Tales of Two Countries/A Good Conscience
A GOOD CONSCIENCE.
An elegant little carriage, with two sleek and well-fed horses, drew up at Advocate Abel's garden gate.
Neither silver nor any other metal was visible in the harness; everything was a dull black, and all the buckles were leather-covered. In the lacquering of the carriage there was a trace of dark-green; the cushions were of a subdued dust-colour; and only on close inspection could you perceive that the coverings were of the richest silk. The coach-man looked like an English clergyman, in his close buttoned black coat, with a little stand-up collar and stiff white necktie.
Mrs. Warden, who sat alone in the carriage, bent forward and laid her hand upon the ivory door handle; then she slowly alighted, drew her long train after her, and carefully closed the carriage door.
You might have wondered that the coachman did not dismount to help her; the fat horses certainly did not look as though they would play any tricks if he dropped the reins.
But when you looked at his immovable countenance and his correct iron-grey whiskers, you understood at once that this was a man who knew what he was doing, and never neglected a detail of his duty.
Mrs. Warden passed through the little garden in front of the house, and entered the garden-room. The door to the adjoining room stood half open, and there she saw the lady of the house at a large table covered with rolls of light stuff and scattered numbers of the Bazar.
"Ah, you've come just at the right moment, my dear Emily!" cried Mrs. Abel, "I'm quite in despair over my dress-maker—she can't think of anything new. And here I'm sitting, ransacking the Bazar. Take off your shawl, dear, and come and help me; it's a walking-dress."
"I'm afraid I'm scarcely the person to help you in a matter of dress," answered Mrs. Warden.
Good-natured Mrs. Abel stared at her; there was something disquieting in her tone, and she had a vast respect for her rich friend.
"You remember I told you the other day that Warden had promised me—that's to say"— Mrs. Warden corrected herself—"he had asked me to order a new silk dress—"
"From Madame Labiche—of course!"—interrupted Mrs. Abel. "And I suppose you're on your way to her now? Oh, take me with you! It will be such fun!"
"I am not going to Madame Labiche's," answered Mrs. Warden, almost solemnly.
"Good gracious, why not?" asked her friend, while her good-humoured brown eyes grew spherical with astonishment.
"Well, you must know," answered Mrs. Warden. "it seems to me we can't with a good conscience pay so much money for unnecessary finery, when we know that on the outskirts of the town—and even at our very doors—there are hundreds of people living in destitution—literally in destitution."
"Yes, but," objected the advocate's wife, casting an uneasy glance over her table, "isn't that the way of the world? We know that inequality—"
"We ought to be careful not to increase the inequality, but rather to do what we can to smooth it away," Mrs. Warden interrupted. And it appeared to Mrs. Abel that her friend cast a glance of disapprobation over the table, the stuffs, and the Bazars.
"It's only alpaca," she interjected, timidly.
"Good heavens, Caroline!" cried Mrs. Warden, "pray don't think that I'm reproaching you. These things depend entirely upon one's individual point of view—every one must follow the dictates of his own conscience."
The conversation continued for some time, and Mrs. Warden related that it was her intention to drive out to the very lowest of the suburbs, in order to assure herself, with her own eyes, of the condition of life among the poor.
On the previous day she had read the annual report of a private charitable society of which her husband was a member. She had purposely refrained from applying to the police or the poor-law authorities for information. It was the very gist of her design personally to seek out poverty, to make herself familiar with it, and then to render assistance.
The ladies parted a little less effusively than usual. They were both in a serious frame of mind.
Mrs. Abel remained in the garden-room; she felt no inclination to set to work again at the walking-dress, although the stuff was really pretty. She heard the muffled sound of the carriage-wheels as they rolled off over the smooth roadway of the villa quarter.
"What a good heart Emily has," she sighed.
Nothing could be more remote than envy from the good-natured lady's character; and yet—it was with a feeling akin to envy that she now followed the light carriage with her eyes. But whether it was her friend's good heart or her elegant equipage that she envied her it was not easy to say.
She had given the coachman his orders, which he had received without moving a muscle; and as remonstrance was impossible to him, he drove deeper and deeper into the queerest streets in the poor quarter, with a countenance as though he were driving to a Court ball.
At last he received orders to stop, and indeed it was high time. For the street grew narrower and narrower, and it seemed as though the fat horses and the elegant carriage must at the very next moment have stuck fast, like a cork in the neck of a bottle.
The immovable one showed no sign of anxiety, although the situation was in reality desperate. A humorist, who stuck his head out of a garret window, went so far as to advise him to slaughter his horses on the spot, as they could never get out again alive.
Mrs. Warden alighted, and turned into a still narrower street; she wanted to see poverty at its very worst.
In a door-way stood a half-grown girl. Mrs. Warden asked: "Do very poor people live in this house?"
The girl laughed and made some answer as she brushed close past her in the narrow door-way. Mrs. Warden did not understand what she said, but she had an impression that it was something ugly.
She entered the first room she came to.
It was not a new idea to Mrs. Warden that poor people never keep their rooms properly ventilated. Nevertheless, she was so overpowered by the atmosphere she found herself inhaling that she was glad to sink down on a bench beside the stove.
Mrs. Warden was struck by something in the gesture with which the woman of the house swept down upon the floor the clothes which were lying on the bench, and in the smile with which she invited the fine lady to be seated. She received the impression that the poor woman had seen better days, although her movements were bouncing rather than refined, and her smile was far from pleasant.
The long train of Mrs. Warden's pearl-gray visiting dress spread over the grimy floor, and as she stooped and drew it to her she could not help thinking of an expression of Heine's, "She looked like a bon-bon which has fallen in the mire."
The conversation began, and was carried on as such conversations usually are. If each had kept to her own language and her own line of thought, neither of these two women would have understood a word that the other said.
But as the poor always know the rich much better than the rich know the poor, the latter have at last acquired a peculiar dialect—a particular tone which experience has taught them to use when they are anxious to make themselves understood—that is to say, understood in such a way as to incline the wealthy to beneficence. Nearer to each other they can never come.
Of this dialect the poor woman was a perfect mistress, and Mrs. Warden had soon a general idea of her miserable case. She had two children—a boy of four or five, who was lying on the floor, and a baby at the breast. Mrs. Warden gazed at the pallid little creature, and could not believe that it was thirteen months old. At home in his cradle she herself had a little colossus of seven months, who was at least half as big again as this child.
"You must give the baby something strengthening." she said; and she had visions of phosphate food and orange jelly.
At the words "something strengthening," a shaggy head looked up from the bedstraw; it belonged to a pale, hollow-eyed man with a large woollen comforter wrapped round his jaws.
Mrs. Warden was frightened. "Your husband?" she asked.
The poor woman answered yes, it was her husband. He had not gone to work to-day because he had such bad toothache.
Mrs. Warden had had toothache herself, and knew how painful it is. She uttered some words of sincere sympathy.
The man muttered something, and lay back again; and at the same moment Mrs. Warden discovered an inmate of the room whom she had not hitherto observed.
It was a quite young girl, who was seated in the corner at the other side of the stove. She stared for a moment at the fine lady, but quickly drew back her head and bent forward, so that the visitor could see little but her back.
Mrs. Warden thought the girl had some sewing in her lap which she wanted to hide; perhaps it was some old garment she was mending.
"Why does the big boy lie upon the floor?" asked Mrs. Warden.
"He's lame," answered the mother. And now followed a detailed account of the poor boy's case, with many lamentations. He had been attacked with hip-disease after the scarlet fever.
"You must buy him—" began Mrs. Warden, intending to say, "a wheel-chair." But it occurred to her that she had better buy it herself. It is not wise to let poor people get too much money into their hands. But she would give the woman something at once. Here was real need, a genuine case for help; and she felt in her pocket for her purse.
It was not there. How annoying—she must have left it in the carriage.
Just as she was turning to the woman to express her regret, and promise to send some money presently, the door opened, and a well-dressed gentleman entered. His face was very full, and of a sort of dry, mealy pallor.
"Mrs. Warden, I presume?" said the stranger. "I saw your carriage out in the street, and I have brought you this—your purse, is it not?"
Mrs. Warden looked at it—yes, certainly, it was hers, with E.W. inlaid in black on the polished ivory.
"I happened to see it, as I turned the corner, in the hands of a girl—one of the most disreputable in the quarter," the stranger explained; adding, "I am the poor-law inspector of the district."
Mrs. Warden thanked him, although she did not at all like his appearance. But when she again looked round the room she was quite alarmed by the change which had taken place in its occupants.
The husband sat upright in the bed and glared at the fat gentleman, the wife's face wore an ugly smile, and even the poor wee cripple had scrambled towards the door, and resting on his lean arms, stared upward like a little animal.
And in all these eyes there was the same hate, the same aggressive defiance. Mrs. Warden felt as though she were now separated by an immense interval from the poor woman with whom she had just been talking so openly and confidentially.
"So that's the state you're in to-day, Martin," said the gentleman, in quite a different voice. "I thought you'd been in that affair last night. Never mind, they're coming for you this afternoon. It'll be a two months' business."
All of a sudden the torrent was let loose. The man and woman shouted each other down, the girl behind the stove came forward and joined in, the cripple shrieked and rolled about. It was impossible to distinguish the words; but what between voices, eyes, and hands, it seemed as though the stuffy little room must fly asunder with all the wild passion exploding in it.
Mrs. Warden turned pale and rose, the gentleman opened the door, and both hastened out. As she passed down the passage she heard a horrible burst of feminine laughter behind her. It must be the woman—the same woman who had spoken so softly and despondently about the poor children.
She felt half angry with the man who had brought about this startling change, and as they now walked side by side up the street she listened to him with a cold and distant expression.
But gradually her bearing changed; there was really so much in what he said.
The poor-law inspector told her what a pleasure it was to him to find a lady like Mrs. Warden so compassionate towards the poor. Though it was much to be deplored that even the most well-meant help so often came into unfortunate hands, yet there was always something fine and ennobling in seeing a lady like Mrs. Warden—
"But," she interrupted, "aren't these people in the utmost need of help? I received the impression that the woman in particular had seen better days, and that a little timely aid might perhaps enable her to recover herself."
"I am sorry to have to tell you, madam," said the poor-law inspector, in a tone of mild regret, "that she was formerly a very notorious woman of the town."
Mrs. Warden shuddered.
She had spoken to such a woman, and spoken about children. She had even mentioned her own child, lying at home in its innocent cradle. She almost felt as though she must hasten home to make sure it was still as clean and wholesome as before.
"And the young girl?" she asked, timidly.
"No doubt you noticed her—her condition."
"No. You mean—"
The fat gentleman whispered some words.
Mrs. Warden started:" By the man!— the man of the house?"
"Yes, madam, I am sorry to have to tell you so; but you can understand that these people—" and he whispered again.
This was too much for Mrs. Warden. She turned almost dizzy, and accepted the gentleman's arm. They now walked rapidly towards the carriage, which was standing a little farther off than the spot at which she had left it.
For the immovable one had achieved a feat which even the humorist had acknowledged with an elaborate oath.
After sitting for some time, stiff as a poker, he had backed his sleek horses, step by step, until they reached a spot where the street widened a little, though the difference was imperceptible to any other eyes than those of an accomplished coachman.
A whole pack of ragged children swarmed about the carriage, and did all they could to upset the composure of the sleek steeds. But the spirit of the immovable one was in them.
After having measured with a glance of perfect composure the distance between two flights of steps, one on each side of the street, he made the sleek pair turn, slowly and step by step, so short and sharp that it seemed as though the elegant carriage must be crushed to fragments, but so accurately that there was not an inch too much or too little on either side.
Now he once more sat stiff as a poker, still measuring with his eyes the distance between the steps. He even made a mental note of the number of a constable who had watched the feat, in order to have a witness to appeal to if his account of it should be received with scepticism at the stables.
Mrs. Warden allowed the poor-law inspector to hand her into the carriage. She asked him to call upon her the following day, and gave him her address.
"To Advocate Abel's!" she cried to the coachman. The fat gentleman lifted his hat with a mealy smile, and the carriage rolled away.
As they gradually left the poor quarter of the town behind, the motion of the carriage became smoother, and the pace increased. And when they emerged upon the broad avenue leading through the villa quarter, the sleek pair snorted with enjoyment of the pure, delicate air from the gardens, and the immovable one indulged, without any sort of necessity, in three masterly cracks of his whip.
Mrs. Warden, too, was conscious of the delight of finding herself once more in the fresh air. The experiences she had gone through, and, still more, what she had heard from the inspector, had had an almost numbing effect upon her. She began to realize the immeasurable distance between herself and such people as these.
She had often thought there was something quite too sad, nay, almost cruel, in the text; "Many are called, but few are chosen."
Now she understood that it could not be other wise.
How could people so utterly depraved ever attain an elevation at all adequate to the demands of a strict morality? What must be the state of these wretched creatures' consciences? And how should they be able to withstand the manifold temptations of life?
She knew only too well what temptation meant! Was she not incessantly battling against a temptation—perhaps the most perilous of all—the temptation of riches, about which the Scriptures said so many hard things?
She shuddered to think of what would happen if that brutish man and these miserable women suddenly had riches placed in their hands.
Yes, wealth was indeed no slight peril to the soul. It was only yesterday that her husband had tempted her with such a delightful little man-servant—a perfect English groom. But she had resisted the temptation, and answered: "No, Warden, it would not be right; I will not have a footman on the box. I daresay we can afford it; but let us beware of overweening luxury. I assure you I don't require help to get into the carriage and out of it; I won't even let the coachman get down on my account."
It did her good to think of this now, and her eyes rested complacently on the empty seat on the box, beside the immovable one.
Mrs. Abel, who was busy clearing away Bazars and scraps of stuff from the big table, was astonished to see her friend return so soon.
"Why, Emily! Back again already? I've just been telling the dress-maker that she can go. What you were saying to me has quite put me out of conceit of my new frock; I can quite well get on without one—" said good-natured Mrs. Abel; but her lips trembled a little as she spoke.
"Every one must act according to his own conscience," answered Mrs. Warden, quietly, "but I think it's possible to be too scrupulous."
Mrs. Abel looked up; she had not expected this.
"Just let me tell you what I've gone through," said Mrs. Warden, and began her story.
She sketched her first impression of the stuffy room and the wretched people; then she spoke of the theft of her purse.
"My husband always declares that people of that kind can't refrain from stealing," said Mrs. Abel.
"I'm afraid your husband is nearer the truth than we thought," replied Mrs. Warden.
Then she told about the inspector, and the ingratitude these people had displayed towards the man who cared for them day by day.
But when she came to what she had heard of the poor woman's past life, and still more when she told about the young girl, Mrs. Abel was so overcome that she had to ask the servant to bring some port wine.
When the girl brought in the tray with the decanter, Mrs. Abel whispered to her: "Tell the dress-maker to wait."
"And then, can you conceive it," Mrs. Warden continued—"I scarcely know how to tell you"—and she whispered.
"What do you say! In one bed! All! Why, it's revolting!" cried Mrs. Abel, clasping her hands
"Yes, an hour ago I, too, could not have believed it possible," answered Mrs. Warden. "But when you've been on the spot yourself, and seen with your own eyes—"
"Good heavens, Emily, how could you venture into such a place!"
"I am glad I did, and still more glad of the happy chance that brought the inspector on the scene just at the right time. For if it is ennobling to bring succour to the virtuous poor who live clean and frugal lives in their humble sphere, it would be unpardonable to help such people as these to gratify their vile proclivities."
"Yes, you're quite right, Emily! What I can't understand is how people in a Christian community—people who have been baptized and confirmed—can sink into such a state! Have they not every day— or at any rate, every Sunday—the opportunity of listening to powerful and impressive sermons? And Bibles, I am told, are to be had for an incredibly trifling sum."
"Yes, and only to think," added Mrs. Warden, "that not even the heathen, who are without all these blessings—that not even they have any excuse for evil-doing; for they have conscience to guide them."
"And I'm sure conscience speaks clearly enough to every one who has the will to listen," Mrs. Abel exclaimed, with emphasis.
"Yes, heaven knows it does," answered Mrs. Warden, gazing straight before her with a serious smile.
When the friends parted, they exchanged warm embraces.
Mrs. Warden grasped the ivory handle, entered the carriage, and drew her train after her. Then she closed the carriage door—not with a slam, but slowly and carefully.
"To Madame Labiche's!" she called to the coachman; then, turning to her friend who had accompanied her right down to the garden gate, she said, with a quiet smile: "Now, thank heaven, I can order my silk dress with a good conscience."
"Yes, indeed you can!" exclaimed Mrs. Abel, watching her with tears in her eyes. Then she hastened in-doors.