MISS OR MRS.?
by Wilkie Collins
PERSONS OF THE STORY.
Sir Joseph Graybrooke. . . . . . . . . .(Knight) Richard Turlington . . . . (Of the Levant Trade) Launcelot Linzie . .(Of the College of Surgeons) James Dicas. . . . . .(Of the Roll of Attorneys) Thomas Wildfang. . . . . .(Superannuated Seaman) Miss Graybrooke. . . . . . (Sir Joseph's Sister) Natalie. . . . . . . . . (Sir Joseph's Daughter) Lady Winwood . . . . . . . .(Sir Joseph's Niece) Amelia} Sophia}. (Lady Winwood's Stepdaughter's) and Dorothea}
Period: THE PRESENT TIME. Place: ENGLAND.
The night had come to an end. The new-born day waited for its quickening light in the silence that is never known on land—the silence before sunrise, in a calm at sea.
Not a breath came from the dead air. Not a ripple stirred on the motionless water. Nothing changed but the softly-growing light; nothing moved but the lazy mist, curling up to meet the sun, its master, on the eastward sea. By fine gradations, the airy veil of morning thinned in substance as it rose—thinned, till there dawned through it in the first rays of sunlight the tall white sails of a Schooner Yacht.
From stem to stern silence possessed the vessel—as silence possessed the sea.
But one living creature was on deck—the man at the helm, dozing peaceably with his arm over the useless tiller. Minute by minute the light grew, and the heat grew with it; and still the helmsman slumbered, the heavy sails hung noiseless, the quiet water lay sleeping against the vessel's sides. The whole orb of the sun was visible above the water-line, when the first sound pierced its way through the morning silence. From far off over the shining white ocean, the cry of a sea-bird reached the yacht on a sudden out of the last airy circles of the waning mist.
The sleeper at the helm woke; looked up at the idle sails, and yawned in sympathy with them; looked out at the sea on either side of him, and shook his head obstinately at the superior obstinacy of the calm.
"Blow, my little breeze!" said the man, whistling the sailor's invocation to the wind softly between his teeth. "Blow, my little breeze!"
"How's her head?" cried a bold and brassy voice, hailing the deck from the cabin staircase.
"Anywhere you like, master; all round the compass."
The voice was followed by the man. The owner of the yacht appeared on deck.
Behold Richard Turlington, Esq., of the great Levant firm of Pizzituti, Turlington & Branca! Aged eight-and-thirty; standing stiffly and sturdily at a height of not more than five feet six—Mr. Turlington presented to the view of his fellow-creatures a face of the perpendicular order of human architecture. His forehead was a straight line, his upper lip was another, his chin was the straightest and the longest line of all. As he turned his swarthy countenance eastward, and shaded his light gray eyes from the sun, his knotty hand plainly revealed that it had got him his living by its own labor at one time or another in his life. Taken on the whole, this was a man whom it might be easy to respect, but whom it would be hard to love. Better company at the official desk than at the social table. Morally and physically—if the expression may be permitted—a man without a bend in him.
"A calm yesterday," grumbled Richard Turlington, looking with stubborn deliberation all round him. "And a calm to-day. Ha! next season I'll have the vessel fitted with engines. I hate this!"
"Think of the filthy coals, and the infernal vibration, and leave your beautiful schooner as she is. We are out for a holiday. Let the wind and the sea take a holiday too."
Pronouncing those words of remonstrance, a slim, nimble, curly-headed young gentleman joined Richard Turlington on deck, with his clothes under his arm, his towels in his hand, and nothing on him but the night-gown in which he had stepped out of his bed.
"Launcelot Linzie, you have been received on board my vessel in the capacity of medical attendant on Miss Natalie Graybrooke, at her father's request. Keep your place, if you please. When I want your advice, I'll ask you for it." Answering in those terms, the elder man fixed his colorless gray eyes on the younger with an expression which added plainly, "There won't be room enough in this schooner much longer for me and for you."
Launcelot Linzie had his reasons (apparently) for declining to let his host offend him on any terms whatever.
"Thank you!" he rejoined, in a tone of satirical good humor. "It isn't easy to keep my place on board your vessel. I can't help presuming to enjoy myself as if I was the owner. The life is such a new one—to me! It's so delightfully easy, for instance, to wash yourself here. On shore it's a complicated question of jugs and basins and tubs; one is always in danger of breaking something, or spoiling something. Here you have only to jump out of bed, to run up on deck, and to do this!"
He turned, and scampered to the bows of the vessel. In one instant he was out of his night-gown, in another he was on the bulwark, in a third he was gamboling luxuriously in sixty fathoms of salt-water.
Turlington's eyes followed him with a reluctant, uneasy attention as he swam round the vessel, the only moving object in view. Turlington's mind, steady and slow in all its operations, set him a problem to be solved, on given conditions, as follows:
"Launcelot Linzie is fifteen years younger than I am. Add to that, Launcelot Linzie is Natalie Graybrooke's cousin. Given those two advantages—Query: Has he taken Natalie's fancy?"
Turning that question slowly over and over in his mind, Richard Turlington seated himself in a corner at the stern of the vessel. He was still at work on the problem, when the young surgeon returned to his cabin to put the finishing touches to his toilet. He had not reached the solution when the steward appeared an hour later and said, "Breakfast is ready, sir!"
They were a party of five round the cabin table.
First, Sir Joseph Graybrooke. Inheritor of a handsome fortune made by his father and his grandfather in trade. Mayor, twice elected, of a thriving provincial town. Officially privileged, while holding that dignity, to hand a silver trowel to a royal personage condescending to lay a first stone of a charitable edifice. Knighted, accordingly, in honor of the occasion. Worthy of the honor and worthy of the occasion. A type of his eminently respectable class. Possessed of an amiable, rosy face, and soft, silky white hair. Sound in his principles; tidy in his dress; blessed with moderate politics and a good digestion—a harmless, healthy, spruce, speckless, weak-minded old man.
Secondly, Miss Lavinia Graybrooke, Sir Joseph's maiden sister. Personally, Sir Joseph in petticoats. If you knew one you knew the other.
Thirdly, Miss Natalie Graybrooke—Sir Joseph's only child.
She had inherited the personal appearance and the temperament of her mother—dead many years since. There had been a mixture of Negro blood and French blood in the late Lady Graybrooke's family, settled originally in Martinique. Natalie had her mother's warm dusky color, her mother's superb black hair, and her mother's melting, lazy, lovely brown eyes. At fifteen years of age (dating from her last birthday) she possessed the development of the bosom and limbs which in England is rarely attained before twenty. Everything about the girl—except her little rosy ears—was on a grand Amazonian scale. Her shapely hand was long and large; her supple waist was the waist of a woman. The indolent grace of all her movements had its motive power in an almost masculine firmness of action and profusion of physical resource. This remarkable bodily development was far from being accompanied by any corresponding development of character. Natalie's manner was the gentle, innocent manner of a young girl. She had her father's sweet temper ingrafted on her mother's variable Southern nature. She moved like a goddess, and she laughed like a child. Signs of maturing too rapidly—of outgrowing her strength, as the phrase went—had made their appearance in Sir Joseph's daughter during the spring. The family doctor had suggested a sea-voyage, as a wise manner of employing the fine summer months. Richard Turlington's yacht was placed at her disposal, with Richard Turlington himself included as one of the fixtures of the vessel. With her father and her aunt to keep up round her the atmosphere of home—with Cousin Launcelot (more commonly known as "Launce") to carry out, if necessary, the medical treatment prescribed by superior authority on shore—the lovely invalid embarked on her summer cruise, and sprang up into a new existence in the life-giving breezes of the sea. After two happy months of lazy coasting round the shores of England, all that remained of Natalie's illness was represented by a delicious languor in her eyes, and an utter inability to devote herself to anything which took the shape of a serious occupation. As she sat at the cabin breakfast-table that morning, in her quaintly-made sailing dress of old-fashioned nankeen—her inbred childishness of manner contrasting delightfully with the blooming maturity of her form—the man must have been trebly armed indeed in the modern philosophy who could have denied that the first of a woman's rights is the right of being beautiful; and the foremost of a woman's merits, the merit of being young!
The other two persons present at the table were the two gentlemen who have already appeared on the deck of the yacht.
"Not a breath of wind stirring!" said Richard Turlington. "The weather has got a grudge against us. We have drifted about four or five miles in the last eight-and-forty hours. You will never take another cruise with me—you must be longing to get on shore."
He addressed himself to Natalie; plainly eager to make himself agreeable to the young lady—and plainly unsuccessful in producing any impression on her. She made a civil answer; and looked at her tea-cup, instead of looking at Richard Turlington.
"You might fancy yourself on shore at this moment," said Launce. "The vessel is as steady as a house, and the swing-table we are eating our breakfast on is as even as your dining-room table at home."
He too addressed himself to Natalie, but without betraying the anxiety to please her which had been shown by the other. For all that, he diverted the girl's attention from her tea-cup; and his idea instantly awakened a responsive idea in Natalie's mind.
"It will be so strange on shore," she said, "to find myself in a room that never turns on one side, and to sit at a table that never tilts down to my knees at one time, or rises up to my chin at another. How I shall miss the wash of the water at my ear, and the ring of the bell on deck when I am awake at night on land! No interest there in how the wind blows, or how the sails are set. No asking your way of the sun, when you are lost, with a little brass instrument and a morsel of pencil and paper. No delightful wandering wherever the wind takes you, without the worry of planning beforehand where you are to go. Oh how I shall miss the dear, changeable, inconstant sea! And how sorry I am I'm not a man and a sailor!"
This to the guest admitted on board on sufferance, and not one word of it addressed, even by chance, to the owner of the yacht!
Richard Turlington's heavy eyebrows contracted with an unmistakable expression of pain.
"If this calm weather holds," he went on, addressing himself to Sir Joseph, "I am afraid, Graybrooke, I shall not be able to bring you back to the port we sailed from by the end of the week."
"Whenever you like, Richard," answered the old gentleman, resignedly. "Any time will do for me."
"Any time within reasonable limits, Joseph," said Miss Lavinia, evidently feeling that her brother was conceding too much. She spoke with Sir Joseph's amiable smile and Sir Joseph's softly-pitched voice. Two twin babies could hardly have been more like one another.
While these few words were being exchanged among the elders, a private communication was in course of progress between the two young people under the cabin table. Natalie's smartly-slippered foot felt its way cautiously inch by inch over the carpet till it touched Launce's boot. Launce, devouring his breakfast, instantly looked up from his plate, and then, at a second touch from Natalie, looked down again in a violent hurry. After pausing to make sure that she was not noticed, Natalie took up her knife. Under a perfectly-acted pretense of toying with it absently, in the character of a young lady absorbed in thought, she began dividing a morsel of ham left on the edge of her plate, into six tiny pieces. Launce's eye looked in sidelong expectation at the divided and subdivided ham. He was evidently waiting to see the collection of morsels put to some telegraphic use, previously determined on between his neighbor and himself.
In the meanwhile the talk proceeded among the other persons at the breakfast-table. Miss Lavinia addressed herself to Launce.
"Do you know, you careless boy, you gave me a fright this morning? I was sleeping with my cabin window open, and I was awoke by an awful splash in the water. I called for the stewardess. I declare I thought somebody had fallen overboard!"
Sir Joseph looked up briskly; his sister had accidentally touched on an old association.
"Talk of falling overboard," he began, "reminds me of an extraordinary adventure—"
There Launce broke in, making his apologies.
"It shan't occur again, Miss Lavinia," he said. "To-morrow morning I'll oil myself all over, and slip into the water as silently as a seal."
"Of an extraordinary adventure," persisted Sir Joseph, "which happened to me many years ago, when I was a young man. Lavinia?"
He stopped, and looked interrogatively at his sister. Miss Graybrooke nodded her head responsively, and settled herself in her chair, as if summoning her attention in anticipation of a coming demand on it. To persons well acquainted with the brother and sister these proceedings were ominous of an impending narrative, protracted to a formidable length. The two always told a story in couples, and always differed with each other about the facts, the sister politely contradicting the brother when it was Sir Joseph's story, and the brother politely contradicting the sister when it was Miss Lavinia's story. Separated one from the other, and thus relieved of their own habitual interchange of contradiction, neither of them had ever been known to attempt the relation of the simplest series of events without breaking down.
"It was five years before I knew you, Richard," proceeded Sir Joseph.
"Six years," said Miss Graybrooke.
"Excuse me, Lavinia."
"No, Joseph, I have it down in my diary."
"Let us waive the point." (Sir Joseph invariably used this formula as a means of at once conciliating his sister, and getting a fresh start for his story.) "I was cruising off the Mersey in a Liverpool pilot-boat. I had hired the boat in company with a friend of mine, formerly notorious in London society, under the nickname (derived from the peculiar brown color of his whiskers) of 'Mahogany Dobbs.'"
"The color of his liveries, Joseph, not the color of his whiskers."
"My dear Lavinia, you are thinking of 'Sea-green Shaw,' so called from the extraordinary liveries he adopted for his servants in the year when he was sheriff."
"I think not, Joseph."
"I beg your pardon, Lavinia."
Richard Turlington's knotty fingers drummed impatiently on the table. He looked toward Natalie. She was idly arranging her little morsels of ham in a pattern on her plate. Launcelot Linzie, still more idly, was looking at the pattern. Seeing what he saw now, Richard solved the problem which had puzzled him on deck. It was simply impossible that Natalie's fancy could be really taken by such an empty-headed fool as that!
Sir Joseph went on with his story:
"We were some ten or a dozen miles off the mouth of the Mersey—"
"Nautical miles, Joseph."
"It doesn't matter, Lavinia."
"Excuse me, brother, the late great and good Doctor Johnson said accuracy ought always to be studied even in the most trifling things."
"They were common miles, Lavinia."
"They were nautical miles, Joseph."
"Let us waive the point. Mahogany Dobbs and I happened to be below in the cabin, occupied—"
Here Sir Joseph paused (with his amiable smile) to consult his memory. Miss Lavinia waited (with her amiable smile) for the coming opportunity of setting her brother right. At the same moment Natalie laid down her knife and softly touched Launce under the table. When she thus claimed his attention the six pieces of ham were arranged as follows in her plate: Two pieces were placed opposite each other, and four pieces were ranged perpendicularly under them. Launce looked, and twice touched Natalie under the table. Interpreted by the Code agreed on between the two, the signal in the plate meant, "I must see you in private." And Launce's double touch answered, "After breakfast."
Sir Joseph proceeded with his story. Natalie took up her knife again. Another signal coming!
"We were both down in the cabin, occupied in finishing our dinner—"
"Just sitting down to lunch, Joseph."
"My dear! I ought to know."
"I only repeat what I heard, brother. The last time you told the story, you and your friend were sitting down to lunch."
"We won't particularize, Lavinia. Suppose we say occupied over a meal?"
"If it is of no more importance than that, Joseph, it would be surely better to leave it out altogether."
"Let us waive the point. Well, we were suddenly alarmed by a shout on deck, 'Man over-board!' We both rushed up the cabin stairs, naturally under the impression that one of our crew had fallen into the sea: an impression shared, I ought to add, by the man at the helm, who had given the alarm."
Sir Joseph paused again. He was approaching one of the great dramatic points in his story, and was naturally anxious to present it as impressively as possible. He considered with himself, with his head a little on one side. Miss Lavinia considered with herself, with her head a little on one side. Natalie laid down her knife again, and again touched Launce under the table. This time there were five pieces of ham ranged longitudinally on the plate, with one piece immediately under them at the center of the line. Interpreted by the Code, this signal indicated two ominous words, "Bad news." Launce looked significantly at the owner of the yacht (meaning of the look, "Is he at the bottom of it?"). Natalie frowned in reply (meaning of the frown, "Yes, he is"). Launce looked down again into the plate. Natalie instantly pushed all the pieces of ham together in a little heap (meaning of the heap, "No more to say").
"Well?" said Richard Turlington, turning sharply on Sir Joseph. "Get on with your story. What next?"
Thus far he had not troubled himself to show even a decent pretense of interest in his old friend's perpetually-interrupted narrative. It was only when Sir Joseph had reached his last sentence—intimating that the man overboard might turn out in course of time not to be a man of the pilot-boat's crew—it was only then that Turlington sat up in his chair, and showed signs of suddenly feeling a strong interest in the progress of the story.
Sir Joseph went on:
"As soon as we got on deck, we saw the man in the water, astern. Our vessel was hove up in the wind, and the boat was lowered. The master and one of the men took the oars. All told, our crew were seven in number. Two away in the boat, a third at the helm, and, to my amazement, when I looked round, the other four behind me making our number complete. At the same moment Mahogany Dobbs, who was looking through a telescope, called out, 'Who the devil can he be? The man is floating on a hen-coop, and we have got nothing of the sort on board this pilot-boat.'"
The one person present who happened to notice Richard Turlington's face when those words were pronounced was Launcelot Linzie. He—and he alone—saw the Levant trader's swarthy complexion fade slowly to a livid ashen gray; his eyes the while fixing themselves on Sir Joseph Graybrooke with a furtive glare in them like the glare in the eyes of a wild beast. Apparently conscious that Launce was looking at him—though he never turned his head Launce's way—he laid his elbow on the table, lifted his arm, and so rested his face on his hand, while the story went on, as to screen it effectually from the young surgeon's view.
"The man was brought on board," proceeded Sir Joseph, "sure enough, with a hen-coop—on which he had been found floating. The poor wretch was blue with terror and exposure in the water; he fainted when we lifted him on deck. When he came to himself he told us a horrible story. He was a sick and destitute foreign seaman, and he had hidden himself in the hold of an English vessel (bound to a port in his native country) which had sailed from Liverpool that morning. He had been discovered, and brought before the captain. The captain, a monster in human form, if ever there was one yet—"
Before the next word of the sentence could pass Sir Joseph's lips, Turlington startled the little party in the cabin by springing suddenly to his feet.
"The breeze!" he cried; "the breeze at last!"
As he spoke, he wheeled round to the cabin door so as to turn his back on his guests, and hailed the deck.
"Which way is the wind?"
"There is not a breath of wind, sir."
Not the slightest movement in the vessel had been perceptible in the cabin; not a sound had been audible indicating the rising of the breeze. The owner of the yacht—accustomed to the sea, capable, if necessary, of sailing his own vessel—had surely committed a strange mistake! He turned again to his friends, and made his apologies with an excess of polite regret far from characteristic of him at other times and under other circumstances.
"Go on," he said to Sir Joseph, when he had got to the end of his excuses; "I never heard such an interesting story in my life. Pray go on!"
The request was not an easy one to comply with. Sir Joseph's ideas had been thrown into confusion. Miss Lavinia's contradictions (held in reserve) had been scattered beyond recall. Both brother and sister were, moreover, additionally hindered in recovering the control of their own resources by the look and manner of their host. He alarmed, instead of encouraging the two harmless old people, by fronting them almost fiercely, with his elbows squared on the table, and his face expressive of a dogged resolution to sit there and listen, if need be, for the rest of his life. Launce was the person who set Sir Joseph going again. After first looking attentively at Richard, he took his uncle straight back to the story by means of a question, thus:
"You don't mean to say that the captain of the ship threw the man overboard?"
"That is just what he did, Launce. The poor wretch was too ill to work his passage. The captain declared he would have no idle foreign vagabond in his ship to eat up the provisions of Englishmen who worked. With his own hands he cast the hen-coop into the water, and (assisted by one of his sailors) he threw the man after it, and told him to float back to Liverpool with the evening tide."
"A lie!" cried Turlington, addressing himself, not to Sir Joseph, but to Launce.
"Are you acquainted with the circumstances?" asked Launce, quietly.
"I know nothing about the circumstances. I say, from my own experience, that foreign sailors are even greater blackguards than English sailors. The man had met with an accident, no doubt. The rest of his story was a lie, and the object of it was to open Sir Joseph's purse."
Sir Joseph mildly shook his head.
"No lie, Richard. Witnesses proved that the man had spoken the truth."
"Witnesses? Pooh! More liars, you mean."
"I went to the owners of the vessel," pursued Sir Joseph. "I got from them the names of the officers and the crew, and I waited, leaving the case in the hands of the Liverpool police. The ship was wrecked at the mouth of the Amazon, but the crew and the cargo were saved. The men belonging to Liverpool came back. They were a bad set, I grant you. But they were examined separately about the treatment of the foreign sailor, and they all told the same story. They could give no account of their captain, nor of the sailor who had been his accomplice in the crime, except that they had not embarked in the ship which brought the rest of the crew to England. Whatever may have become of the captain since, he certainly never returned to Liverpool."
"Did you find out his name?"
The question was asked by Turlington. Even Sir Joseph, the least observant of men, noticed that it was put with a perfectly unaccountable irritability of manner.
"Don't be angry, Richard." said the old gentleman. "What is there to be angry about?"
"I don't know what you mean. I'm not angry—I'm only curious. Did you find out who he was?"
"I did. His name was Goward. He was well known at Liverpool as a very clever and a very dangerous man. Quite young at the time I am speaking of, and a first-rate sailor; famous for taking command of unseaworthy ships and vagabond crews. Report described him to me as having made considerable sums of money in that way, for a man in his position; serving firms, you know, with a bad name, and running all sorts of desperate risks. A sad ruffian, Richard! More than once in trouble, on both sides of the Atlantic, for acts of violence and cruelty. Dead, I dare say, long since."
"Or possibly," said Launce, "alive, under another name, and thriving in a new way of life, with more desperate risks in it, of some other sort."
"Are you acquainted with the circumstances?" asked Turlington, retorting Launce's question on him, with a harsh ring of defiance in his brassy voice.
"What became of the poor foreign sailor, papa?" said Natalie, purposely interrupting Launce before he could meet the question angrily asked of him, by an angry reply.
"We made a subscription, and spoke to his consul, my dear. He went back to his country, poor fellow, comfortably enough."
"And there is an end of Sir Joseph's story," said Turlington, rising noisily from his chair. "It's a pity we haven't got a literary man on board—he would make a novel of it." He looked up at the skylight as he got on his feet. "Here is the breeze, this time," he exclaimed, "and no mistake!"
It was true. At last the breeze had come. The sails flapped, the main boom swung over with a thump, and the stagnant water, stirred at last, bubbled merrily past the vessel's sides.
"Come on deck, Natalie, and get some fresh air," said Miss Lavinia, leading the way to the cabin door.
Natalie held up the skirt of her nankeen dress, and exhibited the purple trimming torn away over an extent of some yards.
"Give me half an hour first, aunt, in my cabin," she said, "to mend this."
Miss Lavinia elevated her venerable eyebrows in amazement.
"You have done nothing but tear your dresses, my dear, since you have been in Mr. Turlington's yacht. Most extraordinary! I have torn none of mine during the whole cruise."
Natalie's dark color deepened a shade. She laughed, a little uneasily. "I am so awkward on board ship," she replied, and turned away and shut herself up in her cabin.
Richard Turlington produced his case of cigars.
"Now is the time," he said to Sir Joseph, "for the best cigar of the day—the cigar after breakfast. Come on deck."
"You will join us, Launce?" said Sir Joseph.
"Give me half an hour first over my books," Launce replied. "I mustn't let my medical knowledge get musty at sea, and I might not feel inclined to study later in the day."
"Quite right, my dear boy, quite right."
Sir Joseph patted his nephew approvingly on the shoulder. Launce turned away on his side, and shut himself up in his cabin.
The other three ascended together to the deck.
Persons possessed of sluggish livers and tender hearts find two serious drawbacks to the enjoyment of a cruise at sea. It is exceedingly difficult to get enough walking exercise; and it is next to impossible (where secrecy is an object) to make love without being found out. Reverting for the moment to the latter difficulty only, life within the narrow and populous limits of a vessel may be defined as essentially life in public. From morning to night you are in your neighbor's way, or your neighbor is in your way. As a necessary result of these conditions, the rarest of existing men may be defined as the man who is capable of stealing a kiss at sea without discovery. An inbred capacity for stratagem of the finest sort; inexhaustible inventive resources; patience which can flourish under superhuman trials; presence of mind which can keep its balance victoriously under every possible stress of emergency—these are some of the qualifications which must accompany Love on a cruise, when Love embarks in the character of a contraband commodity not duly entered on the papers of the ship.
Having established a Code of Signals which enabled them to communicate privately, while the eyes and ears of others were wide open on every side of them, Natalie and Launce were next confronted by the more serious difficulty of finding a means of meeting together at stolen interviews on board the yacht. Possessing none of those precious moral qualifications already enumerated as the qualifications of an accomplished lover at sea, Launce had proved unequal to grapple with the obstacles in his way. Left to her own inventive resources, Natalie had first suggested the young surgeon's medical studies as Launce's unanswerable excuse for shutting himself up at intervals in the lower regions, and had then hit on the happy idea of tearing her trimmings, and condemning herself to repair her own carelessness, as the all-sufficient reason for similar acts of self-seclusion on her side. In this way the lovers contrived, while the innocent ruling authorities were on deck, to meet privately below them, on the neutral ground of the main cabin; and there, by previous arrangement at the breakfast-table, they were about to meet privately now.
Natalie's door was, as usual on these occasions, the first that opened; for this sound reason, that Natalie's quickness was the quickness to be depended on in case of accident.
She looked up at the sky-light. There were the legs of the two gentlemen and the skirts of her aunt visible (and stationary) on the lee side of the deck. She advanced a few steps and listened. There was a pause in the murmur of the voices above. She looked up again. One pair of legs (not her father's) had disappeared. Without an instant's hesitation, Natalie darted back to her own door, just in time to escape Richard Turlington descending the cabin stairs. All he did was to go to one of the drawers under the main-cabin book-case and to take out a map, ascending again immediately to the deck. Natalie's guilty conscience rushed instantly, nevertheless, to the conclusion that Richard suspected her. When she showed herself for the second time, instead of venturing into the cabin, she called across it in a whisper,
Launce appeared at his door. He was peremptorily checked before he could cross the threshold.
"Don't stir a step! Richard has been down in the cabin! Richard suspects us!"
"Nonsense! Come out."
"Nothing will induce me, unless you can find some other place than the cabin."
Some other place? How easy to find it on land! How apparently impossible at sea! There was the forecastle (full of men) at one end of the vessel. There was the sail room (full of sails) at the other. There was the ladies' cabin (used as the ladies' dressing-room; inaccessible, in that capacity, to every male human being on board). Was there any disposable inclosed space to be found amidships? On one side there were the sleeping berths of the sailing-master and his mate (impossible to borrow them). On the other side was the steward's store-room. Launce considered for a moment. The steward's store-room was just the thing!
"Where are you going?" asked Natalie, as her lover made straight for a closed door at the lower extremity of the main cabin.
"To speak to the steward, darling. Wait one moment, and you will see me again."
Launce opened the store-room door, and discovered, not the steward, but his wife, who occupied the situation of stewardess on board the vessel. The accident was, in this case, a lucky one. Having stolen several kisses at sea, and having been discovered (in every case) either by the steward or his wife, Launce felt no difficulty in prefacing his request to be allowed the use of the room by the plainest allusion to his relations with Natalie. He could count on the silence of the sympathizing authorities in this region of the vessel, having wisely secured them as accomplices by the usual persuasion of the pecuniary sort. Of the two, however, the stewardess, as a woman, was the more likely to lend a ready ear to Launce's entreaties in his present emergency. After a faint show of resistance, she consented, not only to leave the room, but to keep her husband out of it, on the understanding that it was not to be occupied for more than ten minutes. Launce made the signal to Natalie at one door, while the stewardess went out by the other. In a moment more the lovers were united in a private room. Is it necessary to say in what language the proceedings were opened? Surely not! There is an inarticulate language of the lips in use on these occasions in which we are all proficient, though we sometimes forget it in later life. Natalie seated herself on a locker. The tea, sugar, and spices were at her back, a side of bacon swung over her head, and a net full of lemons dangled before her face. It might not be roomy, but it was snug and comfortable.
"Suppose they call for the steward?" she suggested. ("Don't, Launce!")
"Never mind. We shall be safe enough if they do. The steward has only to show himself on deck, and they will suspect nothing."
"Do be quiet, Launce! I have got dreadful news to tell you. And, besides, my aunt will expect to see me with my braid sewn on again."
She had brought her needle and thread with her. Whipping up the skirt of her dress on her knee, she bent forward over it, and set herself industriously to the repair of the torn trimming. In this position her lithe figure showed charmingly its firm yet easy line. The needle, in her dexterous brown fingers, flew through its work. The locker was a broad one; Launce was able to seat himself partially behind her. In this position who could have resisted the temptation to lift up her great knot of broadly-plaited black hair, and to let the warm, dusky nape of her neck disclose itself to view? Who, looking at it, could fail to revile the senseless modern fashion of dressing the hair, which hides the double beauty of form and color that nestles at the back of a woman's neck? From time to time, as the interview proceeded, Launce's lips emphasized the more important words occurring in his share of the conversation on the soft, fragrant skin which the lifted hair let him see at intervals. In Launce's place, sir, you would have done it too.
"Now, Natalie, what is the news?"
"He has spoken to papa, Launce."
Natalie started. A curse addressed to the back of your neck, instantly followed by a blessing in the shape of a kiss, is a little trying when you are not prepared for it.
"Don't do that again, Launce! It was while you were on deck smoking, and when I was supposed to be fast asleep. I opened the ventilator in my cabin door, dear, and I heard every word they said. He waited till my aunt was out of the way, and he had got papa all to himself, and then he began it in that horrible, downright voice of his—'Graybrooke! how much longer am I to wait?'"
"Did he say that?"
"No more swearing, Launce! Those were the words. Papa didn't understand them. He only said (poor dear!)—'Bless my soul, Richard, what do you want?' Richard soon explained himself. 'Who could he be waiting for—but Me?' Papa said something about my being so young. Richard stopped his mouth directly. 'Girls were like fruit; some ripened soon, and some ripened late. Some were women at twenty, and some were women at sixteen. It was impossible to look at me, and not see that I was like a new being after my two months at sea,' and so on and so on. Papa behaved like an angel. He still tried to put it off. 'Plenty of time, Richard, plenty of time.' 'Plenty of time for her' (was the wretch's answer to that); 'but not for me. Think of all I have to offer her' (as if I cared for his money!); 'think how long I have looked upon her as growing up to be my wife' (growing up for him—monstrous!), 'and don't keep me in a state of uncertainty, which it gets harder and harder for a man in my position to endure!' He was really quite eloquent. His voice trembled. There is no doubt, dear, that he is very, very fond of me."
"And you feel flattered by it, of course?"
"Don't talk nonsense. I feel a little frightened at it, I can tell you."
"Frightened? Did you notice him this morning?"
"When your father was telling that story about the man overboard."
"No. What did he do? Tell me, Launce."
"I'll tell you directly. How did it all end last night? Did your father make any sort of promise?"
"You know Richard's way; Richard left him no other choice. Papa had to promise before he was allowed to go to bed."
"To let Turlington marry you?"
"Yes; the week after my next birthday."
"The week after next Christmas-day?"
"Yes. Papa is to speak to me as soon as we are at home again, and my married life is to begin with the New Year."
"Are you in earnest, Natalie? Do you really mean to say it has gone as far as that?"
"They have settled everything. The splendid establishment we are to set up, the great income we are to have. I heard papa tell Richard that half his fortune should go to me on my wedding-day. It was sickening to hear how much they made of Money, and how little they thought of Love. What am I to do, Launce?"
"That's easily answered, my darling. In the first place, you are to make up your mind not to marry Richard Turlington—"
"Do talk reasonably. You know I have done all I could. I have told papa that I can think of Richard as a friend, but not as a husband. He only laughs at me, and says, 'Wait a little, and you will alter your opinion, my dear.' You see Richard is everything to him; Richard has always managed his affairs, and has saved him from losing by bad speculations; Richard has known me from the time when I was a child; Richard has a splendid business, and quantities of money. Papa can't even imagine that I can resist Richard. I have tried my aunt; I have told her he is too old for me. All she says is, 'Look at your father; he was much older than your mother, and what a happy marriage theirs was.' Even if I said in so many words, 'I won't marry Richard,' what good would it do to us? Papa is the best and dearest old man in the world; but oh, he is so fond of money! He believes in nothing else. He would be furious—yes, kind as he is, he would be furious—if I even hinted that I was fond of you. Any man who proposed to marry me—if he couldn't match the fortune that I should bring him by a fortune of his own—would be a lunatic in papa's eyes. He wouldn't think it necessary to answer him; he would ring the bell, and have him shown out of the house. I am exaggerating nothing, Launce; you know I am speaking the truth. There is no hope in the future—that I can see—for either of us.
"Have you done, Natalie? I have something to say on my side if you have."
"What is it?"
"If things go on as they are going on now, shall I tell you how it will end? It will end in your being Turlington's wife."
"So you say now; but you don't know what may happen between this and Christmas-day. Natalie, there is only one way of making sure that you will never marry Richard. Marry me."
"Without papa's consent?"
"Without saying a word to anybody till it's done."
"Oh, Launce! Launce!"
"My darling, every word you have said proves there is no other way. Think of it, Natalie, think of it."
There was a pause. Natalie dropped her needle and thread, and hid her face in her hands. "If my poor mother was only alive," she said; "if I only had an elder sister to advise me, and to take my part."
She was evidently hesitating. Launce took a man's advantage of her indecision. He pressed her without mercy.
"Do you love me?" he whispered, with his lips close to her ear.
"You know I do, dearly."
"Put it out of Richard's power to part us, Natalie."
"Part us? We are cousins: we have known each other since we were both children. Even if he proposed parting us, papa wouldn't allow it."
"Mark my words, he will propose it. As for your father, Richard has only to lift his finger and your father obeys him. My love, the happiness of both our lives is at stake." He wound his arm round her, and gently drew her head back on his bosom, "Other girls have done it, darling," he pleaded, "why shouldn't you?"
The effort to answer him was too much for her. She gave it up. A low sigh fluttered through her lips. She nestled closer to him, and faintly closed her eyes. The next instant she started up, trembling from head to foot, and looked at the sky-light. Richard Turlington's voice was suddenly audible on deck exactly above them.
"Graybrooke, I want to say a word to you about Launcelot Linzie."
Natalie's first impulse was to fly to the door. Hearing Launce's name on Richard's lips, she checked herself. Something in Richard's tone roused in her the curiosity which suspends fear. She waited, with her hand in Launce's hand.
"If you remember," the brassy voice went on, "I doubted the wisdom of taking him with us on this cruise. You didn't agree with me, and, at your express request, I gave way. I did wrong. Launcelot Linzie is a very presuming young man."
Sir Joseph's answer was accompanied by Sir Joseph's mellow laugh.
"My dear Richard! Surely you are a little hard on Launce?"
"You are not an observant man, Graybrooke. I am. I see signs of his presuming with all of us, and especially with Natalie. I don't like the manner in which he speaks to her and looks at her. He is unduly familiar; he is insolently confidential. There must be a stop put to it. In my position, my feelings ought to be regarded. I request you to check the intimacy when we get on shore."
Sir Joseph's next words were spoken more seriously. He expressed his surprise.
"My dear Richard, they are cousins, they have been playmates from childhood. How can you think of attaching the slightest importance to anything that is said or done by poor Launce?"
There was a good-humored contempt in Sir Joseph's reference to "poor Launce" which jarred on his daughter. He might almost have been alluding to some harmless domestic animal. Natalie's color deepened. Her hand pressed Launce's hand gently.
Turlington still persisted.
"I must once more request—seriously request—that you will check this growing intimacy. I don't object to your asking him to the house when you ask other friends. I only wish you (and expect you) to stop his 'dropping in,' as it is called, any hour of the day or evening when he may have nothing to do. Is that understood between us?"
"If you make a point of it, Richard, of course it's understood between us."
Launce looked at Natalie, as weak Sir Joseph consented in those words.
"What did I tell you?" he whispered.
Natalie hung her head in silence. There was a pause in the conversation on deck. The two gentlemen walked away slowly toward the forward part of the vessel.
Launce pursued his advantage.
"Your father leaves us no alternative," he said. "The door will be closed against me as soon as we get on shore. If I lose you, Natalie, I don't care what becomes of me. My profession may go to the devil. I have nothing left worth living for."
"Hush! hush! don't talk in that way!"
Launce tried the soothing influence of persuasion once more.
"Hundreds and hundreds of people in our situation have married privately—and have been forgiven afterward," he went on. "I won't ask you to do anything in a hurry. I will be guided entirely by your wishes. All I want to quiet my mind is to know that you are mine. Do, do, do make me feel sure that Richard Turlington can't take you away from me."
"Don't press me, Launce." She dropped on the locker. "See!" she said. "It makes me tremble only to think of it!"
"Who are you afraid of, darling? Not your father, surely?"
"Poor papa! I wonder whether he would be hard on me for the first time in his life?" She stopped; her moistening eyes looked up imploringly in Launce's face. "Don't press me!" she repeated faintly. "You know it's wrong. We should have to confess it—and then what would happen?" She paused again. Her eyes wandered nervously to the deck. Her voice dropped to its lowest tones. "Think of Richard!" she said, and shuddered at the terrors which that name conjured up. Before it was possible to say a quieting word to her, she was again on her feet. Richard's name had suddenly recalled to her memory Launce's mysterious allusion, at the outset of the interview, to the owner of the yacht. "What was that you said about Richard just now?" she asked. "You saw something (or heard something) strange while papa was telling his story. What was it?"
"I noticed Richard's face, Natalie, when your father told us that the man overboard was not one of the pilot-boat's crew. He turned ghastly pale. He looked guilty—"
"Guilty? Of what?"
"He was present—I am certain of it—when the sailor was thrown into the sea. For all I know, he may have been the man who did it."
Natalie started back in horror.
"Oh, Launce! Launce! that is too bad. You may not like Richard—you may treat Richard as your enemy. But to say such a horrible thing of him as that—It's not generous. It's not like you."
"If you had seen him, you would have said it too. I mean to make inquiries—in your father's interests as well as in ours. My brother knows one of the Commissioners of Police, and my brother can get it done for me. Turlington has not always been in the Levant trade—I know that already."
"For shame, Launce! for shame!"
The footsteps on deck were audible coming back. Natalie sprang to the door leading into the cabin. Launce stopped her, as she laid her hand on the lock. The footsteps went straight on toward the stern of the vessel. Launce clasped both arms round her. Natalie gave way.
"Don't drive me to despair!" he said. "This is my last opportunity. I don't ask you to say at once that you will marry me, I only ask you to think of it. My darling! my angel! will you think of it?"
As he put the question, they might have heard (if they had not been too completely engrossed in each other to listen) the footsteps returning—one pair of footsteps only this time. Natalie's prolonged absence had begun to surprise her aunt, and had roused a certain vague distrust in Richard's mind. He walked back again along the deck by himself. He looked absently in the main cabin as he passed it. The store-room skylight came next. In his present frame of mind, would he look absently into the store-room too?
"Let me go!" said Natalie.
Launce only answered, "Say yes," and held her as if he would never let her go again.
At the same moment Miss Lavinia's voice rose shrill from the deck calling for Natalie. There was but one way of getting free from him. She said, "I'll think of it." Upon that, he kissed her and let her go.
The door had barely closed on her when the lowering face of Richard Turlington appeared on a level with the side of the sky-light, looking down into the store-room at Launce.
"Halloo!" he called out roughly. "What are you doing in the steward's room?"
Launce took up a box of matches on the dresser. "I'm getting a light," he answered readily.
"I allow nobody below, forward of the main cabin, without my leave. The steward has permitted a breach of discipline on board my vessel. The steward will leave my service."
"The steward is not to blame."
"I am the judge of that. Not you."
Launce opened his lips to reply. An outbreak between the two men appeared to be inevitable, when the sailing-master of the yacht joined his employer on deck, and directed Turlington's attention to a question which is never to be trifled with at sea, the question of wind and tide.
The yacht was then in the Bristol Channel, at the entrance to Bideford Bay. The breeze, fast freshening, was also fast changing the direction from which it blew. The favorable tide had barely three hours more to run.
"The wind's shifting, sir," said the sailing-master. "I'm afraid we shan't get round the point this tide, unless we lay her off on the other tack."
Turlington shook his head.
"There are letters waiting for me at Bideford," he said. "We have lost two days in the calm. I must send ashore to the post-office, whether we lose the tide or not."
The vessel held on her course. Off the port of Bideford, the boat was sent ashore to the post-office, the yacht standing off and on, waiting the appearance of the letters. In the shortest time in which it was possible to bring them on board the letters were in Turlington's hands.
The men were hauling the boat up to the davits, the yacht was already heading off from the land, when Turlington startled everybody by one peremptory word—"Stop!"
He had thrust all his letters but one into the pocket of his sailing jacket, without reading them. The one letter which he had opened he held in his closed hand. Rage was in his staring eyes, consternation was on his pale lips.
"Lower the boat!" he shouted; "I must get to London to-night." He stopped Sir Joseph, approaching him with opened mouth. "There's no time for questions and answers. I must get back." He swung himself over the side of the yacht, and addressed the sailing-master from the boat. "Save the tide if you can; if you can't, put them ashore to-morrow at Minehead or Watchet—wherever they like." He beckoned to Sir Joseph to lean over the bulwark, and hear something he had to say in private. "Remember what I told you about Launcelot Linzie!" he whispered fiercely. His parting look was for Natalie. He spoke to her with a strong constraint on himself, as gently as he could. "Don't be alarmed; I shall see you in London." He seated himself in the boat and took the tiller. The last words they heard him say were words urging the men at the oars to lose no time. He was invariably brutal with the men. "Pull, you lazy beggars!" he exclaimed, with an oath. "Pull for your lives!"
The Money Market.
Let us be serious.—Business!
The new scene plunges us head foremost into the affairs of the Levant trading-house of Pizzituti, Turlington & Branca. What on earth do we know about the Levant Trade? Courage! If we have ever known what it is to want money we are perfectly familiar with the subject at starting. The Levant Trade does occasionally get into difficulties.—Turlington wanted money.
The letter which had been handed to him on board the yacht was from his third partner, Mr. Branca, and was thus expressed:
"A crisis in the trade. All right, so far—except our business with the small foreign firms. Bills to meet from those quarters, (say) forty thousand pounds—and, I fear, no remittances to cover them. Particulars stated in another letter addressed to you at Post-office, Ilfracombe. I am quite broken down with anxiety, and confined to my bed. Pizzituti is still detained at Smyrna. Come back at once."
The same evening Turlington was at his office in Austin Friars, investigating the state of affairs, with his head clerk to help him.
Stated briefly, the business of the firm was of the widely miscellaneous sort. They plied a brisk trade in a vast variety of commodities. Nothing came amiss to them, from Manchester cotton manufactures to Smyrna figs. They had branch houses at Alexandria and Odessa, and correspondents here, there, and everywhere, along the shores of the Mediterranean, and in the ports of the East. These correspondents were the persons alluded to in Mr. Branca's letter as "small foreign firms;" and they had produced the serious financial crisis in the affairs of the great house in Austin Friars, which had hurried Turlington up to London.
Every one of these minor firms claimed and received the privilege of drawing bills on Pizzituti, Turlington & Branca for amounts varying from four to six thousand pounds—on no better security than a verbal understanding that the money to pay the bills should be forwarded before they fell due. Competition, it is needless to say, was at the bottom of this insanely reckless system of trading. The native firms laid it down as a rule that they would decline to transact business with any house in the trade which refused to grant them their privilege. In the ease of Turlington's house, the foreign merchants had drawn their bills on him for sums large in the aggregate, if not large in themselves; had long since turned those bills into cash in their own markets, for their own necessities; and had now left the money which their paper represented to be paid by their London correspondents as it fell due. In some instances, they had sent nothing but promises and excuses. In others, they had forwarded drafts on firms which had failed already, or which were about to fail, in the crisis. After first exhausting his resources in ready money, Mr. Branca had provided for the more pressing necessities by pledging the credit of the house, so far as he could pledge it without exciting suspicion of the truth. This done, there were actually left, between that time and Christmas, liabilities to be met to the extent of forty thousand pounds, without a farthing in hand to pay that formidable debt.
After working through the night, this was the conclusion at which Richard Turlington arrived, when the rising sun looked in at him through the windows of his private room.
The whole force of the blow had fallen on him. The share of his partners in the business was of the most trifling nature. The capital was his, the risk was his. Personally and privately, he had to find the money, or to confront the one other alternative—ruin.
How was the money to be found?
With his position in the City, he had only to go to the famous money-lending and discounting house of Bulpit Brothers—reported to "turn over" millions in their business every year—and to supply himself at once with the necessary funds. Forty thousand pounds was a trifling transaction to Bulpit Brothers.
Having got the money, how, in the present state of his trade, was the loan to be paid back?
His thoughts reverted to his marriage with Natalie.
"Curious!" he said to himself, recalling his conversation with Sir Joseph on board the yacht. "Graybrooke told me he would give his daughter half his fortune on her marriage. Half Graybrooke's fortune happens to be just forty thousand pounds!" He took a turn in the room. No! It was impossible to apply to Sir Joseph. Once shake Sir Joseph's conviction of his commercial solidity, and the marriage would be certainly deferred—if not absolutely broken off. Sir Joseph's fortune could be made available, in the present emergency, in but one way—he might use it to repay his debt. He had only to make the date at which the loan expired coincide with the date of his marriage, and there was his father-in-law's money at his disposal, or at his wife's disposal—which meant the same thing. "It's well I pressed Graybrooke about the marriage when I did!" he thought. "I can borrow the money at a short date. In three months from this Natalie will be my wife."
He drove to his club to get breakfast, with his mind cleared, for the time being, of all its anxieties but one.
Knowing where he could procure the loan, he was by no means equally sure of being able to find the security on which he could borrow the money. Living up to his income; having no expectations from any living creature; possessing in landed property only some thirty or forty acres in Somersetshire, with a quaint little dwelling, half farm house, half-cottage, attached—he was incapable of providing the needful security from his own personal resources. To appeal to wealthy friends in the City would be to let those friends into the secret of his embarrassments, and to put his credit in peril. He finished his breakfast, and went back to Austin Friars—failing entirely, so far, to see how he was to remove the last obstacle now left in his way.
The doors were open to the public; business had begun. He had not been ten minutes in his room before the shipping-clerk knocked at the door and interrupted him, still absorbed in his own anxious thoughts.
"What is it?" he asked, irritably.
"Duplicate Bills of Lading, sir," answered the clerk, placing the documents on his ma ster's table.
Found! There was the security on his writing-desk, staring him in the face! He dismissed the clerk and examined the papers.
They contained an account of goods shipped to the London house on board vessels sailing from Smyrna and Odessa, and they were signed by the masters of the ships, who thereby acknowledged the receipt of the goods, and undertook to deliver them safely to the persons owning them, as directed. First copies of these papers had already been placed in the possession of the London house. The duplicates had now followed, in case of accident. Richard Turlington instantly determined to make the duplicates serve as his security, keeping the first copies privately under lock and key, to be used in obtaining possession of the goods at the customary time. The fraud was a fraud in appearance only. The security was a pure formality. His marriage would supply him with the funds needed for repaying the money, and the profits of his business would provide, in course of time, for restoring the dowry of his wife. It was simply a question of preserving his credit by means which were legitimately at his disposal. Within the lax limits of mercantile morality, Richard Turlington had a conscience. He put on his hat and took his false security to the money-lenders, without feeling at all lowered in his own estimation as an honest man.
Bulpit Brothers, long desirous of having such a name as his on their books, received him with open arms. The security (covering the amount borrowed) was accepted as a matter of course. The money was lent, for three months, with a stroke of the pen. Turlington stepped out again into the street, and confronted the City of London in the character of the noblest work of mercantile creation—a solvent man.*
The Fallen Angel, walking invisibly behind, in Richard's shadow, flapped his crippled wings in triumph. From that moment the Fallen Angel had got him.
* It may not be amiss to remind the incredulous reader that a famous firm in the City accepted precisely the same security as that here accepted by Bulpit Brothers, with the same sublime indifference to troubling themselves by making any inquiry about it.
The next day Turlington drove to the suburbs, on the chance of finding the Graybrookes at home again. Sir Joseph disliked London, and could not prevail on himself to live any nearer to the metropolis than Muswell Hill. When Natalie wanted a change, and languished for balls, theaters, flower-shows, and the like, she had a room especially reserved for her in the house of Sir Joseph's married sister, Mrs. Sancroft, living in that central deep of the fashionable whirlpool known among mortals as Berkeley Square.
On his way through the streets, Turlington encountered a plain proof that the Graybrookes must have returned. He was passed by Launce, driving, in company with a gentleman, in a cab. The gentleman was Launce's brother, and the two were on their way to the Commissioners of Police to make the necessary arrangements for instituting an inquiry into Turlington's early life.
Arrived at the gate of the villa, the information received only partially fulfilled the visitor's expectations. The family had returned on the previous evening. Sir Joseph and his sister were at home, but Natalie was away again already. She had driven into town to lunch with her aunt. Turlington went into the house.
"Have you lost any money?" Those were the first words uttered by Sir Joseph when he and Richard met again, after the parting on board the yacht.
"Not a farthing. I might have lost seriously, if I had not got back in time to set things straight. Stupidity on the part of my people left in charge—nothing more. It's all right now."
Sir Joseph lifted his eyes, with heartfelt devotion, to the ceiling. "Thank God, Richard!" he said, in tones of the deepest feeling. He rang the bell. "Tell Miss Graybrooke Mr. Turlington is here." He turned again to Richard. "Lavinia is like me—Lavinia has been so anxious about you. We have both of us passed a sleepless night." Miss Lavinia came in. Sir Joseph hurried to meet her, and took her affectionately by both hands. "My dear! the best of all good news, Richard has not lost a farthing." Miss Lavinia lifted her eyes to the ceiling with heartfelt devotion, and said, "Thank God, Richard!"—like the echo of her brother's voice; a little late, perhaps, for its reputation as an echo, but accurate to half a note in its perfect repetition of sound.
Turlington asked the question which it had been his one object to put in paying his visit to Muswell Hill.
"Have you spoken to Natalie?"
"This morning," replied Sir Joseph. "An opportunity offered itself after breakfast. I took advantage of it, Richard—you shall hear how."
He settled himself in his chair for one of his interminable stories; he began his opening sentence—and stopped, struck dumb at the first word. There was an unexpected obstacle in the way—his sister was not attending to him; his sister had silenced him at starting. The story touching, this time, on the question of marriage, Miss Lavinia had her woman's interest in seeing full justice done to the subject. She seized on her brother's narrative as on property in her own right.
"Joseph should have told you," she began, addressing herself to Turlington, "that our dear girl was unusually depressed in spirits this morning. Quite in the right frame of mind for a little serious talk about her future life. She ate nothing at breakfast, poor child, but a morsel of dry toast."
"And marmalade," said Sir Joseph, striking in at the first opportunity. The story, on this occasion, being Miss Lavinia's story, the polite contradictions necessary to its successful progress were naturally transferred from the sister to the brother, and became contradictions on Sir Joseph's side.
"No," said Miss Lavinia, gently, "if you will have it, Joseph—jam."
"I beg your pardon," persisted Sir Joseph; "marmalade."
"What does it matter, brother?"
"Sister! the late great and good Doctor Johnson said accuracy ought always to be studied even in the most trifling things."
"You will have your way, Joseph—"(this was the formula—answering to Sir Joseph's 'Let us waive the point'—which Miss Lavinia used, as a means of conciliating her brother, and getting a fresh start for her story). "Well, we took dear Natalie out between us, after breakfast, for a little walk in the grounds. My brother opened the subject with infinite delicacy and tact. 'Circumstances,' he said, 'into which it was not then necessary to enter, made it very desirable, young as she was, to begin to think of her establishment in life.' And then he referred, Richard (so nicely), to your faithful and devoted attachment—"
"Excuse me, Lavinia. I began with Richard's attachment, and then I got on to her establishment in life."
"Excuse me, Joseph. You managed it much more delicately than you suppose. You didn't drag Richard in by the head and shoulders in that way."
"Lavinia! I began with Richard."
"Joseph! your memory deceives you."
Turlington's impatience broke through all restraint.
"How did it end?" he asked. "Did you propose to her that we should be married in the first week of the New Year?"
"Yes!" said Miss Lavinia.
"No!" said Sir Joseph.
The sister looked at the brother with an expression of affectionate surprise. The brother looked at the sister with a fund of amiable contradiction, expressed in a low bow.
"Do you really mean to deny, Joseph, that you told Natalie we had decided on the first week in the New Year?"
"I deny the New Year, Lavinia. I said early in January."
"You will have your way, Joseph! We were walking in the shrubbery at the time. I had our dear girl's arm in mine, and I felt it tremble. She suddenly stopped. 'Oh,' she said, 'not so soon!' I said, 'My dear, consider Richard!' She turned to her father. She said, 'Don't, pray don't press it so soon, papa! I respect Richard; I like Richard as your true and faithful friend; but I don't love him as I ought to love him if I am to be his wife.' Imagine her talking in that way! What could she possibly know about it? Of course we both laughed—"
"you laughed, Lavinia."
"you laughed, Joseph."
"Get on, for God's sake!" cried Turlington, striking his hand passionately on the table by which he was sitting. "Don't madden me by contradicting each other! Did she give way or not?"
Miss Lavinia turned to her brother. "Contradicting each other, Joseph!" she exclaimed, lifting her hands in blank amazement.
"Contradicting each other!" repeated Sir Joseph, equally astonished on his side. "My dear Richard, what can you be thinking of? I contradict my sister! We never disagreed in our lives."
"I contradict my brother! We have never had a cross word between us from the time when we were children."
Turlington internally cursed his own irritable temper.
"I beg your pardon—both of you," he said. "I didn't know what I was saying. Make some allowance for me. All my hopes in life are centered in Natalie; and you have just told me (in her own words, Miss Lavinia) that she doesn't love. You don't mean any harm, I dare say; but you cut me to the heart."
This confession, and the look that accompanied it, touched the ready sympathies of the two old people in the right place. The remainder of the story dropped between them by common consent. They vied with each other in saying the comforting words which would allay their dear Richard's anxiety. How little he knew of young girls. How could he be so foolish, poor fellow! as to attach any serious importance to what Natalie had said? As if a young creature in her teens knew the state of her own heart! Protestations and entreaties were matters of course, in such cases. Tears even might be confidently expected from a right-minded girl. It had all ended exactly as Richard would have wished it to end. Sir Joseph had said, "My child! this is a matter of experience; love will come when you are married." And Miss Lavinia had added, "Dear Natalie, if you remembered your poor mother as I remember her, you would know that your father's experience is to be relied on." In that way they had put it to her; and she had hung her head and had given—all that maiden modesty could be expected to give—a silent consent. "The wedding-day was fixed for the first week in the New Year." ("No, Joseph; not January—the New Year.") "And God bless you, Richard! and may your married life be a long and happy one."
So the average ignorance of human nature, and the average belief in conventional sentiment, complacently contemplated the sacrifice of one more victim on the all-devouring altar of Marriage! So Sir Joseph and his sister provided Launcelot Linzie with the one argument which he wanted to convince Natalie: "Choose between making the misery of your life by marrying him, and making the happiness of your life by marrying me."
"When shall I see her?" asked Turlington, with Miss Lavinia (in tears which did her credit) in possession of one of his hands, and Sir Joseph (in tears which did him credit) in possession of the other.
"She will be back to dinner, dear Richard. Stay and dine."
"Thank you. I must go into the City first. I will come back and dine."
With that arrangement in prospect, he left them.
An hour later a telegram arrived from Natalie. She had consented to dine, as well as lunch, in Berkeley Square—sleeping there that night, and returning the next morning. Her father instantly telegraphed back by the messenger, insisting on Natalie's return to Muswell Hill that evening, in time to meet Richard Turlington at dinner.
"Quite right. Joseph," said Miss Lavinia, looking over her brother's shoulder, while he wrote the telegram.
"She is showing a disposition to coquet with Richard," rejoined Sir Joseph, with the air of a man who knew female human nature in its remotest corners. "My telegram, Lavinia, will have its effect."
Sir Joseph was quite right. His telegram had its effect. It not only brought his daughter back to dinner—it produced another result which his prophetic faculty had altogether failed to foresee.
The message reached Berkeley Square at five o'clock in the afternoon. Let us follow the message.
Between four and five in the afternoon—when the women of the Western regions are in their carriages, and the men are at their clubs—London presents few places more conveniently adapted for purposes of private talk than the solitary garden inclosure of a square.
On the day when Richard Turlington paid his visit to Muswell Hill, two ladies (with a secret between them) unlocked the gate of the railed garden in Berkeley Square. They shut the gate after entering the inclosure, but carefully forbore to lock it as well, and carefully restricted their walk to the westward side of the garden. One of them was Natalie Graybrooke. The other was Mrs. Sancroft's eldest daughter. A certain temporary interest attached, in the estimation of society, to this young lady. She had sold well in the marriage market. In other words, she had recently been raised to the position of Lord Winwood's second wife; his lordship conferring on the bride not only the honors of the peerage, but the additional distinction of being stepmother to his three single daughters, all older than herself. In person, Lady Winwood was little and fair. In character, she was dashing and resolute—a complete contrast to Natalie, and (on that very account) Natalie's bosom friend.
"My dear, one ambitious marriage in the family is quite enough! I have made up my mind that you shall marry the man you love. Don't tell me your courage is failing you—the excuse is contemptible; I decline to receive it. Natalie! the men have a phrase which exactly describes your character. You want back-bone!"
The bonnet of the lady who expressed herself in these peremptory terms barely reached the height of Natalie's shoulder. Natalie might have blown the little airy, light-haired, unsubstantial creature over the railings of the garden if she had taken a good long breath and stooped low enough. But who ever met with a tall woman who had a will of her own? Natalie's languid brown eyes looked softly down in submissive attention from an elevation of five feet seven. Lady Winwood's brisk blue eyes looked brightly up in despotic command from an elevation of four feet eleven (in her shoes).
"You are trifling with Mr. Linzie, my dear. Mr. Linzie is a nice fellow. I like him. I won't have that."
"Mr. Turlington has nothing to recommend him. He is not a well-bred old gentleman of exalted rank. He is only an odious brute who happens to have made money. You shall not marry Mr. Turlington. And you shall marry Launcelot Linzie."
"Will you let me speak, Louisa?"
"I will let you answer—nothing more. Didn't you come crying to me this morning? Didn't you say, 'Louisa, they have pronounced sentence on me! I am to be married in the first week of the New Year. Help me out of it, for Heaven's sake!' You said all that, and more. And what did I do when I heard your story?"
"Oh, you were so kind—"
"Kind doesn't half express it. I have committed crimes on your account. I have deceived my husband and my mother. For your sake I got mamma to ask Mr. Linzie to lunch (as my friend!). For your sake I have banished my unoffending husband, not an hour since, to his club. You wretched girl, who arranged a private conference in the library? Who sent Mr. Linzie off to consult his friend in the Temple on the law of clandestine marriage? Who suggested your telegraphing home, and stopping here for the night? Who made an appointment to meet your young man privately in this detestable place in ten minutes' time? I did! I did! I did! All in your interests. All to prevent you from doing what I have done—marrying to please your family instead of to please yourself. (I don't complain, mind, of Lord Winwood, or of his daughters. He is charming; his daughters I shall tame in course of time. You are different. And Mr. Turlington, as I observed before, is a brute.) Very well. Now what do you owe me on your side? You owe it to me at least to know your own mind. You don't know it. You coolly inform me that you daren't run the risk after all, and that you can't face the consequences on second thoughts. I'll tell you what! You don't deserve that nice fellow, who worships the very ground you tread on. You are a bread-and-butter miss. I don't believe you are fond of him!"
"Not fond of him!" Natalie stopped, and clasped her hands in despair of finding language strong enough for the occasion. At the same moment the sound of a closing gate caught her ear. She looked round. Launce had kept his appointment before his time. Launce was in the garden, rapidly approaching them.
"Now for the Law of Clandestine Marriage!" said Lady Winwood. "Mr. Linzie, we will take it sitting." She led the way to one of the benches in the garden, and placed Launce between Natalie and herself. "Well, Chief Conspirator, have you got the License? No? Does it cost too much? Can I lend you the money?"
"It costs perjury, Lady Winwood, in my case," said Launce. "Natalie is not of age. I can only get a License by taking my oath that I marry her with her father's consent." He turned piteously to Natalie. "I couldn't very well do that," he said, in the tone of a man who feels bound to make an apology, "could I?" Natalie shuddered; Lady Winwood shrugged her shoulders.
"In your place a woman wouldn't have hesitated," her ladyship remarked. "But men are so selfish. Well! I suppose there is some other way?"
"Yes, there is another way," said Launce. "But there is a horrid condition attached to it—"
"Something worse than perjury, Mr. Linzie? Murder?"
"I'll tell you directly, Lady Winwood. The marriage comes first. The condition follows. There is only one chance for us. We must be married by banns."
"Banns!" cried Natalie. "Why, banns are publicly proclaimed in church!"
"They needn't be proclaimed in your church, you goose," said Lady Winwood. "And, even if they were, nobody would be the wiser. You may trust implicitly, my dear, in the elocution of an English clergyman!"
"That's just what my friend said," cried Launce. "'Take a lodging near a large parish church, in a remote part of London'—(this is my friend's advice)—'go to the clerk, tell him you want to be married by banns, and say you belong to that parish. As for the lady, in your place I should simplify it. I should say she belonged to the parish too. Give an address, and have some one there to answer questions. How is the clerk to know? He isn't likely to be over-anxious about it—his fee is eighteen-pence. The clerk makes his profit out of you, after you are married. The same rule applies to the parson. He will have your names supplied to him on a strip of paper, with dozens of other names; and he will read them out all together in one inarticulate jumble in church. You will stand at the altar when your time comes, with Brown and Jones, Nokes and Styles, Jack and Gill. All that you will have to do is, to take care that your young lady doesn't fall to Jack, and you to Gill, by mistake—and there you are, married by banns.' My friend's opinion, stated in his own words."
Natalie sighed, and wrung her hands in her lap. "We shall never get through it," she said, despondingly.
Lady Winwood took a more cheerful view.
"I see nothing very formidable as yet, my dear. But we have still to hear the end of it. You mentioned a condition just now, Mr. Linzie.
"I am coming to the condition, Lady Winwood. You naturally suppose, as I did, that I put Natalie into a cab, and run away with her from the church door?"
"Certainly. And I throw an old shoe after you for luck, and go home again."
Launce shook his head ominously.
"Natalie must go home again as well as you!"
Lady Winwood started. "Is that the condition you mentioned just now?" she asked.
"That is the condition. I may marry her without anything serious coming of it. But, if I run away with her afterward, and if you are there, aiding and abetting me, we are guilty of Abduction, and we may stand, side by side, at the bar of the Old Bailey to answer for it!"
Natalie sprang to her feet in horror. Lady Winwood held up one finger warningly, signing to her to let Launce go on.
"Natalie is not yet sixteen years old," Launce proceeded. "She must go straight back to her father's house from the church, and I must wait to run away with her till her next birthday. When she's turned sixteen, she's ripe for elopement—not an hour before. There is the law of Abduction! Despotism in a free country—that's what I call it!"
Natalie sat down again, with an air of relief.
"It's a very comforting law, I think," she said. "It doesn't force one to take the dreadful step of running away from home all at once. It gives one time to consider, and plan, and make up one's mind. I can tell you this, Launce, if I am to be persuaded into marrying you, the law of Abduction is the only thing that will induce me to do it. You ought to thank the law, instead of abusing it."
Launce listened—without conviction.
"It's a pleasant prospect," he said, "to part at the church door, and to treat my own wife on the footing of a young lady who is engaged to marry another gentleman."
"Is it any pleasanter for me," retorted Natalie, "to have Richard Turlington courting me, when I am all the time your wife? I shall never be able to do it. I wish I was dead!"
"Come! come!" interposed Lady Winwood. "It's time to be serious. Natalie's birthday, Mr. Linzie, is next Christmas-day. She will be sixteen—"
"At seven in the morning," said Launce; "I got that out of Sir Joseph. At one minute past seven, Greenwich mean time, we may be off together. I got that out of the lawyer."
"And it isn't an eternity to wait from now till Christmas-day. You get that, by way of completing the list of your acquisitions, out of me. In the mean time, can you, or can you not, manage to meet the difficulties in the way of the marriage?"
"I have settled everything," Launce answered, confidently. "There is not a single difficulty left."
He turned to Natalie, listening to him in amazement, and explained himself. It had struck him that he might appeal—with his purse in his hand, of course—to the interest felt in his affairs by the late stewardess of the yacht. That excellent woman had volunteered to do all that she could to help him. Her husband had obtained situations for his wife and himself on board another yacht—and they were both eager to assist in any conspiracy in which their late merciless master was destined to play the part of victim. When on shore, they lived in a populous London parish, far away from the fashionable district of Berkeley Square, and further yet from the respectable suburb of Muswell Hill. A room in the house could be nominally engaged for Natalie, in the assumed character of the stewardess's niece—the stewardess undertaking to answer any purely formal questions which might be put by the church authorities, and to be present at the marriage ceremony. As for Launce, he would actually, as well as nominally, live in the district close by; and the steward, if needful, would answer for him. Natalie might call at her parochial residence occasionally, under the wing of Lady Winwood; gaining leave of absence from Muswell Hill, on the plea of paying one of her customary visits at her aunt's house. The conspiracy, in brief, was arranged in all its details. Nothing was now wanting but the consent of the young lady; obtaining which, Launce would go to the parish church and give the necessary notice of a marriage by banns on the next day. There was the plot. What did the ladies think of it?
Lady Winwood thought it perfect.
Natalie was not so easily satisfied.
"My father has always been so kind to me!" she said. "The one thing I can't get over, Launce, is distressing papa. If he had been hard on me—as some fathers are—I shouldn't mind." She suddenly brightened, as if she saw her position in a new light. "Why should you hurry me?" she asked. "I am going to dine at my aunt's to-day, and you are coming in the evening. Give me time! Wait till to-night."
Launce instantly entered his protest against wasting a moment longer. Lady Winwood opened her lips to support him. They were both silenced at the same moment by the appearance of one of Mrs. Sancroft's servants, opening the gate of the square.
Lady Winwood went forward to meet the man. A suspicion crossed her mind that he might be bringing bad news.
"What do you want?" she asked.
"I beg your pardon, my lady—the housekeeper said you were walking here with Miss Graybrooke. A telegram for Miss Graybrooke."
Lady Winwood took the telegram from the man's hand; dismissed him, and went back with it to Natalie. Natalie opened it nervously. She read the message—and instantly changed. Her cheeks flushed deep; her eyes flashed with indignation. "Even papa can be hard on me, it seems, when Richard asks him!" she exclaimed. She handed the telegram to Launce. Her eyes suddenly filled with tears. "You love me," she said, gently—and stopped. "Marry me!" she added, with a sudden burst of resolution. "I'll risk it!"
As she spoke those words, Lady Winwood read the telegram. It ran thus:
"Sir Joseph Graybrooke, Muswell Hill. To Miss Natalie Graybrooke; Berkeley Square. Come back immediately. You are engaged to dine here with Richard Turlington."
Lady Winwood folded up the telegram with a malicious smile. "Well done, Sir Joseph!" thought her ladyship. "We might never have persuaded Natalie—but for You!"
The time is morning; the date is early in the month of November. The place is a church, in a poor and populous parish in the undiscovered regions of London, eastward of the Tower, and hard by the river-side.
A marriage procession of five approaches the altar The bridegroom is pale, and the bride is frightened. The bride's friend (a resolute-looking little lady) encourages her in whispers. The two respectable persons, apparently man and wife, who complete the procession, seem to be not quite clear as to the position which they occupy at the ceremony. The beadle, as he marshals them before the altar, sees something under the surface in this wedding-party. Marriages in the lower ranks of life are the only marriages celebrated here. Is this a runaway match? The beadle anticipates something out of the common in the shape of a fee.
The clergyman (the junior curate) appears from the vestry in his robes. The clerk takes his place. The clergyman's eye rests with a sudden interest and curiosity on the bride and bridegroom, and on the bride's friend; notices the absence of elderly relatives; remarks, in the two ladies especially, evidences of refinement and breeding entirely unparalleled in his professional experience of brides and brides' friends standing before the altar of that church; questions, silently and quickly, the eye of the clerk, occupied also in observing the strangers with interest "Jenkinson" (the clergyman's look asks), "is this all right?" "Sir" (the clerk's look answers), "a marriage by banns; all the formalities have been observed." The clergyman opens his book. The formalities have been observed; his duty lies plainly before him. Attention, Launcelot! Courage, Natalie! The service begins.
Launce casts a last furtive look round the church. Will Sir Joseph Graybrooke start up and stop it from one of the empty pews? Is Richard Turlington lurking in the organ-loft, and only waiting till the words of the service appeal to him to prohibit the marriage, or "else hereafter forever to hold his peace?" No. The clergyman proceeds steadily, and nothing happens. Natalie's charming face grows paler and paler, Natalie's heart throbs faster and faster, as the time comes nearer for reading the words which unite them for life. Lady Winwood herself feels an unaccustomed fluttering in the region of the bosom. Her ladyship's thoughts revert, not altogether pleasantly, to her own marriage: "Ah me! what was I thinking of when I was in this position? Of the bride's beautiful dress, and of Lady Winwood's coming presentation at court!"
The service advances to the words in which they plight their troth. Launce has put the ring on her finger. Launce has repeated the words after the clergyman. Launce has married her! Done! Come what may of it, done!
The service ends. Bridegroom, bride, and witnesses go into the vestry to sign the book. The signing, like the service, is serious. No trifling with the truth is possible here. When it comes to Lady Winwood's turn, Lady Winwood must write her name. She does it, but without her usual grace and decision. She drops her handkerchief. The clerk picks it up for her, and notices that a coronet is embroidered in one corner.