"The same, only a little thinner, my darling," her father answered, and his eyes filled with tears.
He too had grown curiously sad of late, and followed his daughter with wistful eyes.
"Father," she said one day, "to-morrow you know is our wedding-day. John will come home, he must return to-night. I know that he will. I shall wait up till the clock strikes twelve, but if he does not come (and of course no one can tell how long business may detain him, can they?), one thing, dear father: will you take Mary to church, even though I should not be there, and marry her? She might wear my wedding-gown. To please me, father, to please me?"
"Anything, anything to please you, my own child," said Mr. Ives in a choked voice.
All day Betty wandered in the garden; they watched her wistfully, her head was raised, always listening—listening to every sound.
The hours passed, evening came, the night fell. Betty had thrown wide the casement. Her father and Mary Jones, crouching over the fire, had no heart to speak to her, or warn her that the night was cold.
A wild stormy wind swayed the branches of the apple-trees, surging and roaring as it rushed over the downs; the candles flickered and burned low, and from them dropped those strange waxen off-shoots that old women call winding-sheets.
At last the church-bell struck twelve, slowly, awfully.
Betty was listening still, her head raised, her finger on her lip.
"Hush!" she said, with a strange smile. "Do you hear the white horse's hoofs?"
They listened. Distinctly on the ear came the sound of a horse galloping, coming nearer and nearer, passing the door, on and on without pause, the sound of the hoofs growing faint and fainter till lost in the far distance.
Betty held out her arms. "Mary!" she said. "Mary!" Her voice was a strange harsh whisper, out of which all tone had passed. "Mary, he gallops away."
After the lapse of another three days, it was determined that there should be no further delay of the marriage, and one morning without pomp or parade of any kind, Mr. Ives took his bride into Wancote, and they returned home man and wife.
The only wedding-guest was the parson's old friend Dr. Glebe, and he returned with them to the parsonage because he had a few serious words that he wished to say there.
He took Mr. Ives aside, and said abruptly, "Are you mad, Ives? Do you wish to lose that peerless daughter of yours? I warn you that you will do so, if you are not more watchful."
"I would give my life for hers," answered her father sorrowfully. "And so would Mary, who loves her dearly, but alas! what can we do? We cannot bring back John Johnstone."
"You must send her away at once. She must have change of air and scene. At once, mark you, without an hour's unnecessary delay."
"You think it will do her good?"
"I think it the one chance of escaping fatal mischief. See, I have a plan to propose. Why not send her to Newbury to her aunt? She is a sensible woman, and the house is full of children—they will rouse her."
"I will take her myself," cried Mr. Ives.
"Nay, nay, that would defeat my object. I want absolute change for her, change of thought, scene, companions."
"But how manage it, if I may not go myself?"
"Squire Thornton rides to Newbury tomorrow with Sir Harry Clare, and he will willingly be her protector."
"Yes, it will do Betty good to ride, and old Isaac can follow with a valise full of clothes."
"Tomorrow did you say?"
"Tomorrow at daybreak."
"It shall be done. God grant that it may do her good."
The following morning, with many a tear and many a blessing Mr. Ives and his wife started Betty on her way.
She made no resistance, passively assented to all they wished. When she was once more in the saddle, her spirits rose feverishly again.
Sir Harry Clare, riding by her side, felt the old fascination stealing over him again, the fascination that had well nigh broken Lady Rachel's heart at Newbury last year. Squire Thornton saw her bright color, and heard the old lively talk as of old, and thought how that time cures all things, and that perhaps in the days to come, his son might have a chance at last.
About half way on their journey the little party was joined by two gentlemen who reached the highway by a cross-road; they lived far from the Wancote neighbourhood. The one Sir James Templemore, the other Mr. Mat Harding.
Squire Thornton was glad to meet with friends so rarely encountered; they had secrets together mayhap. They saluted each other cordially, their greeting of Sir Harry Clare was more cold.
It was a gloomy windy day, and after the midday halt to bait their horses, the weather grew worse, a cold violent wind blew in their faces, now and then a driving shower of rain.
"Are you tired, Mistress Betty?" asked the squire.
"No, no, I enjoy the free fresh air, it gives me new life."
"That is well," he said, riding on well pleased.
The two cavaliers who attended Betty on each side were the new arrivals, both of whom appeared much struck by her exceeding beauty.
Now it seemed almost as if they entered into a cloud, so dark it became, so blinded were they by wind and a fresh storm of cold fine rain. The horses grew subdued, they whinnied and held down their tails tightly. It was very cold.
They moved into a short trot, but pulled up soon, breathless.
The rain ceased as suddenly as it had begun, and now Betty became aware of some tall dark object looming in front of her, only as yet half visible. The wind howled past, and distinctly she heard a sort of clanking noise, as of chains or the rattling of something hard clanking together.
"Let us ride on, let us ride fast." cried Squire Thornton in his loud hearty voice. As he spoke there was a whirr of loud wings, and a dark cloud of foul birds rose into the air from off that dark thing.
Betty put out her hand and laid it on Sir James Templemore's arm.
"What is it?" she said in a ghastly whisper.
"Ah, a sad sight indeed," said he sadly. "There hangs as noble a gentleman as ever drew sword for the king, God bless him."
"Who is it?" she asked again; the whisper came hissing forth.
"Who? God rest his soul, he had many names. He was Wild Jack Barnstaple, alias John Johnstone of Belton, alias Daredevil Jack of the North."
"For the sake of all that is sacred, hold your tongue!" shouted the squire, who had caught the last words.
He was too late. With a wild hoarse cry that none who heard it ever forgot, Betty flung wide her arms, and fell back on her saddle. The terrified horse galloped furiously forward, throwing her from side to side, then violently to the ground at the foot of the gallows.
In horror the gentlemen surrounded her, and raised her inanimate form between them.
But it was long and very late before they could get her home.
After long hours her body awoke to life, but her brain was gone. Heartbroken, mind gone, in very sooth mad, what remained for sweet Betty now.
Travellers passing by would point to the parsonage wall, and sorrowfully tell her story. Some more curious than the rest would perhaps stop to look through the gate.
A strange sight met their eyes.
As beautiful as ever, with a strange fearful beauty, stood Betty, her hands hanging clasped before her, and she sang to herself softly, dreamily:
"Call him, call him over the lea, Aye, well and well-a-day; Lover will never come back to thee Who loves and gallops away."
Then she put her hands to her mouth as men do who wish that their voices should carry far, and called over and over again slowly, "John Johnstone! John Johnstone!"—the last syllable rising loud on a long high note.
Then she would hold up her finger, and bend her head listening, listening, listening, till she heard the sound of the galloping hoofs come nearer and nearer, passing and fading away.
Those who watched with her in the dark evenings in the walled garden swore that they also heard the sound, and their hair bristled with cold fear.
"He is a very strange mixture."
"I really do not think you ought to ask him to the house. An atheist, a man of disreputable life, a——."
"Come, come, my dear, don't give him such a character, before Virginia."
This fragment of dialogue takes place over a cheery breakfast table in a house not very far from Park Lane.
The first speaker is a pleasant-looking man of between fifty and sixty, and his interlocutor is a rather prim lady, who appears older, but is, in reality, his junior by two years. They are Mr. Hamilton Hayward and his sister, Miss Susan.
The party has a third member—the Virginia alluded to by Mr. Hayward. She is tall, handsome, bright-looking; evidently she possesses character, but with it the grace and charm of manner which prevent a woman of character from falling into that disagreeable being, a strong-minded woman.
"What are Mr. Vansittart's good points?" she says, smiling at her uncle.
"He has the kindest heart in the world," Mr. Hayward replies, warmly, "and he would never do a shabby thing. One of the few men who really practice not letting their left hand know the good their right does. He certainly is a looseish fish; but he does not parade his irregularities before the world—the world need not know anything about them if it does not insist on prying into his affairs. The greatest grudge women have against him is that he is mortally opposed to marriage, and carries on a crusade against it as though he were St. George, and matrimony the Dragon. He says if you want to make two people hate each other who would otherwise be disposed to love—"
"Hush! my dear Hamilton," cries Miss Susan, horrified. "Pray spare us a repetition of Mr. Vansittart's iniquitous opinions."
"I suppose," laughs Virginia, "that women don't insist on marrying him by force, do they?"
"A great many would be very glad to have him," rejoins Mr. Hamilton, "he is a tremendously taking fellow."
"And have you really asked him to dinner?" interposes Miss Susan.
"I have, indeed, my dear, and I had a good deal of difficulty in persuading him to come. He persisted that he went so little into society—into ladies' society."
Miss Susan gave a little snort.
"He has no right to go into it at all with the views he holds; and, pray, whom is he to take in to dinner?"
"Mrs. Ashton, I thought," answers Mr. Hamilton. "I am afraid he would be bored with an unmarried lady."
"When I was young," says Miss Susan, bridling, "married women were as modest and particular in their conversation as unmarried ones."
"Ah!" observes her brother dryly.
"Uncle," cries Virginia, "let him take me. If he is original, I shall be sure to like him; and as I don't intend to marry, he need not be afraid of my having designs on him. I shall give him a hint whilst he is eating his soup that I have made a vow to coiffer Ste. Catherine."
"Virginia!" remonstrates Miss Susan; "and you know Sir Harry Hotspur is to take you."
"No, no," cries Virginia, "he bores me to distraction. Besides," laughing, "he 'goes for married women.' Let him have Mrs. Ashton, and give me Mr. Vansittart."
Miss Susan has one virtue, which is, that she is never quite so shocked as she pretends to be. Moreover, Virginia always gets her way with both uncle and aunt. So when the evening of the dinner party arrives, Mr. Hayward brings Mr. Vansittart up to his niece and introduces him. Whilst he is uttering a few of those banalites which must inevitably be the precursors of even the most interesting conversation between two strangers, Virginia is taking an inventory of him. He is tall, rather dark than fair; his features are well cut, and he has particularly expressive eyes, the color of which it takes her some time to decide about. At the same moment he is saying to himself: "What sort of woman is this, and what on earth shall I talk to her about? I hope to heaven she isn't a girl of the period. She doesn't look like it—still less like a prude. How I hate a society dinner! I suppose I shall be bored to death, as usual."
True to her promise, Virginia apprises him, whilst he yet is assimilating his soup, of her vow of celibacy. He turns to look at her, being just a shade surprised at receiving such a confidence so early in their acquaintance, and then he sees the archest smile curving the corners of her mouth, and meets a glance from a pair of brown eyes that he now perceives to be beautiful.
Mr. Vansittart has a quick intelligence—he understands in an instant the object of her remark. His eyes light up with a sudden gleam, and he murmurs quietly, "Thanks so much for putting me at my ease."
From that moment they are perfectly at home with each other, and fall to animated talk. He does not air his theories about marriage, nor is religion discussed between them, but there are plenty of other topics, and they become aware of a dozen feelings and sympathies in common. Virginia is as bright and witty as she is modest and pure-minded; there is nothing in the world that Mr. Vansittart detests so much as a coarse or immodest lady. So charmed is he with Virginia, that he remains close to her side the whole evening, to the surprise of every one else. No one ever saw him devote himself to a girl before. He stays until the very last. As he walks away from the door, after lighting his cigar, he reflects to himself: "If any earthly power could induce me to marry, it would be a girl like that. But," resolutely, "nothing could." As Virginia wends her way upstairs to bed, she says to herself with a heavy sigh, "Why should he abuse marriage? How happy he might make some woman!"
Virginia is the daughter of a clergyman. Father and mother are both dead. She has a brother in the army, and a sister married to a country rector. Her uncle, Mr. Hayward, has adopted her. She is clever and accomplished. She has both passion and imagination. Some of her ideas are original; she hates common-placeness, but she is also imbued with the attribute possessed by every charming woman, the love of approbation. This prevents her doing or saying anything outre or unconventional; this makes her careful of her appearance and fond of fair apparel; this makes the evidence of admiration from the other sex exceedingly agreeable to her; this causes her to adopt a manner towards them that induces jealous women to call her a coquette. She has had several offers of marriage, but she entertains peculiar ideas about the strength of passion and the sympathy of thought a man and woman ought to feel for each other before they decide to spend a life-time together. She does not think a man who has a good income, and who is simply not repulsive or abhorrent to her, a sufficient inducement.
The days wear on. Virginia does not forget Mr. Vansittart any more than he forgets her, but he weighs more on her heart than she does on his, for, happy man! he is perpetually occupied, being a barrister with a considerable practice, whilst she is an idle woman as the well-to-do of her sex mostly are. If she goes to balls or dances, she is always contrasting every man, with whom she talks or dances, with him; if she works at her embroidery, her thoughts are intent on him; if she reads, a hero of her own ousts the hero of the novel from her brain; if she sings, her voice is moved to strong pathos; her eyes become drowned by that strange passion which consumes her. Days and weeks pass by; and she does not catch a glimpse of him; does not even hear his name. She sees it frequently in the Times. One Sunday afternoon, she and her uncle strolling in the Park meet him. He lifts his hat, and is about to pass, when something that her eyes have communicated to his heart, stops him suddenly. He turns and joins them. It is a delicious summer afternoon: they take chairs under the big trees which shade this cool green spot. Presently a crony joins Mr. Hayward—soon the elder pair are deep in the cause celebre of the day. Virginia and Mr. Vansittart have forgotten that other people exist in the world—the topics of their conversation are ordinary enough, but it is not from them that a subtle delight steals through their veins. What they heed is the language of each other's eyes. His say—"You fulfil my idea of perfect womanhood. I could love you with all my heart, with all my soul, with all my strength. I respect you with my purest feelings; I love you with my strongest passions; I would to God I could shake off my doubts about marriage. But I know that if I married you, inexorable Destiny would no longer let us love one another."
And her eyes reiterate one little sentence, "You are my lord, my master, and I am your slave."
It was one of the very strongest cases of love at first sight. Such cases are more common, however, than people affect to think.
"Come home and dine with us," says Mr. Hayward, as a distant clock strikes seven.
"I'm afraid I have not time to dress," replies Philip Vansittart; "that is if you dine at half past seven, as I have heard you say you do."
"Never mind about dress," answers Mr. Hayward. "I won't dress either."
He has no designs on his guest, but he is a good-natured gentleman, and he sees that these two are attracted toward each other.
Miss Susan is at church. If her brother will dine at his usual hour on Sunday, she cannot help it, but she will not countenance him by her presence.
Philip Vansittart thinks he has never spent such a divinely happy evening as this. Virginia sings to him; her voice thrills to his very soul. Mr. Hamilton is asleep in the next room. As for Virginia, when she is alone, she first smiles a happy, triumphant smile, because she knows he loves her, and then she bursts into a passion of tears and sobs until her whole frame is convulsed. If his mind is really set against marriage, what will become of her! She feels as though life without him must be one long night of despair.
Philip Vansittart paces his room until the small hours, thinking of this charming, lovable creature, who inspires stronger, deeper sensations in him than he has ever felt before. He tells himself, without vanity or self-deception, that what he feels for her, with that difference which governs the loves of men and women, she feels for him—heart has gone out to heart, nay, they are twain halves of a perfect heart. It is but for him to stretch out his hand to her, and she will come. Aye! but how can he stretch out his hand? In the society in which they both move there is but one way in which she can be his—the way sanctioned by society, blessed by the church. Society and the church will bless and smile upon any union: the decrepit old man with the blooming child; the drunkard and adulterer with the pure young girl; the avaricious youth with the doting old woman. Marriage purifies, sanctifies, hallows sensuality, greed, any, every base motive. To love as God made you free to love, unfettered, and with a true heart, is a crime; to live together full of hatred, loathing, and revolt, is to perform a sacred duty once you have tied yourself up in church. This was Vansittart's theory. Marriage to him was only another word for satiety, weariness, restraint, tyranny. He had never seen what he called a happy marriage, though he had observed many which the world crowned with that adjective, and he had sworn a thousand oaths that he would never subject himself to that miserable awakening which inevitably follows the temporary sleep of mind and reason, and the short dream of passion which makes a man bind himself with shackles.
Philip paced his room for hours, fighting the hardest battle he had ever fought. It was the first time he had ever been tempted to marry—tempted beyond endurance. And, at last, ashen pale, in the wan morning light, and with set teeth, he took his final oath and resolve. He would save himself years of wretchedness by a month's anguish; he would not go near her, nor see her again. He was not entirely selfish; he did not forget that she might, nay, would suffer, but he said, with a sigh, "It will be best for her as for me."
* * * * *
A month passed by: two months. Virginia grew pale, listless, distraite; her step was languid, her eye haggard. She did not know how to endure her life; she suffered torments day and night from an agonising desire to hear the voice, to meet the eyes again which had given light to her soul and in whose absence she felt it must needs perish of want. It was plain enough to her why he avoided her. He had seen that she loved him; he would not encourage false hopes in her breast. Had she not been warned, ere ever she met him, that he abjured marriage? She remembered, with a breaking heart, her own first playful words to him.
Mr. Hayward saw the change in Virginia, but he put it down entirely to the effects of a London season—to late hours and the want of fresh air. Never mind! the end was near at hand, and then they would go and fill their lungs with mountain air and their eyes with fair scenes, and the roses would come back to her cheeks and lips, and the light to her eyes. He never for an instant connected his niece's pallor with Philip Vansittart. He would have ridiculed the idea of people being twice in each other's company, and breaking their hearts with longing afterwards.
* * * * *
Mr. Hayward, his sister, and Virginia, were dining at a Swiss table d'hote. Exactly opposite were two empty places. The fish had been served, and two gentlemen came in and took them. One was Mr. Philip Vansittart. At sight of him the crimson blood rushed to Virginia's cheeks, then ebbed away, leaving her deathly pale. For a moment she thought she must swoon or die from the intensity of her feelings. Philip was scarcely less moved, though, being a man, he was better able to control his agitation. When he had time to look more narrowly at Virginia, he saw a mighty change in her. His heart smote him; and yet—had he not suffered? Great heaven! had his been a bed of roses? Had he not agonised after her?
Dinner over, the party went off into the garden. A mutual unspoken desire made Vansittart and Virginia steal off together to a secluded spot. Twilight was creeping on—the last glow of a rosy sunset was fading away; the strains of a delicious waltz were borne towards them. Vansittart felt his passion mastering him. He made a herculean effort over himself. He would speak. He would tell her the truth. After that she would forget him. They were sitting under a tree that screened them off from the rest of the garden. He could see well enough that she was trembling with nervousness; that delight, fear, expectation were blended in the beautiful eyes she turned towards him; and, lest suddenly he should yield to that mad longing to catch her to his heart, he began to speak hurriedly—abruptly.
But Virginia scarcely hears him. Her lips are burning to ask him that one question, and, not heeding what he is saying, she turns and in a tremulous voice that vibrates to his very soul, she says:
"Why have you kept away from us all this time?"
Why? And Vansittart catches his breath. Then the gyves of his strong will give way as the withes fell from Samson.
"I will tell you," he says. "I love you so horribly, that it is pain and anguish to me to be with you, for then I feel that when I leave you I am ready to die of longing and misery."
"Well?" she utters in a very low voice, bending her eyes on the ground. It is only one little word, but it speaks such volumes! "Why should you leave me?" it says. "Is it not my case, too? What need you more than speak!"
"You have heard," he goes on, not daring to look at her, "that I have forsworn marriage. Marriage," passionately, "kills love, and I would rather, ten times over, suffer what I have suffered—and God knows that is not a little!—than a day should come when, having known such divine happiness as I should know were you mine, we should grow cold and weary; when our passions should turn to indifference, to disappointment and heart-burnings, and end, perhaps, in our cherishing feelings of vindictive spite and bitterness against each other, and in my thinking every woman pleasanter and fairer than you, end in your believing me to be the greatest brute under heaven!"
"Oh!" utters Virginia, as she raises her eyes to his face with a look of pained wonder.
"I have seen it a thousand times," he continues vehemently. "I have known men passionately, madly in love with women, ready to count 'the world well lost,' to sacrifice all the future only to call that idol of the moment theirs. I have seen them marry. I have watched the weariness that comes from security even more than from satiety. I have seen the links that were forged in roses become gyves of iron—tenderness and courtesy give place to rudeness and contempt. I never saw but two people perfectly happy, and they," lowering his voice, "were not married. I have sworn a thousand times never to court wretchedness for myself and a woman I loved by loading her and myself with chains. My idea has been this. Some day I may meet with a being who, under natural circumstances, she keeping her freedom and leaving me mine, I might love with all my heart and be faithful to until the day of my death. I would give her all I possessed. I would devote myself to making her happy; if she had to sacrifice anything for my sake, I would atone to her for it by my unwearying love. But," his voice mastered by emotion, "how dare I say such words to you? In the sphere in which you live they would be considered a dastardly insult—one must not dare to move one step from the beaten track of custom. The world would scoff at the idea that my love for you is more sacred and reverent than that of a man who, inspired by a momentary passion for a woman and desiring her, obtains his end by a simple and speedy means, without reflection as to the possible misery of both in the future. And yet," his lips quivering, his face growing deathly white, "I believe I could love you more dearly, love you longer than husband ever loved wife."
Virginia sits rooted to the spot, a deadly anguish strangling her heart. Then, whilst the divine strains of music still flow on, she feels herself drawn to his heart; his lips meet hers in one long kiss that steals her very soul away from her. He is gone—the music has ceased—the night grows chill—she shivers. "The world well lost," she mutters to herself, and then, with listless steps, and strange, affrighted eyes, she drags herself up stairs to her room.
In a charming house, surrounded by an acre of ground, turned into a small paradise, a house not more than two miles from Hyde Park Corner, live Philip Vansittart and Virginia Hayward. The neighbourhood knows them as Mr. and Mrs. Vansittart, and has not the very remotest conception that in so perfectly ordered an establishment, there is anything which they would designate as "odd." If anything could arouse suspicion in the breasts of the servants who wait upon them, and the tradespeople who serve them it would be the extraordinary tenderness subsisting between them; the excessive courtesy and consideration of Mr. Vansittart for Mrs. Vansittart, and the entire absence of that familiarity commonly seen between affectionate husbands and wives, which almost invariably engenders subsequent contempt.
The house is furnished with exquisite taste. Mr. Vansittart is continually bringing home artistic treasures to add to its embellishment. Mrs. Vansittart has a carriage and a fine pair of horses. She seldom, however, drives into town except to the play, or to dine. A great many gentlemen of distinction and rank come to the house, who treat Mrs. Vansittart like a queen, and a few ladies; clever, literary ladies, ladies holding peculiar views—very rarely the consorts of distinguished and well-born men.
Is Philip happy? Is Virginia happy? To this I can only reply by another question. Is any one Happy? They love each other with unfailing tenderness—they are all the world to each other—the thought of separation would be death to them. And yet the heart of either is gnawed by a secret worm. In the midst of his busy life, Philip can never forget that he has sacrificed the woman whom he adores from the very bottom of his soul, and the horrible suspicion will stab him, that he has sacrificed her needlessly. They are living as husband and wife, and yet no feeling of weariness, of satiety, comes near them—each day draws them nearer together; makes them find fresh points in each other to love and admire. Were she his wife, occupying her proper sphere in society, sought after, courted, admired, he with no feeling of self-reproach, she with no consciousness (which she must feel though she never betrays) of cruelty and selfishness on his part; might they not be even happier? He forgets to tell himself that they are happy because no tie binds them—nay, he says secretly in his heart that that tie is the only thing wanting to make their felicity perfect. Now, it is too late. The world knows the truth—marriage can never whitewash Virginia in society's eyes—no future can condone the crime of the past. He has settled every farthing he has in the world upon her—no mean fortune—he loads her with gifts—he is perpetually thinking of her pleasure and amusement, and yet, for ever, the load of his debt to her weighs down his soul.
And Virginia? Paul is all in all to her; he is her heart, her soul, her conscience, and yet he cannot shield her from the fate which he has brought upon her. What must inevitably be the sufferings of a proud and pure-minded woman, who knows herself to be an object of scorn to her sex? How would a man, naturally honorable and high-minded, feel, if, in some fatal moment, he had been tempted to commit a forgery, or take an unfair advantage at cards, and was afterwards shunned by every man friend; thrust out of every club, banned utterly from the society of his fellows, except those with whom it would revolt him to associate? This is the only case that can parallel that of a woman who has lost the world for a man's sake; and men who have a difficulty in realizing how great is the sacrifice they compel or accept from a woman, would do well to consider this.
Virginia suffered many a bitter pang when she showed herself in public with Philip. She quivered under the open stare, or the look askance of members of her sex; if she showed a brave front, it was that of the Spartan boy! Philip was particularly fond of the opera and the play; he would not have gone without her; so she accompanied him, and made no demur. Of course every relation and friend she had in the world shunned her as though she were a leper, which indeed, morally, she was in their eyes. She loved society; no woman was more calculated to shine in it, and from this she was cut off. True, they constantly entertained brilliant and clever men, whose conversation and company were very agreeable to her; but, however much a woman may like, may even prefer the society of men, it is a bitter thought to her that she cannot command that of her own sex. And, though men treated her with even a greater and more delicate courtesy than they would perhaps have shown their own women, Virginia was none the less keenly conscious of the moral ban under which she lay.
She was the daughter of a clergyman, she had been religiously brought up, and she writhed under the terrible consciousness that her life was a sin against her God. At first she went to church, but everything she heard there sent the iron deeper into her soul; if there were comforting promises to repentant Magdalens, there was nothing but wrath and threatening for those who continued in their sin. By-and-by she left off going to church. Philip was a sceptic, most of his friends were the same. Virginia listened to their talk, and, in time, her faith began to waver; she liked to think they were right, and that the Bible was a string of fables; it lessened her sense of criminality and remorse, but it cut her off forever from the only consolation a woman can know, when her hour of trial comes. If man could supply the place of God and Saviour now, whither should she fly when he was torn from her or grew weary of her?
She was glad that she had no children—could she live to be shamed by them, scorned by them? And yet—how sweet it would have been to feel clinging arms about her neck; to hear little voices lisp the sweetest word on earth to a mother's ear, if only she might have been as other mothers—as other wives! Never, never once had she breathed or hinted a wish that Philip should marry her; she had a superstitious dread that once the chain was forged his love for her would cease—marriage could not now reinstate her in the world's sight—she had ceased to remember that her life was a crime. She had heard it said so often that marriage was simply an institution founded upon expediency; that all systems having been tried, the one that worked best was the union of a man to one wife, that she herself began to doubt its being a heaven-ordained institution, and the only state tolerated by Divine Providence. But if she ceased to feel herself actually a guilty and sinning woman, she was none the less sensitive to the world's scorn; to the bitterness of holding a position that society refused to tolerate or to recognize.
But, after all, she knew happiness which is denied to nine-tenths of women, nay, to ninety-nine out of a hundred. She enjoyed the passionate, unfailing devotion of the man whom she adored—no harsh word ever crossed his lips to her—she was his first care and thought—no party of pleasure ever tempted him from her side—nothing but the claim of business could induce him to spend an evening away from her. And so the years passed on. It is an unalterable law of nature that passion must succumb before habit, but it may be succeeded by a calm content, a happy trustful confidence, that wears better, and is perhaps in the long run more satisfactory.
Twelve years elapsed, and during that time Virginia enjoyed unbroken health. Then, one winter, she caught a severe cold, which settled on her lungs; her life was despaired of. No woman was ever a more tender, more devoted nurse than Philip. But this illness left her extremely delicate; she could no longer brave all weathers as formerly, nor be Philip's constant companion in his walks and drives. She was forbidden to go out at night, and they had been so in the habit of going to the play, especially in the winter months. At first he insisted on remaining at home with her, but she was too unselfish to allow him to sacrifice himself. There was many an evening when she was unable to leave her room, and when talking would bring on severe paroxysms of coughing. She succeeded in prevailing upon him to visit the theatre without her, and sometimes even to dine with a friend. After a time he got into the habit of going about alone, and, although he was even more tender and considerate than before, she felt an agonising consciousness that he could, after all, do without her, which he had sworn ten thousand times he never could. She began to have sleepless nights and passionate fits of crying. Nemesis was coming upon her with gigantic strides. Philip did not suspect that she was unhappy; he thought her illness affected her spirits. A great change had come over her, which he deplored. She no longer was the bright, amusing companion of yore.
Two more years went by. Virginia was almost a confirmed invalid—she could only get out in fine summer weather—then her spirits rallied, and she was something of her old self again. Philip often spent his evenings away from home now; it become a habit; he did not suspect that Virginia suffered from his absence, but thought that it was really her wish, dear, unselfish soul that she was, that he should go out and be amused. And she, fearful of making him fancy that he felt a chain where none existed, was careful never to show him by word or look that she suffered from his absence. She tormented herself with the thought that he might meet any day with a young and beautiful woman who would inspire again in his breast the feeling that he had once known for her. And she remembered that she was free, even if he forgot it. Poor soul! she recognised bitterly enough now, that the only safety for a woman is in that bond which a man may so lightly affect to set at naught: in a contract like hers and Philip's, the man has all to gain, the woman all to lose.
It was growing dusk one November afternoon, when the door of Virginia's drawing-room was thrown open, and Lord Harford announced. A slight blush suffused her cheek as she rose to receive him, and she appeared slightly embarrassed. Virginia was still beautiful, though no longer very young; she had an extremely fragile and delicate appearance, which is attractive to some men, notably to those who, like Lord Harford, are big, strong and robust.
"You are not angry with me for coming, are you?" he asks almost diffidently, as soon as the door has closed on the servant.
"No," she answers gently. Times are changed with her since the last occasion in which she and he stood face to face in this very room. Then she was angry, but then she was in the full flush of health and beauty, and he was her would-be lover. There had been nothing to wound or humiliate her in his love-making; he had come loyally to offer her his hand and all that belonged to him, which of wealth and honor was no mean portion. But she had been deeply stung by a man daring to remember that she was free, and there was only one husband and lover in the world for her. Now that, as it seemed to her, beauty and love were so far removed from her, it was almost a pleasure to remember that she had been beloved.
"I have passed your door a hundred times," he says, "and never been able to summon up courage enough to ask for you."
"But to-day you were braver," she utters, looking at him with something of the old smile and manner.
"I thought perhaps you had a good many dull hours now Vansittart is so much away."
"How do you know that he is much away?" asks Virginia, feeling vaguely hurt at his words and tone.
"Because I so often meet him out."
"Where do you meet him?"
"Oh, at different places. Chiefly at Mrs. Devereux's."
Lord Harford looks full in Virginia's face, and she, who is so quick, cannot fail to see that his eyes and tone are intended to convey some meaning.
"Mrs. Devereux?" she says, inquiringly. "You mean his cousin."
After this there is a pause. It is as though he wanted her to question him; as though she were fighting against the desire to know his meaning. She conquers herself by an effort.
"I have been very ill since you saw me last. You find me much altered, do you not?"
"You look delicate," he answers, "but in my eyes," lowering his voice, "you are as beautiful as ever."
She half-smiles, half-sighs.
"It is very kind of you to say that," she utters, "but I cannot deceive myself. I am an old woman now; if ever I had any good looks they are gone."
"They are not!" cries Lord Harford staunchly. "What I say is gospel truth. I think your delicacy becomes you. I hate your great buxom, dairymaid women."
Virginia smiles at his earnestness.
"Ah, if you had been mine," he goes on, "I should never have wanted to look at another woman, young or old."
Still that strange meaning in his tone. A chill terror creeps to Virginia's heart—she can no longer restrain herself.
"What do you mean?" she says, fixing her eyes on him. "You are hinting at something—you want to convey something to my mind. If you are a man—if you pretend to be my friend, speak out honestly."
He rises, and takes one or two turns in the room, then stops abruptly in front of her.
"Will you believe me, I wonder?" he asks, "or will you think me a mean hound who only seeks his own interest?"
"Interest?" echoes Virginia bitterly, "what interest can it be to you?"
"This much," he answers, a red flush mounting to his brow, "that I am as anxious this moment to make you my wife as I was four years ago."
Virginia makes an impatient movement with her hand.
"Vansittart is in love with Mrs. Devereux's eldest girl, Connie. She is a pretty little kitten of a thing, but a mere child—a doll. I go there rather often—they are old friends of mine. Whenever I go, he is always there."
For a moment Virginia feels as though she were dying; then, by an extraordinary effort, she recovers herself.
"I would rather have my tongue cut out than tell you," Lord Harford continues, half-ashamed, "only that I want you to know where your refuge is if he breaks your heart. Oh!" imploringly, "why will you not care for me who am ready to devote my life to you? Marry me, and let us go abroad and win health for you and happiness for me!"
His voice is broken with emotion—he takes one of her hands in his. She is leaning back in her chair, very white—she is hardly conscious of his action—all the hot blood in his veins cannot warm her chill white fingers.
"Do you think," she says at last, very slowly, "that if—if he were rid of me, he would marry her? Does she care for him?"
"I don't think about it. Yes, it is very strange; but, child as she is, he has perfectly infatuated her."
There is another long pause, during which he eagerly scans her face. Suddenly her eyes light up, and she returns his glance.
"Are you really willing to marry me?" she says.
"Why do you ask?" he returns, simply. "Are my eyes not honest?"
Virginia smiles. "If you mean it," she says, "go now, and write me the same words to-night or to-morrow."
So, as she bids him, he goes.
* * * * *
Lord Harford had set down nothing in malice. What he told Virginia is absolutely true. Philip Vansittart is in love with a gay, pretty child, whose winsome tricks have coiled her round his heart. He has never spoken one word of love to her, for he feels and knows himself as much bound to Virginia as though the marriage-tie he once so utterly abhorred linked them. He no longer, strange to say, thinks and speaks so evilly of marriage. Were he free, would he not joyfully chain himself with all the bonds that church and society can impose to this sweet young life which would make him young again? He has no thought or desire to blast this girl-life as he had done Virginia's. Perish the thought! When these ideas come to him, he hates and loathes himself; he makes superhuman efforts to drive them away—but the limpid blue eyes come and look at him over his briefs; the childish voice rings in his ears in the night watches! He grows pale and haggard. At last he makes a mighty resolve.
"Virginia," he says, two nights after Lord Harford's visit to her, "let us be married!"
He takes her hand kindly, but his eyes do not meet hers, and the tender inflection of yore is missing from his voice.
Virginia betrays no surprise. Poor soul! She understands too well.
"Why?" she says quietly. "I think we are very well as we are."
"No," he returns hastily, "we are not! My views have changed on the subject—changed entirely. Marriage is the best thing. It decides your fate. To live as we do is neither one thing nor the other."
"You forget," she says, in a tone so calm as to be almost unnatural. "This state has great advantages. There is no tie between us. If either of us tired of the other, there is nothing to hinder our parting, to-morrow—to-night even." He looks at her, speechless with amazement. Her eyes do not flinch from his. "If," she continues, with that terrible calmness,—"if you wanted to marry Miss Constance Devereux; if I wished to marry—let us say, Lord Harford—there is nothing to prevent it except," slowly, "the unwritten law of a faithful heart."
Philip Vansittart leans his face between his hands. He cannot find a word to say. He is smitten with remorse, for he knows well enough that she is faithful. But why that allusion to Lord Harford?
"What do you mean about Harford?" he asks presently.
"He wants me to marry him," replied Virginia quietly. "He asked me four years ago; he asked me again the day before yesterday."
She draws a letter from her pocket, and scans Philip's face as he reads it. When he has finished, he looks at her. She understands his glance but too well. There is an only half-suppressed eagerness—a half-suppressed hope in it.
"What shall I do?" she says, so quietly that it deceives him.
"There is no better fellow living than Harford," he says cordially. "If you thought you could be happy with him; if—"
He stops abruptly. There is a look of such terrible agony in Virginia's face that he starts up and takes her hand.
"No, no," he cries. "Let it be as I said. Let us marry each other. It is the only thing to be done."
Virginia's ears, sharpened by suffering, catch the dreary tone of the concluding words.
* * * * *
Next morning, when Philip, according to custom, went to Virginia's room, he found her asleep. From that sleep she never woke. One more of those unfortunate cases of an overdose of chloral. The deceased lady had suffered much from sleeplessness, and always kept the fatal drug by her bedside.
The church gave its blessing, and society smiled when that heretic and sceptic Mr. Vansittart led his charming girl-bride to the altar a few months later. It was whispered that there had been an—entanglement, but that was all hushed up now, and he had become a respectable member of society.
MR. JOSIAH SMITH'S BALLOON JOURNEY.
It would be an injustice to Josiah to suppose that he limited his quest in the field of knowledge to that particular portion indicated by his honoured association with a distinguished society. He was proud in his modest way, if the paradox be permitted, when he produced his card, on which was engraved "Josiah Smith, F.R.S.A." Also it was known amongst his friends that casual references to his great work on "Underground England" were not displeasing to him. But, as he was wont to say, "The surest way of finding either mental or bodily recreation is to seek it in fresh fields of labour."
Thus it came to pass one evening in the spring of this year that Josiah, having shut himself in all day with the determination to make up for lost time, found he had, with the aid of cold tea and wet bandages, added as much as half a page to his great work. Feeling the need of a little change of thought and association, he had availed himself of an invitation kindly sent to him to join the meeting of an aeronautic society. Josiah had listened with profound attention to the various speeches made, and had thought, really, when he had a little more time he would devote it to the fascinating science of aeronautics.
Amongst the guests of the society, and indeed the hero of the evening, was Captain Mulberry, the famous guardsman who devoted much natural talent and a considerable portion of his life to the endeavour either to kill or hopelessly maim himself. Evil fortune had kept his sword stainless, as far as regular warfare went, but there was generally a little fighting going on somewhere, and, the captain's leave of absence coinciding, he from time to time managed to sniff the exhilarating smell of powder, and knew the music of bullet and shell. These things were surrounded with difficulties. It obviously would not do for a man bearing Her Majesty's commission to lend his sword to one or other belligerents in a conflict between nations at peace with England. In a country like Spain, for example, things naturally run a little irregularly and the captain being on the spot may have occasionally lapsed into battle.
But these were mere episodes. Having tried most things, he had taken to ballooning, as offering the largest amount of risk in the least possible space of time. He had been up in all kinds of balloons in all possible circumstances, and had come down in various ways. He had just now achieved a great feat, making a voyage from the Grampian Hills to the Orkney Islands. The society desiring to do him honour had invited him to this meeting, and Josiah had heard him describe his perilous voyage.
"A mere nothing," he said; "perhaps a little difficult going, but nothing at all coming back. The difficulty in going out was to drop on the Orkneys. The place is so small that when you are up in the air it looks as if you might as well try to drop on a pin's point. But after all, it was a nothing—a mere nothing, gentlemen, I assure you. Any one of you could have done the same."
Every one in the room was delighted, not less with the captain's gallantry than with his modesty. Many moving stories of his escapes were retailed. Josiah listened with enthralled attention to an adventure which, it seems, the captain had had in Spain, and which Josiah's companion (a bald-headed gentleman with spectacles) narrated with great effect. Mulberry in one of the marches of the Carlists, to whom he had attached himself, was surprised and taken prisoner by the enemy. They locked him in the kitchen of a farmhouse near, mentioning incidentally that in the morning they would shoot him. They took away his sword and pistols; and would have taken his umbrella, but the captain pleaded hard for its society, declaring that from early boyhood he had never been able to sleep without an umbrella under his pillow. The Spaniards had heard much of the eccentricity of Englishmen, and not being inclined to refuse the request of a doomed man, they left him the umbrella.
The next morning, when they came to take him out for shooting purposes, lo! the captain and the umbrella were both gone. There was a good deal of soot about the place, and regarding this and other signs of hasty flight the truth flashed upon the Spaniards. There had been a fire in the grate. The captain had opened the umbrella inside the chimney, waited till it had been inflated with the warm air, and then, hanging on the handle, had been drawn up clear to the top and descending in a neighbouring field, had shut up his umbrella and walked off.
"Dear me!" said Josiah; "how very interesting. I suppose the chimneys are wide in Spain?"
"Very wide indeed," said the bald-headed gentleman in spectacles.
Josiah regarded the captain with fresh interest after the recital of this remarkable ascent, and it was not diminished by further tales he heard. One related to his reception by an Illustrious Personage. After his journey to Orkney the I.P. had sent for him immediately on his return to town. The captain had put on his uniform and gone cheerfully. He had heard so much of his feat that he began to think there really was something creditable in it, and fancied the Illustrious Personage might be going to bestow upon him some recognition of the service he had done in blazoning abroad the pluck of the British soldier. On the contrary, he found the Illustrious Person almost speechless with wrath, and stuffed with oaths like plums in a Christmas pudding.
"What—what was the meaning of this flying by night, sir?" he cried turning a flaming visage upon the contrite captain. "You'll be going round with a circus next, riding five horses at a time, or walking round to show your muscle. I hope I shall hear no more of this sort of thing. Such goings-on bring disgrace upon the army and discredit upon its officers. Stop at home, sir, and get into what mischief you like. Go and idle your time at playing cards or worse; but don't be playing these pranks any more. Did you ever see me in a balloon, sir? Did you ever hear of me skimming around the world in search of adventure?"
The Illustrious Personage drew himself up to full height, and swelled visibly before the eyes of the captain, as he angrily put these questions, garnished with many ejaculations. He knew that our army swore terribly in Flanders, and was nothing if not a soldier.
"Your Royal Highness cannot blame us if we sometimes go out of our way to get into danger," said the captain, saluting. "Your Royal Highness has much to answer for by inflaming us with the memory of Inkermann. How can we sit still or lounge about in our peaceful homes, when we think of you on that day?"
"Tut, tut!" said the Illustrious Personage, spluttering down like a fire on which a bucket of water had been flung, "that was a different thing. But come and dine with me to-night: only, drive up in a hansom, don't arrive in a balloon."
And the Illustrious Personage, what with enjoyment of the joke, and what with muscular effort to suppress his laughter, nearly brought about a vacancy in the highest rank of the army.
All this was doubtless as true as the story about the exit from the Spanish farmhouse. But it pleased the company, and was only one of a dozen stories they told about the captain, who was chiefly longing to be out where he could smoke a cigar.
When the meeting came to an end, Josiah walked along Pall Mall meditating on things, and on the comparative obscurity of the work he had assigned to himself. Whilst others were soaring in high places, he was burrowing underground. Both were in search of knowledge. Both desired to benefit their fellow-men. But of the two Josiah felt that the aeronauts had the advantage of the undergrounders. It was too late for him to think of striking out a new path; but he thought that if he had to begin life again he would soar.
Whilst pondering on these matters, he was startled by a heavy hand laid upon his shoulder, and heard a cheery voice exclaim:
"Got a match in your pocket, old man?"
He looked up, and there, somewhere on a level with the lantern in the neighbouring lamp-post, was the genial face of Captain Mulberry.
"No," said Josiah, "I'm sorry I have not."
"Don't smoke, eh? You don't look the kind of old boy to have any pleasant vices. I saw you in the Balloon Society's rooms just now, and rather took a fancy to you."
"You are very kind," Josiah said, blushing up to where in earlier and happier days the roots of his hair had been. "I am sure I feel it a great honour."
"If you don't mind me saying so, I think you're the innocentest-looking old boy I have seen in a day's ride. I like innocence, particularly when combined with middle age. It is the rarest thing in the world. I hope you'll come and dine with me some night at my club."
"I shall like it very much indeed," said Josiah, "We are close at my rooms—just here in King Street I live—and if you would step in, you might light your cigar."
"Thanks, I will. You won't mind me making up to you in this way; but 'pon my honour, I took such a liking to your face, seeing it among that mass of humbug where we were just now, that I was going to speak to you then, only I could not get near you."
Josiah was in a tremor of delight, which presently subsided into a soft glow of contentment, as the captain, stretching himself out over as much of the couch as he could find in the little room, not only lit his cigar, but praised Josiah's claret and told him a good deal more of his balloon adventures than he had communicated to the eminent society in whose rooms they had met.
"By the way," he said, "I am going to make a balloon excursion to-morrow. I didn't mention it to the society because these fellows gab so. There'd be a great crowd round, and I'd only have been hampered. When you mean work, the less you say about it beforehand the better. That is what I have always found. Ever up in a balloon?"
"No," said Josiah, "but I should very much like to go."
He had drunk a whole tumbler of claret in honour of his distinguished company, and, being accustomed to more moderate measure, had begun to think going up in a balloon was after all a mere ordinary performance.
"What do you ride?" asked the captain, looking him up and down, as if either about to measure him for a suit of clothes, or considering where he could most advantageously plant a blow from his ox-hoof-like fist.
"A pony—at least, I used to ride a pony when I was at home: but that is a long time ago, and I have not ridden much since."
"I mean, what do you weigh," said the captain, laughing.
"A little over ten stone."
"Is it possible! why, I pull the scales at seventeen stun. I'd give something to be your weight. Think of the ballast you might take up with you!"
"Is that an important thing?" Josiah asked, his old instinct of gaining knowledge manifesting itself.
"It's simply everything. That's how I managed to get over to the Orkneys. These fellows that go up in balloons which they fit up like first-floor rooms, and take everything with them except a feather bed, don't know anything about it. They go fumbling around with a few pounds of ballast, and when they get into a wrong current there they stick. Now, between you and me, Mr. Smith, I don't mind telling you my secret of successful ballooning. Take as much ballast as you can carry, and when you get stuck in a calm or carried off by a wrong current, out goes your ballast, up you shoot, get into another current, and there you are. Ten stun!" he murmured, gazing wistfully upon the spare figure of his host. "There ought to be a good deal done with that. Tell you what, old chappie, you shall come with me to-morrow."
Josiah had been a few moments ago possessed with a burning desire to go up in a balloon, but at these words the fire went out and he felt a cold chill steal over his body. Still, he would like to go; but not to-morrow. If it were next month or next week it would be different. But to-morrow was so sudden.
"I rather fancy I have an engagement to-morrow," he said, producing his pocket diary and anxiously gazing on it in the month of December.
"Nonsense!" said the captain, laying his large hand on Josiah's shoulder, conveying to him an impression that if he pleased he could take him up, put him in his coat-tail pocket, walk off, and think no more about him till he landed him in a balloon. "You've no engagement, and if you had you couldn't find it by holding your book upside down. You come along with me. There's not the slightest danger, and it's not every man who has crossed the Channel in a balloon."
"The Channel!" cried Josiah feebly. He had thought of some little excursion. Perhaps in the fields ten or twenty miles off. "I don't think I would like to start with the Channel. Suppose we begin somewhere else, and try the Channel later on. It will be better—if anything happened, you know—to have the water warm."
"Nonsense," said the captain cheerily; "we shall never be nearer the water than 2,000 feet. We'll dine in Paris to-morrow night, and I'll take you to the Closerie after dinner. It will do them good to see you there. Now that's settled, and you'd better go to bed straight off. We'll have to be up early in the morning to catch the mail train for Dover. I've got my balloon there all ready, and we'll start about noon."
This was perfectly horrible. Josiah felt as if it was a hideous nightmare, and he had a dim hope that presently he would wake up. But there was the burly form of the captain before him, with his third cigar sticking in the side of his mouth, and a pleased smile upon his face in anticipation of this new adventure.
Those who have learned something of the character of Josiah by reading earlier chapters of his history, will not need to be told how this ended. If he had been in company of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, when they started on their progress through the fiery furnace, and if they had insisted upon his accompanying them, he would have smiled feebly, and gone—that is, if he could not by some means or other slink away out of sight. Now, if he could have gone out of the door on some pretence and run off, down King Street, he would have borne the subsequent shame and humiliation. But he knew that the captain would have been up with him in five strides. So he determined to make the best of it, drank another tumbler of claret, and became almost hysterically eager for the morning.
"I'll see you don't oversleep yourself," were the last words of the captain as he went off. "I'll look you up and take you down to Victoria in my hansom. You needn't bring any luggage, you know. A clean shirt and a tooth-brush will see you through."
Thus faded Josiah's last and secret hope, one he had cherished even whilst he drank his claret and talked boldly of aerial navigation. He might, he had thought, peradventure oversleep himself and miss the train, and all would be well. But the captain would call for him, and there was plainly no escape. However, he had made his will, and "Underground England" was in such an advanced stage that it might be published as "a fragment," and would be sufficient to carry his name down to remotest posterity. Whether it were sweeter thus to vex public desire, to give so much and no more, or to satiate the public with the full accomplishment, was a nice question. Josiah was inclined to think that, other things being equal, he would just as soon live to finish his work. But he had no choice, and after all, the voyage might end happily. Captain Mulberry was an experienced aeronaut. He had never failed, and why should failure be probable now?
Josiah made up his mind upon this point, that if they got safely across in the balloon he would come back by the ordinary boat express. Having once shown his possession of a daring spirit, he would be at liberty to declare his preference for a more prosaic mode of locomotion.
How he got down to Dover he did not know. It all seemed a dream. He had a dim recollection of the captain thundering at his door at six o'clock in the morning. He remembered lighting his Etna, making his cup of coffee, and thinking as he drank it it might be his last. Then they must have caught the train. In fact, he remembered the sound of the rushing carriage, the darkness of the tunnel, the glories of the dawning day, and felt around him the bright fresh sunlit air that made all nature glad.
They drove out to the balloon, which was down by the gas-works, and was now in process of inflation. Josiah looked upon the monster, swerving first to the right, then to the left, and threatening every moment to break its bonds and go off on its own account. If it only would, what a happy conclusion of this painful adventure! But he could see there was no such danger. The captain was as cheerful as a lark, and looked with kindling eye upon what Josiah regarded as his coffin.
Still, it was no use complaining. A man must die some time; and though there is much to be said against the process being hurried on by unnecessary attempts to cross the Channel in a balloon when there are well-appointed packet-boats, it was no use arguing the matter.
There settled upon Josiah a certain mood of quiet despair. What must be must, and it was better to avoid a scene and imitate as closely as possible the cheerful indifference of the captain.
"Now, old man, in you tumble," said the captain. "Sit down in the bottom of the car, and keep quiet till we get past this stack of chimneys. If we run into them it's all over; but I reckon I'll take you clear."
This was a cheerful thing to start with. Josiah had pictured all kinds of horrors, ending with the certainty of dropping into the sea. That they should begin with a stack of chimneys was an unexpected aggravation. Still, it might be better to get it over at once. At least, he would fall on land, and the fragments picked up would receive Christian burial.
He got in and sat in the bottom of the car. It was, he noticed, something like one of the coracles of which he had made mention in the preface to "Underground England." There was something good in that. The Romans made long journeys In the coracle. If the worst came to the worst, they might float.
Even in the anguish of his mind, he couldn't help wondering when Captain Mulberry would finish coming in. He had never before noticed how tall he was, till he found the necessity of getting out of the way of his legs as he crept between the ropes into the car.
"Let go all!" cried the captain, and Josiah felt his last hour had come. He held his breath and stuck to his hat, being under the impression that the whole affair would shoot up into the air like a rocket. He expected to be deafened by the noise of whizzing through the air, and to be half suffocated with the rush of wind. Looking over to get a last look at the nature of the soil on which he would presently fall, Josiah beheld a strange sight. As far as he knew, the balloon was motionless, while the earth was dropping rapidly from under them as if the laws of gravitation were irrevocably broken and the world was falling through space.
"Done it!" he heard the captain cry in a voice that sounded curiously remote.
"Done what?" said Josiah, anxiously looking up.
"Why, the chimney-stack. Just cleared it by half a foot. I didn't like to say much about it, but it was a pretty near touch-and-go affair. That's the worst of filling a balloon. You must do it near a gasworks, and there's sure to be a stack of chimneys at hand."
It seemed but a moment since Josiah had heard the captain call out "Let go all," and there they were in space a thousand feet above the level of the land, sailing calmly along in bright warm sunlight, and with no more motion perceptible than if they were still sitting in the room in King Street—that cherished apartment which Josiah felt his eye would never light on more.
"This won't do," said the captain sternly; "we've got in the wrong current, and instead of going out to sea we are going inland. In half an hour we'll be at Canterbury."
"I have heard Canterbury's a very nice old town," said Josiah. "It wouldn't be a bad place to stop at; and if the wind's contrary to-day, it might be right to-morrow."
The captain said nothing, and Josiah, looking up to see what effect his suggestion might have, noticed for the first time that on a face usually smiling there were possibilities of a fixed hard look which it evidently didn't beseem him to trifle with.
The balloon slowly rose till the aneroid marked a height of 1,500 feet and still the current drove it steadily north-west. Looking southward, Josiah beheld a sight which, if it were the last he was ever to look upon, was at least a glorious glimpse of earth, and sky, and sea. There lay the Channel gleaming in the sun, a broad belt of silver. Beyond it, like a cloud, was France. Dover had vanished even to the crest of the castle on the hill. But Josiah knew where it was by the mist that lay over it and shone white in the rays of the sun. Save for this patch of mist, which seemed to drift with the voyagers far below the car, there was nothing to obscure the range of vision. Josiah could not at any time make out forms of people. The white highways that ran like threads among the fields, and the tiny openings in the towns and villages which he guessed were streets, seemed to belong to a dead world, for nowhere was there trace of living person. The strange stillness that brooded over the earth was made more uncanny by cries that occasionally seemed to float in the air around them, behind, before, to the right or to the left, but never exactly beneath the car. They could hear people calling, and the captain said that they were running after the balloon and cheering. But Josiah could distinguish no moving thing. Yes; once he saw some pheasants running across a field below and pointed them out to the captain. The captain laughed, a strange resonant laugh it seemed in this upper stillness, and said they were "a lot of chestnut horses capering about in the field." A flock of sheep in another field huddled together, looked like a heap of limestone chippings. As for the fields, stretched out in illimitable extent, far as the eye could reach, they seemed to form a gigantic carpet, with patterns chiefly diamond-shaped, and in colour shaded from bright emerald to russet brown.
"This won't do," the captain said again, and seizing a bag of ballast he emptied it. The balloon swiftly rose, and the aneroid marked 2,500 feet. The villages seemed mere spots, the pattern of the carpet grew blurred. Nothing was distinguishable—nor horse, nor sheep, nor any living thing.
"Hurrah!" cried the captain, "we're off now."
Nearer and nearer came the belt of silver which seemed to girdle continent and island. They were close to Dover, and could make out the town. Josiah, knowing well the irregular plan on which the streets are laid out, was struck by the manner in which, as looked down upon from this height, they formed themselves into beautifully defined curves, straight lines, and other highly respectable geometrical shapes. They saw the castle and the pier with what seemed to be ants crawling on it. A little patch of colour, that to Josiah looked like a ball of scarlet worsted, was, the captain said, a sentry on duty.
"There's Shakespeare's Cliff," said the captain. "The Earl of Gloucester should be with us now:—
How fearful And dizzy 'tis, to cast one's eyes so low! The crows and choughs that wing the midway air Show scarce so gross as beetles; half-way down Hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade! Methinks he seems no bigger than his head: The fishermen that walk upon the beach Appear like mice; and yond tall anchoring bark, Diminish'd to her cock; her cock, a buoy Almost too small for sight."
"I'll look no more," said Josiah, who also knew his Shakespeare.
"Lest my brain turn, and the deficient sight Topple down headlong."
It was passing strange and at first dreadful, this intense silence and this strangeness of the familiar earth. But after a while everything like terror passed away from Josiah's mind. He began to feel the fascination of the thing. His spirits rose as he breathed the delicious air, and when the captain said, "We are over the water now," and Josiah looking down discerned the sea gleaming below, he could have clapped his hands for joy.
"This is splendid," said the captain. "We'll be across in half an hour. We'll catch the train for Paris, and you shall dance at the Closerie to-night."
Josiah didn't dance, and didn't know what the Closerie might be. But he was not without susceptibility to the allurement of a quiet dinner in Paris, and began to feel the exhilaration of having accomplished a perilous feat, to which he would certainly drag in some reference in his great work. It would be difficult, as he was as far as possible remote from Underground England. But it might be worked in some antithetical sentence.
After they had sailed for the space of ten minutes the captain, who had been throwing out bits of paper which they left far behind, suddenly said a bad word.
"We are becalmed," he continued, and truly the bits of paper flung out floated idly round the balloon. "We must get out of this."
He cast out the ballast, bag after bag, and higher still they soared. Nevertheless, whenever they flung out the bits of paper, they floated here and there, some dropping back into the car.
"There goes our last bag of ballast," said the captain, "and may luck go with it. We are lost men unless it takes us into another current, which let us hope won't be coming from the East and carry us out into the Atlantic."
Up again they mounted, how many feet Josiah didn't know, but he was sensible of a sudden iciness in the atmosphere, a tingling of the blood at his finger ends, and a strong disposition to bleed at the nose. The captain threw out some more bits of paper. Still they circled round and round, dropping into the car or falling to the distant earth now utterly out of sight. They had passed through the cloud, and had above them a chilly sun and an intensely blue sky. Below them were the clouds, on one of which was clearly caught the shadow of the balloon. Josiah, when he moved his head, could see an answering motion on the cloud, and recognised the reflection of the captain's figure, sitting stern and erect, with his teeth set and a look of angry determination on his brow.
This frightened Josiah a great deal more than the captain's words. He felt that they were lost in space, and that the end must speedily come. This terrible look on the captain's face made him sick at heart.
"Mr. Smith," said the captain, speaking scarcely above a whisper, but his voice sounded as if he were shouting from the housetops, "you told me you were not a married man."
"Yes," said Josiah, "I have never been married."
"That is so, or I should not have asked you to come with me. And you have not many relations?"
"No," said Josiah, "there are not many that would miss me."
"Very well," said the captain; "I have; but your life is as valuable as mine, and I would hold you at no disadvantage. The fact is, we are becalmed, and there is no prospect of any wind reaching us here till night, when we shan't know which way we are drifting, and may as well give up all hope. There is wind overhead, I know, and it is going straight for France. If we could get up another thousand feet or so, we should catch the current and be over land in ten minutes. But all the ballast has gone, and there is only one thing to be done."
"What's that?" asked Josiah faintly.
"One of us must go overboard," said the captain.
Josiah felt his heart sink within him.
"I am not sure that it would be much use my going over," the captain continued, discussing the matter as quietly as if he were arranging what they should have for dinner. "I'm such a thundering weight, you'd shoot up till you bumped your head against Jupiter; and besides, you would not know what to do with the balloon if I was gone. Still, I think we should have equal chances. Now, I'll give you the first chance. You get hold of me and try to push me over. If I go, you will find the balloon shoot up; but don't be frightened: you'll be all right in a bit, and can let out a few feet of gas. If you can't get me over—well, I must try to get you over. Hold on a bit till I light a cigar."
In the calm still air the captain struck a light, bending low in the car to avoid contact of flame and gas, bit the end of a cigar, and lit it. Josiah, shaking with terror, could see in the shadow of the balloon on the cloud the smoke curling up from the cigar and lazily spreading itself out.
"Now, old chappie," said the captain, "I'm ready. Heave hard, and over I go."
What was the use of disputing with a man like this? Josiah never had been inclined to fight with men of strong will. He was certain he could not move the captain, but he was able to try, and try he did. He got one foot over the car, the captain encouraging him and cheerfully smoking.
"Very well done, old man. A few more tugs, and over we go. I'll just have time to finish my cigar before I get to the bottom."
Josiah tugged and tugged till he felt the warm blood rushing through his veins and his breath came short But though he might move one of the captain's colossal legs, which seemed to his disordered fancy to be the size of the Monument, he could do no more. The captain sat passive, encouraging him by every kindly phrase he could think of. But it was of no use, and after ten minutes' violent struggling Josiah threw himself back in the car.
"Very sorry, old man," said the captain, with a tone of unmistakable sincerity. "Thought once you'd have done it; but I've got a little out of training lately and run up half a stun. Now I must see what I can do with you."
First of all he tore off some slips of paper and threw them out. Josiah looked at them with hungry eyes. Round and round they spun, falling back into the car or dropping to the world beyond the clouds. There was no hope of movement for the balloon.
"Well, Mr. Smith, it's your turn now. I must see what I can do. It's not nice for either of us, but it would be no nicer to stay here and be starved to death or blown out to sea. You won't feel anything after the first rush. Good-bye. I am sorry there will be no opportunity of my communicating with you as to the result of this interesting experiment. I don't suppose," the captain added, his love of scientific research increasing his unfeigned regret for the inconvenience Josiah was about to suffer, "that ever before ten stun was dropped out of a car in a lump. I reckon I'll get as high as most people have been. Now, if you've any message, just hand it over. If I can do anything for you in King Street or anywhere else, you may depend upon me."
"No," said Josiah, gulping down a rising sob; "if you will only say I went off bravely and didn't flinch, that will be all. Perhaps you might write a few lines by way of preface to 'Underground England,' pointing out that I died in the interests of science."
"Certainly, my dear fellow, it shall be done," said the captain, with quite a glow of honest energy. "If you'd like a little monument or anything of that sort, I'll see it's run up. Now, over you go. Time's getting on, and I don't want to miss the Paris train. Give us a shake of your paw, then shut your eyes, for I fancy I shan't have much difficulty with you. Heave your watch over or take it with you!"
"If you wouldn't mind accepting it," said Josiah, pulling out his fine old turnip-shaped time-piece, "as a memento of our friendship—which, though brief, has I trust been sincere—it would give me great pleasure."
"Certainly," said the captain, weighing it in his hand critically, and thinking to himself that it might serve as ballast in a last emergency. "I'll hang it over my bed, and will think of you whenever it ticks. Nothing more to say?"
"No," said Josiah; "only, please to drop me feet first."
The captain took him in his arms as if he were a child, held him for a moment over the side of the car, and with a cheery farewell dropped him.
Josiah felt his hat go, and could see the balloon shoot up with tremendous rapidity, though, as he reckoned, the rate of velocity would need to be divided by about half, as he was simultaneously descending rapidly. He felt the rush of air, and shrank from the moment, coming nearer and nearer, when he should strike the earth. He seemed an unconscionably long time falling. Still, through the clouds he went, and, it seemed to him at the end of five minutes, began to get glimpses of the earth. Down he went like a shot. The rushing noise in his ears grew more intolerable. There was a swift upgrowth of the hedgerows, a sudden vision of cows and horses, and of people running across fields. Then a heavy bump, and Josiah, opening his eyes, found himself lying on the floor in the room in King Street.
On the table were an empty claret bottle and two tumblers. The room was full of the smoke, now growing stale, of cigars. Josiah was shivering with cold, and the room was dark save from what light flickered in from the lamp down the street. He struck a light, and there in its accustomed place on the mantelpiece was his watch, the hands pointing to three o'clock. Dazed and shivering he crept into bed, where he thought the matter over, and amid much that was bewildering groped his way to the conclusion that Captain Mulberry really had come into his room, had spent an hour with him, smoked cigars, drunk claret, and then gone off. He remembered standing at the head of the stairs shaking hands with him, and promising to dine with him at his club one day in the following week. Then he had gone back and lain on the couch, where, overcome with the unaccustomed tumbler of claret and dazed with the tobacco smoke, he had fallen asleep, dreamed, and rolled off on to the floor.
HENRY W. LUCY.
A poor garret on the sixth floor of one of the poorest houses in the poorest quarters of Paris, does not give much opportunity for a detailed description. There is little to be said about the furniture, which in this case consisted of a rickety old table, a wooden stool, and a small charcoal stove, all of the commonest kind, but all clean, and the room was not quite without adornment. The window, to be sure, was in the roof, but pinned to the wall were a few newspaper prints in strong blacks and whites, and—most remarkable of all—there was an alcove for the bed, which was carefully shut off from the room by a gaily variegated chintz. In spite of its poverty and bareness, there was nothing squalid or unwholesome about the place.
The house itself was a tall narrow slip. People of different callings, and different degrees of respectability, lived in it; on the whole it had not a bad character. The landlord was an immensely fat man, called Plon—a name which, irresistibly converted into Plon-Plon, seemed to give an aristocratic air to the house—and he lived and made shoes in a small room at the foot of the lowest flight of stairs, so that he acted as his own concierge, and boasted that no one came in or out without his knowledge. Probably some of his lodgers contrived to elude his vigilance, but he was as obstinate in his belief as an old Norman has a right to be, and was a kind-hearted old fellow in the main, though with the reputation of a grognard, and a ridiculous fear of being discovered in a good action. Perhaps with this fear, the more credit was due to him for occasionally running the risk, as when he saw young Monnier, the artist, coming down the stairs one evening with a look in his eyes, which Plon told himself gave him an immediate shuddering back-sensation, as of cold water and marble slabs. Plon did something for him, perhaps knocked off the rent, but he implored Monnier to show his gratitude by saying nothing, and he never gave him more of a greeting than the sidelong twist he vouchsafed to the other lodgers. For the rest, his benevolence depended in a great measure upon his temper, and he prided himself upon being very terrible at times.
With five floors we have nothing to do, and need waste no time over them. The inmates mostly went out early and came in late, but the house kept better hours than its neighbours, for the simple reason that those who arrived after a certain time found themselves shut into the street for the night. They might hammer and appeal in the strongest language of their vocabulary, but Plon snored unmoved, and nothing short of a fire in the house would have turned him out of his bed. Gradually this became so well understood, that his lodgers accommodated themselves to it as to any other of the inexorable laws of fate.
On the sixth and highest floor the crowded house resolved itself into comparative quiet. Besides the garret of which we have spoken, there were two other rooms, but for some years past these had been used merely as store-rooms for furniture. No one knew to whom the furniture belonged, some curious speculators avowing that Plon had a child—a girl—at school in Normandy, and had collected it as part of her dowry; others that some mysterious tie of gratitude bound him to the owner. Whoever was right or wrong, the rooms remained closed and unlet.