"Tell me seriously what you wish me to do, Roberta."
"I wish you to give attention, if not to the affairs—that I cannot expect—of your household, at least to this—you may call it foolish and pooh-pooh it—business of Laetitia and this young man—I really cannot say young gentleman, for it is mere equivocation not to call him a haberdasher."
The Professor resisted the temptation to criticize some points of literary structure, and accepted the obvious meaning of this.
"Tell me what he really is."
"I have told you repeatedly. He is nothing—unless we palter with the meaning of words—but a clerk in the office at the stores where we pay a deposit and order goods on a form. They were originally haberdashers, so I don't see how you can escape from what I have said. But I have no doubt you will try to do so."
"How comes he to be such a magnificent violinist? Are they all...?"
"I know what you are going to say, and it's foolish. No, they are not all magnificent violinists. But you know the story quite well."
"Perhaps I do. But now listen. I want to make out one thing. This young man talked quite freely to me and Egerton about his place, his position, salary—everything. And yet you say he isn't a gentleman."
"Of course he isn't a gentleman. I don't the least understand what you mean. It's some prevarication or paradox." Mrs. Wilson taps the chair-arm impatiently.
"I mean this—if he isn't a gentleman, how comes it that he isn't ashamed of being a haberdasher? Because he isn't. Seemed to take it all as a matter of course."
"I cannot follow your meaning at all. And I will not trouble you to explain it. The question now is—will you, or will you not, do something?"
"Has the young gentleman?"—Mrs. Wilson snorted audibly—"Well, has this young haberdasher made any sort of definite declaration to Laetitia?"
"I understand not. But it's impossible not to see."
"Would it not be a little premature for me to say anything to him?"
"Have I asked you to do so?"
"I am a little uncertain what it is you have asked me to do."
Mrs. Wilson contrived, by pantomime before she spoke, to express her perfect patience under extremest trial, inflicted on her by an impudent suggestion that she hadn't made her position clear. She would, however, state her case once more with incisive distinctness. To that end she separated her syllables, and accented selections from them, even as a resolute hammer accents the head of a nail.
"Have I not told you distinctly"—the middle syllable of this word was a sample nailhead—"a thousand times that what I wish you to do—however much you may shirk doing it—is to speak to Laetitia—to remonstrate with her about the encouragement she is giving to this young man, and to point out to her that a girl in her position—in short, the duties of a girl in her position?" Mrs. Wilson's come-down at this point was an example of a solemn warning to the elocutionist who breaks out of bounds. She was obliged to fall back arbitrarily on her key-note in the middle of the performance. "Have I said this to you, Mr. Wilson, or have I not?"
"Speaking from memory I should say not. Yes—certainly not. But I can raise no reasonable objection to speaking to Laetitia, provided I am at liberty to say what I like. I understand that to be part of the bargain."
"If you mean," says the lady, whose temper had not been improved by the first part of the speech; "if you mean that you consider yourself at liberty to encourage a rebellious daughter against her mother, I know too well from old experience that that is the case. But I trust that for once your right feeling will show you that it is your plain duty to tell her that the course she is pursuing can only lead to the loss of her position in society, and probably to poverty and unhappiness."
"I can tell her you think so, of course," says the Professor, drily.
"I will say no more"—very freezingly. "You know as well as I do what it is your duty to say to your daughter. What you will decide to say, I do not know." And premonitory rustles end in a move to the door.
"You can tell her to come in now—if you like." The Professor won't show too vivid an interest. It isn't as if the matter related to a Scythian war-chariot, or a gold ornament from a prehistoric tomb, or variae lectiones.
"At least, Septimus," says the apex of the departing skirts, "you will remember what is due to yourself and your family—I am nobody—so far as not to encourage the girl in resisting her mother's authority." And, receiving no reply, departs, and is heard on the landing rejecting insufficient reasons why the drugget will not lay flat. And presently issuing a mandate to an upper landing:
"Your father wishes to speak to you in his library. I wish you to go." The last words not to seem to abdicate as Queen Consort.
Laetitia isn't a girl whom we find new charms in after making her mother's acquaintance. You know how some young people would be passable enough if it were not for a lurid light thrown upon their identity by other members of their family. You know the sister you thought was a beauty and dear, until you met her sister, who was gristly and a jade. But it's a great shame in Tishy's case, because we do honestly believe her seeming da capo of her mother is more skirts than anything else. We credit their respective apices with different dispositions, although (yes, it's quite true what you say) we don't see exactly from what corner of the Professor's his daughter got her better one. He's all very well, but....
Anyhow, we are sorry for Tishy now, as she comes uneasily into the library to be "spoken to." She comes in buttoning a glove and saying, "Yes, papa." She was evidently just going out—probably arrested by the voices in the library.
"Well, my dear, your mother wishes me to speak to you.... H'm! h'm! By-the-bye," he interrupts himself, "it really is a very extraordinary thing, but it's just like work-people. A man spends all his life laying carpets, and the minute he lays mine it's too big or too small."
"The man outside? He's very tiresome. He says the passage is an unusual size."
"I should have taken that point when I measured it. It seems to me late in the day now the carpet's made up. However, that's neither here nor there. Your mother wishes me to—a—to speak to you, my dear."
"What does she want you to say, papa?"
"H'm—well!—it's sometimes not easy to understand your mother. I cannot say that I have gathered precisely what it is she wishes me to say. Nor am I certain that I should be prepared to say it if I knew what it was."—Tishy brightened perceptibly.—"But I am this far in sympathy with what I suppose to be her meaning"—Tishy's face fell—"that I should be very sorry to hear that you had made any binding promises to any young gentleman without knowing more of his antecedents and connexions than I suppose you do at the present about this—a—musical friend of yours—without consulting me." The perfunctory tone in which he added, "and your mother," made the words hardly worth recording.
But perhaps the way they, in a sense, put the good lady out of court, helped to make her daughter brighten up again. "Dear papa," she said, "I should never dream for one moment of doing such a thing. Nor would Mr. Bradshaw dream of asking me to do so."
"That's quite right, my dear—quite enough. Don't say anything more. I am not going to catechize you." And Tishy was not sorry to hear this, because her disclaimer of a binding promise was only true in the letter. In fact, our direct Sally had only the day before pounced upon her friend with, "You know perfectly well he's kissed you heaps of times!" And Tishy had only been able to begin an apology she was not to be allowed to finish with, "And suppose he has...?"
However, her sense of an untruthfulness that was more than merely technical was based not so much on the bare fact of a kissing-relation having come about, as upon a particular example. She knew it was the merest hypocrisy to make believe that the climax of that interview at Riverfordhook, where there were the moonrise and things, did not constitute a pledge on the part of both. However, Tishy is not the first young lady, let me tell you—if you don't know already—who has been guilty of equivocation on those lines. It is even possible that her father was conniving at it, was intentionally accepting what he knew to be untrue, to avoid the trouble of further investigation, and to be able to give his mind to the demolition of that ignoramus. A certain amount of fuss was his duty; but the sooner he could find an excuse to wash his hands of these human botherations and get back to his inner life the better.
Perhaps it was a sense of chill at the suspicion that her father was not concerned enough about her welfare that made Laetitia try to arrest his retirement into his inner life. Or it may have been that she was sensitive, as young folk are, at her new and strange experience of Real Love, and at the same time grated on—scraped the wrong way—in her harsh collision with her mother, who was showing Cupid no quarter, and was only withheld from overt acts of hostility to Julius Bradshaw by the knowledge that excess on her part would precipitate what she sought to avert.
Whatever the cause was, her momentary sense of relief that her father was not going to catechize her was followed by a feeling that she almost wished he would. It would be so nice to have a natural parent that was really interested in his daughter's affairs. Poor Tishy felt lonely, and as if she was going to cry. She must unpack her heart, even if it bored papa, who she knew wanted to turn her out and write. She broke down over it.
"Oh, papa—papa! Indeed, I want to do everything you wish—whatever you tell me. I will be good, as we used to say." A sob grew in her throat over this little nursery recollection. "Only—only—only—it isn't really quite true about no promises. We haven't made them, you know, but they're there all the same." Tishy stops suddenly to avoid a sob she knows is coming. A pocket-handkerchief is called in to remove tears surreptitiously, under a covering pretence of a less elegant function. The Professor hates scenes worse than poison, and Tishy knows it.
"There, there! Well, well! Nothing to cry about. That's right." This is approval of the disappearance of the pocket-handkerchief—some confusion between cause and effect, perhaps. "Come, my child—come, Laetitia—suppose now you tell me all about it."
Tishy acknowledges to herself that she desires nothing better. Yes, papa dear, she will, indeed she will, tell him everything. And then makes a very fair revelation of her love-affair—a little dry and stilted in the actual phrasing, perhaps, but then, what can you expect when one's father is inclined to be stiff and awkward in such a matter, to approach it formally, and consider it an interview? It was all mamma's fault, of course. Why should she be summoned before the bar of the house? Why couldn't her father find his way into her confidence in the natural current of events? However, this was better than nothing.
Besides, we softened gradually as we developed the subject. One of us, who was Mr. Bradshaw at first, became Julius later, with a strong lubricating effect. We began with sincere attachment, but we loved each other dearly before we had done. We didn't know when "it" began exactly—which was a fib, for we were perfectly well aware that "it" began that evening at Krakatoa Villa, which has been chronicled herein—but for a long time past Julius had been asking to be allowed to memorialise the Professor on the subject.
"But you know, papa dear, I couldn't say he was to speak to you until I was quite certain of myself. Besides, I did want him to be on better terms with mamma first."
Professor Wilson flushed angrily, and began with a knitted brow, "I wish your mother would——" but stopped abruptly. Then, calming down: "But you are quite certain now, my dear Laetitia?" Oh dear, yes; no doubt of that. And how about Julius? The confident ring of the girl's laugh, and her "Why, you should hear him!" showed that she, at least, was well satisfied of her lover's earnestness.
"Well, my dear child," said the Professor, who was beginning to feel that it was time to go back to his unfinished ignoramus, tyro, or sciolist; "I tell you what I shall do. When's he coming next? Thursday, to dinner. Very well. I shall make a little opportunity for a quiet talk with him, and we shall see."
The young lady came out of the library on the whole comfortabler then she had entered it, and finished buttoning that glove in the passage. As she stood reflecting that papa would really be very nice if he would shave more carefully—for the remains of his adieu was still rasping her cheek—she was aware of the voice of the carpet; she heard it complain, through the medium of its layer, or stretcher, who seemed to mean to pass the remainder of his days scratching the head of perplexity on the scene of his recent failure to add to his professional achievements.
"It's what I say to the guv'nor"—thus ran his Jeremiad—"in dealin' with these here irregular settin's out, where nothin's not to say parallel with anything else, nor dimensions lendin' theirselves to accommodation. 'Just you let me orfer it in,' I says 'afore the final stitchin' to, or even a paper template in extra cases is a savin' in the end.' Because it stands to reason there goes more expense with an ill-cut squint or obtoose angle, involvin' work to rectify, than cut ackerate in the first go-off. Not but what ruckles may disappear under the tread, only there's no reliance to be placed. You may depend on it, to make a job there's nothin' like careful plannin', and foresight in the manner of speakin'. And, as I say to the guv'nor, there's no need for a stout brown-paper template to go to waste, seein' it works in with the under-packin'." And much more which Tishy could still hear murmuring on in the distance as she closed the street door and fled to an overdue appointment with Sally, into whose sympathetic ear she could pour all her new records of the progress of the row.
To tell the whole of the prolonged pitched battle that ensued would take too much ink and paper. The Dragon fought magnificently, so long as she had the powerful backing of her married daughter, Mrs. Sowerby Bagster, and the skirmishing help of Athene. This latter was, however, not to be relied on—might go over to the enemy any moment. Mrs. Bagster, or Clarissa, who was an elder sister of Laetitia's, became lukewarm, too, on a side-issue being raised. It did not appear to connect itself logically with the bone of contention, having reference entirely to vaccination from the calf. But it led to an exaggerated sensitiveness on her part as to the responsibility we incurred by interference with what might (after all) be the Will of Providence. If this should prove so, it would be our duty not to repine. Clarissa contrived to surround the subject with an unprovoked halo of religious meekness, and to work round to the conclusion that it would be presumptuous not to ask Mr. Bradshaw to dinner. Only this resulted absolutely and entirely from her refusing to have her three children all vaccinated from the calf forthwith, because their grandmother thought it necessary. The latter, finding herself deserted in her hour of need by a powerful ally—for three whole children had given Clarissa a deep insight into social ethics, and a weighty authority—surrendered grudgingly. She tried her best to make her invitation to dinner take the form of leave to come to dinner, and partly succeeded. Her suggestions that she hoped Mr. Bradshaw would understand the rules of the game at the table of Society caused the defection of her remaining confederate, Athene, who turned against her, exclaiming: "He won't eat with his knife, at any rate!" However, it was too late to influence current events. The battle was fought and over.
The obnoxious young man didn't eat with his knife when he came, with docility, a day after he received the invitation. Remember, he appears originally in this story as a chosen of Cattley's, one warranted to defy detection by the best-informed genteelologist. He went through his ordeal very well, on the whole, considering that Egerton (from friendship) was always on the alert to give him tips about civilised conduct, and that Mrs. Wilson called him nearly every known dissyllabic name with A's in it—Brathwaite, Palgrave, Bradlaugh, Playfair, and so on, but not Bradshaw. She did this the more as she never addressed him directly, treating him without disguise as the third-person singular in a concrete form. This was short-sighted, because it stimulated her husband to a tone of civility which would probably have risen to deference if the good lady had not just stopped short of insult.
Egerton and the only other male guest (who was the negative young pianist known to Sally as Somebody Elsley) having found it convenient to go away at smoking-time to inspect the latter's bicycle, the Professor seized his opportunity for conversation with the third-person-singular. He approached the subject abruptly:
"Well, it's Laetitia, I understand, that we're making up to, eh?" Perhaps it was this sudden conversion to the first person plural that made the young man blush up to the roots of his hair.
"What can I say?" he asked hesitatingly. "You see, Professor Wilson, if I say yes, it will mean that I have been p-paying my addresses, as the phrase is...."
"And taking receipts?"
"Exactly—and taking receipts, without first asking her father's leave. And if I say no——"
"If you say no, my dear young man, her father will merely ask you to help yourself and pass the port (decanter with the little brass ticket—yes, that one. Thank you!). Well, I see what you mean, and we needn't construct enigmas. We really get to the point. Now tell me all about it." We don't feel at all sure the Professor's way of getting to the point was not a good one. You see, he had had a good deal to do with young men in early academical phases of existence—tutorships and the like—and had no idea of humming and hawing and stuttering over their affairs. Besides, it was best for Bradshaw, as was shown by the greater ease with which he went on speaking, and began telling the Professor all about it.
"I shouldn't be speaking truthfully, sir, if I were to pretend things haven't gone a little beyond—a little beyond—the exact rules. But you've no idea how easily one can deceive oneself."
"Haven't I?" The Professor's mind went back to his own youth. He knew very well how easily he had done it. A swift dream of his past shot through his brain in the little space before Bradshaw resumed.
"Well, it was only a phrase. Of course you know. I mean it has all crept on so imperceptibly. And I have had no real chance of talking about it—to you, sir—without asking for a formal interview. And until very lately nothing Laet—Miss Wilson...."
"Tut-tut! Laetitia—Laetitia. What's the use of being prigs about it?"
"Nothing Laetitia has said would have warranted me in doing this. I could have introduced the subject to Mrs. Wilson once or twice, but...."
"All right. I understand. Well, now, what's the exact state of things between you and Laetitia?"
"You will guess what our wishes are. But we know quite well that their fulfilment is at present impossible. It may remain so. I have no means at present except a small salary. And my mother and sister——"
"Have a claim on you—is that it?" The Professor's voice seems to forestall a forbidding sound. But he won't be in too great a hurry. He continues: "You must have some possibility in view, some sort of expectation."
Bradshaw's reply hesitated a good deal.
"I am afraid I have—I am afraid—allowed myself to fancy—that, in short, I might be able to—outgrow this unhappy nervous affection."
"I know what you mean, Professor Wilson. You mean that a violinist's position, however successful, would be less than you have a right to expect for your daughter's husband. Of course that is so, but——"
"But I mean nothing of the sort." The Professor is abrupt and decisive, as one who repudiates. "I know nothing about positions. However, Mr. Bradshaw, you are quite right this far—that is what Mrs. Wilson would have meant. She knows about positions. What I meant was that you wouldn't have enough to live upon at the best, in any comfort, and that I shouldn't be able to help you. Suppose you had a large family, and the nervous affection came back?" His hearer quakes at this crude, unfeeling forecast of real matrimonial facts. He and Laetitia fully recognise in theory that people who marry incur families; but, like every other young couple, would prefer a veil drawn over their particular case. The young man flinches visibly at the Professor's needlessly savage hypothesis of disasters. Had he been a rapid and skilful counsel in his own behalf, he would have at once pounced on a weak point, and asked how many couples would ever get married at all, if we were to beg and borrow every trouble the proper people (whoever they are) are ready to give away and lend. He can only look crestfallen, and feel about in his mind for some way of saying, "If I wanted Laetitia to promise to marry me, that would apply. As matters stand, it is not to the purpose," without seeming to indite the Professor for prematureness. Of course, the position had been created entirely by the Dragon. Why could she not have let them alone, as her husband had said to her? Why not, indeed?
But Master Julius has to see his way out into the open, and he is merely looking puzzled, and letting a very fair cigar out—and, you know, they are never the same thing relighted. Perhaps what he does is as good as anything else.
"I see you are right, sir, and I am afraid I am to blame—I must be—because my selfish thoughtlessness, or whatever it ought to be called, has placed us in a position out of which no happiness can result for either?" He looks interrogatively into the Professor's gold spectacles, but sees no relaxation in the slightly knitted brow above them. Their owner merely nods.
"But you needn't take all the blame to yourself," he says. "I've no doubt my daughter is entitled to her share of it"—to which Bradshaw tries to interpose a denial—"only it really doesn't matter whose fault it is."
The disconcerted lover, who felt all raw, public, and uncomfortable, wondered a little what the precise "it" was that could be said to be any one's fault. After all, he and Laetitia were just two persons going on existing, and how could it be any concern of any one else's what each thought of or felt for the other? It is true he lacked absolution for the kissing transgressions; they were blots on a clean sheet of mere friendship. But would the Dragon be content that he and Laetitia should continue to see each other if they signed a solemn agreement that there was to be no kissing? You see, he was afraid he was going to be cut off from his lady-love, and he didn't like the looks of the Professor. But he didn't propose the drawing up of any such compact. Perhaps he didn't feel prepared to sign it. However, he was to be relieved from any immediate anxiety. The Professor had never meant to take any responsibility, and now that he had said his say, he only wanted to wash his hands of it.
"Now, understand me, Bradshaw," said he—and there was leniency and hope in the dropped "Mr."—"I do not propose to do more than advise; nor do I know, as my daughter is twenty-four, what I can do except advise. We won't bring authority into court.... Oh yes, no doubt Laetitia believes she will never act against my wishes. Many girls have thought that sort of thing. But——" He stopped dead, with a little side-twist of the head, and a lip-pinch, expressing doubt, then resumed: "So I'll give you my advice, and you can think it over. It is that you young people just keep out of each other's way, and let the thing die out. You've no idea till you try what a magical effect absence has; poetry is all gammon. Take my advice, and try it. Have some more port? No—thank me! Then let's go upstairs."
Upstairs were to be found all the materials for an uncomfortable evening. A sort of wireless telegraphy that passed between Bradshaw and Laetitia left both in low spirits. They did not rise (the spirits) when the Professor said, to the public generally, "Well, I must say good-night, but you needn't go," and went away to his study; nor when his Dragon followed him, with a strong flavour of discipline on her. For thereupon it became necessary to ignore conflict in the hinterland of some folding-doors, accompanied by sounds of forbearance and a high moral attitude. There was no remedy but music, and as soon as Bradshaw got at his Stradivarius the mists seemed to disperse. The adagio of Somebody's quartette No. 101 seemed to drive a coach-and-six through mortal bramble-labyrinths. But as soon as it ceased, the mists came back all the thicker for being kept waiting. And the outcome of a winding-up interview between the sweethearts was the conclusion that after what had been said by the father of one of them, it was necessary that all should be forgotten, and be as though it had never been. And the gentleman next day, when he showed himself at his desk at Cattley's, provoked the remark that Paganini had got the hump this morning—which shows that his genius as a violinist was recognised at Cattley's.
As for the lady, we rather think she made up her mind in the course of the night that if her family were going to interfere with her love-affairs, she would let them know what it was to have people yearning for other people in the house. For she refused boiled eggs, eggs and bacon, cold salmon-trout, and potted tongue at breakfast next day, and left half a piece of toast and half a cup of tea as a visible record that she had started pining, and meant to do it in earnest.
What Laetitia and Julius suffered during their self-inflicted separation, Heaven only knows! This saying must be interpreted as meaning that nobody else did. They were like evasive Trappist monks, who profess mortification of the flesh, but when it comes to the scratch, don't flog fair. Whatever they lost in the cessation of uncomfortable communion at the eyrie, or lair, of the Dragon was more than made up for by the sub-rosaceous, or semi-clandestine, character of the intercourse that was left. Stolen kisses are notoriously sweetest, but when, in addition to this, every one is actually the very last the shareholders intend to subscribe for, their fascination is increased tenfold. And every accidental or purely unintentionally arranged meeting of these two had always the character of an interview between people who never meet—which, like most truths, was only false in exceptional cases; and in this instance these were numerous. Factitious absence of this sort will often make the heart grow fonder, where the real thing would make it look about for another; and another is generally to be found.
It might have been unsafe to indulge in speculation, based on the then status quo, as to when the inevitable was going to happen. We know all about it now, but that doesn't count. Stories, true or false, should be told consecutively.
IT WAS THAT MRS. NIGHTINGALE'S FAULT. A SATISFACTORY CHAP, GERRY! A TELEGRAM AND A CLOUD. BRONCHITIS AND ASTHMA AND FOG. SALLY GOES TO MAYFAIR. THE OLD SOLDIER HAS NOTICE TO QUIT
The most deeply-rooted instinct of mankind is the one that prompts it to lay the blame on some one else. Mankind includes womankind, and woman includes (for we believe she is still living) the Dragon of the last chapter. As it did not occur to this good lady that her own attitude of estrangement from Laetitia had anything to answer for in the rash and premature development of the latter's love-affair, she cast about for a scapegoat, and found one in the person of Rosalind Fenwick. Some one had schemed the whole business, clearly, and who else could it be but that woman? Of course, Laetitia herself was simply the victim of a plot—she was young and inexperienced; people's daughters are.
But nothing in the nefarious business had escaped the watchful eye of the Dragon. At the time of the very first appearance of "that Mrs. Nightingale" on the scene she had pointed out her insidious character, and forewarned North and North-west Kensington of what was to be expected from a person of her antecedents. It was true no one knew anything about these latter; but, then, that was exactly the point.
"It's useless attempting to find excuses for that woman. Clarissa," she had said. "It's always the same story with people of that sort. Whenever they have no proper introduction, they always turn out schemers and matchmakers. I detected her, and said so at once. It is easy for your father to pretend he has forgotten. He always does. My consolation is that I did my duty. And then, of course, it all turns out as I said. Anybody could have known what sort of person she was with half an eye!"
"And what sort of person is she?" asked Clarissa coldly. She had not forgotten the vaccination from the calf.
"The sort of person you would expect. Unless, Clarissa, you are going to take a leaf out of your father's book, and make believe you do not understand what is transparently on the surface. What interest can Major Roper have in inventing the story, I should like to know?"
"How does he come to know so much about it? Who told him?"
"Who told him? Why, of course that very old gentleman—what's his name?—you know——" Mrs. Wilson tries if she can't recollect with a quick vibration of a couple of fingers to back up her brain. "Colonel Dunn!"
"Lunn or Dunn. Yes, I remember now; it's Lunn, because the girl said when she was a child she thought Sally Lunns had something to do with both. You may depend on it, I'm right. Well, Major Roper's his most intimate friend. They belong to the same club."
The ladies then lost sight of their topic, which lapsed into a rather heated discussion of whether the very old gentleman was a Colonel or a Major. As we don't want to hear them on this point, we may let them lapse too.
It may have been because of some home anxieties—notably about the Major, whose bronchitis had been bad—that Rosalind Fenwick continued happily unconscious of having incurred any blame or taken any responsibility on herself in connexion with the Ladbroke Grove row, as Sally called it. If she had known of it, very likely it would not have troubled her, for she was really too contented with her own condition and surroundings to be concerned about externals. Whatever troubles she had were connected with the possibility, which always seemed to grow fainter, of a revival of her husband's powers of memory. Sometimes whole weeks would pass without an alarm. Sometimes some little stirring of the mind would occur twice in the same day; still, the tendency seemed to be, on the whole, towards a more and more complete oblivion.
But the fact is that so long as she had the Major invalided at Krakatoa Villa (for he was taken ill there, and remained on her hands many weeks before he could return to his lodgings) she had the haziest impressions of the outside world. Sally talked about "the row" while they were nursing the old boy, but really she heeded her very little. Then, when the invalid was so far reinstated that he was fit to be moved safely, Sally went away too, for a change.
The respite to old Colonel Lund was not to be for long. But the rest, alone with her husband, was not unwelcome to Rosalind.
"I can never have been one-tenth as happy, Rosey darling," said he to her one day, "as I have been in the last six months. I should recollect all about it if I had."
"You're a satisfactory chap to deal with, Gerry—I must say that for you. You always beam, come what may. Even when you fly out—which you do, you know—it's more like a big dog than a wasp. You were always...." Now, Rosalind was going to say "always like that"; it was a mistake she was constantly in danger of. But she stopped in time, and changed her speech to "You're not without your faults, you know! You never can come to an anchor, and be quiet. You sit on the arms of chairs, and your hands are too big and strong. No; you needn't stop. Go on!" We like leaving the words to elucidate the concurrent action. "And you don't smell much of tobacco."
Fenwick, however, had noticed the kink in the thread, and must needs wind it back to get a clear line. "I was always what?" said he. His wife saw a way out.
"Always good when your daughter was here to manage you." It wasn't so satisfactory as it might have been, but answered in dealing with a mind so unsuspicious. Sally's having spent Christmas and stayed on a little at a friend's in the country lent plausibility to a past tense which might else have jarred.
"I don't want the kitten all to myself, you know," said Fenwick. "It wouldn't be fair. After all, she was yours before she was mine."
There was not a tremor in the hand that lay in his, the one that was not caressing her cheek; not a sign of flinching in the eyes that turned round on him; not a trace of hesitation in the voice that said, with concession to a laugh in it: "Yes, she was mine before she was yours." Such skill had grown in this life of nettle-grasping!—indeed, she hardly felt the sting now. This time she was able to go on placidly, in the unconnected way of talk books know not, and life well knows:
"Do you know what the kitten will be next August?"
"It's rather awful, isn't it?"
"Which way do you mean? It's awful because she isn't fiancee, or awful because she might be at any minute?"
"You've picked up her way of going to the point, Gerry. I never said anything about her being fiancee."
"No, but you meant it."
"Of course I did! Well, then, because she might be any minute. I'm very glad she isn't. Why, you know I must be!"
"I am, anyhow!"
"Just think what the house would be without her!"
"The best place in the world still for me." She acknowledges this by a kiss on his hairy hand, which he returns via her forehead; then goes on: "All the same, I'll be hanged if I know what we should do without our kitten. But has anything made you afraid?"
"Oh no; nothing at all! Certainly; no, nothing. Have you noticed anything?"
"Oh dear, no! For anything I can see, she may continue a—a sort of mer-pussy to the end of time." Both laugh in a way at the name he has made for her; then he adds: "Only...."
"Nothing I could lay hold of."
"I wonder whether you're thinking of the same thing as I am?" Very singularly, it does not seem necessary to elucidate the point. They merely look at each other, and continue looking as Fenwick says:
"They are a funny couple, if that's it!"
"They certainly are," she replies. "But I have thought so, for all that!" And then both look at the fire as before, this being, of course, in the depth of winter. Rosalind speaks next.
"There's no doubt about him, of course! But the chick would have told me at once if...."
"If there had been anything to tell. No doubt she would."
"Of course, it's absurd to suppose he could see so much of her as he does, and not...."
"Perfectly absurd! But then, you know, that young fiddler was very bad, indeed, about the chick until he made her acquaintance."
"So he was." Thoughtfully, as one who weighs.
"The kitten met him with a sort of stony geniality that would have knocked the heart out of a Romeo. If Juliet had known the method, she could have nipped Shakespeare in the bud."
"She didn't want to. Sally did."
"But then Shakespeare might have gone on and written a dry respectable story—not a love-story; an esteem story—about how Juliet took an interest in Romeo's welfare, and Romeo posted her letters for her, and presented her with a photograph album, and so on. And how the families left cards."
"But it isn't exactly stony geniality. It's another method altogether with the doctor—a method the child's invented for herself."
Fenwick repeats, "A method she's invented for herself. Exactly. Well, we shall have her back to-morrow. What time does she come?" And then her mother says, interrupting the conversation: "What's that?"
"I thought I heard the gate go."
"Not at this time of night." But Fenwick is wrong, for in a moment comes an imperious peal at the bell. A pair of boots, manifestly on a telegraph-boy's cold feet, play a devil's tattoo on the sheltered doorstep. They have been inaudible till now, as the snow is on the ground again at Moira Villas. In three minutes the boots are released, and they and their wearer depart, callously uninterested in the contents of the telegram they have brought. If we were a telegraph-boy, we should always be yearning to know and share the joys and sorrows of our employers. This boy doesn't, to judge by the way he sings that he is "Only the Ghost of a Mother-in-law," showing that he goes to the music-halls.
* * * * *
Less than ten minutes after the telegraph-boy has died away in the distance Rosalind and her husband are telling a cab to take them to 174, Ball Street, Mayfair.
It does so grudgingly, because of the state of the roads. It wants three-and-sixpence, and gets it, for the same reason. But it doesn't appear to be drawn by a logical horse who can deal with inferences, because it is anxious to know when its clients are going back, that it may call round for them.
For the telegram was that there was "no cause immediate apprehension; perhaps better come—Major." As might have been expected from such a telegram about a man of his age, just after seeming recovery from an attack of bronchitis, the hours on earth of its subject were numbered. Fever may abate, temperature may be brought down to the normal, the most nourishing possible nourishment may be given at the shortest possible intervals, but the recoil of exhaustion will have its way when there is little or nothing left to exhaust. Colonel Lund had possibly two or three years of natural life before him, disease apart, when a fierce return of the old enemy, backed by the severity of a London winter, and even more effectually by its fog, stopped the old heart a few thousand beats too soon, and ended a record its subject had ceased to take an interest in a few paragraphs short of the normal finis.
We allow our words to overtake our story in this way because we know that you know—you who read—exactly what follows telegrams like the one that came to Mrs. Fenwick. If you are new and young, and do not know it yet, you will soon. However, we can now go back.
When the economical landlady (a rather superior person) who had opened the street-door was preceding Rosalind up the narrow stairs, and turning up gas-jets from their reserve of darkness-point, she surprised her by saying she thought there was the Major coming downstairs. "Yes, madam; the Major—Major Roper," she continued, in reply to an expression of astonishment. Rosalind had forgotten that Colonel Lund was, outside her own family, "the Colonel."
It was Major Roper whom we have seen at the Hurkaru Club, as purple as ever and more asthmatic—in fact, the noise that was the Major coming downstairs was also the noise of the Major choking in the fog. It came slowly down, and tried hard to stop, in order that its source might speak intelligibly to the visitors. What time the superior person stood and grudged the gas. In the end, speech of a sort was squeezed out slowly, as the landlady, stung to action by the needless gas-waste, plucked the words out of the speaker's mouth at intervals, and finished them up for him. The information came piecemeal; but in substance it was that he had the day before found his old friend coughing his liver up in this dam fog, and had taken on himself to fetch the medical man and a nurse; that these latter, though therapeutically useless, as is the manner of doctors and nurses, had common-sense enough to back him (Roper) in his view that Mrs. Fenwick ought to be sent for, although the patient opposed their doing so. So he took upon himself to wire. There wasn't any occasion whatever for alarm, ma'am! Not the slightest. "You hear me, and mark what I say—an old stager, ma'am! Ever such a little common-sense, and half the patients would recover!" A few details of the rapid increase of the fever, of the patient's resistance to the sending of his message, and an indication of a curious feeling on the old Colonel's part that it wouldn't be correct form to go back to be nursed through a second attack when he had so lately got safe out of the first one. All this landed the speaker in something near suffocation, and made his hearers protest, quite uselessly, against his again exposing himself to the fog. Whereon the landlady, with a finger on the gas-tap, nodded toward the convulsed old officer to supply her speech with a nominative, and spoke. What she said was merely: "Hasn't been to bed." And then waited for Rosalind to go upstairs with such aggressive patience that the latter could only say a word or two of thanks to Major Roper and pass up. He, for his part, went quicker downstairs to avoid the thanks, and the gas-tap vigil came to a sudden end the moment Rosalind turned the handle of the door above.... Now, what is the object of all this endless detail of what might have been easily told in three words—well, in thirty, certainly?
Simply this: to show you why Fenwick, following on after some discussion with the cab below, was practically invisible to the asthmatic one, who passed him on the stairs just as the light above vanished. So he had no chance of recognizing the donor of his tiger's skin, which he might easily have done in open day, in spite of the twenty years between, for the old chap was as sharp as a razor about people. He passed Fenwick with a good-evening, and Mr. Fenwick, he presumed, and his good lady was on ahead, as indicated by the speaker's thumb across his shoulder. Fenwick made all acknowledgments, and felt his way upstairs in the dark till the nurse with a hand-lamp looked over the banisters for him.
* * * * *
When Sally came back to Krakatoa Villa early next day she found an empty house, and a note signed Jeremiah that explained its emptiness. We had been sent for to the Major, and Sally wasn't to be frightened. He had had a better night than last night, the doctor and nurse said; and Sally might come on as soon as she had had a good lunch. Only she was on no account to fidget.
So she didn't fidget. She had the good lunch very early, left Ann to put back her things in the drawers, and found her way through the thickening fog to the Tube, only just anxious enough about the Major to feel, until the next station was Marble Arch, that London had changed and got cruder and more cold-hearted since she went away, and that the guard was chilly and callous about her, and didn't care how jolly a house-party she had left behind her at Riverfordhook. For it was that nice aunt of Tishy's that had asked her down for a few days, and the few days had caught on to their successors as they came, and become a fortnight. But he appeared to show a human heart, at least, by a certain cordiality with which he announced the prospect of Marble Arch, which might have been because it was Sally's station. Now, he had said Lancaster Gate snappishly, and Queen's Road with misgiving, as though he would have fain added D.V. if the printed regulations had permitted it. Also, Sally thought there was good feeling in the reluctance he showed to let her out, based entirely on nervousness lest she should slip (colloquially) between the platform.
You don't save anything by taking the pink 'bus, nor any 'bus for that matter, down Park Lane when the traffic tumbles down every half-minute, in spite of cinders lavished by the authority, and can't really see its way to locomotion when it gets up. So you may just as well walk. Sally did so, and in ten minutes reached the queer little purlieu teeming with the well-connected, and named after the great Mysteries they are connected with, that lies in the angle of Park Lane and Piccadilly. Persons of exaggerated sense of locality or mature hereditary experience can make short cuts through this district, but the wayfarer (broadly speaking) had better not try, lest he be found dead in a mews by the Coroner, and made the subject of a verdict according to the evidence. Sally knew all about it of old, and went as straight through the fog as the ground-plan of the streets permitted to the house where her mother and a nurse were doing what might be done to prolong the tenancy of the top-floor. But both knew the occupant had received notice to quit. Only, it did seem so purposeless, this writ of ejectment and violent expulsion, when he was quite ready to go, and wanted nothing but permission.
OF A FOG THAT WAS UP-TO-DATE, AND HOW A FIRE-ENGINE RELIEVED SALLY FROM A BOY. HOW SALLY GOT IN AT A GENTLEMEN'S CLUB, AND HOW VETERANS COULD RECOLLECT HER FATHER. BUT THEY KNOW WHAT SHE CAN BE TOLD, AND WHAT SHE CAN'T. HOW MAJOR ROPER WOULD GO OUT IN THE FOG
Mrs. Fenwick was not sorry to break down a little, now that her daughter had come to break down on. She soon pulled together, however. Breaking down was not a favourite relaxation of hers, as we have seen. Her husband had, of course, left her to go to his place of business, not materially the worse for a night spent without closed eyes and in the anxiety of a sick-chamber.
"Oh, mother darling! you are quite worn out. How is he?"
"He's quiet now, kitten; but we thought the cough would have killed him in the night. He's only so quiet now because of the opiates. Only at his age——" Mrs. Fenwick stopped and looked at the nurse, whose shake of the head was an assent to the impossibility of keeping a patient of eighty alive on opiates. Then, having gone thus far in indicating the grim probabilities of the case, Sally's mother added, as alleviation to a first collision with Death: "But Dr. Mildmay says the inflammation and fever may subside, and then, if he can take nourishment——" but got no further, for incredulity of this sort of thing is in the air of the establishment.
Not, perhaps, on Sally's part. Young people who have not seen Death face-to-face have little real conception of his horrible unasked intrusion into the house of Life. That house is to them almost as inviolable as the home of our babyhood was to the most of us, a sacred fane under the protection of an omnipotent high-priest and priestess—papa and mamma. Almost as inviolable, that is, when those who live in it are our friends. Of course, the people in the newspapers go dying—are even killed in railway accidents. This frame of mind will change for Sally when she has seen this patient die. For the time being, she is half insensible—can think of other things.
"What did the party mean that let me in, mother darling? The fusty party? She said she thought it was the Major. I didn't take any notice till now. I wanted to get up."
"It was the other Major, dear—Major Roper. Don't you know? He used to talk of him, and say he was an old gossip." In the dropped voice and the stress on the pronoun one can hear how the speaker's mind knows that the old Colonel is almost part of the past. "But they were very old friends. They were together through the Mutiny. He was his commanding officer." Sally's eyes rest on the old sabre that hangs on its hook in the wall, where she has often seen it, ranking it prosaically with the other furnishings of "the Major's" apartment. Now, a new light is on it, and it becomes a reality in a lurid past, long, long before there was any Sally. A past of muzzle-loading guns and Minie rifles, of forced marches through a furnace-heat to distant forts that hardly owned the name, all too late to save the remnant of their defenders; a past of a hundred massacres and a thousand heroisms; a past that clings still, Sally dear, about the memory of us oldsters that had to know it, as we would fain that no things that are, or are to be, should ever cling about yours. But you have read the story often, and the tale of it grows and lives round the old sabre on the wall.
Except as an explanation of the fusty party's reference to a Major, Old Jack—that was Sally's Major's name for him—got very little foothold in her mind, until a recollection of her mother's allusion to him as an old gossip having made her look for a suitable image to place there, she suddenly recalled that it was he that had actually seen her father; talked to him in India twenty years ago; could, and no doubt would, tell her all about the divorce. But there!—she couldn't speak to him about it here and now. It was impossible.
Still, she was curious to see him, and the fusty but genteel one had evidently expected him. So, during the remainder of what seemed to Sally the darkest day, morally and atmospherically, that she had ever spent—all but the bright morning when she ran into the fog somewhere near Surbiton, full of tales to tell of the house-party that now seemed a happy dream—during this gloomy remainder Sally wondered what could have happened that the other Major should not have turned up. The fog would have been more than enough to account for any ordinary non-appearance; hardly for this one.
For it turned out, as soon as it got full powers to assert itself, the densest fog on record. The Londoner was in his element. He told the dissatisfied outsider with pride of how at midday it had been impossible to read large pica on Ludgate Hill; he didn't say why he tried to do so. He retailed frightful stories—but always with a sense of distinction—of folk crushed under hoofs and cart-wheels. If one half were true, some main thoroughfares must have been paved with flattened pedestrians. The satisfaction he derived from the huge extra profits of the gas-companies made his hearer think he must be a shareholder, until pari passu reasoning proved him to have invested in fog-signals. His legends of hooligans preying on the carcasses of strangled earls undisturbed had a set-off in others of marauders who had rushed into the arms of the police and thought them bosom friends; while that of an ex-Prime Minister who walked round and round for an hour, and then rang at a house to ask where he was, ended in consolation, as the door was opened by his own footman, who told him he wasn't at home. Exact estimates were current, most unreasonably, of the loss to commerce; so much so that the other Londoner corrected him positively with, "Nearer three-quarters of a million, they say," and felt proud of his higher knowledge. But neither felt the least ashamed, nor the least afraid of the hideous, inevitable future fog, when a suffocated population shall find, as it surely will, that it is at the bottom of a sea of unbreathable air, instead of one that merely makes it choke its stomach up and kills an old invalid or two. On the contrary, both regarded it as the will of a judicious Providence, a developer of their own high moral qualities and a destroyer of their germs.
Bronchitis and asthma are kittle-cattle to shoe behind, even where the sweet Mediterranean air blows pure upon Rapallo and Nervi, but what manner of cattle are they in a London fog? Can they be shoed at all? As Mrs. Fenwick sits and waits in terror to hear the first inevitable cough as the old man wakes, and talks in whispers to her daughter in the growing darkness, she feels how her own breath drags at the tough air, and how her throat resents the sting of the large percentage of sulphur monoxide it contains. The gas-jet is on at the full—or rather the tap is, for the fish-tail burner doesn't realise its ideal. It sputters in its lurid nimbus—gets bronchitis on its own account, tries to cough its tubes clear and fails. Sally and her mother sit on in the darkness, and talk about it, shirking the coming suffocation of their old friend, and praying that his sleep may last till the deadly air lightens, be it ever so little. Sally's animated face shows that she is on a line of cogitation, and presently it fructifies.
"Suppose every one let their fires out, wouldn't the fog go? It couldn't go on by itself."
"I don't know, chick. I suppose it's been all thought out by committees and scientific people. Besides, we should all be frozen."
"Not if we went to bed."
"What! In the daytime?"
"Better do nothing in bed than be choked up."
"I dare say the fog wouldn't go away. You see, it's due to atmospheric conditions, so they say."
"That's only because nobody's there to stop 'em talking nonsense. Look at all that smoke going up our chimney." So it was, and a jolly blaze there was going to be when the three shovelfuls Sally had enthusiastically heaped on had incubated, and the time was ripe for the poker.
Had you been there you would have seen in Sally's face as it caught the firelight-flicker and pondered on the cause of the fog, that she had not heard a choking fit of the poor old sleeper in the next room. And in her mother's that she had, and all the memory of the dreadful hours just passed. Her manner, too, was absent as she talked, and she listened constantly. Sally was to know what it was like soon. The opium sleep would end.
"Isn't that him?" The mother's sharp ear of apprehension makes her say this; the daughter has not heard the buried efforts of the lung that cannot cough. It will succeed directly, if the patient is raised up, so. Both have gone quickly and quietly into the sick-chamber, and it is the nurse who speaks. Her prediction is fulfilled, and the silent struggle of suffocation becomes a tearing convulsion, that means to last some while and does it. How the old, thin tenement of life can go on living unkilled is a problem to solve. But it survives this time. Perhaps the new cough-mixture will make the job easier next time. We shall see.
Anyhow, this attack—bad as it was—has not been so bad as the one he had at three this morning. Rosalind and Nurse Emilia invent a paroxysm of diabolical severity, partly for the establishment of a pinnacle for themselves to look down on Sally from, partly for her consolation. He wasn't able to speak for ever so long after that, and this time he is trying to say something.... "What is it, dear?"
"Couldn't we have a window open to let a little air in?"
Well!—we could have a window open. We could let a little air in—but only a very little. And that very little would bring with it copious percentages of moisture saturated with finely subdivided carbonaceous matter, of carbon dioxide, and sulphur dioxide, and traces of hydric chloride, who is an old friend of our youth, known to us then as muriatic acid.
"It's such a thick fog, Major dear. As soon as it clears a little we'll open the window. Won't we, Sally?"
"Is Sally there?... Come and touch my hand, kitten.... That's right...." What is left of the Major can still enjoy the plump little white hand that takes the old fingers that once could grasp the sword that hangs on the wall. It will not be for very long now. A newspaper paragraph will soon give a short record of all the battles that sword left its scabbard to see, and will tell of its owner's service in his later days as deputy Commissioner at Umritsur, and of the record of long residence in India it established, exceeding that of his next competitor by many years. Not a few old warriors that were in those battles, and many that knew his later time, will follow him beyond it very soon. But he is not gone yet, and his hand can just give back its pressure to Sally's, as she sits by him, keeping her heart in and her tears back. The actual collapse of vital forces has not come—will not come for a few days. He can speak a little as she stoops to hear him.
"Young people like you ought to be in bed, chick, getting beauty-sleep. You must go home, and make your mother go.... You go. I shall be all right...."
"It isn't night, Major dear"—Sally makes a paltry attempt to laugh—"it's three in the afternoon. It's the fog." But she cannot hear what he says in answer to this, go close as she may. After a pause of rest he tries again, with raised voice:
"Roper—Roper—Old Jack ... mustn't come ... asthma in the fog ... somebody go to stop him." He is quite clear-headed, and when Sally says she will go at once, he spots the only risk she would run, being young and healthy:
"Sure you can find your way? Over the club-house—Hurkaru Club——" And then is stopped by a threat of returning cough.
But Sally knows all about it, and can find her way anywhere—so she says. She is off in a twinkling, leaving her mother and the nurse to wait for the terrible attack that means to come, in due course, as soon as the new cough-mixture gets tired.
Sally is a true Londoner. She won't admit, whoever else does, that a fog is a real evil. On the contrary, she inclines to Prussian tactics—flies in the face of adverse criticism with the decision that a fog is rather a lark when you're out in it. Actually face to face with a human creature choking, Sally's optimism had wavered. It recovers itself in the bracing atmosphere of a main-thoroughfare charged to bursting with lines of vehicles, any one of which would go slowly alone, but the collective slowness of which finds a vent in a deadlock a mile away—an hour before we can move, we here.
By what human agency it comes about that any wheeled vehicle drawn of horses can thunder at a hand-gallop through the matrix of such a deadlock, Heaven only knows! But the glare of the lamps of the fire-brigade, hot upon the wild excitement of their war-cry, shows that this particular agglomeration of brass and copper, fraught with suppressed energy of steam well up, means to try for it—seems to have had some success already, in fact. It quite puts Sally in spirits—the rapid crescendo of the hissing steam, the gleaming boiler-dome that might be the fruitful mother of all the helmets that hang about her skirts, the sudden leaping of the whole from the turgid opacity behind and equally sudden disappearance into the void beyond, the vanishing "Fire!" cry from which all consonants have gone, leaving only a sound of terror, all confirm her view of the fog as a lark. For, you see, Sally believed the Major might pull through even now.
Also the coming of the engine relieved her from what threatened to become a permanent embarrassment. A boy, who may have been a good boy or may not, had attached himself to her, under pretext of either a strong organ of locality or an extensive knowledge of town.
"Take yer 'most anywhere for fourpence! Anywhere yer like to name. 'Ammersmith, 'Ackney Wick, Noo Cross, Covent Garden Market, Regency Park. Come, I say, missis!"
Sally shouldn't have shaken her head as she did. She ought to have ignored his existence. He continued:
"I don't mind makin' it thruppence to the Regency Park. Come, missis, I say! Think what a little money for the distance. How would you like to do it yourself?" Sally rashly allowed herself to be led into controversy.
"I tell you I don't want to go to Regents Park." But the boy passed this protest by—ignored it.
"You won't get no better oarfer. You ask any of the boys. They'll tell you all alike. Regency Park for thruppence. Or, lookey here now, missis! You make it acrorst Westminster Bridge, and I'll say twopence-'a'penny. Come now! Acrorst a bridge!" This boy had quite lost sight of the importance of selecting a destination with reference to its chooser's life-purposes, in his contemplation of the advantages of being professionally conducted to it. Sally was not sorry when the coming of the fire-engine distracted his attention, and led to his disappearance in the fog.
Pedestrians must have been stopping at home to get a breath of fresh air indoors, as the spectres that shot out of the fog, to become partly solid and vanish again in an instant, seemed to come always one at a time.
"Can you tell me, sir"—Sally is addressing a promising spectre, an old gentleman of sweet aspect—"have I passed the Hurkaru Club?" The spectre helps an imperfect hearing with an ear-covering outspread hand, and Sally repeats her question.
"I hope so, my dear," he says, "I hope so. Because if you haven't, I have. I wonder where we are. What's this?" He pats a building at its reachable point—a stone balustrade at a step corner. "Why, here we are! This is the Club. Can I do anything for you?"
"I want Major Roper"—and then, thinking more explanation asked for, adds—"who wheezes." It is the only identification she can recall from Tishy's conversation and her mother's description. She herself had certainly seen their subject once from a distance, but she had only an impression of something purple. She could hardly offer that as identification.
"Old Jack! He lives in a kennel at the top. Mulberry, tell Major Roper lady for him. Yes, better send your card up, my dear; that's right!"
By this time they are in a lobby full of fog, in which electric light spots are showing their spiritless nature. Mulberry, who is like Gibbon the historian painted in carmine (a colour which clashes with his vermilion lappets), incites a youth to look sharp; also, to take that card up to Major Roper. As the boy goes upstairs with it two steps at a time Sally follows the old gentleman into a great saloon with standing desks to read skewered journals on and is talking to him on the hearthrug. She thinks she knows who he is.
"I came to stop Major Roper coming round to see our Major—Colonel Lund, I mean. It isn't fit for him to come out in the fog."
"Of course, it isn't. And Lund mustn't come out at his age. Why, he's older than I am.... What? Very ill with bronchitis? I heard he'd been ailing, but they said he was all right again. Are you his Rosey?"
"No, no; mamma's that! She's more the age, you know. I'm only twenty."
"Ah dear! how one forgets! Of course, but he's bad, I'm afraid."
"He's very bad. Oh, General Pellew—because I know it's you—his cough is so dreadful, and there's no air for him because of this nasty fog! Poor mamma's there, and the nurse. I ought to hurry back; but he wanted to prevent Major Roper coming round and getting worse himself; so we agreed for me to come. I'll just give my message and get back."
"Your mamma was Mrs. Graythorpe. I remember her at Umballa years ago. I know; she changed her name to Nightingale. She is now Mrs...?" Sally supplied her mother's married name. "And you," continued Lord Pellew, "were Baby Graythorpe on the boat."
"Of course. You came home with Colonel Lund; he's told me about that. Wasn't I a handful?" Sally is keenly interested.
"A small handful. You see, you made an impression. I knew you before, though. You had bitten me at Umballa."
"He's told me about that, too. Isn't that Major Roper coming now?" If it is not, it must be some one exactly like him, who stops to swear at somebody or something at every landing. He comes down by instalments. Till the end of the last one, conversation may continue. Sally wants to know more about her trajet from India—to take the testimony of an eyewitness. "Mamma says always I was in a great rage because they wouldn't let me go overboard and swim."
"I couldn't speak to that point. It seems likely, though. I always want to jump overboard now, but reason restrains me. You were not reasonable at that date."
"It is funny, though, that I have got so fond of swimming since. I'm quite a good swimmer."
Major Roper is by this time manifest volcanically at the bottom of the staircase, but before he comes in Lord Pellew has time to say so is his nasturtium granddaughter a good swimmer. He has thirteen, and has christened each of them after a flower. He hopes thirteen isn't unlucky, and then Major Roper comes in apologetic. Sally can just recollect having seen him before, and thinks him as purple as ever.
"Lund—er!—Lund—er!—Lund—er!—Lund," he begins; each time he says the name being baffled by a gasp, but holding tight to Sally's hand, as though to make sure of her staying till he gets a chance. He gets none, apparently, for he gives it up, whatever he was going to say, with the hand, and says instead, in a lucky scrap of intermediate breath: "I was comin' round—just comin'—only no gettin' those dam boots on!" And then becomes convulsively involved in an apology for swearing before a young lady. She, for her part, has no objection to his damning his boots if he will take them off, and not go out. This she partly conveys, and then, after a too favourable brief report of the patient's state—inevitable under the circumstances—she continues:
"That's what I came on purpose to say, Major Roper. You're not to come out on any account in the fog. Colonel Lund wouldn't be any better for your coming, because he'll think of you going back through the fog, and he'll fret. Please do give up the idea of coming until it clears. Besides, he isn't my grandfather." An inconsecutive finish to correct a mistake of Old Jack's. She resumes the chair she had risen from when he came in, and thereupon he, suffering fearfully from having no breathing-apparatus and nothing to use it on, makes concession to a chair himself, but all the while waves a stumpy finger to keep Sally's last remark alive till his voice comes. The other old soldier remains standing, but somewhat on Sally's other side, so that she does not see both at once. A little voice, to be used cautiously, comes to the Major in time.
"Good Lard, my dear—excuse—old chap, you know!—why, good Lard, what a fool I am! Why, I knoo your father in India."
But he stops suddenly, to Sally inexplicably. She does not see that General Pellew has laid a finger of admonition on his lips.
"I never saw my father," she says. It is a kind of formula of hers which covers all contingencies with most people. This time she does not want it to deadlock the conversation, which is what it usually serves for, so she adds: "You really knew him?"
"Hardly knoo," is the reply. "Put it I met him two or three times, and you'll about toe the line for a start. Goin' off at that, we soon come up to my knowin' the Colonel's not your grandfather." Major Roper does not get through the whole of the last word—asthma forbids it—but his meaning is clear. Only, Sally is a direct Turk, as we have seen, and likes clearing up things.
"You know my friend Laetitia Wilson's mother, Major Roper?" The Major expresses not only that he does, but that his respectful homage is due to her as a fine woman—even a queenly one—by kissing his finger-tips and raising his eyes to heaven. "Well, Laetitia (Tishy, I call her) says you told her mother you knew my father in India, and went out tiger-hunting with him, and he shot a tiger two hundred yards off and gave you the skin." Sally lays stress on the two hundred yards as a means of identification of the case. No doubt the Major owned many skins, but shot at all sorts of distances.
It is embarrassing for the old boy, because he cannot ignore General Pellew's intimations over Sally's head, which she does not see. He is to hold his tongue—that is their meaning. Yes, but when you have made a mistake, it may be difficult to begin holding it in the middle. Perhaps it would have been safer to lose sight of the subject in the desert of asthma, instead of reviving it the moment he got to an oasis.
"Some misunderstanding'," said he, when he could speak. "I've got a tiger-skin the man who shot it gave me out near Nagpore, but he wasn't your father." How true that was!
"Do you remember his name?" Sally wants him to say it was Palliser again, to prove it all nonsense, but a warning finger of the old General makes him desperate, and he selects, as partially true, the supposed alias which—do you remember all this?—he had ascribed to the tiger-shooter in his subsequent life in Australia.
"Perfectly well. His name was Harrisson. A fine shot. He went away to Australia after that."
Sally laughs out. "How very absurd of Tishy!" she says. "She hadn't even got the name you said right. She said it was Palliser. It sounds like Harrisson." She stopped to think a minute. "But even if she had said it right it wouldn't be my father, because his name, you know, was Graythorpe—like mine before we both changed to Nightingale—mother and I. We did, you know."
Old Jack assents to this with an expenditure of breath not warranted where breath is so scarce. He cannot say "of course," and that he recollects, too often. Perhaps he is glad to get on a line of veracity. The General says "of course," also. "Your mother, my dear, was Mrs. Graythorpe when I knew her at Umballa and on the boat." Both these veterans call Sally "my dear," and she doesn't resent it.
But her message is really given, and she ought to get back. She succeeds in finally overruling Major Roper's scheme of coming out into the fog, which has contrived to get blacker still during this conversation; but has more trouble with the other old soldier. She only overcomes that victor in so many battle-fields by representing that if he does see her safe to Ball Street she will be miserable if she doesn't see him safe back to the club. "And then," she adds, "we shall go on till doomsday. Besides, I am young and sharp!" At which the old General laughs, and says isn't he? Ask his granddaughters! Sally says no, he isn't, and she can't have him run over to please anybody. However, he will come out to see her off, though Old Jack must do as he's told, and stop indoors. He watches the little figure vanish in the fog, with a sense of the merry eyebrows in the pretty shoulders, like the number of a cab fixed on behind.
* * * * *
When General Pellew had seen Sally out, to the great relief of Gibbon of the various reds in the lobby, he returned and drew a chair for himself beside Major Roper, who still sat, wrestling with the fog, where he had left him.
"What a dear child!... Oh yes; she'll be all right. Take better care of herself than I should of her. She would only have been looking after me, to see that I didn't get run over." He glanced round and dropped his voice, leaning forward to the Major. "She must never be told."
"You're right, Pelloo! Dam mistake of mine to say! I'm a dam mutton-headed old gobblestick! No better!" We give up trying to indicate the Major's painful interruptions and struggles. Of course, he might have saved himself a good deal by saying no more than was necessary. General Pellew was much more concise and to the purpose.
"Never be told. I see one thing. Her mother has told her little or nothing of the separation."
"No! Dam bad business! Keep it snug's the word."
"You saw she had no idea of the name. It was Palliser, wasn't it?"
"Unless it was Verschoyle." Major Roper only says this to convince himself that he might have forgotten the name—a sort of washy palliation of his Harrisson invention. It brings him within a measurable distance of a clear conscience.
"No, it wasn't Verschoyle. I remember the Verschoyle case." By this time Old Jack is feeling quite truthful. "It was Palliser, and it's not for me to blame him. He only did what you or I might have done—any man. A bit hot-headed, perhaps. But look here, Roper...."
The General dropped his voice, and went on speaking almost in a whisper, but earnestly, for more than a minute. Then he raised it again.
"It was that point. If you say a word to the girl, or begin giving her any information, and she gets the idea you can tell her more, she'll just go straight for you and say she must be told the whole. I can see it in her eyes. And you can't tell her the whole. You know you can't!"
The Major fidgeted visibly. He knew he should go round to learn about his old friend (it was barely a quarter of a mile) as soon as the least diminution of the fog gave him an excuse. And he was sure to see Sally. He exaggerated her age. "The gyairl's twenty-two," said he weakly. The General continued:
"I'm only speaking, mind you, on the hypothesis.... I'm supposing the case to have been what I told you just now. Otherwise, you could work the telling of it on the usual lines—unfaithfulness, estranged affections, desertion—all the respectable produceable phrases. But as for making that little Miss Nightingale understand—that is, without making her life unbearable to her—it can't be done, Major. It can't be done, old chap!"
"I see your game. I'll tell her to ask her mother."
"It can't be done that way. I hope the child's safe in the fog." The General embarked on a long pause. There was plenty of time—more time than he had (so his thought ran) when his rear-guard was cut off by the Afridis in the Khyber Pass. But then the problem was not so difficult as telling this live girl how she came to be one—telling her, that is, without poisoning her life and shrouding her heart in a fog as dense as the one that was going to make the street-lamps outside futile when night should come to help it—telling her without dashing the irresistible glee of those eyebrows and quenching the smile that opened the casket of pearls that all who knew her thought of her by.
Both old soldiers sat on to think it out. The older one first recognised the insolubility of the problem. "It can't be done," said he. "Girls are not alike. She's too much like my nasturtium granddaughter now...."
"I shall have to tell her dam lies."
"That won't hurt you, Old Jack."
"I'm not complainin'."
"Besides, I shall have to tell 'em, too, as likely as not. You must tell me what you've told, so as to agree. I should go round to ask after Lund, only I promised to meet an old thirty-fifth man here at five. It's gone half-past. He's lost in the fog. But I can't go away till he comes." Old Jack is seized with an unreasoning sanguineness.
"The fog's clearin'," he says. "You'll see, it'll be quite bright in half-an-hour. Nothin' near so bad as it was, now. Just you look at that window."
The window in question, when looked at, was not encouraging. So far as could be seen at all through the turgid atmosphere of the room, it was a parallelogram of solid opacity crossed by a window-frame, with a hopeless tinge of Roman ochre. But Old Jack was working up to a fiction to serve a purpose. By the time he had succeeded in believing the fog was lifting he would be absolved from his promise not to go out in it. It was a trial of strength between credulity and the actual. The General looked at the window and asked a bystander what he thought, sir? Who felt bound to testify that he thought the prospect hopeless.
"You're allowin' nothin' for the time of day," said Major Roper, and his motive was transparent. Sure enough, after the General's friend had come for him, an hour late, the Major took advantage of the doubt whether absolute darkness was caused by fog or mere night, and in spite of all remonstrances, began pulling on his overcoat to go out. He even had the effrontery to appeal to the hall-porter to confirm his views about the state of things out of doors. Mr. Mulberry added his dissuasions with all the impressiveness of his official uniform and the cubic area of its contents. But even his powerful influence carried no weight in this case. It was useless to argue with the infatuated old boy, who was evidently very uneasy about Major Lund, and suspected also that Miss Nightingale had not reported fair, in order to prevent him coming. He made himself into a perfect bolster with wraps, and put on a respirator. This damned thing, however, he took off again, as it impeded respiration, and then went out into the all but solid fog, gasping and choking frightfully, to feel his way to Hill Street and satisfy himself the best thing was being done to his old friend's bronchitis.
"They'll kill him with their dam nostrums," said he to the last member of the Club he spoke to, a chance ex-Secretary of State for India, whom he took into his confidence on the doorstep. "A little common-sense, sir—that's what's wanted in these cases. It's all very fine, sir, when the patient's young and can stand it...." His cough interrupted him, but he was understood to express that medical attendance was fraught with danger to persons of advanced years, and that in such cases his advice should be taken in preference to that of the profession. He recovered enough to tell Mulberry's subordinate to stop blowin' that dam whistle. There were cabs enough and to spare, he said, but they were affecting non-existence from malicious motives, and as a stepping-stone to ultimate rapacity. Then he vanished in the darkness, and was heard coughing till he turned a corner.
HOW MAJOR ROPER MET THAT BOY, AND GOT UPSTAIRS AT BALL STREET. AN INTERVIEW BETWEEN ASTHMA AND BRONCHITIS. HOW SALLY PINIONED THE PURPLE VETERAN, AND THERE WAS NO BOY. HOW THE GOVERNOR DONE HOARCKIN', AND GOT QUALIFIED FOR A SUBJECT OF PSYCHICAL RESEARCH
Old Jack's powers of self-delusion were great indeed if, when he started on his short journey, he really believed the fog had mended. At least, it was so dense that he might never have found his way without assistance. This he met with in the shape of a boy with a link, whom Sally at once identified from his description, given when the Major had succeeded in getting up the stairs and was resting in the sitting-room near the old sabre on the wall, wiping his eyes after his effort. Colonel Lund was half-unconscious after a bad attack, and it was best not to disturb him. Fenwick had not returned, and no one was very easy about him. But every one affirmed the reverse, and joined in a sort of Creed to the effect that the fog was clearing. It wasn't and didn't mean to for some time. But the unanimity of the creed fortified the congregation, as in other cases. No two believers doubted it at once, just as no two Alpine climbers, strung together on the moraine of a glacier, lose their foothold at the same time.
"I know that boy," said Sally. "His nose twists, and gives him a presumptuous expression, and he has a front tooth out and puts his tongue through. Also his trousers are tied on with strings."
"Everlastin' young beggar, if ever there was one," says the old soldier, in a lucid interval when speech is articulate. But he is allowing colloquialism to run riot over meaning. No everlasting person can ever have become part of the past if you think of it. He goes on to say that the boy has had twopence and is to come back for fourpence in an hour, or threepence if you can see the gas-lamps, because then a link will be superfluous. Sally recognises the boy more than ever.
"I wonder," she says, "if he's waiting outside. Because the party of the house might allow him inside. Do you think I could ask, mother?"
"You might try, kitten," is the reply, not given sanguinely. And Sally goes off, benevolent. "Even when your trousers are tied up with string, a fog's a fog," says she to herself.
"I knoo our friend Lund first of all...." Thus the Major, nodding towards the bedroom door.... "Why, God bless my soul, ma'am, I knew Lund first of all, forty-six years ago in Delhi. Forty—six—years! And all that time, if you believe me, he's been the same obstinate moole. Never takin' a precaution about anythin', nor listening to a word of advice!" This is about as far as he can go without a choke. Rosalind goes into the next room to get a tumbler of water. The nurse, who is sitting by the fire, nods towards the bed, and Rosalind goes close to it to hear. "What is it, dear?" She speaks to the invalid as to a little child.
"Isn't that Old Jack choking? I know his choke. What does he come out for in weather like this? What does he mean? Send him back.... No, send him in here." The nurse puts in a headshake as protest. But for all that, Sally finds, when she returns, that the two veterans are contending together against their two enemies, bronchitis and asthma, with the Intelligence Department sadly interrupted, and the enemy in possession of all the advantageous points.
"He oughtn't to try to talk," says Rosalind. "But he will." She and Sally and the nurse sit on in the fog-bound front room. The gas-lights have no heart in them, and each wears a nimbus. Rosalind wishes Gerry would return, aloud. Sally is buoyant about him; he's all right, trust him! What about the everlasting young beggar?
"I persuaded Mrs. Kindred," says Sally. "And we looked outside for him, and he'd gone."
"Fancy a woman being named Kindred!"
"When people are so genteel one can believe anything! But what do you think the boy's name is?... Chancellorship! Isn't that queer? She knows him—says he's always about in the neighbourhood. He sleeps in the mews behind Great Toff House."
Her mother isn't listening. She rises for a moment to hear what she may of how the talk in the next room goes on; and then, coming back, says again she wishes Gerry was safe indoors, and Sally again says, "Oh, he's all right!" The confidence these two have in one another makes them a couple apart—a sort of league.
What Mrs. Fenwick heard a scrap of in the next room would have been, but for the alarums and excursions of the two enemies aforementioned, a consecutive conversation as follows:
"You're gettin' round, Colonel?"
"A deal better, Major. I want to speak to you."
"Fire away, old Cockywax! You remember Hopkins?—Cartwright Hopkins—man with a squint—at Mooltan—expression of his, 'Old Cockywax.'"
"I remember him. Died of typhoid at Burrampore. Now you listen to me, old chap, and don't talk—you only make yourself cough."
"It's only the dam fog. I'm all right."
"Well, shut up. That child in the next room—it's her I want to talk about. You're the only man, as far as I know, that knows the story. She doesn't. She's not to be told."
"Mum's the word, sir. Always say nothin', that's my motto. Penderfield's daughter at Khopal—at least, he was her father. One dam father's as good as another, as long as he goes to the devil." This may be a kind of disclaimer of inheritance as a factor to be reckoned with, an obscure suggestion that human parentage is without influence on character. It is not well expressed.
"Listen to me, Roper. You know the story. That's the only man I can't say God forgive him to. God forgive me, but I can't."
"Devil take me if I can!... Yes, it's all right. They're all in the next room...."
"But the woman was worse. She's living, you know...."
"I know—shinin' light—purifying society—that's her game! I'd purify her, if I had my way."
"Come a bit nearer—my voice goes. I've thought it all out. If the girl, who supposes herself to be the daughter of her mother's husband, tries to run you into a corner—you understand?"
"Well, don't you undeceive her. Her mother has never told her anything. She doesn't suppose she had any hand in the divorce. She thinks his name was Graythorpe, and doesn't know he wasn't her father. Don't you undeceive her—promise."
But the speaker is so near the end of his tether that the Major has barely time to say, "Honour bright, Colonel," when the bronchial storm bursts. It may be that the last new anodyne, which is warranted to have all the virtues and none of the ill-effects of opium, had also come to the end of its tether. Mrs. Fenwick came quickly in, saying he had talked too much; and Sally, following her, got Major Roper away, leaving the patient to her mother and the nurse. The latter knew what it would be with all this talking—now the temperature would go up, and he would have a bad night, and what would Dr. Mildmay say?
Till the storm had subsided and a new dose of the sedative had been given, Sally and Old Jack stood waiting in sympathetic pain—you know what it is when you can do nothing. The latter derived some insignificant comfort from suggestions through his own choking that all this was due to neglect of his advice. When only moans and heavy breathing were left, Sally went back into the bedroom. Her mother was nursing the poor old racked head on her bosom, with the sword-hand of the days gone by in her own. She said without speaking that he would sleep presently, and the fewer in the room the better, and Sally left them so, and went back.