"Let me go! let me go!" she exclaimed. "Are you mad?"
Frank caught up his fiddle. At last Lizzie wrenched herself from Mike.
"What do you mean? ... Such nonsense!"
Laughing, Mike placed her in a chair, and uncovering a dish, said—
"What shall I give you this happy day?"
"What do you mean? I don't like being pulled about."
"You know what tune that is? That's the 'Wedding March.'"
"Who's going to be married? Not you."
"I don't know so much about that. At all events I am in love. The sensation is delicious—like an ice or a glass of Chartreuse. Real love—all the others were coarse passions—I feel it here, the genuine article. You would not believe that I could fall in love."
"Listen to me," said Lizzie. "You wouldn't talk like that if you were in love."
"I always talk; it relieves me. You have no idea how nice she is; so frail, so white—a white blonde, a Seraphita. But you haven't read Balzac; you do not know those white women of the North. 'Plus blanche que la blanche hermine,' etc. So pure is she that I cannot think of kissing her without sensations of sacrilege. My lips are not pure enough for hers. I would I were chaste. I never was chaste."
Mike laughed and chattered of everything. Words came from him like flour from a mill.
The Pilgrim was published on Wednesday. Wednesday was the day, therefore, for walking in the Park; for lunching out; for driving in hansoms. Like a fish on the crest of a wave he surveyed London—multitudinous London, circulating about him; and he smiled with pleasure when he caught sight of trees spreading their summer green upon the curling whiteness of the clouds. He loved the Park. The Park had always been his friend; it had given him society when no door was open to him; it had been the inspiration of all his ambitions; it was the Park that had first showed him ladies and gentlemen in all the gaud and charm of town leisure. There he had seen for the first time the panorama of slanting sunshades, patent leather shoes, horses cantering in the dusty sunlight, or proudly grouped, the riders flicking the flies away with gold-headed whips. He loved the androgynous attire of the horsewomen—collars, silk hats, and cravats. The Park appealed to him intensely and strangely as nothing else did. He loved the Park for the great pasture it afforded to his vanity. It was in the Park he saw the fashionable procuress driving—she who would not allow him to pay even for champagne in her house; it was in the Park he met the little actress who looked so beseechingly in his face; it was in the Park he met fashionable ladies who asked him to dinner and took him to the theatre; it was in the Park he had found life and fortune, and, saturated with happiness, with health, tingling with consciousness of his happiness, Mike passed among the various crowd, which in its listlessness seemed to balance and air itself like a many-petalled flower. But much as the crowd amused and pleased him, he was more amused and pleased with the present vision of his own personality, which in a long train of images and stories passed within him. He loved to dream of himself; in dreams he entered his soul like a temple, seeing himself in various environment, and acting in manifold circumstances.
"Here am I—a poor boy from the bogs of Ireland—poor people" (the reflection was an unpleasant one, and he escaped from it); "at all events a poor boy without money or friends. I have made myself what I am.... I get the best of everything—women, eating, clothes; I live in beautiful rooms surrounded with pretty things. True, they are not mine, but what does that matter?—I haven't the bother of looking after them.... If I could only get rid of that cursed accent, but I haven't much; Escott has nearly as much, and he was brought up at an English school. How pleasant it is to have money! Heigho! How pleasant it is to have money! Six pounds a week from the paper, and I could make easily another four if I chose. Sometimes I don't get any presents; women seem as if they were going to chuck it up, and then they send all things—money, jewelry, and comestibles. I am sure it was Ida who sent that hundred pounds. What should I do if it ever came out? But there's nothing to come out. I believe I am suspected, but nothing can be proved against me.
"Why do they love me? I always treat them badly. Often I don't even pretend to love them, but it makes no difference. Pious women, wicked women, stupid women, clever women, high-class women, low-class women, it is all the same—all love me. That little girl I picked up in the Strand liked me before she had been talking to me five minutes. And what sudden fancies! I come into a room, and every feminine eye fills with sudden emotion. I wonder what it is. My nose is broken, and my chin sticks out like a handle. And men like me just as much as women do. It is inexplicable. True, I never say disagreeable things; and it is so natural to me to wheedle. I twist myself about them like a twining plant about a window. Women forgive me everything, and are glad to see me after years. But they are never wildly jealous. Perhaps I have never been really loved.... I don't know though—Lady Seeley loved me. There was an old lady at Margate, sixty if she was a day (of course there was nothing improper), and she worshipped me. How nicely she used to smile when she said, 'Come round here that I may look at you!'—and her husband was quite as bad; he'd run all over the place after me. So-and-so was quite offended because I didn't rush to see him; he'd put me up for six months.... Servants hate Frank; for me they'd do anything. I never was in a lodging-house in my life that the slavey didn't fall in love with me. People dislike me; I speak to them for five minutes, and henceforth they run after me. I make friends everywhere.
"Those Americans wanted me to come and stay six months with them in New York. How she did press me to come! ... The Brookes, they want me to come and stay in the country with them; they'd give me horses to ride, guns to shoot, and I'd get the girls besides. They looked rather greedily at me just now. How jealous poor old Emily is of them! She says I'd 'go to the end of the earth for them'—and would not raise a little finger for her. Dear old Emily, she wasn't a bit cross the other night when I wouldn't go home with her. I must go and see her. She says she loved me—really loved me! ... She used to lie and dream of pulling me out of burning houses. I wonder why I am liked! How intangible, and yet how real! What a wonderful character I would make in a novel!"
At that moment he saw Mrs. Byril in the crowd; but notwithstanding his kind thoughts of her, he prayed she might pass without seeing him. Perceiving Lady Helen walking with her husband and Harding, he followed her slim figure with his eyes, remembering what Seymour's good looks had brought him, for he envied all love, desiring to be himself all that women desire. Then his thoughts wandered. The decoration of the Park absorbed him—the nobility of a group of horses, the attractiveness of some dresses; and amid all this elegance and parade he dreamed of tragedy—of some queen blowing her brains out for him—and he saw the fashionable dress and the blood oozing from the temple, trickling slowly through the sand. Then Lords Muchross and Snowdown passed, and they passed without acknowledging him!
"Cads, cads, damn them!" His face changed expression. "I may rise to any height, queens may fall down and worship me, but I may never undo my birth. Not to have been born a gentleman! That is to say, of a long line—a family with a history. Not to be able to whisper, 'I may lose everything, all troubles may be mine, but the fact remains that I was born a gentleman!' Those two men who cut me are lords. What a delight in one's life to have a name all to one's self!" And then Mike lost himself in a maze of little dreams. A gleam of mail; escutcheons and castles; a hawk flew from fingers fair; a lady clasped her hands when the lances shivered in the tourney; and Mike was the hero that persisted in the course of this shifting little dream.
The Brookes—Sally and Maggie—stopped to speak to him, and he went to lunch with them. His interest in all they did and said was unbounded, and that he might not be able to reproach himself with waste of time, he contrived by hint and allusion to lay the foundation for a future intrigue with one of the girls.
Lily Young, however, had never been forgotten; she had been as constantly present in his mind as this sense of the sunshine and his own happy condition. She had been parcel of and one with these but now; as he drove to see her, he separated her from the morning phenomena of his life, and began to think definitely of her.
Smiling, he called himself a brute, and regretted his failure. But in her presence his cynicism was evanescent. She sat on a little sofa, covered with an Indian shawl; behind her was a great bronze, the celebrated gift of a celebrated Rajah to her mother. Mrs. Young had been on a tour in the East with her husband, and ever since her house had been frequented by decrepit old gentlemen interested in Arabi, and other matters which they spoke of as Eastern questions.
Lily looked at Mike under her eyes as she passed across the room to get him some tea, and they talked a little while. Then some three or four great and very elderly historians entered, and she had to leave him; and feeling he could not prolong his visit he went, conscious of sensations of purity and some desire of goodness, if not for itself, for the grace that goodness brings. He paid many visits in this house, but conversations with learned Buddhists seemed the only result; a tete-a-tete with Lily seemed impossible. To his surprise he never met her in society, and his heart beat fast when one evening he heard she was expected; and for the first time forgetful of the multitude, and nervous as a school-boy in search of his first love, he sought her in the crowd. He feared to remain with her, and it seemed to him he had accomplished much in asking her to come down to supper. When talking to others his thoughts were with her, and his eyes followed her. An inquisitive woman noted his agitation, and suspecting the cause, said, "I see, I see, and I think something may come of it." Even when Lily left he did not recover his ordinary humour, and about two in the morning, in sullen weariness and disappointment, he offered to drive Lady Helen home.
Should he make love to her? He had often wished to. Here was an opportunity.
"You did not see that I was looking at you tonight; you did not guess what I was thinking of?"
"Yes, I did; you were looking at and thinking of my arms."
Should he pass his arm round her? Lady Helen knew Lily, and might tell; he did not dare it, and instead, spoke of her contributions to the paper. Then the conversation branched into a description of the Wednesday night festivities in Temple Gardens—the shouting and cheering of the lords, the comic vocalists, the inimitable Arthur, the extraordinary Bessie. He told, with fits of laughter, of Muchross's stump speeches, and how he had once got on the supper-table and sat down in the very centre, regardless of plates and dishes. Mike and Lady Helen nearly died of laughter when he related how on one occasion Muchross and Snowdown, both crying drunk, had called in a couple of sweeps. "You see," he said, "the look of amazement on their faces, and the black 'uns were forced into two chairs, and were waited upon by the lords, who tucked their napkins under their arms."
"Oh don't, oh don't!" said Lady Helen, leaning back exhausted.
But Mike went on, though he was hardly able to speak, and told how Muchross and Snowdown had danced the can-can, kicking at the chandelier from time to time, the sweeps keeping time with their implements on the sideboard; the revel finishing up with a wrestling match, Muchross taking the big sweep, and Snowdown the little one.
"You should have seen them rolling over under the dining-room table; I shall never forget Snowdown's shirt."
"I should like to see one of these entertainments. Do you ever have a ladies' night? If you do, and the ladies are not supposed to wrestle with the laundresses in the early light, I should like to come."
"Oh, yes, do come; Frank will be delighted. I'll see that things are kept within bounds." The conversation fell, and he regretted he must forego this very excellent opportunity to make love to her.
Next day, changed in his humour, but still thinking of Lily, he went to see Mrs. Byril, and he stopped a few days with her. He was always strict in his own room, and if Emily sought him in the morning he reprimanded her.
She was one of those women who, having much heart, must affect more; a weak intelligent woman, honest and loyal—one who could not live without a lover. And with her arms about his neck, she listened to his amours, and learnt his poetry by heart. Mike was her folly, and she would never have thought of another if, as she said, he had only behaved decently to her. "I am sorry, darling, I told you anything about it, but when I got your beastly letter I wrote to him. Tell me you'll come and stay with me next month, and I'll put him off.... I hate this new girl; I am jealous because she may influence you, but for the others—the Brookes and their friends—the half-hours spent in summer-houses when the gardener is at dinner, I care not one jot." So she spoke as she lay upon his knees in the black satin arm-chair in the drawing-room.
But her presence at breakfast—that invasion of the morning hours—was irritating; he hated the request to be in to lunch, and the duty of spending the evening in her drawing-room, instead of in club or bar-room. He desired freedom to spend each minute as the caprice of the moment prompted. Were he a rich man he would not have lived with Frank; to live with a man was unpleasant; to live with a woman was intolerable. In the morning he must be alone to dream of a book or poem; in the afternoons, about four, he was glad to aestheticize with Harding or Thompson, or abandon himself to the charm of John's aspirations.
John and he were often seen walking together, and they delighted in the Temple. The Temple is escapement from the omniscient domesticity which is so natural to England; and both were impressionable to its morning animation—the young men hurrying through the courts and cloisters, the picturesqueness of a wig and gown passing up a flight of steps. It seemed that the old hall, the buttresses and towers, the queer tunnels leading from court to court, turned the edge of the commonplace of life. Nor did the Temple ever lose for them its quaint and primitive air, and as they strolled about the cloisters talking of art or literature, they experienced a delight that cannot be quite put into words; and were strangely glad as they opened the iron gates, and looked on all the many brick entanglements with the tall trees rising, spreading the delicate youth of leaves upon the weary red of the tiles and the dim tones of the dear walls.
"A gentel Manciple there was of the Temple Of whom achatours mighten take ensample For to ben wise in bying of vitaille."
The gentle shade of linden trees, the drip of the fountain, the monumented corner where Goldsmith rests, awake even in the most casual and prosaic a fleeting touch of romance. And the wide steps with balustrades sweeping down in many turnings to the gardens, cause vagrant and hurrying steps to pause, and wander about the library and through the gardens, which lead with such charm of way to the open spaces of the King's Bench walk.
There, there is another dining-hall and another library. The clock is ringing out the hour, and the place is filled with young men in office clothes, hurrying on various business with papers in their hands; and such young male life is one of the charms of the Temple; and the absence of women is refreshment to the eye wearied of their numbers in the streets. The Temple is an island in the London sea. Immediately you pass the great doorway, studded with great nails, you pass out of the garishness of the merely modern day, unhallowed by any associations, into a calmer and benigner day, over which floats some shadow of the great past. The old staircases lighted by strange lanterns, the river of lingering current, bearing in its winding so much of London into one enchanted view. The church built by the Templars more than seven hundred years ago, now stands in the centre of the inn all surrounded, on one side yellowing smoke-dried cloisters, on another side various closes, feebly striving in their architecture not to seem too shamefully out of keeping with its beauty. There it stands in all the beauty of its pointed arches and triple lancet windows, as when it was consecrated by the Patriarch of Jerusalem in the year 1185.
But in 1307 a great ecclesiastical tribunal was held in London, and it was proved that an unfortunate knight, who had refused to spit upon the cross, was haled from the dining-hall and drowned in a well, and testimony of the secret rites that were held there, and in which a certain black idol was worshipped, was forthcoming. The Grand Master was burnt at the stake, the knights were thrown into prison, and their property was confiscated. Then the forfeited estate of the Temple, presenting ready access by water, at once struck the advocates of the Court of Common Pleas at Westminster, and the students who were candidates for the privilege of pleading therein, as a most desirable retreat, and interest was made with the Earl of Lancaster, the king's first cousin, who had claimed the forfeited property of the monks by escheat, as the immediate lord of the fee, for a lodging in the Temple, and they first gained a footing there as his lessees.
Above all, the church with its round tower-like roof was very dear to Mike and John, and they often spoke of the splendid spectacle of the religious warriors marching in procession, their white tunics with red crosses, their black and white banner called Beauseant. It is seen on the circular panels of the vaulting of the side aisles, and on either side the letters BEAUSEANT. There stands the church of the proud Templars, a round tower-like church, fitting symbol of those soldier monks, at the west end of a square church, the square church engrafted upon the circular so as to form one beautiful fabric. The young men lingered around the time-worn porch, lovely with foliated columns, strange with figures in prayer, and figures holding scrolls. And often without formulating their intentions in words they entered the church. Beneath the groined ribs of the circular tower lie the mail-clad effigies of the knights, and through beautiful gracefulness of grouped pillars the painted panes shed bright glow upon the tesselated pavement. The young men passed beneath the pointed arches and waited, their eyes raised to the celestial blueness of the thirteenth-century window, and then in silence stole back whither the knights sleep so grimly, with hands clasped on their breasts and their long swords.
And seeing himself in those times, clad in armour, a knight Templar walking in procession in that very church, John recited a verse of Tennyson's Sir Galahad—
"Sometimes on lonely mountain meres I find a magic bark; I leap on board; no helmsman steers: I float till all is dark. A gentle sound, an awful light! Three angels bear the holy Grail; With folded feet, in stoles of white, On sleeping wings they sail. Ah, blessed vision! blood of God! My spirit beats her mortal bars, As down dark tides the glory slides, And star-like mingles with the stars."
"Oh! very beautiful. 'On sleeping wings they sail.' Say it again."
John repeated the stanza, his eyes fixed upon the knight.
"How different to-day the girls of the neighbourhood, their prayer-books and umbrellas! Yet I don't think the anachronism displeases me."
"You say that to provoke me; you cannot think that all the dirty little milliners' girls of the neighbourhood are more dignified than these Templars marching in procession and taking their places with iron clangour in the choir."
"So far as that is concerned," said Mike, who loved to "draw" John, "the little girls of the neighbourhood in all probability wash themselves a great deal oftener than the Templars ever did. And have you forgotten the accusations that were brought against them before the ecclesiastical tribunal assembled in London? What about the black idol with shining eyes and gilded head?"
"Their vices were at least less revolting than the disgustful meanness of to-day; besides, nothing is really known about the reasons for the suppression of the Templars. Men who forswear women are open to all contumely. Oh! the world is wondrous, just wondrous well satisfied with its domestic ideals."
The conversation came to a pause, and then Mike spoke of Lily Young, and extolled her subtle beauty and intelligence.
"I never liked any one as I do her. I am ashamed of myself when I think of her purity."
"The purity of ... Had she been pure she would have remained in her convent."
"If you had heard her speak of her temptations...."
"I do not want to hear her temptations. But it was you who tempted her to leave her convent. I cannot but think that you should marry her. There is nothing for you but marriage. You must change your life. Think of the constant sin you are living in."
"But I don't believe in sin."
With a gesture that declared a non-admission of such a state of soul, John hesitated, and then he said—
"The beastliness of it!"
"We have to live," said Mike, "since nature has so willed it, but I fully realize the knightliness of your revolt against the principle of life."
John continued his admonitions, and Mike an amused and appreciative listener.
"At all events, I wish you would promise not to indulge in improper conversation when I am present. It is dependent upon me to beg of you to oblige me in this. It will add greatly to your dignity to refrain; but that is your concern; I am thinking now only of myself. Will you promise me this?"
"Yes, and more; I will promise not to indulge in such conversation, even when you are not present. It is, as you say, lowering.... I agree with you. I will strive to mend my ways."
And Mike was sincere; he was determined to become worthy of Lily. And now the best hours of his life—hours strangely tense and strangely personal—were passed in that Kensington drawing-room. She was to him like the light of a shrine; he might kneel and adore from afar, but he might not approach. The goddess had come to him like the moon to Endymion. He knew nothing, not even if he were welcome. Each visit was the same as the preceding. A sweet but exasperating changelessness reigned in that drawing-room—that pretty drawing-room where mother and daughter sat in sweet naturalness, removed from the grossness and meanness of life as he knew it. Neither illicit whispering nor affectation of reserve, only the charm of strict behaviour; unreal and strange was the refinement, material and mental, in which they lived. And for a time the charm sufficed; desire was at rest. But she had been to see him, however at variance such a visit, such event seemed with her present demeanour. And she must come again! In increasing restlessness he conned all the narrow chances of meeting her, of speaking to her alone. But no accident varied the even tenor of their lives, the calm lake-like impassibility of their relations, and in last resort he urged Frank to give a dance or an At Home. And how ardently he pleaded, one afternoon, sitting face to face with mother and daughter. Inwardly agitated, but with outward calm, he impressed upon them many reasons for their being of the party. The charm of the Temple, the river, and glitter of light, the novel experience of bachelors' quarters.... They promised to come.
Mike leaned forward to tie his white cravat. He was slight, and white and black, and he thought of Lily, of the exquisite pleasure of seeing her and leading her away. And he was pleased and surprised to find that his thoughts of her were pure.
The principal contributors to the Pilgrim had been invited, and a selection had been made from the fast and fashionable gang—those who could be trusted neither to become drunk or disorderly. It had been decided, but not without misgivings, to ask Muchross and Snowdown.
The doors were open, servants could be seen passing with glasses and bottles. Frank, who had finished dressing, called from the drawing-room and begged Mike to hasten; for the housemaid was waiting to arrange his room, for it had been decided that this room should serve as a lounge where dancers might sit between the waltzes.
"She can come in now," he shouted. He folded the curtains of his strange bed; he lighted a silver lamp, re-arranged his palms, and smiled, thinking of the astonished questions when he invited young ladies to be seated among the numerous cushions. And Mike determined he would say that he considered his bed-room far too sacred to admit of any of the base wants of life being performed there.
It was well-dressed Bohemia, with many markings and varied with contrasting shades. The air was as sugar about the doorway with the scent of gardenias; young lords shrank from the weather-stained cloth of doubtful journalists, and a lady in long puce Cashmere provoked a smile. Frank received his guests with laughter and epigram.
The emancipation of the women is marked by the decline of the chaperon, and it was not clear under whose protection the young girls had come. Beneath double rows of ruche-rose feet passed, and the soft glow of lamps shaded with large leaves of pale glass bathed the women's flesh in endless half tints; the reflected light of copper shades flushed the blonde hair on Lady Helen's neck to auroral fervencies.
In one group a fat man with white hair and faded blue eyes talked to Mrs. Bentham and Lewis Seymour. A visit to the Haymarket Theatre being arranged, he said—
"May I hope to be permitted to form one of the party?"
Harding overheard the remark. He said, "It is difficult to believe, but I assure you that that Mr. Senbrook was one of the greatest Don Juans that ever lived."
"We have in this room Don Juan in youth, middle age, and old age—Mike Fletcher, Lewis Seymour, and Mr. Senbrook."
"Did Seymour, that fellow with the wide hips, ever have success with women? How fat he has grown!"
"Rather; [Footnote: See A Modern Lover.] don't you know his story? He came up to London with a few pounds. When we knew him first he was starving in Lambeth. You remember, Thompson, the day he stood us a lunch? He had just taken a decorative panel to a picture-dealer's, for which he had received a few pounds, and he told us how he had met a lady (there's the lady, the woman with the white hair, Mrs. Bentham) in the picture-dealer's shop. She fell in love with him and took him down to her country house to decorate it. She sent him to Paris to study, and it was said employed a dealer for years to buy his pictures."
"And he dropped her for Lady Helen?"
"Not exactly. Lady Helen dragged him away from her. He never seized or dropped anything."
"Then what explanation do you give of his success?" said a young barrister.
"His manner was always gentle and insinuating. Ladies found him pretty to look upon, and very soothing. Mike is just the same; but of course Seymour never had any of Mike's brilliancy or enthusiasm."
"Do you know anything of the old gentleman—Senbrook's his name?"
"I have heard that those watery eyes of his were once of entrancing violet hue, and I believe he was wildly enthusiastic in his love. His life has been closely connected with mine."
"I didn't know you knew him."
"I do not know him. Yet he poisoned my happiest years; he is the upas-tree in whose shade I slept. When I was in Paris I loved a lady; and I used to make sacrifices for this lady, who was, needless to say, not worthy of them; but she had loved Senbrook in her earliest youth, and it appears when a woman has once loved Senbrook, she can love none other. You wouldn't think it, to look at him now, but I assure you it is so. France is filled with the women he once loved. The provincial towns are dotted with them. I know eight—eight exist to my personal knowledge. Sometimes a couple live together, united by the indissoluble fetter of a Senbrook betrayal. They know their lives are broken, and they are content that their lives should be broken. They have loved Senbrook, therefore there is nothing to do but retire to France. You may think I am joking, but I'm not. It is comic, but that is no reason why it shouldn't be true. And these ladies neither forget nor upbraid; and they will attack you like tigers if you dare say a word against him. This creation of faith is the certain sign of Don Juan! No matter how cruelly the real Don Juan behaves, the women he has deceived are ready to welcome him. After years they meet him in all forgetfulness of wrong. Examine history, and you will find that the love inspired by the real Don Juan ends only with death. Nor am I sure that the women attach much importance to his infidelities; they accept them, his infidelities being a consequential necessity of his being, the eons and the attributes of his godhead. Don Juan inspires no jealousy; Don Juan stabbed by an infuriated mistress is a psychological impossibility."
"I have heard that Seymour used to drive Lady Helen crazy with jealousy."
"Don Juan disappears at the church-door. He was her husband. The most unfaithful wife is wildly jealous of her husband."
A sudden silence fell, and a young girl was borne out fainting.
"Nothing more common than for young girls to faint when he is present. Go," said Harding, "and you will hear her calling his name." Then, picking up the thread of the paradox, he continued—"But you can't have Don Juan in this century, our civilization has wiped him out; not the vice of which he is representative—that is eternal—but the spectacle of adventure of which he is the hero. No more fascinating idea. Had the age admitted of Don Juan, I should have written out his soul long ago. I love the idea. With duelling and hose picturesqueness has gone out of life. The mantle and the rapier are essential; and angry words...."
"Are angry words picturesque?"
"Angry words mean angry attitudes; and they are picturesque."
The young men smiled at the fascinating eloquence, and feeling an appreciative audience about him, Harding continued—
"See Mike Fletcher, know him, understand him, and imagine what he would have been in the eighteenth century, the glory of adventure he would have gathered. His life to-day is a mean parody upon an easily realizable might-have-been. So vital is the idea in him that his life to-day is the reflection of a life that burned in another age too ardently to die with death. In another age Mike would have outdone Casanova. Casanova!—what a magnificent Casanova he would have been! Casanova is to me the most fascinating of characters. He was everything—a frequenter of taverns and palaces, a necromancer. His audacity and unscrupulousness, his comedies, his immortal memoirs! What was that delightful witty remark he made to some stupid husband who lay on the ground, complaining that Casanova hadn't fought fairly? You remember? it was in an avenue of chestnut trees, approaching a town. Ha! I have forgotten. Mike has all that this man had—love of adventure, daring, courage, strength, beauty, skill. For Mike would have made a unique swordsman. Have you ever seen him ride? Have you ever seen him shoot? I have seen him knock a dozen pigeons over in succession. Have you ever seen him play billiards? He often makes a break of a hundred. Have you ever seen him play tennis? He is the best man we have in the Temple. And a poet! Have you ever heard him tell of the poem he is writing? The most splendid subject. He says that neither Goethe nor Hugo ever thought of a better."
"You may include self-esteem in your list of his qualities."
"A platitude! Self-esteem is synonymous to genius. Still, I do not suppose he would in any circumstances have been a great poet; but there is enough of the poet about him to enhance and complete his Don Juan genius."
"You would have to mend his broken nose before you could cite him as a model Don Juan."
"On the contrary, by breaking his nose chance emphasized nature's intention; for a broken nose is the element of strangeness so essential in modern beauty, or shall I say modern attractiveness? But see that slim figure in hose, sword on thigh, wrapped in rich mantle, arriving on horseback with Liperello! Imagine the castle balcony, and the pale sky, green and rose, pensive as her dream, languid as her attitude. Then again, the grand staircase with courtiers bowing solemnly; or maybe the wave lapping the marble, the gondola shooting through the shadow! What encounters, what assignations, what disappearances, what sudden returnings! So strong is the love idea in him, that it has suscitated all that is inherent and essential in the character. It sent him to Boulogne so that he might fight a duel; and the other day a nun left her convent for him. Curious atavism, curious recrudescence of a dead idea of man! Say, is it his fault if his pleasures are limited to clandestine visits; his fame to a summons to appear in a divorce case; his danger to that most pitiful of modern ignominies—five shillings a week? ... Bah! this age has much to answer for."
"But Casanova was a marvellous necromancer, an extraordinary gambler."
"I know no more enthusiastic gambler than Mike. Have you ever seen him play whist? At Boulogne he cleaned them all out at baccarat."
"And lost heavily next day, and left without paying."
"The facts of the case have not been satisfactorily established. Have you seen him do tricks with cards? He used to be very fond of card tricks; and, by Jove! now I remember, there was a time when ladies came to consult him. He had two pieces of paper folded up in the same way. He gave one to the lady to write her question on; she placed it in a cleft stick and burnt it in a lamp; but the stick was cleft at both ends, and Mike managed it so that she burnt the blank sheet, while he read what she had written. Very trivial; inferior of course to Casanova's immense cabalistic frauds, but it bears out my contention ... Have you ever read the Memoirs? What a prodigious book! Do you remember when the Duchesse de Chartres comes to consult the cabale in the little apartment in the Palais Royal as to the best means of getting rid of the pimples on her face? ... and that scene (so exactly like something Wycherley might have written) when he meets the rich farmer's daughter travelling about with her old uncle, the priest?"
Mike was talking to Alice Barton, who was chaperoning Lily. Though she knew nothing of his character she had drawn back instinctively, but her strictness was gradually annealed in his persuasiveness, and when he rose to go out of the room with Lily, she was astonished that she had pleasure in his society.
Lily was more beautiful than usual, the heat and the pleasure of seeing her admirer having flushed her cheeks. He was penetrated with her sweetness, and the hand laid on his arm thrilled him. Where should he take her? Unfortunately the staircase was in stone; servants were busy in the drawing-room.
"How beautifully Mr. Escott plays the violin!"
The melodious strain reeked through the doorways, filling the passage.
"That is Stradella's 'Chanson d'Eglise.' He always plays it; I'm sick of it."
"Yes, but I'm not. Do not let us go far, I should like to listen."
"I thought you would have preferred to talk with me."
Her manner did not encourage him to repeat his words, and he waited, uncertain what he should say or do. When the piece was over, he said—
"We had to turn my bedroom into a retiring-room. I'm afraid we shall not be alone."
"That does not matter; my mother does not approve of young girls sitting out dances."
"But your mother isn't here."
"I should not think of doing anything I knew she did not wish me to do."
The conversation was interrupted by the entrance of Muchross with several lords, and he was with difficulty dissuaded from an attempt to swarm up the columns of the wonderful bed. The room was full of young girls and barristers gathered from the various courts. Some had stopped before the great Christ. A girl had touched the suspended silver lamp and spoken of "dim religious light"; but by no word or look did Lily admit that she had been there before, and Mike felt it would be useless to remind her that she had. She was the same as she was every Wednesday in her mother's drawing-room. And the party had been given solely with a view of withdrawing her from its influence. What was he to say to this girl? Was he to allow all that had passed between them to slip? Never had he felt so ill at ease. At last, fixing his eyes upon her, he said—
"Let us cease this trifling. Perhaps you do not know how painful it is to me. Tell me, will you come and see me? Do not let us waste time. I never see you alone now."
"I could not think of coming to see you; it would not be right."
"But you did come once."
"That was because I wanted to see where you lived. Now that I know, there would be no reason for coming again."
"You have not forgiven me. If you knew how I regret my conduct! Try and understand that it was for love of you. I was so fearful of losing you. I have lost you; I know it!"
He cursed himself for the irresolution he had shown. Had he made her his mistress she would now be hanging about his neck.
"I forgive you. But I wish you would not speak of love in connection with your conduct; when you do, all my liking for you dies."
"How cruel! Then I shall never kiss you again. Was my kiss so disagreeable? Do you hate to kiss me?"
"I don't know that I do, but it is not right. If I were married to you it would be different."
The conversation fell. Then realizing that he was compromising his chances, he said—
"How can I marry you? I haven't a cent in the world."
"I am not sure I would marry you if you had every cent in the world."
Mike looked at her in despair. She was adorably frail and adorably pale.
"This is very cruel of you." Words seemed very weak, and he feared that in the restlessness and pain of his love he had looked at her foolishly. So he almost welcomed Lady Helen's intrusion upon their tete-a-tete.
"And this is the way you come for your dance, Mr. Fletcher, is it?"
"Have they begun dancing? I did not know it. I beg your pardon."
"And I too am engaged for this dance. I promised it to Mr. Escott," said Lily.
"Let me take you back."
He gave her his arm, assuring himself that if she didn't care for him there were hundreds who did. Lady Helen was one of the handsomest women in London, and he fancied she was thinking of him. And when he returned he stood at the door watching her as she leaned over the mantelpiece reading a letter. She did not put it away at once, but continued reading and playing with the letter as one might with something conclusive and important. She took no precaution against his seeing it, and he noticed that it was in a man's handwriting, and began Ma chere amie. The room was now empty, and the clatter of knives and forks drowned the strains of a waltz.
"You seemed to be very much occupied with that young person. She is very pretty. I advise you to take care."
"I don't want to marry. I shall never marry. Did you think I was in love with Miss Young?"
"Well, it looked rather like it."
"No; I swear you are mistaken. I say, if you don't care about dancing we'll sit down and talk. So you thought I was in love with Miss Young? How could I be in love with her while you are in the room? You know, you must have seen, that I have only eyes for you. The last time I was in Paris I went to see you in the Louvre."
"You say I am like Jean Gougon's statue."
"I think so, so far as a pair of stays allows me to judge."
Lady Helen laughed, but there was no pleasure in her laugh; it was a hard, bitter laugh.
"If only you knew how indifferent I am! What does it matter whether I am like the statue or not? I am indifferent to everything."
"But I admire you because you are like the statue."
"What does it matter to me whether you admire me or not? I don't care."
He had not asked her for the dance; she had sought him of her free-will. What did it mean?
"Why should I care? What is it to me whether you like me or whether you hate me? I know very well that three months after my death every one will have ceased to think of me; three months hence it will be the same as if I had never lived at all."
"You are well off; you have talent and beauty. What more do you want?"
"The world cannot give me happiness. You find happiness in your own heart, not in worldly possessions.... I am a pessimist. I recognize that life is a miserable thing—not only a miserable thing, but a useless thing. We can do no good; there is no good to be done; and life has no advantage except that we can put it off when we will. Schopenhauer is wrong when he asserts that suicide is no solution of the evil; so far as the individual is concerned suicide is a perfect solution, and were the race to cease to-morrow, nature would instantly choose another type and force it into consciousness. Until this earth resolves itself to ice or cinder, matter will never cease to know itself."
"My dear," said Lewis Seymour, who entered the room at that moment, "I am feeling very tired; I think I shall go home, but do not mind me. I will take a hansom—you can have your brougham. You will not mind coming home alone?"
"No, I shall not mind. But do you take the brougham. It will be better so. It will save the horse from cold; I'll come back in a hansom."
Mike noticed a look of relief or of pleasure on her face, he could not distinguish which. He pressed the conversation on wives, husbands, and lovers, striving to lead her into some confession. At last she said—
"I have had a lover for the last four years."
"Really!" said Mike. He hoped his face did not betray his great surprise. This was the first time he had ever heard a lady admit she had had a lover.
"We do not often meet; he doesn't live in England. I have not seen him for more than six months."
"Do you think he is faithful to you all that time?"
"What does it matter whether he is or not? When we meet we love each other just the same."
"I have never known a woman like you. You are the only one that has ever interested me. If you had been my mistress or my wife you would have been happier; you would have worked, and in work, not in pleasure, we may cheat life. You would have written your books, I should have written mine."
"I don't want you to think I am whining about my lot. I know what the value of life is; I'm not deceived, that is all."
"You are unhappy because your present life affords no outlet for your talent. Ah! had you had to fight the battle! How happy it would have made me to fight life with you! I wonder you never thought of leaving your husband, and throwing yourself into the battle of work."
"Supposing I wasn't able to make my living. To give up my home would be running too great a risk."
"How common all are when you begin to know them," thought Mike.
They spoke of the books they had read. She told him of Le Journal d'Amiel, explaining the charm that that lamentable record of a narrow, weak mind, whose power lay in an intense consciousness of its own failure, had for her. She spoke savagely, tearing out her soul, and flinging it as it were in Mike's face, frightening him not a little.
"I wish I had known Amiel; I think I could have loved him."
"Did he never write anything but this diary?"
"Oh, yes; but nothing of any worth. The diary was not written for publication. A friend of his found it among his papers, and from a huge mass extricated two volumes." Then speaking in praise of the pessimism of the Russian novels, she said—"There is no pleasure in life—at least none for me; the only thing that sustains me is curiosity."
"I don't speak of love, but have you no affection for your friends?—you like me, for instance."
"I am interested in you—you rouse my curiosity; but when I know you, I shall pass you by just like another."
"You are frank, to say the least of it. But like all other women, I suppose you like pleasure, and I adore you; I really do. I have never seen any one like you. You are superb to-night; let me kiss you." He took her in his arms.
"No, no; loose me. You do not love me, I do not love you; this is merely vice."
He pleaded she was mistaken. They spoke of indifferent things, and soon after went in to supper.
"What a beautiful piece of tapestry!" said Lady Helen.
"Yes, isn't it. But how strange!" he said, stopping in the doorway. "See how exquisitely real is the unreal—that is to say, how full of idea, how suggestive! Those blue trees and green skies, those nymphs like unswathed mummies, colourless but for the red worsted of their lips,—that one leaning on her bow, pointing to the stag that the hunters are pursuing through a mysterious yellow forest,—are to my mind infinitely more real than the women bending over their plates. At this moment the real is mean and trivial, the ideal is full of evocation."
"The real and the ideal; why distinguish as people usually distinguish between the words? The real is but the shadow of the ideal, the ideal but the shadow of the real."
The table was in disorder of cut pineapple, scattered dishes, and drooping flowers. Muchross, Snowdown, Dicky the driver, and others were grouped about the end of the table, and a waiter who styled them "most amusing gentlemen," supplied fresh bottles of champagne. Muchross had made several speeches, and now jumping on a chair, he discoursed on the tapestry, drawing outrageous parallels, and talking unexpected nonsense. The castle he identified as the cottage where he and Jenny had spent the summer; the bleary-eyed old peacock was the chicken he had dosed with cayenne pepper, hoping to cure its rheumatism; the pool with the white threads for sunlight was the water-butt into which Tom had fallen from the tiles—"those are the hairs out of his own old tail." The nymphs were Laura, Maggie, Emily, &c. Mike asked Lady Helen to come into the dancing-room, but she did not appear to hear, and her laughter encouraged Muchross to further excesses. The riot had reached its height and dancers were beginning to come from the drawing-room to ask what it was all about.
"All about!" shouted Muchross; "I don't care any more about nymphs—I only care about getting drunk and singing. 'What cheer, 'Ria!'"
"Don't you care for dancing?" said Lady Helen, with tears running down her cheeks.
"Ra-ther; see me dance the polka, dear girl." And they went banging through the dancers. Snowdown and Dicky shouted approval.
"What cheer, 'Ria! 'Ria's on the job. What cheer, 'Ria! Speculate a bob. 'Ria is a toff, and she is immensikoff— And we all shouted, What cheer, 'Ria!"
Amid the uproar Lady Helen danced with Lily Young. Insidious fragilities of eighteen were laid upon the plenitudes of thirty! Pure pink and cream-pink floated on the wind of the waltz, fading out of colour in shadowy corners, now gliding into the glare of burnished copper, to the quick appeal of the 'Estudiantina.' A life that had ceased to dream smiled upon one which had begun to dream. Sad eyes of Summer, that may flame with no desire again, looked into the eyes of Spring, where fancies collect like white flowers in the wave of a clear fountain.
Mike and Frank turned shoulder against shoulder across the room, four legs following in intricate unison to the opulent rhythm of the 'Blue Danube'; and when beneath ruche-rose feet died away in little exhausted steps, the men sprang from each other, and the rhythm of sex was restored—Mike with Lily, and Frank with Helen, yielding hearts, hands, and feet in the garden enchantment of Gounod's waltz.
* * * * * *
The smell of burnt-out and quenched candle-ends pervaded the apartment, and slips of gray light appeared between the curtains. The day, alas! had come upon them. Frank yawned; and pale with weariness he longed that his guests might leave him. Chairs had been brought out on the balcony. Muchross and his friends had adjourned from the supper-room, bringing champagne and an hysterical lady with them. Snowdown and Platt were with difficulty dissuaded from attempting acrobatic feats on the parapet; and the city faded from deep purple into a vast grayness. Strange was the little party ensconced in the stone balcony high above the monotone of the river.
Harding and Thompson, for pity of Frank, had spoken of leaving, but the lords and the lady were obdurate. Her husband had left in despair, leaving Muchross to bring her home safely to Notting Hill. As the day broke even the "bluest" stories failed to raise a laugh. At last some left, then the lords left; ten minutes after Mike, Frank, Harding, and Thompson were alone.
"Those infernal fellows wouldn't go, and now I'm not a bit sleepy."
"I am," said Thompson. "Come on, Harding; you are going my way."
"Going your way!"
"Yes; you can go through the Park. The walk will do you good."
"I should like a walk," said Escott, "I'm not a bit sleepy now."
"Come on then; walk with me as far as Hyde Park Corner."
"And come home alone! Not if I know it—I'll go if Mike will come."
"I'll go," said Mike. "You'll come with us, Harding?"
"It is out of my way, but if you are all going ... Where's John Norton?"
"He left about an hour ago."
"Let's wake him up."
As they passed up the Temple towards the Strand entrance, they turned into Pump Court, intending to shout. But John's window was open, and he stood, his head out, taking the air.
"What!—not gone to bed yet?"
"No; I have bad indigestion, and cannot sleep."
"We are going to walk as far as Hyde Park Corner with Thompson. Just the thing for you; you'll walk off your indigestion."
"All right. Wait a moment; I'll put my coat on...."
"I never pass a set of street-sweepers without buttoning up," said Harding, as they went out of the Temple into the Strand. "The glazed shoes I don't mind, but the tie is too painfully significant."
"The old signs of City," said Thompson, as a begging woman rose from a doorstep, and stretched forth a miserable arm and hand.
About the closed wine-shops and oyster-bars of the Haymarket a shadow of the dissipation of the night seemed still to linger; and a curious bent figure passed picking with a spiked stick cigar-ends out of the gutter; significant it was, and so too was the starving dog which the man drove from a bone. The city was mean and squalid in the morning, and conveyed a sense of derision and reproach—the sweep-carriage-road of Regent Street; the Royal Academy, pretentious, aristocratic; the Green Park still presenting some of the graces of a preceding century. There were but three cabs on the rank. The market-carts rolled along long Piccadilly, the great dray-horses shuffling, raising little clouds of dust in the barren street, the men dozing amid the vegetables.
They were now at Hyde Park Corner. Thompson spoke of the improvements—the breaking up of the town into open spaces; but he doubted if anything would be gained by these imitations of Paris. His discourse was, however, interrupted by a porter from the Alexandra Hotel asking to be directed to a certain street. He had been sent to fetch a doctor immediately—a lady just come from an evening party had committed suicide.
"What was she like?" Harding asked.
"A tall woman."
"Dark or fair?"
He couldn't say, but thought she was something between the two. Prompted by a strange curiosity, feeling, they knew not why, but still feeling that it might be some one from Temple Gardens, they went to the hotel, and obtained a description of the suicide from the head-porter. The lady was very tall, with beautiful golden hair. For a description of her dress the housemaid was called.
"I hope," said Mike, "she won't say she was dressed in cream-pink, trimmed with olive ribbons." She did. Then Harding told the porter he was afraid the lady was Lady Helen Seymour, a friend of theirs, whom they had seen that night in a party given in Temple Gardens by this gentleman, Mr. Frank Escott. They were conducted up the desert staircase of the hotel, for the lift did not begin working till seven o'clock. The door stood ajar, and servants were in charge. On the left was a large bed, with dark-green curtains, and in the middle of the room a round table. There were two windows. The toilette-table stood between bed and window, and in the bland twilight of closed Venetian blinds a handsome fire flared loudly, throwing changing shadows upon the ceiling, and a deep, glowing light upon the red panels of the wardrobe. So the room fixed itself for ever on their minds. They noted the crude colour of the Brussels carpet, and even the oilcloth around the toilette-table was remembered. They saw that the round table was covered with a red tablecloth, and that writing materials were there, a pair of stays, a pair of tan gloves, and some withering flowers. They saw the ball-dress that Lady Helen had worn thrown over the arm-chair; the silk stockings, the satin shoes—and a gleam of sunlight that found its way between the blinds fell upon a piece of white petticoat. Lady Helen lay in the bed, thrown back low down on the pillow, the chin raised high, emphasizing a line of strained white throat. She lay in shadow and firelight, her cheek touched by the light. Around her eyes the shadows gathered, and as a landscape retains for an hour some impression of the day which is gone, so a softened and hallowed trace of life lingered upon her.
Then the facts of the case were told. She had driven up to the hotel in a hansom. She had asked if No. 57 was occupied, and on being told it was not, said she would take it; mentioning at the same time that she had missed her train, and would not return home till late in the afternoon. She had told the housemaid to light a fire, and had then dismissed her. Nothing more was known; but as the porter explained, it was clear she had gone to bed so as to make sure of shooting herself through the heart.
"The pistol is still in her hand; we never disturb anything till after the doctor has completed his examination."
Each felt the chill of steel against the naked side, and seeing the pair of stays on the table, they calculated its resisting force.
Harding mused on the ghastly ingenuity, withal so strangely reasonable. Thompson felt he would give his very life to make a sketch. Mike wondered what her lover was like. Frank was overwhelmed in sentimental sorrow. John's soul was full of strife and suffering. He had sacrificed his poems, and had yet ventured in revels which had led to such results! Then as they went down-stairs, Harding gave the porter Lewis Seymour's name and address, and said he should be sent for at once.
"I don't say we have never had a suicide here before, sir," said the porter in reply to Harding as they descended the steps of the hotel; "but I don't see how we are to help it. Whenever the upper classes want to do away with themselves they chose one of the big hotels—the Grosvenor, the Langham, or ourselves. Indeed they say more has done the trick in the Langham than 'ere, I suppose because it is more central; but you can't get behind the motives of such people. They never think of the trouble and the harm they do us; they only think of themselves."
London was now awake; the streets were a-clatter with cabs; the pick of the navvy resounded; night loiterers were disappearing and giving place to hurrying early risers. In the resonant morning the young men walked together to the Corner. There they stopped to bid each other good-bye. John called a cab, and returned home in intense mental agitation.
"It really is terrible," said Mike. "It isn't like life at all, but some shocking nightmare. What could have induced her to do it?"
"That we shall probably never know," said Thompson; "and she seemed brimming over with life and fun. How she did dance! ..."
"That was nerves. I had a long talk with her, and I assure you she quite frightened me. She spoke about the weariness of living;—no, not as we talk of it, philosophically; there was a special accent of truth in what she said. You remember the porter mentioned that she asked if No. 57 was occupied. I believe that is the room where she used to meet her lover. I believe they had had a quarrel, and that she went there intent on reconciliation, and finding him gone determined to kill herself. She told me she had had a lover for the last four years. I don't know why she told me—it was the first time I ever heard a lady admit she had had a lover; but she was in an awful state of nerve excitement, and I think hardly knew what she was saying. She took the letter out of her bosom and read it slowly. I couldn't help seeing it was in a man's handwriting; it began, 'Ma chere amie!' I heard her tell her husband to take the brougham; that she would come home in a cab. However, if my supposition is correct, I hope she burnt the letter."
"Perhaps that's what she lit the fire for. Did you notice if the writing materials had been used?"
"No, I didn't notice," said Mike. "And all so elaborately planned! Just fancy—shooting herself in a nice warm bed! She was determined to do it effectually. And she must have had the revolver in her pocket the whole time. I remember now, I had gone out of the room for a moment, and when I came back she was leaning over the chimney-piece, looking at something."
"I have often thought," said Harding, "that suicide is the culminating point of a state of mind long preparing. I think that the mind of the modern suicide is generally filled, saturated with the idea. I believe that he or she has been given for a long time preceding the act to considering, sometimes facetiously, sometimes sentimentally, the advantages of oblivion. For a long time an infiltration of desire of oblivion, and acute realization of the folly of living, precedes suicide, and, when the mind is thoroughly prepared, a slight shock or interruption in the course of life produces it, just as an odorous wind, a sight of the sea, results in the poem which has been collecting in the mind."
"I think you might have the good feeling to forbear," said Frank; "the present is hardly, I think, a time for epigrams or philosophy. I wonder how you can talk so...."
"I think Frank is quite right. What right have we to analyse her motives?"
"Her motives were simple enough; sad enough too, in all conscience. Why make her ridiculous by forcing her heart into the groove of your philosophy? The poor woman was miserably deceived; abominably deceived. You do not know what anguish of mind she suffered."
"There is nothing to show that she went to the Alexandra to meet a lover beyond the fact of a statement made to Mike in a moment of acute nervous excitement. We have no reason to think that she ever had a lover. I never heard her name mentioned in any such way. Did you, Escott?"
"Yes; I have heard that you were her lover."
"I assure you I never was; we have not even been on good terms for a long time past."
"You said just now that the act was generally preceded by a state of feeling long preparing. It was you who taught her to read Schopenhauer."
"I am not going to listen to nonsense at this hour of the morning. I never take nonsense on an empty stomach. Come, Thompson, you are going my way."
Mike and Frank walked home together. The clocks had struck six, and the milkmen were calling their ware; soon the shop-shutters would be coming down, and in this first flush of the day's enterprise, a last belated vegetable-cart jolted towards the market. Mike's thoughts flitted from the man who lay a-top taking his ease, his cap pulled over his eyes, to the scene that was now taking place in the twilight bedroom. What would Seymour say? Would he throw himself on his knees? Frank spoke from time to time; his thoughts growled like a savage dog, and his words bit at his friend. For Mike had incautiously given an account in particular detail of his tete-a-tete with Lady Helen.
"Then you are in a measure answerable for her death."
"You said just now that Harding was answerable; we can't both be culpable."
Frank did not reply. He brooded in silence, losing all perception of the truth in a stupid and harsh hatred of those whom he termed the villains that ruined women. When they reached Leicester Square, to escape from the obsession of the suicide, Mike said—
"I do not think that I told you that I have sketched out a trilogy on the life of Christ. The first play John, the second Christ, the third Peter. Of course I introduce Christ into the third play. You know the legend. When Peter is flying from Rome to escape crucifixion, he meets Christ carrying His cross."
"Damn your trilogy—who cares! You have behaved abominably. I want you to understand that I cannot—that I do not hold with your practice of making love to every woman you meet. In the first place it is beastly, in the second it is not gentlemanly. Look at the result!"
"But I assure you I am in no wise to blame in this affair. I never was her lover."
"But you made love to her."
"No, I didn't; we talked of love, that was all. I could see she was excited, and hardly knew what she was saying. You are most unjust. I think it quite as horrible as you do; it preys upon my mind, and if I talk of other things it is because I would save myself the pain of thinking of it. Can't you understand that?"
The conversation fell, and Mike thrust both hands into the pockets of his overcoat.
At the end of a long silence, Frank said—
"We must have an article on this—or, I don't know—I think I should like a poem. Could you write a poem on her death?"
"I think so. A prose poem. I was penetrated with the modern picturesqueness of the room—the Venetian blinds."
"If that's the way you are going to treat it, I would sooner not have it—the face in the glass, a lot of repetitions of words, sentences beginning with 'And,' then a mention of shoes and silk stockings. If you can't write feelingly about her, you had better not write at all."
"I don't see that a string of colloquialisms constitute feelings," said Mike.
Mike kept his temper; he did not intend to allow it to imperil his residence in Temple Gardens, or his position in the newspaper; but he couldn't control his vanity, and ostentatiously threw Lady Helen's handkerchief upon the table, and admitted to having picked it up in the hotel.
"What am I to do with it? I suppose I must keep it as a relic," he added with a laugh, as he opened his wardrobe.
There were there ladies' shoes, scarves, and neckties; there were there sachets and pincushions; there were there garters, necklaces, cotillion favours, and a tea-gown.
Again Frank boiled over with indignation, and having vented his sense of rectitude, he left the room without even bidding his friend good-night or good-morning. The next day he spent the entire afternoon with Lizzie, for Lady Helen's suicide had set his nature in active ferment.
In the story of every soul there are times of dissolution and reconstruction in which only the generic forms are preserved. A new force had been introduced, and it was disintegrating that mass of social fibre which is modern man, and the decomposition teemed with ideas of duty, virtue, and love. He interrupted Lizzie's chit-chat constantly with reflections concerning the necessity of religious belief in women.
About seven they went to eat in a restaurant close by. It was an old Italian chop-house that had been enlarged and modernized, but the original marble tables where customers ate chops and steaks at low prices were retained in a remote and distant corner. Lizzie proposed to sit there. They were just seated when a golden-haired girl of theatrical mien entered.
"That's Lottie Rily," exclaimed Lizzie. Then lowering her voice she whispered quickly, "She was in love with Mike once; he was the fellow she left her 'ome for. She's on the stage now, and gets four pounds a week. I haven't seen her for the last couple of years. Lottie, come and sit down here."
The girl turned hastily. "What, Lizzie, old pal, I have not seen you for ages."
"Not for more than two years. Let me introduce you to my friend, Mr. Escott—Miss Lottie Rily of the Strand Theatre."
"Very pleased to make your acquaintance, sir; the editor of the Pilgrim, I presume?"
Frank smiled with pleasure, and the waiter interposed with the bill of fare. Lottie ordered a plate of roast beef, and leaned across the table to talk to her friend.
"Have you seen Mike lately?" asked Lizzie.
"Swine!" she answered, tossing her head. "No; and don't want to. You know how he treated me. He left me three months after my baby was born."
"Have you had a baby?"
"What, didn't you know that? It is seven months old; 'tis a boy, that's one good job. And he hasn't paid me one penny piece. I have been up to Barber and Barber's, but they advised me to do nothing. They said that he owed them money, and that they couldn't get what he owed them—a poor look-out for me. They said that if I cared to summons him for the support of the child, that the magistrate would grant me an order at once."
"And why don't you?" said Frank; "you don't like the expose in the newspapers."
"Do you care for him still?"
"I don't know whether I do, or don't. I shall never love another man, I know that. I saw him in front about a month ago. He was in the stalls, and he fixed his eyes upon me; I didn't take the least notice, he was so cross. He came behind after the first act. He said, 'How old you are looking!' I said, 'What do you mean?' I was very nicely made up too, and he said, 'Under the eyes.' I said, 'What do you mean?' and he said, 'You are all wrinkles.' I said, 'What do you mean?' and he went down-stairs.... Swine!"
"He isn't good-looking," said Frank, reflectively, "a broken nose, a chin thrust forward, and a mop of brown curls twisted over his forehead. Give me a pencil, and I'll do his caricature."
"Every one says the same thing. The girls in the theatre all say, 'What in the world do you see in him?' I tell them that if he chose—if he were to make up to them a bit, they'd go after him just the same as I did. There's a little girl in the chorus, and she trots about after him; she can't help it. There are times when I don't care for him. What riles me is to see other women messing him about."
"I suppose it is some sort of magnetism, electro-biology, and he can't help exercising it any more than you women can resist it. Tell me, how did he leave you?"
"Without a word or a penny. One night he didn't come home, and I sat up for him, and I don't know how many nights after. I used to doze off and awake up with a start, thinking I heard his footstep on the landing. I went down to Waterloo Bridge to drown myself. I don't know why I didn't; I almost wish I had, although I have got on pretty well since, and get a pretty tidy weekly screw."
"What do you get?"
"Three ten. Mine's a singing part. Waiter, some cheese and celery."
"What a blackguard he is! I'll never speak to him again; he shall edit my paper no more. To-night I'll give him the dirty kick-out."
Mike remained the topic of conversation until Lottie said—
"Good Lord, I must be 'getting'—it is past seven o'clock."
Frank paid her modest bill, and still discussing Mike, they walked to the stage-door. Quick with desire to possess Lizzie wholly beyond recall, and obfuscated with notions concerning the necessity of placing women in surroundings in harmony with their natural goodness, Frank walked by his mistress's side. At the end of a long silence, she said—
"That's the way you'll desert me one of these days. All men are brutes."
"No, darling, they are not. If you'll act fairly by me, I will by you—I'll never desert you."
Lizzie did not answer.
"You don't think me a brute like that fellow Fletcher, do you?"
"I don't think there's much difference between any of you."
Frank ground his teeth, and at that moment he only desired one thing—to prove to Lizzie that men were not all vile and worthless. They had turned into the Temple; the old places seemed dozing in the murmuring quietude of the evening. Mike was coming up the pathway, his dress-clothes distinct in the delicate gray light, his light-gray overcoat hanging over his arm.
"What a toff he is!" said Lizzie. His appearance and what it symbolized—an evening in a boudoir or at the gaming-table—jarred on Frank, suggesting as it did a difference in condition from that of the wretched girl he had abandoned; and as Mike prided himself that scandalous stories never followed upon his loves, the unearthing of this mean and obscure liaison annoyed him exceedingly. Above all, the accusation of paternity was disagreeable; but determined to avoid a quarrel, he was about to pass by, when Frank noticed Lady Helen's pocket-handkerchief sticking out of his pocket.
"You blackguard," he said, "you are taking that handkerchief to a gambling hell."
Then realizing that the game was up, he turned and would have struck his friend had not Lizzie interposed. She threw herself between the men, and called a policeman, and the quarrel ended in Mike's dismissal from the staff of the Pilgrim.
Frank had therefore to sit up writing till one o'clock, for the whole task of bringing out the paper was thrown upon him. Lizzie sat by him sewing. Noticing how pale and tired he looked, she got up, and putting her arm about his neck, said—
"Poor old man, you are tired; you had better come to bed."
He took her in his arms affectionately, and talked to her.
"If you were always as kind and as nice as you are to-night ... I could love you."
"I thought you did love me."
"So I do; you will never know how much." They were close together, and the pure darkness seemed to separate them from all worldly influences.
"If you would be a good girl, and think only of him who loves you very dearly."
"Ah, if I only had met you first!"
"It would have made no difference, you'd have only been saying this to some one else."
"Oh, no; if you had known me before I went wrong."
"Was he the first?"
"Yes; I would have been an honest little girl, trying to make you comfortable."
Throwing himself on his back, Frank argued prosaically—
"Then you mean to say you really care about me more than any one else?"
She assured him that she did; and again and again the temptations of women were discussed. He could not sleep, and stretched at length on his back, he held Lizzie's hand.
She was in a communicative humour, and told him the story of the waiter, whom she described as being "a fellow like Mike, who made love to every woman." She told him of three or four other fellows, whose rooms she used to go to. They made her drink; she didn't like the beastly stuff; and then she didn't know what she did. There were stories of the landlady in whose house she lodged, and the woman who lived up-stairs. She had two fellows; one she called Squeaker—she didn't care for him; and another called Harry, and she did care for him; but the landlady's daughter called him a s——, because he seldom gave her anything, and always had a bath in the morning.
"How can a girl be respectable under such circumstances?" Lizzie asked, pathetically. "The landlady used to tell me to go out and get my living!"
"Yes; but I never let you want. You never wrote to me for money that I didn't send it."
"Yes; I know you did, but sometimes I think she stopped the letters. Besides, a girl cannot be respectable if she isn't married. Where's the use?"
He strove to think, and failing to think, he said—
"If you really mean what you say, I will marry you." He heard each word; then a sob sounded in the dark, and turning impulsively he took Lizzie in his arms.
"No, no," she cried, "it would never do at all. Your family—what would they say? They would not receive me."
"What do I care for my family? What has my family ever done for me?"
For an hour they argued, Lizzie refusing, declaring it was useless, insisting that she would then belong to no set; Frank assuring her that hand-in-hand and heart-to-heart they would together, with united strength and love, win a place for themselves in the world. They dozed in each other's arms.
Rousing himself, Frank said—
"Kiss me once more, little wifie; good-night, little wife ..."
"Call me little husband; I shan't go to sleep until you do."
"Good-night, little husband."
"Say little hussy."
"Good-night, little hussy."
Next morning, however, found Lizzie violently opposed to all idea of marriage. She said he didn't mean it; he said he did mean it, and he caught up a Bible and swore he was speaking the truth. He put his back against the door, and declared she should not leave until she had promised him—until she gave him her solemn oath that she would become his wife. He was not going to see her go to the dogs—no, not if he could help it; then she lost her temper and tried to push past him. He restrained her, urging again and again, and with theatrical emphasis, that he thought it right, and would do his duty. Then they argued, they kissed, and argued again.
That night he walked up and down the pavement in front of her door; but the servant-girl caught sight of him through the kitchen-window and the area-railings, and ran up-stairs to warn Miss Baker, who was taking tea with two girl friends.
"He is a-walking up and down, Miss, 'is great-coat flying behind him."
Lizzie slapped his face when he burst into her room; and scenes of recrimination, love, and rage were transferred to and fro between Temple Gardens and Winchester Street. Her girl friends advised her to marry, and the landlady when appealed to said, "What could you want better than a fine gentleman like that?"
Frank was conscious of nothing but her, and every vision of Mount Rorke that had risen in his mind he had unhesitatingly swept away. All prospects were engulfed in his desire; he saw nothing but the white face, which like a star led and allured him.
One morning the marriage was settled, and like a knight going to the crusade, Frank set forth to find out when it could be. They must be married at once. The formalities of a religious marriage appalled him. Lizzie might again change her mind; and a registrar's office fixed itself in his thought.
It was a hot day in July when he set forth on his quest. He addressed the policeman at the corner, and was given the name of the street and the number. He hurried through the heat, irritated by the sluggishness of the passers-by, and at last found himself in front of a red building. The windows were full of such general announcements as—Working Men's Peace Preservation, Limited Liability Company, New Zealand, etc. The marriage office looked like a miniature bank; there were desks, and a brass railing a foot high preserved the inviolability of the documents. A fat man with watery eyes rose from the leather arm-chair in which he had been dozing, and Frank intimated his desire to be married as soon as possible; that afternoon if it could be managed. It took the weak-eyed clerk some little time to order and grasp the many various notions which Frank urged upon him; but he eventually roused a little (Frank had begun to shout at him), and explained that no marriage could take place after two o'clock, and later on it transpired that due notice would have to be given.
Very much disappointed, Frank asked him to inscribe his name. The clerk opened a book, and then it suddenly cropped up that this was the registry office, not for Pimlico, but for Kensington.
"Gracious heavens!" exclaimed Frank, "and where is the registry office for Pimlico in Kensington?"
"That I cannot tell you; it may be anywhere; you will have to find out."
"How am I to find out, damn it?"
"I really can't tell you, but I must beg of you to remember where you are, sir, and to moderate your language," said the clerk, with some faint show of hieratic dignity. "And now, ma'am, what can I do for you?" he said, turning to a woman who smelt strongly of the kitchen.
Frank was furious; he appealed again to the casual policeman, who, although reluctantly admitting he could give him no information, sympathized with him in his diatribe against the stupidities of the authorities. The policeman had himself been married by the registrar, and some time was lost in vain reminiscences; he at last suggested that inquiry could be made at a neighbouring church.
Frank hurried away, and had a long talk with a charwoman whom he discovered in the desert of the chairs. She thought the office was situated somewhere in a region unknown to Frank, which she called St. George-of-the-Fields; her daughter, who had been shamefully deserted, had been married there. The parson, she thought, would know, and she gave him his address.
The heat was intolerable! There were few people in the streets. The perspiration collected under his hat, and his feet ached so in his patent leather shoes that he was tempted to walk after the water-cart and bathe them in the sparkling shower. Several hansoms passed, but they were engaged. Nor was the parson at home. The maid-servant sniggered, but having some sympathy with what she discovered was his mission, summoned the housekeeper, who eyed him askance, and directed him to Bloomsbury; and after a descent into a grocer's shop, and an adventure which ended in an angry altercation in a servants' registry office, he was driven to a large building which adjoined the parish infirmary and workhouse.
Even there he was forced to make inquiries, so numerous and various were the offices. At last an old man in gray clothes declared himself the registrar's attendant, and offered to show him the way; but seeing himself now within range of his desire, he distanced the old chap up the four flights of stairs, and arrived wholly out of breath before the brass railing which guarded the hymeneal documents. A clerk as slow of intellect as the first, and even more somnolent, approached and leaned over the counter.
Feeling now quite familiar with a registrar's office, Frank explained his business successfully. The fat clerk, whose red nose had sprouted into many knobs, balanced himself leisurely, evidently giving little heed to what was said; but the broadness of the brogue saved Frank from losing his temper.
"What part of Oireland do ye come from? Is it Tipperary?"
"I thought so; Cashel, I'm thinking."
"Yes; do you come from there?"
"To be sure I do. I knew you when you were a boy; and is his lordship in good health?"
Frank replied that Lord Mount Rorke was in excellent health, and feeling himself obliged to be civil, he asked the clerk his name, and how long it was since he had been in Ireland.
"Well, this is odd," the clerk began, and then in an irritating undertone Mr. Scanlon proceeded to tell how he and four others were driving through Portarlington to take the train to Dublin, when one of them, Michael Carey he thought it was, proposed to stop the car and have some refreshment at the Royal Hotel.
Frank tried several times to return to the question of the license, but the imperturbable clerk was not to be checked.
"I was just telling you," he interposed.
It seemed hard luck that he should find a native of Cashel in the Pimlico registrar's office. He had intended to keep his marriage a secret, as did Willy Brookes, and for a moment the new danger thrilled him. It was intolerable to have to put up with this creature's idle loquacity, but not wishing to offend him he endured it a little longer.
When the clerk paused in his narrative of the four gentlemen who had stopped the car to have some refreshment, Frank made a resolute stand against any fresh developments of the story, and succeeded in extracting some particulars concerning the marriage laws. And within the next few days all formalities were completed, and Frank's marriage fixed for the end of the week—for Friday, at a quarter to eleven. He slept lightly that night, was out of bed before eight, and mistaking the time, arrived at the office a few minutes before ten. He met the old man in gray clothes in the passage, and this time he was not to be evaded.
"Are you the gentleman who's come to be married by special license, sir?"
"Neither Mr. Southey—that is the Registrar—nor Mr. Freeman—that's the Assistant-Registrar—has yet arrived, sir."
"It is very extraordinary they should be late. Do they never keep their appointments?"
"They rarely arrives before ten, sir."
"Before ten! What time is it now?"
"Only just ten. I am the regular attendant. I'll see yer through it; no necessity to hagitate yerself. It will be done quietly in a private room—a very nice room too, fourteen feet by ten high—them's the regulations; all the chairs covered with leather; a very nice comfortable room. Would yer like to see the room? Would yer like to sit down there and wait? There's a party to be married before you. But they won't mind you. He's a butcher by trade."
"And what is she?"
"I think she's a tailoress; they lives close by here, they do."
"And who are you, and where do you live?"
"I'm the regular attendant; I lives close by here."
"Where close by?"
"In the work'us; they gives me this work to do."
"Oh, you are a pauper, then?"
"Yease; but I works here; I'm the regular attendant. No need to be afraid, sir; it's all done in a private room; no one will see you. This way, sir; this way."
The sinister aspect of things never appealed to Frank, and he was vastly amused at the idea of the pauper Mercury, and had begun to turn the subject over, seeing how he could use it for a queer story for the Pilgrim. But time soon grew horribly long, and to kill it he volunteered to act as witness to the butcher's marriage, one being wanted. The effects of a jovial night, fortified by some matutinal potations, were still visible in the small black eyes of the rubicund butcher—a huge man, apparently of cheery disposition; he swung to and fro before the shiny oak table as might one of his own carcasses. His bride, a small-featured woman, wrapped in a plaid shawl, evidently fearing that his state, if perceived by the Registrar, might cause a postponement of her wishes, strove to shield him. His pal and a stout girl, with the air of the coffee-shop about her, exchanged winks and grins, and at the critical moment, when the Registrar was about to read the declaration, the pal slipped behind some friends and, catching the bridegroom by the collar, whispered, "Now then, old man, pull yourself together." The Registrar looked up, but his spectacles did not appear to help him; the Assistant-Registrar, a tall, languid young man, who wore a carnation in his button-hole, yawned and called for order. The room was lighted by a skylight, and the light fell diffused on the hands and faces; and alternately and in combination the whiskied breath and the carnation's scent assailed the nostrils. Suddenly the silence was broken by the Registrar, who began to read the declarations. "I hereby declare that I, James Hicks, know of no impediment whereby I may not be joined in matrimony with Matilde, Matilde—is it Matilde or Matilda?"
"I calls her Tilly when I am a-cuddling of her; when she riles me, and gets my dander up, I says, 'Tilder, come here!'" and the butcher raised his voice till it seemed like an ox's bellow.
"I really must beg," exclaimed the Registrar, "that the sanctity of—the gravity of this ceremony is not disturbed by any foolish frivolity. You must remember ..." But at that moment the glassy look of the butcher's eyes reached the old gentleman's vision, and a heavy hiccup fell upon his ears. "I really think, Mr. Freeman, that that gentleman, one of the contracting parties I mean, is not in a fit state—is in a state bordering on inebriation. Will you tell me if this is so?"
"I didn't notice it before," said Mr. Freeman, stifling a yawn, "but now you mention it, I really think he is a little drunk, and hardly in a fit ..."
"I ne—ver was more jolly, jolly dog in my life (hiccup)—when you gentlemen have made it (hiccup) all squ—square between me and my Tilly" (a violent hiccup),—then suddenly taking her round the waist, he hugged her so violently that Matilda could not forbear a scream,—"I fancy I shall be, just be a trifle more jolly still.... If any of you ge—gen'men would care to join us—most 'appy, Tilly and me."
Lizzie, who had discovered a relation or two—a disreputable father and a nondescript brother—now appeared on the threshold. Her presence reminded Frank of his responsibility, so forthwith he proceeded to bully the Registrar and allude menacingly to his newspaper.