A Safety Match/Chapter 7

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THE MATCH IS STRUCK.


Daphne sat rather dizzily by her father's side, holding his hand tightly and gazing straight before her. A sudden turn, and lo! before her lay a great break in the road. She had arrived at one of life's jumping-off places. No wonder she gripped her father's hand.

Now, for a young girl to consent to a marriage with a man considerably older than herself, a man whom she hardly knows and does not love, is rightly regarded as a most unromantic proceeding; and since romance is the sugar of this rather acrid existence of ours, we are almost unanimous in discouraging such alliances. And yet there are two sides to the question. A loveless marriage may lead to the ruin of two lives: on the other hand, it introduces into the proceedings an element of business and common-sense all too rare in such enterprises. It is true that the newly united pair dream no dreams and see no visions. Each comes to the other devoid of glamour or false pretences. But if a couple find marriage feasible under such circumstances, the chances are that they are of a type which stands in no need of that highly intoxicating stimulant, Passion. They are simply people who realise at the outset, instead of later on, that life is a campaign and not a picnic; and each sees in the other not so much an idol or a plaything as a trusty ally. For such, mutual respect cannot but spring into being, and will in all likelihood grow into mutual love; and mutual love which matures from such beginnings as these is ten thousand times more to be desired than the frothy headachy stuff which we quaff in such reckless magnums in our thirsty youth.

On the other hand, marriages made on earth (as opposed to what are popularly regarded as the celestial variety) can and often do lead to shipwreck. Granted. Still, marriage is a leap in the dark in any case, and humdrum philosophers must at least be excused for suggesting that one may as well endeavour to illuminate this hazardous feat of agility by the help of the Torch of Reason as not. But of course no one ever agrees with such suggestions. Romance and Sentiment cry, "Never! Shame! Monstrous!" And most of us very humanly, naturally, and rightly associate ourselves in the most cordial manner with the opinions of this old-established and orthodox firm.

We left Daphne gazing into the study fire, with a silent man on either side of her and Mr Dawks' head upon her knee. She looked perfectly composed, but something was rocking and trembling within her.

It is certainly disconcerting, even for the most self-possessed of maidens, to realise, suddenly and without warning, that there are deeper things than the domestic affections. It is still more disconcerting when an individual whom Nature might with perfect propriety have appointed your father, and whom you with feminine perversity have adopted as a son, suddenly kicks over the traces and suggests as a compromise that he should occupy the intermediate position of husband.

Brian Vereker sat smiling, happy and confident. The fact that Sir John Carr was forty-two and Daphne barely twenty had not occurred to him. All he realised was that the little boy who had been his fag at school, who had lit his fire and made his toast in return for occasional help with cæsuras and quadratic equations, had grown up into a man, and desired to marry his daughter. The whole thing seemed so natural, so appropriate. He glowed with humble pride that Providence should so interest itself in his little household. He beamed upon the young people.

Suddenly Daphne turned to him, and released her hold on his hand.

"Dad, will you leave us for a little?" she said. "I want to talk to Sir John."

The Rector rose.

"By all means," he said. "Now I come to think of it, the presence of a third party is not essential to a proposal of marriage. I am de trop! I shall be upstairs."

He laughed boyishly, and left them.

When the door closed Daphne turned to her suitor.

"So you want me for your wife?" she said, with the air of one opening a debate.

"I do," said Juggernaut. It was the first time he had spoken since she entered the room.

"And you went and saw Dad about it," continued Daphne, rather unexpectedly.

"Yes. As I understood you were not of age, I asked his permission to speak to you. He rather took the words out of my mouth by calling you in and telling you himself."

"I'm glad to hear you say that," said Daphne. "I thought at first the thing was being arranged over my head, and that I wasn't to be consulted at all. But you were going to ask me properly, weren't you? We prefer that, you know." She spoke for her sex.

Juggernaut nodded.

"Only Dad rushed in and spoiled it—eh?"

"That is correct," said Juggernaut.

"Well, begin now," said Daphne calmly. "A girl doesn't like to be done out of a proposal. It would be something to tell the kids about afterwards, anyhow."

Juggernaut became conscious of a distinctly more lenient attitude towards the Rector's precipitancy.

"Now that you know," he began, "a formal proposal would sound rather dull and superfluous, wouldn't it?"

"Perhaps you are right," said Daphne, half regretfully. "Dad has spoiled it for me, after all!"

Presently—

"I wonder why you want to marry me," she mused, fondling Mr Dawks' ears. "I suppose you have come to the conclusion that it is time you had some one to look after all those houses and servants of yours. Is that it?"

Juggernaut regarded her curiously for a moment.

"Perhaps," he said.

"You are not in love with me, of course," continued the practical Miss Vereker, ticking off the unassailable features of the case. "At least, I suppose not—I don't see how you possibly could be. It's rather hard for me to tell, though, because I don't quite know the meaning of the word. I love Dad and the boys, and Cilly, and Nicky, and Mr Dawks—don't I, Dawks, dear?—and I would do anything to save them pain or unhappiness. But I suppose that's not the sort of love that people call love. It seems to have been left out of my composition, or perhaps it hasn't cropped up yet. Now Cilly—I am her exact opposite—Cilly is always in love with some man or other. By the way, she told me last night when I went to dry her hair that she had just fallen in love with you, so evidently you aren't too old after all! Would it do as well if you married Cilly?" Daphne inquired tentatively.

"I'm afraid not," said Juggernaut.

"Well, perhaps you are right. Cilly's a darling, but she is very young yet," agreed the time-worn Miss Vereker. "But"—she broke off short—"it seems to me that I am doing most of the talking. Would you care to address the meeting—say a few words? I think I should like to hear a bit of that proposal after all. So far, all I know is that you want to marry me. And that I got from Dad. Now—I'm listening!"

Daphne leaned back in her big chair and smiled upon her suitor quite maternally. There was something pathetic in her childish freedom from embarrassment or constraint under circumstances which usually test the sang froid of man and maid alike. Perhaps Sir John was struck by this, for his eyes suddenly softened and the lines about his mouth relaxed.

"You needn't say you love me, or anything like that, if you don't," supplemented Daphne. "I shall understand."

Sir John's eyes resumed their normal appearance.

"As you seem to prefer to keep matters on a strictly business footing," he said, "I will come to the point at once. If you will marry me I think I can make you tolerably happy and comfortable. I am a prosperous man, I suppose, and as my wife you would find a certain social position awaiting you. Any desires of yours in the way of houses, clothes, jewels, and so on, you could always gratify, within limits, at will. I mention these things, not because I think they will influence your decision—I should not want you for a wife if I thought they would—but because I feel that every woman is entitled to a plain statement of fact about the man who wishes to marry her. Too often, under the delusion that the sheer romance of a love-affair wipes all mundane considerations off the slate, she puts up with the wildest of fictions. However, I may point out to you that acceptance of my worldly goods would enable you to carry out certain schemes that I know lie very near your heart. You could send Ally to the University. You could have Cilly finished, or whatever the expression is, and bring her out yourself. And you could pay for a curate for your father. You can have all the money you want for these enterprises by asking for it; or if you prefer something more definite I would settle an annual sum upon you—say a thousand a-year—"

A thousand a-year! Daphne closed her eyes giddily. Before her arose a vision of a renovated Rectory—a sort of dimity Palace Beautiful—with an enlarged kitchen-boiler, new carpets, and an extra servant. She saw her father bending happily over his sermon while a muscular young Christian tramped round the parish. She saw Ally winning first classes at Cambridge, and Cilly taking London drawing-rooms by storm. Her pulse quickened. But Juggernaut was still speaking.

"On the other hand, I ought to warn you that I am a hard man—at least, I believe that is my reputation—with somewhat rigid notions on the subject of quid and quo. I would endeavour to supply my wife with every adjunct to her happiness; but—I should expect her in return to stand by my side and do her duty as my wife so long as we both lived. They say of me that I never make a mistake in choosing a lieutenant. Well, the instinct which has served me so often in that respect is prompting me now; and it is because I see in you a woman who would stand by her husband as a matter of duty alone, quite apart from"—he hesitated—"from inclination, that I ask you to marry me."

Daphne gazed at him. Her heart was bumping gently. There was something rather fine about this proposed bargain—a compact between a man and a woman to stand by one another through thick and thin, not because they liked doing so but because it was playing the game. Daphne felt proud, too, that this master of men should have adjudged her—a woman—to be of the true metal. But she was honest to the end.

"You would give all that to have me for your wife," she said.

Sir John bowed his head with grave courtesy.

"I would," he said simply.

"I'm not worth it," said Daphne earnestly. "I am only accustomed to looking after our little Rectory and the family. I might make a fearful mess of all your grand houses. Supposing I did? What if I wasn't up to your mark? How if your friends didn't like me? It would be too late to send me back," she pointed out, rather piteously.

Sir John's features did not relax.

"I am willing to take the risk," was all he said.

There was a long pause.

"Let me think," said Daphne suddenly and feverishly. She slipped out of her chair on to the hearthrug, and lay before the twinkling fire with her arms clasped round the neck of the ever-faithful Mr Dawks and her face buried in his rough coat. There was a tense silence, accentuated by the amiable thumping of Dawks' tail. Sir John Carr sat in his chair like a graven image, looking down upon the slim lithe figure at his feet. Daphne just then was a sight to quicken the blood in a man's veins, but Juggernaut never moved. Perhaps he realised, for all his lack of lover's graces and his harsh methods of wooing, something of the solemnity of the moment. A child, without experience, with nothing but her own untutored instincts to guide her, was standing at her cross-roads. Would she go forward with the man whose path through life had so suddenly converged on hers, or fare on alone? And the man—what were his feelings? None could have told by outward view. He simply waited—sitting very still.

At last Daphne sat up, and shook back her hair from her eyes.

"We'll leave it to Mr Dawks," she said. "Dawks, old boy, shall we do it?"

The house waited in breathless silence for Mr Dawks' casting vote. That affectionate and responsive arbitrator, hearing himself addressed, raised his head, licked his mistress's hand, and belaboured the floor with his tail in a perfect ecstasy of cordiality. Daphne turned to the man in the chair.

"All right!" she said. "It's a bargain. I'll marry you."