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Title: The extraordinary confessions of Diana Please
Author: Bernard Capes
Release Date: January 27, 2023 [eBook #69885]
Produced by: an anonymous Project Gutenberg volunteer
*** START OF THE PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK THE EXTRAORDINARY CONFESSIONS OF DIANA PLEASE ***
HERE “ENGLISHED” FROM THE ORIGINAL
SHORTHAND NOTES, IN FRENCH, OF M. LE
MARQUIS DE C——, A FRIEND TO WHOM
SHE DICTATED THEM,
“THE LAKE OF WINE,” “PLOTS” ETC. ETC.
METHUEN & CO.
36 ESSEX STREET W.C.
I. I MAKE MY DÉBUT
II. I AM ABDUCTED
III. I ESCAPE
IV. I FALL INTO THE HANDS OF A COLLECTOR
V. I AM CARRIED AWAY AS A SPECIMEN
VI. I AM “PINNED OUT”
VII. I AM PUT AWAY IN CAMPHOR
VIII. I MEET MR. NOEL DE CRESPIGNY
IX. I AM COMMITTED TO THE ——
X. I BEWITCH A MONSTER
XI. I ADD THE LAST TOUCH TO A PORTRAIT
XII. I AM INFAMOUSLY RETALIATED ON
XIII. I AM WOOED TO SELF-DESTRUCTION
XIV. I AM RESCUED BY MY MONSTER
XV. I BECOME AN INMATE OF “RUPERT’S FOLLY”
XVI. I PUT AN END TO ONE FOLLY
XVII. I AM CONSIGNED TO A GREEN GRAVE
XVIII. I BEGIN ANOTHER FOLLY
XIX. I AM MAID MARIAN
XX. I PUT AN END TO FOLLY NUMBER TWO
XXI. I AM METAMORPHOSED
XXII. I RUN ACROSS AN OLD FRIEND
XXIII. I AM MADE FORTUNE’S MISTRESS
XXIV. I FIND A FRIEND IN NEED
XXV. I DECLARE FOR THE KING
XXVI. I RENEW AN OLD ACQUAINTANCE
XXVII. I KNOW HOW TO WAIT
XXVIII. I RETURN TO NAPLES
XXIX. I STILL KNOW HOW TO WAIT
XXX. I AM JUSTIFIED IN MY POLICY
XXXI. I KNOW MY OWN HEART
“I am convinced she rivalled, at fifty, the exquisite Diane dePoitiers herself, in the brightness of her wit and the perfection ofher form, and might have passed as triumphantly a like test of themarble.”
The Marquis de C—— in his “Foreword.”
If the public seeks any apology for this introduction to it, at alate date, of the extraordinary woman whose self-dictated Memoirs formthe staple of the following pages, it must look for it in thereferences of her contemporaries; it will be far from gathering itfrom her own autobiography.
Diane Rosemonde de St. Croix (to give her her proper mother-title)considered that she owed to Romance, in a glowing age, what, in apractical one, is conceded by a thousand dull and petty vanities to avulgar curiosity—her personal reminiscences. She had at least thejustification of her qualities, and the good fortune to find, in herlatter-day friend, the Marquis de C——, an enthusiastic historian ofthem. In the question of their appeal, one way or the other, to theEnglish reader, the present transcriber (from the original Frenchnotes) must hold himself responsible both for choice and style.
Madame de St. Croix was a “passionist,” as the French called Casanova;and, indeed, she had many points in common with that redoubtableadventurer: an unappeasable vagabondism; a love of letters; an ardentimagination; an incorruptible self-love; and, lastly, what we may terman exotic orthodoxy. If, subscribing to the universal creed whichmakes man’s soul his fetish, she worshipped an exacting god, she wasat least always ready to sacrifice the world to gratify it, and now,no doubt, very logically sings among the angels.
In the matter of her more notorious characteristics, M. de C——, lesther part on earth should suffer misconstruction by the censorious, isso good as to speak with some show of finality. “I deny,” he says,“the title adventuress to my charming and accomplished friend. It isnothing if not misleading. Every day we venture something, for love,for hunger, for ambition. He who deviates from rice and barley-water,venturing on spiced dishes, makes every time an assault on hisepigastrium. He who is not content with an ignoble mediocrity, thoughhe do no more than take pains with a letter, is a candidate for fame.And as for love, it does not exist on the highway. Why should it implydistinction to call a man an adventurer, and be invidious to style awoman adventuress? Ulysses dallying in Ææa is surely no morehonourable a sight than Godiva traversing Coventry in an adorabledeshabille. To have the wide outlook, the catholic sympathy—is thatto merit defamation? No, it is to be heroically human. Better sin likean angel, I say, than be a sick devil and virtuous.”
It remains only to mention that the present transcript conducts nofurther than to the finish of a dramatic period of Madame de St.Croix’s story; and to that, even, at the expense of a considerablelacuna (referred to in its place), which no research has hitherto beensuccessful in filling. It is hoped, however, that, in what is given,enough will be found to interest.
[Note.—An ingenious etymologist supplies a likely derivation forthe “duck-stone,” so often mentioned in the text, from the Slavicdook or duk, signifying to spirit away. Accepting this genesis,the duck-stone, given to Mrs. Please by the gypsy, becomes the dook,or bewitching-stone, and is imbued with whatever virtues our faithor our credulity may suggest.]
CONFESSIONS OF DIANA PLEASE
I MAKE MY DÉBUT
At my friend M. de C——’s instigation I sit down in the noon of mylife to talk of its morning.
I look first to your gallantry, my dear Alcide, to see that thisstatement is not misconstrued. That I have a past argues nothing of myremoteness from it. In comparison with the immortality which is surelyto be mine, everything on this side is youth. I am seventeen, orthirty-seven, or whatever I choose; and I intend that Heaven, wheneverit calls me, shall find me irresistible. Possessing all the ages, itcannot grudge me my arbitrary disposition of my own little term.
Now, tell your friends, my dear Alcide, that to succeed in life onemust never ask a woman her age or a man his intentions; and so weshall all be comfortable.
I owe my mother the most whimsical of grudges, my existence. I willnickname her the Comtesse de l’Ombre, and so shall abuse noconfidences in relating of my debt to her, and to “Lovelace,” hercollaborator in the romance of which I am the heroine. She was verybeautiful; and he, an English cadet of distinction, was anaristocratic paragon.
At the age of sixteen, convinced of the hollowness of life, she hadtaken the veil, and become the Sister Agnès of the Communauté deMadelonnettes, Notre Dame de la Charité, in Paris, whence a yearlater she was transferred to an English branch of the house. Hence andfrom her duty my father, whom she had approached upon a beggingmission, succeeded unhappily in inveigling her.
To the day of her death my mother bore the disfiguring sign of alittle cross on her breast. It has succeeded to me, but in a faintreflection, a grain de beauté, only. I will tell you, in a word,the story of my inheritance.
The ladies of les Madelonnettes had, in inviting all the femininevices to their inauguration ceremony, with the object to pension themoff handsomely, overlooked the bad fairy Jealousy. Thou knowest,Alcide, the meanness of this witch. To revenge herself, she castLovelace into their midst, as Eris cast the apple of discord upon thenuptial board of Thetis; and poor de l’Ombre was made the consequentscapegoat. Driven forth in ignominy from the fold, she could notsuffer so much but that one, over zealous or jealous, must strike heran envious blow across the bosom, on which she always wore a littlecrucifix, the gift of her father. The ebony cut in and left anindelible scar, to which I was to succeed in pathetic earnest of myorigin. It has never ceased to be a symbol to me of the vanity ofself-renunciation. How can we deny ourselves, and not deny One afterwhose image we are made?
I was born in a lodging at Brighthelmston, whither my father hadconveyed my mother. The town, which has always possessed an attractionfor me, was at that time a very paltry affair of scattered houses, towhich the mumpish or melancholic came periodically to salt theirspleens against a fresh course of dissipations. Locality has never,however, influenced my temper. The perfume of contentment breathesfrom within, and is not to be affected by soil or surroundings. Let uswho have good constitutions continue, as the way is, to accept themfor virtues, and to abhor the dyspeptic as unclean. Let us have thediscretion to ask no questions of our neighbours about what we don’tunderstand in this entertaining comedy of life. So shall we justifyourselves to ourselves, and avoid being made uncomfortable. Is it notso, my friend?
My mother had never, I do believe, had a doll till I came. She wasvery young, even then, and could not tire of playing with me in ourpretty cottage near the Steine. And I responded in all endearinggaiety and innocence, with the very trustfulness of which she must, Ifear, have come to reproach her apostasy.
Maybe she did, for, as time went on, I can recall a cloud settlingupon her brow—the shadow, perhaps, of the yoke under which she waspassing from girlhood to womanhood. I was already four when she cameof age. O, mon chéri! think of the tragedy of those italics! Andthink of me, a child of a precocious observation, and little ears aspinkly susceptible to murmurs as the inside of a shell, doomed towake—wake to some misty understanding of the unusual in ourrelations!
By and by I even confided my suspicions to my father, whom I adored,and who visited us occasionally, coming down from town very elegantand mondain and in great company. He laughed, and then frowned overat mamma, who returned his look steadily.
“Dear sir,” she said only, “the child is growing very critical. Do notencourage her, and make this cross harder than I can bear.”
“But I too have a cross,” I said; “only it is little and faint, andnot blushing like maman’s.”
My papa laughed again, and again frowned, saying, “It is a fact, andhard on the infant, who has done nothing to deserve it.”
Then he pushed me from him, and rose, and, going to the door, turnedat it with a peevish face.
“I weary of these heroics,” said he. “If you persist in them, rememberthat you are qualified, more than ever, for les Madelonnettes.”
He went; and she cried out, as if over some dreadful awakening. Butthenceforth, for some reason, our confidences grew estranged. I lovedmy poor mamma so well, that I think she should not have responded bystriving to make heir to her melancholy the innocent cause of it. Atthe root of all our moral revolt is a sense of the injustice oforiginal sin. I, at least, had done nothing to make me unhappy.
Presently I was given a governess, my dear careless father’s nominee.She was French, a ci-devant maîtresse de pension, very lazy andself-indulgent, and, if not sleeping, she was always ogling forunattached beaux. Vicious and insolent, she delighted in prompting meto reflections on my mother’s self-reserve, and “honour” was as muchin her mouth as false teeth. I learned nothing from her but indecorumand innuendo.
One day—for the moral to her teaching (it was when I was ten yearsold)—I was playing truant on the downs, when I saw a small smuttybaby crawl from under a bush into the road at the very moment that acarriage, wildly driven, was approaching. I had just time to noticethe gilded splendour of the equipage, and, perhaps,—let us be frank,my friend,—to be inspired to heroism by the sight, before I leapt andsnatched up the child from under the very feet of the gallopinghorses. As the chariot thundered by, an elegantly groomed head thrustitself from the window, and a ruffled hand, waving to me standingthere unhurt but bewildered, flung back a gold coin into the dust. Iturned my back immediately, disillusioned, by the insolence of theacknowledgment, as to the disinterested quality of my deed, and themore so as the baby was, parler franchement, decidedly unpleasant. Iput the imp down, and began to re-order my little ruffled plumes.Wouldst thou hear what they were, my Alcide? I can recall them at thishour: A dainty gipsy hat knotted to a blue ribbon; a stomacher lacedover with silver twist, and a skirt to the ankles, both of floweredlustring; three pair of ruffles at my bare elbows; a black solitaireat my neck, and black shoes with red heels and the prettiest of pastebuckles.
Alas! how better than our sins of yesterday do we remember thestockings we wore to sin in! Let me, for penance, concede to historythese my failings. I was, in fact, colourless in complexion, liketinted porcelain, with what my detractors used to call spun-glasshair, and the eyes of a Dresden shepherdess. And I was not at thattime light on my feet, with which my volatile spirits were always atodds.
Now, as I smoothed my skirt, I was aware of a mad gipsy woman hurryingfrom the bank towards me, and crying and gesticulating as she came.She caught up the infant, and, finding it unharmed, put it down again,and fawned upon me inarticulate. Then she broke off to curse thedistant carriage up hill and down, and finally went to pick up thecoin from the very spot where she had not failed to mark its fall.
“It is yours,” she said, striding back to me. “Take it!”
“You can keep it,” I answered, with my little nose in the air. “A ladydoes not want for money.”
She slipped it into her pocket, and fell on her knees before me.
“Nor beauty, nor love, nor silken raiment,” she cried; “and yet theyare not all. Think, my darling! There be no need so wild but the poorgrateful gipsy may show a way to gratify it.”
I laughed, half annoyed and half frightened; and then, suddenly andoddly, there came into my head the thought of the stocking needle thegouvernante was wont to stick into my bosom at meals, to prevent mestooping and rounding my back. Must I confess, my Alcide, that therewas ever a time when thy Diane was a little less or more than a sylph?
“Make me light,” I said, “so that I can dance without feeling theground.”
She looked at me strangely a moment, then all about her in a stealthyway, while she slipped her hand into her pocket.
“Hush!” she said. “For none other but you. Only tell not of it.” Andshe brought up a little greasy packet, of parchment writ round withcharacters, like a Hebrew phylactery.
“Have you ever heard tell of the duck-stone?” she whispered.
I shook my head, full of curiosity.
“No,” she said, “nor any of thine. It fell from the sky, from anotherworld, deary, that’s strange to ours, and the gipsies found it in thewild places of the woods. There was a smell came from it like thesugar of all flowers, and it was as light as foam and as hard as thebeaten rocks.”
She undid the packet while she spoke, and I saw a number of tiny greycubes, like frothy pumice-stone, one of which she detached, and gaveto me.
“It wrought upon them even to madness,” she said, “so that they tookand broke it with their mattocks. And, lo! the nameless thing wasfound in its scattered parts a virtue, even like the poisons which,taken in little, heal. Smell to it when the world is dark, and yourbrain shall flash into light, like an inn to the tired traveller.Smell to it when your feet go sick and heavy, and you shall feel themlike the birds’ whose bones are full of wind. But tell not of the giftor giver, lest I die!”
Involuntarily, as she spoke, I had raised the stone to my nostrils. Afaint scent as of menthene intoxicated my brain. The downs and the skyswam before me in one luminous mist. Lightness and delight took all mysoul and body with rapture....
A shout brought me to myself. I was sitting on the grass, with theduck-stone still tight in my clutch. The gipsy was gone, how long Icould not tell, and up the road was coming a second cortège, morebrilliant than the former. A dozen young fellows, all volunteerrunners and dressed in white, preceded a coach in which sat arich-apparelled lady, very bold and handsome, and escorted by asplendid cavalcade of gentlemen. It was the Duchess of Cumberland, whofollowed her husband to the seaside, as I was to learn by and by; forwhile I was collecting my drowsy young wits to look, a wonderful thinghappened. A horseman drew up with a cry, dismounted, seized and boreme to his saddle, and rode away with me after the carriage. It was myfather, flushed and jovial, the pink and Corinthian of his company, ashe always was.
He showed no curiosity over the encounter, nor scruple in taking mewith him. He was in wild spirits, laughing and teasing, and sometimeshe reeled in his saddle in a way to endanger my balance. But the rushof air restored me to myself, and I had the wit, for all myexcitement, to slip my charm, which I still held, into a pocket.
So we raced for the town, and presently drew up at the Castle Tavern,where His Royal Highness and his wife, the late Mrs. Horton, werequartering themselves.
The time which followed is confused in my remembrance. I was put incharge of a chambermaid, given a dish of tea and cake, and presentlyfell fast asleep, to awake smiling and rosy to the summons of mypleasant Clarinda. A lackey in a magnificent scarlet livery awaited meat the door, received me into his arms, and carried me downstairs to along room blazing with waxlights, where, at a white table spilt allover with a profusion of fruit and crystal, sat a gorgeous company ofgentlemen and ladies. Such silks and laces, such feathers anddiamonds, I had never in my young day encountered. It was like themost beautiful fair I had ever seen, and the red faces of the companywere the coloured bladders bobbing in the stalls. Still, I had notlost my self-possession, when my father reeled round in his chair, andcatching me away from the servant, set me on my feet on the tableitself.
I was a little confused by the tumult which greeted my exaltation.
“Diane,” whispered my father in my ear, “go and tell the duke in apretty speech that I send my love to him.”
I flicked up my skirts, and went off immediately among the fruit anddecanters. My progress was a triumph. The women clapped in artificialenthusiasm, and the men stopped me to kiss my little shoes. Andpresently down that long lane I saw the duke’s smiling face awaitingme. It was not a temperate face, it is true; its thirty-four yearswere traced upon it in very crooked hieroglyphics. But then—c’est ladernière touche qu’informe—the royal star of the garter glitteringon the apricot coat beneath made everything handsome. By his side satthe lady his duchess, née Luttrell, as brand-new as I to herexaltation. But it was the difference between Hebe and Thais. For allmy innocence I felt that, and did not fear her rivalry. I dropped alittle curtsey amongst the grapes and melons.
“Monsieur,” I said, “my papa wishes to make you a pretty gift, andsends you his love.”
He applauded, laughing, as did all the table, and lifted me down tohis lap.
“What price for the love?” he cried. “See, I return him a dozenkisses.”
He kept me, however, plying me with bonbons, while madam tittered andfanned herself vexedly.
“You will make the little ape sick, Enrico,” she said. “Put her down;for shame!”
“I know where to stop,” I retorted; and “By God, you do!” said theduke, with a great laugh, and held me tight.
I had a thimbleful of liqueur from his hand by and by, which made methink of the duck-stone. I was the little queen of the evening, and adelight to my father and all.
“Faith!” said a merry Irish rapparee, a bit of a courtier captain,“man has been vainly trying to fit woman into the moral scheme eversince she made herself out of his ninth rib, and the fashions out of afig-leaf; and here, in the eighteenth century Anno Domini, is theresult.”
I was carried on to the Steine presently by my father, my little brainwhirling. The whole of the Castle Tavern, and every house and shopadjacent, were illuminated; and the lights and crowds of people quiteintoxicated me. There were sports enacting on all sides, and Iscreamed with laughter to see a jingling match, played for a lacedcoat and hat, in which the jingler, hung with bells, dodged and eludedand dropped between the legs of the blindfolded who sought to capturehim. Then there was a foot-race, run by young women for a Hollandsmock; and I jeered at their self-conscious antics with all my littlemight, as they went giggling into place, coy and hobbledehoy, andpushed and quarrelled secretly, and stopped the starter to do up theirgreasy tresses, and then, all but the winner, snivelled over theresult, pronouncing it unfair.
Presently I was taken to see an ox roasted whole; and it was here,while we were looking on at the lurid tumult, occurred a rencontrewhich was to alter the whole current of my life. A fat, drunken sweepin his war-paint jostled my father, who, himself in the fury of wine,turned and felled the beast to the ground. We were isolated from ourfriends at the moment, and a ring was immediately formed, and thesweep called upon to stand up and pay his interest like a man. Herose, nothing loth, it seemed, and faced my father, who was forced toengage.
“My little ’orse and cart to a red-un that I whop ye!” cried thesweep.
“Done!” answered my father, and they fell to.
I was sure of the result, and stood by quite self-possessed and eagerwhile they fought. A round or two settled it, and there sat the sweep,unable to rise again, with a white tooth dropped on his coat-front.
When my father came away, I clung to him and kissed him in ecstasy. Hewas quite cool, and only a little breathed; and when, for the honourof sport, he had settled for the sweep’s trap to be driven round tohis door in the morning, intending to put it up to auction, heshouldered me laughing, and carried me away amidst cheers.
It was near midnight by then, and, happening upon a royal servant, hegave me into the man’s charge, and, in spite of my remonstrances, badehim convey me home. I sulked all the way, and was in no mood, after myexcitement, to sympathise with my mother’s agitated reception of hertruant. She had been near distracted all these hours, thinking medrowned or kidnapped, and could not control a gust of temper uponhearing how I had been employed.
“O, my maman,” I said saucily, “you must understand I have neverbeen in a convent, and so know how to take care of myself.”
It was wicked; but it was my governess speaking, not I.
I AM ABDUCTED
My mamma questioned me again in the morning about my adventures. Shewas very hollow-eyed and nervous, which offended me; for for her toappear ill in body or ill at ease in mind seemed to make my own youngsanity something that it was wrong or selfish in me to enjoy. I wasinconsiderate, no doubt; yet tell me, my Alcide, is it, on the otherhand, considerate of dyspepsia to be always wet-blanketing health andcontentment? Is not the human the only animal permitted of right toinflict his sickness on his fellows, while in every other communitythe invalid is “out of the law” of nature? It is thus, undoubtedly,that deterioration is provided against. To be attracted to the sweetand wholesome, and repelled by distemper, is that selfishness? If itis not, then am I content to be misunderstood by all others, so longas Heaven will recognise the real love of humankind which inspires mywish to secure its untainted image in myself. There must be a divinevirtue in health, seeing how disease is the heir of sin. Is not tosympathise, then, with depression, to condone evil?
I leave the answer to profounder moralists than I, content, indefault, to admit that the misery which now befell me was the directconsequence of my wickedness.
“Papa,” said I, tossing my head, “gave me to the beautiful duke, andhe took me in pledge of the love papa bears him. Will he come andfetch me, do you think, mamma? I shall be glad to belong to one whodoes not have headaches whenever the sun shines.”
She went quite white, and broke into a torrent of French invective.
“I do not understand these hard words,” I said. “Is it so they pray inles Madelonnettes?”
My sauciness took her completely aback. She stared at me for somemoments in silence, and then cried out suddenly, “God forgive you,Diane, and the vile creature who has instructed you to this, and yourfather, who I am going at once to ask that she may be removed!”
And she went out, unconsciously consigning me to my fate; and I neversaw her again, may Heaven pardon her!
I was a little frightened, though still defiant; and I loitered aboutthe house, singing in my small voice, which, though never an “organ,”has always been attractive, so people say.
Presently I remembered my duck-stone, and thought I would seek a casefor it. I was alone in the house, for our one maid was gone marketing,and the governess not yet arrived. I went upstairs, and rummaged in mymother’s bureaux, and by and by found a tiny silver vinaigrette intowhich the stone fitted beautifully. Then I went and sat in our littlefront garden which overlooked the road running to the downs, and thererocked and mused amongst the flowers in a recovered temper. I hoped myfather would fetch me again; I expected he would; and so, smiling anddreaming, put up the vinaigrette half-consciously, and sniffed at it.In a moment all sense of my surroundings went from me, and sky andflowers and the grey downs were blended in a rapture of unreality.
I came to myself amidst an impression of jolting. I thought it wasnight, and that I was suffocating in my bedclothes. I threw somethingfrom my face, saw daylight, and cried out incoherently.
Immediately the jerky motion ceased, and a horrible mask looked overand down at me. It was fat and sooty, with a handkerchief, startlinglywhite by contrast, going obliquely across its forehead.
“Stow that, my pigeon!” it said hoarsely and shortly. But at the firstsound of its voice, black inspiration had come upon me in a flood. Itwas the sweep of my last night’s adventure, and he was bearing me awaycaptive in the very little cart he had lost to my father. Whether hehad driven that up, sportingly, to time, or was merely escaping in it,I never learned. Anyhow, temptation had come to him recognising melying there, senseless and unprotected, in the garden, and moved,perhaps, by some sentiment between cupidity and revenge, he had seizedthe opportunity to kidnap me.
He swung his fat legs over the sitting board, and lifted me up fromthe midst of the empty bags where he had concealed me. We were in thethick of a little wood, and the pony was quietly cropping at thetrackside grass. The sense of loss and isolation, the filth of mycondition, the terror of this startled awakening from happy dreams,wrought a desperation in me that was near madness. I screamed andreviled and fought. The man opposed to my struggles just his twohands; but their large persuasive strength, unctuous as they were withsoot, was more deadly than any violence. Alas! how the star that litlast night’s heaven may be found fallen in the mud to-day, my Alcide!
When I was quiet, he put me up between his knees, and smacked my facetwice, deliberately, on either side—not hard, but in a lustful,proprietary way.
“Blow for blow,” says he, and lifted the bandage a little from hiseye. It was horribly swollen and discoloured.
“Knew how to handle his morleys,” he said. “D’ee see’t? Now it be myturn.”
“What are you going to do with me?” I sobbed.
“Make ’ee my climbing boy,” he answered promptly, and with a hideousgrin. “You’re my luck. D’ee see? Say you’re a gurl, and I’ll”— Hehissed in his breath, and looked at me like a beast of prey.
“There,” he ended; “get under, and so much’s sniff at your peril!”
Some distant sound, perhaps, startled him. He stuffed me into myformer position, and, covering me again with the bags, turned andclicked up his pony. I lay in a half faint, scarce daring to breathe,so utterly had this monster succeeded in subduing me. I cried,incessantly but quietly, hearing hour by hour the wheels grind undermy ear, till the sound and physical exhaustion induced in me a sort ofdelirium. All this time, the hope of pursuit and rescue never occurredto me, I believe. Did they occur to Proserpine having once felt theinhumanity of her sooty abductor?
But now all of a sudden the anguish grew unendurable. I must move ordie. And at the moment I became conscious of the vinaigrette stillclutched convulsively in my little fist.
Sure never death offered a sweeter release. Very softly I raised it,and found oblivion. I might have sought to use it on my enemy, andescape; but, alas! the unsophisticated mind of the child could compassno such artifice.
We went on all day, as I realised during the intervals of my waking,by the unfrequented roads, jolting, loitering, sometimes in lonelyplaces halting to rest the pony. The moral force my master (as I mustnow call him) put upon himself to avoid the wayside taverns, is themost convincing proof of his tenacity.
At last, a thicker darkness descended upon me, lying there in hopelessapathy, and night and sleep stretched their shroud over my miseries.
I awoke to rough movement and the sound of voices. My master wascarrying me into a little ill-lighted cottage, which stood solitaryupon the edge of a common. Sharp and brilliant, at no great distance,in a soughing night, sparkled the first lamps of a town.
I was borne into a tiny room, where something, covered with a cloth,lay stretched upon a rickety table. My master put me to the ground,and stood back to regard me. Another man, an expressionless sweep likehimself, but gaunt and bent-shouldered, joined silent issue in thisscrutiny.
“Well,” said the latter at length, “they’ll fit right enow; but damnthe exchange!”
He stopped to cough rendingly; then went on—
“If you mean a deal, I’m game for half a bull, and there’s my word onit. But burn them duds, Johnny! I won’t take the risk on ’em.”
My master considered.
“Mayhap you’re right,” said he. “Call it done.”
The words were hardly out of his mouth before the other had jerked thecloth from the table. And there underneath lay the dead stiff body ofa little sooty boy. His hands were griped at his chest, as if in agonyof its œdematous swelling, and his bared eyeballs and teeth were aswhite as porcelain.
I could not cry out, or do anything but stare in horror, while thegaunt man, with some show of persuasion, began to strip the littlebody of its coat and vest and trousers—all its poor harness. Then, ina sickness beyond words, I comprehended. I was to be made exchange,for these foul vestments, my own pretty silken toilet.
“Come along, Georgy,” wheedled his late master. “You wouldn’t be sounhandsome as to deny a lady, and she doing you honour to accept ofthem.”
He rolled the body gently from side to side, so coaxingly forceful andintent, that someone, bursting in upon him at the moment, took himcompletely by surprise.
It was a wretchedly clad woman, with resinous blots of eyes in ahungry face, and a little black moustache over a toothlessmouth—strange contrast!—that was never more still than a crab’s.
“So he’s dead, you dog!” she cried, seeming to feed on the words; “andyou druv him to his death; and may God wither you!”
The bent man jumped, like a vulture, from the body, and hopped anddodged, keeping it between him and the woman.
“You took the odds!” he cried, coughing, and kneading his crackingknuckles together, “you took the odds, and you mustn’t cry out like awoman if they gone agen ye. I did no more’n my duty, as the Lord hearsme!”
“Both on us,” said the woman. “Well, speak out!”
“He stuck,” said the sweep. “He stuck beyond reason. It were a goodten-inch square, for all it were a draw-in bend. I were forced tosmoke him; but his lungs were that crowded, there was no loosening thepore critter till they bust and let him down. He were a good boy, andworth a deal to me.”
“That’s true,” put in my master. “A man, though he be a flue-faker,don’t cut off his nose to spite his face, missus.”
She made no answer, staring fixedly at the corpse.
“He were my seventh,” she said. “He made no cry when you come and tookhim away from me—a yellow-haired devil. Did he cry for his mammy,chokin’ up in the dark there?”
“No,” said the man—“an unnat’ral son!”
She threw up her hands with a frightful gesture.
“I could have borne it if he had—I could have borne it, and cut mythroat. What were you doing with him?”
The sweep hesitated; but my master took the word from him.
“It’s a question of his slops, missus.” (He jerked a thumb over hisshoulder at me, where I stood in the background paralysed withterror.) “Half a bull or nothing, and you and him to share.”
The woman put her arms akimbo.
“Ho, indeed!” she said. “And where does he come in?”
“It’s my own smalls,” swore the man, excited and truculent at once. “Iwon’t bate an inch of ’em, if I’m to die for it.”
They were facing each other across the body like tom cats, when mymaster pulled his friend aside, and whispered in his ear.
“Amongst ladies and gentlemen,” said he, and waited, smiling and oily,while the other fetched a black bottle from a cupboard. The womanvisibly relaxed at the sight of this. Its owner uncorked it, andputting it to his mouth, gurgled, and smacked his black lips.
“The deal passes!” cried my master; and he snatched the bottle, andhanded it to the woman with an ingratiatory smile.
It was the psychologic moment, which loosened and harmonised theirtongues. They waxed confiding and genial. Presently the woman,commissioned politely to effect my transformation, swaggered across tome with devil-daring eyes, and began roughly to pull off my clothes.
“Damn you!” she said, with such a heat and violence of hate that myvery sobs were withered in my throat. “Come up, you young limb! Whatthe deuce! We’ll cry quits for my Georgy when the black smoke finishesyour ladyship.”
She never had had a doubt of the meaning of my presence in that vileden, but my beauty and refinement and helplessness were only so manygoads to her implacability. Her fingers were like rakes in my tenderflesh. She would have torn me with her teeth, I believe, if any hadbeen left to her. And I could only shrink and shiver under her hands,terrified if they wrung so much as a gasp from me.
When I was stripped, she seized a blunt dinner knife, and sawed offall my golden hair close to my head, a horrible experience. The tearsgushed silent down my cheeks. They might have moved the heart of awolf.
“There!” she said, when finished; “chuck us the duds!” and as shereceived them, scrubbed my face with the filthy tatters before shevested me in them.
I had hoped, perhaps, until thus hopelessly transformed; and then, atonce, I hoped no more. Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’ entrate—Iwas behind the bars; I wore the devil’s livery. O, my Alcide! Pitythis poor little Proserpine so ravished from her Plains of Enna.
Hast thou the nerve to follow me, my friend? My martyrdom wassevere, but, after all, brief. Comfort thyself with the thought of thebrilliant moth which is to emerge from this sad chrysalis.
My master was an itinerant sweep. He jogged from town to village andfrom village to town in his little cart, an untaxed Bohemian, andcarried me always with him. I had wild weepings at first, and franticschemes of escape, and fits of sullen rebellion; but they were allpersuaded out of me presently by his thick black hand. Then, as thepast grew obscured behind me in ever-densifying clouds of soot, I cameby degrees provisionally reconciled to my destiny, and even—canstthou believe it?—to some enjoyment of its compensations.
These were its changefulness, its irresponsibility, its littleadventures, that always had our bodily solace for their end. Wepilfered orchards, snatched an occasional fat duckling from a pond,smoked hives at night and carried away the dripping comb to eat underwarm ricks in the moonlight. And I had little to complain ofill-treatment, except when engaged professionally. My master’s amplereceptivities laughed and grew fat on self-indulgence. Liquor madehim, to my good fortune, beatifically helpless; rich meats, paternallybenevolent, and even poetical. It was only in business that hechastised, with a large and incorruptible immorality.
I learned the jargon more readily than I did the practice of myabominable trade. My first ascent of a chimney was a hideousexperience—an ascent into hell, reversing all geographical orthodoxy.But my particular devil was a Moloch, who would either be served byexaltation or vindicate his majesty in smoke and fire. He wasdiplomatic to put me through my first paces, so to speak, in adismantled vicarage that was in preparation for a new tenant. Hesimply thrust an iron scraper into my hand, and, with the briefestdirections, drove me up. I was refractory, of course; and at that,without wordy persuasion, he lit a brand of tow and applied it to mybare ankles. The pain made me scream and writhe, as he hadphilosophically counted upon its doing. Involuntarily I found myselfascending the flue, as an awn of barley travels up inside one’ssleeve. The very ease of it made me rebel, and I stopped. Immediatelythe brand below, flaring at the end of a stick, was lifted to spur me.Frenzied and sobbing, I felt its hot rowel, and struggled on. Thesoot, with which the chimney was choked, began to fall upon me, halfstifling, and filling my pockets. Then self-preservation, the greatmother, recalled to me my directions. I looked up, and saw a far eyeof light denoting freedom, and I began desperately to scrape clear mypassage towards it, letting always the black raff descend between myknees before I rose to take its place. The eye enlarged, and with itgrew the dawn of a strange new enthusiasm. I rose to it, like a fishto the angle, as my master had calculated I should. These fiends baittheir hooks with heaven.
Suddenly, the last feet were conquered, and I emerged, and saw belowme a beautiful village prospect of trees and homesteads.
Did I then sit there and weep? On the contrary, I was radiant. Accountfor it, thou fripon, as thou wilt. Thou knowest, Better the devil toapplaud us than none at all. I swear to thee that, for the moment, Icoveted nothing but my master’s admiring praise. Breathless as I was,I bent and uttered down the chimney the shrill cry “All up!” as he hadbidden me. A little strained laugh came back, and, with an oath ofdistant approval, a command to descend. But at that, oddly enough, thehorror came. I could not stomach the evil pit, with its reeling returninto a night from which I had mounted to heaven. My knees trembledbeneath me. I sat crying and shivering, while my master stormed thingusty blasphemy up the flue. At length I remembered my duck-stone. Itwas in my trousers pocket, safe in its silver case, which, havingdropped in the cart, I had found again to my delight lyingundiscovered amongst the soot bags. I took it out, let myself downgingerly to the arm-pits, clutched it tightly in my hand, and sniffed,but not vigorously. I awoke to find myself sitting on the hearth, andsmiling foolishly into the frightened face of my master. He recoveredhimself at the moment I did, and was the implacable martinet again andat once.
“Why, you cust little back-slummer!” he said, “to let loose and thinkto take a chalk of me like that! I’ll larn your nerves!”
And he pulled me to my feet, with his hand raised, but thought betterof it, and gave me another chance. Chimney after chimney I must mount,till, fagged and heart-broken, I stood rebellious against hisextremest persuasion, and he was obliged, with at least a few healingwords of commendation, to postpone the finish of his job.
So began this terror of my new life, and so fortunately ended within aperiod that was not stretched beyond my endurance.
In this phase of it, after the first, there were no compensations, butonly degrees of misery. If my master had ever thought to make capitalout of my restoration, he soon abandoned the idea as impracticable,and devoted all his persuasion to turning me, after the inhumanmethods of his class, to his best profit. Once I stuck tight in one ofthose clogged “draw-in bends” which had been fatal to my predecessor.I could move no way, and in my struggles, a little crossed stay ofiron, fixed in the chimney, so pressed upon my breast as almost tostop my heart. I was in a dreadful condition of terror and suffering,and in the midst he lit some damp straw on the hearth to smoke medown. The fumes took away my senses, and so, perhaps flattening theresistance of my lungs, released me. But I was in a sort of consciousdelirium for days afterwards. Sometimes, where he had got the worst ofa housewife’s bargaining, he would shout to me, working two-thirds up,“Pike the lew, boy!” which, in sweep’s jargon, meant, Leave the jobunfinished, to spite the old slut! And then I would descend at once.Sometimes, where a cluster of flues ran into one shaft, I would comedown into the wrong room, causing consternation amongst its inmates.But, through all, the idea of escape was very early a dead passion inme, so utterly in soot and sexlessness was I lost to any sense ofself-identity.
So, always homeless, always enslaved, always wandering, I was one day,some nine months after my abduction, come with my master into theneighbourhood of Streatham, which is a little rural suburb of London,reclaimed, with other contiguous hamlets, from the thick woods andgipsy-haunted commons of that part of the country. For some days pastwe had moved, unhurriedly as was our wont, through an atmospherecharged with a curious nervous excitement. Housewives, avoidingcontact with us, as with possibly compromising emissaries of ill-omen,had vanished into their cottages as we came near; tavern cronies,grouped at tap-doors, were to be seen looking citywards, until dark,tramping up the long white roads, drove them within with unreasonablefrights of shapeless things approaching. Then, sure enough, the nighthorizon grew patched with flaring cressets, and we learned that Londonwas in the hands of a No-Popery mob.
Its area of destruction spreading like an unchecked ink-blot, and wemoving to meet it, brought us presently involved in the fringe of thedisorder. Protestant Dulwich had sent its contingent to help petitionParliament against the legalising of the poor harried Catholics, andhad got its warrant, as it chose to consider, for an anti-Romishcrusade. And for that, whether right or wrong, I, at least, owe itgratitude.
We were rolling one afternoon along a certain Knight’s Hill or roadwhich skirted a stretch of common, when we came upon a great inn,called The Horns, where was a considerable concourse of peopleassembled, all in blue cockades, and buzzing like a hive about toswarm. The word most in the mouths of this draff was Pope, which atfirst we took to mean the Vicar of Rome, but soon understood for thename of a young Jesuit who was lately come as chaplain to a Catholicfamily of the neighbourhood. Now, such insolent defiance of the penallaws was not to be tolerated, and so the loyal Protestant burghers ofDulwich were going, with no disrespect to the family, to cast down itsgraven images, and hang up its chaplain for a scarecrow to allpropagandists who should venture out of the Holy See into our tightlittle island. And here they were gathered to organise themselves, theprocess taking good account of malt liquors; and hence, when theymoved off, we, to cut the story short, accompanied them walking,foreseeing some prospect of “swag” in the crusade.
Going in a pretty compact body, with a great deal of howling andhymning, such as that with which all conscripts, either of the crossor guillotine, are accustomed to stimulate one another’s courage andvanity, we crossed a Croksted Lane, and again a sweep of wild heath,that spread towards the dense forests called Northwood, which fill allthat shallow valley from Sydenham Wells on the north to Penge Commonon the south. And presently coming to the trees, and entering a wide,elegant clearing amidst them, where the woods were banked behind, andthe ground dropped towards us in terraces, on the highest we saw thehouse standing, a great sunny block of brick and stone, but shutterednow, and apparently lifeless.
The mob at first knocked on the door with a diffidence inspired of itsvarnished and portly exclusiveness; but, provoking no response,presently grew bolder and more clamorous. Still, I believe, itsfervour would ultimately have wasted itself on this inflexiblebarrier, had not my master, with some disgusted expressions ofcontempt, come to the front and taunted it on to a violence the morevicious because it was shamefaced. Under his stimulus, then, thepanels were beginning to crack, when in a moment the bolts flew, andthere stood in the opening a little sinister fellow in grey, who askedus, curt and ironic, our business.
All but my master fell back before him, though there were some brokencries touching the Scarlet Woman, which the sweep took up.
The little man wrinkled his little acrid nose. He was nobody, itturned out, but the Scotch steward, holding staunch to his post; buthe was cut and coloured like steel.
“D’ye ask here for your doxy?” he said. “Go back, man, and look whereyou left her in the tavern.”
The sweep, only half understanding, spat out a mouthful of oaths.
“We want that there Pope!” he roared. “Bring us to the black devil,you.”
“After you, sir,” answered the other politely.
My master, looking horribly ugly, repeated his demand.
“Well,” said the steward, “this is fair humours, Newcastle asking forcoals!”
The words were hardly out of him, when my master smote him down, andpushed into the house. He gave a little quiver, like unstrung wire,and lay senseless, the red running from his nostrils.
Mon chéri, hast thou ever seen a pack of mongrels snarl aloof,fearful and agitated, about a dog-fight, and in a moment break in withcoward teeth upon the conquered? So over the body of the stewardtrampled this rabble, blooded now at another’s expense, and recklessin its consciousness of self-irresponsibility. They had found achampion to take the onus of this, and all worse that might happen,off their shoulders.
But they were destined to discover no further chestnuts for theircatspaw. The Jesuit had fled, it appeared, with the rest of thefamily; and so they must content themselves with wrecking the privatechapel, where the household was wont to practise its treasonablerites.
Now, my master, who was eager after spoil, sweating and toiling in thethick of the press, left me unguardedly to my own devices; andsuddenly I found myself quite alone in a closet hung with vestments,where there was a fireplace with an open bricked hearth, having nosigns of usage, which immediately, from habit, caught my attention.And straight, at last, God, pitiful to His poor little derelict,touched the cross on my breast, and quickened inspiration in thatwhere I had supposed all was dead. I slid into the chimney, and wentup, up, like an eel in a well rising for air. The sounds ofdestruction grew attenuated beneath me; I smelt life and freedom, andswarmed faster in my agony to attain them. The chimney, clean as atits building, let down no token of my passage by it, and in a fewmoments I emerged from the summit, and, tumbling into the cleft of along double roof—found myself face to face with a man who was therebefore me.
I FALL INTO THE HANDS OF A COLLECTOR
At least I call him a man; but O, my Alcide, he was a marionnette!His joints creaked. All the bran in his body seemed to have beenshaken down into his calves. His hat supported itself on his ears andthe top of his coat collar. His sleeves were sacks. His nose wasnothing but a wen, and being no better adapted to the burden of someenormous spectacles he wore, had led his fingers to an incessant trickof adjusting those in their place. He carried under his arm an immensefolio, with which, as I appeared, he aimed an agitated blow at me,only to miss and fall forward on his face on the roof.
I instantly dodged past him, and stood panting while he collectedhimself. His glasses, without which he was helpless, had flown off,and I saw his eyes, which before had seemed to fill the whole field ofthe great lenses, mere swollen slits, like a pig’s. He groped about inthe utmost consternation as he knelt, pawing the tiles for his lostproperty.
“Who are you? Wait! I’ll be with you,” he ejaculated excitedly, as hisbony hands swept the roof.
I backed out of their reach without replying.
At last he found what he sought, and fitting the rims to his nose,rose to his feet and stared at me.
“Hey, what!” he said—“a sweep! Well!”—and blew out a rumbling grunt,which he checked suddenly, as if he had turned a cock on it.
A moment after, he put his hand into his pocket, and fetching out adirty fragment of biscuit, held it to me persuasively, as one mightlure a colt. Seeing, however, that I still held away from him, hethrew the biscuit down in a pet, and stood to canvass me in a balefulmanner.
“What do you want?” he snapped out suddenly. “How did you find yourway here?”
Still with my eyes on him, I answered, in a husky whisper—
“Don’t you know? Up the closet chimney.”
“Ay,” he said, dropping his own voice in tacit response to the warningin mine, “but not to sweep it?”
“No,” I said; “to escape by it.”
His hand went up to his glasses. He glared at me through theirrestored focus.
Watchful of him, lest, before I could explain, he should silence meprovisionally with some stunning blow, I ventured to approach him alittle nearer.
“There’s killing,” I whispered, “going on down there—a poor old manin a grey coat.”
He started violently, and pulling his jaw down, uttered a sort ofmechanical crow, and let it go again.
“Grey!” he muttered. “It’s the steward, then. He didn’t give meaway, did he?”
I shook my head dumbly. He was readjusting his glasses to meet theanswer.
“Ay,” he gulped, swallowing with relief, “poor Mackenzie! And to thinkthat for all his loyalty he must burn!”
I whispered, “Why must he?”
“Because,” he said, “he wasn’t of the faith.”
This uncouth creature was getting horrible to me. I suppose he read myrepulsion in my face, for his own suddenly grew agitated and menacing.
“Are you thinking of betraying me?” he said.
I retreated before him, working my foolish young arms.
“Keep away!” I cried; “I don’t even know who you are.”
“O!” he said, and stopped, and was at his spectacles again. Thensuddenly he held up his hand.
“Hark!” he said.
I listened. Far and faint below, through the hubbub of destructioncame wafted at intervals the name of the chaplain—Pope—the cynosureof all this iconoclastic zeal.
“Yes, it’s you they want,” I said.
“And you,” he retorted fiercely, “are pointing the way, you little”—
“It’s a lie!” I cried vehemently. “I came up here to escape from them,like you.”
He looked at me doubtfully.
“You said you didn’t know who I was.”
“No more I did,” I protested, “till you told me.”
“I told you!” he cried. “Humph!” And he glared at me sourly. “Sitdown, then,” he said, “and hold your tongue till I speak to youagain.”
It was the wise policy, certainly. He squatted himself between me andthe chimney, and we dwelt in silence, while the mob wreaked its blindvengeance below. I was in a dreadful fright all the time. Every momentI expected to hear my master’s voice boom up the flue by way of whichI had climbed; and, desperate as I was, I devised the naughtyexpedient to curry favour, if necessary, by claiming the credit ofhaving run this fugitive to bay. It was a base thought, perhaps,though natural under the stress of the occasion. Chiefly, however, Iregret it because it was uncalled for, and it is aggravating to burdenone’s conscience with unprofitable frailties. The monster I had runfrom was never, in point of fact, to cross my path again. Probably,thinking I had fled from the house, he went hunting counter, and soput ever a wider interval between us.
It was not, after all, so very long before the racket of despoliationdown below died away, and we heard the mob clatter from the house, andgo streaming and singing across the common in its retreat. I believethat, either realising how in my master it had evoked a demon to itsown legal discomfiture, or perhaps frightened by the bugbear of somereported troop of militia assembling in the neighbourhood, it wassuddenly decided to temper Protestantism with prudence, and sodissipating itself with great speed and piety, left the building to asolitude more dense by contrast than before.
It was not, however, until every whisper and echo had long ceased thatI durst let myself be persuaded of the reality of my reprieve; andwhen at last I did, the joy that grew minutely in my heart came nearto upsetting my reason.
My excitement hungered for something on which to flesh itself. I roseand went up and down, quickly and softly, in the space left me,seeking the means to some larger action. Then I saw the great foliolying discarded on the roof where the chaplain had dropped it, and allof a sudden felt itching to know what it could contain to tempt thisman to burden himself with its care in so anxious a situation.
He sat with his face in his hands—or cuffs, rather. He appeared to bein a sort of uncouth trance. I stole very noiseless by him, and,unobserved as I supposed, had actually lifted the book, when hestarted awake in a moment.
“Hey!” he cried. “That’s mine!”
“I was going to bring it to you,” I said.
He scuttled towards me on his hands and toes, and snatching the bookfrom me, squatted down, hugging it, and glaring at me in a sort ofdumb malevolence.
I had no retort for such rudeness. I stood crimsoning under my black amoment, then, in default of a better answer, began to cry.
He was not the least moved, the ill-conditioned boor, but he wasdisturbed by the noise.
“Ur-rh!” he bullied. “That’ll do. Do you hear?”
Indignation gave me decision. I turned my back on him.
“Where are you going?” he cried.
I stalked on without a word.
“No, you don’t!” he said, scrambling up; and he followed and caughthold of my jacket.
“Let me go!” I cried, struggling. “My master will be looking for me.”
“O!” he said, quite suddenly agitated. “Come here and I’ll show you apicture.”
I let myself be drawn reluctant.
“Is it of the Scarlet Woman?” I said.
He started, and roared, “The Scarlet—!” then, conscious of hismistake, dropped his voice to a panic whisper.
“There’s no such moth,” said he. “If you mean heraclia dominula, thescarlet tiger, come and I’ll show you one.”
He persuaded me to sit by him on the roof slope, and gingerly openedthe book away from me.
“Don’t touch,” he said. “It’s called Fasti Sanctorum NaturæCultoribus Proprii.”
“Is that Latin?” I asked.
“Yes,” he growled; but he looked at me rather curiously. “It means TheNaturalist’s Calendar of the Saints. How did you know?”
“O, I know,” I said.
He turned some leaves, while scanning me covertly and sourly; and Iexclaimed becomingly over their contents. On each was a picture of asaint, hastily illuminated, and of many insects most beautifullycoloured after nature. The saints, it is true, were pigmies, and themoths life size; but it was through the former that this uncivilisedChurchman justified himself in a secular hobby. He was, as I came tolearn presently, a crazy collector of the small game of fields andhedges, and had only drifted into the Church after a particularly finespecimen of the Painted Lady, or some such immoral creature.
I tried to appreciate in order to conciliate him; but I could see thatmy flattery was not expert, or perhaps fulsome enough for his taste.Presently, on the score that my mere neighbourhood threatened thelustre of his illuminations, he shut the book, and placed itdiscontentedly by his side.
“Did you do it all by yourself?” I asked.
“Ay,” he grunted.
“And why did you bring it up here, when”—
He smacked his great hand on his knee, interrupting me—
“If you haven’t the intelligence to see—sooner part with my blood tothose Vandals! There; let the book alone, and tell me what brought youhere.”
“I’ve said already—I was escaping from my master.”
“A master sweep?”
“Now,” he said, “how did you know this was Latin?”
I hung my head.
“Come,” he threatened, “you’d best tell me.”
I was considering what I should do. I reddened excited under my mask,and rose to my feet again. After all these months of obliteration, awonderful thought was beginning to dawn in me—the thought of my sexas a possible factor in my redemption. For how long, my dear friend,had I not lost the art to play it for the value of so much as asugar-plum? And what was there now to prevent me from reassuming thatcharming confidence in men which so disarms them? Alas! it was a vainrecovery here—a waste of art on a material no more responsive to itthan a pulpit hassock.
“How did you know?” he repeated angrily.
“Because,” I whispered, blushing, and lingering over the sensation Ifelt I was about to produce—“because—Father—I am a little daughterof the Church.”
He had been gnawing his knuckles, as he bent his morose brows on me;and at my words stopped suddenly, his great teeth bared, like a doglooking up from a bone.
“I am the child of a great gentleman. I was stolen from my parents,” Isaid, and clasped my hands to him. “I am not a boy at all, but agirl.”
He leapt up as if I had struck him.
“How dare you!” he shouted; then, choking, in another hoarse reactionto panic, “How dare you try to impose upon me!”
“I’m not!” I cried, in a childish fury of chagrin over hisinsensibility. “It’s true, every word. My mother was a Sister of lesMadelonnettes, and I was stolen from her, and I want to be sent back.”
I did not in truth, save in so far as that way only lay my chance ofrestoration to my darling father. But the point was inessential.
The priest’s eyes, dilated monstrosities, devoured me through theirlenses.
“Les Madelonnettes—the Magdalens!” he muttered, amazed and frowning.His hand, caressing his chin, grated on the stubble of it. “Come,” hesaid brutally, “I’m an old bird to be caught by chaff. Confess to me,if you’re a Catholic, you wretched little sinner.”
I wanted nothing better. This sacrament of penance must convince andwin him. In a moment my young elastic soul had leapt the darkinterlude which divided me from my past, and my little feet weretripping once more in fancy down the royal prince’s table. I fell onmy knees.
“Say your Confiteor,” he commanded harshly.
I repeated it without a mistake.
“Humph!” said he. “What are you waiting for?”
I told him my whole story. He listened to it, after the first,abstractedly, with one eye caressing his abominable book. At the endhe gave me absolution, canvassing me distastefully as he pondered thepenance. Presently he spoke.
“I order you,” he said, “twenty Ave Marias, and to return to yourmaster.”
I jumped to my feet.
“My master—the sweep!” I cried.
“Certainly,” he replied stubbornly. “You were obviously the foundlingof Providence, which has elected this honest tradesman to be yourfoster-father.”
“But, my mother?” I choked.
“It is her judgment,” he said, “to remain and mingle her weeping withthe ashes of this sacrifice, in the hospital of which her crimes havemade her an inmate.”
He had listened with his elbows, as I supposed. I recognised thehopelessness of my task.
“Very well,” I said. “I daresay he has finished with the steward bynow. I will go and tell him what you say”—and I made for the chimney.
He was after me in a moment, at a gallop.
“Stop!” he cried. “What do you mean? That your master was one of thisrabble?”
“One? The worst of them all,” I answered. “It was he knocked down thepoor grey gentleman; and the last I heard of him was crying for you.”
He released me, to throw up his hands.
“The intolerance of these heretics!” he cried. “Stop! Don’t go. Iwithdraw my pronouncement. You shall name your own penance.”
I breathed quickly, standing before him.
“Father, that is soon done. I will go with you.”
“With me—with me?” he complained, stamping distracted. “Where to?”
“Anywhere from here,” I pleaded. “You can’t stop. The whole country’sup, and a second time, if they come, you’ll be caught.”
Snorting with agitation, he took off his spectacles to wipe them.
“It’s quite impossible,” he said. “I know of only one asylum beyond,and that”—
With a quick little snatch I ravished the glasses from his hand, and,running away with them, hid behind a chimney. For a minute or two heraved round, stumbling, and grabbing at the air, and finally trippedover his book and subsided, quite prostrate, upon the roof.
“Little sweep!” he panted, in a trembling voice. “My daughter—childof Magdalen—where are you?”
I held my breath; and he went on, in broken sentences—
“Come back—give me my glasses—where are you?—I believe all yousay—What! will you give me up, and the Calendar unfinished?”
Then, as I still did not answer, “Holy saints! The little devil hashobbled me, and I shall be caught and martyred.”—A longishpause—“In manus tuas, Domine, com— I wonder if in Paradise—thescarce copper—h’m!”
He began to gnaw his knuckles, with a sort of pleased abstraction overthe thought. It would never do. I came out of my hiding.
“Will you take me with you?” I repeated.
“O, it’s you?” he cried, with a start. “Where are my glasses?”
“In my hand.”
“Will you return them to me?”
“Will you let me go with you?”
“I will carry the book.”
“I will walk behind.”
“If anything happens to me, then”—
“Fah!” he interposed; and then added, “What could happen to you?”
“Do you suppose I shall stay in these clothes?” I said. “I shallreturn to be a girl; and what am I to do then, without someone toprotect and help me back to my parents?”
“That’s nothing to me,” he said.
“Good-bye,” said I.
He scrambled to his feet with a roar: “Give me back my glasses!”
I stood quite still, making no sound. He thought I had really gonethis time, and began taking little strides hither and thither, andthrowing his arms about. Suddenly he stopped, sweating with agitation.
“Are you there?” he said.
I did not answer. He hopped from leg to leg, pulling with one hand atthe other, as if at a tight glove.
“Child!” he cried, “you’re a good child—a perfect little sweep. Youshall come—do you hear?—if we ever get off this roof. We’ll escapeby the woods—nobody will see us there together—and I can catch somearguses (lasiommata ægeria) that will be in season.”
I AM CARRIED AWAY AS A SPECIMEN
The very rudeness of the creature nominated by Fate to be my wardengave me a feeling of confidence. Here was a shepherd’s dog ugly enoughto frighten away the wolf himself, should he cross us in the shape ofmy master. I thrilled to have secured his promise, which, for all hisboorishness, and perhaps because of it, I had faith in. The dark pitwas already half bridged in my foolish young imagination, and Idreamed of alighting on the farther side—to what? Not, indeed, to theold melancholy life of the cottage near the Steine. For all my sadexperience, I never entertained that prospect for one moment. I wasbut now in my eleventh year, yet some instinct informed me that thedead—amongst whom, surely, I must be written—should not return ifthey would avoid the mortification of home truths; that broken threadscannot be made one again, and leave no scar. Perhaps the spirit ofvagabondage even had entered a little into my blood. In any case, itwas the breezy security of my father’s, not my mother’s, protection towhich I hurried in thought, with this reverent cur for escort.
As for him, accounting for his presence on the roof, he growled out tome once after this, in order to still my inquisitive importunity,while I still held the spectacles in pledge, that he had indeed takenthe alarm that morning, with the rest of the family to whom he wasspiritual director; but that, remembering his book left behind, he hadinsisted upon quitting the general flight and returning for it—withwhat awkward results for the steward had appeared, though, as a fact,I believe the poor man recovered later. Now, I was to understand, hehad the intention, if he could make good his escape, to seek asylum,while the storm blew over, with a lady, a co-religionist andconnection of his patrons, who lived distant a two days’ journey onfoot. And so, having grudgingly informed me, he subsided into hisunsavoury self, and would speak no more.
I did not much care, once being put in possession of the facts and thechances they afforded me. No one, it was evident, guessed at ourretreat; and, for the rest, I was content to bide my time, and theopportunity I foresaw of impressing even this dull animal with arevelation of the pretty romance he had undertaken to squire.
Evening fell, and we were still sitting there. Not a footstep soundedin the house beneath us; not a voice but the birds’ came from thegarden. Presently, emboldened by the quiet, I went softly climbing andinvestigating, finding the trap-door by way of which the chaplain hadascended, and peeping between the gables and over the roof ridges. Sofar as I could see, nothing human was stirring in all the placiddemesne. The sundial on the lawn, the arbour in the corner, the brookembroidering the low trees, like a ribbon run through lace, werethings inanimate in a painted picture. But there was something intheir voiceless watchfulness that made me long to open the door, as itwere, and run into the air. I was not born, like my mother, forcloisteral seclusions.
I was passing my companion once soft-footed, when he startled me bydemanding, suddenly and savagely, “What’s your name?”
“Diana, please,” I answered, in a flutter.
“Diana—Please!” he protested crossly. “Fah! Diana Please don’tplease”—and he subsided into himself again.
But he had christened me. I had gone lacking nothing but a name of myown hitherto and here was one given me, apt and pat. From that momentI became Diana Please.
The very sense of its possession made me forward.
“Aren’t we safe now?” I said, “or are you going to stop here allnight?”
He looked up at me hurriedly, and, scowling, motioned me away fromhim. Then, without a word, he snatched his book, rose, and striding tothe trap-door, began to descend. I followed him closely. The way ledby a flight of steps in the walls to a cupboard under the main stairswhere they rose from the hall. We emerged from darkness into a wideechoing twilight. For the first time the thought of my master secretedsomewhere, watchful and waiting for me, sent my spirits reeling. Islunk against the wall.
“Where was it?” demanded my companion brusquely.
I stared at him. He stamped his foot, so that the noise resoundedhorribly through the empty house.
“The steward!” he cried. “Where did they leave him?”
“By the door,” I whispered, trembling—“out there.”
It was still ajar. He hurried to it, looked out, went out, returnedafter a minute or two, and slammed the oak thunderously.
“There are trails of blood down the steps. He has been removed, or hasremoved himself,” he said, and began immediately to ascend the stairs.
“O, where are you going?” I cried fearfully.
“To bed,” he snapped.
I clung to his coat-tails. There was a sort of nightmare strugglebetween us, up as far as the first landing. There he rent himselfaway, and, leaving me sprawling, banged and locked himself into aroom. I crouched on the mat outside, sobbing and imploring. “What am Ito do? Where am I to go?”
He answered not a word to my pleading. Presently I heard him snoring,and—would you believe it?—the gross carnival of sound was heavenlymusic in my ears. In all that vast loneliness it was my only humanstay and comfort. O, my Alcide! To think of thy Diane owing her reasonto the grunting of a hog.
It was a terrible night. I dared not move—scarcely breathe. But fearand exhaustion at last overcame me, and I slept.
I awoke to sweet, soundless daylight. The look and smell of sunshinerestored me in a moment to myself. I had not been disturbed. The housewas utterly abandoned. I arose, resolved at once to put into effectthe plan I had formed. A little memory of something I had noticedyesterday was urging me. I fled softly upstairs. Signs of the raid metme at every turn: broken crucifixes, torn vestments, scatteredHosts—up and down they lay, trodden into dirty rubbish by theswarming footsteps. There had been, I believe, no secular looting,unless, as was probable, by my master, who would be sure, on thataccount, to have withdrawn himself remote from consequences. I hadnothing to fear from him. I looked for a room where I had seen somechildren’s clothes scattered, and finding it still undisturbed,quickly selected from among the litter the simplest outfit I couldadapt in mind to my figure.
A common watch lay ticking on a table. I examined it—scarce fiveo’clock—lingered, hesitated, and left it where it was. I had not yetcome to thieve, even had it been less bulky for my juvenile fob.Hastily I snatched soap and towels from a washing-stand, and holdingthe clothes so as not to soil them against my own, stole out. Therewas not water enough in all the house for my cleansing. My spiritrushed to the little river I had seen gleaming under the trees.
At the back of the hall I found a low window, unlatched it, anddropped into the garden. A light fog was spread abroad, which,dripping from the trees, alarmed me with a thought of unseen thingsmoving near. But presently a bird piped close above my head, with anote of reassurance, and I slipped on and made my way stealthilytowards the river until I heard it gurgling; and in a moment later Icame upon it.
There, with only the wild things in the grass to scare my modesty, Imade my bath. The ecstasy of it, as all that foul husk slipped off,and was carried from me down the stream! The joy to recover mynear-forgotten self, the thing of pink and pearl, from its longmourning! The wonder, and the strangeness of that reincarnation to amaturer estate! I was not, like the Sleeping Beauty, to renew my old,but to awake to a newer self—a different from the Diana from whom Ihad departed nine months before. It seemed incredible; and still whenI was washed as white as a lamb, I must sluice, and relather, andsluice again, to convince myself that no stain of my horrible liveryremained. Then, at last, I came out, and dried and dressed myselfhurriedly; and so, being secure, sat awhile on the bank to let my hairsun. It had never been but roughly clipped since that first cruelshearing, and now was down to my collar, thick and golden. I could seeit in the water glass, when I bent over, reflected like a dim glory,and I nodded and laughed to the picture in my delight, and was onlysorry presently to bind it about gipsy fashion with the silkhandkerchief I had brought down with me for the purpose. But time wasmoving, and so must I be. I rose, and returned to the house.
I heard a shuffling on the stairs as I re-entered by the window, andin a moment, tripping lightly, came upon Father Pope descending. Hehad his great book under his arm, and he tiptoed with a sort of scaredeffort to hush the creaking of his tell-tale shoes. He gave a guiltystart on seeing me standing smiling before him, and stumbled andcaught himself erect by the banisters, frowning at me.
I did not speak. I stood dumbly to let him canvass the transformation;but the creature had no nerve of sentiment in all his dull anatomy.
“What do you want?” he said; “who are you?”
I could see he only fenced with the truth to recover himself. Idropped him a pretty little curtsey.
“Diana, please,” I said.
I was in trepidation that he would deny me, as I was convinced he haddesigned to give me the slip; and, though for policy’s sake I mustpropitiate him, I hated the creature for his treachery. But, despitehis being a Jesuit, he was too crude a wit for the double part.
“Humph!” he growled. “I was wondering what had become of you,”—which,no doubt, was true enough.
He glowered at me dislikingly; then bidding me wait for him, stalkedoff into the gloom of passages, from which he presently re-emergedwith a bagful of bread and biscuit ends which he had collected.
“I have no money,” he said. “You must manage with your share of theseor nothing. If you look for better, it must be out of my company.”
“What does for you, will do for me, Father,” I said meekly; butnothing would disarm his churlishness.
“That’s a matter of opinion,” said he. “I could do very well withoutyou, to begin with.”
I dropped my eyes.
“Now, then, bestir yourself,” he bullied. “If you’re to come at all,come before the world’s awake.”
He strode off, and I followed, through shuttered glooms, and alongsilent corridors to a distant part of the building, emerging from adoor in which we found ourselves in a close shrubbery-walk going uptowards woods. Very soon the comforting screen of trees was about us,and the peril of watchful enemies surpassed. We pushed on without restor pause. My spirit and my feet danced together. It was all so freeand fragrant, and the rapture of my new emancipation was like a secondsight. Fays and sweet things seemed to melt before me round greencorners, or overhead among the branches, leaving a scent of theunknown world in their footsteps. I sang low, I laughed to the birds,I seemed incapable of weariness. And, indeed, my late training servedme in good stead, for this clerical Caliban had no mercy on my tenderlimbs. He desired only the least excuse to shake me off, and I wouldnot gratify him with one.
All day he led me south by wood and common, avoiding the living placeswhere men were like to be alert on the new Crusade. We hardlyexchanged a word, as he swung on with the gait of a camel; but in theend it was he who succumbed first. The weight of his great foliocrushed him—that is the truth. He called a halt in an unfrequentedcopse, and flung himself exhausted on the grass.
“Go, find yourself a lodging,” he said. “I will sleep here.”
I did not dare cross him. I crept away; but only so far as a low thorntree, mounting into which I could easily hold him in view. But I neednot have feared. The poor wretch was sunk in fatigue, and incapable offurther effort. He had an odious night, I am sure, while I, from mylate habits, slept as securely as in an arm-chair.
Early next morning we were afoot again. My companion, mouldy-cheekedand limping, greeted me with a scowl.
“What have I not suffered of humiliation as a priest,” he said, “tohave thee breathing in the same wood!”
The world must have been an insufficient dormitory to this misogynist.
At noon, having wandered for hours through forest so green, soprofound, that its deer-haunted vistas seemed the very byways to theinfinite, we came out suddenly, when half faint with toil and hunger,upon the foot of a low hill, on whose summit was a queer octagonalstone tower, crowned with a dome like a pepper-box. My companionsputtered anathema upon seeing it, and stood stock still.
“What is it, Father?” I whispered, creeping up to him.
“We’ve overshot the mark, that’s all,” he growled, conceding a pointto civility. “Here’s Shole beyond; and I aimed at no farther thanWellcot-Herring. Well, we must go over as the shortest way,” and hebegan to mount the slope.
I followed him, emboldened to ask, “What’s this we’re coming to?”
“Rupert’s Folly,” he answered viciously. “Old Lousy’s spy-house.”
“What’s he?” I asked.
He gave a rude laugh.
“He’s an itch on the skin of my lord that he can’t scratch away;” and,with these coarse, enigmatic words, he motioned me to fall behind.
The tower sprouted clean from the grass. Reaching and skirting it, Ihad occasion barely to notice a figure seated under a low door againstits farther angle, before the liveliest prospect below engaged all myattention. The hill went down on this side into a wide valley, in themidst of whose trees and pastures, dominating a tiny village withforge and tavern, stood a great old house of grey stone. On the greenbefore, as we could see, was a merry-making: sports, and dancing, andlong tables spread, and a vast broaching of casks. And the villagersin their ribbons were all there, so that my eyes and my heart dancedto see them.
But my companion stood looking down with a most venomous expression.
“Fah! A nest of heretics!” he muttered. “What golden calf are they metto worship?”
“The red herring’s spawn, good sir,” said the voice of the creaturebehind us. I turned and stared at him for the first time. He satsucking at a long pipe at the open door of the tower—the filthiestlittle scrub you could imagine. His face was like old crumpledparchment, his crafty eyes floated in rheum, and he scratched a dustytag of beard down upon his breast as he leered at us.
“What! Lousy John,” said the priest. “Is it our heir of all theHerrings come of age?”
“Ay,” said the old wretch. “Nephew Salted. You know him? Ay, ay. Youshould be the man Pope, of course, by your rudeness? Go down to yourwhore of Babylon, sir. She mingles with yonder company.”
“You’d have me into the range of your burning-glass, hey?” said thepriest, with a snort between laughter and contempt.
The other smoked on unperturbed.
“All in good time, priest,” he said. “I’m not for anticipatin’ thedevil. Is that his scriptures you’re a-carryin’ to propagate?”
My companion uttered a furious exclamation, and, hugging his book,shuffled out of range. Most like a woman, he could not bear to havehis spiteful humour returned upon him.
I understood nothing of all this, of course, and was standingbewildered, when the old obscenity beckoned me.
“See,” he said, taking his pipe from his mouth and pointing with thescarlet tongue of it: “a beautiful landscape, ain’t it?”
“Yes,” I faltered.
“Ah!” said he. “I’ll tell you—just you, mind. I don’t take a-manyinto my confidence. It’s the beauty of pain, child; a localinflammation in the system.”
I murmured something, and he chuckled.
“They call this tower ‘Rupert’s Folly,’” he said privately; “and Ilaugh, settin’ up here in my shell. D’ye think they’d laugh too, ifthey guessed where the smut came from that blasted of their crops?”
“From you?” I whispered.
He bent over, and pointed upwards. For the first time I noticed thatthe muzzle of a telescope projected from the little dome on the roof.While I was gazing, I suddenly felt my wrist in the clutch of hisapish claw.
“Hush!” he said. “It’s there I gathers my star-powder, and dischargesit where I will. I’m Briareus, the last of the Uranids, left behind torack the world to all eternity for its presumption.”
He let me go, squinting and nodding at me. I backed from him inhorror. Nothing was plain to me but that here was one of thoseastrologic demons who delight to bring heaven close that they maymeasure our remoteness from it, and to cast away poor souls amidst theeternal silences. That he seemed to rave was nothing. Such inhumanityis in itself a madness.
“Ay,” he chuckled, hugging himself in a secret way, “you didn’t expectthat, did you? You must be a god to lust in pain. Why, lord, child!the earth would be drab all over but for its galls and breakings. Seewhere I’ve set a withered crop among the green; see where I’ve teasedthe soil to scarlet—a blazing core of fever. I know the World, thewanton. So long as she can cover her cancer with a ribbon, she’llsmile. By and by I shall set a spark to the west, and burn up theday’s rubbish. Look when the sun drops, and you’ll see it a littlepoint of white, and afterwards a bonfire.”
I backed still farther.
“Lord!” he cried, doubling with laughter, “what headaches I’veprojected into their beer-barrels down there! What poison laid on thelasses’ lips! I shall have some fine incense of sufferin’ risin’ to meto-morrow! What, you’re goin’, are you? Down into the fire, hey? Apretty little faggot to mend its blazin’!” And he kneaded his handsrapturously between his knees.
I saw the priest had disappeared over the crest, and, half crying,pursued him. He turned on me angrily as I came up.
“Now,” said he, adjusting his spectacles to glare through them, “ifthat old carrion speaks truth, I come to an end with you.” He grippedmy shoulder. “Hold your tongue, d’you hear? Not a word of us till wefind out how the land lies.”
He dropped his hold, on a sudden thought, to my elbow, and, with amuttered menace, marched me down the hill.
At the bottom, in a little lane, with hedges to screen it from theview beyond, we came unexpectedly upon a lady gathering wild flowers.She started violently upon observing my companion, and dropped hernosegay. He accosted her, with a manner of gruff civility, and here itwas somehow that, as they broke into talk of an urgent nature, we gotseparated.
I AM “PINNED OUT”
The festivities were to celebrate the majority of the ViscountSalted, only son to Hardrough, fourth Earl of Herring, Baron Rowe ofShole and Wellcot-Herring, Warden of the Cinque Ports, and officialVerderer of the Forest of Down. The Lady Sophia Rowe, aunt to theyoung gentleman, had driven over from Wellcot—her estate in tailfemale, and distant from Shole by road seven miles—to lend hersaintly countenance to the gathering, and it was she whom Father Pope,steering his course erroneously for Shole instead of Wellcot-Herring,had fortuitously encountered culling wild flowers in her brother’slordlier demesne.
The Lady Sophia was, unlike her orthodox kinsman, a convert to theCatholic from the Established Church, and within her limits, andbecause of them, a zealous fanatic. In her one saw acutelydemonstrated the denaturalising power of creed. Gentle as a dove bytemperament, there was no crime but self-destruction which she wouldnot have gloried in to justify hers. She would have thought the worldwell lost to save her own soul, colourless as that dear little articlewas. Though she was modesty incarnate, her self-importance in thisrespect was amazing. She schemed through all the virtues for theapotheosis of Lady Sophia, and she called her scheming the vindicationof truth, which she held to be a Romish monopoly. She would have mademe a nun, as part of it, and taken all the credit with Heaven. I canhardly regret that she was foiled. I love truth as well as any woman,only, being a woman, à contre-cœur, and not a saint, for me itmust be coloured, and in the newest shades. To ask me to love it forits own sake is to ask me to be a dowd; and, for all my respect forLady Sophia, I have never fancied a heaven of dowds.
When we alighted on her, she was by great good chance withdrawn fromher company, and communing with Nature for relaxation. Flowers, toher, were sanctified of the altar, so bringing her faith and herinclinations into line. She was terribly agitated over her encounterwith Father Pope, whom she knew, and over his peril, which sheexaggerated. The shock of intolerance was hardly extended to Shole;but she had heard, by private despatch, of her Dulwich kinsfolk’sflight, and of the chaplain’s eccentric desertion, and all the day hadtormented herself with fears of the fate which he had invited tobefall him. Now, while they were engaged in earnest discussion,eschewing for the moment all thought of me, I was driven by curiosityto steal down the lane, till, through a gap in the hedge, I was ableto observe at close hand the lively scene that was enacting on thegreen below.
It had certainly looked prettier from the hill. I saw links ofred-faced oafs sway roaring across the turf, and whip themselves inmere drunken impulse about any mock-bashful hoyden who stood, feigningunconsciousness, in their path. I saw blowzed, over-fed women,dragging squalling babies, struggle vainly to be included in theamorous capture, and when they failed or were ignored, vindicate theiroutraged respectability in coarse recriminations. I saw farmers,seated under trees, weep fuddled tears because they could hold nomore, and stuffed children, crying for nothing so much as breath. Ihad been drawn, as was natural to me, by the bait of gaiety and life,and this was my reward. The ground between the booths was strewed withtrampled fragments of bread and meat, and sodden with rejected ale. Itwas a fair, with all the licence of a day gathered into an hour.
I don’t know how long I had been standing, absorbed in contemplationof this Gehenna, and of the stately mansion across the green, on whoseterraces a gay company, gathered to see the beasts feed, was clearlydistinguishable, when a sound of hoofs coming up the lane behind mebrought me to myself; and almost immediately three horsemen, with veryflushed faces, rode into view, and, perceiving me, halted. One was afox-featured gentleman, in fulvous cloth; one, good-humoured andquiet, wore a grey coat; and the third was resplendent all over, andas drunk as Chloe. He, at the first sight of me, tumbled rather thandismounted from his horse, and, forsaking the reins, which the greygentleman caught, came staggering upon me.
“Hey, my vitals!” he lisped, “whom the devil have we here?”
He was quite young, and like a pretty toy, with a spangled coat in theMaccaroni Club style, a great bow at his neck, and ribbons to hisknees. But he frightened me with the stare in his glazed eyes; and ashe advanced, I backed into the hedge.
“I was only looking,” I fluttered. “I didn’t mean any harm. Please letme go.”
“Harm!” he exclaimed, with a tipsy crow. “O, but you’re trespassing,missy, and must give an hic-count of yourself. Come ’long, now, beforemy lord.”
I saw the eldest of the three regarding us from his saddle with a sortof mordant humour, and the sudden recognition of his state made myheart leap. Red, and lank-jawed, and vicious, he sat watching us as afox might watch his cub negotiating the helpless struggles of a lamb.He always had a fine appetite for such occasions, and could sin verysweetly by proxy, could Hardrough.
“Wounds, my lord!” cried the boy, “is this a larsh surprise for meyou’ve ’ranged? Besh preshent of all the day. Come cock-horse, child,and we’ll kiss a-riding.”
He put an arm about me. For all my distress, the musky contact of him,so precious after my long degradation, seemed half to drug me fromresistance. I struggled feebly to push him away.
“Get on with your gallophic,” said he, addressing his companionsknowingly. “I’ll follerer by-m-by.”
“Come, Salted,” cried the grey gentleman suddenly, in a laughing,half-vexed way. “Remember what’s due to your guests, child, now and tobe. Come along and ride yourself sober, as you engaged.”
“Shober, nunky! shober, you cake!” sputtered the fool. “Shober ’noughyourself to wa’t me go on and break my neck—hey, my lord?”
He leered tipsily to the earl his father, who grinned, and blinked hisred eyes.
“Let him be, George,” said the nobleman. “Damme, the boy’s not fit toride a broomstick. You’re precious anxious for the gipsy, brother. I’das lief you was concerned for your nephew.”
“And so I am,” says the other hotly. “’Tis foul so to take advantageof a stranger and a child. Call your cub off, sir,” says he, “if I’mnot to take a whip to him.”
He gathered his reins in, and twitched his heels. He was bronzed andcomely, a man of thirty or so, younger by ten years than the earl. He,the latter, had turned quite white. A frost seemed to have pinched hischeeks. In another moment, I believe, he would have drawn hisriding-switch across the handsome face, but in that moment I was awareof a lady hurrying up, and I broke from my captor, and fled to meether.
“Help me!” I cried. “Don’t let him hurt me!”
She received me very kindly. She was a tall and colourless figure,gentle in mien but with a bad complexion—the lady, in short, in whosecompany I had left Father Pope.
“Hardwick! George!” she whispered, in an outraged voice.
The earl pushed up to her, with a snigger.
“There, Sophy,” said he. “What are you doin’ here? But I’m glad you’vecome. Is this here your protégée? Well, take the little baggageaway, that was near bringing us to words about her.”
“Words!” she said. “This child!”
“O,” he exclaimed, “that’s all one! Come, boy!”
She detained him some minutes, murmuring to him as he bent down. Atthe end he rose, grinning at me.
“What!” says he—“the sly old crow! Be sure the little sweep wasn’tfathered by a black cassock before you adopt her.”
She started back, flushing scarlet.
“Hardrough!” she said; “I ask you to go on.”
“Well, I will,” said he, with a little breathless laugh, “and carryyour secret, sister, safe in my keepin’.”
He half wheeled, and in an ironic voice summoned the young viscount.The boy got to his horse as sulky as sin. In another minute the threegentlemen were ridden out of sight.
The moment they had disappeared the lady turned to me.
“Why didn’t you keep by your friend?” she asked, rather sharply. “Fromwhat he tells me, you are in need of one.”
I hung my head and broke into sobs. She was softened immediately.
“There,” she said. “I didn’t mean to be harsh; but discretion was sonecessary. Will you come with me—I am the Lady Sophia Rowe—and wecan discuss your case in safety at home? But every instant meansperil, and we must hasten.”
I suffered her to hurry me up the lane. Her gait took no grace fromurgency, being awkward as with most over-tall women, and the worse toview because she was reckless how she raised her skirts. In a littlewe came round a curve that swept beyond the limits of the green; andhere, under some trees, we found her coach, which had been orderedround earlier, with the priest and his great folio ensconced gloweringin it. In a moment we were in, and rolling along quiet country roads.The noise of the fairing died behind us. The world of new peace andbeatitude lay before. For seven miles we sped soberly on, deeper anddeeper into the pleasant hush, that was broken only by the incessantconfidential murmuring of my companions.
At last, taking a road high above a little village bowered in trees,we turned between beautiful scrolled gates into a drive that seemed tome to pierce gardens as enchanting as the hanging ones of Babylon.There were soft lawns and placid groves of timber, with loftyrookeries. There were vivid parterres, and terraces stooping to bluedepths, wheredown a little silver brook bubbled through mists offoliage. There were rose bowers, and great jars, like Plenty’s horn,brimming petunias. There was a mossy fountain, with lilies andgoldfish, and a baby Triton in the midst spurting a jet to heaven.There were grassy walks, and beyond their vistas the eternal solace ofdistance. And, dominating all, there was the house.
At least it seemed less to command than to partake of the serenity ofwhich it was the habitable nucleus—the human nest in the garden. Itstood before us, not suddenly, but in quiet revelation, a simple oldstructure of red brick, unlaboured with ornament, unweighted of stone,a pleasant home for happiness set on a wide level platform of grassand gravel. My eyes had hardly accepted it before my heart.
We alighted into a fragrant hall, and madam led me at once into alarge low room with windows bent upon a heavenly prospect of woods andmeadows; and there, bidding me await her until she could come and talkwith me, shut me in, and withdrew.
I had not stood many minutes, in a silent dream of wonder andexpectation, when the door opened softly again, and a little girlstole in. She was about my own age, or somewhat older, and very darkand pretty, but with foolish large eyes like a dog’s. For some momentsshe stared at me, wondering, without a smile, then came and touched myhand.
“Madam sent me,” she said. “I live here. I am her adoption child. Areyou come to stay?”
I shook my head, bewildered.
“O,” she whispered, “I hope so. I have no little friend at all, andyou are so pretty.”
“I have golden hair,” I said. “We can’t all be the same. But yours atleast is very curly. What is your name?”
“Patience Grant,” she said. “My mother died in the convent, and I haveno father. I am not allowed to play with the village children. What isyour name?”
I told her “Diana Please.”
“It is a nice name,” she said. “Did your mother too die in theconvent? I am very happy here, but I shall be happier if you come.”
Lady Sophia had entered softly while she spoke.
“Hush, Patty!” said she, with a smile. “And run away now.”
The child went, looking wistfully back. Ah, mignonnette, ma petite àjamais mémorable, toi que j’aime sans discontinuer! How wert thou tome from the first the most attached of little dogs!
Madam drew me into a window, and looked earnestly into my eyes. As sheheld me, Father Pope entered and stood near, my morose and balefulinquisitor.
“Do you like my home?” she said, in her level, toneless voice. Thelabour of lifting it seemed always constitutionally beyond her.
I clasped my hands. “O, madam,” I said, “I could be a very goodCatholic here!”
She smiled, in a surprised way, then looked grave. I waited in a feverof expectation for her to speak again. I had already decided that Iwould wish to be adopted like Patience, in whom I seemed to foresee alittle adoring vassal, so welcome after my own long slavery, and thatI must be adroit to gain my point. Brighthelmston, with itsquestionable potentialities, had darkened in contrast with thisparadise. I felt even that it would not be good for me to returnthere; that I was destined for a virtuous, if not a devout life. It isno contradiction that I had not thought so an hour before. Our moraldevelopment is intermittent. Its phases of growth are inspirations ofadaptation to circumstance. A fever made of Francis of Assisi a saintout of a profligate. These high lawns had revealed to me the pit fromwhich I had escaped.
Lady Sophia looked very sweet and grave.
“Or anywhere, I hope,” she said. “Faith is not a question ofsurroundings.”
I was not so sure of that; but I held my tongue, hanging my head.
“Let me see your face,” she insisted, and put her thin hand under mychin.
“It is a pretty and an innocent one,” she declared. “How came you,child, in the position in which Father Pope found you?”
I told her how I had been stolen by the sweep, and had escaped fromhim rather than seem to concur in the violence offered to my religion.
“It was an ingenious and a courageous act,” she said, gently kindling;“was it not, Father?”
The bear snorted, dissent or commendation—it was all one.
“Ask her about her mother,” he growled.
“True,” said the lady, with a gesture of involuntary repulsion, forwhich she the moment after atoned with a caress.
“She had been a Sister in the Hospital of St. Magdalen, Father Popetells me,” she said very low. “She had returned there to expiateher—her”—
“No,” I broke in.
“You told me so,” roared the priest.
“I didn’t,” I said, half crying. “You were looking at your book allthe time I confessed.”
Madame Sophia could not restrain a smile.
“Fie, Father!” she said. “I admit it does not sound the least probablepart of the child’s experiences.”
But she sobered again in a moment.
“She did not return?” she asked. “Then”—
“She is dead,” I whispered.
After all, I believed it was true; that she could not have survivedthe wreck of all things which my abduction must have meant to her. Thegentlewoman gave a gasp of pity and self-rebuke, and enfolded me inher arms.
“Forgive me!” she cried. “O, I was cruel! The poor lost lamb! Sowhite, so helpless, so delivered to the wolves! But”—she bethoughtherself—“where was this?— And your unhappy father?”
“He had taken me to Brighthelmston,” I stammered; “he was not of ourreligion—of any. He made me dance before the pretty prince, and wouldhave given me to him, but that the sweep whom he fought stole me outof revenge first.”
The priest and the lady exchanged looks.
“Am I justified?” she asked. “The peril, the iniquity! O, surely,Father—surely!”
He shrugged his shoulders.
“Write to the Magdalens first,” said he, “and verify it.”
She thought a little, then addressed me again.
“And if I do, would you like to make your home here in the meantime,Diana?”
The strain had been very severe. I fell on my knees before her,weeping. I knew, from what my governess had once told me, that lesMadelonnettes must confirm the worst of my story.
“O, madam,” I cried, “if you would train me in goodness and piety!”
She kissed me, then looked up, her immobile face quite transfigured.
“Perhaps,” she thrilled, “some day, perhaps some day to fill the placeand vindicate the vows of the poor weak apostate who gave you life!”
“Write to the Magdalens,” growled Father Pope.
I AM PUT AWAY IN CAMPHOR
I cannot hold Lady Sophia altogether irresponsible for the loss tothe Calendar of a very promising saint. I entered Wellcot enthusiasticto devote the rest of my days to the practices of piety andself-renunciation, and I was moved to this resolve not least by theexample my benefactress seemed to offer me of the most perfectdetachment from the world. Alas! I was too soon to realise how thechaste aloofness of a mind may mean only a vanity so sensitive, and anirritability so nervous, as for ever to be on their defence againstunwarranted approaches. I had thought her serenely above thelittlenesses of life; and all the time she only sat on a level withthem, but apart, in alarm lest her moral distinction should be held tojustify familiarities with her social. The folded wings of piety maybe used to conceal some uncelestial humours. I had supposed, at least,that passion was the remotest from her temperament; and there even Iwas wrong, as you shall learn.
She wrote, in accordance with Father Pope’s advice, to the Superioressof the sisterhood to which my mother had belonged. I confess, for allmy confidence, I awaited the answer in some trepidation. It fulfilled,however, when it came, my best expectations. The charitable Motherconfirmed the story of her former postulant’s recreancy and flightwith a profligate man of fashion—whither, she had never concernedherself to inquire. The woman, in leaving the convent gates, she said,had died to her—to all, save the lord of hell, who, she was rejoicednow to hear, had so soon claimed and secured his own. She wouldcommand a Magnificat that night in praise of the eternal chastity; andthere her interest in the matter ended. She wrote in French, with muchPharisaic unction, which betrayed, nevertheless, its underlying gall.Madam quoted to me only so much (I found an opportunity later to readthe whole) as appeared to justify her in the course upon which she wasresolved—my present adoption, that was to say, by her, for the sakeof my soul. I was becomingly meek and grateful in placing myselfunreservedly in her hands; and in this manner began myself-obliterating martyrdom of five long years in the placid nunneryof Wellcot.
For a time I was very happy, until a ripening intelligence revealed tome by degrees the limitations of my moral and material surroundings. Ihave no intention to detail the processes of that growth. I canhardly, indeed, claim an independent life until detached from its dullexperiences. It is enough here briefly to review them.
My first warning disillusionment was the knowledge, to my infinitedisgust, that Father Pope was to remain a permanency in the asylum towhich accident had translated him. Whether his former patrons seizedthis opportunity—in the first reactionary days after riot—to ridthemselves of an ungainly incubus, or whether—which is moreprobable—he himself manœuvred for transference to newhunting-grounds, not of souls, but grubs, I do not know. Anyhow, hisbaggage being his book, the change was easy, and at Wellcot heremained, titular chaplain to the Lady Sophia, but positive to acommunity of nuns across the valley, who were her most cherishedprotégées, and to whose ranks I, in the first blind fervour of myredemption, unprovisionally dedicated myself.
I had not been long settled before, speculating on the relationshipbetween Shole and Wellcot-Herring, I began to wonder if I was destinedever to see again the young gentleman who had so insulted me. Perhaps,I thought, I might help by my example, and even persuasion, to weanhim from his evil courses. However, the opportunity was not to begiven me, as it appeared he was not sufficiently in love with hisaunt’s ways to pay her even the periodic courtesy of a visit. But hisfather the earl came occasionally, and from him I was bent upondiscovering whether or not my image was entirely effaced from theson’s remembrance.
Happening to meet him alone in the gardens one day, I was actuallyemboldened to beg him to convey a message from me to the viscount thatI forgave him.
He stopped, and looked at me with admiration; then took my chin in hishand.
“I shall do nothing of the sort, Miss Presumption,” he said, in histhin, ironic voice. “But I’m not so particular for myself. You shallgive me all of your confidences that you like.”
“Thank you,” I said saucily; “I will choose a handsomer to fill theplace of my papa.”
“Was he so handsome?” says he, grinning.
“He was the most beautiful man in the world,” I answered.
“Well, I can believe it,” he said. “But not so handsome as my brotherGeorge, hey?”
“Fifty thousand times,” I said.
“And fifty thousand times better?”
“I don’t know. He was good enough for me.”
“That I can well believe,” he chuckled; then took a turn or two andcame back.
“Harkee, missy,” says he, “I’m not going to peach on you, whatever yousay, so you can be as free as air with me. Only promise not to make mejealous of my own son, and we’ll be fast friends some day.” And with alaugh, he left me.
I hated him instinctively, and longed for the time when I could set mywits to discompose him. He was a widower, and socially and politicallya man of bad character; and it should have been madam’s duty to seethat we were not brought into contact. But she could conceive no evilof the head of her house.
The brother, the good one, came near us no more than the viscount;which, nevertheless, did not trouble me, because I owed him a debt,and he was too poor in purse and reputation to expect me to liquidateit. Little Patty, after her manner, loved this unfortunate, whom shehad seen often in former days, before his character went over someracing transaction, which ruined him and made him shy of hisfamiliars. Her loyalty was proof against the worst. Where she waspledged, she never dropped away, and her heart had the truest instinctfor finding and attaching itself to what was lovable in another. Sheadored nobility of mind, and was always my most faithful littleadherent. I came early to discover that her origin was none of themost select, and on this account, perhaps, condescended to her morethan I should. She repaid me with a blind devotion and admirationwhich were sometimes more affecting than diplomatic; and, before I hadbeen at Wellcot a year, would have followed me at a word to shame ordeath, in very despite of her duty to her patroness. But by then, Ithink, she was coming with me to recognise certain flaws in thecharacter of her former divinity.
It was from her in the first instance that I learned all that she knewof the family history: How my lord was a brute and libertine, who haddone his wife to death, and was hated and feared of all, unless,perhaps, by the old dirty astrologer on the hill, who was his kinsmanand Naboth and defier in one, holding the “Folly” in fee simple, as hedid, from a scientific ancestor, and persistently refusing to becoaxed or bought out of it. How my lady, as pious as her brother wasworldly, had embraced the Romish doctrine many years before, and hadnot scrupled, on the Jesuit principle, to procure herself through hismost questionable political relations a virtual exemption from thepenalties which attached to the open exercise of her religion. How,trading on this connection, she had planted in Wellcot-Herring acommunity of the “Sisters of Perpetual Invocation,” whose munificentpatroness and dupe (Heaven forgive me! They were certainly veryplausible little sybarites) she had constituted herself. How thehonourable Mr. Rowe, his lordship’s younger brother, was suspected ofroyal blood in his veins, and was only spared the scandal of proof solong as his nephew, the Viscount Salted, kept him out of thesuccession. How, in fine,—and this was where my interest was mostintimately engaged,—her ladyship had once had an affaire de cœurwith a Mr. de Crespigny, an artist, who came to paint her portrait,and who left it on the canvas half finished, being given, it waswhispered, his congé in reluctant return for his insensibility to theproselytising advances of his sitter.
From little Patty I extracted all this chronique scandaleuse, and ifshe enlightened me in her own inimitable bashful way, blunderingprettily on the truth out of innocence, I was not so backward eventhen as to be imposed upon by half-revelations, or to refrain fromconstruing them on my own account into the language of experience.
And so I entered on my new life, having, to endear its strangeness,and soon, alas! its monotony to me, the most loving, simple-mindedlittle comrade one might imagine. From the first my position, like myfriend’s, was undefined. We were not adopted daughters, or servants,or companions to madam, but a sort of pious pensioners on her bounty.She claimed some personal menial duties of us, which might be likenedto those exacted of ladies of a royal bed-chamber. As was befittingwith so great a princess, we might approach and handle her, butreverently as one might uncover a reliquary of sanctified bones. And,indeed, she was little else. For myself, I did not much care. My eyesand ears served me for all her case, howsoever little of her intimacywas vouchsafed me.
I often put her to bed after supper and prayers, when she would loveto engage me in little drony dialectics on faith. We had amicablecontests of wit, God save me! on the qualities which endeared ourfavourite saints to us. I observed that the male beatitudes were herchoice. Her room was hung with as many “Fathers” as a fribble’s iswith Madonnas of the opera-house. The ways of piety are strange. I wasno dévote, alas! like madam, yet I should have been abashed to goto bed in such company.
But, indeed, there was no disputing with her principles. Faith was hercovering argument in everything. She wore it like a garment,high-necked and impenetrable; only, to my taste, it was none the morebecoming for being fitted over broken stay-bones. Then, too, she movedso stately by faith, that I had often speculated why her heels shouldbe trodden over, until I discovered that she had bandy legs. Trulyfaith, like charity, covers a multitude of sins. I attribute it to herthat mine came so soon to be in myself. I have never had reason to beashamed of anything it hid; only instinct tells me to be moreparticular about my garters than my scapular. If the Lady SusannahRowe had found herself being spied upon by the Elders, she would havesnatched and donned the latter, and had complete faith in its shelter.That may be grace, but it is not graceful, I think. Since the firstmother started the fashions, there has been every obligation on us toconsult appearances; and I at least, though never more worldly thanthe most, have persistently declined to let Faith make an ostrich ofme.
She used often to send me to the convent across the valley withmessages to the nuns; and I was early in discovering that I was themore welcomed by them when a little offering of fowls or hothousegrapes accompanied me. Then I could gain indulgences as many as Iwanted for my peccadilloes—up to twenty at least for a couple of fatgallinas—and perhaps rather presumed upon my purgatory inconsequence.
This community was a praying order and eternally vowed from washing,as a personal indelicacy; or from stepping beyond its convent gates,as a first faux pas into the world; or from ministering to any needsbut its own; or, in short, from being of any practical use on theearth whatever, save as an authorised agency for the distribution of“indulgences.” A natural consequence of all of which was that it grewto be a very pot-bellied little community, as tight-skinned and ruddyas the pears on its own south wall, and, through its Superioress, asknowing a judge as any of old port and early asparagus. The bell thatprostrated it on its fat little knees to Angelus was the same thatrang it to dinner. The throat of the thing was hoarse with the steamof rich pasties and salmis of game that rose from the convent kitchenhard by. It had mushroom pits and a peach-hung pleasaunce, and,indeed, by the help of my lady, was altogether as epicurean a littlecompany for saints’ feast days as could be gathered. The devil, it iscertain, sets up his tent in an empty stomach. He would have foundclose quarters, as was proper, in the Convent of Perpetual Invocation.I will say for the Sisters that I never heard a cross word among them.
Now, to have the command of indulgences, for feast days, and fordispensations from fast, in such a neat little paradise as theirs,seemed to me at the first a very desirable thing. Only I hoped that bythe time I was ripe for the novitiate, the chaplain would have beenreplaced by one more personable. The Mother had, in common decency, toundertake to instruct me and Patty by and by in the articles of ourcreed, and Father Pope, complete gentleman, to conduct our secularfinishing. We never saw any other man, except village chawbacons and,at rare intervals, the foxy earl. It was a deadly life. I could nothave endured it but for the society of my sweet little adoratrice.She grew up the dearest thing, with the face of a Christianshepherdess. One saw lambs, not babies, in her eyes. Holding herlittle kind hand in memory, I pass over four years of thisself-obliteration, until I awaken to find myself in my seventeenthyear.
I MEET MR. NOEL DE CRESPIGNY
Life without the male element is worse than being limited to shopwindows for the fashions. We can read with patience in a nunnery ofthe modes, but not of marrying and giving in marriage. Still, I willask any candid critic to judge if an utmost desperation could haveinduced me to a conduct, with an accusation of which madam inauguratedthe series of misunderstandings which came to arise between us—anattempted corruption of Father Pope, to wit! The whole truth of thisfantastic invention is as follows.
When I was near fifteen I had begun to grow troubled in my conscienceas to my Confirmation. How could I face the cloister, an uncertifiedsoldier of my creed? The chaplain had seemed kinder to me of late; orperhaps it would be truer to say, less bearishly unapproachable. To besure, he could not always be adamant to the natural graces it was hisbusiness to help adorn. And, in proportion as he relaxed, I was movedto conciliate him with fifty little winning attentions, to which hecould not be altogether insensible. I found plausible excuses for hisconfounding entomology with theology, citing the “little Bedesman ofChrist” in vindication of the Nature God. I learned to rear clammygrubs in pots of earth, that I might surprise him with theresults—beautiful winged creatures which I likened to the soulsemancipated under his tutelage. I discovered, or invented, a hundredsymbols for his hagiology. I sewed buttons on his coat, and brushedhis great hat, with actual reverence for the moth which had settled init from the brain below. Was it my fault if the ridiculous creaturemisconstrued all these little wistful égards? I sought my way onlyby him, as one might propitiate a surly but indispensable guide, andin my utter innocence took his morose silences, and the scowlingsuspicion which grew in his eyes, for some late dawn of sympathy, someincreased consideration, if not tenderness, towards the pupil whom hewas conscious of his heart having maligned. How cruelly my trust wasabused, will show in an interview to which madam unexpectedly summonedme.
“Diana,” she said—she was seated knitting a comforter for the monsterhimself, and her lips, as she bent over her work, had a mechanical butrather shaky smile on them—“have you a daughter’s regard for our goodchaplain?”
“O yes, madam!” I answered, wondering what was to come.
“Yet it is not a daughter’s part to indite love sonnets to herFather,” she said steadily, without looking up.
I stared, and flushed, and burst into tears. She also reddened, andproduced a paper from her pocket.
“Is this yours?” she demanded. “He found it slipped into his breviary.It appears to me to bear only one construction.”
“And what is that, madam?” I asked coldly. My little outbreak had beenmastered as soon as vented. My heart blazed with anger over thisoutrageous Cymon in a cassock.
“I put the question to you,” she said, her thin bosom heaving alittle. “If it is as I suspect, I should blush to name it.”
“Blush rather for yourself,” I said, in the same chill tone, “to plantthe slander in a young girl’s soul. I will be a Catholic no more.”
She rose, pale and agitated.
“Do you know what you say?” she breathed in fear. “You!self-dedicated to the cloister!”
“I renounce the pledge!” I cried, in a sudden burst of passion. “Iwill no longer believe what Father Pope believes, or confess again tohim anything but lies, since those are what he likes to trade in.”
“Hush!” she said, aghast at my fury. Her hands trembled, flutteringthe paper. “Hush! Be calm! You say things you cannot mean. God forgiveyou the threat of such apostasy!”
“And you,” I cried, still stormily, “such a witness against a poorchild’s character.”
“No, no,” she entreated, almost abjectly, “I wish only the truth.Father Pope wishes only the truth. Tell me frankly, do you recognisethese lines?”
With a great effort I subdued my emotion, and took the paper frigidlyfrom her hand. It was folded at the following verse, which I had tobite my lips, pretending to read:—
“Thrice happy she who from thy kindling eye
Shall draw some spark to illuminate her breast,
A wistful wanderer between earth and sky,
With doubts of love’s true haven sore oppressed.”
“Do you recognise them?” she repeated.
“Yes, madam,” I acknowledged, looking up between reserve and defiance.
“You do?” she murmured, taken aback. “And it is your hand?”
“No, madam,” I answered quietly. “It is Miss Grant’s, but disguised.”
She echoed the word, at once incredulous, and fearful of excitinganother outbreak by appearing so.
“Disguised! For what purpose? And to whom addressed?”
“To me,” I answered. “It was part of a game between us; but we willplay it no more.”
She echoed in amazement, “A game!” Then asked faintly, “What game?”
“I was the Hermit of the Rocks,” I said, “and Miss Grant the PrincessCamilla, who wrote to consult me as to her vocation, whether for thecloister or for marriage with a pious young gentleman.”
It was an inspiration, which I had no sooner uttered than I feared formy rashness. But I need not have. Madam, as her slow perceptiveskindled, grew one shine of happy intelligence.
“A game!” she repeated, smiling holy-motherly over the decorousinnocence of our inventions. “Well, I will say it was a very properone, though a little ambiguous in the articles of love to be addressedto a hermit. But how came it in the chaplain’s book, child?”
I confessed that I had had the curiosity to read in the Father’sbreviary, and must unwittingly have left the paper there for a marker.She kissed me then, and, while deprecating my inquisitiveness inmatters which did not concern me, apologised very handsomely, I willsay, for having so traduced me on a shred of evidence.
“It shall be a lesson to me, and a penance,” she said. “But, child, gonow and retract your wicked recantation, before perhaps the devilshall claim you to your sin.”
“It was very hard, madam,” I said, still rebellious. “Why, beingdisguised, should Father Pope have decided as of course that theverses were mine?”
“Ah!” she said, blushing and embarrassed. “That I do not know—Ithink; but little Patty is no genius.”
The moment I was free, I hurried palpitating to my friend, andconfessed all, and implored her, by the love between us, to play herpart in the little innocent deception I had practised. She gazed at mewith her sweet shocked eyes, as if I were inviting her to murder.
“You really meant them for him, for Father Pope?” she whispered, halfchoking. “O, Diana! It was blasphemy!”
“It was,” I said, “to waste the Princess Camilla on such a block.”
Then, as my friend still cried out, I knelt, and took her waistprisoner in my arms, and begged to her.
“I am not like you, darling. I pine and pinch in this cold air. If itwas not for you, you little warm thing, I should run away with Giles,the handsome stable-boy.”
“Don’t,” she wept. “You don’t mean it. Say you only intended it for ajoke!”
“Of course I only meant it for a joke,” I said, urging her; “thoughit’s true I believed the creature was expecting it of me. But ’tis ajoke that will cost me dear if you don’t back me.”
“O!” she cried, despairing, “I do, I will. But how can I ever pretendto have wrote them, when that cat rhymes with lap is the best I knowof verse.”
“You little dear,” I said, laughing in sheer love of her artlessness.“Pretend nothing, but hold your tongue.”
That she would have done for me, I think, though they racked her toconfess; and all might yet have gone well, had not the Lady Sophia,meddlesome like most self-righteous consciences, sent for her toquestion if, after all, her simple verses might not have been theinstinctive expression of her leaning towards the cloister. My poortransparent angel managed to articulate a panic denial of any suchtendency; though, indeed, there was no need to, to any but ablindworm. If ever little maid was built for loving, or to lay herpretty hair in a puddle for some rogue to reach heaven by, it was she.The sense of guilt would confound her, however; and, what between herduty to madam and her loyalty to me, she must have answered herexamination so ambiguously as to raise some new doubts and suspicionsin the minds of her inquisitors.
She flew back to me with very red eyes, and a fresh horror of theimposition she was forced to practise.
“I will never, never tell,” she sobbed, “though they tear me topieces. But O, Diana! I don’t want to be a nun.”
I comforted her, though furious with the others for their Jesuiticalpractices on her innocence.
“Wait,” I cried, “and I will pay them both out! What right had they,after what I said, to try and torture a lie out of you? Don’t fear forthe convent, child. I pledge my word you shall have a husband andfifty children, nun or no nun.”
“I want no husband,” she answered, blushing and clinging to me, “andno lover but you.”
I have taken pains to record her fond little reply, in view of anodious charge, once concocted to my injury, of my having traded uponmy friend’s faith in me to rob her heart of its dearest possession.That, indeed, was, then and always, no less than her loved Diana, ofwhom none was ever permitted by her to take precedence. Any sacrificewhich was designed to maintain those mutual relations she thought toocheap for discussion.
One result, however, of her “questioning” was that madam’s attitudetowards me was thenceforth marked by a reserve and jealousy which,inasmuch as I was unconscious of having done anything to merit it,served only to prejudice me against a religion which could be used fora cloak to so much hypocrisy. I grew quickly disenamoured of mysupposed vocation, and decided that faith, which seemed largely amatter of digestion, could be better realised through independence. Inshort, in the world I could reach beatitude through twentyself-indulgences to one in the convent; and, such being the case, andmy constitution perfect, it seemed folly to take the short way.
Madam seized an early opportunity after this to inquire into my plansfor retiring from the world and taking the veil. I confessed to her,in reply, that her late suspicions had engendered in me thoughts, asense of grievance, inimical to my right contemplation of so momentousa sacrifice. She was very much shocked and troubled, and recommendedme a stricter observance of all those self-obliterating virtues whichare such a comfort to those who don’t practise them. She rebuked mypride; she prescribed fasting and discipline and maceration—tortureswhich would have killed a dray-man—in order to lower and submit mysystem to its final severance from the world. She would have had me ather mercy before she drove in the knife; only, unluckily for her, myconstitution was impregnable. It flourished equally whether on breadand water or vol au vent; and, finally, she surrendered to it. Irather liked a little pious game we played, called the Moral Lotto, inwhich the discs were sins, and those left uncovered at the endentailed an obligation on the losers to maintain a particular guardagainst the temptations they expressed. Though we all, in the end,must have been warned through the calendar, from simony topowder-puffs, I believe the contest was so sanctified to her byintention that she read a design of Heaven in every missing counter;and the fact that I generally won, did more than many assurances toconvince her that I was perhaps after all not so black as she hadpainted me.
But, between me and Father Pope, after that little malentendu, therewas no quarter asked or given. He treated me with a persistent coarserudeness, and I retaliated with all the interest of wit I dared. Idropped blobs of wax on his spectacles; left his Hagiology open undera drip from the ceiling; put crumbs of cheese in his cabinets of mothto tempt the mice in; and confessed his own most obvious sins to himas mine, for which I accepted furious penances as meekly as a lamb. Hehated me, and I contrived at least to give him a substantial reasonfor such an abuse of his cloth.
Now, I will mention one only other little incident before I pass on tothe subject of this chapter. I was playing in Wellcot attics on acertain wet afternoon with Patty, when I discovered a locked Bluebeardchamber.
“What is it?” I said; but she did not know. I tried the handle; Ipeered vainly into the keyhole; finally, I took a pin from my hair,and contrived a little pick of it.
“O, what are you going to do?” whispered the child, quite scared.
“Get in, if I can,” said I.
“Don’t!” she said, horrified. “If we are shut out, ’tis for a reason.”
“Of course,” I answered. “And it’s no good looking for it on this sideof the door.”
She clasped her hands in a little paralysis of curiosity while Iworked. It was a simple lock, and I was successful. As the door swungopen, we saw before us a sky-lit room, wedged under the slope of theroof, and quite empty save for a framed picture, which leaned to thewall back outwards. Patty uttered a tiny cry—
“O, Diana! It’s the portrait!”
In a moment, all excitement, we stole in a-tiptoe. The place was verystill and ghostly. Only on the dusty canvas itself lay a melancholygrid of light. Palpitating in our sense of guilt, we turned the frameround, let it drop softly back again; and there, before our eyes,bloomed a smiling, wistful face. The light, which had saddened it inreverse, was quickened now to an illuminating glory. It greeted anddimpled to us—the face of a dead woman risen.
A dead woman. Had she ever lived? I could not believe it, thinking ofthat unsympathetic dévote downstairs.
“Was she ever like that?” I whispered.
“She was beautiful,” murmured Patty fervently. “I remember himpainting this.”
“And going away, and leaving it unfinished?” said I: for, indeed, theportrait was but sketched in, though masterly in its promise.
“Yes,” said the little girl, gulping. “And I never supposed what hadbecome of it till now.”
It seemed incredible, the change that but a few envious years hadwrought. Had love done this thing before me? Or could love forsaken sowarp the loveliness which Love himself had created? It gave me a newlittle thrill of respect for the humanised Sophia; because, whateverthe truth of her face, a man had been found to see this beauty in it.
“She was St. Cecilia,” whispered Patty. “There is the harp in herlap.”
It was without strings—an unborn music. Perhaps the Christian ladyhad declined to accept a pagan Muse for midwife, and had temporisedwith her would-be deliverer, hoping to convert him. If so, she hadplayed her cards badly. I wondered if the man had been afortune-hunter. But in that event Madame Sophia would certainly beMadame de Crespigny.
Whatever the case, however, the picture made a deep impression on me,and from my first moment of seeing it I was haunted by the desire tobecome myself the subject of such a master’s devotion. Ma vue et mesminauderies firent tout-à-coup tourner la girouette. For the firsttime I felt myself a woman, encumbered with the heavy responsibilitiesof her sex.
One day—it was some eighteen months later—returning from acommission to the convent, I walked straight into the presence of theoriginal of the picture and its painter. Yes, that is the truth. Hehad run faith at last to earth, it seemed, and, armed with it, wasreturned to add the strings to the abortive harp, and perfect theancient harmony. I could have thought that, to do so, he had need offaith indeed; until, looking at madam, I started in sheer wonder. Shewas transfigured—rejuvenated. The happiest light—bashful, coy,defiant, and surrendering its defiance—was in her eyes. She was morelike a wife in the first wonder of motherhood than the starvedreligieuse of yesterday.
And the cause! Ah, my Alcide! The creature rose upon my entrance, andI could have laughed in the face of my own befooled ideal. I hadthought of Raphael and the Fornarina; and, behold! a slack,half-drowned-looking figure, with an expression, and conduct of itslimbs, as if it were just risen gasping from a pond—there he stood,no sort of natural fowl at all, but a freak of genius like afive-legged calf at a fair.
“He! he!” giggled he, and held himself as if he were waiting to betold what to do next.
He was tall, it is true; and there was a good deal of him, mostlygnarled bone, if that counted to his credit. His forehead, streakedwith dark hair turning grey, was strong and ample, and in itselfsomething of a feature; but, mercy! the loose indetermination of hislower lip, and the way it overhung, foolish and disproportionate as anelephant’s, the little folded chin! As I stared, too mortified formanners, he returned my gaze, suddenly startled, it seemed, into aspeechlessness so stertorous that little Patty, who had entered withand stood behind me, fell back a step in confusion.
“Ah!” he exclaimed at that, chuckling, “and is hee-ar the little girlI knew?”
He spoke, when he did at last, drawlingly, and ended, as was his way,by wrinkling his thin hooked nose and hee-hawing a little laughthrough it.
“She is grown, is she not?” said madam, answering for Patty, to whomhe had referred, though indeed his eyes were all the time on me. Hervoice was so changed and soft, I hardly recognised it.
“She is grown,” he said. “She is become, it appears, a double cherry.”
“No,” said madam seriously, “the other is a second little foundling ofmy care, and destined to God’s—our God’s” (she addedcoyly)—“service, de Crespigny.”
She had no sense of humour, the dear creature. The next moment,noticing the direction of his gaze, with a little frown she bade usbegone to our books.
We fled, and, once remote, I turned, with a tragi-hysteric stamp, uponmy companion.
“Patience! And is that donkey him?”
“It is Mr. Noel de Crespigny,” she said, amazed. “He is not— O,Diana, do you really think him”—
“Hee-haw!” I broke in, with a little passion of laughter; and thenfury overcame me.
“How dared she,” I stormed, “how dared she tell him that lie aboutme?”
“What lie?” said poor Patty.
“Why, to claim me to her worship of a golden ass,” I cried.
“It was a calf,” said my friend, bewildered.
I screamed with laughter.
“O, don’t!” Patty implored. “It really was, Diana.”
“You dear!” I gasped. “I daresay it was. But he was so badly made, Icouldn’t tell.”
She followed me upstairs, utterly bewildered. On the landing above weencountered a strange sight. The picture—the picture—was alreadyon its way down from the attics. A groom and maid bore it, and theoddest creature stood above, superintending its resurrection.
“Gogo!” whispered Patty; “it’s Gogo!”
I could well believe it of such a monster.
He was a man, and a huge one, down to his mid-thighs; and there heended in a couple of wooden stumps. His face, lapped in a very mask ofred bristle, was as savage as sin; and he growled and rumbled like aninterdicted volcano.
“Ay,” he thundered, “I’m Gogo, the Dutch tumbler. Who calls me by myname?”
Holding with one hand by the banisters, he struck with the strongstick he carried at the stairs, missed the tread, and was within aninch of falling. The stick rattled down, and he swung and clung withboth hands to the rail. In an instant, some whimsical impulse sent metripping lightly up to help him.
“Take my arm,” I said, “down to the landing.”
The giggling servants paused in their task to stare up; but themonster himself laboured round, with quite a stunned look.
“To help—me,” he whispered hoarsely; “the little scented rush toprop the oak!”
I was in love with his changed voice at once. It was something to meetonly two-thirds of a man.
“No, no,” he said, touching my arm as if it were a relic. “I’m Gogo,the colour-grinder, the bottle-washer—not worthy to latch yourladyship’s little shoe. I’ll go down—I’ll go down. Ho-ho! it’s easy.I’ve done it all my life.”
While he spoke, the odd creature had descended unaided, and,recovering his stick, struck his wooden limbs fiercely with it.
“Do you see?” he cried. “A stiff-kneed dog as ever limped afterFortune!”
He flounced upon the servants, and roared them into care of theircharge; then turned again to me, where I stood with my friend, who hadrun trembling to my shelter.
“’Tis our market, ladies,” he said in apology. “I must be particularin its custody. We deal in new lamps for old; in”—
He descended a few steps, then turned again.
“Ah!” he groaned, tragic and comical in one. “Pity the poor genii whohas to serve; pity him—pity him.”
He heaved a sigh that would have turned a windmill, and followed thepicture, and disappeared.
“Patty!” I whispered, when he was gone—“Patty! Lord, Patty! who isthe creature?”
“I’m terrified of him,” she gulped. “He’s Mr. de Crespigny’s dog, hecalls himself, and follows his master everywhere, loving and growlingat him. He used to say there was no such painter in the world, if hecould be kept to it; but he always frightened me dreadfully. I do hopethey won’t stop long.”
“H’m!” I said. “And is that queer name all he’s got?”
“I never heard of another,” she answered. “But anyhow, it suits him.”
“Yes,” I said—and sighed—“if he only had legs!”
I AM COMMITTED TO THE ——
I learned, as you shall understand, to readjust my first impressionof de Crespigny. It is certain one must not judge the quality of thewine by the vessel. He was a great artist, who ran quickly to waste inthe passions evoked of his own conceptions. From the mouth downwardshe was a sensualist, and not fit to trust himself with a fair model.Shut into a monastery, he would have been a Fra Angelico.
At the first he captured me, when once I was familiarised with theungainly exterior of the creature. To see him work—ardent, engrossed,unerring in the early enthusiasm of a subject—was a revelation. Hestood so slack, he ran so to moral exhaustion when delivered of hisinspiration, it was impossible to recognise the master of a moment agoin this invertebrate body with the loose wrists and silly laugh. If hecould only have been kept always at the high pressure of hisconceptions! Sometimes I wondered if it was in me to make him greatand hold him. It would have been splendid to be the Hamilton to thisRomney. Yet in the end I found the game not worth the candle. He wassoft wax, indeed, for seven-eighths of his length, and the littlestpuff from red lips could blow all the flame out of his head.
Still, while it lasted, his influence over me was an education. Hisportfolios were the very minutes of inspiration—suggestions,impressions of loveliness, caught and recorded and passed by forothers. He finished little, and perhaps would have been a lesserartist and a stronger man if he could have laboured to consolidate hisdreams. He taught me that not facts, but shadows of facts—thereflections, most moving, most intimate which they cast—are the realappeals to the emotions; that there is no landscape so beautiful asits reflection in a mirror, no chord so pathetic as its silentvibration in one’s heart. Perhaps the heavens are an eternity ofechoes, of spectral perfumes, of dreams derived from experience, andwe the authors of our own immortality. If so, we should livepassionately who would dream well.
What this man lacked in nerve and backbone, his strange servant andcomrade supplied, and many times over. He was the oddestmonstrosity—savage in criticism, caustic in humour, a Calibanbellowing grief and tenderness through hairy lungs. How he could everhave come to attach himself, and passionately, to so flaccid abear-leader, was a problem pure for psychology. Now, at least, the twowere inseparable as— Ah, my friend! I was on the point of saying asValentine and Proteus, but the analogy, I protest, is too poignant;for have not I too been cruelly declared the Sylvia who divided them?
The portrait, on that first afternoon, was carried down to aconvenient closet on the ground floor; and there de Crespigny workedon it, always alone, or in the sole company of his henchman. Whenfinished for the day, he would invariably lock the canvas into apress, and none, not even I (there is virtue in that parenthesis), waspermitted to see it. The room was held sacred to him; and madamherself refrained so religiously from intruding on its privacy as toevoke, in her guileless trust of the singleness of his conversion, thevery hypocrisy which to her faith was inconceivable. For, indeed, heconverted this closet—which stood safely remote and approached by aback-stair way—into a sanctuary for deceit. Often, to confess thewhole truth, when she supposed me engrossed in books or theconstruction of celestial samplers, was I closeted with de Crespignyand Gogo, learning to handle a brush, or inspire one, while Patty,with a code of signals, kept panic watch on the stairs.
Madam’s exclusion, no doubt, cost her many a patient sigh. Shewondered over the idiosyncrasies of genius, which preferred, orprofessed to prefer, to labour its mental impressions rather than toilto record the living and mechanical pose. Still, it was true, theSophia of to-day, however rejuvenated, was scarcely the model of thatolder time; and that he could finish that beautiful inspiration fromher staider personality was what it was folly, perhaps, in her toexpect.
Poor woman! Though I had my grudge, and no taste or reason tocommiserate such vanity, I suffered some qualms of remorse for thepart I was led to play. It is natural, after all, for the sex to seeitself never so immortal as through the eyes of love; and, when a manhas once praised its complexion, to claim for itself an eternity ofroses.
Father Pope, the old spiritual curmudgeon, never quite credited, Ithink, the genuineness of this late conversion. I daresay, from hisexperience in the confessional box, he knew his man pretty well, andthe value of such emotional abjurations. The sick devil turned monkwas not to his taste; and, if he ventured to intimate as much, thecoldness which certainly befell between madam and him at this time waseasily to be accounted for. It all amused me hugely; and I feltdelightfully wicked while the fun lasted. But retribution, my friend,was to overtake your naughty little Diana.
One day, stealing into the studio, I found Gogo alone, grindingcolours into a little mortar.
“God ye good e’en, little serpent,” said he. “You can sit and beguileme for practice till my master comes.”
“Gogo,” I said, shocked. “Why do you call me by such a name?”
“Because you are as like Eve as two peas,” growled he.
“Eve was not a serpent, but a beautiful woman,” I answered, pouting.
“And so was Lamia; and yet she was a serpent,” he grunted.
“I don’t know what you mean. You said Eve.”
“Well, why not?” he replied, turning his red, morose-looking eyes onme. “Eve accused the serpent of beguilement, didn’t she? and Adam Eve?But Eve was made out of the man, therefore Adam accused himself. ButEve accused the serpent; therefore Adam accused the serpent. Yet heaccused Eve; therefore Eve was the serpent, which is what she would,and will, never understand. O, God bless her! God bless her! Which, ifHe would do, blessing the serpent, might unriddle this sinful problemof life!”
He set to pounding vigorously with his pestle, and for a minute Iwatched him in a bewildered silence. There was always something inthis shorn Cyclops which oddly attracted me.
“Gogo,” I said quite softly.
He threw down his pestle at once, and faced round, writhing his handstogether, and glaring at me.
“Who spoke?” he said, in hoarse, trembling tones. “A voice from thegarden making me in love with my own clown name. O, always so, alwaysso, thou spirit of Eve; and, though it lost the world to God, I’d takethe apple from thy hand.”
I laughed a little tremulously, as he stumped across the floor andstood close before me. The vision of this great storm of a creature,condemned to play the “comic relief” in the tragedy of his ownmanhood, came as near my heart as anything.
“Look!” he cried, his rugged chest heaving; “I can’t kneel to you, andI’m your slave. I walk open-eyed, hating and adoring you, into thetoils you spread for our feet. Feet!” he groaned, looking down, with adespairing gesture. “Perhaps—who knows?—having them, I might haveescaped.”
“How did you lose them, poor Gogo?” I said.
“Hating and adoring,” he groaned, unheeding my question, “hating andadoring. Look, little serpent: I could crush your slender throat forwhat you do, and hold on, and sob my soul away to see you die. Whyhave you come between us? United, we were strong, he and I. I drovehis genius on, and loved the poor ape for its spark of divinity, andpropped the weak spirit while it wrought. You knock the prop away, youknock the prop away, and we both fall; and where is my compensationfor the injury?” He clasped his great hands to me: “Give me back mygenius,” he cried in pain, “and let us go.”
I rose to my feet, half moved and half resentful.
“It is not I who take him or want him. I will not come here again.”
As I turned, he barred my way.
“No,” he said, near sobbing, “I lied. Do what you will with us: makeus angels or swine—I am content, so long as I may serve you.”
As he spoke, the door opened, and de Crespigny entered. He greeted mewith a rather shifty look, I thought, and his manner seemed toodistraught to affect any particular notice of his servant’s obviousemotion.
“O, well, ma bella Unanina,” said he; “but a little sitting for thisafternoon, please.”
I flushed, and was about to refuse to remain at all, when an imploringscowl from Gogo softened me. With plenty of hauteur, I stalked into alittle curtained-off alcove which was consecrated to me fortiring-room, and there dressed for model. When I emerged again, myfeet and arms were bare, my hair loose in a golden fillet, and, forthe rest, I wore a kind of seraph smock, in which les convenanceshad been constrained to clothe me for the peerless Una.
For as Una I was being painted. Looking one day through de Crespigny’sportfolios, I had come upon some “impressions,” royal, strenuous, oflions in the Tower menagerie, and was admiring the lithe, strongdarlings, when his voice breathed behind me, with that little eternalfoolish giggle.
“Have you decided, naughty?”
“Yes,” I whispered. “I will be the fairy lady whom the lion came todevour, and remained to serve and protect, because she was so pure andinnocent.”
He did not know who I meant; so I found him the book and place.
“Ah, to be sure!” said he, reading eagerly. “She laid her stole aside,did she? Yes, it is an inspiration. It will suit me, if it does you.”
So I was painted wonderfully as Una, making my own “stole” from one ofPatty’s bedgowns, and glorying, out of my very shamefacedness, to feedthe inspiration, while it lasted, of this impassioned art. Now, fordays it had wrought without slackening, so that it was an offence tome to find it suddenly become, it seemed, without apparent cause orreason, out of tune with its subject. He worked fitfully, dully,almost, as it were, disregarding my presence, and drawlingcommonplaces the while to Gogo, who had returned to his pestle andmortar, and was grinding away sullenly.
“Gogo,” he yawned presently, after an idle, preoccupied silence,“which would you rather marry, a woman of wit or virtue?”
“Neither, you blattering genius!” cried the other, turning round withsuch an instant roar that I was almost frightened off my perch.
The master, accustomed to his strange fellow’s moods, only laughed,and leaned back indolent.
“Why, you old dear?” said he.
“She’s a rotten fish at best, shining the more the more corrupt sheis.”
“But if she don’t shine?” said de Crespigny coolly.
“Then she’s a dull fish,” said Gogo, “but a fish still.”
The other mused, and sniggered.
“—Who’s for ever playing to be caught,” added Gogo, grumbling. “Sheloves the angle. Play her what you like, man, only throw her back whenhooked.”
“Mr. Gogo!” I exclaimed.
“Ay, Mistress Una,” said he, “you’re all pretty players, from miss tomy lady dowager. Don’t tell me. You all love to excite the emotionsyou don’t understand, and then off with you from the stage, sweetethereals, to the suppers of steak and porter which you do, while Jackand my lord are wetting their pillows with tears over yoursensibility.”
“Thank you,” I said, rising, highly offended. “As I, for one, am notplaying to be hooked, I’ll take your warning in time.”
I had expected de Crespigny to strike in, in angry protest over hisservant’s insolence; but, to my astonishment, he did not move orinterfere. A little pregnant silence ensued, and the tears werealready rising to my eyes, when, to my horror, I heard madam’s voiceat the door.
“De Crespigny,” she said, “may I come in for once?”
He stumbled to his feet, and stood paralysed a moment, before heanswered—
“A minute. You know the conditions: I must hide it away, and then”—
When she entered a little later, there was he standing to receive herwith a spasmodic grin; his easel was empty, Gogo pounded at hismortar, and I—I was shrunk behind the curtain, peeping in a veryshiver of terror.
She looked at him with a little shaky propitiating smile. Her eyeswere red, as if she had been crying. She tried to speak, and couldnot. He understood so far, the poor clown, and bade his servantwithdraw. When they were alone, she turned upon him with a littleappealing motion of her hands.
“Am I never to be allowed to see it?” she asked.
He frowned, and bit his trembling lip.
“No, no,” she said, “I know the sensitiveness of your beautiful art.Only, O, Noel! I cannot rest where we ended just now. Believe me, itwas so far from my wish to offend or alarm you. But time goes on, andthe pledge this finished picture was to redeem is withheld, until I amat a loss how to explain.”
“To whom?” he muttered sullenly, “to that priest? O, I know. Whatright has he, a grudging Churchman, and you a saint?”
“O, indeed, I am but a weak woman!” she said, with a faint smile, “andhe an anointed Father. He does right—dear, he does—to be jealous forhis daughter. It is only that he would ask you, that I would ask you,what period”—
“Art is not to be forced,” he interrupted her peevishly. “I made thefinishing of this picture, as it was begun—as it was begun, mind—thecondition of my being received into your Church. Didn’t I, now?”
“Yes,” she sighed; “but there are some vows better broken.”
“A bad recommendation to what you call the truth,” he sneered.
“But, Noel, it is the truth,” she cried. “O, say you are convincedthat it is!”
“Well, I don’t know,” he answered, “since you bid me to a lie.”
“I will take the burden,” she cried, her eyes streaming, “to save thesoul I love.”
She hardly breathed the final word. For a wonder, the poor creatureshe entreated found enough in it to move him.
“There,” he said, “don’t distress yourself, Sophia. I’ll workhot-handed on the picture to-morrow. There, I promise I will.”
“Thank you, Noel,” she whispered, so kindling, so grateful, that deCrespigny shrunk before her. “I—I won’t interrupt you any longer. Itwas like you, kind and considerate, not to blame me for breaking yourrule.”
The room remained so still after her going that I thought he too hadfollowed, until, stealing out presently in a panic, I found him seatedin a corner, biting his nails.
“I had better go now, hadn’t I?” I whispered, half choking.
“Yes,” he growled, “to the devil!”
I BEWITCH A MONSTER
On the following morning, going indifferently by the studio, wherewas a back way into the grounds, I encountered Gogo.
“He’s at work on the portrait,” he said, standing moodily against theroom door. “He’ll be at it all day. It’s no good your coming.”
I tossed my head, vouchsafing no reply, and, singing to myself, passedon and out.
The day after, descending the stairs, I observed that the studio doorwas left ajar. I laughed, taking no other notice, and went my way intothe garden.
On the third day, seeing de Crespigny walk out with his Sophia, Iborrowed the opportunity to slip down and investigate. The truth was,I was devoured with curiosity to learn how madam’s little explosionhad stimulated the artistic verve, and to obtain a glimpse of theportrait, even, if necessary, by bending myself to the corruption ofmy poor infatuated Gogo. But I was to be disappointed, for the roomwas empty, and the canvas locked into its press.
Peering here and there, considerably chagrined, in the hope ofdiscovering the key, I came, in the alcove, upon the full-sleevedwaistcoat in which the artist usually worked, and, diving eagerly intothe pockets thereof, found, not the key indeed, but some scraps ofpaper, much scribbled over, which instantly aroused my curiosity, and,presently, my amusement.
“Ho-ho!” thought I, “you are inspired in other than the pictured arts,are you, my gentleman? A poet, and fainting in the perfume of somelittle naughty Mignonette!”
So he had fancy-named the subject of his agonised Muse; and, indeed,why should I prevaricate to myself about the application? I blushed alittle, making myself merry over these suffering scrawls andscratches, of which, I was sure, my own poor little person must be thevictim. I had a face, it seemed, the calendar of innocence; une bonnepoitrine; a sweetest little double chin, like a robin’s throatswelled with song. I put my hand to my neck. I could not but admitthat the poor man had taken a poetic licence; but, in truth, it was avery example of the licence that was wont to drug his art. The fleshheld his fine imagination in thrall, and laboured his first spiritualconceptions into Parisian models. He was divine only in hissketches—impressions. When he wrought to improve upon them, he becametransubstantiated.
So this was his repentance! He had spent the brief period of it inpainting me in verse, since he was debarred my presence in actuality.I smiled, reading—
Of all flowers the pet.”
and “Indeed!” thought I, tossing my head; “but not yours as yet,sir!”
While I studied to disentangle the scribble, I heard breathing nearme, and started to find Gogo regarding me with a cynical,half-diverted scowl. The creature walked like a cat on carpet. He hadno creaking leather to betray him.
“So-ho!” growled he; “you can yet blush to be found out by your dog?”
I laughed, vexed, and a little embarrassed.
“O,” said he, “never mind! I am honoured in even that little rose ofshame. You won’t grow it long.”
“Gogo,” I said, “how dare you?”
“Why,” said he, “as dogs dare, who love without respect, and see nomore harm to serve a thief than a prince.”
I looked at him a moment, between tears and defiance.
“You are very unkind,” I said. “What is the good of my confessinganything to you, if you so distrust me?”
“Confessing?” said he, “the good? Why, because I have no legs to runaway, and a man’s better judgment is always in his legs. My foolishheart is nearer the ground than most. Tread on it, thou Circe; andprove me less than half Ulysses. Confess to me—confess; and I willstay, and smile—and believe.”
“No,” I said, recovering my confidence. “I swear not to, unless youconfess first. I asked you the other day how—how you came to losethem; and you put my question by, sir, and were dreadfully rude intothe bargain. Very well, I am waiting to have you atone by answeringit.”
I dropped into a chair, and he followed me, and squatted himself onthe floor, a very abortion of passion, yet moving somehow in hisgrotesqueness. I kicked off my slippers, and put my feet into hishands—
“There,” I said, “they are tired, Gogo. Soothe them while you talk.”
He caressed the weariness from them, as gentle as a woman.
“I am at odds,” he said, in a low great voice, full of emotion, “I amat odds with what remains of myself. How can I reconcile this with myloyalty to the poor inspired ape I serve, and love through serving?”
“How did you come to serve him?” I whispered, half drugged by thecreature’s touch. “You are cleverer than he, better educated, and allthat.”
“I love,” he groaned, “I have always loved, to find romantic excusesfor the material uglinesses of life; to get a little salt out of itsoffences. Who are those who say the visible form is but an expressionof the individual spirit—an internal autocracy shaping itself on thesurface? Poor atomists who cannot feel the pressure of all eternitymoulding them from without! Amidst sordid functions they go gropingfor the essence, turning blank faces to the sweet air, the sun in thetrees, the far-drawn winds, the song of birds and scent of flowers,all the spirit influences which really shape us. The soul ceases atthe portals of the senses. The dross it carries with it alone goes onand in. We are but so many obstructions in the vast harmony—foreignbodies which it is for ever striving to penetrate and decompose. Itfocuses its burning light upon us; it takes the swimming heavens forits lens; and we die and are dissolved into it. Only in rare instancesdoes the process wring from us a fine frenzy, or melt us into song;and then we see genius—genius, which fools call self-issuing, butwhich is really spirit reflected, like heat cast back from a wall.”
“You odd creature,” I murmured. “You may go on, though I don’tunderstand you a bit. Has Mr. de Crespigny been half melted into song?I shouldn’t be surprised, by his appearance.”
“Nor do I understand,” he said. “I can find romance in everythingexternal to man, but I can’t pursue it into his organic tissues. Canyou be so penetrated by it, and yet not perish, or even show onescar? I think you are immortal, woman; unless it is the genius ofhuman beauty which you reflect, and which will presently destroy andannihilate you. Why, then, I would give my own soul to keep yousoulless, you wretched, adorable child.”
“Gogo!” I protested, too languid to be resentful.
“Ay!” he said, his voice hoarse with miserable passion. “Let me speak.It is all the licence I ask. I know my place, if I have grown confusedabout my service. What I don’t know is why I, a free spirit, who havenever before truckled to the flesh, should suddenly find myself boundto it, soul and honour.”
He bent and kissed the foot he was caressing; then quickly sat up, andset his strong teeth.
“You ask me how I came by my hurts,” he said. “Well, listen to thestory of this most laughable butt of Fortune. It is soon told.”
He passed his hand across his forehead.
“It has been my doom to serve Nature; to worship her through thosevisible concentrations of her light upon individuals whom we callgeniuses. How I discovered too late that her preferences werearbitrary, fanciful, often unworthy; that her signal gifts could beused to stultify her own creed of natural faith, natural justice,natural order, let these witness and call me fool.”
He jerked up his poor stumps so comically that I could not helplaughing.
“Ay,” he said, “a tragic prolegomena to the history of a Dutchtumbler, isn’t it? Well, for the text. It was at Oxford that I met andworshipped my first genius. He was a man of great family, an inspirednaturalist, an unerring shot and rare sportsman. In those early dayswe had already planned an expedition together to the unexplored NorthWestern ‘Rockies,’ for the purpose of making such a collection oftheir flora and fauna as should bring us wealth and reputation. Thoughthe world of Nature seemed even too cramped a stage for my boundlesslust of life, the prospect of those unspeakable teeming solitudes,inviting all that was most strenuous in me to conquer, was a certainsolace in itself. My soul sought territory; it seeks it still; and,though I be what I am, the stars, this poor earth once subdued, stillenter into my plan of campaign.
“I was not rich. When the time came, I had to realise all my capitalto sail with my friend. We reached, after considerable hardships, theAthabasca territory, and thence started on our exploration westwards.I soon found that my comrade, though a genius in comparative analysisand definition, lacked the physique necessary to the task we had setourselves. He was often ailing and querulous, and the gathering of thespecimens practically devolved upon me. Still, we had garnered andclassified a considerable harvest in one of the little settlements ofthe Fur Company, before the accident befell which was to deprive mefor ever of the fruits of my devotion. We were one day duck-shootingover a lake, when the ice broke and my friend was plunged in frozenwater to the knees. His frantic cries brought me hurriedly to hisassistance. By the greatest good fortune a little gravelly shallow hadreceived us; but, inasmuch as this shelved away acutely on every side,our desperate scrambles to escape only let us into deeper water. Therewas nothing for it but to stay where we were till rescue could reachus from the shore, and so we set ourselves to endure. Not long, on mycompanion’s part. He soon complained that he must die unless relieved.He was frail and spare, and I only something less than a giant. I tookhim first into my arms, then upon my shoulders, designing to hold himso until succour came. It reached us in the shape of some Indians fromthe shore, who pushed a canoe towards us over the ice. But by then Iwas stark frozen, and my legs to the knees insensible. By chance therewas an ex-medical student in the settlement, who turned what roughknowledge of surgery was his to the best account he was able. One ofmy legs was mortified beyond recovery; and this he amputated. Theother, after incredible suffering, was saved to me. For weeks,however, I was kept knocking at death’s door; and, when at length Icould creep from under the shadow, it was to the knowledge of ananguish more cruel than the other. This man, this genius, whom I hadgiven so much to save, had deserted me while I lay stricken, and,carrying with him all the rare accumulations of our enterprise, hadgone south to Vancouver. There was no message left, no considerationfor me in all his vile philosophy of self-interest. It was just a caseof treacherous abandonment.
“When I was sufficiently recovered, I pursued him by tediousheart-breaking stages, long months in their accomplishment. I will notweary you, you thing of thoughtless life, with their particulars. Iwas sustained, and only sustained, through all by the thought ofwresting from this scientific egoist an acknowledgment of my share inthe practical success of our expedition. At last, poor, friendless,crippled, I ran him to earth in London. I found him there, his namewrit famous in the annals of the Royal Society; himself the honouredrecipient of its gold medal; his collection—our collection—alreadyon view in the hallowed precincts of Crane Street.
“I faced, and upbraided him with his treachery. He retorted coldlythat he had never considered me but as the servant of his enterprise,useless to it when once, through my own folly, disabled. I found afriend, and the affair made a little stir. To my accusations heanswered that he had employed, but had been forced to discard me,through the irregularity of my habits. Outraged beyond words, Ichallenged him; he accepted, and we met at Richmond. His first shot,aimed with diabolical ingenuity, shattered the bones of my sound knee;and, in the result, the limb had to be amputated above. When I wasdischarged from the hospital, it was to find the exhibition closed,the town empty, and myself thrust upon it, a helpless, destitute hulk.
“The friend I have mentioned, humorous and good-natured, came to myassistance. He commanded some pale interest at Court. By means of it,he procured me, as an expert naturalist, the post of Royal Ratcatcher,in succession to a Mr. Gower, who had lately filled the office at ayearly salary of one hundred pounds. The royal economy, however,docked me, as only two-thirds of a man, of a third of the sum. I worea uniform of scarlet and yellow worsted, with emblematic figures ofrats destroying wheat-sheaves embroidered on it; and in this I stood,the laughing-stock of the maids of honour, for three years.
“At the end of that time, having had the misfortune to overlook a ratwhich had made its nest in a pair of the Duke of Cumberland’s statebreeches, I was dismissed without a character. Again I applied to myfriend, and was recommended by him, for my scientific attainments, toa French nobleman, who was troubled by the croaking of frogs in hisponds, and employed me to whip the water all night with a long wand ofwillow that his rest might be undisturbed. But the constant immersionrotting my stumps, and he refusing to supply me with others, I wasobliged to resign my post, and returned to England.
“In the meantime, my friend had died of a humour, and I was strandedentirely without resources. For some time I earned a precariouslivelihood, in my naturalist character, by worming dogs; and again,one still more precarious, by cleansing ladies’ toupées of thevermin which long usage engendered in them. It was here, while servingmy master, a wig-maker, that chance brought me acquainted with mypresent manner of service.
“During all this time, I will say, I had never ceased to regard soulas external to form, or to scout that introspection which is the realunhappiness. What did it concern me, if I was destroying rats, orpicking fleas out of a poodle? In any case, I was helping Nature toits freer manifestations on matter, and, in my constant communion withit, prepared to welcome such rare accidents of genius as might come myway. My master’s business brought him into frequent relations with thetheatre; and it was thus that I first encountered de Crespigny, whowas at the time acting scene-painter to the new house at Sadler’sWells. I had no sooner had the chance to see his work than Irecognised genius, glaring and manifest. He did wonders in a fewtouches, that he might idle for an hour. My opportunity was come, andI entreated him to employ me, in however menial a capacity. He wastouched by my enthusiasm; flattered, perhaps, by my admiration;persuaded by my strength. He engaged me, first as his assistant; soonas his nurse and mentor. For years I have helped to direct his career,have goaded his inspirations, cossetted his weaknesses. Ah, child! Heis my child, made glorious by my faith in him. Do not seduce me frommy allegiance to my child, and for the first time make me out of lovewith Nature!”
He ended with a groan, and flung himself prostrate on the floor,beating, I think, his forehead against it.
“Poor Gogo!” I said. “You have confessed; and so will I now. He is mychild too. I adore him, and am so ravished by his art that I could notrest with thinking what he had made of the portrait. Do you know,Gogo? I will tell you the truth. I was hunting for the key of thepress when you came in and caught me.”
He lay, without answering.
“Won’t you lend it me, Gogo?” I coaxed softly.
“Thank God,” he muttered, raising his head, “I am tied from thetemptress. It is not in my power, thou Circe. He always carries itwith him.”
I ADD THE LAST TOUCH TO A PORTRAIT
That same night, while undressing, with my room door open for theheat, I suddenly thought I distinguished an unwonted footstep on thelanding below me, from which Patty’s little chamber led. I listened,quite still, for some moments; then, the stealthy sounds seeming torecede into the hall and thence die away, descended cat-footed to thelanding, and, after hearkening an instant, opened her door swiftly andnoiselessly upon my friend. Instantly I knew that the amazed suspicionwhich had sprung upon my heart was justified. The child stood beforeme, terror in her startled eyes, her dark hair falling upon hershoulders, a brush in one hand, a paper in the other.
“Diana!” she gasped, in a whisper. “What do you want?”
“Has he been with you?” I asked instantly, leaving her no time toprevaricate.
“With me!” she exclaimed, so scandalised and incredulous that theworst of my qualm was laid on the spot.
Without another word I held out my hand. Without a word she put thepaper into it. I took it, and read—
Of all flowers the pet,”—
(“O, shameful!” I whispered, and set my lips.)
“O, beautiful, beautiful, sweet Mignonette!
Dear, kind little blossom,
Soft, soft in the bosom,
Who gives to thee, takes from thee, sweet Mignonette?
Was it thou at her ear that shed sweets passing by me?
Is it thou in her shape, or herself that doth fly me?
Is it thou, is it she, Mignonette, Mignonette,
That I follow, must follow,
As the Summer the Spring,
Who hides warm in the wing
Of its darling the swallow?
As love chases the swallow
To the eaves and the leaves
High up under the roof,
Mignonette, so I follow.
Ah! to whose little chamber,
As I clamber,
I trow not, I know not
What dream flew before to the room high aloof.
But my heart pants delight
In the thought, half a fright,
Half delirious sweetness,
That the spirit of the flower,
That the spirit of the hour
Shall reveal love’s completeness.”
She was as pale as death and trembling all over as I looked up. Forthe moment my heart withered to her. The shock, the outrage wasunendurable.
“Who wrote this?” I demanded, in a hoarse whisper.
She did not answer.
“Speak,” I said. “How did it come to you?”
“I heard it slipped under the door,” she muttered.
“By him? O, you little traitor and wanton!”
She fell on her knees, sobbing and clinging to me in a soft anguish ofdesperation.
“O, my dear, don’t look at me so! I’m not untrue to you. I neverimagined it was me—no, not for one moment—till to-night.”
“And you are shocked, no doubt, to find your precious virtue at fault.O, you little serpent that I have trusted and warmed in my bosom!”
“Diana!” she wept, in a very frenzy of despair. “O, what can I say ordo? I thought it was you. It shall be you, Diana!”
“Yes, it shall be me,” I answered, “but no thanks to you. Don’t thinkthat this is anything but a passing mood of his, played upon you formy delectation because I have been cold to him of late.”
“I think it is, I know it is,” she said, brightening.
“And you hope it is, I daresay,” I said scornfully.
“Yes, indeed,” she answered. “There is no love in the world but yoursthat I care for, Diana!”
“Love!” I exclaimed. “Don’t flatter this poor half-breeched makeshiftwith the sentiment.”
But I looked down on her more kindly, with a vexed laugh. Mygood-humour was returning to me. It seemed too comical, the way wethree pious spinsters were scrambling for the favour of asheep’s-eyes. A pair of small-clothes flung into our nunnery had beenworse than an apple of discord. Skirts were so de rigueur with us,that I think even Gogo’s wooden legs seemed a little outrés.
“I do believe you were innocent, in everything but your cuddlesomelooks,” I said, relenting.
“O yes, Diana!” she answered eagerly. “And I can’t help them.”
“Would you if you could?” I questioned doubtfully. “I don’t know.There is a good deal of method in artlessness. It can always pleaditself in excuse for enjoying the pleasures which we sinners must takeat the expense of our consciences.”
She knelt at my feet, silently fondling and kissing my hands.
“Are you sure you don’t regret giving him up?” I asked.
“Quite—sure,” she answered, so faintly as to set me off laughing.
“There, Patty mia,” I said; “you are not to be sacrificed to aself-indulgent vapours. You will see some day how kind I am being toyou; and you shall have a large family yet.” And with that I kissedand left her, taking the paper with me.
I will admit that the shock to my vanity was for the moment acute,until reflection came to convince me that this rickety light-o’-love,wearying of his one day’s abstinence, and finding me inaccessible, hadonly palmed off on my friend the reversion of sentiments inspired byme. On further reflection, too, I was not the more angry uponrealising that I had acquired a useful weapon for goading him to adefinite decision upon an action long deferred—our flight together,that is to say, and, when once emancipated from the stuntinginfluences of Wellcot, the union which, it was understood, was to beconditional on his satisfying me that his ambitions and mine weremutually accommodating partners. But now, if for no other reason, Ifelt that I owed it to my affection for my poor little friend toprecipitate this step, lest she should be led, through her naturalincapacity for denying anyone, to making herself miserable for life;and so, armed with my pièce de conviction, I ended by sleeping verysoundly and comfortably.
I did not even hesitate the next morning, but, about noon, singingvery cheerfully to myself, descended to Mr. de Crespigny’s studio. Thedoor was locked. “Open, please,” I said.
“Go away,” he answered crossly. “I’m at work on the portrait.”
“Yes?” I said; “but I want to come in.”
Perhaps there was something in my tone. Anyhow, after a shortinterval, during which I heard him wheeling his easel about, heunlocked the door himself. I marched straight in, and, quite radiant,nodded to Gogo, who, busy in a corner, gazed at me with a sort ofgloomy alarm.
“Mayn’t I look?” I said, smiling.
“No!” said de Crespigny sharply.
I went and held the paper under his nose.
“Didn’t you slip this under the wrong door last night?” I askedcalmly.
“There!” growled Gogo, and throwing down his tools faced aboutfuriously.
De Crespigny’s face went mottled, and he began to shake all over. Thensuddenly he rallied, and flamed on me, stuttering.
“Wha-what right have you to ask? I may address whom I like, withoutrequesting your leave. My-my lady shall be informed what spies she’sgot in her house.”
“You ass!” roared Gogo.
“From me—yes,” I said. “I’m going straight to tell her.”
Gogo stumped fiercely, and put himself between me and the door. Hismaster collapsed like a pricked bladder.
“You’ll ruin yourself,” he gasped, between tears and bullying. “If youruin me, you come down too—don’t forget that.”
“O, in a noble cause!” I said mockingly: “to open the eyes of mymistress and my friend.”
He stamped about in a little impotent frenzy, then came and almostprostrated himself before me.
“I—I thought you’d forsaken me,” he cried; “I swear I did, Di;and—and I was as miserable as a dog, and wanted sympathy, I did, inthis cursed strait-laced nunnery. Don’t tell on me—don’t; and I’ll goon with your picture here and now.”
In a fever of trepidation, he hurried from me, calling on me not togo, and fetched the canvas from the press and brought it to me.
“See,” he said, “you little injured innocent—yes, you was quite rightto be hurt; but—but it’s you I love, Di—it really is—and”—
The canvas fell from his hand. He stood, gaping, as if in the firstshock of a stroke. And I turned; and there was madam standing in ourmidst, every atom of colour gone from her face.
There are some situations, my Alcide, that can only be ended brutally.I don’t know what deadly instinct drove me to the portrait; but to itI ran, and turned it with the easel about. Then, I declare, I felt asif I had committed murder. The wretch, with what fatal purpose I couldnot tell, had done nothing less than mutilate his own inspiration. Inplace of the lovely roses of yesterday was the worn, haggard woman ofto-day, and the harp in her lap was a tangle of broken strings.
I felt for her. Looking in her face, I almost repented my part. Therewas a dreadful smile on it, as she went very quiet and breathless, andlifted the “Una” from the ground.
“It is very pretty,” she said, “but hardly proper to a child of theGood Shepherd.”
Then I hated her as I had never done before, and rejoiced in herdownfall.
“I was looking for you, Diana,” she said, in her straitened tones,“and heard your voice here. Will you come with me, please?”
And so she went out, deigning not one look at that insult of her ownface, nor one word to the hangdog perpetrator of it. She went out, ascold as ice, and I saw Gogo, standing by the door, droop his head asshe passed. Tingling with the joy of battle, I followed her. I knewthat my long martyrdom was nearing its end.
Outside in the hall she turned to me, quite stiff—I wondered how herlimp corsets could support so much dignity—and bade me retire to myroom till she should send for me.
“And if it is to find you on your knees,” she said, “why, by so muchwill the duty I have to perform be made the easier.”
Well, to do her justice, I believe that her heart was as near brokenas one can be.
“Thank you, ma’am,” I answered. “Do you want to flog me? ’Twouldscarce improve your case, I think, with Mr. de Crespigny.”
I ran up lightly, humming to myself. I heard her give a little gasp,and then go on her way to the parlour. Nobody came near me while Iwaited, until, in a little while, a servant knocked, to summon me. Iwent down at once, as jaunty as you please. Father Pope was with her,I saw, as I entered the room.
“I wonder how much of the truth she has told him?” I thought.
She was seated, perfectly colourless, while her companion stood,lowering and uneasy, by a table hard by. She bent a little forward,drawing her breath, I fancied, with difficulty, and addressed me atonce.
“You have asked pardon of God, I hope?”
I tossed my head.
“For what, madam? What have I done?”
She appealed to the priest, with a little momentary helpless gesture;then bit her thin lips, as if stung by his silent perversity toresolution.
“For the deceit you have long practised on us,” she said.
“O, madam,” I answered, “do you refer to the gentleman’s attentions tome? I could hardly be so immodest as to confess of them to you, when Idid not even know to what end they were advanced.”
She held up her hand dully.
“I allude to your privately sitting to him for—for that—for hismodel,” she said.
“Why, I had my respected example, madam,” said I. “I didn’t know butwhat we were expected to accommodate the gentleman, seeing youyourself gave us the lead.”
She rose quickly, striking her hand on the table.
“To make of yourself, pledged to Heaven, a shame and a wanton in hiseyes! O, ’twas infamous!—Not that,” she checked herself hurriedly, “Iblame him—not altogether. Art is a strange creditor, that makesdemands, scarce comprehensible to us, upon those who practise it. But,you”—
“Are you blaming me, madam,” I cried, “because he has not paid youto your liking?”
She turned away, as if quite sick. Father Pope took up the tale.
“Silence!” he roared, “you little dirty liar and trollop!”
“O, no doubt!” I piped him back, “because I rejected yourattentions.”
He took a step forward, his great fist clenched, his glasses blazing.I don’t know how he might not have forgotten himself, had not LadySophia come quickly between.
“Hush!” she said. “It is all to end here, Father.” She turned quietlyon me. “Father Pope is, I am sorry to say, justified. You havedeceived us in more things than one, Diana. It is not so long, I musttell you, since I heard from the Sisters of les Madelonnettes thatyour original story of your unhappy mother’s death was false, shehaving but a few months ago returned penitent and broken to die in thevery convent she had so shamed and disgraced.”
I gazed at her, bewildered, for an instant, and then, as the truthpenetrated me, with a horror and passion beyond control.
“O,” I cried, “this is too much! And I believed her long dead ofgrief; and you never told me—never let me see her: and I think youare the wickedest woman in the world!”
She stood staring at me, silent, as if stricken.
“Cave anguem!” sneered the priest, with a brutal laugh.
I turned upon the pale woman with a furious stamp.
“Why did you never let me know? How dared you keep it from me? I willgo to law about it and have you hanged!”
“If I could have thought”—she began, in a whisper; “if I have bychance done wrong”—
“Wrong!” I cried violently, “you have done me nothing but wrong sinceI came here. You have always misunderstood and disbelieved in me; andnow, it seems, you had no right to adopt me at all.”
I ended with a torrent of tears.
“I want to leave you,” I sobbed; “I want to go away into the convent,and be at peace where no one can hate and slander me.”
“Ha!” said Father Pope, moving, and hunching his shoulders, “thenthere our wishes jump, and no time like the present. So go collectyour duds.”
“Diana!” whispered madam again, in her stunned way, and made a littlemovement towards me. But I shrunk from her, shivering.
“No, don’t touch me—please,” I said. “I’ll go to the Sisters,who’ll be kind to me. I’ll do anything you want—only not stop here.”
I saw her put her hand to her heart as I tottered from the room. ThenI ran upstairs, and hurried to put some little properties together.
I quite acquiesced in the movement—was eager to hasten it, in fact.The truth is, that, of Wellcot and the convent, the latter appeared tome by far the less formidable as a present asylum. Any further meetinghere between me and Noel was rendered virtually impossible; nor was itlikely that the outraged spinster would prove so accommodating to ourpurposes as the artless little fatties across the valley. One needhave no fear of being buried alive in a dovecot.
While I was hastily collecting a few necessaries, my sweet girl creptin, and made a little sweet nuisance of herself, distressing andimpeding me.
“There, dearest,” I said, as I wrought preoccupied, “you are the bestof loving chickens, and I shall have plenty of use for you by and by.Only at present—there, don’t pout—I am too jubilant in the prospectof escape to cling and kiss and cry with you. I’m not going to Land’sEnd, only across the way; and mind, no more communications from acertain gentleman, miss, unless on my behalf.”
She promised, with new floods of tears.
“Then,” I said, pushing her playfully away, “find me my vinaigrette,child. Father Pope is going to convey me in the carriage.”
I AM INFAMOUSLY RETALIATED ON
I remember once dining in Sorrento with the Marquis de P——, a mostexclusive sybarite and dilettante. The table was spread with a fleshsilk damask, whose very touch was a caress. Before each of thecompany—a small and appreciative one—was placed one iridescentVenetian goblet, and a bunch of lavender in a floss silknapkin—nothing else whatever. The room—vaulted into Moorisharabesques, and swimming with a slumberous half-penetrable light, inwhich the crusted gold of stalactites, high in the groining, alloyedand confused itself with the stain from purple windows—gave upon adusky pillared court, where zithers and the plash of a fountain weddedin soft music, and the breath of orange blossoms made us a dimimpalpable barrier against the world. The plates were served eachready charged, and each with a golden spoon only; for knives were notto be allowed to sever this dream of sensuous rumination. There wasbut a single wine—the Château Yquem, which is reserved for thenobility of its district, and which never goes beyond but in a fewfavoured directions. We talked but little and idly, with a mingling ofdelicious sighs and happy low laughter. Towards the end the zithersceased; the remote fountain tinkled alone; and a girl, a ghost ofloveliness, danced and wreathed herself without in a flood ofmoonlight. It was all perfect satisfaction without surfeit. Of such isthe kingdom of heaven. And yet there are times when I wonder if myhost has gone to join Lazarus or Dives. Mon ami, I am often full ofsuch wonders; and then sometimes—when, perhaps, I have not kept theperfect proportion, and my head aches—I think I will end my days in aconvent, and purify my wicked digestion on lentils and spring water.Only, where is the convent? I have seen some in my day, and in not onehave they cultivated their little paradise on cabbages. I find myselfstanding aghast on that neutral ground between the world and theChurch; and, alas! there are so many other nice people standing thereto keep me company. With such, this desert itself becomes an Eden, andon either side I cannot escape from it but into another.
The Convent of Perpetual Invocation received me with open arms from mymorose jailer. It conducted me, in the person of its Mother, to thesunny parlour, and there sleeked and patted me fondly.
“You dear,” she said. “I am so glad we have got you at last.”
Her coif looked as if she had slept in it, and her plump hands were byno means over clean. She was a stumpy, beaming little woman, moistwith good living. Her skin worked so freely, and in such prosperousfolds, it might have made a dyspeptic sigh with envy. I felt at homewith her directly.
“There, dear,” she said, “you have brought us many good things in yourtime, but none so good as yourself; and now we take you in pledge ofbetter.”
It may have been meant as a little sly spiritual reflection, but shesmacked her ripe lips over it as if she already tasted in me, asmadam’s direct protégée, a very plethora of venison and lardedfowls. For many years, I believe, these good little women had beensecretly looking forward to the term of my novitiate as theirgastronomic millennium. I could laugh, I declare, with remorse tothink how the dear pink little pigs were defrauded.
I had been delivered without directions, but with a surly intimationthat madam would call on the morrow. It was not my business toenlighten anyone; and so I enjoyed the best of my present favour.
She trotted me out by and by to see her asparagus and strawberry beds,fat in promise, though tucked now and slumbering under their autumnblankets of manure; her hives; her mushroom pits; her stewpond thickwith fat carps stuffed up to the neck and something her own shape; herpigeon cotes and rabbit hutches. There was an odd family likeness, ageneral assimilation to the neckless, apoplectic type amongst themall—Sisters, animals, and vegetables. Perpetual invocation, it wasevident, had an obliterating effect on the individual. I shifted myown dimpled shoulders. How long would they be rounding to the contourof these squat little vessels? I thought with a certain terror of myadmirable digestion, and determined as long as I remained here to livesparely. What if, like the wolf in the fable, I were to eat so manyfat pancakes that I could not escape through the hole in the wallagain!
That evening we had a refection of sweet bread and fruit and prayers,and a delightful supper (alas for my resolution!) and comfortabledroning prayers again. Then we went each to her cosy cell, which waslike a crib for a fat baby, and slept the round of the clock toprayers and breakfast. My fellow-sisters delighted me. I never sawsuch a community of bow-windows, the most comfortable little parloursone could imagine for the spirit to be entertained in. They had theirscapulars made very large, and of flannel, so as to serve the doublepurpose of tokens and liver pads. At meals we were forbidden totalk—a most fattening proscription, or prescription. Prayer, at allseasons or out of them, was the single ordinance of thesociety—perpetual invocation on behalf of our unenlightened land. Wewere safe, perhaps, in not considering the logical result of itsefficacy, or, indeed, the prospect of a second reformation might havefrightened us into heresy. For, our point once gained, our occupationwould be gone, and our creed of self-content be called upon tovindicate itself very likely in self-denial. However, England as yetwas far from recanting its heresy of prosperity-worship. Our veryfatness was the best argument in the world to it of our right tosurvive; so it showed no tendency to do other than keep us eternallypraying for it.
Madam drove over on the day following my arrival, and was closeted fora considerable time with the Mother. I was not summoned to herpresence, but I think she did not dare to vent her full heart ofspleen upon me in her report. She could not very well, withoutcompromising herself. She must have revealed, or intimated, however,so much as give the poor woman a hopelessly bewildered impression ofmy personal contribution to art. For the rest, I think she wassatisfied with having scotched her terrible little snake, and did notdoubt that, having done so, my own sense of final commitment to mycalling would keep me immured out of harm’s way, and hers, to the endof time. It must have been with a feeling of guilty relief that shedrove back to conclusions with her inamorato.
The Mother, having sent for me on her withdrawal, looked at me withthe most cherubic doubt and dread, and pressed my hand quitespeechless.
“Dear,” she whispered, all of a sudden, “so very décolletée! andthink of the draughts!”
“Why more than the angels?” I said, pouting. “They don’t wearunderclothes.”
“They are symbols,” she answered doubtfully. “Besides, we don’t know.”
“O, ma mère!” I cried. “What’s the good of being an angel, if onehas to?”
“Hush!” she said. “Anyhow, they may take liberties denied to us.Besides, this young person was not an angel.”
“There you are wrong,” I cried. “She was an angel of purity.”
“Is that so?” she asked a little curiously. “Well, it makes adifference, of course. But it would have been more becoming of her tobe painted by a woman. There is the respectable Madame Kauffmann, forinstance, who, I am told, depicts religion and the virtues. But there,dear, we will say no more about it; only pray to the good Father, nowthe naughty little episode’s over, that we may be accepted meekly intoHis fold.”
I heard no more from Wellcot after this for a couple of days, and wasbeginning already to torment myself with qualms of jealousy of mysweet little vicegerent there, being at the last almost driven tobreak out and precipitate matters, when I was saved by a call from thedarling herself. Our meeting, to which the Mother’s presence gave aconventual sanction, though fond and cordial, would have been barrenof result had not my friend, with a finesse which delighted me, andthe more because I had thought her incapable of it, rid us of ourincumbrance.
“Good lud!” said she, after the first embrace, twinkling through hertears, “if I haven’t left my little basket of cream cheeses for theSisters melting outside in the sun!”
The bait took instant. The Mother, with a little gentle reproof forher carelessness, waddled out with such a benevolent glare as thoughshe had heard the last trump.
“Wait, dears, and I’ll be with you again!” said she.
The moment she was gone, Patty threw herself upon me.
“I hid it under some bushes,” she said, “just to keep her hunting, andwhere it wouldn’t melt really.”
Her second reason was characteristic enough. She could never offer thetiniest hurt from one hand without its remedy from the other. Iforesaw she’d whip her children by and by with a strap ofhealing-plaister, the poor little weak creature.
“O, you naughty little thing!” I giggled; but was serious the nextmoment, questioning and urging her.
“Quick!” I said. “What’s he going to do? Have you a letter?”
She shook her head.
“He’ll have a postchaise outside in a night or two, and will let youknow; but for the moment he’s watched, and daren’t move, or commithimself to paper.”
“The hero! He’s still there, then, at Wellcot? If it had been me, I’dhave had my servants flog him out of the house.”
“O, Diana! How can you say such a thing, and you in love with him!”
“Whom I love I chasten. I’m in love, like Mrs. Sophia, with myselfthrough him. He’s going to make me great. Now, tell me what’s thestate of things there.”
She shook her head rather piteously.
“I don’t know. It’s all very sad and lonely without you. I think shewants to forgive him; but he’s proud and angry, and holds aloof.”
I turned up my nose with a sniff.
“It’s nicer to be a healthy sinner. Her fulsomeness makes me sick. Andhow did you get leave to come and see me?”
“I didn’t get leave at all,” she said. “I daren’t even ask it, feelingsure she’d refuse. I slipped out without telling, hearing cook hadsomething to send. I expect she’ll be very angry when she hears.”
“If she hears,” I corrected her.
She looked at me with sad, puzzled eyes, the comical dear.
“How shall I ever bear with it all after you are gone, Diana?” shesaid. “You’ll let me come and stay with you sometimes, when you’remarried?”
“Now, Patty,” I said, “tell me the truth. Is the creature still makingeyes at you?”
“No,” she answered stoutly; then added, conscience-stricken, “Atleast, I don’t know. I never look at him. But—but—O, Diana! I wishhe’d go altogether, and leave us, you and me, as we were.”
“That’s perhaps not a very kind wish, child,” said I. “But you shallcome and stay with us when once I’ve got him under control, neverfear.” Then, as I heard the step of the Mother returning, “Hush!” Iwhispered; “tell him I’ve no idea of being buried alive here: that hemust arrange it very quickly, or I shall return and give everythingaway.”
She answered silently, with a hug and a gush of tears. She lookedhaggard and distraught, poor little wretch; yet I had no alternativebut to use her.
I waited two days longer, in an anxiety that rose to distraction.Still no message came from him; and at last I made up my mind, andsent him an upbraiding letter by a misbegotten old beldame, with aleery eye, who helped in the convent laundry. She brought me back ananswer—that he would be waiting for me, with a postchaise, in thelane without, at nine o’clock that very night. O, my friend! howdreadful is the first realisation of perfidy in those whom ourinexperience trusts! This cursed Hecate was all the time in the pay ofthe authorities whom my innocence thought to hoodwink. When the timecame, I wondered, indeed, to find Fortune so blind in my interest. Sofar seemed there from being the least suggestion of suspicion, ofuneasiness abroad, chance appeared to invite me with open portals.What Sisters I encountered, even the Mother herself, manœuvred, Icould have thought, to leave me my way unobstructed. Miserableparasites of power, subordinating their consciences to the lusts oftheir abominable little stomachs! To pamper those, they were lendingthemselves without scruple to a deed of unutterable darkness—theconsigning of their innocent sister to a living death.
I found the chaise waiting in a dusk corner beneath trees. A cloakedand sombre figure, engaging me in the shadow, hurried me within, leaptafter, slammed the door, and gave the word to proceed. In a moment wewere tearing through the night.
So great was the flurry of my nerves, I had not, until the lamp at theconvent gate flashed upon us and was gone, noticed that we were fourin company. Then, all at once, I started. The man who sat beside mehad removed his hat and was wiping his brow. Two thick-set, motionlessfigures sat facing me.
“Easy done, sir,” said one of these.
“Ha!” said my companion, “yes.”
In a sudden terror, I struggled to rise. He restrained me.
“Mr. de Crespigny!” I exclaimed.
“Ha!” said my companion again. “You hear that, Willing?”
“I hear,” responded the second of the others gruffly.
My companion turned to me suavely.
“Mr. de Crespigny?” he said. “Yes, and what about him, madam?”
“You are not he!” I cried wildly. “Let me out! He was to have met me!”
With a sort of tacit understanding, they all hemmed me in with theirknees, imprisoning and controlling me at once.
“You make a mistake, madam,” said my captor. “He was not to have metyou. But, be reconciled; time and judicious treatment, I have not theleast doubt, will cure you of this delusion.”
In an instant the whole horror of this snare, of this most wickedscheme, opened like a black gulf before my eyes. The convent—toanticipate an analogy—had been my Elba; now my St. Helena was to bean asylum. She had discovered; or he, the dastard, had betrayed me;and, in the result, she had not hesitated, with the connivance of somesycophant doctor, to stoop to this.
It was night; the chaise drove on by back ways; I sunk back, sick andalmost senseless, and abandoned myself to despair.
I AM WOOED TO SELF-DESTRUCTION
Dr. Peel’s Asylum was known generically as “The House,” perhaps incynical allusion to its licensed irresponsibility to any laws but itsown. It was conceived on the principle of an eel-pot—the easiestthing to slip, or be driven, into; the hardest to escape from. It wasnot so much an asylum as an oubliette; never so much a house ofcorrection as of annihilation. There, in addition to theconstitutionally weak-minded, troublesome heirs, irreclaimableprodigals, jealous wives, importunate creditors, distinguishedblackmailers, chance recipients of deadly secrets—all such, in fact,as threatened the peace of that grand seigniory which has aprescriptive monopoly in it—could be immured by lettre de cachet(it amounted to nothing less) from any accommodating physician, andafterwards “treated,” or disposed of, by private contract. Its methodswere delicate, tasteful, and exceedingly sure. With rib-breaking,starvation, strait-waistcoats, all the vulgar apparatus of theordinary médecin de fous, it had no commerce. Where the removal ofundesirables was in question, it rather killed with kindness;suffocated, like Heliogabalus, with roses; persuaded to the happydespatch with a silken cord. It drove its poor Judases to suicide byputting by, as useless, their moral reparations, and took care to haveat hand the seductive means. If one escaped—a rare occurrence—itpossessed a kennel of highly trained bloodhounds, whose belling warnedthe dark nights with menace. It asked no questions, and expected to beasked none. Its formula was a hint and a cheque.
The asylum ménage was perfectly refined, and its cuisine lavish. Itentertained none but the nominees of the wealthy. The extensivegrounds of the house were a literal maze of beauty, the shrubberiesbeing so disposed as to preclude all thought of restraint. It was onlyupon piercing them, at any point, that one found oneself opposed by ahigh boundary wall, which contained between itself and the estate itenclosed a waste interval incessantly patrolled, day and night, by theasylum watch. Then, indeed, one realised the iron hand in the velvetglove, and started back dismayed from the grin of the nearest sentrywhom one’s movements had called light-footed to the spot.
“A fine view, mum,” he might say, stepping up between ingratiatory andinsolent. “Was you looking for anything?”
Whereupon one would do best to retire, and precipitately; becausethere was no appeal from any brutality offered, in his own domain, byany servant of, or partner in, this lawless oligarchy.
Rising from my little bed, and mattresses full of fragrance and down,on the morning first after my arrival—rising, fevered and exhausted,to the full realisation of my awful position, my eyes encountered thevision of a wholesome, even luxurious, little chamber, and through anunbarred window a most heavenly prospect. I could hardly believe inthe reality of my fate. This was no prison, but an inn, to escape fromwhich it seemed only necessary to pay the score, and have the landlordcry “Bon voyage!” I remembered him the night before—a little tough,square man, drily courteous in manner, with the head and depressedforehead of a burglar. He had been already on the steps to receive me,when we drove up, standing in a patch of light with an expression onhis face as if we had caught him in the act of breaking into his ownpremises. Those we had reached, within two hours of my firstkidnapping, by dark and devious roads. They stood, remote from allother homesteads, a little colony self-contained, some six miles southof Shole.
On the way thither I had soon abandoned all thought of resistance, orof appeal to my captors. They may have heard my sobs and prayers witha certain emotion: virtuous distress had no chance to prevail withcupidity. I sunk into a sullen apathy, my heart smouldering with rage,principally against the craven who had either betrayed me to thisliving death, or, at least, had weakly acquiesced in my doom. Theprospect of revenge, though alternating with despair, alone preservedme from a condition of the last prostration. And in this state I wasdriven up to the House, and to it consigned, the sold slave ofmadness.
In the first terror, with staring eyes, a storm in my breast thatwould not rise and break, dishevelled hair, and, it may be, a look ofthe part I was called upon to play, I shrunk into a corner of the roominto which I was introduced, and stood there panting. Dr. Peel wentinto a thin chuckle of laughter, curiously small and inward from sothick-set a frame.
“Brava!” said he. “Very well observed, madam! But, if you will lookround, you will see there are no bolts, no bars, no locks here, saveas the ordinary appurtenances of a domestic household.”
There were not, indeed, to the common view. To most doors, as I cameto discover, the locks were inside; and, where it was otherwise, itwas—mark this!—to insure from any chance insane attack, especiallyat night, the lives of those which it was particularly desired shouldbe preserved. To be given the full freedom of the House was always asignificant privilege, implying, as it did, one of two things: eitherthat the proprietor had accepted at the outset a round sum down forone’s perpetual incarceration, or a hint that one’s accidental removalwould be handsomely acknowledged by those interested.
Now, as I said, waking on that first morning to free prospects, myspirit experienced a rebound to the most delightful reassurance.Surely, I thought, no worse harm could be designed me than thepunishment implied in my enforced temporary detention in this charminghome, where, it seemed likely, a nominal deprivation of one’s libertywas used to convey a gentle moral or adorn a kindly tale of reproval.I waxed jubilant. If a meek acquiescence in my fate delayed to move myjailers to liberate me, I was confident that my wits would soon findme a way to free myself from so indulgent a thraldom. And in themeantime I would resign myself to the enjoyment of a very novelexperience.
A loud bell summoned us all to breakfast, à la table d’hôte, in apleasant refectory. Dr. Peel took the head of the table, and a plentyof attentive lackeys waited. There was no restriction, norinterference with one’s individual tastes. I accepted silently theplace assigned me between a gaunt, supernaturally solemn gentleman,with mended clothes, a wigless head, and prominent fixed eyes, and thetiniest, most conceited-looking creature with humped shoulders I haveever seen. An uproarious gabble of conversation, interspersed withoccasional hoots and groans, accompanied the meal throughout.Occasionally my solemn neighbour would turn to me and remark,fiercely, as though daring a contradiction, “Enough is as good as afeast; but more than enough is less than nothing.”
On the third repetition of this formula, the little man on my otherside addressed me with an ill-tempered chuckle—
“Bring him down, ma’am, bring him down, or the creature will scorchhis head in the moon.”
While I was shrinking back in confusion, Dr. Peel bent to thesolemnity.
“Captain,” says he, with an ingratiatory grin, “you’re drinkingnothing.”
“I don’t want anything,” said the other, in a loud, bullying voice.
“Nonsense,” answered the doctor. “You must keep up your character.Here, John.”
He spoke to a lackey, who was ready on the moment with a decanter. Tomy amazement, the man filled up the gentleman’s breakfast cup with rawbrandy.
He shifted, glared, hesitated, and caught up the pungent stuff.
“Enough is as good as a feast, but more than enough is less thannothing,” howled he, and swallowed the fire at a draught.
He had hardly consumed it, when he cast the cup into splinters on theboard, staggered to his feet, and, moaning to himself, left the room.The conversation died down for a moment, and was instantly resumedmore recklessly than ever. I felt suddenly sick.
“He-he!” sniggered my little companion. “He’s been long taking hishint, the fool, and outstaying his welcome. But Peel’s done it atlast, I do believe.”
I did not ask him what. My spirit felt engulfed in deep waters ofterror. I sat dumb and shivering, till the meal ended, and the companybroke up and dispersed itself about the grounds. Many, rude, curious,fantastic, came about me to inquire, mockingly or fulsomely, into mymalady. To all their solicitations my little companion, who hadappropriated me, turned a rough shoulder and rougher tongue.
“The lady has confided her case to me, you pestilent cranks!” hescreamed, and succeeded in extricating and convoying me to a remoterpart of the grounds. On the way we encountered two men, likegamekeepers, carrying a ghastly sheet-covered burden on a litter.
“Ho-ho!” said my friend, stopping. “It was arranged for the tower, wasit?”
“Now, lookee here, Jimmy,” said one of the carriers, while the twopaused for a moment, “you’re too precious fond of poking your nosewhere you ain’t wanted, you are. You go along to your games, and leaveyour elders to theirs till you’re growed up.”
“Grown up!” screeched my companion, whose chin, indeed, was thick witha grey bristle, “grown up, you puppy, you calf, you insolent lout!”
Crazy in a moment, he danced in the path, screaming and shaking hisfists. The men resumed their way, laughing. Suddenly he caught himselfto a sort of reason, white and shaking.
“They want to drive me to it,” he said. “They want me to break ablood-vessel; but I see through them, and I won’t be drawn.”
He wiped his forehead, and looked anxiously up in my face.
“You see it, don’t you?” he said. “The fools are envious of my inches.But you ain’t, are you, being a woman?”
“No, no,” I said, smiling, in a sort of ghastly spasm, in fullunderstanding of his mania. “No, no; or should I select you for mychampion in this? Let us go on, please. Was that—?”
“Yes,” he answered, the question that my fainting spirit shrunk fromformulating, “yes, it was the Captain—good riddance to a conceitedass.”
He strutted along, pluming himself on my praise. All that I havestated—the truth about this smiling, damned Gehenna—I drew from himthen or thereafter. I cannot recall it now without a shudder likedeath’s.
Once that morning we came, in a retired corner, upon the prettiest,greenest graveyard—the sweetest God’s-acre, God pity it! in all thesad world. It was studded with quiet flowers, screened with fragrantshrubs, thick with graves, each a nameless grassy barrow. What depthof tragedy in it all! I cannot, I vow, dwell any longer on thepicture, but must cover the details of it at a gallop.
I was nine weeks, before I found release, in this appalling hell—atime the most stupendous of my life. I will acquit the Lady Sophia ofintending the worst; I cannot acquit her of implying it. Whether fromjealousy, or a true conviction as to the unpardonable nature of myrecreancy, she failed, at least, to assure the instruments of hercruelty that my death-sentence was not intimated in the bond. It ispossible she may have been totally ignorant of the real character ofthe place to which she condemned me. She is none the less responsiblefor the conclusions the Rhadamanthus of that inferno elected to drawfrom her dubiety. Anyhow, I am convinced that my destruction wasdesigned, before I had been there many days.
In the meantime—O, my Alcide, pity thy Diane! What had she done tomerit this fate, the most awful that could befall a brilliant sanity?Very, very soon that early buoyancy was like nothing but the memory ofa bright star, that had exploded and scattered as soon as realised. Asickness, a deadly apprehension, took its place; a sense of somecreeping, circumventing terror, which hemmed me in, stealthy andpitiless, concentrating my thoughts on a single point in this cursedparadise. I was inoculated with the disease of the morbid intellectsabout me. My reason suffered deliberate contamination by theremorseless ghoul my keeper. No fewer than three times during my shortsojourn in his inferno did the corpse of a self-destroyer witness tothe success of his methods. They went to swell the bloody tally ofshrouds under the grass in the little graveyard; and, thinking of themthere, their awful waiting testimony, I would look up to find the evileye of their murderer fixed upon me in covert, lustful speculation.
For long I remained incredulous that my wit could be utterly impotentto devise a means to escape. Gradually, only, the sinisterwatchfulness which guarded every outlet of this green prison, and thefiendish incorruptibility of its warders, was bitten into my brain.Pleas and graces were accepted for nothing but an encouragement tounwelcome attentions, indeed. It was not supposed that one could beinsane and modest. Many sold their virtue for a little surcease fromtyranny, bartered their dearer than life for a poor extension ofliving. At the same time, and for the same reason, a most rigidembargo was placed on all communications with the outside world. Worsethan a Russian censorship doomed these utter exiles from hope.
In the worst of my despair I had written to Patty, to de Crespigny,begging them to intercede for me with the cruel woman, who yet couldnot be aware of the inhuman character of her revenge. Finally, I wroteto madam herself—an appeal that would have melted a heart of stone.My cries were uttered into space. They were never allowed, in spite ofall specious pretence, to penetrate the boundaries of my doom. Theyrecoiled only upon my own fated head, precipitating its calamity, andthe swifter because I was persistent in justifying my birth-name to myhateful would-be destroyer.
The little craze they called Jimmy was my sole stay and buckler. Heattached himself to me vigorously, and by his quickness andwaspishness more than made up for his lack of inches. I never knew whohe was, or immured at whose instigation. There was warrant, anyhow,for his detention; yet not sufficient, it appeared, for his “removal.”His philosophy of madness was just a counterbuff to that of thedeceased Captain. If, in short, more than enough was less thannothing, then less than nothing was more than enough; wherefore Jimmy,twitted with being less than nothing, knew himself really to begreatly better than most, though he could never get over the envy ofsmaller souls in refusing him the credit of his stature. What isapparently little is relatively great, he often assured me, whilebemoaning his inability to knock the truism into the thin asparagusheads that shot above his own sturdy one. He spent the most of histime, and I with him, in what was known as the workshop—a detachedivy-grown shed, buried amongst trees, very private, and with a deepwell in it, and furnished with all sorts of dangerous tools for cranksof a mechanical turn. There he wrought incessantly, for he was acapable carpenter; and there, watching and helping him, I strove toforget something of my misery. One morning, entering this shed, wefound a little group of employés gathered about the well, talking andlaughing, and fishing with a long grapnel. A partition separated usfrom the obscene crew, whose movements, unobserved by them, wecrouched to watch.
“A thousand to one it’s old Star-jelly,” whispered my companion.“’Twas plain from the first the creature was booked.”
They hauled it to the surface while he muttered—a sodden body caughtby its waistband and doubled backwards—and slopped their hideousburden on the floor. The white sightless face settled backwards, as ifwith a sigh of rest, and I could hardly refrain from a scream ofterror. I had known this poor thing for the few days since he had beenadmitted—a wreck so torn, so noisome, so straining the remnant oflife through fretted lungs, it should have seemed a mockery toprecipitate its end. I had known, and never, till now seeing itclothed in the white uniform of death, had recognised it. It was themad incubus of “Rupert’s Folly,” caught somehow tripping at last andconsigned to his doom. The red earl had succeeded by long waiting incuring himself of this itch. He was one of a deadly persistent family.
That night I could not even cry myself to sleep.
I don’t know how it was that I was at last driven to visit the SuicideTower. I had caught glimpses, remote in the grounds, of a picturesque,creeper-hung pagoda set in flowering thickets; but had always, sincethat first morning of deadly association with it, turned with loathingfrom the sight. Now, somehow, by degrees, the thing began to impressitself with a certain fascination on me. I felt drawn to it by ahorrible curiosity, none the less morbidly self-indulgent because Iknew that my jailer, a proselyte of the subtle Mesmer, had long beenpractising to master my will and get me entirely under his influence.Snuffing here, nibbling there, as it were, like a heifer approachingin pretended unconsciousness the stranger in the field, I graduallylost my power of resistance, the circumference of my orbit slowlylessened, until, behold! one day the attraction found me helpless tooppose it, and, with a little cry to myself, I yielded and wentrapidly towards the tower. As I approached the spot, I could hardlyfeel my limbs; my soul, penetrated with a sort of exquisite nausea,seemed already straining to leave the earth; a mist, luminous, vaguelypeopled, eddied before my eyes. Perhaps a confidence derived from thepossession of my duck-stone—which all this time I had been jealous topreserve, using it even occasionally, in moments of prostration, for adrug to my nerves—conduced to my undervaluing the force oftemptations to which I owned such a counter-charm. In any case, I madeso little resistance in the end, that the evil thing concealed amongstthe thick bushes by the tower, whence and whither he had drawn me byhis spells, must have chuckled to see me so easily netted.
The place was perfectly silent and beautiful. A tinkle of water, atwitter of birds reached my ears from some remote height. The towersprang from a circular platform of stone, went up loftily, and brokeat near its top into two or three little tiled flounces. Under thelowest I could see an opening pierced through a rose trellis; andright before me the unlatched door of the building was reached by ashallow flight of steps.
My heart was fluttering like a netted butterfly as I mounted them.What sinister design could possibly obtain in this still and fragrantenclosure? A flight of spiral stairs, going up the interior, was setin a very bower of plumy palms, and ferns, and clambering rich mosses,made greener by the light which entered through green jalousies.Here and there tiny rills of water, lowering themselves down miniatureprecipices, were fretted into spray that hung in the twinkling emeraldatmosphere and was showered on the leaves. Caged cunningly amidst thefoliage, birds of brilliant plumage chirped and flirted; or redsquirrels sprang and clung, staring at me with glossy eyes; orlizards, liquid green as the sun through lime leaves, raised theirpulsing throats, and whisked and were gone. Once a snake, raising agorgeous enamelled head, lashed its thread of tongue on the glaze ofits little prison, seeming to taste my passing beauty in a wickedlust. I felt quite secure and happy. Up and up I climbed, andpresently started singing softly, irresistibly, in response to thegrowing rapture of my flight. New beauties were revealed with everystep, until in a moment, passing, at an angle, through a very thicketof blossoms into white daylight, I saw the meaning, and tottered onthe brink of it all.
I had emerged upon a little ledge, a foot in width, which ringed theoutside of the tower just below the first roof. I was standing there,suddenly, instantly, with not so much as an inch of parapet between myfeet and the edge. Behind was the wall of the tower; below, a reelingabyss and the bare, merciless pavement. Dazzled, irresistibly drawnforward, I longed only to reach the stones and be at rest. But in thatterrible moment my talisman occurred to me. Swaying, half fainting,fighting for every movement, I succeeded in drawing it from my pocketand lifting it to my nostrils—and instantly my resistance wasrelaxed, and I floated down on the wings of enchantment.
When I opened my eyes, drugged and smiling, it was to the vision ofDr. Peel standing before me like an awed and baffled demon. He dressedhis twitching features, and came and cringed.
“Are—are you much hurt?” he stammered.
“No, sir,” I murmured. “Not at all, I thank you.”
“It was your skirts ballooned,” he said. “I could not have thought itpossible.”
I sat up, reordering my hair.
“Do you now?” I said quietly. “Such an escape could hardly come withinyour calculations, I think.”
“What do you mean?” he began loudly, and as instantly collapsed again.“You had no right to be there at all,” he said.
“Nor should I,” I replied, “but to show you that virtue may have afamiliar as well as vice, and one, too, capable of answering to awicked challenge.”
I got to my feet as I spoke. He stared at me utterly disconcerted,and, as I withdrew, followed me like a scourged dog.
From that time he sought rather to preserve than to destroy me, and Ifound myself, as one of the elect, locked into my room at night. Hehad realised, I suppose, that wickedness could over-reach itself inthe chance entertainment of spirits potent beyond the worst it couldof itself evoke; and, though he still clung to me as a sort of hostagefor his own miserable salvation, made many abject efforts towards myconciliation, amongst which I had great reason to reckon a relaxationin the watchfulness which had hitherto dogged my every movement.
I AM RESCUED BY MY MONSTER
Have you not noticed, my little friend, how the wicked are alwaysthe superstitious? It is because life is to them full of dark corners,in which the unsuspected hides. The atheist will still be for baitinga deity whose existence he denies; he will wring a response from avacuum, which failing, he fears to canvass emptiness for the reason.
Dr. Peel knew well the impotence of virtue to conquer. He saw it ofsuch poor force in the world as to figure of no moment at all in acontest with vice. He did not fear God, but he feared that the devilwas God, and vindictive where the harming of his protégées—of whomhe had no thought but that I must be one—was concerned. He had beeneye-witness of the, to him unaccountable, foiling of his project; andit struck him as if he had fallen upon an ambush in one of those darkcorners. He shrunk back terrified, and thenceforth exchanged hisnoisome attentions to me for an attitude of propitiation which was asunwelcome, and even more stultifying, in seeming, to my hopes,inasmuch as it included an increased jealous concern for mysafeguarding. But there, in the end, his service of his dark masterwas made to recoil upon his own head, through his very scepticism ofthe more divinely cunning power which works for good. He would lockme, as I said, into my room at night, thereby securing me not onlyfrom prowling evils, but an asylum in which I might ponder undisturbedwhat plans I could of escape. And it was that security frominterruption which enabled me presently to realise on an opportunityof which I was quite unexpectedly made the mistress.
It fell early very cold and wintry that November, but the chill in myheart was colder than any hailstones. Presently such an apathy ofdespair found me that I would hardly leave my room all day, but wouldsit in a sullen misery gazing, gazing from my unbarred open windowupon the fraction of stiffening world it commanded. It was at a frontangle of the house, pretty high above the ground; and under it thestony drive went round an elbow of lofty trees to the fatal unseengates of the entrance beyond.
One morning, after breakfast, I was seated there, when a chaise rolledup to the steps of the door below, and a moment later Dr. Peel enteredand was driven rapidly away, on some fresh marauding devilry, Iconjectured. The vehicle, sped by a heart-whole curse from my lips,had disappeared scarce a minute, when round the bend of the shrubs ithad taken came striding the oddest figure—an interloper by way of theopen portals, it seemed. Such an event had never, in my knowledge,happened before. I stared, and roused myself, elate even over thismomentary grotesque vision from the world beyond. It was just astilt-walker, a monstrous pierrot, with floured absurd face andconical cap, his legs, cased in linen trousers, rising an immenseheight from the ground. As he came on, ridiculously gyrating, he blewa pipe, and rattled at a little tabor that hung from his neck. In thesame moment he saw me where I stood, and danced up, rolling andwallowing—for he was an incomprehensibly great creature for such atrade—and broke into a mad, jerky little chaunt, half French, halfEnglish, as he approached—
“O-ha, mamselle! Je vous trouve, je vous salue! A la fin çà, çà,çà!
“‘Be’old the mountaineer,
He sik for edelweiss,
I have found my dear
Very high and very nice—çà, çà, çà!’”
He flicked off his cap—with a grin that showed, though against theflour, a set of perfect teeth—and in three strides was at the window,his eyes and huge white face above the level of the sill. Even in theinstant, as if the former were a cypher momentarily isolated for myreading, I understood, and was stricken to stone.
“The graveyard!” whispered the pierrot in that instant: “be at thewall over against it at ten o’clock to-night”—and reeled away, to apantomime of grins and pirouettes, as the lodge-keeper came raginground the corner in pursuit.
“O que nenni dà!” cried the intruder, twisting and turning andaffecting to bend with laughter. “O, madame! O, fie! I am veryhonourable z’jentlemans. Wat, I say! I make you good proposals tomarry. I display my parts, v’là!”
He contorted himself, with absurd coquetry. “Wat!” he protested,pausing; “madame declines of the ravishment? She does not move herselfto fly with me? Vair well”— He pretended of a sudden to espy hispursuer, and pressing his cap to his breast, waltzed up to him.
“Hey, my little fellow,” he cried (the lodge-keeper was at least asbig as Daniel Lambert), “it is for you, then. You know the best wat isgood. I will not abduct madame: I will not marry at all. It is vairmuch satisfaction. You see me dance, hein? Come on, jollygarçon!—
When a man marries—heh?’
When a man’s single he live at his is—you spik French, but yes?”
The lodge-keeper hawked up a glair of oaths, and discharged them. Heswore by all his gods that he would cut off the intruder by the legs,unless he went out, and double quick, the way he had come. Then ensueda comical scene. The pierrot, affecting to retreat after a briefaltercation, swerved suddenly and seated himself on the branch of atree—
“O-ho!” he said, as the other came lumbering up, “it is vair well, butI make up my mind. I refuse madame, it is true. You know to marry,what it is? Listen, then—
“‘At the end of one year one baby:
That is jolly-fun!’”
The lodge-keeper, cursing, made a snatch at the man’s stilts; but,incredibly strong, he whipped them up out of reach, and held them sohorizontal.
“‘At the end of two year two baby—
How it is a little serious!’”
The lodge-keeper swore and jumped, till he was running wet for all thecold; but he was too fat a fox for these grapes.
“‘At the end of three year three baby—
But that is the very devil,’”
bawled the pierrot ferociously, and clashed the stilts like greatcastanets.
Then he settled himself firmly.
“‘One asks for bread,’” bellowed he; and suddenly flourishing hisright stilt, caught the lodge-keeper a stinging smack across the headwith it—
“‘Another for soup,’” he yelled, and gave such a counter blow with hisleft, that the lodge-keeper fairly reeled and went rolling over—
“‘L’aut’ qui demande à téter,
Et les seins sont tarie,’”
shouted the pierrot, and was up and out of sight in a moment, stridinglike Talus. The infuriate lodge-keeper rose, when he had recoveredhimself, to pursue; but he was too late. The pierrot had got cleanaway.
Not till all had been vanished many minutes did I awake from thestunned trance into which I had been thrown by those few whisperedwords. Then, still by the window, I sank upon the floor, and,simultaneously, into a very reel and passion of ecstasy.
How had he traced me? Whence devised this strange method of procuringspeech? Ah! as to that, there were no doubt experiences in his pastlife still unrelated; and, after all, did he not always in ameasure—strictly in a measure—walk on stilts? This was only toextend his wooden legs indefinitely. But after what secret practices,and suspicions averted? For I held him still the creature of hisdespicable master. My Gogo—for it was he! My Gogo, the greatresourceful, affectionate, crippled giant! It was inexpressiblytouching to me to know myself, the poor persecuted, wistful dupe ofFate, still the cynosure of this burning soul—not forgotten, schemedfor, held the sacred object of its desire. All the time I had thoughtmyself abandoned, he had been weaving a ladder for my despair. GoodGogo! Dear, kind, honest Caliban! He would save me yet—he would saveme; and the tears flowed from my eyes. How was he such an actor? Itwas true I had known hitherto only one side of him—the saturnine—theshadow of the great fallen rock. Ah, he could show a lighter for mysake—little roguish sparklets twinkling in the sun of his hotyearning. I loved him at that moment, and my tears fell for him andmyself.
But, stay! What had he whispered? I must remember. At ten o’clock—thewall over against the graveyard? Why had he so chosen—so nicelyspecified? Did he know nothing of the patrol? Yes, likely; but it wasa desperate expedient, calculated upon a possible superstition, upon apresumptive avoidance of so haunted a spot. I pressed my hands to mywet forehead and tangled hair. He had dared and done all he could: therest was for me, whom he knew and could trust. I would not beunworthy. I would answer to him wit for wit.
Half an hour later, serene and wicked as he could have wished, I tookmy way, singing, into the grounds, and, unaccosted, sought that remotequarter where the graveyard was situated. Still softly singing, Ipushed between the trees, and came out into the waste interval againstthe boundary wall which was devoted to the watch. Stooping here topick some chance berries, I had not to wait a minute before the localsentinel, as I had calculated, was upon me. I dropped my spray, withan aspect of alarm that struggled into piteousness.
“O, I am so sorry!” I said.
The man—he was personable enough to make my task the lessnauseous—eyed me, insolent and masterful.
“All right,” he said. “Blow me if you ain’t done it now. Why, don’tyou know as this here’s Prisoner’s Base, and you’re out of bounds?”
I went up to him fearlessly, and taking his hands, muffled in greathairy gloves, looked up into his face. I saw a spot of deeper colourcome into his cheeks, and he breathed fast.
“Shall I confess,” I said, low and urgent, and glancing quickly aboutme, “that I wanted to be caught?”
“Ah!” he said, and showed his teeth in a twitching grin.
“Hush!” I whispered. “I am in great despair. You know perfectly well Iam sane; I shall die if I am detained here longer.”
“O! will you?” he responded.
“Listen,” I said, flushing and hanging my head. “I offer you no money,which I have not got. But there are things—other things—sold here,which”—
I tore my hands away, and, putting them to my face, fell back fromhim.
“Hey!” he said, in a thick whisper, and pursued me. “Why do you pickme out for your favours, you little beauty?”
I did not answer.
“Why?” he insisted.
“If it has to be,” I muttered from my refuge, “you—O, don’t ask me!”
“Why?” he said.
“Well, of twenty evils, choose the best-looking.”
He gave a low chuckle.
“Come along, where we can be private,” said he, and put a hand on me;but I started back, affecting an agony of shame.
“O! what have I said—what promised? Let me go. Don’t think any moreof it.”
“Won’t I?” he said; and added threateningly: “You’ve given yourpromise, remember.”
I looked about me, and again upon my twined fingers.
“To-night, then, at—at ten o’clock.”
“In the workshop.”
“You can get out?”
“Yes; I have a way.”
“That you have,” he said, coveting me with his eyes; “and a prettyone, my darling.”
I entreated him once more, in a passion of emotion—
“If—if I consent, you’ll hold to your part of the bargain?”
“Eh?” he questioned.
“Help me to escape?”
“No fear o’ my forgetting,” he answered. “You may lay to that.”
I knew he meant to betray me in the double sense, and would have givenmore than I feigned to barter at that moment for the leave to beguilehim to me, and slip a knife into his lying throat. But I tasted partof my revenge in the thought of his freezing alone there by and by, inthe rendezvous to which my wits had decoyed him, while I went to myother undisturbed.
He was jealous of me, and suspicious still of so light a surrender.But the prize was worth the risking; and in the end he let me go,gloating over my stealthy retreat, as a cruel schoolmaster might watchthe slinking away of a delinquent whom he had ordered up forpunishment later.
That night fell a harder frost, with glittering stars but no moon.Early secured in my sanctum, I awaited the great moment in such anindescribable agony of mind as I have never felt before or since.Every step near my door was a tread upon a nerve. The stable clock,when it rang out, clear and sonorous, the last quarter after nine,seemed to brain me with its every stroke. I stole to the open window,took intent stock of the quiet, seated myself, poised to spring, onthe sill, and passed my duck-stone at a little distance under mynostrils. The next instant I had alighted safely on my feet, andreeling against the wall beneath, stood a minute to recover. The next,I was round the angle of the house, and sped into the darkshrubberies, where were safety and concealment.
Going very softly in my stockinged feet, and careful of my knowledgenot to penetrate the thicket until close upon the appointed place, Ireached my goal upon the stroke of the hour.
“Well!” whispered a voice from the starlight. “I could trust you.”
He had been stretched recumbent on the wall top, and now rosecautiously to my view, no longer the whitened fool, but the true Gogoof my affections. I looked up at him as from a well; and he swung hislong stilts over, as he sat, so that they rested on the groundbeneath.
“Quick!” he muttered; “without a moment lost—swarm! I can’t bend.”
Heaven knows how I did it—with no better show of grace than LadySophia, I fear. But somehow I scrambled up, until he could reach myhands, and haul me with a mighty power beside him. Then, once more,swing went his legs, and there was the ladder for my descent on theother side.
I clung to him convulsively; I kissed his hands; I could not refrainfrom sobbing.
“O, Gogo!” I said; “what you have saved me from—O, Gogo, what!”
His breath caught like a wounded lion’s.
“Not yet,” he whispered. “There is far to go first!”
“Put me down, then,” I answered, alert in the stress of things.
“No,” he said. “On my back—quick!”
“You are going to carry me?”
“There are bloodhounds,” he replied. “There must be no tracks but thestilts’—no scent for them to follow.”
Then I understood the fulness of his plan; but still I lingered,amazed.
“I am not a child. What strength, though yours, could bear me so?”
He showed me a long staff that leaned to him against the outer wall.
“There is my third prop,” he said. “When I am driven, I can still seatyou upon a branch, and save the scent. The ground is iron, and”—hestruck his chest—“these ribs. Come, and let me wear my heart upon mysleeve.”
The next moment we were off. The great creature swayed beneath me likea tree; but he never staggered or faltered, save periodically to resthimself and me. The sweet night wind blew upon my face, cold andcolder. I snuggled from it into the vast nape of his neck, which waslike a mat for warmth. I had no idea or care whither he was taking me,and the knowledge only that it was by roads deserted at this silenthour. Still he held on, and, when frost and weariness threatened tonumb my brain, could spare a strong hand to imprison both mine lest Ifell. And still the flight endured, and I asked, could ask, noquestion, not even when I grew penetrated by a dull consciousness ofascent—of my comrade straining and toiling beneath me like a strickenSisyphus—of the groaning of the giant spirit in him who would not besubdued. Then, at last, came a pause, and darkness and release; and Ifelt myself swung gently down to rest upon a mat of scented leaves,whose warmth and fragrance wooed me to such a sleep as I had neverknown before.
I BECOME AN INMATE OF “RUPERT’S FOLLY”
I awoke, flushed and happy as a dormouse from its winter bed ofleaves. The world was good again, with all its potentialities of loveand freedom; the sun was somewhere seeking me; there was no ache, butthe sweet ache of memory, in my whole heart and body. Locality, I havesaid before, has never influenced my temper. I make the onlyreservation now of liberty to change it at my will.
I remained some time, with my hands beneath my head, taking stockmotionlessly of my new surroundings. They were odd enough. I lay nearthe wall, it seemed, of a sort of circular ground chamber or cellar,roofed in at an inexplicable height above me. Twice, at intervalsbetween, projecting corbels appeared to show the one-time existence ofupper floors, which, having either rotted away or been removed, hadleft the chamber of a height quite disproportionate with its grounddimensions. In lieu of stairs, a make-shift ladder went up into theroof at a crazy angle, and disappeared through a trap; but it startedfrom the ground so close to a rude fireplace in the wall, that itsbutt was scorched, and more than one of the lower rungs snapped in itssocket.
Over the floor itself were scattered tokens of some late or presentoccupation—a common table, a rush chair or two, battered saucepans, agreasy gridiron, and, hanging on the walls, a frowzy account ofclothes. A line, stretched across a segment of the room, had once heldsuspended a litter of foul-washed clouts; but the string had broken,and its filthy load been kicked aside or trodden into the floor, halfbrick half muck, which paved the apartment.
There were no windows, but, at irregular intervals, narrow loops suchas one sees in old castles; and the single ground opening was adoorway, which let in just such a smear of daylight as served toemphasise the uncleanness.
Recognising in all this the reverse of familiar, I let my wonderingeyes travel round to the parts more contiguous to my bed, and so gavea little pleased start and smile. There, like guardian posts to myslumber, were the long stilts leaned against the wall, their strapshanging loose; and pendent from a nail close by was the very clown’sdress of my memory. I could have drawn it to me and kissed it; but,contenting myself with conceding to it a sigh of affection, I sankback and closed my eyes. Lying thus deliciously, half-submerged in avery nest of dry fern, and with a heavy cloak for blanket over me, Iwould delay luxuriously the moment of revelation; but it was veryevident, I thought, that Gogo had brought me to some wrecked anddeserted mill.
Suddenly, unable to rest longer, I peeped. He was going softly aboutthe hearth, preparing something at a little fire, whose every thickerwaft of smoke he would jealously dissipate with his hands. He stillfeared observation, then! Watching him silently, my heart welled upwith a gush of love for the dear, patient, faithful monster. “Gogo!” Isaid softly.
He started, looked across, and came to me at once, stumping over thefloor in a rapture of response. He took a stool, and, sitting on it byme, gazed eagerly into my face, his own—animal, sinful, anddivine—looking from a very burning bush of stubble.
Smiling, in a drowsy warmth, I put out a hand, and let him imprison itin his own. Ah, foolish little bird, so to commit thyself to the snareof the fowler! I thought he would have killed it, and tore it backfluttering and wounded.
“O, how could you?” I cried. “I was so happy; and you have hurt me!”
He leaned in a hoarse agony to me; his breath groaned in his chest.
“O, come to me!” he implored, “while I make one mouthful of you!”
Then, all in an instant, he was sobbing, and tearing at his shorthair, and crying incoherently—
“What have I done?—to wound my dear! Ride me, flog me, use me, buttrust me no more. Bitter, bitter are the gods, who make a manstiff-kneed for their sport! Not love or penance for me, never, never.Never to kneel—to lie prone only for a show! O, child! it seems alittle thing not to kneel, but—ah, to see others pray and love,yourself forbidden—what pity, what pity! I am the Olympian fool; I amthe ass and clown. Behold my livery!”
He pointed to the dress on the wall, and hung his head and arms in avery grief of despondency. But by now my hurt and little fright weregone, and my heart touched again to softness.
“Gogo,” I said, “give it me down, please.” And he looked up wondering,and stirred and obeyed.
“This, and this, and this,” I said, “in pledge of our one-day contractbefore Jove, or Jehovah, when the maimed shall be made whole.”
My tears dropped on it, as I kissed it three times and gave it back tohim. He received it wonderingly first, then sadly, and held itdrooping over his knees.
“Whole!” he muttered. “Ay, I don’t question I shall find my legs inAvalon; but can even Jove restore the rifled flower its honey?”
Suddenly he cast himself down beside me, groaning like a bull.
“O, little maid, little maid! I am a beggar, I am a beggar; but I wantno reversion of a used estate. Though my own goes lame, I am proud.Give me new-minted money, that no man has worn in his pocket, or noneat all.”
For a moment the great human urgency of the creature made me falter. Iowed him so much! could the devotion of my life more than repay him?But, alas! it needed but a little reflection to see the fondridiculous picture the caricature it was. Had I the right even to riska new generation of Gogos? I saw myself in imagination walking abroad,the proud convoyer of an uncountable number of little shock-headedDutch tumblers. Perhaps if our Sovereign King had received thatCarpenters’ Petition, and brought wooden legs into fashion, I mighthave been tempted; but it was still the vogue to walk on one’s ownfeet.
I sat up, my lips twitching perilously near laughter.
“Dear Gogo,” I said, “I am so thankful to you, and so sorry; and Iwould not have said or done what I did, if I had known it woulddisturb you so. Won’t you let me get up?”
He scrambled to his feet—ah, fie upon the unmeant cruelty of theword!—and stood knotting his great hands, while his breast heavedstormily.
“Well, I think I was mad,” he roared suddenly. “Strike me! Stamp onme! Bind me to a pillar, and let the eternal remorse batten on myvitals! Whatever the spark at my tail, it started me up like a rocket:and behold me at the end, a blackened and empty case!”
He entreated me with his hands—
“Ah, the pagan sight of you! Ah, your wild hair, growing from the fernor melting into it! Ah, your face, the very flowering of a hamadryad!It wrought a frenzy in my brain. Forgive me, forgive me! And I willserve you seven times seven years, for the promise only to begodfather to your last—your Benjamin!”
He sank down on the stool, and, burying his face in his hands, wassilent.
I thought a practical rescue of the situation best, and rising from mybed, went to bestir myself over the fire, which was burning redly.Moreover, a delectable odour had already reached my nostrils from thelittle caldron he had hung there, and whose contents were beginning toinspire me with a very lively curiosity.
I turned to the poor sufferer.
“Gogo, please, it is very sad; but if I am to go on being a hamadryadI must be fed. Gogo, what is in the pot?”
He lifted his head, with a sigh.
“Snipe,” he said, most tragically.
“Ah! What else?”
“A hare, a partridge, teal.”
“Onions, potatoes, carrots.”
“Be quiet, lest I cry. You are the best of creatures, and I am thehungriest.”
“Eat what you will. It is my pot au feu—nothing finished before thenext is added.”
“I can wait no longer. You are the hermit of hermits. Who is yourcommissariat-general?”
“Who but the child your little friend.”
He had arisen, and come across to me.
“She lays it in a hollow tree, twice a week, and twice a week I godown by night and fetch it.”
I stood gaping, staring at him.
“Gogo! Where are we?”
“In ‘Rupert’s Folly.’”
I gave a little cry. He seized me by the wrist, and dragged me towardsthe opened door.
“O, Gogo!” I choked, struggling and resisting, “we shall be seen.”
“What does it matter if we are,” he said fiercely, “since you loatheme?”
I wept and fondled him, in an agony of fear.
“I don’t loathe you. You are my one stay and comfort. Gogo! Will yougive me back to that terror?”
He fell squatting at my feet—it was his substitute for kneeling—andclasped his arms about my skirt.
“Beast!” he groaned; “I neither meant nor could help it. To play uponyour fears!—To taste love by deputy!—O, forgive me, forgive me!”
“Yes,” I said quietly, “for the second time and always, because ofwhat you have done. But I fear for myself now, and shall go onfearing. Let me go—O, Gogo, let me escape into the woods, and breakmy heart on frost and hunger rather than wrong.”
Still clutching at me, with a look of horror, as if he felt the shadowof his last hope eluding him, he scrambled erect again.
“Hunger!” he said. “Think of the snipe and teal! Listen to me, Diana.Before God, I will not offend again. Base, black coward that I am!Before God, Diana!”
I gazed at him intently.
“Why have you brought me here, Gogo?”
“Because,” he answered, “there was no nearer and surer refuge.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Ah, child! But you have not heard the story.”
“Well,” I murmured, reassured, though still shy of him, “if you willkeep your promise and be good, you shall tell it me by and by.”
He gave a great sigh, and, gently disengaging myself, I stole to thedoor, while he followed me with his agitated eyes, and peered out. Itwas Shole, indeed, and the familiar village green that I saw beneathme, looking down the long wintry slope. Quiet and deserted in thechill mists of dawn, no view apparently less tragic, less harmful,could have greeted me. I returned to my companion, who received mewith a pathetic relief. He was quite pale and trembling.
“If my arms had the reach of my heart!” he said. “Well, you have comeback; and so—for breakfast.”
“Patty’s pot,” said I merrily. “The dear shall put new heart into me,as her wont was.”
He had bread, and some bottles of wine, a little of which I drankmixed with water. It was the loveliest, most intoxicating meal; and,when it was over, full of a new grace I bid Gogo to my side.
“Now,” said I, “tell me your story.”
“Well, first,” he said with a grunt, “for your safety here. It was theastrologer’s, and now is ours. He was carried away in a thunderstorm,on a red cloud.”
“What do you mean, Gogo, please?”
“I repeat the common superstition. Anyhow, he is gone, and the placeis haunted and avoided since. Not a clown but myself will come withina mile of it; and as for me, I have lived here for a month undisturbedalready.”
“You? But I know where the poor wretch was taken, and where he died.”
“In the asylum, eh? It is what I supposed; and the red earl comes tohis own. Tell me about it.”
“By and by. I want to know first what brought you here.”
“The wish to lose myself and be lost, where I could devise a plan foryour rescue.”
“You knew where I had been taken, then?”
“No perspicacity of mine. It was the common report. You had lost yourhead over love unrequited, and it had become necessary to confine youfor a while.”
“O, indeed! Go on.”
“I hear your little white teeth clicking. Rest content. You areavenged: he has married her.”
I jumped to my feet.
“He! de Crespigny?”
I burst into a shriek of laughter.
“They were reconciled, then? O, the dear particular lady! Does he wipehis boots on her? Did he take his love-potion very strong on thewedding night?”
“Very strong, no doubt,” said Gogo. And then suddenly he clasped myskirt, and buried his face in it.
“He would; it was his way,” he muttered. “O, girl, spare me and myunhappiness—my broken dreams! Did you not know? I had always astruggle to keep him from it. And now he will go down, down.”
“Yes,” I said, “while she clings to his legs, as fools drowntogether.”
“Would you not have had her try to save him?”
“Ah! You are vindictive.”
“Don’t you hear me laughing?”
“Yes; like the devil.”
“Is it? I should be mad indeed if I could applaud her. Do you bear inmind what she has done to me? She is of the sort who make crueltytheir pander—a frowsy, garterless Jezebel. O, how I hate prudery! Forfive years I longed to open the windows on it, and let the air in, andwhatever wholesome little devils beside. I declare I loathe myself tobe of her sex. Touch me, Gogo. Am I the same, or different? O, to besure! I wish her joy of her bargain—and him.”
“She will pay. But for Noel, weak child of genius—leave me the sorrowof my broken hopes, Diana.”
“And nothing else? Why did he not meet me?”
“He had not the courage at the last moment.”
“And so, having cut the ground from under me, he stepped back, andinstigated madam to her little coup de theâtre, I suppose, andhelped her to push me over the precipice. And you—you sympathisedwith and abetted him?”
“Ay,” he said sorrowfully: “witness my long exile here, gnawing myfingers in the hungry moonlight.”
I sank upon the ground in a passion of tears, and he mingled his griefwith mine.
“Child, I had loved him; and I had but to learn how he had abandonedyou, to leave him. I cursed him—cursed de Crespigny. Will Joveforgive me? What matter, if I have saved you?”
I lifted my drowned eyes and agonised arms.
“Take me to Patty,” I cried, “and let me weep my soul out on her kindlittle heart.”
He shook his head.
“What!” I said; “you will not?”
“She must not even know,” he said. “I could not trust her anxiouslove. She must rest as she is, aware of my endless scheming, but notof its fruits. Some day, perhaps. And in the meanwhile my lady is gonehoneymooning; there is no hope of appeal to her. A breath wouldredeliver you to your fate, and perhaps a worse. Come, and tell me allyou have suffered, poor mistress.”
I crept to his feet, and in broken tones gave him the history of mymisery, to the day, to the hour when he had appeared before me.
“And you have not told me,” I said, “how that was.”
“Once,” he answered, “after I had hidden and settled here, I wasspying through the telescope above—(Ay,” he interrupted himself, tomy exclamation, “they could be bold to capture the dying sorcerer, butto meddle with his tools was beyond their courage)—when I was witnessof a characteristic little affaire on the green below. There were astilt-walker and his wench—a couple of the wandering tribe—along-legged bird of passage and his little cocotte of brightplumage. I could see her glitter where I stood—could see herspangles, and the ribbons float from her tambour as she danced. Andthen suddenly my lord viscount was on the scene. He had been sporting,and carried his gun. He had keepers with him (they were his own; not,as might have seemed apter to his wits, Dr. Peel’s); and his dogs‘pointed’ at the gipsy, I suppose. Anyhow, there was an altercation;and the next I saw was the clown tipped up by his wooden heels, andlying prone. They carried off the girl—willing or unwilling, it wouldhave needed a stronger telescope than the astrologer’s to discern—andpresently the poor stunned fool came to his senses and sat up. I couldsee him try to gather his wits with his hand, plucking at his brow. Hewas alone, who had been in company. Where were the rest—his ravishedmate, and the mob for whom she had tripped and sung? By and by I sawhim, with many starts and delays, unbuckle his stilts, and, havingshouldered them, hobble with slow, painful steps towards the village.He disappeared, and till night I sat thinking of him, and of the‘Contrat Social,’ which M. Rousseau wrote for the angels, and which,therefore, you would not understand, Diana, though, for all my bettersense, I adore you. About dark I descended into the woods at the backyonder; and there I came upon my stilt-walker seated dying against atree. Yes, he was dying. His fall had shattered some ribs, and drivenone into his lung, and death was already thawing the white snow on hisface into patches of blue. I carried him up to the tower, and easedwhat I could of his agony, and received his last message to the world.It is a callous world, this world of ’87; a world of serf and Satanand Christianity crushed between. But I tell you I would rather givethat message than receive it: would rather be Gogo, the clown andpariah, than the Viscount Salted with all his prospective acres. Well,he died, and I took a spade, and buried him at the foot of the treewhere he had rested. Pray God it bears wholesome acorns, for whyshould he wish to poison the swine his brothers? Then I inherited hisproperty; and a thought, an inspiration, occurred to me how I mightuse it. Was I not wont to stump the country, like a halting orator? Icould stump it to higher purpose now—the purpose of your redemption.Sure the spirit of the dead clown would uphold me, for was it notprivilege I fought? So, with no great practice necessary, I became astilt-walker; and presently ventured afield, starting by night,reaping my little harvest of pence in the far villages by day, andunder cover of dark returning. Gradually I contracted my circuit,hovering about your prison; and so, once upon a time, peering over thewall in a wintry evening, spied your figure come and go in the lightof a high room. It might be yours! I must dare all, and cast the die.Well, Fortune favours—the fortunate.”
He ended, to a little silence.
“Poor Gogo,” I said softly. “It is true, I do believe, that I am herspoilt doll.”
“And I,” he said, “her Dutch tumbler.”
I PUT AN END TO ONE FOLLY
Hanging and wiving go by Destiny, which must be my excuse foraccepting the silken cord which was weaving for my neck all this time.I knew no more than patient Griselda about my impending fate; yetDestiny was not to be gainsaid because I seemed content to resolveupon Gogo for my present welfare and protection.
He, good monster, never alluded again, during all the days I was withhim, to his unhappy passion. He was slavish in his loyalty to hisword, and in his attentions to the poor creature so utterly in hispower. And if I could not but understand the significance of his sighsand oglings and contortions, my feigned ignorance of thosehieroglyphics was undoubtedly the most merciful of all the tortures Imight have inflicted on him. Thinking of this, I find salve forcertain bruises on my conscience, which, nevertheless, were, I amsure, quite unnecessarily self-inflicted. I acted for the best, andwith great pain to myself. He has admitted this since, thoughconfessing he was long in forgiving me.
I was in the tower, in all, but four days, which, nevertheless, mighthave been as many weeks for their tediousness. Gogo was anincomparable slave and henchman, only his devotion necessarily lackedthe relish of publicity. If I could have had but one other to whom toboast it, I could have endured it longer. But to be Single-heart’sexclusive fetish, immured in his wigwam and appropriated to his solecompany, was what never appealed to me. Nor do I believe that it doestruthfully to any other. We are omnivorous; we can’t live onspoon-meat alone; and there is an end of it.
“Gogo,” I said once, “why are you so attached to me?”
“Why?” said he, throwing up his hands, after his fashion, with a sortof protesting groan to the powers that be. “Because I am a creature ofsurfaces and impressions; because, drawing my life from the greatexternal of all, it is my doom to worship externals. We talk of ourinheriting the world. Pooh! we are just an itch on the skin of thismonster, whose dark internals are as remote from us as our own hatedorgans. Have we ever a thought of possessing our kingdom? Think withwhat terror we contemplate a living burial. We are the dust of contactbetween earth and sky; are bandied between space and matter, the drossof one or the scum of the other. Love itself is but the measure of ourpenetration. It is the propagation of superficies: it probes nofarther: and all the time is breathing in the air like a swimmer. Aremy eyes in my feet? Ask me why I hate the dark, and am attached to thelight—to the brightest gnat of an hour flying within it.”
“Thank you, sir,” said I. “And that is me, I suppose?”
“That is you,” he said—“dancing on a window-pane, and wondering whatfate keeps you from the garden beyond.”
“And you,” I said, “are the spider lurking in the window-corner,n’est ce pas, and wondering what fate keeps you from devouring me.Well, you are very complimentary; but, for my part, I would ratherhave an hour’s dancing on the surface than possess all the worldthat’s under.”
“Ay,” he answered, “and that’s why I covet you.”
Now, was he not an inexplicable creature, and, it must be said, adepressing? Moreover, for all his advocacy of my cause, I could neverquite reconcile him to my view of madam.
“Remember the day of the picture,” he would say; “and how she rebukedus all by her attitude. If I testify to your martyrdom, Diana, I musttestify to hers that preceded it.”
“She is welcome to the palm,” I cried. “And may she live long toflaunt her conquest.”
He did not answer; and so letting his dissent pass by default, put abar between us that was never quite surmounted.
In the meanwhile, day followed day, and the frost held, and I was coldand ennuyée; and still he delayed our flight on the score of peril.I had come but poorly clad for the test, and I cried and shivered muchin our dismal refuge, where what fire we could afford must be kept lowfrom dread of the smoke betraying us. Present food we had, and somewine that helped a little to comfort our dejection; and on the Fridayhe was due, tramping fourteen miles thither and back over the hills,to claim his fresh dole of the tree above Wellcot, where faithfulPatty—who was in his confidence as to his retreat, and the meanstowards my salvation he hoped to make of it—was wont to conceal it.Dear darling! How I longed to convey her a message; but he would nothear of it.
“Of all ephemera,” he said, “she is the very transparent-bodied fly,the secrets of whose own heart she cannot help but reveal.”
So I had to submit, and hold her sweet image in my arms o’ nights,when the wind came in at the door and the stars crackled with cold.But Gogo was right, I had to confess, when once from the deep woodsbeyond Shole we heard the clanging of bloodhounds, and knew that myenemies were vainly seeking the trail which had no existence. Then Icowered low, and felt a new gush of affection for the resourcefulgiant who was so wise in the singleness of his passion.
Often by day I would climb up the ladder to the loft where theastrologer’s telescope yet remained, commanding, like a disusedcannon, the house and village he had fancied under its dominion, andthere spend hours spying hungrily for what tokens of life the bitterseason afforded. They were not many or inspiriting; but they served atleast to keep me in touch with that world of my fellows that seemedeternally lost to me.
On the Friday I fell at Gogo’s feet.
“Safe or unsafe,” I cried, “take me away! I can stand this lonelinessno longer.”
His face was full of a sorrowful ecstasy.
“And it was a garden to me,” he murmured; “blind that I am!”
“I shall die,” I cried terribly, “and you will lay me with the deadclown under the tree.”
“So would you be for ever mine,” he continued, in a sort of dream.
I shrunk from him, and seeing my look, he cast himself down on hisface before me.
“Command me as you will,” he cried; “only never, never bid me fromserving you.”
“You will go?” I sat back, eagerly canvassing him. “Why should I dreamof parting with you? Are not our fortunes pledged together, even if Idid not owe you the best of all gratitude? You are so wise and brave;you will find a plan and a direction. Only I can stop here nolonger.—O, I can’t!—Gogo, take me away—to London—anywhere.”
He raised himself.
“Spare me this evening to forage,” he said, “so that to-morrow we canat least start provided.”
In deep night he left me, to go to the tree. It was the first time Ihad been abandoned to my sole self. So long as I could discern hisfigure, striding over the fields, like some unearthly goblin, on itshigh stilts, I stood by the door gazing into the starlight. Then, whenI could see him no more, I sat down just within, my back to the vastemptiness, and hugged and cried to myself against the long panic ofwaiting.
Not many minutes had I sat thus, when something—a footstep, ashadow—seemed to fall upon my heart with a shock that stopped itsbeating. Too terrified for look or utterance, I crouched low, hopingthe thing would pass, and leave me unobserved.
“I have come, madam, to invite you to a safer asylum,” said a low andmusical voice.
I gave an irresistible cry, suppressing it instinctively, even in itsemission, lest it should call back my faithful squire, from his longtoil across the fields, to a need which these gentle tones were farfrom justifying. I struggled to my feet, and made myself as small aspossible against the wall.
“Who are you?” I whispered.
“An outcast like yourself,” answered the shadow; “a fellow-sufferer atthe hands of the very family to which you owe your misfortunes.”
“Who are you?” I could only whisper again.
“I am George Rowe,” it said. “Do you remember me? We have met once—anineffaceable impression to me. I have followed your career since;unknown to you, have traced you by the flowers in your footsteps—yes,even to that wicked place, and your flight from it. I have watched yousince from the woods below; have stood at this door at night andlistened to your breathing till I maddened; have sorely bided my time,seeking to speak to you. I have tracked the honest tracker, your goodservant and saviour; and, while I applaud his devotion, must warn youagainst the equivocal position in which your further acceptance ofthat devotion may place you.”
I could not see his face, but only the dusk of a comely form, as itstood now before me. Well could I recall, indeed, “the good-humouredgentleman in the grey coat,” who had once so espoused my childishcause, and earned thereby the hatred of his kinsmen. My confidence wasreturning to me with my wits.
“You are very considerate for us,” I said deridingly. “Do you come asmadam your sister’s emissary, since you are so particular for mycharacter?”
“Alas!” he said, “you do well to doubt me, being so related. But I aman outlaw from all that house’s influence and consideration.”
“An outlaw—you!” I murmured.
“Ay,” he answered; “ruined, menaced, and driven forth to nurse mywrongs in hiding.”
“Why, where?” I asked.
“To the woods,” he answered, “like Robin Hood.”
“O, an attractive asylum, sir, for distressed ladies,” I said.
He replied, “Maid Marian thought so.”
“Perhaps she had an attachment there,” said I. “I miss the applicationto myself.”
He laughed softly.
“Whether we fly from fear, or fly to love, we fly,” he said. “You mayhold your enemies too cheap, not knowing that my lord makes interestwith his sister, and for his own purposes, to subsidise your Dr. Peel.For the sake of the secrets of the prison-house, he will not leave hersolus to the hue and cry. You have planted two dragon-heads in placeof the one you severed.”
I shrunk before him.
“What do you mean? How do you know?”
“By the token,” he said, “that he destined me to your fate, and Ianswered with the better part of valour, which you will be wise toimitate.”
“To-morrow,” I muttered; “we had already decided.”
“That is not all, nor enough,” he urged. “You may be Una, with arhinoceros, and that is not enough. My lord rides a thunder-bolt. Itis not enough to flee him; you must vanish—be no more.”
Now all of a sudden—I know not how—his words seemed to wake me tothe fond illusion of my state. How, indeed, was I situated, with alegless Caliban to show me how to run? I had been blinded, by Gogo’sdevotion, to the real nature of the presumption it had thought tojustify. What honest right had he to have undertaken so responsible adeed, save he had provided for it to the last details? I felt suddenlyvery naked and forlorn—shiftless and crying, like some poor exposedchild in the night. I clasped my fingers to the shadow, entreating itin a broken voice—
“What am I to do? Advise me, help me!”
It moved upon me, soft, and swift, and irresistible. I felt my handsimprisoned—seized as out of the grave into an assurance of humanwarmth and sympathy.
“For what else am I here?” demanded the fervent voice. “Have I not theprior claim? Have you never thought of me in all these years—of whatyou might be now, save for my interference?”
“Yes,” I whispered. “Indeed, indeed I am not one to forget.”
“Well,” he said, “I am just a vagabond at last, and desperate inromance; and you—your reason is forfeit, if not your life. Be underno delusion about it; nor about the real impotence of this good fellowto save you. Come with me, then, while there is time, and be my littlesister. I am lonely in the deep woods.”
I did not move or speak, but I gazed up intently into the white bloomof his face. The strangest thought was struggling for expression inme—of some conscious gravitation, through all these years, towards anaffinity which had been shadowed out to me at that first and onlymeeting. I felt no shyness, but only a restful confidence in hiscompany. Was not that strange? To be brother and sister, one andindivisible in the candid sympathies of Nature. I recognised in amoment that it was that ideal relationship which had always appealedto me for the best and purest—that I could never be happy againdivorced from it.
Suddenly the tears were in my eyes.
“If I could truly be your little sister,” I said, “and keep house foryou, as Gretel did for the gentle shepherd who had plucked her when aflower.”
He heaved a long sigh, full of rapture.
“Quick, then! let me pluck my flower,” says he, “and run.”
But now, at that, for some reason, a revulsion of feeling took me. Isank down upon the ground away from him, and hid my face in my hands.
“No, no,” I cried—“not yet, not now. O, leave me, please!”
Perhaps he was wise to understand and temporise. Anyhow, he went,though no farther than the door.
For a moment I hated myself; for a moment I felt the basest thing onearth. What use to reflect that reason and kindness were on my side:that, since I could not cure a poor fond fool, it were no mercy, butthe contrary, to submit him to the continued infection of my presence?I said so to myself, and saying it, saw his face returning—full oflight and eagerness—to learn the damning truth! To be held accursedin that great heart! I could not, I could not! Poor Gogo! Had he notgiven up everything for me? I would not desert him. Why should he notcome too? But no: I saw in the same instant that that was impossible,since he himself had no thought, no wish, to be my brother. Andperhaps, if I went, I should never see him again. Well, would not thatbe the best for him? Let me nurse my grief eternal, so long as hefound his cure in separation. It were better I should go. Freed ofthis incubus, he would have no longer need to crouch and starve. Theworld had no reason, so far as I knew, to identify him with my flight.And now every hour he remained with me was an added peril to hissafety, his very existence!
Quite wild, I rose to my feet and went panting to the shadow.
“Take me away,” I said, “before he breaks my heart, returning.”
He took my hand tight in his, drew me under the starlight, andtogether we fled down the hill and into the woods.
I AM CONSIGNED TO A GREEN GRAVE
To you, my dear Alcide, conscience is, I know, a disease, and virtueits relapse. I do not, then, ask your sympathy, but only yourcommiseration in that long struggle with my better self in which I wasnow to engage—a struggle which found me child, and left me woman—astruggle through whose intermittent deliriums moved ever the sorrowfulfigure of my poor lost Gogo.
Yet I must own that the oasis in which this destiny was to befulfilled figured for a period the greenest in all my desert career.It was a dear time, in truth; a dear, abandoned, wonderful time, untilthe inevitable disenchantment came. Alas! to take profit of your ownunselfishnesses is, with a stern Providence, to convert them into theplainest of worldly transactions!
No word passed between me and my companion as we hurried, deeper anddeeper, into the fathomless woods. Sure of foot and, it seemed, ofdestination, he drew me unresisting by cloudy deeps of foliage, bystarlit alleys, by ways so thronged and massed with trunks as to seemimpenetrable. Often I shrunk before some imaginary charge of shadows;often cried out in the silent rush of woodland things across our path.There was no wind that could reach and buffet those packeddesolations; no frost, save where in the clearings it could find spaceto bloom. And these, for precaution’s sake, we avoided, lest ourfootsteps should betray us. On and on we sped, till my heart was sickin my breast, and I cried out to rest and die. But he would not let mestop.
“Courage, little sister!” he cried; “we are within a cast of home.”
We mounted, after that, a long and gentle hill, from whose sides thetrees fell away, till, on the summit, there was none. But here, sunkdeep in the crest, was, as I could discern, an ancient gravel pit,whose slopes were rough with brake and brush to a giddy distance down.
“Come,” he whispered, and clasped my hand secure.
We descended by a path, that was no path to me, and, at the bottom,stooped under a very thicket of bush, and gained once more a sense ofspace and movement, but so deadly close-shut that for a little I darednot stir.
“Come,” whispered my companion again. “It is nothing but a cleft inthe hill, but so overgrown above that no mortal would guess it there.”
Still I dared not move. When suddenly I felt his arm about me, and hislips on mine. Then I started to myself with a shock of anger.
“Is this to be a brother?” I cried.
“What else,” he murmured, “to give his little sister confidence.”
The low laugh with which he said it made my blood fire. I could havestruck him in my fury.
“Go on!” I said, in a repressed voice. “I have come so far; I mustfollow, I suppose.”
“Will you not let me lead you?”
“You may stumble in the dark.”
“Not to the fall you think.”
“I am sorry.”
“Very well. Go on.”
He went before, submissively. The gully cut straight, like a giantfurrow, through the hill. It was narrow and pitch-dark, sodden hereand there with dripping water, and always smelling like a vault. Notonce in its entire length, so far as I could see, did the dense mat ofovergrowth thin to that texture that a star of all the hosts above wasvisible.
At last he stopped so suddenly that I near fell against him.
“Hush!” he whispered, “we are at the end. Can you see enough to followme?”
“Yes,” I said; “my eyes are opened now.”
He had hard work, I knew, to suppress a chuckle over my tragic tone.
“Well, keep them so,” said he; and, elbowing up a great pad offoliage, beckoned to me to pass. I obeyed, holding my skirts from him,and in a moment discovered myself in the open once more.
We had emerged, it seemed, high on the near perpendicular side ofanother pit, or cutting. Right beneath us, shouldering the very steepon which we were perched, was the thatched roof of a cottage, an openskylight in the midst gaping at us scarce ten feet below. So close didit invite us, in the bewildering starlight, that I was near springing,on the thought, to gain its shelter. But my companion restrained me.
“Wait,” he whispered drily. “A little of your discretion, please.”
Doubtful of me, he let go his hold reluctantly, and stooping once moreunder the curtain of foliage, dragged out a ladder, which wasconcealed behind, and which he now, with infinite precaution, loweredthrough the skylight till it rested.
“Now,” he said, “climb down, while I hold it firm.”
It was the rudest thing; just slats nailed across a pole—a ladder forbears, not men. But I was young and lithe, and quickly was down andthrough, and standing, trembling over this finish to my adventure, onthe floor of a little dark, invisible room. And so, before I had timeto collect myself, the other was descended in my footsteps, and theladder hauled in and laid along the wall, and a little silence ensued.
“Well,” said his voice at length, “you are safe at last, littlesister.”
Then, I don’t know how it was, the tears would come.
“Why, don’t you believe it?” he whispered, groping a step nearer.
“Have you given me reason to?” I answered, shrinking from his touch,and gulping down my sobs.
He drew away at once.
“The best reason in the world,” he said coldly, “since I have placedmy life in your hands—since I leave you here the means to escape, ifyou will, and curry favour by betraying me.”
I could have cried out on his cruelty, but dared not.
“Understand, this is your sanctuary,” he went on, “prepared againstyour coming, and which none, in their turn, will betray. The path toit is sacred to me. No one will disturb you; you are secure as a birdin its nest. There is a bed in a corner; rushlight and holder andtinder-box on a table by. Light, and take possession. I must go andreassure Portlock.”
I heard him move softly over the floor; a trap opened somewhere,letting in a momentary weak film of light, and he was gone.
For a time I stood motionless, hearing the murmur of voices somewherebelow; then, suddenly panic-struck, groped for the table and tinder,and shakily struck fire. The wick caught, flamed up and settled, and Isaw my possession.
It was the tiniest, kindest little room, under a sloping roof, cleanand friendly, with a white bed. I was dazed and weary beyondspeculation. Leaving the light burning, I crept under the coverlet asI was, and fell into a profound sleep.
I BEGIN ANOTHER FOLLY
I opened my eyes to a sense of utter restfulness and peace. Afeeling of green isolation, of a quiet and guarded security, such asnot all Gogo’s watchfulness could accomplish for me in the tower, cameinstantly to comfort the first startled shock of my waking. Littledemure clouds drifted over the skylight; I heard a faint twitter ofbirds on the hillside; there were woodland berries and flaming leavesin my room; pictures, too; and a dozen pretty attentions to reassureme. Sure he must have made very certain of his capture before hedecorated the cage so handsomely. And for how long, pray, had he heldhis hand and aloof, biding his opportunity? He must have kept hissecret well, at least, for I had never known a hint of his presence.
I smiled, and closed my eyes again. It was a most endearing thought,the thought of that brotherly haunting, while I had been bemoaning myabandonment by all the world. There was still that in me, then, toattract admiration, to ensure my affinity with the strong and shapely.I was sick to death of malformations, mental and bodily. What hadbecome of him? I had not reached the end of my resentment, but I didnot wish him to think it insurmountable; and I was certainly curiousto learn how far my romantic memory of him was justified.
And, in the meantime, where was I? in what remote eyrie of the greenforest? For all I could see, I might be imprisoned in a well.
I rose, and, after making my toilette, had paused undecided, wonderingwhat was to come next, when I heard his voice, very mock-humble, atthe trap—
“Little sister, will you come down to breakfast?”
The blood thrilled in my temples, but I hardened my heart, andanswered “Yes,” as frigid as a nun.
He flung up the hatch at once, and for the first time I saw the laddergoing down into candlelight, whence a smell of warm dust and tallowrose to my nostrils. He descended before me, and I followed, into theleanest of little cellars, with a rough board on trestles in it and astool or two. The rafters were hung with cobwebs; there were a coupleof dismal dips in horn sconces on the walls; a closed door showeddimly at the farther end, and that was all.
I turned in amazement upon my companion, to find him regarding me witha curious expression. But it sobered at once before my gaze. It wasnot, indeed, now I came to con him, quite the expression of my memory.The sweet humour of it had fallen, I could have thought, upon moremocking times. There was a look in his face as if he had got to lovehimself the better, the worse he had been depreciated by others; as ifinjustice had somewhat crooked the old lines of chivalry. But for therest, he was as bronzed and comely as ever, as lithe and muscular; andthe common woodman’s dress (coarse grogram jacket and leggings to thehips), which, whether for convenience or disguise, he had adopted,showed off his fine figure to perfection.
“Where is it, the breakfast?” I asked.
“Cooking, by Portlock,” said he. “I’m waiting to pull it through.”
He stood stooping, indeed, and holding a string in his hand, by whatlooked like a black gap at the foot of the wall beyond the table.
“To pull it through!” I cried out. “Are we to eat it here?”
He turned his head, as he leaned, to scan me.
“We can take it up under the skylight, if you like,” said he.
A violent retort was on my lips; but something in his face warned me,and it died unuttered. For all his affected humility, there was amasterfulness here I had not guessed. I realised on the instant thatI did not know, had never known him. It was not altogether adisagreeable awakening.
I sat down, silent, on one of the stools; and he addressed me againquietly from his place—
“Little sister, you have committed yourself to my care—very properly,I think, and very properly trustful of an elder brother. Do you knowmy age? I am thirty-four—just double your seventeen; and at leastworldly-wise enough to direct you.”
“That is all very well,” I said, half stifled; “but why have youbrought me here?”
“Have I not told you?” he answered. “To save you from a wolf, whowould have set his teeth in my little white lamb.”
“No, you have not told me,” I cried; “and I am no more lamb of yoursthan his; and anyhow, I had my shepherd already.”
“A poor shepherd,” he said. “Witness his watchfulness!”
I bit my lip, and said no more. For a moment I hated myself andhim—his specious reasonings, which had led me to abandon my honest,good comrade and saviour. While I sat dumb, a low whistle soundedthrough the wall; and instantly he turned to me.
“You do not like your dining-parlour?” he said. “But, believe me, ithas a thousand conveniences of privacy, of which here is not theleast.”
And, with the word, drawing on the string he held in his hand, hebrought a tray into light. It was packed with comestibles—bread, andhoney, and collops of venison that smelt royally; but, when hetransferred these to the table, I had no stomach for them, and pushedaway the plate he offered me.
“What! You won’t eat?” he said.
“I can’t breakfast in a sewer.”
He fell to himself, without further delay, and with plenty ofappetite. I watched him out of the corners of my eyes, half maddenedalready by the abstinence I had imposed on myself. He was dressed likea forester, I have said; and now I observed that he affected themanners of a forester, consciously, it would seem, effacing in himselfthe more gentle observances. It may have been an effort to him; but,anyhow, he tore his bread and gnawed his bones with the air of onebred to the soil—with a set of perfect white teeth, too, it must beconceded. And, while he despatched, throwing his litter on the board,he continued talking to me fitfully.
“Yes,” he said, “it is very convenient for such as we, who desire notonly to save our labour, but our lives certainly, and our self-respectif possible. You don’t ask me where we are?”
I shook my head in indifference.
“Well,” he said, “you must know some time, when you might be morecurious; and short explanations suit me best. We are immured, child,in a wall; and so long as we don’t betray ourselves, nothing canbetray us—not even into an acknowledgment of what one of us may oweto the other.”
“I am grateful to you,” I said coldly, and said no more. The truth is,I was hardly listening to him, so intense had grown my desire that hewould coax me at last into eating something.
He laughed, and, pushing his plate away, settled his fists on hiships, and began, like a satisfied man, to troll a soft little song. Icould stand it no longer.
“Give me a little piece,” I said, “and I will show you how collopsshould be eaten.”
“You mean,” he answered at once, “that you will show me how to behave.But I have done with all that hypocrisy.”
He rose with the words, having finished, and, to my anger andastonishment, cleared the board, piecemeal and deliberately, and,piling all on the tray, gave the signal for its withdrawal. Itdisappeared instantly. Then he returned to his stool, and, pulling outpipe and tobacco, began to smoke placidly. Fury overcame me.
“Have you not forgotten to ask my permission?” I cried.
“Punctilio in a sewer!” he answered, puffing; “that is hardly to beexpected.”
I rose at once.
“I wish to be by myself,” I said.
He took his pipe from his lips.
“You know the way. If you object to mine, there is the ladder in yourroom—and the skylight—and all the forest to choose from”—and hebegan to smoke again.
I left him, without another word, and, ascending to my closet, droppedthe trap with a slam. It was an outrage beyond endurance. I threwmyself upon my bed, and wept tears of rage. What a fool I had been,what a fool, to commit my destinies to a savage! I had thought romancehad come to find me, walking on two feet in the starlight, and all thetime it had been leaving me, stumping sorrowfully away on its poorwooden legs. My soul gushed out in fresh mourning for the dear monsterI had wronged.
More than once I rose, in the full determination to fly and rejoinhim. As often, the hopelessness of my position cast me down again. Ihad no idea where I was; I dared not face the prospect of wandering,lost and alone, in those savage solitudes. The wretch had played hispart well—and for what? Why for me.
The thought, at last, quieted my grief—brought me to a little reason.After all, I had been cold with him, something less than grateful.What had brought him to repudiate the customs of his caste? I fellinto a fit of speculation. Perhaps it was in scorn of an order thathad basely disinherited him. His words had seemed to imply so. Perhapshe had meant no more than to read me a lesson in feeling.
I sighed. I was wilful and imperious, I knew, I said to myself. I hadbeen spoilt a little, perhaps, by admiration, and my better qualitiesobscured. It was a wonder he could have seen anything to covet in me.Was it my part to convince him of his mistake?
I sighed again, and then rose and walked about. Every detail of thetiny chamber was witness to the loving expectations he had formed ofme. What was I to do? How climb down and keep my place in my own eyes?
He meant to leave me to resolve the question for myself, it appeared.All day I waited and hungered, and not a sound of his footstepapproaching did I hear. At length, when it was dark, quite desperateI took my candle, and, softly opening the trap, listened a moment, anddescended. The cellar was empty; only the board and stools, andnothing else. I went swiftly scanning it, holding the light overhead.I tried the door at the end; it was fast locked. Unless he had goneout that way, there was no accounting for his disappearance.
All at once I heard the thin mutter of voices—his and another’s, Iwas sure. Seeking to localise them, I came upon the low hole in thewall through which he had dragged the breakfast tray. I stooped, andhearing, I thought, the whisper clearer, sunk to my knees and lookedthrough. Here was a passage, I found to my surprise, wide enough for aman to creep by; and, beyond, it seemed, a faintly lighted room. As Ibent, I heard the chairs of the talkers drag, as if the two wererising, and, fearful of discovery, fled on tiptoe to my room oncemore, and, noiselessly closing the trap, stood panting and rigid byit. To what dark mystery was I being made the innocent and unconsciousaccessory? I felt suddenly bewildered and terrified. The light in myhand swayed and leaped, evoking gusty phantoms on the wall. A windseemed to boom in my brain. I was really light-headed with hunger, Ithink. Presently, from sheer giddiness, I threw myself on my bed oncemore, and fell into a sort of waking stupor.
In the midst, after how long I know not, a voice reached me. He wassummoning me, if I needed it, to supper. If I needed it! What cruelty!He would not give my pride a chance. Half in fear, half fury, I turnedmy face to the wall, and did not answer.
He wasted no time on me. I heard him withdraw in a moment, whistling.I had hoped he would think me escaped; would venture in, perhaps,panic-struck, to encounter the full torrent of my indignation. But heshowed no concern whatever. He felt secure of his wretched littletrapped bird, I supposed. And he was justified—was justified. Then Icried as I had never cried before. He might have had some patience,some consideration. At last, quite famished and exhausted, I fellasleep.
I awoke, in full day, to find him standing over and regarding me. Ifelt weak, and too utterly subdued to resent his presence as itdeserved. There was no pity in his eyes even then. I closed my own,feeling my throat swell.
“I thought you might be hungry,” he said. “Are you?”
At that, for all my efforts, the tears came.
“Don’t you know?” I said. “But I suppose you think to starve me intosubmission.”
“Submission to what?” said he. “You were offered food, and refused it.But I have brought you some bread.”
He held out to me a dry crust. I turned from it in anger.
“O, very well!” said he, and was returning it to his pocket.
Then physical need conquered me. I could not face the thought ofanother day’s starvation. I sat up, and held out my hands.
“If you will be so cruel,” I said. “Let me have it, please.”
He gave it to me at once, stood by with a sort of sombre smile on hisface, while I appeased my ravenous first hunger.
“That’s right,” he said. “Are you better? There was room forimprovement.”
I did not answer.
“Well, are you quite good now?” said he.
My throat began to swell again.
“You treat me like a child!” I cried.
“Yes,” he said, “because it’s only little girls who quarrel with theirbread and butter.”
“Haven’t you punished me enough already?” I said.
“I don’t know,” he answered. “But, if more’s wanted, I hope it will bewith less smart to myself.”
I laughed through my tears.
“O, I mean nothing sentimental,” said he; “but only that, my roombeing next to yours, and the common ladder to both conducting throughyour room, I’ve been forced by your wilfulness to sleep all nightbelow in a chair. But we’ll remedy that somehow with a screen, and sosettle any question of precedence in going to bed.”
I stared at him, half fearfully.
“Why have you brought me here?” I whispered.
“What! again?” he said, shaking a finger at me.
“It seems, for no reason but to humble and abuse me. I was happy withpoor Gogo.”
“Damn Gogo!” he said, in such a sudden heat that it brought a cry fromme. Then, all in an instant, to my amazement and distress, he hadfallen on his knees beside the bed.
“What is Gogo to you, or you to him?” he cried, in a low, intensevoice. “Has he ruined himself for you as I have done? Has he riskeddeath, destruction, madness? pined for you in dreams, and plotted togain you waking, as I have ever since you, a child, took my reason bystorm, and bound it to you by golden chains?”
His fervour and passion quite overwhelmed me. I could only cower,trembling, before him.
“What do you mean?” I whispered. “How have you ruined yourself—for mysake?”
He caught at my hands. He was breathing fast and thick.
“O, child, you don’t know!” he cried—“the peril that has doggedyou—the love that has foreseen and provided—not for a moment thetruth of how my heart bled to hurt you. Now—now! O, will you not cometo me and hear?”
“No,” I whispered, in a hurry of emotion. “For pity’s sake leave me! Iwill come to you presently: I will, indeed.”
He rose to his feet at once, commanding himself. He was allchanged—softened and transfigured. I felt swimming on the edge of awhirlpool—fighting giddily against some helpless, rapturous plunge towhich I was being urged. I longed only for breathing time—some littlespace to be alone in.
He went and stood by the trap: “I will wait for you,” he saidhoarsely; and so descended, closed it behind him, and was gone.
When, in an hour, I rejoined him, he was pacing the cellar like acaged wolf. He uttered a glad exclamation upon seeing me, and took myhand and led me to a stool. He was himself again, but with a newstrange wistfulness in his gaiety.
“You will not mind the ‘sewer’ now?” said he. “And presently you willask me everything, and I will tell you.”
He drew in our breakfast, by the same method as before; and I could atlast enjoy my collops with a free conscience and appetite. Then, ourmeal over, he drew his stool beside me, and, without offering tosmoke, started upon his relation.
I AM MAID MARIAN
“But, first,” said he, kindling, “ask me where you are.”
“Short explanations suit me best,” I said. “Immured in a wall. Is notthat enough?”
“Quite, for me,” said he, “since you are here. But whose wall, now?”
I shook my head.
“Why, in Ranger Portlock’s cottage,” said he, “buried, out of allwhooping, in the forest. Would you like to be introduced to yourhost?”
“Yes, if you please,” I said. “Will you call him in?”
“Mahomet will have to go to the mountain. You will understand why,when you see it. Well, for this cottage. Did you mark its position inthe dark? Poor little bewildered brain—poor little brain! Harkee!”(He was fondly touching and smoothing the hair on my temples.) “Iloved this Diana as a little girl. What a phenomenal brother, to besure! This cottage you are in, child—did you not observe?—liessnuggled in the shoulder of the hill, warm as a baby in its mother’sarm—as warm and as safe too. Its back wall here” (he turned andtapped the plaster) “is just a windowless buttress, built strongagainst any chance falling of the soil beyond. This” (he pointed tothe inner wall) “terminates the kitchen, and not the house itself, asa body entering the building is meant to suppose. ’Tis a blind, as onemight call it, and not discernible from the outside to any but aconjurer.”
“And there?” I said, pointing to the closed door at the end.
“That, madam,” said he, with some momentary return to dryness, “isBluebeard’s Chamber, if you please, and not at present in the articlesof discussion.”
I was surprised—a little startled, perhaps—but said no more; and hewent on—
“Well, now: this same cottage is a half-timbered structure, veryancient, and as full of odd little compartments as a bureau. Where welie is its secret drawers, Diana, a nest of ’em—two below and twoover. And how to reach here, miss? Ay, there’s the master stroke you’dnever guess. No, ’tis no way by the door yonder.”
“If you please, sir,” says I, “if ’twas left to my innocence todecide, I should e’en choose the way the tray went.”
“Well, come and look,” says he, and made me go and stoop to the hole.To my surprise, it was closed, and black.
“’Twas not so I saw it last night,” I said, rising.
“What!” cried he, “you were prowling, were you? Thank you kindly forthe hint”—and he gave a great laugh, but sobered in a moment.
“Did you listen, then?” said he.
“I was going to,” I answered; “but the moment I bent, your chairsmoved, and I was frightened, and ran away.”
“That sounds frank,” said he. He sat musing a little. “You’re a child,’tis true, mutable and thoughtless; but where could be the harm? Ifthe secret were mine only— Well, study for my confidence, and someday, perhaps”—
He broke off with a smile, which I had a difficulty to return. Sothere was a mystery in reality. There and then I vowed a Delilahoath to myself to get the better of it.
“I don’t know what you mean,” I said; “I had no thought to surpriseany secrets. Is that the way through, indeed?”
“Yes,” he said; “fairly, it is. ’Tis pierced under the big copper inthe kitchen, which has a detachable grate to be pulled all out in onepiece. God knows the original use of this contrivance—this space inthe wall—unless ’twere always for the purpose that we”—(he checkedhimself again). “Anyhow, ’tis utterly inaccessible else, save by wayof the skylight which your ladyship knows; and now you’re acquaintedwith your prison, ask me further what you will.”
“Ranger Portlock, did you say?”
“Ay, ranger; once my brother’s keeper (not like Cain, unhappily), andsince promoted.”
“You seem to love your brother.”
“I have reason.”
“And this Portlock is still in his service?”
“And in your confidence?”
“Ay, is he not! I must tell you I am a proper sportsman, madam, andalways more popular with Hardrough’s people than the noble verdererhimself. Well, I have taught them something here and there, and putmoney in their pockets, maybe. Have no fear. Not Portlock nor anyother will betray us. I have my merry men of Down, who sink or swimwith me. And now I have my Maid Marian. What more? You shall see thisPortlock. Bear in mind he was once a thread-paper of a man. I haveknown him since I was a boy. What else?”
“Can you ask me?” I said low, hanging my head. “The reason—what youhinted up there—why you are ruined and in hiding?”
He ventured to put an arm about me. How could I refuse him, who was myBayard? Yet, when he told me, it was not all. He never to the endacquainted me of what social dereliction of his had originallydelivered him into the earl his brother’s power, and placed him andhis remnant fortunes under the hand of that remorseless nobleman touse and crush at his will. He never even admitted but indirectly thatstain on his birth, in which a high person was whispered to beimplicated, and which was at the root, perhaps, of all the trouble.
“He always hated me,” he said of the Lord Herring; “and never morethan when he foresaw my succession in the death of his promising limb,my nephew.”
“What, is he dead?” I asked, astonished.
“No,” he said, “but only rotten. He will never come into the title,believe me.”
“And you,” I said, curiously interested. “How will he keep you out, ifthe worst should happen to him?”
“Why,” he said, “he would threaten an inquiry, an exposure; and thereare those who, rather than suffer it, would countenance his quietdisposal of me—have done so, perhaps, already. And there you comein.”
“Me!” I cried.
“Child,” he responded, “how can I speak it without offence? You havelong been marked down by this man, my brother, for his prey. I haveknown it, trust me, and writhed under the knowledge. But you were inproper hands, and he must bide his opportunity. Believe me, he was noprivy to Sophia’s schemes of husbandry. Had he guessed, he would haveanticipated the end, so far as you was concerned, by carrying you awayby force. When he learned the truth at last, he was mad. But herecovered his sanity on reflection. It was no bad thing to let youripen in that hell for his purposes—to subdue you by that torture tohis will. Then, when reduced, he would exchange your sweet person withDr. Peel for mine, would sell me to your place in the madhouse, sokilling his two birds with one wicked stone. But his plan miscarried.I had a friend in the household—someone, a poor dancer, whom he hadused for a day and thrown aside. She revealed all to me, and I fled,leaving him only my bitter curse for legacy. And I came here, intohiding, to mature my plans for revenge—came back to Nature,renouncing my kindred and all the vile social policies of a world Ihad got to loathe. He had beggared me, and I would fleece theplunderer. He had thought to debauch my love, and I would disappointhim of even that moiety of his bargain. Have I done so? Judge, if heloved me before, how he would spare me now, who have baffled hisschemes and stolen his dear! A knowledge of but half the truth hasalready, in these few weeks, set him turning every stone to discoverwhere I lie; but I am well served by my friends. He would burn theforest if he guessed the whole. As you regard me, as you valueyourself, child, concede nothing to chance—not so much as a peep overthe roof. Ay, I know your activity. But you must lie close as a hareif you would be safe—through these first days of peril, at least.Later, when the chase less presses, you may venture out, perhaps, bythe ladder; but always with infinite caution, as you love me. Littlesister, do you agree?”
I buried my face in my hands. My whole heart cried out on the crueltyranny of a code that could let such monsters as this wreak theirpassions on the pure and innocent, and yet find absolution. O, that Icould find a way, in the lawful junction of our fortunes, to vindicatethis dear oppressed creature, and establish him in his rights beforethe world! I leaned to him, with wet eyes.
“If you love me so, brother,” I murmured, “what made you behave socruel to me?”
He gave a happy, low laugh, and tightened his hold.
“Why, dear,” he said, “are not a woman’s extremes of love all for theman who will beat her, or the man she can cherish and protect? I vow Ichose only my natural part.”
“Well,” said I, “I’m glad you stopped short of the beating. It wouldonly have stiffened me, like cream.”
“Whipt cream is very good with cherries,” said he, and bent to mylips.
But I started from him gaily, and leapt to my feet.
“Come,” I said; “I’m waiting to be introduced to Mr. Portlock.”
He laughed, and stretched himself, and, rising, stooped to the hole inthe wall and scratched with his finger, like a rat gnawing, on theiron stop therein. In a little something was withdrawn, and a weakwash of light flowed through.
“Now,” said he, “I will go first, and do you follow, little mouse.”
He dropped on his hands and knees, and crawled in, and disappeared. Itwas an attitude that lacked romance, and I was glad there was nonebehind to witness my passing. But the journey was so short that I washardly in before my head was free on the farther side; and in a momentGeorge had helped me to my feet, and I saw our host.
I saw nothing else, indeed. There were, I believe, the open range, andherb-hung rafters, and settle and dresser of the ordinary cottager’skitchen. The huge creature before me absorbed three-fourths of thefield of my vision. I understood at once why Mahomet must come to themountain.
He had an enormous tallowy face, had this person, with an expressionso excessively melting that it might have been said to be noexpression at all. He could have had no more intimacy with his ownskeleton than a hippopotamus. Ages ago he must have left it buriedwithin himself as useless, and turned his wits to balancing on thetwin globes of fat that were his legs. His eyes were slits, his nose awart, his mouth the mere orifice of a blow-pipe. If his neck by anypossibility had been broken, one might have stretched it till his headtouched the ceiling.
I was conscious of George standing by watching me, and instinctively Idropped a curtsey. Immediately the mountain rumbled, and dusted achair for my reception. It swung in his vast hand like a signboardfrom an inn. Relatively, I had some fear of sitting on it; it lookedfor a moment so like a doll’s.
“Mr. Portlock,” I murmured, casting down my eyes, “I—I am your humbleservant, sir.”
He bowed—bagged, would be the better expression. The whole weight ofhis chin was against his recovery; but he managed it, with an effort.
“You—you are very good to give me shelter,” said I. “I’m afraidwe—we shall crowd you dreadfully, sir.”
A low gale vibrated in him somewhere. I seemed to be able to detachcertain indistinct utterances from it, of which “welcome: what can do:Maid Marian” were the clearest.
I made an effort to respond fitly—struggled, and was dumb. Then, in amoment—I saw George with his hand to his mouth—the demon exploded inme.
“Were you—were you always like that?” I shrieked, and fell across mychair-back, half hysteric.
The poor fellow may have laughed himself—there was no guessing whatemotions that curtain of flesh concealed—but he looked, if anything,more abashed than offended.
“Hush!” said George, recovering himself, “or I must drag you back,miss.”
We shook, facing one another with gleaming eyes and teeth.
“Didn’t I tell you,” he gasped, “that he was a thread-paper of a manonce?”
He went and clapped a hand on the mountain’s shoulder.
“Come, Johnny, no offence,” said he. “None knows better than herladyship that your heart’s in the right place.”
I subdued myself by a vast effort, and rose, and went to conciliatethe poor creature.
“Haven’t I reason to?” I said. “And—and I put my faith in you, sir;and—and faith moves mountains”—and I was near off again.
He shifted, and flushed faintly, and delivered himself once more.
“’Tis the wittles—have done it.”
“He means,” said George, “that he’s made up for lost time andopportunities, since his promotion.”
“Ay, ’twas the nerves,” went on the oracle—“kep’ me down—once.Shook, I did—hear thunder. Walk a mile round—avoid row. When thecrows holloa’d—see funeral pass—turned blood water. ’Twas lackballast—that was it.”
“Of course,” said George, “that was it. What a coward you was, Johnny,in your thin time. D’you remember the day we shot the home covers,with a great person for company, and the sky came raining cobwebs, sothat we were near stifled with ’em; and you stuck your head in a bush,till we gave you with our ramrods something better than cobwebs toroar about?”
“Ay, I do,” said the mountain, and rumbled again. “Not muchcobweb—’bout me now.”
Well, I told him that one couldn’t have too much of a good thing; andvery soon we were fast friends. But that morning George haled me backinto shelter before much was said; and afterwards our acquaintanceripened by fits and starts. The very immobility of the creature wasour and his salvation. There was no conscious expression to betrayitself on that vast desert of a countenance. Periodically, he wasvisited by the steward; fitfully, by units of the hunt which hislordship sought to lay on his vanished brother’s trail. He was never,so far as I knew, suspected; and with the deepening of winter thechase slackened.
And, in the meantime, what was I doing there, buried alive like arecreant novice in the wall? Wilt thou believe, Alcide, that I, withall my free aspirations, could have remained at peace in the littleprison for a day? Well, with rare excursions beyond, and those nottill I had been long immured, I lived there for more than a year, andwas near all the time as happy as a swallow under the eaves. It islove makes the dimensions of our estate.
I PUT AN END TO FOLLY NUMBER TWO
It was not till early in the second spring of my idyll that theclouds began to darken, and my conscience to stir uneasily in thosegloomy last hours before the final waking. Many things had contributedto this state, some cardinal, but most, no doubt, indifferent—merelittle tributary streams which had come to swell the volume of mydisenchantment. Misunderstanding, alas! does not walk to challenge uson the highway. It spies from behind hedges, and listens at keyholes;and when at length its tally of grievances is made, we wonder at theweight of the evidence it has accumulated.
Late in the previous year I had been very ill. During the worst of mydisorder an unconscionable old hag, some withered afreet of theforest, who was in the secret of our retreat, had been brought in toattend me. She disappeared soon, thank God, in a whisk of sulphur; andthereafter George nursed me devotedly. But, strangely enough, as Igrew convalescent I developed an odd impatience of him, which rose bydegrees to a real intolerance and dislike. That feeling abated as Igrew strong, but never to such degree as to make us again quite thefriends we had been. He made some study to propitiate me, even to theextent of renouncing those ridiculous principles of “Nature,” which hehad affected to exchange for the whole sum of social accommodations.It was a relief, though an aggravation, to have him refine himselfagain out of a savage, since I no longer could find the entertainmentI once had in the dear poseur. Orson, in truth, was never so littleattractive as when, for the sake of tired love’s favour, he confessedhis ruggedness a humbug. His recantation, though welcome enough in oneway, only disillusioned me in another. So long as he had beenconsistent, he was absolute; now his weakness had made me so. Iremembered the times when I had pleaded with him, and had found himonly more covetable in his inaccessibility to my arguments.
“We can’t return to Nature, in the sense of rudeness,” I had oftensaid to him, “any more than we can recover our childhood. We havegrown out of it, and there’s an end. A man playing the child is onlysorry make-believe; or, if it isn’t, the man’s an idiot. Natureherself, you see, isn’t stationary: she’s always refining on her firstconceptions.”
“What!” he would protest, grumbling; “is all that hypocrisy of‘breeding,’ that high goût, which is so fastidious in its appetitefor crawling meats, and rotten policies, and bruised virtues, Nature?”
“Yes, to be sure,” I would answer: “’tis human nature—the fruits ofher desire to hasten her social apotheosis by a union with the sons ofGod.”
“Ay,” would growl my Timon—“the fruits of incontinence.”
“I don’t see it,” I would cry. “I can’t see but that a knife and forkare in the right succession to a beak. We may use our fingers, youwill say. Would you wish me, sir, to fondle my love with the samehands I tear my meat withal? No, you wouldn’t—except for the sake ofargument,—and therefore I protest I am the truer child of that littleliaison. Vive la Nature! say I; the Nature who is my mother, and theGod who is my father. They have taught me between them to study, instudying myself, to make the gift of prettiness to my neighbours.”
“And I swear you are a dutiful child,” he would answer, with thereadiness that made me love him.
“O, believe me, sir!” I would cry; “there is nothing artificial aboutthe civilisation you have professed to renounce—as if that wereresponsible for your downfall. On its main lines it always makes forbeauty”—
“Which is truth, I suppose,” he would interrupt with a sneer.
“Which is truth, as much as anything is,” I would reply. “Truth isonly a cant word for what we don’t understand; and, if we could getto, there would be an end of all fun in the world.”
“O, upon my word, you are a very learned minx!” he would crow; but Iwould continue, not minding him—
“If we had to start again from the beginning, don’t tell me but thatwe should develop the very same conventions as now, or at least near’em. Why, sir, not to lean our elbows on the table, for instance,while we sup our tea, isn’t a tyrannous edict of society. ’Tis anatural recognition of the unhandsome; a natural effort to qualifyourselves for the better company we all look to some day. Don’t we allfeel that we are only rehearsing here for a greater piece? Well, formy part, I don’t want to be damned in it. But you—you cry, like apoor actor, ‘Leave me alone to my pipe and beer. I shall be all righton the night itself!’”
Then he would laugh bravo; and, pulling out his tobacco, silence mewith a kiss.
But now—well, he had abdicated, and I ruled, that was the difference.
There had been a time when I would have consolidated the understandingbetween us by taking, on the first dawn of liberty, our friendship tochurch. In those days, indeed, I even hinted as much to him, touchingupon the duty he owed me so to establish my innocence with the world.Then he would fall back upon his cant of Nature; of vows dishonouredin her sight; of laws that crossed the plainest mandate that ever shehad given to earth. And I must be content at the time, because we werehelpless outcasts together, because he was kind to me, because heflattered me with a thousand attentions which made me forget theequivocalness of my position.
But now, at the last, it was he must sue and I be cold. For, under ouraltered relations, I had come to recognise, though late, how wrong wasthis continued communion, however platonic, between us. It was notthat I loved my brother less, but that I respected myself more. I hadbeen blinded by all the novelty and glamour. He was pagan at heart, Isaw, and I was at heart religious. My thoughts turned with affectionto the quiet nunnery at Wellcot. I longed to see my kind again, torecover something of the world I had lost. I had no real faith in hisprotestations, no real belief that, should it ever chance to him torecover his rights—which, in truth, seemed impossible—he would claimme to my legitimate share in them. And I found no room in my world fora paradise of sinful loves.
He sighed much, and was very pathetic, poor fellow, over my changedattitude, and wearied me to death. Then he took to verse, anddepressed me more. He had a strange faculty for a sort of big-soundingline, which he would invent and declaim in his odd moments whileengaged over mending his snares or sewing buttons on his gaiters. Itwas quite impressive in its place, but was not exhilarating whenapplied to les amours.
“This world” (he declared once) “is but the weed-heap of the spheres,
Whereon we rot and fester, torn from the skies,
And are consumed in fire, to manure
And quicken old fields of heaven with new love.
O, sweet! wind with me on the damnéd pile,
So of our mingled dust shall blossom heaven”—
A romantic use to put your poor little Diana to, eh, my friend? But,indeed, I would have none of it. I hate that fashion of decrying theflesh, because your poet has a stomachache. My body is the onlycertain God I know in the midst of these shadows. I cling to it,worshipping it with all the pretty gifts I can think. When it goes,where shall I be? Seeking and crying for it again through space. Iwill not have it abused to such uses, my sweet body that I love so.
Well, it had all vastly interested me once: the fond, comicalincongruity; the unexpected soul of my Nimrod revealing itself throughsuffering. He did not, dear simpleton, in the least understand his owninconsistency: how, loving all birds and beasts, as he professed todo, and so claiming affinity with Nature, he could use and approve thelatest engines of civilisation for their slaughter. He called the reddeer “the spirit of the antlered tree,” and went to shoot it with agun. He made me a pretty waistcoat of squirrel skins (I went sweetlybefurred, indeed, throughout the cold winters), and dwelt lovingly onthe primeval romance of woodlands, meaning, in fact, that rapture offlight and pursuit of visible things which alone appeals to theunredeemed barbarian. In the end, to speak truth, his mad rhapsodiescame to remind me, only too uncomfortably, of the dead astrologer; andI looked askance on what seemed a common derivation from a crazystock.
But now, lest it appear that I attach too much importance to theseminor discords, let me relate of the much darker and more formidableshadow which had arisen between us, and which, as the months but addedto its density, grew at last to be the insuperable barrier to ourreconciliation.
It was the secret dividing us—the secret which I had once halfsurprised, and to the existence of which he had virtually confessed,only, it seemed, to torture me by withholding it. This much alone Iknew: that he went somehow practising, in his banishment, to berevenged on the society which he held responsible for it. Often, atfirst, I tried to coax the truth from him. He was not, for all hislove, to be beguiled. There were others concerned, he said, who by nomeans shared his faith in my discretion; with whom, in fact, he hadcome to open dispute on the subject of my continued sojourn in thecottage, and whom, in the end, he had had to propitiate—seeing hissafety lay in their hands—by a vow to reveal nothing to me.
I had no doubt, in my heart, but that these unknown were the “merrymen” of his boasting—woodmen, verderers, perhaps, who—treacherous tothe earl their master—were aiding and abetting the exile in thosevery malpractices he concealed from me. I was right as to that, itappeared; but what I could never understand was the nature of myreputation with them: how they had so learned to misapprehend mycharacter for faith and loyalty. However, mistaken as they were, theyhad nothing to complain of their leader’s constancy to his oath—aconstancy, alas! which I can only not commend because of its miserablesequel. If he had only had the strength to trust me, neither would hehave lost his liberty, nor I been condemned to the torments of a quiteunmerited remorse. At this date of time, I can insist, with a clearbut sorrowful conscience, that the poor infatuated fool brought whathappened upon his own head.
When I recognised at last that he was adamant to my pleadings, Iwaived the subject, but not by any means my private concern in it. Thesecret, I was naturally enough convinced, lay to be revealed behindthe locked door of that Bluebeard Chamber; and one night—after myfriend had gone out—I took a taper and my courage in hand, anddescended softly through the trap to investigate.
After he had gone out, I say; and therein lay the key to my growingapprehensions. For not many days had I been in hiding before Idiscovered that my comrade was a night-walker. He would wait,soft-shut into his room, until he fancied I was drowned in sleep, thenlist-footed creep out and by the screen—which he had put up toprotect me—and either descend by way of the trap, or, less often,mounting the ladder which communicated with the hidden gully,disappear, and pull his means of exit after him. Then I would wait,shivering and wondering through the whole gamut of formless fears,till stupor overtook me, or perhaps by and by, after long hours, aterrified half-consciousness of his stealthy return.
Where did he thus nightly go? To what dark business or witches’frolic? I tormented my brain for the solution, and of my love andloyalty could find none. But the poison of a yet-unrealised fear wasworking in me early.
Now, on this night, waking out of tormented dreams, I was on theinstant desperate to solve the mystery. But hardly had I crossed thelittle cellar when a warning rumble from Portlock, seated in the roombeyond, told me that I was discovered. So this vast creature was inthe conspiracy! Quite panic-struck, I fled, and, mounting to myroom—found George there. He had returned, descending by the ladder,during the minute of my absence.
He made no allusion whatever to my escapade; but just laughed softly,and took my cold hand in his, as I stood trembling and aghast beforehim.
“Poor little maid,” he said; “she has been dreaming”—and he led me tomy bed, and tucked me in warm, and left me with a kiss.
I never thought it necessary to confess; but always after that, as Icame to learn, he descended by the trap and bolted it behind him.
That did not assuage my fears, though it was some comfort henceforthto be spared the pretence of blindness to his flittings—a comfort, Ithink, to him as well as to me, though his silence on the main pointwas not to be broken. Ah! if he had only had the courage to set mymind at rest, before its fears grew to a frenzy beyond my control!
Now, as time went on, my hearing grew morbidly acute—during the darkhours of his nightly absences, when I was fastened lonely andfrightened into my attic, and sleep refused to come to me—to certainshufflings and whisperings—sounds scarce to be distinguished from thewind and the rain—which filtered to me from the depths below.Sometimes it would seem a sough of blown voices; sometimes asuggestion of dragging; sometimes the low rumble of a cart on theturf, which set my pulses knocking in my ears. Then when, succeedingan ominous silence, George’s step would come mounting stealthily bythe trap, on tiptoe thence to his room, I would shudder in the thoughtof dreadful footprints going by my screen, and would feign thedeep-breathing of slumber, lest he should be moved to stop and call tome softly in the voice I had not yet learned to resist.
And so at last, out of all this torment of apprehension, out of thesleepless waitings and breathless listenings, had emerged a spectre,real and present in the end, to whose whispered hauntings I had longstruggled to close my ears; whose approach I had sought to stay,beating my hands in air; whose name I had not dared to breathe tomyself. And it was murder.
Yes, murder. So only, and only so, was logically expounded thatperverted creed of Nature. Livid, terrifying, his hands stained withblood, I saw him in its ghastly glair; saw him savagely wreaking onthe social order the wrongs he had suffered at its hands; saw himreverted to the beast he worshipped, tearing his kind, a common robberand assassin.
I will not say that I was convinced and overwhelmed in a breath. Forlong the hideous shadow of the phantom was poor proof against the sunof present love; would thin, attenuate to a mere gross mist in thelight of kind embraces, and honest laughter, and a manly candour—onall, alas! but the subject that most corroded. Only when that laterspectre of our estrangement crept between, did it assume a dreadfulcomplexion, glooming through the other. And so, at last, the appallingconfirmation.
It had been for weeks a terror to me to creep by the secret passageinto Portlock’s kitchen, on the rare occasions when my brief visitsthere, for the sake of some small change and play of liberty, wereinvited. For the hole entered close by the locked door, which had cometo figure to me for the seal on all most nameless horrors; and I couldnot pass it by but with averted head, and nostrils held frombreathing, and a sickness like to the death I felt it contained.Rather would I strain a little the chance of capture without; andoften now, when George was sleeping—for he lay late after his nightexcursions—I would put the ladder to the hill, and climb, and wanderin the hidden furrow above, sometimes as far as the gravel-pit, andthere indulge my misery, daring even at the worst a thought of escape.For at length, so far as we knew, the chase of us had ceasedaltogether, and Portlock was no longer interrogated for possibleinformation.
Wandering thus, greatly unhappy, my thoughts would often recur forshelter to the peaceful nunnery; to my little loving Patty, thedearest pleader of a sister’s repentance; most, and with aself-humbling remorse, to the faithful, unexacting soul whom I haddeserted in the tower. What if I had been misled by specious argumentsto wound incurably where I had wrought to cure? Could I ever in thatcase forgive the false advocate? O, surely there was a greater Naturethan she in whose name were perpetrated deeds of violence andreprisal? There was the human, the humorous, the tolerant largephilosophy of being which Gogo had revealed in his story of himself.His misfortunes had but made him forswear the false goddess in whomweaker men sought to justify their passions. I could never think ofhim but as the Pan of these later days—the poor limping Pan of ourera, beguiled into a hospital, and persuaded to an operation, andshorn of his limp and his legs together. One might meet him begging ona city bridge, and look wondering down for the song of the water inthe rushes that were not; one might read his hairy breast into dreamsof red dead bracken, and see his eyes, under their matted brows, likelittle forest pools reflecting glimpses of the sky, and not guess whohe was, for he would never whine of better days. He always tookfortune like a fallen god, did Gogo. He always smelt sweet, did mymonster. And he had not erred in love before he found me.
Could that be said of another? I was never quite able to forget thatdiscarded favourite who had warned a threatened brother and assistedhim to escape. Though I had never deigned to give the thought place inmy mind, the unacknowledged shadow of it, of what had been herinducement to the act, slept in me, to rise presently and add itsquota of darkness to the whole. I was very unhappy—very forlorn andtired and unhappy.
But, on that morning, as it blew bitter cold without, and I longed forthe fire that was never ours in that chill cellar but by proxy of thechimney-back, I brought myself to go down, and scratch out the signalto Portlock to let me pass if it were practicable. He responded atonce, drawing away the grate; and I crept in and through, and stood upon the farther side. Instantly a grumpy exclamation from him, asinstantly clapped back with his great hand on his mouth, took my eyesto my skirt, whereto for a flash I had seen his directed. And there,smearing the pale folds of it, was a long, foul streak of blood.
“Where did this come from?” I cried in a dismayed voice, for themoment too shocked to reflect.
I fancied he shook upon his great gelatinous calves, that the littleeyes set in the vast oyster of his face were blinking shiftily, alertto my movements while he turned over the dull masses of his brain foran answer.
“Rabbits—dinner,” at length he rumbled.
But I had realised it all while he stuck fast. Desperate in myheart-sickness, I made a hurried step to pass him; and instantly hemoved backwards, and filled the doorway into the little front parlourby way of which I had hoped to escape into the forest.
“Let me pass,” I cried wildly. “I want air.”
He pointed to the copper.
“Not safe. That way.”
“I can’t,” I cried. “It was there I picked this up: you know it was.”Then I quite lost my reason. “You are a murderer!” I shrieked. “Youare all murderers here! You rob and kill, and drag the poor bodiesthrough and hide them in the cellar behind the door. Let me pass—Ican’t live here—I can bear it no longer!”
I raved and cried; I beat helplessly on that huge drum of flesh. Itstood stolid, insensible, completely stopping the aperture.
“Go—ask cap’en,” was all it said.
I fell back from him on the word. The sense of an immediate necessityof self-control was flashed upon my consciousness. Above orbelow—either way my passage was guarded. I was between the devil andthe deep sea; and, in an irrepressible burst of frenzy, I hadconfessed myself, let slip my tortured demon, and so, perhaps, spokenmy own death-sentence. The terror of the thought drove out the lesserloathing. I must temporise—finesse.
“Yes,” I said, “I will. I will not rest now till I know.”
The return by that foul sewer, the fearful issue by the closed door,were experiences as horrible as any in my life. What crawling threadmight not be still drawing from the obscure reservoir beyond? Whathideous witness not fastening silent to me in the darkness, that itmight rise with my rising and shriek to the light for vengeance? But Iforced myself, in my mortal fear, to tread softly, and on very panictiptoe climbed from the hateful pit, and crossed the room above. Ipaused a moment, on my shuddering way, for assurance of his steadybreathing; and then with cold deft hands set the ladder in place, andmounted it, and, drawing it after me into the thicket, fled along thepassage. I had no thought of what I should do. I only wanted toescape: to put as long a distance as possible between myself and thatspectre, confessed in all its blood-guiltiness at last. Half blinded,torn by flint and briar, I broke at length through the fartherthicket, and sank, trembling and exhausted, upon the bank of thegravel-pit beyond.
I had sat there I know not how long, my face in my hands, the alarumin my heart deafening me to all outward sounds—the storming treesabove; the cold sabre of the wind slashing into the bushes of myrefuge, as if it would lay me bare—when suddenly I felt the clinch ofa hand on my shoulder, and screamed, and looked up. Three fellows, ina common livery, had descended softly upon me from above, and I wascaptured without an effort.
I rose, staggering, to my feet, my face like ashes, my poor handsclasped in entreaty. But not a word could I force from my white lips.
“You must come with us, miss, if you please,” said the man who heldme, civilly enough.
“Where?” I made out to whisper.
He pointed with a riding-whip. I followed the direction of his hand;and there, on the rim of the pit above, silhouetted against the sky,sat a single horseman. I had no reason to doubt who it was. Even atthat distance, the lank red jaw of him was sign enough of the fox. Iwas trapped at last, and when I had thought myself securest.
Now, I do not know what desperate resignation came to me all in amoment. As well this way out as another. “Very well,” I said quietly,“I will go with you.”
They were surprised, I could see, by my submission, and all the morealert, on its unexpected account, to hover about my going. But theirstrong arms were not the less considerate, for that reason, to supportme, overwrought as I was, in my passage to the open daylight above;and, almost before I realised it, I was standing before the Earl ofHerring.
He sat as stiff and relentless in his saddle as an Attila, his redeyes staring, a very wickedness of foretasted relish grinning in hishungry teeth. A fourth servant in livery stood a little apart, holdinghis own and the others’ horses.
“So,” said the master, whispering as out of a dream, “you are caughtat last, my lady.”
I felt for the first time a little flush come to my cheeks, andanswered his gaze resolutely.
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘caught,’ my lord,” I said. “These arenot the days of King John.”
He rubbed his gloved hand across his chin.
“No, by God!” he said, with a hoarse chuckle. “But they are the daysof King Hardrough, by your leave.”
“I have done no wrong.”
“Tell that to my lady,” said he.
“Jealousy has no ears.”
He gave a hyæna laugh.
“Misfortune has not chastened you, I see,” crowed he.
“It has not tried to,” I said, “till this moment. Now you have seenme, will you let me go, and ride back to tell Mrs. de Crespigny thatshe has nothing more to fear from my rivalry?”
He regarded me with a delighted humour.
“When I go, you come with me.”
“O yes! straight back to Dr. Peel and his whippings.”
“You will not—you will not!” I clasped my hands upon his knee in afrenzy of terror. I was quite broken in a moment. “Don’t send me backto that hell!” I implored.
He lusted over my fear. He could not for long bring himself to easeit.
“What have you got to offer me to stay my hand?” he said at last.
I was silent.
“Harkee!” he said. “I will help you out. Will you give me my bastardbrother?”
“He is my brother too; I swear it.”
“Pish!” said he; “will you give up your paramour?”
“Not if you call him by that name.”
“Why, there, I knew,” said he, “you was in hiding together somewhere.Smoke the red earl, if you can. Call him by what name you will, andlead me to him.”
I hung my head, and burst into tears.
“He has deceived me.”
“What did I say?”
“Not that—not that. If I betray him, ’tis only in the hope of hisbeing persuaded to some reformation. You will not work him evil?”
“That I swear. ’Tis only that I want to keep him out of harm’s way.”
I looked up, breathless. This assurance was at least a comfort.
“What will you do with him?”
“Leave that to me. The question is, what has he done with you?”
How could I not answer him? To win my brother from this vileness—wasit not worth the sacrifice of myself? With many tears and falterings,I told him the story of my sojourn in the verderer’s cottage; of thesecret chambers, and our life therein; finally, with bitterreluctance, of the shadow that had risen to estrange us, and thebloody confirmation of my fears that was to witness even now on mygown.
He grinned horribly over the revelation.
“That Portlock!” he rejoiced to himself; “that Portlock! A good throatfor the hangman! But, for your murderings—I warrant ’tis a fatterbone I’ve to pick with our gentleman.”
He fell into a little musing, scowling fit; then, suddenlydismounting, bade me get into his saddle.
“Where are you going to take me?” I said.
“Where,” he answered, “but to your cottage?”
“O no!” I cried; “not back there!”
“What!” he said, grinning; “is Madam Judas yet short of her price?”
“What price have I taken? It is not to be Judas to betray brother tobrother for virtue’s sake.”
He bent, in a sawing laugh.
“How apt the jade is! Let me tell you, madam, that virtue is an innercommodity, and spoils when too much on the lips.”
He forced me to mount, signed to his fellows to follow, and, takingthe bridle, led me down the hill.
“Now, for your price,” said he, as he walked. “Well, I would have bidmore for sound goods; but—what say ye?—you are happy onrelations—would you like to be my daughter?”
I hung my head, without replying. It was true he was old enough to bemy father. This misery must cast me once more on the world, a prey toall unimaginable evils. What chance else remained to me to protectmyself and make my fortune serve my honour?
While I was still quietly weeping, we reached the cottage from thefront, and halted. The earl motioned, and his suite gathered round andknocked on the door. In the silence that ensued we could hear thesound as of an unwieldy beast within shuffling to and fro. Theverderer had seen us through the window, and knew himself for lost.Presently one put his knee to the panels, whispering for orders.
“Curse it, no,” hissed his master; “he may hear us.”
“If he does, he cannot escape,” I murmured. “I pulled the ladder afterme.”
With that he raised his hand, and the door crashed in. I caught oneglimpse of Portlock’s face—it was a mere white slab of terror—andturned away.
“Now,” said the earl in my ear; but I shuddered from him.
“I won’t—don’t ask me—it is not in the price!”
He uttered an impatient oath, bade one of his men hastily to my side,and himself, with the other three, strode into the cottage.
I don’t know how long passed; it may have been minutes, and seemed anhour. All the time a low snuffling reached me from the interior. Thebitter wind had loosened my hair, and I caught its strands to my ears,to my eyes, and rocked in my saddle, trying to shut out everything.Presently a man came forth, to join the other by my side.
“Garamighty, Job!” muttered he; “his honour be cap’en of the gang, andno mistake. You should see his larder.”
“Ah! what’s in it?” asked the first.
“Ten fat bucks, as I’m a saint,” answered the other. “We know nowwhere the pick o’ the herd’s gone to, eh?”
I sat up, listening.
“What larder?” I asked faintly; for, indeed, I knew of none.
The man touched his hat, half deferential, half impudent.
“’Tis through the secret passage your ladyship, so to speak, opened tous—a locked door in the little cellar beyant.”
I shrunk from him.
“You said—what did you say was in it?”
“What but a show of venison, miss—piled to the roof, one might say.He must ’a made a ryle living out o’ deer-stealing, by your leave.”
He had—and that was the whole truth of the secret he had withheldfrom me! All the time I had been torturing my fears into madness, hehad been abroad in the midnight woods, murdering, not men, but deer;in league with an ignoble crew for a paltry gain. This romance of asocial ostracism revenging itself on a social hypocrisy: savage,melancholy, yielding to love only the troubled sweetness of itssoul—what did it confess itself at last? O, glorious, to be firstconsul to a little republic of poachers! To vindicate one’sindependence by picking the pockets of the king! It was all explainednow—the whisperings, the draggings, the creaking carts—in thatbutchers’ shambles, the secret store of a gang of deer-stealers. Hewas no better than a cutpurse. In my bitter mortification, I couldhave wept tears of shame. “I am justified of my act,” I cried tomyself. “Better that he should think me a traitor now, than live tocurse me for withholding my hand when there was time and opportunityto save him!”
Nevertheless, when they led him forth presently bound and quiet, Icould not face his eyes, but cowered before the unspoken reproach andsorrow in them. He came up quite close to me.
“It was your own fault,” I muttered in my hair. “Why would you nevertell me?”
“I was wrong,” he said, quite simply. “You must forgive me for what Ihave taken from you, Diana. If it is any comfort to you to know, thepoor little unrealised bond between us reconciles me to this—and allthat is to come.”
I felt as if my heart broke then and there. I was conscious of the redearl watching us. The other turned to him, with a laugh like death’s.
“Take your reversion, brother,” said he. “As for me, I am for themadhouse, I suppose.”
At a grinding word, two of the men helped him to mount, and moved awaywith him. I never saw him again. The other two entered the cottage, tofetch and escort Mr. Portlock to his doom. I was left alone with hislordship.
My heart was broken. I left it scattered on the turf, with all thefragments of the past.
“Now, papa devil,” I said, with a shriek of laughter, “what about yourdutiful daughter?”
I AM METAMORPHOSED
I had loved, and lost, and buried my dream of yesterday. It layfathoms deep in the green forest. From the moment of my resurrection Iknew myself for a changeling—a fairy creature quite other than thesoft, emotional child who had cried herself to sleep on last night’shearth. George was in his house of discipline; Portlock, with others,transported; my past was broken for me beyond repair. Facing meinstead were the battlements and pinnacles of a new dominion, withwhat infinite potentialities behind its walls! Conscience makes noconquests. With my rebirth had come the lust to supply thedeficiencies of the old. I laid my love in its grave with tears andkisses, and turned intrepid to the assault.
Memory, my friend, makes men good critics, but bad romancers. I wastoo indulgent of my kind to be the first: beauty invited me: I wouldforget. Remorse is, indeed, of all self-indulgences the most useless.It reconciles an offended Heaven to us no more than do tearful sighswin a wife her husband’s condonation of an ill-cooked dinner. Aninch-narrow of reformation is better than an ell-broad of apology. Letour sweetness of to-day, rather, be our experience of yesterday. Thegods find no entertainment in regrets. They shower their benefits onthe unminding; and in the gifts of the present we are justified of ourpast actions. It is only when we are rich that we can afford to put uptablets to our memories; whence follows that we cannot more honour thedead than by taking our profit of the living. Well, once I had livedfor others; now I would live on them—a word of distinction and aworld of difference.
His lordship took me straight to London, and gave me a little suite ofrooms in his fine house in Berkeley Square, where I was to remainduring the next three years, until, in fact, I was come legally ofage. He had decided, on reflection, that I was to be his niece. He wasa very great man, and this gift was only one of many in his disposal.It was no business of mine how he accounted to the world for my title.My interest was only to justify it, with a view to my position inlife when I was become marriageable. Wherefore I would consent to givehim none of my duty until he had drawn up a settlement in my favour,to date from my majority. I had had enough of unprofitable bargains.
Perhaps he would never have consented to this—for, like all covetouspluralists, he was parsimonious—had not the death of the youngviscount about this time moved him to seek comfort in an artificialrelationship for the real one he had lost. In the hearts of the worstof us, I suppose, such vacancies yearn to be filled; and so the poorchildless wretch took his opportunity, and adopted me. I hope Iacquitted myself properly for the favour; but, in truth, I could neverquite forgive him his treachery to his brother.
In the meantime, I developed rapidly, and had my little court, quiteexclusive of les convenances. The ladies, of course, looked askanceat me; but what did I care? I had only to curtsey to my glass toprocure the reason. And they made their modistes their deputies inpaying me the sincerest flattery. Instead, I experienced the highdistinction of a whole entourage of carpet-knights—captains andparsons and diplomatists unending—who came to ogle their own imagesin my blue eyes, and, losing their heads like Narcissus fromgiddiness, tumbled in by the score, until I was stocked as full undereach brow as an abbot’s pond. It was a rare sport to throw crumbs ofcomfort to these gaping creatures, and see them rise and jostle oneanother for the best pickings. I assure you, my friend, I was a queenin my sphere, and had as much need to practise diplomacy. It was thatfirst attached me to politics—the knowledge of into what good coinfor bribery and the traffic of State secrets those pretty orbs mightbe converted. So soon, sure, as amongst my parliamentary followers Idistinguished my favourites, I began to sift my political opinions,and to work for the handsomest. I have traced my measures in bothHouses, believe me, my little monsieur: I have pulled some strings,sitting in my boudoir, with results as far-reaching as St. Stephen’s.Ah, well! they were days! But I will be true to myself in notbewailing them. Memory, in my philosophy, is a very lean old pauper,crumbling dried herbs into his broth. I never could abide mint sauceunless plucked from the green.
Chief among my favourites was a madcap young member, whose wit wasnever so impertinent as when, flitting here and there for anopportunity, it could prick the sides of some great parliamentarybull, and elicit a roar for its pains. He was that Mr. Roper who,indeed, went so far, on somebody’s instigation, as to tease the greatMr. Pitt himself on certain measures introduced for the betterment ofthe Roman Catholics, and who, in consequence, redeemed himself alittle, it was whispered, in the eyes of high personages with whom hehad long been in disgrace. His father was Robert Lord Beltower, thatdeplorable old nobleman who was reported early in life to have stakedhis honour on some trifling issue, and lost; and who always describedhimself as living a posthumous life, since he had been carried off bya petticoat in the fifteenth year of his age. Father and second son(the heir to the title, Lord Roper of Loftus, was eminentlyrespectable and pious) were known as Bob Major and Bob Minor; and,indeed, apart or together, could ring the changes on some very prettytunes. But the minor, who had been a scapegrace page at court andearly dismissed, was my enfant gâté, as well for his wit andinformation as for a daring that recked nothing of the deuce itself.He owned to no party, and as to his principles, “Why,” said he, “Ithrow up my hat to the best shot, and that isn’t always to theheavenly marksman. I have known the devil score some points incharity.”
He never truckled to me, which was perhaps one of the reasons of myfavour; but was like a licensed brother—a relationship I had come toregard. Indeed, he most offended me by his outrageous independence ofmy partialities.
“Hey! Come, rogue, rogue!” sniggered his father to him once, on theoccasion of some abominable impertinence; “you go too far. What thedevil means this disrespect to our goddess? You’ll be pricked, egad,one of these days, like that fellow Atlas, or Actæon, or what thedevil was his name, that was tore for his impudence.”
The son bowed to the sire, quoting Slender’s words to Shallow: “‘Iwill marry her, sir, at your request; but if there be no great love inthe beginning, yet Heaven may decrease it upon better acquaintance,when we are married and have more occasion to know one another: Ihope, upon familiarity will grow more contempt; but if you say “Marryher,” I will marry her, that I am freely dissolved, and dissolutely.’”
“Why, you villain,” said his lordship, with a grin, “if you’re thedevil quoting Scripture, I’m done with you.”
“Nay, sir,” said the other, “you flatter yourself. I quote no betterthan my father.”
“No better, you dog! And how?”
“Why, sir, wasn’t it you taught me that the more one sees of a womanthe less one respects her?”
“’Twas à propos the Chudleigh, sir, you may remember, whom you metat Ranelagh—in ’49, I think it was—undressed as Iphigenia. She cameclothed in little but her virtue, and caught a bad cold a-consequence.You may have forgot the moral of your sermon, sir, but I, as a dutifulson, have stored it.”
“Hang you, Bob! What moral?”
“Why, sir, that a woman dreads exposure in nothing but her weakness tostand the test of it. If she’s a peculiar fineness anywhere, she’lltake some means to let you know.”
“Then, sir,” cried I, with a flaming face, “I pride myself on nothingso much as my hand!”—and I brought it down stingingly on his ear.
“But I don’t want your hand,” he cried, stamping about, while hisfather roared, “Didn’t I tell you as much?”
Nevertheless, we were fast comrades, and together in some captivatingpeccancies, of which I only learned to rue the publicity when they ledto my undoing.
Mr. Roper, as I have said, found a particular delight in galling—onsomebody’s instigation—the sides of the promoters of the newpro-Papish Bills. Well, I will ask you, what did I owe to that Church?Was it likely that my treatment at its hands had left any love betweenus, or that I should wish its disabilities removed, who had sufferedso much from it muzzled? I had been educated, under its shadow, to afull understanding of its juggleries and impostures. Now was the time,the country being still in a ferment over its heir-apparent’s allegedmarriage with the Fitzherbert, to relate my experiences.
There was at that date published in London a little fashionablescapegrace of a paper called the World, the property of a MajorTopham, who made it the vehicle for such a chronique scandaleuse asthe town had never yet known; and in this paper I began (by preconcertwith my political ally) to disclose, over the signature “Angélique,”the true story and circumstances of a certain beautiful young lady,who had been practised upon, and in the very heart of ProtestantEngland, by a worse than Spanish Inquisition. The series, cautiouslyas I began by handling it, made an immediate sensation, and was, youmay be sure, deftly engineered in the House by Mr. Roper for theOpposition. Moreover, “Angélique”—which delighted me as much—gaveher sweet and melancholy name to a mourning gauze, which was so prettythat I had to kill an aunt to give me a title to wear it. At the sametime her instant popularity made me tremble for my incognito, which,nevertheless, I knew to be the major’s very best asset in a profitablebargain. Still, not even his tact could altogether explain away theassociation of ideas implied in Mr. Roper’s common friendship with meand with that poor persecuted anonymity; and that I had made myself byno means so secure as Junius was a fact disagreeably impressed upon meon a certain evening.
I had been entertaining late that night, when his lordship enteredunexpected. He came from St. James’s and from playing backgammon withthe king, and wore his orders on a pearl-silk coat and, for contrast,a mighty scowling face over. I took no heed of him as he walked up theroom towards me, humping his shoulders, and acknowledging wintrily thesalutations of my little court, but went on laughing and rallying adear little ensign Percy, with whom I was in love just then, pourfaire passer le temps. However, the boy could not stand theinquisition of the red eyes, and joked himself into other company,with a blush and a bow to the ogre; at which I laughed, lolling backin my chair.
“Well, madam,” said Hardrough, knuckling his snuff-box softly, “whenyou can vouchsafe me a moment of your attention.”
I recognised the compelling tone in his voice, and rose, with a littleshow of indolence.
“O!” I said, yawning, “what sin has found me out now? I vow it cannever be so ugly as it looks.”
He gave me his arm, mighty ceremonious, and, conducting me into anantechamber, shut the door.
“That is for you to prove,” he said, taking snuff, and stood glaringinto my soul. “So, madam,” he said, “you are for setting your littleteeth into the hands that have warmed you?”
I sat down, fluttering my fan, and pretty pale, I daresay. But I wasnot surprised. My conscience had pricked me at the first sight of hisface. He pulled from his pocket a copy of the damning sheet, and “Tellme,” says he, “if His Majesty was justified in asking me if this didnot refer to some member of my family?”
I did not answer, and he threw the paper on the floor.
“Well, you are condemned,” he said drily; and at that I found my wits.
“Condemned?” I cried. “By whom? Why, my lord, how can you, being ofthe Court party and in Opposition, condemn an anti-papish tract?”
“That is all very well,” he said acridly; “but the stone once setrolling against a house, who knows who may be included in the ruin?”
I knew very well, of course, to what he referred; for had he not beensubsidised by his sister (and during the time, too, when he hadfigured hottest against Catholic emancipation) into overlooking theestablishment by her, in the very heart of his estate, of thatcommunity of Sisters whose complicity in my abduction I was bent uponexposing? And was I not aware, too, that the appointment he coveted toa vacant garter trembled at the moment in the balance of suchrevelations? O, I held some strings, my friend, you may believe!though at present I had the opposite to any inducement to pull thisparticular one.
“Why, Nunky!” I cried, “is not this, your succour and protection ofmadam’s poor victim, the best proof of your orthodoxy?”
He regarded me grimly, but with some shadow of returning good-humour.
“That’s true enough,” he said, “so long as you use me, if at all,for no worse than to point the moral of her damnation.”
“Why should I not? ’Tis my interest to, at least.”
“Ha!” he said; “there you speak. And stap me if I love you the lessfor it.”
He took a turn or two, and came back grinning.
“They’re damn clever, Di: there, I’ll admit they’re damn clever! But’tis a perilous game you play, my girl; and you’ll do well to takecare you play it to none but your own interests.”
He went off again, and returned.
“Harkee!” he said; “there’s Beltower’s whelp, and—and I don’t care afig for your predilections. Work your oracle as you will; only befaithful to me, and you won’t suffer for’t in the end.”
He finished in such spirits that he was moved to show me a letter hehad received from his sister but a few days before. In it sheupbraided him for his treachery,—of which she only recently hadcertain information—in converting his capture of me to such infamousaccount; and called upon him, as he valued his soul, to turn hisJezebel adrift again to her merited deserts.
“Enfin,” I said, handing him back the effusion, “for a respectablelady she shows a vigorous vocabulary. She writes in London, I see.”
He chuckled like a demon.
“She writes in hell, and bites the more viciously for her roasting.’Tis that fellow has led her here, dancing after some new fancy ofhis; and, by God, she’s paid for her stubbornness, and must vent herspite on someone.”
“Well,” I said, “tell her so from me; and that, for my part, I’drather be Jezebel than what came to lap her blood.”
At which he neighed, vowing he’d take me at my word.
I RUN ACROSS AN OLD FRIEND
It has always been my fate to suffer most at the hands of my bestfriends; and now it was to be my dearest, my little sister, who was toshoot her arrow over the house and wound me. In innocence, Heavenforgive her; and, in forgiving, answer to itself for making me theunconscious instrument of its retribution.
It was in the third year of my “minority,” and while in the full zestof my conspiracy with young Roper, that one night we made up a partyfor Vauxhall Gardens, and crossed from Whitehall Stairs—very merrywith French horns and lanterns and a little Roman boy, Ugolino, whosang like an angel—to witness the new picture of a tempest in thecascade house. This we had seen, and were gone for supper into one ofthe boxes (which Bob called the loose boxes) in a retired corner ofthe grove, when occurred the contretemps which was to change thewhole face of my fortunes. I had observed, without marking them, acouple enter the adjoining booth, and was bawling my part in a catch,while waiting for the chickens and cheesecakes, when a fellow put hishead round the partition, and, kissing his dirty hand with a leer,“Beg pardon, leddies,” says he, “but I can supplement that ’ere chauntwith a better”—and immediately, disappearing from sight, began tobang the table beyond and to roar out a filthy ballad.
Roper leapt to his feet—there was a crowd lingering by, attracted byour merriment—and ran round to the front.
“Stop, you sot!” screamed he, “or I’ll nail your ears to the table!”
The fellow ceased dead, and in a moment came staggering out with afurious face. He was a coarse, blotched ruffian, and as drunk asDavid’s sow.
“What, the ’ell,” said he, lurching up his words; “ain’t one song asgood as another in this here bordel, mister?”
Bob struck like Harlequin, and the wretch went down. I had once beforeheard the smack of flesh on flesh, and it made my blood jump.
There was a fine uproar: we had all risen to our feet; and in themidst I observed the girl (we had forgot the creature had a companion)slip out of the box and away, taking advantage of the confusion to mixwith the crowd. I just saw her white face melt from me, and gave onegasp, and started in pursuit. My companions called; but I took nonotice, and was lost in a moment.
She was making for the Druid’s Walk, unheeding my cries in herblindness. But in a little she began to falter, and then to sway, andI came up with her, and caught her into my arms.
“Patty!” I whispered, frantic, “Patty!”
She looked at me quite dumb and bewildered, the poor thing; and thensighed, and mechanically put her hair back from her temples.
“Patty!” I urged again, “don’t you know me?”
And at that, all of a sudden she had burst into tears, and wasclinging to me.
“Is it you, Diana?” she sobbed, “really you at last? O, I have solonged, since we came, and I knew you was here in London! Take meaway; don’t let me be carried back.”
She was near choking me with her arms.
“Hush!” I said. “What have they been doing with you? Pish, child! thatwas never—no, no; with all your softness, you couldn’t be such afool. Who the deuce was it, then? Now, don’t answer; but come with mewhere we can talk.”
We were already being accosted and offered genteel squiring. The childheld to me, terrified, while I laughed, and convoyed her in safety tothe open, where we were lucky to encounter one of my party.
“Is it over?” I asked.
“O, faith!” he answered, quizzing my friend, “the manster’s floored;and Parseus refreshing himself on Roman panch; and here, by my soul,’s Andrameda come to give thanks to her presarver.”
“Well,” I said, “Andromeda’s in better hands for the present; so youmust e’en take us where we can talk private, while you mount guard.”
He looked mightily astonished; but, obeying, conducted us to thefarthest limits of the grounds—where was little company but thekeepers, put to restrain interlopers from the fields beyond—and thereset us on a seat, and withdrew. And the moment we were alone, I tookthe girl and held her at arm’s length.
She was the same as ever, though her figure grown a thought too fullfor perfection, perhaps. But there were the soft, bashful eyes, andthe naïve face, too white under its dark hair, that I loved so well.
“So,” I said, nodding my head, “we meet again, like the town andcountry mice. And are you still under her dominion, you little brownfrump?”
She could not have enough of wondering, and fondling me, and weeping;but her inarticulateness filled me with a horrible foreboding.
“What!” I cried, giving her a little shake; “don’t tell me, miss,that—but, no, I won’t hear it! ’Tis grotesque beyond reason.”
“What do you mean?” she whispered.
I looked searchingly into her eyes.
“No,” I said, reassured; “there are the same unborn babies there. Butwho, then, was that brute you ran from?”
She put her arms round my neck.
“He—he is a groom of madam’s, and high in favour with her because agood Catholic. She bids me listen to him; and—and I don’t know whatshe means, Diana, or what he means. He is a coarse and violentman—sometimes. But she forces me into his company, and to see thetown together. And O, Diana! I am almost sure he drinks too much.”
I burst into a laugh.
“You should be whipped for the slander, child. But I suspect thetruth. We don’t run but from those we have a partiality for. WatchMoll and Meg at dragging-time in the fairs.”
She cried “Diana!” and, looking up horrified into my face, read itsmockery, and, gasping out, “I am very unhappy,” fell away from me.
“You poor little creature!” I cried, fiercely moved by her distress;“if you don’t know what madam means, I do. ’Tis the way with thequality to pension off their discarded fancies on Jack or Molly.”
She showed by her manner that she did not understand me, but myindignation would not let me explain. Moreover, I was too satisfiedwith my own solution to wish it contradicted.
“Never mind,” I said, stamping my foot. “Tell me everything—everyword.”
Then it all came out in a flood: How, since my removal, madam hadvisited more and more upon her innocent head the trespasses of herpoor little friend and sister; how this habit, vindictive at the best,had grown into a very fury of spite (which I laughed much to hearabout) when de Crespigny’s wandering fancy had begun (as it inevitablyhad) to turn from the hop-pole, which had invited it to be wreathedabout itself, to the ripe little sapling growing so snug beside; how,in her jealousy, my lady had driven her below stairs, and at last madeher altogether consort with the servants as her proper peers, who hadonly been lifted by her generosity out of the gutter; how, not contentwith this, literal, debasement, she had thought further to soil her byforcing upon her the reversion of her tipsy cavaliere servente (as,anyhow, I chose to think him), a tyranny which had at last driven thesoft little creature to despair and rebellion. So she told me all,though with less force and conviction, poor simplicity, than I havechosen to put into her relation.
“And you was gone—and how did you escape, Diana?—and I hated Mr. deCrespigny as much as I hate this one—and it all makes no difference,and I don’t know how I can bear it longer,” she cried, in a breath.
“Very well, then,” I said, and looked sternly at her. “You must findthe courage to run away.”
I had thought that the very suggestion would make her faint; butinstead, to my surprise, a rose of colour flew to her pale cheeks.
“Yes,” she whispered. “If I only knew where!”
O, fie on madam! She must have been a cruel task-mistress, indeed!
“There!” I said, “you naughty little thing! But confess to me firstwhat you have heard tell about your sister.”
“What does that matter,” she murmured, hanging her head, “when nothingin the world can ever alter my love for you?”
I took her in my arms, and touched her little simple toilette intoshape here and there.
“You are very desperate, in truth, child. What do you say—will yourisk all, and come and be my duenna? You are older than I, sure, andshall defend your little sister from slander. I will get the earl toconsent, if you will say yes.”
She seemed beyond answering, but could only cling to me in a kind offrenzied rapture.
“And I will make a fine bird of my Jenny Wren,” I said, still busywith her; “for she has a thousand pretty little modest graces whichwill do me a vast credit in the dressing. You shall keep your naturalhair, miss, for powder, since the tax, is not à la mode with thebest; but a gentleman’s arm—le cas échéant—would never go roundthis waist by three inches.”
I peeped, with a smile, into her face.
“O, if I only dared!” she sighed.
“Sir Benjamin,” I cried, rising instantly, “escort us to the gates,please, and call a coach.”
An hour later I broke upon his lordship’s privacy.
“Nunky,” I cried, “I want permission for a new toy, please.”
He looked up askew. He was in the hands of his valet.
“I have been taking thought for my reputation,” I said, “and desire aduenna.”
He screwed out a laugh and an oath.
“I’ll have no old hags about.”
“’Tis a young hag but a little older than myself. Will you let me?”
“No, I won’t.”
“It will please me.”
“It will spite Lady Sophia to death.”
“Curse it, you viper! I’ll think about it.”
“Very well. I’ll bring her to be introduced.” And, before he couldremonstrate, I was gone.
We found him in demi-toilette when I returned, dragging my reluctantbaggage with me, like a lamb to the slaughter. She was as terrified asif ’twere for him I coveted her, and not for myself. He started,seeing her, and came and put his hand on her shoulder.
“Well, I vow,” said he, “’tis a toy for a king. Whence come you,child? From my sister? She was wise to dismiss you, egad!”
I AM MADE FORTUNE’S MISTRESS
I have ruled myself all my life to be none but Fortune’s mistress.Let who will question it, the gift of fine clothes has never bought myindependence. Honesty, as the little plant of that name tells us, maygo dressed in satin. And, as with me, so would I have it with mysister.
I was not long in discovering that I had erred in bringing her toBerkeley Square, though I will not, for her sake, detail the processesof my enlightenment. Let it suffice to say that the nobleman, myguardian, was not exactly intellectual. He was one of those who, likeTony Lumpkin, reckon beauty by bulk; and in that respect, it iscertain, Patty could more than fill my place with him. She had nonotion, of course, dear innocent, that she was being invited to do so.She was all blindness and affection; but that made it none the less myduty to save her the consequences of her own simplicity, seeing how itwas I had unwittingly brought it imperilled. The worldly may sneer andwelcome. That I did preserve her, and at the last cost to myself, isthe only proof needed of that same disinterested honesty which in thebeginning had welcomed her, without a selfish second thought, to itsarms.
Now, the moment I realised my mistake, I set myself to combat itsresults. I think I may say I gave my lord some mauvais quartsd’heure. He, for his part, when I thought it time to throw off themask, did not spare me insult and brutality. In very disdain I willnot report the quarrel. And all the while the silly child its subjecttrembled apart, in an atmosphere she felt but could not understand,while the shepherdess and the butcher disputed for her possession.
At length came the climax. One day, at the end of a furious scene, hetold me roundly that he had had enough of me, and that it would bewell for me to agree to commute my proposed settlement for—for what?A sum that was less than a valet’s pension. I refused it; I refusedeverything. Let that at least speak in my vindication. He assured methat in that case I had nothing further to expect from him. Thedotard! Did he laugh when I told him, perfectly quietly, that I quiteunderstood that the debt was mine, and that I should pay it? Did hestill count himself the better tactician, when I affected to beterrified over my own rashness, and to slink away from him to lamentand reconsider?
I went straight to my bedroom, where for an hour or two I sat writing.At the end, I despatched two letters, one to the World, one to Mr.Roper, who lived hard by, and whose reply I set myself to await withwhat philosophy I could muster. It came in a little; and then,singing, I sought out Patty, in the pretty boudoir that was hers oflate. She flew to greet me, and coaxed me to a couch. The moment wewere seated, I hushed her head into my breast.
“Patty,” I whispered, “do you love the earl?”
I could feel her breath stop, then recover itself in wonder.
“He is so good to us, Diana—like a father. And I had always lived insuch terror of his mere name. How easily we may be deceived.”
“Yes, child,” I answered. “How easily—how easily.”
Her pulses answered to my tone, I could feel again. She slipped uponher knees before me, and clasping her hands looked up, dumblyquestioning, into my face.
“You are so simple, ma mignonette; I hardly know how to tell you,” Ibegan pitifully.
“Tell me! O, what, Diana? I am frightened.”
“I wish you to be. Patty”—I took her two entreating hands into one ofmine, and with the other made a significant gesture—“all this—theselittle costly gifts—has it never occurred to you, child, that theyare bribes”— I stopped.
“To me?” she whispered, with a whole heart of astonishment.
“To your honour, child.”
She gulped, and turned as pale as death.
“He has promised to show you his Richmond cottage?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
“Never mind. I know. You must not go.”
“How can I help it? Diana!”
She sunk down before me, quite helpless and unnerved.
“Patty,” I said, “you have never ceased to love and trust yoursister?”
“Never, never—you are before all the world to me. Diana! You willfind a way!”
“If you are strong—yes. I have been alert and watchful, child, whileyou never knew it. But he did; and he means to separate us; to ridhimself of the watch-dog, that he may seize the lamb. He has but thismoment told me I must go—with what coarseness and insult I will notsoil your ears by repeating. If you love your honour, as I love andhave sacrificed myself to save it, you must come with me.”
“I will come”—she rose hurriedly to her feet. “How can I ever repayyou, sister? The old, wicked man! At once—Diana! let us fly at once!”
“Hush! We must be circumspect. You don’t know— There, child, I willdie to save you.”
She clung to me, in a gush of silent tears. Hastily I instructedher—it was necessary in escaping to leave no trail—in my plan. Itwas that, in an hour’s time, she should order out her barouche (therewas one put at her disposal), and, having driven to Grosvenor Gate,alight and dismiss it, as if with the intention to walk in the park.Thence she was to make her way on foot to Mrs. Trix’s toy-shop inPiccadilly, and, having asked very privately to be shown into theparlour, await me there, in whatever company she should find.
She obeyed, heedful, in her panic, to the last details. Luckily, mylord, being gone abroad to his lawyers, there were no prying eyes tocriticise her. No sooner was she driven off than—having collectedinto a stocking all our jewels, and whatever money I could lay handson, which I hung from my waist out of sight—I stole forth by the backway into the stables, and thence to the street, where I found ahackney coach, and drove after my friend.
I found her, as I had hoped, with Mr. Roper. He looked mighty seriousover our escapade, but informed me that he had loyally attended to myinstructions, and procured us a lodging, as for two country ladies whohad come up to view the sights, in as distant a part of the town as hecould compass on short notice. We went out immediately by a side door,and, having all got into a coach that was in waiting, were driven toHolborn, where we alighted, and thence, for precaution, walked to aquiet house in Great Coram Street, near the Foundlings, where ourhandsome escort left us, promising to call, at discretion, in a fewdays, and recommending us in the meanwhile to lie as close as rabbitsin a furrow.
He was as good as his word, coming in a week later, after dark, with aface as long as a lawyer’s writ.
“Well, madam,” he said, “you have cut the ground from under your ownfeet with a vengeance.”
“You have been reading ‘Angélique’s’ Last Testament?”
“Pray the Fates it may not be so indeed,” he said gravely; and,pulling a paper out of his pocket, began to refer to it.
“Why, do you not know,” said he, “that others besides our Volponeare reported interested in that strange disappearance of a one-timeheir-presumptive to Volpone’s own title?”
“And yet you go and put your head into the lion’s mouth?”
“I would do more to expose a villain. I would go all lengths to rightan injured man. He is no more mad than I am.”
“That seems probable.”
He unfolded a second paper from the other, and pointing silently to aparagraph, handed it to me.
“The king” (I read from the Gazette) “has bestowed the vacant garterupon the newly created Marquis of Synge;” and a little lower down: “Itis stated that the Earl of Herring has been relieved, at his ownrequest, of all offices which he held under the Crown. His lordship isunderstood to have long contemplated a complete retirement from publiclife.”
I shrieked with laughter. I danced about the room, waving the paperover my head. The noise I made brought up one of two gentlemen wholived below. He put his head in at the door, with a leer and a grin:“O, a thousand pardons!” said he; “I thought you was alone, and thatsomething had happened”—and he vanished.
“He thought something had happened!” groaned Bob dismally; and, takingthe paper from me, he read out elsewhere: “His Majesty’s finaldecision is supposed not unconnected with the esclandres of acertain notorious lady, which have exercised the public curiosity forsome time past, and which culminated on Saturday sennight in an attacktoo obvious in its direction to be overlooked.”
I heard, glistening.
“Well, I told him I recognised my debt, and should pay him,” I said.
Bob folded the papers, and returned them to his pocket. His mouth andeyes were set in a kind of suffering smile.
“You may know best how to play your hand for yourself,” he said. “Godpreserve your partner, that’s all.”
“What have you to fear?”
“Your prudence, first of all—not a very trustworthy asset, if one mayjudge by your apparent confidence in your fellow-lodgers.”
“O! him that looked in!” I said. “I will answer there with my life.”
He raised his eyebrows.
“Yes, that is the point,” said he. “Do you quite realise what you havedone, Diana?”
“Well, that is a comfort. It gives me a sort of confidence in myfuture. So long as I can be played as live-bait for your capture, Ishall be spared, no doubt.”
He came up to me, and spoke very earnestly—
“Do you understand? He will try to trace you through me. If hesucceeds”—
“There is an end of both of us,” I said cheerfully.
“Well,” he answered, with admiration, “you are a game little partlet.But remember, at least, that revenge which evokes retribution missesthe best half of itself. For that reason, if for no other, I must keepaway from you. This visit to-night, even—I only dared it afterinfinite precautions. If you want me, write: I will risk some means tosee you. For the rest, live close as death, till some of this, atleast, is blown over. Your friend, the pretty simpleton, where isshe?”
“In bed and asleep.”
“Keep her there. Make a dormouse of her. My Lady Sophia is nosing forher tracks, as my lord her brother for yours. Did you suppose shewould acquiesce quietly in the abduction of her handmaid? I tell you,she has got wind of the truth; and there has been tempest in the houseof Herring. Keep her close. Above everything, cut all furthercommunication with the World—as you love yourself, and me a little,perhaps, Diana.”
“As I love the truth,” I said; and went up and kissed him.
“Ah!” he sighed, “that is very pretty. But, believe me, the truth, asrepresented by His Majesty, wishes your love at the devil before itmeddled in his family affairs.”
I FIND A FRIEND IN NEED
You know the truth, mon ami—that the face which looked in at mydoor was the face of my father. O, heavens, the reunion, so wonderful,so pathetic! and the sequel, so interesting! Truly, through our livingfidelities do the gods chastise our worldliness.
We had not been a day in the house when I ran across him in a passage.He was, it appeared, one of two gentlemen who lodged below. He wasplainly, almost shabbily dressed; bloated a little; prematurely aged:but I knew him instantly. Though eleven years had gone since mychildish eyes had last acknowledged and adored him, the instinct ofnature was too sure to be deceived. I gasped, I trembled, as he stoodogling me; finally I threw myself into his arms.
“Papa!” I cried; “papa!”
“Hey!” he responded; “is that all?”
“Do you not remember your little Diana?” I implored, in an ecstasy ofemotion.
“Wait,” he said, and put a hand to his forehead. “It may be on mynotes. I’ve a damned bad memory.”
The door of a room hard by stood open. He led me in, closed it, andseated himself officially at a table.
“Now,” he said, “what mother?”
The shock, my friend! I had remembered him so strong andgallant—wicked, if you will; but then I had always pictured myselfthe cherished pledge of his wickedness. And now, it appeared, I wasonly one of a large family. Without a word, I turned my back upon him.
“Don’t go,” he said, disturbed at that. “What name did you say?”
I confronted him once more, sorrow and disdain battling in my face.
“I said Diana.”
“Of course,” he answered, beating his forehead; “the child of”—
After all, it was a long lapse of time. I told him my mother’s name.
“She was my one real love,” he said, shedding tears. “I recall heramong the peats of Killarney as if it were to-day. When she died (sheis dead, isn’t she?) I buried my heart in her grave. I have neverknown a moment’s happiness since. Speak to me of her, Dinorah.”
He followed me up a little later, when Patty was sitting with me, andpeeped round the door.
“May I—daughter Di?” he said. I believe he had really in the intervalbeen looking among his notes, or letters, and with such benefit to hismemory that he felt secure, at least, in that monosyllabic compromise.Blame my fond heart, thou fripon. I was softened even in mydesperate disillusionment by this half recognition. With a father,fashionable and well-connected, possibly rich, to safeguard myinterests, I need no longer fear the light.
Receiving no answer, he sidled himself into the room, and to a sofa,on which he sat down. Patty, dropping her work, looked at him with allher might of astonishment.
“And is this dear child your sister?” he asked.
“Yes,” I answered; “from the very first.”
“Twins?” he exclaimed. “I am very sure there is no such entry.”
He sat frowning at the carpet for a little. Then, “Wait,” he said. “Itis my misfortune to serve small beer.” And with these enigmatic wordslaid himself down and fell asleep.
With his first snore, Patty flew over to me.
“Who is it?” she whispered, frantic.
“It is a wise father that knows his own child.”
“Father?” she said.
“Hush!” I answered; “yes.” And would say no more till he woke.
He came to himself presently, in a properer sense of the word. Duringthe interval I had been curiously observing his condition. It was verydifferent in seeming from that of the spark of eleven years since. Itshowed an assumption of finery, it is true; but the trappings weretawdry and soiled, and the materials cheap.
He sat up with a prodigious yawn, his face, in the midst, lapsing intoa watery, paternal smile. But it was evident at once that something ofthe thread of memory was restored in him; and he began questioning memuch more shrewdly and to the point.
“Why, ecod,” said he presently, “was it a fact that the sweep hadstole you? If I’d only learnt the truth before Charlie Buckster put abullet in himself. I’d a double pony on it with the man.”
Then we got on famously. He cried much over his poor lost love, andwas so tender with me that he completely won me from my reserve, and Iended by recounting to him the whole tale of my fortunes, even up tothe present moment.
“That Herring!” he said: “a fine guardian to my girl! I knew the stoatwell in my time. Let him beware, now that she has found her naturalprotector.”
He swelled with indignation, as I with pleasure.
“You have gifts, presents from him, no doubt,” he said fiercely. “Whatdo you say to my taking them all back, and throwing them in his face?”
“I say, certainly not,” I answered.
“Ah well!” he said, “you have got them, anyhow; and the thought willwring his covetous soul.”
At this moment a great voice roared, “Johnson, you devil!” down belowsomewhere.
My father got quickly to his feet.
“Ay,” he answered, to my look; “’tis me, Di—the pseudonym I go by.Fact is, child, I’m temporarily under a financial cloud, and forced toeke out a living, while awaiting the moment of my complete restorationto fortune, by service—that is to say, by taking it, hem!”
“By taking service?”
“Exactly. A sort of elegant cicerone and social introducer to a damnedold parvenu curmudgeon, who wants to learn at what lowest outlay tohimself he can pose as a gentleman. ’Tis tiresome, though in its wayamusing; but I really think I shall have to cut the old rascal on histaste in liquor. For a palate like mine, you know—small beer and blueruin, faugh! You haven’t change for a guinea, my angelic?”
“Johnson!” roared the voice again.
“Coming, sir, coming!” cried my papa; and, seeing me unresponsive,skipped out of the room.
He was with us continually during the fortnight after our arrival; andI had no least idea of the consequences awaiting me, when oneafternoon a hastily scribbled note, dated “en route for theContinent,” was delivered at the house door by a porter, and sent upto me. I read it, shrieked, and sank half fainting into a chair.
“I have taken, dear daughter,” it said, “the entire responsibility forour monetary affairs upon my own shoulders. To live on one’s capitalis, like the self-eating pelican, to devour the substance of theunborn generations. Seeing how you appeared quite unaccountablycallous to the natural claims of your prospective family (for, withyour attractions, you cannot hope to escape one), I, as itsprospective grandfather, have asserted my prerogative by appropriatingour principal to its properest uses of investment. The stocking youwill find still reposing in its secret cache behind the hangings ofyour dressing-table; but you will find it empty. Do not blame me, butconsole yourself with the conviction that in a few weeks I shall be ina position to return you your principal at least trebled. In themeanwhile, accept the assurances of my love and protection.”
Half dazed with the shock, I tottered, with Patty’s assistance, intoour bedroom. It was too true. The desperate wretch, seizing hisopportunity by night while we slept, had robbed us of everything. Hehad left us not a sixpence. We were ruined.
I tore my hair. I uttered cries and imprecations. I cursed Heaven, myown fond gullibility, the cruelty of the fate that would not let melive and be honest. Patty, poor fool, tried to calm me. I drove heraway with blows, and, in a reaction to fury, rushed downstairs andinto the room of the remaining lodger.
“Where is my money, where are my jewels?” I shrieked. “You are hisaccomplice. I will swear an information against you unless you tell.”
He was a gross, coarse man, of a violent complexion.
“Ho-ho!” he bellowed; “blackmail is it? Wait, while I call a witness.”
He pulled the bell down, summoning our landlady. When she came, therewas an outrageous scene. Quite cowed in the end, I retreated to ourapartments, where, however, I was not to be left in peace. Within anhour the harridan appeared with her bill, an extravagant one, which ofcourse I was unable to settle. The next morning, driven forth withcontumely, we were arrested at her suit, and carried to asponging-house. Thence, quite self-collected now in my desperation, Idespatched a note to Mr. Roper, who, without delay, good creature,waited upon us. I told him the whole unreserved truth.
“Very well,” he said, “I will quit you of this, child; and, for therest, find accommodation for you in humbler quarters till you can helpyourself. With your genius, that should not be long. You know mycircumstances, and that I cannot afford luxuries.”
“I will work my fingers to the bone,” I said, with tears in my eyes.
“Not quite so bad as that,” he answered. “Bones ain’t negotiableassets. Have you ever thought on the stage, now, for a living?”
“I believe, without much study, I could make an actress,” I said.
“With none at all,” said he confidently. “I have a friend in Westleyof Drury Lane, and will see if he can put you in the way to a part. Ishould fear the publicity, i’ faith, but that my lord has taken hisgrievances to the Continent for an airing, and in the interval we aresafe to act.”
Good loyal friend! He found us pretty snug quarters over a little shopin Long Acre, where, keeping to our pseudonym of the Misses Rush, webided while he negotiated terms for me. He was successful, when once Ihad been interviewed by the management; and, to cut short thismelancholy story, I made my first appearance on the boards as thefairy Primrose in the Christmas masque of the Dragon of Wantley. Ihad a little song to sing about a butterfly, which never failed tobring down the house; and altogether, I was growing not unhappy in thenovelty of the venture, when that, with almost my life, was ended at ablow.
But first I must relate of the most surprising contretemps that everI was to experience, and which had the strangest and most immediatebearing on my destinies.
I had noticed frequently that the hind legs of the dragon would lingerunaccountably, when the absurd monster, on his way off the stage,happened to pass me standing in the wings. This would lead to muchmuffled recrimination from the forequarters, which, exhausted by theirantics, aimed only at getting to their beer; the consequence beingthat one eventful night, what between the haulings and contortions,the back seam of the creature split, and out there rolled before myeyes—Gogo.
He picked himself up immediately, and stood regarding me silently,with a most doleful visage. My dear, I cannot describe what emotionsswept my soul in a little storm of laughter—the astonishment, thepity, the bewilderment! In the midst, too confounded to arrange mythoughts, I turned away, affecting not to recognise him; seeing which,he uttered one enormous sigh, and stumped off to face the battery ofthe stage-manager’s indignation.
I must have put a world of feeling that night into my little songabout the poor butterfly, that was stripped of its wings by a cruelboy, and so prevented from keeping its assignation with the rose,insomuch that it moved a very beautiful lady, who was present in aprivate box, to send for me that she might thank me in person.
We had all of us, of course, heard of, and some of us remembered,perhaps, chucking under the chin, the ravishing Mrs. Hart, who, frompulling mugs of beer to the pinks of Drury Lane, had risen to bechère amie to his excellency the British Ambassador at Naples, and,quite recently, his lady. She had lately come to London, à traverstous les obstacles, to be made an honest woman of, and it was she whocraved the introduction, to which you may be sure I responded with asmuch alacrity as curiosity. I could have no doubt of her the moment Ientered the box, and made, with becoming naïveté, my little curtsey.She was certainly very handsome, in spite of her twenty-seven yearsand her large feet, though, I thought, lacking in grace. But her facewas beautifully formed, with a complexion of apple-blossoms, and redlips a little swollen with kissing, and, to crown everything, a greatglory of chestnut hair. There were tears in her fine eyes as sheturned impulsively to address me—
“La, you little darling, you’ve made me cry with your butterflies andthings. Come here while I buss you.”
There was a gentleman sitting by her, foremost of two or three thatwere in the box, and he made room for me with an indulgent smile. Hewas a genial, precise-looking person, with a star on his right breast,and the queue of his wig reaching down his back in long curls thatwere gathered into a ribbon. I took him, rightly, to be Sir William,the husband, and made him my demure bow as I passed. His lady gave mea great kiss, in full view of the house, and taking a little jewelfrom her bosom, pinned it into mine.
“There,” she said, “wear this for Lady Hamilton, in token of the onlyreel feeling she has come across in your beastly city.”
Sir William put his hand on her arm.
“My dear,” he said.
She fanned herself boisterously. She had been disappointed, everyoneknew, in her designs to be received at court, and was to leave Englandin a few days missing the coveted honour. Somehow she reminded me ofthe “bouncing chit” that our gentlemen call a champagne bottle—she sogushed and sparkled, and was a little large and loud.
I made my acknowledgments quite prettily, and left the box; and, oncegot outside, leaned for a moment against the wall, with a feeling ofmortal sickness come over me. For, as I retreated, I had come face toface with those seated at the back—and one of them was the Earl ofHerring.
Had he recognised me? He had not appeared to lift his eyes, even, ashe sat at discussion with his neighbour. And that might be the mostdeadly sign of all.
I don’t know how I got through the rest of my part. But that night Iclung to Patty as if she were my only support in a failing world.
Morning brought some reassurance; and so, for a further evening ortwo, finding myself still unmolested, I struggled to convince myselfthat he had not seen, or that I was forgotten, and my fault passedover. But all the time the terror lay at my heart.
On the third evening, as I was entering the theatre, I encountered apoor creature standing by the stage door. I went to him; I almost fellupon his breast in my agitation.
“Gogo!” I said, “Gogo!” and stood dumb and shame-stricken before him.
He threw up his hands with that odd familiar gesture, with thattempestuous sigh which found such an immediate response in my soul.
“Are you not coming in?” I faltered.
He shook his head.
“You are dismissed?”
“I spoiled their dragon for them.”
I burst into tears.
“It was for me, dear. Do you see to what I have come? Forgive me,Gogo.”
“I can’t help myself,” he groaned. “You are my destiny.”
“Gogo, I am frightened; I am in danger. Help me, Gogo.”
The poor fellow smiled.
“In everything but running away, Diana.”
“And that is just where I want your help. Come to me: come and see meto-morrow, Gogo, will you? O, Gogo, will you?”
“Don’t be foolish, Diana. At what time?”
“You know my address?”
“Of course I do.”
“As early as early, then; the moment I am out of bed.”
Strangely comforted, and looking to see if we were alone, I dropped atiny kiss on his rough cheek, and ran in gaily, wiping my eyes as Iwent.
That night I sang my little song with renewed feeling, and ended to aburst of applause. As I was standing at the wings, flushed andradiant, a note was put into my hand. I opened it, and read: “You arein danger. Don’t go home.”
I never learned who had sent it; some one, probably, from amongst thefew friends I could still number in that wicked household. It had beenhanded in at the stage door by a messenger, and that was all I coulddiscover. The lights of my triumph were darkened. I knew myself atlast hunted—and alone. Why had I not bid my monster wait for me? Butit were idle now to moan. Despair gave me readiness. I finished mypart quite brilliantly, without a stumble, and chatted gaily, whiledisrobing, with the poor pretty little coryphée who was my chieffriend in the dressing-rooms. By one pretext or another I detained heruntil we were alone. Then, “Fanny,” I said, “keep mum; but I think itunlikely I shall come here again.”
She looked at me with her large grey eyes. We were much of a figure,and not unlike in features.
“O, Miss Rush!” she whispered. “And I’d ’oped always to ’ave you for afriend.”
“So you shall, Fanny,” I said: “but there are contingencies—youunderstand?”
Her lip was trembling. I think she wanted to tell me to keep good.
“And so,” I said hastily, “as I have liked you so, I want to exchangelittle presents with you, as a remembrance, if you will.”
The poor child had often cast admiring eyes on a calash which it wasmy habit to wear to the theatre, and which was indeed a very becomingthing of crimson velvet and cherry-coloured lining, with a frame ofcostly fur to the face. It had been given me by Bob, and certainlynothing short of my present desperation would have brought me to partwith it; but it was, more than anything I wore of late, associatedwith me; and necessity has no conscience.
Fanny’s eyes sparkled against her will, as I held the thing out toher.
“O no, miss!” she entreated; “it’s too good for me, and I can’t giveyou nothing the same in exchange.”
“You shall give me your neckerchief,” I said; and, cutting thediscussion short, drove her away at length, with her pretty face inthe hood, and tears in her eyes.
I gave her five minutes’ start, then followed her out, with a brain ashot as my heart was shivering. “They must discover their mistake verysoon,” I thought, “and will be returning on their tracks.”
However, I reached home, running by byways, in safety; and there,quite unnerved now the terror was passed, threw myself into Patty’sarms and told her everything. She was the sweet, simple counsel andconsoler she always was to grief, and distressed me only by someconcern she could not help showing for the fate of Fanny.
“You try to make me out a devil,” I cried passionately. “They will lether alone, of course, when they find she isn’t who they want.”
We slept in one another’s arms that night, fearful of every sound inthe street. But morning brought the sun and Gogo—though the latterinexcusably late to his appointment—and both were a heavenly joy tome.
I saw at once by his expression that he carried news; but he did notspeak.
“Gogo!” I whispered.
He uttered a strange sound, like a wounded beast, and turned his facefrom me.
“Did you exchange head-dresses with her last night?” he muttered.
“What do you mean?”
My heart seemed to stop.
“They said it was your hood. She was jostled by ruffians in thestreet, it seems, and thrown under the traffic, and killed.”
I fell on my knees before him, shuddering and hiding my face.
“You didn’t mean that, Diana?”
“Before God, no. I thought they would leave her when they found out.”
He gave a heart-breaking sigh, and looked at me for the first time.
“I wouldn’t go near the theatre again, if I was you. They’ll not judgeyou as—as favourably as I, perhaps.”
“I’ve done with the theatre. Fate is very cruel. No one understands meor believes in me. At least, don’t tell Patty anything of this. Ithink you will break my heart among you. How did you even know I wasthreatened?”
“Didn’t you tell me you were in danger?”
I cried out to him in a sudden agony—
“I am in danger. O, Gogo! for God’s sake tell me what I am to do!”
Then the great human love of the creature went down before me. Hefondled me, with tears and broken exclamations; he swore himself oncemore, through all eternity, through sin and sorrow, my bondman.
Presently, without extenuation, I had confessed all to him; and he hadforgiven me; had admitted, even, that I had had the reason of a betterregard on my side. But as to what had happened to himself during thelong interval, he would tell me nothing as yet.
“I am the ex-hind legs of a dragon,” he said, “that was conquered bythe Chevalière Primrose, and turned into two-thirds of a prince. Idate myself from the translation. The curtain’s down on all that wasbefore.”
Now, when we came to discussing the ways and means for my escape froma desperate situation, my dear resourceful monster was ready with asuggestion at once.
“The Hamilton,” said he, “sails from England in a day or two. She isdisposed, by the tokens, to make a pet of you. Why not go to her;relate everything; throw yourself upon her charity, and ask to beconveyed abroad in her suite?”
“Gogo! When?” I cried. It was an inspiration.
“No moment like the present.”
“I will go. But you must come too, to protect me.”
“All three of us together. Pack your box, pay your bill, and be readywhile I wait. At the worst, ’tis something gained to shift yourquarters and cover your trail.”
I demurred only at the bill; for, indeed, we needed every penny of ourready money. But he settled the matter by paying it himself.
“I have become of a saving disposition,” he said; “and whatever triflethere be, you are its heir. This is only drawing on yourreversion”—and, indeed, he valued money at nothing at all. If hecould have picked a living from the earth, he would never have been tothe trouble of putting a penny in his pocket.
In a little, all being prepared, we took a coach and drove to theAmbassador’s hotel. My lady was fortunately at her toilette, and sentdown a surprised message, that, whatever the deuce I wanted, I was tobe shown up. I found her, tumbled a little abroad, in the hands of herperruquier, whom she dismissed while she talked to me.
“Why, child,” she said, “what a face! ’Tis as white, I vow, as thewings of your butterfly. Out with your trouble now.”
I threw myself at her feet. I made a clean breast of my story—of theinhuman cruelty of which I was the destined victim; and I ended byimploring her to let me and my friends enjoy the bounty of herprotection. She fired magnificently, as I had hoped she would, overthe recital. She embraced my cause impulsively and without a thoughtfor possible consequences to herself.
“The infamous old fox!” she cried of my lord; “I was flattered by hisattentions, hang him! until I found they was of the worst consequenceto me as a lady of position. To think of the old beast wanting tomurder you because of a lampoon—pasquinades we call ’em in Italy! La,child! if I answered so to every dig that’s made at me, I’d betterturn public executioner at once. Let’s keep our own characters cleanagainst the light being turned on ’em, say I; and, if we don’t,there’s only ourselves to thank. It’s too late to talk of bein’ a ladywhen the crowner comes to sit on our dirty stockin’s.”
She made me repeat my little song to her, and cried over it again.
“Trot up your friends,” she said, wiping her eyes. “There’s room foryou all here till we start for France—or Naples, if you will. Let mesee the old devil dare to follow you into this sancshery! We’ll beeven with him, gnashin’ his yellow teeth left behind. Go and fetch’em. I want to see what they’re like.”
And she gave me a tempest of a kiss, and pushed me out at the door.
It is here we encounter that considerable lacuna in the Reminiscencesto which reference was made in the “Introductory.” An examination ofthe MS. shows that the large section—of more than a hundredpages—which related to Mrs. Please’s experiences during the terrificperiod of the Revolution, and afterwards so far as the year ’98,when the narrative is resumed, was at some time bodily removed,whether with a view to separate publication (of which, however, noproof can be found), or through one of those intermittent panics ofconscience to which the lady was subject, there is no evidence toshow. While this breach is to be regretted—from her editor’s point ofview, at least—it must be said that innumerable contemporaryreferences to Madame “Se-Plaire” enable us in some measure not only tofollow the career of that redoubtable adventuress (pace M. le Comtede C——), but to supply to ourselves at least one presumptivereason for her shyness, on reflection, of perpetuating certain of itsincidents. However, not to confuse matters, we will take ourstepping-stones in the order of their placing.
It appears, then, that Mrs. Please and her friends were conveyedsafely in the Ambassador’s entourage, to Paris, where Madame theAmbassador’s wife received, during the few days of her stay in theFrench capital on her way to Italy, some salve to her hurt vanity inthe reception accorded her at the Tuileries by the queen, who took theopportunity to intrust her with a letter to her sister of Naples.Whether elated, indirectly, by the royal condescension, or electrifiedby the state of the national atmosphere, or for whatever reason,Diana, it appears, decided to remain where she was. She even, there issome reason for believing, sought, in the character of a very loyallittle moucharde, to ingratiate herself with the queen, going so faras to imply that Lady Hamilton had taken this delicate means ofplacing in Her Majesty’s hands a counter-buff to Mr. Pitt, whom MissDiana had often seen in my lord of Herring’s house in Berkeley Square,and whose sinister designs against France she was quite ready toquote—or invent.
However this may be, it seems certain that Her Majesty wasinexplicably so far from being prepossessed by her fair visitor’s fairprotégée, that (assuming even that she gave her her countenance atthe first) she did not hesitate long in turning upon her the coldestof cold shoulders. We know at least that within a month of her arrivalin Paris, Diana (which always equals, be it understood, Diana plusher two inseparables) had established herself, far from theprecincts of the court, in very good rooms in a house in the Rue St.Jacques; where with characteristic suddenness and thoroughness sheannounced her complete conversion to the principles ofultra-republicanism. It must have been about this time, moreover, thatshe found interest to return to the stage; for in addition to theinclusion of her name in the bill of that stirring melodrama, LesVictimes Cloîtrées, which set all fermenting Paris overflowing,there exists that reference to her in the rather spitefulReminiscences of Adrienne Lavasse, which, I think, is worthtranscribing. “Mademoiselle Please,” says the actress, “was for alittle our ingénue at the Français. She was imported from England;but, it must be confessed, had a pretty gift [une belle facilité]for our tongue. One night, after a mêlée in the green-room, shelifts her voice in a furious outcry about her having been ravished ofa neckerchief which had been given her by a fellow-comédienne inLondon, and which, she declares, she would not have parted with for alouis-d’or. But I never observed” (adds the little spitfire) “thatshe took the trouble to replace it with another; from which it isevident that it was not her modesty that she valued at so high afigure.”
How long Mrs. Please continued on the stage at this time (shereturned to it again later) is not certain. Probably her engagementwas terminated by that famous split in the company, when democraticTalma and Vestris migrated to the Rue de Richelieu, bequeathing theremnant honours of the old house in the Faubourg St. Germain to theroyalist Fleury, Dazincourt, and Company. What we do know is thatabout this critical period a lucky coup in a State lotteryestablished our heroine on her feet, and that thenceforth sheflourished. She kept a little salon in those same historic rooms,through which a regular progression of nationalists passed andvanished. There, in their time, were to be seen Brissot, Guadet,Gensonné, the Roman Roland, the handsome Barbaroux, Pétion,Vergniaud, the sweet and indolent, in his ragged coat, Desmoulins,Barrére, Billaud-Varennes, Barras. The order is significant of ourlady’s political, or politic, evolution. The life of the State, shecame to think, was only to be saved by ruthless amputation; and,unfortunately, the disease was in the head. As the atmospherethickens, our glimpses of her become rarer and more lurid. She appearsonce as the proprietress of a sort of Mont de piété, very privateand exclusive, in which she amassed good quantity of property, pledgedby the proscribed, who never returned to redeem it. Among these,curiously, seems to have been her father, whom, as characteristicallyas possible, she forgave and attempted to shelter, though withoutavail, for he was guillotined. It was probably to propitiate theGovernment for this filial dereliction that she reappeared on theboards, in ’93, in that grotesque monument to the dulness of theSovereign People, The Last Judgment of Kings; and there, so far aswe can trace, ended her connection with the stage.
During all this period, it is only fair to her to say, she seems tohave played the inflexible duenna to her little friend and adoratrice,Miss Patty Grant, protecting the child from outside evil and her ownkind pliability, and, when she was called away from her side,committing her to the care of that faithful and incorruptible monster,the cripple.
Towards the end of ’93 she appears to have been so far in favourwith the powers that she was despatched on a secret propagandistmission to the Neapolitan States—a portentous departure. She was notback in Paris again until the spring of ’95, when she returned tofind the Terror overthrown, its “tail” in process of being docked bySanson, and the jeunesse dorée patrolling the streets.
Not much record of this journey remains, beyond the single weightyfact that it brought her acquainted with the young revolutionaryenthusiast, Nicola Pissani, who accompanied her home by way of Tuscanyand Piedmont, propagating their gospel of Liberty on the road.
We may perhaps be pardoned for thinking it probable that Mrs. Please,on her return to Paris, would have recanted her extremist views, hadit not been for this romantic exalté, to whom, no doubt, she at thetime was sincerely attached. It is possible, indeed, that she didpersuade him of the necessity of an open recantation, in order thatshe might consort with him the more safely in those measures which he,and for his sake she, had at heart—the violent establishment of arepublic at Naples, to wit. For, for the moment, sanscullotism was outof fashion, and propagandists at a discount. It made no difference toher, apparently, that her former patroness and saviour was heart andsoul with the court of Ferdinand. She was of the Roman mettle, andwould have sacrificed her own child to Liberty—with Pissani. I swearmy heart bleeds for her; for (the truth has to be uttered) thatpassionate young zealot was no sooner made free of the house in theRue St. Jacques, than he fell hopelessly entangled in the unconsciousmeshes of poor blameless, lovable little Patty Grant. And, worse: MissGrant, without a thought of disloyalty to her friend and sister—who,indeed, persistently, and perhaps justifiably, posed for no more thanthe Neapolitan’s pious fellow-missionary—yielded her whole sweet soulto him!
Nothing was declared, or came of this at the time. Pissani went backto Naples; the two—he and Diana: not he and another, you may be sure,unless by stealth—corresponded regularly; the march of eventsproceeded; our heroine managed, no doubt, to console herself,provisionally, for the separation. Perhaps she may have been consciousof an alteration in her friend; a hint of some sad preoccupation; thebright eyes dulling, the white face growing ever a little more whiteand drawn. If she did, she chose, while biding her time ofenlightenment, to attach any but the right reason to the change. Sheseems to confess, indeed, that she had the suspicion. Like enough, inthat case, she indulged it for a perpetual stimulant to her romance,which might have withered without. She was not one to bear tamely hersupplanting by another—least of all by the little humble slave of herpassions and caprices, of her kisses and disdains. And, in themeantime, the years went over them, while she was studying toingratiate herself with the Directory, so that presently her houseknew again its succession of ministers and deputies—men who came tolighten their leisure with a little interlude of love or wit. And sowe reach the crisis.
Naples, about the middle of ’98, was in a last state of ferment.Jacobinism threatened it within and without, the former but awaitingthe advance of the French under Championnet to arise and hand over thecity to its sympathisers. In September Nelson came sweeping to itssea-gates in his Vanguard; in October General Mack posted fromVienna to take command of its rabble army of resistance; in Novemberits king led another army to Rome, nominally to restore the Pope hiskingdom, and, having done some ineffective mischief, returnedingloriously, to find his capital in a state of anarchy. Finally, inDecember, the whole royal family sneaked on board the Vanguard, andtransferred itself pro tempore to Palermo, where it remained untilthe danger was laid, when it returned to exact a bloody vengeance.
Therewithin lies the whole tragedy of Pissani and a little Englishmaid. Early in the February of that year the man had written, hurriedand agitated, to Mrs. Please, to announce that the moment was ripe,the tree of despotism tottering to its fall, to be replaced by themore fruitful one of Liberty; and to urge her to come at once, if shewould see consummated the glorious work for which they had bothlaboured so long and so self-sacrificially. No doubt that he believedin her single-heartedness, as she, in another way, in his. He assuredher that she might be, if she would, a second Pucelle. He fired hervanity: he rekindled her passion. With characteristic impetuosity, shebroke up her household, and (here figures either her blindness orher imperious self-confidence) prepared to transport it, stock andblock, to the scene of her anticipated triumphs. She had no difficultyin procuring passports. Indeed, there is reason to suppose that shewas intrusted with despatches for General Berthier, then occupyingRome. At any rate she, in company with Mademoiselle Grant and herinseparable Gogo, embarked at Marseilles for Civita Vecchia; were inthe Eternal City before the end of the month; and had thence,travelling again by sea, reached Naples without accident by the middleof March. Here, by preconcerted arrangement (as regarded onlyherself and the Neapolitan, however) they were met by Pissani, whoconducted them in the first instance to a little cabaret in the darkquarters near the Arsenal. And here, from the glooms of that dingyrendezvous, Mrs. Please is pleased to enter again upon her own story.
[Note.—To the curious in matters of personal appearance, thefollowing extract from the Roper Correspondence (Hicks & Beach,London, 1832) may be of interest. The passage occurs in aletter—dated Paris, January 1798—from the Hon. Robert Roper to hiscousin Lord Carillon, and runs as follows:—
“I have renewed my acquaintance with the Please, who is twenty-seven,and nothing if not the ripe fruit of her promise. Dost remember, Dick,how she was your ‘Long-legged Hebe’? I tell you, sir, she is by Joveout of Leda, a very Helen. She moults her years, like the swan herfather its feathers, and is always ready with a virgin bosom of downfor the next quilt. The same sprightly insolence; the same perfectirregularity of feature—and conduct; the same zeal in making theinterests of others her own—and the profits thereof. Her face retainsits pretty moue; her hair has only ripened a little, like corn. Sheis still slender, as we remember her—in everything now but theessentials; still as pale, with the flawless eyebrows and bob-cherrylips. I would be sentimental; but, alack! she tells me our past is putaway in a little bag like lavender. ‘Would you wish the gift of it,sir,’ she says, ‘to lay among your bed-linen? ’Tis grown too scentlessfor my use. Il n’y a si bonne compagnie qu’on ne quitte.’ O, Dick,to be rebuked for one’s years, and by an immortal! O, Dick, for thetime ‘when wheat is green and hawthorn buds appear’! Why may not ourfeet continue to dance with our hearts? I have a débutante alwayswithin my breast, and because I am forty, she must be a wallflowerforsooth!
“She has realised at last la grande passion, she tells me. She isperfectly frank. He is gone elsewhere, and she only waits for hiswhistle to follow. This to me! She has her little salon, as prettyas a bonbon box, and a dozen of powdered ministers at her feet. Themorning after our meeting I breakfasted with her and her friend. Yourecall the little soft brunette, with the motherly eyes and thecaressing bashfulness? She is still with her, the foil, as of old, toher ladyship, and virgin soil to this day, I believe.... Madam tookher tea laced with a little eau de vie. There was a curious leglessmonster in waiting: something between a dumb-waiter and a CoventGarden porter. She defers to him in everything; and he growls.”]
I DECLARE FOR THE KING
We were landed upon the Mole, not far from the Castel Nuovo, a vast,sullen pile like the Bastille, on whose ruins I had danced. It was adark and rainy night. Pissani, who had been squatted amongst someboats down by the water, rose, came forward in two or three swiftstrides, and exclaimed, in an eager, agitated undertone, “Mother ofGod! You are accompanied?”
I could not see his face, but my heart responded unerringly to thedear remembered tones. I went quickly to him, and put up my hands tohis breast.
“Nicola mio—my brother, my comrade!” I whispered, “by all that,next to you, I hold most dear.”
“What? Whom?” he asked, in a low voice of amazement. “Not—?”
“Yes,” I said, “by my servant and my sister. You called and I came,Nicola, ‘bringing my sheaves with me.’”
He was breathing fast, but he did not answer.
“Are you not pleased,” I said, “that I give up everything for you andto you; that I devote my best to the cause—our cause, Nicola; that atthe bidding of my brother I have moved my tent into the wilderness?Are you not pleased with me?”
“There is danger in the wilderness,” he muttered. “No, I am notpleased.”
I fell back with a little shiver. “No more for her than for me,” Ianswered.
“It is not the same,” he said; “it is not the same thing at all.” Inan instant he had gripped my wrist. “Send her back into safety. Sheshall not risk her life here—by God, she shall not!”
And then I think I understood. I was calm as death, and as cold. Ithad needed but these few words to turn me into stone. My God! all myfervour and self-sacrifice—and this for their reward! I laughed outquite gaily—
“O, mon chéri! in the rain and the dark? Are you mad? Please toconvey us to some shelter.”
He hesitated a moment; then beckoned to Patty, who came running like adog to the whistle. Pissani turned his back as she approached.
“Tell your servant to await your orders here,” he muttered; “and, foryou, follow me.”
Patty stole by my side, dumb over her reception. The fool! the littleadorable traitress! How would she have chattered, teeth and heart, hadshe seen my nails, hid under my cloak, dug into the soft palms theywere clinched on. Yet I had an admiration for her, even while Icrouched to spring. That she, self-obliterating, undemonstrative withmen, could all the time have been softly insinuating herself betweenme and my love! I had not credited her with so much cleverness.
Our sombre patriot led us to a little osteria in a sewer hard by,where the rain beat on a lurid scrap of window, and a mutter of voicesfrom within seemed to mingle in a throaty discussion with a gurglingwater-pipe at our feet. There were two or three wine-drinkers revealedas he pushed open the door—strangely respectable folk in theseincongruous surroundings. They but glanced up as we entered and passedon by a stone passage to a little remote room, where were a bare tableand a single taper glimmering sickly on the wall.
Pissani shut the door and faced us. He was very pale and grim; grownsterner than my memory of him, but still the melancholy, romanticbrigand of my heart. For a moment he seemed unable to speak; and inthat moment I could see my little sister’s hand shake on the table onwhich she had leaned it for support. The truth was confessed amongstus all in that silence. And I—I knew it suddenly, instantly, for whatI had long suspected but struggled to conceal from myself; knew it forthe real solution of this my conscious unconscious caprice in bringingPatty with me. It had been to force it, to satisfy myself of the bestor the worst, that I had acted as I had done. That I recognised now.And, after all, I was the first to speak.
“Well, M. Pissani,” I said, “it seems that one of us at least is detrop.”
His mouth twitched with nervousness.
“She cannot help the cause,” he said. “She will only be in the way.What is her use in this pass?”
“Patty,” I said, turning on the child, “M. Pissani does not want you.You can go back.”
She looked at me, the helpless fool. Her lip trembled, and her eyesfilled with tears. But Pissani by that was smiling.
“I do not want you, child, I?” he said, in a sick voice, and heldout his hands fondly to her across the table. “Ah, but we know betterthe truth of our hearts! When the battle is won, then, O gentle mylove, that betakest thyself to love as the lark to heaven, come to me,as you promised! But not now—not now, when the storm is in the air,and this so dear shrine of my hopes might be struck and violated. Youhave not changed, you could not change: it is enough, I have seen you.Come now with me, Pattia, and I will take you back to the boat, to myfriends, that they may see you secured in Rome until I can send to youand say, ‘It is time, most dear wife, it is time. Return to me, andgive thyself to be the mother of patriots!’”
She moved, and gave a little sob. Her response was not to him but tome—to the stunned questioning of my eyes. She had no wit but to utterher whole self-condemnation in it.
“Diana! I did not know! I have not been untrue to you.”
I struck her on the mouth, and she staggered back, with that red lieprinted on it for the delectation of her paramour. She clutched at thetable, reeled, and sank down beside it moaning. It was too much. Myfury had flashed to an explosion in that wicked falsehood.
Pissani, with a sudden and terrible cry at the sight of his mistress’sdisgrace, drew a knife from his hip, and leapt like a goat across thetable. Stumbling as he alighted, she caught him frantic round theknees, and held him raging and snarling while he stabbed at the air inhis frenzy. I stood fallen back a little, white and scornful, but withnot a thrill of fear at my heart; and, so standing, saw how, in thethick blindness of his rage, he was yet tender of her in his strugglesto free himself. And then in a moment he had fallen upon his knees,the blade yet in his hand, and was kissing and caressing her, moaninginarticulate love into her ear. She tried feebly to repulse him; todrag herself away and towards me. I had always known that she was ofthe fools who caress the hands that scourge them. But I sprang back,loathing her neighbourhood.
“Don’t come near me,” I cried.
He had kissed the blood from her mouth to his own. He struck the spotthere with a furious hand, as he turned on me.
“By this,” he said, “your death or mine!”
I laughed scornfully.
“So brutes revenge themselves on the innocence they have despoiled!”
“It is a lie!” he raged; and, on the word, put a fierce arm about hiswife. “Believe it is a lie, thou!”
But she was still struggling to reach me.
“Diana! Not this end to all our love! Not this end to the high hopeswith which we came. It is not ourselves, but Liberty, sister. See, hewill be good; he will not hurt you” (she was groping eagerly for theknife, which he ended by letting her secure). “I did not know,” shecried, “I did not guess—until this moment I did not. I will never seehim again, if you wish. I will be no man’s wife to your hurt. Diana!It is the truth!”
I let her rave. I never took my eyes from his devil’s face.
“So,” I said, deeper now, and with my hands upon my storming bosom,“you would make your sacrifice to Reason, monsieur, in me—me! Mymission was to be the Pucelle’s, and her glorious fate, with which, Isuppose, you were to assure your little after-paradise of loves. O, agrateful use for this poor heart, to be a stepping-stone to therespectable amours of Monsieur and Madame Pissani! Only I renounce thehonour, as I renounce the cause of the paragon of taste who couldprefer that for this.”
I tore at my dress.
“You have made your choice,” I cried; “it is all said. Only think,monsieur, think sometimes of what you have lost, before you talk ofthe battle being won!”
I hurried from the room, even as my false friend called to me again inagony, “Diana! Believe me! Listen to me! O, what shall I do?” But,even in my frenzy, I had the wit to pause the other side of the door,listening for his response.
“Thou shalt go back to Rome, my dearest, my heart,” he said. “Hearkento me, my Pattia.”
But she only sobbed dreadfully, “Not like this—not in this disgrace.I must follow her, even if she kills me.”
“By my soul, no,” he said; “for your life is mine.”
I could hear them wrestling together; till, in a moment, he prevailed,even before I had guessed he would.
“Hush, my bird,” he panted softly; “there is one other way—if it mustbe so indeed.”
There followed a pause. I could have laughed in the mad joy of myrevenge. He was an upstart, this patriot; a son of the people. Hewould commit her to his own—wive her, I most fervently prayed—anddeposit his jewel, this little pet of luxury, in the squalid cabin atCamaldoli where he was born. He had often told me of it; of his earlyexperiences of the joys of life in a place where the peasant could notfasten his coat against cold, or take refuge from the sun under atree, or borrow a stone from the hill for his paths, or renew hisstarved patch with manure of leaves, or set a water-butt to catch theshowers, or be buried decently when he dropped at the plough-tail anddied, because buttons, and the shade of trees, and stones, and deadleaves, and rain-water, and a dead peasant were all taxed alike—itemsin a hundred other feudal impositions which left existence hardly itsown shadow to prevail by. And now these joys would be hers; for I knewthat she had not the strength to oppose him, though enough to damn herown fool fortune by insisting on the Church’s sanction to herpossession of an estate of mud and wattles. I listened eagerly for thenext.
“If thou wilt be my mother’s daughter?” he said.
I could have clapped my hands. I hurried down the passage and out intothe night, fierce, burning, but with an exultation in my rage. Thesight of men risen, scared and listening, as I passed through thewineshop, served to recall me to myself and to my danger. I wasoutcast from these conspirators—if only they had known!
With an effort I composed myself, and turned to them with a smile—
“Messieurs, but the door is between me and the street!”
One of them at that stepped forward, opened it, and gravely bowed meforth. As gravely I stepped into the rain, and made without hurry forthe beach.
So this was the end to all my exaltation, to my dreams of love andsacrifice! I stamped in the puddles. “Vive la tyrannie! vive lesBourbons!” I cried to myself as I sped on. So shamed, so wronged, sospurned! was not the worst justified to me? I saw the shadow of myloved monster standing solemn sentinel over the single trunk we hadbrought with us. Our heavy baggage we had left in Rome. O, monfidèle! how at that moment I could have stormed my wounded heart outon thy breast!
“Canst thou lift it and follow me?” I said only.
He answered, the dear Caliban, by obeying.
“Whither?” he growled.
I looked desperately about me. Near at hand it was all a tangle ofspars and sheds, and the rain driving between. But inland, the nightwent up in glistening terraces, scattered constellations all shaken inthe thunder of a great city. Far south, what looked like the red lightof a forge alternately glared, and faded, and grew again, battling, itseemed, with drowning flaws of tempest. It was the glimmering bonfiresof Vesuvius, those hot ashes of a consumed empire, from which,according to Pissani, the phœnix Liberty was to arise. I laughed:“Not yet, my poet, my friend; since thou choosest another than Pucelleto breed thee thy patriots!”
I turned to the north. There, upon a huddle of tall buildings, loomingnear and enormous in the dark, the stars of the hills seemed to havedrifted down, clinging thickly over all, like primroses under a bank.
“It is the royal palace,” said Gogo.
“It is our way, then,” I panted, on fire. “Follow me, and quickly;we are not safe here.”
Along wharfs and causeways, plashing over the filthy stones, bysqualid alley and reeking wall, I fled and he pursued. I had nolodestar save my hate; but it served. The growing scream and thunderof the town drove towards us as we advanced; but few people in thatbitter night; until, skirting the massed buildings of the arsenal andpalace, we emerged suddenly through a little lane into the Strada diSt. Lucia, and paused a moment undecided and amazed.
It was as if the devil had taken his glowing pencil and ruled off thisquarter of the city for his own. A noisome ravine of houses it was,with life like a fiery torrent brawling along its bed. Song and tumultand mad licence; fingers quick to stab, or to snap like castanets to adancing child; doorways that were the mouths of tributary sewersvomiting filth and tatters into the main; fishermen, at their flaringstalls, bawling crabs and oysters, frutti di mare—my God! whatfruit, and from what a sea that drained a shambles; women out in therain and the open, making their shameless toilettes, and screaming thewhile such damnation by the calendar on their sister doxies for aword, a retort, a mere flea-bite (the commonest experience, after all)as to leave themselves, one would have thought, no vocabulary for themore strenuous encounters of fists and claws; children swarmingeverywhere in the double sense, and scattering shrill oaths likevermin; rags and nakedness and insolence—a loafing melodrama—anepitome of the worst squalor and viciousness in all Naples—such wasthe district upon which we had alighted, the mid-ward of theLazzaroni.
As we stood, a ruffian, swaggering past, swerved, and approached ahandsome, impudent face. Gogo, without a word, heaved his shoulderbetween. But I had no fear. These Lazzari were the king’s friends—andmine. I pushed aside my henchman.
“Pour le roi!” I cried, and pointed towards the palace.
He understood, and whipped off his greasy hat.
“Viva il re!” he answered enthusiastically, showing his white teeth,and motioned us to a street going eastwards up the hill. I saw andrecognised the same fellow once or twice afterwards. He was a Micheledi Laudo—Mad Michael, they called him—who, as chief of hisvagabonds, was to take a prominent part in the defence of the suburbsagainst the French.
We crossed the street under his protection, and on its farther side,before waving us on, he bent and snatched a kiss. The rank sweet touchof his lips was like a visé on my passport into hell. It seemed tobring the blaze, the colour, the stench of the reeling streetsclashing to a focus in my brain, and it sent me speeding on half drunkand half sick, loathing and hugging myself. I was an angel in Sodom,running blindly for the refuge of God’s wing in a dazzle of roaringlights, and confused by the glare, knowing not whether I turned to theself I had left or to the self that was awaiting me. Gogo, strainingin my wake, panted as I hurried before him—
“For every dog but the watch-dog, a bone.”
I turned on him, with a stamp.
“A bone! I am meat for your masters, I tell you.”
“I serve no Pissani,” he said sullenly.
I shook him in my anger.
“Never breathe his name to me again, or we part.”
“Very well,” he said. “I thought as much. He has got his deserts.”
I glared at him one moment, then turned and sped on—up the street ofthe Giant, passing the north flank of the palace, where sentries stoodon guard, and so into an open piazza, the Largho S. Ferdinando, intowhich the palace itself stuck a shoulder, and where were churches andthe flaring portico of a theatre, and other buildings strangely finein their contiguity to the slums we had left.
And here, amidst the wild drift and gabble of a throng less foul butas aimless, we plunged and were absorbed, and stood together again tobreathe.
All Naples, it seemed, was bent on shouting down its brother.
“What next?” bawled Gogo in my ear.
A handsome inn, the “Orient,” stood comparatively quiet and isolatedin an odd corner of the Place.
“Rooms—there!” I answered.
“Its exclusiveness makes it prominent,” boomed Gogo, with as muchdryness as he could put into a roar.
I beckoned him on imperiously.
On n’a jamais bon marché de mauvaise marchandise.
In a little we were installed in comfortable rooms.
“Now order wine,” I said, “and we will drink.”
I sipped, while he sat on a stool at my feet, soothing the wearinessfrom them with a touch that was only my monster’s. The Chianti and thesorcery of his hand began to drug me.
“Drink you too,” I murmured.
He reached for his glass.
“To whom?” he said. “What are we now? It makes no difference; only Imust know.”
“Death to all republics,” I cried, “and long life to the King ofNaples!”
“Ah!” he said, between a groan and a sigh. “Well—the poor child—youhave cast her off, I suppose,” and he drained his glass.
I stared at him a moment, then fell sobbing upon his shoulder.
“You pity everyone but me,” I cried, “and my heart is broken.”
“What, in the old place?” said he.
But I was too miserable to retort; and half the night afterwards heheld me, fallen fast asleep, in his arms.
I RENEW AN OLD ACQUAINTANCE
For three days I remained shut into my rooms at the “Orient,” notdaring to go out, a prey to the utmost nervousness and agitation. Donot suppose that on that account I was the less determined in my plansfor vengeance. But revenge that lays itself open to retribution missesthe better half of itself. I remembered my old friend Mr. Roper’sdictum, and beat my brains only for the means to strike with impunity.I was not from the first without a design. The difficulty was to giveit practical effect; because for the moment I could not use Gogo. Formyself, under my assumed name, I might lie secure in this hiding. Tomake him my carrier to the English Embassy would be to mark a suretrack to my retreat with every punch of his wooden legs. I dared notlet him out; I dared not even temporarily part with him in my peril; Idared not come to a decision, while knowing that my life depended on awise one. For I was a renegade revolutionary—I could not blink thefact. Though I had never hitherto actually set foot in Naples itself,there must be many to know me by report for that apostle of the newcreed of equality who, but a few years before, had stumped theircountry, winning converts. And now! the safety of many men—and womentoo—was in my hands; and not Pissani, nor those others when they cameto learn, would have forgotten the nature of my secession, or thesignificance of the threats which had accompanied it. If passion hadgiven me away, caution must redeem me. I had no faith in Patty’s powerto protect me. The occasion was too desperate; the interests involvedwere too many. Pissani was a reformer before he was a lover. I mustbe sacrificed, if possible, to the cause I had the means to betray.
All day, peeping from behind the curtains of our windows, we saw thepiazza below like a seething cauldron of unrest. As significant ofthat as anything were the out-at-elbows letter-writers under thearcades of the old theatre of San Carlo, who, at a time when every manfeared to commit his simplest thoughts to paper, did less than enoughbusiness to keep themselves in macaroni. They served to exhibit thepopular bankruptcy as well as the briefless advocates, who, fromthriving on the countless abuses of the law, found themselvesabandoned to the lawlessness they had created; as well as thejournalists, who, having been brought under a strict moral censorship,starved as vampires might on a diet of milk; as well as the professorsand savants, who were hampered, it must be confessed, by a thousandchildish restrictions in their efforts to make life beautiful byturning it inside out, and to teach men to follow in themselves, whileeating an omelet, the whole process of absorption and digestion; aswell as the bolder demagogues, who, mounted on steps or tubs, screameddenunciations of their misgoverning sovereigns, under the transparentveil of Claudius and Messalina, and called upon their hearers, by manyclassical examples, to strike for liberty and political cleanliness.At which the Lazzari laughed, understanding just so much that, if theywere to be no longer flea-bitten, they would be deprived of thetraditional luxury of scratching; and shaking their heads over thatnew idea of equality, which was in fact so old an idea as to beembodied in a popular proverb: “Tu rubbi a me, io rubbo a te,” whichone might expound: “‘If Taffy robs me, I rob Taffy’—so what thedevil’s all this fuss about?” Naples was rich in charitableinstitutions for the encouragement of indolent beggary; and what sortof a reform was it that sought to deprive an honest loafer of hissoup? And so to a man they held out for dirt, moral and material,and for the king who assured them a continuance in both—a conditionof things which made revolution a very different affair from what ithad been in starving Paris.
Since the date of my first visit in ’94 this ferment had been rising,in spite of all efforts of the authorities to check it. As well try tostop the decomposition of a dead body—for such was the nationalcredit. The foolish, vile queen, panic-sick that she was destined tothe fate of her better-meaning but as foolish sister in Paris,persuaded her weak, common husband into a counter-blast to theTerror—with as much effect as King James the First’s against smoking.It is bad policy to try to suppress an evil by advertising it.Self-martyrdom is the most popular of all notorieties. Theyinaugurated a system of espionage, which in itself was an education toconspirators; they read Jacobinism across the forehead of alllearning, and so alienated the intelligence which might have saved theland; they crammed the filthy prisons with suspects, and broke thehearts and fortunes of those who were the best leaven to corruption;they made it criminal to wear scarlet waistcoats and long trousers;finally, for some such dereliction, or one less momentous, they hungup two or three respectable boys in a public square, varying theentertainment by shooting down some scores of spectators who hadfallen into a panic at the noise of a distant musket-shot. And then,having thrown their sacrifice on the flames of discontent, and solowered them, they settled down with an affectation of the strong arm,and a blindness to the embers smouldering underneath.
These had not ceased to smoulder, nevertheless, feeding on their newfuel; and by and by the blaze was to come.
Eh bien! la voix du peuple est la voix de Dieu! So they say; only,unfortunately, here the Lazzari were the crack in it. It was a prettyNaples I had come to.
One afternoon, while looking out of the window, I saw a magnificentequipage cross the square, and, turning the corner towards the palace,disappear. I had been waiting during these long days for some suchvision, the nature of which now, if, indeed, the plaudits of theloafers had not confirmed it in my mind, was established in theglimpse of a bold, beautiful face which I obtained in its passing. Onthe instant my resolution was made, and I ran to the table and hastilyscribbled off a note:—
“One whom you formerly befriended seeks your help and protection. Sheis in possession of important secrets, which you cannot afford todiscard. Ask for her, under the name of Madame Lavasse, at the‘Orient.’”
I called Gogo, and hurriedly instructed him—
“Lady Hamilton has just passed, driving to the palace. Her coach isgilt, with four dapple-greys. Go secretly out by the back; make yourway there circumspectly, wait for her reappearance, and throw this inat the window of her carriage. Then return here, but by a roundaboutway, and not till after dark. Be swift and sure. Everything—oursafety, our lives—depends on this opportunity.”
He groaned out a little sigh: “And our honour, Diana? Think of thetime when we shall be damned together, before you betray the child.”
I walked up and down in terrible agitation when he was gone. Betray!Who had been the traitor, of us two? Not a drop of water for her,though I were to lie in Abraham’s bosom!
Night came, but no Gogo. Tortured with doubts and apprehensions, Icould neither eat nor rest. Had he too repented at last of hisloyalty, and abandoned me in my need? They all fell from me, those Ihad succoured and most trusted. Sometimes, in my agony of mind, Iupbraided his selfishness, cursed my own irreclaimable fondness inputting faith in man. I believed he had sold himself—whether tocupidity or an emotion, what did it matter. At length, quite exhaustedby my passions, I fell asleep on my bed, dressed as I was.
I slept far into the morning, and awoke to a consciousness of apresence in the next room. Was it he, returned at last? Dazed, andsick with excitement, I rose and ran to meet him. A lady only wasthere, cloaked and mysterious. She lifted her veil, and showed me theface I had desired.
It had not, indeed, so much altered in these years as her person’samplitude. Conceive, my dear friend, the head of a Circe on the bodyof a hippopotamus! Now I perceived Nature’s forethought in the gift ofthose immense feet. They were disproportionate no longer. She hadgrown colossal. The mountain had come to Mahomet. It was wonderfulhow, in spite of all, she could have retained the general fine contourof her features. One would have thought she could hardly have kept hercountenance, seeing the changes below. I certainly found it difficultto keep mine, as I fell on my knees before her, and, catching at herhands, hung my head.
She stepped back from me, shaking the room. I understood then in amoment that the old glamour was only to be recovered, if at all, withdiscretion.
“Now, madam,” she said, “being come at your request, I must ask youfor your reason, and as short as you’ll please to make it.”
“My messenger”—I began.
“Your messenger,” she interrupted me promptly, “is put under lock andkey till we know more about him and you. He got a cut on the cheekbefore he was took by the guards; but that wasn’t my fault.”
I buried my face in my hands.
“I thank you, madam,” I said, with emotion. “He lies at least inbetter security than I.”
“Well, I won’t answer for that,” she replied, “till I come to hearwhat you’re after.”
I looked up.
“O, madam, my benefactress!” I cried. “It is much to expect, perhaps;but do you not know me?”
“O, perfectly, madam!” she said, with a curtsey that made her balloon.“We make it our pains to know all about our visitors. Believe me, youwas under surveillance from the moment you stepped ashore at the Mole.It was not very likely, was it, that we should overlook the arrival ofher as seemed wishin’ to reap the discord she had sowed among us awhile back? Be sure we know you, madam, well enough, and thereputation you built for yourself in Paris too!”
Startled as I was, I had a difficulty to refrain from retorting thatmy reputation would bear comparison with hers. But I bit my lip on thetemptation, and for the moment took refuge from everything in tears,to which, however, she listened silent.
“I did not refer to that,” I cried, looking up with clasped hands andswimming eyes, “but to the goodness of a great and beautiful lady, whoonce succoured a poor girl in distress.”
“And I include that too in my knowledge,” said she; “and muchgratitude you’ve shown to the class as befriended you.”
“Gratitude!” I cried. “O, believe me, that, until I reached here, Inever even guessed that, in conspiring against royalty, I wasconspiring against you, my saviour.”
She sat down on a chair, near breaking it.
“Didn’t you?” she said, gathering the folds of her cloak about her.“Well, supposing you didn’t, what then? You ain’t goin’ to forego yourprinciples for a sentiment like that—don’t tell me.”
“If you won’t believe me”—I murmured despairingly.
“Why look here, Madame Lavasse, or Please, or whatever your damnedname is,” she said, shaking a hectoring finger at me, “one may help agirl, but a woman helps herself, which I make no bones of guessingyou’ve managed to do pretty free. The question with you is whetherJacobinism or royalty is going to pay best; and if you’re proposin’ tochange about and turn informer, no better moral than profit is at thebottom of your little game, I’ll vow. Well, I don’t say but in thatcase we’re open to treat; only I’ll ask you to drop the artless girl,which don’t sit well on you at your age, and talk with me like onewoman of the world to another.”
I rose to my feet with a burning face.
“Go!” I said, with an imperious gesture; “insult me no more. Have Inot suffered wrong and outrage enough, but my heart must be made thesport of every common”—
She rose in astonishment. For a moment she stood conning me, myquivering lips and heaving bosom. Then of a sudden she smiled.
“Well, perhaps”—she said. “There, I’ve a way of letting my tongue runaway with me; but it’s no example for you to follow. I should haveremembered the glass houses in the sayin’ before I twitted you withyour past. Only for sure, Diana Please, it can never be said againstme that I betrayed my love that betrayed me.”
My rage was all gone. I dropped my head, with a sad little cry. Thesound of it brought her to my side.
“Was he not your love,” she whispered—“him that came with you?”
And I answered, “He was my love.”
“Was—was,” she repeated. “Well—I see. They take other fancies.”
“You was sold yourself—is it not true?” I muttered.
“Ay,” she answered, and sighed. “But it was for gold.”
“You can forgive, then, and forget,” I said; “but not I—no, never.”
“You would ruin him?”
“Yes, and her.”
“Bring him to the gallows?”
“That is why I sent for you. You can trust me.”
“And in the meantime you fear for yourself?”
“I struck her. He tried to stab me. I cried, Vive le Roi! You knowwhat that means.”
“Cry Vive la Reine for the future. ’Tis the sweet saint who suffersmost. Well, it seems the truth at last; and you have yourprovocation—by God, you have! Only for me, having one different, tohelp myself by you?—it goes against my stomach somehow. I wish it wasyour principles instead of your jealousy.”
“Help me in nothing but to some place of safety, where I can informand direct the court. It will not be troubled with your ladyship’sscruples.”
“How do you know? ’Tis so you have been taught to regard my sweetqueen, I suppose?”
“O, madam!” I cried, “you know what made me an ardent pupil.”
She stood musing upon me long and earnestly.
“Yes, perhaps,” she said at length, and sighed; “what a fool preacheris Love, not to be able to keep his own faith! To drive woman forrefuge on woman—’tis like banishing your physician to the enemy’scamp. Well”—she took my hands; I thought she was going to kiss me,but she made no offer—“for myself, I don’t want to hear none of yourinculpations; but I’ll put you in train to satisfy your passions onothers that may. Will that suit you?”
She turned before I could answer, and was going.
“It must be soon,” I urged hoarsely, following her; “O, madam! don’tyou understand that it must be soon?”
“Within an hour or two,” she said, over her shoulder. “Have no fear.You are already protected—and watched.”
I set myself, with what self-control I could, to await her return;for, after our emotional confidences, I expected nothing less thanthat she would come for me presently in person. But in that I wasmistaken, as was made evident in the ushering up to me by and by of avery courtly young gentleman, of a shrewd, sallow visage, who informedme, with a bow, that he was Love’s emissary.
“His Majesty, sir,” I said, with a faint smile, and some intentionalambiguity, “is well represented. Do we go to the palace?”
“We go,” he said, “to the palace. Will madam be pleased to accept myescort?”
I took the arm he offered me. In view of some such contingency, I hadspent the interval in making my toilette agreeably to it.
He conducted me out by the back way to the stables, where, in a littlecourt, we found an ordinary post-chaise, with two horses, awaiting us.
“Faire comme on le juge à propos,” murmured my companion; and,seeing my trunk (pregnant with damning evidence) well secured infront, he handed me in, followed himself, pulled down the blinds, andgave the word. In an instant we were rolling over the stones.
It was a very roundabout way, it seemed to me, that we took to thepalace; yet for long—so potent was my trust in myself as an emissaryof vengeance, and so engaging the chatter of my comrade—I suspectedno treachery. But at length, losing conscious sense, through thethunder of the wheels, of a roar and racket which had once accompaniedit, I started as it were awake, and, in an immediate panic, peepedfrom behind the blind nearest me. And then I saw that we had alreadyleft the town, and were tearing along country roads.
I half rose, with a cry: “The palace! This is not the way to it!”
My companion seized my wrist in a grip of steel, forcing me to reseatmyself.
“The very nearest, I can assure you, madam.”
“You are taking me to prison?”
“My faith! a prison that some would like,” he said, showing his teeth.
I struggled with him. “Let me out! I will raise the country else!”
He released me at once.
“As madam wills. Madam will claim protection of her friends theJacobins? For me, I consult only her safety.”
“What!” I panted at him, sinking back. “Tell me who are you?”
“Luigi de’ Medici, at madam’s service,” he said, with a bow; “a name,at least, that should be a guarantee of some worth.”
“No doubt, sir; but, as a stranger, at your mercy”—
“I have the honour to be, madam, the chief of the police.”
The word awoke new frenzy in me.
“My God! I am betrayed. For pity’s sake, sir, tell me where we go.”
“I answered, madam, to the palace. I am a man of my word.”
“Ah! At length madam talks reason. To the Palace of Caserta, tenleagues away.”
I stared at him aghast.
“To be immured there?”
“Truly,” he said, “to be immured in a paradise, amongst fountains andflowers! It is not like the inside of a wall.”
“You are pleased to mock me, sir. But why am I brought so far?”
“Madam shall ask of her mirror,” he said, with a charming grin. “ShallI so abuse my office as to admit that His Majesty is susceptible; andthat Madame the English Ambassadress—who, nevertheless, is of aperfect honour—is jealous for her friend the queen, and, perhaps, forher own pre-eminence in beauty? Certainly not. It is quite enough tosay that Madame Lavasse, being in some danger of assassination inNaples, is removed to a distance for her own security; to a place, inshort, whence she can direct the lightning, without exciting suspicionof collusion with Jupiter.”
He bent and looked into my face.
“I vow, madam,” he said, “that the last frost of discretion must meltin the fire of such beauty. Take my word for it, that the Queen ofOlympus never of her will would have admitted Venus to be of hercourt.”
This was very disarming, to be sure; and already, before we reachedCaserta, Signor de’ Medici was in possession of some preliminaryinformation that proved useful to him.
I KNOW HOW TO WAIT
Caserta Palace was a sort of Versailles to the Palazzo Reale. It wasa fine, long, rectangular building, lofty and imposing in theeighteenth century style of grand architecture, with marble colonnadesand innumerable windows. The town it dominated, being a royal townpar excellence, was comparatively clean and reposeful; and thepalace gardens were as extensive and as beautiful as any in the world.
It was not, however, to a corner of this stately pile that I foundmyself committed, but to rooms in the Casino of St. Lucius, whichstood in the park some two miles north of the main building, andcommanded a noble view, not only of the surrounding country, but ofthe dark pruned alleys beset with white statues, and the terraces andfountains and cascades of the gardens themselves—a lovely spot. Andhere, for the moment secure and at peace, I resolved upon a life ofplacid enchantment, treated like a queen’s hostage, and biding thedevelopment of events.
I had my little sleepy, soft-footed household—an old groom, a prettymaid or two, and a quite delectable cook. No restrictions were placedupon me; I was free to wander as I listed, and, indeed, had noinducement to venture without the cordon of sentries who were my bestprotection. The month was April, the most lovely in all Naples; and,save when Capri, showing near and blue, gave indications of thescirocco, I spent all my days out of doors. So tranquil was it, soremote from the centres of ferment, I could have thought myself inAvalon, though all the while and around the clouds of a coming tempestwere gathering to burst. As I loitered by those empty corridors ofgreen, smiling back the smiles of the unruffled statues, listening tothe drowsy thunder of the waters, seeing only for all tokens of humanlife the little marionnettes of place swarming, quite distant andminute, about the steps of the palace, France was preparing to launchher legions on Naples both by land and sea; scared refugee cardinalswere trotting by the dozen into the city; Nelson, off Toulon, wasshaping his course, by way of Aboukir, to the arms of Mrs. Hart;Ferdinand was tremblingly fastening his warlike greaves on his fatshins; and, finally, Maria Carolina was making her bloody tally forthe hangman. And only of the last was I actively cognisant, seeingthat it was there alone lay my concern with the outer world.
From time to time M. de’ Medici would visit me in this connection,coming ingratiatory and quite lover-like to refresh his portfolio withnew names from my list, or to examine my correspondence, which wasentirely at his service. I had taken no half-measures. The sparedassassin comes to strike again, was my motto.
“Have I not proved myself a sincere convert?” I said to him once.
“Assuredly, most beautiful,” he answered; and fell to counting on hisfingers. “You have given us already certain proof of the guiltycomplicity of—One: Signor Domenico Cirillo, professor of botany,arborist, edenist, pupil of Jean Jacques, too delicate a flower forthis climate; two: Francesco Conforti, court theologian, a priest andambitious—nothing singular, but he will be beaten in the race forpower by a neck; three: Carlo Muscari; four: his excellency theMarquis of Polvica, a lamentable case; five: Pasquale Baffi, professorof dead languages, for which he will soon be literally qualified; six:Gennaro Serra di Cassano, a very pretty young gentleman, late releasedfrom confinement—but it is sometimes policy to spare the cub, if onewould learn the way to the dam; seven:—but, ’tis enough, madam: thosesix will vindicate you.”
“You are welcome to them, monsieur,” I said, “if only you wouldexchange against them all my dear, indispensable Gogo.”
At which, as usual, he shook his head, tightening his lips.
“A bond of sentiment. You are better apart.”
“At least you might acquaint me where he is?”
“As to that, he is very safe and well cared for.”
“Nominally—nominally, ma belle. But, observe—so are you, you know.What then? There are prisons and prisons.”
“Well, if he is as well off as I?” I sighed. And, indeed, theassurance was a wonderful comfort to me.
As a matter of course he kept me constantly informed—though I neverquestioned him—as to the career of the Pissanis, the head and frontof all offending.
“Signor Nicola is our bell-wether,” he would say. “We have hung alittle invisible cymbal about his neck, which has the strange qualityof sounding only to us. O, we police are the latter-day fairies,believe me! All unconsciously to himself, he calls the flock abouthim; and we—we have nothing to do but keep count of them, till theseason of the butcher arrives. Then we shall see. I shall want,perhaps, all the fingers of my own hands, and of yours too—my God, adainty tally! And madam, you ask—though your lips do not move? It isvery laughable, take my word. At once, since her marriage, the dearlittle frog emulates the bull. O, fie, fie! Madam misreads me. Such ascandal! I would say only that it has inoculated her with herhusband’s ambition; that she is become an enthusiast in the cause,attending meetings, distributing tracts, haranguing multitudes in hersweet round voice, that is like pelting giants with sugar-plums. Yes,as madam implies, it is marvellous. What will not love do? But for me,I am susceptible: I adore all beauty. I could wish the poor childanother embrace than the hangman’s.”
“Well, sir,” I answered, “you will have occasion, perhaps, to offerher the alternative.”
“O, fie!” he said. “Is not my heart engaged immutably? Otherwise—whoknows? It is a sad world.”
It was a very dark and bitter one to me from the moment of hisrevelations. So, she could be independent of me, and happy in herindependence! What a world of hypocrisy and double-dealing was exposedin this her easy repudiation of my claims upon her! During all theseyears that I had counted her my slave, she had been nursing herschemes of treachery—been manœuvring, probably, to make me theinstrument of her conveyance to her lover’s arms. And now, no doubt,they were laughing over their outwitting of me. Well, who laughs lastlaughs best.
One day I had a notable visit. Two ladies, walking through thegrounds, came upon me where I was seated in a grove of myrtle. One wasLady Hamilton, very great and gorgeous in a shell-shaped hat desparterie, trimmed with butterflies and a violet ribbon knotted underone ear; while the other, whom I did not know, a dowdy, ignoble oldfigure with watery eyes, wore a plain fichu-chemise, and an immensebonnet with a veil thrown back over it. They both stopped upon seeingme, and Lady Hamilton beckoned. I rose, advanced, and curtsied.
“Here, your Majesty,” said my friend, “is the very person herself.”
Her Majesty! I paled and trembled; then ventured a glance from undermy lashes. Sure I was not to blame for my remissness. I vow I couldhave thought my lady had brought her monthly nurse with her for anairing in the country. The poor woman looked steeped in caudle, flockywith child-beds, and no wonder. In some two dozen years out of herforty-five or so she had borne near as many children. She had prayedfor an heir, and Heaven had sent her a tempest. The eternal lyings-inhad soured her temper, which was not further improved by neuralgia andopium. Nursing, as she did, outside her litter, a perpetual ambitionto wear the breeches of government, it had been characteristicallymean of her husband to adopt this method to correct it. Yet, in spiteof all she had borne both from and to her lord, her vigour remainedunquenchable. Indeed, in a kingdom which annually abandoned sometwenty-five thousand babies to the foundlings, a child was thecheapest present one could make to one’s favourite of the moment. Yet,as I saw her now, she was the farthest from imposing or attractive.Her legs were short, and her upper lip so long that her nose stoodnearer her forehead than her chin, on the former of which she wore asingle fat curl like a clock-spring. She put a hand to it two or threetimes, before she addressed me, very quick and hoarse, in French.
“Maria! Mais elle fait une bonne mine à mauvais jeu! Come hither,child. So this is our redoubtable little moucharde? We have need ofher in these days of the devil’s advocacy.”
Her eyes looked injected; her flabby face puckered at the temples likeyellow milk skin. As I approached, she turned away in evident pain.Lady Hamilton was all effusive attentions at once. She waved me tostop, and supported her friend to the seat I had just occupied,commiserating, explaining, and fondling in one.
“O, my darling queen! It is the neuralgia that worries my sweet like adog. Lean on your Emma. Have you nothing, child—no salts, no drops?”
I fetched a certain vinaigrette from my pocket, and bending before theroyal knees, snapped the stopper once or twice under the royal nose.The effect was instantaneous. An expression of maudlin reliefsucceeded to the strain. She lay breathing peacefully, with a smile onher lips, until, after some minutes, she aroused herself with a sigh.
“What was it, then? It is a Circe, with her witch’s face and herpotions!”
But this was to trespass on the other’s domain.
“Give it to me, if you please,” said Mrs. Hart coldly. “Her Majestywould prefer to take it from my hand.”
I returned it quietly to my pocket.
“Nay, madam,” I said; “it is a remedy that must not be repeated.”
She looked at me astounded; then broke into a forced laugh. “Hey-day!We are pretty absolute, are we not?” But the queen, grown suddenlyvery affable and communicative, put her aside with a hand which shelaid upon my arm—
“We will not quarrel with our physician. She knows what she knows.Moreover, for all her long exile and the little errors which she hasredeemed, she is of the great nation which we love. Is it not so,child? and hast thou heard what are the best and latest news? Noneother than that thy glorious captain, the supreme Nelson, has withinthe last few days annihilated the French fleet at Aboukir! Ah! thatrose is from thy heart. It speaks the proud blood, the red rose ofEngland, mantling above all foolish sophistries. Thou canst not butrejoice with us in the destruction of the enemies of thy race—of allthe world!”
And then she and the other began a little litany of excommunication:—
“Dogs and assassins!”
“Despoilers of churches and women!”
“Hordes of anti-Christ vomited from hell!”
“Scum and rabble of an infamous democracy!”
“Monsters of sacrilege!”
“Cowards curst of God!”
“Whom to slay is righteousness!”
“To whom to give quarter is deadly sin!”
“Subverters of all order and decency!”
“The devil hang the lot!” said Lady Hamilton.
The queen rose, quite refreshed and reinvigorated. Suddenly she washolding me with a piercing look. Craft and villainy peeped out of herlittle inflamed eyes.
“I come to put a question to you, madam,” she said. “There is a ladyof our retinue—the Signora de Fonseca Pimentel. Your correspondencecontains no proof of her disloyalty to us?”
“No, madam, or I should have informed M. de’ Medici,” I answered, in afaint terror; but rallied immediately. “I know only that she is incommunication with the Signor Carafa since his escape.”
The red eyes of the ferret closed a moment, then reopened to anineffable smile. She held out her hand to me to kiss.
“We find you an invaluable physician, Madame Lavasse. To have eased apoor queen—it is something; but to cure this land of its headache”—
“Ah, madam!” I said, “there I yield to the hangman.”
Both ladies burst out laughing as they moved away. The queen turnedand waved her hand.
“You shall not be forgotten,” she cried; and I curtsied.
A few days later M. de’ Medici called upon me. He read out a littleindictment he had prepared for my behoof—
“Eleonora de Fonseca Pimentel, wife to Pasquale Tria de Solis,Neapolitan officer, noble, now deceased: emotional; authoress of somepanegyrical sonnets to royalty and the age of gold; since suspect ofschemes for the education of the populace; shows a partiality for red;advocates an appropriation of the Punch and Judy shows to the lessonsof national virtue; claims the liberty of the press to print herhalting rhapsodies;” (Monstrous!) “imputed sympathiser with EttoreCarafa (son to the Duke of Andria, the king’s major-domo, and to theduchess, Her Majesty’s mistress of the robes) in said Ettore’s lateconspiracy to print and distribute an Italian version of the ‘Rightsof Man,’ which conspiracy resulted in the execution of some companionmalignants, and the escape from Naples of said Ettore; finally,convicted of corresponding with said fugitive, to the end of HisMajesty’s overthrow and the subversion of his government!”
“Not convicted, M. de’ Medici.”
“That is all one, most beautiful,” said the chief of police, foldinghis paper. “Madame Lavasse’s word is as good as her bond.”
Within a week the Pimentel was lodged in the prison of the Vicaria.
That was in October; and thenceforward things moved fast, thoughscarce quick enough for me, who was beginning to beat my wings againstthe gilded bars of my cage. For what was all the national excitementto me but a means to my personal vengeance? And I feared, feared thatwhile I lay aside for others’ use, my prey would find a means toescape me.
On the 22nd of September I had heard the guns of the citadels downbelow in the bay welcoming Nelson’s arrival. The sound shook everynerve in my restless heart, so that I could hardly eat or sleep thatnight; and I laughed myself into hysterics over my little maidMartita’s description of how Madame l’Ambassadrice d’Angleterre hadflown up the side of the Vanguard, and cast herself upon the breastof her hero, who was a very little man, and quite unable to support somuch emotion.
Still, thereafter, as day by day drums beat, and recruits weregathered, and men hanged themselves to avoid serving, and the Englishadmiral was urging upon the poor fat, wind-blown king one of threealternatives: To advance upon the French, and conquer; to die sword inhand; or to remain and be kicked out—while all Naples was seethingand roaring in a vortex about my garden, the garden itself remainedsilent and empty, an island in the midst of a whirlpool.
But at last His Majesty did set out, and reaching actually as far asRome, while the republican general Championnet was falling back for aspring, blustered naughtily for a little, killing a few Jews,threatening the wounded enemy in the hospitals, committing to sack andpillage the very sacred city he had come to relieve, and finally, uponthe approach of the concentrated French, deserting his demoralisedarmy, and pelting back, with all the might of his perspiring legs, towhere?—why, to Caserta.
It was evening of the 19th of December, and a thunderstorm, to terrifyone to death in that desolate park, had broken over the town. All theimprisoned electricity of months past seemed to me, as I stoodfascinated at an upper window of the Casino, to have torn itself free,and to be hunting in and out of the trees for fugitives from its fury.Far away and below the thousand eyes of the palace shut sickly to eachblaze, and blinked and were staring frightened again in the crash thatfollowed. The hand of an incensed God bent the proud necks of thetrees, and His wrath drove a roar of leaves and twigs criss-crossabout the alleys. It was the anarchy beginning.
In the midst I saw two figures, cloaked and dusk, butt their way tothe door below; and a moment later Martita summoned me to receivemessengers from the palace. I went down, and found two officers, paleand glaring, awaiting me in the parlour. The rain dripped from theirunbonneted locks; their hands were restless with their hats andsword-hilts. I curtsied in wonder; and the elder, with a shaky,conciliatory smile, addressed me.
“You will pardon this intrusion, madam. The occasion is our excuse.You have in your possession some charm, some restorative, by which HerMajesty the queen has already greatly benefited?”
“Assuredly, monsieur. It is in my pocket now.”
“It is much needed at the moment. You will vouchsafe us the loan?”
“You must forgive me, monsieur. Its virtue is incommunicable save bythe possessor.”
“That is so? Then will madam, perhaps, administer it in person?”
“To whom, monsieur? Monsieur will consider the night.”
“Alas, madam! But to assure that this night shall not be endless—thatthe sun of our hopes be not extinguished for ever?”
“Pray, sir, have mercy on me. To whom do you allude?”
“To His Majesty—no less.”
“He has but now ridden—been driven, would be truer—from Albano. Forthe moment everything seems lost. Ferdinand is at the last extreme ofexhaustion and agitation. Madam will come to quiet him?”
“I will come, monsieur.”
“Ah! Dio mercè! Questo benefizio è una grande grazia.”
We set out without delay. My companions took each an arm of me,laughing very gallant scorn of the lightning and my fright thereat.Between them, however, they bruised my poor shoulders horribly, intheir instinctive efforts to come together and clutch one anotherwhenever the thunder slammed.
I was so dazed with the rain and uproar that I had little wit left meto note my surroundings as they hurried me, blown and breathless, up aflight of steps into a great hall, blazing with lights, thronged withconfusion. Courtiers, nobles, mud-stained soldiers; weeping women,frightened maids—here they stood in gabbling, gesticulating groups,which were constantly detaching and discharging units into othergroups, the whole contributing to a sum of frenzy which swayed thecandle-flames. And throughout, threading the frantic maze, went scaredpages and lackeys; all, from captain to scullion, looking for orders,and receiving none.
There were a few whispers, a few who observed and remarked upon me, asmy conductors forced me through the press, crying a passage to theroyal closet.
“It is the beautiful English witch! O, quanti vezzi! They are goingto try to cure him like King David!”
The opening and swinging-to of a door; as instant a muffling of thetumult; the peace of a lofty anteroom, padded with thick carpets; amuttered challenge, a muttered answer; the passage of a furtherportal—and I was in the royal presence.
Now, all my life I have had to battle with a fatal sense of humour. Iwill simply undertake to relate the test to which it was here put.
The room, shut away from all disturbance, was brilliantly lighted. Inthe midst, at a gorgeous escritoire, sat a secretary in black, bitinga pen. Hard by stood a staff officer—in a glittering uniform, butsopped and mud-splashed—who incessantly, with a white, nervous hand,turned down and bit at his moustache, making a motion with his lips asif he were talking to himself. The two all the time followed withtheir eyes the movements of a third figure, the only other in theroom, which went to and fro, up and down, in a sort of tripping dance,gabbling an eternal accompaniment the while to its own chassé, andat odd moments ringing a little gilt bell which it carried in itshand. This in itself, to be sure, was sufficiently remarkable; but O,my friend, for the appearance of this eccentric, who indeed was noother than the monarch himself. Cocked on the top of his large headwas a little tie-wig, which, for the last touch to disguise, he hadborrowed during his flight from the Duke of Ascoli, after exchangingclothes with that peer, who was a much smaller man. The effect may beimagined. His Majesty’s breeches’ ends were half-way up his thighs;his waistcoat was a mere rope under his arm-pits; his coat-tails stuckapart from the small of his back like ill-fitting wing-cases. Add tothis that he was pinned all over with holy pictures, and hung withreliquaries and medals like a mountebank at a fair, and the picture iscomplete.
The lightning penetrated the ruddy blinds with no more than the silentflicker of a ghost; but no glass could muffle the shattering reportsof the thunder, at every clap of which His Majesty whinnied andcrossed himself—
“O Lord, spare Thine anointed! Beloved saints, be particular to pointout to Him where I am!” (ring). “This, you must know, is not my usualcabinet; but I will withdraw to my own, if you desire it, though it isin the hands of the decorators. There!—O!—San Gennaro, protect me!Caution our Master of the risk of striking among the chimneys, lestthe levin brand, following a wrong course, enter this room instead ofanother, and destroy me in mistake for a lesser man” (ring). “Dio nonvóglia! O, saints! I believe I am struck! No, it is my breechessplitting. But they are Ascoli’s. Make no mistake, Lord. I am notAscoli. Take the breeches, but spare the king!”
He shut his ears distracted to a louder boom, and immediately was offagain at a tangent—
“O Lady of Loretto, plead for thy servant!” (crash). “Mea maximaculpa—I will confess—if your Majesty will condescend to keep it toyourself—I am really a stupid man” (loud ring)—“well meaning, holymother; well meaning, San Gennaro, but dull, as kings go, andsurrounded by greater fools than myself. I have been seventeen times afather” (ring)—“at least” (loud ring), “and only once a husband”(groan). “Fool though I be, I have propagated my race for the glory ofHoly Mother Church—and the confusion of the learned, her enemies. Forthe sake of my family, Madonna, succour me!”
He chattered so loud, racing up and down all the time, that I couldhear his every word where I stood, awaiting events, by the door. Once,in a lull of the storm, he swooped round my way, and, suddenlybecoming aware of me, stopped as if petrified, then rattled out, in athick, gulping voice—
“Do you know who I am, madam? Do you know who I am?”
I curtsied profoundly.
“Sire,” I murmured, “—such a little cloud—to hide the sun ofMajesty!”
He stared at me, and down at himself. “I am the king,” he muttered;“is it not so?”
The officer hurried to him, and whispered in his ear.
“Eh!” he exclaimed, “my wife’s physician? You find me very distraught,madam, very overtasked. I am so constituted I never could abidethunder”—and he was off again.
“Monsieur,” I whispered, “if we could get him prostrated on a sofa.”
“Ah!” replied the officer, “for myself, it would be madness. Butyou—you are beautiful—you may dare.”
I did not hesitate, but, stealing catlike to a couch, took theopportunity of His Majesty’s passing to seize him by his wing-cases,and with such effect that in a moment he was sprawling on his back onthe cushions, with his legs in the air. Then, before he could protestor avoid me, I had clapped the duck-stone to his nostrils. Instantlythe convulsion of his limbs relaxed, and a great sigh heaved itselfout of his depths. His wig had tumbled off; his brows were dark overgoggle eyes; he had a long, aquiline nose falling to a slack jaw.Imagine all this revealing itself in an expression of the most perfectcontentment and idiocy.
The soldier tiptoed across, and looked down scared.
“God in heaven, madam!” he whispered, “what have you done to HisMajesty? He is not himself.”
“Pardon me, monsieur,” I said; “never so much so.”
He came round in about ten minutes, and gazed at me in a sort ofaffectionate beatitude.
“Dio mercè!” he murmured; “I dreamt I was in purgatory, and awaketo find myself in paradise. Another dose—one more.”
I shook my head.
“Enough is as good as a feast.”
“I will give thee a fortune for thy talisman.”
“Its virtue lies in myself.”
“Ah! Then the casket must be mine too.”
He sat up suddenly, all rumpled, and bellowed out in a thick, slurredvoice,—
“Away, dolts and rapscallions! What! are you prying and listening?”
The secretary hurried to the door, and disappeared. The officerlingered only to protest—
“Affairs of urgency, sire”—
“Pooh!” said the king. “I am attending to them.”
I drew away.
“Pardon me, sire”—I began, when a clap of thunder rattled the glass.His Majesty ran at me whimpering—
“You think to leave me? No, no, madam. I am but half recovered yet. Imust be watched, or I shall die. For yourself, you are as safe as in aconvent.”
He drew himself up, and endeavoured to thrust his hand into the breastof his waistcoat; but not finding any, caught at his braces instead.
“Though all else be lost to Ferdinand, honour remains.”
I RETURN TO NAPLES
What a business I had with that father of babies—himself thegreatest baby of all! He would not let me leave him, but took my witsto physic his irresolution as my duck-stone his nerves. As the nightsped darker and wilder, bringing distracted generals and ministers,who, desperate to gather some clew out of chaos, would not be denied,he clung ever closer to my presence beside him, goggling at me mutelywhen faced by a poser, and laughing and applauding hysterically when Isupplied an answer to it.
At last a cry rose in the palace that the French were got between Romeand Naples, with only General Mack at Capua a little north of us tooppose them.
“He is not to be trusted,” cried poor Ferdinand, wringing his hands.“He will sit down there and do nothing! Besides, I am not at war withFrance!”
“He is not everything,” I answered, ignoring the other fatuouspretence. “Quick, now, and light a fire between!”
“A fire!” said he, aghast.
“To be sure,” said I—“the fire of a crusade. Call upon the wholepopulation north of us to fly to arms and exterminate the impiousinvaders. Declare you are coming to their help, and bid them strivetheir utmost in the meantime. It may be, in such a war of bigotry,your peasants will do your chief work for you, leaving you no task butto come presently and kill the wounded.”
“But,” cried the king disconsolately, “they must know too well alreadythat I have run a—that I have thought it best to retire!”
“Date your manifesto from Rome, sire, and it will give the lieto—ahem! the truth. Quick! we will compose it together; and within anhour you can have it flying north, east, and west.”
He liked the idea. That thought of being reserved to give theunhazardous coup de grâce tickled him sensibly. But, though weacted upon it with all despatch, it was helpless to still the rumourof coming disaster. The report of the king’s flight and of the army’sdemoralisation were too well confirmed. Hordes of robbers andcut-throats rose, it is true, at the word; swarms that committedwoeful deeds of plunder and outrage and massacre, making the smilingcampagna a hell. But these were without concentration or discipline,and as ready, when the lust had bitten in, to torture Italians asFrench.
And, in the meanwhile, courier after courier, racing to the palacewith distorted legends, finished the last self-control of the king,and drove him near morning to order out his carriage for Naples.
Even then, as he went thundering by the dark fields and longglimmerings of the dawn, I was beside him. He would not part withme—with “his councillor, his dear little nurse”—but lavished upon methe wildest eulogies, the most reckless promises, while entreating meall the time to sit tight against him, for his better sense ofsecurity in the event of his dosing. And when he did dose, and fellupon me—good Lord! it was a nightmare, like having a mattress for aquilt, and with a voice! If his nod had failed to shake Olympus, hissnore might have uprooted it.
Long before we reached the capital, the signs of a coming anarchy wereincreasing about us most wild and threatening. Swarms of excitedcountryfolk; strings of hard-driven carts loaded with householdfurniture, shedding a tithe of their contents, to be crashed over orspun aside by other pursuing wheels; haggard soldiers sobbingchildren; cries, threats, vivas, furious banter—all went sweepingin one flurry of uproar and motion towards the gates. Sometimes, whenwe were recognised, it would be to a shout of jubilation: “Ohi! O mebeato! It is our king, our father, come to tell us the devils aresinged and scattered!” Sometimes it was to a vision of black menace,that surged up, and showed a moment at the windows, and dropped behindin a wake of curses; more often it was to evoke a scattering volley oflaughter, that broke into a regular sing-song refrain: “Venne, vide efuggì, venne, vide e fuggì! He came, he saw, he fled! Way forCæsar, way for Cæsar, who marches for Rome hind-first!” Thefrightened, sweating postilions scourged their sweating cattle,struggling to escape these gadflies, who nevertheless only clung andstung and sung the thicker. But at last we won through, and were inthe city, and whipping for the royal palace through denser agitatedcrowds, which still, through a prescriptive respect, offered noeffective bar to our progress.
I will not say but that throughout this ordeal my blood did not comeand go the quicker. I will swear, at the same time, that I was alwaysmore exhilarated than terrified. To be quit of my weary exile; to findmyself in the thick of events once more; best, to know that I had wonto active co-operation in my revenge the most powerful instrument ofall—these, at least, were a sufficient offset to the perils I mustencounter in my race to realise them. And it ended to our credit, whenall had been said and sung. We reached in safety the Palazzo Reale,where were being enacted, in a more massed and vehement form, thescenes of Caserta. The king, holding to my hand, drove a way for us,with kicks and curses, through the throng.
“Her Majesty!” he yelled.
She was in her apartments, to which he hurried me, scattering maids ofhonour like fowls. He shut the door upon her and me and himself alone.
“My love!” he said.
She was in like pass with himself. She was going up and down,muttering entreaties to the saints, her stays stuck full of prayersand pious ejaculations writ on scraps of paper. Every now and againshe would pluck out one of these in a spasm, dip it in a plate ofbroth that stood on a table, and swallow it.
“My soul!” murmured the king.
She noticed us all in a moment, and stopped dead.
“Who are you?” she demanded witheringly.
“Angel of my heart, don’t you know your lord?”
She advanced quickly, and whipped him this way and that. He was stillin Ascoli’s clothes.
“Is this all they have left of you, you poor rag of royalty?”
He tried a little bluster.
“How now, madam! I adopted it for a disguise.”
“What!” she said, “by revealing yourself? I should have thought thatone exposure had been enough.”
“Hush!” he said, perspiring; “there is a witness.”
“One!” she cried; “the whole nation!” and she left him for me.
“What do you do here?” she demanded.
The king put in a word.
“I bring you your physician, madam—our physician. If it had not beenfor her, your Ferdinando would have lost his mind.”
“Better that than his kingdom,” she answered bitterly, and stoodscowling on me. “I understand, madam, I understand. I called youCirce, and not, it seems, without excellent reason.”
“I was persuaded, madam,” I said, raising my head. “My honour is asprecious to me as your Majesty’s. If you have no further use for me, Ibeg your permission to withdraw.”
At which, if you will believe me, this stormy queen ran to a chair,and flinging herself down on it, began to weep violently.
“I am deserted of all,” she cried; “in the hour of my tribulation theyall forsake and disown me.”
The king skipped to her and fell on his knees before.
“My soul,” he wept, “all is not yet lost. General Mack”—
“General post,” she snapped. “What do you know of your own city, or ofthe anarchy that reigns in it? It only needed this spark to the mine.All is lost, I tell you. They are clamouring for a republic. Weshall be sacrificed like the King of France and my sister to the furyof the Jacobins—I feel the knife at my neck—O! O!”
She rose in a frenzy of horror, shuffling her billets like cards tofind a trump. “Gennaro, Valentino, Jeromio?” she whispered tearfully,and ended by making a sippet of the hermit. He was old and amisogynist. It was evident for some moments that he disagreed withher.
“Nothing remains to us,” she said at last, with a wry gulp, “butflight. We have foreseen it for days. For days, while you have beenplaying with tin trumpets, we have been transferring our royal effectsto the ships: pictures, plate, jewels; the specie from the banks; thelast soldi from the treasury. We have seen to everything, I and mysweet darling Emma, my only, truest, and best of friends. Nelson butawaits our signal to take us on board. You must give it him, at once,for this night, do you hear?”
“I will send a message by Ferreri,” said the king, rising, with a faceas scared now as her own. “I will send Ferreri at once,” and heskipped to leave the room.
“Stay!” she cried, in agitation. “Be sure to bind him to the lastprivacy.”
“O, poor me!” said the king, with a spasm of a smile. “Must I thencheat my excise by smuggling my own orders through?”
“It is no time for fooling,” cried his angry spouse. “My God! do younot understand? Whether our plan should be suspected by Lazzari orJacobins, the result would be the same. To the one it would meandesertion; to the other escape. They would combine at least tofrustrate it.”
He stared, nodded sagely, and this time stole away on tiptoe, so thatthe Lazzari in the square should not hear him, I suppose. I wasfollowing, when the queen stopped me. Her expression in the act hadfallen a little piteous, like that of a smiling saint sitting onspikes.
“Has Circe, then, no ministrations for the anguished of her own sex?”she asked.
I hurried to her. “O, madam!” I cried, “if I might serve you alone!”
Nevertheless, the whole present prospect dismayed me. Whither was ittheir scheme to remove the court, and for how long? and in themeantime, what Government was to represent it? I had immutably rangedmyself against my former party, burning my boats behind me. What, now,if that party were to triumph, as I had already seen it triumph whollyand tragically elsewhere? The tables of vengeance would be a trifleturned, I thought.
However, I gained some reassurance on this point from de’ Medici, uponwhom, in the midst of a distracted rush and scurry, I stumbled in thecourse of the afternoon.
“Hush!” he replied to my question. “Whisper it not in Gath. You areindiscreet, most beautiful. Listen: if we go, it will be but as afowler withdraws from his nets, that the foolish birds may fly moreconfident into the lure.”
If we go! An event which happened in the morning resolved thatquestion for ever. Ferreri, the poor courier, was hardly sent on hismessage (luckily a verbal one) when the suspecting mob fell upon him,dragged him all torn and bleeding to the palace square, and there,with savage cries: “A spy! a Jacobin spy,” despatched him with theirknives before the very eyes of the king, whom they had insisted shouldbe witness to this proof of their loyalty. The poor monarch totteredback aghast into our midst; and from that moment the end was sure.
As the day waned, the confusion in the palace waxed indescribable.Tendency, no doubt, there was in the seeming chaos: I, as a stranger,could do no more than commit myself blindly to the stream, resolved inone matter alone—that I would not remain stranded and left behind.All questions of precedence but in flight—of etiquette, of privacyeven—were blown to the winds. We were become a mere commonwealth ofterror. Great ladies issued puffing and lumbering from theirapartments, their arms loaded with goods and dresses, which theytripped over like clowns as they ran; nervous warriors got entangledin their swords, and lay gasping on their backs like dying fish. Inever laughed so much or so hysterically in my life. With all but thealmighty family itself it was sauve qui peut; and I was beginning toformulate my own desperate plans, when de’ Medici whispered quick inmy ear—
“Follow me without seeming to!”
It had been impossible in that frantic crowd, had not my wits alreadynoted his every trick and mannerism. Fortunate in being utterlyunencumbered, I pursued the shadow. It led me by intricate ways, outof the light into darkness, out of the tumult into silence, by a backpassage through the arsenal, and so down to the waterside, where alittle boat with dusk figures was waiting. Without ceremony we tumbledin, and sat panting.
“Any more?” said a voice in my own good English tongue.
De’ Medici answered in the negative.
“Give way, men!” cried the officer sharply.
In an instant we were speeding for the bay. The lights quivered andshrunk behind us; the uproar attenuated, and was drawn out to amurmur. Yard by yard there swelled up before our eyes vastribbon-girded bulks, that rocked lazily on the tide, tracing intricatepatterns with their masts among the stars. To one of these, thegreatest, we galloped, and came round with a surge and hollow lap ofwater under its quarter. The next moment we were aboard theVanguard.
I STILL KNOW HOW TO WAIT
I sing Palermo, “la felice,” the languorous, the sunny, the lotusisland to all shipwrecked mariners. O, those five days in the gulf!—ahundred hours in which to think of nothing but one’s crimes, and one’smistake, saving the sinfulness, in not having been born a mermaid. Ideclare I was not ill myself, except in the illness of others; but tohear the groaning of the ship’s ribs mimicked a hundredfold by thestraining ribs of my companions was an eternal bone in my throat. As acanary sings the louder the more we talk, so, as the ship talked, themore fervent rose all round the chaunt of suffering—
“O, San Gennaro, grant it passage! O, Santa Maria, I can give no more;you have it all! Father of pity, I am like a squeezed wineskin!”
Then, perhaps, from Lady Hamilton, mistaking, in her prostration, thesteward for the admiral: “O, my dear lord! though I cannot rise tothank you, believe me that for all you have done my heart goes out toyou.” To which the honest sailor would respond, “Give it went, mum,and take the basin.”
In truth it seemed the stars fought against us with the sea. TheVanguard itself was none too big a vessel. She was what they call, Ibelieve, a seventy-four with two tiers of guns—not a first-rater. Isaw her commander sometimes, in the glimpses of the moon. He was notutterly impervious himself to the calls of the deep. His right arm wasgone, and the sleeve pinned to his breast. He had a gentle, soberface, blind of one eye, and the scar of a late healed wound on hisforehead. Casually met, I should have taken him for a little mildprofessor, who had once said Bo to a goose and been well pecked forhis pains.
We had weighed anchor on the 22nd, and at once run into bafflingwinds. The day before, the king had received on board a deputationmixed of the marine, the city, and representatives of the Lazzari, whowere all aghast to learn that His Majesty projected a withdrawal tohis Sicilian capital. He was very short with them. When facts shouldreassure him of their loyalty, he said, he would return. In themeantime, he left General Pignatelli (a poor bemused creature) as hisregent to restore order. He said nothing of his wholesale plunder ofthe public funds, and was only in a perspiration to escape before itshould be discovered. Then he went below, having lighted and flungashore the brand which was to set the city blazing.
And the following day we sailed for Palermo, in a vessel as full ofroyal livestock as if it had been a training ship for kings. Besidestheir Majesties, and as many of their progeny as they could recollectat the moment, there were on board the ineffable Hamiltons; EnglishActon, their minister and the queen’s lover; princes of the bloodCastelcicala and Belmonte, and a few others of condition. Amongst usall, from the first, there was little affectation of state, and noneof stateliness. It was just a scurry and tumble—an encumbering massof royalty, in the thick of which the unhappy crew were hard put to itto find quarters. One of the poor children even died of sickness; andthe queen screamed lamentations over it whenever she could recall itsname.
At length, more dead than alive, we were all pitchforked ashore out ofa battered hulk, and carried piecemeal through the city to the oldfortified palace at its southernmost end, where, for the next sevenmonths, was to be enacted the royal intermezzo in the tragedy ofNaples.
Those months passed livelily enough for me. The king, what time hecould spare from his hunting and fishing and the building of a newcountry lodge, was quite my devoted servant, paying my gamblingdebts—when it sometimes grew beyond my own power to liquidatethem—and assigning me the new post, fruit of his own incomparableinvention, of stillroom maid to his royal person. He was not really abad-hearted man; and, if he could only have accomplished his eternalwish to be left alone, and not bothered while others were arranginghis affairs for him, would probably have resumed his Neapolitandominions without vindictive bloodshed, when the way was once pavedand swept level for him.
We heeded little (I except, in one main question, myself) the volcanicthroes which were wrenching that doomed town across the water while wefeasted and played. While Lazzaro and Jacobin, each dominant in histurn, were flushing the kennels with blood; while imperious Nelson,now promoted to his Foudroyant, was circling and swooping on andoff, issuing edicts, arrogating to himself the lead, in infatuatedtouch all the time with his substantial mistress; while the Frenchwere planting the Tree of Liberty in the palace square, and givingbirth, amidst song and jubilation, to the new republic; while,following their withdrawal, Cardinal Ruffo was descending, with hisbrutish swarms, upon the fated walls, which he was destined to retakein the king’s name, the king himself was absorbed in ombre orlansquenet, chuckling over charades, playing practical jokes upon themost reverend Spanish señors of the place, guzzling and drinking, andin every lazy way luxuriating in an utter self-abandonment topleasure.
And indeed, in that wine-soft climate, there were many temptations tohim as to us all. We were like Boccaccio’s company, forgathered out ofrange of the plague, and telling stories to pass the time. Thesimilarity of our condition, in fact, gave me an idea. I set my witsto work, and became a public raconteuse. I invented and told inthose days more tales than I can remember, but a selection from whichthe curious may find included in my Des Royautés Depouillées,first published in Paris in 1806.
The series became so popular, that poor Mrs. Hart found her nose quiteput out of joint in the matter of her own contributions to the fund ofgaiety. She might flop and pose like the most enormous of Greekgoddesses; she might assail our ears with her voice, for she had stillthe remains of a very handsome one; or our hearts with her faculty formimicry, which, being ill-natured, went deeper. Once my début wasmade, she must be content to play second fiddle; and that did not suither at all. The result was a coldness towards me, which, by inevitableprocess, led to my disgrace with herself and her royal mistress, andmy dependence, as much for my interests as my safety, upon the favourof the king. The court, in fact, became divided into the party ofDiana and the party of Emma, and was much more concerned over ourrivalry than over the ultimate destinies of the kingdom.
It mattered little to me, so long as I could keep the interest aliveuntil the moment when my vengeance on a certain couple should be afait accompli. That once executed, the two Sicilies, for all Icared, might disappear under the sea. O, believe me that NicolaPissani did an ill thing when he loosed an insulted mistress on histrack!
It is not to be supposed that throughout those idle months I had oncelost sight of my purpose, or had failed to inform myself, through de’Medici, of the real progress of events. And when at last the end came,and Ruffo with his bloody Calabrians was master of the city, and therepublic had collapsed like a rotten hoarding, I prepared my hands fortheir share of the price to be exacted, and laughed to think how greata fool he had been who claimed to represent Reason by yielding hissoul to the passion of a foolish face.
Now, at this end, Naples had become a shambles. Shot and fire andsharp steel, butchery and festering wounds and starvation, had left ofthe “patriot” hosts but a little mean swarm, that rotted out itsremnant life in the prisons, awaiting the holocaust. Pissani and allhis high hopes were scattered. The gods had no desire to be worshippedby Reason, missing their perquisites, as this “long-legged Hebe” mightwell at the first have assured Liberty’s apostles, if they had notbeen at the pains to discard her. She had been in Paris; had seenReason sit in the churches; had heard the millennium proclaimed, andOlympus echo laughter. And what had been the result? Not till thetemples of superstition were razed in all the lands, not till Reasonsat in the fields, would the first glimmer of that golden dawn appear.This she knew from the table-talk whispers of the new race, which haddecreed the old Titan Nature a vulgarity, and, having overthrown it inthe common hearts of men, dreaded nothing but the destruction of thecountless schools of sophistry on which its own lease of dominiondepended. And I, who had preached, who had been ardent again to preachtheir crusade against a detestable lie, had been insulted by thesewise reformers, and been driven back to pour headstrong wine to thegods of rank desire, and help them to hold the world a market to theirpassions! O, Pissani had done well indeed!
And yet he was not among the captured.
One day, near the finish, de’ Medici accosted me alone in the palacegardens. It was mid-June, and the scent of roses was thick in the air.I looked in his face, and, for all the warmth and fragrance, my heartwas winter.
“He still baffles you, monsieur?”
“Most beautiful, the man is a fox, or perhaps already a ghost.”
“Go on. You have something else to say.”
A stealthy smile creased his mouth.
“Keen as thou art fair. Know, then, that his wife is in our hands.”
“Again, go on,” I whispered. I could hardly breathe.
“We found her like a little torn rat in a sewer—ragged, halfstarved.” He gulped, and looked up with a pallid grin. “Have I notdeserved? It is the better half of the bargain. Vouchsafe me my rewardin advance.”
I paid no heed to his question, asking him only—
“Where is she?”
“In the Carmine.”
“And a hostage?”
He shivered, and hung his head.
“I understand you, madam,” he muttered. “But she is dumb to all ourquestions, to all our threats.”
I turned away with a laugh.
“And you are a humane man, monsieur, and a susceptible. Well, it isnot for me to teach the inquisitor his trade.”
“Understand,” I said, facing round once more, “that I cannot rest, orlive, or love, while this remains unaccomplished.”
He did not answer; but, standing irresolute a moment, shrugged hisshoulders and left me.
But I knew at last that the moment was near.
On the 22nd of that same month the penalties of rivalry were ended forLady Hamilton by the arrival, in the Foudroyant, of the LordAdmiral, who came to transport his mistress to Naples, as HerMajesty’s deputy in the latest Reign of Terror inaugurated in thatcapital.
A fortnight later the king himself, taking me with him as his simplerand nerve-doctor, and leaving the amiable English Ambassador behind toplay dry-nurse to his queen in Palermo—followed in the Sea Horse,which, after a short fair passage, anchored in the bay. Thence, ratherto my annoyance, we were transhipped no farther than to theFoudroyant—his mightiness being timid for the moment of venturinginto his distracted city—and, there, were scarcely on board before myservices were called into requisition in an odd enough connection.
The king—Nelson and his cara sposa being gone ashore—was lookingidly out seawards over the taffrail of the quarter-deck, andchattering desultorily with members of his suite behind him, when hebroke off abruptly to stare under his palm at some object in thewater, which, first seen at a distance, grew rapidly nearer, driftingwith the tide upon the ship. Then, in an instant, he gave a hoarsescream; and, seeing him pointing and articulating confusedly, we allran to the side, and followed with our eyes the direction of his hand.
“Vátene!” he shrieked: “è Caracciolo!” and he shuddered down, sothat nothing but his nose and goggle eyes were peeping over therailing.
I held my breath, staring fascinated, while the others echoed his cry:“Caracciolo! è Caracciolo! O me miserábile, Caracciolo!” in adozen accents of terror.
I had heard of the poor scapegoat admiral, whom Nelson—alwaysbearing a grudge against him for his better seamanship—had caused tendays before to be hanged with every refinement of savagery, andafterwards flung into the water. Now risen, it seemed, from its firstsleep on the floor of the bay, the sopt and dreary spectre was comeriding to sear the eyeballs of the master, whom it had failed to serveonly through being deeper pledged to humanity. Fouling our hawser, thebody swung upright, bobbing and reeling as if it were treading water.Its hair and long beard swayed on its cheeks; its dead stiff eyesstared unwinking in the spray; its arms were flung wide, as ifinviting its destroyer to a mocking embrace. Turning a moment, itdrifted loose, and went dancing towards the shore, where the poorfishermen of Santa Lucia, who had loved the man, were to find and giveit Christian burial.
The king staggered back.
“Mother of saints!” he sobbed, “what does the creature want?”
“Sire,” whispered a voice, “he asks for a consecrated grave.”
“Give it him, give it him!” gasped His Majesty, and signed to me tofollow him below, where, however, I was not long in laying his“horrors.”
“Enfin, mon père,” I said, “the man, by his appearance, was onlyasking your forgiveness.”
“Magnificent,” he answered, with a shaky laugh. “He was certainly inneed of it”—and he turned to me gratefully, but with a rather scaredlook.
“Little agent of Providence, if thou hast ever a poor friend thouwouldst save in the dark time coming, ask of my Majesty’s mercy, andit will listen. There may be some who err through the mind’s nobility.Of that I know nothing; only—only, I would have something to balancemy possible mistakes.”
It was true enough, though the blood-lust was not long in masteringhim, when once, without risk to himself, he could taste the spice ofvengeance. Even while he spoke the depleting of the gaols andprison-ships was begun, and the hurried trials, and the falsetestimony, and the hangings. And the wail of the thousand doomed wasalready mingling itself in the streets with the roar of a grand Statelottery, when at last we could venture ashore and to safe quarters inthe reconsecrated palace.
We were all triumphant then, or about to be. I remember the last nightwe spent on the Foudroyant. It was a full moon; and, seated under anawning on the upper deck, Lady Hamilton sang “Rule Britannia,” with acockney fervour which must have pierced reassuringly to the ears ofthe poor wretches imprisoned behind the floating walls that surroundedus. She was always so much more than equal to the occasion, was Emma.
I AM JUSTIFIED IN MY POLICY
It was a dark and gusty night when I issued forth with de’ Medicifrom a side door of the palace.
“She is condemned,” he had whispered to me a minute earlier.
A needle of ice had seemed to enter my heart. The question my lipscould not ask had flown to my eyes. Comprehending it, he had caught athis throat and lolled out his tongue grotesquely. To the same dumbinquisitors he had answered, as confidently as if I had spoken,“To-morrow.”
Then I had found my voice, as if after a fit of choking—
“And she has not spoken?”
“And she has not spoken.”
He had hesitated, before suggesting deprecatingly, “There remains onlyto make your appeal to her in person.”
I had struck my hands together, hearing that.
“You might have forced her, had you chosen. Now, leaving it to me, ourbargain is dissolved.”
“Madonna, you will not so requite my faithful services?”
“I will answer nothing till I have seen her.”
“Then what time like now?” he had replied desperately, “when she sitsburied alive in the darkness, with the spectre of to-morrow whisperingin her ear.”
“It is well spoken, then. I will go.”
The town was so full of reek and passion, that, most in the lowquarters it was necessary for us to traverse, I doubt if I could havesurvived without him. But he was too well known and feared to leave mysafety much in question. Then the Lazzari and their allies of theconquering army were such sworn blood-brothers, that it needed nevermore than the smallest bone of dispute to set either tearing at theother’s throat, whereby a flying petticoat, circumnavigating both, wasable to avoid shipwreck between. Indeed, we had committed more thanone red scrimmage to our wake by the time we were arrived, breathlessbut whole, at the door of the Carmine.
A roar and drift of torches surged upon us from a side alley at themoment that we reached our goal. Here was a wave of passion brokenfrom the main wastes, and bearing forward on its crest a single victimto its fury, whom it seemed about to fling against the sullen walls ofthe prison. He was a mere boy, and his face as white as wax. By thedoor stood a Calabrese sentry, armed with a musket and a great sabre,and a rose in his hand, the gift thorn and all of some amorouscontadina. As the boy was hurled up the steps, “Smell to this, poorlad,” said he; “art faint?”—and he thrust the rose violently againstthe victim’s nostrils. The poor wretch staggered back, uttering ahorrible scream, his face bathed in blood. There had been a long pinconcealed among the petals, which had stung him almost to the brain. Iam not sentimental, but I shall hope some day to be to that Calabresein the relation of Lazarus to Dives. The mob, however, roared laughterover the jest, clapping their victim with a certain good-humour on theback, as we were all carried together in a confused struggle up thesteps and into a vaulted stone hall beyond.
This stronghold, massive and mediæval, had only lately been the sceneof the treacherous massacre of a patriot garrison, and its stones wereyet mapped and mottled with the story of the deed. And since, beingmade a State butchery, without regard to accommodation or cleanliness,from every carrion Jacobin, it seemed, had emerged a living swarm,predestined children of the grave, who haunted the corridors withunclean cries, and showed ghastly visions of wounds and suffering atthe grates as we hurried by. It was a catacomb, in whose rotting lanesof stone walked a hundred vampires, gloating over their huddled pensof victims.
Typical of the worst was the gaoler who, at de’ Medici’s summons, hadrisen to attend us. This was a creature, like an obscene lank bird,who hopped before us chuckling and pecking forward with his long nose,as if as he went he sought the corners for offal. At his waist jingleda bunch of keys, and often he cracked, after the Italian habit, athong of leather with a lash which he carried in one hand, his otherbeing occupied in holding aloft a flaring taper. He led us by adescending passage, so narrow and so low that the flame of his torchmade sooty blotches on the roof as he advanced, into a murmuringdrain, at whose termination he at length paused before a door sunk inthe wall.
“Guái a lei, Messer de’ Medici,” he chuckled, as, groping for thelock, he leered round at us. “Wait till, having opened, I can blockthe passage. There is another here besides our little bird.”
“Courage, most excellent; ’tis but half a man when all’s said. He wasa State prisoner in the Vicaria, until the mob released him with therest. Then he disappeared, God knew whither; but he was retaken, witha few more, in the prisoner Pissani’s company. Well then, his day willcome, no doubt; and in the meantime, waiting orders, we keep themcaged together.”
De’ Medici grunted, rubbing his chin, “I should have been told; but,hurry, friend.”
The man waved him back.
“Let me entreat messer, in case of an attempt.”
The chief withdrew a little.
“Open, and come thou too,” said he. “Madam would speak alone with thecondemned.”
The key grated in the lock; the creature flung wide the door.
“Pissani!” cried he, on a sharp note; and that was all.
Even as he retreated, having uttered his cry, she stood in theopening. A dank and mortal odour came with her, a reel of filthydarkness unbroken but by the dim splotch of a tiny grating, which, setin the wall opposite, made an aureole behind her head as she stood.
God of mercy! It was a spectre from which I shrunk in instinctiveloathing. Had it ever been one with beauty, and with me? Its verytattered gown seemed fallen into harsh, lean folds. Love must havetrodden, not sat, in those hollow eyes, so to discolour and bury them.It was a just retribution—the more providential in that so squalid avision sickened my heart from sympathy.
Yet, to break this withered reed! It seemed a despicable task for mystrong hands. They must withhold a little, caress a little first, withwhatever reluctance to themselves. Nevertheless, I could not but beconscious how forced and artificial rung the tenderness I sought toconvey into my voice.
“Patty—Patty Grant! I have come to offer you life and liberty!”
The tiny smile that broke then from her lips was my first earnest ofher reality. The sigh she gave was such as a dead sleeper might yieldto the dawn of Judgment. Yet she did not move, or come to me, or showone sign of the collapse I had expected and calculated on. And, as thelight of the flaring taper fell upon her figure, a new hate andloathing surged in me, so that the persuasiveness with which I soughtto dress my tones shivered into a mockery of itself—
“Did you not expect me? Did you not know that I hold your life in myhands?”
“Else why should you have left me to come to this, Diana?”
I shrunk back. What new knowledge of herself, or me, was implied inthe chords of that wasted voice? Yet she smiled still, like one wakingout of a frightful dream.
“Is it not strange, Diana, this end to all we have known andexperienced together? Do you remember the sundial, and the old greengarden, and the nuns in the sleepy village? We are Englishwomen, afterall, Diana. I should like to rest in England.”
“It lies with yourself,” I answered, half choking. “You have but tospeak—I tell you, it needs but a word from you, and all this falsesacrifice is passed by and forgotten.”
Her eyes had been fixed on some vision beyond me. Now in a moment theywere scorching my soul.
“Yes,” she said, “and the word?”
The shame of its utterance should be mine, she meant. If I had shrunkfrom the challenge, it would have been to discredit my claim to thegreater wrong.
“Where your husband lies hidden?” I said, with a cold fury at myheart.
“God forgive you,” she answered only, and fell back.
Her assumption of the holier strength, of the worser grievance, stungme to madness. I leapt and clutched her by the wrist.
“Fool!” I shrieked; “do you know what you are bringing on yourself? Doyou know how they will kill you? It is not, as in Paris, a shock, anda sob, and forgetfulness. They will push you from a ladder, and onewill spring and swing himself by your feet, and another leap upon yourshoulders, and squat there like a hideous toad, making sport for thecrowd. And you will be minutes choking and dying, and not one to pityor relieve you!”
Her eyes had a smile of agony in them; but still it was a smile, and Icould have torn myself in my impotence to change it.
“Ah, yes, one!” she said; “my little unborn baby.”
I sprang back.
“Wretch! Your obstinacy murders it!”
“It gives its life for its father!”
Without sound or warning, she sank at my feet, and lay motionless, herwhite face turned upward.
A harsh jest was uttered at my shoulder.
“Bravo! It is so they always think to sport with our feelings. But wehave an infallible medicine”—and the gaoler, coming from behind me,cut across the senseless face with his whip.
With a roar, a figure bounded out of the darkness of the cell, andwhirling long arms about the beast, fell with and upon him, andbattered out his brains upon the stone floor. It all passed in amoment; and in that moment I knew my lost monster again, gaunt andfoul and tattered, yet even in his wasted strength a god, andglorious. Then against a coming tumult and scurry of feet I flung mybody.
“Back!” I shrieked; “the king gives me a life! I claim his—do youhear? If by a hair it is injured, the bitter worse for you all!”
Sobbing, burning, in a flurry of passion, I threw myself, an hourlater in the palace, at the king’s knees.
“Sire,” I cried, “I claim your royal promise. I ask mercy for afriend.”
Taken off his guard, bewitched, perhaps, “It is granted,” he said.
Then he recovered himself, and laughed, and patted my shoulder.
“Enfin,” he said; “what has he done?”
“He has killed a gaoler who was ill-treating a prisoner.”
He startled, frowned, then laughed again, but less easily.
“O, well,” he said, “a gaoler is no great matter. But I must know hisname first.”
“Sire, it is my own servant Gogo, that you have robbed me of this longtime.”
“O, him!” he said, relieved. “Well, perhaps, after all, we owe him agaoler or two.”
I KNOW MY OWN HEART
I had hardly got into the street before a hand touched my arm. Iturned and saw Gogo.
“It was you,” he said, “won my deliverance this morning?”
“From the king?”
“From the king.”
He said not a word more. I questioned him in my turn.
“I sent you a message by the courier. Why did you not come direct tome?”
“I had business first. I answered, ‘If you will tell her that I willwitness for her and bring my report this evening, she willunderstand.’”
“I understood nothing but that you were in no hurry to thank me.”
He made no reply.
“It is only after a struggle with my pride, sir,” I continued, “that Iam here to keep your appointment. I think, perhaps, your businessmight have kept better.”
“Do you? Well, perhaps, after all, you have a shallow wit.”
I looked at him in dumb amaze. We were loitering on, to me aimlessly,though I knew presently how all the time he had been rigidly enforcingour direction. The city was in its hottest night-fever of excitementover the executions that had taken place that day, in a mood alreadytoo monstrous to take much heed of the shock and tattered prodigy thatstumped by my side. Once, passing a group, I caught a name, andstartled, and was hurrying on; but he snatched my wrist, and forced meto linger, absorbing horror to the dregs. I knew his temper by that,and to what I had delivered myself; but I never feared him so much aswhen he would not speak.
“Gogo,” I whispered suddenly, “you will give me credit for havingknown nothing of your state all this time. Whenever I asked M. de’Medici, he assured me of your comfort and prosperity. I am not toblame if he is a cursed liar.”
He did not answer.
“The moment I could,” I said, trembling, “I begged your life. It isthe dearest of all I know to me. Are you going to punish me for that?”
Still no answer.
“O!” I said, with a little rally to anger, “if you will not thank me,at least you might say whether or not you received my enclosure thismorning?”
“The money?” he muttered. “Yes, I received it.”
I was moved to a little agitated laughter.
“Is everything poisonous that comes from my hands? If you had spent alittle of it on food and clothes, my obligation to you would not havebeen the less.”
“I thought you sent it to me to pay your debts.”
Again that grim silence. I feared him more than I can tell; feared himso much that no thought of the conquering guile by which I had oncebeen wont to sway him occurred to me to use. I shivered, and drew mycloak faster about me, and hurried by his side without another word.
Whither was he bent? By the roaring quays, it seemed, towards the darkprison from which, only a few hours earlier, she had gone to herself-elected doom.
“Not there!” I sobbed, struggling—“not there! What good can it donow?”
But he turned, short of reaching it, to his left, into a streetleading to the great square adjoining, where the gallows was erected;and here, under the shadow of the fortress, stood a church with alofty tower. Stopping at a door which opened into the base of thislast, he tapped three times; and in a moment it yawned, and engulfedus, and the tumult of the living town was become in our ears like themurmur of the sea in a dead cavern.
Our guide, taper in hand, went on before us. The sound of ourfootsteps reeled and laughed behind, echoing up to unknown altitudes.Ward of that little star of radiance, I had no terror so great as thatof its flashing away and committing me to the shadows that seemedalways dancing and clutching for me outside its circumference. Andthen suddenly we were come to a narrow iron gate set in the stone, andto the cowled, motionless figure of a monk who stood thereby.
Without a word uttered by this spectre, the folds of its robecontracted, and a long white hand was thrust forth palm upwards. Gogoput a purse into it.
“Bear witness, Diana,” he said, in a low voice, that boomed andclanged among the stones, “that I deliver the account of mystewardship to the last penny.”
I was sobbing dreadfully, moved by some terror that had in it,nevertheless, no thought of evil intended by him to myself.
“You will take nothing from me?” I gasped.
He addressed the monk.
“It is enough?”
The cowled head bent.
“Then let us through, father, and alone.”
The grate clanked. He gripped my arm, and, seizing the taper from thesacristan, led me down a long flight of steps, through a low doorway,into a crypt. And there, on the damp ground, full in our view, wassomething lying, and a sheet over.
“No, no!” I screamed. “You have tortured me enough already!”
Never releasing my arm, he set the taper in a crevice, and dragged meto the dreadful bed.
“What!” he said, “are you afraid to look on your work?”
And, pinning me forcibly, he bent and drew the cloth away. And side byside with the other, I saw the dead face of Pissani.
Without a word, I sank down where I stood, and he fell back from me.
“O, woman!” he cried, in a terrible voice, “that you could talk ofyour pride, with this lying at your heart!”
He clasped his hands, and unclasped them, and struck his forehead, andagain writhed them together, as if his grief baffled him from speech.Dragging my body towards him, I huddled cowering at his feet.
“What!” he cried; “no word? no word?”
I moaned, and moved my head in negative.
“Grant he stabbed himself under the gallows,” he said, “since he foundhe could not look on her agony and live. Are you the more guiltless ofhis death?”
Again I shook my head.
“At least they are together,” he cried. “By so much you did themservice, sending her first. But the price, woman, the price!”
I rose, blind, staggering, to my feet.
“It was my honour. I will go and pay it, and die.”
He caught at and held me.
“To de’ Medici. Let me go. Only you could have saved me, and you willnot; and it is right.”
Never quitting his hold, he turned from me, with a wild gesture of hisfree arm.
“It was her life or yours,” I said. “Make it my curse, if you will,that I chose the dearer to me.”
With a mad groan, he snatched me from my feet, and, holding mefiercely against his breast, carried me out and to the foot of thesteps.
Diana Please Born circa 1770.
scapegoat admiral The unhappy patriot Caracciolo, whose hurriedexecution at the yardarm of the Minerva raised such a storm ofmingled protest and justification at the time. Madame Please’sinsinuation must be accepted, if at all, as characteristic; yet thereis no denying that Caracciolo’s court-martial (on a charge ofdeserting his king; to which the culprit pleaded very reasonably thatit was his king who had deserted him), conviction by a narrow marginof votes, vindictive sentence, and hasty despatch thereon, affordedthe great captain’s enemies the means to as unpleasant an indictmentas any they could bring against his conduct of this unhappy Naplesbusiness.
Minor spelling inconsistencies (e.g. caldron/cauldron,counterbuff/counter-buff, gravel-pit/gravel pit, etc.) have beenpreserved.
Text version only: “#” is used to indicate bolded text.
Alterations to the text:
Convert footnotes to endnotes.
Silently correct a few punctuation errors (quotation mark pairings,missing periods, etc.)
Change “so often mentioned in the text, from the slavic” toSlavic.
(“She is grern ... She is become, it appe-ars,) to grownand appears, respectively.
(“Why, you old de-ar?” said he.) to dear.
“then, suddenly panicstruck, groped for the table” topanic-struck.
“and, unfortuntely, the disease was in the head” to unfortunately.
“At anyrate she, in company with Mademoiselle” to any rate.
[End of text]
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