We all remember Sinbad's Old Man of the Sea, and the grip of that merciless rider tightening closer and closer the longer he was carried by his disgusted victim. There is more truth in the fable than most of us would like to allow. If you once permit yourself to set up an "Old Man of the Sea," farewell to free agency, happiness, even tolerable comfort, from that time forth! Sometimes your burden takes the shape of a renewed bill, sometimes of a fatal secret, sometimes of an unwise attachment, sometimes only of a bad habit; but whatever it be, the farther you carry it the heavier it seems to grow; and in this case custom does not in the least degree reconcile you to the infliction. Up with your heels, and kick it off at any price! Even should you rick your back in the process, it is better to be crippled for life than eternally oppressed by a ruthless rider and an intolerable weight.
Gentleman Jim was becoming Lady Bearwarden's Old Man of the Sea. More than once of late he had forced himself on her presence when it was exceedingly inconvenient and even dangerous to meet him. The promised interview of to-day had been extorted from her most unwillingly, and by threats, implied if not expressed. She began to feel that she was no longer her own mistress—that she had lost her independence, and was virtually at the command of an inferior. To a proud nature like hers such a situation seemed simply intolerable.
Lord Bearwarden seldom came in much before it was time to dress for dinner; but young men's habits are not usually very regular, the monotonous custom of doing everything by clockwork being a tedious concomitant of old age. Maud could not calculate on his absence at any particular hour of the day unless he were on duty, and the bare notion that she should wish thus to calculate fretted and chafed her beyond measure. It was a relief to hear the door-bell once more, and prepare to confront the worst. A London servant never betrays astonishment, nor indeed any emotion whatever, beyond a shade of dignified and forbearing contempt. The first footman showed Lady Bearwarden's suspicious-looking visitor into her boudoir with sublime indifference, returning thereafter leisurely and loftily to his tea. Maud felt her courage departing, and her defeat, like that of brave troops seized by panic, seemed all the more imminent for habitual steadiness and valour. She took refuge in an attempt to bully.
"Why are you here?" said Maud, standing bolt upright; while Gentleman Jim, with an awkward bow, began as usual to unroll his goods. "I have told you often enough this persecution must finish. I am determined not to endure it any longer. The next time you call I shall order my servants to drive you from the door. O, will you—will you not come to terms?"
His face had been growing darker and darker while she spoke, and she watched its expression as the Mediterranean fisherman watches a white squall gliding with fatal swiftness over the waters, to bring ruin and shipwreck and despair. It sometimes happens that the fisherman loses his head precisely at the wrong moment, so that foiled, helpless, and taken aback, he comes to fatal and irremediable grief. Thus Lady Bearwarden, too, found the nerve on which she prided herself failing when she most wanted it, and knew that the prestige and influence which formed her only safeguards were slipping from her grasp.
She had cowed this ruffian at their first meeting by an assumption of calm courage and superiority in a crisis when most women, thus confronted at dead of night by a housebreaker, would have shrunk trembling and helpless before him. She had retained her superiority during their subsequent association by an utter indifference as to results, so long as they only affected character and fortune, which to his lower nature seemed simply incomprehensible; but now that her heart was touched she could no longer remain thus reckless, thus defiant. With womanly feelings came womanly misgivings and fear of consequences. The charm was lost, the spell broken, and the familiar spirit had grown to an exacting master from an obedient slave.
"That's not the way as them speaks who's had the pith and marrow out of a chap's werry bones," growled Jim. "There wasn't no talkin of figure-footmen and drivin' of respectable tradesmen from folks' doors when a man was wanted, like this here. A man, I says, wot wasn't afeard to swing, if so be as he could act honourable and fulfil his bargain."
"I'll pay anything. Hush! pray. Don't speak so loud. What must my servants think? Consider the frightful risks I run. Why should you wish to make me utterly miserable—to drive me out of my senses? I'll pay anything—anything to be free from this intolerable persecution."
"Pay—pay anythink!" repeated Jim, slightly mollified by her distress, but still in a tone of deep disgust. "Pay. Ah! that's always the word with the likes of you. You think your blessed money can buy us poor chaps up, body and heart and soul Blast your money! says I. There, that's not over civil, my lady, but it's plain speaking."
"What would you have me do?" she asked, in a low plaintive voice.
She had sunk into an arm-chair, and was wringing her hands. How lovely she looked now in her sore distress! It imparted the one feminine charm generally wanting in her beauty.
Gentleman Jim, standing over against her, could not but feel the old mysterious influence pervading him once more. "If you was to say to me, Jim, says you, I believe as you're a true chap!—I believe as you'd serve of me, body and bones. Well, not for money. Money be d——d! But for goodwill, we'll say. I believe as you thinks there's nobody on this 'arth as is to be compared of me, says you; and see now, you shall come here once a week, once a fortnit, once a month, even, and I'll never say no more about drivin' of you away; but you shall see me, and I'll speak of you kind and haffable; and whatever I wants done I'll tell you, do it: and it will be done; see if it won't! Why—why I'd be proud, my lady—there—and happy too. Ay, there wouldn't walk a happier man, nor a prouder, maybe, in the streets of London!"
It was a long speech for Jim. At its conclusion he drew his sleeve across his face and bent down to re-arrange the contents of his bundle.
Tears were falling from her eyes at last. Noiselessly enough, and without that redness of nose, those contortions of face, which render them so unbecoming to most women.
"Is there no way but this?" she murmured. "No way but this? It's impossible! It's absurd! It's infamous! Do you know who I am? Do you know what you ask? How dare you dictate terms to me? How dare you presume to say I shall do this, I shall not do that? Leave my house this minute. I will not listen to another syllable!"
She was blazing out again, and the fire of pride had dried her tears ere she concluded. Anger brought back her natural courage, but it was too late.
Gentleman Jim's face, distorted with fury, looked hideous. Under his waistcoat lurked a long thin knife. Maud never knew how near, for one ghastly moment, that knife was to being buried in her round white throat.
He was not quite madman enough, however, to indulge his passions so far, with the certainty of immediate destruction.
"Have a care!" he hissed through his clenched teeth. "If you and me is to be enemies, look out! You know me—leastways you ought to; and you know I stick at nothing!"
She was still dreadfully frightened. Once more she went back to the old plea, and offered him fifty pounds—a hundred pounds. Anything!
He was tying the knots of his bundle. Completing the last, he looked up, and the glare in his eyes haunted her through many a sleepless night.
"You've done it now!" was all he muttered. "When next you see me you'll wish you hadn't."
It speaks well for Jim's self-command that, as he went down, he could say, "Your servant, my lord," with perfect composure, to a gentleman whom he met on the stairs.
"THE LITTLE CLOUD"
Lord Bearwarden, like other noblemen and gentlemen keeping house in London, was not invariably fortunate in the selection of his servants. The division of labour, that admirable system by which such great results are attained, had been brought to perfection in his as in many other establishments. A man who cleaned knives, it appeared, could not possibly do anything else, and for several days the domestic arrangements below-stairs had been disturbed by a knotty question as to whose business it was to answer "my lord's bell". Now my lord was what his servants called rather "a arbitrary gentleman", seeming, indeed, to entertain the preposterous notion that these were paid their wages in consideration of doing as they were bid. It was not therefore surprising that figure-footmen, high of stature and faultless in general appearance, should have succeeded each other with startling rapidity, throwing up their appointments and doffing his lordship's livery, without regard to their own welfare or their employer's convenience, but in accordance with some Quixotic notions of respect for their office and loyalty to their order.
Thus it came about that a subordinate in rank, holding the appointment of second footman, had been so lately enlisted as not yet to have made himself acquainted with the personal appearance of his master; and it speaks well for the amiable disposition of this recruit that, although his liveries were not made, he should, during the temporary absence of a fellow-servant, who was curling his whiskers below, have consented to answer the door.
Lord Bearwarden had rung like any other arrival; but it must be allowed that his composure was somewhat ruffled when refused admittance by his own servant to his own house.
"Her ladyship's not at home, I tell ye", said the man, apparently resenting the freedom with which this stranger proceeded into the hall, while he placed his own massive person in the way; "and if you want to see my lord, you just can't—that I know!"
"Why?" asked his master, beginning to suspect how the land lay, and considerably amused.
"Because his lordship's particularly engaged. He's having his 'air cut just now, and the dentist's waiting to see him after he's done", returned this imaginative retainer, arguing indeed from his pertinacity that the visitor must be one of the swell mob, therefore to be kept out at any cost.
"And who are you?" said his lordship, now laughing outright.
"Who am I?" repeated the man. "I'm his lordship's footman. Now, then, who are you? That's more like it!"
"I'm Lord Bearwarden himself", replied his master.
"Lord Bearwarden! O! I dare say", was the unexpected rejoinder. "Well, that is a good one. Come, young man, none of these games here: there's a policeman round the corner."
At this juncture the fortunate arrival of the gentleman with lately-curled whiskers, in search of his Bell's Life, left on the hall-table, produced an eclaircissement much to the unbeliever's confusion, and the master of the house was permitted to ascend his own staircase without further obstruction.
Meeting "Gentleman Jim" coming down with a bundle, it did not strike him as the least extraordinary that his wife should have denied herself to other visitors. Slight as was his experience of women and their ways, he had yet learned to respect those various rites that constitute the mystery of shopping, appreciating the composure and undisturbed attention indispensable to a satisfactory performance of that ceremony.
But it did trouble him to observe on Lady Bearwarden's face traces of recent emotion, even, he thought, to tears. She turned quickly aside when he came into the room, busying herself with the blinds and muslin window-curtains; but he had a quick eye, and his perceptions were sharpened besides by an affection he was too proud to admit, while racked with cruel misgivings that it might not be returned.
"Gentleman-like man that, I met just now on the stairs!" he began, good-humouredly enough, though in a certain cold, conventional tone, that Maud knew too well, and hated accordingly. "Dancing partner, swell mob, smuggler, respectable tradesman, what is he? Ought to sell cheap, I should say. Looks as if he stole the things ready made. Hope you've done good business with him, my lady? May I see the plunder?" He never called her Maud; it was always "my lady", as if they had been married for twenty years. How she longed for an endearing word, slipping out, as it were, by accident—for a covert smile, an occasional caress. Perhaps had these been lavished more freely she might have rated them at a lower value.
Lady Bearwarden was not one of those women who can tell a lie without the slightest hesitation, calmly satisfied that "the end justifies the means"; neither did it form a part of her creed that a lie by implication is less dishonourable than a lie direct. On the contrary, her nature was exceedingly frank, even defiant, and from pride, perhaps, rather than principle, she scorned no baseness so heartily as duplicity. Therefore she hesitated now and changed colour, looking guilty and confused, but taking refuge, as usual, in self-assertion.
"I had business with the man", she answered haughtily, "or you would not have found him here. I might have got rid of him sooner, perhaps, if I had known you were to be home so early. I'm sure I hate shopping, I hate tradespeople, I hate—"
She was going to say "I hate everything", but stopped herself in time. Counting her married life as yet only by weeks, it would have sounded too ungracious, too ungrateful!
"Why should you do anything you hate?" said her husband, very kindly, and to all appearance dismissing every suspicion from his mind, though deep in his heart rankled the cruel conviction that between them this strange, mysterious barrier increased day by day. "I want you to have as little of the rough and as much of the smooth in life as is possible. All the ups and none of the downs, my lady. If this fellow bores you, tell them not to let him in again. That second footman will keep him out like a dragon, I'll be bound." Then he proceeded laughingly to relate his own adventure with his new servant in the hall.
He seemed cordial, kind, good-humoured enough, but his tone was that of man to man, brother officer to comrade, not of a lover to his mistress, a husband to his lately-married wife.
She felt this keenly, though at the same time she could appreciate his tact, forbearance, and generosity in asking no more questions about her visitor. To have shown suspicion of Maud would have been at once to drive her to extremities, while implicit confidence put her on honour and rendered her both unable and unwilling to deceive. Never since their first acquaintance had she found occasion to test this quality of trust in her husband, and now it seemed that he possessed it largely, like a number of other manly characteristics. That he was brave, loyal, and generous she had discovered already; handsome and of high position she knew long ago, or she would never have resolved on his capture; and what was there wanting to complete her perfect happiness? Only one thing, she answered herself; but for it she would so willingly have bartered all the rest—that he should love her as Dick Stanmore did. Poor Dick Stanmore! how badly she had treated him, and perhaps this was to be her punishment.
"Bearwarden," she said, crossing the room to lean on the arm of his chair, "we've got to dine at your aunt's to-night. I suppose they will be very late. I wish there were no such things as dinners, don't you?"
"Not when I've missed luncheon, as I did to-day," answered his lordship, whose appetite was like that of any other healthy man under forty.
"I hoped you wouldn't," she observed, in rather a low voice; "it was very dull without you. We see each other so seldom, somehow. I should like to go to the play to-morrow—you and I, Darby and Joan—I don't care which house, nor what the play is."
"To-morrow", he answered, with a bright smile. "All right, my lady, I'll send for a box. I forgot, though, I can't go to-morrow, I'm on guard."
Her face fell, but she turned away that he might not detect her disappointment, and began to feed her bullfinch in the window.
"You're always on guard, I think", said she, after a pause. "I wonder you like it: surely it must be a dreadful tie. You lost your grouse-shooting this year and the Derby, didn't you? all to sit in plate armour and jack-boots at that gloomiest and stuffiest of Horse Guards. Bearwarden, I—I wish you'd give up the regiment, I do indeed."
When Maud's countenance wore a pleading expression, as now, it was more than beautiful, it was lovely. Looking in her face it seemed to him that it was the face of an angel.
"Do you honestly wish it?" he replied gently. "I would do a great deal to please you, my lady; but—no—I couldn't do that."
"He can't really care for me; I knew it all along", thought poor Maud, but she only looked up at him rather wistfully and held her peace.
He was gazing miles away, through the window, through the opposite houses, their offices, their washing-ground, and the mews at the back. She had never seen him look so grave; she had never seen that soft, sad look on his face before. She wondered now that she could ever have regarded that face as a mere encumbrance and accessory to be taken with a coronet and twenty thousand a year.
"Would you like to know why I cannot make this sacrifice to please you?" he asked, in a low, serious voice. "I think you ought to know, my lady, and I will tell you. I'm fond of soldiering, of course. I've been brought up to the trade—that's nothing. So I am of hunting, shooting, rackets, cricketing, London porter, and dry champagne; but I'd give them up, each and all, at a moment's notice, if it made you any happier for ten minutes. I am a little ambitious, I grant, and the only fame I would care much for is a soldier's. Still, even if my chance of military distinction were ten times as good I shouldn't grudge losing it for your sake. No: what makes me stick to the regiment is what makes a fellow take a life-buoy on board ship—the instinct of self-preservation. When everything else goes down he's got that to cling to, and can have a fight for his life. Once, my lady, long before I had ever seen you, it was my bad luck to be very unhappy. I didn't howl about it at the time, I'm not going to howl about it now. Simply, all at once, in a day, an hour, everything in the world turned from a joy to a misery and a pain. If my mother hadn't taught me better, I should have taken the quickest remedy of all. If I hadn't had the regiment to fall back upon I must have gone mad. The kindness of my brother officers I never can forget; and to go down the ranks scanning the bold, honest faces of the men, feeling that we had cast our lot in together, and when the time came would all play the same stake, win or lose, reminded me that there were others to live for besides myself, and that I had not lost everything, while yet a share remained invested in our joint venture. When I lay awake in my barrack-room at night I could hear the stamp and snort of the old black troopers, and it did me good. I don't know the reason, but it did me good. You will think I was very unhappy—so I was."
"But why?" asked Maud, shrewdly guessing, and at the same time dreading the answer.
"Because I was a fool, my lady," replied her husband—"a fool of the very highest calibre. You have, no doubt, discovered that in this world folly is punished far more severely than villainy. Deceive others, and you prosper well enough; allow yourself to be deceived, and you're pitched into as if you were the greatest rogue unhung. It's not a subject for you and me to talk about, my lady. I only mentioned it to show you why I am so unwilling to leave the army. Why, I dare not do it, even to please you."
"But"—she hesitated, and her voice came very soft and low—"you—you are not afraid—I mean you don't think it likely, do you, that you will ever be so unhappy again? It was about—about somebody that you cared for, I suppose."
She got it out with difficulty, and already hated that unknown Somebody with an unreasoning hatred, such as women think justifiable and even meritorious in like cases.
He laughed a harsh, forced laugh.
"What a fool you must think me", said he: "I ought never to have told you. Yes, it was about a woman, of course. You did not fancy I could be so soft, did you? Don't let us talk about it. I'll tell you in three words, and then will never mention the subject again. I trusted and believed in her. She deceived me, and that sort of thing puts a fellow all wrong, you know, unless he's very good-tempered, and I suppose I'm not. It's never likely to happen again, but still, blows of all sorts fall upon people when they least expect them, and that's why I can't give up the old corps, but shall stick by it to the last."
"Are you sure you haven't forgiven her?" asked Maud, inwardly trembling for an answer.
"Forgiven her!" repeated his lordship; "well, I've forgiven her like a Christian, as they say—perhaps even more fully than that. I don't wish her any evil. I wouldn't do her a bad turn, but as for ever thinking of her or caring for her afterwards, that was impossible. No. While I confided in her freely and fully, while I gave up for her sake everything I prized and cared for in the world, while I was even on the verge of sending in my papers because it seemed to be her wish I should leave the regiment, she had her own secret hidden up from me all the time. That showed what she was. No; I don't think I could ever forgive that—except as a Christian, you know, my lady!"
He ended in a light sarcastic tone, for like most men who have lived much in the world, he had acquired a habit of discussing the gravest and most painful subjects with conventional coolness, originating perhaps in our national dislike of anything sentimental or dramatic in situation. He could have written probably eloquently and seriously enough, but to "speak like a book" would have lowered him, in his own esteem, as being unmanly no less than ungentlemanlike.
Maud's heart ached very painfully. A secret then, kept from him by the woman he trusted, was the one thing he could not pardon. Must this indeed be her punishment? Day by day to live with this honourable, generous nature, learning to love it so dearly, and yet so hopelessly, because of the great gulf fixed by her own desperate venture, risked, after all, that she might win him! For a moment, under the influence of that great tide of love which swelled up in her breast, she felt as if she must put her whole life's happiness on one desperate throw, and abide the result. Make a clean breast, implore his forgiveness, and tell him all.
She had been wandering about while he spoke, straightening a table-cover here, snipping a dead leaf off a geranium there, and otherwise fidgeting to conceal her emotion. Now she walked across the room to her husband's side, and in another minute perhaps the whole truth would have been out, and these two might have driven off to dinner in their brougham, the happiest couple in London; but the door was thrown wide open, and the student of Bell's Life, on whose whiskers the time employed in curling them had obviously not been thrown away, announced to her ladyship, with much pomp, that her carriage was at the door.
"Good gracious!" exclaimed Maud, "and your aunt is always so punctual. You must dress in ten minutes, Bearwarden. I'm certain I can. Run down this moment, and don't stop to answer a single letter if it's a case of life and death."
And Lady Bearwarden, casting all other thoughts to the winds in the present emergency, hurried up-stairs after the pretty little feet of her French maid, whose anxiety that her lady should not be late, and perhaps a certain curiosity to know the cause of delay, had tempted her down at least as far as the first landing, while my lord walked to his dressing-room on the ground-floor, with the comfortable conviction that he might spend a good half-hour at his toilet, and would then be ready a considerable time before his wife.
The reflections that chased each other through the pretty head of the latter while subjected to Justine's skilful manipulations, I will not take upon me to detail. I may state, however, that the dress she chose to wear was trimmed with Bearwarden's favourite colour; that she carried a bunch of his favourite flowers on her breast and another in her hair.
A brougham drawn by a pair of long, low, high-stepping horses, at the rate of twelve miles an hour, is an untoward vehicle for serious conversation when taking its occupants out to dinner, although well adapted for tender confidence or mutual recrimination on its return from a party at night. Lady Bearwarden could not even make sure that her husband observed she had consulted his taste in dress. Truth to tell, Lord Bearwarden was only conscious that his wife looked exceedingly handsome, and that he wished they were going to dine at home. Marriage had made him very slow, and this inconvenient wish lasted him all through dinner, notwithstanding that it was his enviable lot to sit by a fast young lady of the period, who rallied him with exceeding good taste on his wife, his house, his furniture, manners, dress, horses, and everything that was his. Once, in extremity of boredom, he caught sight of Maud's delicate profile five couples off, and fancied he could detect on the pale, pure face something of his own weariness and abstraction. After that the fast young lady "went at him", as she called it, in vain. Later, in the drawing-room, she told another damsel of her kind that "Bruin's marriage had utterly spoilt him. Simply ruination, my dear! So unlike men in general. What he could see in her I can't make out! She looks like death, and she's not very well dressed, in my opinion. I wonder if she bullies him. He used to be such fun. So fast, so cheery, so delightfully satirical, and as wicked as Sin!"
Maud went home in the brougham by herself. After a tedious dinner, lasting through a couple of hours, enlivened by the conversation of a man he can't understand, and the persecutions of a woman who bores him, it is natural for the male human subject to desire tobacco, and a walk home in order to smoke. Somehow, the male human subject never does walk straight home with its cigar.
Bearwarden, like others of his class, went off to Pratt's, where, we will hope, he was amused, though he did not look it. A cigar on a close evening leads to soda-water, with a slice of lemon, and, I had almost forgotten to add, a small modicum of gin. This entails another cigar, and it is wonderful how soon one o'clock in the morning comes round again. When Lord Bearwarden turned out of St. James's Street it was too late to think of anything but immediate bed. Her ladyship's confessions, if she had any to make, must be put off till breakfast-time, and, alas! by her breakfast-time, which was none of the earliest, my lord was well down in his sheepskin, riding out of the barrack-gate in command of his guard.
"Fronte capillata post est Oceasio calav"
Bald-pated Father Time had succeeded in slipping his forelock out of Maud's hand the evening before, and, henceforth, behind his bare and mocking skull, those delicate, disappointed fingers must close on empty air in vain!
FURENS QUID FOEMINA
We left Tom Ryfe, helpless, unconscious, more dead than alive, supported between a man and woman up a back street in Westminster: we must return to him after a considerable interval, pale, languid, but convalescent, on a sofa in his own room under his uncle's roof. He is only now beginning to understand that he has been dangerously ill; that according to his doctor nothing but a "splendid constitution" and unprecedented medical skill have brought him back from the threshold of that grim portal known as death's door. This he does not quite believe, but is aware, nevertheless, that he is much enfeebled, and that his system has sustained what he himself calls "a deuced awkward shake." Even now he retains no very clear idea of what happened to him. He remembers vaguely, as in a dream, certain bare walls of a dim and gloomy chamber, tapestried with cobwebs, smelling of damp and mould like a vault, certain broken furniture, shabby and scarce, on a bare brick floor, with a grate in which no fire could have been kindled without falling into the middle of the room. He recalls that racking head-ache, that scorching thirst, and those pains in all the bones of a wan, wasted figure lying under a patchwork quilt on a squalid bed. A figure, independent of, and dissevered from himself, yet in some degree identified with his thoughts, his sufferings, and his memories. Somebody nursed the figure, too—he is sure of that—bringing it water, medicines, food, and leeches for its aching temples; smoothing its pillow and arranging its bed-clothes, in those endless nights, so much longer, yet scarce more dismal than the days,—somebody, whose voice he never heard, whose face he never saw, yet in whose slow, cautious tread there seemed a familiar sound. Once, in delirium, he insisted it was Miss Bruce, but even through that delirium he knew he must be raving, and it was impossible. Could that be a part of his dream, too, in which he dragged himself out of bed, to dress in his own clothes, laid out on the chair that had hitherto carried a basin of gruel or a jug of cooling drink? No, it must have been reality surely, for even to-day he has so vivid a remembrance of the fresh air, the blinding sunshine, and the homely life-like look of that four-wheeled cab waiting in the narrow street, which he entered mechanically, which as mechanically brought him home to his uncle's house, the man asking no questions, nor stopping to receive his fare. To be sure, he fainted from utter weakness at the door. Of that he is satisfied, for he remembers nothing between the jolting of those slippery cushions and another bed in which he found himself, with a grave doctor watching over him, and which he recognised, doubtfully, as his own.
Gradually, with returning strength, Tom began to suspect the truth that he had been hocussed and robbed. His pockets, when he resumed his clothes, were empty. Their only contents, his cigar-case and Miss Bruce's letter, were gone. The motive for so desperate an attack he felt unable to fathom. His intellect was still affected by bodily weakness, and he inclined at first to think he had been mistaken for somebody else. The real truth only dawned on him by degrees. Its first ray originated with no less brilliant a luminary than old Bargrave.
To do him justice, the uncle had shown far more natural affection than his household had hitherto believed him capable of feeling. During his nephew's absence, he had been like one distracted, and the large reward offered for discovery of the missing gentleman sufficiently testified his anxiety and alarm. When Tom did return, more dead than alive, Bargrave hurried off in person to procure the best medical advice, and postponing inquiry into his wrongs to the more immediate necessity of nursing the sufferer, spent six or seven hours out of the twenty-four at the sick man's bedside.
The first day Tom could sit up his uncle thought well to enliven him with a little news, social, general, and professional. Having told him that he had outbid Mortlake for the last batch of poor Mr. Chalkstone's port, and stated, at some length, his reasons for doubting the stability of Government, he entered gleefully upon congenial topics, and proceeded to give the invalid a general sketch of business affairs during his retirement.
"I've worked the coach, Tom," said he, walking up and down the room, waving his coat-tails, "as well as it could be worked, single-handed. I don't think you'll find a screw loose anywhere. Ah, Tom! an old head, you know, is worth a many pair of hands. When you're well enough, in a week or so, my lad, I shall like to show you how I've kept everything going, though I was so anxious, terribly anxious, all the time. The only matter that's been left what you call in statu quo is that business of Miss Bruce's, which I had nothing to do with. It will last you a good while yet, Tom, though it's of less importance to her now, poor thing!—don't you move, Tom—I'll hand you the barley-water—because she's Miss Bruce no longer."
Tom gasped, and hid his pale, thin face in the jug of barley-water. He had some pluck about him, after all; for weak and ill as he was he managed to get out an indifferent question.
"Not Miss Bruce, isn't she? Ah! I hadn't heard. Who is she then, uncle? I suppose you mean she's—she's married." He was so husky, no wonder he took another pull at the barley-water.
"Yes, she's married," answered his uncle, in the indifferent tone with which threescore years and odd can discuss that fatality. "Made a good marriage, too—an excellent marriage. What do you think of a peerage, my boy? She's Viscountess Bearwarden now. Twenty thousand a year, if it's a penny. I am sure of it, for I was concerned in a lawsuit of the late lord's twenty years ago. I don't suppose you're acquainted with her husband, Tom. Not in our circle, you know; but a most respectable young man, I understand, and likely to be lord-lieutenant of his county before long. I'm sure I trust she'll be happy. And now, Tom, as you seem easy and comfortable, perhaps you'd like to go to sleep for a little. If you want anything you can reach the bell, and I'll come and see you again before I dress for dinner."
Easy and comfortable! When the door shut behind his uncle, Tom bowed his head upon the table and gave way completely. He was unmanned by illness, and the shock had been too much for him. It was succeeded, however, and that pretty quickly, by feelings of bitter wrath and resentment, which did more to restore his strength than all the tonics in the world. An explanation, too, seemed now afforded to much that had so mystified him of late. What if, rendered desperate by his threats, Miss Bruce had been in some indirect manner the origin of his captivity and illness—Miss Bruce, the woman who of all others owed him the largest debt of gratitude (like most people, Tom argued from his own side of the question); for whom he had laboured so unremittingly, and was willing to sacrifice so much? Could it be so? And if it was, should he not be justified in going to any extremity for revenge? Revenge—yes, that was all he had to live for now; and the very thought seemed to put new vigour into his system, infuse fresh blood in his veins. So is it with all baser spirits; and perhaps in the indulgence of this cowardly craving they obtain a more speedy relief than nobler natures from the first agony of suffering; but their cure is not and never can be permanent; and to them must remain unknown that strange wild strain of some unearthly music which thrills through those sore hearts that can repay good for evil, kindly interest for cold indifference; that, true to themselves and their own honour, can continue to love a memory, though it be but the memory of a dream. Tom felt as if he could make an exceedingly high bid, involving probity, character, good faith, and the whole of his moral code, for an auxiliary who should help him in his vengeance. Assistance was at hand even now, in an unexpected moment and an unlooked-for shape.
"A person wishes to see you, sir, if you're well enough," said a little housemaid who had volunteered to provide for the wants of the invalid, and took very good care of him indeed.
"What sort of a person?" asked Tom languidly, feeling, nevertheless, that any distraction would be a relief.
"Well, sir," replied the maid, "it seems a respectable person, I should say. Like a sick-nurse or what not."
There is no surmise so wild but that a rejected lover will grasp at and connect it with the origin of his disappointment. "I'll see her," said Tom stoutly, not yet despairing but that it might be a messenger from Maud.
He certainly was surprised when Dorothea, whom he recognised at once, even in her Sunday clothes, entered the room, with a wandering eye and a vacillating step.
"You'll never forgive me, Master Tom," was her startling salutation. "It's me as nursed you through it; but you'll never forgive me—never! And I don't deserve as you should."
Dorothea was nervous, hysterical, but she steadied herself bravely, though her fingers worked and trembled under her faded shawl.
Tom stared, and his visitor went on—
"You'd 'a died for sure if I hadn't. Don't ye cast it up to me, Master Tom. I've been punished enough. Punished! If I was to bare my arm now I could show you weals that's more colours and brighter than your neckankercher there. I've been served worse nor that, though, since. I ain't a-goin' to put up with it no longer. Master Tom, do you know as you've Been put upon, and by who?"
His senses were keenly on the alert. "Tell me the truth, my good girl," said he, "and I'll forgive you all your share. More, I'll stick by you through thick and thin."
She whimpered a little, affected by the kindness of his tone, but tugging harder at her shawl, proceeded to further confessions.
"You was hocussed, Master Tom; and I can point out to you the man as did it. You'd 'a been murdered amongst 'em if it hadn't been for me. Who was it, d'ye think, as nussed of you, and cared for you, all through, and laid out your clothes ready brushed and folded, and went and got you a cab the day as you come back here? Master Tom, I've been put upon too. Put upon and deceived, as never yet was born woman used so bad; and it's my turn now! Look ye here, Master Tom. It's that villain, Jim—Gentleman Jim, as we calls him—what's been at the bottom of this here. And yet there's worse than Jim in it too. There's others that set Jim on. O! to believe as a fine handsome chap like him could turn out to be so black-hearted, and such a soft too. She'll never think no more of him, for all his comely face, than the dirt beneath her feet."
"She!" repeated Tom, intensely interested, and therefore preternaturally calm. "What d'ye mean by she? Don't fret, that's a good girl, and don't excite yourself. Tell your story your own way, you know, but keep as quiet as you can. You're safe enough here."
"We'd been asked in church," replied Dorothea, somewhat inconsequently. "Ah! more than once, we had. And I'd ha' been as true to him, and was, as ever a needle to a stitch. Well, sir, when he slights of me, and leaves of me, why it's natural as I should run up and down the streets a-lookin' for him like wild. So one day, after I'd done my work, and put things straight, for I never was one of your sluttish ones, Master Tom—and your uncle, he's always been a kind gentleman to me, and a haffable, like yourself, Master Tom—according, I comes upon my Jim at the Sunflower, and I follows him unbeknown for miles and miles right away to the West-End. So he never looks behind him, nor he never stops, o' course, till he comes to Belgrave Square; and he turns down a street as I couldn't read its name, but should know it again as well as I know my own hand. And then, Master Tom, if you'll believe me, I thought as I must have dropped."
"Well?" said Tom, not prepared to be satisfied with this climax, though his companion stopped, as if she had got to the end of her disclosures.
"Well indeed!" resumed Dorothea, after a considerable interval, "when he come that far, I know'd as he must be up to some of his games, and I watched. They lets him into a three-storied house, and I sees him in the best parlour with a lady, speaking up to her, but not half so bold as usual. He a not often dashed, Jim isn't. I will say that for him."
"What sort of a lady?" asked Tom, quivering with excitement. "You took a good look at her, I'll be bound!"
"Well, a real lady in a muslin dress," answered Dorothea. "A tall young lady—not much to boast of for looks, but with hair as black as your hat and a face as white as cream. Very 'aughty too an' arbitrary, and seemed to have my Jim like quite at her command. So from where I stood I couldn't help hearing everything that passed. My Jim, he gives her the very letter as laid in your pocket that night, as you—as you was taken so poorly, you know. And from what she said and what he said, and putting this and that together, I'm sure as they got you out of the way between them, Master Tom, and gammoned me into the job too, when I'd rather have cut both my hands off, if I'd only known the truth."
Tom sat back on his sofa, shutting his eyes that he might concentrate his powers of reflection. Yes, it was all clear enough at last. The nature and origin of the outrage to which he had been subjected were obvious, nor could he entertain any further doubt of Maud's motives, though marvelling exceedingly, as well he might, at her courage, her recklessness, and the social standing of her accomplice. It seemed to him as if he could forgive every one concerned but her. This poor woman who had fairly thrown herself on his mercy: the ruffian whose grip had been at his throat, but who might hereafter prove as efficient an ally as he had been a formidable enemy. Only let him have Maud in his power, that was all he asked, praying him to spare her, kneeling at his feet, and then without a shade of compunction to ruin, and crush, and humble her to the dust!
He saw his way presently, but he must work warily, he told himself, and use all the tools that came to his hand.
"If you can clear the matter up, Dorothea," said he, kindly, "I will not visit your share in it on your head, as I have already told you. Indeed I believe I owe you my life. But this man you mention, this Gentleman Jim as you call him, can you find him? Do you know where he is? My poor girl! I think I understand. Surely you deserved better treatment at his hands."
The kind words produced this time no softening effect, and Tom knew enough of human nature to feel sure that she was bent on revenge as earnestly as himself, while he also knew that he must take advantage of her present humour at once, for it might change in an hour.
"If I could lay my hand on him," answered Dorothea fiercely, "it's likely I'd leave my mark! I've looked for him now, high and low, every evening and many arternoons, better nor a week. I ain't come on him yet, the false-hearted thief! but I seen her only the day before yesterday, seen her walk into a house in Berners Street as bold as you please. I watched and waited better nor two hours, for, thinks I, he won't be long follerin'; and I seen her come out agin with a gentleman, a comely young gentleman; I'd know him anywheres, but he warn't like my Jim."
"Are you sure it was the same lady?" asked Tom eagerly, but ashamed of putting so unnecessary a question when he saw the expression of Dorothea's face.
"Am I sure?" said she, with a short gasping laugh. "Do you suppose as a woman can be mistook as has been put upon like me? Lawyers is clever men, askin' your pardon, Mr. Ryfe, but there's not much sense in such a question as yours: I seen the lady, sir, and I seen the house; that's enough for me!"
"And you observed the gentleman narrowly?" continued Tom, stifling down a little pang of jealousy that was surely unreasonable now.
"Well, I didn't take much notice of the gentleman," answered Dorothea wearily, for the reaction was coming on apace. "It warn't my Jim, I know. You and me has both been used bad, Master Tom, and it's a shame, it is. But the weather's uncommon close, and it's a long walk here, and I'm a'most fit to drop, askin' your pardon, sir. I wrote down the number of the house, Master Tom, to make sure—there it is. If you please, I'll go down-stairs, and ask the servants for a cup o' tea, and I wish you a good arternoon, sir, and am glad to see you lookin' a trifle better at last."
So Dorothea departed to enjoy the luxury of strong tea and unlimited gossip with Mr. Bargrave's household, drawing largely on her invention in explanation of her recent interview, but affording them no clue to the real object of her visit.
Tom Ryfe was still puzzled. That Maud (he could not endure to think of her as Lady Bearwarden)—that Maud should, so soon after her marriage, be seen going about London by herself under such questionable circumstances was strange, to say the least of it, even making allowances for her recklessness and wilful disposition, of which no one could be better aware than himself. What could be her object? though he loved her so fiercely in his own way, he had no great opinion of her discretion; and now, in the bitterness of his anger, was prepared to put the very worst construction upon everything she did. He recalled, painfully enough, a previous occasion on which he had met her, as he believed, walking with a stranger in the Park, and did not forget her displeasure while cutting short his inquiries on the subject. After all, it occurred to him almost immediately, that the person with whom she had been lately seen was probably her own husband. He would not himself have described Lord Bearwarden exactly as a "comely young gentleman," but on the subject of manly beauty Dorothea's taste was probably more reliable than his own. If so, however, what could they be doing in Berners Street? Pshaw! How this illness had weakened his intellect! Having her picture painted, of course! what else could bring a doting couple, married only a few weeks, to that part of the town? He cursed Dorothea bitterly for her ridiculous surmises and speculations—cursed the fond pair—cursed his own wild unconquerable folly—cursed the day he first set eyes on that fatal beauty, so maddening to his senses, so destructive to his heart; and thus cursing staggered across the room to take his strengthening draught, looked at his pale, worn face in the glass, and sat down again to think.
The doctor had visited him at noon, and stated with proper caution that in a day or two, if amendment still progressed satisfactorily, "carriage exercise," as he called it, might be taken with undoubted benefit to the invalid. We all know, none better than medical men themselves, that if your doctor says you may get up to-morrow, you jump out of bed the moment his back is turned. Tom Ryfe, worried, agitated, unable to rest where he was, resolved that he would take his carriage exercise without delay, and to the housemaid's astonishment, indeed much against her protest, ordered a hansom cab to the door at once.
Though so weak he could not dress without assistance, he no sooner found himself on the move, and out of doors, than he began to feel stronger and better; he had no object in driving beyond change of scene, air, and exercise; but it will not surprise those who have suffered from the cruel thirst and longing which accompanies such mental maladies as his, that he should have directed the cabman to proceed to Berners Street.
It sometimes happens that when we thus "draw a bow at a venture" our random shaft hits the mark we might have aimed at for an hour in vain. Tom Ryfe esteemed it an unlooked-for piece of good fortune that turning out of Oxford Street he should meet another hansom going at speed in an opposite direction, and containing—yes, he could have sworn to them before any jury in England—the faces, very near each other, of Lady Bearwarden and Dick Stanmore.
It was enough. Dorothea's statement seemed sufficiently corroborated, and after proceeding to the number she indicated, as if to satisfy himself that the house had not walked bodily away, Mr. Ryfe returned home very much benefited in his own opinion by the drive, though the doctor, visiting his patient next day, was disappointed to find him still low and feverish, altogether not so much better as he expected.
"NOT FOR JOSEPH"
But Dick Stanmore was not in a hansom with Lady Bearwarden. Shall I confess, to the utter destruction of his character for undying constancy, that he did not wish to be?
Dick had been cured at last—cured of the painful disease he once believed mortal—cured by a course of sanitary treatment, delightful in its process, unerring in its results; and he walked about now with the buoyant step, the cheerful air of one who has been lightened of a load lying next his heart.
Medical discoveries have of late years brought into vogue a science of which I have borrowed the motto for these volumes. Similia similibus curantur is the maxim of homoeopathy; and whatever success this healing principle may obtain with bodily ailments, I have little doubt of its efficacy in affections of the heart. I do not mean to say its precepts will render us invulnerable or immortal. There are constitutions that, once shaken, can never be restored; there are characters that, once outraged, become saddened for evermore. The fairest flowers and the sweetest, are those which, if trampled down, never hold up their heads again. But I do mean, that should man or woman be capable of cure under sufferings originating in misplaced confidence, such cure is most readily effected by a modified attack of the same nature, at the risk of misplacing it again.
After Dick Stanmore's first visit to the painting-room in Berners Street, it was astonishing how enthusiastic a taste he contracted for art. He was never tired of contemplating his friend's great picture, and Simon used laughingly to declare the amateur knew every line and shade of colour in his Fairy Queen as accurately as the painter. He remained in London at a season which could have afforded few attractions for a young man of his previous habits, and came every day to the painting-room as regularly as the model herself. Thus it fell out that Dick, religiously superintending the progress of this Fairy Queen, found his eyes wandering perpetually from the representation on canvas to its original on Miss Algernon's shoulders, and gratified his sense of sight with less scruple, that from the very nature of her occupation she was compelled to keep her head always turned one way.
It must have been agreeable for Nina, no doubt, if not improving, to listen to Dick's light and rather trivial conversation which relieved the monotony of her task, and formed a cheerful addition to the short, jerking, preoccupied sentences of the artist, enunciated obviously at random, and very often with a brush in his mouth. Nor was it displeasing, I imagine, to be aware of Mr. Stanmore's admiration, forsaking day by day its loudly-declared allegiance to the Fairy Queen in favour of her living prototype, deepening gradually to long intervals of silence, sweeter, more embarrassing, while far more eloquent than words.
And all the time, Simon, the chivalrous, painted on. I cannot believe but that, with the jealous instinct of true affection, he must have perceived the ground slipping away, hour by hour, from beneath his feet—must have seen the ship that carried all his cargo sailing farther and farther into a golden distance to leave him desolate on the darkening shore. How his brain may have reeled, and his heart ached, it is not for me to speculate. There is a decency of courage, as there is an extravagance of bravado, and that is the true spirit of chivalry which bleeds to death unmoved, beneath its armour, keeping the pale knightly face turned calm and constant towards the foe.
It was a strange trio, that, in the painting-room. The garden of Eden seems to have been originally intended for two. The third was doubtless an intruder, and from that day to this how many a paradise has been lost by admittance of the visitor who completes this uneven number, unaccountably supposed to be so productive of good fortune.
Curious cross purposes were at work in the three heads grouped so near each other opposite the painter's glowing canvas. Dick perhaps was the least perceptive and therefore the happiest of the party. His sense of well-being, indeed, seemed enhanced by his previous troubles: like a man who comes out of the cold into the glow of a comforting fire, he abandoned himself without much reflection to the positive enjoyment of pleasure and the negative solace of relief from pain.
Simon, always painting, fought hard to keep down that little leavening of self which constitutes our very identity. Under the cold impassive vigour he was so determined to preserve, he registered many a noble vow of fortitude and abnegation on behalf of the friend he valued, of the woman he loved. Sometimes a pang would shoot through him painfully enough while he marked a change of Nina's colour, a little flutter of manner, a little trembling of her hands, and felt that she was already more affected by the presence of this comparative stranger than she had ever shown herself by his, who had cared for her so tenderly, worshipped her so long. Then he bent all his faculties on the picture, and like a child running to seize its mother's gown, took refuge with his art.
That mistress did not fail him. She never does fail the true worshipper, who kneels consistently at her shrine. It is not for her to scorn the homage offered to-day because it has been offered in faith and loyalty during many a long-past year. It is not for her to shed on the new votary her sweetest smiles only because he is new. Woo her frankly, love her dearly, and serve her faithfully, she will insure you from being cozened out of your reward. Had she not taken care of Simon at this period, I scarcely know what would have become of him.
Nina, too, lived in a golden dream, from which it was her only fear that she must soon awake. Ere long, she sometimes thought, she must ask herself who was this stranger that brought with him a flood of sunshine into the homely painting-room? that steeped for her, unconsciously and without effort, every day in happiness, every morning in hope? She put off asking the question, having perhaps a wholesome recollection of him who, going to count his treasure of fairy gold, found it only withered leaves, and let herself float with the stream, in that enjoyment of the present which is enhanced rather than modified by misgivings for the future. Nina was very happy, that is the honest truth, and even her beauty seemed to brighten like the bloom on a flower, opening to the smile of spring.
Simon marked the change. How could he help it? And still he painted—painted on.
"There!" exclaimed the artist, with a sigh of relief, as he stepped back from his picture, stretching both weary arms above his head. "At last—at last! If I only like it to-morrow as well as I do now, not another touch shall go into it anywhere above the chin. It's the expression I've been trying to catch for months. There it is! Doubt, sorrow, remorse, and, through it all, the real undying love of the—Well, that's all can't! I mean—Can't you see that she likes him awfully even now? Nina, you've been the making of me, you're the best sitter in the world, and while I look at my picture I begin to think you're the handsomest. I mustn't touch it again. Stanmore, what do you think?"
Absorbed in contemplation of his work, he paid little attention to the answer, which was so far fortunate, that Dick, in his preoccupation, faltered out a string of contradictory criticisms, flattering neither to the original nor the copy. Nina indeed suggested, with some truth, that he had made the eyebrows too dark, but this remark appeared to originate only in a necessity for something to say. These two young people seemed unusually shy and ill at ease. Perhaps in each of the three hearts beating there before the picture lurked some vague suspicion that its wistful expression, so lately caught, may have been owing to corresponding feelings lately awakened in the model; and, if so, why should not two of them have thrilled with happiness, though the third might ache in loneliness and despair?
"Not another stroke of work will I do to-day," said the artist, affecting a cheerfulness which perhaps he did not feel. "Nina, you've got to be back early. I'll have a half-holiday for once and take you home. Put your bonnet on: I shall be ready in five minutes when I've washed my hands."
Dick's face fell. He had counted on a couple more hours at least. Women, when they are really disappointed, rarely show it, and perhaps he felt a little hurt to observe how readily, and with what apparent goodwill, Miss Algernon resumed her out-of-doors attire. He felt hardly sure of his ground yet, or he might have begun to sulk in earnest. No bad plan either, for such little misunderstandings bring on explanations, reconciliations, declarations, all sorts of vexations, every day!
Ladies are stanch believers in luck, and leave much to chance with a devout faith that it will serve them at their need. I imagine Nina thought it quite in the natural course of events that a dirty boy should enter the room at this juncture and deliver a note to Simon, which called forth all his energies and sympathies in a moment. The note, folded in a hurry, written with a pencil, was from a brother artist, and ran thus—
Dear Simon, "Come and see me if you can. On my back! Two doctors. Not going to be rubbed out, but beastly seedy all the same."
"When was he taken ill? Who's attending him? Anybody taking care of him? What o'clock is it now? Tell him I'll be there in five minutes." Simon delivered himself of these sentences in a breath, and then glanced from Nina to Dick Stanmore.
"I dare say you wouldn't mind," said he. "I must go to this poor fellow, and if I find him very ill I may be detained till evening. If you've time, Stanmore, could you see Miss Algernon as far as the boat? She'll do very well then, but we don't like her to be wandering about London by herself."
It is possible this idea may have suggested itself to the persons most concerned, for all that they seemed so supremely unconscious, and as if the arrangement, though a sensible one and convenient, no doubt, were a matter of perfect indifference to themselves.
Dick "would be delighted," of course; though he tried not to look so; and Nina "couldn't think of giving Mr. Stanmore so much trouble." Nevertheless, within ten minutes the two were turning into Oxford Street in a hansom cab; and although they said very little, being indeed in a vehicle which jolted, swung, and rattled inordinately, I have not the least doubt they enjoyed their drive.
They enjoyed the river steamer too, which seems equally strange, with its narrow deck, its tangible smoke, its jerks and snorts, and throbbing vibrations, as it worked its way against the tide. They had never before been alone together, and the situation, though delightful, was at first somewhat embarrassing, because they were in earnest. The restraint, however, soon wore off, and with tongues once loosened there was no lack of matter for their employment. How beautiful, how interesting, how picturesque everything seemed to have grown all at once: the Houses of Parliament—the bridges—the dull, broad surface of the river, grey, with a muddy tinge—the low, level banks—the blunt-nosed barges—their fellow-passengers—the engineer—the boy with the mop—and the dingy funnel of the steamer itself.
How mysterious the charm that lurks in association of ideas! What magic it imparts to the commonest actions, the most vulgar objects of life! What a heart-ache on occasions has it not caused you or me! One of us cannot see a woman fitting on her gloves without a pang. To another there is a memory and a sorrow in the flirt of a fan, the rustle of a dress, the grinding of a barrel-organ, or the slang of a street song. The stinging-nettle crops up in every bed of flowers we raise; the bitter tonic flavours all we eat and drink. I dare say Werther could not munch his bread-and-butter for years in common comfort because of Charlotte. Would it not be wiser for us to ignore the Charlottes of life altogether, and stick to the bread-and-butter?
Too soon that dingy steamer reached its place of disembarkation—too soon, at least, for certain of its passengers; and yet in their short voyage up the river each of these two had passed the portal of a paradise, through which, amongst all its gaudy and luxuriant vegetation, you may search for the tree of knowledge in vain. Not a word was spoken by either that could bear the direct interpretation of love-making, yet each felt that the Rubicon had been passed which must never be recrossed dryshod again.
Dick paid his respects, as seemed but right and proper, to the Misses Perkins, who voted him an exceedingly agreeable young man; and this was the more tolerant on their part that he found very little to say, and had the good taste to be a very short time in saying it. They asked him, indeed, to remain for dinner, and, notwithstanding their hospitable inclinations, were no doubt relieved when he declined. He had gained some experience, you see, from his previous worship of Miss Bruce, which now stood him in good stead, for in affairs of love, as of honour, a man conducts his second with more skill and savoir faire than his first.
The world seemed to have changed by magic while he went back to London. It felt like the breaking up of a frost, when all is warmth and softness and vitality once more. He could have talked to himself, and laughed aloud for very joy.
But Nina went to her room, and cried as she had not cried since she was a little child, shedding tears of mingled sweetness and sorrow, rapture and remorse. Her eyes were opened now in her new-found happiness, and she foresaw the crushing blow that happiness must inflict on the oldest, kindest, dearest of friends.
For the first time in her life she took herself to task and examined her own heart. What a joyous heart it was! And yet how could she be so inhuman as to admit a pleasure which must be cruelly productive of another's pain? Here was a person whom she had known, as it were, but yesterday, and his lightest word or glance had already become dearer to her than the wealth of care and affection which tended her from childhood, which would be about her to her grave. It was infamous! she told herself, and yet it was surpassingly sweet! Yes, she loved this man—this brown-haired, broad-shouldered Mr. Stanmore, of whose existence a fortnight ago she had been perfectly unconscious, and in that love she learned to appreciate and understand the affection loyal, true-hearted Simon lavished on herself. Was he to be sacrificed to this mere stranger? Never! Rather she would sacrifice herself. But the tears flowed faster to think that it would indeed be a sacrifice, an offering up of youth, beauty, hope, happiness for life. Then she dried her eyes, and went down on her knees to pray at her bedside; and so rose up, making certain stern resolutions, which it is only fair to state she afterwards kept—like a woman!
With the view, doubtless, of putting these in practice, she induced Simon to walk with her on the lawn after tea, while the stars were twinkling dimly through a soft, misty sky, and the lazy river lapped and gurgled against the garden banks. He accompanied her, nothing loth, for he too had spent the last hour in hard painful conflict, making, also, stern resolutions, which he kept—like a man! "You found him better," she said, alluding to the cause of his delay in returning home. "I'm so glad. If he hadn't been, you'd have stayed with him all night, I know. Simon, I think you're the best and the kindest person in the world."
Here was an opening. Was she disappointed, or not, that he took so little advantage of it? "We must all help each other, Nina," said he; "that's the way to make life easy and to stifle sorrows, if we have them, of our own."
"You ought never to have a sorrow," she broke in. "You, who always think of others before yourself—you deserve to be so happy. And, Simon, sometimes I think you're not, and it makes me wretched; and I'd do anything in the world to please you; anything, if—if it wasn't too hard a task, you know."
She had been so eager to make her sacrifice and get it over that she hurried inconsiderately to the brink,—then, like a timid bather, stopped short, hesitating—the water looked so cold and dark and deep.
The lightest touch from his hand would have plunged her in, overhead. He would have held it in the fire rather, like the Roman hero, till it shrivelled into ashes.
"My happiness can never be apart from yours," he said, tenderly and sadly. "Yet I think I know now that yours is not entirely bound up in mine. Am I right, Nina?"
"I would do anything in the world for you—anything," she murmured, taking refuge, as we all do at such times, in vain repetition.
They had reached the drawing-room window, and she turned aside, as if she meant to go in. He took her hand lightly in his own, and led her back towards the river. It was very dark, and neither could read the expression of the other's face.
"I have but one earnest desire in the world," said he, speaking distinctly, but very low. "It is to see you happily settled in life. I never had a sister nor a daughter, Nina. You have stood me in the stead of both; and—and I shall never have a wife."
She knew what he meant. The quiet, sad, yet uncomplaining tone cut her to the heart. "It's a shame! it's a shame!" she murmured. "Simon, Simon. Tell me; don't you think me the worst, the most ungrateful, the most horrible girl in the world?"
He spoke cheerfully now, and even laughed. "Very ungrateful," he repeated, pressing her hand kindly; "and very detestable, unless you tell me the truth. Nina, dear Nina, confide in me as if I was your—well—your grandmother! Will that do? I think there's a somebody we saw to-day who likes you very much. He's a good fellow, and to be trusted, I can swear. Don't you think, dear, though you haven't known him long, that you like him a little—more than a little, already?"
"O, Simon, what a brute I am, and what a fool!" answered the girl, bursting into tears. And then the painter knew that his ship had gone down, and the waters had closed over it for evermore. That evening his aunts thought Simon in better spirits than usual. Nina, though she went to bed before the rest, had never found him kinder, more cheerful, more considerate. He spoke playfully, good-humouredly, on various subjects, and kissed the girl's forehead gravely, almost reverently, when she wished him good-night. It was such a caress as a man lays on the dead face that shall never look in his own again. The painter slept but little—perhaps not at all. And who shall tell how hard he wrestled with his great sorrow during those long hours of darkness, "even to the breaking of the day"? No angel sat by his bed to comfort him, nor spirit-voices whispered solace in his ear, nor spirit-sympathy poured balm into the cold, aching, empty heart; but I have my own opinion on such matters, and I would fain believe that struggles and sufferings like these are neither wasted nor forgotten, but are treasured and recorded by kindred beings of a higher nature, as the training that alone fits poor humanity, then noblest, when most sorrowful, to enter the everlasting gates and join the radiant legions of heaven.
Lord Bearwarden finds himself very constantly on guard just at present. Her ladyship is of opinion that he earns his pay more thoroughly than any day-labourer his wages. I do not myself consider that helmet, cuirass, and leather breeches form the appropriate appliances of a hero, when terminating in a pair of red morocco slippers. Nevertheless, in all representations purporting to be life-like, effect must be subservient to correctness of detail; and such was the costume in which his lordship, on duty at the Horse Guards, received a dispatch that seemed to cause him considerable surprise and vexation.
The guard coming off was mustering below. The relief coming on was already moving gallantly down Regent Street, to the admiration of all beholders. Armed was his lordship to the teeth, though not to the toes, for his batman waited respectfully with a pair of high jack-boots in his hand, and still his officer read, and frowned, and pulled his moustache, and swore, as the saying is, like a trooper, which, if he had only drawn on his boots, would not have been so much out of character at the time.
Once again he read it from end to end ere he crumpled the note in under his cuirass for future consideration. It ran as follows—
"Your lordship's manly and generous character has obtained for you many well-wishers. Of these the writer is one of the most sincere. It grieves and angers him to see your lordship's honest nature deceived, your domestic happiness destroyed, your noble confidence abused. The writer, my lord, is your true friend. Though too late for rescue, it is not too late for redress; and he has no power of communicating to your lordship suspicions which now amount to certainty but by the means at present employed. Anonymous letters are usually the resource of a liar and slanderer; but there is no rule without exception; and the writer can bring proof of every syllable he asserts. If your lordship will use your own eyes, watch and wait. She has deceived others; why not you? Berners Street, Oxford Street, is no crowded thoroughfare. Why should your lordship abstain from walking there any afternoon between four and five? Be wary. Watch and wait."
* * * * *
"Blast his impudence!" muttered Lord Bearwarden, now booted to the thigh, and clattering down-stairs to take command of his guard.
With zealous subalterns, an experienced corporal-major, well-drilled men, and horses that knew their way home, it required little military skill to move his handful of cavalry back to barracks, so Lord Bearwarden came off duty without creating scandal or ridicule in the regiment; but I doubt if he knew exactly what he was doing, till he arrived in plain clothes within a few paces of his own door. Here he paused for a few minutes' reflection before entering his house, and was surprised to see at the street corner a lady extremely like his wife in earnest conversation with a man in rags who had the appearance of a professional beggar. The lady, as far as he could judge at that distance, seemed to be offering money, which the man by his actions obviously refused. Lord Bearwarden walked briskly towards them, a good deal puzzled, and glad to have his attention distracted from his own affairs.
It was a long street, and the couple separated before he reached them, the man disappearing round the corner, while the lady advanced steadily towards himself. When within a few paces she lifted a thick double veil, and he found he had not been mistaken.
Maud was pale and calm as usual, but to those who knew her well recent agitation would have been betrayed by the lowering of her eyebrows, and an unusual compression of the lines about her mouth.
He knew her better than she thought, and did not fail to remark these signs of a recent storm, but, as usual, refrained from asking for the confidence it was his right to receive.
"You're out early, my lady," said he, in a careless tone. "Been for an appetite against luncheon-time, eh? That beggar just now didn't seem hungry, at any rate. It looked to me as if you were offering him money, and he wouldn't take it. That's quite a new trick in the trade."
She glanced quickly in his face with something almost of reproach. It was a hateful life this, and even now, she thought, if he would question her kindly, she could find it in her heart perhaps to tell him all. All! How she had deceived him, and promised herself to another, and to get rid of that other, only for a time, had rendered herself amenable to the law—had been guilty of actual crime—had sunk to feel the very slave of a felon, the lowest refuse of society. How she, Lady Bearwarden, had within the last ten minutes been threatened by this ruffian, been compelled to submit to his insolence, to make terms with his authority, and to promise him another interview that very afternoon. How every hour of her life was darkened by terror of his presence and dread of his revenge. It was unheard-of! unbearable! She would make a clean breast of it on the first opportunity.
"Let's go in, dear," she said, with more of softness and affection than was her habit when addressing her husband. "Luncheon is almost ready. I'm so glad you got away early from barracks. I see so little of you now. Never mind. It will be all right next week. We shall have two more captains back from leave to help us. You see I'm beginning to know the roster almost as well as the Adjutant himself."
It pleased him that she should show an interest in these professional details. He liked to hear such military terms of the orderly room from those pretty lips, and he would have replied with something unusually affectionate, and therefore exceedingly precious, but that, as husband and wife reached their own door, they found standing there to greet them the pale wasted face and attenuated figure of Tom Ryfe.
He saluted Lady Bearwarden gravely, but with perfect confidence, and she was obliged to give him her hand, though she felt as if she could have strangled him with pleasure, then and there, by the scraper. Her husband clapped him heartily on the back. "Glad to see you, Tom," said he; "I heard you were ill and called to inquire, but they wouldn't let me disturb you. Been devilish seedy, haven't you? Don't look quite in form yet. Come in and have some luncheon. Doctors all tell one to keep up the system now-a-days."
Poor Lady Bearwarden! Here was another of her avengers, risen, as it seemed, from the dead, and she must speak kind words, find false smiles, bid him to her table, and treat him as an honoured guest. Whatever happened, too, she could not endure to leave him alone with Bearwarden. Who could tell what disclosures might come out? She was walking on a mine, so she backed her husband's invitation, and herself led the way into the dining-room where luncheon was ready, not daring even to go up-stairs and take her bonnet off before she sat down.
Mr. Ryfe was less communicative than usual about himself, and spoke as little to her ladyship as seemed compatible with the ordinary forms of politeness. His object was to lull her suspicions and put her off her guard. Nevertheless, with painful attention she watched every glance of his eye, every turn of his features, hanging eagerly, nervously, on every word he said.
Tom had laid his plan of attack, and now called on the lately-married couple, that he might reconnoitre his ground before bringing up his forces. It is not to be supposed that a man of Mr. Ryfe's resources would long remain in ignorance of the real truth, after detecting, as he believed at the time, Lady Bearwarden and Dick Stanmore side by side in a hansom cab.
Ere twenty-four hours had elapsed he had learned the exact state of the case, and had satisfied himself of the extraordinary resemblance between Miss Algernon and the woman he had resolved to persecute without remorse. In this resemblance he saw an engine with which he hoped to work her ladyship's utter destruction, and then (Tom's heart leapt within him even now at the thought), ruined, lonely, desolate, when the whole world turned from her, she might learn to appreciate his devotion, might take shelter at last with the only heart open to receive her in her shame.
It is hard to say whether Tom's feelings for the woman he so admired were of love or hate.
He saw through Lord Bearwarden's nature thoroughly, for of him, too, he had made it his business to inquire into all the tendencies, all the antecedents. A high fastidious spirit, jealous, because sensitive, yet far too proud to admit, much less indulge that jealousy, seemed of all others the easiest to deceive. The hide of the rhinoceros is no contemptible gift, and a certain bluntness, I might say coarseness of character, enables a man to go through the world comfortably and happily, unvexed by those petty stings and bites and irritations that worry thinner skins to death. With Lord Bearwarden to suspect was to fret and ponder and conceal, hating and despising himself the while. He had other points, besides his taste for soldiering, in common with Othello.
On such a man an anonymous letter acted like a blister, clinging, drawing, inflaming all round the affected part. Nobody in theory so utterly despised these productions. For nobody in practice did they produce so disastrous an effect. And then he had been deceived once before. He had lost his trust, not so much in the other sex (for all men think every woman false but one) as in himself. He had been outraged, hurt, humbled, and the bold confidence, the dash with which such games should be played were gone. There is a buoyancy gradually lost as we cross the country of life, which is perhaps worth more than all the gains of experience. And in the real pursuit, as in the mimic hurry of the chase, it is wise to avoid too hazardous a venture. The hunter that has once been overhead in a brook never faces water very heartily again.
Tom could see that his charm was working, that the letter he had written produced all the effect he desired. His host was obviously preoccupied, absent in manner, and even flurried, at least for him. Moreover, he drank brown sherry out of a claret-glass, which looked like being uncomfortable somewhere inside. Lady Bearwarden, grave and unusually silent, watched her husband with a sad, wistful air, that goaded Tom to madness. How he had loved that pale, proud face, and it was paler and prouder and lovelier than ever to-day!
"I've seen some furniture you'd like to look at, my lord," said Tom, in his old, underbred manner. "There's a chair I'd buy directly if I'd a house to put it in, or a lady to sit on it; and a carved ebony frame it's worth going all the distance to see. If you'd nothing to do this afternoon, I'll be proud to show them you. Twenty minutes' drive from here in a hansom."
"Will you come?" asked Lord Bearwarden, kindly, of his wife. "You might take us in the barouche."
She seemed strangely agitated by so natural a proposal, and neither gentleman failed to remark her disorder.
"I shall like it very much," she stammered. "At least I should. But I can't this afternoon. I—I've got an engagement at the other end of the town."
"Which is the other end of the town?" said Lord Bearwarden, laughing. "You've not told us your end yet, Tom;" but seeing his wife's colour fade more and more, he purposely filled Tom's glass to distract his attention.
Her engagement was indeed of no pleasant nature. It was to hold another interview with "Gentleman Jim," in which she hoped to prevail on him to leave the country by offering the largest sum of money she could raise from all her resources. Once released from his persecutions, she thought she could breathe a little, and face Tom Ryfe well enough single-handed, should he try to poison her husband's mind against her—an attempt she thought him likely enough to make. It was Jim she feared—Jim, whom drink and crime, and an infatuation of which she was herself the cause, had driven almost mad—she could see it in his eye—who was reckless of her character as of his own—who insisted on her giving him these meetings two or three times a week, and was capable of any folly, any outrage, if she disappointed him. Well, to-day should end it! On that she was determined. If he persisted in refusing her bribe, she would throw herself on Lord Bearwarden's mercy and tell him the whole truth.
Maud had more self-command than most women, and could hold her own even in so false a position as this.
"I must get another gown," she said, after a moment's pause, ignoring Tom's presence altogether as she addressed her husband across the table. "I've nothing to wear at the Den, if it's cold when we go down next week, so I must call at Stripe and Rainbow's to-day, and I won't keep you waiting in the carriage all the time I'm shopping."
He seemed quite satisfied. "Then I'll take Ryfe to my sulking-room," said he, "and wish you good-bye till dinner-time. Tom, you shall have the best cigar in England—I've kept them five years, and they're strong enough to blow your head off now."
So Tom, with a formal bow to Lady Bearwarden, followed his host into a snug but dark apartment at the back, devoted, as was at once detected by its smell, to the consumption of tobacco.
While he lit a cigar, he could not help thinking of the days, not so long ago, when Maud would have followed him, at least with her eyes, out of the room, but consoled himself by the reflection that his turn was coming now, and so smoked quietly on with a firm, cruel determination to do his worst.
Thus it came to pass that, before they had finished their cigars, these gentlemen heard the roll of her ladyship's carriage as it took her away; also that a few minutes later, passing Stripe and Rainbow's in a hansom cab, they saw the same carriage, standing empty at the door of that gorgeous and magnificent emporium.
"Don't get out, Tom," said his, lordship, stopping the hansom, "I only want to ask a question—I sha'n't be a minute;" and in two strides he was across the pavement and within the folding-doors of the shop.
Perhaps the question he meant to ask was of his own common-sense, and its answer seemed hard to accept philosophically. Perhaps he never expected to find what he meant to look for, yet was weak enough to feel disappointed all the same—for he had turned very pale when he re-entered the cab, and he lit another cigar without speaking.
Though her carriage stood at the door, he had searched the whole of Stripe and Rainbow's shop for Lady Bearwarden in vain.
Tom Ryfe was not without a certain mother-wit, sharpened by his professional education. He suspected the truth, recalling the 'agitated manner of his hostess at luncheon, when her afternoon's employment came under notice. Will it be believed that he experienced an actual pang, to think she should have some assignation, some secret of which his lordship must be kept in ignorance—that he should have felt more jealous of this unknown, this possible rival, than of her lawful husband now sitting by his side! He was no bad engineer, however, and having laid his train, waited patiently for the mine to explode at its proper time.
"What an outlandish part of the town we are getting to," observed Lord Bearwarden, after several minutes' silence; "your furniture-man seems to live at the other end of the world."