A HOUSEFUL OF GIRLS. BY SARAH TYTLER,
"CITOYENNE JACQUELINE," "PAPERS FOR THOUGHTFUL GIRLS," ETC., ETC.
LONDON: WALTER SMITH AND INNES, 31 & 32, BEDFORD STREET, STRAND. 1889.
[All rights reserved.]
RICHARD CLAY & SONS, LIMITED, LONDON & BUNGAY.
I. A FLUTTER IN THE DOVE-COT 1
II. THE "COUP DE GRACE" 20
III. THE HEADS OF THE HOUSE LOOK GRAVE 35
IV. THE CRASH 54
V. PROMOTION 72
VI. THE CLOUD DEEPENS 81
VII. ROSE GOES WEST AND ANNIE GOES EAST 106
VIII. STANDING AND WAITING 122
IX. A WILFUL DOG WILL HAVE HIS WAY 136
X. LIFE IN AN HOSPITAL WARD 157
XI. MRS. JENNINGS AND HER DAUGHTER HESTER 182
XII. A YOUNG ARTIST'S EXPERIENCE 188
XIII. MR. ST. FOY'S AND THE MISSES STONE'S 196
XIV. THE OLD TOWN, WITH ITS AIR STAGNANT YET TROUBLED. IS MAY TO BECOME A SCHOLAR OR A SHOP-GIRL? 214
XV. TOM ROBINSON TAKEN INTO COUNSEL 234
XVI. ROSE'S FOLLY AND ANNIE'S WISDOM 257
XVII. MAY HAS TO FIGHT HER OWN BATTLE 288
XVIII. DORA IS THE NEXT MESSENGER WITH BAD TIDINGS 316
XIX. THE UNEMPLOYED—A FAMILIAR FACE 322
XX. REDCROSS AGAIN 342
XXI. MISS FRANKLIN'S MISTAKE 363
XXII. A SHRED OF HOPE 382
XXIII. SECOND THOUGHTS AND LAST WORDS 392
A HOUSEFUL OF GIRLS
A FLUTTER IN THE DOVE-COT.
Is there any sensation equal to that produced by the first lover and the first proposal coming to a girl in a large family of girls? It is delightfully sentimental, comical, complimentary, affronting, rousing, tiresome—all in one. It is a herald of lovers, proposals, and wonderful changes all round. It is the first thrill of real life in its strong passions, grave vicissitudes, and big joys and sorrows as they come in contact with idle fancies, hearts that have been light, simple experiences which have hitherto been carefully guarded from rude shocks.
It does not signify much whether the family of girls happen to be rich or poor, unless indeed that early and sharp poverty causes a precocity which deepens girls' characters betimes, and by making them sooner women, robs them of a certain amount of the thoughtlessness, fearlessness, and impracticability of girlhood. But girlhood, like many another natural condition, dies hard; and its sweet, bright illusions, its wisdom and its folly, survive tolerably severe pinches of adversity.
The younger members of such a sisterhood are politely supposed to be kept in safe ignorance of the great event which is befalling one of the seniors. It is thought at once a delicate and prudent precaution to prevent the veil which hides the future, with its casualties, from being lifted prematurely and abruptly, where juvenile minds are concerned, lest they become unhinged and unfit for the salutary discipline of schoolroom lessons, and the mild pleasure of schoolroom treats. The flower in the bud ought to be kept with its petals folded, in its innocent absence of self-consciousness, to the last moment.
But there is an electric sympathy in the air which defeats precautions. There is a freemasonry of dawning womanhood which starts into life everywhere. How do the young people pick up with such surprising quickness and acuteness the looks and whispers meant to pass over their heads, the merry glances, nervous shrugs, quick blushes, and indignant pouts, which have suddenly grown strangely prevalent in the blooming circle? The bystanders are understood to be engrossed with their music-lessons, their drawing-classes, their rudimentary Latin and Greek—if anybody is going in for the higher education of women—their pets, their games of lawn-tennis, their girl companions with whom these other girls are for ever making appointments to walk, to practise part-singing, to work or read together, to get up drawing-room tableaux or plays.
The general consciousness is not, in certain lights, favourable to a lover's pretensions. For human nature is perverse, and there is such a thing as esprit-de-corps running to excess. There may be a due amount of girlish pride in knowing that one of the sisters has inspired a grand passion. There may be a tremulous respect for the fact that she has passed the Rubicon, that, in place of girlish trifling, she has an affair which has to do with the happiness or misery of a fellow creature, not to say with her own happiness or misery, on her burdened mind. Why, if she does not take care, she may be plunged at once, first into the whirl of choosing her trousseau and the fascinating trial of being the principal figure at a wedding, and then involved in the tremendous responsibilities of housekeeping, butchers' bills, grocers' bills, cooks' delinquencies, with the heavy obligations—not only of ordering dinners for two, but of occasionally entertaining a room full of company, single-handed!
And this is only one side of the shield; there is a reverse side, at least equally prominent and alarming. The second side upholds maidenly claims, finds nothing good enough to match with them, and is tempted to scout and flout, laugh and mock at the rival claims of the lover upon trial. This is true even in the most innocent of dove-cots, where satire is still as playful and harmless as summer lightning.
"The idea of Tom Robinson's thinking of one of us!" cried Annie Millar. "What could possess him to imagine that we should ever get over the shop—granted that it is a Brobdingnagian shop, an imposing mart of linen-drapery, haberdashery, silk-mercery enough to serve the whole county?"
"To be sure it is only Dora, not you, Annie," burst in eighteen years' old Rose, who had just left school, and was fain to drop the pretence of being too young to notice the most interesting event in the world to a family of girls.
"Why do you say that, Rose? Dora may not be so pretty as Annie—I don't know, and I don't care—it is all a matter of taste; but she is as much one of us, father's daughter, brought up like the rest of us in the Old Doctor's House."
The speaker was May, between sixteen and seventeen. She was the tallest of the four sisters—let them call her "Little May" as long as they liked. She had so far forgotten herself as to follow Rose's lead.
"Hold your tongues, you two monkeys; what should you know about it?" Annie, who had a tendency to sit upon her younger sisters, tried to silence them. She had reached the advanced age of twenty-two, and by virtue of being the eldest, had been considered grown up for the last four years, when Rose and May were chits of fourteen and a little over twelve. Of course this gave Annie a vast advantage in womanly dignity and knowledge of the world. But at the present moment she was herself so interested in the discussion that she could not make up her mind to drop it till Rose and May were out of the way.
"I must say"—Annie started the subject again—"that I think it great presumption in Tom Robinson, though he is not so ugly as that comes to, and he's really well enough bred in spite of 'Robinson's.'"
"He is a college-bred man." Dora ventured shyly to put in a word for the dignity of her suitor, and for her own dignity as so far involved in his. "And so were his father and grandfather before him, father says."
"But the Robinsons had the silk-mill and the woollen-factory then as well as the big shop," corrected Annie. "And Tom might have gone into the Church or into some other profession if he had chosen, when things might have been a little different. Still, if you are pleased, Dora," with a peal of derisive laughter, "if you do not object to the—shop."
"Of course I object," cried Dora, tingling with mortification and shame. "That is, I should object to his having a shop, if I had ever thought of him for a single moment in that light. I cannot imagine what put me into his head—in that sense. Indeed I cannot believe it yet. I am sure it is just some nonsense on the part of the rest of you to tease me."
"No, no," Annie hastened to contradict her. "It is sober reality. He has said something to father; you know he has, mother owned it."
"He has been meeting us and throwing himself in our way everywhere," broke in the irrepressible Rose and May.
"He has been coming and coming here," resumed Annie, "where, as we don't happen to have a brother, there is not even another young man to form an excuse for his coming. We cannot so much as pretend, when people remark on his visits, that he has come ever since we remember, and is as familiar with us as we are with ourselves. No doubt, in a little town like this, everybody who has the least claim to be a gentleman or a lady, knows every other gentleman or lady—after a fashion. But naturally father and mother were not intimate with the late Mr. and Mrs. Robinson; and we—that is, Tom and we girls—are not so near each other in age as to have been brought together by our respective nurses. We did not pick daisies in company, or else pull each other's hair, and slap each other's faces, according to our varying moods. Tom Robinson is four or five years older than I, not to speak of Dora."
"He stopped us this very morning," Rose again joined in the chorus, "when May and I were going with the Hewetts to gather primroses in Parson's Meadow. He asked if our sisters—that was you, Dora, with Annie thrown into the bargain—thought of going on the river this afternoon."
"He might be an inch or two taller, I don't suppose he is above five feet six or seven," suggested Annie, maliciously recalling a detail in the description of Dora's future husband, that be he who or what he might, he should certainly not be under six feet in height. Dora, who was herself considerably below the middle size, would never yield her freedom to a man who had to admit a lower scale of inches.
"And his hair might be a little less—chestnut, shall we say, Dora?" put in Rose with exasperating sprightliness, referring to a former well-known prejudice of Dora's against "Judas-tinted hair."
"Would you call his nose Roman or Grecian?" asked May naively, of a very nondescript feature.
"And he has so little to say for himself," recommenced Annie, "though when he does speak there is no great fault to be found with what he says; still it would be dreadfully dull and tiresome to have to do all the speaking for a silent partner."
"Oh, hold your tongues, you wretched girls," cried Dora, standing at bay, stamping one small foot in a slipper with a preposterously large rosette. "What does it signify? The man, like his words, is well enough—better than any of us, I dare say," speaking indignantly; "but what does it matter, when I could never look at him, never dream of him, as anything more than a mere acquaintance? I don't wish for a lover or a husband—at least not yet," with a gasp; "I don't wish to leave home, and go away from all of you, though you are so unkind and teasing—not for a long, long time, till I am quite a middle-aged woman. I don't see why I should be plagued about it when Annie here, who is two years older than I am, and ever so much prettier, as everybody knows, has escaped such persecution."
"My dear," said Annie demurely, "it is because you have the opportunity of presenting me with a pair of green garters. If it should occur again, and you choose to avail yourself of it, I mean to accept the garters with the best grace in the world. Isn't that good of me when you have been coolly telling me that I have been overlooked as the eldest, and the belle of the family—flattering my conceit with one breath and taking it down with another? But it is not a case of Leah and Rachel. We are not in the East, and in the West the elder sister does not necessarily take precedence in marriage. You are quite welcome to marry first, Dora; you are all welcome to marry before me, girls," with a sweeping curtsey to her audience all round. "I am perfectly resigned to your leaving your poor worthy elder sister to end her days as a solitary spinster, a meek and useful maiden-aunt."
The Millars were the daughters of Dr. Millar of Redcross, an old-fashioned country town in the Midlands. They were happy in having a good father and mother still spared to them. The girls were what is called "a fine family," in a stronger sense than that in which Jane Austen has used the term. Their ages ranged from twenty-two to midway between sixteen and seventeen. They were all good-looking girls, with a family likeness. Annie, the eldest, was very pretty, with delicate, regular features, a soft warm brunette colour, dark eyes, and a small brown head and graceful throat, like the head and throat of a greyhound.
Dora, the first wooed, was, at a hasty glance, a mere shadow of Annie. She was pale, though it was a healthy paleness. Her hair was lighter in tint, her eyes, too, were considerably lighter—granted that they were clear as crystal. It was difficult to think of Dora as preferred before Annie, if one did not take into account that there are people who will turn away from June roses to gather a cluster of honeysuckle, or pick a sweet pea—people to whom there is an ineffable charm in simple maidenliness and sweetness. Dora's modest unhesitating acceptance of the second part in the family and social circle, and her perfect content to play it, would be a crowning attraction in such people's eyes. So would her gentle girlish diffidence, which moved her rather to meet and reflect the tastes and opinions of others than to exercise her own, though she was by no means without individual capacity and character.
Rose was the least handsome of the family at this stage of her existence. The family features in her had taken a slightly bizarre cast, and she had a bad habit of wrinkling her smooth low forehead and crumpling up her sharpish nose, in a manner which accentuated the peculiarity. But Annie, who was an authority on the subject of looks, maintained, behind Rose's back, that there was something piquante and recherchee about Rose's face and figure. Not one of the Millars was tall—not even May, though she came nearest to it; but Rose's slight pliant figure had a natural grace and elegance which its quick, careless movements did not dispel. When she held herself up, uncreased her forehead and nose, showed to advantage her very fine, true chestnut hair, and was full of animation—as to do Rose justice she generally was—giving fair play to her dimples and little white teeth, Annie said Rose had a style of her own which did no discredit to the family reputation for more than a fair share of beauty. In addition to Annie's high spirit and ready tongue, Rose had a decided turn for art, which her father had taken pride in cultivating.
"Little May" was like Annie, and promised to be as pretty; but she was a rose in the bud still, with the unfilled out outlines and crude angularities of a girl not done growing. She was very much of a child in many things, and she had Dora's soft clinging nature, yet under it all she was the born scholar of the family, with a simple aptitude and taste for learning which surprised and delighted her father still more than Rose's achievements in pastilles and water-colours pleased him. It was seeing May at her books, when she was a very different May from the girl who ran about with Rose, and was kept in her proper place by Annie, which revived in Doctor Millar the old regret that Providence had not blessed him with a son. He could not exactly make a son of May, since from her early childhood she was a little sensitive woman all over, but he did what he could. He had her taught Latin, Greek, and mathematics just to afford her the chance of being a scholar. He never told himself, and nobody else did, in the meantime, what she was to do with her scholarship when she was a little older. Whether it was merely to grace her womanhood, or whether the youngest of the family, her father and mother's last pet, was to summon up courage, tear herself away from familiar and dear surroundings, and carry her gifts and acquirements out into the world, in order to win for them the best distinction of usefulness.
Dora's lightly held suitor was the head of "Robinson's." "Robinson's" was a great and time-honoured institution in Redcross, while it and its masters were somewhat of anomalies. The first Robinson whom the town troubled to remember was as good as anybody in it, the proprietor of a silk-mill, and latterly of a wool-factory in the neighbourhood. As a mere convenient adjunct to the mill and the factory he had started a shop in the town, and kept it going by means of a manager. Even in that light it was a handsome old shop. The walls were lined with polished oak, so was the low ceiling, and there was an oak staircase leading from one storey to another which a connoisseur in staircases might have coveted. "Robinson's" was a positive feature in Redcross, and if it had been anything else than a good shop of its kind would have been greatly admired. The son of the founder of the shop was also reckoned, to begin with, as good as his professional neighbours. He was college-bred, like his father, as Dora in her jealousy for the dignity of her first lover had stated. This was "all to begin with." Whether because it was advisable, or from mere grovelling instincts, he dropped in turn both the mill and the factory, neither of which did more than pay its way, and retained the shop, which was understood to be a lucrative concern. He did worse; though Redcross continued to acknowledge him—somewhat dubiously to be sure—as a gentleman, because of the fine presence which Tom had not inherited, and the perfect good breeding which had descended to the son. In spite of the magnanimity which forgave frostily the second Robinson for so far forgetting himself as to take the management of his great shop into his own hands, walk up and down and receive customers, and be seen working at his books in the glass office if he did not go behind the counter, he went and married for his second wife a farmer's daughter. She was an honest, sensible, comely young woman, but she had no pretensions to be a lady, and no more inclination to enter the society of the Redcross upper class than the upper class had a mind to receive her as an equal. Charles Robinson's first wife had been all very well, though she was penniless. She had been a curate's daughter, educated to fill the post of governess in high families. She had died young, without children, and he had filled her place with the farmer's daughter, who was the mother of Tom. Thenceforth the Robinson's house, a good, old-fashioned house, though not so handsome as the shop in an adjacent street, was effaced, nominally, from the visiting-lists of those who had visiting-lists in Redcross. The family were ostracised, and left to their own devices, receiving their sentence, in the case of the farmer's daughter and her husband, with apparent equanimity.
But there was an exception made in favour of Tom. He went to the Grammar School along with the other better-class boys in the town and neighbourhood, and was accepted as their companion and playfellow. He was sent to college according to the traditions of his family, just as Cyril Carey, of Carey's Bank, and Ned Hewett, of the Rectory, were sent according to the traditions of theirs. Presumably the three young men were on one footing at Cambridge, unless, indeed, Tom had the advantage. He was slightly the elder of the three, and he took his degree with a fair amount of honour; while, sad to say, for the credit of Redcross, neither Cyril nor Ned made their last pass. It was confidently believed that Tom Robinson would cut the shop, so far as any active management of it was concerned, and enter either a gallant or a learned profession. If he had ever entertained the intention, it was put a stop to in the first place by the death of his father, followed within three months by that of his mother, shortly after Tom had completed his course at the university. He stayed at home for a time, to put his house in order it was supposed. Then all at once, in the most cold-blooded fashion, he told those who asked him that "Robinson's" was a good business, which he did not see himself justified in throwing up in these hard times. He was not such a conceited ass as to believe he must necessarily succeed in the crowded ranks of the professions, for none of which had he any particular bent, while he had, he added, with a certain manliness and doggedness for a pacific fellow like Robinson, a considerable interest in the great old shop. It had been in the family for three generations; he had known it from childhood; many of his father's old trusted servants still served in it. In short, he meant to keep it in his own hands, and not to let it go to sticks and staves, possibly, in the hands of others. He did not, for his part, see any mark of gentle breeding and fine feeling in devolving his responsibilities on others, and only reserving that tie to the shop which had to do with pecuniary profits. As for his university training and academic degree, if they did not benefit him in all circumstances they were not much worth. The town of Redcross was caught in a trap. The gentle-folks of the place had already received him as a man and a brother, and they could not refuse to know him any longer because he stuck to the paternal shop, though they might exercise their discretion in looking coldly on him in future. For that matter, there was another opinion among the older professional men—the Rector, whose tithes were only quarter paid; Dr. Millar, whose paying patients were no longer able to call him in on all occasions; Carey, the banker, whose private bank, it was whispered darkly, was struggling in deep waters; Colonel Russell, who had come home from India on half-pay and his savings, which every year he found more inadequate for the expenses of an increasing family. All these gray-headed men, growing haggard and careworn, agreed that in the present depressed state of the commercial world, young Robinson was showing himself a sensible fellow and ought to be commended for his decision. They declared that they were the more inclined to take him up because of it. It was their wives, where they had wives, and especially their daughters, with the young men who had not known the brunt of the battle, and felt inclined to clutch their professional dignities and privileges, that were of a different mind. Girls like the Millars turned up their saucy little noses at the shop. They thought it was mean-spirited and vulgar-minded, "low" of Tom Robinson to sit down with such a calling. They held it audacious of him to lift his eyes to Dora, and to follow his eyes with his voice, silent fellow though he was generally, in asking her from her father.
Certainly it did not help to redeem Tom Robinson's drawbacks in the judgment of a rash young world that he lacked his late father's fine presence. Though gentleman-like enough, he was insignificant in person, and he had little to say for himself. Probably it would have struck his critics as little short of profane to make the comparison, otherwise there is a great example that might have stood him and all men not giants and glib of tongue in good stead. It is written of an apostle, and he not the least of the apostles, that he might have been termed in bodily presence mean, and in speech contemptible. But boys and girls are not wont to take up such examples and ponder their meaning in foolish young hearts.
The Millars, as one of the girls had said, were brought up in the Old Doctor's House at Redcross. It would seem that professions and trades were hereditary in the old-fashioned, stationary town. Dr. Millar's father had not only been a doctor before him, he had been the doctor in Redcross, with a practice extending from an aristocratic county to a parish-poor class of patients. His pretty sister Penny, whom Annie was not unlike, had married into the county, General Beauchamp of Wayland's younger son. The marriage, with all its consequences, was a thing of the long past, leaving little trace in the present. For young Beauchamp, though he was a squire's son, had not been able to get on at the bar, and had emigrated with his wife while emigration was still comparatively untried in Australia, where it was to be hoped his county extraction had served him in the Bush at least as well as Tom Robinson's university education would avail him in the shop. It had all happened an age before the young Millars could remember, still the tradition of a marriage of a member of a former generation of the Millars into the squirearchy had its effect on her collateral descendants. It did not signify that the reigning Beauchamps of Waylands had almost ceased to remember the ancient alliance in their dealings with their doctor. That dim and distant distinction established the superior position of the Millars in their native town, to the girls' entire satisfaction. Dora to marry Robinson, of "Robinson's," a farthing candle of a man, when her Grand-aunt Penny had married a Beauchamp of Waylands, by all accounts the handsomest, most dashing member of the Hunt in his day, was a descent not to be thought of for a moment.
THE "COUP DE GRACE."
The crisis had come. Dr. Millar had granted a final formal interview, not without some agitation on the father's part, to the still more agitated suitor; and after assuring him of the paternal good-will, had turned him over to the daughter—the whole being done with a sorrowful prescience, shared by the unfortunate young man, of what the answer would be.
Poor Dora was hardly less to be pitied, for she had to be brought up to the supreme effort of dealing the coup de grace. Nobody could do it for her, even her mother told her that severely, in order to brace the girlish nerves, when Dora gave way to the first cowardly instinct of seeking to shirk the ordeal. If a girl was old enough to receive an offer of marriage, she was old enough to answer it for herself in person. It was the least return she could make for the high compliment which had been paid to her, to see the man and tell him with her own lips that she would have nothing to say to the honest heart and liberal hand, for he had hinted at generous settlements, which he had been only too eager to lay at her feet.
It was little use even for mild Dora to protest that she had not wished for such a compliment, and had done nothing to provoke it, so that the reckless compliment-payer was but receiving his deserts in an unconditional refusal. It did not make the step easier for her. It was no joke to her, whatever it might be to her hard-hearted young sisters.
To tell the truth, Rose and May, aye, even Annie, took much lively diversion, as Dora guessed, in secretly watching the entire proceeding. The sisters found out the hour of the compulsory interview. They covertly looked out for the arrival of the commonplace wooer—anything save their idea of a lover and hero. They keenly took note of him from an upper window as he walked with a certain studied composure, yet with a blankness of aspect, through the shrubbery. They even deigned—Annie as well as Rose and May—surreptitiously to inspect the poor wretch between the bannisters of the staircase, as he ran desperately up the stairs, thrusting one hand through his foxy hair and carrying his hat in the other, and vanished into the drawing-room.
After this brutal behaviour on the part of a trio of English girls, one must show a little moderation in condemning the cruel conduct of the Roman dames, who contemplated with zest the deadly contests of the gladiators in the arena; at least the gladiators were strangers and barbarians, not fellow-townsmen and near relations.
As for the present victim, he was happily unconscious of any spectator beyond Bella the house-maid, but he felt relieved to be delivered from her compassionate stare. He had an instinctive sense that she knew as well as he did what he had come there for, and was pitying him—an inference in which he was quite correct. For Bella was older than the unseen "chorus" on the landing, who did not think of pitying him. She had seen more of the world, and was better acquainted with its cares and troubles. She called him in her own mind "the poor young gent!" It occurred to her as it did not occur to the others, that he might take to bad ways and be a lost man, like Jem Wade the carpenter, after her pretty, flighty sister Lotty had given him the sack. Nothing less than that might be the end of this day's work.
But such a way of looking on a lover and his woes was far from the thoughts of Bella's young mistresses. On the contrary, they had difficulty in restraining merry little titters, though Annie did take herself to task and murmur "For shame!" when Rose made a solemn, stupid face like what she considered Tom Robinson's on this occasion.
To do the girls justice, however, they did not laugh when Dora, who had been with her mother, came slowly across the lobby and followed the visitor into the drawing-room in order to administer the coup de grace. It might have been a veritable dagger-thrust to be dealt by a weak little shrinking hand, with the owner's head turned and face averted—such a white, grieved, frightened girl's face it was.
Her companions' eyes were opened, for the instant a fellow-feeling smote them. This was no light jest or piece of child's play; it might be their turn next. Oh! who would not be sorry for Dora to have to inflict real pain and bitter disappointment, to be condemned to kill a man's faith in woman, perhaps, certainly to murder his peace and happiness for the present, to extinguish the sweetest, brightest dream of his early manhood, for he would never have another quite so tender and radiant? Would Dora ever be quite the same again after she had done so hard a thing?
Annie pulled herself up and accused herself of getting absolutely maudlin. The idea of Tom Robinson of "Robinson's," with his middle size, matter-of-fact air, and foxy hair and moustache, entertaining such a dream and relinquishing it with a pang of mortal anguish that would leave a long sickening heart-ache behind! It was the infection of all the silly love stories she had ever read which had received a kind of spurious galvanic life from the very ordinary circumstance, the feather in her cap, as so many girls would have regarded it, of Dora, having to receive and refuse an offer of marriage. Why, she—Annie—and her sisters, including Dora herself, had been much diverted by it, as well as interested in it, until the dramatic crisis had somehow taken their breath away also, and startled them by a glimpse of the other side of the question. But though Annie strove to recover her equanimity, and Rose tried to hum a tune softly as the girls still loitered behind the bannisters, to see the end of the play, they said nothing more to each other; a sort of shyness and shame had stolen over them. It was not enough to make them run away, especially as each did not realize that what she felt was common to all. Only their lips were chained simultaneously, and they were disposed to turn aside their heads and avert their eyes, like Dora when she killed her man.
The deed did not take long—not more than was necessary for him to plead once or twice with small variation on the words, "Will you not think of it, Dora? Can you not give it a little consideration? Perhaps if I were to wait, and you were to try——"
And for Dora to answer with drooping head, panting breast, and still less variety in her phrases, "Oh, no, no, Mr. Tom. Of course, I am very much obliged to you for thinking a great deal more of me than I deserve. But, indeed, indeed, it cannot be—you must give it up—this foolish fancy. It is a great pity that you have wasted time on such an absurd idea."
"Wasted time!" he repeated, with a little irony and a little pathos. "Well, I don't think it wasted even at this moment—and—and the idea does not seem so absurd to me; but I will not distress you by forcing my wishes upon you when you are so averse to them. You will allow me to continue your friend, Miss Dora?"
"Yes, oh yes," sighed Dora, who would have said anything, short of agreeing to marry him, to get him to go away, "if you like, after what has happened. I know I don't deserve your friendship; but, indeed, I could not help it, Mr. Robinson. I never guessed till lately that you thought of anything else, and then I would have stopped you, but I could not."
"Don't blame yourself," he said with a faint smile, "I am not blaming you. I shall count it a favour, an honour, if you will let me do anything for you that I can."
"Thank you very much," she murmured humbly.
"Then you will accept a little mark of my friendly feelings?" He took a small case from his waistcoat pocket, opened it, and drew from it a valuable ring, holding it out to her.
They were the most beautiful rubies and sapphires she had ever seen. But she would not touch it; she even put her hands behind her back in her confusion and dismay. "I could not; I ought not. It is far too costly a thing, I can see that at a glance. You must keep it; you will find some far fitter girl to give it to."
He shook his head, hesitated, and then took an old-fashioned little vinaigrette case, shaped like a tiny gold box, from the watch-chain at which he wore it. "Will you accept this from me, then? It was my mother's, and I should like you to have it."
"It's so good of you," the girl faltered. "I don't like to deprive you of what was your mother's, but if you care that I should have it——"
"I do care," he said.
That last little episode was entirely between themselves. When she quitted the room, not crying, but paler than before, she had the vinaigrette case clasped tightly in her hand, while nobody except Tom Robinson knew of the gift.
He let her go, and then he left the house. When he did so there was that in his face which caused Rose Millar to cry under her breath, "Come away. It is not fair to spy upon him. I'll never want to see anybody refused again." As for "little May," she burst into tears, though the principals had shed no tears.
"Hold your tongue, you little goose," remonstrated the disturbed Annie. "He may hear you. School-girls like you and Rose should not meddle in grown-up people's affairs."
"I thought I had left school after the Christmas holidays," said Rose, interrogating the world in an abstract fashion. She was herself again on the instant, carrying her funny little crumpled nose well in the air.
"It is dreadful," said May, with a half-suppressed sob, "and he was so good-natured. He promised only last week to get Rose and me a fox-terrier puppy."
"Oh, you selfish little creature! It is over the failure of the prospective puppy and not over the sorrows of the rejected man you are lamenting. Never mind, Maisie, I doubt if mother would have allowed us to keep the puppy. As for Mr. Tom Robinson, he is cut up just now, of course; but he will soon get over it. How long does it take a man to forget, Annie? Anyhow, presently he will be busily directing his attentions in another quarter, until the day may come, after he is successful and triumphant, well pleased with himself and his choice, when he will heartily thank Dora there for having administered to him the cold bath of a rejection, so nipping his first raw aspirations in the bud."
"No, no," insisted May; "you are so cynical, Rose, like everybody else now-a-days, and I hate it. He can never be glad to have lost Dora."
"Don't you agree with me, Annie?" Rose maintained her point.
"Really, you seem to be so well informed on the subject yourself—though I cannot think where you have got your experience, any more than your slang, unless at second-hand"—said Annie sarcastically, "that my opinion is of no importance."
"Now, don't be nasty and elder-sisterish," was Rose's quick rejoinder.
Though Dora shed no tears of contrition in public, Annie, who shared her sister's room, heard her in the night crying softly.
"What ails you, Dora dear?" Annie sat up and asked sleepily. "What is the matter? It can't be, no," rousing herself, "it can not be—you don't mean that you repent what you've done, and would swallow the shop, foxy hair, and everything?"
"Oh, no," denied Dora, "but I didn't think a man would care like that; such a queer, gray shade came over his face, though I durst hardly look at him; and his hands which were—well, were holding mine for a second, you know——"
"No, I don't know," interrupted Annie, smiling to herself; "but go on, what about the hands?"
"They were as cold as ice."
"Very likely, it is only the month of April."
"And it is not above a year since he lost both his father and mother—all the near relations he had."
"Poor man!" admitted Annie. "But you could not help that, and many men, young men especially, seem to get on quite well without near relations."
There was a strain of hardness about pretty Annie, whether bred of that cynicism in the air of which May had complained, whether it was an integral part of Annie, or whether, as in the case of some valuable kinds of timber, it was merely an indication of the closer grain, the slower ripening, and the greater power of endurance of the moral fibre.
"Men are not like women." Annie was continuing her lecture. "I dare say Tom Robinson will do very well—all the better, perhaps, because he has no ambition, and is content to make money in the most humdrum way as a tradesman."
Dora sat up in turn, like a white ghost in her place in her little bed, seen by the dim light. She had the instinct which causes women to look back upon the men who have made love or proposed to them, even though the women have rejected the men—as in a sense their property, if not their prey, so as not by any means to relish the men's depreciation at the hands of other women. Then it becomes a point of honour alike with the proudest and the meekest of her sex to stand up in his absence in defence of the discarded swain.
"I don't know about ambition," began Dora hesitatingly, "but father says Tom Robinson is not at all stupid; he took his degree with credit at Cambridge, and was not plucked like poor Ned Hewett, or that fop, Cyril Carey. Father says when he worked with Mr. Robinson in getting up the bill to lay before Parliament for closing the old churchyard, he could not have desired a more intelligent, diligent fellow-worker. All the salesmen and women at 'Robinson's' have been well looked after, and are superior to the other shop-people in the town, don't you know? There is Miss Franklin at the head of both the millinery and mantua-making departments; I am sure she looks and speaks, as well as dresses, like a lady?"
"Yes, and everybody is civil to her, but nobody thinks of making her acquaintance out of the shop, and she is wise enough to keep to her proper sphere. They say she is a distant relation of Tom Robinson's—you see he is not altogether destitute of kindred. Why does the man not marry her? That would be a suitable match."
"Annie!" protested Dora, in nearly speechless indignation, and then she recovered breath and words. "She's forty if she's a day; and she's as fat as a pin-cushion, with her cheeks a mottled red all over."
"How can you make such unkind remarks on your neighbours' looks? He is not an Adonis, I may be allowed to say; and I have noticed that shopkeepers are apt to marry women older than themselves, women who have been in the trade—to keep the business together, I suppose."
"At least, his father did not marry like that either in his first or in his second marriage," retorted Dora; "for the first Mrs. Robinson was the daughter of a curate, and the second of a farmer, and she was not half his age, though she did not survive him long."
"As you please. What's Hecuba to me, or what am I to Hecuba?" demanded Annie airily.
"Besides," Dora returned laboriously to the charge, "there are shopkeepers and shopkeepers, as you must be aware, Annie. Father says old Mr. Robinson was a man of independent ideas and original mind, and had his own theories of trade."
"I have nothing to say against it, especially at this hour of the night, or morning," said Annie, professing to strangle a yawn; "only that I do not think a linen-draper's business, however large and well-conducted, is exactly the career of a gentleman, a man of fair ability and education. He might leave it to any respectable well-disposed tradesman. However, if you are going to exalt Tom Robinson, with his shop, into a patriot and philanthropist cherishing a noble scheme for the public good, and all that kind of thing, do it if you like, nobody will hinder you. Call him back if you care to, I dare say it is still possible if you are willing to make the concession. But oh, Dora!" appealed Annie, who had talked herself wide awake by this time, "don't forget the loss of position involved in really keeping a shop, however eccentric and meritorious a man's intentions may be. Why, he had better become a stonemason or a ploughman, if he is to do the thing at all; far better a gamekeeper or a soldier in time of war, the plunge would be deeper but more picturesque. Think of the entire breaking with the county with which we have a right to hold ourselves connected, not merely because father's patients are willing to take us up and make quite a fuss about us sometimes, but because his Aunt Penny married and was welcomed into that set. You have not yourself alone to consider, remember, Dora; you might not mind, but you have the rest of us to think of, some of whom would mind very much."
"You need have no anxiety about the matter," said poor Dora hotly and huffily. "I am not going to marry Tom Robinson; you know I have refused him this very afternoon."
But Annie was determined to empty out her whole budget of warnings. "Even professional people like father, all our friends and acquaintances, our relations on both sides of the house would begin to drop us, and fight shy of us. What people that had any pretensions to being gentle-folks would care to be mixed up with our brother-in-law the linen-draper? And it is not as if the temptation were great; I cannot see wherein the attraction lies; but instead of letting it beset you, please don't lose sight of the three hundred and sixty-five days to be spent every year in Tom Robinson's silent company. Think of the three hundred and sixty-five breakfasts, dinners, and suppers to be eaten opposite his mute figure."
"Stop, Annie," Dora cried energetically: "you know as well as I do that I could never face such a thing, that I never dreamt of it. Only loving a man could make it possible for a girl to give up her family in order to belong to him; and even if there had been no 'Robinson's' to shock you, I do not care the least little bit for poor Tom Robinson; yet surely for that very reason," protested Dora with a sudden revulsion of feeling, "I am at liberty to pity him."
"If you will take my advice, Dora," said shrewd Annie, sinking back on her pillow as a sign that the untimely discussion ought to come to an end, "you will get rid of your pity as quickly as you can. It is not your pity which he seeks—very likely he would rage like a bear, for as quiet as he can look, at the mere mention of it. But it strikes me that it is not safe for either of you."
THE HEADS OF THE HOUSE LOOK GRAVE.
"It is a thousand pities," said Dr. Millar, holding a consultation with his wife, while he sipped his glass of sherry and ate his biscuit, before retiring for the night, after his last round among the patients in greatest need of his visits.
In spite of his daughter Dora's preference for tall men, the Doctor was short and rather stout. He ought to have looked comfortable, he had the physique and air of a comfortable man, but a certain harassed, careworn expression was beginning to settle down on the spectacled face which had once been round, rosy, and very comely. He was at least twenty years older than his wife. The old-fashioned practice had prevailed in the old-fashioned town, of elderly men, whether bachelors or widowers, ending by marrying for the first or the second time women a score or more years their juniors. Indeed, Dr. Millar was hard upon seventy, though he had till recent bad times carried his years so well that he had looked ten years younger than his actual age.
Mrs. Millar also began to look worried as a rule, though she had more of the woman's faculty of putting the best face on things, both in public and in private. She was a tall woman, who had enjoyed the advantages of what was called "an elegant figure" in her youth. Now she was large and heavy, with a mixture of unconscious stateliness and wistful motherliness in her gait and gestures. Like Dr. Millar, she ought to have seemed at least easy-minded, but circumstances were becoming more and more against the happy condition, of which a pervading atmosphere of content and cheerfulness should have been the outward expression.
The man and woman were not cut out, so to speak, for adversity. They had not been seasoned to it in their younger days. On the contrary, they had been cradled for many years in the lap—if not of luxury, of fair middle-class prosperity. It was a few tolerably rough jolts which had shaken them from their cradle. Still the trouble was more in apprehension than in reality. As yet it had not caused the sufferers to change any one of the domestic habits which had grown second nature to them. It had not induced them to darken the sunny sky over their young daughters' heads with a shadow of the clouds which were already looming black on the parents' horizon. It may be said at once, that Dr. and Mrs. Millar, though they were reckoned clever, sensible people enough by their contemporaries, had softer hearts than they had hard heads. They had not been used to painful self-denial and stern discipline, either where they themselves or their children were concerned.
The couple were sitting now together in the dining-room with its solidly handsome furniture, Russian leather and walnut wood, bits of family plate on the sideboard, bronze chimney-piece ornaments, and good engravings on the walls. Husband and wife had spent the last part of the evening there, for four-and-twenty years, every night they were in Redcross, when the Doctor was not kept out late, or when the couple were not abroad in company, or seeing company at home. Dr. Millar, in his slightly old-fashioned professional black coat and white tie, was leaning back in his easy-chair sipping his sherry, and occasionally drumming lightly on the table near him with these fine long sensitive fingers which were a born doctor's fingers.
Mrs. Millar wore a demi-toilet in the shape of an expensive cashmere and silk gown—not an evening dress, but an approach to it, as became the wife of one of the leading professional men in Redcross, connected with the county to boot. Her lace cap was a costly trifle of its kind, but it had an awkward habit—the odder in a woman who was neat to formality in the other details of her dress—of slipping to one side, or tilting forwards or backwards on the brown hair, still abundant and just streaked with gray; so that one or other of her daughters was constantly calling Mrs. Millar's cap to order and setting it right. She was sitting in an arm-chair, opposite her husband. Mechanically she put one daintily slippered, very neat foot, considering the weight it helped to carry, beyond her skirts, and stretched it towards the fire. There was still a good fire blazing in the steel grate, though the spring was well advanced, the weather was not more than chilly, and the hour was late. It was as if coals were not a marketable commodity and a serious item in the expenses of an embarrassed household. She held up a Japanese fan between her face and the fire, from mere custom, for she had ceased to pay much heed to the exigencies of a florid complexion.
"It's a thousand pities," repeated the little Doctor, looking quite portentously regretful and oppressed. "It is not only that Tom Robinson is an excellent fellow and would have made Dora the best of husbands—given her a safe and happy home, and all that sort of thing; but in case of anything happening, I am convinced he would have been as good as a brother to the other girls, and a son to you. A man like him is a stay and support to a household of helpless women."
"But nothing is going to happen, Jonathan," said Mrs. Millar, with an involuntary nervous quiver which sent her cap hovering over one eyebrow. "At least nothing worse than we know. Your practice is not so lucrative as it used to be; how can it, in these bad times, with so many poor young fellows of doctors settling here and there and everywhere in Redcross and the villages around, starving themselves out, while they impoverish their seniors? Nothing more than that, except the little trouble at Carey's Bank."
"Quite enough too, Maria, quite enough," commented the Doctor deep down in his throat, prolonging the words a little as if he were chanting the refrain of a dismal song; "and when a man is my age and has plenty of the young rivals you refer to, it is high time he should be looking out for something happening. A family of girls, too. God help me! If they had been four boys, who might have made their own way in the world, and provided for you among them, I could have faced it better." He struck the table again, with spasmodic force this time.
"Now, Jonathan, you will wake up the house. This is not like you," remonstrated his wife—all the more energetically that her heart sank while she spoke. "I should not have expected you to give way in this manner." She gave a quick push back to her unruly cap. "I am sure there is no occasion for it. We are in no worse position than we were last year, even the year before that."
"Save that I am growing older every year," he said grimly, "and the affairs of the bank are not mending, as I hoped they might."
"Can't you sell out?" she suggested breathlessly, as she clasped her hands on her knees.
"I have put it off too long, supposing I had the conscience to transfer my liabilities to some simpleton who might not draw half a dozen of the dividends of which I have drawn scores. Besides, the thing is impossible, as I am telling you. Between you and me, the shares are far below par."
"What is par, Jonathan?" interrupted Mrs. Millar in a praiseworthy attempt to understand her husband.
"Oh, bother," he cried, running his hand in mild exasperation through his white hair; "the standard value, or the original value, whichever you like best. I should not dare to propose to sell out at such a loss; it would not only be to impoverish myself at once in order to avoid the risk of greater ruin, it would draw attention. It would have a most suspicious look, and might bring the rotten affair down about our ears instantly, while I should get the blame of the downfall."
"But some of the large foreign investments might be realized any day—you told me the last time you spoke of business—with the first good turn of trade," she reminded him anxiously.
"I trust so still, and I believe old Carey is an honest man and a perfect gentleman—that is one comfort; but I cannot help thinking he has got into bad hands. I tell you, Maria, I don't like that brother-in-law of his who comes down from London to attend the Redcross meetings, and tries to blarney us all round. And I cannot approve of the bolstering up of Carey's cousins, the Carters, in their chemical works at Stokeleigh, which it strikes me will never do much good. It—the bolstering up—has been going on for a long time now, to what extent I am not prepared to show. Unfortunately I have a bad head for figures," he shrugged his shoulders as if anticipating a reproach, "the less reason why I should have laid out my savings on bank shares, you will say? No doubt, no doubt, but there had been fewer troubles with banks in my day. When I made the first investment everything appeared right, and the dividends announced were tempting."
"I am not finding fault with what you did, Jonathan; I never thought of such a thing," the perturbed woman found voice to reassure her husband. "I know you did it for the best; and for that matter, I am convinced it will all come right in the end," she ended with a little sigh.
"It is very good and pretty of you to say so, Maria," he said with a certain old-fashioned, stiff gallantry which, while it complimented her, treated her as a much younger and more irresponsible being than he was. As he spoke he took up the hand which lay in her lap and held it for a moment clasped in his. "And I can say you have been all that I could have wished as a wife and mother, you have never once failed me during the whole of our married life."
"Oh! thank you, thank you, Jonathan." She acknowledged his praise with a momentary choke in her voice, and a bend of her head which was not without a docile dignity.
"We are all in the same boat," resumed the Doctor in the deep tones which somehow sounded like bass recitative; "the Rector, Colonel Russell, and I—not to say Carey himself. We all wished to increase our incomes with as little trouble and risk as possible—so it seemed then, but if the bank comes to smash, all the old Redcross gentle-folks, as we were pleased to call ourselves, will go with it."
"Don't mention such a thing, don't think of it," cried Mrs. Millar in her dismay.
He went on without noticing her. "The Bishop won't let the Rector come down, and Russell is twenty years younger than I. He is no older than you are, though a foreign climate has told a good deal on him; still, he is patched up, and with care ought to have lasted as long as the rest of us. He may exert his interest, and get a post in India again, though I should be afraid it would finish him in six months."
The poor middle-aged lady who sat listening with dry lips apart, and pleasant hazel eyes distended with fright and distress, though she was no older than the unfortunate colonel, had not been exposed to a foreign climate, and had hardly suffered from a serious illness in her life, did not look much like such an arduous undertaking as going out to India to redeem a wrecked fortune. She pulled herself together, however, and set herself to the good woman's business of comforting and encouraging her husband. "I am certain it is right to go on hoping. You often say that in your profession you have no such helpful allies as hope and courage; you must practice what you've preached, Doctor," and the faithful soul actually contrived to impart a playful ring to her unsteady voice. "The Rector has not preached the duty more strenuously than you have; and you are not going to be the first to break down, especially when there is no real occasion. Depend upon it, Carey's Bank will pull through like some of your most doubtful patients, with time and care."
"With all my heart," he said, absently taking off his spectacles, polishing, and replacing them. Then he resumed his former line of thought. "Tom Robinson is out of the mess. He, and his father before him, found other ways of disposing of their capital where it was more under their own inspection and control. If that foolish girl of ours, Maria, could only have brought herself to listen to Robinson," he worked himself up into a fresh access of vexation, "the liking would have come in good time. I did not expect her to have a fancy for him on the spot, for quiet, steady young fellows like him are not apt to take girls' fancies—the worse for the girls."
"But, father"—remonstrated Mrs. Millar, involuntarily bestowing on her husband the title the girls gave him—she drew herself up as she spoke, and again destroyed the equilibrium of her cap—"you cannot surely think that Tom Robinson would have been a fit match for Dora, or any of her sisters. He is well enough in himself, I say nothing against him, but he has not gone into a profession, instead he has identified himself with 'Robinson's'—that shop;" a shade of ineffable disgust stole into her ordinarily good-humoured voice.
"Showed his good sense and manliness," said the Doctor gruffly. "I wish every one else had been as wise. I wish all of us had big paying shops at our backs instead of Carey's shaky bank. I for one would swallow the indignity cheerfully. Why, my father kept on his dispensary in the days when the practice was at its best. The greater fool I to give it up. I tell you England will never be what it was till it gets rid of this rubbish of despising trades and shops. Don't you help to put it into these silly girls' heads. It makes me sick to think how they may live to wish they were connected with an honest, solvent shop."
"My dear, I think you are going a little too far." Mrs. Millar fired up in defence of her young like a ruffled mother-pigeon. "I should be very sorry to teach the girls to look down on anybody; but that there are different sorts and conditions of men, they may learn from their very Bibles and prayer-books. There are such things as education and culture—not to speak of good birth. You yourself, Dr. Millar, are fairly well born and well connected for a professional man." She instanced this with an imperceptible bridle and toss of her matronly head, which hinted broadly, "If it had not been so, Jonathan, I should never have been Mrs. Millar." The movement threatened to deposit her cap on the carpet behind her, but she recovered it in time, and took up the thread of her discourse by quoting the much-prized family distinction—"There was your Aunt Penny, who married into the county."
"Oh! are you at that humbug?" he cried, with a man's disrespectful impatience. "I thought it had seen its day, and was long over and done with. I could not have conceived that you—" ("were such a fool," he was going to say, when he caught himself up.) He was quick-tempered and impulsive, but he was also suave by nature, and his long habit of courteous indulgence to his wife caused him to alter the phrase. "I did not know that you had so lively an imagination as to persist in believing that old myth, Maria."
"But your Aunt Penny did marry one of the Beauchamps of Waylands," insisted Mrs. Millar.
"Certainly; and she made the poorest marriage of anybody that I have ever had to do with, though I have always understood that he was not a bad sort, beyond being as thick-headed as his brother the squire or an officer of dragoons. He get on at the bar! I dare say not. And he was no quicker-witted or longer-sighted in Australia. You must have heard me say how grieved I was once when I came across a fellow from Sydney who had been up the country, and remembered something of the Beauchamps and their straits. They were regularly hard up, and went through no end of trouble. Poor Aunt Penny seldom had a woman-servant—women-servants were more difficult to get out there in those days. She had to wash, cook, and scour for the men at the station."
"Why didn't they come home?" inquired Mrs. Millar rather weakly.
"Come home! They had nothing to come home with, or to. You don't suppose his brother, the squire, with a wife and family of his own, would have kept them, though the Beauchamps had received her civilly enough at the time of the marriage! She had to milk the cows when the cow-man was otherwise wanted. I do not say that many a better born woman than she was has not done as much and thought little of it, only it was not in Aunt Penny's line. I can just remember her when I was a small boy, a pretty creature who read Italian, sang to her guitar, and made bread seals for her amusement. She had such a mortal terror where cows were concerned that she would run like a lapwing when she heard one come lowing up the lane behind the house. Paton, the man from Sydney who remembered them, thought they did a little better towards the end, when they got a store, and Mrs. Beauchamp kept it. Do you hear that, Maria?" cried the Doctor, with a half-humorous, half-indignant emphasis.
"Yes, I hear," replied Mrs. Millar, with an obstinate inflection of her voice which said, "I am of my own opinion still." She illustrated this by adding, in an undertone, "They were in Australia."
"A store," continued the Doctor, "is the rudest, most uncouth kind of shop; and Beauchamp was not fit to keep it, he had to turn it over to his wife, who was thankful to serve shepherds and bush-rangers for aught I know. She lost one child in the bush, God help her! The little thing wandered away and was never heard of again; and her other child, a boy, who grew up, did not turn out well. I tell you, I never like to think or speak of the mother."
"Poor Aunt Penny!" said Mrs. Millar hastily. "But there is one thing"—with a sudden accent of triumph in the perception that she had the advantage of her husband at last—"your Aunt Penny married the man she cared for; she got her choice, and in that light she had no reason to complain, though she had to abide by it."
The Doctor was a little taken aback. "I do not know that she complained—at least her people at home heard nothing of it. And you must do me the justice of owning that I have done nothing to force Dora's inclinations. Indeed, I am not clear that I have done my duty. I ought to have reasoned with the girl. Robinson is not only a good man, he is also a gentleman, every inch of him, so was his father before him."
"In the choice of Jenny Coppock, of Coppock's Farm, for a wife!" exclaimed Mrs. Millar, still rebellious, even satirical and disdainful.
"He was entitled to choose whom he would, I suppose, so long as she was an honest woman, and Jenny Coppock was that quite as much as her husband was a gentleman. She made him happy, I believe, strange as it may sound to some people, as ladies do not always make their husbands happy—you know I mean nothing personal, Maria. Whether she was quite happy herself is a different question, of which I have had no means of judging. But I have heard you yourself say that she never presumed on her rise in rank, or sought to thrust her comely, kindly face where it was not wanted. Her son has a look of her, without her good looks. Poor Mrs. Robinson! I was with her in her first and last illness, as you are aware, and a more courageous, self-forgetful soul I had never the privilege to attend."
Mrs. Millar turned back in the conversation, and took to dogmatizing. "People who are well-informed and well-bred will never descend to a lower level without great discomfort and serious loss. I for one, though I have not profited by the advantages the girls have commanded, and I daresay have not their brains"—she made the frank admission with womanly, motherly humility—"though I could not to save my life make one of Rose's beautiful water-colour sketches, or read Greek and Latin like 'little May,' or even talk to the point on every subject under the sun like Annie, still I should not be happy if I had to keep company with Wilkins the butcher's or Ord the baker's wife, and they would not be happy either. It would not matter, in one sense, though I knew they were respectable, worthy women, and were ever so much better off as to money than I. That would not keep me from feeling thoroughly out of place and having hardly an idea in common with my neighbours in their plush-trimmed gowns and fur-lined mantles. I could not stand such degradation for my girls," she protested, with rising agitation. "I had far rather that they and I should be the poorest ladies in the land, should have to pinch and deny ourselves all round."
"It is little you know of it," muttered Dr. Millar, shaking his white head, and pensively contemplating his finger-nails.
"While we still retained the position to which we were born, and the associations among which we were reared," ended Mrs. Millar, with a gasp.
"Bless the woman, what does she mean?" cried Dr. Millar after his lively fashion, with an air of injured innocence. "Does she pretend that Tom Robinson has not been educated—stamped, for that matter, with the last university brand, to which he does credit, I must say? Stay, there goes the night-bell. I am wanted for somebody."
"You'll never go out again to-night, Jonathan," pleaded Mrs. Millar, "after all your worry, when you have not had more than a couple of hours' rest." She was already reproaching herself keenly for having contradicted and argued with him. She had never been able to comprehend, for her comfort, that to a man like him an argument is both rousing and refreshing. In the middle of her remorse she instinctively held up her head, and balanced her cap as a Dutchwoman of the last century balanced her milk-pail, or a girl of the Roman Campagna her sheaf of grass and wild flowers. "It is a shame," she reflected indignantly; "it is very likely nothing of any consequence, just one of those inconsiderate people who think that a professional man ought to be always at their beck and call."
"There, Maria, you're scoring another point for trade," said the little doctor, getting on his feet, and buttoning up his coat as a preliminary to obeying the call. "I'll warrant Wilkins and Ord will be toasting their toes, and retiring to bed with the comfortable conviction that their night's rest will not be disturbed; since Wilkins's head-man attends to the slaughter-house, and the eldest journeyman baker sees to the setting of the sponge. Why don't you say, noblesse oblige, Maria? But I think I know the name of the inconsiderate individual who has interrupted our conversation, and I assure you he would not if he could. It is little Johnny Fleming—Fleming the grocer's son—whose case is critical, I fear. I told his mother if he got worse to send for me at once. When I am out, at any rate, I'll just look in on old Todd, in Skinners' Buildings. He appeared in a dying state this morning; but as the family have not sent to let me know of the death, if he has hung on so long, the chance is he will rally and come round this bout. I'll be some time; don't sit up for me, my dear."
"It is too bad," Mrs. Millar fretted. "They ought to send at night for Newton or Capes from Woodleigh—it is only a step for any of the young doctors, instead of disturbing a man of your age."
"Good heavens! don't breathe such a thing. I could not afford it. I thought of taking a young partner twenty years ago, but I put it off till it was too late. Perhaps it was a mistake; we all make mistakes," he sighed. "An active young practitioner, well up to date, might have kept the business better together."
"Nonsense!" cried his wife energetically. "Nobody would have looked at him when they could have had your skill and experience."
"Then be thankful I'm still fit for work—one must take the bad with the good. It is the fortune of war, Maria," said the gallant old doctor as he departed.
Within a month Carey's Bank broke, not altogether unexpectedly. The breaking carried dismay and desolation into not a few households in Redcross, and administered a sharp shock—productive of much startled speculation, and roused distrust, even in those quarters which had not suffered financially by the bankruptcy. The stoppage of a bank, with little hope of its resuming its functions, is like the stoppage of a heart which will never beat again. It may have been dreaded as a possible calamity, and occasionally hinted at in awed whispers; but when the blow falls it does so with a stunning, crushing force because of its irreparable nature and far-reaching ruin.
There was just a little preparation to herald the catastrophe. Poor Carey, an honest, weak tool of dishonest speculators and birds of prey in the shape of needy, unscrupulous relations, when the appalling tidings reached him which could only betoken immediate wreck, did all that there was left to him to do. He called a meeting of the Redcross shareholders. These were the leading professional men in the town who had invested their savings, and a small proportion of the neighbouring country gentlemen who had put a little capital—not often to spare in those days—in a concern once regarded as sound and incapable of collapse as the Bank of England itself. With a faltering tongue and a hanging head the nominal head of the firm told to those nearly concerned what was coming on them. Nobody reproached him; either no man had the heart, or all felt the uselessness of reproaches. Certainly these shareholders' silence was his heaviest punishment.
They made a hasty examination, as far as they could, for themselves, and then the meeting broke up. Its members did not even linger to consult, being well assured that consultation, like reproaches, would be of no avail; the failure was so much more extensive and complete than their worst fears had led them to anticipate. The men looked blankly in each other's whitening faces and sought the refuge of their own houses at first. There would be time enough for outcry, for desperate plans and schemes a little later.
Poor Dr. Millar had not even this breathing space. It happened to be a particularly busy day with him. Various neutral individuals, in no way concerned with Carey's Bank, even when its misfortunes should be made public, took that inconvenient time for falling ill, and their medical man had to attend upon them with spasmodic promptitude and mechanical attention—projected, as it were, against the dazed and confused background of his brain. After all he was glad of his profession with its outward and immediate calls, taking him out of himself in the hour when he had heard the worst. He preferred to be about the town doing battle with this man's attack of paralysis and that woman's symptoms of typhoid, even though his ears were ringing with clamorous questions which no one else could hear or answer. How was he to pay up the liabilities of his bank shares from his dwindling practice? What about inexperienced young girls driven out to make their own way in the world, and the gentlewoman (in every sense of the word) whom he had loved and cherished for four-and-twenty years, soon to be left a desolate, all but unprovided for widow? But better a thousand times to be dragged in different directions than to be sitting like Russell, locked in his room, his little children and their young mother shut out, holding between his hands the erect head of a soldier who had come out of many a hard battle, but none so hard as this ambuscade which had been sprung upon him after he had been invalided a dozen years before, and returned home to spend his declining years in peace. Better than to have to write sermons and read prayers, like the Rector, and pause between every sentence to take himself sternly to task. Was it common forethought and prudence, with the necessity of providing for the wants of a household, which even the apostle Paul had commended, or was it worldly-mindedness and greed which had brought him, a beneficed clergyman, a priest in holy orders, the vowed servant of a King whose kingdom was not of this world, to this lamentable pass? Yes; he would be dishonoured in the eyes of men, a debtor who could not pay his debts, and even with the support of his bishop would be scarcely able to weather the storm, while he must make up his mind, as he was an honest man, that he and his should endure the pinch of poverty for the rest of his days.
Annie and Dora had been out on a shopping expedition, and were coming in talking and laughing as usual, when they were startled by the apparition of their mother standing in the doorway of her room, and motioning to them to come in directly and speak with her. The poor lady really looked like a ghost, as she stood there with her fine colour gone, beckoning to her daughters with her hand, as if the power of speech had suddenly forsaken her.
"What is it, mother?" cried the alarmed girls in one breath, hurrying towards her. "Has anything happened? Is anybody ill?"
"Hush! hush, my dears," said Mrs. Millar in a low tone, carefully shutting the door of her room behind the girls, as if she were ready to guard her secret with her life—at the same time painfully sensible that the bad news would be all over Redcross the next day, or the next after that. "I thought it would be better to tell you myself; nobody in the house knows anything of it yet, except your father and me."
"But what is it, mother; you have not told us?" Annie urged; while Mrs. Millar sank down in a low wicker chair, and her daughter Dora instinctively stooped over her, and began to set her vagrant cap right.
"Never mind my cap, my love," said Mrs. Millar hurriedly, and then she grew incoherent. "What does it matter, when perhaps I may not long have a cap to wear."
Annie and Dora stared at each other in consternation. Was their mother going out of her senses?
"It is the bank, Carey's Bank," said Mrs. Millar, recovering herself, "Oh dear! I am afraid it is in a very bad way."
"Is that it?" cried Annie vaguely but gravely, opening wide her brown eyes. "Is it going to fail?" She, too, spoke of the bank as if it were a responsible being.
"Annie, Annie, take care what you say. Girls are so heedless. I tell you it is very dangerous to make such broad statements. You do not know what harm you may do by a single word when you are so childishly outspoken." Mrs. Millar felt bound even yet to give her own words the timid qualification, though she was forced to add the next moment, "Your father has suspected things were going wrong for some time, and spoken of his suspicions to me repeatedly. He has just come back from a private meeting of the Redcross shareholders. He says in consequence of some additional losses in South America, I think, and inability to realize capital there, the bank cannot meet two or three heavy calls at home. I daresay I am not telling you rightly, for I don't understand business, and I don't suppose you do."
"I understand so far, that if this is not failure, I don't know what is," said Annie.
"Don't, Annie," said Dora; "let mother tell us in her own way; it is not easy for her, it is a dreadful misfortune."
"You may say that, Dora," exclaimed her mother. "Your father does not believe the bank can hold out for another week; it may stop payment to-morrow, since there are rumours afloat which will destroy what credit it has left."
"Will no other bank help it?" cried Annie shrewdly.
"I believe not," said Mrs. Millar dolefully.
"Then there will be a run, like what one has read of in similar circumstances—a rush of the people, and a riot in the town," suggested Annie, getting excited over the idea. "The police may have to guard the bank and the Bank house—soldiers may have to come from Nenthorn!"
"Oh, surely not," cried Dora; "the poor Careys—who could treat them so cruelly?"
"No, no," said Mrs. Millar; "there is one good thing, your father does not think there will be much ill-feeling, or anything like an angry mob, or tumult—not even when the people see the closed doors. There has always been such confidence in Carey's Bank, the Careys have been respected for generations; even now it is James Carey's misfortune and not his fault, though he may have been misled and imposed upon; and, after all, the depositors are tolerably sure of their money in time. But your father is afraid," she ended, her voice sinking, "that it will go hard with the shareholders."
"And poor father is one of them," said Annie quickly.
"Poor father!" echoed Dora piteously; "and you, poor, poor mother, to have to think of us, and break it to us, while your heart is with father."
"And he has not even been left in peace for a single afternoon, to make up his mind what we shall do," lamented his sympathetic wife. "As usual, so many tiresome people have fallen ill—as if they did it on purpose, and sent for him."
"I daresay they could not help it," said Annie, "and I don't think it would quite suit father if they were never ill."
"Don't speak so unfeelingly, child," remonstrated her mother; "well, I suppose I gave you a bad example," she corrected herself immediately, "but I have been in such trouble since lunch time."
"Poor mother!" repeated Dora in a voice that was only more soft and caressing because of its sorrowfulness. She was very fond of her mother, who reciprocated the special fondness, while Dr. Millar was rather inclined to favour Annie and Rose, and both father and mother petted May.
"Will it ruin us, mother?" inquired Annie directly, but before her mother could answer her, Annie's practical mind took a sudden flight. It went straight back to the purchases which she and Rose had been making that afternoon. They had been at "Robinson's," of all places. But Tom Robinson was only to be seen in the glass office, or walking about the place in the morning, at hours which these two customers had carefully avoided. Dora's heart had quaked all the same, in dread of an event which, bad enough when it was confined to a passing bow, or a limp hand-shake and half a dozen words exchanged in the street, would have been intolerable in "Robinson's," under the eyes of his satellites. Yet for the Millars to have refrained altogether from going to the one great shop in the town, where women oft did congregate, would have been to expose an event, the participators in which devoutly hoped was buried in oblivion. They had been in Miss Franklin's department without anything untoward happening; but it was neither "Robinson's" nor the person who served them there that flashed like lightning across Annie's thoughts at this crisis. It was the articles the girls had been buying, the Tussore silk and Torchon lace for frocks that Annie and Dora had meant to wear at a garden-party—for which the Dyers, the new people who had come to Redcross Manor-house, had sent out invitations. If the Millars were ruined, they were not likely to go to many more garden-parties, and though the sisters might still want frocks, yet frocks of Tussore silk trimmed with Torchon lace—granted that the materials had appeared a modest and becoming wear for a doctor's daughters an hour before—might not be quite an appropriate selection in the family's altered circumstances.
"It depends upon what you call ruin," Mrs. Millar was saying falteringly, "and of course the bank's assets may turn out better than is thought just now, though your father is far from hopeful. He says all his savings will go, and he may count on having to pay bank 'calls' on his income till the business is wound up, which may not be in his lifetime. No doubt he is taking the darkest view of things at present." Then she yielded to the relief of pouring forth some of the coming woes in detail. "Oh, my dears, your father says, though nothing can be settled in a moment, there is one thing certain—this house must be given up."
"Our house!" cried both of the girls in dismay.
"Where we were all born, where father himself was born," pleaded Dora, still hanging about her mother.
"The Old Doctor's House—why, it seems to belong to the practice," protested Annie, sitting down, taking off her hat and tossing it on the bed as if the better to realize the situation.
"No, I don't think it would hurt the practice—not in a town the size of Redcross, where everybody would know where your father was to be found, though he were to change his house again and again. Still it does seem hard," she admitted, as she covertly wiped away a tear, "particularly when the fault has not been ours—we have always lived within your father's income, even though his practice has been falling off in these bad times, what with his getting up in years, and what with these young doctors trying to get in their hands everywhere. He tells me that he has never had to find fault with me for extravagance," she finished wistfully.
"I should think not," said Annie emphatically. "Why you have always been as simple as simple could be in your own tastes and habits, not a woman in your circle dresses more quietly. You have hardly even driven in the brougham when father was not wanting it, in case you should over-work the horse—you have always said, but I really believe that you chose to walk for the simple reason that many of your acquaintances had no choice. Nobody can ever reflect upon you, mother, for having wasted either father's means or other people's," said Annie, with a bright glance which became her infinitely.
"Thank you, my love, for saying so," replied her mother gratefully; "and you see it is as well that I did not accustom myself to driving, among other indulgences, for another of the retrenchments which your father mentioned was putting down the brougham. Yet how he is to manage his more distant patients on foot, at his age, I cannot imagine," she broke off in helpless distress, clasping her hands tightly together, according to a way she had. "It seems downright madness to propose it."
"Then you may be sure it will be prevented," said Dora with earnest trustfulness, as she gently patted her mother's cap. "Nobody can ask a sacrifice from him which he is unable to make. Mother, do you know what I was thinking? that the only occasions on which you and father were regardless of expense have been where the profit or pleasure of us girls was concerned. You have given us every advantage you could get for us in the shape of education. You sent Annie and me to London to take these costly music-lessons;—Annie, I wish we had made more of them. You arranged that we should go on that foreign tour with the Ludlows."
"We did our best for you—your father and I. I think I may say that," admitted Mrs. Millar simply.
Dora went on eagerly with her generous catalogue. "There was the young artist who exhibits at the Academy and the Grosvenor, who was sketching at Nenthorn, you had him over at a high price once a week, and he condescended to help Rose with her drawing and painting. Then there was Mr. Blake, the university man whom father considered so far in advance of any classical master Miss Burridge could afford, he was induced so long as he was staying at Woodleigh to bring on May with her Latin and Greek."
"So far so good," said Mrs. Millar, in her excitement borrowing one of her husband's brisk, cut and dry phrases. "I hope you will reap the benefit of any effort we made, dears, because"—she hesitated, and nearly broke down—"well, I don't think you need mind so much your father's giving up this house and going into a smaller one; I'm sure I don't mind it at all when I think what other people will have to suffer; and as for you, why, you may not be here—not always, at least. We are afraid, your father and I, that you'll need to go and do something to keep yourselves."
"To be sure," said Annie promptly. "Don't trouble about that, mother; we'll be only too glad to be of use!"
"We'll be too thankful to relieve you and father as much as we can," said Dora in a voice soft and fervent, but less assured.
"That will be the least trial," asserted Annie fearlessly.
"Oh, you don't know what you're saying!" cried Mrs. Millar, fairly giving way and permitting herself to sob for a minute or two behind her handkerchief. "You are dear, good girls! I knew you would be, and so brave that I ought to take courage; but young people are so hopeful and inexperienced. I don't wish you to be unhopeful, of course, still you cannot tell what it is for your father and me to send our girls—our own girls whom we have been so proud and fond of, that have been making the old house brighter and brighter ever since they were born—out into a cold world, to have to struggle for a pittance, to lose their youth and its privileges, to be knocked about, and perhaps ill-treated, and looked down upon by people in every way their inferiors."
"Don't, mother," interrupted Annie with decision; "you're conjuring up bogies which have ceased to exist now-a-days. Think of the women who go out into the world by no compulsion, simply for the honour and pleasure of the thing, because they will not stay at home to lead idle, useless lives, when there is needful work to be done abroad. I don't question that they have difficulties to encounter, but I have yet to learn that staying at home will keep away crosses. Brave women can bear whatever trouble comes. I have often thought of such workers, if you will believe me"—the girl was in a glow of animation—"with both shame and envy. It is true I have not proposed to join them," she added in a lower tone, "because I knew I was young for such work and not half good enough or clever enough, and because we were all so happy at home—you and father made us so," and Annie turned away her head, and forthwith came tumbling down a few steps from the exalted position she had taken up.
"No, don't tell me, Annie Millar," said her mother with something like passionate resistance, "that any good father or mother can be glad to send their young daughters out into the wide world to fight and suffer by themselves. It is not natural and it is not true. It is an altogether different thing to give them to good men who will take care of them and make them happy."
"But if the good men are not forthcoming, or if they happen to be the wrong men," protested Annie. There was an irresistible twinkle in her dark eyes, in spite of the care and trouble that had come upon the household, which she was too sensible and warm-hearted a girl not to share fully.
Dora stood conscience-stricken and guilty-looking, until, as she stroked her mother's locked hands, she at last found words to put in her humble petition, "We shan't all go away, mother dear. Father and you must let one of us stay to take care of you and cheer you?"
"Oh, my dear, we are not old enough, at least I am not old enough to accept such a boon, supposing we are very poor," said Mrs. Millar sadly, "and in that case it might be sacrificing one of you, and spoiling your prospects in life."
"No, no," cried Dora vehemently.
"Dora means that one of us ought to stay at home to set your cap right," said Annie brusquely.
It sounded an inopportune jest, positively unfeeling. The truth was Annie still laboured under the common youthful necessity to hide her deeper feelings, an obligation made up of a touch of hysterical excitement, pride, shyness, and possibly the unsubdued buoyance of two-and-twenty years. The last is apt to rebound swiftly, with a mixture of cheerfulness and defiance from any sorrow, short of the one sorrow which cannot be trampled down or made light of, that has its root in a grave. Annie must find something to laugh at, to get fun out of, in the tribulation which she nevertheless felt in every nerve of her body, to the core of her heart.
"I ought to be able to keep my cap straight," said poor Mrs. Millar very literally and meekly, looking a little puzzled by Annie's ill-timed nonsense, and apparent hardness. "I daresay I should pin it, but the pins drag my hair so and hurt me."
"Never think of it, mother," said mild Dora indignantly, looking daggers at Annie.
"Of course I did not mean that, mother. I was not in earnest," Annie made the penitent amendment.
"You are right to make the best of things," said Mrs. Millar, giving a little shivering sigh on her own account. "It is the will of Providence. We are in God's hands, poor Mr. Carey and all of us, as we were a year ago—twenty years ago when you two were babies."
They were simple truisms which she uttered, but they were honest words, which meant a great deal to her. They borrowed impressiveness from the truthfulness of the speaker, in addition to the truth of the sayings, and by force of sympathy told on the listening girls, quieting and controlling them.
"Poor Mr. Carey as you say, mother," Annie caught up the words. "Well, I suppose the Careys will be in a far worse plight than we can be, and Cyril has been such a fool, though I don't suppose he meant much harm, with his dandyisms and idleness and his college airs—all that he has brought back from college."
"Hush! child," exclaimed the elder, more tolerant woman. "He has been a silly, selfish lad, but as he will know it now, to his cost, I do not like to hear you casting it in his teeth to-day. Perhaps it will steady him, and then this misfortune will be a blessing so far as he is concerned."
"Rather hard that we should all be sacrificed to prop up Cyril's weak moral nature," muttered Annie.
"And the Russells," suggested Dora. "I have heard Colonel Russell speaking to father, as if he and the Rector also had to do with the bank. Oh! there is Ned Hewett, who has not passed his Cambridge examination any more than Cyril Carey. Not that it has been Ned's fault, or that he goes in for nothing save amusement, only he is so slow over his books, poor fellow! He will grudge his father's having spent money over him to no purpose more than ever now; and Lucy and Bell will be sorry for him—they are so fond of Ned."
At that moment a rush was heard on the stairs, and Rose and May burst into their mother's room, Rose at the last moment bethinking herself that she had left school, accordingly she must be grown up, or on the brink of it, if Annie would but allow it, and therefore trying to moderate the headlong pace, which would have better become a troop of boys than a pair of girls.
"Little May," who, in spite of her height, was still in frocks an inch from the ground, was not troubled by any such scruples. She scampered up to her mother, and hailed her breathlessly—"Mother, we want you to let us—Rose and me—go with Ella and Phyllis Carey a walk to the Beeches. Ella says she saw some periwinkles and young ferns there, and we need, oh! ever so many fresh roots for the rockery. We should have gone without coming home to tell you, because you wouldn't mind, but we might have kept tea waiting, and we'll be horribly late. Besides, we are not coming home for tea; Ella and Phyllis say we must go up with them to the Bank House."
"No, no, my dears, you can't do that," said Mrs. Millar, hurriedly but decidedly. "I am sorry that you should be disappointed, but you must not think of such a thing. Ella and Phyllis don't understand—don't know—that their mother is particularly engaged this afternoon. She will not wish to have people in the house, not even in the schoolroom."
Rose and May looked in wonder at their mother, discomposed enough in her own person, sitting leaning back in her chair doing nothing; she whose motherly hands were wont to be busy with some little bit of sewing or knitting.
Annie, too, was sitting idle at a short distance, with her hat thrown on the bed, but still wearing her jacket; and Dora, in her walking dress, was standing like a lady-in-waiting, or a sentry, behind Mrs. Millar's chair.