The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes/A Bundle of Life/Prologue

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search

A Bundle of Life.

PROLOGUE.

I.

SIR SIDNEY WARCOP was a gentleman who had been born with many good and perfect gifts, but he had pawned them to his Adversary for a few casks of brandy and a little soda. In his early manhood he had been considered a handsome, dashing young buck of the old school, a three-bottle hero, a sad dog, an irresistible rake—a good-hearted devil. Now he was reformed, and reformation had meant in his case, as in that of many, the substitution of many disagreeable virtues for a few atoning sins. Once over-generous, he was now frugal; once fearless, he was now discreet ; once too loving, he was now indifferent; once a zealot, he was now unprejudiced; once candid, he was now abyssmal—in a phrase, he was the embodiment of gentlemanly correctness, well-bred honour, and polite religion.

At the age of six and twenty he had surprised society in two ways: first, by running away with his enemy's wife; and secondly, by marrying the lady on the death, some months later, of her distracted husband. Eighteen years had now passed and, by living in close retirement, Lady Warcop was become a much-sought-after person. She had suddenly inherited, too, a considerable fortune, and as views on marriage are only immoral (as it would seem) when one cannot afford to pay for them, it was not so much a question whether her ladyship would be received, but whether she would receive. And she gave such delicious dinners! The early transgression of Sir Sidney and his wife was forgotten, and their daughter (whose age was a subject delicately avoided by the feeling and discreet world), was receiving her education in a convent abroad. It is possible that she would have remained there always and ended her life as a nun, but for the great interest most unexpectedly shown in her welfare by a rich and childless aunt—her mother's own sister—Mrs. Constance Charlotte Portcullis.

The heart of Mrs. Portcullis was, as it were, a moral scent-sachet, which she refilled with the fashionable perfume of each season, scattering the musk of the old year to make room for the myrrh of the new. This custom—which is commonly called Toleration—won for her numberless acquaintances of every rank and opinion, among whom it would have been hard to decide, which expressed his or her contempt for the lady's uncertain principles, in the most affectionate manner. Mrs. Portcullis had, nevertheless, one fixed and unalterable idea, and that had reference to Lady Warcop. She held that her appalling conduct had brought perpetual disgrace on that distinguished family the Tracy Tottenhams, of which she and her ladyship were members. Years passed and the sisters never met. Mrs. Portcullis, of Belgrave Square, and Lady Warcop, of Curzon Street, were a new heaven and a new earth asunder.

They were brought together at last in a street accident. Mrs. Portcullis was thrown out of her victoria and driven home half insensible in Lady Warcop's brougham, which, by a dispensation of Providence or the interference of Satan, happened to be passing at the time of the catastrophe. On recovery from the shock Charlotte felt constrained to write to her sister in pious and forbearing terms


"Since the Almighty," she wound up, "has, in accordance with His inscrutable Principles, chosen a weak and sinful agent for the accomplishment of His all-merciful design (the preservation of my life), I must accept this as a sign that He desires me to unbend from my former attitude of just, if reluctant, severity. If He has seen fit to forgive you for the disgrace and reproach you have brought on our once stainless name, my duty as a Christian forbids me to make any further comment on your crime. But I cannot refrain from adding that my unceasing prayers for your repentance have no doubt furthered, more than it would become me to say, this miracle of grace. " I will receive you this day week between two and four.

" Your affectionate sister,
"C. C. Portcullis."

Like Lady Lurewell in the comedy, Mrs. Portcullis could dress up a sin so religiously that the devil himself would hardly know it of his making. It is certain that she deceived herself, and on reading over the foregoing she almost felt the prick of her immortal wings—which prick, as Plato tells us, is to the soul what the cutting of teeth is to the infant. But Lady Warcop's state of mind on receiving the letter, and her consequent remarks to the effect that Charlotte always was a hypocrite, a cat, and a fool, need not be insisted on here; for, remembering Charlotte's wealth and several other matters, she wrote her reply in so meek and quiet a spirit that the hasty utterances of her unconsidering tongue shall not be known till the last Judgment. Although, as we have said, Lady Warcop had gained for herself a certain sneaking acknowledgment from so-called good society, her own sister's refusal to recognize her had always been a stumbling-block. There were still many desirable acquaintances who would not wink until Mrs. Portcullis winked, and this consideration was of such moment to Blanche, who only lived now to meet the right people in the right way, that, rather than miss the chance of reconciliation with Charlotte, she would have performed even a more severe penance than did Henry II. at the shrine of St. Thomas of Canterbury. So giving much incidental praise to the Creator, but much more to Mrs. Portcullis, she wrote to say that she would call at Belgrave Square on the day and between the hours named in Charlotte's most kind letter, and, begging her to continue her fervent supplications to Heaven, she remained her devoted, if unworthy, sister Blanche. She displayed very correct taste, Charlotte thought, in omitting the ill-gotten name of Warcop.

II.


Lady Warcop was a woman of medium stature, elegant mould, and cautious smiles. Deep-set blue eyes and a very low brow, a nose inclined to the Roman, and a telling mouth; a smooth, rather pale complexion and innocent fair hair were the most remarkable points of a countenance which fascinated reason and looked reproach at distrust. At least seven years younger than Sir Sidney, and of singularly youthful appearance, she affected an artless manner and displayed now that childish merriment not seen in children, and now that rudeness which passes for sincerity and is usually found in the disingenuous. A being with many emotions but no heart, with ideas but no thoughts, there was so little, even in her folly, to excite interest, that, in calling her stupid, friends said their best and enemies their worst of her character. But the strong force in Lady Warcop was her sex: weak, untruthful, cowardly, and malicious, she was still no more than woman may be, and it was no slight virtue—though a negative one—to have kept this feminine quality, to have retained—after a life of sham passions and passionate shams—that indefinable Eve-like pathos which from the beginning conquered—and until the end will conquer—the rigour of strict criticism.

Mrs. Portcullis, on the other hand, was big-boned, loud-voiced, and mighty, and so aggressive in her merits that she would have been more acceptable and pleasant for one of Lady Warcop's cowering faults. Her high, white forehead and long chin gave her a grand and monumental air, which her widow's cap, crape robes, and such-like paraphernalia of woe made the more emphatic.

The meeting between these two ladies, who had hated each other so long and so cordially, was of the most edifying and tender nature. Blanche, who had intended to be dignified though pious, fell to miserable weeping, and Charlotte, touched by what she supposed was the sacrifice of a contrite heart, pronounced, goddess-like, a solemn benediction on Blanche's bowed head. Lady Warcop's tears, however, were those of suppressed rage and spite, and Charlotte's comfortable words, "I will make no reference to the past," sent her into fresh spasms of grief. She remembered every quarrel of their earliest childhood: how Charlotte had always been the "good" one, the "forgiving" one, the one "who would grow up a comfort to her parents," the one who conscientiously picked plums out of her cake because they were bad for her—which plums, by-the-bye, she used to drop on the plate of the less self-controlled Blanche. Not vainly, alas! But then, Charlotte did not like the taste of plums, preferring caraway seeds! The plum story loomed big in Lady Warcop's brain, and she howled—not for her own sins, but at the remembrance of Charlotte's treachery some thirty years before, when they both wore pinafores, and were only learning to be hypocrites.

"I would not have known you," sobbed her ladyship, "how you have changed! What trouble you must have had! Oh, Charlotte! and to meet after all these years—two old women! When I was last in this room you wore a mauve silk and it went so well with your complexion—you used to have such a beautiful colour and there was not a line on your face—or at least there were only a few; but now—who would think you were the same creature?"

"You are more fortunate than I am," said Mrs. Portcullis, smiling horribly, " for you have a grown-up daughter to remind us of your lost attractions! "

Blanche gasped, but although she felt the weight of Charlotte's blow she was not sufficiently skilled herself to appreciate its science.

"Oh," she said, growing red, "do you mean Teresa?"

"Surely," quoth her sister, in a tone of horror, "there is but one I could mean!"

Lady Warcop lifted her eyes and gazed as bravely as she dared at the miniature of the late William Duncan Portcullis which reposed on Charlotte's adamantine breast. This miniature, however, only served to produce in Blanche the kind of panic which we may suppose would fill any weak creature who saw scalps adorning the person of a warlike adversary.

"Tell me about Teresa," said Mrs. Portcullis, choosing the subject most humiliating to her sister.

"She is at school."

"I understood she was in a convent."

"Yes," faltered Lady Warcop, "there is a school in the convent!"

"From a Romish point of view such equivocation, I know, is not considered disgraceful. Our religion, thank God, is not so easy! You must send for her at once. She is, if I remember rightly, eighteen and a half, and, not to hurt your feelings, she can only retrieve the lamentable circumstances of her birth by making a good marriage. Although we have not met, my dear Blanche, you have been ever in my mind, and the alteration in my appearance which you find so startling is, no doubt, miraculously evident to you because your disgrace has been its sole cause. Blessed with the kindest of husbands and a good conscience, I have had, nevertheless, a constant sorrow—that sorrow was my sister's shame. Oh! do not suppose I utter this as a reproach! I name it because I think my long years of grief give me the right to express a very strong opinion on the subject of your unhappy child's education and future. Your own sense will tell you that she must be guarded far more strictly than other girls. For instance, she must not be seen at balls, theatres, race-courses, country houses, or the like, but must rest content with dinners, oratorios, and good works for the poor."

"You are too kind," said Lady Warcop, who had listened with astonishing patience to her sister's speech, "but I do not wish Teresa to leave the convent at present. She is extremely happy there, and I can only wish that at her age I might have found such a peaceful home far removed from the temptations and wickedness of this deceitful world! As for her marrying, I have too much reason to regret my own early marriage—the cause of all my trouble—to wish the poor child to risk a similar mistake."

"You did not leave dear Douglas for a richer man!" said Mrs. Portcullis, in a tone which implied that if Blanche had made a more discreet choice, her sin would have been less odious. "Perhaps not," said Blanche; "but I left a man who did not understand me for one who——You know, Charlotte, that Sidney could make himself very agreeable. There were many women who would have been far readier than I was to run away with him. Indeed, he has often said that it was my resistance which chiefly excited his admiration, and if I had not been so firm on my side, he would not have been so determined on his. I saw that from the first, and I cannot tell you the hours we spent arguing the matter from every possible point of view. He used a great deal of persuasion (and you may be sure I would not have wasted a thought on him if he had not), but I took the final step with great reluctance. We may have been foolish, but we meant no wrong. I was unhappy; he was kind to me; we were both young."

"Sir Sidney was certainly young," said Mrs. Portcullis. "As for you, I can make no excuse on the ground of your age, for I always blame the woman in such cases, and, to my mind, it does not matter in the least whether she be sixteen or sixty. But it is a subject I must refuse to discuss with you, since, in the nature of things, it is inexpressibly painful to me. Let us return to the pressing and all-important question of Teresa's future. I would suggest that you send for her at once, and then you may bring her with you to a small dinner I am giving on the twentieth. The Dundrys, the Paget-Herons, and a few other old friends of mine are coming."

Blanche, who had been hopelessly hoping these many years for a smile of recognition from the Lady Dundry (known among her intimates as "Arabella, dowdy, but exclusive"), no sooner heard that magic name than her whole demeanour changed. The little dignity and resolution she had assumed fell like a veil, and it was soon agreed between the two women that Teresa should be sent for on the morrow.

"The nuns must bring her to London," said Blanche, "for Sidney hates the Channel, and it is death to me."

Yet she had crossed it on the great occasion of her elopement.


III.


Four days after this interview between Lady Warcop and her sister, Sir Sidney might have been seen making his way towards Bedford Row. In person he was unusually handsome, his head and features reminding one in a striking degree of the popular representation of Cicero, while his extraordinarily brilliant blue eyes and lively hair did full justice to his Celtic origin. As in the case of Agamemnon, there were many men taller than he, but in a crowd he was not to be matched for grace and majesty of movement. There was, however, a certain studied ease in his gestures, a premeditated charm in his manner, which to those who disagreed with his politics made insincerity seem the sincerest thing about him. But if he had not a guileless soul, he had at least immaculate linen, which so dazzled the spectator by its purity that to a cynical mind it might have seemed that in this generation a good laundress is more useful than a clean record.

When Sir Sidney entered the private office of Mr. Robert Waddilove (of the firm of Waddilove, cliffe, Shorncliffe, and Pride, Solicitors), Mr. Waddilove rose from his chair, bowed, and remembered the time when he would have called on his client and trifled away a pleasant morning with scandal, choice cigars, incomparable sherry, and a "little matter of business," which came last and was invariably left" to your discretion, Waddilove." But now, oh heavy change! Even as the Baronet entered he looked at his watch.

"Not detain you ten minutes, "he said, speaking rapidly, and as though he were dictating a telegram.

"Not legal, but domestic. Wife most annoying. Teresa coming home. Wife in hysterics every time girl's name is mentioned. No living in the house."

Waddilove rubbed his chin. He was a man of middle age, short, but so compactly built that to look at him made one think of bricks and cement. His quick brown eyes were remarkable for their curiously mingled expression of shrewdness, scepticism, and good humour, and his wry mouth showed that if he drank in life like a worldling, he swallowed it like a philosopher. His nose was of the penetrating order, and seemed to have jutted prematurely from his forehead, which was broad and thoughtful.

His under-lip twitched a little at the close of Sir Sidney's remarks. "We will call this a friendly chat," he said quietly.

"Eh?" said the Baronet, with a radiant air," not professional? Well, after all, it is not a legal matter. But you are quite sure? Still, between such old friends any question of business and that sort of thing is unpleasant. Conversation becomes restrained at once." He chose a chair, and sat in statuesque ease.

"You know what women are," he said. Waddilove closed his eyes as though he would exclude a painful vision.

"You know what my wife is," continued Sir Sidney.

The lawyer looked grave, in the formal manner appropriate to the discussion of family skeletons—a manner not so much indicative of pity, which might verge too much on the familiar, as of concern—disinterested, brain-felt concern.

"I have nothing to say against Lady Warcop," said her husband. "She has many excellent qualities, but on the subject of Teresa she is a—what-do-you-call-'em?"

"An enigma," suggested Waddilove, but in a voice so modulated that had the word been unwelcome it might have passed for a cough.

"That is the thing," said Sir Sidney, "an enigma. And to turn against her own daughter, her only child! She has not seen her since she was born; there has always been some excuse. But now she has suddenly sent for her, and God knows why, for no sooner had she written the letter than she declared she would not have her in the house. Damn it all! it is my house and my daughter! When a man cannot have his own way in his own house, then—then it comes to this—somebody must give in. If I say, 'Blanche, I am going to put my foot down,' she begins to cry. She says, too, that her hair is turning grey with silent worry. And you know, Waddilove, she is never silent, and she is no longer so young that a grey hair or two seems extraordinary. But there are quarrels between us from morning till night, and I cannot allow it. Life is not worth living. Why did she send for the girl if she did not want her? Where's the consistency? As I told Blanche this morning—'Blanche,' I said, as kindly as possible—I did not want a scene, as you may imagine—'Blanche,' I said, 'if you will tell me why you sent for Teresa, in the first place' But, God bless your soul! before the words were out of my mouth she flew at me like a tigress. And what do you think she said? 'What! do you begrudge your own child her rightful home? I suppose you do not wish to be reminded of the past. For it was all your fault, although I have had all the blame.' Imagine her referring to dead and gone matters in that offensive manner! And she was the one who had been abusing the poor child—not I. I ask you what could any man do with a woman like that?"

"It is a very difficult question," said Waddilove.

"And there is nothing to be gained by a separation," said Sir Sidney, "because she is so unreasonable, and can neither make head nor tail of the law. There is no peace for me this side of the grave."

"What does Lady Warcop suggest? " said Waddilove. "What are her wishes in the matter?"

"God knows!" said Sir Sidney. "If I knew what she wanted we might come to some understanding. But one moment she says one thing and the next another. My health will not bear it much longer. What do you advise me to do in the meantime?"

"You must be firm," said Waddilove.

"Impossible; quite impossible. Whenever I speak firmly she begins to cry. You see, she is a gentle, sweet-tempered sort of woman by nature. One does not like to be brutal."

"Have you tried persuasion?"

"I have tried everything—coaxing, threatening, commanding, and exhorting; jokes, presents, theatres, and sermons; reading, singing, playing, and, so far as that goes, praying. No husband could do more to make his wife happy—unless, indeed, he blew his brains out!"

"I am afraid," said Waddilove, "you must make up your mind to endure these annoyances."

Sir Sidney sighed heavily and rose from his chair.

"Before I married her," he said, "she was as mild as an angel. She was a little contrary now and again, but one kind word, and she would do anything. Douglas Cockburn never understood that, and tried bullying. Now I see, however, that there were faults on both sides. Of course, I would not say as much to any one else. This is a judgment on me, Waddilove, and if I did not know it was a judgment I could not bear it another day. As it is, I will face it out to the bitter end. Good-bye."

He left the office with the uneasy idea that he had been talking too freely, and, as a consequence, he began to hate Waddilove as a prying, impertinent fellow—a fellow to be avoided. What right had he to ask so many questions? But it had been a relief to speak out: to utter his feelings; to rid himself even by a straw's weight of that load of sorrow, disappointment, dissatisfaction, and weariness, the bearing of which, after all, proved that his poor fragment of a soul had still its use in the scheme of salvation.

IV.


Lady Warcop, meanwhile, was pacing the floor of her boudoir. In her hand she held the photograph of a singularly plain little girl, who stood in a cork grotto staring at a stuffed dog. This portrait of Teresa had been taken some ten years before, and Blanche had lacked the courage to send for another. And now, without warning, to be obliged to present this to the world! It was too hard, too bitter, too outrageous. Was ever woman called upon to suffer such mortification? As for motherly feelings, what were they? How could she love a creature she had never seen? Some one had once shown her an infant, but she had felt too ill to notice the piteous object. She did not even understand that it was her own. There was so much cant and nonsense talked about maternal instinct. A cab drove up to the door; with a cry, her Ladyship rushed to the window. Thank goodness, it was only Sidney. What suffering! What suspense! One more day like this, and she would be on her deathbed.

"Ah! so you have come at last, Sidney?" Where had he been all the morning? She made few demands on his time, but she certainly thought that in common decency and merely for the sake of appearances he would have remained with her to receive poor darling Teresa. It was true that she had not yet arrived, but this did not alter the fact that he might have missed her. Poor child! a stranger in her own father's house! But the world was a cruel place, and she, for her part, was sick and tired of it. If it were not for Teresa, who needed a mother's care, she was by no means sure that she might not seek a speedy way out of it. Suicide, of course, was wicked, but God was never hard on women. He understood them: men did not....Was that the bell?

"Go and meet her," said Blanche. "Try and look affectionate. I want the poor little thing to think we are glad to see her. As for me, I feel too ill and extraordinary to move."

As she spoke, however, the door was opened, and two nuns, followed by a young girl, were ushered in. Her Ladyship flushed and paled, and, without speaking, with tears raining down her cheeks, took the girl in her arms, tenderly, closely, as only a mother can.

Sir Sidney rubbed his eyes, almost fearing to them on a scene so beautiful, so new in his experience. Blanche seemed to him transfigured, and he saw in that brief moment the woman she might have been: all the fair ambitions she had forgotten, all the good impulses she had not obeyed flashed their pure light on her countenance.

Like some guilty creature, he left the room. He was the only sinner there.