Next morning she was still more distressed. Sometimes the morning brings forgetfulness of the trouble of the day before, and at other times it revives with peculiar power just at the moment when we wake, especially if it be dark. Miriam was confused. The belief that she ought to do something if possible to help Cutts was just dawning upon her; but although she was singularly liable to be set fast to any purpose when once she had it clearly formed, it was always a long time before it became formed. She was not one of those happy persons whose thoughts are always beneath them, as the horses of a coach are beneath the driver, and can be directed this way or that way at his bidding. She could not settle beforehand that she would think upon a given subject, and step by step disentangle its difficulties, and pursue it to the end. That is the result of continuous training, and of this she had had none. Ideas passed through her mind with great rapidity, but they were spontaneous, and consequently disconnected, so that in difficulty the path was chosen without any balancing of the reasons on this and on the other side, which, forced the conclusion that it was the proper path to take.
A thousand things whirled through her brain. She had known all about Cutts before the conversation with the Cattles, or with the Cattle, as she generally called them; but the case had not struck her till they and she began to talk about it. She was in a great turmoil, and plans presented themselves to her, were discarded, and then presented themselves again as if they were quite new. The next night she slept well. More than ever was she impressed with horror at what seemed to be Cutts's certain fate—more than ever was she resolved to help him if she could; and now at last she was a little clearer, and had determined to go over to the county town and see Messrs. Mortimer, Wake, Collins and Mortimer, the solicitors in whose hands the defence lay. She did not doubt it to be her duty to go, although Cutts was no more to her than to any other person in Cowfold, and she had no notion of what she was going to say to the lawyers when she saw them. On the following morning she started, under the pretence that she wanted something she could not obtain in Cowfold. Having no mother, and being manageress in a small way at home, these trips were not unusual. Courageous as she was, when she reached the office her heart sank, and she then first remembered that she had no very solid ground for her visit. She had brooded in her bedroom over Cutts, and had thought what a grand thing it would be to save him, but when she stepped inside Messrs. Mortimer's door, and was face to face with a raised desk, protected by rails, behind which clerks were busy writing, or answering questions, her dreams disappeared; she saw what a fool she was, and she would have liked to retreat. However, it was too late, for one of the gentlemen, behind the rails asked what she wanted.
"I've come about Mr. Cutts."
"Oh yes; committed for arson at Cowfold. Sit down in that room for a few minutes. Mr. Mortimer will attend to you presently."
Miriam was shown into a little box-like den, in which there was a round, leather-covered table, with a couple of chairs, but no books, and no newspaper. She had to wait for twenty terrible minutes, in which her excitement increased to such a degree that once or twice she was on the point of rushing out past the clerks, and running back to Cowfold. But she did not do it, and after a while Mr. Mortimer entered.
"Well, Miss Tacchi, what can I do for you?" He was gentle in his behaviour, and he soothed by his first words poor Miriam's flutter.
"Oh, if you please, sir, Mr. Cutts is not guilty."
"It is a cruel thing that he should suffer. He is as kind a creature as ever lived. You don't know how kind he has been to his old aunt. He always sold honest things. There are scores of people in Cowfold who deserve to be transported more than he."
"That won't help him much. Good people are a queer set sometimes. But why should you interfere?"
"I cannot tell," replied Miriam, her voice beginning to shake; "but I thought and I thought over it, and it is so wrong, so unfair, so wicked, and I know the poor man so well. Why should they do anything to him?" She would have proceeded in the same strain, and would have compared the iniquity of arson with that of fraudulent contractors and the brutal Scrutton, but she checked herself. "He is not guilty," she added.
Mr. Mortimer was perplexed. He was accustomed in his profession to all kinds of concealment of motives, and he conjectured that there must be some secret of which he was unaware.
"Are you any relation?"
"Have you ever visited at his house, or has he been in the habit of calling at yours?"
He was still more perplexed. He could not comprehend, and might very well be excused for not comprehending, why the daughter of a respectable tradesman in Cowfold should walk six miles on behalf of a stranger, and be so anxious about him.
"One more question. You have had nothing whatever to do with Mr. Cutts, except by going to his shop, and by talking to him now and then as a neighbour?"
"Nothing;" and Miriam said it in such a manner, that the most hardened sceptic must have believed her.
"The fire broke out at a quarter to eight. Had you seen Cutts about that time?"
"I had met him in the street that evening as I came home."
"Where had you been?"
"Practising in the church."
"What time was it when you met him? Be careful."
Miriam now realised the importance of her answer.
The exact truth was that she had reached home at half-past seven, and had seen Cutts going into his house then. It must be remembered that although, as before observed, she was naturally truthful, she was so because she was fearless, and had the instinctive tendency to directness possessed by all forceful characters. Her veracity rested on no principle. She was not like Jeanie Deans, that triumph of culture, in whom a generalisation had so far prevailed that it was able to overcome the strongest of passions and prevent a lie even to save a sister's life. Miriam had been brought up in no such divine school. She had heard that lying was wrong, but she had no religion, although she listened to a sermon once every Sunday, and consequently the relation in which the several duties and impulses stood to one another was totally different from that which was established in Sir Walter's heroine. By some strange chance, too, tradition, which often takes the place of religion, had no power over her; and although hatred of oppression and of harsh dealing is a very estimable quality, and one which will go a long way towards constructing an ethical system for us, it will not do everything.
She began to reflect. She had no watch with her. She had noticed the clocks when she returned, and she remembered that they showed half-past seven. She could not at the moment deliberately say a quarter to eight, although really it did not much matter. Who would be the worse if she declared it was a quarter to eight? Nobody, and she knew that Cutts would be the better. She had not specially observed the clocks; how could she, for she had no notion that anything important depended upon accuracy. She was short-sighted, and she had not seen the regulator. Nothing was actually before her eyes but a great Dutch kitchen clock, which showed half-past seven, and might have been wrong. Something struck when she left the church, and the strokes chimed again in her ears as she was shaping her reply to Mr. Mortimer. They sounded like half-past, and in that case it must have been a quarter to eight when she stood on her doorstep. Finally, there was the reason of reasons which superseded the necessity of any further attempt to persuade herself by any casuistry—she must save Cutts.
"A quarter to eight," she said decisively,
"Odd that you should have seen him just at that time. In less than five minutes the place was in a blaze. He could hardly have lit it up himself. Would you swear before the Court it was a quarter to eight?"
If she had been asked this at first she would have hesitated, but she now boldly said "Yes."
"Very well; I do not see what more I can do now. I will think over the matter," and Miriam departed.
The lawyer had his suspicions, and determined, after some inquiries in Cowfold, that Miss Miriam should not be called. He told the story to his partner, who laughed, and said he did not see anything extraordinary in it. It was a common case of perjury. Mr. Mortimer was not sure that it was common perjury. Externally it might be so, and yet there seemed to be a difference. Moreover, he could not find out anything in Cowfold to make him believe that there was any motive for it.
"Perfectly motiveless," he replied. "A noteworthy instance," for he was a bit of a philosopher, "of an action performed without any motive whatever. I have always maintained the possibility of such actions."
As to Miriam, she went back to Cowfold without any self-accusation or self-applause. She did not know that there was anything criminal or generous in her attempt on behalf of Cutts. We may say in parting that he was acquitted, to her great delight; and Mr. Cattle, with the pride of a British citizen who has served on a jury and knows the law, did not cease to preach to his wife, whenever the opportunity offered, that you should never pronounce the verdict till you've heard the evidence.
Soon after Mr. Cutts's return to Cowfold Mr. Tacchi one day surprised his household by telling them he meant to take another wife. Andrew was silent, but Miriam at once flew into a violent passion, and thereby greatly incensed her father. There was no cause for her anger. Mrs. Brooks, whom Giacomo had chosen, was, as the second choice often is, just the woman who was necessary to him. She was about forty, a good manager, with an equable temper, a widow, with no children, not in the least degree rigid, but, on the contrary, affectionate. She had seen some trouble with her first husband, who was a little farmer and drank, and consequently, although she was a churchwoman, had been driven to the Bible, and had found much comfort therein. "Although she was a churchwoman" may sound rather strange, but still it is a fact that in those days in Cowfold the church people, and for that matter the Dissenters too, did not read their Bibles; but amongst the Dissenters there was here and there a remnant of the ancient type to whom the Bible was everything. Amongst the church people there were very few or none.
Why Miriam should be so wrathful with her father it is extremely difficult to say. It is certain she did not object to her deposition as housekeeper. She never cared for her duties as mistress. Perhaps one reason was that she chose to resent the apparent displacement of her own mother. She never knew her, and owed her nothing except her birth; but she was her mother, and she took sides with her, and considered her insulted, and became her partisan with perfect fury. Perhaps, too, Miriam was slightly jealous that her father, who was now nearing his half century, should show himself not altogether dead to love. She would have liked to find him insensible, leaving all love affairs to his children, and she once even went so far as to use the word "disgusting" in conversing with Andrew on the subject.
Giacomo, however, was very determined, notwithstanding his affection for his daughter, and disagreeable scenes took place between them. She showed her displeasure in a thousand ways, and was positively rude to Mrs. Brooks when she invited Miriam to her house.
Giacomo had a sister, a Mrs. Dabb, who lived in London. She had married a provision dealer in the Borough, and he employed not only a staff of assistants, but a couple of clerks. Mrs. Dabb, oddly enough, was a fair-haired woman, with blue eyes and a rosy complexion. She had rather a wide, plump face, and wore her hair in ringlets. She lived at the shop, but she had a drawing-room over it with a circular table in the middle, and round it lay the "Keepsake" and "Friendship's Offering," in red silk, with Mrs. Hemans' and Mr. Montgomery's poetry. Into these she occasionally looked, and refreshed herself by comparing her intellect with that of the female kind generally. She desired above everything not to be considered commonplace, believed in love at first sight, was not altogether unfavourable to elopements, carefully repressed any tendency to unnecessary order, wore a loose dressing-gown all the morning, had her breakfast in bed, let her hair stray a little over her face, cultivated a habit of shaking it off and pushing it back with her fingers, and generally went as far to be thought a little "wild" as was possible for the wife of a respectable, solid, eminently British, close-fisted Borough tradesman. Nevertheless she had a huge appetite, and always had ham or sausages for tea. Giacomo she despised, on the ground that his occupation was so limited, that it contracted the imagination, and that he did not "live in the metropolis, but vegetated in a country town." She consequently very seldom visited Cowfold, and very seldom wrote to her brother. Giacomo, however, thought it his duty to tell his sister of his approaching marriage; and Mrs. Dabb, who was endowed with great curiosity, replied that, if it was quite agreeable, she would come to Cowfold for two or three days to make the acquaintance of Mrs. Brooks and obtain a change of air, as she had suffered somewhat from feelings of languor of late and a little fever on the nerves. Accordingly she came, and in a short time saw what was the state of affairs between Miriam and her father. She rather liked Miriam, chiefly for her defects; and as Giacomo had been a little freer than usual with his sister one evening, and had expressed his fears that Miriam and Mrs. Brooks would not agree, Mrs. Dabb gave him some advice.
"Miriam, my dear Giacomo, is a bit of a genius, untamed and irregular, reminding me something of myself."
Giacomo did not much believe in untamed irregular genius. It was certainly of no use in clockmaking.
"Well, what then?"
"I should say that she suffers through limitation of her sphere. No suffering like that, Giacomo. Ah me!"
Mrs. Dabb shook back her hair, and put both her hands to her forehead.
"Does your head ache?"
"No; at least not more than usual. I always have a weight there; I believe it is merely ideas. I asked a very eminent young man who lives not far from us—he occupies a high position in the hospital—a dresser, I think, they call him; and he said it was due to overstrung—dear me, what was it! I remember putting it down, it seemed so exactly to coincide with my own views."
Mrs. Dabb looked in her pocket-book.
"Overstrung cerebration, that was it; overstrung cerebration."
"What were you going to say about Miriam?"
"A little proposal. My husband wants a clerk. Why not let Andrew take the place, and Miriam be his housekeeper? We have no room for them, but apartments are to be procured at a low rate."
This was in reality Miriam's scheme. She had heard of the vacancy in Mr. Dabb's establishment, and had implored her aunt to use her influence with Giacomo to gain his assent to Andrew's removal. Mrs. Dabb was not an unkind woman; she really thought she liked Miriam, and she consented. She had even gone so far as to encourage her in the belief that she "vegetated," and the word opened up to her a new world. "Vegetate"—it stuck to her, and became a motive power. Great is the power of a thought, but greater still is the power of a phrase, and it may be questioned whether phrase is not more directly responsible than thought for our religion, our politics, our philosophy, our love, our hatred, our hopes and fears.
"I do not think," said Giacomo, "they could live on a clerk's salary. Andrew would not be worth much as a beginner."
"It is astonishing, my dear Giacomo, upon how little people can live, if their wants are simple, like my own, for example; and then Andrew would have the opportunity of acquiring animal food at a cheap rate."
"I do not like the thought of parting with the children, and I fear the dangers of London, especially for a girl like Miriam."
"I would take them, Giacomo, under my wing. Besides, as a dear friend once observed to me, evil has no power over the pure soul. I feel it myself; it cannot come near me; it dissolves, it departs. What is the Borough to me with all its snares? I am in a different world."
Giacomo for some time refused; but Miriam was alternately so unpleasant and so coaxing, that at last he consented. Poor Andrew had really no will of his own in the affair. He was a gentle, docile creature whom clockmaking suited, but he was pleased at the thought of the change, and who could tell? he might rise to a position at his uncle's far beyond anything which he could attain in Cowfold.
After some negotiation, therefore, Miriam and Andrew departed for London, the salary being fixed at thirty-eight shillings a week. To this Giacomo added twelve shillings a week—two pounds ten shillings altogether. It was a happy day for both of them when they journeyed to the end of Cowfold Lane, and waited for the coach; they were happier still when they were mounted on the top, and were at last on the great London road, and already on the line which, was in direct communication with the great city. It was different altogether from the Cowfold roads, and there was a metropolitan air about it. They continually met coaches going away to York, Newcastle, and even to Edinburgh, and the drivers mutely saluted by lifting their whips as they passed. Two drivers had thus met for forty years, and had never spoken a single word to one another. At last one died, and the other took his death so much to heart that he sickened and died too. The inns were nothing like the Cowfold inns. They were huge places, with stables like barracks, and outside each of them were relays of beautiful horses standing ready for the change. The scenery from Huntingdon to London is not particularly attractive, but to Miriam and Andrew the Alps could not have been more fascinating. They wondered that others did not share their excitement, and Andrew thought that a coachman must be the happiest of men.
At last they reached Barnet, the last stage, and immediately afterwards they saw the line of the smoke-cloud which lay over the goal of all their aspirations, the promised land in which nothing but golden romance awaited them. Presently a waypost was passed, with the words To the West End upon it, so that they might now be fairly said to be at least in a suburb. Ten minutes more brought them to Highgate Archway, and there, with its dome just emerging above the fog, was St. Paul's! They could hardly restrain themselves, and Miriam squeezed Andrew's hand in ecstasy. They rattled on through Islington, and made their first halt at the "Angel," astonished and speechless at the crowds of people, at the shops, and most of all at the infinity of streets branching off in all directions. Dingy Clerkenwell and Aldersgate Street were gilded with a plentiful and radiant deposit of that precious metal of which healthy youth has such an infinite store—actual metal, not the "delusive ray" by any means, for it is the most real thing in existence, more real than the bullion forks and spoons which we buy later on, when we feel we can afford them, and far more real than the silver tea-service with which, still later, we are presented amidst cheers by our admiring friends in the ward which we represent in the Common Council, for our increasing efforts to uphold their interests.
At the Bull and Mouth they saw that marvel, the General Post Office, but they had not much time to look at it, for here they were met by a young man from Mr. Dabb. They were disappointed that Mrs. Dabb had not come, but a verbal excuse was offered that she was in bed with a headache. Mr. Dabb, of course, was too busy to leave. The messenger was commissioned to take them to their uncle's, where they were to have tea; and after tea they were to go to the lodgings which Mrs. Dabb had provisionally selected for them. In a few minutes they had crossed London Bridge, and drew up in front of Mr. Dabb's house. There was no private entrance, and they encountered their uncle on the pavement. He was short and thick, with a very florid complexion, and wore a brown jersey, and a white apron fastened at the back with a curious brass contrivance. There were two or three people with him, and he had a knife in his hand. The doors were wide open; there seemed to be no windows, and in fact Mr. Dabb's establishment was a portion of the street just a little recessed. He was in and out continually, now on the pathway talking to a customer there, and then passing inside to the ladies who were a little more genteel, and preferred to state their wants under cover. At the back of the shop was a desk perched up aloft, just big enough for one person, and with a gaslight over it. Andrew noticed it, and thought of winter, and wondered how anybody could sit there during a January day with the snow on the ground, or during a cold thaw.
Mr. Dabb put down his knife and shook hands with them.
"Well, Mr. Andrew, so you've come to make your fortune—long hours, hard work, stick at nothing; cutting place the Borough. Better go inside. Put your traps up in that corner; you'll want 'em again directly. Aunt's abed upstairs; can't see you to-night."
They went into a little greasy back parlour, lighted by a skylight, if indeed a window could be so called whose connection with the sky was so far from being immediate.
Mr. Dabb looked in. "You'll have some tea in a minute. I myself can't leave—shorthanded."
They were not asked to wash or take off their travelling clothes.
Presently a slut of a girl appeared with a tray on which there were some ham, a shapeless mass of butter which looked as if it had been scooped out of a pot, a loaf, a teapot, some cups and saucers, a milk jug, and two plates, with knives and forks. She went to a cupboard, put a black cruet-stand on the table, and as the milk had been spilt over the bread, she took the plate to the fender, emptied it amongst the ashes, and wiped it with her apron. The apron was also used to wipe the butter plate, on which there was an unusually black mark, with lines resembling the imprint of a very big thumb. In about half-an-hour after they had refreshed themselves Uncle Dabb looked in.
"Better be off before it gets dark. Eight o'clock sharp to-morrow morning, Andrew. Sharp's the word. Breakfast before you come. My boy will show you your quarters. Needn't take them unless you like them."
A cab was called, their luggage was put upon it, and they were landed in Nelson Square. The lodgings were three rooms at the back of the house, two of them garrets at the top, and the third a small sitting-room on the ground floor, behind the front parlour. They looked rather dismal, and Miriam inquired whether they could not have front rooms.
"Oh yes, ma'am; but they would come more expensive. Mrs. Dabb told me she didn't think you would like to pay more than thirteen shillings and sixpence a week without extras, which is exceedingly cheap for this part, and the front rooms corresponding would be five-and-twenty shillings."
This settled the question. They had fancied an outlook on a gay promenade, and they had in its place a waste expanse of dirty dull roofs and smoking chimneys. If they looked down below, they saw a series of small courtyards used for the purpose of storing refuse which could not be put in the dustbin—bottles, broken crockery, and odd bits of rusty iron. The first thing was to provide the breakfast for the following morning. This their landlady offered to do for them. The next thing was to go to bed utterly wearied and worn out. They both slept soundly, and both woke much refreshed and full of buoyant hope. A pleasant and seductive vista lay before them—seductive and pleasant, although they were in Nelson Square, as that which we see in one of Turner's Italian pictures—a temple at the side, a lake in front and beyond it a valley embosomed in woods and mountains, basking in golden light.
They planned the day. Miriam had to lay in her stock of eatables, and of course must call on her aunt. At twenty minutes to eight Andrew started. The way was easy to find, and he was at his uncle's five minutes before his time. The shopmen were already there, and Andrew had rather a rough greeting.
"An't yer brought yer warming-pan with yer, young 'un? You'll find it cool a sittin' still all day long."
Andrew then found out that the desk up aloft was really his appointed post.
"Don't yer be so free, Bill," said the other; "he's the govnor's nevvy. You'd better mind what you're at, old man, now we've got the nevvy here."
"I suppose you'll be a pardner next week," continued the first with a bow.
The truth was that Mr. Dabb had told his men that he was expecting a nephew "of his missus's," and that "he was took on as a kind of charity like."
Mr. Dabb now appeared.
"Here you are—all right. Sharp's the word—that's my motter. Keep on your coat and hat—you'll want 'em, I can tell you. This isn't a place for coddlin', is it, Bill?" Bill smiled. "You've got to take the money—all ready money here, except a few weeklies. You get a ticket, see as you have the right amount; we keep a duplicate, and so we check you. Things as go in the books you put down. Three-quarters of an hour for your dinner and half-an-hour for tea—not like Cowfold, eh? You'll see life here—life, my boy;" and Mr. Dabb, full of ham, buttered toast, and hot coffee, and feeling very well that morning, began to chop with great vigour at the spine of a dead pig suspended by its hind-legs. "Life," he said again—"there isn't such a place in London for life as the Borough; and though I say it, there aren't many more places in the Borough where there's more life than at Dabb's. Now then, mount."
Andrew assumed his new position. Fortunately for him, he was, like many other youths of his bent, rather quick at arithmetic; Mr. Dabb was not very busy, and whatever his faults may have been, was by no means disposed to be hard upon a beginner. Still the day was insufferably long, and he rejoiced with a foolish extravagance of delight when the hour came for going home. There was nothing exhilarating in the streets through which he raced: there was no certainty of anything particularly pleasant in Nelson Square, and the morrow would inevitably be as to-day. But still he was glad; and as for the morrow, he did not see it.
At three o'clock Miriam called on her aunt. As she passed through the shop she saw her brother, but it was full of people, and she could not speak to him. She found Mrs. Babb still in bed with her nerves in disorder; other things were in disorder too, and Miriam particularly wondered at the dishevelled condition of Mrs. Dabb's hair, nightcaps being the custom at Cowfold for all people who were not girls nor boys. Miriam was not an orderly person, as we know, but Mrs. Dabb's room was a surprise to her. In one corner was an old green sofa, on which clothes were thrown; on the top of the clothes was a tray with some half-eaten bread and butter, a piece of bacon, and some tea things—we will not, however, go any further.
"I am glad you've come, my dear," said Mrs. Dabb, "although I am afraid I shall not be able to see you so often as I could wish, for my health is not good, and when I am better there is so much to be done."
Miriam thought that if this might be true, there was no reason to put it in the forefront of the reception.
"Your brother, I believe, will do very well. It must be a great relief to him to be freed from his mechanical labours in a provincial town, and to find himself in a more extended circle."
Miriam thanked her aunt, and said that she was sure her uncle would be kind.
"Yes, he will be kind; although I should not say that kindness is the one thing prominent in him. In such large commercial undertakings the feelings are not developed. I am often sensible of it. There is no response in your uncle to what is best in me, yet I must not complain. Perhaps if we had children it might have been different, and yet who knows? Maternal solicitude might have destroyed the sentiment I now possess. But I must not weary myself by talking—I must bid you good-bye. Come again soon."
Miriam rose, ventured to kiss her aunt, and departed.
Three months passed, and Miriam and Andrew agreed that there was vegetation in London as well as in Cowfold. They began indeed to think it was even a little greener in Cowfold than in Nelson Square itself.
Miriam had been out for walks—she had been as far as Regent Street; but Regent Street began to lose its charms, especially as she had no companions. Her landlady, Miss Tippit, was a demure little person of about fifty years, but looking rather younger, for her hair was light. It was always drawn very tightly over her forehead, and with extreme precision under her ears. She invariably wore a very tight-fitting black gown, and as her lips too were somewhat tightly set, she was a very tight Miss Tippit altogether. It was necessary to be so, for beyond an annuity of 20 pounds a year, she had no means of support save letting her lodgings. She was very good, but her goodness appeared to lack spontaneity. It seemed as if she did everything, and even bestowed her rare kisses, under instructions from her conscience, and every tendency to effusiveness was checked as a crime. Yet the truth was that she was naturally kind and even generous, but disbelieving in nature on the whole, she never would sanction any natural instinct unless she could give it the form of duty. She was an unpleasant companion at times, because she often felt bound to "set things right," and made suggestions which were resented as interference. When she visited her friends, for she had two or three, she invariably assumed the reins, and was provocative by reason of her unauthorised admonitions to the servants or remarks upon defective management. Another odd thing was that Miss Tippit was a Christian. She went to church regularly twice every Sunday, and it was always her parish church. She might have found something to do her more good if she had gone farther afield; but she considered it her duty to go to her own church as she called it. The parson was not eminent, belonged to no school, and said nothing which was specially helpful; but Miss Tippit listened with respect, heard the Bible read, did her best to join in the hymns with her little thin voice, and prayed the church prayers. She contrived, through what she heard, and what she sang, and what she prayed, not only to provide herself with an explanation which she did not doubt of the here and hereafter—an explanation which would not probably have been secure against Strauss—but she obtained a few principles by which she regulated this present life—principles of extreme importance, which scepticism must admit if the world is not to go to ruin. In the church, too, in the corner against the wall, when the music sounded, or when the voice of the priest was heard asking for the Divine mercy, the heart of Miss Tippit often moved, notwithstanding the compression of her tight black dress, and something seemed to rebel in her throat against her bonnet-strings. What did she think in those sacred moments? Let us not profane her worship with too minute inquiry. Whatever she thought, those emotions were perfectly valid. She might be snappish, limited, and say ugly things during half the week, but there was something underneath all that which was in communication with the skies. The church was the only mental or spiritual education which Miss Tippit received. Books she never read—she had not time; and if she tried to read one she was instantly seized with a curious fidgetiness—directly she sat down with a volume in her hand it was just as if things went all awry, and compelled her instantly to rise and adjust them. In church all this fidgetiness vanished, and no household cares intruded. It was strange, considering her temper, and how people generally carry their secular world with them wherever they go, but so it was. There was a secret in her history, her friends said, for though they knew nothing of her little bit of private religion, and although she never admitted a soul into the little oratory where the image of her Saviour hung, everybody was aware that there was "a something about her" which took her out of the class to which she externally and by much of her ordinary conduct appeared to belong, and of course the theory was an early love disappointment, the only theory which the average human intellect is capable of forming in such cases. It was utterly baseless; and Miss Tippit was touched with this faint touch of supernal grace just because her Maker had so decreed.
Miriam disliked Miss Tippit on account of her primness and old maidishness, and the frequent hints which she gave to keep her room in order. Miriam had picked up an epithet, perhaps from her aunt, perhaps from a book which seemed exactly to describe Miss Tippit—she was "conventional;" and having acquired this epithet, her antipathy to Miss Tippit increased every time she used it. It was really not coin of the realm, but gilded brass—a forgery; and the language is full of such forgeries, which we continually circulate, and worst of all, pass off upon ourselves. Thus it happened that although Miss Tippit would have been glad to do Miriam many a service, her offers were treated with, something like disdain, and were instantly withdrawn. The only other lodgers in the house were an old gentleman and his wife on the first floor, whom Miriam never saw, and about whom she knew nothing.
Andrew at last began to feel the wear of London life. When he came home in the evening he suffered from an exhaustion which he never felt in Cowfold. It was not that weariness of the muscles which was a pleasure after a game at cricket or football, but a nervous distress which craved a stimulant. He had confined himself hitherto to a single glass of beer at supper, but this was not enough, and a glass of whisky and water afterwards was added to keep company with the pipe. By degrees also he dropped into a public-house as he left Mr. Dabb's for just threepennyworth to support him on his way. Frequently when he went there he met a man of about thirty who also was apparently enjoying a modest threepennyworth to help him home or help him away from it or help him to do something which he could not do without it, and Andrew and he began gradually, under the influence of their threepennyworths, to talk to one another. He was clean shaven, had glossy black hair, a white and somewhat sad face, was particularly neat but rather shabby, and, what at first was a puzzle to Andrew, looked as if he was going to begin work rather than leave it, for his boots were evidently just blacked. He was a music-hall comic singer. His father and mother—fathers and mothers, even the best of them, will do such things—had given him a fairish schooling, but had never troubled themselves to train him for any occupation. They stuck their heads in the sand, believed something would turn up, and trusted in Providence. Considering the kind and quantity of trust which is placed in Providence, the most ambitious person would surely not aspire to its high office, and it may be pardoned for having laid down the inflexible rule to ignore without exception the confidence reposed in it. Poor George Montgomery found himself at eighteen without any outlook, although he was a gentleman, and his father was a clergyman. The only appointment he could procure was that of temporary clerk in the War Office during a "scare"—"a merely provisional arrangement," as the Rev. Mr. Montgomery explained, when inquiries were made after George. The scare passed away; the temporary clerks were discharged; the father died; and George, still more unfitted for any ordinary occupation, came down at last, by a path which it is not worth while to trace, to earn a living by delighting a Southwark audience nightly with his fine baritone voice, good enough for a ballad in those latitudes, and good enough indeed for something much better if it had been properly exercised under a master. He was not downright dissolute, but his experience with his father, who was weak and silly, had given him a distaste for what he called religion; and he was loose, as might be expected. Still, he was not so loose as to have lost his finer instincts altogether, for he had some. He read a good deal, mostly fiction, played the organ, and actually conducted the musical part of a service every Sunday, heathen as he was. His vagrant life of excitement begot in him a love of liquor, which he took merely to quiet him, but unfortunately the dose required strengthening every now and then. He was mostly in debt; prided himself on not dishonouring virtuous women—a boast, nevertheless, not entirely justifiable; and through his profession had acquired a slightly histrionic manner, especially when he was reciting, an art in which he was accomplished. He found out that Andrew had a sister, and he gave him a couple of tickets for an entertainment which had been got up by some well-meaning people to draw the poor to his church. They were tickets for the respectable end of the schoolroom, and Andrew having obtained permission to leave an hour earlier, took Miriam in her very best dress, and with one or two little additional and specially purchased articles of finery. It never entered Mr. Montgomery's head to invite even Andrew to the music hall. He was ashamed of it, and he saw that Andrew was not exactly the person to be taken there. Mr. Montgomery had two classes of songs, both of which found favour with his ordinary nightly audience. One was coarse, and the other sentimental.
Of the coarse, his always applauded "Hampstead-Heath Donkey and what he thought of his Customers" might be taken as a sample, but there was just as vigorous clapping when he produced his "Sackmaker's Dream," and this he now sang. Miriam was much affected by it, and dwelt upon it as the three—the singer, Andrew, and herself—walked home to their lodgings whither Mr. Montgomery had been invited to supper.
"Did you write the Sackmaker's Dream yourself?" she asked, as they went along.
"Yes; just by way of a change. It does not pay to sing nothing but comic stuff."
"It is very pathetic. Is it true?"
"Oh, I don't quite know. Founded on fact, as they say, dressed up a bit by the author," and Mr. Montgomery laughed.
"But how did you ever hear of such a thing?"
"Oh, I've heard a good many strange things since I've been knocking about town."
"Then you had some particular person in your eye when you were composing it?"
"Yes, partly, but not much of her," and Mr. Montgomery laughed again.
"How inquisitive you are. Well, to tell you the truth, no more than this, that one night I saw one of these women coming out of a sack factory. She looked awfully wretched, and I made up all the rest."
Miriam was much astonished. She was actually in company with an author, and with one who could invent scenes, descriptions, and characters like those in the novels of which she was now so fond. Mr. Montgomery was a marvel to her. He, too, was somewhat struck with Miriam; with her beauty, and with a certain freshness in her observations; but a man who had lived as he had lived in London is not likely to admire any woman with much fervour, and indeed the incapacity for genuine admiration of women is one of the strongest arguments against such a life.
They had their supper, and after supper some whisky was produced, and Andrew and Montgomery smoked.
"Talking about sackmakers," said Montgomery, "I can tell you a true story of one, quite true, every word of it. I knew a fellow who had been awfully wild when he was young, but he was converted, as they call it, and turned city missionary. He came to know in this way one of these sackmaking women. She was above the usual run, well-behaved, and very good-looking. He fell desperately in love with her, and she with him, but he always thought she held back a little. At last she told him she had lived with a man, and that he had left her. The missionary said he did not care, and would marry her, but she refused. She was bound, she said, and nothing could get that notion out of her head. The missionary was in despair; he was trained for foreign service, and went to India. There he married, well enough, I was told, and was happy; but the sackmaker was never forgotten. He became the minister of a big chapel in Calcutta, but he always somehow, through somebody in London, managed to find out what the girl was doing. When he was forty-five, his wife died. They had no children, and he came back to England. One fine morning he knocked at his old friend's door. You may imagine their meeting! The man with whom she had lived was dead. The missionary and she were married. He gave up his preaching; he had saved up a bit of money, and took his wife and himself off to America. What do you think of her, Andrew?"
Andrew's notions on social and moral questions were what are commonly called "views." They were not thoughts, and furthermore they were "average views." Having had some whisky, his views were very average—that is to say, precisely what is usual and customary. "I suppose it was the best thing he could do," he somewhat sleepily replied.
"The best thing he could do!" retorted Miriam, with much scorn. "I would have worn that woman like a jewel, if I had been her husband. He ought never to have married his first wife."
Six months afterwards, the position of affairs in the little household in Nelson Square had changed. Andrew, finding that vegetation in London was very slow work, had contracted the habit of taking whisky a little more frequently, and had even—not unnoticed by Mr. Dabb—provided himself with a small flask, from which he was accustomed to solace himself by "nips" during business hours when he thought he was not seen. Once or twice he had been late in the morning, and had been reminded by Mr. Dabb. "Sharp's the word in my establishment, nephew, and I show no favour."
Mr. Montgomery, too, had become a constant visitor at the Tacchis' on Sunday, and Miriam had found herself beginning on the Monday morning to count the hours till the next Sunday should arrive. She had told Mr. Montgomery that she should like to hear him sing in his own hall, but he did not receive the proposal very graciously.
"They are a rough set that go there, and you would not like to mix with them."
"If you do not mind, why should I? Besides, could you not find some place apart where Andrew and myself could be quiet?"
"You would object to some of the songs; they are not adapted for your ears."
"You know nothing about my ears. I do not suppose there will be anything wrong. Come now, promise."
Mr. Montgomery thought a little, and reflected that he could easily obtain a secluded seat; and as for the programme, he could perhaps for once exclude everything offensive. He said he would write and fix an evening.
"Andrew is out all day; perhaps you had better send the note to me, so that I may have more time to make arrangements." Miriam usually said what she meant; but this was not what she meant. She was possessed now by a passion which was stronger than her tendency to speak the truth. She longed for the pleasure of a letter to herself in Mr. Montgomery's own writing. The next morning, when she went downstairs, she looked anxiously at the breakfast table. It was utterly impossible that he could have written, but she thought there was a chance. She listened for the postman's knock all day, but nothing came. How could it be otherwise, seeing that Mr. Montgomery must go to the music hall first. She knew he must go, and yet she listened. Reason has so little to do with the conduct of life, even in situations in which its claim is incontestable. The next day she had a right to expect, but she expected in vain.
Mr. Montgomery was not a stone, but he saw no reason why he should be in a hurry. Miriam was a bewitching creature, but he had been frequently bewitched, and had recovered. The notion, of course, that he was wrecking Miriam's peace of mind by delaying a little business note, or by omitting to fix the earliest possible moment for the visit, was too absurd to present itself to him. At last he wrote, telling Miss Tacchi that he hoped to have the pleasure of seeing her and Andrew at the hall on the day following. He would call for them both. Miriam had not stirred from home since she last saw him, and was in the little back room when the letter arrived. Miss Tippit brought it to her, and she took it with an affected air of total unconcern.
"Thank you, Miss Tippit. I am sorry to see you looking so poorly."
"Thank you, Miss Tacchi; I am not well by any means," and Miss Tippit departed.
Miriam had not latterly inquired after Miss Tippit's health, but being excited and happy, she not only inquired, but actually felt a genuine interest in Miss Tippit's welfare. She read the note twice—there was nothing in it; but she took it upstairs and read it again in her bedroom, and finally locked it up in her desk, putting it in a little secret drawer which opened with a spring. She had in her possession something in his hand—she was going out with him; and the outlook from her back window over the tiles was not to be surpassed by that down a Devonshire glen in mid-summer, with Devonshire azure on the sea.
The evening came, and Mr. Montgomery called before Andrew had arrived. Miriam was, nevertheless, ready. She asked him if he would like anything; could she get him any tea? But he had prepared himself for his night's work by a drop of whisky, and did not care for tea. He did not, however, suggest any more whisky; he was always indeed particularly careful not to overstep the mark before his performances, whatever he might do afterwards.
"Really, Mr. Montgomery, this is too kind of you to take the trouble to come here out of your way for Andrew and myself."
"It is not out of my way, Miss Tacchi, and I do not believe that you can honestly say that I, who have been idling about for three or four hours, could find it a trouble to be here."
"Do you think I deal in hypocritical compliments?"
"Of course not; but we are all of us liars a little bit—women more than men; and perhaps they are never so delightful as when they are telling their little bits of falsehoods. They speak the truth, but they do lie—truth and lie, lie and truth—the truest truth, the most lying lie;" and Mr. Montgomery took up a couple of wax ornamental apples which were on the mantelpiece and tossed them up alternately with one hand with the greatest dexterity, replacing them on the mantelpiece with a smile.
At that moment Andrew appeared at the door, and in a few moments they were all three ready. Just as they were departing, a gentleman came downstairs.
"Pardon me," he said, speaking to Miriam, "do you live in this house?"
"Miss Tippit is very dangerously ill. I am her doctor. I do not like to leave her alone with the little girl. I am going to fetch a nurse, and will probably be able to get one in an hour. Do you mind waiting till I return?"
Miriam was almost beside herself. She was not simply vexed, but she cursed Miss Tippit, and would have raged at her if the presence of others had not restrained her.
"It is extremely awkward. I have a most pressing engagement."
Andrew stared. He did not see anything particularly pressing.
"I will wait for you, Miriam."
She now hated Andrew as much as she did Miss Tippit.
"Absurd to talk of waiting. You know nothing about it. Go on. Don't stay for me. Of course I must give it up altogether;" and she clutched at her bonnet-strings, and tore her bonnet off her head. The doctor was amazed, and doubted for a moment whether it would not be better to do without her help.
"It doesn't matter, Miss Tacchi," said Mr. Montgomery; "I shall not be on for an hour and a half, but I must be there. If you will come with your brother, you will be in plenty of time."
She sullenly went upstairs, and Andrew remained below. When she entered the room she shut the door with some vehemence, and the little maid-of-all-work, who was at the head of the bed, came to meet her.
"Oh, if you please, Miss Tacchi, the doctor said she was to be kept so quiet. Poor Miss Tippit; she is very bad, Miss; I think she's insensible."
"You need not tell me what to do. I know just as well as yourself."
The sufferer lay perfectly still, and apparently unconscious. Miriam looked at her for a moment; and felt rebuked, but went and sat by the fire.
"I don't mind doing anything for her," she said to herself, "although, she is no particular friend of mine, and not a person whom it is a pleasure to assist; but I really don't know whether, in justice to myself and Andrew, I ought to remain, seeing how seldom we get a chance of enjoying ourselves, and how important a change is for both of us."
There is no person whom we can more easily deceive—no, not even the silliest gull—than ourselves. We are always perfectly willing to deny ourselves to any extent, or even to ruin ourselves, but unfortunately it does not seem right we should do so. It is not selfishness, but a moral obligation which intervenes.
The man who went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among thieves was left half-dead. The priest and the Levite, who came and looked and passed by on the other side, assuredly convinced themselves that most likely the swooning wretch was not alive. They were on most important professional errands. Ought they to run the risk of entirely upsetting those solemn, engagements by incurring the Levitical penalty of contact with a corpse? There was but a mere chance that they could do any good. This person was entirely unknown to them; his life might not be worth saving, for he might be a rascal; and, on the other hand, there were sacred duties—duties to their God. What priest or Levite, with proper religious instincts, could possibly hesitate?
Was the Miriam who chafed at her disappointment, and invented casuistical arguments to excuse herself, the same Miriam who walked over to see Mortimer, Wake, and Collins on behalf of Mr. Cutts? Precisely the same.
The doctor kept his engagement, and in an hour returned with a nurse. When Miriam saw she was relieved, she became compassionate.
"I am so grieved," she said to the doctor, "to see Miss Tippit so ill. Is there really nothing I can do for her?"
Miriam, so grieved, rushed downstairs wild with excitement and delight, laid hold of Andrew, half asleep, twitched him merrily out of the chair, and they were off. In a few minutes they were at the hall, and found that they were in ample time to hear Mr. Montgomery's first song.
He had taken particular care not to include anything offensive or even broad, so that one of his audience who eat below Miriam and Andrew exclaimed in their hearing that it was "a d——d pious night," and wondered "what Mont's little game was."
One of Mr. Montgomery's most telling serious songs was sung in the costume of a sailor. There was a description of his wanderings over the "salt, salt sea," which rhymed with something "free," as it always does, and there was a slightly veiled account of his exploits amongst the damsels of different countries, always harmless, so at least ran the version for the night, and yet he swore when he returned that
"My lovely Poll at Portsmouth, When in my arms I caught her, Was worth a hundred foreign gals On the t'other side the water"—
a sentiment which was tumultuously applauded, although few of the men present had travelled, and those who were married were probably not so rapturously in love with their own domestic Polls.
Andrew was not quite comfortable, but Miriam applauded with the rest.
"How cleverly," she said, "he manages, although he is a gentleman, born and bred, to adapt himself to the people beneath him. It is a pity, though, that he hasn't a better sphere for his talents."
When they came out, Mr. Montgomery accompanied them home; and as it was night, and the streets were crowded with rather rough and disorderly persons, he offered Miriam his arm, Andrew walking on the other side of her.
"I was half ashamed, Miss Tacchi, that you should see me go through such a performance."
"There was nothing objectionable in it; and for that matter, we all have to do what we do not quite like. I am sure it was very good of you to let us come, and I enjoyed myself very much. By the way, when you sing any of the songs, which are not comic, do you feel them? I often wonder if a professional gentleman who can produce such an effect on others, produces anything like the same effect on himself."
"It depends upon the mood. Do you know now that when I was singing to-night that stupid thing about the sailor and his Portsmouth Poll, it all at once came to my mind that no Portsmouth Poll would ever wait for me. Did you ever hear anything so ridiculously absurd—such a bit of maudlin nonsense. I laughed at myself afterwards. It gave me a good, idea, though. I'll compose a burlesque, and the refrain shall be, weeping—
"No Po-o-ortsmouth Poll is a-waiting for me."
"I don't think it was absurd," said Miriam gravely.
"You don't?" he replied, in a suddenly changed tone.
"The path is rather narrow here; you had better come a little closer." He took her hand, and pulled her arm a little further through his own. Was it fancy or not? He thought he detected that the pressure on his arm was increased. When they reached Nelson Square they had supper, and after supper Andrew and Montgomery, according to custom, enjoyed themselves over the tobacco and whisky. Miriam knew well enough, long before they separated, that it was time for Andrew at least to go to bed, but she was unwilling to break up the party. At last, when it was past one, Mr. Montgomery rose. Andrew had had more whisky than was good for him, and Miriam went with their guest to the door. He had a strong head, and could drink a good deal of liquor without confusing it, but liquor altered him nevertheless. To-night it made him more serious, and yet, strangely enough, strengthened the evil tendency in him to cross his seriousness with instantaneous levity. He was much given to mocking his own emotions, not only to others, but to himself. When the door opened, he looked out into the night, and if there had been a lamp there Miriam would have seen that for a moment his face was very sad, but he at once recovered, or seemed to recover.
"Ah, well, I must be off. It is dark, it is late, and it rains, and alas
"No Po-o-ortsmouth Poll is a-waiting for me."
Miriam was silent. She pitied him profoundly, and thought it was nothing but pity.
"Good-bye, Miss Tacchi."
He took her hand in his, held it a little longer than was necessary for an ordinary farewell, then raised it to his lips and kissed it. She did not at once release him. "Good-bye," she said. He had moved a little farther from her, and was descending the step, but the hands still held. One more "good-bye," and they slowly parted their grasp, as things part under a strain which are not in simple contact, but intermingle their fibres.
Mr. Montgomery in a quarter of an hour was at home, and in another quarter of an hour was asleep. Miriam, on the contrary, lay awake till daylight, with her brain on fire, and when she woke it was nine o'clock. Coming downstairs as soon as she was dressed, she was greatly surprised to find that Andrew was still in bed. She was much alarmed, went to his room, and roused him. He complained of headache and sickness, and wished to remain at home for the day, but Miriam would not listen to it—rather unwisely, for it would have been better if he had not appeared before Mr. Dabb that morning. Mr. Dabb had in fact been much provoked of late by small irregularities in Andrew's attendance, and had at last made up his mind that on the next occasion he would tell him, notwithstanding their relationship, that his services were no longer required.
"Nice time to show yourself, Mr. Andrew," observed Mr. Dabb, pulling out his watch.
"I was not well."
"I've got a word or two to say to you. Perhaps we'd better go into the parlour."
Thither Mr. Dabb went, and Andrew followed him.
"Look you here, Mr. Andrew, I know perfectly well what is the matter with you. You don't think that I haven't got a nose, do you? You are my nephew, but just for that very reason you shan't be with me. I'm not agoing to have it said that I've got a relative in my business who drinks. I won't turn you out into the street, as I might have done, with nothing but what was due to you. There's two months' pay, and now we're quits. You take my advice, and let this be a lesson to you, or you'll go from bad to worse."
Mr. Dabb produced the money, and handed it to Andrew. He was confounded, and almost dumb with terror. At last he found words, and implored his uncle to forgive him.
"Forgive you? Yes, I forgive you, if that will do you any good; but business is business, and what I've settled to do that I do. Now, then, you'd better go; I can't stand here any longer. I don't bear any ill-will to you, but it's of no use your talking."
He opened the door, and in another minute Andrew was in the street.
Miriam heard his story. She had anticipated it, and for the moment she said nothing. Her first care was to prevent her uncle or aunt from communicating with Cowfold. She foresaw that her father, if he knew her brother's disgrace, might possibly stop the allowance. She at once put on her bonnet and called at the shop. She made no appeal for reconsideration of the sentence—all she asked was that there should be silence. To this Uncle Dabb assented willingly, for Miriam was half a favourite with him, and he even went so far as somewhat to apologise for what he had done.
"But you know," said he, "this is a shop. As I have told him over and over again, business is business. I couldn't help it, and it's just as well as he should have a sharpish lesson at first—nothing like that for curing a man."
Mr. Dabb unfortunately did not know how much it takes to cure a man of anything.
Miriam felt it would be graceless not to see her aunt, although she had no particular desire for an interview just then.
"My dear Miriam," began that lady, without waiting for a word, "I do regret so what has happened. I am so sorry I could not prevent it, but I never interfere in your uncle's commercial transactions, and reciprocally he never intrudes into my sphere. It is most unfortunate—what do you think we can do to arrest this propensity in your brother?"
Miriam was silent.
"It is astonishing how much may be done by cultivating the finer emotions. Your brother has always seemed to me not sufficiently susceptible. Supposing I were to lend you a book of my favourite poetry, and you were to read to him, and endeavour to excite an interest in him for higher and better things—who knows?"
Miriam had no special professional acquaintance with the theory of salvation, but she instinctively felt that a love of drink was not to be put down by the "Keepsake" in red silk.
She was still silent. At last she said—"I am much obliged to you, aunt; I will take anything you may like to lend. You have a good deal of influence, doubtless, over uncle. If you can persuade him to say what he can in case application is made to him for a character, I shall think it very kind of you."
"My dear Miriam, I have no influence over your uncle. His is not a nature upon which I can exert myself. I think some pieces in this would be suitable;" and Mrs. Dabb offered Miriam a volume of Mrs. Hemans' works.
Miriam took it, and bade her aunt good-bye.
She was now face to face with a great trouble, and she had to encounter it alone, and with no weapons and with no armour save those which Nature provides. She was not specially an exile from civilisation; churches and philosophers had striven and demonstrated for thousands of years, and yet she was no better protected than if Socrates, Epictetus, and all ecclesiastical establishments from the time of Moses had never existed.
She did not lecture her brother, for she had no materials for a sermon. She called him a fool when she came home; and having said this, she had nothing more to say, except to ask him bitterly what he meant to do. What could he do?—a poor, helpless, weak creature, half a stranger in London; and without expostulating with her for her roughness with him, he sat still and cried. It was useless to think of obtaining a situation like the one he had lost. He could prove no experience, he dared not refer to his uncle, and consequently there was nothing before him but a return to clockmaking, or rather clock repairing. Here again, however, he was foiled, for his apprenticeship was barely concluded, and he had never taken to the business with sufficient seriousness to become proficient. After one or two inquiries, therefore, he found that in this department also he was useless.
The affection of Miriam for her brother, never very strong, was not increased by his ill-luck. She began, in fact, to dislike him because he was unfortunate. She imagined that her dislike was due to his faults, and every now and then she abused him for them; but his faults would have been forgotten if he had been prosperous. She hated misery, and not only misery in the abstract, but miserable weak creatures. She was ready enough, as we have seen, to right a wrong, especially if the wrong was championed by those whom she despised; but for simple infirmity, at least in human beings, she had no more mercy than the wild animals which destroy any one of their tribe whom they find disabled. There was more than a chance, too, that Andrew would interfere with her own happiness. If he could not get anything to do, they must leave London, for living on the allowance from Cowfold was impossible. Reproof, when it is mixed with personal hostility, although the person reproving and the person reproved may be unconscious of it, is never persuasive; and as a tendency to whisky and water requires a very powerful antidote, it is not surprising that Andrew grew rather worse than better.
One evening Montgomery called. He had come to ask them both to the hall. He was in a very quiet, rational humour, for he had not as yet had his threepennyworth. Andrew had been out all day, had come home none the better for his excursion, and had gone to bed.
"Your brother not at home?"
"Yes; but he is not very well, and is upstairs."
"I've brought you a couple of tickets for next week. I hope you will be able to go; that is to say, if you were not disgusted when you were last there."
"Disgusted! I am afraid, Mr. Montgomery, you have a very poor opinion of my 'gusts' and disgusts."
It was unfortunate for Miriam that she had no work before her, such as sewing or knitting. She abominated it; but in conversation, especially between a man and a woman who find themselves alone, it is useful. It not only relieves awkwardness, but it prevents too much edge and directness during the interview.
"Well, you might reasonably have been offended with both the songs and the company."
"Neither. As to the company, I did not see much of it, thanks to your kindness in getting us such a good place; and as to the songs, to say nothing of the way in which they were sung, there was a straight-forwardness about them that I liked.
"I don't quite know what you mean."
"Well," said Miriam, with a little laugh, which was not exactly the light effervescence of gaiety, "your people, if they love one another, say so outright, without any roundaboutness."
Mr. Montgomery was puzzled. He did not quite know what to make out of this girl. There was something in her way of speaking and in her frankness which offered itself to him, and yet again there was something which stopped him from attempting any liberties. She did not classify herself in any of the species with which he was familiar.
At last he said—"You object, then, to all roundaboutness in such matters."
"Well, yes; but perhaps I might be misunderstood. I should like people to be plain both ways, about their dislikes as well as their likes."
"Good gracious me, Miss Tacchi, what a pretty world you would live in. There would be no fun in it. Half the amusement of life consists in trying to find out what we really think of one another underneath all our fine speeches."
"I would rather amuse myself in some other way. I have often dreamt of an island in which everybody should say exactly what was in his mind. Of course it would be very shocking, but I do really believe that in the end we should be happier. It would be delightful to me if my cousins were to tell me, 'We hate you—you are dirty, disagreeable, and ugly; and we do not intend to call upon you any more.' For mind, people would then believe in expressions of affection. They do not believe in them now."
"Yes; your island would be all very well for attractive young women, but what would it be for poor devils such as I am. I know that nobody can care twopence for me, but the illusion of politeness is pleasant. It is a wonderful thing how we enjoy being cheated, though we know we are cheated. A man will give a cabman sixpence more than his fare for the humbug of a compliment, and I confess that if people were to say to my face what I am certain they say behind my back, I should hang myself. Illusion, delusion—delusion, illusion," he hummed it as if it were the refrain of a ballad; "it is nothing but that from the day we are born till the day we die, and the older we become the more preposterously are we deluded, until at last—but the Lord—to think of preaching," and he laughed—"you must have made me do it;" and he rose and played with his favourite toys, the wax apples, pitching them up to the ceiling alternately and catching them in one hand. "I must be off."
Miriam did not appear to take any notice,
"Pray," said he, "if you lived in this island of which you dream, would you tell me you hated me? I am beginning to be rather nervous."
"We are not living in it just yet."
"But in one just as disagreeable, for it is pouring with rain."
Miriam gave a sudden start. She unconsciously looked that the conversation would prolong itself in the same interior strain. Reference to the outside world was impossible to her just then, and that Mr. Montgomery was capable of it was a shock like that of cold water. She came to herself, and went to the window.
"Must you go out in this storm?"
"Must; and what is more, I haven't got a minute to spare. I may take it for granted, then, you and Andrew will come."
He hastily put on his coat; shook hands—nothing more—and was off.
Miriam ran upstairs into her bedroom, went to the little box in which she kept her treasures, unlocked it, took out the little note—the only note she had ever had from him—read it again and again, and then tore it into twenty pieces, each one of which she picked up and tried to put together. She then threw herself on the bed, and for the first time in her life was overcome with hysterical tears. She dared not confess to herself what she wanted. She would have liked to cast herself at his feet; but notwithstanding her disbelief in form and ceremony, she could not do it. She cursed the check which had held her so straitly while she was talking with him, and cursed him that he dealt with her so lightly. The continued sobbing at last took the heat out of her, and she rose from her bed, collected the pieces of the note, went downstairs, and put them one by one deliberately in the fire.
It was time now that they should seriously consider how they stood. Andrew had nothing to do, and the wages paid him in advance were nearly exhausted. They decided that they would move into cheaper lodgings. They had some difficulty in finding any that were decent but they obtained three miserable rooms at the top of a house occupied by a man who sold firewood and potatoes in one of the streets running out of the Blackfriars Road. They left Miss Tippit without bidding her good-bye, for she was still unwell, and in bed. They actually began to know what poverty was, but Miriam as yet did not feel its approach. There were thoughts and hopes in her which protected her against all apprehension of the future, although the cloud into which they must almost inevitably enter was so immediately in front of her.
The evening came on which she and Andrew were to go to the hall, but Andrew had gone out early to look for some employment, and had not returned. Miriam's hatred rose again, and again assumed an outward garb of the purest virtue. She sat for some time in rapid debate with herself as to what she dare do. Even she recoiled a little from going to a music hall without her brother, but passion prevailed. She did not simply determine to go knowing it to be wrong, but with great earnestness demonstrated to herself that she was right; and then, as a kind of sop to any lingering suspicions, left a note on the mantelpiece for Andrew, upbraiding him for delay, and directing him to follow. No Andrew appeared. She now began to feel how strange her position was. She might easily before she started have conjectured that Andrew might fail, and might have pictured to herself how difficult and awkward it would be to sit there throughout the evening alone and return alone; but she did not possess the faculty of picturing uncertainties any distance ahead, although the present was generally so vivid. She could never say to herself: "Probably this arrangement now proposed will break down, and if it does; I shall stand in such and such a situation; what, in that situation, ought I to do?" She had, in fact, no strategical faculty—certainly none when temptation was strong. She dreaded turning out into the street with the rough crowd, and she wondered if Montgomery would come to her assistance. The audience gradually departed; she was nearly the last, and she determined that she would walk round to the door by which she knew Montgomery usually left, and try to encounter him casually. She paced up and down a few moments, and he met her. He was much surprised, and she, with some excitement, explained to him that she had left home a little before Andrew, expecting him to overtake her, but that she had seen nothing of him.
"Of course you will let me accompany you to your lodgings?"
"Thank you; it is very kind of you."
She took the arm he offered her. She thought she detected he was a little unsteady, and after a word or two he became silent.
She was not particularly well acquainted with the district round the hall, but she soon perceived that they were not on the straight road for her house.
"Is this our nearest way?" she asked.
"No, I can't say it is; but I thought you would not object to just a turn round. It's a lovely night—a lovely night!"
Presently they came into a very shabby street, and he stopped. The cold air had begun to upset him a little.
"These are my quarters," he stammered. "I'm rather tired, and I should think you must be tired too. Just come in for a moment and have something, and then we will go on."
"Oh no, thank you," said Miriam, who was becoming alarmed. "I must go back at once."
"Won't you come? Do come; just a moment."
But Miriam steadfastly refused.
"Nonsense, come in just for a second till I——" and he used some little force to compel her. She looked round, and without any mental process of which she was conscious determining her to action, instantly slipped from him, and ran with furious haste. She inquired her way of a policeman, but otherwise she saw nothing, thought nothing, and heard nothing till she was at her own door. She opened it softly—it was late; she went into their little parlour, and there lay Andrew on the floor. He had fallen against the fender, his head was cut open, and he was senseless. A half empty whisky bottle told the rest of the story. There was nobody stirring—her landlord and landlady were strangers; if she called them, and they saw what was the matter, she might have summary notice to quit. What was she to do? She took some cold water, washed his face, unfastened his neckcloth, and sat down. She imagined it was nothing but intoxication, and that in a few hours at most he would recover. So she remained through the dreadful night hearing every quarter strike, hearing chance noises in the general quietude, a drunken man, a belated cart, and worse than anything, the slow awakening between four and five, the whistle of some early workman who has to light the engine fire or get the factory ready for starting at six—sounds which remind the sleepless watcher that happiness after rest is abroad.
She hid the whisky bottle and glass; and as her brother showed no signs of recovery, she went to seek advice and help as soon as she heard somebody stirring. The woman of the house, not a bad kind of woman, although Miriam had feared her so much, came upstairs instantly. Andrew was lifted on the bed, and a messenger was despatched for the doctor. Miriam recognised him at once: he was the doctor who had asked her to stay with Miss Tippit. He said there was concussion of the brain—that the patient must be kept quiet, and watched night and day. To her surprise, her landlady instantly offered to share the duty with her. A rude, stout, hard person she was, who stood in the shop all day long, winter and summer, amidst the potatoes and firewood, with a woollen shawl round her neck and over her shoulders. A rude, stout, hard person, we say, was Mrs. Joll, fond of her beer, rather grimy, given to quarrel a little with her husband, could use strong language at times, had the defects which might be supposed to arise from constant traffic with the inhabitants of the Borough, and was utterly unintelligent so far as book learning went. Nevertheless she was well read in departments more important perhaps than books in the conduct of human life, and in her there was the one thing needful—the one thing which, if ever there is to be a Judgment Day, will put her on the right hand; when all sorts of scientific people, religious people, students of poetry, people with exquisite emotions, will go on the left and be damned everlastingly. Miriam was at once sent to bed, and it was arranged that she should take charge during the following night. Afterwards the night duty was to fall equally between them. She was so shut up in herself that she did not recognise the full value of Mrs. Joll's self-sacrifice, but she did manage to express her thanks, and ask how Mrs. Joll could leave the business.
"That's nothing to you, Miss; my gal Maud has a head on her shoulders, and can keep an eye on the place downstairs. Besides, I've allus found that at a pinch things will bear a lot of squeezing. I remember when my good man were laid up with the low fever for six weeks, and I had a baby a month old, I thought to myself as I should be beaten; but Lord, I was young then, and didn't know how much squeezing things will take, and I just squeezed through somehow."
"He ain't very strong, is he?" continued Mrs. Joll. "I don't mean in his constitution, but here," and she tapped her head. "Likes a drop or two now and then?"
Miriam was silent.
"Ah! well, as I said about Joll's brother when I was a-nussing of him—he was rather a bad lot—it's nothing to me when people are ill what they are. Besides; there ain't so much difference 'twixt any of us."
The night came. Miriam rose and went down to her brother's room. She tried to read, but she could not, and her thoughts were incessantly occupied with her own troubles. Andrew lay stretched before her—he might be dying for aught she knew; and yet the prospect of his death disturbed her only so far as it interfered with herself. Montgomery was for ever in her mind. What was he that he should set the soul of this girl alight! He was nothing, but she was something, and he had by some curious and altogether unaccountable quality managed to wake her slumbering forces.
She was in love with him, but it was not desire alone which had tired her, and made her pace up and down Andrew's sick chamber. Thousands of men with the blackest hair, the most piercing eyes, might have passed before her, and she would have remained unmoved. Neither was it love as some select souls understand it. She did not know what it was which stirred her; she was hungry, mad, she could not tell why. Nobody could have predicted beforehand that Montgomery was the man to act upon this girl so miraculously—nobody could tell, seeing the two together, what it was in him which specially excited her—nobody who has made men and women, his study would have wasted much time in the inquiry, knowing that the affinities, attractions, and repulsions of men and women are beyond all our science.
Brutally selfish is love, although so heroically self-sacrificing. Miriam thought that if Andrew had not been such an idiot, the relationship with Montgomery might have remained undisturbed. He might still have continued to call, but how could she see him now? The sufferer lay there unconscious, pleading for pity, as everything lifeless or unconscious seems to plead—no dead dog in a kennel fails to be tragic; but Miriam actually hated her brother, and cursed him in her heart as a stone over which she had stumbled in the pursuit; of something madly coveted but flying before her.
It was midnight. She went to the window and looked out. The public-houses were being closed, and intoxicated or half-intoxicated persons were groping their way homewards. Suddenly she caught sight of one man whom she thought she recognised. He was with a woman, and his arm was round her waist. Softly she opened the window, and as it was only one story high, she caught a full view of him as he came under the gaslight. It was Montgomery beyond a doubt. He reeled just a trifle, and slowly disappeared in the gloom. The moment he had passed she was not quite sure it was he. She went downstairs in the dark, having taken off her shoes to prevent any noise. She put on her shoes again, drew back the bolts softly, left the door upon the latch, and crept out into the street. Swiftly she walked, and in a few moments she was within half-a-dozen yards of those whom she followed. She could not help being sure now. She continued on their track, her whole existence absorbed in one single burning point, until she saw the pair disappear into a house which she did not know. She stood stock still, till a policeman was close upon her, and roused her from her reverie; and then hardly knowing what she was doing, she went home, and returned to her room. Every interest which she had in life had been allowed to die under the shadow of this one. Every thought had taken one direction—everything had been bitter or sweet by reference to one object alone; and this gone, there followed utter collapse. She had no friends, and probably if she had known any they would have been of little use to her, for hers was a nature requiring comfort of a stronger kind than that which most friends can supply. It was unfortunate, and yet she was spared that aggravation of torture which is inflicted by people who offer vague commonplaces, or what they call "hopes;" she was spared also that savage disappointment to which many are doomed who in their trouble find that all philosophy fails them, and the books on their shelves look so impotent, so beside the mark, that they narrowly escape being pitched into the fire.
Andrew began to recover slowly, but he could do no work, and Miriam had to think about some employment for herself in order to prevent deeper immersion in debt. It was very difficult to find anything for a girl who had been brought up to no trade; but at last, through the kindness of her landlady, she obtained second-hand an introduction to the manager of an immense drapery firm which did a large business through circulars sent all over the country. Miriam was employed in addressing the circulars. It was work which she could do at home, and by writing incessantly for about seven hours a day she could earn twelve shillings a week. The occupation was detestable, and it was with the greatest difficulty that she could persevere with it; but after some time it ceased to be quite so repulsive.
Her relief, however, was the relief of stupefaction and not of reconciliation. Sorrow took the form of revolt. It had always been so with her whenever anything was the matter with her: it was the sense of wrong which made it so intolerable. What had she done, she said to herself a hundred times a day, that she should have been betrayed into wretched poverty, that she should have been deserted, and that her fortunes should have been linked with those of an imbecile brother.
Andrew was still very weak—he could hardly speak; and as he lay there impassive, Miriam's hatred of his silent white face increased. She had too much self-control to express herself; but at times she was almost on the point of breaking out, of storming at him, and asking him whether he had no pity for her. One night, as she sat brooding at the window, and her trouble seemed almost too much for her, and she thought she must give way under it, a barrel organ stopped and began playing a melody from an opera by Verdi. The lovely air wound its way into Miriam's heart; but it did not console her. It only increased her self-sympathy. She listened till she could listen no longer, and putting her hands over her ears she rested her head upon the table, and was overcome with unconquerable emotion. Poor Andrew stared at her, utterly incapable of comprehending the scene. When she had recovered, he quietly asked her what was the matter.
"Matter!" she cried. "I don't believe you understand or care any more than the bedstead on which you lie," and she rose and flung herself out of the house. In those days there was, perhaps there is now, a path—it could not be called a road—from the southern end of London Bridge to Bankside. It went past St. Saviour's Church, and then trending towards the river, dived, scarcely four feet wide, underneath some mill or mill offices, skirting a little dock which, ran up between the mill walls. Barges sometimes lay moored in this dock, and discharged into the warehouses which towered above it. The path then emerged into a dark trench between lofty buildings connected overhead with bridges, and finally appeared in Bankside amidst heaps of old iron and broken glass, the two principal articles of merchandise in those parts. A dismal, most depressing region, one on which the sun never shone, gloomy on the brightest day. It was impossible to enter it without feeling an instantaneous check to all lightness of heart. The spirits were smitten as if with paralysis directly St. Saviour's was passed. Thither went Miriam aimlessly that night; and when she reached the dock, the temptation presented itself to her with fearful force to throw herself in it and be at rest. Usually in our troubles there is a prospect of an untried resource which may afford relief, or a glimmer of a distance which we may possibly reach, and where we may find peace, but for Miriam there was no distance, no reserve: this was her first acquaintance with an experience not rare, alas! but below it humanity cannot go, when all life ebbs from us, when we stretch out our arms in vain, when there is no God—nothing but a brazen Moloch, worse than the Satan of theology ten thousand times, because it is dead. A Satan we might conquer, or at least we should feel the delight of combat in resisting him; but what can we do against this leaden "order of things" which makes our nerves ministers of madness? Miriam did not know that her misery was partly a London misery, due to the change from fresh air and wholesome living to foul air and unnatural living. If she had known it, it would not have helped her. She could not have believed it, for it is the peculiarity of certain physical disorders that their physical character does not appear, and that they disguise themselves under purely mental shapes. Montgomery, her brother, the desperate outlook in the future, it is true, were real; but her lack of health was the lens which magnified her suffering into hideous dimensions. The desire to get rid of it by one sudden plunge was strong upon her, and the friendly hand which at the nick of time intervenes in romances did not rescue her. Nevertheless, she held back and passed on. Afterwards the thought that she had been close to suicide was for months a new terror. She was unaware that the distance between us and dreadful crimes is much greater often than it appears to be. The man who looks on a woman with adulterous desire has already committed adultery in his heart if he be restrained only by force or fear of detection; but if the restraint, although he may not be conscious of it, is self-imposed, he is not guilty. Nay, even the dread of consequences is a motive of sufficient respectability to make a large difference between the sinfulness of mere lust and that of its fulfilment. No friendly hand, we say, interrupted her purpose, but she went on her way. Hardly had she reached the open quay, when there came a peal of thunder. In London the gradual approach of a thunderstorm working up from a long distance is not perceived, and the suddenness of the roar for a moment startled her. But from her childhood she had always shown a strange liking to watch a thunderstorm, and, if possible, to be in it. It was her habit, when others were alarmed and covered their eyes, to go close to the window in order to see the lightning, and once she had been caught actually outside the door peering round the corner, because the strength of the tempest lay in that direction. The rain in an instant came down in torrents, the flashes were incessant, and flamed round the golden cross of St. Paul's nearly opposite to her. She took off her bonnet and prayed that she might be struck, and so released with no sin and no pain. She was not heard; a bolt descended within a few feet of her, blinding her, but it fell upon a crane, passed harmlessly down the chain into a lot of rusty old scrap, and so spent itself. She remained standing there alone and unnoticed, for the street was swept clear as if by grapeshot of the very few persons who might otherwise have been in it at that hour. Gradually the tumult ceased, and was succeeded by a steady, dull downpour; Miriam then put on her bonnet and walked home.
The next day she was ill, unaccountably feverish and in great pain. Hers was one of those natures—happy natures, it may perhaps be said—which hasten always to a crisis. She had nothing of that miserable temperament which is never either better or worse, and remains clouded with slow disease for months or years. She managed to do her work, but on the following morning she was delirious. She remembered nothing more till one afternoon when she seemed to wake. She looked up, and whose face was that which bent over her? It was Miss Tippit's. Miss Tippit had learned through the doctor what was the state of affairs, and had managed, notwithstanding the demand which the lodgings made upon her, to take her share in watching over the sufferer. Her stepmother had been summoned from Cowfold, and these two, with the landlady, had tended her and had brought her back to life. In an instant the scene in Miss Tippit's room when she was sick passed through Miriam's brain, and she sobbed piteously, lifted up her arms as if to clasp her heroic benefactor, but the thought was too great for her, and she fainted. Nevertheless she was recovering, and when she came to herself again, Miss Tippit was ready with the intervention of some trifle to distract her attention. As her strength returned she was able to talk a little, and her first question was—
"Miss Tippit, why did you come here? Oh, if you but knew! What claim have I on you?"
"Hush, my dear; those days are past. You did not love me then perhaps; but what of that? I am sure, you will not mind my saying it: 'If ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?' But I know you did love me really."
"Where is Andrew?"
"Quite well, at home in Cowfold."
That was as much as Miriam could stand then. For weeks to come she was well-nigh drained of all vitality, and it flowed into her gradually and with many relapses. The doctor thought she ought to be moved into the country. Mrs. Tacchi had some friends in one of the villages lying by the side of the Avon in Wiltshire, just where that part of Salisbury Plain on which stands Stonehenge slopes down to the river. Miriam knew nothing of the history of the Amesbury valley, but she was sensible—as who must not be?—to its exquisite beauty and the delicacy of the contrasts between the downs and the richly-foliaged fields through which the Avon winds. It is a chalk river, clear as a chalk river always is if unpolluted; the downs are chalk, and though they are wide-sweeping and treeless, save for clusters of beech here and there on the heights, the dale with its water, meadows, cattle, and dense woods, so different from the uplands above them, is in peculiar and lovely harmony with them.
One day she contrived to reach Stonehenge. She was driven there by the farmer with whom she was staying, and she asked to be left there while he went forward. He was to fetch her when he returned. It was a clear but grey day, and she sat outside the outer circle on the turf looking northwards over the almost illimitable expanse. She had been told as much as is known about that mysterious monument,—that it had been built ages before any record, and that not only were the names of the builders forgotten, but their purpose in building it was forgotten too. She was oppressed with a sense of her own, nothingness and the nothingness of man. If those who raised that temple had so utterly passed away, for how long would the memory of her existence last? Stonehenge itself too would pass. The wind and the rain had already worn perhaps half of it; and the place that now knows it will know it no more save by vague tradition, which also will be extinguished.
Suddenly, and without any apparent connection with what had gone before, and indeed in contrast with it, it came into Miriam's mind that she must do something for her fellow-creatures. How came it there? Who can tell? Anyhow, there was this idea in the soul of Miriam Tacchi that morning.
The next question was, What could she do? There was one thing she could do, and she could not go astray in doing it. Whatever may be wrong or mistaken, it cannot be wrong or a mistake to wait upon the sick and ease their misery. She knew, however, that she could not take up the task without training, and she belonged to no church or association which could assist her. Perhaps one of the best recommendations of the Catholic Church was that it held out a hand to men who, having for some reason or other, learned to hold their lives lightly, were candidates for the service of humanity—men for whom death had no terrors—by whom it was even courted, and who were willing therefore to wait upon the plague-smitten, or to carry the Cross amongst wild and savage tribes. Those who are skilled in quibbling may say that neither in the case of the Catholic missionary nor in that of the Sister of Mercy is there any particular merit. What they do is done not from any pure desire for man's welfare, but because there is no healthy passion for enjoyment. Nothing is idler than disputes about the motives to virtuous deeds, or the proportion of praise to be assigned to the doers of them. It is a common criticism that a sweet temper deserves no commendation, because the blessed possessor of it is naturally sweet-tempered, and undergoes no terrible struggle in order to say the sweet word which he who is cursed with spite only just manages to force himself to utter. What we are bound to praise or blame, however, is the result, and the result only—just as we praise or blame perfect or imperfect flowers. If it comes to a remorseless probing of motives, there are none of us who can escape a charge of selfishness; and, in fact, a perfectly abstract disinterestedness is a mere logical and impossible figment.