Yes, the Major would take some toddy before he started for home. And it was all ready, lemons and all, in the black polished wood cellaret, with eagles' claws for feet. Sally got the ingredients out and began to make it. But first she gently closed the door between the rooms, to keep the sound of their voices in.
"You really did see my father, though, Major?" There seemed to be a good deal of consideration before the answer came, not all to be accounted for by asthma.
"Yes—certainly—oh yes. I saw Mr. Graythorpe once or twice. Another spoonful—that's plenty." A pause.
"Now, don't spill it. Take care, it's very hot. That's right." Another pause. "Major Roper...."
"Yes, my dear. What?"
"Do tell me what he was like."
"Have you never seen his portrait?"
"Mother burnt it while I was small. She told me. Do tell me what you recollect him like."
"Fine handsome feller—well set up. Fine shot, too! Gad! that was a neat thing! A bullet through a tiger two hundred yards off just behind the ear."
"But I thought his name was Harrisson." The Major has got out of his depth entirely through his own rashness. Why couldn't he leave that tiger alone? Now he has to get into safe water again.
A good long choke is almost welcome at this moment. While it goes on he can herald, by a chronic movement of a raised finger, his readiness to explain all as soon as it stops. He catches at his first articulation, so that not a moment may be lost. There were two tigers—that's the explanation. Harrisson shot one, and Graythorpe the other. The cross-examiner is dissatisfied.
"Which was the one that shot the tiger two hundred yards off, just behind the ear?"
The old gentleman responds with a spirited decision: "Your father, my dear, your father. That tiger round at my rooms—show it you if you like—that skin was given me by a feller named Harrisson, in the Commissariat—quite another sort of Johnny. He was down with the Central Indian Horse—quite another place!" He dwells on the inferiority of this shot, the smallness of the skin, the close contiguity of its owner. A very inferior affair!
But, being desperately afraid of blundering again, he makes the fact he admits, that he had confoozed between the two cases, a reason for a close analysis of the merits of each. This has no interest for Sally, who, indeed, had only regarded the conversation, so far, as a stepping-stone she now wanted to leap to the mainland from. After all, here she is face-to-face with a man who actually knows the story of the separation, and can talk of it without pain. Why should she not get something from him, however little? You see, the idea of a something that could not be told was necessarily foreign to a mind some somethings could not be told to. But she felt it would be difficult to account to Major Roper for her own position. The fact that she knew nothing proved that her mother and Colonel Lund had been anxious she should know nothing. She could not refer to an outsider over their heads. Still, she hoped, as Major Roper was deemed on all hands an arrant old gossip, that he might accidentally say something to enlighten her. She prolonged the conversation in this hope.
"Was that before I was born?"
"The tiger-shootin'? Well, reely, my dear, I shouldn't like to say. It's twenty years ago, you see. No, I couldn't say—couldn't say when it was." He is beginning to pack himself in a long woollen scarf an overcoat with fur facings will shortly cover in, and is, in fact, preparing to evacuate a position he finds untenable. "I must be thinkin' of gettin' home," he says. Sally tries for a word more.
"Was it before he and mother fell out?" It is on the Major's lips to say, "Before the proceedings?" but he changes the expression.
"Before the split? Well, no; I should say after the split. Yes—probably after the split." But an unfortunate garrulity prompts him to say more. "After the split, I should say, and before the——"—and then he feels he is in a quagmire, and flounders to the nearest land—"before your father went away to Australia." Then he discerns his own feebleness, recognising the platitude of this last remark. For nobody could shoot tigers in an Indian jungle after he had gone off to Australia. Clearly the sooner he gets away the better.
A timely choking-fit interposes to preserve its victim from further questioning. The patient in the next room is asleep or torpid, so he omits farewells. Sally's mother comes out to say good-night, and Sally goes down the staircase with him and his asthma, feeling that it is horrible and barbarous to turn him out alone in the dense blackness. Perhaps, however, the peculiar boy with the strange name will be there. That would be better than nothing. Sally feels there is something indomitable about that boy, and that fog nourishes and stimulates it.
But, alas!—there is no boy. And yet it certainly would be fourpence if he came back. For, though it may be possible to see the street gas-lamps without getting inside the glass, you can't see them from the pavement. Nevertheless, the faith that "it" is clearing having been once founded, lives on itself in the face of evidence, even as other faiths have done before now. So the creed is briefly recited, and the Major disappears with the word good-night still on his lips, and his cough, gasp, or choke dies away in the fog as he vanishes.
Somebody is whistling "Arr-hyd-y-nos" as he comes from the other side in the darkness—somebody who walks with a swinging step and a resonant foot-beat, some one who cares nothing for fogs. Fenwick's voice is defiant of it, exhilarated and exhilarating, as he ceases to be a cloud and assumes an outline. Sally gives a kiss to frozen hair that crackles.
"What's the kitten after, out in the cold? How's the Major?"
"Which? Our Major? He's a bit better, and the temperature's lower." Sally believed this; a little thermometer thing was being wielded as an implement of optimism, and had lent itself to delusions.
"Oh, how scrunchy you are, your hands are all ice! Mamma's been getting in a stew about you, squire." On which Fenwick, with the slightest of whistles, passes Sally quickly and goes four steps at a time up the stairs, still illuminated by Sally's gas-waste. For she had left the lights at full cock all the way up.
"My dearest, you never got my telegram?" This is to Rosalind, who has come out on the landing to meet him. But the failure of the telegram—lost in the fog, no doubt—is a small matter. What shelves it is the patient grief on the tired, handsome face Fenwick finds tears on as he kisses it. Sally has the optimism all to herself now. Her mother knows that her old friend and protector will not be here long—that, of course, has been true some time. But there's the suffering, present and to come.
"We needn't stop the chick hoping a little still if she likes." She says it in a whisper. Sally is on the landing below; she hears the whispering, and half guesses its meaning. Then she suppresses the last gas-tap, and follows on into the front room, where the three sit talking in undertones for perhaps an hour.
Yes, that monotonous sound is the breathing of the patient in the next room, under the new narcotic which has none of the bad effects of opium. The nurse is there watching him, and wondering whether it will be a week, or twenty-four hours. She derives an impression from something that the fog really is clearing at last, and goes to the window to see. She is right, for at a window opposite are dimly visible, from the candles on either side of the mirror, two white arms that are "doing" the hair of a girl whose stays are much too tight. She is dressing for late dinner or an early party. Then the nurse, listening, understands that the traffic has been roused from its long lethargy. "I thought I heard the wheels," she says to herself. Then Sally also becomes aware of the sound in the traffic, and goes to her window in the front room.
"You see I'm right," she says. "The people are letting their fires out, and the fog's giving. Now I'm going to take you home, Jeremiah." For the understanding is that these two shall return to Krakatoa Villa, leaving Rosalind to watch with the nurse. She will get a chop in half an hour's time. She can sleep on the sofa in the front room if she feels inclined. All which is duty carried out or arranged for.
After her supper Rosalind sat on by herself before the fire in the front room. She did not want to be unsociable with the nurse; but she wanted to think, alone. A weight was on her mind; the thought that the dear old friend, who had been her father and refuge, should never know that she again possessed her recovered husband on terms almost as good as if that deadly passage in her early life had never blasted the happiness of both. He would die, and it would have made him so happy to know it. Was she right in keeping it back now? Had she ever been right?
But if she told him now, the shock of the news might hasten his collapse. Sudden news need not be bad to cause sudden death. And, maybe the story would be too strange for him to grasp. Better be silent. But oh! if he might have shared her happiness!
Drowsiness was upon her before she knew it. Better perhaps sleep a little now, while he was sleeping. She looked in at him, and spoke to the nurse. He lay there like a lifeless waxwork—blown through, like an apparatus out of order, to simulate breath, and doing it badly. How could he sleep when now and then it jerked him so? He could, and she left him and lay down, and went suddenly to sleep. After a time that was a journey through a desert, without landmarks, she was as suddenly waked.
"What?... I thought you spoke...." And so some one had spoken, but not to her. She started up, and went to where the nurse was conversing through the open window with an inarticulate person in the street below, behind the thick window-curtain she had kept overlapped, to check the freezing air.
"What is it?"
"It's a boy. I can't make out what he says."
"Let me come!" But Rosalind gets no nearer his meaning. She ends up with, "I'll come down," and goes. The nurse closes the window and goes back to the bedroom.
The street door opens easily, the Chubb lock being the only fastening. The moment Rosalind sees the boy near she recognises him. There is no doubt about the presumptuous expression, or the cause of it. Also the ostentatious absence of the front tooth, clearly accounting for inaudibility at a distance.
"What do you want?" asks Rosalind.
"Nothin' at all for myself. I come gratis, I did. There's a many wouldn't." He is not too audible, even now; but he would be better if he did not suck the cross-rail of the area paling.
"Why did you come?"
"To bring you the nooze. The old bloke's a friend of yours, missis. Or p'r'aps he ain't! I can mizzle, you know, and no harm done."
"Oh no, don't mizzle on any account. Tell me about the old bloke. Do you mean Major Roper?"
"Supposin' I do, why shouldn't I?" This singular boy seems to have no way of communicating with his species except through defiances and refutations. Rosalind accepts his question as an ordinary assent, and does not make the mistake of entering into argument.
"Is he ill?" The boy nods. "Is he worse?" Another nod. "Has he gone home to his club?" The boy evidently has a revelation to make, but would consider it undignified to make it except as a denial of something to the contrary. He sees his way after a brief reflection.
"He ain't gone. He's been took."
"He's been taken? How has he been taken?"
"On a perambulance. Goin' easy! But he didn't say nothin'. Not harf a word!"
"Had he fainted?" But this boy has another characteristic—when he cannot understand he will not admit it. He keeps silence, and goes on absorbing the railing. Rosalind asks further: "Was he dead?"
"It'd take a lawyer to tell that, missis."
"I can't stand here in the cold, my boy. Come in, and come up and tell us." So he comes up, and Rosalind speaks to the nurse in the other room, who comes; and then they turn seriously to getting the boy's story.
He is all the easier for examination from the fact that he is impressed, if not awed, by his surroundings. All the bounce is knocked out of him, now that his foot is no longer on his native heath, the street. Witness that the subject of his narrative, who would certainly have been the old bloke where there was a paling to suck, has become a simple pronoun, and no more!
"I see him afore, missis," he says. "That time wot I lighted him round for twopence. And he says to come again in three-quarters of an hour. And I says yes, I says. And he says not to be late. Nor yet I shouldn't, only the water run so slow off the main, and I was kep.... Yes, missis—a drorin' of it off in their own pails at the balkny house by the mooze, where the supply is froze...."
"I see, you got a job to carry up pails of water from that thing that sticks up in the road?"
"Yes, missis; by means of the turncock. Sim'lar I got wet. But I didn't go to be late. It warn't much, in the manner of speakin'. I was on his 'eels, clost."
"You caught him?"
"Heard him hoarckin' in the fog, and I says to my mate—boy by the name of 'Ucklebridge, only chiefly called Slimy, to distinguish him—I says—I says that was my guv'nor, safe and square, by the token of the sound of it. And then I catches him up in the fog, follerin' by the sound. My word, missis, he was bad! Wanted to holler me over the coals, he did, for behind my time. I could hear him wantin' to do it. But he couldn't come by the breath."
Poor Old Jack! The two women look at each other, and then say to the boy: "Go on."
"Holdin' by the palins, he was, and goin' slow. Then he choked it off like, and got a chanst for a word, and he says: 'Now, you young see-saw'—that's what he said, missis, 'see-saw'—'just you stir your stumps and cut along to the clubbus: and tell that dam red-faced fool Mulberry to look sharp and send one of the young fellers to lend an arm, and not to come hisself.' And then he got out a little flat bottle of something short, and went for a nip; but the cough took him, and it sprouted over his wropper and was wasted."
The women look at each other again. The nurse sees well into the story, and says quickly under her breath to Rosalind: "He'd been told what to do if he felt it coming. A drop of brandy might have made the difference." The boy goes on as soon as he is waited for.
"Mr. Mulberry he comes runnin' hisself, and a couple more on 'em! And then they all calls me a young varmint by reason of the guv'nor having got lost. But a gentleman what comes up, he says all go opposite ways, he says, and you'll hear him in the fog. So I runs up a parsage, and in the middle of the parsage I tumbles over the guv'nor lyin' acrost the parsage. Then I hollers, and then they come."
"Oh dear!" says Rosalind; for this boy had that terrible power of vivid description which flinches at no realism—seems to enjoy the horror of it; does not really. Probably it was only his intense anxiety to communicate all, struggling with his sense of his lack of language—a privilege enjoyed by guv'nors. But Rosalind feels the earnestness of his brief epic. He winds it up:
"But the guv'nor, he'd done hoarckin'. Nor he never spoke. The gentleman I told you, he says leave him lyin' a minute, he says, and he runs. Then back he comes with the apoarthecary—him with the red light—and they rips the guv'nor's sleeves up, spilin' his coat. And they prokes into his arm with a packin'-needle. Much use it done! And then they says, it warn't the fog, and I called 'em a liar. 'Cos it's a clearin' off, they says. It warn't, not much. I see the perambulance come, and they shoved him in, and I hooked it off, and heard 'em saying where's that young shaver, they says; he'll be wanted for his testament. So I hooked it off."
"And where did you go?"
"To a wisit on a friend, I did. Me and Slimy—him I mentioned afore. And he says, he says, to come on here—on'y later. So then I come on here."
Rosalind finds herself, in the face of what she feels must mean Old Jack's sudden death, thinking how sorry she is she can command no pair of trousers of a reasonable size to replace this boy's drenched ones—a pair that would need no string. A crude brew of hot toddy, and most of the cake that had appealed to Major Roper in vain, and never gone back to the cellaret, were the only consolations possible. They seemed welcome, but under protest.
"Shan't I carry of 'em outside, missis?"
"On the stairs, then." This assent is really because both women believe he will be comfortabler there than in the room. "Where are you going to sleep?" Rosalind asks, as he takes the cake and tumbler away to the stairs. She puts a gas-jet on half-cock.
"Twopenny doss in Spur Street, off of 'Orseferry Road, Westminster." This identification is to help Rosalind, as she may not be able to spot this particular doss-house among all she knows.
"Do you always sleep there?"
"No, missis! Weather permitting, in our mooze—on the 'eap. The 'orse-keeper gives a sack in return for a bit of cleanin', early, before comin' away."
"What are you?" says Rosalind. She is thinking aloud more than asking a question. But the boy answers:
"I'm a wife, I am. Never learned no tride, ye see!... Oh yes; I've been to school—board-school scollard. But they don't learn you no tride. You parses your standards and chucks 'em." This incredible boy, who deliberately called himself a waif (that was his meaning), was it possible that he had passed through a board-school? Well, perhaps he was the highest type of competitive examinee, who can learn everything and forget everything.
"But you have a father?"
"I could show him you. But he don't hold with teachin' his sons trides, by reason of their gettin' some of his wiges. He's in the sanitary engineering himself, but he don't do no work." Rosalind looks puzzled. "That's his tride—sanitary engineering, lavatries, plumbin', and fittin'. Been out of work better than three years. He can jint you off puppies' tails, though, at a shillin'. But he don't only get a light job now and again, 'cos the tride ain't wot it was. They've been shearin' of 'em off of late years. Thank you, missis." The refreshments have vanished as by magic, and Rosalind gives the boy the rest of the cake and a coin, and he goes away presumably to the doss-house he smells so strong of, having been warmed, that a flavour of the heap in the mews would have been welcome in exchange. So Rosalind thinks as she opens the window a moment and looks out. She can quite see the houses opposite. The fog has cleared till the morning.
Perhaps it is the relenting of the atmospheric conditions, or perhaps it is the oxygen that the patient has been inhaling off and on, that has slightly revived him. Or perhaps it is the champagne that comes up through a tap in the cork, and reminds Rosalind's ill-slept brain of something heard very lately—what on earth exactly was it? Oh, she knows! Of course, the thing in the street the sanitary engineer's son drew the pails of water at for the house with the balcony. It is pleasanter to know; might have fidgeted her if she had not found out. But she is badly in want of sleep, that's the truth!
"I thought Major Roper was gone, Rosey." He can talk through his heavy breathing. It must be the purer air.
"So he is, dear. He went two hours ago." She sits by him, taking his hand as before. The nurse is, by arrangement, to take her spell of sleep now.
"I suppose it's my head. I thought he was here just now—just this minute."
"No, dear; you've mixed him up with Gerry, when he came in to say good-night. Major Roper went away first. It wasn't seven o'clock." But there is something excited and puzzled in the patient's voice as he answers—something that makes her feel creepy.
"Are you sure? I mean, when he came back into the room with his coat on."
"You are dreaming, dear! He never came back. He went straight away."
"Dreaming! Not a bit of it. You weren't here." He is so positive that Rosalind thinks best to humour him.
"I suppose I was speaking to Mrs. Kindred. What did he come back to say, dear?"
"Oh, nothing! At least, I had told him not to chatter to Sallykin about the old story, and he came back, I suppose, to say he wouldn't." He seemed to think the incident, as an incident, closed; but presently goes on talking about things that arise from it.
"Old Jack's the only one of them all that knew anything about it—that Sallykin is likely to come across. Pellew knew, of course; but he's not an old chatterbox like Roper."
Ought not Rosalind to tell the news that has just reached her? She asks herself the question, and answers it: "Not till he rallies, certainly. If he does not rally, why then——!" Why then he either will know or won't want to.
She has far less desire to tell him this than she has to talk of the identity of her husband. She would almost be glad, as he is to die—her old friend—that she should have some certainty beforehand of the exact time of his death, so that she might, only for an hour a companion in her secrecy. If only he and she might have borne the burden of it together! She reproached herself, now that it was too late, with her mistrust of his powers of retaining a secret. See how keenly alive he was to the need of keeping Sally's parentage in the dark! And that was what the whole thing turned on. Gerry's continued ignorance might be desirable, but was a mere flea-bite by comparison. In her strained, sleepless, overwrought state the wish that "the Major" should know of her happiness while they could still speak of it together grew from a passing thought of how nice it might have been, that could not be, to a dumb dominant longing that it should be. Still, after all, the only fear was that he should talk to Gerry; and how easy to keep Gerry out of the room! And suppose he did talk! Would Gerry believe him? There was risky ground there, though.
She was not sorry when no more speech came through the heavy breathing of the invalid. He had talked a good deal, and a semi-stupor followed, relieving her from the strong temptation she had felt to lead him back to their past memories, and feel for some means of putting him in possession of the truth. As the tension of her mind grew less, she became aware this would have been no easy thing to do. Then, as she sat holding the old hand, and wondering that anything so frail could still keep in bond a spirit weary of its prison, drowsiness crept over her once more, all the sooner for the monotonous rhythm of the heavy breath. Consciousness gave place to a state of mysterious discomfort, complicated with intersecting strings and a grave sense of responsibility, and then to oblivion. After a few thousand years, probably minutes on the clock, a jerk woke her.
"Oh dear! I was asleep."
"You might give me another nip of the champagne, Rosey dear. And then you must go and lie down. I shall be all right. Is it late?"
"Not very. About twelve. I'll look at my watch." She does so, and it is past one. Then the invalid, being raised up towards his champagne, has a sudden attack of coughing, which brings in the nurse as a reserve. Presently he is reinstated in semi-comfort, half a tone weaker, but with something to say. And so little voice to say it with! Rosalind puts her ear close, and repeats what she catches.
"Why did Major Roper come back? He didn't, dear. He went away about seven, and has not been here since."
"He was in the room just this minute." The voice is barely audible, the conviction of the speaker absolute. He is wandering. The nurse's mind decides, in an innermost recess, that it won't be very long now.
* * * * *
Rosalind looked out through a spot she had rubbed clean on the frozen window-pane, and saw that it was bright starlight. The fog had gone. That boy—he was asleep at the twopenny doss, and the trousers were drying. What a good thing that he should be totally insensitive to atmosphere, as no doubt he was.
The hardest hours for the watcher by a sick-bed are those that cannot be convinced that they belong to the previous day. One o'clock may be coaxed or bribed easily enough into winking at a pretence that it is only a corollary of twelve; two o'clock protests against it audibly, and every quarter-chime endorses its claim to be to-morrow; three o'clock makes short work of an imposture only a depraved effrontery can endeavour to foist upon it. Rosalind was aware of her unfitness to sit up all night—all this next night—but nursed the pretext that it had not come, and that it was still to-day, until a sense of the morning chill, and something in the way the sound of each belated cab confessed to its own scarcity, convinced her of the uselessness of further effort. Then she surrendered the point, short of the stroke of three, and exchanged posts with the nurse, who promised to call her at once should it seem necessary to do so. Sleep came with a rush, and dreamless oblivion. Then, immediately, the hand of the nurse on her shoulder, and her voice, a sudden shock in the absolute stillness:
"I thought it better to wake you, Mrs. Nightingale. I am so sorry...."
"Oh dear! how long have I slept?" Rosalind's mind leaped through a second of unconsciousness of where she is and what it's all about to a state of intense wakefulness. "What o'clock is it?"
"It's half-past six. I should have left you to have your sleep out, only he wanted you.... Yes, he woke up and asked for you, and then asked again. He's hardly coughed."
"I'll come." Rosalind tried for alacrity, but found she was quite stiff. The fire was only a remnant of red glow that collapsed feebly as the nurse touched it with the poker. It was a case for a couple of little gluey wheels, and a good contribution to the day's fog, already in course of formation, with every grate in London panting to take shares. Rosalind did not wait to see the black column of smoke start for its chimney-pot, but went straight to the patient's bedside.
"Is that Rosey? I can't see very well. Come and sit beside me. I want you." He was speaking more easily than before, so his hearer thought. Could it be a change for the better? She put her finger on the pulse, but it was hard to find. The fever had left him for the time being, but its work was done. It was wonderful, though, that he should have so much life in him for speech.
"What is it, Major dear?... Let's get the pillow right.... There, that's better! Yes, dear; what is it?"
"I've got my marching orders, Rosey. I shall be all right. Shan't be sorry ... when it's over.... Rosey girl, I want you to do something for me.... Is my watch there, with the keys?"
"Yes, dear; the two little keys."
"The little one opens my desk ... with the brass corners.... Yes, that one.... Open the top flap, and look in the little left-hand drawer. Got it?"
"Yes; you want the letters out? There's only one packet."
"That's the lot. Read what's written on them."
"Only 'Emily, 1837.'"
"Quite right! That was your aunt, you know—your father's sister. Don't cry, darling. Nothing to cry about! I'm only an old chap. There, there!" Rosalind sat down again by the bed, keeping the packet of letters in her hand. Presently the old man, who had closed his eyes as though dozing, opened them and said: "Have you put them on the fire?"
"No. Was I to?"
"That was what I meant. I thought I said so.... Yes; pop 'em on." Rosalind went to the fireside and stood hesitating, till the old man repeated his last words; then threw the love-letters of sixty years ago in a good hot place in the burning coal. A flare, and they were white ash trying to escape from a valley of burning rocks; then even that was free to rise. Maybe the only one who ever read them would be soon—would be a mere attenuated ash, at least, as far as what lay on that bed went, so pale and evanescent even now.
"A fool of a boy, Rosey dear," said the old voice, as she took her place by the bed again. "Just a fool of a boy, to keep them all those years. And she married to another fellow, and a great-grandmother. Ah, well!... don't you cry about it, Rosey.... All done now!" She may have heard him wrong, for his voice went to a whisper. She wondered at the way the cough was sparing him.
Then she thought he was falling asleep again; but presently he spoke. "I shall do very well now.... Nothing but a little rest ... that's all I want now. Only there's something I wanted to say about ... about...."
"About Sally?" Rosalind guessed quickly, and certainly.
"Ah ... about the baby. Your baby, Rosey.... That man that was her father ... he's on my mind...."
"Oh me, forget him, dear—forget him! Leave him to God!" Rosalind repeated a phrase used twenty years ago by herself in answer to the old soldier's first uncontrollable outburst of anger against the man who had made her his victim. His voice rose again above a whisper as he answered:
"I heard you say so, dear child ... then ... that time. You were right, and I was wrong. But what I've said—many a time, God forgive me!—that I prayed he was in hell. I would be glad now to think I had not said it."
"Don't think of it. Oh, my dear, don't think of it! You never meant it...."
"Ah, but I did, though; and would again, mind you, Rosey! Only—not now! Better let him go, for Sallykin's sake.... The child's the puzzle of it...."
Rosalind thought she saw what he was trying to say, and herself tried to supplement it. "You mean, why isn't Sally like him?"
"Ah, to be sure! Like father like son, they say. His son's a chip of the old block. But then—he's his mother's son, too. Two such!—and then see what comes of 'em. Sallykin's your daughter ... Rosey's daughter. Sallykin...." He seemed to be drowsing off from mere weakness; but he had something to say, and his mind made for speech and found it:
"Yes, Rosey; it's the end of the story. Soon off—I shall be! Not very long now. Wasn't it foggy?"
"Yes, dear; it was. But it's clear now. It's snowing."
"Then you could send for Jack Roper. Old Jack! He can tell me something I want to know.... I know he can...."
"But it's the middle of the night, dear. We can't send for him now. Sally shall go for him again when she comes in the morning. What is it you want to know?"
"What became of poor Algernon Palliser.... I know Old Jack knows.... Something he heard.... I forget things ... my head's not good. Ah, Rosey darling! if I'd been there in the first of it ... I could have got speech of him. I might have ... might have...."
As the old man's mind wandered back to the terrible time it dragged his hearer's with it. Rosalind tried to bear it by thinking of what Sally was like in those days, crumpled, violent, vociferous, altogether intransigeante. But it was only a moment's salve to a reeling of the reason she knew must come if this went on. If he slept it might be averted. She thought he was dropping off, but he roused himself again to say: "What became of poor Palliser—your husband?"
Then Rosalind, whose head was swimming, let the fact slip from her that the dying man had never seen or known her husband in the old days; only he had always spoken of him as one to be pitied, not blamed, even as she herself thought of him. Incautiously she now said, "Poor Gerry!" forgetting that Colonel Lund had never known him by that name, or so slightly that it did not connect itself. Yet his mind was marvellously clear, too; for he immediately replied: "I did not mean Fenwick. I meant your first husband. Poor boy! poor fellow! What became of him?"
"His name was Algernon, too," was all the answer she could think of. It was a sort of forlorn hope in nettle-grasping. Then she saw it had little meaning in it for her listener. His voice went on, almost whispering:
"Many a time I've thought ... if we could have found the poor boy ... and shown him Sally ... he might have ... might have...."
Rosalind could bear it no longer. Whoever reads this story carelessly may see little excuse for her that she should lose her head at the bedside of a dying man. It was really no matter for surprise that she should do so. Consider the perpetual tension of her life, the broken insufficient sleep of the last two days, the shock of "Old Jack's" sudden death a few hours since! Small blame to her, to our thinking, if she did give way! To some it may even seem, as to us, that the course she took was best in the end. And, indeed, her self-control stood by her to the last; it was a retreat in perfect order, not a flight. Nor did she, perhaps, fully measure how near her old friend was to his end, or release—a better name, perhaps.
"Major dear, I have something I must tell you." The old eyelids opened, and his eyes turned to her, though he remained motionless—quite as one who caught the appeal in the tension of her voice and guessed its meaning.
"Rosey darling—yes; tell me now." His voice tried to rise above a whisper; an effort seemed to be in it to say: "Don't keep anything back on my account."
"So I will, dear. Shut your eyes and lie quiet and listen. I want to tell you that I know that my first husband is not dead.... Yes, dear; don't try to speak. You'll see when I tell you.... Algernon Palliser is not dead, though we thought he must be. He went away from Lahore after the proceedings, and he did go to Australia, no doubt, as we heard at the time; but after that he went to America, and was there till two years ago ... and then he came to England." The old man tried to speak, but this time his voice failed, and Rosalind thought it best to go straight on. "He came to England, dear, and met with a bad accident, and lost his memory...."
"What!" The word came so suddenly and clearly that it gave her new courage to go on. She must tell it all now, and she felt sure he was hearing and understanding all she said.
"Yes, dear; it's all true. Let me tell it all. He lost his memory completely, so that he did not know his own name...."
"Did not know his own name, dear—did not know his own name—did not know the face of the wife he lost twenty years ago—all, all a blank!... Yes, yes; it was he himself, and I took him and kept him, and I have him now ... and oh, my dear, my dear, he does not know it—knows nothing! He does not know who I am, nor who he was, nor that Sally is the baby; but he loves her dearly, as he never could have loved her if ... if...."
She could say no more. The torrent of tears that was the first actual relief to the weight upon her heart of two years of secrecy grew and grew till speech was overwhelmed. But she knew that her story, however scantily told, had reached her listener's mind, though she could not have said precisely at what moment he came to know it. The tone of his exclamation, "My God!" perhaps had made her take his knowledge for granted. Of one thing, however, she felt certain—that details were needless, would add nothing to the main fact, which she was quite convinced her old friend had grasped with a mind still capable of holding it, although it might be in death. Even so one tells a child the outcome only of what one tells in full to older ears. Then quick on the heels of the relief of sharing her burden with another followed the thought of how soon the sympathy she had gained must be lost, buried—so runs the code of current speech—in her old friend's grave. All her heart poured out in tears on the hand that could still close fitfully upon her own as she knelt by the bed on which he would so soon lie dying.
Presently his voice came again—a faint whisper she could just catch: "Tell it me again, Rosey ... what you told me just now ... just now." And she felt his cold hand close on hers as he spoke. Then she repeated what she had said before, adding only: "But he may never come to know his own story, and Sally must not know it." The old whisper came back, and she caught the words: "Then it is true! My God!"
She remained kneeling motionless beside him. His breath, weak and intermittent, but seeming more free than when she left him four hours since, was less audible than the heavy sleep of the overtaxed nurse in the next room, heard through the unclosed door. The familiar early noises of the street, the life outside that cares so little for the death within, the daily bread and daily milk that wake us too soon in the morning, the cynical interchanges of cheerful early risers about the comfort of the weather—all grew and gathered towards the coming day. But the old Colonel heard none of them. What thought he still had could say to him that this was good and that was good, hard though it might be to hold it in mind. But one bright golden thread ran clear through all the tangled skeins—he would leave Rosey happy at last, for all the bitterness her cup of life had held before.
* * * * *
The nurse had slept profoundly, but she was one of those fortunate people who can do so at will, and then wake up at an appointed time, as many great soldiers have been able to do. As the clock struck eight she sat up in the chair she had been sleeping in and listened a moment. No sound came from the next room. She rose and pushed the door open cautiously and looked in. Mrs. Fenwick was still kneeling by the bed, her face hidden, still holding the old man's hand. The nurse thought surely the still white face she saw in the intermittent gleams of a lamp-flame flickering out was the face of a dead man. Need she rouse or disturb the watcher by his side? Not yet, certainly. She pulled the door very gently back, not closing it.
A sound came of footsteps on the stairs—footsteps without voices. It was Fenwick and Sally, who had passed through the street door, open for a negotiation for removal of the snow—for the last two hours had made a white world outside. Sally was on a stairflight in the rear. She had paused for a word with the boy Chancellorship, who was a candidate for snow-removal. He seemed relieved by the snow. It was a tidy lot better morning than last night, missis. He had breakfasted—yes—off of corfy, and paid for it, and buttered 'arf slices and no stintin', for twopence. Sally had a fellow-feeling for this boy's optimism. But he had something on his mind, for when Sally asked him if Major Roper had got home safe last night, his cheerfulness clouded over, and he said first, "Couldn't say, missis;" and then, "He's been got home, you may place your dependence on that;" adding, inexplicably to Sally, "He won't care about this weather; it won't be no odds!" She couldn't wait to find out his meaning, but told him he might go on clearing away the snow, and when Mrs. Kindred came he was to say Miss Rosalind Nightingale told him he might. She said she would be answerable, and then ran to catch up Fenwick.
The nurse came out to meet them on the landing, and in answer to Fenwick's half-inquiry or look of inquiry—Sally did not gather which—said: "Yes—at least, I think so—just now." Sally made up her mind it was death. But it was not, quite; for as the nurse, preceding them, pushed the door of the sickroom gently open, the voice of the man she believed dead came out almost strong and clear in the silence: "Evil has turned to good. God be praised!"
But they were the last words Colonel Lund spoke. He died so quietly that the exact moment of dissolution was not distinguishable. Fenwick and Sally found Rosalind so overstrained with grief and watching that they asked for no explanation of the words. Indeed, they may not have ascribed any special meaning to them.
ABOUT SIX MONTHS, AND HOW A CABMAN SAW A GHOST. OF SALLY'S AND THE DOCTOR'S "MODUS VIVENDI," AND THE SHOOSMITH FAMILY. HOW SALLY MADE TEA FOR BUDDHA, AND HOW BUDDHA FORESAW A STEPDAUGHTER. DELIRIUM TREMENS
It may make this story easier to read at this point if we tell our reader that this twenty-fifth chapter contains little of vital import—is, in fact, only a passing reference to one or two by-incidents that came about in the half-year that followed. He cannot complain that they are superfluous if we give him fair warning of their triviality, and enable him to skip them without remorse. But they register, to our thinking, what little progress events made in six very nice months—a period Time may be said to have skipped. And whoso will may follow his example, and lose but little in the doing of it.
Very nice months they were—only one cloud worth mention in the blue; only one phrase in a minor key. The old familiar figure of "the Major"—intermittent, certainly, but none the less invariable; making the house his own, or letting it appropriate him, hard to say which—was no longer to be seen; but the old sword had been hung in a place of honour near a portrait of Paul Nightingale, Mrs. Fenwick's stepfather—its old owner's school-friend of seventy years ago. At her death it was to be offered to the school; no surviving relative was named in the will, if any existed. Everything was left unconditionally "to my dear daughter by adoption, Rosalind Nightingale."
Some redistributions of furniture were involved in the importation of the movables from the two rooms in Ball Street. The black cabinet, or cellaret, with the eagle-talons, found a place in the dining-room in the basement into which Fenwick—only it seems so odd to go back to it now—was brought on the afternoon of his electrocution. Sally always thought of this cabinet as "Major Roper's cabinet," because she got the whiskey from it for him before he went off in the fog. If only she had made him drunk that evening! Who knows but it might have enabled him to fight against that terrible heart-failure that was not the result of atmospheric conditions. She never looked at this cabinet but the thought passed through her mind.
Her mother certainly told her nothing at this time about her last conversation with the Colonel, or almost nothing. Certainly she mentioned more than once what she thought a curious circumstance—that the invalid, who was utterly ignorant of Old Jack's death, had persisted so strongly that he was present in the room when he must have been dead some hours. Every one of us has his little bit of Psychical Research, which he demands respect for from others, whose own cherished private instances he dismisses without investigation. This example became Mrs. Fenwick's; who, to be just, had not set herself up with one previously, in spite of the temptation the Anglo-Indian is always under to espouse Mahatmas and buried Faquirs and the like. There seemed a good prospect that it would become an article of faith with her; her first verdict—that it was an hallucination—having been undermined by a certain contradictiousness, produced in her by an undeserved discredit poured on it by pretenders to a superior ghost-insight; who, after all, tried to utilise it afterward as a peg to hang their own particular ghosts on. Which wasn't researching fair.
Sally was no better than the rest of them; if anything, she was a little worse. And Rosalind was far from sure that her husband wouldn't have been much more reasonable if he hadn't had Sally there to encourage him. As it was, the league became, pro hac vice, a league of Incredulity, a syndicate of Materialists. Rosalind got no quarter for the half-belief she had in what the old Colonel had said on his death-bed. Her report of his evident earnestness and the self-possession of his voice carried no weight; failing powers, delirium, effects of opiates, and ten degrees above normal had it all their own way. Besides, her superstition was weak-kneed. It only went the length of suggesting that it really was very curious when you came to think of it, and she couldn't make it out.
That the incident received such very superficial recognition must be accounted for by the fact that Krakatoa Villa was not a villa of the speculative-thinker class. We have known such villas elsewhere, but we are bound to say we have known none where speculative thought has tackled the troublesome questions of death-bed appearances, haunted houses, et id genus omne, with the result of coming to any but very speculative conclusions. The male head of this household may have felt that he himself, as a problem for the Psychical Researcher, was ill-fitted to discuss the subject. He certainly shied off expressing any decided opinions.
"What do you really think about ghosts?" said his wife to him one day, when Sally wasn't there to come in with her chaff.
"Ghosts belong in titled families. Middle-class ghosts are a poor lot. Those in the army and navy cut the best figure, on the whole—Junior United Service ghosts...."
"Gerry, be serious, or I'll have a divorce!" This was a powerful grip on a stinging-nettle. Rosalind felt braced by the effort. "Did you ever see a ghost, old man?"
"Not in the present era, sweetheart. I can't say about B.C." He used to speak of his life in this way, but his wife always felt sorry when he alluded to it. It seldom happened. "No, I have never seen one to my knowledge. I've been seen as a ghost, though, which is very unpleasant, I assure you."
Rosalind's mind went back to the fat Baron at Sonnenberg. She supposed this to be another case of the same sort. "When was that?" she said.
"Monday. I took a hansom from Cornhill to our bonded warehouse. It's under a mile, and I asked the driver to change half-a-crown; I hadn't a shilling. He got out a handful of silver, and when he had picked out the two shillings and sixpence he looked at me for the first time, and started and stared as if I was a ghost in good earnest."
"Oh, Gerry, he must have seen you before—before it happened!" Remember that this was, in the spirit of it, a fib, seeing that the tone of voice was that of welcome to a possible revelation. To our thinking, the more honour to her who spoke it, considering the motives. Gerry continued:
"So I thought at first. But listen to what followed. As soon as his surprise, whatever caused it, had toned down to mere recognition point, he spoke with equanimity. 'I've driven you afore now, mister,' said he. 'You won't call me to mind. Parties don't, not when fares; when drivers, quite otherwise. I'm by way of taking notice myself. You'll excuse me?' Then he said, 'War-r-r-p,' to the horse, who was trying to eat himself and dig the road up. When they were friends again, I asked, Where had he seen me? Might I happen to call to mind Livermore's Rents, and that turn-up?—that was his reply. I said I mightn't; or didn't, at any rate. I had never been near Livermore's Rents, nor any one else's rents, that I could recall the name of. 'Try again, guv'nor,' said he. 'You'll recall if you try hard enough. He recollects it, I'll go bail. My Goard! you did let him have it!' Was it a fight? I asked. Well, do you know, darling, that cabby addressed me seriously; took me to task for want of candour. 'That ain't worthy of a guv'nor like you,' he said. 'Why make any concealments? Why not treat me open?' I gave him my most solemn honour that I was utterly at a loss to guess what he was talking about, on which he put me through a sort of retrospective catechism, broken by reminders to the horse. 'You don't rec'lect goin' easy over the bridge for to see the shipping? Nor yet the little narrer court right-hand side of the road, with an iron post under an arch and parties hollerin' murder at the far end? Nor yet the way you held him in hand and played him? Nor yet what you sampled him out at the finish? My Goard!' He slapped the top of the cab in a sort of ecstasy. 'Never saw a neater thing in my life. No unnecessary violence, no agitation! And him carried off the ground as good as dead! Ah! I made inquiry after, and that was so.' I then said it must have been some one else very like me, and held out my half-crown. He slipped back his change into his own pocket, and when he had buttoned it over ostentatiously addressed me again with what seemed a last appeal. 'I take it, guv'nor,' said he, 'you may have such a powerful list of fighting fixtures in the week that you don't easy recollect one out from the other. But now, do, you, mean to say your memory don't serve you in this?—I drove you over to Bishopsgate, 'cross London Bridge. Very well! Then you bought a hat—white Panama—and took change, seein' your own was lost. And you was going to pay me, and I drove off, refusin' to accept a farden under the circumstances. Don't you rec'lect that?' I said I didn't. 'Well, I did,' said he. 'And, with your leave, I'll do the same thing now. I'll drive you most anywhere you'd like to name in reason, but I won't take a farden.' And, do you know, he was off before my surprise allowed me to say a word."
"Now, Gerry, was it that made you so glum on Monday when you came back? I recollect quite well. So would Sally."
"Oh no; it was uncomfortable at first, but I soon forgot all about it. I recollect what it was put me in the dumps quite well. It was a long time after the cabby."
"What was it?"
"Well, it was as I walked to the station. I went a little way round, and passed through an anonymous sort of a churchyard. I saw a box in a wall with 'Contributions' on it, and remembering that I really had no right to the cabby's shilling or eighteenpence, I dropped a florin in. And then, Rosey dear, I had the most horrible recurrence I've had for a long time—something about the same place and the same box, and some one else putting three shillings in it. And it was all mixed up with a bottle of champagne and a bank. I can't explain why these things are so painful, but they are. You know, Rosey!"
"I know, dear." His wife's knowledge seemed to make her quite silent and absent. She may have seen that the recovery of this cabman would supply a clue to her husband's story. Had he taken the number of the cab? No, he hadn't. Very stupid of him! But he had no pencil, or he could have written it on his shirt-sleeve. He couldn't trust his memory. Rosalind didn't feel very sorry the clue was lost. As for him, did he, we wonder, really exert himself to remember the cab's number?
But when the story was told afterwards to Sally, the moment the Panama hat came on the tapis, she struck in with, "Jeremiah! you know quite well you had a Panama hat on the day you were electrocuted. And, what's more, it was brand new! And, what's more, it's outside in the hall!"
It was brought in, and produced a spurious sense of being detectives on the way to a discovery. But nothing came of it.
All through the discussion of this odd cab-incident the fact that Fenwick "would have written down the cab-driver's number on his shirt-sleeve," was on the watch for a recollection by one of the three that a something had been found written on the shirt-cuff Fenwick was electrocuted in. The ill-starred shrewdness of Scotland Yard, by detecting a mere date in that something, had quite thrown it out of gear as an item of evidence. By the way, did no one ever ask why should any man, being of sound mind, write the current date on his shirt-sleeve? It really is a thing that can look after its own interests for twenty-four hours. The fact is that, no sooner do coincidences come into court, than sane investigation flies out at the skylight.
There was much discussion of this incident, you may be sure; but that is all we need to know about it.
* * * * *
Our other chance gleanings of the half-year are in quite another part of the field. They relate to Sally and Dr. Vereker's relation to one another. If this relation had anything lover-like in it, they certainly were not taking Europe into their confidence on the subject. Whether their attitude was a spontaneous expression of respectful indifference, or a parti-pris to mislead and hoodwink her, of course Europe couldn't tell. All that that continent, or the subdivision of it known as Shepherd's Bush, could see was a parade of callousness and studied civility on the part of both. The only circumstance that impaired its integrity or made the bystander doubt the good faith of its performers was the fact that one of them was a girl, and an attractive one—so attractive that elderly ladies jumped meanly at the supposed privileges of their age and sex, and kissed her a great deal more than was at all fair or honourable.
The ostentatious exclusion of Cupid from the relationship of these two demanded a certain mechanism. Every meeting had to be accounted for, or there was no knowing what match-making busybodies wouldn't say; or, rather, what they would say would be easily guessable by the lowest human insight. Not that either of them ever mentioned precaution to the other; all its advantages would have vanished with open acknowledgment of its necessity. These arrangements were instinctive on the part of both, and each credited the other with a mole-like blindness to their existence.
For instance, each was graciously pleased to believe—or, at least, to believe that the other believed—in a certain institution that called for a vast amount of checking of totals, comparisons of counterfoils, inspection of certificates, verification of data—everything, in short, of which an institute is capable that could make incessant correspondence necessary and frequent personal interviews advisable. It could boast of Heaven knows how many titled Patrons and Patronesses, Committees and Sub-committees, Referees and Auditors. No doubt the mere mention of such an institution was enough to render gossip speechless about any single lady and gentleman whom it accidentally made known one to another. Its firm of Solicitors alone, with a line all to itself in its prospectuses, was enough to put a host of Loves to flight.
On which account Ann, at Krakatoa Villa, when she announced, "A person for you, Miss Sally," was able to add, "from Dr. Vereker, I think, miss," without the faintest shade of humorous reserve, as of one who sees, and does not need to be told.
And when Sally had interviewed a hopeless and lopsided female, who appeared to be precariously held together by pins, and to have an almost superhuman power of evading practical issues, she (fortified by this institution) was able to return to the drawing-room and say, without a particle of shame, that she supposed she should have to go and see Old Prosy about Mrs. Shoosmith to-morrow afternoon. And when she called at the doctor's at teatime—because that didn't take him from his patients, as he made a point of his tea, because of his mother, if it was only ten minutes—both he and she believed religiously in Mrs. Shoosmith, and Dr. Vereker filled out her form (we believe we have the phrase right) with the most business-like gravity at the little table where he wrote his letters.
Mrs. Shoosmith's form called for filling out in more senses than one. The doctor's mother's form would not have borne anything further in that direction; except, indeed, she had been provided with hooks to go over her chair back, and keep her from rolling along the floor, as a sphere might if asked to sit down.
A suggestion of the exceptional character of all visits from Sally to Dr. Vereker, and vice-versa, was fostered by the domestics at his house as well as at Krakatoa Villa. The maid Craddock, who responded to Sally's knock on this Shoosmith occasion, threw doubt on the possibility of the doctor ever being visible again, and kept the door mentally on the jar while she spoke through a moral gap an inch wide. Of course, that is only our nonsense. Sally was really in the house when Craddock heroically, as a forlorn hope in a lost cause, offered to "go and see"; and going, said, "Miss Nightingale; and is Dr. Vereker expected in to tea?" without varnish of style, or redundance of wording. But Sally lent herself to this insincere performance, and remained in the hall until she was called on to decide whether she would mind coming in and waiting, and Dr. Vereker would perhaps be back in a few minutes. All this was part of the system of insincerity we have hinted at.
So was the tenor of Sally's remarks, while she waited the few minutes, to the effect that it was a burning shame that she should take up Mrs. Vereker's time, a crying scandal that she should interrupt her knitting, and a matter of penitential reflection that she hadn't written instead of coming, which would have done just as well. To which Mrs. Vereker, with a certain parade of pretended insincerity (to make the real article underneath seem bona fides), replied with mock-incredible statements about the pleasure she always had in seeing Sally, and the rare good fortune which had prompted a visit at this time, when, in addition to being unable to knit, owing to her eyes, she had been absorbed in longing for news of a current event that Sally was sure to know about. She particularised it.
"Oh, it isn't true, Mrs. Vereker! You don't mean to say you believed that nonsense? The idea! Tishy—just fancy!" Goody Vereker (the name Sally thought of her by) couldn't shake her head, the fulness at the neck forbade it; but she moved it cosily from side to side continuously, much as a practicable image of Buddha might have done.
"My child, I've quite given up believing and disbelieving things. I wait to be told, and then I ask if it's true. Now you've told me. It isn't true, and that settles the matter."
"But whoever could tell you such nonsense, Mrs. Vereker?"
"A little bird, my dear." The image of Buddha left off the movement of incredulity, and began a very gentle, slow nod. "A little bird tells me these things—all sorts of things. But now I know this one's untrue I should never dream of believing it. Not for one moment."
Sally felt inclined to pinch, bite, or otherwise maltreat the speaker, so very worthless did her offer of optional disbelief seem, and, indeed, so very offensive. But her inclination only went the length of wondering how she could get at a vulnerable point through so much fat.
"Tishy quarrels with her mother, I know," said she. "But as to her doing anything like that! Besides, she never told me. Besides, I should have been asked to the wedding. Besides," etcetera.
For, you see, what this elderly lady had asked the truth about was, had or had not Laetitia Wilson and Julius Bradshaw been privately married six months ago? Probably, during aeons and epochs of knitting, she had dreamed that some one had told her this. Or, even more probably, she had invented it on the spot, to see what change she could get out of Sally. She knew that Sally, prudently exasperated, would give tongue; whereas conciliatory, cosy inquisition—the right way to approach the elderly gossip—would only make her reticent. Now it was only necessary to knit, and Sally would be sure to develop the subject. The line she appeared to take was that it was a horrible shame of people to say such things, in view of the fact that it was only yesterday that Tishy had quite settled that rash matrimony in defiance of her parents would not only be inexcusable but wrong. Sally laid a fiery emphasis on the only-ness of yesterday, and seemed to imply that, had it been a week ago, there would have been much more plausibility in the story of this secret nuptial of six months back.
"Besides," she went on, accumulating items of refutation, "Julius has only his salary, and Tishy has nothing—though, of course, she could teach. Besides, Julius has his mother and sister, and they have only a hundred and fifty a year. It does as long as they all live together. But it wouldn't do if Julius married." On which the old Goody (Sally told her mother after) embarked on a long analysis of how joint housekeeping could be managed if Tishy would consent to be absorbed into the Bradshaw household. She made rather a grievance of it that Sally could not supply data of the sleeping accommodation at Georgiana Terrace, Bayswater. If she had known that, she could have got them all billeted on different rooms. As it was, she had to be content to enlarge on the many economies the family could achieve if they consented to be guided by a person of experience—e.g., herself.
"Of course, dinner would have to be late," she said, "because of Mr. Bradshaw not getting home till nearly eight. They would have to make it supper. And it might be cold; it's a great saving, and makes it so easy where there's one servant." Sally shuddered with horror at this implied British household. Poor Tishy!
"But they're not going to marry till they see their way," she exclaimed in despair. She felt that Tishy and Julius were being involved, entangled, immeshed by an old matrimonial octopus in gilt-rimmed spectacles—like Professor Wilson's—who could knit tranquilly all the while, while she herself could do nothing to save them. "It might be cold!!" Every evening, perhaps—who knows?
"Very proper, my dear." Thus the Octopus. "I felt sure such a nice, sensible girl as Miss Wilson never would. That is Conrad." It really was a sound of a latch-key, but speech is no mere slave to fact.
"And I was really quite glad when Dr. Prosy came in—the way the Goody was going on about Tishy!" So Sally said to her mother when she had completed her report of the portion of this visit she chose to tell about. On which her mother said, "What a dear little humbug you are, kitten," and she replied, as we have heard her reply before, "We-e-ell, there's nothing in that!" and posed as one who has been misrepresented. But her mother stuck to her point, which was that Sally knew she was quite glad when Dr. Vereker came in, Tishy or no.
Whatever the reason was that Sally was quite glad at the appearance of Dr. Prosy, there could be no doubt about the fact. Her laugh reached the cook in the kitchen, who denounced Craddock the parlourmaid for not telling her it was Miss Nightingale, when it might have been a visitor, seeing no noise come of it. Cook remarked she knew how it would be—there was the doctor picking up like—and hadn't she told Craddock so? But Craddock said no!
"Mrs. Shoosmith again—the everlasting Mrs. Shoosmith!" exclaimed the doctor. It was very unfeeling of them to laugh so over this unhappy woman, who was the survivor of two husbands and the proprietor of one, and the mother of seven daughters and five sons, each of whom was a typical "case," and all of whom sought admission to Institutes on their merits. The lives of the whole family were passed in applications for testimonials and certificates, alike bearing witness to their chronic qualifications for it. Sally was mysteriously hardhearted about them, while fully admitting their claims on the public.
"That's right, Dr. Conrad"—Sally had inaugurated this name for herself—"Honoria Purvis Shoosmith. Mind you put in the Purvis right. Now write down lots of diseases for her to have." Sally is leaning over the doctor's chair to see him write as she says this. There is something in the atmosphere of the situation that seems to clash with the actual business in hand. The doctor endeavours, not seriously enough, perhaps, to infuse a flavour of responsibility.
"My professional dignity, Miss Nightingale, will not permit of the scheme of diagnosis you indicate. If any disorders entirely without symptoms were known to exist, I should be delighted to ascribe the whole of them to Mrs. Shoosmith...."
"Don't be prosy, Dr. Conrad. Fire away! You told me lots—you know you did! Rheumatic arthritis—gout—pyaemia...."
"Come, I say, Miss Sally, draw it mild. I never said pyaemia. Anaemia, perhaps...."
"Very well, Anne, then! We can let it go at that. Fire away!" The doctor looks round his own corner at the rows of pearls and the laugh that frames them, the merry eyebrows and the scintillating eyes they accentuate. A perilous intoxication, not to be too freely indulged in by a serious professional man at any time—in business hours certainly not. But if the doctor were quite in earnest over a sort of Spartan declaration of policy his heart feels the prudence of, would that responsive twinkle flutter in his face behind its mock gravity? He is all but head over ears in love with Sally—so why pretend? Really, we don't know—and that's the truth.
"Wouldn't it be a good way to consider what it is that is really the matter, and make out the statement accordingly?" He goes on looking at Sally, scratches himself under the chin with his pen, and waits for an answer.
"Good, sensible, general practitioner! See how practical he is! Now, I should never have thought of that!"
"Well, what shall we put her down as? Chronic arthritis—spinal curvature—tuberculosis of the cervical vertebrae?"
"Those all sound very nice. But I don't think it matters which you choose. If she hasn't got it now, she'll develop it if I describe it. When I told her mother couldn't get rid of her neuritis, she immediately asked to know the symptoms, and forthwith claimed them as her own. 'Well, there now, and to think what I was just a-sayin' to Shoosmith, this very morning! Just in the crick of the thumb-joint, you can't 'ardly abear yourself!' And then she told how she said to Shoosmith frequent, where was the use of his getting impatient, and exclaimin' the worst expressions? Because his language went beyond a quart, and no reasonable excuse."
"Mr. Shoosmith doesn't seem a very promising sort? He's a tailor, isn't he?"
"No; he's a messenger. He runs on errands and does odd jobs. But he can't run—I've seen him!—he can only shamble. And his voice is hoarse and inaudible. And he has a drawback—two drawbacks, in fact. He is no sooner giv' coppers on a job than he drinks them."
"What's the other?"
"His susceptibility to intoxicants. His 'ed is that weak that 'most anythink upsets him. So you see."
"Poor chap! He's handicapped in the race of life. As for his wife, when I saw her she was suffering with acute rheumatism and bad feeling—and, I may add, defective reasoning power. However...." The doctor fills in blanks, adds a signature, says "There we are!" and Mrs. Shoosmith is disposed of as an applicant to the institution, and will no doubt reap some benefits we need not know the particulars of. But she remains as a subject for the student of human life—also, tea comes—also, which is interesting, Sally proceeds to make it.
Now, if the reserves this young lady had made about this visit, if her pretence that it was a necessity arising from a charitable organization, if the colour that was given to that pretence by her interview with the servant Craddock—if any of these things had been more or less than the grossest hypocrisy, would it, we ask you, have been accepted as a matter of course that she should pull off her gloves and sit down to make tea with a mature knowledge of how to get the little lynch-pin out of the spirit-lamp, and of how many spoonfuls? No; the fact is, Sally was a more frequent visitor to the image of Buddha than she chose to admit; and as for the doctor, he seized every legitimate opportunity of 'cello practice at Krakatoa Villa. But G.P.'s cannot call their time their own.
"The funny part of Mrs. Shoosmith," said Sally, when the pot was full up and the lid shut, "is that the moment she is brought into contact with warm soapy water and scrubbing-brushes, she seems to renew her youth. She brings large pins out of her mouth and secures her apron. And then she scrubs. Now you may blow the methylated out and make yourself useful, Dr. Conrad."
"Does she put back the pins when she's done scrubbing?" the doctor asks, when he has made himself useful.
"She puts them back against another time, so I have understood. I suppose they live in her mouth. That's yours with two lumps. That is your mother's—no, I won't pour it yet. She's asleep."
For the fact is that the Goody, anxious to invest herself with an appearance of forbearance towards the frivolities of youth, readiness to forego (from amiability) any share in the conversation, insight into the rapports of others (especially male and female rapports), and general superiority to human weakness, had endeavoured to express all these things by laying down her knitting, folding her hands on her circumference, and looking as if she knew and could speak if she chose. But if you do this, even the maintenance of an attentive hypodermic smile is not enough to keep you awake—and off you go! The Goody did, and the smile died slowly off into a snore. Never mind! She was in want of rest, so she said. It was curious, too, for she seldom got anything else.
It would have been unfeeling to wake her, so Dr. Vereker went and sat a good deal nearer Sally, not to make more noise than was necessary. This reacted, an outsider might have inferred, on the subject-matter of the conversation, making it more serious in tone. And as Sally put the little Turk's cap over the pot to keep it warm, and the doctor knew perfectly well that the blacker the tea was the better his mother liked it, this lasted until that lady woke up with a start a long time after, and said she must have been asleep. Then, as Cook was aware in the kitchen, some more noise came of it, and Sally carried off Mrs. Shoosmith's certificate.
"You know, Dr. Conrad, it makes you look like a real medical man," she said at the gate, referring to the detention of the doctor's pill-box, which awaited him, and he replied that it didn't matter. King, the driver, looked as if he thought it did, and appeared morose. Is it because coachmen always keep their appointments with society and society never keeps its appointments with coachmen that a settled melancholy seems to brood over them, and their souls seem cankered with misanthropy?
The doctor had rather a rough time that evening. For among the patients he was going to try to see and get back to dinner (thus ran current speech of those concerned) there was a young man from the West Indies, who had come into something considerable. But he was afflicted with a disorder he called the "jumps," and the doctor's diagnosis, if correct, showed that the vera causa of this aptly-named disease was alcohol of sp. gr. something, to which the patient was in the habit of adding very few atoms of water indeed. The doctor was doing all he could to change the regimen, but only succeeded on making his patient weak and promise amendment. On this particular evening the latter quite unexpectedly went for the doctor's throat, shouting, "I see your plans!" and King had to be summoned from his box to help restrain him. So Dr. Vereker was tired when he got home late to dinner, and would have felt miserable, only he could always shut his eyes and think of Sally's hands that had come over his shoulder to discriminate points in Mrs. Shoosmith's magna-charta. They had come so near him that he could smell the fresh sweet dressing of the new kid gloves—six and a half, we believe.
But although he liked his Goody mother to talk to him about the girl who had christened her so, he was tired enough this evening to wish that her talk had flowed in a less pebbly channel. For she chose this opportunity to enlarge upon the duties of young married women towards their husbands' parents, their mothers especially. Her conclusion was a little unexpected:
"I have said nothing throughout, my dear. I should not dream of doing so. But if I had I trust I should have made it clearly understood how I regarded Miss Laetitia Wilson's conduct."
"But there wasn't any. Nobody contracted a private marriage."
"My dear Conrad! Have I said that any one has done so? Have I used the expression 'private marriage'?"
"Why—no. I don't think you have. Not to-day, at least."
"When have I done so? Have I not, on the contrary, from the very beginning told you I should take the first opportunity of disbelieving so absurd and mischievous a story? And have I lost a moment? Was it not the first word I said to Sally Nightingale before you came in, and without a soul in the room to hear? I only ask for justice. But if my son misrepresents me, what can I expect from others?" At this point patient toleration only.
"But, mother dear, I don't want to misrepresent you. Only I'll be hanged if I see why Tishy Wilson is to be hauled over the coals?"
A suggestion of a proper spirit showed itself. "I am accustomed to your language, and will say nothing. But, my dear Conrad, for you are always my son, and will remain so, whatever your language may be, do you, my dear Conrad, do you really sanction the attitude of a young lady who refuses to marry—public and private don't come into the matter—because of a groundless antipathy? For it is admitted on all hands that Mrs. Julius Bradshaw is a person of rather superior class."
"She's Mrs. Bradshaw—not Mrs. Julius. But what makes you suppose Tishy Wilson objects to her?"
"My dear Conrad, you know as well as I do that is a mere prevarication. Why evade the point? But in my opinion you do wisely not to attempt any defence of Laetitia Wilson. It may be true that she has not laid herself open to misconstruction in this case, but the lack of good feeling is to all intents and purposes the same as if she had; and I must say, my dear Conrad, I am surprised that a professional man with your qualifications should undertake to justify her."
"But Miss Wilson hasn't done anything! What are you wigging away at her for, mother dear?"
"Have I not expressly said that she has done nothing whatever? Of course she has not, and, I hope, never will. But it is easy for you, Conrad, to take refuge in a fact which I have been scrupulously careful to admit from the very beginning. And 'wigging away!' What language!"
"Never mind the language, mother darling! Tell me what it's all about." Tired as he is, he gets up from the chair he has not been smoking in (because this is the drawing-room) to go round and kiss what is probably the fatty integument of a very selfish old woman, but which he believes to be that of an affectionate mother. "What's it all about?" he repeats.
"My dear Conrad! Is it not a little unfeeling to ask me what it is all about when you know?"
"I don't know, mother dear. I can do any amount of guessing, but I don't know."
"I think, my dear, if you will light my candle and ring for Craddock to shut up, that I had better go to bed." Which her son does, but perversely abstains from giving the old lady any assistance to saying what is in her mind to say.
But she did not intend to be baffled. For when he had piloted her to her state apartment, carrying her candle, under injunctions on no account to spill the grease, and a magazine of wraps and wools and unintelligible sundries, she contrived to invest an elucidation of her ideas with an appearance of benevolence by working in a readiness to sacrifice herself to her son's selfish longing for tobacco.
"Only just hear me to the end, my dear, and then you can get away to your pipe. What I did not say—for you interrupted me—did not relate so much to Miss Laetitia Wilson as to Sally Nightingale. She, I am sure, would never come between any man she married and his mother. I am making no reference to any one whatever, although, however old I am, I have eyes in my head and can see. But I can read character, and that is my interpretation of Sally Nightingale's."
"Sally Nightingale and I are not going to make it up, if that's what you mean, mother. She wouldn't have me, for one thing——"
"My dear, I am not going to argue the point. It is nearly eleven, and unless I get to bed I shan't sleep. Now go away to your pipe, and think of what I have said. And don't slam your door and wake me when you come up." She offered him a selection to kiss, shutting her eyes tight. And he gave place to Craddock, and went away to his unwholesome, smelly habit, as his mamma had more than once called it. His face was perplexed and uncomfortable; however, it got ease after a few puffs of pale returns and a welcome minute of memory of the bouquet of those sixes.
But his little happy oasis was a very small one. For a messenger came with a furious pull at the night-bell and a summons for the doctor. His delirium-tremens case had very nearly qualified its brain for a P.M.—at least, if there were any of it left—by getting at a pistol and taking a bad aim at it. The unhappy dipsomaniac was half-shot, and prompt medical attendance was necessary to prevent the something considerable being claimed by his heir-at-law.
Whether this came to pass or not does not concern us. This much is certain, that at the end of six months which this chapter represents, and which you have probably skipped, he was as much forgotten by the doctor as the pipe his patient's suicidal escapade had interrupted, or the semi-vexation with his mother he was using it as an anodyne for.
MORNING AT LADBROKE GROVE ROAD, AND FAMILY DISSENSION. FACCIOLATI, AND A LEGACY. THE LAST CONCERT THIS SEASON. THE GOODY WILL COME TO IGGULDEN'S. BUT FANCY PROSY IN LOVE!
Towards the end of the July that very quickly followed Rosalind noticed an intensification of what might be called the Ladbroke Grove Road Row Chronicle—a record transmitted by Sally to her real and adopted parent in the instalments in which she received it from Tishy.
This record on one occasion depicted a battle-royal at breakfast, "over the marmalade," Sally said. She added that the Dragon might just as well have let the Professor alone. "He was reading," she said, "'The Classification of Roots in Prehistoric Dialects,' because I saw the back; and Tacitus was on the butter. But the Dragon likes the grease to spoil the bindings, and she knows it."
A vision of priceless Groliers soaking passed through Rosalind's mind. "Wasn't that what this row was about, then?" she asked.
"I don't think so," said Sally, who had gone home to breakfast with Tishy after an early swim. "It's difficult to say what it was about. Really, the Professor had hardly said anything at all, and the Dragon said she thought he was forgetting the servants. Fossett wasn't even in the room. And then the Dragon said, 'Yes, shut it,' to Athene. Fancy saying 'Yes, shut it,' in a confidential semitone! Really, I can't see that it was so very wrong of Egerton, although he is a booby, to say there was no fun in having a row before breakfast. He didn't mean them to think he meant them to hear."
"But how did it get from the marmalade to Tishy's haberdasher?" asked Fenwick.
"Can't say, Jeremiah. It all came in a buzz, like a wopses nest. And then Egerton said it was rows, rows, rows all day long, and he should hook it off and get a situation. It is rows, rows, rows, so it's no use pretending it isn't. But it always comes round to the haberdasher grievance in the end. This time Tishy went to her father in the library, and confessed up about Kensington Gardens."
Both hearers said, "Oh, I see!" and then Sally transmitted the report of this interview. It had not been stormy, and may be looked at by the light of the Professor's last remark. "The upshot is, Tish, that you can marry Julius against your mother's consent right off, and never lose a penny of your aunt's legacy."
"Legacy is good, very excellent good," said Fenwick. "How much was it, Sarah?"
"Oh, I don't know. Lots—a good lot—a thousand pounds! The Dragon wanted to make out that it was conditional on her consent to Tishy's marriage. That was fibs. But what I don't see is that Gaffer Wilson ever said a word to Tishy about his own objections to her marrying Julius, if he has any!"
"Perhaps," Rosalind suggested, "she hasn't told you all he said." But to this Sally replied that Tishy had told her over and over and over again, only she said over so often that her adopted parent said for Heaven's sake stop, or he should write the word into his letters. However, the end of the last despatch was at hand, and he himself took up the conversation on signing it.
"Yours faithfully, Algernon Fenwick. That's the lot! I agree with the kitten."
"About if he has any. I believe he'd be glad if Miss Wilson took the bit in her teeth and bolted."
"You agree with Prosy?" As Sally says this, without a thought in a thoughtful face but what belongs to the subject, her mother is conscious that she herself is quite prepared to infer that Prosy already knows all about it. She has got into the habit of hearing that he knows about things.
"What does Vereker say?" Thus Fenwick.
"He'll be here in a minute, and you can ask him. That's him! I mean that's his ring."
"It's just like any other ring, chick." It is her mother who speaks. But Sally says: "Nonsense! as if I didn't know Prosy's ring!" And Dr. Vereker appears, quartet bound, for this was the weekly musical evening at Krakatoa Villa.
"Jeremiah wants to know whether you don't think Tishy's male parent would be jolly glad if she and Julius took the bit in their teeth and bolted?" "I shouldn't be the least surprised if they did," is the doctor's reply. But it does not strike Sally as rising to the height of her Draconic summary.
"You're not shining, Dr. Conrad," she says; "you're evading the point. What do you think Gaffer Bristles thinks, that's the point?" Dr. Conrad appears greatly exhilarated and refreshed by Sally, whose mother seems to share his feeling, but she enjoins caution, for all that.
"Do take care, kitten," she says. "They're on the stairs." But Sally considers "they" are miles off, and will take ages getting upstairs. "They've only just met at the door," is her explanatory comment, showing appreciation of one human weakness.
"Suppose we were to get it put in more official form!" Fenwick suggests. "Would Professor Sales Wilson be very much shocked if his daughter and Paganini made a runaway match of it?" The name Paganini has somehow leaked out of Cattley's counting-house, and become common property.
"I think, if you ask me," says Vereker, speaking to Fenwick, but never taking his eyes off Sally, on whom they feed, "that Professor Sales Wilson would be very much relieved."
"That's right!" says Sally, speaking as to a pupil who has profited. "Now you're being a good little General Practitioner." And then, the ages having elapsed with some alacrity, the door opens and the two subjects of discussion make their appearance.
The anomalous cousin did not come with them, having subsided. Mrs. Fenwick herself had taken the pianoforte parts lately. She had always been a fair pianist, and application had made her passable—a good make-shift, anyhow. So you may fill out the programme to your liking—it really doesn't matter what they played—and consider that this musical evening was one of their best that season. It was just as well it should be so, as it was their last till the autumn. Sally and her mother were going to the seaside all August and some of September, and Fenwick was coming with them for a week at first, and after that for short week-end spells. He had become a partner in the wine-business, and was not so much tied to the desk.
* * * * *
"Well, then, it's good-bye, I suppose?" The speaker is Rosalind herself, as the Stradivarius is being put to bed. But she hasn't the heart to let the verdict stand—at least, as far as the doctor is concerned. She softens it, adds a recommendation to mercy. "Unless you'll come down and pay us a visit. We'll put you up somewhere."
"I'm afraid it isn't possible," is the answer. But the doctor can't get his eyes really off Sally. Even as a small boy might strain at the leash to get back to a source of cake against the grasp of an iron nurse, even so Dr. Conrad rebels against the grip of professional engagements, which is the name of his cold, remorseless tyrant. But Sally is harnessing up a coach-and-six to drive through human obligations. Her manner of addressing the doctor suggests previous talk on the subject.
"You must get the locum, and come. You know you can, and it's all nonsense about can't." What would be effrontery in another character makes Sally speak through and across the company. A secret confidence between herself and the doctor, that you are welcome to the full knowledge of, and be hanged to you! is what the manner of the two implies.
"I spoke to Neckitt about it, and he can't manage it," says the doctor in the same manner. But the first and second violin are waiting to take leave.
"We'll say good-night, then—or good-bye, if it's for six weeks." Tishy is perfectly unblushing about the we. She might be conveying Mr. Tishy away. They go, and get away from Dr. Vereker, by-the-bye. An awkward third isn't wanted.
"There's plenty more Neckitts where he comes from," pursues Sally, as the "other two"—for that is how Fenwick thinks of them—get themselves and their instruments out of the house. "So don't be nonsensical, Dr. Conrad.... Stop a moment. I must speak to Tishy." And Sally gives chase, and overtakes the other two just by the fire-alarm, where Fenwick came to a standstill. Do you remember? It certainly has been a record effort to "get away first." You know this experience yourself at parties? Sally speaks to Tishy in the glorious summer night, and the three talk together earnestly under innumerable constellations, and one gas-lamp that elbows the starry heavens out of the way—a self-asserting, cheeky gas-lamp.
The doctor organizes tactics rapidly. He can hear that Sally's step goes up the street, and then the voices at a distance. If he can say good-bye and rush away just as Sally does the same, why then they will meet outside, don't you see?
Rosalind and her husband seem to have wireless telegrams passing. For when Sally vanishes there is a ring as of instruction received in the tone of Fenwick's voice as he addresses the doctor:
"Couldn't you manage to get your mother to come too, Vereker? She must be terribly in want of a change."
"So I tell her; but she's so difficult to move."
"Have a sedan-chair thing——"
"I don't mean that—not physically difficult. I mean she's got so anchored no one can persuade her to move. She hasn't been away for ages."
"Sally must go and persuade her." It is Rosalind who says this. "I'm sure Sally will manage it."
"She will if any one can," says the doctor. "Of course, I could soon get a locum if there was a chance of mother." And then the conversation supports itself on the possible impossibility of finding a lodging at St. Sennans-on-Sea, and consoles itself with its intense improbability till the doctor finds it necessary to depart with the promptitude of a fire-engine suddenly rung up.
He had calculated his time to a nicety, for he met Sally just as "the other two" got safe round the corner.
* * * * *
"Oh no," said Fenwick, replying to a query; "he doesn't mean to carry it all the way. He'll pick up a cab at the corner." The query was about the violoncello, and Fenwick was coming back to the room where his wife was closing the piano in anticipation of Ann. He had discreetly launched the instrument and its owner under the stars, and left the street door standing wide open—a shallow pretence that he believed Sally already in touch with it.
"They are a funny couple," Rosalind said. "Just fancy! They've known each other two years, and there they are! But I do like him. It's all his mother, you know ... what is?... why, goose—of course I mean he would speak at once if it wasn't for that obese mother of his."
"But she's so fond of Sally." In reply to this his wife kisses his cheeks, forehead, and chin consecutively, and he says it was right that time, only the other way round. This refers to a system founded on the crossing incident at Rheims.
"Of course she is, darling; or pretends she is. But he can neither divorce his mamma nor ask the kitten to marry her. You see?"
"I see—in fact, I've thought so myself. In confidence, you know. But is no compromise possible?" Rosalind shakes a slow, regretful, negative head, and her lips form a silent "No!"
"Not with her. The woman has her own share of selfishness, and her son's, too. He has none."
"I see what you mean. Sally goes to the wall one way if she doesn't the other. So he works out selfish, poor dear fellow! in the end. But, Gerry darling, let me tell you this: you have no idea how impossible that young man thinks it that a girl should love him. If he thought it possible the kitten really cared about, or could care about him, he'd go clean off his head. Indeed, I am right."