Court Royal/Chapter XII

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Court Royal by Sabine Baring-Gould
Chapter XII. Charlie Cheek


CHAPTER XII.
CHARLIE CHEEK.

Joanna remained standing under the lustre, awaiting her master’s return. She heard him in the passage speaking with some one, and then his feet sounded, shuffling in his slippers towards the door, followed by a firmer footfall. Then the door was thrown open, and he stood back, and bowed, to admit Mr. Charles Cheek.

‘Good heavens!’ exclaimed the young man, ‘a lady here!’

‘Look at her! Look at her well!’ exclaimed Lazarus, crowing and rubbing his hands. ‘I’ll bet you a foreign coin that you don’t recognise my Joanna.’

Charles Cheek looked at the tall, beautiful girl with astonishment, and then broke into a merry laugh.

‘Excuse me,’ he said, ‘but I cannot help myself. One night we meet on the roof of the house, I in evening dress and you in working clothes; and to-night we meet again, under the roof, I in my morning suit and paletot, and you dressed for a ball, and certain to be its belle. Whither are you going, Miss Joanna, for positively I must go there also, and secure you for half a dozen dances?’

‘I am going nowhere,’ answered the girl, coldly; ‘I cannot dance. I am merely dressed, like the block in the milliner’s, for the display of the goods.’

‘Joanna is going to learn to dance,’ said the Jew. ‘I intend indulging her in that expensive luxury. She behaved herself, on the whole, well last night, and I must show her my satisfaction. I am a free-handed, liberal-hearted man, as all who have dealings with me can testify.’

‘Going to learn to dance, are you?’ asked Charles Cheek, looking at the girl with amused curiosity. ‘What next—French and the pianoforte?’

Joanna was nettled, and flashed an angry glance at him.

‘Now don’t she look well?’ asked Lazarus. ‘Who’d think, seeing her now, that she was drawn out of Laira mud, like a drowned rat, and pawned for ten shillings?’

The girl coloured and her brow darkened.

‘Never mind whence she came. I was discovered in a box of preserved figs. She looks as if the rose silk and the pearls belongod to her, and she was born to wear them. Why, if Joanna were to appear at the hunt or the subscription ball, the gentlemen would swarm round her, and the ladies die of envy.’

‘She shall go,’ laughed the Jew, ‘I will send her there.’

Charles Cheek shook his head and laughed.

‘Why do you shake your head?’ asked Joanna, looking hard at him.

‘It wouldn’t do,’ he answered.

‘Why not?’ she asked.

‘There are reasons that make it impossible.’

‘What reasons?’

‘There are none,’ broke in the Jew. ‘If I choose to send her to the subscription ball, who is to say me nay?’

‘You could not send her alone. A lady must chaperone her,’ explained the young man, hesitatingly. He did not wish to hurt Joanna’s feelings by entering into particulars.

‘Why not?’ shouted Lazarus. ‘If I will that she go, I can find plenty of ladies to take her, who must take her because I desire it. Ladies of good position will do me a favour if I ask it. They dare not refuse.’

‘I do not dispute your power, Father Lazarus; I say the thing is impossible, because Joanna has too much common sense to venture where she does not know her ground.’

Joanna fired to her temples and said nothing more.

The Jew was more obtuse; he said, ‘What! don’t she look every inch a lady? It is the dress—the dress makes the lady.’

‘Put that rose silk on one of the rowdy women or girls quarrelling or rollicking in the street now, and she will look a bedizened monkey, or something worse. No, Mr. Lazarus; it is not the dress that makes the lady, it is the lady that makes the dress. When are you going to learn dancing, Joanna?’

‘I do not know.’

‘Where?’

‘Here.’

‘Who are going to dance with you?’

‘No one.’

‘Then you will never learn. I will come and be your partner. Lazarus! sweep together some of your Mosaic girls, and I’ll bring a friend or two, and we will have the jolliest dancing lessons imaginable.’

The pawnbroker frowned. ‘Mr. Cheek, I am not going to turn this house into a casino. I promised Joanna she should learn to dance, and I stick to my word. I can’t get my money out of the dancing-master, so I may as well get its worth. That is better than nothing.’

‘May I come and help? I am an accomplished dancer.’

‘That is as you choose,’ answered the Jew; ‘only I won’t have any of your fast friends here. If you will come in a quiet way, come; only, don’t expect to find Joanna dressed up like to-night.’

‘Of course she must be in proper attire. No one can dance in working clothes.’

‘She has no other.’

‘What!—not Sunday clothes?’

‘Sunday is nothing to us.’

‘What! no go-to-meeting clothes?’

‘She never goes to meeting.’

‘Nor to church?’

‘No.’

‘Nor synagogue, nor chapel?’

‘No.’

‘Good heavens!’ exclaimed Charles Cheek, ‘what is Sunday instituted for? What are churches and chapels built for, but the display of smart clothes? Lazarus, what a heathen of a Jew you are, not to allow the girl a day on which to shake off her rags and put on fine feathers! Lazarus, we have a little account together; put down the rose silk to it, and let me present it and that necklet of Roman pearls to Miss Joanna. Will you accept the present, my lady Joan, and wear them at our dance rehearsals?’

‘I don’t know,’ answered the girl, looking down.

‘Of course she will,’ said the Jew, nudging Joanna.

‘I said, I did not know.’ The girl spoke firmly. ‘I will tell you some other time.’

‘Will you stop and have a bite of supper?’ asked the Jew. ‘The festive board is spread. The tin of tomatoes is on the table, so is the bread. True, we have had our light refection, but we will share the remains with you. Water, sparkling and pure off Dartmoor, brought all the way by the great Sir Francis Drake in a conduit. Who’d have thought the great navigator such a fine engineer!’

‘Lazarus,’ exclaimed the young man, ‘I know you can play a fiddle; you tried once to sell me a violin for twice its worth, and played me something on it. Get down an instrument at once, and let me put Joanna into the way of waltzing. She has it in her; a hint, and away she goes. I bet you a sovereign, in a quarter of an hour she will be able to step in a waltz as well as an experienced dancer of seven seasons. Look here, Mr. Lazarus, you whispered the word “supper.” I don’t like your suggestion of cold tomatoes and cooling draughts. What do you say to pigeon or beefsteak pie and a bottle of champagne?’

The Jew’s eyes twinkled. ‘Very well,’ said he, ‘so let it be. I’ll run down the street and get what you desire—I cannot send Joanna in her present costume—and be back in three seconds. Then I’ll give you a scrape on my fiddle—Strauss or Waldteufel—and do what you can with Joanna. I know her. She don’t want twice telling to learn a thing, not she. Of course you pay for the pie and the champagne. I am not responsible.’

‘Certainly. Tell me what I have to pay, and I will refund the outlay.’

‘Would you mind advancing half a sovereign?’ said Lazarus. ‘I have only three-halfpence in my purse.’

Mr. Cheek tossed him the money. Lazarus caught it as sharply as a dog snaps at a bit of meat. When Lazarus had disappeared, Joanna looked steadily at the young man, and asked, ‘Why is it impossible for me to go to a ball?’

‘I did not say that you could not go to a ball.’

‘No, you implied that I had too much sense to appear in the society of gentlemen and ladies.’

Charles Cheek slightly coloured, stammered, and said, ‘Well, I did mean that.’

‘Why?’

‘You ask me? Do you not yourself understand?’

‘No.’

He thought for a moment, and then he said, ‘My girl, you would not think of going to a grand ball as I saw you last night, astride on a gable, a pail in one hand and a mop in the other, clothes and hair streaming with water, and a black smirch of soot across your forehead—with, moreover, a smock in holes, and one slipper on, the other off.’

‘No, I would not.’

‘Very well. You would appear as you are now.’

‘Yes.’

‘But more dress than this is expected. Your mind must be in rose silk and pearls. Your tongue must be in full dress; your manner must be the same. Let me tell you that, among ladies, their tongues and their minds are never with one slipper off, the other on, never with sooty smears across them, but always wreathed with pearls and rustling in rose silk. They have never known anything else. Do you understand me?’

Joanna put her finger to her lips and considered. As she thought, she put forward one of her feet; Charles Cheek noticed it at once. ‘Joanna,’ he said, ‘you are dressed like a princess, but you betray yourself by your stocking. You are not only shoeless, but you have a hole in your sock.’

The girl started, and drew back her foot.

‘I do not want to hurt you,’ he said goodnaturedly; ‘I use this only as an illustration of what I mean. If you were in the society of gentlemen and ladies, you would betray yourself by your stocking holes.’

‘I would not wear——’ She stopped.

‘No. I do not mean stockings. I mean the gaps and shortcomings in speech and culture.’

She looked intently at him for a minute.

‘I have never seen real ladies and gentlemen—never, that is, except on business. Are you a real, proper gentleman?’

Charles laughed. ‘That is a cruel question, Joanna; I cannot answer it. You must inquire of others.’

Joanna considered again. Presently she said, ‘Here I see nothing but raggedness, wretchedness, and care. I know nothing of a richly clothed, happy, and careless world. Here I am surrounded by poverty, and the air is charged with the dust of old clothes and the reek of Laira mud; the light that comes through these windows is never clean; the air is always stale. Why should not I sometimes spring up into the region of light and liveliness? Lazarus often tells me I am a maggot, but a maggot becomes a moth with wings of silver. Am I to be always a grub—never to rise? If Lazarus offers me the chance to have a short flutter, may I not accept it?’

‘You are a queer girl,’ answered the young man. ‘Take care not to leave your proper element. Have you ever heard of the flying fish? The fish have fins so long that they can rise on them a little way out of the waves, and the silly creatures think they are birds; so they spring above the water, and are immediately snapped up by gulls.’

Joanna laughed. ‘I am not afraid of that; I am more likely to snap the gulls than the gulls snap me.’

‘You are a comical girl,’ said Charles. ‘It is a pleasure to hear you talk. Are you happy in this den?’

‘How can I be? Look about at the den. I will show you where I sleep, on a sack full of shavings under the counter. My food consists of crusts of bread, rinds of cheese, and apple parings, which Lazarus cannot eat. My playground is a backyard in which the only green thing is the slime on the pavement. Lazarus has no Sundays and I no Sabbaths, so I never have a holiday.’

‘Then why do you not leave?’

‘Because I cannot. I am pawned.’

‘Pawned!’

‘Pawned by my mother. I cannot leave. She expects me to remain till she redeems me. There is no help for it. I must abide where I am till she returns.’

‘Where is your mother?’

‘I do not know.’

‘Good heavens! and you are enslaved all this while, without power of obtaining your freedom!—Till when?’

‘Till I am nineteen years old—that is, seven years since mother pawned me. If she does not bring the ticket and release me before then——’ She did not finish the sentence.

‘Well then——?’

‘I will kill myself.’

‘Nonsense, Joanna. You are a little goose. I can’t follow your scruples. I see no right and wrong in the matter—no such obligations as you fancy.’

‘I do not suppose you can. You belong to the gentry.’

‘Well!’ Charles Cheek laughed. ‘Have gentlefolks no consciences?’

‘No, none at all,’ she replied.

‘How do you know that?’

‘Because I know them through Lazarus’ books and the society papers.’

‘And you have no other sources of information?’

‘I want no other. Lazarus deals with gentlefolks of all kinds, and through his account books and what he tells me I know about most of the officers and officers’ wives and gentlefolks of every sort here, and the society papers tell us what the rest are like in London.’

‘Every picture has two sides, Joanna. You see only the back.’

‘Has society another side?’

‘Of course it has.’

‘I cannot believe it. The world of men is cut into two halves—the rich and happy and vicious, and the poor and miserable and deserving. I will not say that the poor are good—I see too much of them to assert that, but they deserve what is better than they have. They cannot be good because they are wretched. No one can be good under a hundred and fifty per annum.’

Mr. Cheek laughed. ‘Or with an income above that limit.’

‘Below that sum, come gnawing care, and grasping for coin, and biting and eating one another. Above that sum, idleness and waste and luxury.’

‘And so, you comical socialist, you take as gospel all you read in the society papers, and believe in the utter corruption of the aristocracy.’

‘It is in print. What I read is read by tens of thousands. The old woman who sells shrimps and ginger-beer, the bargeman in the coal-boat, the men in Eddystone, the board-school children, all read the society papers, and gather from them convictions that the upper ranks of life are corrupt to the core, and burn with desire to tear them down in the interests of morality, and cast them in the gutter. Why should we lie on sacks of shavings and eat cheese rinds, and never leave the Barbican and escape the smell of Sutton Pool, and they bed in down and fare sumptuously, and go to opera and ball in the season and to their parks or to the sea out of season? I would I had the remaking of the world. I would cut the rich down to a hundred and fifty, and pull up the poor to the same figure. Then we should have an equalisation of happiness. Hark! here comes Lazarus; I hear his key.’

‘Joanna, it is rare fun to hear you talk! Tell me, will you accept my present of the dress and chain?’

‘I will,’ she answered. ‘I would not at first, because I doubted whether you laughed at me or pitied me.’

‘I certainly pity you.’

‘Then I take your present, and thank you.’

The Jew entered, a basket on one arm, a bottle under the other. He was elated and chuckling.

‘I have been absent some time,’ he said; ‘I found the wine merchants closed, and I would not have bad gooseberry at the tavern. Here is the pie’—he opened the basket—‘and a dozen raspberry tartlets, and a pound of clotted cream. I understood you to say tartlets, Mr. Cheek.’

‘As you will.’

‘I am positive you desired me to buy them; I particularly remember that you specified raspberry. Also cream at one and four. The pot I can return, so it will not be charged. I had to carry the cream very tenderly, so as not to spill a drop. Then,’ he added, ‘I have added my own contribution to the feast, one apiece. “Blow the expense!” said I, “oranges are now at a price within the reach of the poor—twenty-one for a shilling.”’

‘You will produce your violin?’

‘Certainly. I hope Joanna has entertained you whilst I have been away.’

‘Famously. She is a comical girl, and I enjoy a talk with her—the first of many, I trust.’