Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/The silver cord - Part 43
THE SILVER CORD.
BY SHIRLEY BROOKS.
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Two days passed, and Ernest Adair received no summons from the person to whom he had been directed to announce his arrival in England. This time he passed at the lodging he had taken, seldom venturing out, except to procure himself some of the minor luxuries to which one who has long resided on the Continent is accustomed, and which do not enter into the coarse calculations of a lodging-house keeper. A little fruit on his breakfast-table, a box of sardines, even a few flowers, were among the humble requirements of Adair, and his two-pennyworth of roses was arranged with as careful an attention to their grouping, as if the hand that set them out had been that of an innocent girl who varied her task with a song. Adair, too, varied his task with songs, but they were not such as a girl should sing, or hear. Their meaning, however, was, of course, lost upon the rest of the household, and the foreign gentleman was supposed to be rehearsing for his theatrical duties. He gave little trouble, smoked incessantly, and occupied himself with newspapers, which he bought in large numbers, and searched for paragraphs of foreign news, the nature of which, happily for the peace of those with whom he sojourned, came not within their homely imaginations. But he searched in vain.
A third day passed, and the monotony of Ernest’s existence suddenly began to press upon him with a dead weight. Those who have lived a life of business, or of irritating excitement, have their moments of repose, when a species of almost defiant pleasure is found in the interval of stagnant inaction. But such persons, under such circumstances, not infrequently arouse to a feverish and despairing sensation, when the stillness of this life becomes intolerable, and even at the risk of destroying arranged schemes, or of running upon foreseen perils, they must do something to satisfy or subdue the energies which revolt against repression. Prudence warns in vain, the blood flows hotly, and the brain works feverishly, and the swimmer who has drifted into one of the still pools of the stream of life, cannot bear to lie floating, but must strike out again into the torrent, though he well knows that his expected boat is yet far away, and that the current must whirl him along to perdition. Fortunate is the man on whom Nature at such an hour lays her restraining hand, and throws upon a bed of sickness, but this is a good fortune which, though it occurs with felicitous precision to the heroes of fiction, seldom occurs so opportunely in actual life. It came not to Ernest Adair, who, in full health and vigour, found himself suddenly doomed to tormenting inactivity, among those who were incapable of supplying him with society, and at whom he scoffed, perhaps instinctively rather than with malice, when exchanging with him the common-place civilities of their home, and of his hiding-place.
A fourth day passed, and Adair’s loneliness, far more depressing than actual solitude would have been, became unbearable. On the night that Haureau had accosted him, Ernest had spent a couple of hours with a strange and coarse gang to whom the former had introduced him, and though Adair’s dislike for such associates had made his conversation that evening one long sneer, except when in a sort of humorous despair, he had sought the applause of his companions by some wild outbreak of ribaldry, or worse, avenged on himself the next instant by a bitter self-loathing, even such society was better than none at all, or than the enduring the harmless platitudes of his new neighbours. He determined once more to visit the river-side haunt to which Haureau had taken him.
It was nearly dark when he summoned his landlady, informed her that business of importance took him into the city, and charged her to take the utmost care of any letter that might arrive.
“It’s late hours for the city, sir, isn’t it?” said the woman. “I thought that city gentlemen shut up early.”
“Theatrical gentlemen do not, you know, Mrs. Wallis, and we must call on business men in the hours of business, talk business, and go about our business, that they may have time to attend to their business, as I see you have stuck up in your parlour.”
“Well, to think that you should notice that, sir, and have a memory for it, too,” replied Mrs. Wallis. “I do believe a memory is the gift of God.”
“Do you?” said Adair. “Some people believe in an exactly opposite direction, but never mind that.”
“No, sir, and I am sure I beg your pardon for taking the liberty of naming it. But would you mind taking the latch-key?”
“Not a bit, if you don’t mind trusting me with it?”
“Oh, sir, anybody could see that you are a gentleman to be trusted, though, to speak the truth, we used to be set against mustaches, having been sufferers by the same, but everybody wears them now, and if persons were not intended to wear them, I suppose they wouldn’t have been given. I tell my husband so, when he makes a piece of work if he can’t find the halfpence to go round and be shaved, for shaving himself is what he never could and never did do, but he laughs, and says that the hair comes to help the barber to live, and so it does, if one looks at it in that way.”
“Well, I am glad you look at mine in a favourable way, Mrs. Wallis, and I hope Mr. Wallis will not be jealous.”
The good-natured woman laughed very heartily, had no doubt but that there was a younger and a prettier lady to think about Mr. Hyde’s moustaches, gave him the latch-key, and promised that a candle should be left burning for him in the passage.
The candle burned out, but it outlasted the life of him for whom it was lighted.
Ernest Adair left the house, and, turning into one of the large thoroughfares, mounted upon an omnibus that was making its slow night progress towards the city. The vehicle was nearly empty, and proceeded at a funereal pace which once or twice elicited an imprecation from the only outside passenger. Yet, had he known it, his progress was fast enough for him. If there are intelligences, commissioned or volunteering to watch over the separate destiny of a mortal, and who have marked all his wanderings and circuitous journeyings in the world, seen him press eagerly forward when he should have tarried, and sit down, wearied, when a few vigorous steps would have given him the object of his blind quest, we may imagine them moved, either in pity or in mockery, when, for the last time, he exerts his boasted free-will, and addresses himself to the moral or the physical effort which is to carry him over one edge of the waiting grave. Is there a flutter of phantom wings, and a gaze of increased interest, as the spirits note the beginning of the end, or is the thought but one of the dreams which are to be scared from each and all of us when the hour of waking comes?
Late into the night was prolonged the orgy in the haunt by the river. The room was long and low, and heavy beams upheld the house above it. The old-fashioned windows, strongly made and fitted with small panes, told that several generations had drunk under the beams, and had, each in its turn, been pityingly spoken of by enlightened successors, the newest series of whom was then pitying its fathers, and hastening to be pitied by its children. But there was no special feature that distinguished the dingy room from many another in the neighbourhood. Its dented tables and sawdusted floor were like those of a score of hostelries within reach, nor was it a special haunt of evil-doers. Very good and jolly fellows, mostly connected in some way with shipping, or with the commerce that creates it, had passed many jovial and blameless hours there, kind and honest greetings had been exchanged in homely language over the liquors of the place, many a good voyage on the sea had been honestly wished, and many a loved and loving woman, wife or sweetheart, had been toasted there with words that might have brought a tear to her eye, but not a blush to her cheek. And many a group of scoundrels had also met in that room, where the worst of them had spoken in low voices which no excitement of drink could elevate into manly freedom, and others, perhaps not the worst, had given vile toasts and shouted vile songs, and all had reeled away, making uncertain progress through the street, but certain and measured advance towards the Devil.
Perhaps no worse group had ever occupied the room than those gathered round a table in a corner-box on the night of Adair’s second visit. There were five or six men, foreigners, but whose nationality it would have been hard to define. Their costumes were not squalid, but incongruous, and it seemed as if each had bought some one new and good garment, when he happened to have the means, without reference to the rest of his dress. The handsome coat of one man half covered a wretchedly threadbare vest, while the showy waistcoat of a second shamed the poverty of his other clothes, and the nether man presented similar contrasts. Some of them wore jewellery, which looked good, and as if it had been procured as a safe and portable investment against a time of need, but one or two had no such adornments on their persons. The faces of the party seemed at first to bear a strong family likeness, and it was not until one had observed closely a group that ill repaid such study, that the general impression of sallowness, dishonesty, and ferocity subsided into more distinct ideas, and enabled a spectator to note that at least half the men were mere tools, and that Haureau, and a couple of evil looking persons who sat close to him, were the masters of that company.
They were drinking and smoking when Adair came in, and there was the combined gabble which characterises such meetings among foreigners, and which contrasts with the silence maintained by Englishmen of the same kind, while some one dull guest is permitted to drone and prose over something which the party accepts as a narrative. But it was curious to notice that at the approach of a stranger, who could ill be made out in the smoke and gloom, not only did those who could see him instantly suspend talking, but the signal of silence was caught by those whose backs were towards the new-comer. It was like the hindmost pointer’s drop into attitude at sight of the point of his colleague in the field.
Haureau rose, and came round to Ernest Adair.
“So, my friend, you have lost no time in coming to be congratulated?”
“Congratulated on what, in the devil’s name?” was the ungracious response.
“Why, you have had your letter.”
“I have had none.”
“Nothing from that lawyer?”
“And no message?”
“Then you have no business here. That you know well, Adair.”
“Business or none, I am here, and, being here, I mean to stop. I will not kill myself by inches.”
“Nobody asked you to kill yourself at all,” said Haureau, looking at him with a sinister expression. “But you were ordered to remain on guard until relieved.”
“And I have deserted my post,” replied Adair, savagely. “What is this letter you talk of?”
“You have heard nothing?”
“Nothing, once more. Do you want me to swear it?”
“Well, no, I cannot say that I do; great weight as your oath would, of course, have. But, come here.”
He seized the arm of Ernest and led him, not to a seat, but between two of the party, and all the upturned eyes of that group were at once upon Adair.
“Our friend informs me that he has received no orders or instructions of any kind, and yet he is here. He is a brave man, is he not?”
A strange, growling assent passed round.
“A brave man,” repeated Haureau. “A chair for the brave man. We will drink his health, English fashion.”
Ernest Adair took a seat, and lit a cigar, but did not speak.
“He is impatient for some news, which I will tell him by-and-bye,” said Haureau, with a coarse laugh. “Meantime, fill, all of you, and drink to him.”
The men obeyed, some with a slight and sullen nod, others with a more elaborate and mocking gesture.
Ernest’s answer was a mocking curse, addressed to the group generally. At this Haureau laughed boisterously, and pushed a glass towards Adair.
But, three hours later, when the room had long been abandoned by all save Haureau’s party, Ernest Adair was in another mood. He had drunk deeply, he had poured out a flood of wild and ribald talk, such as no pen sets down even for men like himself, he had sang songs, and he had in turn encountered each of his companions in a combat of abuse, in which he had utterly vanquished and silenced all except Haureau, against whose imperturbable but ruffianly jollity Adair’s sarcasms were spent in vain, while his denunciations were met by nods of approbation, given with a meaning which Ernest was not too intoxicated to observe as intended, which he pointed out scoffingly to the others, and defied Haureau to explain.
Soon afterwards, Ernest, who had been steadily gazing at Haureau, and in an under voice delivering himself of new taunts, looked round, and saw that the party had diminished by one-half.
“So,” he exclaimed, “I have whipped them to their kennels, have I?”
“Nay, nay,” said Haureau, “they are good men, and have gone home to their wives.”
Ernest Adair looked at him for a moment, and then sang—
“Woman keeps us waiting now,
But she shall wait for us to-morrow.”
“Shall she?” said Haureau, smiling.
“Yes, she shall,” responded Adair, with drunken fierceness.
“You must go home, Ernest Adair,” said Haureau.
“How dare you dictate to me what I shall do, galley-slave?”
There was an angry murmur at the word, and Ernest Adair, more incensed, repeated it, and looking savagely round, declared all present, except himself, to be convicts escaped from the galleys.
“Brave talk,” said Haureau, repressing his companions, who rose in wrath, and whom he compelled to seat themselves. “Brave talk. But, my friend, you dare no more stay away to-night from your lodgings than you dare throw yourself into the river that keeps lapping and plashing there.”
“I dare not? I will not return to my lodgings, galley-slave, and if I do not throw myself into the river, it is because I am dressed like a gentleman, and do not choose to spoil my clothes, for fear I should look like you and your gaol-birds here.”
“You dare not remain out. Else I would row you over to my lodgings, and we would make a night of it. But go home, and obey orders.”
“Row me to your lodgings. Do you live on the river Styx, or the river Acheron?”
“No matter—you dare not come.”
“Dare not, and with rowers like you and your friends, who learned to row in the galleys—classical ruffians as you are. Styx or Acheron, I ask you.”
They all went out soon afterwards, Haureau walking beside Ernest Adair, who had now worked himself into the phase of intoxication in which one is perfectly, subtly, conscious of all that goes on or is said around, but supposes oneself to be reserving all comment for another occasion. He walked uprightly, repulsing the arm of Haureau, and the party, turning down a narrow lane proceeded along a small wharf, and stopped at a tall gate, partially latticed.
“Are these your lodgings, Haureau?” said Adair. “That is very like a prison window—you must feel quite at home.”
He spoke distinctly, yet without the intonation that used to give point to his speeches of other days.
“No, this is my carriage house,” said Haureau, opening the door.
Looking in, Adair perceived water. The place was an old boat-house, but there was no boat there. The tide was high, and the gloomy space within resembled a tank, only that under the eaves there came a gleam from a distant lamp.
Adair was sobered into self-possession in a moment. The next, his hand was upon his breast. But Haureau’s iron clutch was upon the wrist of Ernest, who at the same instant felt his other arm seized by two of his companions.
Even at that instant, and with the conviction that came upon him, the courage of Ernest Adair did not forsake him.
“Listen, Haureau!” he said.
“We have listened to you enough to-night, my friend. It is your turn to be silent for a long time.”
“All that was wanted has been learned without your help, and you are dismissed.”
“Bertha!” cried Ernest, with a bitter cry.
It was a dastard blow, but which of the ruffians around him struck it will never be known till the judgment. Then the senseless body was thrust through the door, and into the dark water.
It must have lingered in that shed, and have been fetched away by another tide. For it was on the following night, and very late into that night that some men who were on their way to a barge upon the river came upon the body as it lay at the foot of a little causeway. Scarcely paler than in life, and with the peace of death on the brow beneath which throbbed no longer that once busy brain—parted in death the lips whose words had been sin, and whose kiss had been shame—so lay Ernest Adair. The secret of his death has been well kept, and he lies in a nameless grave.
CHAPTER THE LAST.
We were to have had but one chapter more, and indeed there is little else to tell, and yet one would not willingly bring down our curtain upon a mournful tableau. Of some thirty persons who have more or less actively aided in our story, two have died by violence, and the hand of death was upon the third, when her connection with the narrative ceased. She is gone, and Mr. Berry has disposed of his Lipthwaite property to Sir Frederic Charrington, and upon the site of Cromwell Lodge a school for girls now flourishes, under the patronage, and what is better, under the vigilance of Lady Charrington. It is a school where the girls are taught more cookery than catechism.
In strictness, Bertha Urquhart ought to have made a sorrowful end, upon which (to preserve the theatrical image) the rose-coloured light of a sentimental repentance should have been thrown. But, weak in all else, she was too weak to offer an example of poetical justice. The property left by Robert Urquhart was realised, and it afforded her a comfortable income, upon which she lived for some months at Cheltenham, where she married a gentleman who had been an officer in her Majesty’s service. He had been an exceedingly fast man, but having spent all his money, and a good deal more, had to sell out, and look out. He looked out well, and wooed as fast as he had lived. He is kind to Bertha, and she understands him—the severest thing one can say of him, for he is a very goodnatured Gorilla. Bertha has taken to distributing tracts, and in a season or two, unless she runs away again, will possibly have a private evening service for herself and select friends, at the St. James’s Hall.
Alphonse Silvain has, of course, married Mary Henderson, and will exhibit perfumery at the International Exhibition next year. Meantime his wife exhibits, with intense pride, an international baby, which has been christened Laura.
Archibald Vernon continues to live at Canonbury, and to retain the conviction that he is an ill-used man, whom the world has never comprehended. It is reported that he, also, has thought of coming before that world, next year, and has gone to the extent of promising to write to Charles Hawkesley, to get him to ascertain whether any kind of lecture-room is likely to be vacant in the middle of the approaching summer.
Charles Hawkesley’s new play has been a tremendous success for Mr. Aventayle, and, strangely enough, for the author himself. For the admirable but eccentric manager got hold of an idea that an author and a manager might be regarded as partners in the production of a piece, just as author and bookseller stand in the production of a volume. And “after expenses,” and other deductions of a most just and righteous character, Aventayle actually shared with Hawkesley the profits of Reckoning without the Host. The proceeding is most ridiculous, but Aventayle says that he is satisfied, and that the author is devoting himself to the composition of another play, of the very best character, and to which he can afford to give ample time and elaborate workmanship. This is an age of experiments and new-fangled notions, but this headlong advance towards the recognition of the value of brain-work is surely to be deprecated. A present of a fifty-pound note, on a three hundredth night, with speeches and reporters, would have been an act of generosity as well as a capital advertisement, and quite enough. But Aventayle is an odd man, and if he were not growing so rich, one might speak of his eccentricities with more severity.
So ends our story of man’s wickedness and woman’s weakness, of false love that brought ruin, of true love that lived through the storm. If there be a moral in the tale—and in what story of trial, suffering, and sorrow is there not a moral?—assuredly it shall not be preached here. It shall be left to the apprehension of those of whom the author, after ten months of unbroken intercourse, takes for the present his Farewell.