AUTHOR OF "AS IN A LOOKING GLASS," ETC. ETC.
MY OLD FRIEND AND COLLABORATOR,
I DEDICATE THESE PAGES.
ONE CAN'T ALWAYS TELL
SONGS. AFTER VICTOR HUGO, ARMAND SILVESTRE, CHARLES ROUSSEAU AND THE VICOMTE DE BORELLI
LOVE WENT OUT WHEN MONEY WAS INVENTED
A PUZZLED PAINTER. (WRITTEN IN COLLABORATION WITH THE LATE SIR AUGUSTUS HARRIS)
* * * * *
There is a vast deal talked in the present day about Freewill. We like to feel that we are independent agents and are ready to overlook the fact that our surroundings and circumstances and the hundred and one subtle and mysterious workings of the fate we can none of us escape, control our actions and are responsible for our movements, and make us to a great extent what we are.
A man is not even a free agent when he takes the most important step of his whole life, and marries a wife. He is impelled to it by considerations outside of himself; it affects not only his own present and future, but that of others, very often, and he must be guided accordingly.
Emerson says; "The soul has inalienable rights, and the first of these is love," but he does not say marriage. Love is the business of the idle and the idleness of the busy, but marriage is quite another affair—a grave matter, and not to be undertaken lightly, since it is the one step that can never be retraced, save through the unsavoury channels of shame and notoriety, or death itself.
But perhaps Jack Chetwynd was hampered with fewer restraining influences than most men, for he was alone in the world, without kith or kin, and might be fairly allowed to please himself, and pleasing himself in this case meant leading to the altar, or rather to the Registry Office, Miss Bella Blackall, music-hall singer and step dancer.
It was unquestionably a case of love at first sight. The girl was barely seventeen, and her girlishness attracted him quite as much as her beauty, which was exceptional. There was nothing meretricious about it, for as yet she owed nothing to art—brown hair, warm lips, soft blue eyes, and a complexion like the leaf of a white rose—a woman blossom. Then, too, she was a happy creature, full of life and happiness and bubbling over with childish merriment—no one could help liking her, he told himself, but it was something warmer than that. What makes the difference between liking and love? It is so little and yet so much. There was an air of refinement about her, too, which to his fancy seemed to protest against the vulgarities of her surroundings. He thought he could discern the stuff that meant an actress in her, and prophesied that she would before long be playing Juliet at the Haymarket. He was still at the age when the habit is to discover geniuses in unlikely places, especially when the women are pretty. He raved about her when he adjourned with his companions to the bar, and they chaffed him a good deal to his face and sneered at him behind his back. He was there the next night, and the night, after and by-and-by he managed to get introduced to her.
She was prettier off the stage than on, and her manner was charming, and her voice delicious with its racy accent.
She was an American, and had been in London only a few months; and he was duly taken to a second-rate lodging in a side street near the Waterloo Road, and presented to "Ma,"—a black satined and beaded type of the race. There was also a sister, whom, truth to tell, he objected to more than her maternal relative, for she was distinctly professional, not to say loud, and the little mannerisms which were so taking in his inamorata were very much the reverse in Miss Saidie Blackall.
Still, he told himself, he was not going to marry the whole family; which might be true in a sense and yet might not mean the entire independence it implied. Bella's relations must, if he made her his wife, mean more or less to him.
However, youth is sanguine, and Jack Chetwynd did not look too closely at the thorns which hedged his dainty rose-bud round. She at least was all he could wish her to be—unsophisticated as a child, and pure and good at heart.
After a month's acquaintance it began to be understood that he was engaged to her. "Ma" wept copious tears, and reckoned her Bella was a lucky girl to get such an "elegant" husband; and Saidie wished him happiness in a voice like a corn-crake, and declared that her sister was "just the sweetest and best girl out of N'York," which she was; "and born to lead a private life," which she wasn't.
Bella herself had very little to say. She blushed rosily when Jack made fervent love to her; acquiesced confusedly when he told her she must give up the music-hall stage, and seemed to take happily to the idea of a quiet, uneventful life as Mrs. Jack Chetwynd.
They took a small house in Camberwell New Road. Jack put up a brass plate with his name on it, and M.D. in imposing letters, and invested in a telephone for the accommodation of night callers; and Bella began to busy herself about the furnishing.
That was a delightful time. The little bride elect was so excited and eager, and showed herself wonderfully capable, and with quite a pretty taste in draping and ornamenting; but there was a terrible hole in Jack's purse: chairs and tables seemed to cost a mint of money; and the young man sighed and hoped fervently that it would not be long before patients appeared, or he would be obliged to say No to his darling when she turned her appealing eyes upon him and begged him to give her money for that "duck of a screen," or something else that was from her point of view the most extraordinary bargain, but which, Jack reflected, privately, they could very well have done without.
He was giving up a certainty in settling in Camberwell, for as House Surgeon at St. Mark's his income was assured; but then as a married man he could no longer have lived at the hospital, and "one must risk something" said Jack, hopefully.
They were married in May, just three months from that eventful night when our hero first saw pretty Bella Blackall, on the boards at the "Band Box," and Mrs. John Chetwynd was altogether so sweet and winsome in her simple white gown, that Saidie was right when she hilariously remarked that Jack might well be forgiven for falling in love with her "all over again."
The wedding was just as quiet as it could be, for Jack did not care to invite any of his friends. "Ma" and Saidie were altogether too impossible; and unfortunately no one seemed to mind whether he did or not. There was one unpleasantness connected with the day which Chetwynd felt Bella might have had tact enough to avoid. Two or three of Saidie's friends, in light and eminently professional attire, were of the party, the women a good deal worse than the men; and they all returned together to Holly Street, where a meal had been prepared in the front parlours, the landlady having generously placed them at the disposal of her lodgers for the occasion. There was a good deal of banter and side jokes were bandied about from one to another; which was galling to young Chetwynd, and made him devoutly thankful that none of his own companions and friends were present. When at last Bella rose from the table to change her gown for the pale grey he himself had chosen, with the big hat and nodding plumes in which she had looked such a dainty little mortal, he pushed his chair back with a look of disgust on his face and left them to talk amongst themselves.
Saidie was distributing small pieces of wedding cake, laughing and screaming at the top of her voice.
"Saikes, man! you are not to eat it. Put it under your pillow and as sure as I'm a Yank you'll see your intended," she cried. And then followed an amount of vulgar chaff and coarse pleasantry which caused the "happy man" to set his teeth hard and register a vow at the bottom of his heart that this should be the last occasion on which his wife should associate with her sister's friends.
And then Bella came tripping down the narrow staircase, her cheeks warm with a pale pink colour that made her inexpressibly lovely; and the carriage which Mrs. Blackall had insisted upon ordering to take the young couple to the station was at the door, and in the bustle that ensued Jack lost sight of all annoyances and remembered only that he had married the girl he loved and that he was the happiest fellow in the universe; and amid a shower of rice and a white satin slipper (one of Saidie's), which fell right into Bella's lap; the last farewell was spoken, and they drove away.
"Only to Brighton!" cried Nina Nankin, the celebrity famed for the height to which she could raise one leg while standing upon the other. "What a mean chap! He might have forked out enough for a trip to Paris, I should have thought."
"It wouldn't satisfy me," returned Saidie, turning up her nose disdainfully; "but he isn't my style, anyway."
"Bit of a prig, eh?"
"I do detest a man who fancies himself a head and shoulders above the rest of his kind," said that young lady vehemently; "you'll generally find out he don't amount to a row of pins. My! ain't I glad I'm not going to live with him. I would as lief go to Bible-class every day of the week. I'll bet my bottom dollar Bella'll see the mistake she's made before she's many weeks older. There's a chip of the old block about that young woman, for all her baby ways and her innocent know-nothing. He'll be a spry man, will Dr. Chetwynd, to come up to her. It'll take him all he knows to get ahead, you bet".
Saidie lay back in the chair and laughed till the tears ran down her cheeks.
It was not long before Dr. Chetwynd's eyes were fully open to the mistake he had made and that he realised the fact that you cannot fashion a Dresden vase out of earthenware, and though pinchbeck may pass muster for gold, it does not make it the real article.
At first Bella did try her "level best" as Saidie put it, to be all that Jack required of her. She took his lecturings humbly, held her peace when he scolded her (and I am afraid he constantly did), and acknowledged in the depths of her shallow little mind that she fell far short of what his wife should be. But as time went on she grew less solicitous about pleasing him. His standard was an almost impossible one to the very second-rate little American girl, to whom the atmosphere of the "Halls" was far more congenial than the humdrum, quiet life she led in the Camberwell New Road, and she slipped back little by little into the mire out of which he had raised her.
"I can never learn to be what he wants me to," she said a little pathetically to Saidie—"It is like standing on tiptoe all the time trying to reach up to his standard. I'm sick of it. If he loved me well enough to marry me, the same love ought to be strong enough to make him contented with me. After all, I'm the same Bella now that I was then."
A word of advice at this juncture might have quieted the poor little wife, and brought her back into safe paths, for she really loved Jack in her heart; but Saidie was not the person to give it. Privately she considered her sister a fool to have put up with this ridiculous nonsense of her husband's as long as she had done; and the line of argument she took was about the worst she could have adopted for the happiness and peace of the Camberwell household.
She was a good deal older than Bella, and the girl had been wont to rely upon her in a great measure, and to look up to her as a practical, sensible person, which Bella was quite ready to admit she herself was very far from being; so now, when Saidie spoke in a resolute, determined way, she listened meekly, if she did not in so many words acquiesce in the wisdom and justice of what she said.
"As far as I can see, you don't get a bit of fun and happiness out of your life," remarked Saidie, critically examining her features in the glass. "What did you marry him for, I should like to know? You might as well be Bella Blackall, on the boards again, and free, as the wife of a stingy fellow like that."
"Oh! Saidie, he doesn't grudge me anything." The young wife felt a little compunction in her heart.
"Yes he does." Saidie turned round and faced her sister. "He don't like you to enjoy yourself, not a little bit. He would keep you wrapped up in cotton wool if he could, and if you don't make a stand now, once and for all, and let him see you have a mind of your own and intend to do as you like, you'll regret it to the last day of your life. Who is he, anyway? I guess our family's as good, if we knew anything about them, which we don't, worse luck. Just you give him back his own sauce, Bella, and next time he finds fault with you, laugh in his face and tell him he has got to put up with what he finds, for it ain't likely you can alter your nature to suit his high mightiness. Pitch on a thing or two he does which you don't like, and give him a sermon as long as your arm. You see; he will come off his pedestal. Sakes alive! he ought to have me to deal with; I bet I'd teach him a thing or two."
And then Saidie whipped herself off to the "Rivolette," where she sang a doubtful song and displayed her finely turned limbs in a style that would have disgusted her brother-in-law, if he had been there to see.
But music halls were not to his liking under any circumstances. He had never really cared for them, even in his bachelor days, and now he would have cut his right hand off rather than be seen with his young wife beside him, at such resorts.
Then, too, Dr. Chetwynd felt that it behoved him to be circumspect in all his actions, for his practice was steadily increasing and he was becoming popular, and had serious thoughts of migrating westward. It was a constant source of vexation to him that Bella was not liked as much as her handsome, clever husband, and he began to be painfully alive to the fact that she could not have been received in certain houses whose doors would have been gradually opened to him. In a social sense his wife was a failure, and with a sigh he realised that it was almost an impossibility to show her where the fault lay; he could not always be at her elbow to guard against little solecisms of manner and speech which he knew must jar and grate on others even more than on himself.
It went terribly against the grain, for he loved her none the less that his eyes were not blinded to her shortcomings. She was still the same winsome girl he had made his own; large-hearted, gentle and affectionate, but—and he sighed impatiently, for that something lacking was for ever pulling him back and standing in the way of his own social advancement.
He became less demonstrative, less congenial, and his practice made huge demands upon his time, and left but scant opportunity for pleasure-seeking. Lines traced themselves upon his brow and lurked at the corners of his mouth; he aged rapidly, and began to look like an elderly man while Bella was still little more than a girl.
On the night of Mrs. Chetwynd's return from the maternal roof (for Mrs. Blackall still lived near the Waterloo Road, and her elder daughter continued to make her home with her), she found her husband, a good deal to her surprise, seated in the drawing-room, gay with flowers and crowded with knick-nacks of every description. He had in his hand a book which he flung down with an annoyed gesture as his wife opened the door.
It was perhaps no worse than others of its type, but it had not an honest moral tone and was not therefore, John Chetwynd considered, a desirable work for his young wife's perusal.
"Have you read this?" he asked.
"No; it is one of Saidie's. Is it interesting?"
John Chetwynd's answer was to hurl the volume under the grate with an angry word.
"Why did you do that? I want to read it."
"I will not allow you to sully your mind with such filth. It only goes to prove what I have so often told you, that your sister is not a proper associate for any young woman. A book of that description—faugh!"
Bella picked up the offending volume and looked ruefully at its battered condition. "I should have supposed that as a married woman I might read anything," she said with an assumption of dignity.
"Why should you be less pure because you have a husband, my child? Don't run away with any such notion."
"Well, I will read it and give you my opinion of it."
"You will do no such thing. I forbid it, Bella."
"In a matter like this I shall judge for myself." Her cheeks were scarlet, and she kept her eyes downbent.
"I will not—"
It was the first time in their married life that she had defied him, and he looked at her in utter astonishment.
"Yes," she cried, turning on him like a small fury, with the book tightly held in both hands; "I'm not a child to be dictated to and ordered to do this and that. I'm perfectly well able to act for myself and I intend to do so now and always. I'm sick of your eternal fault-finding, and the sooner you know it the better. If it's not one thing it's another. Nothing I do is right and I'm about tired of it."
John Chetwynd sat perfectly silent under this tirade. He was a shrewd man, and he knew that Bella had been spending the evening with her own people, and jumped at once to the conclusion that in defying him she was acting by their advice, and his brow grew black and lowering.
Then he looked up at Bella, who, a little ashamed of her vehemence, was slowly unbuttoning her gloves, having laid aside the unlucky cause of the battle royal.
"My wife," he said kindly, "if you will not act on my advice, let me beg of you to think twice before accepting that of others, since I at least may be credited with having your real good at heart."
"And you think that—you mean to imply that—"
"That your sister has her own ends to serve? Undoubtedly I do."
"You are all wrong—all wrong." But the tell-tale blushes on Bella's face showed him plainly enough that he had been right in his conjecture, and had to thank his wife's relatives for her rebellion and newly developed obstinacy and resentment.
"Now, Bella, from to-night I cannot allow you to go to Holly Street: stay," as Bella would have spoken, "you may see your mother here when you please, but you must let your sister fully understand that she will not be welcome. Something surely is due to me as your husband, and that there is no great amount of sympathy between you and Saidie you have said repeatedly; therefore I am asking no great sacrifice of you. Do you hear me, Bella?"
"Yes, I hear."
"And you will respect my wishes in the matter?"
"I don't know," she spoke uncertainly.
She was not fond of her sister, as he had said; certainly not sufficiently fond of her to allow her to come between herself and Jack; and yet she felt that it would be unwise and undignified if she were to give in and refuse Saidie admission to their house. She had just declared that she would stand no coercion; and after all, what had poor Saidie done?
"I don't think you have any right to keep my people away," she said at last, sullenly. "This is my house as well as yours, remember."
"I am not going to argue over it, my dear girl." Dr. Chetwynd rose determinedly from his chair with an expression on his face which his wife had learned to know and dread. "I forbid you to ask your sister here again. I am sorry to have to speak so decidedly; but your conduct leaves me no alternative."
And he walked quickly across the floor and the next moment the door closed upon him.
"I don't care what he says. I won't be ordered about," flashed out Bella, all that was worst in her nature roused by Jack's resolution. "Saidie is quite right; if I don't put my foot down I shall soon be nothing better than a white slave."
"Putting her foot down," certainly had one effect, namely, that of making life anything but a bed of roses for the unfortunate doctor.
Never had Bella shown herself so unamiable and unloveable as during the next two days. She hardly addressed her husband and she flounced about the room and tossed her head and hummed music-hall ditties (which she had caught from Saidie) under her breath, and altogether comported herself in the most exasperating fashion.
John Chetwynd hardly knew how to act towards her. If he pretended to be unconscious of anything unusual, it would probably provoke her to stronger measures, and yet he was very loth to stir up strife between them, and leant towards the hope that this spirit of fractiousness would die out in time and that Bella would become her loving, tractable self again. But he reckoned without his host.
Saidie, who was duly apprised of the condition of things, urged upon her sister to stick to her guns and on no account to yield an inch, and although desperately miserable, Bella took her advice.
Returning from seeing a patient a day or two later, Dr. Chetwynd ran into the arms of an old friend, a man he had not seen since his marriage.
"Why, Meynell, old chap, where have you dropped from?" he exclaimed, grasping the outstretched hand.
"Where have you hidden yourself? is more to the purpose. No one ever sees you nowadays."
Dr. Chetwynd smiled.
"Perhaps you do not know I am a married man," he said. "Which accounts for a good deal of my time, and as a matter of fact I have but little leisure, for my practice keeps me always at the grindstone."
"Doing pretty well?"
"Yes, I think I may say I am. Uphill work, of course, but still—"
"And where are you living?"
"Close by here," he replied the next moment. "Come home with me now, if you have nothing better to do, and allow me to present my wife to you."
And they walked on side by side.
"You have dined? I am afraid—"
"My dear fellow, I have this moment left the club."
Dr. Chetwynd put his latch-key into the lock and ushered his friend upstairs to his wife's pretty drawing-room.
But Bella was not there; and finding that she was not in her bedroom, or in fact in the house at all, he rang the bell and questioned the maid as to when her mistress had gone out and if she knew when she would be likely to return.
"No, sir, that I'm sure I don't. My mistress never said anything to me."
"Well, she is not likely to be away long," remarked the doctor philosophically. "Have a cigar, Meynell."
"Thanks, no. Your wife spoils you, Jack, if she allows you to smoke in her pretty little room."
"Oh, she will not mind; but we will go down to my den shortly. You see, Meynell, I'm a bit of a Bohemian, although I like to preserve the customs of the civilised world all the same, to a certain extent. But my little wife—well—she—she—I daresay you may have heard she was on the stage before I married her."
"No, indeed I hadn't." Gus Meynell looked a good deal surprised.
"Well, I mention it because perhaps she is not quite like the ordinary run of women."
Meynell could no longer be blind to the want of ease in his host's manner, and in his turn became proportionately uncomfortable.
"Hang it all! A man marries to please himself," he said awkwardly.
"She is just the dearest girl in the world," continued Jack Chetwynd, with warmth. "I'm not only fond of her, but proud of her too, but you know—"
"I perfectly understand what you mean. To my idea unconventionality is the most charming thing a woman can have. I hate the bride manufactured out of the schoolgirl. The oppressive resemblance between most of our friends' wives is one of the safe-guards of society."
"What is that?" Chetwynd broke in upon his friend's speech with a nervous start and exclamation. The hall door opened with a loud bang and a woman's noisy laugh could be heard as a pelter of high-heeled shoes came along the tesselated hall and then the vision of a pretty girl at the doorway, accompanied by a man and two women.
"Hallo, Jack! You are home before me, then."
"Bella, my dear, I must introduce you to an old friend of mine: Meynell, my wife."
Bella bowed a little coldly.
"My sister, Mr. Meynell," she said, seeing that the doctor was looking straight over Saidie's head. "My sister, Miss Saidie Blackall; daresay you have seen her from the front before." Then, looking towards the open door, "Come in, come in. Jack, I think you have already met Mr. and Mrs. Doss."
Chetwynd looked terribly annoyed; but there was no choice left for him but to extend his hand and mutter something to the effect that he had not had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of his wife's friends before.
"Glad to know you, sir—not one of us—not in the profession, I think?"
"No—er—no," responded Chetwynd feebly.
"And the 'appier you, take my tip for it. The wear and tear of the 'alls, sir, no one but a pro can estimate."
Here his wife, an over-dressed, showy individual a shade more of a cockney than himself, interposed with a coarse laugh.
"Get along, you jolly old humbug, you! You couldn't live away from them—could he, dear?" addressing Saidie, who was maliciously enjoying the effect that their sudden entrance had produced upon her brother-in-law and his friend.
"Ah; you think so, d'ye? that's all you know about it. Give me a nice quiet 'public' with a hold-established trade and me and the missis cosy-like in the private bar; that's the life for yours truly when he can take the farewell ben."
"How soon are your friends going to take their leave, Bella?" asked Chetwynd in an undertone to his wife.
But Bella turned her back upon him without deigning to give him so much as a word.
"I think I had the pleasure of seeing you perform the other night, Mrs. Doss," remarked Mr. Meynell.
"Don't she look a figger in tights? now tell the truth and shame the old gentleman: a female as fat as my wife ought not never to leave off her petticoats, that's what I says."
"Samuel, fie! You make me blush." His wife coughed discreetly behind her hand. "It's a new departure, I grant; but I've had a good many compliments paid me since I took to the nautical style, I can tell you."
"Gammon!" grunted Mr. Doss, with a dissatisfied air. "Did you see her as the 'Rabbit Queen,' sir? My! the patience that woman displayed in the training of them little furry animals would have astonished you. Struck the line, sir, out of her own 'ed! 'I'm going, Samuel,' she said, 'to supply a want.' 'You!' I says. 'Me!' says she; 'they have got their serpents,' she says, 'and their ducks, and their pigeons and their kangaroos,' 'What's their void?' said I. 'Rabbits,' she says, and there you are!"
"Saidie, why don't you sit down? We will have some supper directly," said Bella.
"Oh, my dear, I'm dying for a drink!" cried Miss Blackall, flinging herself in an attitude more easy than graceful into an armchair.
Bella opened the chiffonier and produced glasses and a spirit stand.
"Saves the trouble of ringing for the servant," she said archly to Meynell.
Chetwynd could fairly have groaned; and when his wife put the climax upon everything by drinking out of her sister's glass he could contain himself no longer. "I never saw you touch spirits before," he said, determined that his friend should know that his wife was an abstemious woman.
"Ah," she said lightly, "there are lots of things you never saw me do, Jack, which I am capable of, all the same." Whereupon Saidie burst out laughing as at some prodigious joke.
"Good for you, Bella! All right, dear! I'm not one to tell tales out of school."
"Are you a married man, sir, may I ask?"
Doss put his thumbs under his arm-pits and looked scrutinisingly into Meynell's face. "I should say not."
"No, I'm a bachelor, and likely to continue one."
"Well," remarked Mrs. Doss sentimentally, "I don't know nothing jollier than courting time. Such little ordinary things seem sweet like, then."
"Hark at the old girl," chuckled Doss.
"You can't kidd me, Doss. You know it, too. I think of our own billing and cooing, sir—his and mine. I was not a draw in those days; the last turn in the bill at the "Middlesex" was about my mark, and Doss, he hadn't risen, neither. We used to walk 'ome that lovin' up Drury Lane, and Doss, he would say, 'fish, Tilda,' and I would say, 'if you could fancy a bit, Sam.' And in he would pop for two penny slices and chips. And eat—lor', how we did eat. When I look back on that fish, sometimes I could cry. Money and fame ain't everythink in the world, believe me, they ain't. You may be 'appy in your 'umbleness."
All this was gall and wormwood to John Chetwynd, and he approached his wife again and whispered.
"It is getting late—are these people never going?"
"Not until they have had supper, most certainly."
"And do you expect my friend to join you?"
"You can please yourselves. I don't think either of you would be much acquisition in your present frame of mind. Mrs. Doss, somebody interrupted you; you were talking about a kindred soul and an attic. Money and position are not everything you were saying. I agree with you. Give me an easy life and no stilts."
John Chetwynd could stand it no longer.
"Madam," he said, addressing Mrs. Doss; "I must really apologise, but Mr. Meynell and I have important business to discuss, and—"
Mrs. Doss might be vulgar, but she was not obtuse. Seeing she and her husband were not wanted, she sprang to her feet.
"Sam—right about face; we must be off 'ome."
"Nonsense, you must have some supper before you go," said Bella.
"Oh, I think we will be toddling, thanks. Are you coming with us, Saidie?"
"No, I'm not," returned that young woman, sturdily. "Since this house is the joint property of Dr. John Chetwynd and his wife, I reckon I shall stop awhile. Bella, you are not going to turn me out, are you?"
"Not I. I can't imagine what Jack means by behaving so inhospitably. I hope you will all stop."
But Mr. Doss, exceedingly affronted at the slight offered him, had tucked his wife's arm under his own and was already at the door.
"Good night, gents. My best respects to you, Mrs. Chetwynd, but we knows who wants us and who doesn't."
Bella turned indignantly to her husband. "And you call yourself a gentleman!" she cried.
"For heaven's sake remember we are not alone!" whispered Chetwynd in distress, "you have distinguished yourself quite enough."
"I don't care—you have insulted my friends."
"Yes, and as good as you or I. What did you marry me for if you are ashamed of my connections?"
"I did not marry the whole variety stage."
At this juncture Meynell rose.
"Awfully sorry, but I must be going old chap, promised to look in again at the club." And Chetwynd did not press him to stay. Humiliated to the last degree, he followed him downstairs.
"I have given you a very enjoyable evening, Meynell," he said bitterly.
"My dear fellow, what ought I to say?"
"I'm damned if I know; I've never visited a friend who made such a marriage as mine. I should have pitied the poor devil profoundly if I had. Good night, old chap."
The hall door shut, and Chetwynd went slowly, sorrowfully back to the drawing-room.
"I hope you have disgraced me enough to-night," he said stormily.
"Where's the disgrace, I should like to know, in inviting a couple of old friends into one's own house?" demanded Saidie aggressively.
Chetwynd promptly turned his back upon her. "I am addressing my wife," he said frigidly.
"Yes; I would like to see you talking to me in that tone of voice," returned his sister-in-law.
"Bella, what have you to say for yourself? Have you no self-respect whatever, and no consideration for your husband's position?"
"Oh, I'm sick of hearing about your position," said his wife pettishly. "In the days when you had not any, we were a lot happier. You didn't turn up your nose at my associates when I was on the boards at the Band Box! Everything was charming. You laughed then at what you now call "vulgar," and you thought it good fun, and you would have taken the property man to your heart if I had told you he was my brother. But now I am your wife it is quite a different tale. My friends are too common for you to mix with. By the Lord! I'm not at all certain whether you think me good enough for you, myself."
"Oh! Yes, it is easy enough to look broken-hearted. How dare you turn my friends out of the place? It is you, not I, who have brought disgrace upon us by introducing a stranger here and mortifying and humbling me in front of him. If the Dosses are good enough for me, they are good enough for my husband."
"My dear wife, they are not good enough for you. There is the whole truth. Why are you so altered? Why will you not listen to me and take my advice as you used to do? Have you forgotten how happy we once were with each other?"
There was a little break in his voice, but Bella was too incensed to heed it.
"You mean that you did not abuse me when you had it entirely your own way! Wonderful! Perhaps you did not know that you bored me to death the whole time. And now you have got it at last. I'm tired of your cheap gentility and Brummagem pretensions; sick to death of hearing that nothing I have been used to is "proper." If my world is a second rate one, show me a better. Why don't you introduce me to your own, if it is so vastly superior? Have you done it? Not you! You bury me in this poky little hole and deliberately insult the only friends I have who take the trouble to come and look me up."
Chetwynd passed his hand over his brow dreamily. The whole thing was such a shock to him, he could hardly realise it.
"I hope you are saying much more than you mean," he said at last. "God knows if you have been dull I never suspected it."
"Because I have not grumbled—because I smiled instead of yawning, and laughed when I felt like crying, you never suspected it! Did you ever ask yourself what amusements you were providing for me while you were out all day? Not for a moment. Men like you never do, when they marry girls like us. You fancy you have been very noble and chivalrous and plucky; but what you have really done is to get what you want and leave me to pay the cost. Once your wife, there was an end of the matter so far as you were concerned, and to marry you was to complete my destiny! I was to sit all day long staring at the four walls, and if I happened to feel lonely, take a look at my marriage certificate to cheer myself up! well—" she drew a long breath and suddenly left her seat and came quite close to him. "Well," she said again, "I am not satisfied—do you hear? It may be the height of ingratitude, but it is a fact all the same. I am not content and I have made up my mind (you may as well know it now as at any other time) to go back to the stage. The life suits me and I am going to do it." And then she paused.
If she expected her husband to storm and rave, insist and expostulate, she was disappointed. He sat dumb and voiceless, his face buried in his hands, and he did not even look up when, with the air of a victor, Bella marched across the floor, beckoned to her sister, and went up to her own room.
"I never gave you credit for such real grit," began Saidie, admiringly; but to her surprise Bella flung herself on the bed and burst into uncontrollable sobs.
"I wish I was dead," she cried. "I am a beast—an ungrateful beast; and I have said what is not true. I have loved him always—always."
"Well, you can't go back from your word now," said Saidie; "You said you would do it."
"Yes, and I will." Bella sat up and dried her eyes. "I will go back to the stage; but I did not say I would stop there, and I shan't if I'm not happy, and if it makes a break between me and Jack."
"Don't talk like that," cried Saidie disdainfully, "You make me tired!"
After this there was a lull; John Chetwynd observed that he had need of more forbearance towards his wilful wife, and tried to exercise it. He told himself that there was love enough and to spare; that with the deep affection he was convinced Bella bore him there was nothing really to fear. She was young and ill-advised, and it behoved him to keep a careful watch over her, and above all things not to draw too tight a rein. As for her threat of returning to her old life and its meretricious attractions, after the first shock he dismissed it from his mind. She had not really intended doing anything of the sort; such a step was impossible. It was a wild idea, born of the excitement of the moment, and unworthy of a further thought, and so he put it aside. Had not the question been argued and threshed out once and for all soon after marriage? He recalled with a curious lump in his throat how she had put her hands into his and said; "Your wishes are my wishes, now and always, Jack." And there had been an end of the matter.
"I will wait until the atmosphere has cleared a little," said John Chetwynd, reflectively, "and then I'll tell her that at the end of the year we will leave Camberwell and take a larger house in a better neighbourhood."
Thus, out of his love for his young wife, he made excuses for her and took her back to his heart again.
And Bella? Jack's conduct puzzled her. She had fully expected that he would be exceedingly angry and displeased, and in her own mind had prepared certain little set phrases which were to impress him with the fact that she intended to do as she pleased and would not allow herself to be dictated to or coerced. And thus it was that on the following morning she came down to breakfast with it must be confessed a forbidding look upon her pretty face and a defiant air about her bearing. But all her newly formed resolves were put to flight when Jack came towards her and deliberately kissed the lips which she vainly tried to withhold.
"Bella, you and I love each other too well to quarrel," he said kindly; "let us forget all that happened last night."
What could she say? In spite of herself she felt that she was yielding; and though she did not meet him half way as he had fondly anticipated she would do, still she allowed him to draw her into his arms and did not repulse his caresses.
She might have shown a more generous spirit, it is true. Since he had tacitly acknowledged that they had been mutually to blame, she might have offered something in the shape of an expression of regret; but peace in any shape and at any cost Chetwynd felt he must have.
But Bella had by no means surrendered her determination of going on the stage again, and was already with Saidie's assistance on the look-out for an engagement. It would be difficult to define her feelings towards her husband at this juncture. That there was still a veiled hostility John Chetwynd could not fail to see; but in his newly formed resolution to be patient and forbearing, he simply ignored it and diligently cultivated a kindly, gentle bearing, interesting himself in her little domesticities and the general routine of her everyday life. This amused Bella intensely, and although she would not have acknowledged it, perhaps touched her a little.
Why had he not done this before? And having been careless and indifferent once, why was he not so still? For this is how it was with Bella; she was learning to compare her husband with her lover, and be very sure the former suffered by comparison.
"Les absents ont toujours tort" and Saidie found so much to say and said it in such a contemptuous, scornful way to Howard Astley, about her sister's husband, that perhaps there was some little excuse for the young man's impression that Bella Chetwynd would be vastly better off under his protection than amid her present surroundings.
"The man was a brute," Miss Blackall declared.
Poor John Chetwynd! Not only was he far removed from being a brute, but he was also miles above the man whom Saidie delighted to honour, and whose addresses and attentions she thrust upon Bella at every turn.
At first, to do her justice, the young wife shrank back dismayed. Beyond his handsome face, Howard Astley had but little to recommend him, and after listening to his commonplaces and enduring the fulsome compliments it pleased him to pay, she would hurry home with tingling pulses and a shamed heart to Jack—Jack, who had once been all the world to her.
Once! Oh, and such a little time ago! After all, how little she had to complain of in the man who had made her his wife!
He was "uninteresting," wrapped up in his profession, "dull." That was all, but it meant a very great deal to Bella. It meant everything; and the sluggish conscience which just at first had a word or two to say in his defence, gradually went to sleep again and troubled its owner no longer.
Why should she not enjoy herself as other women of her age did?
Why, indeed? She did not intend to do anything that was really wrong, or even unbecoming in her position as Jack's wife; but still she was resolved on extracting the utmost amount of amusement possible out of life, and thus with slow, subtle drifting and unconscious eyes—eyes that would not see their peril—she reached the point where temptation steps in.
It was his wealth that dazzled her.
She did so long to be rich. John was apt to be mean about trifles, but this man—the man she allowed to make love to her—was a very prodigal in his liberality. He spent money like water. He rarely came empty-handed. Probably he knew the manner of woman he had to deal with, and Bella hid the trinkets away with a guilty blush; they were not much good to her after all, for she did not dare to wear them, lest Jack should ask awkward questions concerning the source from whence they came.
"I never can do anything I like," said Bella with a pout.
And then there came a night when John Chetwynd found the pretty drawing-room deserted and his wife flown.
The hours went by and as she did not return he grew seriously uneasy.
Where could she be? When eleven o'clock struck he put on his hat and, terribly though it went against the grain, started for Holly Street—she might be at her mother's.
No, Mrs. Blackall had not seen her, she said; and she looked searchingly into her son-in-law's face as she spoke. "Did Dr. Chetwynd really not know where she was?"
"No, madam, or assuredly I should not be here."
The doctor spoke with some heat; that there was something behind all this was very evident, and he naturally objected to being made a fool of.
"You don't know, then, that Bella is on at the Tivoli?"
John Chetwynd sat down suddenly. This news literally took his breath away.
It was not possible that Bella had taken such a step without his knowledge or sanction. He looked up with such hopeless misery written in his white face that Mrs. Blackall could not help a certain pity for her son-in-law, although in her opinion he had brought the thing upon himself, and the very compassion she felt for his suffering had the effect of making her more harsh and unsympathetic.
"What did you expect?" she asked. "As a man of the world could you really imagine that a young, high-spirited girl like my daughter would content herself with the life you tried to chain her down to? She had had just taste enough of the admiration and applause of a public life to get a liking for it, and in an instant it is all taken away and nothing given her in its place. It ain't commonsense, it—"
"It may not be," said Chetwynd wearily; "but there are women nevertheless to whom home and husband are all-sufficient and who ask for nothing beyond."
"You made a great mistake, Mr. Chetwynd, when you—"
"I did," he interrupted quickly; "you are perfectly right; I did when I believed my wife and your daughter to be one of these. Well," and he rose wearily, "she has put a barrier between us to-night that can never be broken down."
"Tut, tut, man; you have got your duty to do by her, and I'll take good care you do it. She is doing no wrong to join her profession again."
"Our ideas as to right and wrong probably differ. I am certainly not going to argue the point, nor do I wish to shirk what responsibility I took on my shoulders when I married. But if it is upon your advice she has acted in this matter, ask God to forgive you for the cruel wrong you have done us both!"
Then he picked up his hat and went out of the house. It was long past midnight when Bella returned; but late though it was, she knew by the lights in the drawing room that her husband was waiting up for her, and with an impatient sigh, determined to get her lecture over, she ran lightly up-stairs.
He was there, sitting in her own cosy armchair, and he looked round expectantly as the door opened.
"Well," she said nervously, stripping off her gloves, and avoiding meeting his stern, sad gaze. "I daresay you wonder where I have been and what has kept me so late; but, my dear old Jack, you will have to give up the bad habit of sitting up to all hours for me, for I'm likely to be late most nights now."
She paused for a reply, but none came. Her easy assurance staggered him; he could hardly believe that this self-composed, glib-spoken young woman had been at one time his diffident, shy little love. The unhappy man found it very hard to reconcile the two. "Why don't you speak?" she asked impatiently, facing him in a defiant manner; and as he looked up at her he noticed for the first time that she had grown older and had lost all at once—at least, so it seemed to him—the rounded, childish look from her sweet face and involuntarily a sigh broke from him.
"One would think I had committed a crime," cried she in disdain, and then, catching her skirts up, she broke into a step dance, humming a popular music-hall air.
"Stop—do you hear me?—this instant stop!" the devil in him burst out; he could restrain himself no longer.
"Woman! What are you made of?" he cried in a voice of thunder, and she, shrinking back a little, fell half frightened into a chair. He never could quite remember afterwards what he did say. He tried with rough eloquence, that might have moved a heart of stone, to show her what it was she was doing, to appeal to her better, nobler self, to her love for him; he implored and entreated her to give up this new life—for his sake.
He had nothing better to urge than that, poor fool! It weighed with her as just so much chaff. The time had gone by when his words would have touched her; they glided lightly over what she called her "heart" now and left no impression there.
And then he went on his knees beside her and prayed her to grant him this one boon; he poured out a flood of feverish words, hardly pausing to think; he tried to paint an alluring picture of their life in the future: they would leave Camberwell, he said; she should go where she liked if she would but listen to reason; it would ruin him in his profession, he pleaded, if she persisted in returning to the stage. As he talked the pretty face grew harder and older. Bella had made up her mind, and the man beside her had not the faintest power to sway her by his reproaches or entreaties.
And then he stumbled to his feet and stood waiting for his answer.
It came at last, clear and cold, falling like pellets of ice upon his impatient fervour.
"The thing is done now, and all the talking in the world will not alter it."
"And that is your last word to me—your husband?"
Finding she did not speak, he walked across the floor, turning at the door, hoping against hope, but she lay back as still as if she were dead.
When he had gone, Bella opened her eyes and held up her hand curiously. It was wet with—what?—tears.
Her eyes were bright and dry.
For a moment something of the old feeling swept over her.
Poor Jack! She half rose, then sank back again.
It was too late, she was thinking; as if it were ever too late to make amends, to atone, while we have still breath and life!
"It is all for the best, anyhow," she murmured after awhile, and when philosophy is well to the fore, love hides its diminished head.
Six months wore themselves away; six months in every day of which John Chetwynd lived a year, measured by the anxiety and misery it held for him. He could no longer delude himself into the belief that Bella loved him, for all her actions went to prove the contrary. But her end just once gained, there were no more bickerings and disputes—she even condescended to consider her husband's wishes, when they did not clash or interfere with her own. But night after night he sat alone with the hateful consciousness that the woman who bore his name was parading her charms to Dick, Tom and Harry; in fact, to anybody who chose to pay his shilling for the privilege of contemplating them. It was in moments such as these that the iron entered his soul and there was no escape from it; he must bear his burden as many a better man had borne it before him. And thus it was he buried himself in his profession, working with a will and vigour that astonished no one so much as himself. He was rapidly becoming a popular man. Through sheer good luck (as he really believed it to be) he had diagnosed one or two cases with an ease and accuracy which not only filled his purse beyond his utmost expectations, but helped him up the ladder of fame at an amazing rate. But when emboldened by success, and always remembering the fact that however wilful and oblivious she might be, she was still to all intents and purposes the wife of his bosom and equally interested with himself in all his undertakings, he recounted his triumphs and declared his intention of leaving Camberwell forthwith and settling in Camelot Square, Bella smiled, yet proved in no way elated at the intelligence.
"So, my dear, you can go as soon as you like and fix upon a house," he said.
Bella yawned and stretched her arms above her head.
"Oh, you will know much better than I what is required," she replied.
"Have you, then, no interest in our new home?" he asked, more hurt than he could well have expressed.
"Do you ever show the slightest interest in what concerns me?" she retorted.
He winced. "This is a mutual interest, surely, since we must occupy it together."
"Must?" she echoed dreamily.
"What do you mean?" he asked sharply.
"Nothing, except that 'must' is the word I have banished from my vocabulary," and she smiled at him—actually smiled, though she must have known she was stabbing him to the very heart.
He said no more; and indeed, words seemed to be useless.
So he chose the house himself,—one that could not fail to please Bella, he felt exultantly. She would be less than woman if she were not glad to exchange the second-rate little dwelling in the Camberwell New Road for the substantial residence, with its modern improvements and embellishments in such a neighbourhood as Camelot Square.
It was not perhaps a palace, but it was a very great deal more imposing than anything they had dreamt of in the early days of their married life, and yet John Chetwynd told himself with a sigh that he would gladly give up fame and prosperity to win back the old love-light in his wife's eyes.
And there are some among us who cannot love for so little—"Of man's love a thing apart." Perhaps John Chetwynd would have been a happier man had he been one of these.
Even the task of furnishing fell to the doctor's lot. Bella did not refuse, nor did she object to accompany him on what he might have naturally supposed would be a congenial task for her, but she showed herself so indifferent throughout that, after an effort or two to make her contented, he gave it up, and it ended in his carrying the whole thing through himself.
And he was not sorry when at length it was completed. On the morrow he would bring Bella to her new home.
He stood under the bright lighted chandelier and looked round him. The carpet was thick and soft. Bella liked carpets her feet could sink into, she had once said. There by the fireplace was the most luxurious easy chair he could purchase, upholstered in her favourite colour, pale blue. He pictured the dainty figure nestling in it, and a little glow stirred at his heart. After all, she was his wife, his fondly loved wife, and who could tell? Perhaps with the old life, old feuds would die out and with the new, joy and happiness dawn for them both once more.
John Chetwynd was not a religious man; he rarely went to church and he never prayed; but now he covered his face with his hands, and his lips moved inaudibly.
He was asking for a blessing on the new life, and there was something like a tear in his eye and a suspicious huskiness in his voice as he called out "Come in" in answer to a hurried knock at the door and flung open the lid of a grand piano which was littered with music and songs, running his hands over the keys and smiling a little.
The piano was to be a surprise: Bella knew nothing about it.
Perhaps it would keep her more at home, for she was very fond of music.
It had cost more than he ought to have paid, but still it was for her.
"Come in, Mrs. Brewer—what is it? I'm just off. You will have us both here to-morrow at this time for good and all, I hope."
"Indeed, sir, and I'm glad to hear it. Things do look most beautiful, and no mistake."
The good soul shambled across the floor and held out a letter wrapped in the corner of her apron.
"A boy brought it, sir, half an hour ago, but I clean forgot it, and that's a fact."
"Never mind. It is probably of no importance."
But it was. By-and-by his eyes fell on it as it lay where Mrs. Brewer's hard-working fingers had placed it, on the edge of a little gaily-lined work table destined to hold Bella Chetwynd's cotton and needles, and to his astonishment he observed it was in his wife's handwriting.
Ah! written just before she started for the——.He caught it up and tore it open. The next instant it fluttered from his hold.
For fully ten seconds John Chetwynd sat spell-bound, and then he broke into a laugh—mirthless, hollow.
"And I prayed to my God to send his blessing on—our—future," he said in a dull, mechanical manner. "Well, the last act is played out and they may ring the curtain down. From to-night I believe neither in woman, Heaven, nor hell, save that which each man makes for himself."
Bella had turned her shapely back on the apotheosis of respectability for a life of excitement and the protection of another man. Nobody was surprised but John himself.
Everybody had predicted it months ago. The only astonishing feature of the scandal was, that it had not occurred before.
The one other thing people found surprising was the callousness with which the injured husband took it.
It had always been believed that what love there was, was on his side, but now—
Well, it is indeed an ill wind that blows us no good. If notoriety was what John Chetwynd desired, he got it in full measure, well pressed down and brimming over; his waiting room was besieged, for many patients flocked there, wide eyed in scrutiny, martyrs to symptoms discovered or invented for the occasion.
Of course he would divorce her. And he did.
In due course he obtained his decree nisi, which later on was made absolute.
Bella's picture no longer stared him in the face from every hoarding, and the newspaper advertisements knew her no more. She had gone back to the States, and by-and-by was forgotten on this side the Atlantic.
Now and then he was disagreeably reminded of her existence.
Once in the Club a young fellow to whom Chetwynd was personally unknown stretched himself behind a newspaper and muttered, "Bella Blackall Wasn't that the name of Dr. Somebody's wife who ran away with another fellow?"
"Yes, Bella Blackall was my wife," John Chetwynd answered with unruffled equanimity, picking up the paper which the other had thrown down. "She used to be rather a clever dancer, too."
And he calmly perused the line which included her name among some well known American stars touring in the provinces.
"And he never turned a grizzled hair! I give you my word I felt more over the thing than he did," remarked Captain Hetherington afterwards; "without exception the most cold-blooded individual ever met."
But John Chetwynd was far from being this. He had felt his wife's desertion far too deeply to show his scars, nor was he a man to wear his heart upon his sleeve; but as time went by and the utter callousness of Bella's conduct came home to him, he realised to the full that she was unworthy of a single pang, and he became reconciled to the inevitable. His profession claimed every spare moment, and for a man ill at ease there is no specific like hard work. By-and-by as the years rolled on, another distraction presented itself. He became interested in one of his patients, the only daughter of the Duke of Huddersfield, Lady Ethel Claremont, and this interest blossomed into something stronger and warmer—something that at last he dignified by the name of love, though he was by no means without misgivings as to whether it could ever really lay claim to the title.
Certain it was that there was no more of the old exultation about his heart that had formed so large a part of his former courtship; there were no extravagances, no quickened pulses—rapture's warmth had yielded to the mildest of after-glows; but there was no reason that it should not prove as satisfactory in the long run. It is an open question whether the doctor, popular though he undoubtedly was, would have been considered an eligible suitor from the maternal point of view, had it not been that just about this time fortune elected to bestow another favour upon him; his career had reached its apex, and (again through sheer good luck, as John Chetwynd modestly declared) he was offered a baronetcy.
Now, every man is flattered and gratified that his merits should be recognised, and Chetwynd was no exception to the general rule, but there were a good many bitters mingled with the sweets, and the hidden thorn among the rose-leaves had a nasty trick of obtruding itself. This step in social advancement materially helped his cause with Lady Ethel, and the Duchess of Huddersfield deigned to smile graciously upon her future son-in-law.
Ethel Claremont was an excellent girl, precisely the type he ought to marry. Decorous, with an ease and repose about her manner that were eminently patrician, she would be even more admirable as a wife than as a fiancee, but he could have found it in him to wish that she were just a little less faultless, a little more "human," he would have said, only that the word has not a pleasant ring; yet it was not easy to substitute another unless it were "womanly."
"Pshaw!" he cried angrily, "who am I that I should be exacting, with such a past, such a history? and yet I am ready to quarrel with perfection, I who can never be grateful enough! A little wealth and the love of a charming woman—what more can I possibly desire? It is strange how soon one becomes accustomed to changes in life, and how quickly an emotion fades into a memory. If I could but feel as I felt when I was struggling along battling with the hundred and one difficulties which beset the path of a poor man, instead of having to remind myself perpetually what my emotions were then, there would be some excitement in the contrast. I—I wonder—what she is doing? Is she alive or is she dead? What does it matter? But at times the doubt will come whether—no, no; it is wicked—I was always good to her. I loved her, and she dishonoured me. The book is closed for ever, and I am weak when I reopen it."
Since the thing was to be, there was nothing to be gained by postponement. So decided the Duchess, and however fond of airing her own sentiments and securing her own way Lady Ethel might be, on ordinary occasions, for once she raised no objection. She was perfectly willing that her marriage with Sir John Chetwynd should take place at once. Perhaps in her home Lady Ethel was not quite the plastic lay figure she was wont to appear in public, and the Duchess had spoken to her most intimate and confidential friends of the approaching nuptials with almost a sigh of relief, and a whispered word.
"She has indeed been very difficult to manage, and really, though I am speaking of my own daughter, I never can quite understand Ethel; she is not like other girls. It will be a huge responsibility shifted from my shoulders when she is married."
And everybody had wondered what the girl had seen in Sir John, that he should have taken her fancy. To the outside world and to those who had not come within the immediate charm of his manner and bearing, it did offer food for speculation, and since his engagement he had grown greyer and stiffer and more professionally precise than ever.
But he suited Lady Ethel, or she fancied he did; which answered the purpose quite as well. She had always detested very young men; she liked a man whom she could look up to and lean upon, and certainly this she could do with perfect faith as regarded her fiance. Now Duchesses are no more exempt from the weary ills which weak flesh is heir to than their less favoured brothers and sisters, and in the early summer the Duchess began to complain of certain aches and pains and to bethink her that Sir John's advice might be worth following; so she drove over to Camelot Square and was shown into the waiting room with the rest of his patients. She had some little time to wait, and while the Duchess sat tapping her foot impatiently at the delay, Ethel looked round the spacious apartment and decided on certain improvements she would effect when she should preside over John's establishment.
And then the door was flung open, and Soames, the eminently correct footman, ushered them into his master's presence.
The Duchess advanced gushing a little.
"So good of you to see us so soon! I was positively timid at coming without an appointment, even with Ethel."
"It is you who are good, Duchess, to give me such an unexpected pleasure."
Sir John touched Ethel's cheek lightly with his lips and motioned his visitors to be seated.
"Now is not that a pretty speech from a professional man! Ah, you lovers, you are all alike, and when you are married—Ah! then you are all the same."
"What an accusation! I hope Ethel does not credit it, or I shall never be permitted an opportunity of refuting such a calumny."
"I know too well how highly Mamma thinks of you, John," said Ethel, prettily.
"Well, I admit it—I do admire you immensely—I admire your power, your position, your ability to make an income—a large income, sitting comfortably in an arm chair. And then there is such solidity in a doctor's profession—people are always ill."
"Mamma is ill herself," broke in Lady Ethel, "and that is why we have intruded to-day."
"I hope it is nothing serious, my dear Duchess."
"How sweet of you! Ah, I am a martyr! I have hay fever to such a distressing extent that I am positively ashamed to go into society."
Her daughter laughed.
"We were at the Opera last night, and Mamma's sneezes were most mal-a-propos. It was very embarrassing."
"Yes, I am convinced that Romeo glowered at me, and at church on Sunday it was such a charming sermon, so encouraging and tactful, I sneezed violently in the man's best moments. At my age I cannot consent to become a public infliction, yet I feel I am a nuisance."
"Mamma said, as soon as we got home—'I shall go and consult Sir John,'" cooed Ethel.
"And now you can cure me?" The Duchess looked anxiously into the grave face opposite.
"I have not the slightest doubt you will be entirely recovered in a few days at most," said Sir John reassuringly; "you have caught a severe cold."
"Nothing of the sort, I assure you. I have had colds before, and I know better."
"What, better than your doctor?" The stern face relaxed, and Sir John laughed.
"Well, better than my future son-in-law. Now I beg you not to be obstinate. Give me something potent—one of those drugs that work such instantaneous wonders."
"I fear they are not in the Pharmacopoeia."
"I don't think it is kind of you to discourage me."
"But if I make you well in a week, will not that satisfy your Grace?"
"I shall be radiant."
"I will write you a prescription."
"Thanks! What an invaluable husband you will make with all that knowledge at your finger ends! I need have no misgivings as to Ethel's health, and she has always been so subject to chills. The risk of entrusting one's daughter to an unobservant man is shocking, but to a physician! To have for one's daily companion a great and renowned doctor, what an advantage—what a security!"
"Really, mamma, to hear you talk one would suppose that I was an invalid, and I never remember to have suffered from anything worse than the measles."
"When Ethel comes to me she will be guarded as sacredly as a girl can be."
Sir John smiled kindly at his betrothed.
"I have made but a few protestations of what I feel for her; perhaps I am more reserved than I should be, but I am no longer a boy. I doubt whether I ever was very romantic, even in my younger days, but I think that she and I understand each other, and if we don't tiff and 'make it up,' if we have been engaged three months and have never had a quarrel, that does not mean that my affection is not most sincere and deep."
"I should hope we like each other too well to quarrel," said Lady Ethel haughtily.
Like! After all, was it love on either side? Sir John asked himself.
"My dear Sir John," broke in the Duchess pompously. "A few words from such a man as yourself impress me more profoundly than rhapsodies from another. Ethel, just look out of the window and see if the carriage is waiting. We are going to take the Lancaster girls to the Academy, and Payne has driven round to fetch them while we had our consultation with you."
"Yes, mamma, it is there."
"I will follow you in a minute, Ethel; say good-bye to John—," and when the door had closed upon her daughter, she began hurriedly:
"It is hardly the time and place perhaps, but you will pardon that. I—really, it is very awkward. Can you not help me, Sir John? The weeks are slipping by, and I should, I confess, like to make my arrangements for leaving home, but until I know definitely what yours are—."
"Yes; yours and Ethel's."
A light broke in upon Sir John's somewhat obtuse mind. He had no desire to expedite matters, but then he was not the principal person to be consulted, and it certainly was not for him to raise any objection, so he acted immediately on the hint given him.
"My dear Duchess, what can I say? The matter rests entirely in your hands. Let it be when you please. In another month I shall be comparatively free, and we can visit Switzerland if Ethel wishes."
The Duchess smiled. "That you must arrange with Ethel herself, and perhaps you had better broach the subject yourself to her. Girls are apt to be a little curious on these points."
"Then I will ask her to fix the day for our marriage." He bowed with old-fashioned gallantry over the pearl-grey suede, held out in farewell, and the Duchess rustled away with Soames, the deferential, in close attendance.
Soames did not like the idea of a mistress, but these "accidents" he was well aware, would happen in the best regulated families, so he was now bent on making friends with the Mammon of Unrighteousness in the shape of the Duchess of Huddersfield and the bride elect.
Left alone, Sir John stood upright, his hand on the back of his chair and his brows tightly drawn together.
Well, why not? What possible excuse could he make to his own heart for the delay?
None, none. And yet he felt a good deal as if a thunderbolt had fallen from the skies at his feet, and it was more or less of a shock to him.
Presently he rang his bell.
"Who comes next, Soames?"
"Lady Rutherven, Sir John, but—but a lady who has no appointment has been waiting for more than an hour, and I thought perhaps you would see her first. She seems very ill."
"Show her in!"
A second later the door swung open again and Soames announced:
Sir John started, but recovered himself in the next instant.
"Take a seat, madam."
He waved her to a chair and for several minutes they looked at each other without speaking. The woman was the first to break the silence.
"I have come back," she said with a nervous laugh. "I am ill; I thought you might try to cure me."
She had seated herself, but he remained standing.
What a handsome woman she had become, he was thinking, and how expensively dressed! There was something strange in the very familiarity of the countenance presented to him. It had altered much from what he remembered it, but curiously enough he remembered it the more vividly because of that very alteration.
"What is your trouble?" he asked huskily—"Why have you consulted—me?"
"It is my lungs. I don't know—let us call it a whim. I thought you would do me good if anyone could." She paused a second: "You used to be my husband once."
"Once! Well, I am willing to be your doctor."
"I suppose you would do your best for a dog if it were dying, wouldn't you? though you might not care if it recovered."
"I have a very faithful dog," he said significantly.
"Dogs ask so little for their love. Oh, I didn't come here without a struggle. And I knew you would speak like this. But I have been abroad so long, and on the voyage home I got worse, and women—women of your sort who had taken no notice of me, suddenly grew kind. I said to myself, 'Bella, it looks bad for you when ladies forget how common you are,' and then the thought struck me, London meant you! As a patient I might come to your house and be let in. You are clever and you are great; if I had any self-respect I could not ask you; but I have not, you know; I never had any and'—and—I am—frightened! It keeps me awake at nights, the fear. I—I am not going to—die?"
"I have said I will do what I can for you."
"You will sound me?"
"Loosen your dress."
As he bent over her she raised her hand as if to smoothe his hair, and the colour came into her face, but she did not touch him.
Her fingers, from which she had drawn her gloves, were laden with rings—rings which he had not given her. His breath came a little faster as he stooped over her neck.
"Don't be scared to tell me the truth," she said; "I guess I'm pretty bad. You need not take the trouble to lie about it."
He examined her thoroughly and replaced the stethoscope before he spoke.
"Your lungs are not right. They used to be."
"Oh," she replied bitterly, "I used to be. I have come too late—is that what you mean?"
"I mean that you must exercise great care and avoid excitement. Don't brood—don't worry yourself by misgivings, which will only do you harm. Go away from England when the summer is over; go where the sun shines and the air is mild. Lead a life of ease and indolence. I can say no more."
"And then I see no reason why you should not live for years to come."
Bella flung her hands out with a sort of despair.
"Your prescription is impossible," she said dully.
"I have only just come over from the States. I have an engagement at the Empire for six months. I have got to stay."
"You will be very unwise. The laws of health demand that you should cancel any such contract."
"Beggars can't be choosers. I must sing to live. It is my trade now."
He sighed. "You do not look as if you were in pecuniary difficulties."
"Well, I make money easily enough, but it melts like ice cream; everything is so beastly dear."
"Are you not with—him?"
"Him? Oh no; he left me years ago. I am alone—very much alone. It seems sometimes as if I had spent the best part of my life alone. I am so dull I—I wonder why I dread to die. There! I can follow your advice so far as this; I'll take the greatest care of myself—in London. I am glad I came to you, though it does not seem to have delighted you much. I suppose if—if I had run straight and stayed with you, I might have been quite well, eh?"
"That is difficult to say. Bella, have you—it is a foolish question, but—have you ever regretted?"
She laughed recklessly.
"Oh, as to that—what is the good of looking back, anyhow? I have and I haven't—when I have been sick it has been awful lonesome. You didn't grieve much, that's certain. And you got your title soon after I went. It was lucky for you. Scot! I should have been Lady Chetwynd if I had stopped with you, wouldn't I?"
"You would have been an honest woman."
"Ah!" She rose from her chair and looked curiously round the room. "I remember those bronzes," she said; "they used to hang in your little library in the old house. You are a good deal changed in the face; your manner is just the same. You were always a good fellow, I will say that. I know it better than I used to now I have had so—since I have been—"
"Hush—the past is dead. I was not so patient and tender with you as I should have been."
"You saw that—you had made a mistake, but you tried to hide how sorry you were—I know you did that and I—well, I didn't marry you to make you sorry. Do you know how we lived—he and I, when I left you? He took me to Paris; and didn't we make the dollars spin, the pair of us—rather; and then one fine morning we heard a beastly bank had gone smash and he had lost pretty well all he had got."
"And you left him?"
A smile curled the corners of her mouth.
"No," she said, slowly; "I didn't. We took two little rooms over a baker's shop in the High Street, Islington, and I stuck to him. I used to go out in an evening and do the marketing with a hand basket, to get it cheap. When we wanted a change we would take a bus to the Park and look at the swells across the railings; and sometimes Saidie gave us tickets for the theatres. Seems odd, don't it? but it's a fact. I was livelier then than ever I've been in my life. While he was fond of me—he showed me he was fond of me, you see."
"You were capable of love, then, after all?" he said bitterly.
"I don't know. I loved the freedom I think, anyway, and perhaps I took him with it. I don't know! what does it matter? It was a release for you and you are glad that it happened, eh? now that the shame of it is forgotten? We were never suited to each other, were we?"
"Why speak of what is past?"
"You see, if I had remained with you I should have been no happier," said Bella, reflectively; "you expected too much from me."
"I did my best to make you happy."
"Yes, perhaps! then if I had been more grateful and different, would you be glad if I was with you still?"
"I cannot answer that question. I loved you—I had no thought for any human being outside yourself."
"But now," she persisted, "now that the wound is old, do you not say to yourself, 'it was better so'? Suppose that you and I were still what we were once to each other, would you be happy to know that I was your wife to-day?"
"I beg you to be silent. It is impossible that we can discuss such a question."
She came close to his chair.
"I am," she said with a sort of feverish eagerness, "no more of a lady now than I was then. I am just what I used to be when I made you ashamed of my ignorance and my mistakes. But if I were pure, if I had never been divorced, if I were standing here your faithful wife, would you be glad?"
"Hush! You are paining yourself and me."
"For God's sake be still!"
She fell on her knees beside him.
"Jack, say you would be glad."
"If you had never left me, if you had remained my faithful wife, heaven knows that I should be a happier man!"
Bella burst into tears and sobbed convulsively, then pressed her handkerchief to her mouth. It was bright with blood when she withdrew it.
"Oh, be careful of yourself," said John Chetwynd, terribly moved; "you must do what I advise."
"I'll try. I wonder why you should care one way or the other. It is more than I deserve—you make me so sorry and ashamed. I shall never see you any more, shall I?"
"No; I understand, I ought not to ask you. Well, good-bye. There is my address if you should take a notion to come. It is only a six months' engagement over here, and if I'm not long for this wicked world, I may not live to finish it. Keep my card. If one day you should feel that you could come—just once. You don't hate me?"
"Hate you? No."
"I dare not ask you to forgive; but I begin to know and feel what my action towards you really meant. Jack, see I am on my knees. Forgive me!"
"I do. I forgive. If I was hard to you; if, as you say, I expected and exacted too much from you, may God forgive me."
The tears were still raining down Bella's cheeks.
"Kiss me, Jack."
He shrank back. "You must not ask me that. I cannot."
"Is it that you despise me so utterly?"
"No, no; you don't understand. I—"
"Why do you make me speak? I am going to be married again. I kissed her—a young girl—in this room half an hour ago. I could not outrage her trust in me."
A sort of stung expression came into the face of the kneeling woman and she staggered to her feet.
"You are going to take another wife! My God! I never thought—I never dreamt. It seemed so—so—impossible. I hope she will make you happier than I did."
"Oh, hush, hush!"
"She is one of your own class—a lady? What is her name?"
"I would rather not mention it. Give me your hand and let us part in peace."
"Tell it me," she pleaded. "What name do you call her by?"
"Ethel and Bella. Ah, Ethel is far the nicer name. We didn't think once that you would ever be telling me you were going to be married to someone else, did we? It feels queer, and it hurts me—a little, I think. Good-bye, Jack. I see now why you could not kiss me—it would not be right of you. She is a young girl and she might find it hard to forgive you if she knew. I am going. You used to have a bell on your table, I recollect, with a little white knob that you pressed when Mary was to go to the hall door. Do you use it still? Oh, I see. Let me press it instead of you, may I? I sha'n't feel so much as if you were turning me out. Good-bye." She said the word lingeringly, tenderly. "Say 'Bella' once again, for the sake of old times."
Jack Chetwynd took the slender trembling hand in his with God knows what of anguish and pity stirring at his heart.
And the door fell to.
She was gone.
He could hear her hollow cough as she passed down the tesselated corridor.
It was two days later. Sir John Chetwynd sat in his big easy chair with an open letter before him. "We are surprised to have seen and heard nothing of you," wrote the Duchess; "more especially as after the few words we had in private upon a certain important matter, I fully anticipated an early visit from you. But such a busy man as yourself and one so much in request, both socially and professionally, must not be judged by the rules which govern the common herd, I suppose; at the same time (although I assure you she has not said a word upon the subject) I can say that dear Ethel feels herself a wee bit neglected. You must have been professionally engaged last night, I presume, since we were obliged to dine without you and go to see Sarah Bernhardt alone."
He had spent the whole evening in his consulting rooms, totally forgetting his promise to escort his fiancee and her mother to the theatre.
Well, he would see them both on the morrow and make his peace, and then—he dropped his head on his hands and fairly groaned. It was useless to argue with himself, to bring commonsense to bear upon the point, to count up the advantages to be derived from this union with Lady Ethel; look at it which way he would, the fact remained the same, that he had no longer the remotest desire to marry again.
The knowledge had certainly come tardily, but not the less surely.
He did not, he told himself, love Lady Ethel as a man should love the wife of his bosom. Middle-aged, worn, and unemotional though he might be, he knew that he was yet capable of a much deeper feeling than she had evoked and he had wakened to a realisation of this since he had again seen Bella.
He was no fool; he was, on the contrary, a shrewd, clever, quick-witted man of the world and it was impossible to shut his eyes to the trouble. He thought of Bella as she was when he had first married her; he recalled their courtship, her pretty half shy, half tender ways—the girlish prettiness which time had turned into shame.
She had left a scrap of lace on his table for her throat or her veil—Heaven knew what—and his eyes grew blurred and dim as he gazed at it. He repeated mentally phrases which had fallen from her, piecing them together and trying to weave the pattern of her life out of the fragments.
She had changed pathetically. She had acquired the manner that her sister used to have, and which he had so strenuously objected to—the slangy, devil-may-care tone, the total absence of which in the old days had made his little sweetheart so conspicuously different from her environment. She wore now the impress of evil, from her Regent Street hat to her Paris gown. Manifestly she had risen in her vocation, but he knew that her salary alone had never supplied the costume or the rings, and his heart ached.
That night he sat at the Duchess of Huddersfield's table facing his fiancee, and for the first time he wondered if sang-froid or perfect equanimity were all that a man such as himself might desire. She was, as Bella had put it, "One of his own class—a lady," which she had never been, poor Bella! but he did wonder just a little how much of real heart beat under the dainty laces that shrouded Lady Ethel's bosom. He had reflected once and not so long ago that that portion of a woman's anatomy was superfluous, but he wavered in his belief now. He could stake his professional honour, his hopes of eternity—of—everything—on the absolute purity of this girl; nothing would ever tempt Lady Ethel to swerve ever so little from the path of rectitude and decorum. The cold, proud patrician face spoke for itself, and yet—he was in a brown study when the voice of his prospective mother-in-law brought him out of the clouds.
"And now," she said in a significant tone and with a glance full of meaning, "now I suppose you young people have lots to talk about, and will forgive me if I run away."
And the silken draperies swept themselves across the floor and the door closed softly upon her Grace.
Ethel lay back in a low, lounging chair with a big ostrich feather fan in her hand, and she looked up expectantly into her lover's face. There was nothing else for it, and he took the plunge valiantly—and with precisely the correct amount of maidenly hesitancy, Lady Ethel named a day for their marriage. And then—somehow there seemed nothing more to be said; each sat silent.
Sir John felt rather than saw his companion yawn behind her fan, and realised desperately that he must break the silence.