MERELY MARY ANN
AUTHOR OF "CHILDREN OF THE GHETTO," "THE MASTER," ETC.
LONDON: WILLIAM HEINEMANN
First Impression, September, 1904
New Impressions, September, 1904 (twice).
POPULAR SHILLING CLOTH EDITION, 1913.
The wrapper design is reproduced, by special permission, from a painting by Mr. Louis Loeb of Miss Eleanor Robson, the original "Mary Ann."
MERELY MARY ANN
Sometimes Lancelot's bell rang up Mrs. Leadbatter herself, but far more often merely Mary Ann.
The first time Lancelot saw Mary Ann she was cleaning the steps. He avoided treading upon her, being kind to animals. For the moment she was merely a quadruped, whose head was never lifted to the stars. Her faded print dress showed like the quivering hide of some crouching animal. There were strange irregular splashes of pink in the hide, standing out in bright contrast with the neutral background. These were scraps of the original material neatly patched in.
The cold, damp steps gave Lancelot a shudder, for the air was raw. He passed by the prostrate figure as quickly as he could, and hastened to throw himself into the easy-chair before the red fire.
There was a lamp-post before the door, so he knew the house from its neighbours. Baker's Terrace as a whole was a defeated aspiration after gentility. The more auspicious houses were marked by white stones, the steps being scrubbed and hearthstoned almost daily; the gloomier doorsteps were black, except on Sundays. Thus variety was achieved by houses otherwise as monotonous and prosaic as a batch of fourpenny loaves. This was not the reason why the little South London side-street was called Baker's Terrace, though it might well seem so; for Baker was the name of the builder, a worthy gentleman whose years and virtues may still be deciphered on a doddering, round-shouldered stone in a deceased cemetery not far from the scene of his triumphs.
The second time Lancelot saw Mary Ann he did not remember having seen her before. This time she was a biped, and wore a white cap. Besides, he hardly glanced at her. He was in a bad temper, and Beethoven was barking terribly at the intruder who stood quaking in the doorway, so that the crockery clattered on the tea-tray she bore. With a smothered oath Lancelot caught up the fiery little spaniel and rammed him into the pocket of his dressing-gown, where he quivered into silence like a struck gong. While the girl was laying his breakfast, Lancelot, who was looking moodily at the pattern of the carpet as if anxious to improve upon it, was vaguely conscious of relief in being spared his landlady's conversation. For Mrs. Leadbatter was a garrulous body, who suffered from the delusion that small-talk is a form of politeness, and that her conversation was a part of the "all inclusive" her lodgers stipulated for. The disease was hereditary, her father having been a barber, and remarkable for the coolness with which, even as a small boy whose function was lathering and nothing more, he exchanged views about the weather with his victims.
The third time Lancelot saw Mary Ann he noticed that she was rather pretty. She had a slight, well-built figure, not far from tall, small shapely features, and something of a complexion. This did not displease him: she was a little aesthetic touch amid the depressing furniture.
"Don't be afraid, Polly," he said, more kindly. "The little devil won't bite. He's all bark. Call him Beethoven and throw him a bit of sugar."
The girl threw Beethoven the piece of sugar, but did not venture on the name. It seemed to her a long name for such a little dog. As she timidly took the sugar from the basin by the aid of the tongs, Lancelot saw how coarse and red her hand was. It gave him the same sense of repugnance and refrigescence as the cold, damp steps. Something he was about to say froze on his lips. He did not look at Mary Ann for some days; by which time Beethoven had conquered his distrust of her, though she was still distrustful of Beethoven, drawing her skirts tightly about her as if he were a rat. What forced Mary Ann again upon Lancelot's morose consciousness was a glint of winter sunshine that settled on her light brown hair. He said: "By the way, Susan, tell your mistress—or is it your mother?"
Mary Ann shook her head but did not speak.
"Oh: you are not Miss Leadbatter?"
"No; Mary Ann."
She spoke humbly; her eyes were shy and would not meet his. He winced as he heard the name, though her voice was not unmusical.
"Ah, Mary Ann! and I've been calling you Jane all along. Mary Ann what?"
She seemed confused and flushed a little.
"Mary Ann!" she murmured.
"Merely Mary Ann?"
He smiled. "Seems a sort of white Topsy," he was thinking.
She stood still, holding in her hand the tablecloth she had just folded. Her eyes were downcast, and the glint of sunshine had leapt upon the long lashes.
"Well, Mary Ann, tell your mistress there is a piano coming. It will stand over there—you'll have to move the sideboard somewhere else."
"A piano!" Mary Ann opened her eyes, and Lancelot saw that they were large and pathetic. He could not see the colour for the glint of sunshine that touched them with false fire.
"Yes; I suppose it will have to come up through the window, these staircases are so beastly narrow. Do you never have a stout person in the house, I wonder?"
"Oh yes, sir. We had a lodger here last year as was quite a fat man."
"And did he come up through the window by a pulley?"
He smiled at the image, and expected to see Mary Ann smile in response. He was disappointed when she did not; it was not only that her stolidity made his humour seem feeble—he half wanted to see how she looked when she smiled.
"Oh dear no," said Mary Ann; "he lived on the ground floor!"
"Oh!" murmured Lancelot, feeling the last sparkle taken from his humour. He was damped to the skin by Mary Ann's platitudinarian style of conversation. Despite its prettiness, her face was dulness incarnate.
"Anyhow, remember to take in the piano if I'm out," he said tartly. "I suppose you've seen a piano—you'll know it from a kangaroo?"
"Yessir," breathed Mary Ann.
"Oh, come, that's something. There is some civilisation in Baker's Terrace after all. But are you quite sure?" he went on, the teasing instinct getting the better of him. "Because, you know, you've never seen a kangaroo."
Mary Ann's face lit up a little. "Oh, yes I have, sir; it came to the village fair when I was a girl."
"Oh, indeed!" said Lancelot, a little staggered; "what did it come there for—to buy a new pouch?"
"No, sir; in a circus."
"Ah, in a circus. Then, perhaps, you can play the piano, too."
Mary Ann got very red. "No, sir; missus never showed me how to do that."
Lancelot surrendered himself to a roar of laughter. "This is a real original," he said to himself, just a touch of pity blending with his amusement.
"I suppose, though, you'd be willing to lend a hand occasionally?" he could not resist saying.
"Missus says I must do anything I'm asked," she said, in distress, the tears welling to her eyes. And a merciless bell mercifully sounding from an upper room, she hurried out.
How much Mary Ann did, Lancelot never rightly knew, any more than he knew the number of lodgers in the house, or who cooked his chops in the mysterious regions below stairs. Sometimes he trod on the toes of boots outside doors and vaguely connected them with human beings, peremptory and exacting as himself. To Mary Ann each of those pairs of boots was a personality, with individual hours of rising and retiring, breakfasting and supping, going out and coming in, and special idiosyncrasies of diet and disposition. The population of 5 Baker's Terrace was nine, mostly bell-ringers. Life was one ceaseless round of multifarious duties; with six hours of blessed unconsciousness, if sleep were punctual. All the week long Mary Ann was toiling up and down the stairs or sweeping them, making beds or puddings, polishing boots or fire-irons. Holidays were not in Mary Ann's calendar; and if Sunday ever found her on her knees, it was only when she was scrubbing out the kitchen. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy; it had not, apparently, made Mary Ann a bright girl.
The piano duly came in through the window like a burglar. It was a good instrument, but hired. Under Lancelot's fingers it sang like a bird and growled like a beast. When the piano was done growling Lancelot usually started. He paced up and down the room, swearing audibly. Then he would sit down at the table and cover ruled paper with hieroglyphics for hours together. His movements were erratic to the verge of mystery. He had no fixed hours for anything; to Mary Ann he was hopeless. At any given moment he might be playing on the piano, or writing on the curiously ruled paper, or stamping about the room, or sitting limp with despair in the one easy-chair, or drinking whisky and water, or smoking a black meerschaum, or reading a book, or lying in bed, or driving away in a hansom, or walking about Heaven alone knew where or why. Even Mrs. Leadbatter, whose experience of life was wider than Mary Ann's, considered his vagaries almost unchristian, though to the highest degree gentlemanly. Sometimes, too, he sported the swallow-tail and the starched breast-plate, which was a wonder to Mary Ann, who knew that waiters were connected only with the most stylish establishments. Baker's Terrace did not wear evening dress.
Mary Ann liked him best in black and white. She thought he looked like the pictures in the young ladies' novelettes, which sometimes caught her eye as she passed newsvendors' shops on errands. Not that she was read in this literature—she had no time for reading. But, even when clothed in rough tweeds, Lancelot had for Mary Ann an aristocratic halo; in his dressing-gown he savoured of the grand Turk. His hands were masterful: the fingers tapering, the nails pedantically polished. He had fair hair, with moustache to match; his brow was high and white, and his grey eyes could flash fire. When he drew himself up to his full height, he threatened the gas globes. Never had No. 5 Baker's Terrace boasted of such a tenant. Altogether, Lancelot loomed large to Mary Ann; she dazzled him with his own boots in humble response, and went about sad after a reprimand for putting his papers in order. Her whole theory of life oscillated in the presence of a being whose views could so run counter to her strongest instincts. And yet, though the universe seemed tumbling about her ears when he told her she must not move a scrap of manuscript, howsoever wildly it lay about the floor or under the bed, she did not for a moment question his sanity. She obeyed him like a dog; uncomprehending, but trustful. But, after all, this was only of a piece with the rest of her life. There was nothing she questioned. Life stood at her bedside every morning in the cold dawn, bearing a day heaped high with duties; and she jumped cheerfully out of her warm bed and took them up one by one, without question or murmur. They were life. Life had no other meaning any more than it has for the omnibus hack, which cannot conceive existence outside shafts, and devoid of the intermittent flick of a whip point. The comparison is somewhat unjust; for Mary Ann did not fare nearly so well as the omnibus hack, having to make her meals off such scraps as even the lodgers sent back. Mrs. Leadbatter was extremely economical, as much so with the provisions in her charge as with those she bought for herself. She sedulously sent up remainders till they were expressly countermanded. Less economical by nature, and hungrier by habit, Mary Ann had much trouble in restraining herself from surreptitious pickings. Her conscience was rarely worsted; still there was a taint of dishonesty in her soul, else had the stairs been less of an ethical battleground for her. Lancelot's advent only made her hungrier; somehow the thought of nibbling at his provisions was too sacrilegious to be entertained. And yet—so queerly are we and life compounded—she was probably less unhappy at this period than Lancelot, who would come home in the vilest of tempers, and tramp the room with thunder on his white brow. Sometimes he and the piano and Beethoven would all be growling together, at other times they would all three be mute; Lancelot crouching in the twilight with his head in his hands; and Beethoven moping in the corner, and the closed piano looming in the background like a coffin of dead music.
One February evening—an evening of sleet and mist—Lancelot, who had gone out in evening dress, returned unexpectedly, bringing with him for the first time a visitor. He was so perturbed that he forgot to use his latchkey, and Mary Ann, who opened the door, heard him say angrily, "Well, I can't slam the door in your face, but I will tell you in your face I don't think it at all gentlemanly of you to force yourself upon me like this."
"My dear Lancelot, when did I ever set up to be a gentleman? You know that was always your part of the contract." And a swarthy, thick-set young man with a big nose lowered the dripping umbrella he had been holding over Lancelot, and stepped from the gloom of the street into the fuscous cheerfulness of the ill-lit passage.
By this time Beethoven, who had been left at home, was in full ebullition upstairs, and darted at the intruder the moment his calves appeared. Beethoven barked with short, sharp snaps, as became a bilious liver-coloured Blenheim spaniel.
"Like master like dog," said the swarthy young man, defending himself at the point of the umbrella. "Really your animal is more intelligent than the overrated common or garden dog, which makes no distinction between people calling in the small hours and people calling in broad daylight under the obvious patronage of its own master. This beast of yours is evidently more in sympathy with its liege lord. Down, Fido, down! I wonder they allow you to keep such noisy creatures—but stay! I was forgetting you keep a piano. After that, I suppose, nothing matters."
Lancelot made no reply, but surprised Beethoven into silence by kicking him out of the way. He lit the gas with a neatly written sheet of music which he rammed into the fire Mary Ann had been keeping up, then as silently he indicated the easy-chair.
"Thank you," said the swarthy young man, taking it. "I would rather see you in it, but as there's only one, I know you wouldn't be feeling a gentleman; and that would make us both uncomfortable."
"'Pon my word, Peter," Lancelot burst forth, "you're enough to provoke a saint."
"'Pon my word, Lancelot," replied Peter imperturbably, "you're more than enough to provoke a sinner. Why, what have you to be ashamed of? You've got one of the cosiest dens in London and one of the comfortablest chairs. Why, it's twice as jolly as the garret we shared at Leipsic—up the ninety stairs."
"We're not in Germany now. I don't want to receive visitors," answered Lancelot sulkily.
"A visitor! you call me a visitor! Lancelot, it's plain you were not telling the truth when you said just now you had forgiven me."
"I had forgiven—and forgotten you."
"Come, that's unkind. It's scarcely three years since I threw up my career as a genius, and you know why I left you, old man. When the first fever of youthful revolt was over, I woke to see things in their true light. I saw how mean it was of me to help to eat up your wretched thousand pounds. Neither of us saw the situation nakedly at first—it was sicklied o'er with Quixotic foolishness. You see, you had the advantage of me. Your governor was a gentleman. He says, 'Very well, if you won't go to Cambridge, if you refuse to enter the Church as the younger son of a blue-blooded but impecunious baronet should, and to step into the living which is fattening for you, then I must refuse to take any further responsibility for your future. Here is a thousand pounds; it is the money I had set aside for your college course. Use it for your musical tomfoolery if you insist, and then—get what living you can.' Which was severe but dignified, unpaternal yet patrician. But what does my governor do? That cantankerous, pig-headed old Philistine—God bless him!—he's got no sense of the respect a father owes to his offspring. Not an atom. You're simply a branch to be run on the lines of the old business, or be shut up altogether. And, by the way, Lancelot, he hasn't altered a jot since those days when—as you remember—the City or starvation was his pleasant alternative. Of course, I preferred starvation—one usually does at nineteen; especially if one knows there's a scion of aristocracy waiting outside to elope with him to Leipsic."
"But you told me you were going back to your dad, because you found you had mistaken your vocation."
"Gospel truth also! My heavens, shall I ever forget the blank horror that grew upon me when I came to understand that music was a science more barbarous than the mathematics that floored me at school, that the life of a musical student, instead of being a delicious whirl of waltz tunes, was 'one dem'd grind,' that seemed to grind out all the soul of the divine art and leave nothing but horrid technicalities about consecutive fifths and suspensions on the dominant? I dare say most people still think of the musician as a being who lives in an enchanted world of sound, rather than as a person greatly occupied with tedious feats of penmanship; just as I myself still think of a prima ballerina not as a hard-working gymnast, but as a fairy, whose existence is all bouquets and lime-light."
"But you had a pretty talent for the piano," said Lancelot in milder accents. "No one forced you to learn composition. You could have learnt anything for the paltry fifteen pounds exacted by the Conservatoire—from the German flute to the grand organ; from singing to scoring band parts."
"No, thank you. Aut Caesar aut nihil. You remember what I always used to say: 'Either Beethoven——' (The spaniel pricked up his ears.) —or bust.' If I could not be a great musician it was hardly worth while enduring the privations of one, especially at another man's expense. So I did the Prodigal Son dodge, as you know, and out of the proceeds sent you my year's exes in that cheque you with your damnable pride sent me back again. And now, old fellow, that I have you face to face at last, can you offer the faintest scintilla of a shadow of a reason for refusing to take that cheque? No, you can't! Nothing but simple beastly stuckuppishness. I saw through you at once; all your heroics were a fraud. I was not your friend, but your protege—something to practise your chivalry on. You dropped your cloak, and I saw your feet of clay. Well, I tell you straight, I made up my mind at once to be bad friends with you for life; only when I saw your fiery old phiz at Brahmson's I felt a sort of something tugging inside my greatcoat like a thief after my pocket-book, and I kinder knew, as the Americans say, that in half an hour I should be sitting beneath your hospitable roof."
"I beg your pardon—you will have some whisky." He rang the bell violently.
"Don't be a fool—you know I didn't mean that. Well, don't let us quarrel. I have forgiven you for your youthful bounty, and you have forgiven me for chucking it up; and now we are going to drink to the Vaterland," he added, as Mary Ann appeared with a suspicious alacrity.
"Do you know," he went on, when they had taken the first sip of renewed amity dissolved in whisky, "I think I showed more musical soul than you in refusing to trammel my inspiration with the dull rules invented by fools. I suppose you have mastered them all, eh?" He picked up some sheets of manuscript. "Great Scot! How you must have schooled yourself to scribble all this—you, with your restless nature—full scores, too! I hope you don't offer this sort of thing to Brahmson."
"I certainly went there with that intention," admitted Lancelot. "I thought I'd catch Brahmson himself in the evening—he's never in when I call in the morning."
"Quixotic as ever! You can't have been long in London then?"
"I suppose you'd jump down my throat if I were to ask you how much is left of that——" he hesitated, then turned the sentence facetiously—"of those twenty thousand shillings you were cut off with?"
"Let this vile den answer."
"Don't disparage the den; it's not so bad."
"You are right—I may come to worse. I've been an awful ass. You know how lucky I was while at the Conservatoire—no, you don't. How should you? Well, I carried off some distinctions and a lot of conceit, and came over here thinking Europe would be at my feet in a month. I was only sorry my father died before I could twit him with my triumph. That's candid, isn't it?"
"Yes; you're not such a prig after all," mused Peter; "I saw the old man's death in the paper—your brother Lionel became the bart."
"Yes, poor beggar, I don't hate him half so much as I did. He reminds me of a man invited to dinner which is nothing but flowers and serviettes and silver plate."
"I'd pawn the plate, anyhow," said Peter, with a little laugh.
"He can't touch anything, I tell you; everything's tied up."
"Ah well, he'll get tied up, too. He'll marry an American heiress."
"Confound him! I'd rather see the house extinct first."
"Hoity, toity! She'll be quite as good as any of you."
"I can't discuss this with you, Peter," said Lancelot, gently but firmly. "If there is a word I hate more than the word heiress, it is the word American."
"But why? They're both very good words and better things."
"They both smack of the most vulgar thing in the world—money," said Lancelot, walking hotly about the room. "In America there's no other standard. To make your pile, to strike ile—oh, how I shudder to hear these idioms! And can any one hear the word heiress without immediately thinking of matrimony? Phaugh? It's a prostitution."
"What is? You're not very coherent, my friend."
"Very well, I am incoherent. If a great old family can only bolster up its greatness by alliances with the daughters of oil-strikers, then let the family perish with honour."
"But the daughters of oil-strikers are sometimes very charming creatures. They are polished with their fathers' oil."
"You are right. They reek of it. Pah! I pray to Heaven Lionel will either wed a lady or die a bachelor."
"Yes; but what do you call a lady?" persisted Peter.
Lancelot uttered an impatient snarl, and rang the bell violently. Peter stared in silence. Mary Ann appeared.
"How often am I to tell you to leave my matches on the mantel-shelf?" snapped Lancelot. "You seem to delight to hide them away, as if I had time to play parlour games with you."
Mary Ann silently went to the mantel-piece, handed him the matches, and left the room without a word.
"I, say, Lancelot, adversity doesn't seem to have agreed with you," said Peter severely. "That poor girl's eyes were quite wet when she went out. Why didn't you speak? I could have given you heaps of lights, and you might even have sacrificed another scrap of that precious manuscript."
"Well, she has got a knack of hiding my matches all the same," said Lancelot somewhat shamefacedly. "Besides, I hate her for being called Mary Ann. It's the last terror of cheap apartments. If she only had another name like a human being, I'd gladly call her Miss something. I went so far as to ask her, and she stared at me in a dazed, stupid, silly way, as if I'd asked her to marry me. I suppose the fact is, she's been called Mary Ann so long and so often that she's forgotten her father's name—if she ever had any. I must do her the justice, though, to say she answers to the name of Mary Ann in every sense of the phrase."
"She didn't seem at all bad-looking, any way," said Peter.
"Every man to his taste!" growled Lancelot. "She's as platt and uninteresting as a wooden sabot."
"There's many a pretty foot in a sabot," retorted Peter, with an air of philosophy.
"You think that's clever, but it's simply silly. How does that fact affect this particular sabot?"
"I've put my foot in it," groaned Peter comically.
"Besides, she might be a houri from heaven," said Lancelot; "but a houri in a patched print-frock——" He shuddered, and struck a match.
"I don't know exactly what houris from heaven are, but I have a kind of feeling any sort of frock would be out of harmony——!"
Lancelot lit his pipe.
"If you begin to say that sort of thing, we must smoke," he said, laughing between the puffs. "I can offer you lots of tobacco—I'm sorry I've got no cigars. Wait till you see Mrs. Leadbatter—my landlady—then you'll talk about houris. Poverty may not be a crime, but it seems to make people awful bores. Wonder if it'll have that effect on me? Ach Himmel! how that woman bores me. No, there's no denying it—there's my pouch, old man—I hate the poor; their virtues are only a shade more vulgar than their vices. This Leadbatter creature is honest after her lights—she sends me up the most ridiculous leavings—and I only hate her the more for it."
"I suppose she works Mary Ann's fingers to the bone from the same mistaken sense of duty," said Peter acutely. "Thanks; think I'll try one of my cigars. I filled my case, I fancy, before I came out. Yes, here it is; won't you try one?"
"No, thanks, I prefer my pipe."
"It's the same old meerschaum, I see," said Peter.
"The same old meerschaum," repeated Lancelot, with a little sigh.
Peter lit a cigar, and they sat and puffed in silence.
"Dear me!" said Peter suddenly; "I can almost fancy we're back in our German garret, up the ninety stairs, can't you?"
"No," said Lancelot sadly, looking round as if in search of something; "I miss the dreams."
"And I," said Peter, striving to speak cheerfully, "I see a dog too much."
"Yes," said Lancelot, with a melancholy laugh. "When you funked becoming a Beethoven, I got a dog and called him after you."
"What? you called him Peter?"
"Really. Here, Beethoven!"
The spaniel shook himself, and perked his wee nose up wistfully towards Lancelot's face.
Peter laughed, with a little catch in his voice. He didn't know whether he was pleased, or touched, or angry.
"You started to tell me about those twenty thousand shillings," he said.
"Didn't I tell you? On the expectations of my triumph, I lived extravagantly, like a fool, joined a club, and took up my quarters there. When I began to realise the struggle that lay before me, I took chambers; then I took rooms; now I'm in lodgings. The more I realised it, the less rent I paid. I only go to the club for my letters now. I won't have them come here. I'm living incognito."
"That's taking fame by the forelock, indeed! Then by what name must I ask for you next time? For I'm not to be shaken off."
"Only Lancelot! Mr. Lancelot."
"Why, that's like your Mary Ann!"
"So it is!" he laughed, more bitterly than cordially; "it never struck me before. Yes, we are a pair."
"How did you stumble on this place?"
"I didn't stumble. Deliberate, intelligent selection. You see, it's the next best thing to Piccadilly. You just cross Waterloo Bridge, and there you are at the centre, five minutes from all the clubs. The natives have not yet risen to the idea."
"You mean the rent," laughed Peter. "You're as canny and careful as a Scotch professor. I think it's simply grand the way you've beaten out those shillings, in defiance of your natural instincts. I should have melted them years ago. I believe you have got some musical genius, after all."
"You overrate my abilities," said Lancelot, with the whimsical expression that sometimes flashed across his face even in his most unamiable moments. "You must deduct the Thalers I made in exhibitions. As for living in cheap lodgings, I am not at all certain it's an economy, for every now and again it occurs to you that you are saving an awful lot, and you take a hansom on the strength of it."
"Well, I haven't torn up that cheque yet——"
"Peter!" said Lancelot, his flash of gaiety dying away, "I tell you these things as a friend, not as a beggar. If you look upon me as the second, I cease to be the first."
"But, man, I owe you the money; and if it will enable you to hold out a little longer—why, in heaven's name, shouldn't you——?"
"You don't owe me the money at all; I made no bargain with you; I am not a money-lender."
"Pack dich zum Henker!" growled Peter, with a comical grimace. "Was fuer a casuist! What a swindler you'd make! I wonder you have the face to deny the debt. Well, and how did you leave Frau Sauer-Kraut?" he said, deeming it prudent to sheer off the subject.
"Fat as a Christmas turkey."
"Of a German sausage. The extraordinary things that woman stuffed herself with. Chunks of fat, stewed apples, Kartoffel salad—all mixed up in one plate, as in a dustbin."
"Don't! You make my gorge rise. Ach Himmel! to think that this nation should be musical! O Music, heavenly maid, how much garlic I have endured for thy sake!"
"Ha! ha! ha!" laughed Peter, putting down his whisky that he might throw himself freely back in the easy-chair and roar.
"Oh that garlic!" he said, panting. "No wonder they smoked so much in Leipsic. Even so they couldn't keep the reek out of the staircases. Still, it's a great country is Germany. Our house does a tremendous business in German patents."
"A great country? A land of barbarians rather. How can a people be civilised that eats jam with its meat?"
"Bravo, Lancelot! You're in lovely form to-night. You seem to go a hundred miles out of your way to come the truly British. First it was oil—now it's jam. There was that aristocratic flash in your eye, too, that look of supreme disdain which brings on riots in Trafalgar Square. Behind the patriotic, the national note: 'How can a people be civilised that eats jam with its meat?' I heard the deeper, the oligarchic accent: 'How can a people be enfranchised that eats meat with its fingers?' Ah, you are right! How you do hate the poor! What bores they are! You aristocrats—the products of centuries of culture, comfort, and cocksureness—will never rid yourselves of your conviction that you are the backbone of England—no, not though that backbone were picked clean of every scrap of flesh by the rats of Radicalism."
"What in the devil are you talking about now?" demanded Lancelot. "You seem to me to go a hundred miles out of your way to twit me with my poverty and my breeding. One would almost think you were anxious to convince me of the poverty of your breeding."
"Oh, a thousand pardons!" ejaculated Peter, blushing violently. "But, good heavens, old chap! There's your hot temper again. You surely wouldn't suspect me, of all people in the world, of meaning anything personal? I'm talking of you as a class. Contempt is in your blood—and quite right! We're such snobs, we deserve it. Why d'ye think I ever took to you as a boy at school? Was it because you scribbled inaccurate sonatas and I had myself a talent for knocking tunes off the piano? Not a bit of it. I thought it was, perhaps, but that was only one of my many youthful errors. No, I liked you because your father was an old English baronet, and mine was a merchant who trafficked mainly in things Teutonic. And that's why I like you still. 'Pon my soul it is. You gratify my historic sense—like an old building. You are picturesque. You stand to me for all the good old ideals, including the pride which we are beginning to see is deuced unchristian. Mind you, it's a curious kind of pride when one looks into it. Apparently it's based on the fact that your family has lived on the nation for generations. And yet you won't take my cheque, which is your own. Now don't swear—I know one mustn't analyse things, or the world would come to pieces, so I always vote Tory."
"Then I shall have to turn Radical," grumbled Lancelot.
"Certainly you will, when you have had a little more experience of poverty," retorted Peter. "There, there, old man! forgive me. I only do it to annoy you. Fact is, your outbursts of temper attract me. They are pleasant to look back upon when the storm is over. Yes, my dear Lancelot, you are like the king you look—you can do no wrong. You are picturesque. Pass the whisky."
Lancelot smiled, his handsome brow serene once more. He murmured, "Don't talk rot," but inwardly he was not displeased at Peter's allegiance, half mocking though he knew it.
"Therefore, my dear chap," resumed Peter, sipping his whisky and water, "to return to our lambs, I bow to your patrician prejudices in favour of forks. But your patriotic prejudices are on a different level. There, I am on the same ground as you, and I vow I see nothing inherently superior in the British combination of beef and beetroot, to the German amalgam of lamb and jam."
"Damn lamb and jam," burst forth Lancelot, adding, with his whimsical look: "There's rhyme, as well as reason. How on earth did we get on this tack?"
"I don't know," said Peter, smiling. "We were talking about Frau Sauer-Kraut, I think. And did you board with her all the time?"
"Yes, and I was always hungry. Till the last, I never learnt to stomach her mixtures. But it was really too much trouble to go down the ninety stairs to a restaurant. It was much easier to be hungry."
"And did you ever get a reform in the hours of washing the floor?"
"Ha! ha! ha! No, they always waited till I was going to bed. I suppose they thought I liked damp. They never got over my morning tub, you know. And that, too, sprang a leak after you left, and helped spontaneously to wash the floor."
"Shows the fallacy of cleanliness," said Peter, "and the inferiority of British ideals. They never bathed in their lives, yet they looked the pink of health."
"Yes—their complexion was high—like the fish."
"Ha! ha! Yes, the fish! That was a great luxury, I remember. About once a month."
"Of course, the town is so inland," said Lancelot.
"I see—it took such a long time coming. Ha! ha! ha! And the Herr Professor—is he still a bachelor?"
As the Herr Professor was a septuagenarian and a misogamist, even in Peter's time, his question tickled Lancelot. Altogether the two young men grew quite jolly, recalling a hundred oddities, and reknitting their friendship at the expense of the Fatherland.
"But was there ever a more madcap expedition than ours?" exclaimed Peter. "Most boys start out to be pirates——"
"And some do become music-publishers," Lancelot finished grimly, suddenly reminded of a grievance.
"Ha! ha! ha! Poor fellow'" laughed Peter. "Then you have found them out already."
"Does anyone ever find them in?" flashed Lancelot. "I suppose they do exist and are occasionally seen of mortal eyes. I suppose wives and friends and mothers gaze on them with no sense of special privilege, unconscious of their invisibility to the profane eyes of mere musicians."
"My dear fellow, the mere musicians are as plentiful as niggers on the sea-shore. A publisher might spend his whole day receiving regiments of unappreciated geniuses. Bond Street would be impassable. You look at the publisher too much from your own standpoint."
"I tell you I don't look at him from any standpoint. That's what I complain of. He's encircled with a prickly hedge of clerks. 'You will hear from us.' 'It shall have our best consideration.' 'We have no knowledge of the MS. in question.' Yes, Peter, two valuable quartets have I lost, messing about with these villains."
"I tell you what. I'll give you an introduction to Brahmson. I know him—privately."
"No, thank you, Peter."
"Because you know him."
"I couldn't give you an introduction if I didn't. This is silly of you, Lancelot."
"If Brahmson can't see any merits in my music, I don't want you to open his eyes. I'll stand on my own bottom. And what's more, Peter, I tell you once for all"—his voice was low and menacing—"if you try any anonymous deus ex machina tricks on me in some sly, roundabout fashion, don't you flatter yourself I shan't recognise your hand. I shall, and, by God, it shall never grasp mine again."
"I suppose you think that's very noble and sublime," said Peter coolly. "You don't suppose if I could do you a turn I'd hesitate for fear of excommunication? I know you're like Beethoven there—your bark is worse than your bite."
"Very well; try. You'll find my teeth nastier than you bargain for."
"I'm not going to try. If you want to go to the dogs—go. Why should I put out a hand to stop you?"
These amenities having re-established them in their mutual esteem, they chatted lazily and spasmodically till past midnight, with more smoke than fire in their conversation.
At last Peter began to go, and in course of time actually did take up his umbrella. Not long after, Lancelot conducted him softly down the dark, silent stairs, holding his bedroom candlestick in his hand, for Mrs. Leadbatter always turned out the hall lamp on her way to bed. The old phrases came to the young men's lips as their hands met in a last hearty grip.
"Lebt wohl!" said Lancelot.
"Auf Wiedersehen!" replied Peter threateningly.
Lancelot stood at the hall door looking for a moment after his friend—the friend he had tried to cast out of his heart as a recreant. The mist had cleared—the stars glittered countless in the frosty heaven; a golden crescent moon hung low; the lights and shadows lay almost poetically upon the little street. A rush of tender thoughts whelmed the musician's soul. He saw again the dear old garret, up the ninety stairs, in the Hotel Cologne, where he had lived with his dreams; he heard the pianos and violins going in every room in happy incongruity, publishing to all the prowess of the players; dirty, picturesque old Leipsic rose before him; he was walking again in the Hainstrasse, in the shadow of the quaint, tall houses. Yes, life was sweet after all; he was a coward to lose heart so soon; fame would yet be his; fame and love—the love of a noble woman that fame earns; some gracious creature breathing sweet refinements, cradled in an ancient home, such as he had left for ever.
The sentimentality of the Fatherland seemed to have crept into his soul; a divinely sweet, sad melody was throbbing in his brain. How glad he was he had met Peter again!
From a neighbouring steeple came a harsh, resonant clang, "One."
It roused him from his dream. He shivered a little, closed the door, bolted it and put up the chain, and turned, half sighing, to take up his bedroom candle again. Then his heart stood still for a moment. A figure—a girl's figure—was coming towards him from the kitchen stairs. As she came into the dim light he saw that it was merely Mary Ann.
She looked half drowsed. Her cap was off, her hair tangled loosely over her forehead. In her disarray she looked prettier than he had ever remembered her. There was something provoking about the large dreamy eyes, the red lips that parted at the unexpected sight of him.
"Good heavens!" he cried. "Not gone to bed yet?"
"No, sir. I had to stay up to wash up a lot of crockery. The second-floor front had some friends to supper late. Missus says she won't stand it again."
"Poor thing!" He patted her soft cheek—it grew hot and rosy under his fingers, but was not withdrawn. Mary Ann made no sign of resentment. In his mood of tenderness to all creation his rough words to her recurred to him.
"You mustn't mind what I said about the matches," he murmured. "When I am in a bad temper I say anything. Remember now for the future, will you?"
Her face—its blushes flickered over strangely by the candle-light—seemed to look up at him invitingly.
"That's a good girl." And bending down he kissed her on the lips.
"Good night," he murmured.
Mary Ann made some startled, gurgling sound in reply.
Five minutes afterwards Lancelot was in bed, denouncing himself as a vulgar beast.
"I must have drunk too much whisky," he said to himself angrily. "Good heavens. Fancy sinking to Mary Ann. If Peter had only seen—— There was infinitely more poetry in that red-cheeked Maedchen, and yet I never—— It is true—there is something sordid about the atmosphere that subtly permeates you, that drags you down to it! Mary Ann! A transpontine drudge! whose lips are fresh from the coalman's and the butcher's. Phaugh!"
The fancy seized hold of his imagination. He could not shake it off, he could not sleep till he had got out of bed and sponged his lips vigorously.
Meanwhile Mary Ann was lying on her bed, dressed, doing her best to keep her meaningless, half-hysterical sobs from her mistress's keen ear.
It was a long time before Mary Ann came so prominently into the centre of Lancelot's consciousness again. She remained somewhere in the outer periphery of his thought—nowhere near the bull's-eye, so to speak—as a vague automaton that worked when he pulled a bell-rope. Infinitely more important things were troubling him; the visit of Peter had somehow put a keener edge on his blunted self-confidence; he had started a grand opera, and worked at it furiously in all the intervals left him by his engrossing pursuit after a publisher. Sometimes he would look up from his hieroglyphics and see Mary Ann at his side surveying him curiously, and then he would start, and remember he had rung her up, and try to remember what for. And Mary Ann would turn red, as if the fault was hers.
But the publisher was the one thing that was never out of Lancelot's mind, though he drove Lancelot himself nearly out of it. He was like an arrow stuck in the aforesaid bull's-eye, and, the target being conscious, he rankled sorely. Lancelot discovered that the publisher kept a "musical adviser," whose advice appeared to consist of the famous monosyllable, "Don't." The publisher generally published all the musical adviser's own works, his advice having apparently been neglected when it was most worth taking; at least so Lancelot thought, when he had skimmed through a set of Lancers by one of these worthies.
"I shall give up being a musician," he said to himself grimly. "I shall become a musical adviser."
Once, half by accident, he actually saw a publisher. "My dear sir," said the great man, "what is the use of bringing quartets and full scores to me? You should have taken them to Brahmson; he's the man you want. You know his address, of course—just down the street."
Lancelot did not like to say that it was Brahmson's clerks that had recommended him here; so he replied, "But you publish operas, oratorios, cantatas!"
"Ah yes!—h'm—things that have been played at the big Festivals—composers of prestige—quite a different thing, sir, quite a different thing. There's no sale for these things—none at all, sir—public never heard of you. Now, if you were to write some songs—nice catchy tunes—high class, you know, with pretty words——"
Now Lancelot by this time was aware of the publisher's wily ways; he could almost have constructed an Ollendorffian dialogue, entitled "Between a Music-Publisher and a Composer." So he opened his portfolio again and said, "I have brought some."
"Well, send—send them in," stammered the publisher, almost disconcerted. "They shall have our best consideration."
"Oh, but you might just as well look over them at once," said Lancelot firmly, uncoiling them. "It won't take you five minutes—just let me play one to you. The tunes are rather more original than the average, I can promise you; and yet I think they have a lilt that——"
"I really can't spare the time now. If you leave them, we will do our best."
"Listen to this bit!" said Lancelot desperately. And dashing at a piano that stood handy, he played a couple of bars. "That's quite a new modulation."
"That's all very well," said the publisher; "but how do you suppose I'm going to sell a thing with an accompaniment like that? Look here, and here! Why it's all accidentals."
"That's the best part of the song," explained Lancelot; "a sort of undercurrent of emotion that brings out the full pathos of the words. Note the elegant and novel harmonies." He played another bar or two, singing the words softly.
"Yes; but if you think you'll get young ladies to play that, you've got a good deal to learn," said the publisher gruffly. "This is the sort of accompaniment that goes down," and seating himself at the piano for a moment (somewhat to Lancelot's astonishment, for he had gradually formed a theory that music-publishers did not really know the staff from a five-barred gate), he rattled off the melody with his right hand, pounding away monotonously with his left at a few elementary chords.
Lancelot looked dismayed.
"That's the kind of thing you'll have to produce, young man," said the publisher, feeling that he had at last resumed his natural supremacy, "if you want to get your songs published. Elegant harmonies are all very well, but who's to play them?"
"And do you mean to say that a musician in this God-forsaken country must have no chords but tonics and dominants?" ejaculated Lancelot hotly.
"The less he has of any other the better," said the great man drily. "I haven't said a word about the melody itself, which is quite out of the ordinary compass, and makes demands upon the singer's vocalisation which are not likely to make a demand for the song. What you have to remember, my dear sir, if you wish to achieve success, is that music, if it is to sell, must appeal to the average amateur young person. The average amateur young person is the main prop of music in this country."
Lancelot snatched up his song and tied the strings of his portfolio very tightly, as if he were clenching his lips.
"If I stay here any longer I shall swear," he said: "Good afternoon."
He went out with a fire at his heart that made him insensitive to the frost without. He walked a mile out of his way mechanically, then, perceiving his stupidity, avenged it by jumping into a hansom. He dared not think how low his funds were running. When he got home he forgot to have his tea, crouching in dumb misery in his easy-chair, while the coals in the grate faded like the sunset from red to grey, and the dusk of twilight deepened into the gloom of night, relieved only by a gleam from the street-lamp.
The noise of the door opening made him look up.
"Beg pardon, sir, I didn't yer ye come in."
It was Mary Ann's timid accents. Lancelot's head drooped again on his breast. He did not answer.
"You've bin and let your fire go out, sir."
"Don't bother!" he grumbled. He felt a morbid satisfaction in this aggravation of discomfort, almost symbolic as it was of his sunk fortunes.
"Oh, but it'll freeze 'ard to-night, sir. Let me make it up." Taking his sullen silence for consent, she ran downstairs and reappeared with some sticks. Soon there were signs of life, which Mary Ann assiduously encouraged by blowing at the embers with her mouth. Lancelot looked on in dull apathy, but as the fire rekindled and the little flames leapt up and made Mary Ann's flushed face the one spot of colour and warmth in the cold, dark room, Lancelot's torpidity vanished suddenly. The sensuous fascination seized him afresh, and ere he was aware of it he was lifting the pretty face by the chin.
"I'm so sorry to be so troublesome, Mary Ann. There, you shall give me a kiss to show you bear no malice."
The warm lips obediently met his, and for a moment Lancelot forgot his worries while he held her soft cheek against his.
This time the shock of returning recollection was not so violent as before. He sat up in his chair, but his right arm still twined negligently round her neck, the fingers patting the warm face. "A fellow must have something to divert his mind," he thought, "or he'd go mad. And there's no harm done—the poor thing takes it as a kindness, I'm sure. I suppose her life's dull enough. We're a pair." He felt her shoulders heaving a little, as if she were gulping down something. At last she said, "You ain't troublesome. I ought to ha' yerd ye come in."
He released her suddenly. Her words broke the spell. The vulgar accent gave him a shudder.
"Don't you hear a bell ringing?" he said, with dual significance.
"Nosir," said Mary Ann ingenuously. "I'd yer it in a moment if there was. I yer it in my dreams, I'm so used to it. One night I dreamt the missus was boxin' my yers and askin' me if I was deaf and I said to 'er——"
"Can't you say 'her'?" cried Lancelot, cutting her short impatiently.
"Her," said Mary Ann.
"Then why do you say ''er'?"
"Missus told me to. She said my own way was all wrong."
"Oh, indeed!" said Lancelot. "It's missus that has corrupted you, is it? And pray what used you to say?"
"She," said Mary Ann.
Lancelot was taken aback. "She!" he repeated.
"Yessir," said Mary Ann, with a dawning suspicion that her own vocabulary was going to be vindicated; "whenever I said 'she' she made me say ''er,' and whenever I said 'her' she made me say 'she.' When I said 'her and me' she made me say 'me and she,' and when I said 'I got it from she,' she made me say 'I got it from 'er.'"
"Bravo! A very lucid exposition," said Lancelot, laughing. "Did she set you right in any other particulars?"
"Eessir—I mean yessir," replied Mary Ann, the forbidden words flying to her lips like prisoned skylarks suddenly set free. "I used to say, 'Gie I thek there broom, oo't?' 'Arten thee goin' to?' 'Her did say to I.' 'I be goin' on to bed.' 'Look at——'"
"Enough! Enough! What a memory you've got! Now I understand. You're a country girl."
"Eessir," said Mary Ann, her face lighting up. "I mean yessir."
"Well, that redeems you a little," thought Lancelot, with his whimsical look. "So it's missus, is it, who's taught you Cockneyese? My instinct was not so unsound, after all. I dare say you'll turn out something nobler than a Cockney drudge." He finished aloud, "I hope you went a-milking."
"Eessir, sometimes; and I drove back the milk-trunk in the cart, and I rode down on a pony to the second pasture to count the sheep and the heifers."
"Then you are a farmer's daughter?"
"Eessir. But my feyther—I mean my father—had only two little fields when he was alive, but we had a nice garden, with plum trees, and rose bushes and gillyflowers——"
"Better and better," murmured Lancelot, smiling. And, indeed, the image of Mary Ann skimming the meads on a pony in the sunshine was more pleasant to contemplate than that of Mary Ann whitening the wintry steps. "What a complexion you must have had to start with!" he cried aloud, surveying the not unenviable remains of it. "Well, and what else did you do?"
Mary Ann opened her lips. It was delightful to see how the dull veil, as of London fog, had been lifted from her face; her eyes sparkled.
Then, "Oh, there's the ground-floor bell," she cried, moving instinctively towards the door.
"Nonsense: I hear no bell," said Lancelot.
"I told you I always hear it," said Mary Ann, hesitating and blushing delicately before the critical word.
"Oh well, run along then. Stop a moment—I must give you another kiss for talking so nicely. There! And—stop a moment—bring me up some coffee, please, when the ground floor is satisfied."
"Eessir—I mean yessir. What must I say?" she added, pausing troubled on the threshold.
"Say, 'Yes, Lancelot,'" he answered recklessly.
"Yessir," and Mary Ann disappeared.
It was ten endless minutes before she reappeared with the coffee. The whole of the second five minutes Lancelot paced his room feverishly, cursing the ground floor, and stamping as if to bring down its ceiling. He was curious to know more of Mary Ann's history.
But it proved meagre enough. Her mother died when Mary Ann was a child; her father when she was still a mere girl. His affairs were found in hopeless confusion, and Mary Ann was considered lucky to be taken into the house of the well-to-do Mrs. Leadbatter, of London, the eldest sister of a young woman who had nursed the vicar's wife. Mrs. Leadbatter had promised the vicar to train up the girl in the way a domestic should go.
"And when I am old enough she is going to pay me wages as well," concluded Mary Ann, with an air of importance.
"Indeed—how old were you when you left the village?"
"And how old are you now?"
Mary Ann looked confused. "I don't quite know," she murmured.
"O come," said Lancelot laughingly; "is this your country simplicity? You're quite young enough to tell how old you are."
The tears came into Mary Ann's eyes.
"I can't, Mr. Lancelot," she protested earnestly; "I forgot to count—I'll ask missus."
"And whatever she tells you, you'll be," he said, amused at her unshakable loyalty.
"Yessir," said Mary Ann.
"And so you are quite alone in the world?"
"Yessir—but I've got my canary. They sold everything when my father died, but the vicar's wife she bought my canary back for me because I cried so. And I brought it to London and it hangs in my bedroom. And the vicar, he was so kind to me, he did give me a lot of advice, and Mrs. Amersham, who kept the chandler's shop, she did give me ninepence, all in three-penny bits."
"And you never had any brothers or sisters?"
"There was our Sally, but she died before mother."
"There's my big brother Tom—but I mustn't tell you about him."
"Mustn't tell me about him? Why not?"
"He's so wicked."
The answer was so unexpected that Lancelot, could not help laughing, and Mary Ann flushed to the roots of her hair.
"Why, what has he done?" said Lancelot, composing his mouth to gravity.
"I don't know; I was only six. Father told me it was something very dreadful, and Tom had to run away to America, and I mustn't mention him any more. And mother was crying, and I cried because Tom used to give me tickey-backs and go blackberrying with me and our little Sally; and everybody else in the village they seemed glad, because they had said so all along, because Tom would never go to church, even when a little boy."
"I suppose then you went to church regularly?"
"Yessir. When I was at home, I mean."
Mary Ann hung her head. "Once I went meechin'," she said in low tones. "Some boys and girls they wanted me to go nutting, and I wanted to go too, but I didn't know how to get away, and they told me to cough very loud when the sermon began, so I did, and coughed on and on till at last the vicar glowed at father, and father had to send me out of church."
Lancelot laughed heartily. "Then you didn't like the sermon."
"It wasn't that, sir. The sun was shining that beautiful outside, and I never minded the sermon, only I did get tired of sitting still. But I never done it again—our little Sally, she died soon after."
Lancelot checked his laughter. "Poor little fool!" he thought. Then to brighten her up again he asked cheerily, "And what else did you do on the farm?"
"Oh, please sir, missus will be wanting me now."
"Bother missus. I want some more milk," he said, emptying the milk-jug into the slop-basin. "Run down and get some."
Mary Ann was startled by the splendour of the deed. She took the jug silently and disappeared.
When she returned he said: "Well, you haven't told me half yet. I suppose you kept bees?"
"Oh yes, and I fed the pigs."
"Hang the pigs! Let's hear something more romantic."
"There was the calves to suckle sometimes, when the mother died or was sold."
"Calves! H'm! H'm! Well, but how could you do that?"
"Dipped my fingers in milk, and let the calves suck 'em. The silly creatures thought it was their mothers' teats. Like this."
With a happy inspiration she put her fingers into the slop-basin, and held them up dripping.
Lancelot groaned. It was not only that his improved Mary Ann was again sinking to earth, unable to soar in the romantic aether where he would fain have seen her volant; it was not only that the coarseness of her nature had power to drag her down, it was the coarseness of her red, chapped hands that was thrust once again and violently upon his reluctant consciousness.
Then, like Mary Ann, he had an inspiration.
"How would you like a pair of gloves, Mary Ann?"
He had struck the latent feminine. Her eyes gleamed. "Oh, sir!" was all she could say. Then a swift shade of disappointment darkened the eager little face.
"But I never goes out," she cried.
"I never go out," he corrected, shuddering.
"I never go out," said Mary Ann, her lip twitching.
"That doesn't matter. I want you to wear them indoors."
"But there's nobody to see 'em indoors!"
"I shall see them," he reminded her.
"But they'll get dirty."
"No they won't. You shall only wear them when you come to me. If I buy you a nice pair of gloves, will you promise to put them on every time I ring for you?"
"But what'll missus say?"
"Missus won't see them. The moment you come in, you'll put them on, and just before going out—you'll take them off! See!"
"Yessir. Then nobody'll see me looking so grand but you."
"That's it. And wouldn't you rather look grand for me than for anybody else?"
"Of course I would, sir," said Mary Ann, earnestly, with a grateful little sigh.
So Lancelot measured her wrist, feeling her pulse beat madly. She really had a very little hand, though to his sensitive vision the roughness of the skin seemed to swell it to a size demanding a boxing-glove. He bought her six pairs of tan kid, in a beautiful cardboard box. He could ill afford the gift, and made one of his whimsical grimaces when he got the bill. The young lady who served him looked infinitely more genteel than Mary Ann. He wondered what she would think if she knew for whom he was buying these dainty articles. Perhaps her feelings would be so outraged she would refuse to participate in the transaction. But the young lady was happily unconscious; she had her best smile for the handsome, aristocratic young gentleman, and mentioned his moustache later to her bosom-friend in the next department.
And thus Mary Ann and Lancelot became the joint owners of a secret, and co-players in a little comedy. When Mary Ann came into the room, she would put whatever she was carrying on a chair, gravely extract her gloves from her pocket, and draw them on, Lancelot pretending not to know she was in the room, though he had just said, "Come in." After allowing her a minute he would look up. In the course of a week this became mechanical, so that he lost the semi-ludicrous sense of secrecy which he felt at first, as well as the little pathetic emotion inspired by her absolute unconsciousness that the performance was not intended for her own gratification. Nevertheless, though he could now endure to see Mary Ann handling the sugar-tongs, he remained cold to her for some weeks. He had kissed her again in the flush of her joy at the sight of the gloves, but after that there was a reaction. He rarely went to the club now (there was no one with whom he was in correspondence except music-publishers, and they didn't reply), but he dropped in there once soon after the glove episode, looked over the papers in the smoking-room, and chatted with a popular composer and one or two men he knew. It was while the waiter was holding out the coffee-tray to him that Mary Ann flashed upon his consciousness. The thought of her seemed so incongruous with the sober magnificence, the massive respectability that surrounded him, the cheerful, marble hearth reddened with leaping flame, the luxurious lounges, the well-groomed old gentlemen smoking eighteenpenny cheroots, the suave, noiseless satellites, that Lancelot felt a sudden pang of bewildered shame. Why, the very waiter who stood bent before him would disdain her. He took his coffee hastily, with a sense of personal unworthiness. This feeling soon evaporated, but it left lees of resentment against Mary Ann which made him inexplicable to her. Fortunately, her habit of acceptance saved her some tears, though she shed others. And there remained always the gloves. When she was putting them on she always felt she was slipping her hands in his.
And then there was yet a further consolation. For the gloves had also a subtle effect on Lancelot. They gave him a sense of responsibility. Vaguely resentful as he felt against Mary Ann (in the intervals of his more definite resentment against publishers), he also felt that he could not stop at the gloves. He had started refining her, and he must go on till she was, so to speak, all gloves. He must cover up her coarse speech, as he had covered up her coarse hands. He owed that to the gloves; it was the least he could do for them. So, whenever Mary Ann made a mistake, Lancelot corrected her. He found these grammatical dialogues not uninteresting, and a vent for his ill-humour against publishers to boot. Very often his verbal corrections sounded astonishingly like reprimands. Here, again, Mary Ann was forearmed by her feeling that she deserved them. She would have been proud had she known how much Mr. Lancelot was satisfied with her aspirates, which came quite natural. She had only dropped her "h's" temporarily, as one drops country friends in coming to London. Curiously enough, Mary Ann did not regard the new locutions and pronunciations as superseding the old. They were a new language; she knew two others, her mother-tongue and her missus's tongue. She would as little have thought of using her new linguistic acquirements in the kitchen as of wearing her gloves there. They were for Lancelot's ears only, as her gloves were for his eyes.
All this time Lancelot was displaying prodigious musical activity, so much so that the cost of ruled paper became a consideration. There was no form of composition he did not essay, none by which he made a shilling. Once he felt himself the prey of a splendid inspiration, and sat up all night writing at fever pitch, surrounded with celestial harmonies, audible to him alone; the little room resounded with the thunder of a mighty orchestra, in which every instrument sang to him individually—the piccolo, the flute, the oboes, the clarionets, filling the air with a silver spray of notes; the drums throbbing, the trumpets shrilling, the four horns pealing with long, stately notes, the trombones and bassoons vibrating, the violins and violas sobbing in linked sweetness, the 'cello and the contra-bass moaning their under-chant. And then, in the morning, when the first rough sketch was written, the glory faded. He threw down his pen, and called himself an ass for wasting his time on what nobody would ever look at. Then he laid his head on the table, overwrought, full of an infinite pity for himself. A sudden longing seized him for some one to love him, to caress his hair, to smooth his hot forehead. This mood passed too; he smoothed the slumbering Beethoven instead. After a while he went into his bedroom, and sluiced his face and hands in ice-cold water, and rang the bell for breakfast.
There was a knock at the door in response.
"Come in!" he said gently—his emotions had left him tired to the point of tenderness. And then he waited a minute while Mary Ann was drawing on her gloves.
"Did you ring, sir?" said a wheezy voice at last. Mrs. Leadbatter had got tired of waiting.
Lancelot started violently—Mrs. Leadbatter had latterly left him entirely to Mary Ann. "It's my hastmer," she had explained to him apologetically, meeting him casually in the passage. "I can't trollop up and down stairs as I used to when I fust took this house five-an'-twenty year ago, and pore Mr. Leadbatter——" and here followed reminiscences long since in their hundredth edition.
"Yes; let me have some coffee—very hot—please," said Lancelot less gently. The woman's voice jarred upon him; and her features were not redeeming.
"Lawd, sir, I 'ope that gas 'asn't been burnin' all night, sir," she said as she was going out.
"It has," he said shortly.
"You'll hexcoose me, sir, but I didn't bargen for that. I'm only a pore, honest, 'ard-workin' widder, and I noticed the last gas bill was 'eavier than hever since that black winter that took pore Mr. Leadbatter to 'is grave. Fair is fair, and I shall 'ave to reckon it a hextry, with the rate gone up sevenpence a thousand, and my Rosie leavin' a fine nursemaid's place in Bayswater at the end of the month to come 'ome and 'elp 'er mother, 'cos my hastmer——"
"Will you please shut the door after you?" interrupted Lancelot, biting his lip with irritation. And Mrs. Leadbatter, who was standing in the aperture with no immediate intention of departing, could find no repartee beyond slamming the door as hard as she could.
This little passage of arms strangely softened Lancelot to Mary Ann. It made him realise faintly what her life must be.
"I should go mad and smash all the crockery!" he cried aloud. He felt quite tender again towards the uncomplaining girl.
Presently there was another knock. Lancelot growled, half prepared to renew the battle, and to give Mrs. Leadbatter a piece of his mind on the subject. But it was merely Mary Ann.
Shaken in his routine, he looked on steadily while Mary Ann drew on her gloves; and this in turn confused Mary Ann. Her hand trembled.
"Let me help you," he said.
And there was Lancelot buttoning Mary Ann's glove just as if her name were Guinevere! And neither saw the absurdity of wasting time upon an operation which would have to be undone in two minutes. Then Mary Ann, her eyes full of soft light, went to the sideboard and took out the prosaic elements of breakfast.
When she returned, to put them back, Lancelot was astonished to see her carrying a cage—a plain square cage, made of white tin wire.
"What's that?" he gasped.
"Please, Mr. Lancelot, I want to ask you to do me a favour." She dropped her eyelashes timidly.
"Yes, Mary Ann," he said briskly. "But what have you got there?"
"It's only my canary, sir. Would you—please, sir, would you mind?"—then desperately: "I want to hang it up here, sir!"
"Here?" he repeated in frank astonishment.
"Please, sir, I—I—it's sunnier here, sir, and I—I think it must be pining away. It hardly ever sings in my bedroom."
"Well, but," he began—then seeing the tears gathering on her eyelids, he finished with laughing good-nature—"as long as Mrs. Leadbatter doesn't reckon it an extra."
"Oh no, sir," said Mary Ann seriously. "I'll tell her. Besides, she will be glad, because she don't like the canary—she says its singing disturbs her. Her room is next to mine, you know, Mr. Lancelot."
"But you said it doesn't sing much."
"Please, sir, I—I mean in summer," exclaimed Mary Ann in rosy confusion; "and—and—it'll soon be summer, sir."
"Sw—e-e-t!" burst forth the canary suddenly, as if encouraged by Mary Ann's opinion. It was a pretty little bird—one golden yellow from beak to tail, as though it had been dipped in sunshine.
"You see, sir," she cried eagerly, "it's beginning already."
"Yes," said Lancelot grimly; "but so is Beethoven."
"I'll hang it high up—in the window," said Mary Ann, "where the dog can't get at it."
"Well, I won't take any responsibilities," murmured Lancelot resignedly.
"No, sir, I'll attend to that," said Mary Ann vaguely.
After the installation of the canary Lancelot found himself slipping more and more into a continuous matter-of-course flirtation; more and more forgetting the slavey in the candid young creature who had, at moments, strange dancing lights in her awakened eyes, strange flashes of witchery in her ingenuous expression. And yet he made a desultory struggle against what a secret voice was always whispering was a degradation. He knew she had no real place in his life; he scarce thought of her save when she came bodily before his eyes with her pretty face and her trustful glance.
He felt no temptation to write sonatas on her eyebrow—to borrow Peter's variation, for the use of musicians, of Shakespeare's "write sonnets on his mistress's eyebrow"—and, indeed, he knew she could be no fit mistress for him—this starveling drudge, with passive passions, meek, accepting, with well-nigh every spark of spontaneity choked out of her. The women of his dreams were quite other—beautiful, voluptuous, full of the joy of life, tremulous with poetry and lofty thought, with dark, amorous orbs that flashed responsive to his magic melodies. They hovered about him as he wrote and played—Venuses rising from the seas of his music. And then—with his eyes full of the divine tears of youth, with his brain a hive of winged dreams—he would turn and kiss merely Mary Ann! Such is the pitiful breed of mortals.
And after every such fall he thought more contemptuously of Mary Ann. Idealise her as he might, see all that was best in her as he tried to do, she remained common and commonplace enough. Her ingenuousness, while from one point of view it was charming, from another was but a pleasant synonym for silliness. And it might not be ingenuousness—or silliness—after all! For was Mary Ann as innocent as she looked? The guilelessness of the dove might very well cover the wisdom of the serpent. The instinct—the repugnance that made him sponge off her first kiss from his lips—was probably a true instinct. How was it possible a girl of that class should escape the sordid attentions of street swains? Even when she was in the country she was well-nigh of woo-able age, the likely cynosure of neighbouring ploughboys' eyes. And what of the other lodgers?
A finer instinct—that of a gentleman—kept him from putting any questions to Mary Ann. Indeed, his own delicacy repudiated the images that strove to find entry in his brain, even as his fastidiousness shrank from realising the unlovely details of Mary Ann's daily duties—these things disgusted him more with himself than with her. And yet he found himself acquiring a new and illogical interest in the boots he met outside doors. Early one morning he went half-way up the second flight of stairs—a strange region where his own boots had never before trod—but came down ashamed and with fluttering heart as if he had gone up to steal boots instead of to survey them. He might have asked Mary Ann or her "missus" who the other tenants were, but he shrank from the topic. Their hours were not his, and he only once chanced on a fellow-man in the passage, and then he was not sure it was not the tax-collector. Besides, he was not really interested—it was only a flicker of idle curiosity as to the actual psychology of Mary Ann. That he did not really care he proved to himself by kissing her next time. He accepted her as she was—because she was there. She brightened his troubled life a little, and he was quite sure he brightened hers. So he drifted on, not worrying himself to mean any definite harm to her. He had quite enough worry with those music-publishers.
The financial outlook was, indeed, becoming terrifying. He was glad there was nobody to question him, for he did not care to face the facts. Peter's threat of becoming a regular visitor had been nullified by his father despatching him to Germany to buy up some more Teutonic patents. "Wonderful are the ways of Providence!" he had written to Lancelot. "If I had not flown in the old man's face and picked up a little German here years ago, I should not be half so useful to him now. . . . I shall pay a flying visit to Leipsic—not on business."
But at last Peter returned, Mrs. Leadbatter panting to the door to let him in one afternoon without troubling to ask Lancelot if he was "at home." He burst upon the musician, and found him in the most undisguisable dumps.
"Why didn't you answer my letter, you impolite old bear?" Peter asked, warding off Beethoven with his umbrella.
"I was busy," Lancelot replied pettishly.
"Busy writing rubbish. Haven't you got 'Ops.' enough? I bet you haven't had anything published yet."
"I'm working at a grand opera," he said in dry, mechanical tones. "I have hopes of getting it put on. Gasco, the impresario, is a member of my club, and he thinks of running a season in the autumn. I had a talk with him yesterday."
"I hope I shall live to see it," said Peter sceptically.
"I hope you will," said Lancelot sharply.
"None of my family ever lived beyond ninety," said Peter, shaking his head dolefully; "and then, my heart is not so good as it might be."
"It certainly isn't!" cried poor Lancelot. "But everybody hits a chap when he's down."
He turned his head away, striving to swallow the lump that would rise to his throat. He had a sense of infinite wretchedness and loneliness.
"Oh, poor old chap; is it so bad as all that?" Peter's somewhat strident voice had grown tender as a woman's. He laid his hand affectionately on Lancelot's tumbled hair. "You know I believe in you with all my soul. I never doubted your genius for a moment. Don't I know too well that's what keeps you back? Come, come, old fellow. Can't I persuade you to write rot? One must keep the pot boiling, you know. You turn out a dozen popular ballads, and the coin'll follow your music as the rats did the pied piper's. Then, if you have any ambition left, you kick away the ladder by which you mounted, and stand on the heights of art."
"Never!" cried Lancelot. "It would degrade me in my own eyes. I'd rather starve; and you can't shake them off—the first impression is everything; they would always be remembered against me," he added, after a pause.
"Motives mixed," reflected Peter. "That's a good sign." Aloud he said, "Well, you think it over. This is a practical world, old man; it wasn't made for dreamers. And one of the first dreams that you've got to wake from is the dream that anybody connected with the stage can be relied on from one day to the next. They gas for the sake of gassing, or they tell you pleasant lies out of mere goodwill, just as they call for your drinks. Their promises are beautiful bubbles, on a basis of soft soap and made to 'bust.'"
"You grow quite eloquent," said Lancelot, with a wan smile.
"Eloquent! There's more in me than you've yet found out. Now, then! Give us your hand that you'll chuck art, and we'll drink to your popular ballad—hundredth thousand edition, no drawing-room should be without it."
Lancelot flushed. "I was just going to have some tea. I think it's five o'clock," he murmured.
"The very thing I'm dying for," cried Peter energetically; "I'm as parched as a pea." Inwardly he was shocked to find the stream of whisky run dry.
So Lancelot rang the bell, and Mary Ann came up with the tea-tray in the twilight.
"We'll have a light," cried Peter, and struck one of his own with a shadowy underthought of saving Mary Ann from a possible scolding, in case Lancelot's matches should be again unapparent. Then he uttered a comic exclamation of astonishment. Mary Ann was putting on a pair of gloves! In his surprise he dropped the match.
Mary Ann was equally startled by the unexpected sight of a stranger, but when he struck the second match her hands were bare and red.
"What in heaven's name were you putting on gloves for, my girl?" said Peter, amused.
Lancelot stared fixedly at the fire, trying to keep the blood from flooding his cheeks. He wondered that the ridiculousness of the whole thing had never struck him in its full force before. Was it possible he could have made such an ass of himself?
"Please, sir, I've got to go out, and I'm in a hurry," said Mary Ann.
Lancelot felt intense relief. An instant after his brow wrinkled itself. "Oho!" he thought. "So this is Miss Simpleton, is it?"
"Then why did you take them off again?" retorted Peter.
Mary Ann's repartee was to burst into tears and leave the room.
"Now I've offended her," said Peter. "Did you see how she tossed her pretty head?"
"Ingenious minx," thought Lancelot.
"She's left the tray on a chair by the door," went on Peter. "What an odd girl! Does she always carry on like this?"
"She's got such a lot to do. I suppose she sometimes gets a bit queer in her head," said Lancelot, conceiving he was somehow safe-guarding Mary Ann's honour by the explanation.
"I don't think that," answered Peter. "She did seem dull and stupid when I was here last. But I had a good stare at her just now, and she seems rather bright. Why, her accent is quite refined—she must have picked it up from you."
"Nonsense, nonsense!" exclaimed Lancelot testily.
The little danger—or rather the great danger of being made to appear ridiculous—which he had just passed through, contributed to rouse him from his torpor. He exerted himself to turn the conversation, and was quite lively over tea.
"Sw—eet! Sw—w—w—w—eet!" suddenly broke into the conversation.
"More mysteries!" cried Peter. "What's that?"
"Only a canary."
"What, another musical instrument! Isn't Beethoven jealous? I wonder he doesn't consume his rival in his wrath. But I never knew you liked birds."
"I don't particularly. It isn't mine."
"Whose is it?"
Lancelot answered briskly, "Mary Ann's. She asked to be allowed to keep it here. It seems it won't sing in her attic; it pines away."
"And do you believe that?"
"Why not? It doesn't sing much even here."
"Let me look at it—ah, it's a plain Norwich yellow. If you wanted a singing canary you should have come to me, I'd have given you one 'made in Germany'—one of our patents—they train them to sing tunes, and that puts up the price."
"Thank you, but this one disturbs me sufficiently."
"Then why do you put up with it?"
"Why do I put up with that Christmas number supplement over the mantel-piece? It's part of the furniture. I was asked to let it be here, and I couldn't be rude."
"No, it's not in your nature. What a bore it must be to feed it! Let me see, I suppose you give it canary seed biscuits—I hope you don't give it butter."
"Don't be an ass!" roared Lancelot. "You don't imagine I bother my head whether it eats butter or—or marmalade."
"Who feeds it then?"
"Mary Ann, of course."
"She comes in and feeds it?"
"Several times a day?"
"I suppose so."
"Lancelot," said Peter solemnly, "Mary Ann's mashed on you."
Lancelot shrank before Peter's remark as a burglar from a policeman's bull's-eye. The bull's-eye seemed to cast a new light on Mary Ann, too, but he felt too unpleasantly dazzled to consider that for the moment; his whole thought was to get out of the line of light.
"Nonsense!" he answered; "why I'm hardly ever in when she feeds it, and I believe it eats all day long—gets supplied in the morning like a coal-scuttle. Besides, she comes in to dust and all that when she pleases. And I do wish you wouldn't use that word 'mashed.' I loathe it."
Indeed, he writhed under the thought of being coupled with Mary Ann. The thing sounded so ugly—so squalid. In the actual, it was not so unpleasant, but looked at from the outside—unsympathetically—it was hopelessly vulgar, incurably plebeian. He shuddered.
"I don't know," said Peter. "It's a very expressive word, is 'mashed.' But I will make allowance for your poetical feelings and give up the word—except in its literal sense, of course. I'm sure you wouldn't object to mashing a music-publisher!"
Lancelot laughed with false heartiness. "Oh, but if I'm to write those popular ballads, you say he'll become my best friend."
"Of course he will," cried Peter, eagerly sniffing at the red herring Lancelot had thrown across the track. "You stand out for a royalty on every copy, so that if you strike ile—oh, I beg your pardon, that's another of the phrases you object to, isn't it?"
"Don't be a fool," said Lancelot, laughing on. "You know I only object to that in connection with English peers marrying the daughters of men who have done it."
"Oh, is that it? I wish you'd publish an expurgated dictionary with most of the words left out, and exact definitions of the conditions under which one may use the remainder. But I've got on a siding. What was I talking about?"
"Royalty," muttered Lancelot languidly.
"Royalty? No. You mentioned the aristocracy, I think." Then he burst into a hearty laugh. "Oh yes—on that ballad. Now, look here! I've brought a ballad with me just to show you—a thing that is going like wildfire."
"'Not Good-night and good-bye, I hope," laughed Lancelot.
"Yes—the very one!" cried Peter, astonished.
"Himmel!" groaned Lancelot in comic despair.
"You know it already?" inquired Peter eagerly.
"No; only I can't open a paper without seeing the advertisement and the sickly-sentimental refrain."
"You see how famous it is, anyway," said Peter. "And if you want to strike—er—to make a hit you'll just take that song and do a deliberate imitation of it."
"Wha-a-a-t!" gasped Lancelot.
"My dear chap, they all do it. When the public cotton to a thing they can't have enough of it."
"But I can write my own rot, surely."
"In the face of all this litter of 'Ops.' I daren't dispute that for a moment. But it isn't enough to write rot—the public want a particular kind of rot. Now just play that over—oblige me." He laid both hands on Lancelot's shoulders in amicable appeal.
Lancelot shrugged them, but seated himself at the piano, played the introductory chords, and commenced singing the words in his pleasant baritone.
Suddenly Beethoven ran towards the door, howling.
Lancelot ceased playing and looked approvingly at the animal.
"By Jove! He wants to go out. What an ear for music that animal's got!"
Peter smiled grimly. "It's long enough. I suppose that's why you call him Beethoven."
"Not at all. Beethoven had no ear—at least not in his latest period—he was deaf. Lucky devil! That is, if this sort of thing was brought round on barrel-organs."
"Never mind, old man! Finish the thing."
"But consider Beethoven's feelings!"
"Poor Beethoven. Come here, my poor maligned musical critic! Would they give you a bad name and hang you? Now you must be very quiet. Put your paws into those lovely long ears of yours if it gets too horrible. You have been used to high-class music, I know, but this is the sort of thing that England expects every man to do, so the sooner you get used to it the better." He ran his fingers along the keys. "There, Peter, he's growling already. I'm sure he'll start again, the moment I strike the theme."
"Let him! We'll take it as a spaniel obligato."
"Oh, but his accompaniments are too staccato. He has no sense of time."
"Why don't you teach him, then, to wag his tail like the pendulum of a metronome? He'd be more use to you that way than setting up to be a musician, which Nature never meant him for—his hair's not long enough. But go ahead, old man, Beethoven's behaving himself now."
Indeed, as if he were satisfied with his protest, the little beast remained quiet, while his lord and master went through the piece. He did not even interrupt at the refrain.
"Kiss me, good-night, dear love, Dream of the old delight; My spirit is summoned above, Kiss me, dear love, good-night."
"I must say it's not so awful as I expected," said Lancelot candidly; "it's not at all bad—for a waltz."
"There, you see!" said Peter eagerly; "the public are not such fools after all."
"Still, the words are the most maudlin twaddle!" said Lancelot, as if he found some consolation in the fact.
"Yes, but I didn't write them!" replied Peter quickly. Then he grew red and laughed an embarrassed laugh. "I didn't mean to tell you, old man. But there—the cat's out. That's what took me to Brahmson's that afternoon we met! And I harmonised it myself, mind you, every crotchet. I picked up enough at the Conservatoire for that. You know lots of fellows only do the tune—they give out all the other work."
"So you are the great Keeley Lesterre, eh?" said Lancelot in amused astonishment.
"Yes; I have to do it under another name. I don't want to grieve the old man. You see, I promised him to reform, when he took me back to his heart and business."
"Is that strictly honourable, Peter?" said Lancelot, shaking his head.
"Oh well! I couldn't give it up altogether, but I do practically stick to the contract—it's all overtime, you know. It doesn't interfere a bit with business. Besides, as you'd say, it isn't music," he said slyly. "And just because I don't want it I make a heap of coin out of it—that's why I'm so vexed at your keeping me still in your debt."
Lancelot frowned. "Then you had no difficulty in getting published?" he asked.
"I don't say that. It was bribery and corruption so far as my first song was concerned. I tipped a professional to go down and tell Brahmson he was going to take it up. You know, of course, well-known singers get half a guinea from the publisher every time they sing a song."
"No; do they?" said Lancelot. "How mean of them."
"Business, my boy. It pays the publisher to give it them. Look at the advertisement!"
"But suppose a really fine song was published and the publisher refused to pay this blood-money?"
"Then I suppose they'd sing some other song, and let that moulder on the foolish publisher's shelves."
"Great heavens!" said Lancelot, jumping up from the piano in wild excitement. "Then a musician's reputation is really at the mercy of a mercenary crew of singers, who respect neither art nor themselves. Oh yes, we are indeed a musical people!"
"Easy there! Several of 'em are pals of mine, and I'll get them to take up those ballads of yours as soon as you write 'em."
"Let them go to the devil with their ballads!" roared Lancelot, and with a sweep of his arm whirled Good-night and good-bye into the air. Peter picked it up and wrote something on it with a stylographic pen which he produced from his waistcoat pocket.
"There!" he said, "that'll make you remember it's your own property—and mine—that you are treating so disrespectfully."
"I beg your pardon, old chap," said Lancelot, rebuked and remorseful.
"Don't mention it," replied Peter. "And whenever you decide to become rich and famous—there's your model."
"Never! never! never!" cried Lancelot, when Peter went at ten. "My poor Beethoven! What you must have suffered! Never mind, I'll play you your Moonlight sonata."
He touched the keys gently, and his sorrows and his temptations faded from him. He glided into Bach, and then into Chopin and Mendelssohn, and at last drifted into dreamy improvisation, his fingers moving almost of themselves, his eyes, half closed, seeing only inward visions.
And then, all at once, he awoke with a start, for Beethoven was barking towards the door, with pricked-up ears and rigid tail.
"Sh! You little beggar," he murmured, becoming conscious that the hour was late, and that he himself had been noisy at unbeseeming hours. "What's the matter with you?" And, with a sudden thought, he threw open the door.
It was merely Mary Ann.
Her face—flashed so unexpectedly upon him—had the piquancy of a vision, but its expression was one of confusion and guilt; there were tears on her cheeks; in her hand was a bed-room candlestick.
She turned quickly, and began to mount the stairs. Lancelot put his hand on her shoulder, and turned her face towards him, and said in an imperious whisper:
"Now then, what's up? What are you crying about?"
"I ain't—I mean I'm not crying," said Mary Ann, with a sob in her breath.
"Come, come, don't fib. What's the matter?"
"I'm not crying; it's only the music," she murmured.
"The music," he echoed, bewildered.
"Yessir. The music always makes me cry—but you can't call it crying—it feels so nice."
"Oh, then you've been listening!"
"Yessir." Her eyes drooped in humiliation.
"But you ought to have been in bed," he said. "You get little enough sleep as it is."
"It's better than sleep," she answered.
The simple phrase vibrated through him like a beautiful minor chord. He smoothed her hair tenderly.
"Poor child!" he said.
There was an instant's silence. It was past midnight, and the house was painfully still. They stood upon the dusky landing, across which a bar of light streamed from his half-open door, and only Beethoven's eyes were upon them. But Lancelot felt no impulse to fondle her; only just to lay his hand on her hair, as in benediction and pity.
"So you liked what I was playing," he said, not without a pang of personal pleasure.
"Yessir; I never heard you play that before."
"So you often listen!"
"I can hear you, even in the kitchen. Oh, it's just lovely! I don't care what I have to do then, if it's grates or plates or steps. The music goes and goes, and I feel back in the country again, and standing, as I used to love to stand of an evening, by the stile, under the big elm, and watch how the sunset did redden the white birches, and fade in the water. Oh, it was so nice in the springtime, with the hawthorn that grew on the other bank, and the bluebells——"
The pretty face was full of dreamy tenderness, the eyes lit up witchingly. She pulled herself up suddenly, and stole a shy glance at her auditor.
"Yes, yes, go on," he said; "tell me all you feel about the music."
"And there's one song you sometimes play that makes me feel floating on and on like a great white swan."
She hummed a few bars of the Gondel-Lied—flawlessly.
"Dear me! you have an ear!" he said, pinching it. "And how did you like what I was playing just now?" he went on, growing curious to know how his own improvisations struck her.
"Oh, I liked it so much," she whispered enthusiastically, "because it reminded me of my favourite one—every moment I did think—I thought—you were going to come into that."
The whimsical sparkle leapt into his eyes.
"And I thought I was so original," he murmured.
"But what I liked best," she began, then checked herself, as if suddenly remembering she had never made a spontaneous remark before, and lacking courage to establish a precedent.
"Yes—what you liked best?" he said encouragingly.
"That song you sang this afternoon," she said shyly.
"What song? I sang no song," he said, puzzled for a moment.
"Oh yes! That one about—
'Kiss me, dear love, good-night.'
I was going upstairs, but it made me stop just here—and cry."
He made his comic grimace.
"So it was you Beethoven was barking at! And I thought he had an ear! And I thought you had an ear! But no! You're both Philistines, after all. Heigho!"
She looked sad. "Oughtn't I to ha' liked it?" she asked anxiously.
"Oh yes," he said reassuringly, "it's very popular. No drawing-room is without it."
She detected the ironic ring in his voice. "It wasn't so much the music," she began apologetically.
"Now—now you're going to spoil yourself," he said. "Be natural."
"But it wasn't," she protested. "It was the words——"
"That's worse," he murmured below his breath.
"They reminded me of my mother as she laid dying."
"Ah!" said Lancelot.
"Yes, sir, mother was a long time dying—it was when I was a little girl, and I used to nurse her—I fancy it was our little Sally's death that killed her; she took to her bed after the funeral, and never left it till she went to her own," said Mary Ann, with unconscious flippancy. "She used to look up to the ceiling and say that she was going to little Sally, and I remember I was such a silly then, I brought mother flowers and apples and bits of cake to take to Sally with my love. I put them on her pillow, but the flowers faded and the cake got mouldy—mother was such a long time dying—and at last I ate the apples myself, I was so tired of waiting. Wasn't I silly?" And Mary Ann laughed a little laugh with tears in it. Then growing grave again, she added: "And at last, when mother was really on the point of death, she forgot all about little Sally, and said she was going to meet Tom. And I remember thinking she was going to America. I didn't know people talk nonsense before they die."
"They do—a great deal of it, unfortunately," said Lancelot lightly, trying to disguise from himself that his eyes were moist. He seemed to realise now what she was—a child; a child who, simpler than most children to start with, had grown only in body, whose soul had been stunted by uncounted years of dull and monotonous drudgery. The blood burnt in his veins as he thought of the cruelty of circumstance and the heartless honesty of her mistress. He made up his mind for the second time to give Mrs. Leadbatter a piece of his mind in the morning.
"Well, go to bed now, my poor child," he said, "or you'll get no rest at all."
She went obediently up a couple of stairs, then turned her head appealingly towards him. The tears still glimmered on her eyelashes. For an instant he thought she was expecting her kiss, but she only wanted to explain anxiously once again, "That was why I liked that song, 'Kiss me, good-night, dear love.' It was what my mother——"
"Yes, yes, I understand," he broke in, half amused, though somehow the words did not seem so full of maudlin pathos to him now. "And there——"—he drew her head towards him—"Kiss me, good-night——"
He did not complete the quotation; indeed, her lips were already drawn too close to his. But, ere he released her, the long-repressed thought had found expression.
"You don't kiss anybody but me?" he said half playfully.
"Oh no, sir," said Mary Ann earnestly.
"What!" more lightly still. "Haven't you got half a dozen young men?"
Mary Ann shook her head, more regretfully than resentfully. "I told you I never go out—except for little errands."
She had told him, but his attention had been so concentrated on the ungrammatical form in which she had conveyed the information, that the fact itself had made no impression. Now his anger against Mrs. Leadbatter dwindled. After all, she was wise in not giving Mary Ann the run of the London streets.
"But"—he hesitated. "How about the—the milkman—and the—the other gentlemen."
"Please, sir," said Mary Ann, "I don't like them."
After that no man could help expressing his sense of her good taste.
"Then you won't kiss anybody but me," he said, as he let her go for the last time. He had a Quixotic sub-consciousness that he was saving her from his kind by making her promise formally.
"How could I, Mr. Lancelot?" And the brimming eyes shone with soft light. "I never shall—never."
It sounded like a troth.
He went back to the room and shut the door, but could not shut out her image. The picture she had unwittingly supplied of herself took possession of his imagination: he saw her almost as a dream-figure—the virginal figure he knew—standing by the stream in the sunset, amid the elms and silver birches, with daisies in her hands and bluebells at her feet, inhaling the delicate scent that wafted from the white hawthorn bushes, and watching the water glide along till it seemed gradually to wash away the fading colours of the sunset that glorified it. And as he dwelt on the vision he felt harmonies and phrases stirring and singing in his brain, like a choir of awakened birds. Quickly he seized paper and wrote down the theme that flowed out at the point of his pen—a reverie full of the haunting magic of quiet waters and woodland sunsets and the gracious innocence of maidenhood. When it was done he felt he must give it a distinctive name. He cast about for one, pondering and rejecting titles innumerable. Countless lines of poetry ran through his head, from which he sought to pick a word or two as one plucks a violet from a posy. At last a half-tender, half-whimsical look came into his face, and picking his pen out of his hair, he wrote merely—"Marianne."