In the Roar of the Sea/Chapter 29
ON A PEACOCK'S FEATHER.
As Mr. Menaida spoke, Miss Dionysia Trevisa entered, stiff, hard, and when her eyes fell on Judith, they contracted with an expression of antipathy. In the eyes alone was this observable, for her face was immovable.
"Auntie!" exclaimed Judith, drawing her into the sitting-room, and pressing her to take the arm chair. "Oh, Auntie! I have so longed to see you—there have been some dreadful men here—doctors I think—and they have been teasing Jamie, till they had worked him into one of his temper fits."
"I sent them here, and for good reasons. Jamie is to go back to Wadebridge."
"No—indeed no! auntie! do not say that. You would not say it if you knew all."
"I know quite enough. More than is pleasing to me. I have heard of your outrageous and unbecoming conduct. Hoity! toity! To think that a Trevisa—but there you are one only in name—should go out at night, about the streets and lanes, like a common stray. Bless me! you might have knocked me down with a touch, when I was told of it."
"I did nothing outrageous and unbecoming, aunt. You may be sure of that. I am quite aware that I am a Trevisa, and a gentlewoman, and something higher than that, aunt—a Christian. My father never let me forget that."
"Your conduct was—well I will give it no expletive."
"Aunt, I did what was right. I was sure that Jamie was unhappy and wanted me. I cannot tell you how I knew it, but I was certain of it, and I had no peace till I went; and, as I found the garden door open, I went in, and as I went in I found Jamie locked up in the cellars, and I freed him. Had you found him there, you would have done the same." "I have heard all about it. I want no repetition of a very scandalous story. Against my will I am burdened with an intolerable obligation, to look after an idiot nephew and a niece that is a self-willed and perverse Miss."
"Jamie is no idiot," answered Judith, firmly.
"Jamie is what those pronounce him to be, who by their age, their profession, and their inquiries are calculated to judge better than an ignorant girl, not out of her teens."
"Auntie I believe you have been misinformed. Listen to me, and I will tell you what happened. As for those men——"
"Those men were doctors. Perhaps they were misinformed when they went through the College of Surgeons, were misinformed by all the medical books they have read, were misdirected by all the study of the mental and bodily maladies of men they have made, in their professional course."
"I wish, dear Aunt Dionysia, you would take Jamie to be with you a few weeks, talk to him, play with him, go walks with him, and you will never say that he is an idiot. He needs careful management, and also a little application——"
"Enough of that theme," interrupted Miss Trevisa, "I have not come here to be drawn into an argument, or to listen to your ideas of the condition of that unhappy, troublesome, that provoking boy. I wish to heaven I had not the responsibility for him, that has been thrust on me, but as I have to exercise it, and there is no one to relieve me of it, I must do my best, though it is a great expense to me. Seventy pounds is not seventy shillings, nor is it seventy pence."
"Aunt, he is not to go back to the asylum. He must not go."
"Hoity toity! must not indeed. You, a minx of eighteen to dictate to me! Must not, indeed! You seem to think that you, and not I, are Jamie's guardian."
"Papa entrusted him to me with his last words."
"I know nothing about last words. In his will I am constituted his guardian and yours, and as such I shall act as my convenience—conscience I mean, dictates."
"But, Aunt! Jamie is not to go back to Wadebridge. Aunt! I entreat you! I know what that place is. I have been inside it, you have not. And just think of Jamie on the very first night being locked up there."
"He richly deserved it, I will be bound."
"Oh, Aunt! How could he? How could he?"
"Of that Mr. Obadiah Scantlebray was the best judge. Why he had to be punished you do not know."
"Indeed I do. He cried because the place was strange, and he was among strange faces. Aunt—if you were whipped off to Timbuctoo, and suddenly found yourself among savages, and in a rush apron, as the squaw of a black chief, or whatever they call their wives in Timbuctoo land, would you not scream?"
"Judith," said Miss Trevisa, bridling-up. "You forget yourself."
"No, Aunt! I am only pleading for Jamie, trying to make you feel for him, when he was locked up in an asylum. How would you like it, Aunt, if you were snatched away to Barthelmy fair, and suddenly found yourself among tight-rope dancers, and Jack Puddings?"
"Judith, I insist on you holding your tongue. I object to being associated even in fancy, with such creatures."
"Well—but Jamie was associated, not in fancy, but in horrible reality, with idiots."
"Jamie goes to Scantlebray's Asylum to-day."
"He is already in the hands of the brothers Scantlebray."
"It is no pleasure to me to have to find the money, you may well believe. Seventy pounds is not, as I said, seventy pence, it is not seventy farthings. But duty is duty, and however painful and unpleasant and costly, it must be performed."
Then from the adjoining room, "the shop," came Mr. Menaida.
"I beg pardon for an interruption and for interference," said he. "I happen to have overheard what has passed, as I was engaged in the next room, and I believe that I can make a proposal which will perhaps be acceptable to you, Miss Trevisa, and grateful to Miss Judith."
"I am ready to listen to you," said Aunt Dionysia, haughtily.
"It is this," said Uncle Zachie. "I understand that pecuniary matters concerning Jamie are a little irksome. Now the boy, if he puts his mind to it, can be useful to me. He has a remarkable aptitude for taxidermy. I have more orders on my hands than I can attend to. I am a gentleman, not a tradesman, and I object to be oppressed—flattened out—with the orders piled on top of me. But if the boy will help, he can earn sufficient to pay for his living here with me."
"Oh, Mr. Menaida, dear Mr. Menaida! thank you so much," exclaimed Judith.
"Perhaps you will allow me to speak," said Miss Trevisa, with asperity. "I am guardian, and not you, whatever you may think from certain vague expressions breathed casually from my poor brother's lips, and to which you have attached an importance he never gave to them."
"Aunt, I assure you, my dear papa——"
"That question is closed. We will not reopen it. I am a Trevisa. I can't for a moment imagine where you got those ideas. Not from your father's family, I am sure. Tight-rope dancers and Timbuctoos, indeed!" Then she turned to Mr. Menaida, and said, in her hard, constrained voice, as though she were exercising great moral control to prevent herself from snapping at him with her teeth. "Your proposal is kind and well intentioned, but I cannot accept it."
"Oh, Aunt! why not?"
"That you shall hear. I must beg you not to interrupt me. You are so familiar with the manners of Timbuctoo and of Barthelmy Fair, that you forget those pertaining to England and polished society." Then, turning to Mr. Menaida, she said: "I thank you for your well-intentioned proposal, which, however, it is not possible for me to close with. I must consider the boy's ulterior advantage, not the immediate relief to my sorely-taxed purse. I have thought proper to place Jamie with a person, a gentleman of experience, and highly qualified to deal with those mentally afflicted. However much I may value you, Mr. Menaida, you must excuse me for saying that firmness is not a quality you have cultivated with assiduity. Judith, my niece, has almost ruined the boy by humoring him. You cannot stiffen a jelly by setting it in the sun, or in a chair before the fire, and that is what my niece has been doing. The boy must be isinglassed into solidity by those who know how to treat him. Mr. Obadiah Scantlebray is the man——"
"To manufacture idiots, madam, out of simple innocents, it is worth his while at seventy pounds a year," said Uncle Zachie, petulantly.
Miss Trevisa looked at him stonily, and said: "Sir! I suppose you know best. But it strikes me that such a statement, relative to Mr. Obadiah Scantlebray, is actionable. But you know best, being a solicitor."
Mr. Menaida winced and drew back.
Judith leaned against the mantel-shelf, trembling with anxiety and some anger. She thought that her aunt was acting in a heartless manner toward Jamie, that there was no good reason for refusing the generous offer of Uncle Zachie. In her agitation, unable to keep her fingers at rest, the girl played with the little chimney ornaments. She must occupy her nervous, twitching hands about something; tears of distressed mortification were swelling in her heart, and a fire was burning in two flames in her cheeks. What could she do to save Jamie? What would become of the boy at the asylum? It seemed to her that he would be driven out of his few wits, by terror and ill-treatment, and distress at leaving her and losing his liberty to ramble about the cliffs where he liked. In a vase on the chimney-piece was a bunch of peacock's feathers, and in her agitation, not thinking what she was about, desirous only of having something to pick at and play with in her hands, to disguise the trembling of the fingers, she took out one of the plumes and trifled with it, waving it and letting the light undulate over its wondrous surface of gold and green and blue.
"As long as I have responsibility for the urchin——" said Miss Dionysia.
"Urchin!" muttered Judith.
"As long as I have the charge I shall do my duty according to my lights, though they may not be those of a rush-aproned squaw in Timbuctoo, nor of a Jack Pudding balancing a feather on his nose." There was here a spiteful glance at Judith. "When my niece has a home of her own—is settled into a position of security and comfort—then I wash my hands of the responsibility; she may do what she likes then—bring her brother to live with her if she chooses and her husband consents—that will be naught to me."
"And in the mean time," said Judith, holding the peacock's feather very still before her, "in the mean time Jamie's mind is withered and stunted—his whole life is spoiled. Now—now alone can he be given a turn aright and toward growth."
"That entirely depends on you," said Miss Trevisa, coldly. "You know best what opportunities have offered——"
"Aunt, what do you mean?"
"Wait," said Uncle Zachie, rubbing his hands. "My boy Oliver is coming home. He has written his situation is a good one now."
Miss Trevisa turned on him with a face of marble. "I entirely fail to see what your son Oliver has to do with the matter, more than the man in the moon. May I trouble you, as you so deeply interest yourself in our concerns, to step outside to Messrs. Scantlebray and that boy, and ask them to bring him in here. I have told them what the circumstances are, and they are prepared."
Mr. Menaida left the room, not altogether unwilling to escape.
"Now," said Aunt Dionysia, "I am relieved to find that for a minute, we are by ourselves, not subjected to the prying and eavesdropping of the impertinent and meddlesome. Mr. Menaida is a man who never did good to himself or to anyone else in his life, though a man with the best intentions under the sun. Now, Judith, I am a plain woman—that is to say—not plain, but straightforward—and I like to have everything above board. The case stands thus. I, in my capacity as guardian to that boy, am resolved to consign him immediately to the asylum, and to retain him there as long as my authority lasts, though it will cost me a pretty sum. You do not desire that he should go there. Well and good. There is but one way, but that is effectual, by means of which you can free Jamie from restraint. Let me tell you he is now in the hands of Mr. Obadiah, and gagged that he may not rouse the neighborhood with his screams." Miss Trevisa fixed her hard eyes on Judith. "As soon as you take the responsibility off me, and on to yourself, you do with the boy what you like."
"I will relieve you at once."
"You are not in a condition to do so. As soon as I am satisfied that your future is secure, that you will have a house to call your own, and a certainty of subsistence for you both—then I will lay down my charge."
"And you mean——"
"I mean that you must first accept Captain Coppinger, who has been good enough to find you not intolerable. He is—in this one particular—unreasonable, however, he is what he is, in this matter. He makes you the offer, gives you the chance. Take it, and you provide Jamie and yourself with a home, he has his freedom, and you can manage or mismanage him as you list. Refuse the chance and Jamie is lodged in Mr. Scantlebray's establishment within an hour."
"I cannot decide this on the spur of the moment."
"Very well. You can let Jamie go provisionally to the asylum—and stay there till you have made up your mind."
"No—no—no—Aunt! Never, never!"
"As you will." Miss Trevisa shrugged her shoulders, and cast a glance at her niece like a dagger-stab.
"Auntie—I am but a child."
"That may be. But there are times when even children must decide momentous questions. A boy as a child decides on his profession, a girl—may be—on her marriage."
"Oh, dear Auntie! Do leave Jamie here for, say a fortnight, and in a fortnight from to-day you shall have my answer."
"No," answered Miss Trevisa, "I also must decide as to my future, for your decision affects not Jamie only but me also."
Judith had listened in great self-restraint, holding the feather before her. She held it between thumb and forefinger of both hands, not concerning herself about it, and yet with her eyes watching the undulations from the end of the quill to the deep blue eye set in a halo of gold at the further end, and the feather undulated with every rise and fall of her bosom.
"Surely, Auntie! You cannot wish me to marry Cruel Coppinger?"
"I have no wishes one way or the other. Please yourself."
"You profess to be ready to do all you can for Jamie and yet hesitate about relieving me of an irksome charge, and Jamie of what you consider barbarous treatment."
"You cannot be serious—I to marry Captain Cruel!"
"It is a serious offer."
"But papa!—what would he say?"
"I never was in a position to tell his thoughts and guess what his words would be."
"But, Auntie—he is such a bad man."
"You know a great deal more about him than I do, of course."
"But—he is a smuggler, I do know that."
"Well—and what of that. There is no crime in that."
"It is not an honest profession. They say, too, that he is a wrecker."
"They say!—who say? What do you know?"
"Nothing, but I am not likely to trust my future to a man of whom such tales are told. Auntie! Would you, supposing that you were——"
"I will have none of your suppositions, I never did wear a rush apron, nor act as Jack Pudding."
"I cannot—Captain Cruel of all men."
"Is he so hateful to you?"
"Hateful—no; but I cannot like him. He has been kind, but somehow I can't think of him as—as—as a man of our class and thoughts and ways, as one worthy of my own, own papa. No—it is impossible, I am still a child."
She took the end of the peacock's feather, the splendid eye lustrous with metallic beauty, and bowed the plume without breaking it, and, unconscious of what she was doing, stroked her lips with it. What a fragile fine quill that was on which hung so much beauty? and how worthless the feather would be when that quill was broken. And so with her—her fine, elastic, strong spirit, that when bowed sprang to its uprightness the moment the pressure was withdrawn; that on which all her charm, her beauty hung.
"Captain Coppinger has, surely, never asked you to put this alternative to me?"
"No—I do it myself. As you are a child, you are unfit to take charge of your brother. When you are engaged to be married you are a woman; I shift my load on you then."
"And you wish it?"
"I repeat I have no wishes in the matter."
"Give me time to consider."
"No. It must be decided now—that is to say if you do not wish Jamie to be taken away. Don't fancy I want to persuade you; but I want to be satisfied about my own future. I shall not remain in Pentyre with you. As you enter by the front door, I leave by the back."
"Where will you go?"
"That is my affair."
Then in at the door came the two Scantlebrays and Jamie between them, gagged and with his hands bound behind his back. He had run out, directly his examination was over, and had been secured, almost without resistance, so taken by surprise was he, and reduced to a condition of helplessness.
Judith leaned against the mantel-shelf, with every tinge of color gone out of her cheeks. Jamie's frightened eyes met hers, and he made a slight struggle to speak, and to escape to her.
"You have a close conveyance ready for your patient?" asked Aunt Dionysia of the brothers.
"Oh, yes, a very snug little box on wheels. Scanty and I will sit with our young man, to prevent his feeling dull, you know."
"You understand, gentlemen, what I told you, that in the deciding whether the boy is to go with you or not, I am not the only one to be considered. If I have my will, go he shall, as I am convinced that your establishment is the very place for him; but my niece, Miss Judith, has at her option the chance of taking the responsibility for the boy off my shoulders, and if she chooses to do that, why then, I fear she will continue to spoil him, as she has done heretofore."
"It has cost us time and money," said Scantlebray, senior.
"And you shall be paid, whichever way is decided," said Miss Trevisa. "Every thing now rests with my niece."
Judith seemed as one petrified. One hand was on her bosom, staying her heart, the other held the peacock's feather before her, horizontally. Every particle of color had deserted, not her face only, but her hands as well. Her eyes were sunless, her lips contracted and livid. She was motionless as a parian statue, she hardly seemed to breathe. She perfectly understood what her aunt had laid upon her, her bodily sensations were dead whilst a conflict of ideas raged in her brain. She was the arbiter of Jamie's fate. She did not disguise from herself that if consigned to the keeper of the asylum, though only for a week or two, he would not leave his charge the same as he entered. And what would it avail her or him to postpone the decision a week or a fortnight.
The brothers Scantlebray knew nothing of the question agitating her, but they saw that the determination at which she was resolving was one that cost her all her powers. Mr. Obadiah's heavy mind did not exert itself to probe the secret, but the more eager intellect of his elder brother was alert, and wondering what might be the matter that so affected the girl, and made it so difficult for her to pronounce the decision. The hard eyes of Miss Trevisa were fixed on her. Judith's answer would decide her future—on it depended Othello Cottage, and an annuity of fifty pounds. Jamie looked through a veil of tears at his sister, and never for a moment turned them from her, from the moment of his entry into the room. Instinctively the boy felt that his freedom and happiness depended on her.
One or the other must be sacrificed. That Judith saw Jamie was dull of mind, but there were possibilities of development in it. And, even if he remained where he was, he was happy, happy and really harmless, if a little mischievous; an offer had been made which was likely to lead him on into industrious ways, and to teach him application. He loved his liberty, loved it as does the gull. In an asylum he would pine, his mind become more enfeebled, and he would die. But then what a price must be paid to save him? Oh, if she could have put the question to her father. But she had none to appeal to for advice. If she gave to Jamie liberty and happiness, it was at the certain sacrifice of her own. But there was no evading the decision, one or the other must go.
She stretched forth the peacock's feather, laid the great indigo blue eye on the bands that held Jamie, on his gagged lips, and said: "Let him go."
"You agree!" exclaimed Miss Trevisa.
Judith doubled the peacock's feather and broke it.