Wrecked in Port/Book III, Chapter XIII
Chapter XIII.The Result.
The second day after Mrs. Creswell's visit to Helmingham, Walter Joyce was sitting in his chambers, hard at work. The approaching change in his condition had affected him very little indeed. He had laughed to himself to think how little. He would have laughed more had he not at the same time reflected that it is not a particularly good sign for a man to be so much overwhelmed by business or so generally careless as to what becomes of him, as to look upon his marriage with very little elation, to prepare for it in a very matter-of-fact and unromantic way. That no man can serve two masters, we know; and there are two who certainly will not brook being served at the same time by the one worshipper—love and ambition. Joyce had been courting the latter deity for many months with unexampled assiduity, and with very excellent success, and, in reality, had never swerved in his allegiance. The love which he felt for Maud Creswell differed as much from the passion with which, in the bygone years, Marian Ashurst had inspired him, as the thick, brown, turgid Rhine-stream which flows past Emmerich differs from the bright, limpid, diamond-sprayed water which flashes down at Schaffhausen; nevertheless there was "body" in it, as there is in the Rhine-stream at Emmerich, sufficient to keep him straight from any of the insidious attacks of ambition, as he soon had occasion to prove.
Not that the news which Gertrude Benthall had confided to him in regard to Lady Caroline Mansergh had touched him one whit. In the first place, he thought Gertrude had deceived herself, or, at all events, had misconstrued the feelings by which Lady Caroline was actuated; and in the second, supposing the girl was right, and all was as she believed, it would not have had the smallest influence in altering anything he had done. He was not a brilliant man, Walter Joyce, clever in his way, rather lacking in savoir-faire; but he had a rough, odd kind of common sense which stood him in better stead than mere worldly experience, and that showed him that in his true position the very worst thing he could have done for himself would have been to go in for a great alliance. Such a proceeding would have alienated the affections and the confidence of all those people who had made him what he was, or rather who had seen him struggle up to the position he enjoyed, and given him a helping-hand at the last. But it was because he had struggled up himself by his own exertions that they liked him, whereas any effort in his favour by the aid of money or patronage would have sent them at once into the opposition ranks. No, Lady Caroline was still the kindest, the dearest, the best of his friends! He found a letter from her on his return to chambers, full of warm congratulations, telling him that she was compelled to follow the medical advice of which she had spoken to him, and to leave London for a few weeks; but she hoped on her return to welcome him and his bride Chesterfield-street, and retain them ever on the very narrow list of her chiefest intimates. He was engaged on a letter to Jack Byrne when there came a sharp, clear knock at the door; such a different knock from that usually given by the printer's boy, his most constant visitor, that he laid down his pen, and called, "Come in!"
The handle was turned quietly, the door was opened quickly, and Marian Creswell came into the room.
Walter did not recognise her at first; her veil was half over her face, and she stood with her back to the light. A minute after, he exclaimed, "Mrs. Creswell!"
"Yes, Mr. Joyce; Mrs. Creswell! You did not expect me."
"I did not, indeed. You are, I confess, one of the last persons I should have expected to see in these rooms."
"No doubt; that is perfectly natural; but I come on a matter of business."
"As does every one who favours me with a visit. I cannot imagine any one coming here for pleasure. Pray be seated; take the 'client's chair.'"
"You are very bright and genial, Mr. Joyce; as every successful man is."
"As every man ought to be, Mrs. Creswell; as every tolerably successful man can afford to be."
"I suppose you wonder how I found your address?"
"Not the least in the world. Unfortunately I know too well that it is in the archives of the Post-Office Directory. Behold the painful evidences of the fact!" and he pointed to a table covered with papers. "Petitions, begging letters, all kinds of unreadable literature."
"Yes; but I don't study the Post-Office Directory, as a rule."
"No; but you looked at it to-day, because you had an object in view. Given the object, you will not hesitate to depart from your usual course, Mrs. Creswell."
"I will not pretend to ignore your sarcasm, nor will I say whether it is deserved or undeserved; though perhaps my presence here just now should have induced you to spare me."
"I did not mean to be sarcastic; I simply gave utterance to a thought that came into my mind. You said you came on a matter of business? I must be rude enough to remind you that I am very busy just now."
"I will detain you a very short time; but, in the first place, let us drop this fencing. You know my husband is dead?"
"And that I am left with a large, a very large, fortune at my disposal?"
"I heard so, not merely when I was down at Helmingham the other day, but here in London. It is common talk."
"You were down in Helmingham the other day? Ah, of course! However, suppose I had come to you to say——" and she paused.
Joyce looked at her with great composure. "To say!" he repeated.
"I must go through with it," she muttered beneath her breath. "To say that the memory of old days is always rising in my mind, the sound of old words always ringing in my ears, the remembrance of old looks almost driving me mad! Suppose I had come to say all this; and this besides, share that fortune with me!"
"To say that to me!"
"It is excessively polite of you, and of course I am very much flattered, necessarily. But, Mrs. Creswell, there is one thing that would prevent my accepting your very generous offer."
"And that is——"
"I am engaged to be married."
"I had heard some report of that kind; but, knowing you as I do, I had set very little store by it. Walter Joyce, I have followed your fortunes, so far as they have been made public, for many months, and I have seen how, step by step, you have pushed yourself forward. You have done well, very well; but there is a future for you far beyond your present, if you but take advantage of the opportunity which I now offer you. With the fortune which I offer you—a fortune, mind; not a few thousand pounds such as you are anticipating with Maud Creswell, but with a fortune at your back, and your talents, you may do anything; there is no position which might not be open to you."
"You are drawing a tempting picture."
"I am drawing a true one; for in addition to your own brains, you would have those of a woman to aid you: a woman, mind, who has done for herself what she proposes to do for you; who has raised herself to the position she always longed for—a woman with skill to scheme, and courage to carry out. Do you follow me?"
"And you agree?"
"I think not. I'm afraid it's impossible. I know it's not an argument that will weigh with you at all, or that, perhaps, you will be able to understand; but you see, my word is pledged to this young lady."
"Is that all? I should think some means might be found to compensate the young lady for her loss."
Walter Joyce's face was growing very dark, but Marian did not perceive it.
"No, it is not all," he said, coldly; "the thing would be impossible, even if that reason did not exist."
She saw that her shaft had missed its mark, but she was determined to bring him down, so tried another.
"Ah, Walter," she said, "do you answer me like this? In memory of the dear old days——"
"Stop!" he cried, bringing his hand down heavily on the writing-table before him, and springing to his feet. "Stop!" he cried, in a voice very different from the cold polite tone in which he had hitherto spoken: "don't name those times, or what passed in them, for in your mouth such allusions would be almost blasphemy. Marian Creswell—and the mere fact that I have to call you by that name ought to have told you what would be my answer to your proposition before you came here—perhaps if I were starving I might take an alms of you, but under no other circumstance would I touch a farthing of that money which you pride yourself on having secured. Your must have been strangely forgetful when you talked to me, as you did just now, of having 'raised yourself to the position you always longed for,' and of having 'skill to scheme and courage to carry out' what you desire. You forgot, surely, that in those words you reminded me that you longed for your present position while you were my promised wife; and that you were bringing your skill and your courage to work to obtain it, while I was striving, and hoping, and slaving for you."
"We had better put an end to this interview," said Marian, attempting to rise. "Ah, Walter, spare me!"
"Spare you!" he cried in unaltered tones. "Did you spare me while all this was going on? Did you spare me when—" he opened a drawer at his side and took out a folded paper, "when you wrote me this cruel letter, blasting my hopes and driving me to despair, and almost to madness? Spare you! Whom have you spared? Did you spare those girls, the nieces of the kindly old man whom you married, or, because they were in your way, did not have them turned out of his house, their natural home? Did you spare the old man himself, when you saw him fretting against the step which you had compelled him to take? Whom have you spared, whom have you not over-ridden, in your reckless career of avarice and ambition?"
She sat cowed and trembling for a moment, then raised her head and looked at him with flashing eyes.
"I am much obliged to you Mr. Joyce," she said in a very hard voice, "I am much obliged to you for permitting me to be present at a private rehearsal of one of your speeches. It was very good, and does you great credit. You have decidedly improved since I saw you on the platform at Brocksopp. Your style is perhaps a little turgid, a little bombastic, but that is doubtless in accordance with the taste of those of whose sentiments you are the chosen and the popular exponent. I must ask you to see me to the cab at the door. I am unaccustomed to London, and have no footman with me. Thanks!" And she walked out of the door which he had opened for her, with a volcano raging in her breast, but with the most perfect outward composure.
See the curtain now about to drop on this little drama—comedy of manners, rather—where nothing and no one has been in extremes; where the virtuous people have not been wholly virtuous; and where the wickedest have had far less carmine and tinsel than the Author has on former occasions found a necessity to use. There is no need to "dress" the characters with military precision in a straight line, for there is no "tag" to be spoken, no set speech to be delivered, and, moreover, the characters are all dispersed.
Gertrude and her husband are in their seaside home, happy in each other and their children. Walter and his wife are very happy, too, in their quiet way. He has not made any wonderful position for himself, as yet; but he is doing well and is highly thought of by his party. Dr. Osborne has retired from practice, but most of the Helmingham and Brooksopp folk are going on much in their usual way.
And Marian Creswell? The woman with the peaked face and the scanty hair turning grey, who is seldom at her own house, but appears suddenly at Brighton, Bath, Cheltenham, or Torquay, and disappears as suddenly, is Marian Creswell. The quarry of impostors and sycophants, she has not one friend in whom to confide, one creature to care for her. She is alone with her wealth, and it is merely a burden to her, but has not the power of affording her the smallest gratification.
THE END OF "WRECKED IN PORT."