The Irrational Knot/Chapter I
At seven o'clock on a fine evening in April the gas had just been lighted in a room on the first floor of a house in York Road, Lambeth. A man, recently washed and brushed, stood on the hearthrug before a pier glass, arranging a white necktie, part of his evening dress. He was about thirty, well grown, and fully developed muscularly. There was no cloud of vice or trouble upon him: he was concentrated and calm, making no tentative movements of any sort (even a white tie did not puzzle him into fumbling), but acting with a certainty of aim and consequent economy of force, dreadful to the irresolute. His face was brown, but his auburn hair classed him as a fair man.
The apartment, a drawing-room with two windows, was dusty and untidy. The paint and wall paper had not been renewed for years; nor did the pianette, which stood near the fireplace, seem to have been closed during that time; for the interior was dusty, and the inner end of every key begrimed. On a table between the windows were some tea things, with a heap of milliner's materials, and a brass candlestick which had been pushed back to make room for a partially unfolded cloth. There was a second table near the door, crowded with coils, batteries, a galvanometer, and other electrical apparatus. The mantelpiece was littered with dusty letters, and two trays of Doulton ware which ornamented it were filled with accounts, scraps of twine, buttons, and rusty keys.
A shifting, rustling sound, as of somebody dressing, which had been audible for some minutes through the folding doors, now ceased, and a handsome young woman entered. She had thick black hair, fine dark eyes, an oval face, a clear olive complexion, and an elastic figure. She was incompletely attired in a petticoat that did not hide her ankles, and stays of bright red silk with white laces and seams. Quite unconcerned at the presence of the man, she poured out a cup of tea; carried it to the mantelpiece; and began to arrange her hair before the glass. He, without looking round, completed the arrangement of his tie, looked at it earnestly for a moment, and said, "Have you got a pin about you?"
"There is one in the pincushion on my table," she said; "but I think it's a black one. I dont know where the deuce all the pins go to." Then, casting off the subject, she whistled a long and florid cadenza, and added, by way of instrumental interlude, a remarkably close imitation of a violoncello. Meanwhile the man went into her room for the pin. On his return she suddenly became curious, and said, "Where are you going to-night, if one may ask?"
"I am going out."
She looked at him for a moment, and turned contemptuously to the mirror, saying, "Thank you. Sorry to be inquisitive."
"I am going to sing for the Countess of Carbury at a concert at Wandsworth."
"Sing! You! The Countess of Barbury! Does she live at Wandsworth?"
"No. She lives in Park Lane."
"Oh! I beg her pardon." The man made no comment on this; and she, after looking doubtfully at him to assure herself that he was in earnest, continued, "How does the Countess of Whatshername come to know you, pray?"
A long pause ensued. Then she said: "Stuff!", but without conviction. Her exclamation had no apparent effect on him until he had buttoned his waistcoat and arranged his watch-chain. Then he glanced at a sheet of pink paper which lay on the mantelpiece. She snatched it at once; opened it; stared incredulously at it; and said, "Pink paper, and scalloped edges! How filthily vulgar! I thought she was not much of a Countess! Ahem! 'Music for the People. Parnassus Society. A concert will be given at the Town Hall, Wandsworth, on Tuesday, the 25th April, by the Countess of Carbury, assisted by the following ladies and gentlemen. Miss Elinor McQuinch'—what a name! 'Miss Marian Lind'—who's Miss Marian Lind?"
"How should I know?"
"I only thought, as she is a pal of the Countess, that you would most likely be intimate with her. 'Mrs. Leith Fairfax.' There is a Mrs. Leith Fairfax who writes novels, and very rotten novels they are, too. Who are the gentlemen? 'Mr. Marmaduke Lind'—brother to Miss Marian, I suppose. 'Mr. Edward Conolly'—save the mark! they must have been rather hard up for gentlemen when they put you down as one. The Conolly family is looking up at last. Hm! nearly a dozen altogether. 'Tickets will be distributed to the families of working men by the Rev. George Lind'—pity they didnt engage Jenny Lind on purpose to sing with you. 'A limited number of front seats at one shilling. Please turn over. Part I. Symphony in F: Haydn. Arranged for four English concertinas by Julius Baker. Mr. Julius Baker; Master Julius Abt Baker; Miss Lisette Baker (aged 8); and Miss Totty Baker (aged 6-1/2)'. Good Lord! 'Song: Rose softly blooming: Spohr. Miss Marian Lind.' I wonder whether she can sing! 'Polonaise in A flat major: Chopin'—what rot! As if working people cared about Chopin! Miss Elinor McQuinch is a fool, I see. 'Song: The Valley: Gounod.' Of course: I knew you would try that. Oho! Here's something sensible at last. 'Nigger melody. Uncle Ned. Mr. Marmaduke Lind, accompanied by himself on the banjo.'
Dum, drum. Dum, drum. Dum, drum. Dum—
'And there was an ole nigga; and his name was Uncle Ned;
An' him dead long ago, long ago.
An' he had no hair on the top of his head
In the place where the wool ought to grow,'
Mr. Marmaduke Lind will get a double encore; and no one will take the least notice of you or the others. 'Recitation. The Faithful Soul. Adelaide Proctor. Mrs. Leith Fairfax.' Well, this certainly is a blessed attempt to amuse Wandsworth. Another reading by the Rev.&mdash'"
Here Conolly, who had been putting on his overcoat, picked the program deftly from his sister's fingers, and left the room. She, after damning him very heartily, returned to the glass, and continued dressing, taking her tea at intervals until she was ready to go out, when she sent for a cab, and bade the driver convey her to the Bijou Theatre, Soho.
Conolly, on arriving at the Wandsworth Town Hall, was directed to a committee room, which served as green-room on this occasion. He was greeted by a clean shaven young clergyman who protested that he was glad to see him there, but did not offer his hand. Conolly thanked him briefly, and went without further ceremony to the table, and was about to place his hat and overcoat on a heap of similar garments, when, observing that there were some hooks along the wall, he immediately crossed over and hung up his things on them, thereby producing an underbred effect of being more prudent and observant than the rest. Then he looked at his program, and calculated how soon his turn to sing would come. Then he unrolled his music, and placed two copies of Le Vallon ready to his hand upon the table. Having made these arrangements with a self-possession that quite disconcerted the clergyman, he turned to examine the rest of the company.
His first glance was arrested by the beauty of a young lady with light brown hair and gentle grey eyes, who sat near the fire. Beside her, on a lower chair, was a small, lean, and very restless young woman with keen dark eyes staring defiantly from a worn face. These two were attended by a jovial young gentleman with curly auburn hair, who was twanging a banjo, and occasionally provoking an exclamation of annoyance from the restless girl by requesting her opinion of his progress in tuning the instrument. Near them stood a tall man, dark and handsome. He seemed unused to his present circumstances, and contemptuous, not of the company nor the object for which they were assembled, but in the abstract, as if habitual contempt were part of his nature.
The clergyman, who had just conducted to the platform an elderly professor in a shabby frock coat, followed by three well-washed children, each of whom carried a concertina, now returned and sat down beside a middle-aged lady, who made herself conspicuous by using a gold framed eyeglass so as to convey an impression that she was an exceedingly keen observer.
"It is fortunate that the evening is so fine," said the clergyman to her.
"Yes, is it not, Mr. Lind?"
"My throat is always affected by bad weather, Mrs. Leith Fairfax. I shall be so handicapped by the inevitable comparison of my elocution with yours, that I am glad the weather is favorable to me, though the comparison is not."
"No," said Mrs. Fairfax, with decision. "I am not in the least an orator. I can repeat a poem: that is all. Oh! I hope I have not broken my glasses." They had slipped from her nose to the floor. Conolly picked them up and straightened them with one turn of his fingers.
"No harm done, madam," said he, with a certain elocutionary correctness, and rather in the strong voice of the workshop than the subdued one of the drawing-room, handing the glasses to her ceremoniously as he spoke.
"Thank you. You are very kind, very kind indeed."
Conolly bowed, and turned again toward the other group.
"Who is that?" whispered Mrs. Fairfax to the clergyman.
"Some young man who attracted the attention of the Countess by his singing. He is only a workman."
"Indeed! Where did she hear him sing?"
"In her son's laboratory, I believe. He came there to put up some electrical machinery, and sang into a telephone for their amusement. You know how fond Lord Jasper is of mechanics. Jasper declares that he is a genius as an electrician. Indeed it was he, rather than the Countess, who thought of getting him to sing for us."
"How very interesting! I saw that he was clever when he spoke to me. There is so much in trifles—in byplay, Mr. Lind. Now, his manner of picking up my glass had his entire history in it. You will also see it in the solid development of his head. That young man deserves to be encouraged."
"You are very generous, Mrs. Leith Fairfax. It would not be well to encourage him too much, however. You must recollect that he is not used to society. Injudicious encouragement might perhaps lead him to forget his real place in it."
"I do not agree with you, Mr. Lind. You do not read human nature as I do. You know that I am an expert. I see men as he sees a telegraph instrument, quite uninfluenced by personal feeling."
"True, Mrs. Leith Fairfax. But the heart is deceitful above all things and des—at least I should say—er. That is, you will admit that the finest perception may err in its estimate of the inscrutable work of the Almighty."
"Doubtless. But really, Mr. Lind, human beings are so shallow! I assure you there is nothing at all inscrutable about them to a trained analyst of character. It may be a gift, perhaps; but people's minds are to me only little machines made up of superficial motives."
"I say," said the young gentleman with the banjo, interrupting them: "have you got a copy of 'Rose softly blooming' there?"
"I!" said Mrs. Fairfax. "No, certainly not."
"Then it's all up with the concert. We have forgotten Marian's music; and there is nothing for Nelly—I beg pardon, I mean Miss McQuinch—to play from. She is above playing by ear."
"I cannot play by ear," said the restless young lady, angrily.
"If you will sing 'Coal black Rose' instead, Marian, I can accompany you on the banjo, and back you up in the chorus. The Wandsworthers—if they survive the concertinas—will applaud the change as one man."
"It is so unkind to joke about it," said the beautiful young lady. "What shall I do? If somebody will vamp an accompaniment, I can get on very well without any music. But if I try to play for myself I shall break down."
Conolly here stepped aside, and beckoned to the clergyman.
"That young man wants to speak to you," whispered Mrs. Fairfax.
"Oh, indeed. Thank you," said the Rev. Mr. Lind, stiffly. "I suppose I had better see what he requires."
"I suppose you had," said Mrs. Fairfax, with some impatience.
"I dont wish to intrude where I have no business," said Conolly quietly to the clergyman; "but I can play that lady's accompaniment, if she will allow me."
The clergyman was too much afraid of Conolly by this time—he did not know why—to demur. "I am sure she will not object," he said, pretending to be relieved by the offer. "Your services will be most acceptable. Excuse me for one moment, whilst I inform Miss Lind."
He crossed the room to the lady, and said in a lower tone, "I think I have succeeded in arranging the matter, Marian. That man says he will play for you."
"I hope he can play," said Marian doubtfully. "Who is he?"
"It is Conolly. Jasper's man."
Miss Lind's eyes lighted. "Is that he?" she whispered, glancing curiously across the room at him. "Bring him and introduce him to us."
"Is that necessary?" said the tall man, without lowering his voice sufficiently to prevent Conolly from hearing him. The clergyman hesitated.
"It is quite necessary: I do not know what he must think of us already," said Marian, ashamed, and looking apprehensively at Conolly. He was staring with a policemanlike expression at the tall man, who, after a vain attempt to ignore him, had eventually to turn away. The Rev. Mr. Lind then led the electrician forward, and avoided a formal presentation by saying with a simper: "Here is Mr. Conolly, who will extricate us from all our difficulties."
Miss McQuinch nodded. Miss Lind bowed. Marmaduke shook hands good-naturedly, and retired somewhat abashed, thrumming his banjo. Just then a faint sound of clapping was followed by the return of the quartet party, upon which Miss Lind rose and moved hesitatingly toward the platform. The tall man offered his hand.
"Nonsense, Sholto," said she, laughing. "They will expect you to do something if you appear with me."
"Allow me, Marian," said the clergyman, as the tall man, offended, bowed and stood aside. She, pretending not to notice her brother, turned toward Conolly, who at once passed the Rev. George, and led her to the platform.
"The original key?" he enquired, as they mounted the steps.
"I dont know," she said, alarmed.
For a moment he was taken aback. Then he said, "What is the highest note you can sing?"
"I can sing A sometimes—only when I am alone. I dare not attempt it before people."
Conolly sat down, knowing now that Miss Lind was a commonplace amateur. He had been contrasting her with his sister, greatly to the disparagement of his home life; and he was disappointed to find the lady break down where the actress would have succeeded so well. Consoling himself with the reflexion that if Miss Lind could not rap out a B flat like Susanna, neither could she rap out an oath, he played the accompaniment much better than Marian sang the song. Meanwhile, Miss McQuinch, listening jealously in the green-room, hated herself for her inferior skill.
"Cool, and reserved, is the modern Benjamin Franklin," observed Marmaduke to her.
"Better a reserved man who can do something than a sulky one who can do nothing," she said, glancing at the tall man, with whom the clergyman was nervously striving to converse.
"Exquisite melody, is it not, Mr. Douglas?" said Mrs. Fairfax, coming to the clergyman's rescue.
"I do not care for music," said Douglas. "I lack the maudlin disposition in which the taste usually thrives."
Miss McQuinch gave an expressive snap, but said nothing; and the conversation dropped until Miss Lind had sung her song, and received a round of respectful but not enthusiastic applause.
"Thank you, Mr. Conolly," she said, as she left the platform. "I am afraid that Spohr's music is too good for the people here. Dont you think so?"
"Not a bit of it," replied Conolly. "There is nothing so very particular in Spohr. But he requires very good singing—better than he is worth."
Miss Lind colored, and returned in silence to her seat beside Miss McQuinch, feeling that she had exposed herself to a remark that no gentleman would have made.
"Now then, Nelly," said Marmaduke: "the parson is going to call time. Keep up your courage. Come, get up, get up."
"Do not be so boisterous, Duke," said Marian. "It is bad enough to have to face an audience without being ridiculed beforehand."
"Marian," said Marmaduke, "if you think Nelly will hammer a love of music into the British workman, you err. Lots of them get their living by hammering, and they will most likely resent feminine competition. Bang! There she goes. Pity the sorrows of a poor old piano, and let us hope its trembling limbs wont come through the floor."
"Really, Marmaduke," said Marian, impatiently, "you are excessively foolish. You are like a boy fresh from school."
Marmaduke, taken aback by her sharp tone, gave a long whispered whistle, and pretended to hide under the table. He had a certain gift of drollery which made it difficult not to laugh even at his most foolish antics, and Marian was giving way in spite of herself when she found Douglas bending over her and saying, in a low voice:
"You are tired of this place. The room is very draughty: I fear it will give you cold. Let me drive you home now. An apology can be made for whatever else you are supposed to do for these people. Let me get your cloak and call a cab."
Marian laughed. "Thank you, Sholto," she said; "but I assure you I am quite happy. Pray do not look offended because I am not so uncomfortable as you think I ought to be."
"I am glad you are happy," said Douglas in his former cold tone. "Perhaps my presence is rather a drawback to your enjoyment than otherwise."
"I told you not to come, Sholto; but you would. Why not adapt yourself to the circumstances, and be agreeable?"
"I am not conscious of being disagreeable."
"I did not mean that. Only I do not like to see you making an enemy of every one in the room, and forcing me to say things that I know must hurt you."
"To the enmity of your new associates I am supremely indifferent, Marian. To that of your old friends I am accustomed. I am not in the mood to be lectured on my behavior at present; besides, the subject is hardly worth pursuing. May I gather from your remarks that I shall gratify you by withdrawing?"
"Yes," said Marian, flushing slightly, and looking steadily at him. Then, controlling her voice with an effort, she added, "Do not try again to browbeat me into telling you a falsehood, Sholto."
Douglas looked at her in surprise. Before he could answer, Miss McQuinch reappeared.
"Well, Nelly," said Marmaduke: "is there any piano left?"
"Not much," she replied, with a sullen laugh. "I never played worse in my life."
"Wrong notes? or deficiency in the sacred fire?"
"I believe your song comes next," said the clergyman to Conolly, who had been standing apart, listening to Miss McQuinch's performance.
"Who is to accompany me, sir?"
"Oh—ah—Miss McQuinch will, I am sure," replied the Rev. Mr. Lind, smiling nervously. Conolly looked grave. The young lady referred to closed her lips; frowned; said nothing. Marmaduke chuckled.
"Perhaps you would rather play your own accompaniment," said the clergyman, weakly.
Conolly shook his head decisively, and said, "I can do only one thing at a time, sir."
"Oh, they are not very critical: they are only workmen," said the clergyman, and then reddened deeply as Marmaduke gave him a very perceptible nudge.
"I'll not take advantage of that, as I am only a workman myself," said Conolly. "I had rather leave the song out than accompany myself."
"Pray dont suppose that I wish to be disagreeable, Mr. Lind," said Miss McQuinch, as the company looked doubtfully at her; "but I have disgraced myself too completely to trust my fingers again. I should spoil the song if I played the accompaniment."
"I think you might try, Nell," said Marmaduke, reproachfully.
"I might," retorted Miss McQuinch; "but I wont."
"If somebody doesnt go out and do something, there will be a shindy," said Marmaduke.
Marian hesitated a moment and then rose. "I am a very indifferent player," she said; "but since no better is to be had, I will venture—if Mr. Conolly will trust me."
"If you would rather not," said Miss McQuinch, shamed into remorse, "I will try the accompaniment. But I am sure to play it all wrong."
"I think Miss McQuinch had better play," said Douglas.
Conolly looked at Marian; received a reassuring glance; and went to the platform with her without further ado. She was not a sympathetic accompanist; but, not knowing this, she was not at all put out by it. She felt too that she was, as became a lady, giving the workman a lesson in courtesy which might stand him in stead when he next accompanied "Rose, softly blooming." She was a little taken aback on finding that he not only had a rich baritone voice, but was, as far as she could judge, an accomplished singer.
"Really," she said as they left the platform, "you sing most beautifully."
"One would hardly have expected it," he said, with a smile.
Marian, annoyed at having this side of her compliment exposed, did not return the smile, and went to her chair in the green-room without taking any further notice of him.
"I congratulate you," said Mrs. Leith Fairfax to Conolly, looking at him, like all the rest except Douglas, with a marked access of interest. "Ah! what wonderful depth there is in Gounod's music!"
He assented politely with a movement of his head.
"I know nothing at all about music," said Mrs. Fairfax.
"Very few people do."
"I mean technically, of course," she said, not quite pleased.
A tremendous burst of applause here followed the conclusion of the first verse of "Uncle Ned."
"Do come and listen, Nelly," said Marian, returning to the door. Mrs. Fairfax and Conolly presently went to the door too.
"Would you not like to help in the chorus, Nelly?" said Marian in a low voice, as the audience began to join uproariously in the refrain.
"Not particularly," said Miss McQuinch.
"Sholto," said Marian, "come and share our vulgar joy. We want you to join in the chorus."
"Thank you," said Douglas, "I fear I am too indifferent a vocalist to do justice to the occasion."
"Sing with Mr. Conolly and you cannot go wrong," said Miss McQuinch.
"Hush," said Marian, interposing quickly lest Douglas should retort. "There is the chorus. Shall we really join?"
Conolly struck up the refrain without further hesitation. Marian sang with him. Mrs. Fairfax and the clergyman looked furtively at one another, but forbore to swell the chorus. Miss McQuinch sang a few words in a piercing contralto voice, and then stopped with a gesture of impatience, feeling that she was out of tune. Marian, with only Conolly to keep her in countenance, felt relieved when Marmaduke, thrice encored, entered the room in triumph. Whilst he was being congratulated, Douglas turned to Miss McQuinch, who was pretending to ignore Marmaduke's success.
"I hope, Miss McQuinch," he said in a low tone, "that you will be able to relieve Marian at the piano next time. You know how she dislikes having to play accompaniments for strangers."
"How mean it is of you to be jealous of a plumber!" said Miss McQuinch, with a quick glance at him which she did not dare to sustain, so fiercely did he return it.
When she looked again, he seemed unconscious of her presence, and was buttoning his overcoat.
"Really going at last, Sholto?" said Marian. Douglas bowed.
"I told you you wouldnt be able to stand it, old man," said Marmaduke. "Mrs. Bluestockings wont be pleased with you for not staying to hear her recite." This referred to Mrs. Fairfax, who had just gone upon the platform.
"Good night," said Miss McQuinch, shortly, anxious to test how far he was offended, but unwilling to appear solicitous for a reconciliation.
"Until to-morrow, farewell," he said, approaching Marian, who gave him her hand with a smile: Conolly looking thoughtfully at him meanwhile. He left the room; and so, Mrs. Fairfax having gone to the platform to recite, quiet prevailed for a few minutes.
"Shall I have the pleasure of playing the accompaniment to your next song?" said Conolly, sitting down near Marian.
"Thank you," said Marian, shrinking a little: "I think Miss McQuinch knows it by heart." Then, still anxious to be affable to the workman, she added, "Lord Jasper says you are a great musician."
"No, I am an electrician. Music is not my business: it is my amusement."
"You have invented something very wonderful, have you not?"
"I have discovered something, and I am trying to invent a means of turning it to account. It will be only a cheap electro-motor if it comes to anything."
"You must explain that to me some day, Mr. Conolly. I'm afraid I dont know what an electro-motor means."
"I ought not to have mentioned it," said Conolly. "It is so constantly in my mind that I am easily led to talk about it. I try to prevent myself, but the very effort makes me think of it more than ever."
"But I like to hear you talk about it," said Marian. "I always try to make people talk shop to me, and of course they always repay me by trying to keep on indifferent topics, of which I know as much—or as little—as they."
"Well, then," said Conolly, "an electro-motor is only an engine for driving machinery, just like a steam engine, except that it is worked by electricity instead of steam. Electric engines are so imperfect now that steam ones come cheaper. The man who finds out how to make the electric engine do what the steam engine now does, and do it cheaper, will make his fortune if he has his wits about him. Thats what I am driving at."
Miss Lind, in spite of her sensible views as to talking shop, was not interested in the least. "Indeed!" she said. "How interesting that must be! But how did you find time to become so perfect a musician, and to sing so exquisitely?"
"I picked most of it up when I was a boy. My grandfather was an Irish sailor with such a tremendous voice that a Neapolitan music master brought him out in opera as a buffo. When he had roared his voice away, he went into the chorus. My father was reared in Italy, and looked more Italian than most genuine natives. He had no voice; so he became first accompanist, then chorus master, and finally trainer for the operatic stage. He speculated in an American tour; married out there; lost all his money; and came over to England, when I was only twelve, to resume his business at Covent Garden. I stayed in America, and was apprenticed to an electrical engineer. I worked at the bench there for six years."
"I suppose your father taught you to sing."
"No. He never gave me a lesson. The fact is, Miss Lind, he was a capital man to teach stage tricks and traditional renderings of old operas; but only the exceptionally powerful voices survived his method of teaching. He would have finished my career as a singer in two months if he had troubled himself to teach me. Never go to Italy to learn singing."
"I fear you are a cynic. You ought either to believe in your father or else be silent about him."
"Why! Surely we should hide the failings of those we love? I can understand now how your musical and electrical tastes became mixed up; but you should not confuse your duties. But please excuse me:" (Conolly's eyes had opened a little wider) "I am lecturing you, without the least right to. It is a failing of mine which you must not mind."
"Not at all. Youve a right to your opinion. But the world would never get on if every practical man were to stand by his father's mistakes. However, I brought it on myself by telling you a long story. This is the first opportunity I ever had of talking about myself to a lady, and I suppose I have abused it."
Marian laughed. "We had better stop apologizing to one another," she said. "What about the accompaniments to our next songs?"
Meanwhile Marmaduke and Miss McQuinch were becoming curious about Marian and Conolly.
"I say, Nelly," he whispered, "Marian and that young man seem to be getting on uncommonly well together. She looks sentimentally happy, and he seems pleased with himself. Dont you feel jealous?"
"Jealous! Why should I be?"
"Out of pure cussedness. Not that you care for the electric man, but because you hate any one to fall in love with any one else when you are by."
"I wish you would go away."
"Why? Dont you like me?"
"I loathe you. Now, perhaps you understand me."
"That's a nice sort of thing to say to a fellow," said Marmaduke, roused. "I have a great mind to bring you to your senses as Douglas does, by not speaking to you for a week."
"I wish you would let me come to my senses by not speaking to me at all."
"Oh! Well, I am off; but mind, Nelly, I am offended. We are no longer on speaking terms. Look as contemptuous as you please: you will be sorry when you think over this. Remember: you said you loathed me."
"So I do," said Elinor, stubbornly.
"Very good," said Marmaduke, turning his back on her. Just then the concertinists returned from the platform, and a waiter appeared with refreshments, which the clergyman invited Marmaduke to assist him in dispensing. Conolly, considering the uncorking of bottles of soda water a sufficiently skilled labor to be more interesting than making small talk, went to the table and busied himself with the corkscrew.
"Well, Nelly," said Marian, drawing her chair close to Miss McQuinch, and speaking in a low voice, "what do you think of Jasper's workman?"
"Not much," replied Elinor, shrugging her shoulders. "He is very conceited, and very coarse."
"Do you really think so? I expected to find you delighted with his unconventionality. I thought him rather amusing."
"I thought him extremely aggravating. I hate to have to speak to people of that sort."
"Then you consider him vulgar," said Marian, disappointed.
"N—no. Not vulgarer than anybody else. He couldnt be that."
"Sherry and soda, Marian?" said Marmaduke, approaching.
"No, thank you, Marmaduke. Get Nelly something."
"As Miss McQuinch and I are no longer on speaking terms, I leave her to the care of yonder scientific amateur, who has just refused, on teetotal grounds, to pledge the Rev. George in a glass of eighteen shilling sherry."
"Dont be silly, Marmaduke. Bring Nelly some soda water."
"Do nothing of the sort," said Miss McQuinch.
Marmaduke bowed and retired.
"What is the matter between you and Duke now?" said Marian.
"Nothing. I told him I loathed him."
"Oh! I dont wonder at his being a little huffed. How can you say things you dont mean?"
"I do mean them. What with his folly, Sholto's mean conceit, George's hypocrisy, that man's vulgarity, Mrs. Fairfax's affectation, your insufferable amiability, and the dreariness of those concertina people, I feel so wretched that I could find it in my heart to loathe anybody and everybody."
"Nonsense, Nelly! You are only in the blues."
"Only in the blues!" said Miss McQuinch sarcastically. "Yes. That is all."
"Take some sherry. It will brighten you up."
"Dutch courage! Thank you: I prefer my present moroseness."
"But you are not morose, Nelly."
"Oh, stuff, Marian! Dont throw away your amiability on me. Here comes your new friend with refreshments. I wonder was he ever a waiter? He looks exactly like one."
After this the conversation flagged. Mrs. Fairfax grew loquacious under the influence of sherry, but presently a reaction set in, and she began to yawn. Miss McQuinch, when her turn came, played worse than before, and the audience, longing for another negro melody, paid little attention to her. Marian sang a religious song, which was received with the respect usually accorded to a dull sermon. The clergyman read a comic essay of his own composition, and Mrs. Fairfax recited an ode to Mazzini. The concertinists played an arrangement of a quartet by Onslow. The working men and women of Wandsworth gaped, and those who sat near the door began to slip out. Even Miss McQuinch pitied them.
"The idea of expecting them to be grateful for an infliction like that!" she said. "What do people of their class care about Onslow's quartets?"
"Do you think that people of any class, high or low, would be gratified by such an entertainment?" said Conolly, with some warmth. No one had sufficient spirit left to reply.
At last the concertinists went home, and the reading drew to a close. Conolly, again accompanied by Marian, sang "Tom Bowling." The audience awoke, cheered the singer heartily, and made him sing again. On his return to the green-room, Miss McQuinch, much affected at the fate of Bowling, and indignant with herself for being so, stared defiantly at Conolly through a film of tears. When Marmaduke went out, the people also were so moved that they were ripe for laughter, and with roars of merriment forced him to sing three songs, in the choruses of which they joined. Eventually the clergyman had to bid them go home, as Mr. Lind had given them all the songs he knew.
"I suppose you will not come with us, Duke," said Marian, when all was over, and they were preparing to leave. "We can drop you at your chambers if you like; but you will have to sit on the box. Mrs. Leith Fairfax, George, Nelly, and I, will be a carriageful."
Marmaduke looked at his watch. "By Jove!" he cried, "it is only ten. I forgot how early we began to-night. No thank you, Marian: I am not going your way; but you may take the banjo and keep it until I call. Ta ta!"
They all went out together; and the ladies, followed by the clergyman, entered their carriage and drove away, leaving Marmaduke and Conolly standing on the pavement. Having shared the success of the concert, each felt well disposed to the other.
"What direction are you going in?" said Marmaduke.
"Westminster Bridge or thereabouts," replied Conolly. "This place is rather out of the way."
"Have you anything particular to do before you turn in for the night?"
"Nothing at all."
"Then I'll tell you what it is, old man. Lets take a hansom, and drive off to the Bijou. We shall just be in time to see Lalage Virtue in the burlesque; and—look here! I'll introduce you to her: youre just the sort of chap she would like to know. Eh?"
Conolly looked at him, nodded, and burst out laughing. Marmaduke, who had set him down as a cool, undemonstrative man, was surprised at his hilarity for a moment, but presently joined in it. Whilst they were both laughing a hansom appeared, and Conolly, recovering himself, hailed the driver.
"We shall get on together, I see," said Marmaduke, jumping into the cab. "Hallo! The Bijou Theatre, Soho, and drive as fast as you can afford to for half a sovereign."
"Right you are, sir," replied the driver, whipping his horse.
The rattling of the cab silenced Conolly; but his companion persisted for some time in describing the burlesque to which they were going, and particularly the attractions of Mademoiselle Lalage Virtue, who enacted a principal character therein, and with whom he seemed to be in love. When they alighted at the theatre Marmaduke payed the cabman, and Conolly took advantage of this to enter the theatre and purchase two stall tickets, an arrangement which Lind, suddenly recollecting his new friend's position, disapproved of, but found it useless to protest against. He forgot it on hearing the voice of Lalage Virtue, who was at that moment singing within; and he went to his stall with his eyes turned to the stage, treading on toes and stumbling as children commonly do when they walk in one direction and look in another. An attendant, who seemed to know him, proffered a glass for hire. He took it, and leveled it at Mademoiselle Lalage, who was singing some trivial couplets much better than they deserved. Catching sight of him presently, she greeted him with a flash of her dark eye that made him writhe as though his heart had received a fillip from a ponderable missile. She did not spare these roguish glances. They darted everywhere; and Conolly, looking about him to note their effect, saw rows of callow young faces with parted lips and an expression which seemed to have been caught and fixed at the climax of a blissful chuckle. There were few women in the stalls, and the silly young faces were relieved only by stupid old ones.
The couplets ended amidst great applause. Marmaduke placed his glass on his knees, and, clapping his hands vigorously, turned to his companion with a triumphant smile, mutely inviting him to clamor for a repetition of the air. But Conolly sat motionless, with his arms folded, his cheek flushed, and his brow lowered.
"You dont seem used to this sort of thing," said Lind, somewhat disgusted.
"It was well sung," replied Conolly "—better than most of these blackguards know."
"Then why dont you clap?"
"Because she is not giving herself any trouble. That sort of thing, from a woman of her talent, is too cheap to say 'thank you' for."
Marmaduke looked at him, and began to think that he was a priggish fellow after all. But as the burlesque went on, Mademoiselle Lalage charmed away this disagreeable impression. She warbled in an amorous duet, and then sang the pleasures of champagne; tossing her head; waving a gilt goblet; and, without the least appearance of effort, working hard to captivate those who were to be won by bold smiles and arch glances. She displayed her person less freely than her colleagues, being, not more modest, but more skilful in the art of seduction. The slang that served for dialogue in her part was delivered in all sorts of intonations, now demure and mischievous, anon strident and mock tragic. Marmaduke was delighted.
"What I like about her is that she is such a genuine little lady," he said, as her exit released his attention. "With all her go, she is never a bit vulgar. Off the stage she is just the same. Not a spark of affectation about her. It is all natural."
"You know her, then?" said Conolly.
"I should think I do," replied Marmaduke, energetically. "You have no idea what a rattling sort she is."
"To you, who only see her occasionally, no doubt she gives—as a rattling sort—a heightened charm to the order, the refinement, the—the beauty of the home life which you can enjoy. Excuse my introducing such a subject, Mr. Lind; but would you bring your cousin—the lady who sang to-night at the concert—to see this performance?"
"I would if she asked me to," said Marmaduke, somewhat taken aback.
"No doubt. But should you be surprised if she asked you?"
"Not a bit. Fine ladies are neither such fools nor such angels as you—as some fellows think. Miss Lind's notion is to see everything. And yet she is a thoroughly nice woman too. It is the same with Lalage there. She is not squeamish, and she is full of fun; but she knows as well as anybody how to pull up a man who doesnt behave himself."
"And you actually think that this Lalage Virtue is as respectable a woman as your cousin?"
"Oh, I dont bother myself about it. I shouldnt have thought of comparing them if you hadnt started the idea. Marian's way is not the other one's way, and each of them is all right in her own way. Look here. I'll introduce you to Lalage. We can pick up somebody else to make a party for you, and finish with a supper at Jellicoe's."
"Are you privileged to introduce whom you like to Miss Lalage?"
"Well, as to that, she doesnt stand much on ceremony; but then, you see, that cuts two ways. The mere introducing is no difficulty; but it depends on the man himself whether he gets snubbed afterward or not. By the bye, you must understand, if you dont know it already, that Lalage is as correct in her morals as a bishop's wife. I just tell you, because some fellows seem to think that a woman who goes on the stage leaves her propriety behind as a matter of course. In fact, I rather thought so myself once. Not that you wont find loose women there as well as anywhere else, if you want to. But dont take it for granted, that's all."
"Well," said Conolly, "you may introduce me, and we can consider the supper afterwards. Would it be indiscreet to ask how you obtained your own introduction? You dont, I suppose, move in the same circle as she; and if she is as particular as your own people, she can hardly form promiscuous acquaintanceships."
"A man at the point of death does not stop to think about etiquet. She saved my life."
"Saved your life! That sounds romantic."
"There was precious little romance about it, though I owe my being alive now to her presence of mind. It happened in the rummest way. I was brought behind the scenes one night by a Cambridge chum. We were painting the town a bit red. We were not exactly drunk; but we were not particularly sober either; and I was very green at that time, and made a fool of myself about Lalage: staring; clapping like a madman in the middle of her songs; getting into the way of everybody and everything, and so on. Then a couple of fellows we knew turned up, and we got chatting at the wing with some girls. At last a fellow came in with a bag of cherries; and we began trying that old trick—you know—taking the end of a stalk between your lips and drawing the cherry into the mouth without touching it with your hand, you know. I tried it; and I was just getting the cherry into my mouth when some idiot gave me a drive in the waistcoat. I made a gulp; and the cherry stuck fast in my throat. I began to choke. Nobody knew what to do; and while they were pushing me about, some thinking I was only pretending, the girls beginning to get frightened, and the rest shouting at me to swallow the confounded thing, I was getting black in the face, and my head was bursting: I could see nothing but red spots. It was a near thing, I tell you. Suddenly I got a shake; and then a little fist gave me a stunning thump on the back, that made the cherry bounce out against my palate. I gasped and coughed like a grampus: the stalk was down my throat still. Then the little hand grabbed my throat and made me open my mouth wide; and the cherry was pulled out, stalk and all. It was Lalage who did this while the rest were gaping helplessly. I dont remember what followed. I thought I had fainted; but it appears that I nearly cried, and talked the most awful nonsense to her. I suppose the choking made me hysterical. However, I distinctly recollect the stage manager bullying the girls, and turning us all out. I was very angry with myself for being childish, as they told me I had been; and when I got back to Cambridge I actually took to reading. A few months afterward I made another trip to town, and went behind the scenes again. She recognized me, and chaffed me about the cherry. I jumped at my chance; I improved the acquaintance; and now I know her pretty well."
"You doubt whether any of the ladies that were with us at the concert would have been equally useful in such an emergency?"
"I should think I do doubt it, my boy. Hush! Now that the ballet is over, we are annoying people by talking."
"You are right," replied Conolly. "Aha! Here is Miss Lalage again."
Marmaduke raised his opera-glass to his eyes, eager for another smile from the actress. He seemed about to be gratified; for her glance was travelling toward him along the row of stalls. But it was arrested by Conolly, on whom she looked with perceptible surprise and dismay. Lind, puzzled, turned toward his companion, and found him smiling maliciously at Mademoiselle Lalage, who recovered her vivacity with an effort, and continued her part with more nervousness than he had ever seen her display before.
Shortly before the curtain fell, they left the theatre, and re-entered it by the stage door.
"Queer place, isnt it?" said Lind.
Conolly nodded, but went forward like one well accustomed to the dingy labyrinth of old-fashioned stages. Presently they came upon Lalage. She was much heated by her exertions, thickly painted, and very angry.
"Well?" she said quarrelsomely.
Marmaduke, perceiving that her challenge was not addressed to him, but to Conolly, looked from one to the other, mystified.
"I have come to see you act at last," said Conolly.
"You might have told me you were coming. I could have got you a stall, although I suppose you would have preferred to throw away your money like a fool."
"I must admit, my dear," said Conolly, "that I could have spent it to much greater advantage."
"Indeed! and you!" she said, turning to Lind, whose deepening color betrayed his growing mortification: "what is the matter with you?"
"I have played a trick on your friend," said Conolly. "He suggested this visit; and I did not tell him of the relation between us. Finding us on terms of familiarity, if not of affection, he is naturally surprised."
"As I have never tried to meddle with your private affairs," said Marmaduke to Lalage, "I need not apologize for not knowing your husband. But I regret—"
The actress laughed in spite of her vexation. "Why, you silly old thing!" she exclaimed, "he is no more my husband than you are!"
"Oh!" said Marmaduke. "Indeed!"
"I am her brother," said Conolly considerately, stifling a smile.
"Why," said Mademoiselle Lalage fiercely, raising her voice, "what else did you think?"
"Hush," said Conolly, "we are talking too much in this crowd. You had better change your dress, Susanna, and then we can settle what to do next."
"You can settle what you please," she replied. "I am going home."
"Mr. Lind has suggested our supping together," said Conolly, observing her curiously.
Susanna looked quickly at them.
"Who is Mr. Lind?" she said.
"Your friend, of course," said Conolly, with an answering flash of intelligence that brought out the resemblance between them startlingly. "Mr. Marmaduke Lind."
Marmaduke became very red as they both waited for him to explain.
"I thought that you would perhaps join us at supper," he said to Susanna.
"Did you?" she said, threateningly. Then she turned her back on him and went to her dressing-room.
"Well, Mr. Lind," said Conolly, "what do you think of Mademoiselle Lalage now?"
"I think her annoyance is very natural," said Marmaduke, gloomily. "No doubt you are right to take care of your sister, but you are very much mistaken if you think I meant to act badly toward her."
"It is no part of my duty to take care of her," said Conolly, seriously. "She is her own guardian, and she has never been encouraged to suppose that her responsibility lies with any one but herself."
"It doesnt matter now," said Marmaduke; "for I intend never to speak to her again."
Conolly laughed. "However that may turn out," he said, "we are evidently not in the mood for further conviviality, so let us postpone the supper to some other occasion. May I advise you not to wait until Susanna returns. There is no chance of a reconciliation to-night."
"I dont want any reconciliation."
"Of course not; I had forgotten," replied Conolly, placably. "Then I suppose you will go before she has finished dressing."
"I shall go now," said Marmaduke, buttoning his overcoat, and turning away.
"Good-night," said Conolly.
"Good-night," muttered Marmaduke, petulantly, and disappeared.
Conolly waited a moment, so that he might not overtake Lind. He then went for a cab, and waited at the stage door until his sister came down, frowning. She got into the hansom without a word.
"Why dont you have a brougham, instead of going about in cabs?" he said, as they drove away.
"Because I like a hansom better than a brougham; and I had rather pay four shillings a night and travel comfortably, than thirteen and be half suffocated."
"I thought the appearance of—"
"There is no use in your talking to me. I cant hear a word you say going over these stones."
When they were alone together in their drawing-room in Lambeth, he, after walking up and down the room a few times, and laughing softly to himself, began to sing the couplets from the burlesque.
"Are you aware," she inquired, "that it is half past twelve, and that the people of the house are trying to sleep."
"True," said he, desisting. "By the bye, I, too, have had my triumphs this evening. I shared the honors of the concert with Master Lind, who was so delighted that he insisted on bringing me off to the Bijou. He loves you to distraction, poor devil!"
"Yes: you made a nice piece of mischief there. Where is he?"
"Gone away in a rage, swearing never to speak to you again."
"Hm! And so his name is Lind, is it?"
"Didnt you know?"
"No, or I should have told you when I read the program this evening. The young villain pretended that his name was Marmaduke Sharp."
"Ah! The name reminds me of one of his cousins, a little spitfire that snaps at every one who presumes to talk to her."
"His cousins! Oh, of course; you met them at the concert. What are they like? Are they swells?"
"Yes, they seem to be. There were only two cousins, Miss McQuinch and a young woman named Marian, blonde and rather good looking. There was a brother of hers there, but he is only a parson, and a tall fellow named Douglas, who made rather a fool of himself. I could not make him out exactly."
"Did they snub you?"
"I dont know. Probably they tried. Are you intimate with many of our young nobility under assumed names?"
"Steal a few more marches to the Bijou, and perhaps you will find out."
"Good-night! Pardon my abrupt departure, but you are not the very sweetest of Susannas to-night."
"By the bye," said Conolly, returning, "this must be the Mr. Duke Lind who is going to marry Lady Constance Carbury, my noble pupil's sister."
"I am sure it matters very little whom he marries."
"If he will pay us a visit here, and witness the working of perfect frankness without affection, and perfect liberty without refinement, he may find reason to conclude that it matters a good deal. Good-night."