The Small House at Allington/Chapter 11
Mr. and Mrs. Lupex had eaten a sweetbread together in much connubial bliss on that day which had seen Cradell returning to Mrs. Roper's hospitable board. They had together eaten a sweetbread, with some other delicacies of the season, in the neighbourhood of the theatre, and had washed down all unkindness with bitter beer and brandy-and-water. But of this reconciliation Cradell had not heard; and when he saw them come together into the drawing-room, a few minutes after the question he had addressed to Miss Spruce, he was certainly surprised.
Lupex was not an ill-natured man, nor one naturally savage by disposition. He was a man fond of sweetbread and little dinners, and one to whom hot brandy-and-water was too dear. Had the wife of his bosom been a good helpmate to him, he might have gone through the world, if not respectably, at any rate without open disgrace. But she was a woman who left a man no solace except that to be found in brandy-and-water. For eight years they had been man and wife; and sometimes—I grieve to say it—he had been driven almost to hope that she would commit a married woman's last sin, and leave him. In his misery, any mode of escape would have been welcome to him. Had his energy been sufficient he would have taken his scene-painting capabilities off to Australia,—or to the farthest shifting of scenes known on the world's stage. But he was an easy, listless, self-indulgent man; and at any moment, let his misery be as keen as might be, a little dinner, a few soft words, and a glass of brandy-and-water would bring him round. The second glass would make him the fondest husband living; but the third would restore to him the memory of all his wrongs, and give him courage against his wife or all the world,—even to the detriment of the furniture around him, should a stray poker chance to meet his hand. All these peculiarities of his character were not, however, known to Cradell; and when our friend saw him enter the drawing-room with his wife on his arm, he was astonished.
"Mr. Cradell, your hand," said Lupex, who had advanced as far as the second glass of brandy-and- water, but had not been allowed to go beyond it. "There has been a misunderstanding between us; let it be forgotten."
"Mr. Cradell, if I know him," said the lady, "is too much the gentleman to bear any anger when a gentleman has offered him his hand."
"Oh, I'm sure," said Cradell, "I'm quite—— indeed, I'm delighted to find there's nothing wrong after all." And then he shook hands with both of them; whereupon Miss Spruce got up, curtseyed low, and also shook hands with the husband and wife.
"You're not a married man, Mr. Cradell," said Lupex, "and, therefore, you cannot understand the workings of a husband's heart. There have been moments when my regard for that woman has been too much for me."
"Now, Lupex, don't," said she, playfully tapping him with an old parasol which she still held.
"And I do not hesitate to say that my regard for her was too much for me on that night when I sent for you to the dining-room."
"I'm glad it's all put right now," said Cradell.
"Very glad, indeed," said Miss Spruce.
"And, therefore, we need not say any more about it," said Mrs. Lupex.
"One word," said Lupex, waving his hand. "Mr. Cradell, I greatly rejoice that you did not obey my summons on that night. Had you done so,—I confess it now,—had you done so, blood would have been the consequence. I was mistaken. I acknowledge my mistake;—but blood would have been the consequence."
"Dear, dear, dear," said Miss Spruce.
"Miss Spruce," continued Lupex, "there are moments when the heart becomes too strong for a man."
"I dare say," said Miss Spruce.
"Now, Lupex, that will do," said his wife."Yes; that will do. But I think it right to tell Mr. Cradell that I am glad he did not come to me. Your friend, Mr. Cradell, did me the honour of calling on me at the theatre yesterday, at half-past
Mr. Cradell, your hand," said Lupex.
"I'm sure you're very kind," said Cradell.
"And Mrs. Lupex will join us. There's a delightful little snuggery upstairs at the Pot and Poker; and if Miss Spruce will condescend to——"
"Oh, I'm an old woman, sir."
"No—no—no," said Lupex, "I deny that. Come, Cradell, what do you say?—just a snug little dinner for four, you know."
It was, no doubt, pleasant to see Mr. Lupex in his present mood,—much pleasanter than in that other mood of which blood would have been the consequence; but pleasant as he now was, it was, nevertheless, apparent that he was not quite sober. Cradell, therefore, did not settle the day for the little dinner; but merely remarked that he should be very happy at some future day.
"And now, Lupex, suppose you get off to bed," said his wife. "You've had a very trying day, you know."
"And you, ducky?"
"I shall come presently. Now don't be making a fool of yourself, but get yourself off. Come—" and she stood close up against the open door, waiting for him to pass.
"I rather think I shall remain where I am, and have a glass of something hot," said he.
"Lupex, do you want to aggravate me again?" said the lady, and she looked at him with a glance of her eye which he thoroughly understood. He was not in a humour for fighting, nor was he at present desirous of blood; so he resolved to go. But as he went he prepared himself for new battles. "I shall do something desperate, I am sure; I know I shall," he said, as he pulled off his boots.
"Oh, Mr. Cradell," said Mrs. Lupex as soon as she had closed the door behind her retreating husband, "how am I ever to look you in the face again after the events of these last memorable days?" And then she seated herself on the sofa, and hid her face in a cambric handkerchief.
"As for that," said Cradell, "what does it signify,—among friends like us, you know?"
"But that it should be known at your office,—as of course it is, because of the gentleman that went down to him at the theatre!—I don't think I shall ever survive it."
"You see I was obliged to send somebody, Mrs. Lupex."
"I'm not finding fault, Mr. Cradell. I know very well that in my melancholy position I have no right to find fault, and I don't pretend to understand gentlemen's feelings towards each other. But to have had my name mentioned up with yours in that way is—— Oh! Mr. Cradell, I don't know how I'm ever to look you in the face again." And again she buried hers in her pocket-handkerchief.
"Handsome is as handsome does," said Miss Spruce; and there was that in her tone of voice which seemed to convey much hidden meaning.
"Exactly so, Miss Spruce," said Mrs. Lupex; "and that's my only comfort at the present moment. Mr. Cradell is a gentleman who would scorn to take advantage—I'm quite sure of that." And then she did contrive to look at him over the edge of the hand which held the handkerchief.
"That I wouldn't, I'm sure," said Cradell. "That is to say——" And then he paused. He did not wish to get into a scrape about Mrs. Lupex. He was by no means anxious to encounter her husband in one of his fits of jealousy. But he did like the idea of being talked of as the admirer of a married woman, and he did like the brightness of the lady's eyes. When the unfortunate moth in his semi-blindness whisks himself and his wings within the flame of the candle, and finds himself mutilated and tortured, he even then will not take the lesson, but returns again and again till he is destroyed. Such a moth was poor Cradell. There was no warmth to be got by him from that flame. There was no beauty in the light,—not even the false brilliance of unhallowed love. Injury might come to him,—a pernicious clipping of the wings, which might destroy all power of future flight; injury, and not improbably destruction, if he should persevere. But one may say that no single hour of happiness could accrue to him from his intimacy with Mrs. Lupex. He felt for her no love. He was afraid of her, and, in many respects, disliked her. But to him, in his moth-like weakness, ignorance, and blindness, it seemed to be a great thing that he should be allowed to fly near the candle. Oh! my friends, if you will but think of it, how many of you have been moths, and are now going about ungracefully with wings more or less burnt off, and with bodies sadly scorched!
But before Mr. Cradell could make up his mind whether or no he would take advantage of the present opportunity for another dip into the flame of the candle,—in regard to which proceeding, however, he could not but feel that the presence of Miss Spruce was objectionable,—the door of the room was opened, and Amelia Roper joined the party.
"Oh, indeed; Mrs. Lupex," she said. "And Mr. Cradell!"
"And Miss Spruce, my dear," said Mrs. Lupex, pointing to the ancient lady.
"I'm only an old woman," said Miss Spruce.
"Oh, yes; I see Miss Spruce," said Amelia. "I was not hinting at anything, I can assure you."
"I should think not, my dear," said Mrs. Lupex.
"Only I didn't know that you two were quite—— That is, when last I heard about it, I fancied—— But if the quarrel's made up, there's nobody more rejoiced than I am."
"The quarrel is made up," said Cradell.
"If Mr. Lupex is satisfied, I'm sure I am," said Amelia.
"Mr. Lupex is satisfied," said Mrs. Lupex; "and let me tell you, my dear, seeing that you are expecting to get married yourself——"
"Mrs. Lupex, I'm not expecting to get married,—not particularly, by any means."
"Oh, I thought you were. And let me tell you, that when you've got a husband of your own, you won't find it so easy to keep everything straight. That's the worst of these lodgings, if there is any little thing, everybody knows it. Don't they, Miss Spruce?"
"Lodgings is so much more comfortable than housekeeping," said Miss Spruce, who lived rather in fear of her relatives, the Ropers.
"Everybody knows it; does he?" said Amelia. "Why, if a gentleman will come home at night tipsy and threaten to murder another gentleman in the same house; and if a lady——" And then Amelia paused, for she knew that the line-of-battle ship which she was preparing to encounter had within her much power of fighting.
"Well, miss," said Mrs. Lupex, getting on her feet, "and what of the lady?"
Now we may say that the battle had begun, and that the two ships were pledged by the general laws of courage and naval warfare to maintain the contest till one of them should be absolutely disabled, if not blown up or sunk. And at this moment it might be difficult for a bystander to say with which of the combatants rested the better chance of permanent success. Mrs. Lupex had doubtless on her side more matured power, a habit of fighting which had given her infinite skill, a courage which deadened her to the feeling of all wounds while the heat of the battle should last, and a recklessness which made her almost indifferent whether she sank or swam. But then Amelia carried the greater guns, and was able to pour in heavier metal than her enemy could use; and she, too, swam in her own waters. Should they absolutely come to grappling and boarding, Amelia would no doubt have the best of it; but Mrs. Lupex would probably be too crafty to permit such a proceeding as that. She was, however, ready for the occasion, and greedy for the fight.
"And what of the lady?" said she, in a tone of voice that admitted of no pacific rejoinder.
"A lady, if she is a lady," said Amelia, "will know how to behave herself."
"And you're going to teach me, are you, Miss Roper? I'm sure I'm ever so much obliged to you. It's Manchester manners, I suppose, that you prefer?"
"I prefer honest manners, Mrs. Lupex, and decent manners, and manners that won't shock a whole house full of people; and I don't care whether they come from Manchester or London."
"Milliner's manners, I suppose?"
"I don't care whether they are milliner's manners or theatrical, Mrs. Lupex, as long as they're not downright bad manners—as yours are, Mrs. Lupex. And now you've got it. What are you going on for in this way with that young man, till you'll drive your husband into a madhouse with drink and jealousy?"
"Miss Roper! Miss Roper!" said Cradell; "now really——"
"Don't mind her, Mr. Cradell," said Mrs. Lupex; "she's not worthy for you to speak to. And as to that poor fellow Eames, if you've any friendship for him, you'll let him know what she is. My dear, how's Mr. Juniper, of Grogram's house, at Salford? I know all about you, and so shall John Eames, too—poor unfortunate fool of a fellow! Telling me of drink and jealousy, indeed!"
"Yes, telling you! And now you've mentioned Mr. Juniper's name, Mr. Eames, and Mr. Cradell too, may know the whole of it. There's been nothing about Mr. Juniper that I'm ashamed of."
"It would be difficult to make you ashamed of anything, I believe."
"But let me tell you this, Mrs. Lupex, you're not going to destroy the respectability of this house by your goings on."
"It was a bad day for me when I let Lupex bring me into it."
"Then pay your bill, and walk out of it," said Amelia, waving her hand towards the door. "I'll undertake to say there shan't be any notice required. Only you pay mother what you owe, and you're free to go at once."
"I shall go just when I please, and not one hour before. Who are you, you gipsy, to speak to me in this way?"
"And as for going, go you shall, if we have to call in the police to make you."
Amelia, as at this period of the fight she stood fronting her foe with her arms akimbo, certainly seemed to have the best of the battle. But the bitterness of Mrs. Lupex's tongue had hardly yet produced its greatest results. I am inclined to think that the married lady would have silenced her who was single, had the fight been allowed to rage,—always presuming that no resort to grappling-irons took place. But at this moment Mrs. Roper entered the room, accompanied by her son, and both the combatants for a moment retreated.
"Amelia, what's all this?" said Mrs. Roper, trying to assume a look of agonized amazement.
"Ask Mrs. Lupex," said Amelia.
"And Mrs. Lupex will answer," said that lady. "Your daughter has come in here, and attacked me—in such language—before Mr. Cradell, too——"
"Why doesn't she pay what she owes, and leave the house?" said Amelia.
"Hold your tongue," said her brother. "What she owes is no affair of yours."
"But it's an affair of mine, when I'm insulted by such a creature as that."
"Creature!" said Mrs. Lupex. "I'd like to know which is most like a creature! But I'll tell you what it is, Amelia Roper——"
Here, however, her eloquence was stopped, for Amelia had disappeared through the door, having been pushed out of the room by her brother. Whereupon Mrs. Lupex, having found a sofa convenient for the service, betook herself to hysterics. There for the moment we will leave her, hoping that poor Mrs. Roper was not kept late out of her bed.
"What a deuce of a mess Eames will make of it if he marries that girl!" Such was Cradell's reflection as he betook himself to his own room. But of his own part in the night's transactions he was rather proud than otherwise, feeling that the married lady's regard for him had been the cause of the battle which had raged. So, likewise, did Paris derive much gratification from the ten years' siege of Troy.