Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/The prodigal son - Part 12
THE PRODIGAL SON.
BY DUTTON COOK, AUTHOR OF “PAUL FOSTER’S DAUGHTER,” &c
“A lytel misgoyng in the gynning causeth mykel errour in the end.”—Chaucer’s “Testament of Love.”
CHAPTER XXII. “RENÉ!"
The address of Mr. Tacker, the stage-manager, while it may have been successful in allaying to a great extent the alarm of the audience, certainly did not do justice to the real state of the case behind the curtain. A crowd surrounded the senseless form of Mademoiselle Boisfleury. She had not moved since her fall. She had moaned for some minutes, evidently in acute suffering. This expression of pain was not loud, but it was intense. Great agony masters the strength, and forbids any noisy or prolonged cry—and these feeble moans had ceased as she became insensible.
“She is dead!” cried several of the women who surrounded her, all looking from one to the other, trembling; some were crying violently—while others with stronger minds, or with less feeling probably, were emphatically denouncing it as a shame that Grimshaw should have allowed her to swing from that rope, as they had known very well all along that an accident was sure to come of it at some time or other. It was necessary to abuse some one. If a fellow creature suffers, it is always indispensable that we should look about and see whom we can conveniently denounce as the cause of the suffering. Perhaps the corps de ballet had no great reason to love Grimshaw—he often fined them, and bullied tnem, and swore at them, and stopped their salaries—though he did now and then talk to them “affably,” and thank them for their exertions, and invite them to a cham supper. So when an event of this kind happened, it seemed only natural on their parts to give him the full odium of the occurrence. He had all the profit—he ought to have all the loss; so they argued—not reasonably perhaps—but then women are not always reasonable; and as for logic from coryphées, of course that’s out of the question. They did not remember at the moment that any one of them would have been only too delighted to play the part of Fiametta, and to accomplish Mademoiselle Boisfleury’s feat, if permitted to appear in a grand new dress for the occasion—the dress of course provided by Grimshaw—and find a slight addition to the salary to be received from the treasury on Saturday night. Certainly it was more convenient to abuse Grimshaw, who was on the spot, under their eyes, than an incoherent public who had roared for a “sensation” ballet, and were now scattered over the town, ornamenting many British homes, voting the whole thing very horrid and shocking, agreeing that it “ought not to be allowed,” and enjoying their suppers amazingly.
Had a doctor been sent for? Yes. Two or three men had started off to call in a doctor. Nervous, excitable men, most anxious to be of use—scared, and desirous to be away from a painful scene—to assist from a distance. Not good people to send on such an errand. They would go dashing about for some time, running at their topmost speed in vague directions, only gradually conscious at last of the real object of their hurry—to bring a doctor into the theatre, to the aid of the sufferer—and a good half-hour would be lost.
There was great confusion. A huddle of carpenters in paper caps stood round, in stooping attitudes, their palms on their knees, as though they were at a private dog-fight, or round a horse slipped down in the Strand.
“She ain’t dead,” said one. “I see her move just then. Didn’t you, Bill?”
Grimshaw pushed through, picking his teeth with a penknife, and tolerably calm.
“Now—get along, you women,” he cried to the corps de ballet. “You can’t do any good. You carpenters, be off. I won’t have my stage blocked up in this way.” (These orders were strengthened by strong adjectives—too strong indeed for printing.) “Mrs. Bell”—he singled out a coryphée, she was one of those dancers who are generally very much at the back of the stage during the performances—whose youth is a thing quite of the past—and who are, in most cases, mothers of large families, if not grandmothers—“Mrs. Bell, you understand these things. Can she be moved? You think not—not just yet? Very well; let her remain here for the present, until the doctor comes. Something to put under her head? Certainly. By all means. Here, Hobson! Where’s the property master? Bring a cushion, or something. A glass of water, Mrs. Bell? Certainly. Fetch a glass, some of you girls.”
A whisper went through the throng—a look of surprise—something of a snigger, perhaps—’midst all the alarm and sorrow and sympathy. It was said that the husband of Madlle. Boisfleury had come down to the theatre. Some one spoke on the subject to Grimshaw.
“Let him come, of course,” said Grimshaw. “I never knew she had a husband,” he added, in a lower voice, as he turned on his heel: “but somehow these women always do have husbands. I don’t see that he has any grounds for an action, however.” He invoked—not a blessing upon husbands generally, and then went away to abuse an inebriated scene-shifter, and discuss with Tacker the performance of the morrow.
“If she’s too bad to show,” he said, “who are we to put into the part? Is Celine strong enough? She’s ugly, I know; but her figger ain’t bad.”
Wilford Hadfield was led to where the poor woman was lying.
A pillow had been placed under her head. To effect this it had been necessary to raise her a little. The pain so occasioned, in a measure, restored her to animation. She was sprinkled with water, and Mrs. Bell was busy bathing her temples and fanning her. She shivered—her lips parted—her eyes half-opened—she drew together her hands, her fingers twitching convulsively.
“Her arms ain’t broken, at any rate,” said a carpenter, who still loitered near. Perhaps he had experience of accidents.
“Regine!” said Wilford, in a low, deep voice. He knelt at her side. Her head turned in the direction of his voice. She gazed into his face in a wild, dazzled sort of way.
“You, Wilford?” she asked at last; “and here?”
“I saw all,” he said. “Do you suffer much?” and he took her hand.
“You wished me dead, are you satisfied?” she moaned, closing her eyes again, and shivering.
There was another movement among the crowd, now at some distance from the sufferer. Two gentlemen approached.
“The doctor,” people said to each other.
“Are you a doctor?” whispered Martin to Monsieur Chose.
“Have no fear!” was the calm answer.
“Ah!” cried Martin. “He is here, then!” And his eyes lighted upon the figure of Wilford, kneeling at the side of Regine.
“It is true,” Monsieur Chose muttered, “the gentleman from the Soho quarter. You know him?” he inquired of Martin.
A little ballet-girl, with a frightened, childish face, stepped forward. She had overheard the inquiry. She had a timid, shy manner, but the excitement of the occasion gave her courage. Perhaps she was amazed that the doctor did not hasten to his patient, was anxious that he should lose no time by standing on ceremony.
“He is only the husband of Mademoiselle Boisfleury,” she said.
The Frenchman uttered a strange ejaculation—a sort of click in his throat which might signify anything—surprise, inquiry, suppressed laughter, regret, anything.
“Only the husband!” he said, and nudged his companion.
“You wished me dead, are you satisfied?” Regine asked again in a trembling voice.
Monsieur Chose overheard. He whispered in Martin’s ear:
“Regard, then—how women are clever! How quick to avail themselves of a chance, to twist it to their own advantage! How it is extraordinary! See! she would have him to believe—the tall white gentleman with the beard—that she fell not by accident, but on purpose. It is wise! It is admirable! Women are superb, always! If she has done him a wrong, will he not pardon her now? How all that is adorable!”
Martin did not appear to enjoy especially the opportunity his companion had selected for descanting upon feminine peculiarities. But he already understood that Monsieur Chose was not a gentleman of any great depth of feeling. Monsieur Chose had not hurried himself in making his way to the stage; he had even loitered to point out one or two details of stage management he deemed worthy of observation.
“Mon dieu!” he said, with a smiling approval as they came along, “how are all these things curious and interesting and full of charm! How familiar they seem to me—how I feel at home thus surrounded—how I am reminded of my jeunesse.”
Upon the stage he surveyed through his gold spectacles the assembled group with a smiling, rather leering patronage. Then he whispered to Martin:
“How different are the stalls and the stage! It is wonderful! Your Mademoiselle Blondette is un peu maigre when one comes to see her close!”
“Oh, Wilford! you will never pardon me,” murmured Regine.
“Let us not speak of this now, Regine,” said Wilford. “Are you much hurt? Can you bear to be raised?”
“Why are you here? Why do you speak so kindly to me? Why do you not permit me to die? Why do you come here?”
“It may be it is my duty to be here.”
“You do not hate me?”
“No. Heaven forbid!”
“But you do not know all—you do not know all, or you would kill me—you would curse me!”
“She loves then always ce grand monsieur. Is it not so? Does it not seem so? Mon dieu! it is very interesting this scene.”
But Martin rather shrunk at the light tone of his companion.
“It is with regret I disturb this réunion of lovers, but it is time, is it not, to assume my rôle of doctor?” He advanced to Regine. “Stop, then, dear children,” he said to the ballet; “stand back, if you please; give us, then, all the air we can have. Thank you, madame,” he continued, bowing to Mrs. Bell, who at his signal relinquished her task of fanning Regine, and withdrew. “Thank you, a thousand times—that will do!”
“He is a Frenchman—the private doctor of Mademoiselle Boisfleury,” said the little ballet-girl, with very wide open eyes.
“We have want of air—it is necessary for the poor child to breathe.” He took a penknife from his pocket and cut the lace of her dress. He turned to Wilford, standing at his side abstractedly. “A glass of water, if you please, monsieur. Will you get it for me?” he asked with extreme politeness.
Wilford, hardly knowing what he was doing, went in quest of the water.
Monsieur Chose beckoned to Martin.
“Would you like to assist at the performance of a little drama in one act? he asked, with a strange grimace.
He appeared to read in Martin’s puzzled expression an answer sufficiently affirmative.
“Look, then,” he said. He removed his hat and gold spectacles carefully; he rumpled his thick black hair, and pushed it back from his face and behind his ears. He took the hands of Regine and pressed them, drawing her towards him.
“Regine!” he called in a hissing whisper. She started. With staring eyes she looked into his face.
“Regine!” he repeated. “Ma chatte bien aimée.”
“You!” she exclaimed, wildly, trying to draw her hands from his.”
“Ah, oui,” he answered, “c’est moi, chère Mimi, ma belle biche blanche!”
“Here? Am I dreaming?—am I mad? Where is Wilford? If he should see you—if he should know——” She was raising her voice in a scream.”
“Silence, amie!” said the Frenchman, sternly.
“Oh, Rene!” she cried, “what have I done?—what do you wish me to do?” and she swooned back.
Wilford returned with some water. The Frenchman sprinkled some on her face, and wetted her temples and the palms of her hands.
“Her limbs are safe,” he said, aloud, “the brain is not injured, nor the spine. For the ribs I will not say; if they press upon the lungs—the heart—it may be bad. She can be moved from here soon. It is not good for her to remain here,—it is cold—there is very much of draughts; she had better be taken to her dressing-room for the present; let a couch be brought upon which she may be carried.” He resumed his glossy hat and gold spectacles.
“It was interesting, was it not?” he asked in a low voice, turning to Martin.
“You know her, then?”
“Perhaps—a little; but behold! ce Monsieur. It is a little history of which I have revealed to you—a chapter, do you see?—that is all. Ah! ce Monsieur, regard him—the poor husband, is it not so? I have for him a grand sympathy.”
Regine recovered a little.
“Wilford!” she murmured.
He again took her hand: she opened her eyes with a shudder, and then started.
“No,” she cried, “it was a dream,—this is really Wilford!”
“The brother of Mademoiselle Boisfleury!” said the little ballet-girl, as some one else appeared upon the scene.
“Ah! behold the brother, Monsieur Alexis,” muttered Monsieur Chose. “Truly this is charming. We have quite a family réunion.”
Wilford fell back as his eyes rested upon Alexis.
“Are you much hurt, Regine?” asked Alexis as he stooped down; his voice was cold and unsympathetic enough.
“I suffer frightfully,” said the poor woman turning away her head. Perhaps she had some innate fear as to the consolation likely to be proffered her by Monsieur Alexis.
“I have great grief for you, my sister,” he said in a mocking, insulting tone that gave the lie to his words. “You will not be able to appear to-morrow night—no, nor the next, nor the next. You will not appear for a long time. Your engagement will be broken—you will be dismissed. It is terrible, is it not? Do you know who will sustain your rôle to-morrow?” He paused, and a frightful grin passed over his face. “From henceforward Mademoiselle Blondette will play Fiammetta. It is charming, is it not? How I shall applaud!”
Regine writhed as she lay; the insult gave her strength. She scowled at Monsieur Alexis.
“She will be hissed by the public!” she said hoarsely, “she is a skeleton. Away with your Mademoiselle Blondette! What do I care? You are an imbecile! Her sharp bones will project, let her paint as thick as she may. Truly, she is what you call lath and plaster! Go, little fool.”
The expression of Regine’s face, as she said these words, was not pleasant.
Monsieur Alexis slunk away. Regine’s strength left her as the taunts of Alexis faded from her memory.
“Wilford!” she cried. He came to her again.
“Oh, Wilford! you will never pardon me.”
“Do not think so, Regine, my poor soul. I will try to pardon. What right have I to withhold forgiveness? I will try to pardon, and I shall succeed.”
“But you do not know, perhaps. You cannot know—”
“Know what, Regine?”
“I have disobeyed you—I have acted cruelly, shamefully, again. It is since our meeting, Monsieur Wilford—”
“What have you done?”
“Pardon me. I have seen her—Violet—your wife! Pardon me—no! You cannot—you cannot!”
“Violet!” he screamed, aghast. “You have dared do this?—you have seen her—you have spoken to her?”
“I have insulted her—wronged her. I have told her all! More—I have lied to her!”
“All! Oh, God! She has learnt this dreadful news, and not from me. It has come upon her a sudden blow—she will sink beneath it—you have killed her!” He staggered back. He glared fiercely at Regine.
“Pardon me!” she cried again in agony.
“I cannot—I cannot!” and he pushed his way angrily through the bewildered bystanders.
“Wilford!” cried Martin, hastening after him. But the cry was not heard. Wilford was gone.
“Stop, mon ami,” said the Frenchman to Martin, who was starting in pursuit. “You know, then, this gentleman?”
“He is the dearest friend I have in the world,” Martin exclaimed, warmly.
“Ah, then it is different. But it is too late to stop him now. You will not catch him, and you will lose an episode very interesting. See, the English doctor has arrived.”
A stout, red-faced man advanced, hurried.
“Where is she?” he asked, bluntly, blowing his nose fiercely, and flourishing about a large silk handkerchief of many colours.
“Monsieur,” said the Frenchman, removing his hat and bowing obsequiously. “I have to demand a thousand pardons. I am also a humble follower of your distinguished profession. I have hitherto seen to the lady whose sufferings are the cause of your presence, then, as of mine. But I hasten to render her to your cares. My diploma is not of this country. Accept, Monsieur le docteur, the assurance of my highest consideration. In your hands the patient will be secure. I cede her to you—”
“Well, well, let me go and see what’s the matter;” and the English doctor brushed past, loudly blowing his nose, like the “advance” on the trumpet.
“How these English are droll,” said the Frenchman, with a pitying smile, raising his eyebrows and his shoulders. “But see, he is a man of action, he is already having the patient moved upon a fauteuil. It is true that she has fainted again. But what does it matter? It is time to go home.”
“See about the bills,” said Grimshaw, to certain of his officers, “and the advertisements. Put up Blondette, ‘in consequence of the severe indisposition of Boisfleury.’ One good thing—the run won’t be stopped. Brown or anybody can play Blondette’s part. She’s a plucky girl is Blondette, and the public like her. She’s not a bit afraid. She’d hang on to the rope by her eyelashes to get a round of applause. We shan’t do so badly. There’ll be a row, of course, about dangerous performances; but that always brings the money in and fills the private boxes. The west end will come down to the place in a body if they think there’s an excitement to be got out of the thing; and I shall be able to get a letter into the papers, defending the theatre; those are always the best advertisements for which you don’t have to pay; and we must be careful to bill the bally well. If Boisfleury’s really bad, we’ll get up a subscription, and I’ll head it, and that will look well; and then we can have up a benefit for her, and come the charitable move, with a prologue for the occasion, by a literary swell. Somehow we shan’t do so badly. A rehearsal, mind, to-morrow, at twelve, for Blondette; you must attend to it, Tacker; I shan’t be here; I’ve got an appointment with a man who’s brought over a performing elephant—wonderful animal I’m told—does the globe roulant and the double trapeze—that ought to draw, I think.”
Martin and the Frenchman stood outside the theatre.
“Nearly two o’clock,” said Martin, looking at his watch. He paused for a minute, then he added, rather sadly: “No, it will avail nothing if I go to him now. By this time he will know all. Poor Wil.”
“All?” said the Frenchman, a strange smile running along his thin lips. “You think he will know all? Pardon me: he will not know all yet.”
“What do you mean, Monsieur?” asked Martin, eagerly.
“Smoke, mon ami,” and Monsieur Chose proffered an embroidered cigar-case. Each lighted a cigar.
“You are interested much, very much, it seems, in this Monsieur Wilford, and—shall I say Mademoiselle Stephanie Boisfleury, or Madame sa femme? Mis-tress Wilford—is that not correct English?”
Martin thought for a moment; an idea appeared to occur to him; he drew himself up; then he bowed with an extreme courtesy to the Frenchman.
“Monsieur,” he said, very deliberately, speaking in French; “it is not for me, I comprehend perfectly, to ask of you questions. These it may be in your power to answer; still I feel, Monsieur, that the claim I can make for the information your replies would afford to me must be of the very slightest. Briefly, I have no right to ask you for information; still, Monsieur, I venture to hope for your aid.” (They bowed to each other here, removing their hats—indeed, a like ceremony was gone through at nearly every full stop). “You understand, Monsieur—you can appreciate with that intimate acquaintance with the habits and perceptions and sympathies of this country which you have manifested in the course of this evening in a manner so full of charm and interest” (Monsieur Chose quite purred with pleasure), “that in England what is known as ‘the home,’ ‘the hearth,’ ‘the peace of the domestic circle,’ is of a value inestimable. In an English family dear to me, and in whose happiness I take an interest which may seem to you extraordinary, but which is, in fact, capable of an easy explanation, some events of an unhappy nature have recently occurred. Monsieur Wilford, a husband, a father, has been subjected to a claim on the part of Mademoiselle Boisfleury; but I need not, I am sure, go further with this painful case. Your admirable intelligence anticipates me. My interest in this family is very great, as I have said.”
“Does he love Madame, the other wife?” was Monsieur Chose’s sinister French suggestion. But he kept it to himself.
“I feel that you are in possession of information in regard to Mademoiselle Boisfleury that may be of vital consequence to this family. You are the member of the executive of a foreign government whose knowledge is justly reputed to be universal. In the course of your professional career you have become acquainted with certain valuable facts. But, Monsieur, it is not in your character of a member of the executive that I elect to address you. No. Monsieur, I ask you to put on one side wholly these considerations. I, an Englishman, in sorrow and suffering, appeal to you as one man imploring assistance from another. I address myself to those sentiments of the heart to which a gentleman of the glorious country of France has ever responded. Monsieur, I appeal to that elevated sensibility, to that chivalrous devotion, to that generosity, grand and simple, the peculiar privilege of Frenchmen; and, Monsieur, I am satisfied I shall not in vain request your assistance. You will help me. You will join with me in the effort to restore peace to this sad English home. You will tell me all you know concerning this Mademoiselle Stephanie Boisfleury.
“Monsieur!” cried the Frenchman, radiant with delight. “How you are a poet! how you are sublime—superb. I am yours—for always—I consecrate my life to your service. But one thing remains, embrassons nous.”
And Martin found himself hugged to the heart of the Frenchman. There was a strange look in Martin’s face as it appeared over the shoulder of Monsieur Chose. The Englishman was certainly convulsed—it might have been with poetical expansion—but it was a little like suppressed laughter.
Afterwards Martin handed his card to Monsieur Chose, who promised to call upon him without loss of time. Finally they parted upon terms of a remarkable cordiality, with protestations of affection.
“Well,” said Martin, smiling, as he walked towards the Temple, “I might have talked a long time to an English ‘peeler’ about sentiment, and chivalry, and devotion before I should have got anything out of him. There is a wonderful charm in bathos. I do believe that with an appropriate burst of sentimental rubbish, judicious smiling, and incessant taking off one’s hat, a Frenchman can be made to say or do anything.” Then he added, rather gloomily, “It remains to be seen, however, whether this man has really any information to give, after all. What can he tell me that I don’t know already? Who is he? The lover of Mademoiselle Regine? To turn from Wilford to him! Heaven! what are women not capable of! How horrible all this is. Yet—no—don’t let me censure all women in one breath.”
He was very sad indeed as he entered his darkened rooms, and felt for the matches on the chimney-piece.
“A letter!” he said, “from whom? An answer already from the lawyer?”
And he read aloud.
“Sise Lane, Bucklersbury, London.
“I am able at once to answer your inquiries. Certain relatives of the late Mr. —— are clients of our firm. My information is derived from them, and is therefore reliable. Mr. —— was in holy orders. He left England in consequence of pecuniary embarrassments, and died shortly afterwards at a French sea-port. No proceedings were ever taken in reference to him, nor was his absence ever brought officially before the bishop of his diocese. Upon his death the Reverend Mr. —— succeeded to his cure. I shall be happy to furnish you with any detailed information as to this question that you may desire, and
“I am, dear sir,
“George Martin, Esq.”
“So then,” said Martin, “there is no hope in that quarter. I have now only this broken reed of a Frenchman to lean upon. A broken reed, indeed. ‘René,’ she called him. René what? I don’t even know his name. He may not come after all—he may wake and think I have fooled him. I have not the slightest hold upon him, and perhaps I may never see him again. It’s a sad, sad business. Poor Wilford! Poor Violet! I must go round to Freer Street to-morrow. I wish I could have spoken to him to-night, after the accident, and stopped him. Poor fellow! What will he do when he finds that Violet is gone?” He stopped and shuddered. “Nothing rash—I trust he will do nothing rash. But I did not like the expression of his face as he hurried from the theatre.”
For some time Martin remained, holding the lawyer’s letter in his hand. He was oppressed with very painful thoughts—very strange dreads.
When at last he took his candle and went to bed he obtained little rest. When he was able to sleep at all he was the victim of terrible dreams, and woke frequently, starting up in quite a paroxysm of alarm.
CHAPTER XXIII. A SISTER-IN-LAW.
It was morning. Mr. Phillimore, restless, uncomfortable, disturbed, paced up and down his front-room in Freer Street. His toilet was little cared for, and he had not enjoyed his breakfast. He no longer appeared to be the same cosy, prosperous picture-dealer—genial almost to joviality, serene almost to sublimity—who, at an earlier period of this history, had the honour of introduction to the reader. His sleekness had gone; he was as a cat with its fur rubbed roughly the wrong way; the bloom of his smugness had been blemished; he was as a fingered plum, more unsightly from its disfigured beauty than if it had never possessed beauty at all—just as a pretty lady with pock-marks is less attractive than a plainer woman with a smooth skin. If Mr. Phillimore had seemed less supremely happy before, he would not have been so remarkable an object now in his hour of depression. Even the gorgeousness of his brocaded dressing-gown did little to redeem the melancholy nature of his presentment; his splendour seemed inappropriate, useless, culpable even in connection with his state of mind—altogether out of place, like coronation robes upon a deposed monarch. The economy of his life appeared to have been visited by a convulsion; his career had suffered a sprain, if not an absolute dislocation. He was not the same man: for he was now miserable, and he had never been that before. He would have gone out in unpolished boots and a crumpled cravat; and the thought began to occur to him that, after all, port wine, even the best and in pints, was an over-rated drink.
He was himself struck by the change in his appearance. He paused before the mirror in the carved oak frame.
“I look disgraced and deboshed, that’s quite clear; I’ve lost my old burgomaster air; or else I’m a burgomaster that’s been in the Bench or dragged through the Court after opposition on the part of all the creditors. I look no better now than a toper by Ostade, or a skittle-player by Teniers. Hum! It’s not pleasant. If I had looked like the Banished Lord, in the National Gallery, or Ugolino, I wouldn’t so much have minded. It can’t be helped! I suppose people always go down in effect when their collections are dispersed, or their galleries burnt down; and I’m not even insured! I doubt even if I could have effected an insurance. But what then? No money can replace an art-treasure. My sweet Raphael, with her pure, lovely, saintly look! I suppose she always hid her nimbus somehow in her bonnet, or twined her hair-plaits over it. She’s gone—went away suddenly and sorrowfully, a glaze of tears dimming her lustrous, religious, grey eyes; and no one knows where she’s gone; and she’s taken the precious little Fiamingo with her; and St. Joseph, too, has disappeared; I begin to be afraid that he’s not a Joseph at all. No; nor a saint neither. And my riposa is utterly ruined, past all repairing or replacing. It’s very, very sad! I seek recreation, and I see a Murillo break away from its cord and nearly smash itself into pieces. I try devilled-oysters for consolation, and I find that the devil predominated greatly over the fish; then rum-punch and oblivion, to be followed by nightmare, and dyspepsia, and headache, and misery, and the unwholesome effect of a very bad Dutch picture.”
He took a few more strides about the room.
“The whole household upset. The Rembrandt doesn’t know what’s become of herself—she won’t be worth a frame soon—she’s washed her face with her tears about the loss of the Fiamingo, and she puts rancid butter on the toast and forgets to put the tea in the pot; and that at a time when I particularly wanted tea. I see what it is. It’s quite time I retired from business; or I’ll go into the country and devote myself to landscapes—they can’t run away.”
He took up the Times newspaper.
“I wonder whether it will be any good if I were to advertise—‘Lost, stolen, or strayed, an undoubted riposa by Raphael.’ The public must be warned against buying the figures cut out and sold separately—that’s always a dodge with picture-thieves. I should have to offer a very considerable reward. It would make a great sensation in the trade. Why I’d sooner have given the picture to the government even than such a thing as this should have happened!”
So Mr. Phillimore rambled on in his eccentric way. Suddenly, Sally appeared at the door.
“Lawks!” she said, looking round. “Why I thought there was some one else here by the talking. You have got a lot to say to yourself!”
“What do you want here, Sally? I shall not have any dinner to-day! I shall never want dinner any more!”
But Sally paid no heed to this sad remark.
“He’s come back!” she said in a loud whisper.
“Who’s come back?” Mr. Phillimore inquired.
“The master on the first-floor. Haven’t you heard him moving about? He’s come back, but he an’t been to bed all night.”
“How awful!” cried Mr. Phillimore, clasping his hands.
“‘Where is she?’ he keeps on asking. ‘Where is she?’ as if I could tell him!”
“As if, indeed!” echoed Sally’s master.
“Seems to me as if he was going out of his mind like,” said Sally, “and he looks shocking, and he’s emptied the water-bottle——”
“Hush!” said Mr. Phillimore, starting up and running to the window; “there’s some one at the door.”
After a moment’s pause, he exclaimed:
“Bless my soul! Why it’s the sister of the Raphael—it’s the Lancret—the Greuze—but how she’s grown!—how she’s changed!—why she’s positively developing into a Guido!”
Mr. Phillimore was correct. Miss Margaret Fuller—the sister of Violet—knocked at the door of the house in Freer Street. She had grown tall, and grand-looking, and very handsome. More, as Mr. Phillimore hastened to assure himself, from her richness of hue—quite Giorgionesque, as he said—than from any absolute regularity in the outline of her features. A trace of the Madge of old might have been perceived in the carelessness which permitted a thick, tangled cable of warm-coloured hair to protrude from the back of her bonnet in a great loop. Her form was rounded. The angularities and disproportions of her youth had vanished; her figure seemed now to have been cast in a full, massive mould; and her manners and movements had acquired a solidity and dignity that were indeed quite new.
But her apparent calmness did not make it the less evident that she was really very angry. There was a rich glow upon her cheeks—her delicate nostrils were dilated: by the marked rise and fall of her bosom it could be told that her heart was throbbing with some violence, and her breathing quick. Her superb blue eyes seemed quite to emit light. They were thrown so wide open, and were so brilliantly bright and limpid. She hurried past Sally—there was just a slight smile of recognition playing upon her red lips—but the Rembrandt understood that the situation did not admit just then of conversation—there were other more pressing matters demanding the attention of the visitor. Madge ascended the stairs, and entered the front room on the first floor—it had been Violet’s drawing-room.
Wilford was crouched upon the sofa. She started back as she discovered him. He was dreadfully pale—his hair rumpled, falling upon his face—his beard dishevelled—his whole appearance neglected and disarranged. He appeared to have torn open his shirt, round his neck, and flung away his neckerchief. His boots were covered with mire—his clothes splashed and creased. He was staring fixedly into vacancy before him—apparently abstracted—unconscious.
Madge stopped, hesitatingly, when she perceived him.
“Can it be?” she asked herself, with a very leaping heart. “Is he mad?”
His appearance was sufficiently strange to warrant the question. Madge grew a little frightened.
“Wilford!” she said, at length, in a tolerably firm voice. But he did not hear—or did not heed her.
“Wilford!” she repeated. This time she was evidently trembling.
He heard then. He started, like a man rousing himself with some effort from an absorbing and terrible dream. He passed his hands over his eyes—he pushed his hair from his forehead. He gazed round him in a wild, bewildered way. At last his eyes settled upon the figure of Madge standing in the doorway. His countenance underwent a rapid change, though its duration was but momentary; but the look of deep despair and acute suffering yielded to the brief rule of a hopeful and radiant expression. Though the likeness of Madge and Violet was by no means remarkable, there was at certain times that general resemblance between them to be always found amongst members of the same family. With his whole mind concentrated upon his absent Violet, his every wish magnetically drawn to her, he was liable to be morbidly influenced by the sudden apparition of Madge. For an instant he thought he really saw what it was the sole passionate desire of his soul that he should see; and the figure of Madge seemed to him as a vision of Violet. He uttered a strange cry—he held out his hands imploringly—he fell on his knees.
“Violet! Violet!” he exclaimed, vehemently “Have pity! Have mercy! Forgive me!”
But he had no sooner spoken than he became conscious of his error. He pressed his hands upon his head, as though to bind together by that action his disturbed, distracted intellects. He shrunk back, still kneeling, and his voice thick and hoarse, as though it escaped with difficulty from his parched throat. He cried:
“No, it is not Violet—it is not Violet,” and he stopped. A pause of a few moments.
“No, it is not Violet,” said Madge, at last, painfully agitated and very pale, but with an attempt at calmness and severity. “It is I—her sister. I have come here to demand—” but her assumed strength gave way. She yielded herself to a passionate burst of tears, as she cried, in a broken voice: “Oh! Wilford, Wilford, why have you done this? Why have you made us all so wretched? What have we ever done that you should bring this cruel, cruel wrong upon us? O how shameful, how cruel, how miserable all this is!”—then her sorrow fairly conquered the poor girl’s utterance, and her further words were lost in her loud, heartbroken sobs.
He raised his hand to her again beseechingly. She turned away from him!
“Where is she? Tell me, Madge. Where is she?” he asked, hoarsely. It was some moments before she was able to answer.
“She is with us. She is safe with us, at Grilling Abbots. With us, who love her—who would die for her.”
“Does she suffer very much, Madge? Tell me. I implore you, Madge—my sister—tell me! Is she well?”
“Well?” she exclaimed, with anger. “How can she be well? No, you cruel Wilford, she is not well—she will never be well—it will kill her—she is dying.”
From a kneeling he sunk to a crouching position on the floor, and cried, in an agony:
“Don’t say that, Madge! Don’t—don’t—for God’s sake, don’t tell me she is dying, and that I am her murderer!”
There was such genuine suffering in the tone of this cry, that even Madge, with all her predetermination to be harsh and cold and obdurate, was moved in spite of herself.
“Oh, Wilford,” she said, “how dreadful all this is—how miserable! Who could have believed our happiness could have ended like this? I cannot think of it. I cannot believe it to be true. It seems like some terrible dream from which I shall suddenly awake to find myself at home, and safe, and all well. Is it true? Tell me, Wilford, that it is all a mistake, or a jest—a mad, wicked jest; that we can laugh now that is over, though it pained us so greatly while it lasted. Wilford, tell me this!”
But he only swayed about on the floor, bowing down his head. She saw that there was no hope. She read in the utter wretchedness of his looks that all was only too true.
“How happy we were!” she went on; “how proud my poor Vi was of you, and of her poor baby—how fond—how devoted! She would have given her life for you, Wilford, at any moment. Violet, my sweet sister—so good—so pure—so true, who loved you with her whole soul, whose gentle heart was yours, for ever, Wilford. Oh, how have you repaid that love!”
He moaned piteously, and the tears stood in his glaring blood-shot eyes.
“And we—miles away in the country—at Grilling Abbots. Papa and I alone, in our little white cottage, were always with you and Violet, Wilford, in our thoughts. Yes,” she added, in a soft, low voice; “and in our prayers. I never went to bed at night,” she continued, “but I prayed to God for your happiness—for the safety of Violet and her poor little child; and for your safety, too, Wilford: it was but praying for myself, for what was your happiness, after all, but mine? Yes, and we shared her joy, her pride in you, her devotion to you, as now,—now we must share her sorrow, her great and cruel anguish. You never gave us a thought, perhaps; you had other things to occupy you here, in this great London, but we were always full of you; it was our comfort in the evening to draw together and talk of you, wondering what you were doing, what you were saying then, at that moment, whether by chance you were near us in thought as we were near you. And papa, how proud he was of Violet, how tenderly he loved her! You will never know how cruelly it pained him to part with her, even to give her to you, whom he loved and trusted for years and years, as his own son. Oh, how dreadfully all this has ended! Who could have looked forward to this! And then, to please him, I learnt to play Violet’s favourite airs on the piano, and the Mozart songs from the old book, that you were so fond of. It was only so, in thinking of her constantly, we could find consolation for her absence—in thinking of her and remembering that she was happy here, as we thought, with her husband and her baby child. You cannot know how I loved my sister Vi: as, indeed, I ought to love her, for was she not good, and true, and beautiful, as one of God’s angels? My poor, poor sister—” and Madge surrendered herself to a tearful grief that would permit of no more words.
“Spare me, Madge—my sister,” said Wilford; and he dragged himself along the ground to her, and took her hand, pressing it to his lips. She made only a feeble effort to withdraw it—indeed, her sorrow seemed quite to have deprived her of strength.
“I didn’t intend to come here and cry like this,” she said, after a pause; “but—but indeed I can’t help it. Each time I think of poor Vi, the tears will come into my eyes. I thought I was above such weakness. I thought I was too angry, and stern, and indignant, to cry; and I came here to learn from you—from your own lips, Wilford, whether Violet had heard aright, whether the story that woman told—that other dreadful woman—whether her story was true. There was a hope—a weak one, perhaps, for she brought proofs with her, it seems—a hope that she was a cheat and a forger, as she was a bold, bad, shameful woman, or she wouldn’t have treated Violet so cruelly—would never have said to her the wicked, wicked things she did say, or have spoken of the poor unoffending baby as she did. I can’t say her cruel, heartless words. What had Violet or her child ever done to her? What wrong? What injustice? None—none; they could not; they would not! My poor Vi, who never did an injustice in word, or deed, or thought, to any living creature; who would step aside to spare a worm; nay, she would remove it rather with her own hands to a place where it was likely to be safe from other feet. What wrong could she have done to this unfeeling, heartless woman? I came here, if not at Vi’s request, at least with her sanction. I wrung it from her, ere she went to sleep last night, in my arms, the tears still wet upon her pale cheeks—”
“Tell me of her, Madge,” Wilford interrupted, passionately. “Speak to me of her—tell me she lives and loves me still; at least she does not hate—does not scorn me.”
“Have you a right to ask for her love?—ask yourself that question,” said Madge, the fire of her eyes not quite quenched by her tears; “haven’t you earned her hatred and her scorn?—if indeed it were possible for her to hate and to scorn anybody or anything!”
“But speak to me of her, Madge—I will ask that only,” he urged, with an earnest humbleness.
“Tell me first, then. Is it true? When you married Violet, you had been already married to this bad, foreign woman?”
“God help me!” he moaned. “It is true!”
“And this woman still lives?”
“Yes!” he said, utterly prostrated.
“And Violet is without a husband! Your child is without a father! Oh! Wilford, how could you bring this unutterable shame upon us? How could you wrong so infamously one who loved and trusted you so purely and wholly as Violet loved and trusted? She would have staked her life upon your truth and honour, Wilford: how could you stoop to this wrong-doing? She was warned when she married you that your early life had been strange and wild, but she would not listen to such words in her boundless faith in you. With her own true nobleness she waved away these hints and rumours; she trusted in the future—in you. She gave herself, her heart, her all, to your keeping. She never once looked back with a regret or forward with a suspicion. She was wholly yours. Oh, Wilford, I will speak the words—you are a monster, and a coward, and a villain! You have wronged, past all reparation, one of the best and purest and noblest creatures that ever lived upon God’s earth. Shame on you! Violet may not hate or despise, but I do. I am less forgiving, as I am less good, less beautiful: in every way inferior to her. I loathe and scorn you with all my heart and soul!”
She moved away, tore her hand from him, and swept her skirts from his reach. She stood at length at some paces’ distance, glowing with passion—very beautiful, but very fierce, very angry.
“Madge!” he cried, hoarsely, with a painful effort. “I swear to you, that when I married Violet—”
“Don’t lie to me, Wilford. Don’t make your sin greater by trying to make it seem less. I know the truth. I know that you have made my poor sister your victim by a most infamous treachery. But just as she was good and truthful herself, so she believed others to be the same. So she was caught and betrayed by your most wicked plot. Could nothing induce you to spare her, you heartless man? Did neither her beauty nor her purity move you to pity? Don’t lie to me, sir: you know that you have been guilty of a shameful wrong. Be assured that your guilt is now known, that your sin is now laid bare. You married Violet, knowing that your marriage was a fraud and falsehood. Still you hoped to escape detection; you changed your name; you lived here obscurely, unknown; you never returned to Grilling Abbots—to the Grange; you sought to sever every tie that united you to us—to our family, and to your own at Grilling Abbots. The plot was as adroit as it was wicked, cruel. It has succeeded; your blow has struck well home; and you have killed the poor confident, loving, tender woman who believed herself your wife. Surely you are satisfied. Stop now; let there be no more wrong-doing. Your lies are thrown away now—at least, they will not deceive us any more.”
Very slowly, by grasping a chair, and so half pulling himself up—for he seemed terribly crushed by his suffering—Wilford raised himself, his face quite livid, the perspiration in beads upon his forehead, wetting his matted hair. He stretched out a shaking hand.
“My sister—Madge, will you hear me?” he said, in tones so solemn and strange that, in spite of herself, she was awed and silenced. “You do me a grave injustice, but let that pass. Perhaps I may never hope for Violet’s pardon or pity. The wrong I have done—I am quite conscious how great and cruel that wrong is—may well hinder her from one further feeling of tenderness towards me. Still, Madge, it cannot but be some comfort to her in the future to know that her suffering, her anguish—well—her shame, if you will have it so, was brought about certainly by no human design, but by means of an awful and inscrutable accident—a wild, mad chance. If you will see in it the hand of an Almighty, chastening a prodigal and a wrong-doer, even at the sacrifice of one of the purest, and best, and noblest of His creatures, be it so; I may not gainsay you. But, my sister, I swear to you—”
But again she shrunk from him. He could not but perceive it, and he stopped. Presently he resumed, however, lowering his eyes, and in a low, agitated voice.
“I cannot marvel, I can still less complain that you should persist in a refusal to credit me. After what has happened it is perhaps but natural that you should distrust, despise, hate me—it is part of my punishment that this should be so. I can bear it. It is not for myself I speak. I am not coward enough for that. It is for her sake—for Violet’s—that I ask you to hear me. For one moment, Madge, try to think of me as I seemed to you before this awful revelation was made. You would have believed and trusted me then—no one sooner—and I am not changed; it is the same Wilford Hadfield who speaks to you, and implores you to hear and to credit. On my soul, then, I swear to you that when I married Violet, your sister—I swear it—I believed that the other was dead—believed that I held proof, certain proof, of her death years and years before.”
“Yet you never breathed word of this to Violet, never told her of your former love—of your former marriage!”
“No; because it was a shame and a sin, taken at the best. I could not speak on such a subject to her. I loved her. I had need of all her love, all her respect. I did not dare to risk the loss of these by drawing the curtain that hid the past. I could not sully my union with her by a thought of that former most shameful union. I sought to conceal from her the depths to which it had been possible for her husband to sink. Years had gone by; the secret of that first marriage was known to a very, very few; these I believed—and I had reason for believing so—dead, or gone away beyond all chances of discovery. I did not dare to breathe life into the secret that seemed so dead—to hold it before Violet, my wife, as a shameful and hideous ghost of what my early life had been. Married to her, I planned a new career, founded upon the buried corpse of the past. I was presumptuous enough to think that Heaven had forgiven and forgotten! I am punished. It is not the least cruel part of my chastisement to find that the blow which has fallen upon me has struck down Violet also. For my change of name, my life here—these, I do assure you, had no connection with that dreadful secret. My sister, I swear to you that I have spoken truly.”
Madge could not but be softened by his words; the tone in which they were uttered carried conviction with it.
“I believe, Wilford—at least I will try to believe that this is so. I am violent and passionate, I know; and, indeed, it is hard to be calm thinking of this subject. Perhaps I have said more than I ought. Certainly more than I had Violet’s sanction to say. If this be all as you have told me, Wilford—and why should it not be?—there is perhaps more need of sorrow and pity than anger, is there not? Forgive me, Wilford, if I have in speaking to you been too violent and headstrong—if I have said things I had better have left unsaid. I am only a girl; wilful, not very wise, perhaps, and my temper getting the better of me often; still you must know how much I love Vi—how I wouldn’t have her injured for all the world—how the thought of a wrong to her makes me half wild. For Violet—”
“Yes, Madge, tell me of her.”
“She is very still, very calm, there is hardly a tear in her eyes. Yet it is dreadful to see her. I think if she could only cry and storm and get very angry as I do, it would be better for her. Oh! so sad she looks, so wan, and hardly speaks, hardly looks from the ground; holding her baby so close to her heart, as though she feared to lose that also; and then she turns from one to the other of us, half frightened, half imploring that we will say no word against you. She will not listen to an accusation against you. ‘He is not guilty of this sin,’ she murmurs always; ‘he has been the victim of some scandalous fraud. He never would have done this wrong—never, never!’ over and over again, like one crazed. Oh, Wilford! you have never been so loved as Violet loved you.”
“My own Violet!” he sobbed.
“Oh! she has been dreadfully tried, and yet remains good and saintly as ever. The things that foreign woman said to her! She was like a tigress let loose; she was furious in her jealousy and her hatred; smooth and calm and cunning at first, then lashing herself into a whirl of rage, and saying such things! I wish she had said them to me instead of to Violet! How could you, Wilford, have ever loved such a woman? I hate her for her shamelessness, her cruelty, her —— Let me not talk of her, or I lose patience altogether. The whole thing is so wretched and sad, that I feel quite faint and sick with it. Yet I am glad I have seen you. The charge against you is dreadful enough, but it is less vague and horrible than it seemed at first. Yet all is hopeless! If I dreamt to find some flaw in the woman’s story, if I ever hoped that yet a chance remained which could give you back to Violet—all that is over now; from your own lips I have had confirmation. The very first tears that Violet shed started to her eyes at my proposal that I should come up here by the early train from Mowle to see you. Poor Violet! she yet clung to the hope that the story might be false, though she was shown proof in your own writing—letters, and a certificate of the marriage—though she could not really doubt. Yet I go back something less sad, less angry. Violet is not your wife, but she has been wronged by accident, not villainy.”
“Did she send no word?—no message?” he asked.
“‘We can never, never meet again,’ she said; ‘it must be henceforth as though death had parted us. Yet let him know that if he has need of my forgiveness, it is his. I have given him my whole heart: I cannot take it back again if I would. He will be as dead to me; but, as I have loved him living, so I will love his memory, as though he had died in my arms—my husband! I will teach my child to pray for him, and to love him. May God ever bless him! and now especially in this hour of sore trouble. Say this to Wilford, and implore him,’ she went on, ‘if he ever loved me, that he will forbear all attempt to see me again; there are some things it is not possible to bear. I am only a woman, and I have loved him. I dare not see him again.’ So she said, the hot tears streaming from her eyes, in quite an agony of grief. And now, Wilford, I must leave you: I must go back home again.”
“Why did I not die in her arms before this frightful secret was revealed? She would not then have known the wrong she had suffered, or, at least, would have seen in my death expiation sufficient. No, Madge, you must not go! At least not alone. Do not start. I must see Violet! I must! It will indeed be for the last time. Madge, I implore you, let this be so! Think what it is that I am asked to do. To go, and never see her more! To be exiled for ever from her presence! Can I bear this? I who have loved her! God help me! who love her still. No! I tell you I must see her again, though it be but for a moment. I must look once again into her eyes. I must press our child again to my heart. For it is our child—Violet’s and mine! Then I will go away,—anywhere! I will drag out the remainder of my life, obscure and unknown, praying to Heaven that the end may soon come. Madge, have mercy, let this be so! Let me see her once again! Let me learn from her own lips that she pardons me! You will grant me this? You cannot refuse me this? Think that this would be her own wish, Madge, if she knew all! Have mercy, my sister, and let me return with you!”
And he flung himself at her feet.
Soon after they passed together out of the house in Freer Street.
“The poor master!” cried Sally, holding up her hands. “White as wax, and trembling like a haspin!”
“Shocking!” murmured Mr. Phillimore. “Yet very like an Old Master—a study by Carravaggio, say; but next to a Guido! No wonder he looks poor in colour and weak in tone.”
And the picture-dealer shook his head in vigorous deprecation of such an injudicious arrangement of works of art.