Court Royal/Chapter LVIII
Joanna was resolute. It was in vain that those present represented to her that she had been with Lazarus to the registrar’s office, so that in the eye of the law she was already married. She refused peremptorily, absolutely, to go through the religious ceremony. She was triumphant, defiant. Her eyes were sparkling, her cheeks kindled. No necessity now for the make-up box and rouge de théâtre.
‘I wouldn’t be drowned, I said, this day seven years, and I won’t be wedded now,’ she said.
Everyone spoke at once. The cohen addressed her seriously; Mrs. Thresher, who came up, overwhelmed her with reproaches. Lazarus stormed and screamed with rage, and insisted on her obedience to his wishes. But the time for submission was past. As long as he was her master she had served him, in cold and hunger and rags. She had begged for him, bargained for him, fought for him. She had nursed him in sickness, she had guarded his goods like a watch-dog. She never had defrauded him of a penny. Now that she was free she would not be his wife.
She paid no attention to those present; their voices sounded in her ears, but she did not hear their words; she saw the persons that surrounded her as figures in a dream. One face alone was distinct before her—her mother’s, one voice alone entered her ears and reached her brain—her mother’s. Her soul was like a long-closed room, into which no light has entered; suddenly the shutters are thrown back, and the window flung open, and the whole chamber is full of summer sweetness and sunny splendour. Her step was elastic, flame leaped through her pulses and flashed in her eyes. She had recovered her mother, the only person in the world to whom she belonged, who belonged to her, the mother on whose lap she had lain, in whose arms she had been rocked, against whose heart she had cried herself to sleep, the mother who was the truest, most unchangeable of friends, the best of refuges in sorrow, the surest of counsellors,—she had everything now—everything of which she had been deprived for seven years.
Heedless of every circumstance, deaf to every argument, blind to every advantage, she drew her mother away. She wanted to be alone with her again, to hear her story and to tell her own, to sweep her away again in the flood of her overflowing love. She held her hand so fast that not for a moment could the poor woman disengage herself. Mrs. Rosevere was bewildered. She understood nothing of what went on about her, the lighted room, with the gentlemen in evening dresses, the ladies glittering with jewelry, the crimson canopy, the seven-flamed lamp, her daughter’s strange demeanour. She was a timid woman with a mazed mind at the best of times; and this sudden episode completely distracted her.
Joanna brought her mother back into the room below, and fastened the door, but Lazarus had followed and was kicking and hammering at it with his fists, and swearing that he would have her out. He would not be insulted thus before all his guests.
Joanna remained quietly in her chair, clinging to her mother. There was disturbance outside. Voices speaking in the passage to Lazarus, he answering in shrill tones, in accents of passion; the trampling of feet and the slamming of the house-door, and after awhile, stillness. The guests had withdrawn to laugh with each other outside the house, on their way home; Polly was with her mother in the kitchen, uttering exclamations of amazement and disgust.
When all was quiet, and the fear of being disturbed had passed away, then Joanna said, ‘And now, my darling mother, tell me all that you have done and gone through during these seven years—and tell me why you did not come to release me earlier.’
Then the poor faded woman narrated a long story of troubles, beginning with her sickness on board Mr. Hull’s boat, and how she had been taken to a hospital, and got better, and been discharged, and had gone into service and earned some money, which had been dissipated by a return of sickness. A story of recurrent toil and disappointment, of saving and scattering, of hope and despair. Joanna sat by her, holding her hands and pressing them, and when she heard how her mother had toiled she kissed her hands, and when she heard how she had been sick she flung her arms about her and swayed her, and sobbed and fondled her. Mrs. Rosevere went on to tell how that at last she had been able to gather together a little money, and how she had gone to Goole and had waited there, taking odd jobs of work, till she could find a boat which was going with coals to Plymouth, for she could not afford the railway journey; and how at last she had found Mr. Hull loading to go there—and how now, at length, she was back in Plymouth. The story took a long time in telling, for the poor woman was a rambling talker, who lost her thread and went on without it, and then picked it up at the wrong place and generally entangled it; but Joanna was not critical, she made out all she wanted to know, that the mother’s heart had yearned through seven years for the child, as the child’s heart had yearned seven years for the mother.
A rough tap at the door, and Mrs. Thresher’s voice.
Joanna went to the door and unlocked.
‘We can’t remain here all night, you know,’ said the old woman roughly, even rudely. ‘We’ve got our own duties to fulfil—and a mussy it is some folks are found in the world who do their duties. Polly has to go back to the “Coach and Horses,” and I’ve got my swearing old Radical husband to attend to. So we are off.’
‘Very well,’ said Joanna, ‘you can go.’
‘And I hope somebody will be ashamed of herself, and of giving people a lot o’ trouble for nothing, and of her ingratitude to the best of masters, and——’ Joanna slammed the door in her face. This did not interrupt or put a stop to Mrs. Thresher’s grumblings. She grumbled as she got into her bonnet, grumbled herself out of the house, and grumbled all the way along the Barbican to her own home, where her grumbling was drowned by the louder, more boisterous political grumbling of Mr. Thresher.
Joanna sat stroking her mother’s hair till Mrs. Thresher was out of the house, and then she began to tell her mother her own story.
She told the story with perfect frankness. She hid nothing from her. She told her about Charles Cheek, and the necklace, and the pink silk dress; she told her about Court Royal, and described to her Lady Grace; she told her of how she had been caught, and was obliged to run away; she told her of the subscription ball, and then she told her how Charles had been there that day, had beaten Lazarus, and was now in the lock-up till Lazarus should appear against him. She told her mother also how that she had been about to be married to Lazarus, when, in the nick of time, she—her dear mother—had arrived to release her. Then she was silent for a few moments, holding her mother’s hand between both of hers, and hers twitched with nervousness. ‘Mother,’ she said, then hesitated; ‘mother—hush! does no one hear?’ She listened. The house was still. She did not hear the tread of Lazarus upstairs. Nevertheless she was not satisfied; she went to the door, opened it, looked along the passage, then returned, took her mother’s hand again between her own, and said, ‘Mother—I had made up my mind. I never could, I never would, be his. I would not have lived.’
‘What do you mean, dear?’
‘I should have destroyed myself.’
‘Oh, Joanna! Joanna!’ The poor woman shrank back.
‘Mother, when you were in your deepest despair, and you saw no light before you, you threw yourself into the water. I was driven to the last point of endurance. I could not, I would not, endure to be his wife. It would have destroyed all my self-respect. I thought how I could escape, and I saw no other way but this.’
The woman shuddered. ‘I did wrong, my child, very wrong; the Lord forgive me, a poor sinner. I was as one mad at the time.’
‘I was not mad,’ said Joanna, ‘but in my soberest sense. I would never, never be his—I would die first; that was the only way of escape that I could think of. Mr. Lazarus is not a bad man altogether, and I have a kind of regard for him, he has his good points; but I cannot, and I will not endure him as a husband. Can you understand me, mother? A horror and loathing came on me—and, just as you came by, I was looking out of the window to say good-bye to the daylight which I thought I should never see again.’
‘It was very, very wrong,’ whispered the mother.
‘I can’t see that. I have two consciences, one pawnbroking, the other womanly. The first had no opinion about it, the the other was very positive it was what I ought to do.’
‘But how—oh, Joanna!’ The poor woman shuddered.
‘I had made my plans. Lazarus had told me to clear away a number of bottles of drugs and chemicals from his room. Among them was a stoppered phial of laudanum, and Charles had told me about that. It gives no pain when taken, but sends you to sleep, and you sleep peacefully away into the endless sleep.’
The mother, shivering and white, held Joanna away from her.
‘What else could I do? Whither could I go? I had no one to whom I belonged and with whom I could find a home. I could not remain in this house with him any more as his servant after he had wanted to make me his wife, and his wife I would not be.’
Her mother was trembling as with cold—as she trembled on that same day seven years before when she stood in the same house, though not in the same room, and when she was drenched with sea water.
‘You may say—There was Mr. Charles Cheek. But, mother, his visit came too late. I had been already to the register office with Mr. Lazarus. It is true he had written to me two or three times, to tell me what he was about, but he had not said a word in those letters about wanting me to be his wife. And, even if he had, I must have refused him, because I gave him up to his father for a hundred pounds. Now, mother, would it have been honourable in me to take that money, and afterwards go from my agreement to which I had signed my name? No, I could not, much as I like Charles—and I do, I do like him. I could take him as little as I could Mr. Lazarus. I have a conscience. I have two—they may be queer to the fancy of some folk, but they are plain and outspoken to me, and what they say, that I do, and no haggling and bargaining and beating down with them. So you see, mother, there was no help for it. I thought, when I made my plan, that if I took all the laudanum myself, master would find it out and fetch a doctor, and they would bring me round, so I was resolved to give him some of the laudanum also, enough to——’
‘Oh, Joanna!’ in a tone of agony and horror; ‘not to kill him also?’
‘No, mother, I had no thought of that. That would be murder, and no provocation would bring me to that. No. I thought if he should swallow enough to make him confused, and unable to understand what had taken me, that he would be as one drunk, and sleep, and wake when I was past recovery.’
Mrs. Rosevere wrung her hands, uttered a faint cry, and slipped out of the chair upon her knees, and, pressing her hands to her bosom, said, ‘My God! my God! I thank Thee that Thou didst bring me here in time to save the soul of my poor child.’
Joanna waited till her mother had recovered herself somewhat before she proceeded with her narrative. She drew her back upon the seat, and took her hand again between her own. Her face was earnest and pale now; it had lost its light and colour.
‘Mother, the Jews have a ceremony at their weddings of filling a large glass with red wine, and the bridegroom sips this, then passes it to the bride, who also sips it. Then he finishes it, and when it is empty he dashes it to fragments on the ground. I had to prepare everything upstairs, and I poured the laudanum into the goblet, and mixed it well with the wine. Then I purposed, when it came to me to sip, to take a long deep draught, leaving only just enough for Lazarus to suit my purpose. None would suspect what I had done. I would go away to my little attic-room and lock the door, and lay me down on the bed and never wake again, and that would have been the end of my story, mother, had not you arrived at the proper moment, and for a second time given me life.’
‘Joanna,’ said Mrs. Rosevere, ‘this is very terrible, and I cannot bear to think of it. God forgive me that I ever showed you a way out of misery. The Lord interfered then to save me from myself; and the Lord has interfered now to save you. Now, Joanna, to my thinking, there is no time to be lost, we must go upstairs at once and throw away the poison. It must not be left exposed another minute.’
‘Yes, mother,’ said the girl, ‘you are right. It is the last duty I have to do in this house, and it shall be done forthwith. After that we will go out and leave it, never to set foot over its threshold again.’
They ascended the stairs together. The door was shut. Joanna knocked. She received no answer.
‘Perhaps Mr. Lazarus has gone out,’ whispered her mother. ‘If so, we must not leave the house till his return.’
Joanna opened the door into the newly furnished dining-room. The apartment would have been dark but for the flicker of the seven-wicked Sabbatical lamp. Lazarus, governed always by the idea of economy, had extinguished the candles. The lamp-wicks burned badly, and the light was lurid.
Joanna and her mother stood in the doorway looking round. All at once the woman uttered a piercing cry, and staggered back. Joanna at the same moment started forward.
On the floor, under the red silk gold-embroidered canopy, lay Lazarus, as one dead, holding the empty goblet in his hand.