******************************************************* Transcriber's Note: The author was inconsistent in the use of single quotes in contracted words. All have been retained as in the original. *******************************************************
THE TINTED VENUS A Farcical Romance
AUTHOR OF "THE GIANT'S ROBE," "VICE VERSA," ETC.
ILLUSTRATED BY BERNARD PARTRIDGE
NEW YORK AND LONDON HARPER AND BROTHERS 1898
"To you, Free and ingenious spirits, he doth now In me, present his service, with his vow He hath done his best; and, though he cannot glory In his invention (this work being a story Of reverend antiquity), he doth hope In the proportion of it, and the scope, You may observe some pieces drawn like one Of a steadfast hand; and with the whiter stone To be marked in your fair censures. More than this I am forbid to promise."
I. IN PURSUIT OF PLEASURE 3
II. PLEASURE IN PURSUIT 27
III. A DISTINGUISHED STRANGER 43
IV. FROM BAD TO WORSE 55
V. AN EXPERIMENT 77
VI. TWO ARE COMPANY 93
VII. A FURTHER PREDICAMENT 109
VIII. BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP SEA 127
IX. AT LAST! 151
X. DAMOCLES DINES OUT 169
XI. DENOUNCED 189
XII. AN APPEAL 207
XIII. THE LAST STRAW 227
XIV. THE THIRTEENTH TRUMP 241
XV. THE ODD TRICK 263
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS.
"THERE," HE SAID TRIUMPHANTLY, "IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN MADE FOR HER!" 25
"ANSWER ME," HE SAID ROUGHLY; "IS THIS SOME LARK OF YOURS?" 32
"DID YOU WANT TO SEE ME ON—ON BUSINESS, MUM?" 47
"WHAT WOULD BE DONE TO HIM?" ASKED THE HAIRDRESSER, WITH A QUITE UNPLEASANT INTERNAL SENSATION 67
"KEEP OFF! TELL HER TO DROP IT, TWEDDLE!" 86
"IT IS A MISERABLE THING," HE WAS THINKING, "FOR A MAN ... TO HAVE A FEMALE STATUE TROTTING AFTER HIM LIKE A GREAT DORG" 104
SHE WAS STANDING BEFORE THE LOW CHIMNEY-GLASS, REGARDING HERSELF INTENTLY 119
"FOR 'ARF A PINT I'D KNOCK YOUR BLOOMIN' 'ED IN!" 140
"WHY DID YOU NOT KNEEL TO ME BEFORE?" 161
SHE STRUCK A NAMELESS FEAR INTO LEANDER'S SOUL 177
HER HANDS WERE UNSTEADY WITH PASSION AS SHE TIED HER BONNET-STRINGS 199
LEANDER WENT DOWN ON ALL FOURS ON THE HEARTH-RUG 220
"STOP WHERE YOU ARE!... FOR MERCY'S SAKE, DON'T COME IN!" 238
"LEANDER!" SHE CRIED, ... "I DON'T BELIEVE SHE CAN DO IT!" 255
HE THREW HIMSELF DOWN BY HER CHAIR, AND DREW DOWN THE HANDS IN WHICH SHE HAD HIDDEN HER FACE 276
IN PURSUIT OF PLEASURE
"Ther hopped Hawkyn, Ther daunsed Dawkyn, Ther trumped Tomkyn...."
The Tournament of Tottenham.
In Southampton Row, Bloomsbury, there is a small alley or passage leading into Queen Square, and rendered inaccessible to all but foot passengers by some iron posts. The shops in this passage are of a subdued exterior, and are overshadowed by a dingy old edifice dedicated to St. George the Martyr, which seems to have begun its existence as a rather handsome chapel, and to have improved itself, by a sort of evolution, into a singularly ugly church.
Into this alley, one Saturday afternoon late in October, came a short stout young man, with sandy hair, and a perpetual grin denoting anticipation rather than enjoyment. Opposite the church he stopped at a hairdresser's shop, which bore the name of Tweddle. The display in the window was chastely severe; the conventional half-lady revolving slowly in fatuous self-satisfaction, and the gentleman bearing a piebald beard with waxen resignation, were not to be found in this shop-front, which exhibited nothing but a small pile of toilet remedies and a few lengths of hair of graduated tints. It was doubtful, perhaps, whether such self-restraint on the part of its proprietor was the result of a distaste for empty show, or a conviction that the neighbourhood did not expect it.
Inside the shop there was nobody but a small boy, corking and labelling bottles; but before he could answer any question as to the whereabouts of his employer, that artist made his appearance. Leander Tweddle was about thirty, of middle height, with a luxuriant head of brown hair, and carefully-trimmed whiskers that curled round towards his upper lip, where they spent themselves in a faint moustache. His eyes were rather small, and his nose had a decided upward tendency; but, with his pink-and-white complexion and compact well-made figure, he was far from ill-looking, though he thought himself even farther.
"Well, Jauncy," he said, after the first greetings, "so you haven't forgot our appointment?"
"Why, no," explained his friend; "but I never thought I should get away in time to keep it. We've been in court all the morning with motions and short causes, and the old Vice sat on till past three; and when we did get back to chambers, Splitter kep' me there discussing an opinion of his I couldn't agree with, and I was ever so long before I got him to alter it my way."
For he was clerk to a barrister in good practice, and it was Jauncy's pride to discover an occasional verbal slip in some of his employer's more hastily written opinions on cases, and suggest improvements.
"Well, James," said the hairdresser, "I don't know that I could have got away myself any earlier. I've been so absorbed in the laborrit'ry, what with three rejuvenators and an elixir all on the simmer together, I almost gave way under the strain of it; but they're set to cool now, and I'm ready to go as soon as you please."
"Now," said Jauncy, briskly, as they left the shop together, "if we're to get up to Rosherwich Gardens to-night, we mustn't dawdle."
"I just want to look in here a minute," said Tweddle, stopping before the window of a working-jeweller, who sat there in a narrow partition facing the light, with a great horn lens protruding from one of his eyes like a monstrous growth. "I left something there to be altered, and I may as well see if it's done."
Apparently it was done, for he came out almost immediately, thrusting a small cardboard box into his pocket as he rejoined his friend. "Now we'd better take a cab up to Fenchurch Street," said Jauncy. "Can't keep those girls standing about on the platform."
As they drove along, Tweddle observed, "I didn't understand that our party was to include the fair sect, James?"
"Didn't you? I thought my letter said so plain enough. I'm an engaged man now, you know, Tweddle. It wouldn't do if I went out to enjoy myself and left my young lady at home!"
"No," agreed Leander Tweddle, with a moral twinge, "no, James. I'd forgot you were engaged. What's the lady's name, by-the-by?"
"Parkinson; Bella Parkinson," was the answer.
Leander had turned a deeper colour. "Did you say," he asked, looking out of the window on his side of the hansom, "that there was another lady going down?"
"Only Bella's sister, Ada. She's a regular jolly girl, Ada is, you'll——Hullo!"
For Tweddle had suddenly thrust his stick up the trap and stopped the cab. "I'm very sorry, James," he said, preparing to get out, "but—but you'll have to excuse me being of your company."
"Do you mean that my Bella and her sister are not good enough company for you?" demanded Jauncy. "You were a shop-assistant yourself, Tweddle, only a short while ago!"
"I know that, James, I know; and it isn't that—far from it. I'm sure they are two as respectable girls, and quite the ladies in every respect, as I'd wish to meet. Only the fact is——"
The driver was listening through the trap, and before Leander would say more he told him to drive on till further orders, after which he continued—
"The fact is—we haven't met for so long that I dare say you're unaware of it—but I'm engaged, James, too!"
"Wish you joy with all my heart, Tweddle; but what then?"
"Why," exclaimed Leander, "my Matilda (that's her name) is the dearest girl, James; but she's most uncommon partickler, and I don't think she'd like my going to a place of open-air entertainment where there's dancing—and I'll get out here, please!"
"Gammon!" said Jauncy. "That isn't it, Tweddle; don't try and humbug me. You were ready enough to go just now. You've a better reason than that!"
"James, I'll tell you the truth; I have. In earlier days, James, I used constantly to be meeting Miss Parkinson and her sister in serciety, and I dare say I made myself so pleasant and agreeable (you know what a way that is of mine), that Miss Ada (not your lady, of course) may have thought I meant something special by it, and there's no saying but what it might have come in time to our keeping company, only I happened just then to see Matilda, and—and I haven't been near the Parkinsons ever since. So you can see for yourself that a meeting might be awkward for all parties concerned; and I really must get out, James!"
Jauncy forced him back. "It's all nonsense, Tweddle," he said, "you can't back out of it now! Don't make a fuss about nothing. Ada don't look as if she'd been breaking her heart for you!"
"You never can tell with women," said the hairdresser, sententiously; "and meeting me sudden, and learning it could never be—no one can say how she mightn't take it!"
"I call it too bad!" exclaimed Jauncy. "Here have I been counting on you to make the ladies enjoy themselves—for I haven't your gift of entertaining conversation, and don't pretend to it—and you go and leave me in the lurch, and spoil their evening for them!"
"If I thought I was doing that——" said Leander, hesitating.
"You are, you know you are!" persisted Jauncy, who was naturally anxious to avoid the reduction of his party to so inconvenient a number as three.
"And see here, Tweddle, you needn't say anything of your engagement unless you like. I give you my word I won't, not even to Bella, if you'll only come! As to Ada, she can take care of herself, unless I'm very much mistaken in her. So come along, like a good chap!"
"I give in, James; I give in," said Leander. "A promise is a promise, and yet I feel somehow I'm doing wrong to go, and as if no good would come of it. I do indeed!"
And so he did not stop the cab a second time, and allowed himself to be taken without further protest to Fenchurch Street Station, on the platform of which they found the Misses Parkinson waiting for them.
Miss Bella Parkinson, the elder of the two, who was employed in a large toy and fancy goods establishment in the neighbourhood of Westbourne Grove, was tall and slim, with pale eyes and auburn hair. She had some claims to good looks, in spite of a slightly pasty complexion, and a large and decidedly unamiable mouth.
Her sister Ada was the more pleasing in appearance and manner, a brunette with large brown eyes, an impertinent little nose, and a brilliant healthy colour. She was an assistant to a milliner and bonnet-maker in the Edgware Road.
Both these young ladies, when in the fulfilment of their daily duties, were models of deportment; in their hours of ease, the elder's cold dignity was rather apt to turn to peevishness, while the younger sister, relieved from the restraints of the showroom, betrayed a lively and even frivolous disposition.
It was this liveliness and frivolity that had fascinated the hairdresser in days that had gone by; but if he had felt any self-distrust now in venturing within their influence, such apprehensions vanished with the first sight of the charms which had been counteracted before they had time to prevail.
She was well enough, this Miss Ada Parkinson, he thought now; a nice-looking girl in her way, and stylishly dressed. But his Matilda looked twice the lady she ever could, and a vision of his betrothed (at that time taking a week's rest in the country) rose before him, as if to justify and confirm his preference.
The luckless James had to undergo some amount of scolding from Miss Bella for his want of punctuality, a scolding which merely supplied an object to his grin; and during her remarks, Ada had ample time to rally Leander Tweddle upon his long neglect, and used it to the best advantage.
Perhaps he would have been better pleased by a little less insensibility, a touch of surprise and pleasure on her part at meeting him again, as he allowed himself to show in a remark that his absence did not seem to have affected her to any great extent.
"I don't know what you expected, Mr. Tweddle," she replied. "Ought I to have cried both my eyes out? You haven't cried out either of yours, you know!"
"'Men must work, and women must weep,' as Shakspeare says," he observed, with a vague idea that he was making rather an apt quotation. But his companion pointed out that this only applied to cases where the women had something to weep about.
The party had a compartment to themselves, and Leander, who sat at one end opposite to Ada, found his spirits rising under the influence of her lively sallies.
"That's the only thing Matilda wants," he thought, "a little more liveliness and go about her. I like a little chaff myself, now and then, I must say."
At the other end of the carriage, Bella had been suggesting that the gardens might be closed so late in the year, and regretting that they had not chosen the new melodrama at the Adelphi instead; which caused Jauncy to draw glowing pictures of the attractions of Rosherwich Gardens.
"I was there a year ago last summer," he said, "and it was first-rate: open-air dancing, summer theatre, rope-walking, fireworks, and supper out under the trees. You'll enjoy yourself, Bella, right enough when you get there!"
"If that isn't enough for you, Bella," cried her sister, "you must be difficult to please! I'm sure I'm quite looking forward to it; aren't you, Mr. Tweddle?"
The poor man was cursed by the fatal desire of pleasing, and unconsciously threw an altogether unnecessary degree of empressement into his voice as he replied, "In the company I am at present, I should look forward to it, if it was a wilderness with a funeral in it."
"Oh dear me, Mr. Tweddle, that is a pretty speech!" said Ada, and she blushed in a manner which appalled the conscience-stricken hairdresser.
"There I go again," he thought remorsefully, "putting things in the poor girl's head—it ain't right. I'm making myself too pleasant!"
And then it struck him that it would be only prudent to make his position clearly understood, and, carefully lowering his voice, he began a speech with that excellent intention. "Miss Parkinson," he said huskily, "there's something I have to tell you about myself, very particular. Since I last enjoyed the pleasure of meeting with you my prospects have greatly altered, I am no longer——"
But she cut him short with a little gesture of entreaty. "Oh, not here, please, Mr. Tweddle," she said; "tell me about it in the gardens!"
"Very well," he said, relieved; "remind me when we get there—in case I forget, you know."
"Remind you!" cried Ada; "the idea, Mr. Tweddle! I certainly shan't do any such thing."
"She thinks I am going to propose to her!" he thought ruefully; "it will be a delicate business undeceiving her. I wish it was over and done with!"
It was quite dark by the time they had crossed the river by the ferry, and made their way up to the entrance to the pleasure gardens, imposing enough, with its white colonnade, its sphinxes, and lines of coloured lamps.
But no one else had crossed with them; and, as they stood at the turnstiles, all they could see of the grounds beyond seemed so dark and silent that they began to have involuntary misgivings. "I suppose," said Jauncy to the man at the ticket-hole, "the gardens are open—eh?"
"Oh yes," he said gruffly, "they're open—they're open; though there ain't much going on out-of-doors, being the last night of the season."
Bella again wished that they had selected the Adelphi for their evening's pleasure, and remarked that Jauncy "might have known."
"Well," said the latter to the party generally, "what do you say—shall we go in, or get back by the first train home?"
"Don't be so ridiculous, James!" said Bella, peevishly. "What's the good of going back, to be too late for everything. The mischief's done now."
"Oh, let's go in!" advised Ada; "the amusements and things will be just as nice indoors—nicer on a chilly evening like this;" and Leander seconded her heartily.
So they went in; Jauncy leading the way with the still complaining Bella, and Leander Tweddle bringing up the rear with Ada. They picked their way as well as they could in the darkness, caused by the closely planted trees and shrubs, down a winding path, where the sopped leaves gave a slippery foothold, and the branches flicked moisture insultingly in their faces as they pushed them aside.
A dead silence reigned everywhere, broken only by the wind as it rustled amongst the bare twigs, or the whistling of a flaring gas-torch protruding from some convenient tree.
Jauncy occasionally shouted back some desperate essay at jocularity, at which Ada laughed with some perseverance, until even she could no longer resist the influence of the surroundings.
On a hot summer's evening those grounds, brilliantly illuminated and crowded by holiday-makers, have been the delight of thousands of honest Londoners, and will be so again; but it was undeniable that on this particular occasion they were pervaded by a decent melancholy.
Ada had slipped a hand, clad in crimson silk, through Leander's arm as they groped through the gloom together, and shrank to his side now and then in an alarm which was only half pretended. But if her light pressure upon his arm made his heart beat at all the faster, it was only at the fancy that the trusting hand was his Matilda's, or so at least did he account for it to himself afterwards.
They followed on, down a broad promenade, where the ground glistened with autumn damps, and the unlighted lamps looked wan and spectral. There was a bear-pit hard by, over the railings of which Ada leaned and shouted a defiant "Boo;" but the bears had turned in for the night, and the stone re-echoed her voice with a hollow ring. Indistinct bird forms were roosting in cages; but her umbrella had no effect upon them.
Jauncy was waiting for them to come up, perhaps as a protection against his fiancee's reproaches. "In another hour," he said, with an implied apology, "you'll see how different this place looks. We—we're come a little too early. Suppose we fill up the time by a nice little dinner at the Restorong—eh, Ada? What do you think, Tweddle?"
The suggestion was received favourably, and Jauncy, thankful to retrieve his reputation as leader, took them towards the spot where food was to be had.
Presently they saw lights twinkling through the trees, and came to a place which was clearly the focus of festivity. There was the open-air theatre, its drop-scene lowered, its proscenium lost in the gloom; there was the circle for al-fresco dancing, but it was bare, and the clustered lights were dead; there was the restaurant, dark and silent like all else.
Jauncy stood there and rubbed his chin. "This is where I dined when we were here last," he said, at length; "and a capital little dinner they gave us too!"
"What I should like to know," said the elder Miss Parkinson, "is, where are we to dine to-night?"
"Yes," said Jauncy, encouragingly; "don't you fret yourself, Bella. Here's an old party sweeping up leaves, we'll ask him."
They did so, and were referred to a large building, in the Gothic style, with a Tudor doorway, known as the "Baronial All," where lights shone behind the painted windows.
Inside, a few of the lamps around the pillars were lighted, and the body of the floor was roped in as if for dancing; but the hall was empty, save for a barmaid, assisted by a sharp little girl, behind the long bar on one of its sides.
Jauncy led his dejected little party up to this, and again put his inquiry with less hopefulness. When he found that the only available form of refreshment that evening was bitter ale and captain's biscuits, mitigated by occasional caraway seeds, he became a truly pitiable object.
"They—they don't keep this place up on the same scale in the autumn, you see," he explained weakly. "It's very different in summer; what they call 'an endless round of amusements.'"
"There's an endless round of amusement now," observed Ada; "but it's a naught!"
"Oh, there'll be something going on by-and-by, never fear," said Jauncy, determined to be sanguine; "or else they wouldn't be open."
"There'll be dancing here this evening," the barmaid informed him. "That is all we open for at this time of year; and this is the last night of the season."
"Oh!" said Jauncy, cheerfully; "you see we only came just in time, Bella; and I suppose you'll have a good many down here to-night—eh, miss?"
"How much did we take last Saturday, Jenny?" said the barmaid to the sharp little girl.
"Seven and fourpence 'ap'ny—most of it beer," said the child. "Margaret, I may count the money again to-night, mayn't I?"
The barmaid made some mental calculation, after which she replied to Jauncy's question. "We may have some fifteen couples or so down to-night," she said; "but that won't be for half an hour yet."
"The question is," said Jauncy, trying to bear up under this last blow; "the question is, How are we to amuse ourselves till the dancing begins?"
"I don't know what others are going to do," Bella announced; "but I shall stay here, James, and keep warm—if I can!" and once more she uttered her regret that they had not gone to the Adelphi.
Her sister declined to follow her example. "I mean to see all there is to be seen," she declared, "since we are here; and perhaps Mr. Tweddle will come and take care of me. Will you, Mr. Tweddle?"
He was not sorry to comply, and they wandered out together through the grounds, which offered considerable variety. There were alleys lined with pale plaster statues, and a grove dedicated to the master minds of the world, represented by huge busts, with more or less appropriate quotations. There were alcoves, too, and neatly ruined castles.
Ada talked almost the whole time in a sprightly manner, which gave Leander no opportunity of introducing the subject of his engagement, and this continued until they had reached a small battlemented platform on some rising ground; below were the black masses of trees, with a faint fringe of light here and there; beyond lay the Thames, in which red and white reflections quivered, and from whose distant bends and reaches came the dull roar of fog-horns and the pantings of tugs.
Ada stood here in silence for some time; at last she said, "After all, I'm not sorry we came—are you?"
"If I don't take care what I say, I may be!" he thought, and answered guardedly, "On the contrary, I'm glad, for it gives me the opportunity of telling you something I—I think you ought to know."
"What was he going to say next?" she thought. Was a declaration coming, and if so, should she accept him? She was not sure; he had behaved very badly in keeping so long away from her, and a proposal would be a very suitable form of apology; but there was the gentleman who travelled for a certain firm in the Edgware Road, he had been very "particular" in his attentions of late. Well, she would see how she felt when Leander had spoken; he was beginning to speak now.
"I don't want to put it too abrupt," he said; "I'll come to it gradually. There's a young lady that I'm now looking forward to spending the whole of my future life with."
"And what is she called?" asked Ada. ("He's rather a nice little man, after all!" she was thinking.)
"Matilda," he said; and the answer came like a blow in the face. For the moment she hated him as bitterly as if he had been all the world to her; but she carried off her mortification by a rather hysterical laugh.
"Fancy you being engaged!" she said, by way of explanation of her merriment; "and to any one with the name of Matilda—it's such a stupid sounding sort of name!"
"It ain't at all; it all depends how you say it. If you pronounce it like I do, Matilda, it has rather a pretty sound. You try now."
"Well, we won't quarrel about it, Mr. Tweddle; I'm glad it isn't my name, that's all. And now tell me all about your young lady. What's her other name, and is she very good-looking?"
"She's a Miss Matilda Collum," said he; "she is considered handsome by competent judges, and she keeps the books at a florist's in the vicinity of Bayswater."
"And, if it isn't a rude question, why didn't you bring her with you this evening?"
"Because she's away for a short holiday, and isn't coming back till the last thing to-morrow night."
"And I suppose you've been wishing I was Matilda all the time?" she said audaciously; for Miss Ada Parkinson was not an over-scrupulous young person, and did not recognize in the fact of her friend's engagement any reason why she should not attempt to reclaim his vagrant admiration.
Leander had been guilty of this wish once or twice; but though he was not absolutely overflowing with tact, he did refrain from admitting the impeachment.
"Well, you see," he said, in not very happy evasion, "Matilda doesn't care about this kind of thing; she's rather particular, Matilda is."
"And I'm not!" said Ada. "I see; thank you, Mr. Tweddle!"
"You do take one up so!" he complained. "I never intended nothing of the sort—far from it."
"Well, then, I forgive you; we can't all be Matildas, I suppose. And now, suppose we go back; they will be beginning to dance by now!"
"With pleasure," he said; "only you must excuse me dancing, because, as an engaged man, I have had to renounce (except with one person) the charms of Terpsy-chore. I mean," he explained condescendingly, "that I can't dance in public save with my intended."
"Ah, well," said Ada, "perhaps Terpsy-chore will get over it; still I should like to see the Terpsy-choring, if you have no objection."
And they returned to the Baronial Hall, which by this time presented a more cheerful appearance. The lamps round the mirror-lined pillars were all lit, and the musicians were just striking up the opening bars of the Lancers; upon which several gentlemen amongst the assembly, which now numbered about forty, ran out into the open and took up positions, like colour-sergeants at drill, to be presently joined, in some bashfulness, by such ladies as desired partners.
The Lancers were performed with extreme conscientiousness; and when it was over, every gentleman with any savoir faire to speak of presented his partner with a glass of beer.
Then came a waltz, to which Ada beat time impatiently with her foot, and bit her lip, as she had to look on by Leander's side.
"There's Bella and James going round," she said; "I've never had to sit out a waltz before!"
He felt the implied reproach, and thought whether there could be any harm, after all, in taking a turn or two; it would be only polite. But, before he could recant in words, a soldier came up, a medium-sized warrior with a large nose and round little eyes, who had been very funny during the Lancers in directing all the figures by words of military command.
"Will you allow me the honour, miss, of just one round?" he said to Ada, respectfully enough.
The etiquette of this ballroom was not of the strictest; but she would not have consented but for the desire of showing Leander that she was not dependent upon him for her amusement. As it was, she accepted the corporal's arm a little defiantly.
Leander watched them round the hall with an odd sensation, almost of jealousy—it was quite ridiculous, because he could have danced with Ada himself had he cared to do so; and besides, it was not she, but Matilda, whom he adored.
But, as he began to notice, Ada was looking remarkably pretty that evening, and really was a partner who would bring any one credit; and her corporal danced villainously, revolving with stiff and wooden jerks, like a toy soldier. Now Leander flattered himself he could waltz—having had considerable practice in bygone days in a select assembly, where the tickets were two shillings each, and the gentlemen, as the notices said ambiguously enough, "were restricted to wearing gloves."
So he felt indignantly that Ada was not having justice done to her. "I've a good mind to give her a turn," he thought, "and show them all what waltzing is!"
Just then the pair happened to come to a halt close to him. "Shockin' time they're playing this waltz in," he heard the soldier exclaim with humorous vivacity (he was apparently the funny man of the regiment, and had brought a silent but appreciative comrade with him as audience), "abominable! excruciatin'! comic!! 'orrible!!!"
Leander seized the opportunity. "Excuse me," he said politely, "but if you don't like the music, perhaps you wouldn't mind giving up this young lady to me?"
"Oh come, I say!" said the man of war, running his fingers through his short curly hair; "my good feller, you'd better see what the lady says to that!" (He evidently had no doubt himself.)
"I'm very well content as I am, thank you all the same, Mr. Tweddle," said Ada, unkindly adding in a lower tone, "If you're so anxious to dance, dance with Terpsy-chore!"
And again he was left to watch the whirling couples with melancholy eyes. The corporal's brother-in-arms was wheeling round with a plain young person, apparently in domestic service, whose face was overspread by a large red smile of satiated ambition. James and Bella flitted by, dancing vigorously, and Bella's discontent seemed to have vanished for the time. There were jigging couples and prancing couples; couples that bounced round like imprisoned bees, and couples that glided past in calm and conscious superiority. He alone stood apart, excluded from the happy throng, and he began to have a pathetic sense of injury.
But the music stopped at last, and Ada, dismissing her partner, came towards him. "You don't seem to be enjoying yourself, Mr. Tweddle," she said maliciously.
"Don't I?" he replied. "Well, so long as you are, it don't matter, Miss Parkinson—it don't matter."
"But I'm not—at least, I didn't that dance," she said. "That soldier man did talk such rubbish, and he trod on my feet twice. I'm so hot! I wonder if it's cooler outside?"
"Will you come and see?" he suggested, and this time she did not disdain his arm, and they strolled out together.
Following a path they had hitherto left unexplored, they came to a little enclosure surrounded by tall shrubs; in the centre, upon a low pedestal, stood a female statue, upon which a gas lamp, some paces off, cast a flickering gleam athwart the foliage.
The exceptional grace and beauty of the figure would have been apparent to any lover of art. She stood there, her right arm raised, partly in gracious invitation, partly in queenly command, her left hand extended, palm downwards, as if to be reverentially saluted. The hair was parted in boldly indicated waves over the broad low brow, and confined by a fillet in a large loose knot at the back. She was clad in a long chiton, which lapped in soft zig-zag folds over the girdle and fell to the feet in straight parallel lines, and a chlamys hanging from her shoulders concealed the left arm to the elbow, while it left the right arm free.
In the uncertain light one could easily fancy soft eyes swimming in those wide blank sockets, and the ripe lips were curved by a dreamy smile, at once tender and disdainful.
Leander Tweddle and Miss Ada Parkinson, however, stood before the statue in an unmoved, not to say critical, mood.
"Who's she supposed to be, I wonder?" asked the young lady, rather as if the sculptor were a harmless lunatic whose delusions took a marble shape occasionally. This, by the way, is a question which may frequently be heard in picture galleries, and implies an enlightened tolerance.
"I don't know," said Leander; "a foreign female, I fancy—that's Russian on the pedestal." He inferred this from a resemblance to the characters on certain packets of cigarettes.
"But there's some English underneath," said Ada; "I can just make it out. Ap—Apro—Aprodyte. What a funny name!"
"You haven't prenounced it quite correckly," he said; "out there they sound the ph like a f, and give all the syllables—Afroddity." He felt a kind of intuition that this was nearer the correct rendering.
"Well," observed Ada, "she's got a silly look, don't you think?"
Leander was less narrow, and gave it as his opinion that she had been "done from a fine woman."
Ada remarked that she herself would never consent to be taken in so unbecoming a costume. "One might as well have no figure at all in things hanging down for all the world like a sack," she said.
Proceeding to details, she was struck by the smallness of the hands; and it must be admitted that, although the statue as a whole was slightly above the average female height, the arms from the elbow downwards, and particularly the hands, were by no means in proportion, and almost justified Miss Parkinson's objection, that "no woman could have hands so small as that."
"I know some one who has—quite as small," said he softly.
Ada instantly drew off one of the crimson gloves and held out her hand beside the statue's. It was a well-shaped hand, as she very well knew, but it was decidedly larger than the one with which she compared it. "I said so," she observed; "now are you satisfied, Mr. Tweddle?"
But he had been thinking of a hand more slender and dainty than hers, and allowed himself to admit as much. "I—I wasn't meaning you at all," he said bluntly.
She laughed a little jarring laugh. "Oh, Matilda, of course! Nobody is like Matilda now! But come, Mr. Tweddle, you're not going to stand there and tell me that this wonderful Matilda of yours has hands no bigger than those?"
"She has been endowed with quite remarkable small hands," said he; "you wouldn't believe it without seeing. It so happens," he added suddenly, "that I can give you a very fair ideer of the size they are, for I've got a ring of hers in my pocket at this moment. It came about this way: my aunt (the same that used to let her second floor to James, and that Matilda lodges with at present), my aunt, as soon as she heard of our being engaged, nothing would do but I must give Matilda an old ring with a posy inside it, that was in our family, and we soon found the ring was too large to keep on, and I left it with old Vidler, near my place of business, to be made tighter, and called for it on my way here this very afternoon, and fortunately enough it was ready."
He took out the ring from its bed of pink cotton wool, and offered it to Miss Parkinson.
"You see if you can get it on," he said; "try the little finger!"
She drew back, offended. "I don't want to try it, thank you," she said (she felt as if she might fling it into the bushes if she allowed herself to touch it). "If you must try it on somebody, there's the statue! You'll find no difficulty in getting it on any of her fingers—or thumbs," she added.
"You shall see," said Leander. "My belief is, it's too small for her, if anything."
He was a true lover; anxious to vindicate his lady's perfections before all the world, and perhaps to convince himself that his estimate was not exaggerated. The proof was so easy, the statue's left hand hung temptingly within his reach; he accepted the challenge, and slipped the ring up the third finger, that was slightly raised as if to receive it. The hand struck no chill, so moist and mild was the evening, but felt warm and almost soft in his grasp.
"There," he said triumphantly, "it might have been made for her!"
"Well," said Ada, not too consistently, "I never said it mightn't!"
"Excuse me," said he, "but you said it would be too large for her; and, if you'll believe me, it's as much as I can do to get it off her finger, it fits that close."
"Well, make haste and get it off, Mr. Tweddle, do," said Ada, impatiently. "I've stayed out quite long enough."
"In one moment," he replied; "it's quite a job, I declare, quite a job!"
"Oh, you men are so clumsy!" cried Ada. "Let me try."
"No, no!" he said, rather irritably; "I can manage it," and he continued to fumble.
At last he looked over his shoulder and said, "It's a singler succumstance, but I can't get the ring past the bend of the finger."
Ada was cruel enough to burst out laughing. "It's a judgment upon you, Mr. Tweddle!" she cried.
"You dared me to it!" he retorted. "It isn't friendly of you, I must say, Miss Parkinson, to set there enjoying of it—it's bad taste!"
"Well, then, I'm very sorry, Mr. Tweddle; I won't laugh any more; but, for goodness' sake, take me back to the Hall now."
"It's coming!" he said; "I'm working it over the joint now—it's coming quite easily."
"But I can't wait here while it comes," she said. "Do you want me to go back alone? You're not very polite to me this evening, I must say."
"What am I to do?" he said distractedly. "This ring is my engagement ring; it's valuable. I can't go away without it!"
"The statue won't run away—you can come back again, by-and-by. You don't expect me to spend the rest of the evening out here? I never thought you could be rude to a lady, Mr. Tweddle."
"No more I can," he said. "Your wishes, Miss Ada, are equivocal to commands; allow me the honour of reconducting you to the Baronial Hall."
He offered his arm in his best manner; she took it, and together they passed out of the enclosure, leaving the statue in undisturbed possession of the ring.
PLEASURE IN PURSUIT
"And you, great sculptor, so you gave A score of years to Art, her slave, And that's your Venus, whence we turn To yonder girl——"
Another waltz had just begun as they re-entered the Baronial Hall, and Ada glanced up at her companion from her daring brown eyes. "What would you say if I told you you might have this dance with me?" she inquired.
The hairdresser hesitated for just one moment. He had meant to leave her there and go back for his ring; but the waltz they were playing was a very enticing one. Ada was looking uncommonly pretty just then; he could get the ring equally well a few minutes later.
"I should take it very kind of you," he said, gratefully, at length.
"Ask for it, then," said Ada; and he did ask for it.
He forgot Matilda and his engagement for the moment; he sacrificed all his scruples about dancing in public; but he somehow failed to enjoy this pleasure, illicit though it was.
For one thing, he could not long keep Matilda out of his thoughts. He was doing nothing positively wrong; still, it was undeniable that she would not approve of his being there at all, still less if she knew that the gold ring given to him by his aunt for the purposes of his betrothal had been left on the finger of a foreign statue, and exposed to the mercy of any passer-by, while he waltzed with a bonnet-maker's assistant.
And his conscience was awakened still further by the discovery that Ada was a somewhat disappointing partner. "She's not so light as she used to be," he thought, "and then she jumps. I'd forgotten she jumped."
Before the waltz was nearly over he led her back to a chair, alleging as his excuse that he was afraid to abandon his ring any longer, and hastened away to the spot where it was to be found.
He went along the same path, and soon came to an enclosure; but no sooner had he entered it than he saw that he must have mistaken his way; this was not the right place. There was no statue in the middle.
He was about to turn away, when he saw something that made him start; it was a low pedestal in the centre, with the same characters upon it that he had read with Ada. It was the place, after all; yes, he could not be mistaken; he knew it now.
Where was the statue which had so lately occupied that pedestal? Had it fallen over amongst the bushes? He felt about for it in vain. It must have been removed for some purpose while he had been dancing; but by whom, and why?
The best way to find out would be to ask some one in authority. The manager was in the Baronial Hall, officiating as M.C.; he would go and inquire whether the removal had been by his orders.
He was fortunate enough to catch him as he was coming out of the hall, and he seized him by the arm with nervous haste. "Mister," he began, "if you've found one of your plaster figures with a gold ring on, it's mine. I—I put it on in a joking kind of way, and I had to leave it for awhile; and now, when I come back for it, it's gone!"
"I'm sorry to hear it, sir," returned the manager; "but really, if you will leave gold rings on our statues, we can't be responsible, you know."
"But you'll excuse me," pursued Leander; "I don't think you quite understood me. It isn't only the ring that's gone—it's the statue; and if you've had it put up anywhere else——"
"Nonsense!" said the manager; "we don't move our statues about like chessmen; you've forgotten where you left it, that's all. What was the statue like?"
Leander described it as well as he could, and the manager, with a somewhat altered manner, made him point out the spot where he believed it to have stood, and they entered the grove together.
The man gave one rapid glance at the vacant pedestal, and then gripped Leander by the shoulder, and looked at him long and hard by the feeble light. "Answer me," he said, roughly; "is this some lark of yours?"
"I look larky, don't I?" said poor Tweedle, dolefully. "I thought you'd be sure to know where it was."
"I wish to heaven I did!" cried the manager, passionately; "it's those impudent blackguards.... They've done it under my very nose!"
"If it's any of your men," suggested Leander, "can't you make them put it back again?"
"It's not any of my men. I was warned, and, like a fool, I wouldn't believe it could be done at a time like this; and now it's too late, and what am I to say to the inspector? I wouldn't have had this happen for a thousand pounds!"
"Well, it's kind of you to feel so put out about it," said Leander. "You see, what makes the ring so valuable to me——"
The manager was pacing up and down impatiently, entirely ignoring his presence.
"I say," Tweddle repeated, "the reason why that ring's of partickler importance——"
"Oh, don't bother me!" said the other, shaking him off. "I don't want to be uncivil, but I've got to think this out.... Infernal rascals!" he went on muttering.
"Have the goodness to hear what I've got to say, though," persisted Leander. "I'm mixed up in this, whether you like it or not. You seem to know who's got this figure, and I've a right to be told too. I won't go till I get that ring back; so now you understand me!"
"Confound you and your ring!" said the manager. "What's the good of coming bully-ragging me about your ring? I can't get you your ring! You shouldn't have been fool enough to put it on one of our statues. You make me talk to you like this, coming bothering when I've enough on my mind as it is! Hang it! Can't you see I'm as anxious to get that statue again as ever you can be? If I don't get it, I may be a ruined man, for all I know; ain't that enough for you? Look here, take my advice, and leave me alone before we have words over this. You give me your name and address, and you may rely on hearing from me as soon as anything turns up. You can do no good to yourself or any one else by making a row; so go away quiet like a sensible chap!"
Leander felt stunned by the blow; evidently there was nothing to be done but follow the manager's advice. He went to the office with him, and gave his name and address in full, and then turned back alone to the dancing-hall.
He had lost his ring—no ordinary trinket which he could purchase anywhere, but one for which he would have to account—and to whom? To his aunt and Matilda. How could he tell, when there was even a chance of seeing it again?
If only he had not allowed himself that waltz; if only he had insisted upon remaining by the statue until his ring was removed; if only he had not been such an idiot as to put it on! None of these acts were wrong exactly; but between them they had brought him to this.
And the chief person responsible was Miss Ada Parkinson, whom he dared not reproach; for he was naturally unwilling that this last stage of the affair should become known. He would have to dissemble, and he rejoined his party with what he intended for a jaunty air.
"We've been waiting for you to go away," said Bella. "Where have you been all this time?"
He saw with relief that Ada did not appear to have mentioned the statue, and so he said he had been "strolling about."
"And Ada left to take care of herself!" said Bella, spitefully. "You are polite, Mr. Tweddle, I must say!"
"I haven't complained, Bella, that I know of," said Ada. "And Mr. Tweddle and I quite understand each other, don't we?"
"Oh!" said Bella, with an altered manner and a side-glance at James, "I didn't know. I'm very glad to hear it, I'm sure."
And then they left the gardens, and, after a substantial meal at a riverside hotel, started on the homeward journey, with the sense that their expedition had not been precisely a success.
As before, they had a railway compartment to themselves. Bella declined to talk, and lay back in her corner with closed eyes and an expression of undeserved suffering, whilst the unfortunate Jauncy sat silent and miserable opposite.
Leander would have liked to be silent too, and think out his position; but Ada would not hear of this. Her jealous resentment had apparently vanished, and she was extremely lively and playful in her sallies.
This reached a pitch when she bent forward, and, in a whisper, which she did not, perhaps, intend to be quite confidential, said, "Oh, Mr. Tweddle, you never told me what became of the ring! Is it off at last?"
"Off? yes!" he said irritably, very nearly adding, "and the statue too."
"Weren't you very glad!" said she.
"Uncommonly," he replied grimly.
"Let me see it again, now you've got it back," she pleaded.
"You'll excuse me," he said; "but after what has taken place, I can't show that ring to anybody."
"Then you're a cross thing!" said Ada, pouting.
"What's the matter with you two, over there?" asked Bella, sleepily.
Ada's eyes sparkled with mischief. "Let me tell them; it is too awfully funny. I must!" she whispered to Leander. "It's all about a ring," she began, and enjoyed poor Tweddle's evident discomfort.
"A ring?" cried Bella, waking up. "Don't keep all the fun to yourselves; we've not had so much of it this evening."
"Miss Ada," said Leander, in great agitation, "I ask you, as a lady, to treat what has happened this evening in the strictest confidence for the present!"
"Secrets, Ada?" cried her sister; "upon my word!"
"Why, where's the harm, Mr. Tweddle, now it's all settled?" exclaimed Ada. "Bella, it was only this: he went and put a ring (now do wait till I've done, Mr. Tweddle!) on a certain person's finger out in those Rosherwich Gardens (you see, I've not said whose finger)."
"Hullo, Tweddle!" cried Jauncy, in some bewilderment.
Leander could only cast a look of miserable appeal at him.
"Shall I tell them any more, Mr. Tweddle?" said Ada, persistently.
"I don't think there's any necessity," he pleaded.
"No more do I," put in Bella, archly. "I think we can guess the rest."
Ada did not absolutely make any further disclosures that evening; but for the rest of the journey she amused herself by keeping the hairdresser in perpetual torment by her pretended revelations, until he was thoroughly disgusted.
No longer could he admire her liveliness; he could not even see that she was good-looking now. "She's nothing but chaff, chaff, chaff!" he thought. "Thank goodness, Matilda isn't given that way. Chaff before marriage means nagging after!"
They reached the terminus at last, when he willingly said farewell to the other three.
"Good-bye, Mr. Tweddle," said Bella, in rather a more cordial tone; "I needn't hope you've enjoyed yourself!"
"You needn't!" he replied, almost savagely.
"Good night," said Ada; and added in a whisper, "Don't go and dream of your statue-woman!"
"If I dream to-night at all," he said, between his teeth, "it will be a nightmare!"
"I suppose, Tweddle, old chap," said Jauncy, as he shook hands, "you know your own affairs best; but, if you meant what you told me coming down, you've been going it, haven't you?"
He left Leander wondering impatiently what he meant. Did he know the truth? Well, everybody might know it before long; there would probably be a fuss about it all, and the best thing he could do would be to tell Matilda at once, and throw himself upon her mercy. After all, it was innocent enough—if she could only be brought to believe it.
He did not look forward to telling her; and by the time he reached the Bank and got into an omnibus, he was in a highly nervous state, as the following incident may serve to show.
He had taken one of those uncomfortable private omnibuses, where the passengers are left in unlightened gloom. He sat by the door, and, occupied as he was by his own misfortunes, paid little attention to his surroundings.
But by-and-by, he became aware that the conductor, in collecting the fares, was trying to attract the notice of some one who sat in the further corner of the vehicle. "Where are you for, lady, please?" he asked repeatedly, and at last, "Will somebody ask the lady up the end where I'm to set her down?" to all of which the eccentric person addressed returned no reply whatever.
Leander's attention was thus directed to her; but, although in the obscurity he could make out nothing but a dim form of grey, his nerves were so unsettled that he felt a curiously uneasy fancy that eyes were being fixed upon him in the darkness.
This continued until a moment when some electric lights suddenly flashed into the omnibus as it passed, and lit up the whole interior with a ghastly glare, in which the grey female became distinctly visible.
He caught his breath and shrank into the corner; for in that moment his excited imagination had traced a strange resemblance to the figure he had left in Rosherwich Gardens. The inherent improbability of finding a classical statue seated in an omnibus did not occur to him, in the state his mind was in just then. He sat there fascinated, until lights shone in once more, and he saw, or thought he saw, the figure slowly raise her hand and beckon to him.
That was enough; he started up with a smothered cry, thrust a coin into the conductor's hand, and, without waiting for change, flung himself from the omnibus in full motion.
When its varnished sides had ceased to gleam in the light of the lamps, and its lumbering form had been swallowed up in the autumn haze, he began to feel what a coward his imagination had made of him.
"My nightmare's begun already," he thought. "Still, she was so surprisingly like, it did give me a turn. They oughtn't to let such crazy females into public conveyances!"
Fortunately his panic had not seized him until he was within a short distance from Bloomsbury, and it did not take him long to reach Queen Square and his shop in the passage. He let himself in, and went up to a little room on an upper floor, which he used as his sitting-room. The person who "looked after him" did not sleep on the premises; but she had laid a fire and left out his tea-things. "I'll have some tea," he thought, as he lit the gas and saw them there. "I feel as if I want cheering up, and it can't make me any more shaky than I am."
And when his fire was crackling and blazing up, and his kettle beginning to sing, he felt more cheerful already. What, after all, if it did take some time to get his ring again? He must make some excuse or other; and, should the worst come to the worst, "I suppose," he thought, "I could get another made like it—though, when I come to think of it, I'll be shot if I remember exactly what it was like, or what the words inside it were, to be sure about them; still, very likely old Vidler would recollect, and I dessay it won't turn out to be necessa——What the devil's that?"
He had the house to himself after nightfall, and he remembered that his private door could not be opened now without a special key; yet he could not help a fancy that some one was groping his way up the staircase outside.
"It's only the boards creaking, or the pipes leaking through," he thought. "I must have the place done up. But I'm as nervous as a cat to-night."
The steps were nearer and nearer—they stopped at the door—there was a loud commanding blow on the panels.
"Who's here at this time of night?" cried Leander, aloud. "Come in, if you want to!"
But the door remained shut, and there came another rap, even more imperious.
"I shall go mad if this goes on!" he muttered, and making a desperate rush to the door, threw it wide open, and then staggered back panic-stricken.
Upon the threshold stood a tall figure in classical drapery. His eyes might have deceived him in the omnibus; but here, in the crude gaslight, he could not be mistaken. It was the statue he had last seen in Rosherwich Gardens—now, in some strange and wondrous way, moving—alive!
A DISTINGUISHED STRANGER
"How could it be a dream? Yet there She stood, the moveless image fair!"
The Earthly Paradise.
With slow and stately tread the statue advanced towards the centre of the hairdresser's humble sitting-room, and stood there awhile, gazing about her with something of scornful wonder in her calm cold face. As she turned her head, the wide, deeply-cut sockets seemed the home of shadowy eyes; her face, her bared arms, and the long straight folds of her robe were all of the same greyish-yellow hue; the boards creaked under her sandalled feet, and Leander felt that he had never heard of a more appallingly massive ghost—if ghost indeed she were.
He had retired step by step before her to the hearthrug, where he now stood shivering, with the fire hot at his back, and his kettle still singing on undismayed. He made no attempt to account for her presence there on any rationalistic theory. A statue had suddenly come to life, and chosen to pay him a nocturnal visit; he knew no more than that, except that he would have given worlds for courage to show it the door.
The spectral eyes were bent upon him, as if in expectation that he would begin the conversation, and, at last, with a very unmanageable tongue, he managed to observe—
"Did you want to see me on—on business, mum?"
But the statue only relaxed her lips in a haughty smile.
"For goodness' sake, say something!" he cried wildly; "unless you want me to jump out of the winder! What is it you've come about?"
It seemed to him that in some way a veil had lifted from the stone face, leaving it illumined by a strange light, and from the lips came a voice which addressed him in solemn far-away tones, as of one talking in sleep. He could not have said with certainty that the language was his own, though somehow he understood her perfectly.
"You know me not?" she said, with a kind of sad indifference.
"Well," Leander admitted, as politely as his terror would allow, "you certingly have the advantage of me for the moment, mum."
"I am Aphrodite the foam-born, the matchless seed of AEgis-bearing Zeus. Many names have I amongst the sons of men, and many temples, and I sway the hearts of all lovers; and gods—yea, and mortals—have burned for me, a goddess, with an unconsuming, unquenchable fire!"
"Lor!" said Leander. If he had not been so much flurried, he might have found a remark worthier of the occasion, but the announcement that she was a goddess took his breath away. He had quite believed that goddesses were long since "gone out."
"You know wherefore I am come hither?" she said.
"Not at this minute, I don't," he replied. "You'll excuse me, but you can't be the statue out of those gardens? You reelly are so surprisingly like, that I couldn't help asking you."
"I am Aphrodite, and no statue. Long—how long I know not—have I lain entranced in slumber in my sea-girt isle of Cyprus, and now again has the living touch of a mortal hand upon one of my sacred images called me from my rest, and given me power to animate this marble shell. Some hand has placed this ring upon my finger. Tell me, was it yours?"
Leander was almost reassured; after all, he could forgive her for terrifying him so much, since she had come on so good-natured an errand.
"Quite correct, mum—miss!" (he wished he knew the proper form for addressing a goddess) "that ring is my property. I'm sure it's very civil and friendly of you to come all this way about it," and he held out his hand for it eagerly.
"And think you it was for this that I have visited the face of the earth and the haunts of men, and followed your footsteps hither by roads strange and unknown to me? You are too modest, youth."
"I don't know what there is modest in expecting you to behave honest!" he said, rather wondering at his own audacity.
"How are you called?" she inquired suddenly on this; and after hearing the answer, remarked that the name was known to her as that of a goodly and noble youth who had perished for the sake of Hero.
"The gentleman may have been a connection of mine, for all I know," he said; "the Tweddles have always kep' themselves respectable. But I'm not a hero myself, I'm a hairdresser."
She repeated the word thoughtfully, though she did not seem to quite comprehend it; and indeed it is likely enough that, however intelligible she was to Leander, the understanding was far from being entirely reciprocal.
She extended her hand to him, smiling not ungraciously. "Leander," she said, "cease to tremble, for a great happiness is yours. Bold have you been; yet am I not angered, for I come. Cast, then, away all fear, and know that Aphrodite disdains not to accept a mortal's plighted troth!"
Leander entrenched himself promptly behind the armchair. "I don't know what you're talking about!" he said. "How can I help fearing, with you coming down on me like this? Ask yourself."
"Can you not understand that your prayer is heard?" she demanded.
"What prayer?" cried Leander.
"Crass and gross-witted has the world grown!" said she; "a Greek swain would have needed but few words to divine his bliss. Know, then, that your suit is accepted; never yet has Aphrodite turned the humblest from her shrine. By this symbol," and she lightly touched the ring, "you have given yourself to me. I accept the offering—you are mine!"
Leander was stupefied by such an unlooked-for misconception. He could scarcely believe his ears; but he hastened to set himself right at once.
"If you mean that you were under the impression that I meant anything in particular by putting that ring on, it was all a mistake, mum," he said. "I shouldn't have presumed to it!"
"Were you the lowliest of men, I care not," she replied; "to you I owe the power I now enjoy of life and vision, nor shall you find me ungrateful. But forbear this false humility; I like it not. Come, then, Leander, at the bidding of Cypris; come, and fear nothing!"
But he feared very much, for he had seen the operas of Don Giovanni and Zampa, and knew that any familiarity with statuary was likely to have unpleasant consequences. He merely strengthened his defences with a chair.
"You must excuse me, mum, you must indeed," he faltered; "I can't come!"
"Why?" she asked.
"Because I've other engagements," he replied.
"I remember," she said slowly, "in the grove, when light met my eyes once more, there was a maid with you, one who laughed and was merry. Answer—is she your love?"
"No, she isn't," he said shortly. "What if she was?"
"If she were," observed the goddess, with the air of one who mentioned an ordinary fact, "I should crush her!"
"Lord bless me!" cried Leander, in his horror. "What for?"
"Would not she be in my path? and shall any mortal maid stand between me and my desire?"
This was a discovery. She was a jealous and vengeful goddess; she would require to be sedulously humoured, or harm would come.
"Well, well," he said soothingly, "there's nothing of that sort about her, I do assure you."
"Then I spare her," said the goddess. "But how, then, if this be truly so, do you still shrink from the honour before you?"
Leander felt a natural unwillingness to explain that it was because he was engaged to a young lady who kept the accounts at a florist's.
"Well, the fact is," he said awkwardly, "there's difficulties in the way."
"Difficulties? I can remove them all!" she said.
"Not these you can't, mum. It's like this: You and me, we don't start, so to speak, from the same basin. I don't mean it as any reproach to you, but you can't deny you're an Eathen, and, worse than that, an Eathen goddess. Now all my family have been brought up as chapel folk, Primitive Methodists, and I've been trained to have a horror of superstition and idolatries, and see the folly of it. So you can see for yourself that we shouldn't be likely to get on together!"
"You talk words," she said impatiently; "but empty are they, and meaningless to my ears. One thing I learn from them—that you seek to escape me!"
"That's putting it too harsh, mum," he protested. "I'm sure I feel the honour of such a call; and, by the way, do you mind telling me how you got my address—how you found me out, I mean?"
"No one remains long hid from the searching eye of the high gods," she replied.
"So I should be inclined to say," agreed Leander. "But only tell me this, wasn't it you in the omnibus? We call our public conveyances omnibuses, as perhaps you mayn't know."
"I, sea-born Aphrodite, I in a public conveyance, an omnibus? There is an impiety in such a question!"
"Well, I only thought it might have been," he stammered, rather relieved upon the whole that it was not the goddess who had seen his precipitate bolt from the vehicle. Who the female in the corner really was, he never knew; though a man of science might account for the resemblance she bore to the statue by ascribing it to one of those preparatory impressions projected occasionally by a strong personality upon a weak one. But Leander was content to leave the matter unexplained.
"Let it suffice you," she said, "that I am here; and once more, Leander, are you prepared to fulfil the troth you have plighted?"
"I—I can't say I am," he said. "Not that I don't feel thankful for having had the refusal of so very 'igh-class an opportunity; but, as I'm situated at present—what with the state of trade, and unbelief so rampant, and all—I'm obliged to decline with respectful thanks."
He trusted that after this she would see the propriety of going.
"Have a care!" she said; "you are young and not uncomely, and my heart pities you. Do nothing rash. Pause, ere you rouse the implacable ire of Aphrodite!"
"Thank you," said Leander; "if you'll allow me, I will. I don't want any ill-feeling, I'm sure. It's my wish to live peaceable with all men."
"I leave you, then. Use the time before you till I come again in thinking well whether he acts wisely who spurns the proffered hand of Idalian Aphrodite. For the present, farewell, Leander!"
He was overjoyed at his coming deliverance. "Good evening, mum," he said, as he ran to the door and held it open. "If you'll allow me, I'll light you down the staircase—it's rather dark, I'm afraid."
"Fool!,'" she said with scorn, and without stirring from her place; and, as she spoke the word, the veil seemed to descend over her face again, the light faded out, and, with a slight shudder, the figure imperceptibly resumed its normal attitude, the drapery stiffened once more into chiselled folds, and the statue was soulless as are statues generally.
FROM BAD TO WORSE
"And the shadow flits and fleets, And will not let me be, And I loathe the squares and streets!"
For some time after the statue had ceased to give signs of life, the hairdresser remained gaping, incapable of thought or action. At last he ventured to approach cautiously, and on touching the figure, found it perfectly cold and hard. The animating principle had plainly departed, and left the statue a stone.
"She's gone," he said, "and left her statue behind her! Well, of all the goes——She's come out without her pedestal, too! To be sure, it would have been in her way, walking."
Seating himself in his shabby old armchair, he tried to collect his scattered wits. He scarcely realised, even yet, what had happened; but, unless he had dreamed it all, he had been honoured by the marked attentions of a marble statue, instigated by a heathen goddess, who insisted that his affections were pledged to her.
Perhaps there was a spice of flattery in such a situation—for it cannot fall to the lot of many hairdressers to be thus distinguished—but Leander was far too much alarmed to appreciate it. There had been suggestions of menace in the statue's remarks which made him shudder when he recalled them, and he started violently once or twice when some wavering of the light gave a play of life to the marble mask. "She's coming back!" he thought. "Oh, I do wish she wouldn't!" But Aphrodite continued immovable, and at last he concluded that, as he put it, she "had done for the evening."
His first reflection was—what had best be done? The wisest course seemed to be to send for the manager of the gardens, and restore the statue while its animation was suspended. The people at the gardens would take care that it did not get loose again.
But there was the ring; he must get that off first. Here was an unhoped-for opportunity of accomplishing this in privacy, and at his leisure. Again approaching the figure, he tried to draw off the compromising circle; but it seemed tighter than ever, and he drew out a pair of scissors and, after a little hesitation, respectfully inserted it under the hoop and set to work to prize it off, with the result of snapping both the points, and leaving the ring entirely unaffected. He glanced at the face; it wore the same dreamy smile, with a touch of gentle contempt in it. "She don't seem to mind," he said aloud; "to be sure, she ain't inside of it now, as far as I make it out. I've got all night before me to get the confounded thing off, and I'll go on till I've done it!"
But he laboured on with the disabled scissors, and only succeeded in scratching the smooth marble a little; he stopped to pant. "There's only way," he told himself desperately; "a little diamond cement would make it all right again; and you expect cracks in a statue."
Then, after a furtive glance around, he fetched the poker from the fireplace. He felt horribly brutal, as if he were going to mutilate and maltreat a creature that could feel; but he nerved himself to tap the back of Aphrodite's hand at the dimpled base of the third finger. The shock ran up to his elbow, and gave him acute "pins and needles," but the stone hand was still intact. He struck again—this time with all his force—and the poker flew from his grasp, and his arm dropped paralyzed by his side.
He could scarcely lift it again for some minutes, and the warning made him refrain from any further violence. "It's no good," he groaned. "If I go on, I don't know what may happen to me. I must wait till she comes to, and then ask her for the ring, very polite and civil, and try if I can't get round her that way."
He was determined that he would never give her up to the gardens while she wore his ring; but, in the mean time, he could scarcely leave the statue standing in the middle of his sitting-room, where it would most assuredly attract the charwoman's attention.
He had little cupboards on each side of his fireplace: one of these had no shelves, and served for storing firewood and bottles of various kinds. From this he removed the contents, and lifting the statue, which, possibly because its substance had been affected in some subtle and inexplicable manner by the vital principle that had so lately permeated it, proved less ponderous than might have been reasonably expected, he pushed it well into the recess, and turned the key on it.
Then he went trembling to bed, and, after an interval of muddled, anxious thinking, fell into a heavy sleep, which lasted until far into the morning.
He woke with the recollection that something unpleasant was hanging over him, and by degrees he remembered what that something was; but it looked so extravagant in the morning light that he had great hopes all would turn out to be a mere dream.
It was a mild Sunday morning, and there were church bells ringing all around him; it seemed impossible that he could really be harbouring an animated antique. But to remove all doubt, he stole down, half dressed, to his small sitting-room, which he found looking as usual—the fire burning dull and dusty in the sunlight that struck in through the open window, and his breakfast laid out on the table.
Almost reassured, he went to the cupboard and unlocked the door. Alas! it held its skeleton—the statue was there, preserving the attitude of queenly command in which he had seen it first. Sharply he shut the door again, and turned the key with a heavy heart.
He swallowed his breakfast with very little appetite, after which he felt he could not remain in the house. "To sit here with that in the cupboard is more than I'm equal to all Sunday," he decided.
If Matilda had been at his aunt's, with whom she lodged, he would have gone to chapel with her; but Matilda did not return from her holiday till late that night. He thought of going to his friend and asking his advice on his case. James, as a barrister's clerk, would presumably be able to give a sound legal opinion on an emergency.
James, however, lived "out Camden Town way," and was certain on so fine a morning to be away on some Sunday expedition with his betrothed: it was hopeless to go in search of him now. If he went to see his aunt, who lived close by in Millman Street, she might ask him about the ring, and there would be a fuss. He was in no humour for attending any place of public worship, and so he spent some hours in aimless wandering about the streets, which, as foreigners are fond of reminding us, are not exhilarating even on the brightest Sabbath, and did not raise his spirits then.
At last hunger drove him back to the passage in Southampton Row, the more quickly as it began to occur to him that the statue might possibly have revived, and be creating a disturbance in the cupboard.
He had passed the narrow posts, and was just taking out his latchkey, when some one behind touched his shoulder and made him give a guilty jump. He dreaded to find the goddess at his elbow; however, to his relief, he found a male stranger, plainly and respectably dressed.
"You Mr. Tweddle the hairdresser?" the stranger inquired.
Leander felt a wild impulse to deny it, and declare that he was his own friend, and had come to see himself on business, for he was in no social mood just then; but he ended by admitting that he supposed he was Mr. Tweddle.
"So did I. Well, I want a little private talk with you, Mr. Tweddle. I've been hanging about for some time; but though I knocked and rang, I couldn't make a soul hear."
"There isn't a soul inside," protested Tweddle, with unnecessary warmth; "not a solitary soul! You wanted to talk with me. Suppose we take a turn round the square?"
"No, no. I won't keep you out; I'll come in with you!"
Inwardly wondering what his visitor wanted, Leander led him in and lit the gas in his hair-cutting saloon. "We shall be cosier here," he said; for he dared not take the stranger up in the room where the statue was concealed, for fear of accidents.
The man sat down in the operating-chair and crossed his legs. "I dare say you're wondering what I've come about like this on a Sunday afternoon?" he began.
"Not at all," said Leander. "Anything I can have the pleasure of doing for you——"
"It's only to answer a few questions. I understand you lost a ring at the Rosherwich Gardens yesterday evening: that's so, isn't it?"
He was a military looking person, as Leander now perceived, and he had a close-trimmed iron-grey beard, a high colour, quick eyes, and a stiff hard-lipped mouth—not at all the kind of man to trifle with. And yet Leander felt no inclination to tell him his story; the stranger might be a reporter, and his adventure would "get into the papers"—perhaps reach Matilda's eyes.
"I—I dropped a ring last night, certainly," he said; "it may have been in the gardens, for what I know."
"Now, now," said the stranger, "don't you know it was in the gardens? Tell me all about it."
"Begging your pardon," said Leander, "I should like to know first what call you have to be told."
"You're quite right—perfectly right. I always deal straightforwardly when I can. I'll tell you who I am. I'm Inspector Bilbow, of the Criminal Investigation Department, Scotland Yard. Now, perhaps, you'll see I'm not a man to be kept in the dark. And I want you to tell me when and where you last saw that ring of yours: it's to your own interest, if you want to see it again."
But Leander had seen it again, and it seemed certain that all Scotland Yard could not assist him in getting it back; he must manage it single-handed.
"It's very kind of you, Mr. Inspector, to try and find it for me," he said; "but the fact is, it—it ain't so valuable as I fancied. I can't afford to have it traced—it's not worth it!"
The inspector laughed. "I never said it was, that I know. The job I'm in charge of is a bigger concern than your trumpery ring, my friend."
"Then I don't see what I've got to do with it," said Leander.
The officer had taken his measure by this time; he must admit his man into a show of confidence, and appeal to his vanity, if he was to obtain any information he could rely upon.
"You're a shrewd chap, I see; 'nothing for nothing' is your motto, eh? Well, if you help me in this, and put me on the track I want, it'll be a fine thing for you. You'll be a principal witness at the police-court; name in the papers; regular advertisement for you!"
This prospect, had he known it—but even inspectors cannot know everything—was the last which could appeal to Leander in his peculiar position. "I don't care for notoriety," he said loftily; "I scorn it."
"Oho!" said the inspector, shifting his ground. "Well, you don't want to impede the course of justice, do you?—because that's what you seem to me to be after, and you won't find it pay in the long run. I'll get this out of you in a friendly way if I can; if not, some other way. Come, give me your account, fair and full, of how you came to lose that ring; there's no help for it—you must!"
Leander saw this and yielded. After all, it did not much matter, for of course he would not touch upon the strange sequel of his ill-omened act; so he told the story faithfully and circumstantially, while the inspector took it all down in his note-book, questioning him closely respecting the exact time of each occurrence.
At last he closed his note-book with a snap. "I'm not obliged to tell you anything in return for all this," he said; "but I will, and then you'll see the importance of holding your tongue till I give you leave to talk about it."
"I shan't talk about it," said Leander.
"I don't advise you to. I suppose you've heard of that affair at Wricklesmarsh Court? What! not that business where a gang broke into the sculpture gallery, one of the finest private collections in England? You surprise me!"
"And what did they steal?" asked Leander.
"They stole the figure whose finger you were ass enough (if you'll allow me the little familiarity) to put your ring on. What do you think of that?"
A wild rush of ideas coursed through the hairdresser's head. Was this policeman "after" the goddess upstairs? Did he know anything more? Would it be better to give up the statue at once and get rid of it? But then—his ring would be lost for ever!
"It's surprising," he said at last. "But what did they want to go and burgle a plaster figure for?"
"That's where it is, you see; she ain't plaster—she's marble, a genuine antic of Venus, and worth thousands. The beggars who broke in knew that, and took nothing else. They'd made all arrangements to get away with her abroad, and pass her off on some foreign collection before it got blown upon; and they'd have done it too if we hadn't been beforehand with them! So what do they do then? They drive up with her to these gardens, ask to see the manager, and say they're agents for some Fine Arts business, and have a sample with them, to be disposed of at a low price. The manager, so he tells me, had a look at it, thought it a neat article and suitable to the style of his gardens. He took it to be plain plaster, as they said, and they put it up for him their own selves, near the small gate up by the road; then they took the money—a pound or two they asked for it—and drove away, and he saw no more of them."
"And was that all they got for their pains?" said Leander.
The inspector smiled indulgently. "Don't you see your way yet?" he asked. "Can't you give a guess where that statue's got to now, eh?"
"No," said Leander, with what seemed to the inspector a quite uncalled-for excitement, "of course I can't! What do you ask me for? How should I know?"
"Quite so," said the other; "you want a mind trained to deal with these things. It may surprise you to hear it, but I know as well how that statue disappeared, and what was done with her, as if I'd been there!"
"Do you, though?" thought Leander, who was beginning to doubt whether his visitor's penetration was anything so abnormal. "What was done with her?" he asked.
"Why, it was a plant from the first. They knew all their regular holes were stopped, and they wanted a place to dump her down in, where she wouldn't attract attention, till they could call for her again; so they got her taken in at the gardens, where they could come in any time by the gate and fetch her off again—and very neatly it was done, too!"
"But where do you make out they've taken her to now?" asked Leander, who was naturally anxious to discover if the official had any suspicions of him.
"I've my own theory about that," was his answer. "I shall hunt that Venus down, sir; I'll stake my reputation on it."
"Venus is her name, it seems," thought Leander. "She told me it was Aphrodite. But perhaps the other's her Christian name. It can't be the Venus I've seen pictures of—she's dressed too decent."
"Yes," repeated the inspector, "I shall hunt her down now. I don't envy the poor devil who's giving her house-room; he'll have reason to repent it!"
"How do you know any one's giving her house-room?" inquired Leander; "and why should he repent it?"
"Ask your own common sense. They daren't take her back to any of their own places; they know better. They haven't left the country with her. What remains? They've bribed or got over some mug of an outsider to be their accomplice, and a bad speculation he'll find it, too."
"What would be done to him?" asked the hairdresser, with a quite unpleasant internal sensation.
"That is a question I wouldn't pretend to decide; but I've no hesitation in saying that the party on whose premises that statue is discovered will wish he'd died before he ever set eyes on her."
"You're quite right there!" said Leander. "Well, sir, I'm afraid I haven't been much assistance to you."
"Never mind that," said the inspector, encouragingly; "you've answered my questions; you've not hindered the law, and that's a game some burn their fingers at."
Leander let him out, and returned to his saloon with his head in a worse whirl than before. He did not think the detective suspected him. He was clearly barking up the wrong tree at present; but so acute a mind could not be long deceived, and if once Leander was implicated his guilt would appear beyond denial. Would the police believe that the statue had run after him? No one would believe it! To be found in possession of that fatal work of art would inevitably ruin him.
He might carry her away to some lonely spot and leave her, but where was the use? She would only come back again; or he might be taken in the act. He dared not destroy her; his right arm had been painful all day after that last attempt.
If he gave her up to the authorities, he would have to explain how he came to be in a position to do so, which, as he now saw, would be a difficult undertaking; and even then he would lose all chance of recovering his ring in time to satisfy his aunt and Matilda. There was no way out of it, unless he could induce Venus to give up the token and leave him alone.
"Cuss her!" he said angrily; "a pretty bog she's led me into, she and that minx, Ada Parkinson!"
He felt so thoroughly miserable that hunger had vanished, and he dreaded the idea of an evening at home, though it was a blusterous night, with occasional vicious spirts of rain, and by no means favourable to continued pacing of streets and squares.
"I'm hanged if I don't think I'll go to church!" he thought; "and perhaps I shall feel more equal to supper afterwards."
He went upstairs to get his best hat and overcoat, and was engaged in brushing the former in his sitting-room, when from within the cupboard he heard a shower of loud raps.
His knees trembled. "She's wuss than any ghost!" he thought; but he took no notice, and went on brushing his hat, while he endeavoured to hum a hymn.
"Leander!" cried the clear, hard voice he knew too well, "I have returned. Release me!"
His first idea was to run out of the house and seek sanctuary in some pew in the opposite church. "But there," he thought disgustedly, "she'd only come in and sit next to me. No, I'll pluck up a spirit and have it out with her!" and he threw open the door.
"How have you dared to imprison me in this narrow tomb?" she demanded majestically, as she stepped forth.
Leander cringed. "It's a nice roomy cupboard," he said. "I thought perhaps you wouldn't mind putting up with it, especially as you invited yourself," he could not help adding.
"When I found myself awake and in utter darkness," she said, "I thought you had buried me beneath the soil."
"Buried you!" he exclaimed, with a sudden perception that he might do worse.
"And in that thought I was preparing to invoke the forces that lie below the soil to come to my aid, burst the masses that impeded me, and overwhelm you and all this ugly swarming city in one vast ruin!"
"I won't bury her," Leander decided. "I'm sorry you hadn't a better opinion of me, mum," he said aloud. "You see, how you came to be in there was this way: when you went out, like the snuff of a candle, so to speak, you left your statue standing in the middle of the floor, and I had to put it somewhere where it wouldn't be seen."
"You did well," she said indulgently, "to screen my image from the vulgar sight; and if you had no statelier shrine wherein to instal it, the fault lies not with you. You are pardoned."
"Thank you, mum," said Leander; "and now let me ask you if you intend to animate that statue like this as a regular thing?"
"So long as your obstinacy continues, or until it outlives my forbearance, I shall return at intervals," she said. "Why do you ask this?"
"Well," said Leander, with a sinking heart, but hoping desperately to move her by the terrors of the law, "it's my duty to tell you that that image you're in is stolen property."
"Has it been stolen from one of my temples?" she asked.
"I dare say—I don't know; but there's the police moving heaven and earth to get you back again!"
"He is good and pious—the police, and if I knew him I would reward him."
"There's a good many hims in the police—that's what we call our guards for the street, who take up thieves and bad characters; and, being stolen, they're all of 'em after you; and if they had a notion where you were, they'd be down on you, and back you'd go to wherever you've come from—some gallery, I believe, where you wouldn't get away again in a hurry! Now, I tell you what it is, if you don't give me up that ring, and go away and leave me in quiet, I'll tell the police who you are and where you are. I mean what I say, by George I do!"
"We know not George, nor will it profit you to invoke him now," said the goddess. "See, I will deign to reason with you as with some froward child. Think you that, should the guards seize my image, I should remain within, or that it is aught to me where this marble presentment finds a resting-place while I am absent therefrom? But for you, should you surrender it into their hands, would there be no punishment for your impiety in thus concealing a divine effigy?"
"She ain't no fool!" thought Leander; "she mayn't understand our ways, but she's a match for me notwithstanding. I must try another line."
"Lady Venus," he began, "if that's the proper way to call you, I didn't mean any threats—far from it. I'll be as humble as you please. You look a good-natured lady; you wouldn't want to make a man uncomfortable, I'm sure. Do give me back that ring, for mercy's sake! If I haven't got it to show in a day or two, I shall be ruined!"
"Should any mortal require the ring of you, you have but to reply, 'I have placed it upon the finger of Aphrodite, whose spouse I am!' Thus will you have honour amongst mortals, being held blameless!"
"Blameless!" cried Leander, in pardonable exasperation. "That's all you know about it! And what am I to say to the lady it lawfully belongs to?"
"You have lied to me, then, and you are already affianced! Tell me the abode of this maiden of yours."
"What do you want it for?" he inquired, hoping faintly she might intend to restore the ring.
"To seek it out, to go to her abode, to crush her! Is she not my rival?"
"Crush my Matilda?" he cried in agony. "You'll never do such a thing as that?"
"You have revealed her name! I have but to ask in your streets, 'Where abideth Matilda, the beloved of Leander, the dresser of hair? Lead me to her dwelling.' And having arrived thereat, I shall crush her, and thus she shall deservedly perish!"
He was horrified at the possible effects of his slip, which he hastened to repair. "You won't find it so easy to come at her, luckily," he said; "there's hundreds of Matildas in London alone."
"Then," said the goddess, sweetly and calmly, "it is simple: I shall crash them all."
"Oh, lor!" whimpered Leander, "here's a bloodthirsty person! Where's the sense of doing that?"
"Because, dissipated reveller that you are, you love them."
"Now, when did I ever say I loved them? I don't even know more than two or three, and those I look on as sisters—in fact" (here he hit upon a lucky evasion) "they are sisters—it's only another name for them. I've a brother and three Matildas, and here are you talking of crushing my poor sisters as if they were so many beadles—all for nothing!"
"Is this the truth? Palter not with me! You are pledged to no mortal bride?"
"I'm a bachelor. And as for the ring, it belongs to my aunt, who's over fifty."
"Then no one stands between us, and you are mine!"
"Don't talk so ridiculous! I tell you I ain't yours—it's a free country, this is!"
"If I—an immortal—can stoop thus, it becomes you not to reject the dazzling favour."
A last argument occurred to him. "But I reelly don't think, mum," he said persuasively, "that you can be quite aware of the extent of the stoop. The fact is, I am, as I've tried to make you understand, a hairdresser; some might lower themselves so far as to call me a barber. Now, hairdressing, whatever may be said for it" (he could not readily bring himself to decry his profession)—"hairdressing is considribly below you in social rank. I wouldn't deceive you by saying otherwise. I assure you that, if you had any ideer what a barber was, you wouldn't be so pressing."
She seemed to be struck by this. "You say well!" she observed, thoughtfully; "your occupation may be base and degrading, and if so, it were well for me to know it."
"If you were once to see me in my daily avocations," he urged, "you'd see what a mistake you're making."
"Enough! I will see you—and at once. Barb, that I may know the nature of your toil!"
"I can't do that now," he objected; "I haven't got a customer."
"Then fetch one, and barb with it immediately. You must have your tools by you; so delay not!"
"A customer ain't a tool!" he groaned, "it's a fellow-man; and no one will come in to-night, because it's Sunday. (Don't ask me what Sunday is, because you wouldn't understand if I tried to tell you!) And I don't carry on my business up here, but below in the saloon."
"I will go thither and behold you."
"No!" he exclaimed. "Do you want to ruin me?"
"I will make no sign; none shall recognise me for what I am. But come I will!"
Leander pondered awhile. There was danger in introducing the goddess into his saloon; he had no idea what she might do there. But at the same time, if she were bent upon coming, she would probably do so in any case; and besides, he felt tolerably certain that what she would see would convince her of his utter unsuitability as a consort.
Yes, it was surely wisest to assist necessity, and obtain the most favourable conditions for the inevitable experiment.
"I might put you in a corner of the operating-room, to be sure," he said thoughtfully. "No one would think but what you was part of the fittings, unless you went moving about."
"Place me where I may behold you at your labour, and there I will remain," she said.
"Well," he conceded, "I'll risk it. The best way would be for you to walk down to the saloon, and leave yourself ready in a corner till you come to again. I can't carry a heavy marble image all that way!"
"So be it," said she, and followed him to the saloon with a proud docility.
"It's nicely got up," he remarked, as they reached it; "and you'll find it roomier than the cupboard."
She deigned no answer as she remained motionless in the corner he had indicated; and presently, as he held up the candle he was carrying, he found its rays were shining upon a senseless stone.
He went upstairs again, half fearful, half sanguine. "I don't altogether like it," he was thinking. "But if I put a print wrapper over her all day, no one will notice. And goddesses must have their proper pride. If she once gets it into her marble head that I keep a shop, I think that she'll turn up her nose at me. And then she'll give back the ring and go away, and I shan't be afraid of the police; and I needn't tell Tillie anything about it. It's worth risking."
"'Tis time; descend; be stone no more; approach: Strike all that look upon with marvel."
The Winter's Tale.
The next day brought Leander a letter which made his heart beat with mingled emotions—it was from his Matilda. It had evidently been written immediately before her return, and told him that she would be at their old meeting-place (the statue of Fox in Bloomsbury Square) at eight o'clock that evening.
The wave of tenderness which swept over him at the anticipation of this was hurled back by an uncomfortable thought. What if Matilda were to refer to the ring? But no; his Matilda would do nothing so indelicate.
All through the day he mechanically went through his hairdressing, singeing, and shampooing operations, divided between joy at the prospect of seeing his adored Matilda again, and anxiety respecting the cold marble swathed in the print wrapper, which stood in the corner of his hair-cutting saloon.
He glanced at it every time he went past to change a brush or heat a razor, but there was no sign of movement under the folds, and he gradually became reassured, especially as it excited no remark.
But as evening drew on he felt that, for the success of his experiment, it was necessary that the cover should be removed. It was dangerous, supposing the inspector were to come in unexpectedly and recognise the statue; but he could only trust to fortune for that, and hoped, too, that even if the detective came he would be able to keep him in the outer shop.
It was only for one evening, and it was well worth the risk.
A foreign gentleman had come in, and the hairdresser found that a fresh wrapper was required, which gave him the excuse he wanted for unveiling the Aphrodite. He looked carefully at the face as he uncovered it, but could discover no speculation as yet in the calm, full gaze of the goddess.
The foreign gentleman was inclined to be talkative under treatment, and the conversation came round to public amusements.
"In my country," the customer said, without mentioning or betraying what his particular country was—"in my country we have what you have not, places to sit out in the fresh air, and drink a glass of beer, along with the entertainments. You have not that in London?"
"Bless your soul, yes," said Leander, who was a true patriot, "plenty of them!"
"Oh, I did not aware that; but who?"
"Well," said the hairdresser, "there's the Eagle in the City Road, for one; and there's the Surrey Gardens; and there's Rosherwich," he added, after a pause. (The Fisheries Exhibition, it may be said, was as yet unknown.)
"And you go there, often?"
"I've been to Rosherwich."
"Was it goot there—you laike it, eh?"
"Well," said Leander, "they tell me it's very gay in the season. P'rhaps I went at the wrong time of the year for it."
"What you call wrong time for it?"
"Slack—nothing going on," he explained; "like it was when I went last Saturday."
"You went last Saturday? And you stay a long time?"
"I didn't stay no longer than I could help," Leander said. "All our party was glad to get away."
The foreigner had risen to go, when his eyes fell on the Venus in the corner.
"You did not stay long, and your party was glad to come away?" he repeated absently. "I am not surprised at that." He gave the hairdresser a long stare as he spoke. "No, I am not surprised.... You have a good taste, my friend; you laike the antique, do you not?" he broke off suddenly.
"Ah! you are looking at the Venus, sir," said Leander. "Yes, I'm very partial to it."
"It is a taste that costs," his customer said.
He looked back over his shoulder as he left the shop, and once more repeated softly, "Yes, it is a taste that costs."
"I suppose," Leander reflected as he went back, "it does strike people as queer, my keeping that statue there; but it's only for one evening."
The foreigner had scarcely left when an old gentleman, a regular customer, looked in, on his way from the City, and at once noticed the innovation. He was an old gentleman who had devoted much time and study to Art, in the intervals of business, and had developed critical powers of the highest order.
He walked straight up to the Venus, and stuck out his under lip. "Where did you get that thing?" he inquired. "Isn't this place of yours small enough, without lumbering it up with statuary out of the Euston Road?"
"I didn't get it there," said Leander. "I—I thought it would be 'andy to 'ang the 'ats on."
"Dear, dear," said the old gentleman, "why do you people dabble in matters you don't understand? Come here, Tweddle, and let me show you. Can't you see what a miserable sham the thing is—a cheap, tawdry imitation of the splendid classic type? Why, by merely exhibiting such a thing, you're vitiating public taste, sir—corrupting it."
Leander did not quite follow this rebuke, which he thought was probably based upon the goddess's antecedents.
"Was she reelly as bad as that, sir?" he said. "I wasn't aware so, or I shouldn't give any offence to customers by letting her stay here."
As he spoke he saw the indefinable indications in the statue's face which denoted that it was instinct once more with life and intelligence, and he was horrified at the thought that the latter part of the conversation might have been overheard.
"But I've always understood," he said, hastily, "that the party this represents was puffickly correct, however free some of the others might have been; and I suppose that's the costume of the period she's in, and very becoming it is, I'm sure, though gone out since."
"Bah!" said the old gentleman, "it's poor art. I'll show you where the thing is bad. I happen to understand something of these things. Just observe how the top of the head is out of drawing; look at the lowness of the forehead, and the distance between the eyes; all the canons of proportion ignored—absolutely ignored!"
What further strictures this rash old gentleman was preparing to pass upon the statue will never be known now, for Tweddle already thought he could discern a growing resentment in her face, under so much candour. He could not stand by and allow so excellent a customer to be crushed on the floor of his saloon, and he knew the Venus quite capable of this: was she not perpetually threatening such a penalty, on much slighter provocation?
He rushed between the unconscious man and his fate. "I think you said your hair cut?" he said, and laid violent hands upon the critic, forced him protesting into a chair, throttled him with a towel, and effectually diverted his attention by a series of personal remarks upon the top of his head.
The victim, while he was being shampooed, showed at first an alarming tendency to revert to the subject of the goddess's defects, but Leander was able to keep him in check by well-timed jets of scalding water and ice-cold sprays, which he directed against his customer's exposed crown, until every idea, except impotent rage, was washed out of it, while a hard machine brush completed the subjugation.