The Small House at Allington/Chapter 51

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John Eames succeeded in making his bargain with Sir Raffle Buffle. He accepted the private-secretaryship on the plainly expressed condition that he was to have leave of absence for a fortnight towards the end of April. Having arranged this he took an affectionate leave of Mr. Love, who was really much affected at parting with him, discussed valedictory pots of porter in the big room, over which many wishes were expressed that he might be enabled to compass the length and breadth of old Huffle's feet, uttered a last cutting joke at Mr. Kissing as he met that gentleman hurrying through the passages with an enormous ledger in his hands, and then took his place in the comfortable arm-chair which FitzHoward had been forced to relinquish.

"Don't tell any of the fellows," said Fitz, "but I'm going to cut the concern altogether. My governor wouldn't let me stop here in any other place than that of private secretary."

"Ah, your governor is a swell," said Eames.

"I don't know about that," said FitzHoward. "Of course he has a good deal of family interest. My cousin is to come in for St. Bungay at the next election, and then I can do better than remain here."

"That's a matter of course," said Eames. "If my cousin were Member for St. Bungay, I'd never stand anything east of Whitehall."

"And I don't mean," said FitzHoward. "This room, you know, is all very nice; but it is a bore coming into the City every day. And then one doesn't like to be rung for like a servant. Not that I mean to put you out of conceit with it."

"It will do very well for me," said Eames. "I never was very particular." And so they parted, Eames assuming the beautiful arm-chair and the peril of being asked to carry Sir Raffle's shoes, while FitzHoward took the vacant desk in the big room till such time as some member of his family should come into Parliament for the borough of St. Bungay.

But Eames, though he drank the porter, and quizzed FitzHoward, and gibed at Kissing, did not seat himself in his new arm-chair without some serious thoughts. He was aware that his career in London had not hitherto been one on which he could look back with self-respect. He had lived with friends whom he did not esteem; he had been idle, and sometimes worse than idle; and he had allowed himself to be hampered by the pretended love of a woman for whom he had never felt any true affection, and by whom he had been cozened out of various foolish promises which even yet were hanging over his head. As he sat with Sir Raffle's notes before him, he thought almost with horror of the men and women in Burton Crescent. It was now about three years since he had first known Cradell, and he shuddered as he remembered how very poor a creature was he whom he had chosen for his bosom friend. He could not make for himself those excuses which we can make for him. He could not tell himself that he had been driven by circumstances to choose a friend, before he had learned to know what were the requisites for which he should look. He had lived on terms of closest intimacy with this man for three years, and now his eyes were opening themselves to the nature of his friend's character. Cradell was in age three years his senior. "I won't drop him," he said to himself; "but he is a poor creature." He thought, too, of the Lupexes, of Miss Spruce, and of Mrs. Roper, and tried to imagine what Lily Dale would do if she found herself among such people. It would be impossible that she should ever so find herself. He might as well ask her to drink at the bar of a gin-shop as to sit down in Mrs. Roper's drawing-room. If destiny had in store for him such good fortune as that of calling Lily his own, it was necessary that he should altogether alter his mode of life.

In truth his hobbledehoyhood was dropping off from him, as its old skin drops from a snake. Much of the feeling and something of the knowledge of manhood was coming on him, and he was beginning to recognize to himself that the future manner of his life must be to him a matter of very serious concern. No such thought had come near him when he first established himself in London. It seems to me that in this respect the fathers and mothers of the present generation understand but little of the inward nature of the young men for whom they are so anxious. They give them credit for so much that it is impossible they should have, and then deny them credit for so much that they possess! They expect from them when boys the discretion of men,—that discretion which comes from thinking; but will not give them credit for any of that power of thought which alone can ultimately produce good conduct. Young men are generally thoughtful,—more thoughtful than their seniors; but the fruit of their thought is not as yet there. And then so little is done for the amusement of lads who are turned loose into London at nineteen or twenty. Can it be that any mother really expects her son to sit alone evening after evening in a dingy room drinking bad tea, and reading good books? And yet it seems that mothers do so expect,—the very mothers who talk about the thoughtlessness of youth! O ye mothers who from year to year see your sons launched forth upon the perils of the world, and who are so careful with your good advice, with under flannel shirting, with books of devotion and tooth-powder, does it never occur to you that provision should be made for amusement, for dancing, for parties, for the excitement and comfort of women's society? That excitement your sons will have, and if it be not provided by you of one kind, will certainly be provided by themselves of another kind. If I were a mother sending lads out into the world, the matter most in my mind would be this,—to what houses full of nicest girls could I get them admission, so that they might do their flirting in good company.

Poor John Eames had been so placed that he had been driven to do his flirting in very bad company, and he was now fully aware that it had been so. It wanted but two days to his departure for Guestwick Manor, and as he sat breathing a while after the manufacture of a large batch of Sir Raffle's notes, he made up his mind that he would give Mrs. Roper notice before he started, that on his return to London he would be seen no more in Burton Crescent. He would break his bonds altogether asunder, and if there should be any penalty for such breaking he would pay it in what best manner he might be able. He acknowledged to himself that he had been behaving badly to Amelia, confessing, indeed, more sin in that respect than he had in truth committed; but this, at any rate, was clear to him, that he must put himself on a proper footing in that quarter before he could venture to speak to Lily Dale.

As he came to a definite conclusion on this subject the little handbell which always stood on Sir Raffle's table was sounded, and Eames was called into the presence of the great man. "Ah," said Sir Raffle, leaning back in his arm-chair, and stretching himself after the great exertions which he had been making—"Ah, let me see? You are going out of town the day after to-morrow."

"Yes, Sir Raffle, the day after to-morrow."

"Ah! it's a great annoyance,—a very great annoyance. But on such occasions I never think of myself. I never have done so, and don't suppose I ever shall. So you're going down to my old friend De Guest?"

Eames was always angered when his new patron Sir Raffle talked of his old friendship with the earl, and never gave the Commissioner any encouragement. "I am going down to Guestwick," said he.

"Ah! yes; to Guestwick Manor? I don't remember that I was ever there. I daresay I may have been, but one forgets those things."

"I never heard Lord De Guest speak of it."

"Oh, dear, no. Why should his memory be better than mine? Tell him, will you, how very glad I shall be to renew our old intimacy. I should think nothing of running down to him for a day or two in the dull time of the year,—say in September or October. It's rather a coincidence our both being interested about you,—isn't it?"

"I'll be sure to tell him."

"Mind you do. He's one of our most thoroughly independent noblemen, and I respect him very highly. Let me see; didn't I ring my bell? What was it I wanted? I think I rang my bell."

"You did ring your bell."

"Ah, yes; I know. I am going away, and I wanted my —— would you tell Rafferty to bring me—my boots?" Whereupon Johnny rang the bell—not the little handbell, but the other bell. "And I shan't be here to-morrow," continued Sir Raffle. "I'll thank you to send my letters up to the square; and if they should send down from the Treasury;—but the Chancellor would write, and in that case you'll send up his letter at once by a special messenger, of course."

"Here's Rafferty," said Eames, determined that he would not even sully his lips with speaking of Sir Raffle's boots.

"Oh, ah, yes; Rafferty, bring me my boots."

"Anything else to say?" asked Eames.

"No, nothing else. Of course you'll be careful to leave everything straight behind you."

"Oh, yes; I'll leave it all straight." Then Eames withdrew, so that he might not be present at the interview between Sir Raffle and his boots. "He'll not do," said Sir Raffle to himself. "He'll never do. He's not quick enough,—has no go in him. He's not man enough for the place. I wonder why the earl has taken him by the hand in that way."

Soon after the little episode of the boots Eames left his office and walked home alone to Burton Crescent. He felt that he had gained a victory in Sir Raffle's room, but the victory there had been easy. Now he had another battle on his hands, in which, as he believed, the achievement of victory would be much more difficult. Amelia Roper was a person much more to be feared than the Chief Commissioner. He had one strong arrow in his quiver on which he would depend, if there should come to him the necessity of giving his enemy a death-wound. During the last week she had been making powerful love to Cradell, so as to justify the punishment of desertion from a former lover. He would not throw Cradell in her teeth if he could help it; but it was incumbent on him to gain a victory, and if the worst should come to the worst, he must use such weapons as destiny and the chance of war had given him.

He found Mrs. Roper in the dining-room as he entered, and immediately began his work. "Mrs. Roper," he said, "I'm going out of town the day after to-morrow."

"Oh, yes, Mr. Eames, we know that. You're going as a visitor to the noble mansion of the Earl De Guest."

"I don't know about the mansion being very noble, but I'm going down into the country for a fortnight. When I come back——"

"When you come back, Mr. Eames, I hope you'll find your room a deal more comfortable. I know it isn't quite what it should be for a gentleman like you, and I've been thinking for some time past——"

"But, Mrs. Roper, I don't mean to come back here any more. It's just that that I want to say to you."

"Not come back to the crescent!"

"No, Mrs. Roper. A fellow must move sometimes, you know; and I'm sure I've been very constant to you for a long time."

"But where are you going, Mr. Eames?"

"Well; I haven't just made up my mind as yet. That is, it will depend on what I may do,—on what friends of mine may say down in the country. You'll not think I'm quarrelling with you, Mrs. Roper."

"It's them Lupexes as have done it," said Mrs. Roper, in her deep distress.

"No, indeed, Mrs. Roper, nobody has done it."

"Yes, it is; and I'm not going to blame you, Mr. Eames. They've made the house unfit for any decent young gentleman like you. I've been feeling that all along; but it's hard upon a lone woman like me, isn't it, Mr. Eames?"

"But, Mrs. Roper, the Lupexes have had nothing to do with my going."

"Oh, yes, they have; I understand it all. But what could I do, Mr. Eames? I've been giving them warning every week for the last six months; but the more I give them warning, the more they won't go. Unless I were to send for a policeman, and have a row in the house——"

"But I haven't complained of the Lupexes, Mrs. Roper."

"You wouldn't be quitting without any reason, Mr. Eames. You are not going to be married in earnest, are you, Mr. Eames?"

"Not that I know of."

"You may tell me; you may, indeed. I won't say a word,—not to anybody. It hasn't been my fault about Amelia. It hasn't really."

"Who says there's been any fault?"

"I can see, Mr. Eames. Of course it didn't do for me to interfere. And if you had liked her, I will say I believed she'd have made as good a wife as any young man ever took; and she can make a few pounds go farther than most girls. You can understand a mother's feelings; and if there was to be anything, I couldn't spoil it; could I, now?"

"But there isn't to be anything."

"So I've told her for months past. I'm not going to say anything to blame you; but young men ought to be very particular; indeed they ought." Johnny did not choose to hint to the disconsolate mother that it also behoved young women to be very particular, but he thought it. "I've wished many a time, Mr. Eames, that she had never come here; indeed I have. But what's a mother to do? I couldn't put her outside the door." Then Mrs. Roper raised her apron up to her eyes, and began to sob.

"I'm very sorry if I've made any mischief," said Johnny.

"It hasn't been your fault," continued the poor woman, from whom, as her tears became uncontrollable, her true feelings forced themselves and the real outpouring of her feminine nature. "Nor it hasn't been my fault. But I knew what it would come to when I saw how she was going on; and I told her so. I knew you wouldn't put up with the likes of her."

"Indeed, Mrs. Roper, I've always had a great regard for her, and for you too."

"But you weren't going to marry her. I've told her so all along, and I've begged her not to do it,—almost on my knees I have; but she wouldn't be said by me. She never would. She's always been that wilful that I'd sooner have her away from me than with me. Though she's a good young woman in the house,—she is, indeed, Mr. Eames;—and there isn't a pair of hands in it that works so hard; but it was no use my talking."

"I don't think any harm has been done."

"Yes, there has; great harm. It has made the place not respectable. It's the Lupexes is the worst. There's Miss Spruce, who has been with me for nine years,—ever since I've had the house,—she's been telling me this morning that she means to go into the country. It's all the same thing. I understand it. I can see it. The house isn't respectable, as it should be; and your mamma, if she were to know all, would have a right to be angry with me. I did mean to be respectable, Mr. Eames; I did indeed."

"Miss Spruce will think better of it."

"You don't know what I've had to go through. There's none of them pays, not regular,—only she and you. She's been like the Bank of England, has Miss Spruce."

"I'm afraid I've not been very regular, Mrs. Roper."

"Oh, yes, you have. I don't think of a pound or two more or less at the end of a quarter, if I'm sure to have it some day. The butcher,—he understands one's lodgers just as well as I do,—if the money's really coming, he'll wait; but he won't wait for such as them Lupexes, whose money's nowhere. And there's Cradell; would you believe it, that fellow owes me eight and twenty pounds!"

"Eight and twenty pounds!"

"Yes, Mr. Eames, eight and twenty pounds! He's a fool. It's them Lupexes as have had his money. I know it. He don't talk of paying, and going away. I shall be just left with him and the Lupexes on my hands; and then the bailiffs may come and sell every stick about the place. I won't say nay to them." Then she threw herself into the old horsehair arm-chair, and gave way to her womanly sorrow.

"I think I'll go upstairs, and get ready for dinner," said Eames.

"And you must go away when you come back?" said Mrs. Roper.

"Well, yes, I'm afraid I must. I meant you to have a month's warning from to-day. Of course I shall pay for the month."

"I don't want to take any advantage; indeed, I don't. But I do hope you'll leave your things. You can have them whenever you like. If Chumpend knows that you and Miss Spruce are both going, of course he'll be down upon me for his money." Chumpend was the butcher. But Eames made no answer to this piteous plea. Whether or no he could allow his old boots to remain in Burton Crescent for the next week or two, must depend on the manner in which he might be received by Amelia Roper this evening.

When he came down to the drawing-room, there was no one there but Miss Spruce. "A fine day, Miss Spruce," said he.

"Yes, Mr. Eames, it is a fine day for London; but don't you think the country air is very nice?"

"Give me the town," said Johnny, wishing to say a good word for poor Mrs. Roper, if it were possible.

"You're a young man, Mr. Eames; but I'm only an old woman. That makes a difference," said Miss Spruce.

"Not much," said Johnny, meaning to be civil. "You don't like to be dull any more than I do."

"I like to be respectable, Mr. Eames. I always have been respectable, Mr. Eames." This the old woman said almost in a whisper, looking anxiously to see that the door had not been opened to other listening ears.

"I'm sure Mrs. Roper is very respectable."

"Yes; Mrs. Roper is respectable, Mr. Eames; but there are some here that—— Hush-sh-sh!" And the old lady put her finger up to her lips. The door opened and Mrs. Lupex swam into the room.

"How d'ye do, Miss Spruce? I declare you're always first. It's to get a chance of having one of the young gentlemen to yourself, I believe. What's the news in the city to-day, Mr. Eames? In your position now of course you hear all the news."

"Sir Raffle Buffle has got a new pair of shoes. I don't know that for certain, but I guess it from the time it took him to put them on."

"Ah! now you're quizzing. That's always the way with you gentlemen when you get a little up in the world. You don't think women are worth talking to then, unless just for a joke or so."

"I'd a great deal sooner talk to you, Mrs. Lupex, than I would to Sir Raffle Buffle."

"It's all very well for you to say that. But we women know what such compliments as those mean;—don't we, Miss Spruce? A woman that's been married five years as I have,—or I may say six,—doesn't expect much attention from young men. And though I was young when I married,—young in years, that is,—I'd seen too much and gone through too much to be young in heart." This she said almost in a whisper; but Miss Spruce heard it, and was confirmed in her belief that Burton Crescent was no longer respectable.

"I don't know what you were then, Mrs. Lupex," said Eames; "but you're young enough now for anything."

"Mr. Eames, I'd sell all that remains of my youth at a cheap rate,—at a very cheap rate, if I could only be sure of——"

"Sure of what, Mrs. Lupex?"

"The undivided affection of the one person that I loved. That is all that is necessary to a woman's happiness."

"And isn't Lupex——"

"Lupex! But, hush, never mind. I should not have allowed myself to be betrayed into an expression of feeling. Here's your friend Mr. Cradell. Do you know I sometimes wonder what you find in that man to be so fond of him." Miss Spruce saw it all, and heard it all, and positively resolved upon moving herself to those two small rooms at Dulwich.

Hardly a word was exchanged between Amelia and Eames before dinner. Amelia still devoted herself to Cradell, and Johnny saw that that arrow, if it should be needed, would be a strong weapon. Mrs. Roper they found seated at her place at the dining-table, and Eames could perceive the traces of her tears. Poor woman! Few positions in life could be harder to bear than hers! To be ever tugging at others for money that they could not pay; to be ever tugged at for money which she could not pay; to desire respectability for its own sake, but to be driven to confess that it was a luxury beyond her means; to put up with disreputable belongings for the sake of lucre, and then not to get the lucre, but be driven to feel that she was ruined by the attempt! How many Mrs. Ropers there are who from year to year sink down and fall away, and no one knows whither they betake themselves! One fancies that one sees them from time to time at the corners of the streets in battered bonnets and thin gowns, with the tattered remnants of old shawls upon their shoulders, still looking as though they had within them a faint remembrance of long-distant respectability. With anxious eyes they peer about, as though searching in the streets for other lodgers. Where do they get their daily morsels of bread, and their poor cups of thin tea,—their cups of thin tea, with perhaps a pennyworth of gin added to it, if Providence be good! Of this state of things Mrs. Roper had a lively appreciation, and now, poor woman, she feared that she was reaching it, by the aid of the Lupexes. On the present occasion she carved her joint of meat in silence, and sent out her slices to the good guests that would leave her, and to the bad guests that would remain, with apathetic impartiality. What was the use now of doing favour to one lodger or disfavour to another? Let them take their mutton,—they who would pay for it and they who would not. She would not have the carving of many more joints in that house if Chumpend acted up to all the threats which he had uttered to her that morning.

The reader may, perhaps, remember the little back room behind the dining parlour. A description was given in some former pages of an interview which was held between Amelia and her lover. It was in that room that all the interviews of Mrs. Roper's establishment had their existence. A special room for interviews is necessary in all households of a mixed nature. If a man lives alone with his wife, he can have his interviews where he pleases. Sons and daughters, even when they are grown up, hardly create the necessity of an interview-chamber, though some such need may be felt if the daughters are marriageable and independent in their natures. But when the family becomes more complicated than this, if an extra young man be introduced, or an aunt comes into residence, or grown up children by a former wife interfere with the domestic simplicity, then such accommodation becomes quite indispensable. No woman would think of taking in lodgers without such a room; and this room there was at Mrs. Roper's, very small and dingy, but still sufficient,—just behind the dining parlour and opposite to the kitchen stairs. Hither, after dinner, Amelia was summoned. She had just seated herself between Mrs. Lupex and Miss Spruce, ready to do battle with the former because she would stay, and with the latter because she would go, when she was called out by the servant girl.

"Miss Mealyer, Miss Mealyer,—sh—sh—sh!" And Amelia, looking round, saw a large red hand beckoning to her. "He's down there," said Jemima, as soon as her young mistress had joined her, "and wants to see you most partic'lar."

"Which of 'em?" asked Amelia, in a whisper.

"Why, Mr. Heames, to be sure. Don't you go and have anythink to say to the other one, Miss Mealyer, pray don't; he ain't no good; he ain't indeed."

Amelia stood still for a moment on the landing, calculating whether it would be well for her to have the interview, or well to decline it. Her objects were two;—or, rather, her object was in its nature twofold. She was, naturally, anxious to drive John Eames to desperation; and anxious also, by some slight added artifice, to make sure of Cradell if Eames's desperation did not have a very speedy effect. She agreed with Jemima's criticism in the main, but she did not go quite so far as to think that Cradell was no good at all. Let it be Eames, if Eames were possible; but let the other string be kept for use if Eames were not possible. Poor girl! in coming to this resolve she had not done so without agony. She had a heart, and with such power as it gave her, she loved John Eames. But the world had been hard to her; knocking her about hither and thither unmercifully; threatening, as it now threatened, to take from her what few good things she enjoyed. When a girl is so circumstanced she cannot afford to attend to her heart. She almost resolved not to see Eames on the present occasion, thinking that he might be made the more desperate by such refusal, and remembering also that Cradell was in the house and would know of it.

"He's there a-waiting, Miss Mealyer. Why don't yer come down?" and Jemima plucked her young mistress by the arm.

"I am coming," said Amelia. And with dignified steps she descended to the interview.

"Here she is, Mr. Heames," said the girl. And then Johnny found himself alone with his lady-love.

"You have sent for me, Mr. Eames," she said, giving her head a little toss, and turning her face away from him. "I was engaged upstairs, but I thought it uncivil not to come down to you as you sent for me so special."

"Yes, Miss Roper, I did want to see you very particularly."

"Oh, dear!" she exclaimed, and he understood fully that the exclamation referred to his having omitted the customary use of her Christian name.

"I saw your mother before dinner, and I told her that I am going away the day after to-morrow."

"We all know about that;—to the earl's, of course!" And then there was another chuck of her head.

"And I told her also that I had made up my mind not to come back to Burton Crescent."

"What! leave the house altogether!"

"Well; yes. A fellow must make a change sometimes, you know."

"And where are you going, John?"

"That I don't know as yet."

"Tell me the truth, John; are you going to be married? Are you—going—to marry—that young woman,—Mr. Crosbie's leavings? I demand to have an answer at once. Are you going to marry her?"

He had determined very resolutely that nothing she might say should make him angry, but when she thus questioned him about "Crosbie's leavings" he found it very difficult to keep his temper. "I have not come," said he, "to speak to you about any one but ourselves."

"That put-off won't do with me, sir. You are not to treat any girl you may please in that sort of way;—oh, John!" Then she looked at him as though she did not know whether to fly at him and cover him with kisses, or to fly at him and tear his hair.

"I know I haven't behaved quite as I should have done," he began.

"Oh, John!" and she shook her head. "You mean, then, to tell me that you are going to marry her?"

"I mean to say nothing of the kind. I only mean to say that I am going away from Burton Crescent."

"John Eames, I wonder what you think will come to you! Will you answer me this; have I had a promise from you,—a distinct promise, over and over again, or have I not?"

"I don't know about a distinct promise——"

"Well, well! I did think that you was a gentleman that would not go back from your word. I did think that. I did think that you would never put a young lady to the necessity of bringing forward her own letters to prove that she is not expecting more than she has a right! You don't know! And that, after all that has been between us! John Eames!" And again it seemed to him as though she were about to fly.

"I tell you that I know I haven't behaved well. What more can I say!"

"What more can you say? Oh, John! to ask me such a question! If you were a man you would know very well what more to say. But all you private secretaries are given to deceit, as the sparks fly upwards. However, I despise you,—I do, indeed. I despise you."

"If you despise me, we might as well shake hands and part at once. I daresay that will be best. One doesn't like to be despised, of course; but sometimes one can't help it." And then he put out his hand to her.

"And is this to be the end of all?" she said, taking it.

"Well, yes; I suppose so. You say I'm despised."

"You shouldn't take up a poor girl in that way for a sharp word,—not when she is suffering as I am made to suffer. If you only think of it,—think what I have been expecting!" And now Amelia began to cry, and to look as though she were going to fall into his arms.

"It is better to tell the truth," he said; "isn't it?"

"But it shouldn't be the truth."

"But it is the truth. I couldn't do it. I should ruin myself and you too, and we never should be happy."

"I should be happy,—very happy indeed." At this moment the poor girl's tears were unaffected, and her words were not artful. For a minute or two her heart,—her actual heart,—was allowed to prevail.

"It cannot be, Amelia. Will you not say good-by?"

"Good-by," she said, leaning against him as she spoke.

"I do so hope you will be happy," he said. And then, putting his arm round her waist, he kissed her; which he certainly ought not to have done.

When the interview was over, he escaped out into the crescent, and as he walked down through the squares,—Woburn Square, and Russell Square, and Bedford Square,—towards the heart of London, he felt himself elated almost to a state of triumph. He had got himself well out of his difficulties, and now he would be ready for his love-tale to Lily.