked off ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’ one evening after tea.”
“Then, what is essential?”
“Brains, inspiration, the magic of presentment, the fever of creation, the vein! I may spend hours in what you call ‘wild beasting’ up and down my study, with no better result than wearing out the carpet. I doubt if I shall ever be able to write anything that an actor manager, or an actor, or a manager, would not fling at my head.”
“But the first two acts are so good, dear.”
“And the last two might be so bad, dear.”
“I think you are much too fastidious about your own work.”
“I wish that other people shared my dear wife’s fond illusions.”
“But, John,” and she came over and stood opposite him, “such a wonderful idea! Do you really believe that you will never complete it? Don’t you think that when your sister is settled, and we have more leisure, and money——”
She paused suggestively.
“If I could afford to go abroad, and cast all literary cares behind me, kick myself, so to speak, out of every scrap of harness, steep my mind in beautiful surroundings, and only work when I felt disposed, yes, then I might be able to write something in the style of what we are going to see to-night. As it is, I am not quarrelling with my bread and butter, but my early soaring ambition has had its wings clipped; it is now a mere barn-door fowl.”
“In fact, nothing would serve you but the genie and the magic carpet, and the marble palace among blue seas, and soft airs,—you see I remember all about it.—Some one to see me, Winter?” she said, addressing the maid, who had just entered.
“Yes, ma’am, on most particular business.”
“The dress-maker,” suggested Harland, in a lazy undertone.
“No, sir; it’s a stranger, a tall person, most anxious to have a few words with Mrs. Harland alone.”
“Oh! then, in that case, Winter, you may as well show her in here.” And as the parlour-maid closed the door he added,—
“I shall efface myself, Maria, unless she has come about a bazaar, and then I shall flee, but I don’t think you ought to interview these tall, anxious visitors alone. How do I know that she may not chloroform you and carry off the cat?”
“Hush, John, here she is,” as Winter once more opened the door and ushered in no less a person, or less expected, than Susan Bates!
“Oh, Susan Bates, is it not?” exclaimed Maria, endeavouring to keep her amazement out of her voice.
“Yes, mum, as was. I—I am Susan Wapping now, and very anxious to speak to you,” gasped Susan, who always appeared to be short of breath.
“What can I do for you? Is it about a situation?” And she glanced at her visitor, who looked ill, and wore mourning; but, judging by her outward appearance, Susan was prosperous.
“Please, ma’am, it’s what I can do for you, that’s what I’ve come about. And would it be asking too much if I might speak to you alone?”
“You need not mind speaking before my husband, Susan; we have no secrets from each other. “
“No, ma’am; but I may have something on my mind as I’d wish to keep secret from Mr. Harland.”
Susan had a distressing recollection of the dark gentleman who had asked her questions the day that Mrs. Pegrim’s will was read; and who had the most piercing eyes, and the nastiest way of speaking politely, she had ever come across. There he was, lying back in an arm-chair, nursing a cat, as if butter would not melt in his mouth.
“You need not be afraid of me, Susan Bates,” he said. “I believe I know what you have come for. You have come about a certain letter, the result of which was that ‘They of the household divided the spoil.’”
Susan grew ghastly pale as she answered, hastily,—
“I don’t know about dividing the spoil, sir; I got precious little, as you shall hear.”
“No? Well, you may tell my wife whatever you have to say, without fear of its being used against you as evidence; and if you have come to make her amends for any wrong, I am sure I can guarantee you her forgiveness.”
“Well, then, sir, and Miss Talbot, I will just tell you the whole truth; and it’s a long story.”
“Then had you not better sit down?” said Harland, indicating a chair. “You look ill.”
“It’s a long story,” reiterated Bates, breathlessly, “and tells very badly against myself; but now I’m married, and between my husband and my conscience, they drove me here. I got Miss Talbot’s address from Mrs. Hannibal, and I came straight to London. “
“Miss Talbot is Mrs. Harland now, you know.”
“Yes, sir; but it makes no differ. I was in Mrs. Pegrim’s service for a year. I got good wages, too,—twenty-two pounds all found; but I was always fond of dress and extravagant, and I’m ashamed to confess this, but I must,” and she gasped for breath. “I took to pilfering in a small way. First of all, a pair of gloves I found never were missed. This set me off; they were such nice gloves, too. Then note-paper, and stamps, a couple of pairs of stockings, a half-sovereign that lay on the mantel-piece for ten days,—I put it behind the vase, and at the end of a week I took it. I took quite a lot of things, but somehow mademoiselle was sharper than I thought; one day she caught me, and then she told me she had known it all along, and had made out a whole list of articles that were missing; she threatened me with the police and prison, but when I begged and entreated, and gave her most of the things, she let me off, and why? because she wanted to have a hold on me,—aye, and she had; she held me like a vice. I did all her dirty work. Oh, I could have told fine tales of her, and the keys, but I dared not; and she, in her way, gave me little treats. She and Madame Michel were always very thick; now and then I had supper in her room, and she made me a hat, and once a silk blouse. I always knew she made terrible stories about you, Miss Maria, to the old lady, and said you were selfish, and hated her, and were only watching for her to die, to get everything; and that time you had words with Mrs. Pegrim she was in a fine state of glee, and had a pint of champagne to her dinner.”
“Yes, but what’s your business?” interrupted Harland.
“I’m coming to it, sir. The night the old lady died, mademoiselle came up to my room. She looked terribly wild and strange; she said to me, ‘Susan, the old lady is very ill, an attack of weakness of her heart; she wants you to come down at once, and witness her will; hurry, there is not a second to lose, she may go at any moment. I was into my clothes in about five minutes, and ran down to Mrs. Pegrim’s bedroom, and, sure enough, she appeared to be dreadful bad; her face was quite bloodless, and she was gasping for breath. Madame Michel and mademoiselle were propping her up in the bed between them, and in front of her was a blotter with a sheet of paper on it, and mademoiselle had a pen in her hand, and was coaxing, coaxing her to sign something, but Mrs. Pegrim would not look at the pen or paper; she only beat her hands on the quilt, and gasped out, every few minutes, ‘Send for Maria; oh, where is Maria? Send for Maria.’ I declare, I seem to hear her crying in my ears still, it was so pitiful, and just like the wailing of a little child that had lost its nurse. And then——” She paused.
“And then?” repeated Harland, standing up and throwing down the cat. Maria was in tears.
“The crying went on, and the coaxing. Mademoiselle got the pen once into the old lady’s fingers, and tried to guide it,—aye, in spite of her. I declare, it was downright cruel.” (Bates pronounced it crule.) “At last her crying became weaker and weaker, and Mrs. Pegrim sank back far into the pillows, and it was always just the word ‘Maria, Maria,’ till it died away altogether, and when it ceased Mrs. Pegrim was dead.
“I shall never forget the way mademoiselle carried on that night. She walked up and down the room like a woman out of her mind, and shouted French at Madame Michel, who just sat up, saying little, and looking like an old stuffed image. Of course, I could not make out a single word they said, and now and then mademoiselle would stop and rant, and stamp on the ground till the looking-glass shook again. I declare I was ten times more in dread of her than of the corpse. There she was, going to and fro, raging, and raging, and storming. At last she went to the table and looked over all the things, and the jewel cases; then she came to the bedside and poured herself out a full glass of raw brandy, and, as I live by bread, she drank it off neat; then she nodded at Madame Michel, as if she was taking her advice, and Madame Michel talked away for ten minutes and more about ‘l’argent, l’argent, l’argent.’”
Susan paused once more, breathless and panting.
“Take your time, take your time,” said Harland, composedly.
“Yes, sir, but I want to get it over before the cold fit takes me.
“Then mademoiselle said to me, ‘Never you mind, Susan Bates, the intention was the same, and the will is written out by herself in her own hand, all it wants is just twelve letters. Twelve letters between me and thousands and thousands of pounds. Do you think I’m going to let twelve letters stand between me and fortune? No! I shall write them myself.’
“‘But it is forgery,’ I said.
“‘Maybe; but Mrs. Pegrim intended me to have her money. The will is in her writing. You can read it; and if it were a harmless imitation of a dozen letters, you call it forgery; after all, what is that, in comparison to theft? I shall sign the will, and you and Madame Michel shall witness it.’ And at that I turned quite cold, and felt all of a tremble. For I knew that whatever she wished me to do, that I did. Oh, but she is a strong, bold woman, and not afraid of anything. Presently she took a glass of water; then she sat down and wrote the words, ‘Selina Pegrim, April 4th,’ just the very same as Mrs. Pegrim; then madame wrote her name and a flourish after it. She handed me the pen, and I wrote my signature, and it was done. ‘Now,’ said mademoiselle, ‘I shall be a rich woman, and so shall you. For this trifling service you shall each have one hundred pounds within a month, if I get my rights, and at the end of one year I will give you one thousand pounds apiece; but you, Susan, must be brave and keep your head. Madame is a sensible woman; she is safe. You are to be sure to say that you saw Mrs. Pegrim sign the paper and kiss me; it is not much to say for one thousand one hundred pounds?’
“‘But Miss Maria,’ I asked her; ‘is she to have nothing?’
“‘Miss Maria,’ she said, ‘has enough; and if she had money, she would not know how to spend it.’
“‘And if I cannot keep your secret?’ I asked.
“‘Then I shall no longer keep yours. I have your signed acknowledgment of all your thefts in my desk, praying for me to save you from prison and disgrace.’ She had me in her power, and it was not only prison, but if Joe Wapping saw that paper, I knew he would never speak to me again. She had wrote it out herself, and I had copied and signed it.”
“Mademoiselle Torchon appears to have a great opinion of documentary evidence,” remarked Mr. Harland.
“I don’t know, sir; but I do know, I’ll never forget what I suffered in Charlotte Villa before I left it. What with the questions I was asked, and being begged to tell it all over again and again, about Mrs. Pegrim’s death; and what between my fear of Mrs. Pegrim and my fear of mademoiselle I was nearly frantic. I would have broken down, but for her keeping me up with beef-tea, and champagne, and sleeping in the room with me.”
“Why—I don’t quite see what you mean.”
“Well, sir, what I did see—as I’m a living woman—was Mrs. Pegrim.”
“Ah! you thought you saw her?”
“You must know that I had a sort of hand in her death, seeing that it was my fault about the loose stair-rod. If I hadn’t overlooked it, she’d be here still, and, of course, she had that against me, as well as the will. I saw her one day on the landing, as plain as plain in her quilted purple silk dressing-gown, and another time, when I was shutting the spare-room window, I heard a faint rustle behind me, and there she stood. I gave a screech, and mademoiselle came running in, and it was all she could do, holding me by main force, to prevent me running down and telling everything to Miss Talbot, that was writing in the drawing-room.”
“Yes, I heard the scream and the scuffle. I remember it perfectly well,” corroborated Maria.
“When the will and funeral was over, the house was quieter; and after the sale mademoiselle gave me a present of a gold watch, a dozen tea-spoons, and a hundred pounds, but it brought me no luck. I married a respectable young man, Joe Wapping is his name; he’s in the milk business, and the one hundred pounds set us up, but we made no way at all, work as we would; and my baby died, and I was near following it; and, thinking I was at the point of death, and given over, I confessed all to Joe, and he made me promise to confess to you if ever I got over it.”
“He knew nothing of your further expectations?”
“No; and they are not expectations now, for I don’t believe as mademoiselle ever means to pay me. She’s in town now, at the present moment, looking after her money affairs. It seems that the English law is very slow to a foreigner who is no relation to the dead party.”
“The English law is generally slow.”
“And there was a great sum for succession and death duties. She said that swallowed up all her ready money; but Mr. Fleece is looking after her business, and selling out and arranging, and in a few days she hopes to have all her property ‘realised,’—I think that is the word,—and will leave England for good.”
“I am not so sure of that. I doubt if England could spare her. Mrs. Wapping, I must ask you to make a statement before a magistrate.”
“Oh, laws, sir, I couldn’t I want it to be all done private.”
“If you desire to benefit Mrs. Harland, it cannot be private. Just use your own sense. If Mademoiselle Torchon carries her money out of the country, it will be difficult to claim it. We have not a moment to lose. Do you understand that?”
“Have you any idea of what became of Madame Michel?”
“No; but she talked of going back to France. I think she and mademoiselle was some sort of relation.”
“Well, now I’m going to ring for a hansom and take you out with me at once. We will not be able to set the machinery of the law in motion till to-morrow.—Maria,” to his wife, “I will engage counsel to-night. I may not be back to dinner, and you had better wire to Broadscreed, and ask him to come up to town early to-morrow, and to bring the surviving will.”
“John,” she whispered, when Susan had passed into the little hall, “I do believe she has brought the magic carpet.”
Mademoiselle Torchon, in some marvellous manner, scented danger, and, not wishing to make the acquaintance of an English prison, fled, carrying away with her a considerable amount of booty, including Mrs. Pegrim’s family diamonds.
In a surprisingly short time Mrs. Harland was duly established as her aunt’s heiress under the former will. She entered upon her inheritance about the same time that Sabel, the gentleman convict, obtained his release. Susan Bates, as queen’s evidence, went scathless, and the Harlands ultimately sent her out to join her husband in Natal.
As for Maria and John Harland, they are now wealthy people, and the latter is at last relieved from the burthen of supporting his sister and her family. Immediately after their accession to fortune, the Harlands shut up their flat and went abroad for eighteen months, wandering at will over the south of Europe, and finally establishing themselves in a lovely villa upon Lake Maggiore. Transplanted thither by a magic carpet of bank-notes, and, surrounded by lovely scenes, soft air, and silence, John Harland completed what is known as his “great play”, a play that contains more than Dumas’s requisite “three characters and a passion”, or “two people and a problem”. Even in the States, where England’s dramatic food is occasionally America’s poison, and vice versa, it was received with enthusiasm, and witnessed by crowded houses. When it was performed in New York, Maimie Erle went to see it no less than six times.
Fanny Smee is married to a serious-minded and prosperous chemist. She was the recipient of some handsome wedding-gifts, and Mr. and Mrs. Harland were present at the ceremony. Mrs. Hannibal, who is well and active, has transformed the Chantilly lace flounces into a most imposing summer mantle, and is eloquent on the subject of French maids.
Maimie and George frequently come over to this side, and on these occasions stay for some weeks with their friends the Harlands. Maria has a smart carriage, and not only a smart carriage, but, what is not always its accompaniment, a pair of proud and magnificent horses, and Banjo is content, and feels, with profound satisfaction, that he is once more in a position to condescend to other pugs (I regret to record that he has cut his acquaintance of the flat); and here, at least, he is relieved from the oppressive personality of “King Cole.”
One afternoon, when Maria and her American sister were driving in the park, they found themselves in a block near the Albert Gate, and there, drawn up beside them, in a yellow landau, sat a plain, high-shouldered woman and Norris Borrodaile! She was his wife, deformed and delicate, but enormously wealthy. One day, for her reward, she will be Lady Saxonhurst. At present she seemed excessively discontented, and her husband desperately bored. He looked at the two pretty women in the victoria alongside of him: they were his former loves, Maria and Maimie. Maria, extremely handsome and distinguished; Maimie, as brilliantly beautiful as on their last meeting, when she had driven him out of her friend’s presence.
He ventured to throw all his heart into his eyes, and take off his hat. If they cut him, which heaven forfend! he would never hear the last of it from Mrs. Borrodaile, who was contemplating his acquaintances with critical and ill-natured scrutiny.
The fair girl, who surveyed him from beneath the white parasol, was evidently a total stranger; she glanced at him as if she had never seen him before; but the other, with the sweet brown eyes, coloured very faintly and bestowed a distant bow.