The New Arcadia/Chapter 7



And even while Fashion's brightest arts decoy,
The heart distrusting asks, if this be joy?"—Goldsmith.

"Rapine, avarice, expense,
This is idolatry; and these we adore:
Plain living and high thinking are no more;
The homely beauty of the good old cause
Is gone; our peace, our fearful innocence
And pure religion, breaking household laws."

"Keeping up appearances" when the substance is wanting, to be prompted by a generous disposition without the power of giving effect to it, moving in a plane of life above the pecuniary standard of those who occupy it, is one of the most painful experiences the professional man—or any—can know.

Such was now Dr. Courtenay's position. His wife, a clever, stylish woman, was ambitious—for the girls' sake, as she said. Their elder daughter, Hilda, was a dashing, thoughtless girl, intent upon pleasure and admiration. Well-dressed and duly appointed, as, like her mother, she always managed to be, she was capable of making a decided impression in any drawing-room to which she was announced. Art and effect may have contributed more than nature and grace, vivacity of manner more than native power, yet so it was that Miss Courtenay more than held her own in the world of taste and fashion.

Her sister, fair and retiring, with the gentlest of trusting blue eyes, rather large mouth, straight soft hair, regular but not striking features, impressed only those who knew her. She thought herself plain and stupid—neither of which she was. Her sister did not contribute to undeceive her: neither did her mother. Thanks to the latter's tact and devotion to desirable personages, the Courtenays were asked and appeared everywhere—at tennis parties, afternoon teas, dances, and At Homes. Mornings were spent in recovering from the effects of the previous evening's engagements—with a little soupçon of watering and arranging of flowers, to give a sense of having been "quite busy this morning."

Afternoons were devoted to ceremonial visitings when no engagements to salons, matinées and other fashionable fixtures intervened. The evening seemed blank and tiresome if no festivity or out-going marked it. A miserable failure the entire round of feverish existence actually was. No time or opportunity was afforded for forming real friendships, for rational converse, for the joys of intellectual or domestic life.

There are some things that cannot go on. Dr. Courtenay found himself sinking deeper and deeper into debt. "Calls" were made by financial institutions that hitherto had paid him handsome dividends. The liabilities his generous nature had led him to incur in the interest of distressed friends or poor patients were accumulating. Something must be done. The carriage and coachman were "put down." The house, not a pretentious one, must be kept up, or the practice would suffer.

"If we do not go out people will cease to ask us," pleaded the wife, when her attention was directed to long outstanding accounts at Buckland & Joshua's and Senior the jewellers.

Wearied with a long day's round of professional visiting, and attendance at meetings, the long-suffering doctor must needs dress and take his wife and daughters to some cloying scene of festivity, with a suppressed yawn thanking his gracious hostess for "a most enjoyable evening," when at length Hilda and her mother had been induced to depart.

"The whole thing is so false and hollow," he would say. " I despise myself for uttering these conventional lies, and for participating in this make-believe existence. You do not enjoy it," he would protest, "you are always tired. And what is there to show for all your labours? If it were natural, were we in a position to entertain, if you went out as, and where, you really wished to go, I could understand it. But your fashionable life as now lived is, in my opinion, artificial, unintellectual, and a sham throughout."

"I fear, Charles, you lost at whist to-night," his spouse suggested.

"No, I did not. No such relief to monotony. I only played to pass the time."

"It is your absurd dabbling in every form of charity and in all sorts of social schemes that is dragging us down," the good lady urged, as the conversation was continued at a later hour. "What about those men you have sent away? Who, but you, is responsible for their maintenance?"

"I'm not," the husband replied; "I shall do my best. If others will not help, they must return and starve here in town."

The doctor and some friends had indeed despatched Elms and a few of his people to a "Selection" that Courtenay had "taken up" years before, when practising near a squatter uncle's in the country. The venture was only an experiment, which for lack of funds and scope did not promise much success.

The doctor had prevailed upon his wife to accompany him to his study. He had been looking into accounts. The good lady protested that "no good came of brooding over what could not be altered."

"Times will change soon," she remarked, toying with an invitation that had just come to Lady Woolenough's "At Home."

"They will change—for the worse," was the man's reply. "We are getting deeper and deeper into the mire, all to keep up these false appearances, and to maintain a position amongst people who possess thousands for our hundreds."

"But you must have regard to your practice and to the girls' prospects."

"What would become of both if anything happened to me?" he replied bitterly. "My very policies are encumbered. If I died to-morrow, you would be beggars. And people would say, truly, that I had lived a lie."

"But every one else is in the same position! What squatter or merchant but is in the hands of his bank? Who are there pay cash for what they eat and use and wear? You might ticket every coat, or dress, or house you see as belonging, if all had their own, to some wretched tradesman."

"The fact that others are dishonest, or are content to live in a 'fool's paradise,' is no consolation to me."

At this juncture Hilda with evident excitement entered the room, followed by her sister, looking guilty but resolute.

"Maud says she will not accept Lady Woolenough's invitation. She is not going out any more," explained the elder, flinging herself on the settee with a tennis-racquet in her lap. "She wants to play the heroine."

Poor Maud, looking very guilty, stood beside her parents.

"We have not dresses to go in, and I do not want a new one."

"Why not, pray?" asked the mother.

"Because we cannot afford it."

"For that very reason we cannot afford to drop out of everything," remarked Hilda.

"What makes you think that we are not in a position to go out, Maud?" inquired her mother.

"I am very stupid, I dare say," replied the girl, "but I know that father is worn with care and anxiety. I am not going to add to his embarrassment."

"My dear," remarked her mother, severely, "this is really not your business. This is too bad! It appears to me that even the girls are becoming mercenary in these days. When I was young we never talked of 'ways and means.' Do you not think that your father and I can manage our own financial affairs?"

"She says she is going as a governess," interposed Hilda. "I pity the poor children. An awful lot Maud will teach them!"

"Perhaps so," was the reply. "We girls really learn nothing, now-a-days. All that we have known is forgotten twelve months after we 'come out.' At any rate I shall try to improve matters for myself."

"Very likely we shall let you leave home in that way!" said her father, kindly, drawing the accused towards him, "It would break my heart to think of girls brought up as you have been, becoming drudges of a modern household, owing, too, to our insane attempt to maintain a false appearance."

"A governess, of all things!" interposed her mother, warmly. "I had rather you were a housemaid or cook. Then at least you would receive good wages, and command employment and fair treatment. The desire of so many, when they want to earn their own living, to be governesses and clerks, is prompted by the very same false pride you think you discern elsewhere in society."

"So I believe," admitted the girl, "but you see I could not well be a cook while my father practised as a fashionable doctor. I do not know why, however. It would be more honest than our present mode of living and that of many of our friends. Still I recognize that we must 'keep up appearances' to a certain extent—though I do loathe it all."

"My dear," remarked her father, taking the girl's hand in his, "you shall not go as a cook just yet. Things are not as bad as that; but," he added, "there is no doubt that we must economize, and, moreover, we might, I think, compensate ourselves for less excitement by a little more rational home life and some social occupations."

"Practising on the piano, reading dry books, and carrying soup round to poor people," suggested Hilda, with a toss of the head.

"We can try to be happy and useful," replied the father, "without making fools of ourselves."

"Or nuisances either," suggested Mrs. Courtenay, naïvely. "I consider your ordinary 'charitably-disposed persons' the greatest bores you ever meet. Such dowdies as they are! And there is just as much fuss and sham about them, only of another sort, as with those who do move in decent society. They all hate and envy one another. They will pillory you yet. You should hear what Miss Loveless says already."

"I suppose we must expect to meet with human nature everywhere," remarked the doctor. "We can avoid eccentricities and extremes in each direction."

"Then you side with Maud," said the mother, with an air of scorn. "We are to refuse this invitation, sell our dresses to those charming persons who advertise, 'Don't throw away your spoons and old clothes,' and sit and work a sewing-machine all day long."

The doctor was roused.

"You might do worse than that," he remarked. "Be plain, be honest, that's all I ask." And he sat and smoked his cigar in silence.

Poor man!—he had struggled hard to make his practice and position. Visions had been his of honourable, unconventional usefulness. Lately, however, he had drifted into a false position. His daughter standing there, more like culprit than victim, had already dragooned herself into the thought of becoming some scorned, uncared-for drudge of society. He knew that that might come! He had stretched out his hand to help those that were falling—his own anxieties making him solicitous for those of others. Now his arm was paralyzed by lack of money.

"How I hate it!" he thought. "Those who have, misuse it, those have it not who might put it to good account."

At this moment Elms was announced. He had written stating that he needed a few hundred pounds for the undertaking in which he was engaged.

"You need not go," said the doctor, as the ladies moved to depart. While the two conversed, Mrs. Courtenay said, speaking in a low tone, to her daughters— "I do not know how it is, but I no more trust that man than I would a burglar. He has designs on your father. Well, there is not much to get out of him, that's one comfort! Women may be fools, but they read facts and hearts better than do these poor men."

"There's no help for it, Elms," the doctor was saying.

"The thing must be given up. I have no means myself, and can procure none from those who have."

"It is a great shame, sir," replied the man with evident feeling; "the poor fellows are doing well. They'll be mad if I tell them they'll have to go. They'll blame you, sir."

"Perhaps they will. Let them! Who will be the greater sufferer? I, who have laid out the little money I had, who have spent my time and drawn obloquy upon myself for their sakes, to be denounced by them and jeered at by my friends—or they who have had everything to gain and nothing to lose?"

And the strong man, from whom all upon which he had set his heart seemed slipping, groaned within himself, though his face was set as if he were undergoing an operation. As he was! Slowly his life's hopes were being torn from him, but he would not wince.

"Only why," he was thinking, "so strongly as we desire to live honestly and to some purpose, do we find the means wanting?" Tom Lord and Frank Brown appearing at the door were about to withdraw.

"Do not go," said the doctor; "you are in at the death."

"What death?"

"Only that of my little pet scheme. It has collapsed for want of funds."

"Indeed, I'm sorry," remarked Tom, not looking particularly grieved either; adding aside to the young clergyman—

"What about your faith, Brown—that was to pull you through?"

The latter did not respond.

"You'll join our party to the theatre to-night?" continued Tom. "'The way the world goes round' is a grand take-off, they say, of fashionable society of to-day. Very clever, I believe. Mrs. Courtenay is taking us all."

That lady looked guilty. Maud remarked—

"I am sorry I cannot go, Mr. Lord, thank you."

"No more shall I," said Hilda, with the air of a martyr.

"But you will not give up the theatre because that set of derelicts has to return to town?" said Lord. "Where's your faith?"—to Brown.

The doctor seemed to be in no mood for pleasantries. A heavy weight lay on his heart—a dark path stretched before him. Maud was looking out of the window, far away into the future—wondering whether filling the minds or the mouths of children were preferable. Hilda was pulling a rose viciously to pieces as it lay on her lap. Brown talked eagerly to Elms, upon whose face a dark, ominous shadow lay. Mrs. Courtenay was reading and re-reading her invitation—wondering what life would be worth without the excitement of balls to be prepared for, and daughters to be danced out.

A knock was heard at the door. The maid delivered a telegram to the doctor, who seized it as a welcome diversion from troubled thought. All eyes turned towards him as he tore open the envelope.

A telegram is a talisman. It turns darkness to light, converts rejoicing into mourning, casts a lightning flash upon distant worlds, revealing achievement won or calamity befallen upon the anxious, waiting heart. It descends as a thunderclap, or instils comfort like the dew. Whose pulse does not throb one beat quicker per minute, when, at critical moments, the red-winged Mercury of modern days appears in the midst!

The doctor read, and leaped from his lounge; thrusting his fingers through his hair, he read again.

The wife looked over his shoulder, saying, "May I see?"

The daughters peered over the other and timidly asked, "May we look?"

The men stood by inquiringly. "Wondering what the deuce it all meant," as Tom explained afterwards.

Like cloud-shadows and sunshine across an April landscape, variations of expression swept over the faces of the readers. Visions of sorrow and of joy, of wonderment and anticipation were cast upon each eager countenance. All this in a second.

"I never expected that," cried the doctor at length. "Poor old fellow! Right at last! Not as bad as we thought him. Who is?"

The women were looking one to another, then out of the window—to weep and to smile, seeing through a thin veil of tears a long vista of promise and of opportunity; peopled by each with the objects nearest their hearts. Under the trees of her vision, Maud saw children playing, strong men working as they smiled, women spinning as they sang. Beneath their leafy shades mother and elder daughter beheld processions and pageants, as of cloth-of-gold, fairy trains, the Festival of all the Fashions, themselves set at the vista end, receiving the adulations of gorgeous throngs!

"May we see?" asked little Tom, recognizing that the telegram was of general interest.

He read aloud—

Gumford Railway Station.

"Your uncle died last night, bequeathing his estates to you. Peaceful end.

"Richard Dowling."

"Very wealthy, was he not?" remarked the little man.

"Worth about £200,000," was his friend's reply.

"Courtenay, I congratulate you. You are worthy of this."

"Not too fast, old fellow, there may be some mistake. 'There's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip.'"

"No fear of that. I always thought you'd come out right."

"No, you did not, excuse me," remarked the clergyman, wringing the doctor's hand; "you said faith would not do it—and it has."

"Then the work can go on, sir?" inquired Elms.

"Yes, I hope so, on a somewhat larger scale, perhaps. I can see daylight now, I think," said the doctor, "though I am somewhat dazed."