Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 6/The prodigal son - Part 8
THE PRODIGAL SON.
BY DUTTON COOK, AUTHOR OF “PAUL FOSTER’S DAUGHTER,” &c.
“A lytel misgoyng in the gynning causeth mykel errour in the end.”—Chaucer’s “Testament of Love.”
CHAPTER XV. A MEETING.
Stowe Street is one of those numerous parallel “no thoroughfares” which pierce the Strand crosswise, and leading down to the banks of the river, arrive at a sudden termination of close iron railings. Passing along the Strand, glimpses of the Thames are every now and then to be caught by means of these streets as through crannies in a wall. One might almost fancy that a colossal panorama of the river had been cut into transverse slips, and pasted up here and there to break the monotonous line of houses. A slight dash of water and sky crossing pleasantly, now and then, an endless warp of bricks and mortar—a savoury morsel of an unwieldly and disproportioned sandwich—soothing to the eye, though the heaven may be lead-coloured and the wavelets opaque, and the freight they float no better than shapeless barges with brown patched sails, carried up by the tide, or gross blunt-edged lighters “zedding” along, careless what they bump against, like strong drunken men; or lively little steamers, that dart about like tadpoles, and make so much noise and carry so many, and all for so small a charge.
London is more thoroughly partitioned into quartiers than is demonstrable by maps; or than many people imagine. These purblind defiles, hemmed in between a silent and a particularly loud highway, may be said to be set apart for the open-air performances of barrel-organs, Punch and Judy, the street conjuror, the versatile monkey who plays the fiddle and goes through the musketry exercise with equal ability, the acrobats: and for the residence of many lodgers of semi-respectable and not expensive habits. The neighbourhood is thickly populated: it contains few shops, but several offices, in which vague professions are carried on. The tenants generally are inclined to be mysterious as to their occupation; they all carry street-door keys, are partial to late suppers of a shell-fish character, never clean their windows, and invariably evade the income-tax collector.
It was noon when Wilford knocked at the door of No. 67, Stowe Street. It seemed almost as though such a proceeding were quite out of rule. He was detained some time on the step; yet he could plainly hear the noise of persons moving about in the passage. Windows were thrown up and heads projected, and he was probably inspected by the residents in different parts of the house. The door was at length opened by a short, broad servant—“servant gal” perhaps conveys the most complete notion of her—warm, moist, and not clean looking, always busy holding on to her rough head a whitey-brown cap, which seemed to be endowed with some volatile attribute, and was constantly flying behind or soaring above away from her; with muscular red chapped arms, and a dirty lilac print dress, the seams of which had parted in various places subjected to special tension, and (of course) black stockings, open at the heels, casing legs of substance and ankles of power rather than grace. She had always a scared wild way with her. She tacked and tumbled along a good deal, leaving in her progress the marks of black hands upon walls and doors, and banisters; and when asked questions, had a way of lowering her head menacingly, as though she were about to butt at or to toss her questioner. These qualities allowed for, she was a hard-working, industrious, good-natured and useful domestic, very valuable to No. 67, Stowe Street, and the dwellers therein. Her manner of fetching the beer from the public-house at the corner, it may be particularly noted (and she was frequently out on such a mission, for her employers had a habit of requiring refreshment at almost impossible hours, and so to say, running the Acts of Parliament very fine indeed), was one of the most gallant and intrepid, as it was unquestionably one of the most rapid feats on record.
"Was Madame Boisfleury at home?"
The servant stared at Wilford through the half-opened door, lowering her head with doubtful intentions. She seemed to regard the inquiry as an innovation for which she was totally unprepared, and a reply to it as decidedly out of her range of duties, and to conquer with difficulty a strong impulse prompting her to slam-to the door and hurry from the scene. Finally, she admitted the visitor to the door-mat—leaving him there stranded, as it were, on a desert island, "to go and see." She was sometime gone; meanwhile the visitor, quite unconsciously was the subject of considerable curiosity and contemplation on the part of several spectators resident in the house, who hung over the staircase in almost dangerous attitudes the better to view him. Finally the servant returned. Much talking and hurrying about, and banging of doors, had been heard in her absence. As in her ascent, so in her descent, she manifested an unchariness connected with the display of her hose, that, considering its want of repair, was decidedly remarkable.
"Madame was at home, on the second-floor—would he walk up?" He would—and he did. The servant thereupon left him to his own resources, and forthwith precipitated herself down the kitchen stairs with singular recklessness. But she laid stress on speed; and as she had found by experience that people often got down stairs more quickly by falling than by a more gradual and safer method, she elected as a rule the former procedure. It is true that to a bystander it looked a little like suicide; but if speed was gained, pray what did that matter?
The door of the front room on the second floor being open, Wilford entered there. He found himself alone. The room was so respectably furnished that one might have wondered, at a first glance, how it was the general effect was yet so shabby and comfortless. But a very little will give an awry look. The failing here was general untidiness; crooked blinds, tumbled curtains, draggled table-cover, littered mantelpiece, unswept hearth, dull grate, powdered with white ashes, nothing "put away," and every chair occupied by some book, or paper, or parcel, or article of dress; and one over-riding notion as to how much better it would be if the windows could be left open for ever so short a time, and a little fresh air admitted into the place.
There was the rustling of a dress; a tall woman swept into the room.
Old and wrinkled evidently, in spite of her paint (white and red), her glossy false hair, kept in its place by a jewelled fillet, her pencilled eyebrows, her thousand-and-one toilette frauds upon Nature and Time. What a strange sinister look there was in the eyes of this woman!—so restless, yet so weak and mabid, glittering out of a tangle of wrinkles with the sort of ferret-red brilliance of sham-jewels. What hard ugly lines were carven round her features—not ill-formed, but ill-combined—resulting in an expression of treachery and cunning and cruelty! The mouth especially, hard and coarse, and the teeth—greatly revealed when she spoke—large and ill-shapen, and especially bad in hue, thanks, perhaps, to the contrast with the vivid artificial bloom in their neighbourhood. She was attired in greasy black satin, with a handsome India shawl huddled upon her shoulders, probably to conceal the fact that the dress had been hastily assumed, and had not indeed been effectually fastened at the back. She made a low curtsey to her visitor as she closed the door after her, and advanced into the room. Her sly eyes passed rapidly over Wilford. She seemed to prolong her salutation for the express purpose of gaining time and thoroughly examining his looks and bearing, and satisfying herself thereupon. And she was evidently a little unnerved. Her hand shook as she stretched it forth; it was more decorated by jewellery than cleanliness; and her rings had a suspicious look about them. But this might be purely fancy. There are some hands upon which the best of gold appears like brass, and the purest diamond no better than paste.
"Oh! Mr. Hadfield, this is kind," she said, in a hollow, drawling, carnying tone of voice.
Either he did not really see or he purposely disregarded her outstretched hand. Certainly he did not take it, and she calmly withdrew it, but with no air of being offended. For some moments he was silent. He glanced at her, and then averted his eyes. He spoke at last in a low, constrained voice, with evident effort.
"Madame Pichot," he began.
"Boisfleury," she interrupted, holding up her hands with an imploring gesture, "will you oblige me so far? Boisfleury. There are reasons for the change. Not Pichot, thank you—Boisfleury. Will you bear that in mind?"
"The name matters little. Boisfleury, if you will. I have received your letter. You wished to see me. I am here."
"But why this tone?" she asked, affectedly, her head on one side, and a dreadful smile upon her lips; "why so severe—so abrupt? This is not the Wilford Hadfield I remember years back. What a change! To think that we should meet like this!" She dabbed her eyes with a crumpled, soiled lace pocket-handkerchief.
"I think you forget how we parted," he said, coldly.
"But are we not friends?"
"Friends!" he repeated, scornfully.
"You are not kind to one you have known so long. You don't appear glad to see me." There was something sickening about her fawning, false manner.
"I am not glad to see you."
"You don't ask me how I am." She passed over his look of contempt for her, and added, "You don't ask after Regine—no, nor Alexis; he has grown quite a man, has Alexis. You don't know how useful he is to me. Perhaps I should not have seen you now but for Alexis."
"And your husband?" She trembled a little—the blood rushed to her face and heightened her rouge.
"Dominique is in Paris. He is not well; he is confined to his room; he is no longer so young as he has been. He is often ill now, and unable to go out, or he would be here now."
"And now, tell me—you have found me—I am here in consequence of your request,—What is your wish?"
"We are not to be friends, then? You seek to quarrel with me."
"What is it you want?" he said, harshly. Her manner changed—it became more brusque and abrupt. They had been standing hitherto.
"Let us sit down," she said. "Perhaps our conversation may be of some length. You desire to know why I sent to you?" He signified assent. "Well, it will not be hard to explain that to you—it would not be difficult for you, perhaps, to discover the reason without any explanation. Look around you—you see where we are living—you see the sort of neighbourhood—the position we occupy—our manner of life. Is it the sort of sphere in which I ought to move, or Regine, or Alexis?"
"I have known you in a humbler one," he remarked. The words angered her. "You were not always Madame Boisfleury nor even Pichot. You are English born—of obscure parents. Years ago, when you were—"
"Enough!" she cried, almost fiercely. "Is it a fit position for Alexis—for Regine? Do you know what she is doing to earn her livelihood? Do you know to what an occupation she has been compelled to stoop?"
She tossed over a thin printed paper which she took from the mantel-shelf. He glanced at the paper, then folded it, and put it in his pocket.
"I am glad it is even so honest as this," he said, calmly; "for, after all, this may be honest."
His quiet manner, whether genuine or affected, ruffled the woman.
"If you will not gather my object from what I have said already, if you will not guess it by the aid of your memory as to what has happened in the past, I will tell you my meaning in plain words." She struck the table smartly with her closed hand. "I want money."
"I imagined as much."
"And I will have it."
"You will not. For a sufficient reason—I have none. Years ago I gave all I had. You may remember the conditions—my presence here, at your request, is a breach of them."
"You have been unmolested for a long while; application would not be made to you now were it not inevitable. I am in debt. I am much in want of money. I am speaking only in my own name, but I might comprise others in my remarks—money must be had. To whom should I apply for it, if not to you?"
"You misunderstand my position. You are unacquainted with the plain facts of the case."
"Pardon me, that is not so."
"The situation of the Wilford Hadfield whom you knew years ago, and of the man who now stands before you, are widely different."
"Pardon me, I say again. Perhaps I am better acquainted with the real facts of the case than you think. Your father is dead. He died nearly three years ago. I saw the notice in the newspapers. By his death—"
"By his death I was not—am not—one sou the richer."
"I know it, Mr. Wilford; he bequeathed the whole of his property to his younger son, and cast you off. Why,—you best know."
"Then with these facts before you—though how you became acquainted with them I know not—"
"Bah!" she interrupted, rudely, "there need be no mystery in the matter on my part. Wills can be read at Doctors' Commons for a shilling; and to make sure, I travelled down to Grilling Abbots."
"You did?" he cried, frowning.
"I did. Why should I not? Is not the place free to all the world? There are no passports in this country. What was to hinder my going there—with Alexis, my son—to stop at the George Inn, for a little holiday and change of air? Who was to recognise me? I was not there as Madame Pichot; nor Madame Boisfleury neither, for that matter. Why should I not go to see all the show places in the neighbourhood—the castle at Mowle, the druidical remains at Chingley, the Norman church at Grilling Abbots—yes, and the picture gallery at the Grange?"
What a hateful sneer was on her face as she ran through this list!
"You went to the Grange?"
"Yes. Why not? Mr. Stephen Hadfield is liberal; he throws open his house for inspection two days in the week, the visitor producing his card, or procuring a ticket from Mr. Joyce of the George Inn. Why should I not go over the Grange? Though I knew every inch of it years ago; many years now. Well, the people talk in that neighbourhood just as much as they used to talk in the old time. The servants talk at the Grange, the frequenters of the George talk, all Grilling Abbots talks. I soon learnt that you had been disinherited."
"Well, did not that satisfy you?"
But she did not heed the question.
"And I learnt that Mr. Stephen was master of the Grange, and I saw him often about the place, with his wife and children—quite a family party. A nice, amiable-looking gentleman, and every one said that he was as good, and nice, and amiable as he looked; and that he was very sorry that his brother had quitted the Grange; that he would have given him anything to remain, would give him anything now—no matter what; that there was no quarrel between the brothers; and that Mr. Wilford might still have half the estates, even, if he chose."
"They told you this?"
"Did they tell you, also, that I had refused these things a dozen times—that I had determined that the will should be carried out in its integrity—and that not one halfpenny of my father's money should find its way into my pocket? Did they tell you that also?"
"And I did not believe it."
"Because I knew the time might arrive when you would be glad to dip your hand into your brother's purse, willingly proffered. And I was right. The time has arrived now. not the money we need, you will obtain it from Mr. Stephen Hadfield of the Grange, your younger brother."
"You are wrong." He rose with a determined air, as though to end the interview. He took his hat. "You are wrong, Madame Boisfleury. As I said at first, I have no money. I am a poor man; I work for my bread; I am quite unable to assist you, if I were even willing so to do, and I am not."
"This is hasty conduct, Mr. Wilford; you will think better of it."
There was a slight pause. Then the woman resumed:
"I heard other things at Grilling Abbots—strange things they were, too, and very new to me—very new indeed. You were ill at one time, it seems; so ill that you were quite given over; no one expected that you would ever recover. Meanwhile you were a visitor beneath the roof of the doctor at Grilling Abbots—Mr. Fuller, who resides in the pretty white cottage at the end of the town."
She stopped, looking at him with a strange meaning in her red, restless eyes.
"Well?" Wilford said, rather faintly. "You recovered, thanks to the care of the doctor, and the nursing of his daughters."
He trembled visibly, looking askance as she said this.
"You were very grateful for his and their zeal, were you not? It was necessary to do something in proof of your gratitude, was it not? So perhaps, for that reason, you made love to the eldest daughter—offered her your hand in marriage, made her your wife. Was that the reason?"
He made no answer; he was breathing heavily, his hands shaking as with palsy, his face pale as death.
"Violet Fuller," the woman went on. "I saw her name in the register of marriages in Grilling Church. I asked to see the book, and they showed it to me. I saw her signature—'Violet Fuller'—and yours—'Wilford Hadfield'—written boldly and plainly enough; and her father and her sister—they too signed the book—the witnesses, I suppose. Oh, it was very complete; and very interesting."
She stopped again, glancing at him as though she expected him to speak. But he made no attempt to do so; he kept his eyes steadily turned from her.
"Is not all this true?"
"It is true," he answered, in a low voice.
"Have you nothing to say about it?"
"Nothing," he replied, with a gasp.
"Perhaps you thought this would never come to my ears: that the whole thing would be kept secret and hushed up. You did not manage very well. You should not have had the wedding at Grilling Abbots; that was a mistake—a decided oversight. I give you credit for the way you have hid yourself in London. Yet an assumed name is an easy matter, and London is a very large place. I could not get your address at Grilling Abbots, nobody would tell me; probably, nobody knew, except the members of your own family, and I could not well ask them. But Alexis is very clever if he once gets a clue. Give him a scent, and he'll follow it like a bloodhound. I learnt that you had been publishing books—quite a celebrated author, I declare. I fancy Alexis found you out by tracking you from your publisher's to your lodgings in Freer Street. Is not that where you live? He has been on your heels for some days, following you like a dog. Oh, he is a faithful creature—a good boy is Alexis."
Still Wilford said nothing; he looked dazed and confused, like a man in a dream.
"I have not been to Freer Street myself; I have not yet called upon your wife."
"You will not go!" he cried, in a tone of acute suffering.
She paid no attention to him.
"Is she pretty, this wife of yours? this doctor's daughter? this Violet Fuller?—charming name, so romantic. And there's a baby, too, isn't there? a son and heir! Dear me! how interesting."
"Woman," he said, "be silent. You will drive me mad."
She abandoned the air of banter she had assumed, and said in coarse, blunt tones:
"You will give me this money, then?"
"How much do you want?" he asked, feebly. "A mere trifle—and when it is paid—"
"You will demand a further and a further sum; what security can I have that this demand will not be repeated?"
"What security can you have? I will give you my word."
"I will take an oath."
"You can but have a promise. I will sign what papers you will; I will pledge myself to molest you no more."
"You pledged yourself to the same effect years ago. How have you kept your promise?"
"There has been no help for it. I have been in great trouble."
"Say what amount will satisfy you."
"Five thousand pounds."
"Five thousand pounds! It is not possible that I can give you such an amount."
"It is a mere trifle. I might have demanded double. Your brother is your banker. You have but to ask for the money to obtain it."
"I am not well," said Wilford, faintly. "I grow giddy with all this talking. My head seems in a whirl. Give me time to think!"
"Certainly you shall have time to think. I am not ungenerous, nor unkind, nor forgetful of the past. I have no desire to quarrel. Will you take my hand now? It will be far better that we should remain friends as of old."
Again she stretched out her hand, while a smile full of malice and cruelty disturbed the rigid lines With an effort Wilford conquered a feeling of intense repugnance, and took her hand into his, holding it for a moment, and then dropping it.
"Yes, let us be friends," he said, in a low voice.
"And when will you let me know your decision? When will you come and see me again?" She varied her inquiry with something of a return to her old fawning manner. "Shall we say to-morrow—at the same hour?"
"To-morrow. Be it so. I will be here." He stopped for a few moments, and then went on with an air of greater determination than he had evinced for some time during the interview. "But remember, if I pay this money—I say if– for at present I am undecided—"
She smiled grimly, bowing her head.
"You will understand that I do so because I desire that certain facts known to us only should not be revealed; because to learn of these things might be annoying and painful to others—not because I have any fears as to what the result of a revelation might be so far as I personally am concerned; I fear a disclosure only on account of its effects upon others. You understand me?"
"It is hardly necessary, I think," she answered, quietly, "for us to enter upon a question of this nature."
"And," he said, suddenly, "I have a condition to impose."
"A condition!" the woman repeated, frowning. "I will do nothing until I have seen Regine."
"Certainly. You shall see Regine; not now, however—indeed, she is not here now."
"To-morrow, if you desire it."
Without another word he passed out, pale, perplexed, lost in thought. Almost mechanically he walked along the Strand, blind and deaf to all surrounding sights and sounds, in the direction of the Temple.
Madame Boissflury stood for some moments with an air of reflection. Then she smiled, rubbing her hands. There was quite a metallic sound about the last-named proceeding, from the clinking together of her rings. She looked at her old, furrowed, painted face in the glass with an air of intense satisfaction, adjusting the folds of her soiled blonde cap, rectifying the tangled, shrivelled, artificial flowers. Then she went out, and knocked at the door of the adjoining apartment.
"Who's there?" said a woman's voice, loud, but not unpleasing, with a slightly foreign accent.
"Regine," answered Madame Boisfleury, in a low tone, "it's only me. Let me in. I've seen him. I think all will go well. I have much to tell you."
"Don't trouble yourself. My ear was at the keyhole. I heard all!"
"Open the door, at any rate," said Madame Boisfleury, rather angrily. "I want my dress hooked."
CHAP XVI. PUTTING A CASE.
Wilford hurriedly entered Martin's chambers in the Temple.
"Well, old friend," cried Martin, in a cheerful tone. "You're better this morning. Let me hear you say so, first of all. Tell me you've slept soundly, have got over all faintness and giddiness, and are now yourself again."
Wilford seemed not to hear his friend's inquiries. He flung himself into a chair, wiping his forehead and gazing round him abstractedly.
"Thank God!" he said, hoarsely, "I am here again! I can breathe freely now. I feel as though I had been poisoned: inhaling infected air. I have been half-stifled, I believe—half-mad, perhaps. There's warrant for that even!" and he laughed wildly.
"What is the matter, Wil?" asked Martin, looking at him curiously, suspiciously. Wilford made no answer; he was rolling his head from side to side in the easy chair, swaying about rcstlessly, his fingers fidgetting, twisting together. A thought occurred to Martin.
"You're not followed?" he said.
"Followed!" Wilford repeated with a start. "I never thought of that! Yet the thing may be; nay, is likely enough-more than likely. They may have set a watch upon me again. He may have tracked me here, even. Heaven! They may come to you, Martin."
"One moment. We'll take care of that."
Martin left the room. He closed the outer door of his chambers. There was a strange expression upon his face as he did this. "How dreadful!" he muttered, "if he should be going mad!" and he turned quite pale. Speedily, however, he regained command of himself. He had full possession of his old, calm, pleasant manner when he re-entered his room, and said with a laugh—
"Now our foes may do their worst! We are closed in here, against the world. A man's house is his castle. We'll make the same rule apply to chambers. Now, Wil, make yourself at~home: rest yourself, get on to that sofa, and lie full~length if you like; it is not long enough, I grant, that sofa; but we can annex a chair, and adapt the thing to your lordship's grand proportions. Compose yourself, and take a cigar; a smoke in the morning is wonderfully soothing, only the tobacco shouldn't be too strong, and you shouldn't smoke too much of it; these cigars are just the thing, beautifully mild, and yet with a good flavour. Have one: that's right, there's a dear old boy; and I don't be in a hurry to talk. We've got the whole day before us, and the night, too, for that matter. You'll be all the better for being quiet a little. I can see that."
Martin's pleasant-toned voice, and quiet, winning way—half-playful, half-serious—had all the tranquillising effects he contemplated they should have upon his friend. Wilford was soon stretched upon the sofa, holding a lighted cigar to his lips. He had yielded to the plan which treated him almost as an invalid. Indeed, Martin's tone, while it was undoubtedly considerate and tender, had yet in it an authority and decision which did not admit of denial, and Wilford was hardly conscious himself how immediately he had given way to Martin's will.
"I am afraid I trouble you greatly, Martin, coming in here at this hour of the day, lounging and smoking. and making both of us idle."
"Don't talk of such a thing. Do you fancy that idleness isn't pleasant? Do you think one isn't very glad of an excuse for doing nothing? You're not inconveniencing me. For publishers and printers I don't feel called upon to answer. And why should I trouble myself about their affairs? They don't give me a share in their profits. I wish they did."
"But I am really keeping you from work."
"And I am really grateful to you for doing so. There, have I said enough? In truth I am in no humour for work to-day. I got up with a positive loathing for pens, ink, and paper, and I was nearly invoking a curse upon Caxton for inventing printing. Unreasonable, of course, since I get my living by it. But I can't work this morning. I'm like King Richard, 'not in the vein,' especially as you have dropped in for a chat."
"I feel that you are only saying all this out of kindness for me, Martin."
"Well, and suppose that is so," said Martin, laughing, "you ought to be polite enough not to see it! Are you going about inquiring into the reality and soundness of men's virtues and good qualities generally? Are you going to return a verdict that mine are all hollow and sham? Let us say that I was going to be busy this morning; do you account me such a curmudgeon of my time that I cannot give some of it up—all if need be—to you, or any friend that may make a call upon it? Nonsense, Wil. Business may go—where it likes. You've come for a long talk, and I'm very glad of it; the longer the better; my time's yours, and always shall be. There are very few things I've got to give away, but I have that. And now—1 by degrees, mind, and without the slightest hurry—for indeed there's no occasion for it—you shall tell me all about yourself, and how you are, and how Mrs. Wilford is, and how little Master, Wilford is, and what may be the latest nursery revelation with regard to him. Now, Sir, that's the programme. Smoke your cigar, gently and cosily, and begin when and where you like."
"You don't know how much good it does me to hear you talk like this, Martin."
"I intend it to do you some good."
"For, indeed, I have need of kindness. I am placed in a position of extreme pain. I hardly know which way to turn; what to do. I have every need of kindness and support, consideration and good counsel."
"Is this sanity?" Martin asked himself.
"I have been suffering torture of late. While I have much, I know, to thank myself for, I yet seem to be the victim of a conspiracy—of, indeed, absolute persecution on the part of others."
"Surely this is monomania!" Martin murmured.
"I have much to tell you, and yet I have a difficulty in beginning."
"The difficulty has been felt by others—it is always difficult to begin. But the difficulty is half imaginary. It doesn't really matter; begin anywhere; take up what thread you will of the story, we'll weave all into shape and meaning afterwards."
Wilford paused a few moments, lost in thought.
"Martin," he said at length, "a man is guilty of many follies in the course of his life. "
"I have not a word to say against that proposition."
"Especially in his youth."
"Especially in his youth," Martin assented.
"The terms are almost convertible."
"Which he would not wish to be known to the rest of the world."
"Few biographies can afford to be really, wholly truthful. We can't print everything as it stands in the original manuscript. There must always be editing and revising, which mean altering and suppressing. if only on the public's account."
"Probably, Martin, you would not wish that the whole of your life should be known to all?"
"Certainly, Wil, I should not; though it may be that I am no worse than my neighbours. But I concede that I am not an angel, and that the whole of my life has not been conducted upon angelic principles. It is only to say that I am a man, to signify that I have been and am, for that matter, periodically a fool. We can only hope to grow wiser and better as we grow older. Most men of our age can cordially acquiesce in the axiom, that at twenty-one we were all decided fools: it would be a matter of congratulation if we could be quite sure that we are less foolish now than we were then. But to what is this philosophical inquiry to lead us?"
"And the reason for this desire for concealment," Wilford went on, without remark upon the question, "is it not because disclosure would make one seem less worthy in the eyes of others? Because one would by it forfeit much of the esteem and regard of one's family and friends?"
"Certainly those are good motives for concealment."
"And especially of the concealment of—"
Wilford paused, as though in search of a word.
"Let us say 'indiscretions,'" suggested Martin. "The word is a mild one, but society has agreed that it shall, if need be, bear a strong and wide significance."
"Of the concealment of indiscretions from the knowledge of one's wife."
Martin started a little at this. He abandoned the tone of banter in which he had been inclined to treat the conversation as far as it had hitherto gone.
"It seems to me, Wil," he said, seriously, "that the fewer things one conceals from the knowledge of one's wife, the better."
He waited for a moment or two, and then resumed, rather sadly.
"I can only offer you bachelor counsel, my friend. It is possible that I may be wrong—unworldly and unwise. It is difficult for the unmarried to set up their idealities against the realities of the married. It has not been given to me to know the happiness of marriage—possibly it never will be given to me. I can only base my judgment, therefore, upon fancy. It seems to me that if Heaven had been pleased to give me a wife, I should not seek to appear to her other than I really am. I should not care to be perpetually playing a part before her. I should like her to know me thoroughly, and both the good and evil that may be in me. Certainly, I would hide little from her. Yet I should hope, upon the whole, to merit her love and to win it, not by a trick or a concealment, but by truth and honesty. I should hope that, after allowance was made for the bad, a residuum of good would yet remain, sufficient to justify her affection in the past and in the present, as I know that my whole conduct should be framed to deserve and hold her love and her trust in the future. But this may be folly. A man cannot give practical advice upon subjects with which he has no practical acquaintance. So again, I ask, why are we drifting into these new topics?"
Wilford did not answer. He moved about uneasily. He drew hard at his cigar; but it had gone out, and he flung it into the grate. He passed his hand across his forehead.
"Let us put a case," he said.
"Certainly," Martin answered, adding, in a low voice, "'putting a case' sounds less committing than 'making a confession,' but it amounts to much the same thing. Yet a veil is a veil, no matter how flimsy it may be. Let us hear your case, Wil," he said aloud.
Wilford rose from the sofa, and walked up and down the room several times with a very disturbed air. He stopped short, suddenly.
"Let us put, then," he said, "the case of a man who"—but he was unable to continue. He walked to the window. "No, Martin," he resumed at length, "I can't talk to you in that sham way. The case I want to put is my own. Let me say so plainly. I have a story to tell—a very painful one. Let me ask, in beginning it, your forbearance, your sympathy, your pity."
"Surely, Wil," said Martin, kindly.
"I ask this, because I fear that in my conduct you may find much to condemn. I must tell you this story, Martin; and yet I dread lest, having told it, 1 shall forfeit your esteem—lest I should incur your censure. You don't know how hard that would be to hear. You cannot think, Martin, how cruelly the loss of such a good, proved friend as you have been, would fall upon me now."
"But you exaggerate, Wil. You know—you must be sure—that what you dread is barely possible."
"Listen, then. We parted as schoolboys, to meet again as men. A long interval was thus passed, in which we were unknown to each other—an interval of many years, and not the least important years of life. We have given to each other the broad outline of the manner of our lives during that time. With that general account we have been satisfied; indeed the matter seemed to be hardly worth deep inquiry, or dwelling upon, or returning to. Perhaps we have been too busy with the present and the future to interest ourselves very greatly in the past. A brief sketch of the interval, and we were both ready enough to resume our old friendship, and place it on a basis not less strong, and true, and sure than it was years ago.
"This, however, you did know. That many of the years passed by you at the university had been spent by me out of England. That my absence resulted in a great measure from a serious disagreement with my father. That I returned home at last upon the receipt of intelligence that he was dangerously ill. That I arrived in time to see him—but unavailingly. I was denounced as a prodigal son; I was unforgiven—disinherited. The estates were left to my brother. In due time I came to London—relinquished my name—found you in the Temple—married. So far my history to the present time, as it is known to you. But it is important that I should take it up at a much earlier date."
After a slight pause, he resumed.
"You have heard me speak of my uncle, Colonel Hugh Hadfield?"
"I remember to have heard you mention his name. I have little recollection of anything else concerning him."
"He was my father's junior by some few years. He had passed a considerable portion of his life in India. He retired from the service possessed of a large fortune. The brothers had seen very little of each other, and were not particularly good friends; indeed, that was hardly to be wondered at, they had lived apart for so long. But some few months of the year my uncle always spent at the Grange. He occupied, too, a handsome town house in Harley Street. During the winter he resided generally at Paris. He was something of an invalid. His constitution had been much tried by the climate, I fancy, and probably by other causes. He had nothing of that robust appearance my father retained almost to the last; he looked much older, was very thin and bent. I first recollect him—and I must have been then quite a child—walking about the grounds of the Grange in the summer time, dressed in very light-coloured clothes; on his head a large straw hat, bound round with muslin many times folded. I know his appearance used to strike me as very strange—his skin was so yellow, his eyes so fierce and rolling, his eyebrows so jet-black, although his crumpled hair was as white as snow. He was incessantly smoking; drinking cold brandy-and-water; very imperious and violent in his manner; with a habit of swearing hard at everything and everybody. Yet he was kind too, in his way, to my brother and myself. I believe I was especially a favourite of his; possibly because I was the eldest son. He was always making us presents: now, of all sorts of Indian toys; now, of costly articles of jewellery; now, he would stand us in the corners of the room while he flung guineas to us. We were to keep all we could catch, and he would swear at us, and threaten to thrash us well, if we missed any. He was well known at Grilling Abbots, and popular there—and no wonder; his purse was at everybody's service; and although his manner was formidable, he did many kindnesses to the people about, and they couldn't help liking him even while they feared him. Indeed, he died during one of his visits to the Grange, and was buried in the family mausoleum—unfeignedly regretted, I do believe.
"You may remember of old that I had the reputation of being a spoilt child—and there was good reason for it—I was over-indulged; my slightest whims were humoured. My father and my uncle joined in this; and especially if my inclination took the form of a precocious manliness. My first ten-pound note was earned by my taking my pony over a gate in very reckless fashion, nearly breaking my neck and the pony's too. But the two old gentlemen were loud in their applause; my uncle especially. I was encouraged to be daring, madcap, domineering. They only laughed at me when my temper, upon some petty provocation, broke all bounds, and left me storming with passion. I was never checked, never prompted to place restraint upon myself. You may remember what trouble this brought upon me at school—the incessant squabbles and difficulties and fights I was ever in. Of course all this would have been ordered otherwise had my mother's life been spared; but, as you know, she was taken from us not long after Stephen's birth.
"Though upon this subject my father and my uncle were agreed, there were others upon which they differed greatly. My uncle's visits to the Grange, though they were renewed year by year, generally terminated abruptly and unpleasantly. Some trivial difference of opinion would at last grow into an open quarrel, and the Colonel would suddenly take his departure, vowing that he would never again set foot within the Grange. This happened frequently; but he returned at a stated period to pay another visit. In fact, the brothers agreed better at a distance; they had been too long apart to know really much of each other; they knew not how to make allowance for each other's peculiarities of disposition and frame of mind and habits of thought. Their intimacy had no better foundation than the fact of their relationship; it was not made real and natural by the existence of friendship between them. They met because they were brothers—but for that fact there was nothing to bring them together; and it was not sufficient to form a ground for permanent union, especially as it was backed up by no kind of liking or sympathy. Probably each thought the other unreasonably prejudiced and overbearing and angry upon small provocation, and my father, as the head of the house, may have been inclined to claim a recognition of his position to a greater extent than the Colonel, who had achieved his own fortune in his own way, owing little to his family, was disposed to allow. So they only tolerated each other; their fraternity hardly merited a more flattering description.
"One day—I forget the reason, if indeed I ever knew it—their periodical quarrel was more than usually violent and prolonged. My uncle left the Grange in a furious rage. I was accustomed to his angry departures, but I never remember one so stormy as this had been. And he took a long time to soften. The period for his return to us approached, but he showed little symptom of yielding. At last my father wrote formally to him requesting his usual visit. The Colonel replied courteously but firmly. He regretted that he should be compelled for the present to deny himself the pleasure of visiting his relations at the Grange; circumstances over which unfortunately he had no control demanded his presence in London. My father was seriously annoyed at this; however, he commanded himself sufficiently to enable him to write again to the Colonel, pressing him in the kindest way to return to the Grange. The Colonel again made answer in terms something similar to his first letter, but concluding with a request that, in his inability to visit the country, my father would permit that I should spend some weeks in Harley Street. With this evidence of his brother's good-will my father was obliged to be content. The terms of the compromise were accepted. I visited London in lieu of my uncle's return to the Grange.
"Looking back upon one's life, how many causes for regret there are arising out of circumstances apparently of a wholly accidental character How many times I have sorrowed over that chance visit to London, that residence of some months in my uncle's house in Harley Street! For to that I seem to have cause to attribute all the troubles of my existence.
"You may conceive that my uncle was not a very well chosen monitor for a young man on his entrance into life. He had lived abroad very much; had acquired habits of thought much at variance with convention: had a contempt for the usages of society, especially if they came in contact at all with his manner of life, his tastes, and pursuits; and, worse than this, he entertained certain convictions which came down to him possibly from a past age, from a less refined system of civilisation. He clung to old-world ideas upon knowledge of the world; comprehending in that, as an important part, knowledge of sin. Many before him have held a like opinion. He thought it desirable that youth should study both good and evil. That virtue, if it was to be attained at all, should be attained by wading through vice; as if it were necessary to drain wickedness to the dregs in order to know the taste of it. I feel a sort of shame in seeming to find an excuse for myself in blaming an old man who is dead, and who, whatever his faults, was certainly in intention kind to me. He never knew, I believe, the harm he was doing me; he never guessed the terrible harvest it would be mine to reap for all the seed he was then sowing. Let me dismiss the subject as briefly as I may. My visits to London—then commenced and frequently repeated afterwards—were of great misfortune to me, if only because they aggravated all the bad points of my character. Judge yourself what was likely to be the result of educating to such views of life a high-spirited country-bred boy with ready-developed tendencies to mischief; of encouraging him to such knowledge of the world as I have hinted at; of applauding him when, with his young, crimson, earnest face, he bent over the gaming-table and tried not to pale when his money was swept away from him, it being a gentleman's duty not to flinch at such dispensations of Fortune, or when he never missed the wine in its circuit of the table, and, staggering and noisy, was, as a consequence, led away at last, to bed by the servants.
"You may think that I have no pleasure in this relation, Martin, but it is necessary that you should be informed in some detail of the manner in which the interval of our separation was passed.
"My uncle's household was a curious one—ill-regulated as his own habits. To the usual mismanagement of a bachelor's house was superadded complication arising from the fact of his long residence abroad. On his first arrival in England he had been accompanied by several native servants. These, however, he had one by one sent back to India, with one exception. He still retained in his service, fulfilling the duties of valet, a half-caste, who had been many years with him. This man, born at Pondicherry—his father a Frenchman—was very useful to my uncle—knew all his ways, accompanied him wherever he went, assisted him to dress, wrote letters for him, even cooked for him appetising Indian dishes,—when his health failed him, and no other efforts could satisfy his palate. So, when the other servants were dismissed, Dominique Pichot was still retained. A docile, faithful, attached creature, as my uncle was of opinion until the last; a subtle, treacherous scoundrel, as I have good reason to know.
"The housekeeper was an Englishwoman, a Mrs. Corder. She, also, had been many years in my uncle's service—the widow, I fancy, of a soldier of his regiment who had been for some time his servant in India, and had died there. But of this I am not certain. She was a woman of low origin, who had compensated for her want of education by a certain quickness and cunning. She had no sort of scruple, was very grasping and ambitious, and by some means had acquired considerable influence over my uncle. She was very vain, though she must have been nearly fifty when I first saw her; but by artificial means she contrived to look considerably younger. She was very fond of dress, was selfish, avaricious, mean, wily, altogether despicable, but that her manner had about it something I then thought winning, and that her power in the household was almost absolute. She affected to welcome me cordially to my uncle's house, urged the frequent repetition of my visits, while yet I believe she entertained great fears lest my uncle's friendship for me should extend to his constituting me the sole heir to his fortune. It was soon evident to me that a certain understanding existed between this Mrs. Corder and Pichot, but the nature or object of this was not at the time intelligible to me.
"It is not to be supposed that, boy as I was, my uncle cared for me to be continually with him during my residence in Harley Street. He had frequent engagements, was often at the club, or in the society of his friends—for the most part retired officers whom he had known in India. I It was some relief from the dulness of that large empty house to seek the company of Pichot or of the housekeeper. They were only too happy to be of use to me. Let it be understood that I was likely to unlearn none of my uncle's lessons from these associates. They were utterly depraved. I blush now to think of the gross adulations they lavished upon me, the coarse compliments which then gave me pleasure, and won for these creatures my regard. They were only too happy to aid me in my search after knowledge of the world. Sin could hardly have had more accomplished coadjutors. They vied with each other in flattering and pampering me, in seeking to serve me in any way, no matter how shameful.
"One object of their servility at length became known to me. It appeared that they had been long secretly married; that during one of my uncle's absences from London a child had been born of their union—a boy, who was already some years old, and whom they had christened Alexis, Pichot had always accompanied my uncle on his visits to the Grange, but it was not until his last visit that Mrs. Corder had also gone with him. His health was then very feeble, and he required a constant nurse, and during his last illness, and a short time previous to his death at the Grange, the housekeeper—then known as Madame Pichot—was sent for to attend to her master.
"I undertook, by their desire, to reveal to my uncle the fact of this marriage, to intercede for them, and to obtain his forgiveness. The task was not an easy one. My uncle, himself a bachelor, had been prone to make matrimony ever a special subject for raillery and satire (perhaps after the habit of the unmarried). When informed of the fact he was furious, vowed he would never see either of them again, that they should both quit the house instantly, and abused me roundly for undertaking to advocate their cause. Calmly these people appeared to bow to his orders; they prepared to depart, with yet I believe a full intention to remain. I was afraid I had injured their position by my unsuccessful eloquence. They only laughed Probably they knew my uncle better than I did. The housekeeper availed herself of an opportunity to see him. They had a long and violent conversation. It seemed to me that a sort of compact had been concluded between them.
"Madame Pichot informed me that, with her husband, she was to continue in my uncle's service. More than this, that the child was to be permitted to reside in my uncle's house, provided it never made its presence known, either to his eyes or his ears. Further, she informed me that the marriage was at an earlier date than I had imagined, and that there existed a child some years older than Alexis, a girl—very nearly of my own age—whose name was Regine Stephanie Pichot, and that she, also, would shortly appear at the house in Harley Street."
A loud thump on the outer door of Martin's chambers here disturbed Wilford in his narrative.