The Small House at Allington/Chapter 10

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I should simply mislead a confiding reader if I were to tell him that Mrs. Lupex was an amiable woman. Perhaps the fact that she was not amiable is the one great fault that should be laid to her charge; but that fault had spread itself so widely, and had cropped forth in so many different places of her life, like a strong rank plant that will show itself all over a garden, that it may almost be said that it made her odious in every branch of life, and detestable alike to those who knew her little and to those who knew her much. If a searcher could have got at the inside spirit of the woman, that searcher would have found that she wished to go right,—that she did make, or at any rate promise to herself that she would make, certain struggles to attain decency and propriety. But it was so natural to her to torment those whose misfortune brought them near to her, and especially that wretched man who in an evil day had taken her to his bosom as his wife, that decency fled from her, and propriety would not live in her quarters.

Mrs. Lupex was, as I have already described her, a woman not without some feminine attraction in the eyes of those who like morning negligence and evening finery, and do not object to a long nose somewhat on one side. She was clever in her way, and could say smart things. She could flatter also, though her very flattery had always in it something that was disagreeable. And she must have had some power of will, as otherwise her husband would have escaped from her before the days of which I am writing. Otherwise, also, she could hardly have obtained her footing and kept it in Mrs. Roper's drawing-room. For though the hundred pounds a year, either paid, or promised to be paid, was matter with Mrs. Roper of vast consideration, nevertheless the first three months of Mrs. Lupex's sojourn in Burton Crescent were not over before the landlady of that house was most anxiously desirous of getting herself quit of her married boarders.

I shall perhaps best describe a little incident that had occurred in Burton Crescent during the absence of our friend Eames, and the manner in which things were going on in that locality, by giving at length two letters which Johnny received by post at Guestwick on the morning after Mrs. Dale's party. One was from his friend Cradell, and the other from the devoted Amelia. In this instance I will give that from the gentleman first, presuming that I shall best consult my reader's wishes by keeping the greater delicacy till the last.

Income-Tax Office, September, 186—.

My dear Johnny,—We have had a terrible affair in the Crescent; and I really hardly know how to tell you; and yet I must do it, for I want your advice. You know the sort of standing that I was on with Mrs. Lupex, and perhaps you remember what we were saying on the platform at the station. I have, no doubt, been fond of her society, as I might be of that of any other friend. I knew, of course, that she was a fine woman; and if her husband chose to be jealous, I couldn't help that. But I never intended anything wrong; and, if it was necessary, couldn't I call you as a witness to prove it? I never spoke a word to her out of Mrs. Roper's drawing-room; and Miss Spruce, or Mrs. Roper, or somebody has always been there. You know he drinks horribly sometimes, but I do not think he ever gets downright drunk. Well, he came home last night about nine o'clock after one of these bouts. From what Jemima says [Jemima was Mrs. Roper's parlour-maid], I believe he had been at it down at the theatre for three days. We hadn't seen him since Tuesday. He went straight into the parlour and sent up Jemima to me, to say that he wanted to see me. Mrs. Lupex was in the room and heard the girl summon me, and, jumping up, she declared that if there was going to be blood shed she would leave the house. There was nobody else in the room but Miss Spruce, and she didn't say a word, but took her candle and went upstairs. You must own it looked very uncomfortable. What was I to do with a drunken man down in the parlour? However, she seemed to think I ought to go. "If he comes up here," said she, "I shall be the victim. You little know of what that man is capable when his wrath has been inflamed by wine?" Now, I think you are aware that I am not likely to be very much afraid of any man; but why was I to be got into a row in such a way as this? I hadn't done anything. And then, if there was to be a quarrel, and anything was to come of it, as she seemed to expect,—like bloodshed, I mean, or a fight, or if he were to knock me on the head with the poker, where should I be at my office? A man in a public office, as you and I are, can't quarrel like anybody else. It was this that I felt so much at the moment. "Go down to him," said she, "unless you wish to see me murdered at your feet." Fisher says, that if what I say is true, they must have arranged it all between them. I don't think that; for I do believe that she really is fond of me. And then everybody knows that they never do agree about anything. But she certainly did implore me to go down to him. Well, I went down; and, as I got to the bottom of the stairs, where I found Jemima, I heard him walking up and down the parlour. "Take care of yourself, Mr. Cradell," said the girl; and I could see by her face that she was in a terrible fright.

At that moment I happened to see my hat on the hall table, and it occurred to me that I ought to put myself into the hands of a friend. Of course, I was not afraid of that man in the dining-room; but should I have been justified in engaging in a struggle, perhaps for dear life, in Mrs. Roper's house? I was bound to think of her interests. So I took up my hat, and deliberately walked out of the front door. "Tell him," said I to Jemima, "that I'm not at home." And so I went away direct to Fisher's, meaning to send him back to Lupex as my friend; but Fisher was at his chess-club.

As I thought there was no time to be lost on such an occasion as this, I went down to the club and called him out. You know what a cool fellow Fisher is. I don't suppose anything would ever excite him. When I told him the story, he said that he would sleep upon it; and I had to walk up and down before the club while he finished his game. Fisher seemed to think that I might go back to Burton Crescent; but, of course, I knew that that would be out of the question. So it ended in my going home and sleeping on his sofa, and sending for some of my things in the morning. I wanted him to get up and see Lupex before going to the office this morning. But he seemed to think it would be better to put it off, and so he will call upon him at the theatre immediately after office hours.

I want you to write to me at once saying what you know about the matter. I ask you, as I don't want to lug in any of the other people at Roper's. It is very uncomfortable, as I can't exactly leave her at once because of last quarter's money, otherwise I should cut and run; for the house is not the sort of place either for you or me. You may take my word for that, Master Johnny. And I could tell you something, too, about A. R., only I don't want to make mischief. But do you write immediately. And now I think of it, you had better write to Fisher, so that he can show your letter to Lupex,—just saying, that to the best of your belief there had never been anything between her and me but mere friendship; and that, of course, you, as my friend, must have known everything. Whether I shall go back to Roper's to-night will depend on what Fisher says after the interview.

Good-by, old fellow! I hope you are enjoying yourself, and that L. D. is quite well.—Your sincere friend,

Joseph Cradell.

John Eames read this letter over twice before he opened that from Amelia. He had never yet received a letter from Miss Roper; and felt very little of that ardour for its perusal which young men generally experience on the receipt of a first letter from a young lady. The memory of Amelia was at the present moment distasteful to him; and he would have thrown the letter unopened into the fire, had he not felt it might be dangerous to do so. As regarded his friend Cradell, he could not but feel ashamed of him,—ashamed of him, not for running away from Mr. Lupex, but for excusing his escape on false pretences.

And then, at last, he opened the letter from Amelia. "Dearest John," it began; and as he read the words, he crumpled the paper up between his fingers. It was written in a fair female hand, with sharp points instead of curves to the letters, but still very legible, and looking as though there were a decided purport in every word of it.

Dearest John,—It feels so strange to me to write to you in such language as this. And yet you are dearest, and have I not a right to call you so? And are you not my own, and am not I yours? [Again he crunched the paper up in his hand, and, as he did so, he muttered words which I need not repeat at length. But still he went on with his letter.] I know that we understand each other perfectly, and when that is the case, heart should be allowed to speak openly to heart. Those are my feelings, and I believe that you will find them reciprocal in your own bosom. Is it not sweet to be loved? I find it so. And, dearest John, let me assure you, with open candour, that there is no room for jealousy in this breast with regard to you. I have too much confidence for that, I can assure you, both in your honour and in my own—I would say charms, only you would call me vain. You must not suppose that I meant what I said about L. D. Of course, you will be glad to see the friends of your childhood; and it would be far from your Amelia's heart to begrudge you such delightful pleasure. Your friends will, I hope, some day be my friends. [Another crunch.] And if there be any one among them, any real L. D. whom you have specially liked, I will receive her to my heart, specially also. [This assurance on the part of his Amelia was too much for him, and he threw the letter from him, thinking whence he might get relief—whether from suicide or from the colonies; but presently he took it up again, and drained the bitter cup to the bottom.] And if I seemed petulant to you before you went away, you must forgive your own Amelia. I had nothing before me but misery for the month of your absence. There is no one here congenial to my feelings,—of course not. And you would not wish me to be happy in your absence,—would you? I can assure you, let your wishes be what they may, I never can be happy again unless you are with me. Write to me one little line, and tell me that you are grateful to me for my devotion.

And now, I must tell you that we have had a sad affair in the house; and I do not think that your friend Mr. Cradell has behaved at all well. You remember how he has been always going on with Mrs. Lupex. Mother was quite unhappy about it, though she didn't like to say anything. Of course, when a lady's name is concerned, it is particular. But Lupex has become dreadful jealous during the last week; and we all knew that something was coming. She is an artful woman, but I don't think she meant anything bad—only to drive her husband to desperation. He came here yesterday in one of his tantrums, and wanted to see Cradell; but he got frightened, and took his hat and went off. Now, that wasn't quite right. If he was innocent, why didn't he stand his ground and explain the mistake? As mother says, it gives the house such a name. Lupex swore last night that he'd be off to the Income-tax Office this morning, and have Cradell out before all the commissioners, and clerks, and everybody. If he does that, it will get into the papers, and all London will be full of it. She would like it, I know; for all she cares for is to be talked about; but only think what it will be for mother's house. I wish you were here; for your high prudence and courage would set everything right at once,—at least, I think so. I shall count the minutes till I get an answer to this, and shall envy the postman who will have your letter before it will reach me. Do write at once. If I do not hear by Monday morning I shall think that something is the matter. Even though you are among your dear old friends, surely you can find a moment to write to your own Amelia. Mother is very unhappy about this affair of the Lupexes. She says that if you were here to advise her she should not mind it so much. It is very hard upon her, for she does strive to make the house respectable and comfortable for everybody. I would send my duty and love to your dear mamma, if I only knew her, as I hope I shall do one day, and to your sister, and to L. D. also, if you like to tell her how we are situated together. So, now, no more from your

Always affectionate sweetheart,

Amelia Roper.

Poor Eames did not feel the least gratified by any part of this fond letter; but the last paragraph of it was the worst. Was it to be endured by him that this woman should send her love to his mother and to his sister, and even to Lily Dale! He felt that there was a pollution in the very mention of Lily's name by such an one as Amelia Roper. And yet Amelia Roper was, as she had assured him,—his own. Much as he disliked her at the present moment, he did believe that he was—her own. He did feel that she had obtained a certain property in him, and that his destiny in life would tie him to her. He had said very few words of love to her at any time—very few, at least, that were themselves of any moment; but among those few there had undoubtedly been one or two in which he had told her that he loved her. And he had written to her that fatal note! Upon the whole, would it not be as well for him to go out to the great reservoir behind Guestwick, by which the Hamersham Canal was fed with its waters, and put an end to his miserable existence?

On that same day he did write a letter to Fisher, and he wrote also to Cradell. As to those letters he felt no difficulty. To Fisher he declared his belief that Cradell was innocent as he was himself as regarded Mrs. Lupex. "I don't think he is the sort of man to make up to a married woman," he said, somewhat to Cradell's displeasure, when the letter reached the Income-tax Office; for that gentleman was not averse to the reputation for success in love which the little adventure was, as he thought, calculated to give him among his brother clerks. At the first bursting of the shell, when that desperately jealous man was raging in the parlour, incensed by the fumes both of wine and love, Cradell had felt that the affair was disagreeably painful. But on the morning of the third day—for he had passed two nights on his friend Fisher's sofa—he had begun to be somewhat proud of it, and did not dislike to hear Mrs. Lupex's name in the mouths of the other clerks. When, therefore, Fisher read to him the letter from Guestwick, he hardly was pleased with his friend's tone. "Ha, ha, ha," said he, laughing. "That's just what I wanted him to say. Make up to a married woman, indeed. No; I'm the last man in London to do that sort of thing."

"Upon my word, Caudle, I think you are," said Fisher; "the very last man."

And then poor Cradell was not happy. On that afternoon he boldly went to Burton Crescent, and ate his dinner there. Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Lupex were to be seen, nor were their names mentioned to him by Mrs. Roper. In the course of the evening he did pluck up courage to ask Miss Spruce where they were; but that ancient lady merely shook her head solemnly, and declared that she knew nothing about such goings on—no, not she.

But what was John Eames to do as to that letter from Amelia Roper? He felt that any answer to it would be very dangerous, and yet that he could not safely leave it unanswered. He walked off by himself across Guestwick Common, and through the woods of Guestwick Manor, up by the big avenue of elms in Lord De Guest's park, trying to resolve how he might rescue himself from this scrape. Here, over the same ground, he had wandered scores of times in his earlier years, when he knew nothing beyond the innocency of his country home, thinking of Lily Dale, and swearing to himself that she should be his wife. Here he had strung together his rhymes, and fed his ambition with high hopes, building gorgeous castles in the air, in all of which Lilian reigned as a queen; and though in those days he had known himself to be awkward, poor, uncared for by any in the world except his mother and his sister, yet he had been happy in his hopes—happy in his hopes, even though he had never taught himself really to believe that they would be realized. But now there was nothing in his hopes or thoughts to make him happy. Everything was black, and wretched, and ruinous. What would it matter, after all, even if he should marry Amelia Roper, seeing that Lily was to be given to another? But then the idea of Amelia as he had seen her that night through the chink in the door came upon his memory, and he confessed to himself that life with such a wife as that would be a living death.

At one moment he thought that he would tell his mother everything, and leave her to write an answer to Amelia's letter. Should the worst come to the worst, the Ropers could not absolutely destroy him. That they could bring an action against him, and have him locked up for a term of years, and dismissed from his office, and exposed in all the newspapers, he seemed to know. That might all, however, be endured, if only the gauntlet could be thrown down for him by some one else. The one thing which he felt that he could not do was, to write to a girl whom he had professed to love, and tell her that he did not love her. He knew that he could not himself form such words upon the paper; nor, as he was well aware, could he himself find the courage to tell her to her face that he had changed his mind. He knew that he must become the victim of his Amelia, unless he could find some friendly knight to do battle in his favour; and then again he thought of his mother.

But when he returned home he was as far as ever from any resolve to tell her how he was situated. I may say that his walk had done him no good, and that he had not made up his mind to anything. He had been building those pernicious castles in the air during more than half the time; not castles in the building of which he could make himself happy, as he had done in the old days, but black castles, with cruel dungeons, into which hardly a ray of life; could find its way. In all these edifices his imagination pictured to him Lily as the wife of Mr. Crosbie. He accepted that as a fact, and then went to work in his misery, making her as wretched as himself, through the misconduct and harshness of her husband. He tried to think, and to resolve what he would do; but there is no task so hard as that of thinking, when the mind has an objection to the matter brought before it. The mind, under such circumstances, is like a horse that is brought to the water, but refuses to drink. So Johnny returned to his home, still doubting whether or no he would answer Amelia's letter. And if he did not answer it, how would he conduct himself on his return to Burton Crescent?

I need hardly say that Miss Roper, in writing her letter, had been aware of all this, and that Johnny's position had been carefully prepared for him——by his affectionate sweetheart.