This was all rather gushing, but it did not offend Beth, because she associated gush with Aunt Grace Mary, who had always been kind to her. Gushing people are usually weak and amiable, gush being the ill-judged outcome of a desire to please; but at that happy age it was the amiable intention that Beth took into account. Her desire to be pleased, which had so seldom been gratified, had become a danger to her judgment by this time; it made her apt to respond to any attempt to please her without considering means and motives which should have discounted her appreciation. Everybody was trying to please her now, and all her being answered only too readily. She spent a delightful day at Fairholm, and went home in extravagantly high spirits.
Dr. Dan called early the next morning, and found her with her hat on, just going out.
"How are you this misty cold grey day?" he asked.
"Oh, very bright," she answered. "I feel as if I were the sun, and I'm just going to shine out on the world to enliven it."
"May I accompany you?" he asked.
"The sun, alas! is a solitary luminary," she answered, shaking her head.
"Then I shall hope for better luck next time," he said, and let her go alone.
In the evening he came in again to have a game of cribbage with Mrs. Caldwell. Beth was sleepy and had gone to bed early. In the pauses of the game they talked about her, and the responsibilities of a family.
"A girl wants some one to look after her," the doctor said, "especially if she has money."
"Yes, indeed," Mrs. Caldwell replied, "girls are a great anxiety. Now a boy you can put into a profession and have done with it. But it is not so easy to find a suitable husband for a girl."
"But, of course, if she has a little money it makes a difference," he observed. "Only she should have some one to advise her in the spending of it. Now, Miss Beth, for instance, will be as much a child at twenty-one in money matters as she is now."
"I hope we shall find the right man for her before then," Mrs. Caldwell answered archly; "not that I think her aunt's fortune will cause her much anxiety." She alluded to the smallness of the sum.
"She gets some of the interest, I suppose, to go on with," he said.
"Just enough to dress on."
Beth saw a great deal of Dr. Dan after that. She was not in the least in love with him, but they became intimate all the sooner on that account. A girl shrinks more shyly from a man she loves than from one for whom she has only a liking; in the one case every womanly instinct is on the alert, in the other her feeling is not strong enough to seem worth curbing. Beth was fond of men's companionship, and Dr. Dan's assiduous attentions enlivened her, made her brain active, and brought the vision and the dream within reach; so that she moved in a happy light, but considered the source of it no more than she would have considered the stick that held the candle by which she read an entrancing book.
There are idyllic gleams in all interesting lives; but life as we live it from day to day is not idyllic. In Beth's case there was the inevitable friction, the shocks and jars of difficulties and disagreements with her mother. These had been suspended for a time after her return, but began to break out again, fomented very often by Bernadine, who was always her mother's favourite, but was never a pleasant child. Dr. Dan came one very wet day, and found Beth sitting in the drawing-room alone, looking miserable. She had done all her little self-imposed tasks honestly, but had reaped no reward. On the contrary, there had come upon her a dreadful vision of herself doing that sort of thing on always into old age, as Aunt Victoria did her French, with no object, and to no purpose; and for the first time she formulated a feeling that had gradually been growing up in her of late: "I must have more of a life than this." What could she do, however, tied to that stupid place, without a suspicion as yet that she had it in her to do anything special, and without friends to help her, with no one to advise. As she reflected, the hopelessness of it all wrung from her some of the bitterest tears she ever shed. If her mother would only send her back to Miss Blackburne she would be learning something, at all events; but, although Mrs. Caldwell had said nothing definite on the subject, Beth was pretty certain by this time that she did not mean to let her return to school.
Beth was in the middle of this misery when Dr. Dan arrived.
"How's this?" he said, "Down? You should have the window open. It's not cold to-day, though it's wet; and the room is quite stuffy. Never be afraid of fresh air, you know."
"I'm not," Beth said. "I didn't know the window was shut. Open it as wide as you like—the wider the better for me."
"That's better," he said, as the fresh air flowed in. "It's singular how women will shut themselves up. No wonder they get out of spirits! Now, I never let myself run down. When one thing goes wrong, I just take up another, and don't bother. You'd think I wasn't having much of a time here; but I'm as happy as the day is long, and I want to see you the same." He sat down beside her on the old-fashioned sofa, took her hand, and began to stroke it gently. "Cheer up, little girl," he added. "I believe you've been crying. Aren't they kind to you?"
"Oh yes, they're kind enough," Beth answered, soothed by the caress; "at least they mean to be. The misery is in myself. I feel all dissatisfied."
"Not when I'm with you, do you?" he asked reproachfully.
"No, I don't bother about myself when I have you to talk to," Beth answered. "You come in fresh, and give me something else to think about."
"Then, look here, Beth," he said, putting his arm round her. "I don't think I can do better than take you away with me. You've a head on your shoulders, and an original way with you that would be sure to bring people about the house, and you're well connected and look it;—all of which would be good for my practice. Besides, a young doctor must marry. I'm over thirty, though you might not think it. Come, what do you say? You'd have a very good time of it as my wife, I can tell you. All your own way, and no nagging. You know what I am, a cheery fellow, never put out by anything. Now, what do you say?"
"Are you asking me to marry you?" said Beth, breaking into a smile. The position struck her as comical rather than serious.
"Why, what else?" he replied, smiling also. "I see you are recovering your spirits. You'll be as happy as the day is long when we're married. You'd never get on with anybody else as you'd do with me. I don't think anybody else would understand you."
Beth laughed. She liked him, and she liked to be caressed. Why not marry him and be independent of every one? She hadn't the slightest objection at the moment; far from it, for she saw in the offer the one means of escape she was likely to have from the long dull dreary days, and the loneliness, which was all the life she could have to look forward to when he had gone. And he was good-looking, too, and nice—everybody said so. Besides, they would all be pleased if she accepted him, her mother especially so. Now that she came to think of it, she perceived that this was what they had been suggesting to her ever since her return.
"It is settled then?" he said, stooping forward to look into her face.
She looked at him shyly and laughed again. For the life of her she could not keep her countenance, although she felt she was behaving in the silly, giggling-girl sort of way she so much despised.
"That's all right," he exclaimed, looking extremely well pleased; and at that moment Mrs. Caldwell walked into the room, just in time to witness a lover-like caress. Beth jumped up, covered with confusion. Mrs. Caldwell looked from one to the other, and waited for an explanation.
"We've just come to the conclusion that we cannot live apart," Dan said deliberately, rising at the same time and taking Beth's hand.
"My dear child!" Mrs. Caldwell exclaimed, embracing Beth with happy tears in her eyes. "This is a joy! I do congratulate you."
Beth became suddenly serious. The aspect of the affair had changed. It was no longer a game of the moment, but a settled business, already irrevocable. She wanted to explain that she had not actually pledged herself, that she must take time to consider; but her heart failed her in view of her mother's delight. It was Beth's great weakness that, as a rule, she could neither spoil pleasure nor give pain to save herself in an emergency.
When Dan came to see her the next morning, he found her in a mixed mood. Half-a-dozen times during the night she had declined to marry him in a painful scene, but just as often her imagination would run on into the unknown life she would have to lead with him. She saw herself in white satin and lace and pearls, a slender figure at the head of a long dining-table, interesting to everybody, and Dan was at the foot, looking quite distinguished in evening dress, with his glossy black hair and wonderful clear skin. She had gathered the nicest people in the neighbourhood about her, and on her right there was a shadowy person, a man of mark, and knightly, who delighted in her conversation.
When she came downstairs to receive Dan she was coughing, and he showed his devotion by being greatly concerned about her health. He said she must have port wine and a tonic, and be out in the air as much as possible, and suggested that they should go for a walk at once as it was a lovely day, though still wet under foot.
"I would not ask you to walk if I had a carriage to offer you," he said, "for I hate to see a delicate lady on foot in the mud. But you shall have your carriage yet, please God, all in good time!"
"Where shall we go?" said Beth when they left the house.
"Oh, anywhere," he answered. "Take me to one of your own favourite haunts."
She thought of the Fairholm cliffs for a moment, but felt that they were sacred to many recollections with which she would not care to associate this new experience. "I'll show you the chalybeate spring," she said.
They turned out of Orchard Street, and went down the hill to the Beck, a broad, clear, shallow rivulet, that came round a sharp green curve between high banks, well wooded with old trees, all in their heavy, dark-green, summer foliage. As they crossed the rustic wooden bridge Beth paused a little to look up at the trees and love them, and down into the clear water at the scarlet sticklebacks heading up stream. Her companion looked at her in surprise when she stopped, and then followed the direction of her eyes. All he saw, however, was a shallow stream, a green bank, and some trees.
"This is not very interesting," he observed.
Beth made no reply, but led the way up the hill on the other side, and, to the right, passed a row of cottages with long gardens at the back running down to the brow of the bank that overhung the Beck. In most of these cottages she was an object of suspicion because of her uncanny words and ways, and she knew it, and the thought of it was a grief to her. She wanted the people to like her as she would have liked them had they let her. The wish to win them fired her imagination. She looked on ahead into futurity, and was a beautiful lady, driving a pair of ponies down a wooded lane, with a carriage full of good things for the cottagers, and they all loved her, and were very glad to see her.
"What are you thinking about?" Dan asked.
"How nice it would be to be rich," she replied.
"But you will be well off when you're twenty-one, I am told."
"I suppose there's a chance of it," she answered dreamily.
(The ponies had arrived at the village by this time, and she was looking up at an old grey church with a red roof.)
"Do you know what your aunt's income was?" he asked.
"Seven or eight hundred a year," she answered absently.
(The sexton's little house stood by the gate leading into the churchyard. His wife came out when the carriage stopped, wiping soap-suds from her bare arms with her apron. Beth leaned forward and held out her hand to her, and the woman smiled a cordial welcome. She had a round flat face and fair hair. Then Beth handed her a mysterious package from the carriage, which she received half in delight and half in inquiry.)
But Beth's imagination stopped there, for she perceived that she had passed the gate of the garden in which was the chalybeate spring. There was a cottage in the garden, and Beth turned back, and went up to the door, where a woman was standing holding a plump child, whose little fat thigh, indented by the pressure, bulged over her bare arm.
"May we have a drink, please?" Beth asked.
"Yes, and welcome," the woman answered. "I'll fetch you a glass."
"Let me hold the baby," said Beth.
The woman smiled, and handed him to her. Beth took him awkwardly, and squeezed him up in her arms as a child holds a kitten.
"Isn't he nice?" she said.
"That's a matter of taste," Dan answered. "I don't like 'em fat-bottomed myself."
Beth froze at the expression. When the woman returned, she handed the child back to her carefully, but without a smile, took the glass, and went down to the spring by a narrow winding path which took them out of sight of the cottage directly. Here it was old trees again, and green banks, with the Beck below. When they were under the trees Beth looked up at a big elm, and her companion noticed her lips move.
"What are you saying to yourself?" he asked.
"Nothing to myself," she answered. "I'm saying, 'Oh, tree, give me of thy strength!' the Eastern invocation."
He laughed, and wanted to know what rot that was; and again Beth was jarred.
"You'll have no luck if you don't respect the big trees," she said.
"Oh, by Jove, if we wait for the big trees to make our luck, we shan't have much!" he rejoined, picking up a pebble and firing it into the Beck below.
They were on a narrow path now, about half-way down the bank, and here, in a hollow, the chalybeate spring bubbled out, and was gathered by a wooden spout into a slender stream, which fell on the ground, where, in the course of time, it had made a basin for itself that was always partly full. The water was icy cold, and somewhat the colour of light on steel. Beth held the glass to the spout, rinsed it first, then filled it, and offered it to Dan, but he dryly declined to take it "Not for me, thank you," he said; "I never touch any medicinal beastliness."
For the third time Beth was jarred. She threw the water on the ground, refilled the glass, and drank. Dan saw he had made a mistake.
"I'll change my mind and have some too," he said, anxious to mollify her.
Beth filled the glass again, and handed it to him in silence, but no after-thought could atone for the discourtesy of his first refusal, and she looked in another direction, not even troubling herself to see whether he tried the water or not.
There was a rustic seat in the hollow of the bank, and he suggested that they should sit there a while before they returned. Beth acquiesced; and soon the sputter of the little spring bubbling into its basin, the chitter of birds in the branches above, the sunbeams filtering from behind through the leaves, the glint of the Beck below slipping between its banks, soundless, to the sea, enthralled her.
"Isn't this lovely?" she ejaculated.
"Yes, it's very jolly—with you," he said.
"You wouldn't like it so well without me?" Beth asked.
"No, I should think not," he rejoined. "And you wouldn't like it as well without me, I hope."
"No," Beth responded. "It makes it nicer having some one to share it."
"Now that's not quite kind," he answered in an injured tone. "Some one is any one; and I shouldn't be satisfied with anybody but you."
"Well, but I am satisfied with you," Beth answered dispassionately.
He took her hand, laid it in his own palm, and looked at it. It was a child's hand as yet, delicately pink and white.
"What a pretty thing!" he said. "Oh, you smile at that." He reached up to put a lock of her brown hair back from her cheek, and then he put his arm round her.
Next day he was obliged to go away—Beth never thought of inquiring why or wherefore; but she heard her mother and Lady Benyon talking about the very eligible appointment he was hoping to get. He took an affectionate leave of her. When he had gone she went off to the sands, and was surprised to find how glad she was to be alone again. The tide was far out, and there were miles and miles of the hard buff sand, a great, open space, not empty to Beth, but teeming with thought and full of feeling. Some distance on in front of her there was a solitary figure, a man walking with bent head and hands folded behind him, holding a stick—Count Gustav Bartahlinsky's favourite attitude when deep in meditation. Beth hurried on, and soon overtook him.
"Would you rather be alone, Count Gustav?" she said.
He turned to look at her, then smiled, and they walked on together.
"So they are going to marry you off," he said abruptly.
"Yes," Beth answered laconically.
"Do you wish to be married?"
"No, I do not."
"Then why do you consent?"
"Because I'm weak; I can't help it," she said.
"I can't," she repeated. "I'm firm enough about some things, but in this I vacillate. When I am alone I know I am making a mistake, but when I am with other people who think differently, my objection vanishes."
"What is your objection?" he asked.
"That is the difficulty," she said. "I can't define it. Do you know Dr. Dan?"
"I can't say I know him," he answered. "I have met him and talked to him. He expresses the most unexceptional opinions; but it is premature to respect a man for the opinions he expresses—wait and see what he does. Words and acts don't necessarily agree. Sometimes, however, a chance remark which has very little significance for the person who makes it, is like an aperture that lets in light on the whole character." He cogitated a little, then added, "Don't let them hurry you. Take time to know your man, and if you are not satisfied yourself, if there is anything that jars upon you, never mind what other people think, have nothing to do with him."
When Beth went home, she found her mother sitting by the drawing-room window placidly knitting and looking out. "I am afraid I am very late," Beth said. "I have been on the sands with Count Gustav."
"Ah, that was nice, I should think," Mrs. Caldwell observed graciously. "And what were you talking about?"
"Being married, principally," Beth answered.
Mrs. Caldwell beamed above her knitting. "And what did he say?"
"He strongly advised me not to marry if I didn't want to."
Mrs. Caldwell changed countenance. "Did he indeed?" she observed with a sniff. Then she reflected. "And what had you been saying to draw such a remark from him?"
"I said I didn't want to be married," Beth blurted out with an effort.
"How could you tell Count Gustav such a story, Beth?" Mrs. Caldwell asked, shaking her head reproachfully.
"It was no story, mamma."
"Nonsense, Beth," her mother rejoined. "It is nothing but perverseness that makes you say such things. You feel more interesting, I believe, when you are in opposition. If I had refused to allow you to be married, you would have been ready to run away. I know girls! They all want to be married, and they all pretend they don't. Why, when I was a girl I thought of nothing else; but I didn't talk about it."
"Perhaps you had nothing else to think about," Beth ventured.
"And what have you to think about, pray?"
Beth clasped her hands, and her grey eyes dilated.
"Beth, don't look like that," her mother remonstrated. "You are always acting, and it is such a pity—as you will find when you go out into the world, I am afraid, and people avoid you."
"I didn't know I was doing anything peculiar," Beth said; "and how am I to help it if I don't know?"
"Just help it by only doing as you are told until you are able to judge for yourself. Look at the silly way you have been talking this afternoon! What must Count Gustav have thought of you? Never be so silly again. You must be married now, you know. When a girl lets a man kiss her, she has to marry him."
Beth had been watching her mother's fingers as she knitted until she was half mesmerised by the bright glint of the needles; but now she woke up and burst out laughing. "If that be the case," she said, "he is not the only one that I shall have to marry."
Mrs. Caldwell's hands dropped on her lap, and she looked up at Beth in dismay. "What do you mean?" she said.
"Just that," Beth answered.
"Do you mean to tell me you have allowed men to kiss you?" Mrs. Caldwell cried.
Beth looked up as if trying to keep her countenance.
"You wicked girl, how dare you?"
"Well, mamma, if it were wicked, why didn't you warn me?" Beth said. "How was I to know?"
"Your womanly instincts ought to have taught you better."
Unfortunately for this theory, all Beth's womanly instincts set in the opposite direction. Her father's ardent temperament warred in her with Aunt Victoria's Puritan principles, and there was no telling as yet which would prevail.
Beth made no reply to that last assertion of her mother's, but remained half sitting on the table, with her feet stretched out in front of her, and her hands supporting her on either side, which brought her shoulders up to her ears. It was a most inelegant attitude, and peculiarly exasperating to Mrs. Caldwell.
"Oh, you wicked—you bad—you abandoned girl!" she exclaimed, losing her temper altogether. "My heart is broken with you. Go to your room, and stay there. I feel as if I could never endure the sight of you again."
Beth gathered herself together slowly, and strolled away with an air of indifference; but as soon as she found herself alone in her own room with the door shut, she dropped on her knees and lifted her clasped hands to heaven in an agony of remorse for having tormented her mother, and in despair about that wretched engagement. "O Lord, what am I to do?" she said; "what am I to do?" If she could make up her mind once for all either way, she would be satisfied; it was this miserable state of indecision that was unendurable.
Presently in the room below, she thought she heard her mother sob aloud. She listened, breathless. Her mother was sobbing. Beth jumped up and opened her door. What should she do? Her unhappy mother—heart-broken, indeed. What a life hers was—a life of hard privation, of suffering most patiently borne, of the utmost self-denial for her children's sake, of loss, of loneliness, of bitter disappointment! First her husband taken, then her dearest child; her ungrateful boys not over-kind to her; and now this last blow dealt her by Beth, just when the prospect of getting her well married was bringing a gleam of happiness into her mother's life. The piteous sobs continued. Beth stole downstairs, bent on atoning in her own person by any sacrifice for all the sorrows, no matter by whom occasioned, which she felt were culminating in this final outburst of grief. She found her mother standing beside the high old-fashioned mantelpiece, leaning her poor head against it.
"Mamma," Beth cried, "do forgive me. I never meant to—I never meant to hurt you so. I will do anything to please you. I was only teasing you about kissing men. I haven't been in the habit of kissing any one. And of course I'll marry Dan as soon as you like. And we'll all be happy—there!"
Mrs. Caldwell held out her arms, and Beth sprang into them, and hugged her tight and burst into tears.
That autumn Beth was married to Daniel Maclure, M.D., &c., &c. At the time of her marriage she hardly knew what his full name was. She had always heard him called "the doctor" or "Dr. Dan," and had never thought of him as anything else, nor did she know anything else about him—his past, his family, or his prospects, which, considering her age, is not surprising; but what did surprise her in after years, when she discovered it, was to find that her friends who made the match knew no more about him than she did. He had scraped acquaintance with her brother Jim in a public billiard-room in Rainharbour, and been introduced by him to the other members of her family, who, because his address was good and his appearance attractive, had taken it for granted that everything else concerning him was equally satisfactory.
Beth decided to keep her surname for her father's sake, and also because she could not see why she should lose her identity because she had married. Everybody said it was absurd of her; but she was determined, and from the time of her marriage she signed herself Elizabeth Caldwell Maclure.
Dan confided to Mrs. Caldwell that he was troubled by some few small debts which he was most anxious to pay in order that he might start his married life clear, and the poor lady generously reduced her slender income by selling some shares to raise the money for him. When he accepted it, his eyes filled with tears, as was usual with him in moments of emotion.
"O mamma!" Beth exclaimed when she heard of the sacrifice, "how could you? I do not deserve such generosity, for I have never been any comfort to you; and I shall always be miserable about it, thinking how badly you want the money."
"There will be one mouth less to feed when you have gone, you know, Beth," Mrs. Caldwell answered bravely, "and I shall be the happier for thinking that you start clear. Debt crushed us our whole married life. I shall be the easier if I know you haven't that burden to bear. Besides, Dan will repay me as soon as he can. He is a thoroughly good fellow."
"You shall be repaid, mamma, in more ways than one, if I live," Beth vowed.
Uncle James Patten doled out a five-pound-note to Beth by way of a wedding present from the long rent-roll her mother should have inherited.
"This is to help with your trousseau, but do not be extravagant," he said in his pleasant way. "As the wife of a professional man, you will descend from my class to the class below, the middle class, and you should dress according to your station. But you are doing as well as we could expect you to do, considering your character and conduct. Some doubted if you would ever receive an offer of marriage, or have the sense to accept it if one were made you; but I always said you would have the doctor if he would have you."
Beth's impulse was to throw the note at him, but she restrained herself on her brother Jim's account. It was suspected that Uncle James was only waiting for a plausible excuse to disinherit Jim; and he found it the next time Jim stayed at Fairholm. They were in the drawing-room together one day, and a maid was mending the fire. Uncle James was sitting at a writing-table with a mirror in front of him, and he declared that in that mirror he distinctly saw his nephew chuck the maid-servant under the chin, which was conduct such as Mr. James Patten could not be expected to tolerate in his heir; so he altered his will, and after that all communication ceased between the two families, except such as Aunt Grace Mary managed to keep up surreptitiously.
Aunt Grace Mary was very generous to Beth, and so also was old Lady Benyon. Had it not been for these two, Beth would have left home ill-provided for. Thanks to them, however, she was spared that humiliation, and went with an ample outfit.
In the days preceding her marriage, Beth sometimes thought of Charlotte, and of the long fiction of that wonderful time when they were friends. Her busy brain had created many another story since then, but none that had the fascination of that first sustained effort. Hector's mysterious establishment on the other side of the headland, the troubles in Spain, the wicked machinations of their enemies, the Secret Service of Humanity, the horses, yacht, and useful doctor—who had not held a high place in their estimation, being merely looked upon as a trustworthy tool of Hector's; yet it was he whom Beth was to marry. She wondered what Charlotte would think of her when she heard it, and of Hector and the whole story; but she never knew, for Charlotte was at school in France during this period, and never came into Beth's life again.
During the early days of her married life a sort of content settled upon Beth; a happy sense of well-being, of rest and satisfaction, came to her, and that strange vague yearning ache, the presence of which made all things incomplete, was laid. The atmosphere in which she now lived was sensuous, not spiritual, and although she was unaware of this, she felt its influence. Dan made much of her, and she liked that; but the vision and the dream had ceased. Her intellectual activity was stimulated, however, and it was not long before she began to think for herself more clearly and connectedly than she had ever done before.
They spent the first few weeks in London in a whirl of excitement, living at sumptuous restaurants, and going to places of amusement every night, where Beth would sit entranced with music, singing, dancing, and acting, never taking her eyes from the stage, and yearning in her enthusiasm to do the same things herself—not doubting but that she could either, so perfectly had she the power to identify herself with the performers, and realise, as from within, what their sensations must be.
When she had been in London as a girl at school, she had seen nothing but the bright side of life, the wholesome, happy, young side. A poor beggar to be helped, or a glimpse in the street of a sorrowful face that saddened her for a moment, was the worst she knew of the great wicked city; but now, with Dan for a companion, the realities of vice and crime were brought home to her; she learnt to read signs of depravity in the faces of men and women, and to associate certain places with evil-doers as their especial haunts. Her husband's interest in the subject was inexhaustible; he seemed to think of little else. He would point out people in places of public amusement, and describe in detail the loathsome lives they led. Every well-dressed woman he saw he suspected. He would pick out one because she had yellow hair, and another because her two little children were precocious and pretty, and declare them to be "kept women." That a handsome woman could be anything but vicious had apparently never occurred to him. He was very high-minded on the subject of sin if the sinner were a woman, and thought no degradation sufficient for her. In speaking of such women he used epithets from which Beth recoiled. She allowed them to pass, however, in consideration of the moral exasperation that inspired them, and the personal rectitude his attitude implied. The subject had a horrible kind of fascination for her; she hated it, yet she could not help listening, although her heart ached and her soul sickened. She listened in silence, however, neither questioning nor discussing, but simply attending; collecting material for which she had no use at the moment, and storing it without design—material which she would find herself forced to turn to account eventually, but in what way and to what purpose there was no knowing as yet.
They were to live at Slane, an inland town near Morningquest, where modern manufactures had competed successfully with ancient agricultural interests, and altered the attitude of the landed gentry towards trade, and towards the townspeople, beguiling them to be less exclusive because there was money in the town, self-interest weighing with them all at once in regard to the neighbours whom Christian precept had vainly urged them to recognise.
Dr. Maclure had taken an old-fashioned house in a somewhat solitary position on the outskirts of Slane, but near enough to the town to secure paying patients, as he hoped, while far enough out of it to invite county callers. It stood just on the highroad, from which it was only divided by a few evergreen shrubs and an iron railing; but it was picturesque, nevertheless, with creepers—magnolia, wisteria, and ivy—clustering on the dark red bricks. At the back there was a good garden, and in front, across the road, were green meadows with hedgerows—a tangle of holly, hawthorn, and bramble—and old trees, surviving giants of a forest long uprooted and forgotten. It was a rich and placid scene, infinitely soothing to one fresh from the turmoil of the city, and weary of the tireless motion, the incessant sound and tumult of the sea. When Beth looked out upon the meadows first, she sighed and said to herself, "Surely, surely one should be happy here!"
The house was inconveniently arranged inside, and had less accommodation than its outside pretensions promised; but Beth was delighted with it all, and took possession of her keys with pride. She was determined to be a good manager, and make her housekeeping money go a long way. Her dream was to save out of it, and have something over to surprise Dan with when the bills were paid. To her chagrin, however, she found that she was not to have any housekeeping money at all.
"You are too young to have the care of managing money," said Dan. "Just give the orders, and I'll see about paying the bills."
But the system did not answer. Beth had no idea what she ought to be spending, and either the bills were too high or the diet was too low, and Dan grumbled perpetually. If the housekeeping were at all frugal, he was anything but cheery during meals; but if she ordered him all he wanted, there were sure to be scenes on the day of reckoning. He blamed her bad management, and she said nothing; but she knew she could have managed on any reasonable sum to which he might have limited her. She had too much self-respect to ask for money, however, if he did not choose to give it to her.
It surprised her to find that what he had to eat was a matter of great importance to him. He fairly gloated over things he liked, and in order to indulge him, and keep the bills down besides, she went without herself; and he never noticed her self-denial. He was apt to take too much of his favourite dishes, and was constantly regretting it. "I wish I had not eaten so much of that cursed vol au vent; it never agrees with me," he would say; but he would eat as much as ever next time. Beth could not help observing such traits. She did not set them down to his personal discredit, however, but to the discredit of his sex at large. She had always heard that men were self-indulgent, and Dan was a man; that was the nearest she came to blaming him at first. Being her husband had made a difference in her feeling for him; before their marriage she was not so tolerant.
Her housekeeping duties by no means filled her day. An hour or so in the morning was all they occupied at most, and the time must have hung heavy on her hands had she had no other pursuit to beguile her. Fortunately she had no intention of allowing her plans for the improvement of her mind to lapse simply because she had married. On the contrary, she felt the defects of her education more keenly than ever, and expected Dan to sympathise with her in her efforts to remedy them. He came in one day soon after they were settled, and found her sitting at the end of the dining-room table with her back to the window and a number of books spread out about her.
"This looks learned," he said. "What are you doing?"
"I am looking for something to study," she answered. "What writers have helped you most?"
"Helped me most!—how do you mean?"
"Well, helped you to be upright, you know, to make good resolutions and keep straight."
"Thank you," he said; "I have not felt the need of good resolutions, and this is the first hint I have had that I require any. If you will inquire among my friends, I fancy you will find that I have the credit of going pretty straight as it is."
"O Dan!" Beth exclaimed, "you quite misunderstand me. I never meant to insinuate that you are not straight. I was only thinking of the way in which we all fall short of our ideals."
"Ideals be hanged!" said Dan. "If a man does his duty, that's ideal enough, isn't it?"
"I should think so," Beth said pacifically.
Dan went to the mantelpiece, and stood there, studying himself with interest in the glass. "A lady told me the other day I looked like a military man," he said, smoothing his glossy black hair and twisting the ends of his long moustache.
"Well, I think you look much more military than medical," Beth replied, considering him.
"I'm glad of that," he said, smiling at himself complacently.
"Are you?" Beth exclaimed in surprise. "Why? A medical man has a finer career than a military man, and should have a finer presence if ability, purpose, and character count for anything towards appearance. Personally I think I should wish to look like what I am, if I could choose."
"So you do," he rejoined, adjusting his hat with precision as he spoke, and craning his neck to see himself sideways in the glass. "You look like a silly little idiot. But never mind. That's all a girl need be if she's pretty; and if she isn't pretty, she's of no account, so it doesn't matter what she is."
When he had gone, Beth sat for a long time thinking; but she did no more reading that day, nor did she ever again consult Dan about the choice of books, or expect him to sympathise with her in her work.
For the first few months of her married life, she had no pocket-money at all. Aunt Grace Mary slipped two sovereigns into her hand when they parted, but these Beth kept, she hardly knew why, as she had her half-year's dividend to look forward to. About the time that her money was due, Dan began to talk incessantly of money difficulties. Bills were pressing, and he did not know where on earth to look for a five-pound-note. He did not think Beth too young to be worried morning, noon, and night on the subject, although she took it very seriously. One morning after he had made her look anxious, he suddenly remembered a letter he had for her, and handed it to her. It was from her lawyer, and contained a cheque for twenty-five pounds, the long-looked-forward-to pocket money.
"Will this be of any use to you?" Beth asked, handing him the cheque.
His countenance cleared. "Of use to me? I should think it would!" he exclaimed. "It will just make all the difference. You must sign it, though."
When she had signed it, he put it in his pocket-book, and his spirits went up to the cheery point. He adjusted his hat at the glass over the dining-room mantelpiece, lit a shilling cigar, and went off to his hospital jauntily. Beth was glad to have relieved him of his anxiety. She half hoped he might give her something out of the cheque, if it were only a pound or two, she wanted some little things so badly; but he never offered her a penny. She thought of Aunt Grace Mary's two sovereigns, but the dread of having nothing in case of an emergency kept her from spending them.
There was one thing Dan did which Beth resented. He opened her letters.
"Husband and wife are one," he said. "They should have no secrets from each other. I should like you to open my letters, too, but they contain professional secrets, you see, and that wouldn't do."
He spoke in what he called his cheery way, but Beth had begun to feel that there was another word which would express his manner better, and now it occurred to her.
"You have no right to open my letters," she said; "and being facetious on the subject does not give you any."
"But if I chose to?" he asked.
"It will be a breach of good taste and good feeling," she answered.
No more was said on the subject, and Dan did not open her letters for a little, but then he began again. He had always some excuse, however—either he hadn't looked at the address, or he had been impatient to see if there were any message for himself, and so on; but Beth was not mollified although she said nothing, and her annoyance made her secretive. She would watch for the postman, and take the letters from him herself, and conceal her own, so that Dan might not even know that she had received any.
She had a difficulty with him about another matter too. His lover-like caresses while they were engaged had not been distasteful to her; but after their marriage he kept up an incessant billing and cooing, and of a coarser kind, which soon satiated her. She was a nicely balanced creature, with many interests in life, and love could be but one among the number in any case; but Dan almost seemed to expect it to be the only one.
"Oh dear! must I be embraced again?" she exclaimed one day, with quite comical dismay on being interrupted in the middle of a book that was interesting her at the moment.
Dan looked disconcerted. In his cheerful masculine egotism it had not occurred to him that Beth might find incessant demonstrations of affection monotonous. He would smile at pictures of the waning of the honeymoon, where the husband returns to his book and his dog, and the wife sits apart sad and neglected; it was inevitable that the man should tire, he had other things to think of; but that the wife should be the first to be bored was incredible, and worse: it was unwomanly.
Dan went to the mantelpiece, and stood looking down into the fire, and his grey-green eyes became suffused.
"Have I hurt you, Dan?" Beth exclaimed, jumping up and going to him.
"Hurt me!" he said, taking out his pocket-handkerchief, "that is not the word for it. You have made me very unhappy."
"Oh!" said Beth, her own inclinations disregarded at once, "I am sorry!"
But he had satiated her once for all, and she never recovered any zest for his caresses. She found no charm or freshness in them, especially after she perceived that they were for his own gratification, irrespective of hers. The privileges of love are not to be wrested from us with impunity. Habits of dutiful submission destroy the power to respond, and all that they leave to survive of the warm reality of love at last is a cold pretence. By degrees, as Beth felt forced to be dutiful, she ceased to be affectionate.
Although Dan dressed to go out with scrupulous care, he took no trouble to make himself nice in the house. Care in dress was not in him a necessary part and expression of a refined nature, but an attempt to win consideration. He never dressed for dinner when they were alone together. It was a trouble rather than a refreshment to him to get rid of the dust of the day and the associations of his walking-dress. This was a twofold disappointment to Beth. She had expected him to have the common politeness to dress for her benefit, and she was not pleased to find that the punctiliousness he displayed in the matter on occasion was merely veneer. It was a defect of breeding that struck her unpleasantly. They had been poor enough at home, but Beth had been accustomed all her life to have delicate china about her, and pictures and books, to walk on soft carpets and sit in easy-chairs; possessions of a superior class which, in her case, were symbols bespeaking refinement of taste and habits from which her soul had derived satisfaction even while her poor little fragile body starved. She dressed regularly and daintily herself, and Dan at the bottom of the table in his morning coat was an offence to her. She said nothing at first, however, so his manners still further deteriorated, until one night, after she had gone to her room, he walked in with his hat on, smoking a cigar. It was this last discourtesy that roused her to rebel.
"This is my bedroom," she said significantly.
"I know," he answered.
"You know—yet you keep your hat on, and you are smoking," she proceeded.
"Why," he rejoined, "and if I do, what then? I know ladies who let their husbands smoke in bed."
"Probably," she said. "I have heard of more singularly coarse things than that even. But I am accustomed to pure air in my room, and I must have it."
"And suppose I should choose to stay here and smoke?" he said.
"Of course I could not prevent you," she answered; "but I should go and sleep in another room."
"H'm," he grunted. "You're mighty particular."
But he went away all the same, and did not appear there again either with his hat on or smoking a cigar.
Beth suffered miserably from the want of proper privacy in her life. She had none whatever now. It had been her habit to read and reflect when she went to bed, to prepare for a tranquil night by setting aside the troubles of the day, and purifying her mind systematically even as she washed her body; but all that was impossible if her husband were at home. He would break in upon her reading with idle gossip, fidget about the room when she wished to meditate, and leave her no decent time of privacy for anything. He had his own dressing-room, where he was secure from interruption, but never had the delicacy to comprehend that his presence could be any inconvenience to Beth. And it was worse than an inconvenience. It was a positive hardship—never to be sure of a moment alone.
One afternoon, when she had locked herself in her bedroom, he came and turned the handle of the door noisily.
"Open the door," he said.
"Do you want anything?" she asked.
"Open the door," he repeated.
She obeyed, and he came in, and glanced round suspiciously.
"What were you doing?" he asked.
"Oh," she exclaimed, "this is intolerable!"
"What is intolerable?" he demanded.
"This intrusion," she replied. "I want to be alone for a little; can't you understand that?"
"No, I cannot understand a wife locking her husband out of her room, and what's more, you've no business to do it. I've a legal right to come here whenever I choose."
Then Beth began to realise what the law of man was with regard to her person.
"I never intrude upon you when you shut yourself up," she remonstrated.
"Oh, that is different," he answered arrogantly. "I may have brainwork to do, or something important to think about There is no comparison."
Beth went to her dressing-table, sat down in front of it, folded her hands, and waited doggedly.
He looked at her for a little; then he said, "I don't understand your treatment of me at all, Beth. But there's no understanding women." He spoke as if it were the women's fault, and to their discredit, that he couldn't understand them.
Beth made no answer, and he finally took himself off, slamming the door after him.
"Thank goodness!" Beth exclaimed. "One would think he had bought me."
Then she sat wondering what she should do. She must have some corner where she would be safe from intrusion. He had his consulting-room, a room called his laboratory, a surgery, and a dressing-room, where no one would dream of following him if he shut the door; she had literally not a corner. She left her bedroom, and walked through the other rooms on the same floor as she considered the matter; then she went up to the next floor, where the servants slept. Above that again there was an attic used as a box-room, and she went up there too. It was a barn of a place, supported by pillars, and extending apparently over the whole of the storey below. The roof sloped to the floor on either side, and the whole place was but ill-lighted by two small windows looking to the north. Dr. Maclure had taken over the house as it stood, furniture and all, from the last occupants, by whom this great attic had evidently been used as a lumber-room. There were various pieces of furniture in it—tables, chairs, and drawers, some broken, some in fair condition. At the farther end, opposite to the door, there was a pile of packing-cases and travelling-trunks. Beth had always thought that they stood up against the wall, but on going over to them now, she discovered that there was a space behind. The pile was too high for her to see over it, but by going down on her hands and knees where the sloping roof was too low for her to stoop, she found she could creep round it. It was the kind of thing a child would have done, but what was Beth but a child? On the other side of the pile it was almost dark. She could see something, however, when she stood up, which looked like a mark on the whitewash, and on running her hand over it she discovered it to be a narrow door flush with the wall. There was no handle or latch to it, but there was a key which had rusted in the keyhole and was not to be turned. The door was not locked, however, and Beth pushed it open, and found herself in a charming little room with a fireplace at one end of it, and opposite, at the other end, a large bow window. Beth was puzzled to understand how there came to be a room there at all. Then she recollected a sort of tower there was at the side of the house, which formed a deep embrasure in the drawing-room, a dressing-room to the visitor's room, and a bath-room on the floor above. The window looked out on the garden at the back of the house. A light iron balcony ran round it, the rail of which was so thickly covered with ivy that very little of the window was visible from below. Beth had noticed it, however, only she thought it was a dummy, and so also did Dan. The little room looked bright and cosy with the afternoon sun streaming in. It seemed to have been occupied at one time by some person of fastidious taste, judging by what furniture remained—a square Chippendale table with slender legs, two high-backed chairs covered with old-fashioned tapestry, and a huge mahogany bookcase of the same period, with glass doors above and cupboards below. The high white mantelpiece, adorned with vases and festoons of flowers, was of Adam's design, and so also was the dado and the cornice. The walls were painted a pale warm pink. A high brass fender, pierced, surrounded the fireplace, and there were a poker, tongs, and shovel to match, and a small brass scuttle still full of coals. There were ashes in the grate, too, as if the room had only lately been occupied. The boards were bare, but white and well-fitting, and in one corner of the room there was a piece of carpet rolled up.
Beth dropped on to one of the dusty chairs, and looked round. Everything about her was curiously familiar, and her first impression was that she had been there before. On the other hand, she could hardly believe in the reality of what she saw, she thought she must be dreaming, for here was exactly what she had been pining for most in the whole wide world of late, a secret spot, sacred to herself, where she would be safe from intrusion.
She went downstairs for some oil for the lock, and patiently worked at it until at last she succeeded in turning the key. Then, as it was too late to do anything more that day, she locked the door, and carried the key off in her pocket triumphantly.
Half the night she lay awake thinking of her secret chamber; and as soon as Dan had gone out next morning, and she had done her housekeeping, she stole upstairs with duster and brush, and began to set it in order. All her treasures were contained in some old trunks of Aunt Victoria's which were in the attic, but had not been unpacked because she had no place to put the things. Dan had seen some of these treasures at Rainharbour, and considered them old rubbish, and, not thinking it likely that there would be anything else in the boxes, he had taken no further interest in them. He would have liked to have left them behind altogether, and even tried to laugh Beth out of what he called her sentimental attachment to odds and ends; but as most of the things had belonged to Aunt Victoria, she took his ridicule so ill that he wisely let the subject drop. He had been somewhat hasty in his estimation of the value of the contents of the boxes, however, for there were some handsome curios, a few miniatures and pictures of great artistic merit, some rare editions of books, besides laces, jewels, brocades, and other stuffs in them.
When Beth had swept and dusted, she put down the carpet. Then she began to unpack. Among the first things she found were the old French books, a quarto Bible with the Apocrypha in it, Shakespeare in several volumes, and her school-books and note-books; some ornaments, some beautiful old curtains, and a large deep rug, like a Turkey carpet, in crimson and green and purple and gold, worked by Aunt Victoria. This she spread before the fireplace. The doorway she covered with a curtain, and two more she hung on either side of the window, so that they could not be seen from below. Her books of reference, desk, note-books, and writing materials she put on the table, arranged the ornaments on the mantelpiece, and hung the miniatures and pictures on the walls. Then she sat down and looked about her, well pleased with the whole effect. "Now," she exclaimed, "I am at home, thank God! I shall be able to study, to read and write, think and pray at last, undisturbed."
As Dan sympathised with none of Beth's tastes or interests, and seemed to have none of his own with which she could sympathise, their stock of conversation was soon exhausted, and there was nothing like companionship in their intercourse. If Beth had had no resources in herself, she would have had but a sorry time of it in those days, especially as she received no kindness from any one in Slane. Some of the other medical men's wives called when she first arrived, and she returned their calls punctually, but their courtesy went no farther. Mrs. Carne, the wife of the leading medical practitioner, asked her to lunch, and Mrs. Jeffreys, a surgeon's wife, asked her to afternoon tea; but as these invitations did not include her husband, she refused them. She invited these ladies and their husbands in return, however, but they both pleaded previous engagements.
After the Maclures had been some little time at Slane, Lady Benyon bethought her of an old friend of hers, one Lady Beg, who lived in the neighbourhood, and asked her to call upon Beth, which she did forthwith, for she was one of those delightful old ladies who like nothing better than to be doing a kindness. She came immediately, bringing an invitation to lunch on the following Sunday, already written in case she should find no one at home.
Dan was delighted, "We shall meet nothing but county people there," he said, "and that's the proper set for us. They always do the right thing, you see. They're the only people worth knowing."
"But Beg is miles away from here," Beth said; "how shall we go?"
"We'll go in the dogcart, of course," Dan answered.
He had set up a dogcart on their arrival, but this was the first time he had proposed to take Beth out in it.
As they drove along on Sunday morning in the bright sunshine, Dan's spirits overflowed in a characteristic way at the prospect of meeting "somebody decent," as he expressed it, and he made remarks about the faces and figures of all the women they passed on the road, criticising them as if they were cattle to be sold at so much a point.
"That little girl there," he said of one, whom he beamed upon and ogled as they passed, "reminds me of a fair-haired little devil I picked up one night in Paris. Gad! she was a bad un! up to more tricks than any other I ever knew. She used to—" (here followed a description of some of her peculiar practices).
"I wish you would not tell me these things," Beth remonstrated.
But he only laughed. "You know you're amused," he said. "It's just your conventional affectation that makes you pretend to object. That's the way women drive their husbands elsewhere for amusement; they won't take a proper intelligent interest in life, so there's nothing to talk to them about. I agree with the advanced party. They're always preaching that women should know the world. Women who do know the world have no nonsense about them, and are a jolly sight better company than your starched Puritans who pretend to know nothing. It's the most interesting side of life after all, and the most instructive; and I wonder at your want of intelligence, Beth. You shouldn't be afraid to know the natural history of humanity."
"Nor am I," Beth answered quietly; "nor the natural—or unnatural—depravity either, which is what you really mean, I believe. But knowing it, and delighting in it as a subject of conversation, are two very different things. Jesting about that side of life affects me like mud on a clean coat. I resent being splashed with it, and try to get rid of it, but unfortunately it sticks and stains."
"Oh, you're quite right," Dan answered unctuously. "It's just shocking the stories that are told—" and for the rest of the way he discoursed about morals, illustrating his meaning as he proceeded with anecdotes of the choicest description.
When they arrived at Beg House, they found the company more mixed than Dan had anticipated. Dr. and Mrs. Carne were there, Mr. and Mrs. Jeffreys, and Mr., Mrs., and Miss Petterick. Mr. Petterick was a solicitor of bumptious manners and doubtful reputation, whom the whole county hated, but tolerated because of his wealth and shrewdness, either of which they liked to be in a position to draw upon if necessary. But besides these townspeople, there were Sir George and Lady Galbraith, Mr. and Mrs. Kilroy of Ilverthorpe, and Mrs. Orton Beg, a widowed daughter-in-law of Lady Beg's.
Dr. Maclure immediately made up to Sir George Galbraith, who was also a medical man, and of great repute in his own line. He was a county magnate besides, and a man of wealth and importance by reason of a baronetcy somewhat unexpectedly inherited, and a beautiful country-seat. He continued to practise, however, for love of his profession, but used it as a means of doing good rather than as a source of income. In appearance he was a tall, rather awkward man, with a fine head and a strong, plain face. He spoke in that deliberate Scotch way which has a ring of sincerity in it and inspires confidence, and the contrast between his manner and Dan's struck Beth unpleasantly. She wished Dan would be less effusive; it was almost as if he were cringing; and she thought he should have waited for Sir George Galbraith, who was the older man, to have made the first advance.
Beth herself was at her ease as soon as she came among these people. It was the social atmosphere to which she had been accustomed. Mrs. Carne, Mrs. Jeffreys, and Mrs. Petterick were on their best behaviour, but Beth had only to be natural. The county people were all nice to her, and the other town ladies, who had hitherto slighted her, looked on and wondered to see her so well received. At luncheon, as there were not gentlemen enough to go round, she sat between Sir George Galbraith and Mrs. Orton Beg. Mrs. Kilroy sat opposite. Sir George had known Mrs. Kilroy all her life. It was he, in fact, who nicknamed her and her brother "The Heavenly Twins" in the days when, as children, they used to be the delight of their grandfather, the old Duke of Morningquest, and the terror of their parents, Mr. and Lady Adeline Hamilton-Wells.
As soon as they were seated, Mrs. Kilroy attacked Sir George on some subject which they had previously discussed, and there ensued a little playful war of words.
"Oh, you're just a phrase-maker," Mrs. Kilroy exclaimed at last, finding herself worsted; "and phrases prove nothing."
"What is a phrase-maker?" he asked with a twinkle.
"Why, a phrase-maker is a person who recklessly launches a saying, winged by wit, and of superior brevity and distinctness, but not necessarily true—a saying which flies direct to the mind, and, being of a cutting nature, carves an indelible impression there," said Mrs. Kilroy—"an impression which numbs the intellect and prevents us reasoning for ourselves. Opinion is formed for the most part of phrases, not of knowledge and observation. The things people say smartly are quoted, not because they are true, but because they are smart. A lie well put will carry conviction to the average mind more surely than a good reason if ill-expressed, because most people have an aesthetic sense that is satisfied by a happy play upon words, but few have reason enough to discriminate when the brilliant ingenuity of the phrase-maker is pitted against a plain statement of the bald truth."
"As, for instance?" asked Sir George.
"Man's love is of his life a thing apart, 'Tis woman's whole existence,"
Mrs. Kilroy responded glibly. "That is quoted everywhere, and I have never heard it questioned, yet it is a flagrant case of confounding smartness with accuracy. Love of the kind that Byron meant is quite as much a thing apart from woman's life as from man's; more men, in fact, make the pursuit of it their whole existence than women do."
"You are right," said Sir George thoughtfully. "Love is certainly not a modern woman's whole existence, and she never dies of it. She feels it strongly, but it does not swamp her. In a bad attack, she may go to bed young one night and rise next day with grey hairs in her head, and write a book about it; but then she recovers: and I think you are right about phrases, too. 'Syllables govern the world,' John Selden said; but 'phrases' would have been the better word. Phrases are the keynotes to life; they set the tune to which men insensibly shape their course, and so rule us for good and ill. This is a time of talk, and formidable is the force of phrases. Catch-words are creative; they do not prove that a thing is—they cause it to be."
"Then an unscrupulous phrase-maker may be a danger to the community," Beth observed.
"Yes," said Sir George; "but on the other hand, one who is scrupulous would be a philanthropist of extraordinary power."
"Now, isn't that like his craft and subtlety, Evadne?" said Mrs. Kilroy to Lady Galbraith. "He has been gradually working up to that in order to make Mrs. Maclure suppose I intended to pay him a compliment when I called him a phrase-maker."
"You are taking a mean advantage of an honest attempt on my part to arrive at the truth," said Sir George.
"I believe you blundered into that without seeing in the least where you were going," Beth observed naively.
Everybody smiled, except Dan, who told her on the way home she had made a great mistake to say such a thing, and she must be careful in future, or she would give offence and make enemies for him.
"No fear with people like that," said Beth. "They all understood me."
"Which is as much as to say that your husband does not," said Dan, assuming his hurt expression. "Very well. Go your own way. But you'll be sorry for it."
"What a delightful person Mrs. Orton Beg is," Beth observed, to make a diversion; "and so nice-looking too!"
"You are easily pleased! Why, she's forty if she's a day!" Dan ejaculated, speaking as if that were to her discredit, and must deprive her of any consideration from him.
The next excitement was a military ball. Dan determined to go, and Beth was ready enough; she had never been to a ball.
"But how about a dress?" she said. "There has been such a sudden change in the fashion since mine were made, I'm afraid I have nothing that will do."
"Then get a new one," Dan said.
"What! and add to the bills?" Beth objected.
"Oh, bother the bills!" he answered in the tone he called cheery. "I've had them coming in all my life and I'm still here. Get a thing when you want it, and pay for it when you can—that's my motto. Why, my tailor's bill alone is up in the hundreds.
"But that was the bill mamma gave you the money to settle," Beth exclaimed.
"I know," he answered casually. "I got the money out of her for that, but I had to spend it on your amusement in town, my dear."
"Oh!" Beth ejaculated—"how could you?"
"How could I?" he answered coolly. "Well, I couldn't of course if I hadn't been clever; but I can always get anything I like out of old ladies. They dote on me. You've only got to amuse them, you know, and pour in a little sentiment on occasion. Let them understand you've been rather a naughty man, but you know what's right—that always fetches them. Your mother would have sold out all she had to help me when she found I meant to repent and settle. But of course I wouldn't take anything that was not absolutely necessary," he added magnanimously.
Beth compressed her lips and frowned. "Do you mean to say you obtained money from a poor woman like my mother for a special purpose which she approved, and spent that money on something else?" she asked.
Dan changed countenance. "I got the money from your mother to pay my tailor's bill; but the circumstance of your spending more money in town than I could afford compelled me to use it for another purpose," he answered in rather a blustering tone.
"I spent no money in town," Beth said.
"I had to spend it on you then," he rejoined, "and a nice lament you would have made if I hadn't! But it's all the same. Husband and wife are one; and I maintain that the money was given to me to pay a just debt, and I paid a just debt with it. Now, what have you to say against that to the disparagement of your husband?"
He looked Beth straight in the face as he spoke, as if the nature of the transaction would be changed by staring her out of countenance, and she returned his gaze unflinchingly; but not another word would she say on the subject. There is a sad majority of wives whose attitude towards their husbands must be one of contemptuous toleration—toleration of their past depravity and of their present deceits, whatever form they may take. Such a wife looks upon her husband as a hopeless incurable, because she knows that he has not the sense, even if he had the strength of character, to mend his moral defects. Beth fully realised her husband's turpitude with regard to the money, and also realised the futility of trying to make him see his own conduct in the matter in any light not flattering to himself, and she was deeply pained. She had taken it for granted that Dan would pay interest on the money, but had not troubled herself to find out if he were doing so, as she now thought that she ought to have done, for clearly she should have paid it herself if he did not. True, she never had any money; but that was no excuse, for there were honest ways of making money, and make it she would. She was on her way upstairs to her secret chamber to think the matter out undisturbed when she came to this determination; and as soon as she had shut herself in, she sank upon her knees, and vowed to God solemnly to pay back every farthing, and the interest in full, if she had to work her fingers to the bone. Curiously enough, it was with her fingers she first thought of working, not with her brain. She had seen an advertisement in a daily paper of several depots for the sale of "ladies' work" in London and other places, and she determined at once to try that method of making money. Work of all kinds came easily to her, and happily she still had her two sovereigns, which would be enough to lay in a stock of materials to begin with. Her pin-money Dan regularly appropriated as soon as it arrived, with the facetious remark that it would just pay for her keep; and so far Beth had let him have it without a murmur, yielding in that as in all else, however much against her own inclinations, for gentleness, and also with a vague notion of making up to him in some sort for his own shortcomings, which she could not help fancying must be as great a trouble to him as they were to her. She had grown to have a very real affection for Dan, as indeed she would have had for any one who was passably kind to her; but her estimate of his character, as she gradually became acquainted with it, was never influenced by her affection, except in so far as she pitied him for traits which would have made her despise another man.
Since her marriage she had given up her free, wild, wandering habits. She would go into the town to order things at the shops in the morning, and take a solitary walk out into the country in the afternoon perhaps, but without any keen enjoyment. Her natural zest for the woods and fields was suspended. She had lost touch with nature. Instead of looking about her observantly, as had been her wont, she walked now, as a rule, with her eyes fixed on the ground, thinking deeply. She was losing vitality too; her gait was less buoyant, and she was becoming subject to aches and pains she had never felt before. Dan said they were neuralgic, and showed that she wanted a tonic, but troubled himself no more about them. He always seemed to think she should be satisfied when he found a name for her complaint. She had also become much thinner, which made her figure childishly young; but in the face she looked old for her age—five-and-twenty at least—although she was not yet eighteen.
There was one particularly strong and happy point in Beth's character: she wasted little or no time in repining for the thing that was done. All her thought was how to remedy the evil and make amends; so now, when she had recovered from the first shock of her husband's revelation, she put the thought of it aside, pulled herself together quickly, and found relief in setting to work with a will. The exertion alone was inspiriting, and re-aroused the faculty which had been dormant in her of late. She went at once to get materials for her work, and stepped out more briskly than she had done for many a day. She perceived that the morning air was fresh and sweet, and she inhaled deep draughts of it, and rejoiced in the sunshine. Just opposite their house, across the road, on the other side of a wooden paling, the park-like meadow was intensely green; old horse-chestnuts dotted about it made refreshing intervals of shade; in the hedgerows the tall elms stood out clear against the sky, and the gnarled oaks cast fantastic shadows on the grass; while beyond it, at the farther side of the meadow by the brook, the row of Canadian poplars which bordered it kept up a continuous whispering, as was their wont, even on the stillest days. When Beth first heard them, they spoke a language to her which she comprehended but could not translate; but the immediate effect of her life with Dan had been to deaden her perception, so that she could not comprehend. Then the whispering became a mere rustle of leaves, appealing to nothing but her sense of hearing, and her delight in their murmur lapsed when its significance was lost to her spirit.
But that morning Nature spoke to her again and her eyes were opened. She saw the grey-green poplars, the gnarled oaks, the dark crests of the elms upraised against the radiant blue of the sky, and felt a thrill like triumph as she watched the great masses of cloud, dazzlingly white, floating in infinite space majestically. The life about her, too—the twittering of birds in the hedgerows; an Alderney cow with its calf in the fields; a young colt careering wildly, startled by a passing train; a big dog that saluted her with friendly nose as he trotted by—all these said something to her which made her feel that, let what might happen, it was good to be alive.
On her way into town she thought out a piece of work, something more original and effective than the things usually sold in fancy-work shops, which did not often please her. When she had bought all the materials that she required, there was very little of her two pounds left, but she returned in high spirits, carrying the rather large parcel herself, lest, if it were sent, it should arrive when Dan was at home and excite his curiosity. He always appeared if he heard the door-bell ring, and insisted on knowing who or what had come, an inquisitive trick that irritated Beth into baffling him whenever she could.
She carried her precious packet up to her secret chamber, and set to work at once. Dan, when he came in to lunch, was surprised to find her unusually cheerful. After the temper she had displayed at breakfast, he had expected to have anything but a pleasant time of it for a little. Seeing her in good spirits put him also into a genial mood, and he began at once to talk about himself—his favourite topic.
"Well, I've had a rattling hard day," he observed. "You'd be surprised at the amount I've done in the time. I don't believe any other man here could have done it. I was at that confounded hospital a couple of hours, and after that I had a round! People are beginning to send for me now as the last from school. They think I'm up to the latest dodges. The old men won't like it! I had to go out to the Pettericks to see that girl Bertha again. Their family doctor could make nothing of her case, but it's simple enough. The girl's hysterical, that's what she is; and I know what I'd like to prescribe for her, and that's a husband. Hee-hee! Soon cure her hysterics! As to the old girl, her mother, she's got"—then followed a minute description of her ailments, told in the baldest language. Of two words Dan always chose the coarsest in talking to Beth, now that they were married, which had made her writhe at first; but when she had remonstrated, he assumed an injured air, after which she silently endured the infliction for fear of wounding him. And it was the same with regard to his patients. The first time he described the ailment of a lady patient, and made gross comments about her, Beth had exclaimed—
"O Dan! what would she think of you if she knew you had told me? Surely it is a breach of confidence!"
"Well," he exclaimed, trying to wither her with a look, "you have a nice opinion of your husband! Is it possible that I cannot speak to my own wife without bringing such an accusation upon myself! Well, well! And I'm slaving for you morning, noon, and night, to keep you in some sort of decency and comfort; and when I come home, and do my best to be cheery and amuse you, instead of being morose after the strain of the day, as most men are, all the thanks I get is a speech like that! O holy matrimony!"
"I did not mean to annoy you, Dan; I'm sorry," Beth protested.
"So you should be!" he said; "so you should be! It's mighty hard for me to feel that my own wife hasn't confidence enough in me to be sure that I should never say a word either to her or anybody else about any of my patients to which they'd object."
"People feel differently on the subject, perhaps," Beth ventured. "I only know that if I had a doctor who talked to his wife about my complaints, I should"—despise him, was what she was going to say, but she changed the phrase—"I should not like it. But you should know what your own patients feel about it better than I do."
Even as she spoke, however, her mother's remark of long ago about a "talking doctor" recurred to her, and she felt lowered in her own estimation by the kind of concession she was making to him. The tragedy of such a marriage consists in the effect of the man's mind upon the woman's, shut up with him in the closest intimacy day and night, and all the time imbibing his poisoned thoughts. Beth's womanly grace pleaded with her continually not to hurt her husband since he meant no offence, not to damp his spirits even when they took a form so distasteful to her. To check him was to offend him and provoke a scene for nothing, since his taste was not to be improved; and she would have to have checked him perpetually, and made a mere nag of herself; for to talk in this way to her, to tell her objectionable stories, and harp on depravity of all kinds, was his one idea of pleasurable conversation. It was seldom, therefore, that she remonstrated—especially in those early days when she had not as yet perceived that by tacitly acquiescing she was lending herself to inevitable corruption.
Just at that time, too, she did not trouble herself much about anything. She was entirely absorbed in her new object in life—to get the work done, to make the money, to pay her mother with interest; there was continual exaltation of spirit in the endeavour. Every moment that she could safely secure, she spent in her secret chamber, hard at work. Her outlook was on the sky above, for ever changing; on the gay garden below, whence light airs wafted the fragrance of flowers from time to time, to her delight; and on a gentle green ascent, covered and crowned with trees, which shut out the world beyond. Here there was a colony of rooks, where the birds were busy all day long sometimes, and from which they were sometimes absent from early morning till sundown, when they came back cawing by ones and twos and threes, a long straggling procession of them, their dark iridescent forms with broad black wings outspread, distinct and decorative, against the happy blue. Beth loved the birds, and even as she worked she watched them, their housekeepings and comings and goings; and heard their talk; and often as she worked she looked out at the fair prospect and up at the sky hopefully, and vowed again to accomplish one act of justice at all events. She stopped her regular studies at this time, because she conceived them to be for her own mere personal benefit, while the task which she had set herself was for a better purpose. But, although she did not study as had been her wont, while she sewed she occupied her mind in a way that was much more beneficial to it than the purposeless acquisition of facts, the solving of mathematical problems, or conning of parts of speech. Beside her was always an open book, it might be a passage of Scripture, a scene from Shakespeare, a poem or paragraph rich in the wisdom and beauty of some great mind; and as she sewed she dwelt upon it, repeating it to herself until she was word-perfect in it, then making it even more her own by earnest contemplation. These passages became the texts of many observations; and in them was also the light which showed her life as it is, and as it should be lived. In meditating upon them she taught herself to meditate; and in following up the clues they gave her in the endeavour to discriminate and to judge fairly, by slow degrees she acquired the precious habit of clear thought. This lifted her at once above herself as she had been; and what she had lost of insight and spiritual perception since her marriage, she began to recover in another and more perfect form. Wholesome consideration of the realities of life now took the place of fanciful dreams. Her mind, wonderfully fertilised, teemed again—not with vain imaginings, however, as heretofore, but with something more substantial. Purposeful thought was where the mere froth of sensuous seeing had been; and it was thought that now clamoured for expression instead of the verses and stories—fireworks of the brain, pleasant, transient, futile distractions with nothing more nourishing in them than the interest and entertainment of the moment—which had occupied her chiefly from of old. It was natural to Beth to be open, to discuss all that concerned herself with her friends; but having no one to talk to now, she began on a sudden to record her thoughts and impressions in writing; and having once begun, she entered upon a new phase of existence altogether. She had discovered a recreation which was more absorbing than anything she had ever tried before; for her early scribbling had been of another kind, not nearly so entrancing. Then it had been the idle gossip of life, and the mere pictorial art of word-painting, an ingenious exercise, that had occupied her; now it was the more soul-stirring themes in the region of philosophy and ethics which she pursued, and scenes and phases of life interested her only as the raw material from which a goodly moral might be extracted. Art for art's sake she despised, but in art for man's sake she already discovered noble possibilities. But her very delight in her new pursuit made her think it right to limit her indulgence in it. Duty she conceived to be a painful effort necessarily, but writing was a pleasure; she therefore attended first conscientiously to her embroidery, and any other task she thought it right to perform, although her eager impatience to get back to her desk made each in turn a toil to her. Like many another earnest person, she mistook the things of no importance for things that matter because the doing of them cost her much; and it was the intellectual exercise, the delicate fancy work of her brain, a matter of enormous consequence, that she neglected. Not knowing that "If a man love the labour of any trade, apart from any question of success or fame, the gods have called him," she made the fitting of herself for the work of her life her last exercise at the tired end of the day. She rose early and went to bed late in order to gain a little more time to write, but never suspected that her delight in the effort to find expression for what was in her mind of itself proclaimed her one of the elect.
When she had finished her embroidery, she despatched it secretly to the depot in London; but then she found that she would have to pay a small subscription before she could have it sold there, and she had no money. She wrote boldly to the secretary and told her so, and asked if the subscription could not be paid out of the price she got for her work. The secretary replied that it was contrary to the rules, but the committee thought that such an artistically beautiful design as hers was sure to be snapped up directly, and they had therefore decided to make an exception in her case.
While these letters were going backwards and forwards, Beth suffered agonies of anxiety lest Dan should pounce upon them and discover her secret; but he happened to be out always at post-time just then, so she managed to secure them safely.
As she had no money, she could not buy any more materials for embroidery, so she was obliged to take a holiday, the greater part of which she spent in writing. She was deeply engrossed by thoughts on progress, which had been suggested by a passage in one of Emerson's essays: "All conservatives are such from natural defects. They have been effeminated by position or nature, born halt and blind, through luxury of their parents, and can only, like invalids, act on the defensive." Even in her own little life Beth had seen so much of the ill effects of conservatism in the class to which she belonged, and had suffered so much from it herself already, that the subject appealed to her strongly, and she pursued it with enthusiasm—more from the social than the political point of view, however. But, unfortunately, in all too short a time, her holiday came to an end. Her beautiful embroidery had sold for six guineas, and she found herself with the money for more materials, and three pounds in hand besides, clear profit, towards the debt. She had also received an order from the depot for another piece of work at the same price, which caused her considerable elation, and set her to work again with a will; and it was only when she could no longer ply her needle that she allowed herself to take up her pen.
Beth had no more zest for the ball after that conversation with Daniel about the money her mother had given him. She felt obliged to go to it because he insisted that it was necessary for the wives of professional men to show themselves on public occasions; but she would not get a new dress. She had never worn her white silk trimmed with myrtle, and when she came to look at it again, she decided that it was not so much out of the fashion after all, and, at any rate, it must do.
When she came down to dinner dressed in it on the night of the ball, she looked very winsome, and smiled up at Dan in shy expectation of a word of approval; but none came. In the early days of their acquaintance he had remarked that she was much more easily depressed than elated about herself, and would be the better of a little more confidence—not to say conceit; but since their marriage he had never given her the slightest sympathy or encouragement to cure her of her diffidence. If anything were amiss in her dress or appearance, he told her of it in the offensive manner of an ill-conditioned under-bred man, generally speaking when they were out of doors, or in some house where she could do nothing to put herself right, as if it were some satisfaction to him to make her feel ill at ease; and if she were complimented by any one else about anything, he had usually something derogatory to say on the subject afterwards. Now, when he had inspected her, he sat down to table without a word.
"Is there anything wrong?" Beth asked anxiously.
"No," he answered. "That stuff on your sleeves might have been fresher, that's all."
"This will be my first ball," Beth ventured, breaking a long silence.
"Well, don't go and tell everybody," he rejoined. "They'll think you want to make yourself interesting, and it's nothing to boast about. Just lay yourself out to be agreeable to people who will further your husband's interests, for once."
"But am I not always agreeable?" Beth exclaimed, much mortified.
"It doesn't appear so," he answered drily. "At any rate, you don't seem to go down here."
"How do you mean?" Beth asked.
"Why, the ladies in the place all seem to shun you, for some reason or other; not one of them ever comes near you in a friendly way."
"They were all very nice to me the other day at Beg," Beth protested, her heart sinking at this recurrence of the old reproach; for to be shunned, or in any way set apart, seemed even more dreadful to her now than it had done when she was a child.
"See that they keep it up then," he answered grimly.
"If it depends upon me, they will," said Beth, setting her sensitive mouth in a hard determined line that added ten years to her age and did not improve her beauty. And it was with a sad heart, and sorely dissatisfied with herself, that she drove to her first ball.
When they entered the ball-room, however, and Dan beamed about him on every one in his "thoroughly good fellow" way, her spirits rose. The decorations, the handsome uniforms, the brilliant dresses and jewels, the flowers and foliage plants, and, above all, the bright dance-music and festive faces, delighted her, and she gazed about her with lips just parted in a little smile, wondering to find it all so gay.
A young military man was brought up to her and introduced by one of the stewards before she had been five minutes in the room. He asked for the pleasure of a dance; but, alas! thanks to the scheme of education at the Royal Service School for Officers' Daughters having been designed by the authorities to fit the girls for the next world only, Beth could not dance. She had had some lessons at Miss Blackburne's, but not enough to give her confidence, so she was obliged to decline. Another and another would-be partner, and some quite important people, as Dan said, offered, but in vain; and he looked furious.
"Well," he exclaimed, "this is nice for me!"
"I am sorry," Beth answered nervously. She was beginning to have a painful conviction that a man had to depend almost entirely on his wife for his success in life, and the responsibility made her quail.
"I shall have to go and do my duty, at any rate," he proceeded. "I must leave you alone."
"Yes, do," said Beth. "Mrs. Kilroy and Mrs. Orton Beg have just come in; I will go and join them." She naturally expected Dan to escort her, and he probably would have done so had he waited to hear what she was saying; but his marital manners were such that he had taken himself off while she was speaking, and left her to fend for herself. She was too glad, however, to see her charming new acquaintances, who had been so kindly, to care much, and she crossed the room to them, smiling confidently. As she approached, she saw that they recognised her and said something to each other. When she came close, they both bowed coldly, and turned their heads in the opposite direction.