E-text prepared by Joseph E. Loewenstein, M.D.
First published in book form in 1865
I. The Mackenzie Family II. Miss Mackenzie Goes to Littlebath III. Miss Mackenzie's First Acquaintances IV. Miss Mackenzie Commences Her Career V. Showing How Mr Rubb, Junior, Progressed at Littlebath VI. Miss Mackenzie Goes to the Cedars VII. Miss Mackenzie Leaves the Cedars VIII. Mrs Tom Mackenzie's Dinner Party IX. Miss Mackenzie's Philosophy X. Plenary Absolutions XI. Miss Todd Entertains Some Friends at Tea XII. Mrs Stumfold Interferes XIII. Mr Maguire's Courtship XIV. Tom Mackenzie's Bed-Side XV. The Tearing of the Verses XVI. Lady Ball's Grievance XVII. Mr Slow's Chambers XVIII. Tribulation XIX. Showing How Two of Miss Mackenzie's Lovers Behaved XX. Showing How the Third Lover Behaved XXI. Mr Maguire Goes to London on Business XXII. Still at the Cedars XXIII. The Lodgings of Mrs Buggins, Nee Protheroe XXIV. The Little Story of the Lion and the Lamb XXV. Lady Ball in Arundel Street XXVI. Mrs Mackenzie of Cavendish Square XXVII. The Negro Soldiers' Orphan Bazaar XXVIII. Showing How the Lion Was Stung by the Wasp XXIX. A Friend in Need Is a Friend Indeed XXX. Conclusion
The Mackenzie Family
I fear I must trouble my reader with some few details as to the early life of Miss Mackenzie,—details which will be dull in the telling, but which shall be as short as I can make them. Her father, who had in early life come from Scotland to London, had spent all his days in the service of his country. He became a clerk in Somerset House at the age of sixteen, and was a clerk in Somerset House when he died at the age of sixty. Of him no more shall be said than that his wife had died before him, and that he, at dying, left behind him two sons and a daughter.
Thomas Mackenzie, the eldest of those two sons, had engaged himself in commercial pursuits—as his wife was accustomed to say when she spoke of her husband's labours; or went into trade, and kept a shop, as was more generally asserted by those of the Mackenzie circle who were wont to speak their minds freely. The actual and unvarnished truth in the matter shall now be made known. He, with his partner, made and sold oilcloth, and was possessed of premises in the New Road, over which the names of "Rubb and Mackenzie" were posted in large letters. As you, my reader, might enter therein, and purchase a yard and a half of oilcloth, if you were so minded, I think that the free-spoken friends of the family were not far wrong. Mrs Thomas Mackenzie, however, declared that she was calumniated, and her husband cruelly injured; and she based her assertions on the fact that "Rubb and Mackenzie" had wholesale dealings, and that they sold their article to the trade, who re-sold it. Whether or no she was ill-treated in the matter, I will leave my readers to decide, having told them all that it is necessary for them to know, in order that a judgement may be formed.
Walter Mackenzie, the second son, had been placed in his father's office, and he also had died before the time at which our story is supposed to commence. He had been a poor sickly creature, always ailing, gifted with an affectionate nature, and a great respect for the blood of the Mackenzies, but not gifted with much else that was intrinsically his own. The blood of the Mackenzies was, according to his way of thinking, very pure blood indeed; and he had felt strongly that his brother had disgraced the family by connecting himself with that man Rubb, in the New Road. He had felt this the more strongly, seeing that "Rubb and Mackenzie" had not done great things in their trade. They had kept their joint commercial head above water, but had sometimes barely succeeded in doing that. They had never been bankrupt, and that, perhaps, for some years was all that could be said. If a Mackenzie did go into trade, he should, at any rate, have done better than this. He certainly should have done better than this, seeing that he started in life with a considerable sum of money.
Old Mackenzie,—he who had come from Scotland,—had been the first-cousin of Sir Walter Mackenzie, baronet, of Incharrow, and he had married the sister of Sir John Ball, baronet, of the Cedars, Twickenham. The young Mackenzies, therefore, had reason to be proud of their blood. It is true that Sir John Ball was the first baronet, and that he had simply been a political Lord Mayor in strong political days,—a political Lord Mayor in the leather business; but, then, his business had been undoubtedly wholesale; and a man who gets himself to be made a baronet cleanses himself from the stains of trade, even though he have traded in leather. And then, the present Mackenzie baronet was the ninth of the name; so that on the higher and nobler side of the family, our Mackenzies may be said to have been very strong indeed. This strength the two clerks in Somerset House felt and enjoyed very keenly; and it may therefore be understood that the oilcloth manufactory was much out of favour with them.
When Tom Mackenzie was twenty-five—"Rubb and Mackenzie" as he afterwards became—and Walter, at the age of twenty-one, had been for a year or two placed at a desk in Somerset House, there died one Jonathan Ball, a brother of the baronet Ball, leaving all he had in the world to the two brother Mackenzies. This all was by no means a trifle, for each brother received about twelve thousand pounds when the opposing lawsuits instituted by the Ball family were finished. These opposing lawsuits were carried on with great vigour, but with no success on the Ball side, for three years. By that time, Sir John Ball, of the Cedars, was half ruined, and the Mackenzies got their money. It is needless to say much to the reader of the manner in which Tom Mackenzie found his way into trade—how, in the first place, he endeavoured to resume his Uncle Jonathan's share in the leather business, instigated thereto by a desire to oppose his Uncle John,—Sir John, who was opposing him in the matter of the will,—how he lost money in this attempt, and ultimately embarked, after some other fruitless speculations, the residue of his fortune in partnership with Mr Rubb. All that happened long ago. He was now a man of nearly fifty, living with his wife and family,—a family of six or seven children,—in a house in Gower Street, and things had not gone with him very well.
Nor is it necessary to say very much of Walter Mackenzie, who had been four years younger than his brother. He had stuck to the office in spite of his wealth; and as he had never married, he had been a rich man. During his father's lifetime, and when he was quite young, he had for a while shone in the world of fashion, having been patronised by the Mackenzie baronet, and by others who thought that a clerk from Somerset House with twelve thousand pounds must be a very estimable fellow. He had not, however, shone in a very brilliant way. He had gone to parties for a year or two, and during those years had essayed the life of a young man about town, frequenting theatres and billiard-rooms, and doing a few things which he should have left undone, and leaving undone a few things which should not have been so left. But, as I have said, he was weak in body as well as weak in mind. Early in life he became an invalid; and though he kept his place in Somerset House till he died, the period of his shining in the fashionable world came to a speedy end.
Now, at length, we will come to Margaret Mackenzie, the sister, our heroine, who was eight years younger than her brother Walter, and twelve years younger than Mr Rubb's partner. She had been little more than a child when her father died; or I might more correctly say, that though she had then reached an age which makes some girls young women, it had not as yet had that effect upon her. She was then nineteen; but her life in her father's house had been dull and monotonous; she had gone very little into company, and knew very little of the ways of the world. The Mackenzie baronet people had not noticed her. They had failed to make much of Walter with his twelve thousand pounds, and did not trouble themselves with Margaret, who had no fortune of her own. The Ball baronet people were at extreme variance with all her family, and, as a matter of course, she received no countenance from them. In those early days she did not receive much countenance from any one; and perhaps I may say that she had not shown much claim for such countenance as is often given to young ladies by their richer relatives. She was neither beautiful nor clever, nor was she in any special manner made charming by any of those softnesses and graces of youth which to some girls seem to atone for a want of beauty and cleverness. At the age of nineteen, I may almost say that Margaret Mackenzie was ungainly. Her brown hair was rough, and did not form itself into equal lengths. Her cheek-bones were somewhat high, after the manner of the Mackenzies. She was thin and straggling in her figure, with bones larger than they should have been for purposes of youthful grace. There was not wanting a certain brightness to her grey eyes, but it was a brightness as to the use of which she had no early knowledge. At this time her father lived at Camberwell, and I doubt whether the education which Margaret received at Miss Green's establishment for young ladies in that suburb was of a kind to make up by art for that which nature had not given her. This school, too, she left at an early age—at a very early age, as her age went. When she was nearly sixteen, her father, who was then almost an old man, became ill, and the next three years she spent in nursing him. When he died, she was transferred to her younger brother's house,—to a house which he had taken in one of the quiet streets leading down from the Strand to the river, in order that he might be near his office. And here for fifteen years she had lived, eating his bread and nursing him, till he also died, and so she was alone in the world.
During those fifteen years her life had been very weary. A moated grange in the country is bad enough for the life of any Mariana, but a moated grange in town is much worse. Her life in London had been altogether of the moated grange kind, and long before her brother's death it had been very wearisome to her. I will not say that she was always waiting for some one that came not, or that she declared herself to be aweary, or that she wished that she were dead. But the mode of her life was as near that as prose may be near to poetry, or truth to romance. For the coming of one, who, as things fell out in that matter, soon ceased to come at all to her, she had for a while been anxious. There was a young clerk then in Somerset House, one Harry Handcock by name, who had visited her brother in the early days of that long sickness. And Harry Handcock had seen beauty in those grey eyes, and the straggling, uneven locks had by that time settled themselves into some form of tidiness, and the big joints, having been covered, had taken upon themselves softer womanly motions, and the sister's tenderness to the brother had been appreciated. Harry Handcock had spoken a word or two, Margaret being then five-and-twenty, and Harry ten years her senior. Harry had spoken, and Margaret had listened only too willingly. But the sick brother upstairs had become cross and peevish. Such a thing should never take place with his consent, and Harry Handcock had ceased to speak tenderly.
He had ceased to speak tenderly, though he didn't cease to visit the quiet house in Arundel Street. As far as Margaret was concerned he might as well have ceased to come; and in her heart she sang that song of Mariana's, complaining bitterly of her weariness; though the man was seen then in her brother's sickroom regularly once a week. For years this went on. The brother would crawl out to his office in summer, but would never leave his bedroom in the winter months. In those days these things were allowed in public offices; and it was not till very near the end of his life that certain stern official reformers hinted at the necessity of his retiring on a pension. Perhaps it was that hint that killed him. At any rate, he died in harness—if it can in truth be said of him that he ever wore harness. Then, when he was dead, the days were gone in which Margaret Mackenzie cared for Harry Handcock. Harry Handcock was still a bachelor, and when the nature of his late friend's will was ascertained, he said a word or two to show that he thought he was not yet too old for matrimony. But Margaret's weariness could not now be cured in that way. She would have taken him while she had nothing, or would have taken him in those early days had fortune filled her lap with gold. But she had seen Harry Handcock at least weekly for the last ten years, and having seen him without any speech of love, she was not now prepared for the renewal of such speaking.
When Walter Mackenzie died there was a doubt through all the Mackenzie circle as to what was the destiny of his money. It was well known that he had been a prudent man, and that he was possessed of a freehold estate which gave him at least six hundred a year. It was known also that he had money saved beyond this. It was known, too, that Margaret had nothing, or next to nothing, of her own. The old Mackenzie had had no fortune left to him, and had felt it to be a grievance that his sons had not joined their richer lots to his poorer lot. This, of course, had been no fault of Margaret's, but it had made him feel justified in leaving his daughter as a burden upon his younger son. For the last fifteen years she had eaten bread to which she had no positive claim; but if ever woman earned the morsel which she required, Margaret Mackenzie had earned her morsel during her untiring attendance upon her brother. Now she was left to her own resources, and as she went silently about the house during those sad hours which intervened between the death of her brother and his burial, she was altogether in ignorance whether any means of subsistence had been left to her. It was known that Walter Mackenzie had more than once altered his will—that he had, indeed, made many wills—according as he was at such moments on terms of more or less friendship with his brother; but he had never told to any one what was the nature of any bequest that he had made. Thomas Mackenzie had thought of both his brother and sister as poor creatures, and had been thought of by them as being but a poor creature himself. He had become a shopkeeper, so they declared, and it must be admitted that Margaret had shared the feeling which regarded her brother Tom's trade as being disgraceful. They, of Arundel Street, had been idle, reckless, useless beings—so Tom had often declared to his wife—and only by fits and starts had there existed any friendship between him and either of them. But the firm of Rubb and Mackenzie was not growing richer in those days, and both Thomas and his wife had felt themselves forced into a certain amount of conciliatory demeanour by the claims of their seven surviving children. Walter, however, said no word to any one of his money; and when he was followed to his grave by his brother and nephews, and by Harry Handcock, no one knew of what nature would be the provision made for his sister.
"He was a great sufferer," Harry Handcock had said, at the only interview which took place between him and Margaret after the death of her brother and before the reading of the will.
"Yes indeed, poor fellow," said Margaret, sitting in the darkened dining-room, in all the gloom of her new mourning.
"And you yourself, Margaret, have had but a sorry time of it." He still called her Margaret from old acquaintance, and had always done so.
"I have had the blessing of good health," she said, "and have been very thankful. It has been a dull life, though, for the last ten years."
"Women generally lead dull lives, I think." Then he had paused for a while, as though something were on his mind which he wished to consider before he spoke again. Mr Handcock, at this time, was bald and very stout. He was a strong healthy man, but had about him, to the outward eye, none of the aptitudes of a lover. He was fond of eating and drinking, as no one knew better than Margaret Mackenzie; and had altogether dropped the poetries of life, if at any time any of such poetries had belonged to him. He was, in fact, ten years older than Margaret Mackenzie; but he now looked to be almost twenty years her senior. She was a woman who at thirty-five had more of the graces of womanhood than had belonged to her at twenty. He was a man who at forty-five had lost all that youth does for a man. But still I think that she would have fallen back upon her former love, and found that to be sufficient, had he asked her to do so even now. She would have felt herself bound by her faith to do so, had he said that such was his wish, before the reading of her brother's will. But he did no such thing. "I hope he will have made you comfortable," he said.
"I hope he will have left me above want," Margaret had replied—and that had then been all. She had, perhaps, half-expected something more from him, remembering that the obstacle which had separated them was now removed. But nothing more came, and it would hardly be true to say that she was disappointed. She had no strong desire to marry Harry Handcock whom no one now called Harry any longer; but yet, for the sake of human nature, she bestowed a sigh upon his coldness, when he carried his tenderness no further than a wish that she might be comfortable.
There had of necessity been much of secrecy in the life of Margaret Mackenzie. She had possessed no friend to whom she could express her thoughts and feelings with confidence. I doubt whether any living being knew that there now existed, up in that small back bedroom in Arundel Street, quires of manuscript in which Margaret had written her thoughts and feelings,—hundreds of rhymes which had never met any eye but her own; and outspoken words of love contained in letters which had never been sent, or been intended to be sent, to any destination. Indeed these letters had been commenced with no name, and finished with no signature. It would be hardly true to say that they had been intended for Harry Handcock, even at the warmest period of her love. They had rather been trials of her strength,—proofs of what she might do if fortune should ever be so kind to her as to allow of her loving. No one had ever guessed all this, or had dreamed of accusing Margaret of romance. No one capable of testing her character had known her. In latter days she had now and again dined in Gower Street, but her sister-in-law, Mrs Tom, had declared her to be a silent, stupid old maid. As a silent, stupid old maid, the Mackenzies of Rubb and Mackenzie were disposed to regard her. But how should they treat this stupid old maid of an aunt, if it should now turn out that all the wealth of the family belonged to her?
When Walter's will was read such was found to be the case. There was no doubt, or room for doubt, in the matter. The will was dated but two months before his death, and left everything to Margaret, expressing a conviction on the part of the testator that it was his duty to do so, because of his sister's unremitting attention to himself. Harry Handcock was requested to act as executor, and was requested also to accept a gold watch and a present of two hundred pounds. Not a word was there in the whole will of his brother's family; and Tom, when he went home with a sad heart, told his wife that all this had come of certain words which she had spoken when last she had visited the sick man. "I knew it would be so," said Tom to his wife. "It can't be helped now, of course. I knew you could not keep your temper quiet, and always told you not to go near him." How the wife answered, the course of our story at the present moment does not require me to tell. That she did answer with sufficient spirit, no one, I should say, need doubt; and it may be surmised that things in Gower Street were not comfortable that evening.
Tom Mackenzie had communicated the contents of the will to his sister, who had declined to be in the room when it was opened. "He has left you everything,—just everything," Tom had said. If Margaret made any word of reply, Tom did not hear it. "There will be over eight hundred a year, and he has left you all the furniture," Tom continued. "He has been very good," said Margaret, hardly knowing how to express herself on such an occasion. "Very good to you," said Tom, with some little sarcasm in his voice. "I mean good to me," said Margaret. Then he told her that Harry Handcock had been named as executor. "There is no more about him in the will, is there?" said Margaret. At the moment, not knowing much about executors, she had fancied that her brother had, in making such appointment, expressed some further wish about Mr Handcock. Her brother explained to her that the executor was to have two hundred pounds and a gold watch, and then she was satisfied.
"Of course, it's a very sad look-out for us," Tom said; "but I do not on that account blame you."
"If you did you would wrong me," Margaret answered, "for I never once during all the years that we lived together spoke to Walter one word about his money."
"I do not blame you," the brother rejoined; and then no more had been said between them.
He had asked her even before the funeral to go up to Gower Street and stay with them, but she had declined. Mrs Tom Mackenzie had not asked her. Mrs Tom Mackenzie had hoped, then—had hoped and had inwardly resolved—that half, at least, of the dying brother's money would have come to her husband; and she had thought that if she once encumbered herself with the old maid, the old maid might remain longer than was desirable. "We should never get rid of her," she had said to her eldest daughter, Mary Jane. "Never, mamma," Mary Jane had replied. The mother and daughter had thought that they would be on the whole safer in not pressing any such invitation. They had not pressed it, and the old maid had remained in Arundel Street.
Before Tom left the house, after the reading of the will, he again invited his sister to his own home. An hour or two had intervened since he had told her of her position in the world, and he was astonished at finding how composed and self-assured she was in the tone and manner of her answer. "No, Tom, I think I had better not," she said. "Sarah will be somewhat disappointed."
"You need not mind that," said Tom.
"I think I had better not. I shall be very glad to see her if she will come to me; and I hope you will come, Tom; but I think I will remain here till I have made up my mind what to do." She remained in Arundel Street for the next three months, and her brother saw her frequently; but Mrs Tom Mackenzie never went to her, and she never went to Mrs Tom Mackenzie. "Let it be even so," said Mrs Tom; "they shall not say that I ran after her and her money. I hate such airs." "So do I, mamma," said Mary Jane, tossing her head. "I always said that she was a nasty old maid."
On that same day,—the day on which the will was read,—Mr Handcock had also come to her. "I need not tell you," he had said, as he pressed her hand, "how rejoiced I am—for your sake, Margaret." Then she had returned the pressure, and had thanked him for his friendship. "You know that I have been made executor to the will," he continued. "He did this simply to save you from trouble. I need only promise that I will do anything and everything that you can wish." Then he left her, saying nothing of his suit on that occasion.
Two months after this,—and during those two months he had necessarily seen her frequently,—Mr Handcock wrote to her from his office in Somerset House, renewing his old proposals of marriage. His letter was short and sensible, pleading his cause as well, perhaps, as any words were capable of pleading it at this time; but it was not successful. As to her money he told her that no doubt he regarded it now as a great addition to their chance of happiness, should they put their lots together; and as to his love for her, he referred her to the days in which he had desired to make her his wife without a shilling of fortune. He had never changed, he said; and if her heart was as constant as his, he would make good now the proposal which she had once been willing to accept. His income was not equal to hers, but it was not inconsiderable, and therefore as regards means they would be very comfortable. Such were his arguments, and Margaret, little as she knew of the world, was able to perceive that he expected that they would succeed with her.
Little, however, as she might know of the world, she was not prepared to sacrifice herself and her new freedom, and her new power and her new wealth, to Mr Harry Handcock. One word said to her when first she was free and before she was rich, would have carried her. But an argumentative, well-worded letter, written to her two months after the fact of her freedom and the fact of her wealth had sunk into his mind, was powerless on her. She had looked at her glass and had perceived that years had improved her, whereas years had not improved Harry Handcock. She had gone back over her old aspirations, aspirations of which no whisper had ever been uttered, but which had not the less been strong within her, and had told herself that she could not gratify them by a union with Mr Handcock. She thought, or rather hoped, that society might still open to her its portals,—not simply the society of the Handcocks from Somerset House, but that society of which she had read in novels during the day, and of which she had dreamed at night. Might it not yet be given to her to know clever people, nice people, bright people, people who were not heavy and fat like Mr Handcock, or sick and wearisome like her poor brother Walter, or vulgar and quarrelsome like her relatives in Gower Street? She reminded herself that she was the niece of one baronet, and the first-cousin once removed of another, that she had eight hundred a year, and liberty to do with it whatsoever she pleased; and she reminded herself, also, that she had higher tastes in the world than Mr Handcock. Therefore she wrote to him an answer, much longer than his letter, in which she explained to him that the more than ten years' interval which had elapsed since words of love had passed between them had—had—had—changed the nature of her regard. After much hesitation, that was the phrase which she used.
And she was right in her decision. Whether or no she was doomed to be disappointed in her aspirations, or to be partially disappointed and partially gratified, these pages are written to tell. But I think we may conclude that she would hardly have made herself happy by marrying Mr Handcock while such aspirations were strong upon her. There was nothing on her side in favour of such a marriage but a faint remembrance of auld lang syne.
She remained three months in Arundel Street, and before that period was over she made a proposition to her brother Tom, showing to what extent she was willing to burden herself on behalf of his family. Would he allow her, she asked, to undertake the education and charge of his second daughter, Susanna? She would not offer to adopt her niece, she said, because it was on the cards that she herself might marry; but she would promise to take upon herself the full expense of the girl's education, and all charge of her till such education should be completed. If then any future guardianship on her part should have become incompatible with her own circumstances, she should give Susanna five hundred pounds. There was an air of business about this which quite startled Tom Mackenzie, who, as has before been said, had taught himself in old days to regard his sister as a poor creature. There was specially an air of business about her allusion to her own future state. Tom was not at all surprised that his sister should think of marrying, but he was much surprised that she should dare to declare her thoughts. "Of course she will marry the first fool that asks her," said Mrs Tom. The father of the large family, however, pronounced the offer to be too good to be refused. "If she does, she will keep her word about the five hundred pounds," he said. Mrs Tom, though she demurred, of course gave way; and when Margaret Mackenzie left London for Littlebath, where lodgings had been taken for her, she took her niece Susanna with her.
Miss Mackenzie Goes to Littlebath
I fear that Miss Mackenzie, when she betook herself to Littlebath, had before her mind's eye no sufficiently settled plan of life. She wished to live pleasantly, and perhaps fashionably; but she also desired to live respectably, and with a due regard to religion. How she was to set about doing this at Littlebath, I am afraid she did not quite know. She told herself over and over again that wealth entailed duties as well as privileges; but she had no clear idea what were the duties so entailed, or what were the privileges. How could she have obtained any clear idea on the subject in that prison which she had inhabited for so many years by her brother's bedside?
She had indeed been induced to migrate from London to Littlebath by an accident which should not have been allowed to actuate her. She had been ill, and the doctor, with that solicitude which doctors sometimes feel for ladies who are well to do in the world, had recommended change of air. Littlebath, among the Tantivy hills, would be the very place for her. There were waters at Littlebath which she might drink for a month or two with great advantage to her system. It was then the end of July, and everybody that was anybody was going out of town. Suppose she were to go to Littlebath in August, and stay there for a month, or perhaps two months, as she might feel inclined. The London doctor knew a Littlebath doctor, and would be so happy to give her a letter. Then she spoke to the clergyman of the church she had lately attended in London who also had become more energetic in his assistance since her brother's death than he had been before, and he also could give her a letter to a gentleman of his cloth at Littlebath. She knew very little in private life of the doctor or of the clergyman in London, but not the less, on that account, might their introductions be of service to her in forming a circle of acquaintance at Littlebath. In this way she first came to think of Littlebath, and from this beginning she had gradually reached her decision.
Another little accident, or two other little accidents, had nearly induced her to remain in London—not in Arundel Street, which was to her an odious locality, but in some small genteel house in or about Brompton. She had written to the two baronets to announce to them her brother's death, Tom Mackenzie, the surviving brother, having positively refused to hold any communication with either of them. To both these letters, after some interval, she received courteous replies. Sir Walter Mackenzie was a very old man, over eighty, who now never stirred away from Incharrow, in Ross-shire. Lady Mackenzie was not living. Sir Walter did not write himself, but a letter came from Mrs Mackenzie, his eldest son's wife, in which she said that she and her husband would be up in London in the course of the next spring, and hoped that they might then have the pleasure of making their cousin's acquaintance. This letter, it was true, did not come till the beginning of August, when the Littlebath plan was nearly formed; and Margaret knew that her cousin, who was in Parliament, had himself been in London almost up to the time at which it was written, so that he might have called had he chosen. But she was prepared to forgive much. There had been cause for offence; and if her great relatives were now prepared to take her by the hand, there could be no reason why she should not consent to be so taken. Sir John Ball, the other baronet, had absolutely come to her, and had seen her. There had been a regular scene of reconciliation, and she had gone down for a day and night to the Cedars. Sir John also was an old man, being over seventy, and Lady Ball was nearly as old. Mr Ball, the future baronet, had also been there. He was a widower, with a large family and small means. He had been, and of course still was, a barrister; but as a barrister he had never succeeded, and was now waiting sadly till he should inherit the very moderate fortune which would come to him at his father's death. The Balls, indeed, had not done well with their baronetcy, and their cousin found them living with a degree of strictness, as to small expenses, which she herself had never been called upon to exercise. Lady Ball indeed had a carriage—for what would a baronet's wife do without one?—but it did not very often go out. And the Cedars was an old place, with grounds and paddocks appertaining; but the ancient solitary gardener could not make much of the grounds, and the grass of the paddocks was always sold. Margaret, when she was first asked to go to the Cedars, felt that it would be better for her to give up her migration to Littlebath. It would be much, she thought, to have her relations near to her. But she had found Sir John and Lady Ball to be very dull, and her cousin, the father of the large family, had spoken to her about little except money. She was not much in love with the Balls when she returned to London, and the Littlebath plan was allowed to go on.
She made a preliminary journey to that place, and took furnished lodgings in the Paragon. Now it is known to all the world that the Paragon is the nucleus of all that is pleasant and fashionable at Littlebath. It is a long row of houses with two short rows abutting from the ends of the long row, and every house in it looks out upon the Montpelier Gardens. If not built of stone, these houses are built of such stucco that the Margaret Mackenzies of the world do not know the difference. Six steps, which are of undoubted stone, lead up to each door. The areas are grand with high railings. The flagged way before the houses is very broad, and at each corner there is an extensive sweep, so that the carriages of the Paragonites may be made to turn easily. Miss Mackenzie's heart sank a little within her at the sight of all this grandeur, when she was first taken to the Paragon by her new friend the doctor. But she bade her heart be of good courage, and looked at the first floor—divided into dining-room and drawing-room—at the large bedroom upstairs for herself, and two small rooms for her niece and her maid-servant—at the kitchen in which she was to have a partial property, and did not faint at the splendour. And yet how different it was from those dingy rooms in Arundel Street! So different that she could hardly bring herself to think that this bright abode could become her own.
"And what is the price, Mrs Richards?" Her voice almost did fail her as she asked this question. She was determined to be liberal; but money of her own had hitherto been so scarce with her that she still dreaded the idea of expense.
"The price, mem, is well beknown to all as knows Littlebath. We never alters. Ask Dr Pottinger else."
Miss Mackenzie did not at all wish to ask Dr Pottinger, who was at this moment standing in the front room, while she and her embryo landlady were settling affairs in the back room.
"But what is the price, Mrs Richards?"
"The price, mem, is two pound ten a week, or nine guineas if taken by the month—to include the kitchen fire."
Margaret breathed again. She had made her little calculations over and over again, and was prepared to bid as high as the sum now named for such a combination of comfort and splendour as Mrs Richards was able to offer to her. One little question she asked, putting her lips close to Mrs Richards' ear so that her friend the doctor should not hear her through the doorway, and then jumped back a yard and a half, awe-struck by the energy of her landlady's reply.
"B—— in the Paragon!" Mrs Richards declared that Miss Mackenzie did not as yet know Littlebath. She bethought herself that she did know Arundel Street, and again thanked Fortune for all the good things that had been given to her.
Miss Mackenzie feared to ask any further questions after this, and took the rooms out of hand by the month.
"And very comfortable you'll find yourself," said Dr Pottinger, as he walked back with his new friend to the inn. He had perhaps been a little disappointed when he saw that Miss Mackenzie showed every sign of good health; but he bore it like a man and a Christian, remembering, no doubt, that let a lady's health be ever so good, she likes to see a doctor sometimes, especially if she be alone in the world. He offered her, therefore, every assistance in his power.
"The assembly rooms were quite close to the Paragon," he said.
"Oh, indeed!" said Miss Mackenzie, not quite knowing the purport of assembly rooms.
"And there are two or three churches within five minutes' walk." Here Miss Mackenzie was more at home, and mentioned the name of the Rev. Mr Stumfold, for whom she had a letter of introduction, and whose church she would like to attend.
Now Mr Stumfold was a shining light at Littlebath, the man of men, if he was not something more than mere man, in the eyes of the devout inhabitants of that town. Miss Mackenzie had never heard of Mr Stumfold till her clergyman in London had mentioned his name, and even now had no idea that he was remarkable for any special views in Church matters. Such special views of her own she had none. But Mr Stumfold at Littlebath had very special views, and was very specially known for them. His friends said that he was evangelical, and his enemies said that he was Low Church. He himself was wont to laugh at these names—for he was a man who could laugh—and to declare that his only ambition was to fight the devil under whatever name he might be allowed to carry on that battle. And he was always fighting the devil by opposing those pursuits which are the life and mainstay of such places as Littlebath. His chief enemies were card-playing and dancing as regarded the weaker sex, and hunting and horse-racing—to which, indeed, might be added everything under the name of sport—as regarded the stronger. Sunday comforts were also enemies which he hated with a vigorous hatred, unless three full services a day, with sundry intermediate religious readings and exercitations of the spirit, may be called Sunday comforts. But not on this account should it be supposed that Mr Stumfold was a dreary, dark, sardonic man. Such was by no means the case. He could laugh loud. He could be very jovial at dinner parties. He could make his little jokes about little pet wickednesses. A glass of wine, in season, he never refused. Picnics he allowed, and the flirtation accompanying them. He himself was driven about behind a pair of horses, and his daughters were horsewomen. His sons, if the world spoke truth, were Nimrods; but that was in another county, away from the Tantivy hills, and Mr Stumfold knew nothing of it. In Littlebath Mr Stumfold reigned over his own set as a tyrant, but to those who obeyed him he was never austere in his tyranny.
When Miss Mackenzie mentioned Mr Stumfold's name to the doctor, the doctor felt that he had been wrong in his allusion to the assembly rooms. Mr Stumfold's people never went to assembly rooms. He, a doctor of medicine, of course went among saints and sinners alike, but in such a place as Littlebath he had found it expedient to have one tone for the saints and another for the sinners. Now the Paragon was generally inhabited by sinners, and therefore he had made his hint about the assembly rooms. He at once pointed out Mr Stumfold's church, the spire of which was to be seen as they walked towards the inn, and said a word in praise of that good man. Not a syllable would he again have uttered as to the wickednesses of the place, had not Miss Mackenzie asked some questions as to those assembly rooms.
"How did people get to belong to them? Were they pleasant? What did they do there? Oh—she could put her name down, could she? If it was anything in the way of amusement she would certainly like to put her name down." Dr Pottinger, when on that afternoon he instructed his wife to call on Miss Mackenzie as soon as that young lady should be settled, explained that the stranger was very much in the dark as to the ways and manners of Littlebath.
"What! go to the assembly rooms, and sit under Mr Stumfold!" said Mrs Pottinger. "She never can do both, you know."
Miss Mackenzie went back to London, and returned at the end of a week with her niece, her new maid, and her boxes. All the old furniture had been sold, and her personal belongings were very scanty. The time had now come in which personal belongings would accrue to her, but when she reached the Paragon one big trunk and one small trunk contained all that she possessed. The luggage of her niece Susanna was almost as copious as her own. Her maid had been newly hired, and she was almost ashamed of the scantiness of her own possessions in the eyes of her servant.
The way in which Susanna had been given up to her had been oppressive, and at one moment almost distressing. That objection which each lady had to visit the other,—Miss Mackenzie, that is, and Susanna's mamma,—had never been overcome, and neither side had given way. No visit of affection or of friendship had been made. But as it was needful that the transfer of the young lady should be effected with some solemnity, Mrs Mackenzie had condescended to bring her to her future guardian's lodgings on the day before that fixed for the journey to Littlebath. To so much degradation—for in her eyes it was degradation—Mrs Mackenzie had consented to subject herself; and Mr Mackenzie was to come on the following morning, and take his sister and daughter to the train.
The mother, as soon as she found herself seated and almost before she had recovered the breath lost in mounting the lodging-house stairs, began the speech which she had prepared for delivery on the occasion. Miss Mackenzie, who had taken Susanna's hand, remained with it in her own during the greater part of the speech. Before the speech was done the poor girl's hand had been dropped, but in dropping it the aunt was not guilty of any unkindness. "Margaret," said Mrs Mackenzie, "this is a trial, a very great trial to a mother, and I hope that you feel it as I do."
"Sarah," said Miss Mackenzie, "I will do my duty by your child."
"Well; yes; I hope so. If I thought you would not do your duty by her, no consideration of mere money would induce me to let her go to you. But I do hope, Margaret, you will think of the greatness of the sacrifice we are making. There never was a better child than Susanna."
"I am very glad of that, Sarah."
"Indeed, there never was a better child than any of 'em; I will say that for them before the child herself; and if you do your duty by her, I'm quite sure she'll do hers by you. Tom thinks it best that she should go; and, of course, as all the money which should have gone to him has come to you"—it was here, at this point that Susanna's hand was dropped—"and as you haven't got a chick nor a child, nor yet anybody else of your own, no doubt it is natural that you should wish to have one of them."
"I wish to do a kindness to my brother," said Miss Mackenzie—"and to my niece."
"Yes; of course; I understand. When you would not come up to see us, Margaret, and you all alone, and we with a comfortable home to offer you, of course I knew what your feelings were towards me. I don't want anybody to tell me that! Oh dear, no! 'Tom,' said I when he asked me to go down to Arundel Street, 'not if I know it.' Those were the very words I uttered: 'Not if I know it, Tom!' And your papa never asked me to go again—did he, Susanna? Nor I couldn't have brought myself to. As you are so frank, Margaret, perhaps candour is the best on both sides. Now I am going to leave my darling child in your hands, and if you have got a mother's heart within your bosom, I hope you will do a mother's duty by her."
More than once during this oration Miss Mackenzie had felt inclined to speak her mind out, and to fight her own battle; but she was repressed by the presence of the girl. What chance could there be of good feeling, of aught of affection between her and her ward, if on such an occasion as this the girl were made the witness of a quarrel between her mother and her aunt? Miss Mackenzie's face had become red, and she had felt herself to be angry; but she bore it all with good courage.
"I will do my best," said she. "Susanna, come here and kiss me. Shall we be great friends?" Susanna went and kissed her; but if the poor girl attempted any answer it was not audible. Then the mother threw herself on the daughter's neck, and the two embraced each other with many tears.
"You'll find all her things very tidy, and plenty of 'em," said Mrs Mackenzie through her tears. "I'm sure we've worked hard enough at 'em for the last three weeks."
"I've no doubt we shall find it all very nice," said the aunt.
"We wouldn't send her away to disgrace us, were it ever so; though of course in the way of money it would make no difference to you if she had come without a thing to her back. But I've that spirit I couldn't do it, and so I told Tom." After this Mrs Mackenzie once more embraced her daughter, and then took her departure.
Miss Mackenzie, as soon as her sister-in-law was gone, again took the girl's hand in her own. Poor Susanna was in tears, and indeed there was enough in her circumstances at the present moment to justify her in weeping. She had been given over to her new destiny in no joyous manner.
"Susanna," said Aunt Margaret, with her softest voice, "I'm so glad you have come to me. I will love you very dearly if you will let me."
The girl came and clustered close against her as she sat on the sofa, and so contrived as to creep in under her arm. No one had ever crept in under her arm, or clung close to her before. Such outward signs of affection as that had never been hers, either to give or to receive.
"My darling," she said, "I will love you so dearly."
Susanna said nothing, not knowing what words would be fitting for such an occasion, but on hearing her aunt's assurance of affection, she clung still closer to her, and in this way they became happy before the evening was over.
This adopted niece was no child when she was thus placed under her aunt's charge. She was already fifteen, and though she was young-looking for her age,—having none of that precocious air of womanhood which some girls have assumed by that time,—she was a strong healthy well-grown lass, standing stoutly on her legs, with her head well balanced, with a straight back, and well-formed though not slender waist. She was sharp about the shoulders and elbows, as girls are—or should be—at that age; and her face was not formed into any definite shape of beauty, or its reverse. But her eyes were bright—as were those of all the Mackenzies—and her mouth was not the mouth of a fool. If her cheek-bones were a little high, and the lower part of her face somewhat angular, those peculiarities were probably not distasteful to the eyes of her aunt.
"You're a Mackenzie all over," said the aunt, speaking with some little touch of the northern burr in her voice, though she herself had never known anything of the north.
"That's what mamma's brothers and sisters always tell me. They say I am Scotchy."
Then Miss Mackenzie kissed the girl again. If Susanna had been sent to her because she had in her gait and appearance more of the land of cakes than any of her brothers and sisters, that at any rate should do her no harm in the estimation of her aunt. Thus in this way they became friends.
On the following morning Mr Mackenzie came and took them down to the train.
"I suppose we shall see you sometimes up in London?" he said, as he stood by the door of the carriage.
"I don't know that there will be much to bring me up," she answered.
"And there won't be much to keep you down in the country," said he. "You don't know anybody at Littlebath, I believe?"
"The truth is, Tom, that I don't know anybody anywhere. I'm likely to know as many people at Littlebath as I should in London. But situated as I am, I must live pretty much to myself wherever I am."
Then the guard came bustling along the platform, the father kissed his daughter for the last time, and kissed his sister also, and our heroine with her young charge had taken her departure, and commenced her career in the world.
For many a mile not a word was spoken between Miss Mackenzie and her niece. The mind of the elder of the two travellers was very full of thought,—of thought and of feeling too, so that she could not bring herself to speak joyously to the young girl. She had her doubts as to the wisdom of what she was doing. Her whole life, hitherto, had been sad, sombre, and, we may almost say, silent. Things had so gone with her that she had had no power of action on her own behalf. Neither with her father, nor with her brother, though both had been invalids, had anything of the management of affairs fallen into her hands. Not even in the hiring or discharging of a cookmaid had she possessed any influence. No power of the purse had been with her—none of that power which belongs legitimately to a wife because a wife is a partner in the business. The two sick men whom she had nursed had liked to retain in their own hands the little privileges which their position had given them. Margaret, therefore, had been a nurse in their houses, and nothing more than a nurse. Had this gone on for another ten years she would have lived down the ambition of any more exciting career, and would have been satisfied, had she then come into the possession of the money which was now hers, to have ended her days nursing herself—or more probably, as she was by nature unselfish, she would have lived down her pride as well as her ambition, and would have gone to the house of her brother and have expended herself in nursing her nephews and nieces. But luckily for her—or unluckily, as it may be—this money had come to her before her time for withering had arrived. In heart, and energy, and desire, there was still much of strength left to her. Indeed it may be said of her, that she had come so late in life to whatever of ripeness was to be vouchsafed to her, that perhaps the period of her thraldom had not terminated itself a day too soon for her advantage. Many of her youthful verses she had destroyed in the packing up of those two modest trunks; but there were effusions of the spirit which had flown into rhyme within the last twelve months, and which she still preserved. Since her brother's death she had confined herself to simple prose, and for this purpose she kept an ample journal. All this is mentioned to show that at the age of thirty-six Margaret Mackenzie was still a young woman.
She had resolved that she would not content herself with a lifeless life, such as those few who knew anything of her evidently expected from her. Harry Handcock had thought to make her his head nurse; and the Tom Mackenzies had also indulged some such idea when they gave her that first invitation to come and live in Gower Street. A word or two had been said at the Cedars which led her to suppose that the baronet's family there would have admitted her, with her eight hundred a year, had she chosen to be so admitted. But she had declared to herself that she would make a struggle to do better with herself and with her money than that. She would go into the world, and see if she could find any of those pleasantnesses of which she had read in books. As for dancing, she was too old, and never yet in her life had she stood up as a worshipper of Terpsichore. Of cards she knew nothing; she had never even seen them used. To the performance of plays she had been once or twice in her early days, and now regarded a theatre not as a sink of wickedness after the manner of the Stumfoldians, but as a place of danger because of difficulty of ingress and egress, because the ways of a theatre were far beyond her ken. The very mode in which it would behove her to dress herself to go out to an ordinary dinner party, was almost unknown to her. And yet, in spite of all this, she was resolved to try.
Would it not have been easier for her—easier and more comfortable—to have abandoned all ideas of the world, and have put herself at once under the tutelage and protection of some clergyman who would have told her how to give away her money, and prepare herself in the right way for a comfortable death-bed? There was much in this view of life to recommend it. It would be very easy, and she had the necessary faith. Such a clergyman, too, would be a comfortable friend, and, if a married man, might be a very dear friend. And there might, probably, be a clergyman's wife, who would go about with her, and assist in that giving away of her money. Would not this be the best life after all? But in order to reconcile herself altogether to such a life as that, it was necessary that she should be convinced that the other life was abominable, wicked, and damnable. She had seen enough of things—had looked far enough into the ways of the world—to perceive this. She knew that she must go about such work with strong convictions, and as yet she could not bring herself to think that "dancing and delights" were damnable. No doubt she would come to have such belief if told so often enough by some persuasive divine; but she was not sure that she wished to believe it.
After doubting much, she had determined to give the world a trial, and, feeling that London was too big for her, had resolved upon Littlebath. But now, having started herself upon her journey, she felt as some mariner might who had put himself out alone to sea in a small boat, with courage enough for the attempt, but without that sort of courage which would make the attempt itself delightful.
And then this girl that was with her! She had told herself that it would not be well to live for herself alone, that it was her duty to share her good things with some one, and therefore she had resolved to share them with her niece. But in this guardianship there was danger, which frightened her as she thought of it.
"Are you tired yet, my dear?" said Miss Mackenzie, as they got to Swindon.
"Oh dear, no; I'm not at all tired."
"There are cakes in there, I see. I wonder whether we should have time to buy one."
After considering the matter for five minutes in doubt, Aunt Margaret did rush out, and did buy the cakes.
Miss Mackenzie's First Acquaintances
In the first fortnight of Miss Mackenzie's sojourn at Littlebath, four persons called upon her; but though this was a success as far as it went, those fourteen days were very dull. During her former short visit to the place she had arranged to send her niece to a day school which had been recommended to her as being very genteel, and conducted under moral and religious auspices of most exalted character. Hither Susanna went every morning after breakfast, and returned home in these summer days at eight o'clock in the evening. On Sundays also, she went to morning church with the other girls; so that Miss Mackenzie was left very much to herself.
Mrs Pottinger was the first to call, and the doctor's wife contented herself with simple offers of general assistance. She named a baker to Miss Mackenzie, and a dressmaker; and she told her what was the proper price to be paid by the hour for a private brougham or for a public fly. All this was useful, as Miss Mackenzie was in a state of densest ignorance; but it did not seem that much in the way of amusement would come from the acquaintance of Mrs Pottinger. That lady said nothing about the assembly rooms, nor did she speak of the Stumfoldian manner of life. Her husband had no doubt explained to her that the stranger was not as yet a declared disciple in either school. Miss Mackenzie had wished to ask a question about the assemblies, but had been deterred by fear. Then came Mr Stumfold in person, and, of course, nothing about the assembly rooms was said by him. He made himself very pleasant, and Miss Mackenzie almost resolved to put herself into his hands. He did not look sour at her, nor did he browbeat her with severe words, nor did he exact from her the performance of any hard duties. He promised to find her a seat in his church, and told her what were the hours of service. He had three "Sabbath services," but he thought that regular attendance twice every Sunday was enough for people in general. He would be delighted to be of use, and Mrs Stumfold should come and call. Having promised this, he went his way. Then came Mrs Stumfold, according to promise, bringing with her one Miss Baker, a maiden lady. From Mrs Stumfold our friend got very little assistance. Mrs Stumfold was hard, severe, and perhaps a little grand. She let fall a word or two which intimated her conviction that Miss Mackenzie was to become at all points a Stumfoldian, since she had herself invoked the countenance and assistance of the great man on her first arrival; but beyond this, Mrs Stumfold afforded no comfort. Our friend could not have explained to herself why it was so, but after having encountered Mrs Stumfold, she was less inclined to become a disciple than she had been when she had seen only the great master himself. It was not only that Mrs Stumfold, as judged by externals, was felt to be more severe than her husband evangelically, but she was more severe also ecclesiastically. Miss Mackenzie thought that she could probably obey the ecclesiastical man, but that she would certainly rebel against the ecclesiastical woman.
There had been, as I have said, a Miss Baker with the female minister, and Miss Mackenzie had at once perceived that had Miss Baker called alone, the whole thing would have been much more pleasant. Miss Baker had a soft voice, was given to a good deal of gentle talking, was kind in her manner, and prone to quick intimacies with other ladies of her own nature. All this Miss Mackenzie felt rather than saw, and would have been delighted to have had Miss Baker without Mrs Stumfold. She could, she knew, have found out all about everything in five minutes, had she and Miss Baker been able to sit close together and to let their tongues loose. But Miss Baker, poor soul, was in these days thoroughly subject to the female Stumfold influence, and went about the world of Littlebath in a repressed manner that was truly pitiable to those who had known her before the days of her slavery.
But, as she rose to leave the room at her tyrant's bidding, she spoke a word of comfort. "A friend of mine, Miss Mackenzie, lives next door to you, and she has begged me to say that she will do herself the pleasure of calling on you, if you will allow her."
The poor woman hesitated as she made her little speech, and once cast her eye round in fear upon her companion.
"I'm sure I shall be delighted," said Miss Mackenzie.
"That's Miss Todd, is it?" said Mrs Stumfold; and it was made manifest by Mrs Stumfold's voice that Mrs Stumfold did not think much of Miss Todd.
"Yes; Miss Todd. You see she is so close a neighbour," said Miss Baker, apologetically.
Mrs Stumfold shook her head, and then went away without further speech.
Miss Mackenzie became at once impatient for Miss Todd's arrival, and was induced to keep an eye restlessly at watch on the two neighbouring doors in the Paragon, in order that she might see Miss Todd at the moment of some entrance or exit. Twice she did see a lady come out from the house next her own on the right, a stout jolly-looking dame, with a red face and a capacious bonnet, who closed the door behind her with a slam, and looked as though she would care little for either male Stumfold or female. Miss Mackenzie, however, made up her mind that this was not Miss Todd. This lady, she thought, was a married lady; on one occasion there had been children with her, and she was, in Miss Mackenzie's judgment, too stout, too decided, and perhaps too loud to be a spinster. A full week passed by before this question was decided by the promised visit,—a week during which the new comer never left her house at any hour at which callers could be expected to call, so anxious was she to become acquainted with her neighbour; and she had almost given the matter up in despair, thinking that Mrs Stumfold had interfered with her tyranny, when, one day immediately after lunch—in these days Miss Mackenzie always lunched, but seldom dined—when one day immediately after lunch, Miss Todd was announced.
Miss Mackenzie immediately saw that she had been wrong. Miss Todd was the stout, red-faced lady with the children. Two of the children, girls of eleven and thirteen, were with her now. As Miss Todd walked across the room to shake hands with her new acquaintance, Miss Mackenzie at once recognised the manner in which the street door had been slammed, and knew that it was the same firm step which she had heard on the pavement half down the Paragon.
"My friend, Miss Baker, told me you had come to live next door to me," began Miss Todd, "and therefore I told her to tell you that I should come and see you. Single ladies, when they come here, generally like some one to come to them. I'm single myself, and these are my nieces. You've got a niece, I believe, too. When the Popes have nephews, people say all manner of ill-natured things. I hope they ain't so uncivil to us."
Miss Mackenzie smirked and smiled, and assured Miss Todd that she was very glad to see her. The allusion to the Popes she did not understand.
"Miss Baker came with Mrs Stumfold, didn't she?" continued Miss Todd. "She doesn't go much anywhere now without Mrs Stumfold, unless when she creeps down to me. She and I are very old friends. Have you known Mr Stumfold long? Perhaps you have come here to be near him; a great many ladies do."
In answer to this, Miss Mackenzie explained that she was not a follower of Mr Stumfold in that sense. It was true that she had brought a letter to him, and intended to go to his church. In consequence of that letter, Mrs Stumfold had been good enough to call upon her.
"Oh yes: she'll come to you quick enough. Did she come with her carriage and horses?"
"I think she was on foot," said Miss Mackenzie.
"Then I should tell her of it. Coming to you, in the best house in the Paragon, on your first arrival, she ought to have come with her carriage and horses."
"Tell her of it!" said Miss Mackenzie.
"A great many ladies would, and would go over to the enemy before the month was over, unless she brought the carriage in the meantime. I don't advise you to do so. You haven't got standing enough in the place yet, and perhaps she could put you down."
"But it makes no difference to me how she comes."
"None in the least, my dear, or to me either. I should be glad to see her even in a wheelbarrow for my part. But you mustn't suppose that she ever comes to me. Lord bless you! no. She found me out to be past all grace ever so many years ago."
"Mrs Stumfold thinks that Aunt Sally is the old gentleman himself," said the elder of the girls.
"Ha, ha, ha," laughed the aunt. "You see, Miss Mackenzie, we run very much into parties here, as they do in most places of this kind, and if you mean to go thoroughly in with the Stumfold party you must tell me so, candidly, and there won't be any bones broken between us. I shan't like you the less for saying so: only in that case it won't be any use our trying to see much of each other."
Miss Mackenzie was somewhat frightened, and hardly knew what answer to make. She was very anxious to have it understood that she was not, as yet, in bond under Mrs Stumfold—that it was still a matter of choice to herself whether she would be a saint or a sinner; and she would have been so glad to hint to her neighbour that she would like to try the sinner's line, if it were only for a month or two; only Miss Todd frightened her! And when the girl told her that Miss Todd was regarded, ex parte Stumfold, as being the old gentleman himself, Miss Mackenzie again thought for an instant that there would be safety in giving way to the evangelico-ecclesiastical influence, and that perhaps life might be pleasant enough to her if she could be allowed to go about in couples with that soft Miss Baker.
"As you have been so good as to call," said Miss Mackenzie, "I hope you will allow me to return your visit."
"Oh, dear, yes—shall be quite delighted to see you. You can't hurt me, you know. The question is, whether I shan't ruin you. Not that I and Mr Stumfold ain't great cronies. He and I meet about on neutral ground, and are the best friends in the world. He knows I'm a lost sheep—a gone 'coon, as the Americans say—so he pokes his fun at me, and we're as jolly as sandboys. But St Stumfolda is made of sterner metal, and will not put up with any such female levity. If she pokes her fun at any sinners, it is at gentlemen sinners; and grim work it must be for them, I should think. Poor Mary Baker! the best creature in the world. I'm afraid she has a bad time of it. But then, you know, perhaps that is the sort of thing you like."
"You see I know so very little of Mrs Stumfold," said Miss Mackenzie.
"That's a misfortune will soon be cured if you let her have her own way. You ask Mary Baker else. But I don't mean to be saying anything bad behind anybody's back; I don't indeed. I have no doubt these people are very good in their way; only their ways are not my ways; and one doesn't like to be told so often that one's own way is broad, and that it leads—you know where. Come, Patty, let us be going. When you've made up your mind, Miss Mackenzie, just you tell me. If you say, 'Miss Todd, I think you're too wicked for me,' I shall understand it. I shan't be in the least offended. But if my way isn't—isn't too broad, you know, I shall be very happy to see you."
Hereupon Miss Mackenzie plucked up courage and asked a question.
"Do you ever go to the assembly rooms, Miss Todd?"
Miss Todd almost whistled before she gave her answer. "Why, Miss Mackenzie, that's where they dance and play cards, and where the girls flirt and the young men make fools of themselves. I don't go there very often myself, because I don't care about flirting, and I'm too old for dancing. As for cards, I get plenty of them at home. I think I did put down my name and paid something when I first came here, but that's ever so many years ago. I don't go to the assembly rooms now."
As soon as Miss Todd was gone, Miss Mackenzie went to work to reflect seriously upon all she had just heard. Of course, there could be no longer any question of her going to the assembly rooms. Even Miss Todd, wicked as she was, did not go there. But should she, or should she not, return Miss Todd's visit? If she did she would be thereby committing herself to what Miss Todd had profanely called the broad way. In such case any advance in the Stumfold direction would be forbidden to her. But if she did not call on Miss Todd, then she would have plainly declared that she intended to be such another disciple as Miss Baker, and from that decision there would be no recall. On this subject she must make up her mind, and in doing so she laboured with all her power. As to any charge of incivility which might attach to her for not returning the visit of a lady who had been so civil to her, of that she thought nothing. Miss Todd had herself declared that she would not be in the least offended. But she liked this new acquaintance. In owning all the truth about Miss Mackenzie, I must confess that her mind hankered after the things of this world. She thought that if she could only establish herself as Miss Todd was established, she would care nothing for the Stumfolds, male or female.
But how was she to do this? An establishment in the Stumfold direction might be easier.
In the course of the next week two affairs of moment occurred to Miss Mackenzie. On the Wednesday morning she received from London a letter of business which caused her considerable anxiety, and on the Thursday afternoon a note was brought to her from Mrs Stumfold,—or rather an envelope containing a card on which was printed an invitation to drink tea with that lady on that day week. This invitation she accepted without much doubt. She would go and see Mrs Stumfold in her house, and would then be better able to decide whether the mode of life practised by the Stumfold party would be to her taste. So she wrote a reply, and sent it by her maid-servant, greatly doubting whether she was not wrong in writing her answer on common note-paper, and whether she also should not have supplied herself with some form or card for the occasion.
The letter of business was from her brother Tom, and contained an application for the loan of some money,—for the loan, indeed, of a good deal of money. But the loan was to be made not to him but to the firm of Rubb and Mackenzie, and was not to be a simple lending of money on the faith of that firm, for purposes of speculation or ordinary business. It was to be expended in the purchase of the premises in the New Road, and Miss Mackenzie was to have a mortgage on them, and was to receive five per cent for the money which she should advance. The letter was long, and though it was manifest even to Miss Mackenzie that he had written the first page with much hesitation, he had waxed strong as he had gone on, and had really made out a good case. "You are to understand," he said, "that this is, of course, to be done through your own lawyer, who will not allow you to make the loan unless he is satisfied with the security. Our landlords are compelled to sell the premises, and unless we purchase them ourselves, we shall in all probability be turned out, as we have only a year or two more under our present lease. You could purchase the whole thing yourself, but in that case you would not be sure of the same interest for your money." He then went on to say that Samuel Rubb, junior, the son of old Rubb, should run down to Littlebath in the course of next week, in order that the whole thing might be made clear to her. Samuel Rubb was not the partner whose name was included in the designation of the firm, but was a young man,—"a comparatively young man,"—as her brother explained, who had lately been admitted to a share in the business.
This letter put Miss Mackenzie into a twitter. Like all other single ladies, she was very nervous about her money. She was quite alive to the beauty of a high rate of interest, but did not quite understand that high interest and impaired security should go hand in hand together. She wished to oblige her brother, and was aware that she had money as to which her lawyers were looking out for an investment. Even this had made her unhappy, as she was not quite sure whether her lawyers would not spend the money. She knew that lone women were terribly robbed sometimes, and had almost resolved upon insisting that the money should be put into the Three per Cents. But she had gone to work with figures, and having ascertained that by doing so twenty-five pounds a year would be docked off from her computed income, she had given no such order. She now again went to work with her figures, and found that if the loan were accomplished it would add twenty-five pounds a year to her computed income. Mortgages, she knew, were good things, strong and firm, based upon landed security, and very respectable. So she wrote to her lawyers, saying that she would be glad to oblige her brother if there were nothing amiss. Her lawyers wrote back, advising her to refer Mr Rubb, junior, to them. On the day named in her brother's letter, Mr Samuel Rubb, junior, arrived at Littlebath, and called upon Miss Mackenzie in the Paragon.
Miss Mackenzie had been brought up with contempt and almost with hatred for the Rubb family. It had, in the first instance, been the work of old Samuel Rubb to tempt her brother Tom into trade; and he had tempted Tom into a trade that had not been fat and prosperous, and therefore pardonable, but into a trade that had been troublesome and poor. Walter Mackenzie had always spoken of these Rubbs with thorough disgust, and had persistently refused to hold any intercourse with them. When, therefore, Mr Samuel Rubb was announced, our heroine was somewhat inclined to seat herself upon a high horse.
Mr Samuel Rubb, junior, came upstairs, and was by no means the sort of person in appearance that Miss Mackenzie had expected to see. In the first place, he was, as well as she could guess, about forty years of age; whereas she had expected to see a young man. A man who went about the world especially designated as junior, ought, she thought, to be very young. And then Mr Rubb carried with him an air of dignity, and had about his external presence a something of authority which made her at once seat herself a peg lower than she had intended. He was a good-looking man, nearly six feet high, with great hands and feet, but with a great forehead also, which atoned for his hands and feet. He was dressed throughout in black, as tradesmen always are in these days; but, as Miss Mackenzie said to herself, there was certainly no knowing that he belonged to the oilcloth business from the cut of his coat or the set of his trousers. He began his task with great care, and seemed to have none of the hesitation which had afflicted her brother in writing his letter. The investment, he said, would, no doubt, be a good one. Two thousand four hundred pounds was the sum wanted, and he understood that she had that amount lying idle. Their lawyer had already seen her lawyer, and there could be no doubt as to the soundness of the mortgage. An assurance company with whom the firm had dealings was quite ready to advance the money on the proposed security, and at the proposed rate of interest, but in such a matter as that, Rubb and Mackenzie did not wish to deal with an assurance company. They desired that all control over the premises should either be in their own hands, or in the hands of someone connected with them.
By the time that Mr Samuel Rubb had done, Miss Mackenzie found herself to have dismounted altogether from her horse, and to be pervaded by some slight fear that her lawyers might allow so favourable an opportunity for investing her money to slip through their hands.
Then, on a sudden, Mr Rubb dropped the subject of the loan, and Miss Mackenzie, as he did so, felt herself to be almost disappointed. And when she found him talking easily to her about matters of external life, although she answered him readily, and talked to him also easily, she entertained some feeling that she ought to be offended. Mr Rubb, junior, was a tradesman who had come to her on business, and having done his business, why did he not go away? Nevertheless, Miss Mackenzie answered him when he asked questions, and allowed herself to be seduced into a conversation.
"Yes, upon my honour," he said, looking out of the window into the Montpelier Gardens, "a very nice situation indeed. How much better they do these things in such a place as this than we do up in London! What dingy houses we live in, and how bright they make the places here!"
"They are not crowded so much, I suppose," said Miss Mackenzie.
"It isn't only that. The truth is, that in London nobody cares what his house looks like. The whole thing is so ugly that anything not ugly would be out of place. Now, in Paris—you have been in Paris, Miss Mackenzie?"
In answer to this, Miss Mackenzie was compelled to own that she had never been in Paris.
"Ah, you should go to Paris, Miss Mackenzie; you should, indeed. Now, you're a lady that have nothing to prevent your going anywhere. If I were you, I'd go almost everywhere; but above all, I'd go to Paris. There's no place like Paris."
"I suppose not," said Miss Mackenzie.
By this time Mr Rubb had returned from the window, and had seated himself in the easy chair in the middle of the room. In doing so he thrust out both his legs, folded his hands one over the other, and looked very comfortable.
"Now I'm a slave to business," he said. "That horrid place in the New Road, which we want to buy with your money, has made a prisoner of me for the last twenty years. I went into it as the boy who was to do the copying, when your brother first became a partner. Oh dear, how I did hate it!"
"Did you now?"
"I should rather think I did. I had been brought up at the Merchant Taylors' and they intended to send me to Oxford. That was five years before they began the business in the New Road. Then came the crash which our house had at Manchester; and when we had picked up the pieces, we found that we had to give up university ideas. However, I'll make a business of it before I'm done; you see if I don't, Miss Mackenzie. Your brother has been with us so many years that I have quite a pleasure in talking to you about it."
Miss Mackenzie was not quite sure that she reciprocated the pleasure; for, after all, though he did look so much better than she had expected, he was only Rubb, junior, from Rubb and Mackenzie's; and any permanent acquaintance with Mr Rubb would not suit the line of life in which she was desirous of moving. But she did not in the least know how to stop him, or how to show him that she had intended to receive him simply as a man of business. And then it was so seldom that anyone came to talk to her, that she was tempted to fall away from her high resolves. "I have not known much of my brother's concerns," she said, attempting to be cautious.
Then he sat for another hour, making himself very agreeable, and at the end of that time she offered him a glass of wine and a biscuit, which he accepted. He was going to remain two or three days in the neighbourhood, he said, and might he call again before he left? Miss Mackenzie told him that he might. How was it possible that she should answer such a question in any other way? Then he got up, and shook hands with her, told her that he was so glad he had come to Littlebath, and was quite cordial and friendly. Miss Mackenzie actually found herself laughing with him as they stood on the floor together, and though she knew that it was improper, she liked it. When he was gone she could not remember what it was that had made her laugh, but she remembered that she had laughed. For a long time past very little laughter had come to her share.
When he was gone she prepared herself to think about him at length. Why had he talked to her in that way? Why was he going to call again? Why was Rubb, junior, from Rubb and Mackenzie's, such a pleasant fellow? After all, he retailed oilcloth at so much a yard; and little as she knew of the world, she knew that she, with ever so much good blood in her veins, and with ever so many hundreds a year of her own, was entitled to look for acquaintances of a higher order than that. She, if she were entitled to make any boast about herself—and she was by no means inclined to such boastings—might at any rate boast that she was a lady. Now, Mr Rubb was not a gentleman. He was not a gentleman by position. She knew that well enough, and she thought that she had also discovered that he was not quite a gentleman in his manners and mode of speech. Nevertheless she had liked him, and had laughed with him, and the remembrance of this made her sad.
That same evening she wrote a letter to her lawyer, telling him that she was very anxious to oblige her brother, if the security was good. And then she went into the matter at length, repeating much of what Mr Rubb had said to her, as to the excellence of mortgages in general, and of this mortgage in particular. After that she dressed herself with great care, and went out to tea at Mrs Stumfold's. This was the first occasion in her life in which she had gone to a party, the invitation to which had come to her on a card, and of course she felt herself to be a little nervous.
Miss Mackenzie Commences Her Career
Miss Mackenzie had been three weeks at Littlebath when the day arrived on which she was to go to Mrs Stumfold's party, and up to that time she had not enjoyed much of the society of that very social place. Indeed, in these pages have been described with accuracy all the advancement which she had made in that direction. She had indeed returned Miss Todd's call, but had not found that lady at home. In doing this she had almost felt herself to be guilty of treason against the new allegiance which she seemed to have taken upon herself in accepting Mrs Stumfold's invitation; and she had done it at last not from any firm resolve of which she might have been proud, but had been driven to it by ennui, and by the easy temptation of Miss Todd's neighbouring door. She had, therefore, slipped out, and finding her wicked friend to be not at home, had hurried back again. She had, however, committed herself to a card, and she knew that Mrs Stumfold would hear of it through Miss Baker. Miss Baker's visit she had not returned, being in doubt where Miss Baker lived, being terribly in doubt also whether the Median rules of fashion demanded of her that she should return the call of a lady who had simply come to her with another caller. Her hesitation on this subject had been much, and her vacillations many, but she had thought it safer to abstain. For the last day or two she had been expecting the return of Mr Rubb, junior—keeping herself a prisoner, I fear, during the best hours of the day, so that she might be there to receive him when he did come; but though she had so acted, she had quite resolved to be very cold with him, and very cautious, and had been desirous of seeing him solely with a view to the mercantile necessities of her position. It behoved her certainly to attend to business when business came in her way, and therefore she would take care to be at home when Mr Rubb should call.
She had been to church twice a day on each of the Sundays that she had passed in Littlebath, having in this matter strictly obeyed the hints which Mr Stumfold had given for her guidance. No doubt she had received benefit from the discourses which she had heard from that gentleman each morning; and, let us hope, benefit also from the much longer discourses which she had heard from Mr Stumfold's curate on each evening. The Rev. Mr Maguire was very powerful, but he was also very long; and Miss Mackenzie, who was hardly as yet entitled to rank herself among the thoroughly converted, was inclined to think that he was too long. She was, however, patient by nature, and willing to bear much, if only some little might come to her in return. What of social comfort she had expected to obtain from her churchgoings I cannot quite define; but I think that she had unconsciously expected something from them in that direction, and that she had been disappointed.
But now, at nine o'clock on this appointed evening, she was of a certainty and in very truth going into society. The card said half-past eight; but the Sun had not yoked his horses so far away from her Tyre, remote as that Tyre had been, as to have left her in ignorance that half-past eight meant nine. When her watch showed her that half-past eight had really come, she was fidgety, and rang the bell to inquire whether the man might have probably forgotten to send the fly; and yet she had been very careful to tell the man that she did not wish to be at Mrs Stumfold's before nine.
"He understands, Miss," said the servant; "don't you be afeard; he's a-doing of it every night."
Then she became painfully conscious that even the maid-servant knew more of the social ways of the place than did she.
When she reached the top of Mrs Stumfold's stairs, her heart was in her mouth, for she perceived immediately that she had kept people waiting. After all, she had trusted to false intelligence in that matter of the hour. Half-past eight had meant half-past eight, and she ought to have known that this would be so in a house so upright as that of Mrs Stumfold. That lady met her at the door, and smiling—blandly, but, perhaps I might be permitted to say, not so blandly as she might have smiled—conducted the stranger to a seat.
"We generally open with a little prayer, and for that purpose our dear friends are kind enough to come to us punctually."
Then Mr Stumfold got up, and pressed her hand very kindly.
"I'm so sorry," Miss Mackenzie had uttered.
"Not in the least," he replied. "I knew you couldn't know, and therefore we ventured to wait a few minutes. The time hasn't been lost, as Mr Maguire has treated us to a theological argument of great weight."
Then all the company laughed, and Miss Mackenzie perceived that Mr Stumfold could joke in his way. She was introduced to Mr Maguire, who also pressed her hand; and then Miss Baker came and sat by her side. There was, however, at that moment no time for conversation. The prayer was begun immediately, Mr Stumfold taking this duty himself. Then Mr Maguire read half a chapter in the Bible, and after that Mr Stumfold explained it. Two ladies asked Mr Stumfold questions with great pertinacity, and these questions Mr Stumfold answered very freely, walking about the room the while, and laughing often as he submitted himself to their interrogations. And Miss Mackenzie was much astonished at the special freedom of his manner,—how he spoke of St Paul as Paul, declaring the saint to have been a good fellow; how he said he liked Luke better than Matthew, and how he named even a holier name than these with infinite ease and an accustomed familiarity which seemed to delight the other ladies; but which at first shocked her in her ignorance.
"But I'm not going to have anything more to say to Peter and Paul at present," he declared at last. "You'd keep me here all night, and the tea will be spoilt."
Then they all laughed again at the absurd idea of this great and good man preferring his food,—his food of this world,—to that other food which it was his special business to dispense. There is nothing which the Stumfoldian ladies of Littlebath liked so much as these little jokes which bordered on the profanity of the outer world, which made them feel themselves to be almost as funny as the sinners, and gave them a slight taste, as it were, of the pleasures of iniquity.
"Wine maketh glad the heart of woman, Mrs Jones," Mr Stumfold would say as he filled for the second time the glass of some old lady of his set; and the old lady would chirrup and wink, and feel that things were going almost as jollily with her as they did with that wicked Mrs Smith, who spent every night of her life playing cards, or as they had done with that horrid Mrs Brown, of whom such terrible things were occasionally whispered when two or three ladies found themselves sufficiently private to whisper them; that things were going almost as pleasant here in this world, although accompanied by so much safety as to the future in her own case, and so much danger in those other cases! I think it was this aptitude for feminine rakishness which, more than any of his great virtues, more even than his indomitable industry, made Mr Stumfold the most popular man in Littlebath. A dozen ladies on the present occasion skipped away to the tea-table in the back drawing-room with a delighted alacrity, which was all owing to the unceremonious treatment which St Peter and St Paul had received from their pastor.
Miss Mackenzie had just found time to cast an eye round the room and examine the scene of Mr Stumfold's pleasantries while Mr Maguire was reading. She saw that there were only three gentlemen there besides the two clergymen. There was a very old man who sat close wedged in between Mrs Stumfold and another lady, by whose joint dresses he was almost obliterated. This was Mr Peters, a retired attorney. He was Mrs Stumfold's father, and from his coffers had come the superfluities of comfort which Miss Mackenzie saw around her. Rumour, even among the saintly people of Littlebath, said that Mr Peters had been a sharp practitioner in his early days;—that he had been successful in his labours was admitted by all.
"No doubt he has repented," Miss Baker said one day to Miss Todd.
"And if he has not, he has forgotten all about it, which generally means the same thing," Miss Todd had answered.
Mr Peters was now very old, and I am disposed to think he had forgotten all about it.
The other two gentlemen were both young, and they stood very high in the graces of all the company there assembled. They were high in the graces of Mr Stumfold, but higher still in the graces of Mrs Stumfold, and were almost worshipped by one or two other ladies whose powers of external adoration were not diminished by the possession of husbands. They were, both of them, young men who had settled themselves for a time at Littlebath that they might be near Mr Stumfold, and had sufficient of worldly wealth to enable them to pass their time in semi-clerical pursuits.
Mr Frigidy, the elder, intended at some time to go into the Church, but had not as yet made sufficient progress in his studies to justify him in hoping that he could pass a bishop's examination. His friends told him of Islington and St Bees, of Durham, Birkenhead, and other places where the thing could be done for him; but he hesitated, fearing whether he might be able to pass even the initiatory gates of Islington. He was a good young man, at peace with all the world—except Mr Startup. With Mr Startup the veracious chronicler does not dare to assert that Mr Frigidy was at peace. Now Mr Startup was the other young man whom Miss Mackenzie saw in that room.
Mr Startup was also a very good young man, but he was of a fiery calibre, whereas Frigidy was naturally mild. Startup was already an open-air preacher, whereas Frigidy lacked nerve to speak a word above his breath. Startup was not a clergyman because certain scruples impeded and prevented him, while in the bosom of Frigidy there existed no desire so strong as that of having the word reverend attached to his name. Startup, though he was younger than Frigidy, could talk to seven ladies at once with ease, but Frigidy could not talk to one without much assistance from that lady herself. The consequence of this was that Mr Frigidy could not bring himself to love Mr Startup,—could not enable himself to justify a veracious chronicler in saying that he was at peace with all the world, Startup included.
The ladies were too many for Miss Mackenzie to notice them specially as she sat listening to Mr Maguire's impressive voice. Mr Maguire she did notice, and found him to be the possessor of a good figure, of a fine head of jet black hair, of a perfect set of white teeth, of whiskers which were also black and very fine, but streaked here and there with a grey hair,—and of the most terrible squint in his right eye which ever disfigured a face that in all other respects was fitted for an Apollo. So egregious was the squint that Miss Mackenzie could not keep herself from regarding it, even while Mr Stumfold was expounding. Had she looked Mr Maguire full in the face at the beginning, I do not think it would so much have mattered to her; but she had seen first the back of his head, and then his profile, and had unfortunately formed a strong opinion as to his almost perfect beauty. When, therefore, the defective eye was disclosed to her, her feelings were moved in a more than ordinary manner. How was it that a man graced with such a head, with such a mouth and chin and forehead, nay, with such a left eye, could be cursed with such a right eye! She was still thinking of this when the frisky movement into the tea-room took place around her.