"In my country, sir," Rufus remarked, "the Lecture Bureau would have provided for her amusement, on economical terms. And I reckon, if a married life would fix her, she might have tried it among Us by way of a change."
"That's the saddest part of the story," said Amelius. "There came a time, only two years ago, when her prospects changed for the better. Her rich aunt (her mother's sister) died; and—what do you think?—left her a legacy of six thousand pounds. There was a gleam of sunshine in her life! The poor teacher was an heiress in a small way, with her fortune at her own disposal. They had something like a festival at home, for the first time; presents to everybody, and kissings and congratulations, and new dresses at last. And, more than that, another wonderful event happened before long. A gentleman made his appearance in the family circle, with an interesting object in view—a gentleman, who had called at the house in which she happened to be employed as teacher at the time, and had seen her occupied with her pupils. He had kept it to himself to be sure, but he had secretly admired her from that moment—and now it had come out! She had never had a lover before; mind that. And he was a remarkably handsome man: dressed beautifully, and sang and played, and was so humble and devoted with it all. Do you think it wonderful that she said Yes, when he proposed to marry her? I don't think it wonderful at all. For the first few weeks of the courtship, the sunshine was brighter than ever. Then the clouds began to rise. Anonymous letters came, describing the handsome gentleman (seen under his fair surface) as nothing less than a scoundrel. She tore up the letters indignantly—she was too delicate even to show them to him. Signed letters came next, addressed to her father by an uncle and an aunt, both containing one and the same warning: 'If your daughter insists on having him, tell her to take care of her money.' A few days later, a visitor arrived—a brother, who spoke out more plainly still. As an honourable man, he could not hear of what was going on, without making the painful confession that his brother was forbidden to enter his house. That said, he washed his hands of all further responsibility. You two know the world, you will guess how it ended. Quarrels in the household; the poor middle-aged woman, living in her fool's paradise, blindly true to her lover; convinced that he was foully wronged; frantic when he declared that he would not connect himself with a family which suspected him. Ah, I have no patience when I think of it, and I almost wish I had never begun to tell the story! Do you know what he did? She was free of course, at her age, to decide for herself; there was no controlling her. The wedding day was fixed. Her father had declared he would not sanction it; and her step-mother kept him to his word. She went alone to the church, to meet her promised husband. He never appeared; he deserted her, mercilessly deserted her—after she had sacrificed her own relations to him—on her wedding-day. She was taken home insensible, and had a brain fever. The doctors declined to answer for her life. Her father thought it time to look to her banker's pass-book. Out of her six thousand pounds she had privately given no less than four thousand to the scoundrel who had deceived and forsaken her! Not a month afterwards he married a young girl—with a fortune of course. We read of such things in newspapers and books. But to have them brought home to one, after living one's own life among honest people—I tell you it stupefied me!"
He said no more. Below them in the cabin, voices were laughing and talking, to a cheerful accompaniment of clattering knives and forks. Around them spread the exultant glory of sea and sky. All that they heard, all that they saw, was cruelty out of harmony with the miserable story which had just reached its end. With one accord the three men rose and paced the deck, feeling physically the same need of some movement to lighten their spirits. With one accord they waited a little, before the narrative was resumed.
Mr. Hethcote was the first to speak again.
"I can understand the poor creature's motive in joining your Community," he said. "To a person of any sensibility her position, among such relatives as you describe, must have been simply unendurable after what had happened. How did she hear of Tadmor and the Socialists?"
"She had read one of our books," Amelius answered; "and she had her married sister at New York to go to. There were moments, after her recovery (she confessed it to me frankly), when the thought of suicide was in her mind. Her religious scruples saved her. She was kindly received by her sister and her sister's husband. They proposed to keep her with them to teach their children. No! the new life offered to her was too like the old life—she was broken in body and mind; she had no courage to face it. We have a resident agent in New York; and he arranged for her journey to Tadmor. There is a gleam of brightness, at any rate, in this part of her story. She blessed the day, poor soul, when she joined us. Never before had she found herself among such kind-hearted, unselfish, simple people. Never before—" he abruptly checked himself, and looked a little confused.
Obliging Rufus finished the sentence for him. "Never before had she known a young man with such natural gifts of fascination as C.A.G. Don't you be too modest, sir; it doesn't pay, I assure you, in the nineteenth century."
Amelius was not as ready with his laugh as usual. "I wish I could drop it at the point we have reached now," he said. "But she has left Tadmor; and, in justice to her (after the scandals in the newspaper), I must tell you how she left it, and why. The mischief began when I was helping her out of the boat. Two of our young women met us on the bank of the lake, and asked me how I got on with my fishing. They didn't mean any harm—they were only in their customary good spirits. Still, there was no mistaking their looks and tones when they put the question. Miss Mellicent, in her confusion, made matters worse. She coloured up, and snatched her hand out of mine, and ran back to the house by herself. The girls, enjoying their own foolish joke, congratulated me on my prospects. I must have been out of sorts in some way—upset, perhaps, by what I had heard in the boat. Anyhow, I lost my temper, and I made matters worse, next. I said some angry words, and left them. The same evening I found a letter in my room. 'For your sake, I must not be seen alone with you again. It is hard to lose the comfort of your sympathy, but I must submit. Think of me as kindly as I think of you. It has done me good to open my heart to you.' Only those lines, signed by Mellicent's initials. I was rash enough to keep the letter, instead of destroying it. All might have ended well, nevertheless, if she had only held to her resolution. But, unluckily, my twenty-first birthday was close at hand; and there was talk of keeping it as a festival in the Community. I was up with sunrise when the day came; having some farming work to look after, and wanting to get it over in good time. My shortest way back to breakfast was through a wood. In the wood I met her."
"Alone?" Mr. Hethcote asked.
Rufus expressed his opinion of the wisdom of putting this question with his customary plainness of language. "When there's a rash thing to be done by a man and a woman together, sir, philosophers have remarked that it's always the woman who leads the way. Of course she was alone."
"She had a little present for me on my birthday," Amelius explained—"a purse of her own making. And she was afraid of the ridicule of the young women, if she gave it to me openly. 'You have my heart's dearest wishes for your happiness; think of me sometimes, Amelius, when you open your purse.' If you had been in my place, could you have told her to go away, when she said that, and put her gift into your hand? Not if she had been looking at you at the moment—I'll swear you couldn't have done it!"
The lean yellow face of Rufus Dingwell relaxed for the first time into a broad grin. "There are further particulars, sir, stated in the newspaper," he said slily.
"Damn the newspaper!" Amelius answered.
Rufus bowed, serenely courteous, with the air of a man who accepted a British oath as an unwilling compliment paid by the old country to the American press. "The newspaper report states, sir, that she kissed you."
"It's a lie!" Amelius shouted.
"Perhaps it's an error of the press," Rufus persisted. "Perhaps, you kissed her?"
"Never mind what I did," said Amelius savagely.
Mr. Hethcote felt it necessary to interfere. He addressed Rufus in his most magnificent manner. "In England, Mr. Dingwell, a gentleman is not in the habit of disclosing these—er—these—er, er—"
"These kissings in a wood?" suggested Rufus. "In my country, sir, we do not regard kissing, in or out of a wood, in the light of a shameful proceeding. Quite the contrary, I do assure you."
Amelius recovered his temper. The discussion was becoming too ridiculous to be endured by the unfortunate person who was the object of it.
"Don't let us make mountains out of molehills," he said. "I did kiss her—there! A woman pressing the prettiest little purse you ever saw into your hand, and wishing you many happy returns of the day with the tears in her eyes; I should like to know what else was to be done but to kiss her. Ah, yes, smooth out your newspaper report, and have another look at it! She did rest her head on my shoulder, poor soul, and she did say, 'Oh, Amelius, I thought my heart was turned to stone; feel how you have made it beat!' When I remembered what she had told me in the boat, I declare to God I almost burst out crying myself—it was so innocent and so pitiful."
Rufus held out his hand with true American cordiality. "I do assure you, sir, I meant no harm," he said. "The right grit is in you, and no mistake—and there goes the newspaper!" He rolled up the slip, and flung it overboard.
Mr. Hethcote nodded his entire approval of this proceeding. Amelius went on with his story.
"I'm near the end now," he said. "If I had known it would have taken so long to tell—never mind! We got out of the wood at last, Mr. Rufus; and left it without a suspicion that we had been watched. I was prudent enough (when it was too late, you will say) to suggest to her that we had better be careful for the future. Instead of taking it seriously, she laughed. 'Have you altered your mind, since you wrote to me?' I asked. 'To be sure I have,' she said. 'When I wrote to you I forgot the difference between your age and mine. Nothing that we do will be taken seriously. I am afraid of their laughing at me, Amelius; but I am afraid of nothing else.' I did my best to undeceive her. I told her plainly that people unequally matched in years—women older than men, as well as men older than women—were not uncommonly married among us. The council only looked to their being well suited in other ways, and declined to trouble itself about the question of age. I don't think I produced much effect; she seemed, for once in her life, poor thing, to be too happy to look beyond the passing moment. Besides, there was the birthday festival to keep her mind from dwelling on doubts and fears that were not agreeable to her. And the next day there was another event to occupy our attention—the arrival of the lawyer's letter from London, with the announcement of my inheritance on coming of age. It was settled, as you know, that I was to go out into the world, and to judge for myself; but the date of my departure was not fixed. Two days later, the storm that had been gathering for weeks past burst on us—we were cited to appear before the council to answer for an infraction of the Rules. Everything that I have confessed to you, and some things besides that I have kept to myself, lay formally inscribed on a sheet of paper placed on the council table—and pinned to the sheet of paper was Mellicent's letter to me, found in my room. I took the whole blame on myself, and insisted on being confronted with the unknown person who had informed against us. The council met this by a question:—'Is the information, in any particular, false?' Neither of us could deny that it was, in every particular, true. Hearing this, the council decided that there was no need, on our own showing, to confront us with the informer. From that day to this, I have never known who the spy was. Neither Mellicent nor I had an enemy in the Community. The girls who had seen us on the lake, and some other members who had met us together, only gave their evidence on compulsion—and even then they prevaricated, they were so fond of us and so sorry for us. After waiting a day, the governing body pronounced their judgment. Their duty was prescribed to them by the Rules. We were sentenced to six months' absence from the Community; to return or not as we pleased. A hard sentence, gentlemen—whatever we may think of it—to homeless and friendless people, to the Fallen Leaves that had drifted to Tadmor. In my case it had been already arranged that I was to leave. After what had happened, my departure was made compulsory in four-and-twenty hours; and I was forbidden to return, until the date of my sentence had expired. In Mellicent's case they were still more strict. They would not trust her to travel by herself. A female member of the Community was appointed to accompany her to the house of her married sister at New York: she was ordered to be ready for the journey by sunrise the next morning. We both understood, of course, that the object of this was to prevent our travelling together. They might have saved themselves the trouble of putting obstacles in our way."
"So far as You were concerned, I suppose?" said Mr. Hethcote.
"So far as She was concerned also," Amelius answered.
"How did she take it, sir?" Rufus inquired.
"With a composure that astonished us all," said Amelius. "We had anticipated tears and entreaties for mercy. She stood up perfectly calm, far calmer than I was, with her head turned towards me, and her eyes resting quietly on my face. If you can imagine a woman whose whole being was absorbed in looking into the future; seeing what no mortal creature about her saw; sustained by hopes that no mortal creature about her could share—you may see her as I did, when she heard her sentence pronounced. The members of the Community, accustomed to take leave of an erring brother or sister with loving and merciful words, were all more or less distressed as they bade her farewell. Most of the women were in tears as they kissed her. They said the same kind words to her over and over again. 'We are heartily sorry for you, dear; we shall all be glad to welcome you back.' They sang our customary hymn at parting—and broke down before they got to the end. It was she who consoled them! Not once, through all that melancholy ceremony, did she lose her strange composure, her rapt mysterious look. I was the last to say farewell; and I own I couldn't trust myself to speak. She held my hand in hers. For a moment, her face lighted up softly with a radiant smile—then the strange preoccupied expression flowed over her again, like shadow over a light. Her eyes, still looking into mine, seemed to look beyond me. She spoke low, in sad steady tones. 'Be comforted, Amelius; the end is not yet.' She put her hands on my head, and drew it down to her. 'You will come back to me,' she whispered—and kissed me on the forehead, before them all. When I looked up again, she was gone. I have neither seen her nor heard from her since. It's all told, gentlemen—and some of it has distressed me in the telling. Let me go away for a minute by myself, and look at the sea."
BOOK THE SECOND. AMELIUS IN LONDON
Oh, Rufus Dingwell, it is such a rainy day! And the London street which I look out on from my hotel window presents such a dirty and such a miserable view! Do you know, I hardly feel like the same Amelius who promised to write to you when you left the steamer at Queenstown. My spirits are sinking; I begin to feel old. Am I in the right state of mind to tell you what are my first impressions of London? Perhaps I may alter my opinion. At present (this is between ourselves), I don't like London or London people—excepting two ladies, who, in very different ways, have interested and charmed me.
Who are the ladies? I must tell you what I heard about them from Mr. Hethcote, before I present them to you on my own responsibility.
After you left us, I found the last day of the voyage to Liverpool dull enough. Mr. Hethcote did not seem to feel it in the same way: on the contrary, he grew more familiar and confidential in his talk with me. He has some of the English stiffness, you see, and your American pace was a little too fast for him. On our last night on board, we had some more conversation about the Farnabys. You were not interested enough in the subject to attend to what he said about them while you were with us; but if you are to be introduced to the ladies, you must be interested now. Let me first inform you that Mr. and Mrs. Farnaby have no children; and let me add that they have adopted the daughter and orphan child of Mrs. Farnaby's sister. This sister, it seems, died many years ago, surviving her husband for a few months only. To complete the story of the past, death has also taken old Mr. Ronald, the founder of the stationer's business, and his wife, Mrs. Farnaby's mother. Dry facts these—I don't deny it; but there is something more interesting to follow. I have next to tell you how Mr. Hethcote first became acquainted with Mrs. Farnaby. Now, Rufus, we are coming to something romantic at last!
It is some time since Mr. Hethcote ceased to perform his clerical duties, owing to a malady in the throat, which made it painful for him to take his place in the reading-desk or the pulpit. His last curacy attached him to a church at the West-end of London; and here, one Sunday evening, after he had preached the sermon, a lady in trouble came to him in the vestry for spiritual advice and consolation. She was a regular attendant at the church, and something which he had said in that evening's sermon had deeply affected her. Mr. Hethcote spoke with her afterwards on many occasions at home. He felt a sincere interest in her, but he disliked her husband; and, when he gave up his curacy, he ceased to pay visits to the house. As to what Mrs. Farnaby's troubles were, I can tell you nothing. Mr. Hethcote spoke very gravely and sadly when he told me that the subject of his conversations with her must be kept a secret. "I doubt whether you and Mr. Farnaby will get on well together," he said to me; "but I shall be astonished if you are not favourably impressed by his wife and her niece."
This was all I knew when I presented my letter of introduction to Mr. Farnaby at his place of business.
It was a grand stone building, with great plate-glass windows—all renewed and improved, they told me, since old Mr. Ronald's time. My letter and my card went into an office at the back, and I followed them after a while. A lean, hard, middle-aged man, buttoned up tight in a black frock-coat, received me, holding my written introduction open in his hand. He had a ruddy complexion not commonly seen in Londoners, so far as my experience goes. His iron-gray hair and whiskers (especially the whiskers) were in wonderfully fine order—as carefully oiled and combed as if he had just come out of a barber's shop. I had been in the morning to the Zoological Gardens; his eyes, when he lifted them from the letter to me, reminded me of the eyes of the eagles—glassy and cruel. I have a fault that I can't cure myself of. I like people, or dislike them, at first sight, without knowing, in either case, whether they deserve it or not. In the one moment when our eyes met, I felt the devil in me. In plain English, I hated Mr. Farnaby!
"Good morning, sir," he began, in a loud, harsh, rasping voice. "The letter you bring me takes me by surprise."
"I thought the writer was an old friend of yours," I said.
"An old friend of mine," Mr. Farnaby answered, "whose errors I deplore. When he joined your Community, I looked upon him as a lost man. I am surprised at his writing to me."
It is quite likely I was wrong, knowing nothing of the usages of society in England. I thought this reception of me downright rude. I had laid my hat on a chair; I took it up in my hand again, and delivered a parting shot at the brute with the oily whiskers.
"If I had known what you now tell me," I said, "I should not have troubled you by presenting that letter. Good morning."
This didn't in the least offend him. A curious smile broke out on his face; it widened his eyes, and it twitched up his mouth at one corner. He held out his hand to stop me. I waited, in case he felt bound to make an apology. He did nothing of the sort—he only made a remark.
"You are young and hasty," he said. "I may lament my friend's extravagances, without failing on that account in what is due to an old friendship. You are probably not aware that we have no sympathy in England with Socialists."
I hit him back again. "In that case, sir, a little Socialism in England would do you no harm. We consider it a part of our duty as Christians to feel sympathy with all men who are honest in their convictions—no matter how mistaken (in our opinion) the convictions may be." I rather thought I had him there; and I took up my hat again, to get off with the honours of victory while I had the chance.
I am sincerely ashamed of myself, Rufus, in telling you all this. I ought to have given him back "the soft answer that turneth away wrath"—my conduct was a disgrace to my Community. What evil influence was at work in me? Was it the air of London? or was it a possession of the devil?
He stopped me for the second time—not in the least disconcerted by what I had said to him. His inbred conviction of his own superiority to a young adventurer like me was really something magnificent to witness. He did me justice—the Philistine-Pharisee did me justice! Will you believe it? He made his remarks next on my good points, as if I had been a young bull at a prize cattle show.
"Excuse me for noticing it," he said. "Your manners are perfectly gentlemanlike, and you speak English without any accent. And yet you have been brought up in America. What does it mean?"
I grew worse and worse—I got downright sulky now.
"I suppose it means," I answered, "that some of us, in America, cultivate ourselves as well as our land. We have our books and music, though you seem to think we only have our axes and spades. Englishmen don't claim a monopoly of good manners at Tadmor. We see no difference between an American gentleman and an English gentleman. And as for speaking English with an accent, the Americans accuse us of doing that."
He smiled again. "How very absurd!" he said, with a superb compassion for the benighted Americans. By this time, I suspect he began to feel that he had had enough of me. He got rid of me with an invitation.
"I shall be glad to receive you at my private residence, and introduce you to my wife and her niece—our adopted daughter. There is the address. We have a few friends to dinner on Saturday next, at seven. Will you give us the pleasure of your company?"
We are all aware that there is a distinction between civility and cordiality; but I myself never knew how wide that distinction might be, until Mr. Farnaby invited me to dinner. If I had not been curious (after what Mr. Hethcote had told me) to see Mrs. Farnaby and her niece, I should certainly have slipped out of the engagement. As it was, I promised to dine with Oily-Whiskers.
He put his hand into mine at parting. It felt as moistly cold as a dead fish. After getting out again into the street, I turned into the first tavern I passed, and ordered a drink. Shall I tell you what else I did? I went into the lavatory, and washed Mr. Farnaby off my hand. (N.B.—If I had behaved in this way at Tadmor, I should have been punished with the lighter penalty—taking my meals by myself, and being forbidden to enter the Common Room for eight and forty hours.) I feel I am getting wickeder and wickeder in London—I have half a mind to join you in Ireland. What does Tom Moore say of his countrymen—he ought to know, I suppose? "For though they love women and golden store: Sir Knight, they love honour and virtue more!" They must have been all Socialists in Tom Moore's time. Just the place for me.
I have been obliged to wait a little. A dense fog has descended on us by way of variety. With a stinking coal fire, with the gas lit and the curtains drawn at half-past eleven in the forenoon, I feel that I am in my own country again at last. Patience, my friend—patience! I am coming to the ladies.
Entering Mr. Farnaby's private residence on the appointed day, I became acquainted with one more of the innumerable insincerities of modern English life. When a man asks you to dine with him at seven o'clock, in other countries, he means what he says. In England, he means half-past seven, and sometimes a quarter to eight. At seven o'clock I was the only person in Mr. Farnaby's drawing-room. At ten minutes past seven, Mr. Farnaby made his appearance. I had a good mind to take his place in the middle of the hearth-rug, and say, "Farnaby, I am glad to see you." But I looked at his whiskers; and they said to me, as plainly as words could speak, "Better not!"
In five minutes more, Mrs. Farnaby joined us.
I wish I was a practised author—or, no, I would rather, for the moment, be a competent portrait-painter, and send you Mrs. Farnaby's likeness enclosed. How I am to describe her in words, I really don't know. My dear fellow, she almost frightened me. I never before saw such a woman; I never expect to see such a woman again. There was nothing in her figure, or in her way of moving, that produced this impression on me—she is little and fat, and walks with a firm, heavy step, like the step of a man. Her face is what I want to make you see as plainly as I saw it myself: it was her face that startled me.
So far as I can pretend to judge, she must have been pretty, in a healthy way, when she was young. I declare I hardly know whether she is not pretty now. She certainly has no marks or wrinkles; her hair either has no gray in it, or is too light to show the gray. She has preserved her fair complexion; perhaps with art to assist it—I can't say. As for her lips—I am not speaking disrespectfully, I am only describing them truly, when I say that they invite kisses in spite of her. In two words, though she has been married (as I know from what one of the guests told me after dinner) for sixteen years, she would be still an irresistible little woman, but for the one startling drawback of her eyes. Don't mistake me. In themselves, they are large, well-opened blue eyes, and may at one time have been the chief attraction in her face. But now there is an expression of suffering in them—long, unsolaced suffering, as I believe—so despairing and so dreadful, that she really made my heart ache when I looked at her. I will swear to it, that woman lives in some secret hell of her own making, and longs for the release of death; and is so inveterately full of bodily life and strength, that she may carry her burden with her to the utmost verge of life. I am digging the pen into the paper, I feel this so strongly, and I am so wretchedly incompetent to express my feeling. Can you imagine a diseased mind, imprisoned in a healthy body? I don't care what doctors or books may say—it is that, and nothing else. Nothing else will solve the mystery of the smooth face, the fleshy figure, the firm step, the muscular grip of her hand when she gives it to you—and the soul in torment that looks at you all the while out of her eyes. It is useless to tell me that such a contradiction as this cannot exist. I have seen the woman; and she does exist.
Oh yes! I can fancy you grinning over my letter—I can hear you saying to yourself, "Where did he pick up his experience, I wonder?" I have no experience—I only have something that serves me instead of it, and I don't know what. The Elder Brother, at Tadmor, used to say it was sympathy. But he is a sentimentalist.
Well, Mr. Farnaby presented me to his wife—and then walked away as if he was sick of us both, and looked out of the window.
For some reason or other, Mrs. Farnaby seemed to be surprised, for the moment, by my personal appearance. Her husband had, very likely, not told her how young I was. She got over her momentary astonishment, and, signing to me to sit by her on the sofa, said the necessary words of welcome—evidently thinking something else all the time. The strange miserable eyes looked over my shoulder, instead of looking at me.
"Mr. Farnaby tells me you have been living in America."
The tone in which she spoke was curiously quiet and monotonous. I have heard such tones, in the Far West, from lonely settlers without a neighbouring soul to speak to. Has Mrs. Farnaby no neighbouring soul to speak to, except at dinner parties?
"You are an Englishman, are you not?" she went on.
I said Yes, and cast about in my mind for something to say to her. She saved me the trouble by making me the victim of a complete series of questions. This, as I afterwards discovered, was her way of finding conversation for strangers. Have you ever met with absent-minded people to whom it is a relief to ask questions mechanically, without feeling the slightest interest in the answers?
She began. "Where did you live in America?"
"At Tadmor, in the State of Illinois."
"What sort of place is Tadmor?"
I described the place as well as I could, under the circumstances.
"What made you go to Tadmor?"
It was impossible to reply to this, without speaking of the Community. Feeling that the subject was not in the least likely to interest her, I spoke as briefly as I could. To my astonishment, I evidently began to interest her from that moment. The series of questions went on—but now she not only listened, she was eager for the answers.
"Are there any women among you?"
"Nearly as many women as men."
Another change! Over the weary misery of her eyes there flashed a bright look of interest which completely transformed them. Her articulation even quickened when she put her next question.
"Are any of the women friendless creatures, who came to you from England?"
"Yes, some of them."
I thought of Mellicent as I spoke. Was this new interest that I had so innocently aroused, an interest in Mellicent? Her next question only added to my perplexity. Her next question proved that my guess had completely failed to hit the mark.
"Are there any young women among them?"
Mr. Farnaby, standing with his back to us thus far, suddenly turned and looked at her, when she inquired if there were "young" women among us.
"Oh yes," I said. "Mere girls."
She pressed so near to me that her knees touched mine. "How old?" she asked eagerly.
Mr. Farnaby left the window, walked close up to the sofa, and deliberately interrupted us.
"Nasty muggy weather, isn't it?" he said. "I suppose the climate of America—"
Mrs. Farnaby deliberately interrupted her husband. "How old?" she repeated, in a louder tone.
I was bound, of course, to answer the lady of the house. "Some girls from eighteen to twenty. And some younger."
"How much younger?"
"Oh, from sixteen to seventeen."
She grew more and more excited; she positively laid her hand on my arm in her eagerness to secure my attention all to herself. "American girls or English?" she resumed, her fat, firm fingers closing on me with a tremulous grasp.
"Shall you be in town in November?" said Mr. Farnaby, purposely interrupting us again. "If you would like to see the Lord Mayor's Show—"
Mrs. Farnaby impatiently shook me by the arm. "American girls or English?" she reiterated, more obstinately than ever.
Mr. Farnaby gave her one look. If he could have put her on the blazing fire and have burnt her up in an instant by an effort of will, I believe he would have made the effort. He saw that I was observing him, and turned quickly from his wife to me. His ruddy face was pale with suppressed rage. My early arrival had given Mrs. Farnaby an opportunity of speaking to me, which he had not anticipated in inviting me to dinner. "Come and see my pictures," he said.
His wife still held me fast. Whether he liked it or not, I had again no choice but to answer her. "Some American girls, and some English," I said.
Her eyes opened wider and wider in unutterable expectation. She suddenly advanced her face so close to mine, that I felt her hot breath on my cheeks as the next words burst their way through her lips.
"Born in England?"
"No. Born at Tadmor."
She dropped my arm. The light died out of her eyes in an instant. In some inconceivable way, I had utterly destroyed some secret expectation that she had fixed on me. She actually left me on the sofa, and took a chair on the opposite side of the fireplace. Mr. Farnaby, turning paler and paler, stepped up to her as she changed her place. I rose to look at the pictures on the wall nearest to me. You remarked the extraordinary keenness of my sense of hearing, while we were fellow passengers on the steamship. When he stooped over her, and whispered in her ear, I heard him—though nearly the whole breadth of the room was between us. "You hell-cat!"—that was what Mr. Farnaby said to his wife.
The clock on the mantelpiece struck the half-hour after seven. In quick succession, the guests at the dinner now entered the room.
I was so staggered by the extraordinary scene of married life which I had just witnessed, that the guests produced only a very faint impression upon me. My mind was absorbed in trying to find the true meaning of what I had seen and heard. Was Mrs. Farnaby a little mad? I dismissed that idea as soon as it occurred to me; nothing that I had observed in her justified it. The truer conclusion appeared to be, that she was deeply interested in some absent (and possibly lost) young creature; whose age, judging by actions and tones which had sufficiently revealed that part of the secret to me, could not be more than sixteen or seventeen years. How long had she cherished the hope of seeing the girl, or hearing of her? It must have been, anyhow, a hope very deeply rooted, for she had been perfectly incapable of controlling herself when I had accidentally roused it. As for her husband, there could be no doubt that the subject was not merely distasteful to him, but so absolutely infuriating that he could not even keep his temper, in the presence of a third person invited to his house. Had he injured the girl in any way? Was he responsible for her disappearance? Did his wife know it, or only suspect it? Who was the girl? What was the secret of Mrs. Farnaby's extraordinary interest in her—Mrs. Farnaby, whose marriage was childless; whose interest one would have thought should be naturally concentrated on her adopted daughter, her sister's orphan child? In conjectures such as these, I completely lost myself. Let me hear what your ingenuity can make of the puzzle; and let me return to Mr. Farnaby's dinner, waiting on Mr. Farnaby's table.
The servant threw open the drawing-room door, and the most honoured guest present led Mrs. Farnaby to the dining-room. I roused myself to some observation of what was going on about me. No ladies had been invited; and the men were all of a certain age. I looked in vain for the charming niece. Was she not well enough to appear at the dinner-party? I ventured on putting the question to Mr. Farnaby.
"You will find her at the tea-table, when we return to the drawing-room. Girls are out of place at dinner-parties." So he answered me—not very graciously.
As I stepped out on the landing, I looked up; I don't know why, unless I was the unconscious object of magnetic attraction. Anyhow, I had my reward. A bright young face peeped over the balusters of the upper staircase, and modestly withdrew itself again in a violent hurry. Everybody but Mr. Farnaby and myself had disappeared in the dining-room. Was she having a peep at the young Socialist?
Another interruption to my letter, caused by another change in the weather. The fog has vanished; the waiter is turning off the gas, and letting in the drab-coloured daylight. I ask him if it is still raining. He smiles, and rubs his hands, and says, "It looks like clearing up soon, sir." This man's head is gray; he has been all his life a waiter in London—and he can still see the cheerful side of things. What native strength of mind cast away on a vocation that is unworthy of it!
Well—and now about the Farnaby dinner. I feel a tightness in the lower part of my waistcoat, Rufus, when I think of the dinner; there was such a quantity of it, and Mr. Farnaby was so tyrannically resolute in forcing his luxuries down the throats of his guests. His eye was on me, if I let my plate go away before it was empty—his eye said "I have paid for this magnificent dinner, and I mean to see you eat it." Our printed list of the dishes, as they succeeded each other, also informed us of the varieties of wine which it was imperatively necessary to drink with each dish. I got into difficulties early in the proceedings. The taste of sherry, for instance, is absolutely nauseous to me; and Rhine wine turns into vinegar ten minutes after it has passed my lips. I asked for the wine that I could drink, out of its turn. You should have seen Mr. Farnaby's face, when I violated the rules of his dinner-table! It was the one amusing incident of the feast—the one thing that alleviated the dreary and mysterious spectacle of Mrs. Farnaby. There she sat, with her mind hundreds of miles away from everything that was going on about her, entangling the two guests, on her right hand and on her left, in a network of vacant questions, just as she had entangled me. I discovered that one of these gentlemen was a barrister and the other a ship-owner, by the answers which Mrs. Farnaby absently extracted from them on the subject of their respective vocations in life. And while she questioned incessantly, she ate incessantly. Her vigorous body insisted on being fed. She would have emptied her wineglass (I suspect) as readily as she plied her knife and fork—but I discovered that a certain system of restraint was established in the matter of wine. At intervals, Mr. Farnaby just looked at the butler—and the butler and his bottle, on those occasions, deliberately passed her by. Not the slightest visible change was produced in her by the eating and drinking; she was equal to any demands that any dinner could make on her. There was no flush in her face, no change in her spirits, when she rose, in obedience to English custom, and retired to the drawing-room.
Left together over their wine, the men began to talk politics.
I listened at the outset, expecting to get some information. Our readings in modern history at Tadmor had informed us of the dominant political position of the middle classes in England, since the time of the first Reform Bill. Mr. Farnaby's guests represented the respectable mediocrity of social position, the professional and commercial average of the nation. They all talked glibly enough—I and an old gentleman who sat next to me being the only listeners. I had spent the morning lazily in the smoking-room of the hotel, reading the day's newspapers. And what did I hear now, when the politicians set in for their discussion? I heard the leading articles of the day's newspapers translated into bald chat, and coolly addressed by one man to another, as if they were his own individual views on public affairs! This absurd imposture positively went the round of the table, received and respected by everybody with a stolid solemnity of make-believe which it was downright shameful to see. Not a man present said, "I saw that today in the Times or the Telegraph." Not a man present had an opinion of his own; or, if he had an opinion, ventured to express it; or, if he knew nothing of the subject, was honest enough to say so. One enormous Sham, and everybody in a conspiracy to take it for the real thing: that is an accurate description of the state of political feeling among the representative men at Mr. Farnaby's dinner. I am not judging rashly by one example only; I have been taken to clubs and public festivals, only to hear over and over again what I heard in Mr. Farnaby's dining-room. Does it need any great foresight to see that such a state of things as this cannot last much longer, in a country which has not done with reforming itself yet? The time is coming, in England, when the people who have opinions of their own will be heard, and when Parliament will be forced to open the door to them.
This is a nice outbreak of republican freedom! What does my long-suffering friend think of it—waiting all the time to be presented to Mr. Farnaby's niece? Everything in its place, Rufus. The niece followed the politics, at the time; and she shall follow them now.
You shall hear first what my next neighbour said of her—a quaint old fellow, a retired doctor, if I remember correctly. He seemed to be as weary of the second-hand newspaper talk as I was; he quite sparkled and cheered up when I introduced the subject of Miss Regina. Have I mentioned her name yet? If not, here it is for you in full:—Miss Regina Mildmay.
"I call her the brown girl," said the old gentleman. "Brown hair, brown eyes, and a brown skin. No, not a brunette; not dark enough for that—a warm, delicate brown; wait till you see it! Takes after her father, I should tell you. He was a fine-looking man in his time; foreign blood in his veins, by his mother's side. Miss Regina gets her queer name by being christened after his mother. Never mind her name; she's a charming person. Let's drink her health."
We drank her health. Remembering that he had called her "the brown girl," I said I supposed she was still quite young.
"Better than young," the doctor answered; "in the prime of life. I call her a girl, by habit. Wait till you see her!"
"Has she a good figure, sir?"
"Ha! you're like the Turks, are you? A nice-looking woman doesn't content you—you must have her well-made too. We can accommodate you, sir; we are slim and tall, with a swing of our hips, and we walk like a goddess. Wait and see how her head is put on her shoulders—I say no more. Proud? Not she! A simple, unaffected, kind-hearted creature. Always the same; I never saw her out of temper in my life; I never heard her speak ill of anybody. The man who gets her will be a man to be envied, I can tell you!"
"Is she engaged to be married?"
"No. She has had plenty of offers; but she doesn't seem to care for anything of that sort—so far. Devotes herself to Mrs. Farnaby, and keeps up her school-friendships. A splendid creature, with the vital thermometer at temperate heart—a calm, meditative, equable person. Pass me the olives. Only think! the man who discovered olives is unknown; no statue of him erected in any part of the civilized earth. I know few more remarkable instances of human ingratitude."
I risked a bold question—but not on the subject of olives. "Isn't Miss Regina's life rather a dull one in this house?"
The doctor cautiously lowered his voice. "It would be dull enough to some women. Regina's early life has been a hard one. Her mother was Mr. Ronald's eldest daughter. The old brute never forgave her for marrying against his wishes. Mrs. Ronald did all she could, secretly, to help the young wife in disgrace. But old Ronald had sole command of the money, and kept it to himself. From Regina's earliest childhood there was always distress at home. Her father harassed by creditors, trying one scheme after another, and failing in all; her mother and herself, half starved—with their very bedclothes sometimes at the pawnbrokers. I attended them in their illnesses, and though they hid their wretchedness from everybody else (proud as Lucifer, both of them!), they couldn't hide it from me. Fancy the change to this house! I don't say that living here in clover is enough for such a person as Regina; I only say it has its influence. She is one of those young women, sir, who delight in sacrificing themselves to others—she is devoted, for instance, to Mrs. Farnaby. I only hope Mrs. Farnaby is worthy of it! Not that it matters to Regina. What she does, she does out of her own sweetness of disposition. She brightens this household, I can tell you! Farnaby did a wise thing, in his own domestic interests, when he adopted her as his daughter. She thinks she can never be grateful enough to him—the good creature!—though she has repaid him a hundredfold. He'll find that out, one of these days, when a husband takes her away. Don't suppose that I want to disparage our host—he's an old friend of mine; but he's a little too apt to take the good things that fall to his lot as if they were nothing but a just recognition of his own merits. I have told him that to his face, often enough to have a right to say it of him when he doesn't hear me. Do you smoke? I wish they would drop their politics, and take to tobacco. I say Farnaby! I want a cigar."
This broad hint produced an adjournment to the smoking-room, the doctor leading the way. I began to wonder how much longer my introduction to Miss Regina was to be delayed. It was not to come until I had seen a new side of my host's character, and had found myself promoted to a place of my own in Mr. Farnaby's estimation.
As we rose from table one of the guests spoke to me of a visit that he had recently paid to the part of Buckinghamshire which I come from. "I was shown a remarkably picturesque old house on the heath," he said. "They told me it had been inhabited for centuries by the family of the Goldenhearts. Are you in any way related to them?" I answered that I was very nearly related, having been born in the house—and there, as I suppose, the matter ended. Being the youngest man of the party, I waited, of course, until the rest of the gentlemen had passed out to the smoking-room. Mr. Farnaby and I were left together. To my astonishment, he put his arm cordially into mine, and led me out of the dining-room with the genial familiarity of an old friend!
"I'll give you such a cigar," he said, "as you can't buy for money in all London. You have enjoyed yourself, I hope? Now we know what wine you like, you won't have to ask the butler for it next time. Drop in any day, and take pot-luck with us." He came to a standstill in the hall; his brassy rasping voice assumed a new tone—a sort of parody of respect. "Have you been to your family place," he asked, "since your return to England?"
He had evidently heard the few words exchanged between his friend and myself. It seemed odd that he should take any interest in a place belonging to people who were strangers to him. However, his question was easily answered. I had only to inform him that my father had sold the house when he left England.
"Oh dear, I'm sorry to hear that!" he said. "Those old family places ought to be kept up. The greatness of England, sir, strikes its roots in the old families of England. They may be rich, or they may be poor—that don't matter. An old family is an old family; it's sad to see their hearths and homes sold to wealthy manufacturers who don't know who their own grandfathers were. Would you allow me to ask what is the family motto of the Goldenhearts?"
Shall I own the truth? The bottles circulated freely at Mr. Farnaby's table—I began to wonder whether he was quite sober. I said I was sorry to disappoint him, but I really did not know what my family motto was.
He was unaffectedly shocked. "I think I saw a ring on your finger," he said, as soon as he recovered himself. He lifted my left hand in his own cold-fishy paw. The one ring I wear is of plain gold; it belonged to my father and it has his initials inscribed on the signet.
"Good gracious, you haven't got your coat-of-arms on your seal!" cried Mr. Farnaby. "My dear sir, I am old enough to be your father, and I must take the freedom of remonstrating with you. Your coat-of-arms and your motto are no doubt at the Heralds' Office—why don't you apply for them? Shall I go there for you? I will do it with pleasure. You shouldn't be careless about these things—you shouldn't indeed."
I listened in speechless astonishment. Was he ironically expressing his contempt for old families? We got into the smoking-room at last; and my friend the doctor enlightened me privately in a corner. Every word Mr. Farnaby had said had been spoken in earnest. This man, who owes his rise from the lowest social position entirely to himself—who, judging by his own experience, has every reason to despise the poor pride of ancestry—actually feels a sincerely servile admiration for the accident of birth! "Oh, poor human nature!" as Somebody says. How cordially I agree with Somebody!
We went up to the drawing-room; and I was introduced to "the brown girl" at last. What impression did she produce on me?
Do you know, Rufus, there is some perverse reluctance in me to go on with this inordinately long letter just when I have arrived at the most interesting part of it. I can't account for my own state of mind; I only know that it is so. The difficulty of describing the young lady doesn't perplex me like the difficulty of describing Mrs. Farnaby. I can see her now, as vividly as if she was present in the room. I even remember (and this is astonishing in a man) the dress that she wore. And yet I shrink from writing about her, as if there was something wrong in it. Do me a kindness, good friend, and let me send off all these sheets of paper, the idle work of an idle morning, just as they are. When I write next, I promise to be ashamed of my own capricious state of mind, and to paint the portrait of Miss Regina at full length.
In the mean while, don't run away with the idea that she has made a disagreeable impression upon me. Good heavens! it is far from that. You have had the old doctor's opinion of her. Very well. Multiply this opinion by ten—and you have mine.
[NOTE:—A strange indorsement appears on this letter, dated several months after the period at which it was received:—"Ah, poor Amelius! He had better have gone back to Miss Mellicent, and put up with the little drawback of her age. What a bright, lovable fellow he was! Goodbye to Goldenheart!"
These lines are not signed. They are known, however, to be in the handwriting of Rufus Dingwell.]
I particularly want you to come and lunch with us, dearest Cecilia, the day after tomorrow. Don't say to yourself, "The Farnaby's house is dull, and Regina is too slow for me," and don't think about the long drive for the horses, from your place to London. This letter has an interest of its own, my dear—I have got something new for you. What do you think of a young man, who is clever and handsome and agreeable—and, wonder of wonders, quite unlike any other young Englishman you ever saw in your life? You are to meet him at luncheon; and you are to get used to his strange name beforehand. For which purpose I enclose his card.
He made his first appearance at our house, at dinner yesterday evening.
When he was presented to me at the tea-table, he was not to be put off with a bow—he insisted on shaking hands. "Where I have been," he explained, "we help a first introduction with a little cordiality." He looked into his tea-cup, after he said that, with the air of a man who could say something more, if he had a little encouragement. Of course, I encouraged him. "I suppose shaking hands is much the same form in America that bowing is in England?" I said, as suggestively as I could.
He looked up directly, and shook his head. "We have too many forms in this country," he said. "The virtue of hospitality, for instance, seems to have become a form in England. In America, when a new acquaintance says, 'Come and see me,' he means it. When he says it here, in nine cases out of ten he looks unaffectedly astonished if you are fool enough to take him at his word. I hate insincerity, Miss Regina—and now I have returned to my own country, I find insincerity one of the established institutions of English Society. 'Can we do anything for you?' Ask them to do something for you—and you will see what it means. 'Thank you for such a pleasant evening!' Get into the carriage with them when they go home—and you will find that it means, 'What a bore!' 'Ah, Mr. So-and-so, allow me to congratulate you on your new appointment.' Mr. So-and-so passes out of hearing—and you discover what the congratulations mean. 'Corrupt old brute! he has got the price of his vote at the last division.' 'Oh, Mr. Blank, what a charming book you have written!' Mr. Blank passes out of hearing—and you ask what his book is about. 'To tell you the truth, I haven't read it. Hush! he's received at Court; one must say these things.' The other day a friend took me to a grand dinner at the Lord Mayor's. I accompanied him first to his club; many distinguished guests met there before going to the dinner. Heavens, how they spoke of the Lord Mayor! One of them didn't know his name, and didn't want to know it; another wasn't certain whether he was a tallow-chandler or a button-maker; a third, who had met with him somewhere, described him as a damned ass; a fourth said, 'Oh, don't be hard on him; he's only a vulgar old Cockney, without an h in his whole composition.' A chorus of general agreement followed, as the dinner-hour approached: 'What a bore!' I whispered to my friend, 'Why do they go?' He answered, 'You see, one must do this sort of thing.' And when we got to the Mansion House, they did that sort of thing with a vengeance! When the speech-making set in, these very men who had been all expressing their profound contempt for the Lord Mayor behind his back, now flattered him to his face in such a shamelessly servile way, with such a meanly complete insensibility to their own baseness, that I did really and literally turn sick. I slipped out into the fresh air, and fumigated myself, after the company I had kept, with a cigar. No, no! it's useless to excuse these things (I could quote dozens of other instances that have come under my own observation) by saying that they are trifles. When trifles make themselves habits of yours or of mine, they become a part of your character or mine. We have an inveterately false and vicious system of society in England. If you want to trace one of the causes, look back to the little organized insincerities of English life."
Of course you understand, Cecilia, that this was not all said at one burst, as I have written it here. Some of it came out in the way of answers to my inquiries, and some of it was spoken in the intervals of laughing, talking, and tea-drinking. But I want to show you how very different this young man is from the young men whom we are in the habit of meeting, and so I huddle his talk together in one sample, as Papa Farnaby would call it.
My dear, he is decidedly handsome (I mean our delightful Amelius); his face has a bright, eager look, indescribably refreshing as a contrast to the stolid composure of the ordinary young Englishman. His smile is charming; he moves as gracefully—with as little self-consciousness—as my Italian greyhound. He has been brought up among the strangest people in America; and (would you believe it?) he is actually a Socialist. Don't be alarmed. He shocked us all dreadfully by declaring that his Socialism was entirely learnt out of the New Testament. I have looked at the New Testament, since he mentioned some of his principles to me; and, do you know, I declare it is true!
Oh, I forgot—the young Socialist plays and sings! When we asked him to go to the piano, he got up and began directly. "I don't do it well enough," he said, "to want a great deal of pressing." He sang old English songs, with great taste and sweetness. One of the gentlemen of our party, evidently disliking him, spoke rather rudely, I thought. "A Socialist who sings and plays," he said, "is a harmless Socialist indeed. I begin to feel that my balance is safe at my banker's, and that London won't be set on fire with petroleum this time." He got his answer, I can tell you. "Why should we set London on fire? London takes a regular percentage of your income from you, sir, whether you like it or not, on sound Socialist principles. You are the man who has got the money, and Socialism says:—You must and shall help the man who has got none. That is exactly what your own Poor Law says to you, every time the collector leaves the paper at your house." Wasn't it clever?—and it was doubly severe, because it was good-humouredly said.
Between ourselves, Cecilia, I think he is struck with me. When I walked about the room, his bright eyes followed me everywhere. And, when I took a chair by somebody else, not feeling it quite right to keep him all to myself, he invariably contrived to find a seat on the other side of me. His voice, too, had a certain tone, addressed to me, and to no other person in the room. Judge for yourself when you come here; but don't jump to conclusions, if you please. Oh no—I am not going to fall in love with him! It isn't in me to fall in love with anybody. Do you remember what the last man whom I refused said of me? "She has a machine on the left side of her that pumps blood through her body, but she has no heart." I pity the woman who marries that man!
One thing more, my dear. This curious Amelius seems to notice trifles which escape men in general, just as we do. Towards the close of the evening, poor Mamma Farnaby fell into one of her vacant states; half asleep and half awake on the sofa in the back drawing-room. "Your aunt interests me," he whispered. "She must have suffered some terrible sorrow, at some past time in her life." Fancy a man seeing that! He dropped some hints, which showed that he was puzzling his brains to discover how I got on with her, and whether I was in her confidence or not: he even went the length of asking what sort of life I led with the uncle and aunt who have adopted me. My dear, it was done so delicately, with such irresistible sympathy and such a charming air of respect, that I was quite startled when I remembered, in the wakeful hours of the night, how freely I had spoken to him. Not that I have betrayed any secrets; for, as you know, I am as ignorant as everybody else of what the early troubles of my poor dear aunt may have been. But I did tell him how I came into the house a helpless little orphan girl; and how generously these two good relatives adopted me; and how happy it made me to find that I could really do something to cheer their sad childless lives. "I wish I was half as good as you are," he said. "I can't understand how you became fond of Mrs. Farnaby. Perhaps it began in sympathy and compassion?" Just think of that, from a young Englishman! He went on confessing his perplexities, as if we had known one another from childhood. "I am a little surprised to see Mrs. Farnaby present at parties of this sort; I should have thought she would have stayed in her own room." "That's just what she objects to do," I answered; "She says people will report that her husband is ashamed of her, or that she is not fit to be seen in society, if she doesn't appear at the parties—and she is determined not to be misrepresented in that way." Can you understand my talking to him with so little reserve? It is a specimen, Cecilia, of the odd manner in which my impulses carry me away, in this man's company. He is so nice and gentle—and yet so manly. I shall be curious to see if you can resist him, with your superior firmness and knowledge of the world.
But the strangest incident of all I have not told you yet—feeling some hesitation about the best way of describing it, so as to interest you in what has deeply interested me. I must tell it as plainly as I can, and leave it to speak for itself.
Who do you think has invited Amelius Goldenheart to luncheon? Not Papa Farnaby, who only invites him to dinner. Not I, it is needless to say. Who is it, then? Mamma Farnaby herself. He has actually so interested her that she has been thinking of him, and dreaming of him, in his absence!
I heard her last night, poor thing, talking and grinding her teeth in her sleep; and I went into her room to try if I could quiet her, in the usual way, by putting my cool hand on her forehead, and pressing it gently. (The old doctor says it's magnetism, which is ridiculous.) Well, it didn't succeed this time; she went on muttering, and making that dreadful sound with her teeth. Occasionally a word was spoken clearly enough to be intelligible. I could make no connected sense of what I heard; but I could positively discover this—that she was dreaming of our guest from America!
I said nothing about it, of course, when I went upstairs with her cup of tea this morning. What do you think was the first thing she asked for? Pen, ink, and paper. Her next request was that I would write Mr. Goldenheart's address on an envelope. "Are you going to write to him?" I asked. "Yes," she said, "I want to speak to him, while John is out of the way at business," "Secrets?" I said, turning it off with a laugh. She answered, speaking gravely and earnestly. "Yes; secrets." The letter was written, and sent to his hotel, inviting him to lunch with us on the first day when he was disengaged. He has replied, appointing the day after tomorrow. By way of trying to penetrate the mystery, I inquired if she wished me to appear at the luncheon. She considered with herself, before she answered that. "I want him to be amused, and put in a good humour," she said, "before I speak to him. You must lunch with us—and ask Cecilia." She stopped, and considered once more. "Mind one thing," she went on. "Your uncle is to know nothing about it. If you tell him, I will never speak to you again."
Is this not extraordinary? Whatever her dream may have been, it has evidently produced a strong impression on her. I firmly believe she means to take him away with her to her own room, when the luncheon is over. Dearest Cecilia, you must help me to stop this! I have never been trusted with her secrets; they may, for all I know, be innocent secrets enough, poor soul! But it is surely in the highest degree undesirable that she should take into her confidence a young man who is only an acquaintance of ours: she will either make herself ridiculous, or do something worse. If Mr. Farnaby finds it out, I really tremble for what may happen.
For the sake of old friendship, don't leave me to face this difficulty by myself. A line, only one line, dearest, to say that you will not fail me.
BOOK THE THIRD. MRS. FARNABY'S FOOT
It is an afternoon concert; and modern German music was largely represented on the programme. The patient English people sat in closely-packed rows, listening to the pretentious instrumental noises which were impudently offered to them as a substitute for melody. While these docile victims of the worst of all quackeries (musical quackery) were still toiling through their first hour of endurance, a passing ripple of interest stirred the stagnant surface of the audience caused by the sudden rising of a lady overcome by the heat. She was quickly led out of the concert-room (after whispering a word of explanation to two young ladies seated at her side) by a gentleman who made a fourth member of the party. Left by themselves, the young ladies looked at each other, whispered to each other, half rose from their places, became confusedly conscious that the wandering attention of the audience was fixed on them, and decided at last on following their companions out of the hall.
But the lady who had preceded them had some reason of her own for not waiting to recover herself in the vestibule. When the gentleman in charge of her asked if he should get a glass of water, she answered sharply, "Get a cab—and be quick about it."
The cab was found in a moment; the gentleman got in after her, by the lady's invitation. "Are you better now?" he asked.
"I have never had anything the matter with me," she replied, quietly; "tell the man to drive faster."
Having obeyed his instructions, the gentleman (otherwise Amelius) began to look a little puzzled. The lady (Mrs. Farnaby herself) perceived his condition of mind, and favoured him with an explanation.
"I had my own motive for asking you to luncheon today," she began, in that steady downright way of speaking that was peculiar to her. "I wanted to have a word with you privately. My niece Regina—don't be surprised at my calling her my niece, when you have heard Mr. Farnaby call her his daughter. She is my niece. Adopting her is a mere phrase. It doesn't alter facts; it doesn't make her Mr. Farnaby's child or mine, does it?"
She had ended with a question, but she seemed to want no answer to it. Her face was turned towards the cab-window, instead of towards Amelius. He was one of those rare people who are capable of remaining silent when they have nothing to say. Mrs. Farnaby went on.
"My niece Regina is a good creature in her way; but she suspects people. She has some reason of her own for trying to prevent me from taking you into my confidence; and her friend Cecilia is helping her. Yes, yes; the concert was the obstacle which they had arranged to put in my way. You were obliged to go, after telling them you wanted to hear the music; and I couldn't complain, because they had got a fourth ticket for me. I made up my mind what to do; and I have done it. Nothing wonderful in my being taken ill with the heat; nothing wonderful in your doing your duty as a gentleman and looking after me—and what is the consequence? Here we are together, on our way to my room, in spite of them. Not so bad for a poor helpless creature like me, is it?"
Inwardly wondering what it all meant, and what she could possibly want with him, Amelius suggested that the young ladies might leave the concert-room, and, not finding them in the vestibule, might follow them back to the house.
Mrs. Farnaby turned her head from the window, and looked him in the face for the first time. "I have been a match for them so far," she said; "leave it to me, and you will find I can be a match for them still."
After saying this, she watched the puzzled face of Amelius with a moment's steady scrutiny. Her full lips relaxed into a faint smile; her head sank slowly on her bosom. "I wonder whether he thinks I am a little crazy?" she said quietly to herself. "Some women in my place would have gone mad years ago. Perhaps it might have been better for me?" She looked up again at Amelius. "I believe you are a good-tempered fellow," she went on. "Are you in your usual temper now? Did you enjoy your lunch? Has the lively company of the young ladies put you in a good humour with women generally? I want you to be in a particularly good humour with me."
She spoke quite gravely. Amelius, a little to his own astonishment, found himself answering gravely on his side; assuring her, in the most conventional terms, that he was entirely at her service. Something in her manner affected him disagreeably. If he had followed his impulse, he would have jumped out of the cab, and have recovered his liberty and his light-heartedness at one and the same moment, by running away at the top of his speed.
The driver turned into the street in which Mr. Farnaby's house was situated. Mrs. Farnaby stopped him, and got out at some little distance from the door. "You think the young ones will follow us back," she said to Amelius. "It doesn't matter, the servants will have nothing to tell them if they do." She checked him in the act of knocking, when they reached the house door. "It's tea-time downstairs," she whispered, looking at her watch. "You and I are going into the house, without letting the servants know anything about it. Now do you understand?"
She produced from her pocket a steel ring, with several keys attached to it. "A duplicate of Mr. Farnaby's key," she explained, as she chose one, and opened the street door. "Sometimes, when I find myself waking in the small hours of the morning, I can't endure my bed; I must go out and walk. My key lets me in again, just as it lets us in now, without disturbing anybody. You had better say nothing about it to Mr. Farnaby. Not that it matters much; for I should refuse to give up my key if he asked me. But you're a good-natured fellow—and you don't want to make bad blood between man and wife, do you? Step softly, and follow me."
Amelius hesitated. There was something repellent to him in entering another man's house under these clandestine conditions. "All right!" whispered Mrs. Farnaby, perfectly understanding him. "Consult your dignity; go out again, and knock at the door, and ask if I am at home. I only wanted to prevent a fuss and an interruption when Regina comes back. If the servants don't know we are here, they will tell her we haven't returned—don't you see?"
It would have been absurd to contest the matter, after this. Amelius followed her submissively to the farther end of the hall. There, she opened the door of a long narrow room, built out at the back of the house.
"This is my den," she said, signing to Amelius to pass in. "While we are here, nobody will disturb us." She laid aside her bonnet and shawl, and pointed to a box of cigars on the table. "Take one," she resumed. "I smoke too, when nobody sees me. That's one of the reasons, I dare say, why Regina wished to keep you out of my room. I find smoking composes me. What do you say?"
She lit a cigar, and handed the matches to Amelius. Finding that he stood fairly committed to the adventure, he resigned himself to circumstances with his customary facility. He too lit a cigar, and took a chair by the fire, and looked about him with an impenetrable composure worthy of Rufus Dingwell himself.
The room bore no sort of resemblance to a boudoir. A faded old turkey carpet was spread on the floor. The common mahogany table had no covering; the chintz on the chairs was of a truly venerable age. Some of the furniture made the place look like a room occupied by a man. Dumb-bells and clubs of the sort used in athletic exercises hung over the bare mantelpiece; a large ugly oaken structure with closed doors, something between a cabinet and a wardrobe, rose on one side to the ceiling; a turning lathe stood against the opposite wall. Above the lathe were hung in a row four prints, in dingy old frames of black wood, which especially attracted the attention of Amelius. Mostly foreign prints, they were all discoloured by time, and they all strangely represented different aspects of the same subject—infants parted from their parents by desertion or robbery. The young Moses was there, in his ark of bulrushes, on the river bank. Good St. Francis appeared next, roaming the streets, and rescuing forsaken children in the wintry night. A third print showed the foundling hospital of old Paris, with the turning cage in the wall, and the bell to ring when the infant was placed in it. The next and last subject was the stealing of a child from the lap of its slumbering nurse by a gipsy woman. These sadly suggestive subjects were the only ornaments on the walls. No traces of books or music were visible; no needlework of any sort was to be seen; no elegant trifles; no china or flowers or delicate lacework or sparkling jewelry—nothing, absolutely nothing, suggestive of a woman's presence appeared in any part of Mrs. Farnaby's room.
"I have got several things to say to you," she began; "but one thing must be settled first. Give me your sacred word of honour that you will not repeat to any mortal creature what I am going to tell you now." She reclined in her chair, and drew in a mouthful of smoke and puffed it out again, and waited for his reply.
Young and unsuspicious as he was, this unscrupulous method of taking his confidence by storm startled Amelius. His natural tact and good sense told him plainly that Mrs. Farnaby was asking too much.
"Don't be angry with me, ma'am," he said; "I must remind you that you are going to tell me your secrets, without any wish to intrude on them on my part—"
She interrupted him there. "What does that matter?" she asked coolly.
Amelius was obstinate; he went on with what he had to say. "I should like to know," he proceeded, "that I am doing no wrong to anybody, before I give you my promise?"
"You will be doing a kindness to a miserable creature," she answered, as quietly as ever; "and you will be doing no wrong to yourself or to anybody else, if you promise. That is all I can say. Your cigar is out. Take a light."
Amelius took a light, with the dog-like docility of a man in a state of blank amazement. She waited, watching him composedly until his cigar was in working order again.
"Well?" she asked. "Will you promise now?"
Amelius gave her his promise.
"On your sacred word of honour?" she persisted.
Amelius repeated the formula. She reclined in her chair once more. "I want to speak to you as if I was speaking to an old friend," she explained. "I suppose I may call you Amelius?"
"Well, Amelius, I must tell you first that I committed a sin, many long years ago. I have suffered the punishment; I am suffering it still. Ever since I was a young woman, I have had a heavy burden of misery on my heart. I am not reconciled to it, I cannot submit to it, yet. I never shall be reconciled to it, I never shall submit to it, if I live to be a hundred. Do you wish me to enter into particulars? or will you have mercy on me, and be satisfied with what I have told you so far?"
It was not said entreatingly, or tenderly, or humbly: she spoke with a savage self-contained resignation in her manner and in her voice. Amelius forgot his cigar again—and again she reminded him of it. He answered her as his own generous impulsive temperament urged him; he said, "Tell me nothing that causes you a moment's pain; tell me only how I can help you." She handed him the box of matches; she said, "Your cigar is out again."
He laid down his cigar. In his brief span of life he had seen no human misery that expressed itself in this way. "Excuse me," he answered; "I won't smoke just now."
She laid her cigar aside like Amelius, and crossed her arms over her bosom, and looked at him, with the first softening gleam of tenderness that he had seen in her face. "My friend," she said, "yours will be a sad life—I pity you. The world will wound that sensitive heart of yours; the world will trample on that generous nature. One of these days, perhaps, you will be a wretch like me. No more of that. Get up; I have something to show you."
Rising herself, she led the way to the large oaken press, and took her bunch of keys out of her pocket again.
"About this old sorrow of mine," she resumed. "Do me justice, Amelius, at the outset. I haven't treated it as some women treat their sorrows—I haven't nursed it and petted it and made the most of it to myself and to others. No! I have tried every means of relief, every possible pursuit that could occupy my mind. One example of what I say will do as well as a hundred. See it for yourself."
She put the key in the lock. It resisted her first efforts to open it. With a contemptuous burst of impatience and a sudden exertion of her rare strength, she tore open the two doors of the press. Behind the door on the left appeared a row of open shelves. The opposite compartment, behind the door on the right, was filled by drawers with brass handles. She shut the left door; angrily banging it to, as if the opening of it had disclosed something which she did not wish to be seen. By the merest chance, Amelius had looked that way first. In the one instant in which it was possible to see anything, he had noticed, carefully laid out on one of the shelves, a baby's long linen frock and cap, turned yellow by the lapse of time.
The half-told story of the past was more than half told now. The treasured relics of the infant threw their little glimmer of light on the motive which had chosen the subjects of the prints on the wall. A child deserted and lost! A child who, by bare possibility, might be living still!
She turned towards Amelius suddenly, "There is nothing to interest you on that side," she said. "Look at the drawers here; open them for yourself." She drew back as she spoke, and pointed to the uppermost of the row of drawers. A narrow slip of paper was pasted on it, bearing this inscription:—"Dead Consolations."
Amelius opened the drawer; it was full of books. "Look at them," she said. Amelius, obeying her, discovered dictionaries, grammars, exercises, poems, novels, and histories—all in the German language.
"A foreign language tried as a relief," said Mrs. Farnaby, speaking quietly behind him. "Month after month of hard study—all forgotten now. The old sorrow came back in spite of it. A dead consolation! Open the next drawer."
The next drawer revealed water-colours and drawing materials huddled together in a corner, and a heap of poor little conventional landscapes filling up the rest of the space. As works of art, they were wretched in the last degree; monuments of industry and application miserably and completely thrown away.
"I had no talent for that pursuit, as you see," said Mrs. Farnaby. "But I persevered with it, week after week, month after month. I thought to myself, 'I hate it so, it costs me such dreadful trouble, it so worries and persecutes and humiliates me, that this surely must keep my mind occupied and my thoughts away from myself!' No; the old sorrow stared me in the face again on the paper that I was spoiling, through the colours that I couldn't learn to use. Another dead consolation! Shut it up."
She herself opened a third and a fourth drawer. In one there appeared a copy of Euclid, and a slate with the problems still traced on it; the other contained a microscope, and the treatises relating to its use. "Always the same effort," she said, shutting the door of the press as she spoke; "and always the same result. You have had enough of it, and so have I." She turned, and pointed to the lathe in the corner, and to the clubs and dumb-bells over the mantelpiece. "I can look at them patiently," she went on; "they give me bodily relief. I work at the lathe till my back aches; I swing the clubs till I'm ready to drop with fatigue. And then I lie down on the rug there, and sleep it off, and forget myself for an hour or two. Come back to the fire again. You have seen my dead consolations; you must hear about my living consolation next. In justice to Mr. Farnaby—ah, how I hate him!"
She spoke those last vehement words to herself, but with such intense bitterness of contempt that the tones were quite loud enough to be heard. Amelius looked furtively towards the door. Was there no hope that Regina and her friend might return and interrupt them? After what he had seen and heard, could he hope to console Mrs. Farnaby? He could only wonder what object she could possibly have in view in taking him into her confidence. "Am I always to be in a mess with women?" he thought to himself. "First poor Mellicent, and now this one. What next?" He lit his cigar again. The brotherhood of smokers, and they alone, will understand what a refuge it was to him at that moment.
"Give me a light," said Mrs. Farnaby, recalled to the remembrance of her own cigar. "I want to know one thing before I go on. Amelius, I watched those bright eyes of yours at luncheon-time. Did they tell me the truth? You're not in love with my niece, are you?"
Amelius took his cigar out of his mouth, and looked at her.
"Out with it boldly!" she said.
Amelius let it out, to a certain extent. "I admire her very much," he answered.
"Ah," Mrs. Farnaby remarked, "you don't know her as well as I do."
The disdainful indifference of her tone irritated Amelius. He was still young enough to believe in the existence of gratitude; and Mrs. Farnaby had spoken ungratefully. Besides, he was fond enough of Regina already to feel offended when she was referred to slightingly.
"I am surprised to hear what you say of her," he burst out. "She is quite devoted to you."
"Oh yes," said Mrs. Farnaby, carelessly. "She is devoted to me, of course—she is the living consolation I told you of just now. That was Mr. Farnaby's notion in adopting her. Mr. Farnaby thought to himself, 'Here's a ready-made daughter for my wife—that's all this tiresome woman wants to comfort her: now we shall do.' Do you know what I call that? I call it reasoning like an idiot. A man may be very clever at his business—and may be a contemptible fool in other respects. Another woman's child a consolation to me! Pah! it makes me sick to think of it. I have one merit, Amelius, I don't cant. It's my duty to take care of my sister's child; and I do my duty willingly. Regina's a good sort of creature—I don't dispute it. But she's like all those tall darkish women: there's no backbone in her, no dash; a kind, feeble, goody-goody, sugarish disposition; and a deal of quiet obstinacy at the bottom of it, I can tell you. Oh yes, I do her justice; I don't deny that she's devoted to me, as you say. But I am making a clean breast of it now. And you ought to know, and you shall know, that Mr. Farnaby's living consolation is no more a consolation to me than the things you have seen in the drawers. There! now we've done with Regina. No: there's one thing more to be cleared up. When you say you admire her, what do you mean? Do you mean to marry her?"
For once in his life Amelius stood on his dignity. "I have too much respect for the young lady to answer your question," he said loftily.
"Because, if you do," Mrs. Farnaby proceeded, "I mean to put every possible obstacle in your way. In short, I mean to prevent it."
This plain declaration staggered Amelius. He confessed the truth by implication in one word.
"Why?" he asked sharply.
"Wait a little, and recover your temper," she answered.
There was a pause. They sat, on either side of the fireplace, and eyed each other attentively.
"Now are you ready?" Mrs. Farnaby resumed. "Here is my reason. If you marry Regina, or marry anybody, you will settle down somewhere, and lead a dull life."
"Well," said Amelius; "and why not, if I like it?"
"Because I want you to remain a roving bachelor; here today and gone tomorrow—travelling all over the world, and seeing everything and everybody."
"What good will that do to you, Mrs. Farnaby?"
She rose from her own side of the fireplace, crossed to the side on which Amelius was sitting, and, standing before him, placed her hands heavily on his shoulders. Her eyes grew radiant with a sudden interest and animation as they looked down on him, riveted on his face.
"I am still waiting, my friend, for the living consolation that may yet come to me," she said. "And, hear this, Amelius! After all the years that have passed, you may be the man who brings it to me."
In the momentary silence that followed, they heard a double knock at the house-door.
"Regina!" said Mrs. Farnaby.
As the name passed her lips, she sprang to the door of the room, and turned the key in the lock.
Amelius rose impulsively from his chair.
Mrs. Farnaby turned at the same moment, and signed to him to resume his seat. "You have given me your promise," she whispered. "All I ask of you is to be silent." She softly drew the key out of the door, and showed it to him. "You can't get out," she said, "unless you take the key from me by force!"
Whatever Amelius might think of the situation in which he now found himself, the one thing that he could honourably do was to say nothing, and submit to it. He remained quietly by the fire. No imaginable consideration (he mentally resolved) should induce him to consent to a second confidential interview in Mrs. Farnaby's room.
The servant opened the house-door. Regina's voice was heard in the hall.
"Has my aunt come in?"
"Have you heard nothing of her?"
"Has Mr. Goldenheart been here?"
"Very extraordinary! What can have become of them, Cecilia?"
The voice of the other lady was heard in answer. "We have probably missed them, on leaving the concert room. Don't alarm yourself, Regina. I must go back, under any circumstances; the carriage will be waiting for me. If I see anything of your aunt, I will say that you are expecting her at home."
"One moment, Cecilia! (Thomas, you needn't wait.) Is it really true that you don't like Mr. Goldenheart?"
"What! has it come to that, already? I'll try to like him, Regina. Goodbye again."
The closing of the street door told that the ladies had separated. The sound was followed, in another moment, by the opening and closing of the dining-room door. Mrs. Farnaby returned to her chair at the fireplace.
"Regina has gone into the dining-room to wait for us," she said. "I see you don't like your position here; and I won't keep you more than a few minutes longer. You are of course at a loss to understand what I was saying to you, when the knock at the door interrupted us. Sit down again for five minutes; it fidgets me to see you standing there, looking at your boots. I told you I had one consolation still possibly left. Judge for yourself what the hope of it is to me, when I own to you that I should long since have put an end to my life, without it. Don't think I am talking nonsense; I mean what I say. It is one of my misfortunes that I have no religious scruples to restrain me. There was a time when I believed that religion might comfort me. I once opened my heart to a clergyman—a worthy person, who did his best to help me. All useless! My heart was too hard, I suppose. It doesn't matter—except to give you one more proof that I am thoroughly in earnest. Patience! patience! I am coming to the point. I asked you some odd questions, on the day when you first dined here? You have forgotten all about them, of course?"
"I remember them perfectly well," Amelius answered.
"You remember them? That looks as if you had thought about them afterwards. Come! tell me plainly what you did think?"
Amelius told her plainly. She became more and more interested, more and more excited, as he went on.
"Quite right!" she exclaimed, starting to her feet and walking swiftly backwards and forwards in the room. "There is a lost girl whom I want to find; and she is between sixteen and seventeen years old, as you thought. Mind! I have no reason—not the shadow of a reason—for believing that she is still a living creature. I have only my own stupid obstinate conviction; rooted here," she pressed both hands fiercely on her heart, "so that nothing can tear it out of me! I have lived in that belief—Oh, don't ask me how long! it is so far, so miserably far, to look back!" She stopped in the middle of the room. Her breath came and went in quick heavy gasps; the first tears that had softened the hard wretchedness in her eyes rose in them now, and transfigured them with the divine beauty of maternal love. "I won't distress you," she said, stamping on the floor, as she struggled with the hysterical passion that was raging in her. "Give me a minute, and I'll force it down again."
She dropped into a chair, threw her arms heavily on the table, and laid her head on them. Amelius thought of the child's frock and cap hidden in the cabinet. All that was manly and noble in his nature felt for the unhappy woman, whose secret was dimly revealed to him now. The little selfish sense of annoyance at the awkward situation in which she had placed him, vanished to return no more. He approached her, and put his hand gently on her shoulder. "I am truly sorry for you," he said. "Tell me how I can help you, and I will do it with all my heart."
"Do you really mean that?" She roughly dashed the tears from her eyes, and rose as she put the question. Holding him with one hand, she parted the hair back from his forehead with the other. "I must see your whole face," she said—"your face will tell me. Yes: you do mean it. The world hasn't spoilt you, yet. Do you believe in dreams?"
Amelius looked at her, startled by the sudden transition. She deliberately repeated her question.
"I ask you seriously," she said; "do you believe in dreams?"
Amelius answered seriously, on his side, "I can't honestly say that I do."
"Ah!" she exclaimed, "like me. I don't believe in dreams, either—I wish I did! But it's not in me to believe in superstitions; I'm too hard—and I'm sorry for it. I have seen people who were comforted by their superstitions; happy people, possessed of faith. Don't you even believe that dreams are sometimes fulfilled by chance?"
"Nobody can deny that," Amelius replied; "the instances of it are too many. But for one dream fulfilled by a coincidence, there are—"
"A hundred at least that are not fulfilled," Mrs. Farnaby interposed. "Very well. I calculate on that. See how little hope can live on! There is just the barest possibility that what I dreamed of you the other night may come to pass. It's a poor chance; but it has encouraged me to take you into my confidence, and ask you to help me."
This strange confession—this sad revelation of despair still unconsciously deceiving itself under the disguise of hope—only strengthened the compassionate sympathy which Amelius already felt for her. "What did you dream about me?" he asked gently.
"It's nothing to tell," she replied. "I was in a room that was quite strange to me; and the door opened, and you came in leading a young girl by the hand. You said, 'Be happy at last; here she is.' My heart knew her instantly, though my eyes had never seen her since the first days of her life. And I woke myself, crying for joy. Wait! it's not all told yet. I went to sleep again, and dreamed it again, and woke, and lay awake for awhile, and slept once more, and dreamed it for the third time. Ah, if I could only feel some people's confidence in three times! No; it produced an impression on me—and that was all. I got as far as thinking to myself, there is just a chance; I haven't a creature in the world to help me; I may as well speak to him. O, you needn't remind me that there is a rational explanation of my dream. I have read it all up, in the Encyclopaedia in the library. One of the ideas of wise men is that we think of something, consciously or unconsciously, in the daytime, and then reproduce it in a dream. That's my case, I daresay. When you were first introduced to me, and when I heard where you had been brought up, I thought directly that she might have been one among the many forlorn creatures who had drifted to your Community, and that I might find her through you. Say that thought went to my bed with me—and we have the explanation of my dream. Never mind! There is my one poor chance in a hundred still left. You will remember me, Amelius, if you should meet with her, won't you?"
The implied confession of her own intractable character, without religious faith to ennoble it, without even imagination to refine it—the unconscious disclosure of the one tender and loving instinct in her nature still piteously struggling for existence, with no sympathy to sustain it, with no light to guide it—would have touched the heart of any man not incurably depraved. Amelius spoke with the fervour of his young enthusiasm. "I would go to the uttermost ends of the earth, if I thought I could do you any good. But, oh, it sounds so hopeless!"
She shook her head, and smiled faintly.
"Don't say that! You are free, you have money, you will travel about in the world and amuse yourself. In a week you will see more than stay-at-home people see in a year. How do we know what the future has in store for us? I have my own idea. She may be lost in the labyrinth of London, or she may be hundreds of thousands of miles away. Amuse yourself, Amelius—amuse yourself. Tomorrow or ten years hence, you might meet with her!"
In sheer mercy to the poor creature, Amelius refused to encourage her delusion. "Even supposing such a thing could happen," he objected, "how am I to know the lost girl? You can't describe her to me; you have not seen her since she was a child. Do you know anything of what happened at the time—I mean at the time when she was lost?"
"I know nothing."
"Have you never felt a suspicion of how it happened?"
Her face changed: she frowned as she looked at him. "Not till weeks and months had passed," she said, "not till it was too late. I was ill at the time. When my mind got clear again, I began to suspect one particular person—little by little, you know; noticing trifles, and thinking about them afterwards." She stopped, evidently restraining herself on the point of saying more.
Amelius tried to lead her on. "Did you suspect the person—?" he began.
"I suspected him of casting the child helpless on the world!" Mrs. Farnaby interposed, with a sudden burst of fury. "Don't ask me any more about it, or I shall break out and shock you!" She clenched her fists as she said the words. "It's well for that man," she muttered between her teeth, "that I have never got beyond suspecting, and never found out the truth! Why did you turn my mind that way? You shouldn't have done it. Help me back again to what we were saying a minute ago. You made some objection; you said—?"
"I said," Amelius reminded her, "that, even if I did meet with the missing girl, I couldn't possibly know it. And I must say more than that—I don't see how you yourself could be sure of recognizing her, if she stood before you at this moment."
He spoke very gently, fearing to irritate her. She showed no sign of irritation—she looked at him, and listened to him, attentively.
"Are you setting a trap for me?" she asked. "No!" she cried, before Amelius could answer, "I am not mean enough to distrust you—I forgot myself. You have innocently said something that rankles in my mind. I can't leave it where you have left it; I don't like to be told that I shouldn't recognize her. Give me time to think. I must clear this up."
She consulted her own thoughts, keeping her eyes fixed on Amelius.
"I am going to speak plainly," she announced, with a sudden appearance of resolution. "Listen to this. When I banged to the door of that big cupboard of mine, it was because I didn't want you to see something on the shelves. Did you see anything in spite of me?"
The question was not an easy one to answer. Amelius hesitated. Mrs. Farnaby insisted on a reply.
"Did you see anything?" she reiterated
Amelius owned that he had seen something.
She turned away from him, and looked into the fire. Her firm full tones sank so low, when she spoke next, that he could barely hear them.
"Was it something belonging to a child?"
"Was it a baby's frock and cap? Answer me. We have gone too far to go back. I don't want apologies or explanations—I want, Yes or No."
There was an interval of silence. She never moved; she still looked into fire—looked, as if all her past life was pictured there in the burning coals.
"Do you despise me?" she asked at last, very quietly.
"As God hears me, I am only sorry for you!" Amelius answered.
Another woman would have melted into tears. This woman still looked into the fire—and that was all. "What a good fellow!" she said to herself, "what a good fellow he is!"
There was another pause. She turned towards him again as abruptly as she had turned away.
"I had hoped to spare you, and to spare myself," she said. "If the miserable truth has come out, it is through no curiosity of yours, and (God knows!) against every wish of mine. I don't know if you really felt like a friend towards me before—you must be my friend now. Don't speak! I know I can trust you. One last word, Amelius, about my lost child. You doubt whether I should recognize her, if she stood before me now. That might be quite true, if I had only my own poor hopes and anxieties to guide me. But I have something else to guide me—and, after what has passed between us, you may as well know what it is: it might even, by accident, guide you. Don't alarm yourself; it's nothing distressing this time. How can I explain it?" she went on; pausing, and speaking in some perplexity to herself. "It would be easier to show it—and why not?" She addressed herself to Amelius once more. "I'm a strange creature," she resumed. "First, I worry you about my own affairs—then I puzzle you—then I make you sorry for me—and now (would you think it?) I am going to amuse you! Amelius, are you an admirer of pretty feet?"