ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)

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Fiction - Short Stories (3)

 

1. The Peacocks’ Feathers

2. Berinthia

3. An Old Reckoning

 

The Peacocks’ Feathers

The Sphere (26 May, 1900)
This version: The Whitstable and Herne Bay Herald (26 September, 1903 - p.3)

 

 

THE PEACOCKS’ FEATHERS.
_____

BY ROBERT BUCHANAN.

Author of “The Shadow of the Sword,” “A Child of Nature,” “God and the Man,” “The Martyrdom of Madeline,” “Love Me For Ever,” &c.

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     “Stop!” cried the author, springing from his seat at the prompt table, and fiercely waving his gingham umbrella.
     The rehearsal was in full progress. The stage-manager, with his hat tilted on the back of his head, was standing at the author’s right hand, looking on while the soubrette of the company ran glibly through a comic love scene with the light comedian, a tall and somewhat cadaverous person attired in shabby finery. The rest of the company thronged the wings, whispered together, or studied their parts. The stage was illuminated by the flashing jets of the T light, which only served to cast the rest of the theatre, including the auditorium, into cavernous gloom.
     “Stop!” cried the author, so suddenly and sharply that even the stage-manager recoiled in amazement. All eyes were fixed on the figure wildly gesticulating at the prompt table and glaring angrily at the light comedian.
     “Anything the matter?” asked the light comedian, somewhat airily.
     “The matter, sir?” echoed the author, pointing at him with his umbrella, and panting with indignation. “What have you got there?”
     Puzzled for a moment, the light comedian glanced at himself from head to foot with a feeble attempt at a smile.
     “How dare you laugh, sir?” cried the author.
     “Upon my soul,” began the light comedian.
     “Silence!” the author thundered. Then, turning to the stage-manager, he added: “Take his part away. Tell him to leave the theatre at once!”
     There was general consternation, intensified by the fact that no one as yet knew the cause of the trouble, The artists gathered whispering together. The stage-manager looked at a loss what to say or do, and the most stupefied and puzzled of all was the light comedian, who, after speaking in animated tones with the soubrette, at last approached the prompt table as if determined to get at the heart of the mystery. He was a man of between thirty and forty, gentlemanly in look and bearing, but at the same time a little airy and supercilious.
     “I don’t know what’s the matter, sir,” he said, “but I demand to know. You have no right to fly at a chap like that without telling him what he’s done to offend you!”
     By this time the author had grown somewhat calmer. Sinking into his chair, and passing his hand wearily across his forehead, he answered:
     “Go away, sir! Leave the stage!”
     “I shall do nothing of the kind till you give me the explanation which one gentleman has a right to demand from another!”
     These bold words sent a thrill of surprise through the groups that listened—for the author, like others of his class, was a despot, and even the manager of the theatre seldom dared to dispute his authority. Further than that, he was a man famous far and wide in more than one branch of literature, a man whose genius was universally admitted in spite of a thousand shortcomings and eccentricities.
     Personally the author and the comedian presented a curious contrast. The author was dressed like and old-clothes man, with boots several sizes too big for him, a soft wideawake hat, and not too spotless linen. For age, he had passed the sixties; his beard and moustache were white as snow; his tall figure stooped at the shoulders and bent at the knees, and otherwise he rather affected the manners of advanced years. The comedian, on the other hand, was spruce and dapper, though a keen eye would have detected underneath his light manner the traces of secret trouble and in his smart attire the threadbare signs of impecuniosity. For the rest, the author was wealthy and prosperous, the actor in that condition which is technically known in the profession as “at the back of God’s-speed.” In point of fact the engagement to play in the piece then being rehearsed meant life or death to the comedian, who knew when he bearded the great man that he was possibly throwing his last chance away.
     “You’d better go, Thornton,” said the stage-manager, nervously; “we’ll discuss this matter privately.”
     “I would rather discuss it now,” replied the actor, still pale and trembling, but determined. “I desire to know what offence I’ve given.”
     By this time the author had recovered from his excitement, though not altogether from his anger.
     “The matter is very simple, sir,” he said; “you are totally unsuited for the part which you have been rehearsing, and as the casting of the play is entirely in my hands——”
     “Quite so,” interrupted the actor, growing still paler, and folding up the part nervously. “I’m sorry, however, you didn’t tell me so earlier in the day. But when you first interrupted the rehearsal your attention seemed to be attracted to something peculiar in my wardrobe, and——”
     “It was, sir,” interrupted the author. “Is it possible that you are ignorant of the enormity of coming to rehearse a new part in my play with a peacock’s feather in your buttonhole?”
     A murmur, not unaccompanied with a titter, ran through the assembled company. The author’s whims and eccentricities were know, but the extent of his prejudices had hardly as yet been understood. The mischief, however, was out, and visible to every eye present. In the buttonhole of his walking coat the comedian carried a small peacock’s feather.
     “A peacock’s feather?” cried the comedian, lightly fingering it with his shabbily-gloved fingers, and laughing nervously. “This, sir?” Really, if I had had any idea that you were so superstitious——”
     “That is enough!” cried the author, rising and turning his back on the offender. “Mr. Robinson, we will dismiss the rehearsal till eleven o’clock to-morrow.”
     The rehearsal was accordingly dismissed, and the members of the company, including the light comedian, who had placed his part down on the prompt table, drifted slowly out of the theatre. A little later the author was closeted in anxious consultation with the stage-manager.
     “I’m sorry about this,” the latter was saying. “You don’t really think, do you, that an accident like that could possibly prejudice the success of your piece?”
     “It was no accident,” was the irate reply. “I am convinced that that young man, on whose incompetence and levity I have had more than one occasion to remark, deliberately intended to wreck my piece! Besides, he cannot play the part—it would be madness to let him attempt it. We must think of someone else.”
     “I’ll tell him what you have decided. He’s rather a proud chap, and I don’t think he’ll persist if you say he’s really unsuitable. But I know he’s very hard up, and can’t afford to lose the engagement.”
     “Hard up, sir,” cried the author, “when he can dress like that and give himself the airs of a duke? He’s a jackanapes, and he must be taught a lesson!”
     So saying, the author shuffled out of the theatre, and calling a four-wheeled cab at the door was driven towards his mansion in the neighbourhood of Hyde Park. The stage-manager watched him depart and then shook his head lugubriously.
     “They say genius to madness is precious nearly allied,” he soliloquised, “and, by George! I think they are right. Fancy a great man like that going on like an old woman over a peacock’s feather!”
     In point of fact, the author was a mass of peculiar contradictions, uniting in his person the most unique intellectual and logical power with ideas of almost childish simplicity. Late in life, after earning no little distinction as a Fellow of his College, he had taken to novel-writing, startling the world with a series of powerful stories dealing boldly with the great social problems of the day, and still later he had dramatised his own works for the stage with less success but even greater enthusiasm. Personally he was at once arrogant and gentle, opinionated and kindly. Although his good deeds were many, his personal whims and oddities were legion, and only one person in the world had any power to control them.
     In his early manhood he had been a member of a little circle consisting of himself and two friends, one of whom was married. The wife kept house for the three; then her husband died, and she continued to keep house for the two; then one of the two died, and the author was left alone with the widow, who continued to keep house for him. Long years of intercourse had knitted those two lives closely together in bonds of friendship. They had grown old together like brother and sister.
     Close upon Knightsbridge was the author’s abode, with a garden looking upon the Lady’s Mile of Hyde Park. Hither he hastened, eager to confide the day’s annoyances to the lady who was at once his housekeeper and his dearest living friend, and who was indeed at that very moment seated in a large sitting-room or study opening on the garden, and anxiously awaiting his return. She was a plump little woman, whose eyes still shone brightly under her grey hair, and whose face, in spite of its wrinkles, still beamed with good humour and kindness of heart.
     Admitted by a servant girl, the author strode at once into the sitting-room and found the little lady seated before a large table near the window, and looking the picture of absolute despair.
     “O Charles!” she cried the moment he appeared. “I’m so glad you’ve come. Mrs. Mount Stephen has just sent us this present from the Cape to decorate the new drawing-room.”
     The author cast one glance at the table, groaned, and collapsed into a chair. He could scarcely believe his eyes! The table was strewn all over with the brilliant feathers and plumage of many peacocks, some unset, others already fashioned into beautiful screens and fans.
     “Good Heavens!” he cried. “It is a conspiracy! We are ruined! More peacocks’ feather! More ill-luck! Why, in Heaven’s name, did you take them in?”
     “I did not know what the box contained! When I saw what the present was I almost fainted away! But I have sent for a man to come and fetch them. Of course, he will be glad to buy them, for they are really magnificent.”
     The author paced furiously up and down the room, and as he did so told the lady in angry periods of what had taken place at the theatre.
     “The villain came to rehearsal with one of the infernal things in his buttonhole, and when I remonstrated accused me—me—of superstition! Of course, the play is done for, and who knows what further calamity this visitation of argus- eyes horrors portends! I read the piece to the company on a Friday, too, if you remember!”
     The lady nodded, and gave vent to a deep sigh, while the author rang the bell to summon the waiting maid.
     “Take those infernal things into the front sitting-room. A man is coming to look at them—when he comes let me know.”
     It took the girl several journeys to and fro, with both arms loaded, to remove the unwelcome gifts, but it was done at last, and then the lady looked piteously up at her friend.
     “Perhaps, after all, Charles,” she said, “peacocks’ feathers are not so very unlucky!” And when he snorted angrily, she added: “At any rate, it’s absurd, perhaps, to worry over such a trifle.”
     “No doubt you think me a fool!” retorted the author. “But let me tell you that I’m not in the least superstitious. It’s the impudence, the audacity of the whole thing that annoys me! It’s nothing short of a conspiracy against my peace of mind.”
     There was no more to be said, and a very gloomy hour followed, during which the author sulked over his tea in the drawing-room, and declined all overtures to further conversation. At last, when the tension had become more and more unbearable, the servant announced that a gentleman was below waiting to see him.
     “The man at last!” growled the author, and shuffled downstairs into the front sitting-room, which looked out upon the busy streets. On a table close to the window lay the great collection of peacocks’ feathers, and bending over them, with his back to the author as he entered, was a man.
     “I want you to price these things and take them away instantly,” said the author. “I don’t want to keep them; but of course they’re worth something—a few sovereigns, at any rate, so——”
     As he spoke the man turned and shewed to the author’s astonished gaze the face of the impudent comedian who had been dismissed that very morning.
     “You here?” gasped the author, recoiling in horror. “Why in heaven’s name——”
     “Forgive my intrusion, sir,” said Thornton, respectfully, “I have come to beg your pardon!”
     His flippant manner had quite departed—his voice was low and respectful; there were tears in his eyes.
     “I’ve been thinking it over, and I see how badly I behaved. You are a great author and I’m only a poor mummer, and—and I’d no right to speak to you as I did. But the fact is I was in trouble—I’d left sickness at home—and—and I’ve not come here to ask you to give me back the part—I suppose I can’t play it—but to tell you how it happened that I came to rehearsal with that peacock’s feather.”
     The author listened stupefied, at a loss what to say or do. The comedian proceeded:
     “The fact is, sir, that everybody doesn’t associate ill-luck with peacocks’ feathers. My poor wife doesn’t; and this morning, when I was going to rehearsal she put that feather into my coat and said: ‘Take this for luck, Jack; you know peacocks’ feathers always bring luck to me, and, God willing, this one will bring luck to your engagement and make the piece a great success.’ That’s all, sir. I thought I’d like to tell you and to let you know I’m not such a cad as I’m afraid you think me.”
     So saying he bowed deeply, and hat in hand moved towards the door before the author could ejaculate a word; but in the doorway he came face to face with the little lady of the house, who had been listening to every word of the interview.
     “Charles,” said the little lady, while the comedian bowed to her, “ask the gentleman to leave his address!”
     The comedian started—the author looked puzzled.
     “His address?” murmured the latter.
     “Yes, you may want to write to him in case the part should still be open.”
     The comedian sighed and drew out a card.
     “I live there, in Bloomsbury,” he said, handing it to the lady with a bow, “and of course I should be glad of another chance; but I know I am not very clever in that line of business, and—and—Good evening. Forgive me for having troubled you.”
     The next moment he was gone, leaving the author and the little lady face to face with each other. There was silence for a few moments, then the lady went to the door and said: “Come in.”
     A man entered with a tradesman’s bow.
     “The man to look at the feathers, Charles,” said the lady.
     The author, who seemed lost in thought, grunted surlily, and the lady pointed to the collection of ornaments gathered on the table near the window. A very brief inspection was sufficient.
     “"They’re a fine collection, but not much in my line,” said the man. “I don’t mind giving you ten pounds for the lot.”
     The bargain was at once concluded—the man paid down the amount in gold and carried off his purchase, leaving the author and the little lady alone together.
     “Thank heaven we’ve got rid of them,” ejaculated the great man. “I’m only afraid, though, that the bad luck will remain with the money. We ought to have given them away.”
     “Charles,” said the little lady, solemnly, “it’s a judgment on us!”
     “Eh? What?” exclaimed the author.
     “A judgment and a lesson for being so uncharitable. Couldn’t you see that the poor fellow who came here to-day was heartbroken? I believe his wife is not only ill, but dying. I believe that both he and she are starving. He looked hungry, Charles, as well as wretched, and you—you couldn’t see it. Oh, you men! You men!”
     The author stood absolutely aghast, then, growling to himself like an angry bear, he moved towards the room door and entering the lobby began pulling on his overcoat of furs.
     In a shabbily-furnished sitting-room on a second floor in Bloomsbury a pale young woman lay stretched on a sofa, and by her, holding her thin hand, sat the light comedian.
     “Never mind, darling,” he was saying. “After all I’ve done my best, and I believe God will help us through.”
     “It is my fault,” cried his wife. “If I had never given you that peacock’s feather——”
     As she spoke the door opened, and the landlady of the house, with the words: “A gentleman to see you,” ushered in the familiar figure of the author, who was beaming and smiling, hat in hand.
     “A thousand pardons,” he cried, while the comedian sprang to his feet. “I insisted on not being announced. My dear madam, don’t disturb yourself, I implore you. I want a few words with your husband, that is all.”
     Never surely was such a transformation! Rhadamanthus was wreathed in smiles, and in another minute he was seated in Thornton’s place by the sofa, talking cheerily to the invalid.
     “The fact is, my dear madam, I have a beastly temper. I behaved like a dog, madam, and I have come to apologise. Hold your tongue, sir!” he continued, turning round on the light comedian. “Hold your tongue and leave your charming wife to settle this little affair. As for you, turn up sharp at rehearsal to-morrow or I’ll talk to you!”
     It was a miracle—in five minutes the great man was chatting there like an old friend.
     “I’m so sorry about the peacock’s feather,” said Mrs. Thornton at last. “I really did think them lucky, sir.”
     “They are lucky, madam,” returned the author. “They shall be lucky! You’re right and I’m wrong; and I’m an old  fool, madam!”
     Then, volubly and kindly, he questioned her about her illness, and with wonderful gentleness and tact elicited the fact that they were very poor and in pressing need of money. At last he rose, raised the lady’s hand to his lips with a courtly grace peculiar to him when he was pleased to be amiable, and bade her good-bye. The comedian followed him out of the room.
     “How can I thank you, sir,” he began, “for letting me keep the part.”
     “Don’t thank me, thank your delightful wife, sir, and—and look here, sir,” continued the author, fumbling in his pocket and producing a small bag which he thrust nervously into Thornton’s hand, “this is for her, sir. A present from another good woman, and a proof, if any proof were needed, that peacocks’ feathers are not unlucky.”
     In another minute he had descended the stairs and disappeared. The comedian’s first impulse was to follow, but he was too stupefied and amazed. Instead of doing so he ran back to his wife’s side to shew her the bag which had been placed in his hand, then opening it he poured its contents on to the sofa—ten golden sovereigns—the very sovereigns, indeed, which had been paid that afternoon for the peacocks’ feathers.
     What more remains to be said in order to prove the truth that this story, though founded on fact, is in reality a fairy tale? The play was produced in due course, and with enormous success, and, still more wonderful, the light comedian made the hit of the production, thereby beginning a most distinguished career as a London actor. He and the author afterwards became fast friends, and very often, when they met together for business or pleasure, the great man would dig the actor in the ribs and cry with a chuckle “Well, Thornton, what about those unlucky Peacocks’ Feathers?”

[THE END.]

Back to Fiction: Short Stories

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Berinthia

The Manchester Weekly Times (Literary Supplement) (Friday, 22 June, 1900)

 

 

BERINTHIA.
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(A LONDON EPISODE.)
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By ROBERT BUCHANAN,

Author of “Andromeda,” “Father Anthony,”
“Lady Kilpatrick,” “Stormy Waters,” &c., &c.
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I.

     It was clear to every one of the Three that Berinthia was out of temper. She found it difficult, if not impossible, to keep the pose for many minutes together; she trembled, she shifted her feet, she showed her white teeth in a grin that did not at all resemble her usual smile, and every time that she was remonstrated with, her eyes flashed angrily. At last, unable to control herself any longer, she jumped down from the dais or platform, and moved towards the screen which was drawn across one corner of the studio and formed a sort of dressing or ’tiring room for the occasional use of “models.”
     “It’s no use,” she cried, “I’m off!”
     And casting the shawl from her in the manner of one preparing to take a header into a swimming bath, she disappeared behind the screen.
     “What the devil’s the matter with you?” growled Belford, a bearded man of nearly forty, with a black patch over his left eye, a wooden pipe between his teeth, and a Turkish fez stuck rakishly on his bald head.
     “Never mind,” answered Berinthia, now hidden from sight.
     “Come back, confound you! I won’t keep you another ten minutes,” cried Belford, bending close to a large block on which he was drawing a black and white sketch for the wood engraver, and inspecting it critically with his one available eye.
     This time there was no answer; so Belford, whose manners lacked the repose characteristic of the caste of Vere de Vere, glanced savagely round at his companions and uttered an imprecation.
     He was the oldest of the Three—the oldest and the cleverest. His two companions in Art and Impecuniosity, who sat at work with him in the studio, were Charles Somerset, a handsome fair-haired young fellow of five-and-twenty, and George Constable Leroy, a man of about thirty, with a mild good-humoured face, fair hair thinning already at the top, “mutton chop” whiskers, and a shaven chin. Being very short-sighted Leroy wore spectacles, which might have been literally rose-coloured, so pleasant and so amiable was the view which he took through them of all creation.
     Belford was at work, as we have said, on a wood block, which he was executing for an illustrated magazine, and which was set before him on a small table. Somerset and Leroy sat before their easels, the former drawing in crayon, the latter sketching in oils. Belford was not only the oldest and the cleverest, but the shabbiest, wearing, in addition to the fez already described, and old dressing gown, ragged, torn, and liberally splashed with paint. Leroy wore very seedy tweed trousers and painting-jacket of velveteen; his collar and short front were frayed and dirty, and marked with coffee stains. Somerset, the swell of the trio, had a linen blouse thrown over his walking suit, and was smoking a cigar.
     “What’s the matter with her, Billie?” asked Somerset, laughing and looking at Belford.
     “How the deuce do I know?” was the reply. “Infernal little cat! You fellows have spoiled her by humouring her whims and fancies.”
     “Poor little Berry!” murmured Leroy, blinking compassionately through his spectacles. “I suppose there’s trouble at home.”
     “Then why doesn’t she chuck it?” grunted Belford, glancing contemptuously with his bloodshot eye at Leroy. “Father’s a drunkard, mother’s worse. If she’d had any sense, she’d have left them long ago, the idiot.” He added, as if tired of the subject, and addressing Somerset, “Here, youngster, cut out and get some beer!”
     The young man nodded, sprang up lightly, and ran out of the studio. Scarcely had he disappeared when Berinthia appeared in walking costume from behind the screen. In her thin cotton dress, very shabby cloth jacket, round hat with faded feathers, and an old pair of laced-up boots, she looked very different from the shapely lissome creature who had recently been posing on the dais, but even her unbecoming attire could not quite obscure her look of elfin-like grace and beauty. Her face, brown as a ripe pear with sun and wind, was framed in dark hair, cut short at the neck like the hair of a boy, her eyes were bright and keen under black eyebrows, her teeth white as the milk of the cocoa-nut, her mouth soft and full like that of a child. And indeed she was little more than a child in years, being only just seventeen years of age, although as old and knowing in the ways and wiles of Bohemia as Belford himself.
     “I don’t know what’s the matter with me today,” she observed apologetically. “I’ve got the ‘fidgets.’ I couldn’t keep still.”
     “You never can keep still,” growled Belford. “You’re like a monkey up a tree!”
     She looked up, and her face broke into a smile.
     “That’s right, Mr. Belford, scold away! I like it, and what’s more, I deserve it!” Then drawing herself erect, and stretching out her arms towards a shaft of sunlight which broke in through the window of the studio, she added: “O lor, I wish I was a monkey, or a bird, or something of that sort! I’m sick and tired of being only a girl!”
     She pronounced something “somethink” and girl “gel,” but these are details on which we do not think it necessary to insist.
     We should have explained, perhaps, that it was a quiet morning in the early sixties. Christmas close at hand, with all its merry sights and sounds. Outside in smoky Bloomsbury the snow was lying white on street and square, but in the great dismal studio, a cavernous apartment situated close to the mews and adjoining a dreary square, there was a sense of stuffiness and warmth. The place was rented by the three men in common, and consisted of the studio itself, and of two small cupboards or closets, which Belford and Leroy had converted into sleeping apartments. Somerset slept out, in a bedroom over a livery stable.
     All three were very poor, and were constantly occupied in what is figuratively known as “dining with Duke Humphry”; for it was (as we have said) the early Sixties, as they have been called. Bohemia still existed, and neither Art nor Literature had yet attained their present commercial importance as fashionable professions.
     Although all the three were nominally artists, William Belford alone was an artist born not made, a great and neglected genius, doing job-work just then for the small dealers and wood engravers, and painting pictures which were destined after his death to be regarded as masterpieces. At forty years of age he was still incorrigibly eccentric and indifferent to worldly success, superficially savage and cynical, but in reality the kindest and most unselfish of mortals. Somerset was little more than an ambitious amateur. Leroy combined the profession of painting with that of writing sketches for magazines and pieces for minor theatres. Like Belford, and unlike Somerset, he was a thorough Bohemian.
     “I think, Berinthia,” said Leroy gently, “you want a holiday! You’ve been working too hard, and should be enjoying yourself, not working, this Christmas time.”
     “Bosh!” interrupted Belford, grinning savagely. “She wants a hiding! her life’s one long holiday, and she loafs and idles while honest folks are working. What are you going to be up to now?” he demanded, with a comic assumption of severity.
     Berinthia, who appeared by this time to have recovered all her natural good temper, looked at him with laughing eyes.
     “There’s a swell wedding in Hanover Square,” she replied. “I’m going to see it.”
     “And I suppose you wish you were the bride?” said the painter, sarcastically.
     “Don’t I just!” cried Berinthia, winking at him with the utmost effrontery, and nodding her roguish head.
     At that moment Somerset re-entered the studio, laden with a large pewter measure of half-and-half, procured at the neighbouring public-house.
     “Bravo, Ganymede!” cried Belford, smacking his lips, while Somerset set down the measure on a paint-bedaubed table and going to a cupboard close by brought out and filled a couple of tumblers. “Tumblers for you fellows,” continued Belford. “I’ll take mine ‘au naturel’—in the pewter!”
     Here there was a sudden interruption from Berinthia, who began in a clear soft voice, albeit with an unmistakeable Cockney accent, to troll the following lines:—

“Here, boy, take this handful of brass,
Across to the Goose and the Gridiron pass,
Pay the coin on the counter out,
And bring me a pint of foaming stout!
Put it in neither bottle nor jug,
Cannikin, mannikin, flagon, or mug,
Into nothing at all, in short,
Except the natural Pewter Quart!”

     So singing she had tripped towards the door, when Somerset called her back.
     Stop, Berry!” he cried, “I’ve got something for you!” and as she turned he pulled from the pocket of his jacket a brown stone bottle of ginger beer. “I know your tipple,” he added, smiling, “and have brought you some of the right  sort.”
     Berinthia thanked him with a smile, and ran to the cupboard to fetch another glass, while he cut the string of the bottle and pulled out the cork.
     “Your health, Monkey!” cried Belford, waving the pewter measure preparatory to taking a deep draught.
     “Yours, Mr. Belford”" said Berinthia, lifting her glass of ginger beer and seating herself unceremoniously on the edge of the raised dais, while Somerset and Leroy, each with a glass in his hand, nodded to her gaily.
     “You’ll be too late for the wedding,” continued Belford.
     “Never mind,” said the girl, sipping from her glass with rapture and rolling her black eyes. “Oh, ain’t it lovely!”
     “I say, Berry,” asked Belford, after a pause, “who taught you that song?”
     “What song?”
     “The one you were singing a moment ago.”
     Berinthia smiled and glanced at Leroy, who blinked comically.
     “I did,” he said, blushing.
     “Oh, you did, did you?” observed Belford. “I was wondering where the monkey had picked it up. Do you know who wrote it? Of course you don’t. Old Maginn; and it’s a burlesque of the ‘Leather Bottel!’”
     “I was aware of the fact,” replied Leroy. “I found it in an old number of ‘Blackwood’s Magazine.’”
     “Nice sort of song to teach a kid like that!” grunted the cynic.
     “I ain’t a kid, Mr. Belford,” cried Berinthia, indignantly. “I’m a young woman!”
     “Of course, you are, Berry,” said Somerset, laughing, and a clinking fine young woman too, as I am ready to swear— witness my sign and seal!”
     “I know you’re chaffing,” she said, “but as long as I can earn a bit of money for mother, and keep myself respectable, I don’t mind. I’m not like some of the girls who sit to gentlemen, and it ain’t everybody I’d sit to at all, for that matter!”
     She finished her glass of ginger beer, sprang to her feet, and humming the tune of Weber’s “Last Waltz,” then very popular as an organ tune, began tripping quietly towards the door; then turning suddenly, and dropping a profound curtsey, she saluted the three with mock dignity, laughed lightly, and disappeared.

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II.

     Berinthia Lambert was the only daughter of a poor and unworthy couple, who had suffered her to grow up like a wild seed on their dingy hearth until such time as she was able to shift in some measure for herself. Both her father and her mother had been, and were, models by profession and rogues by natural instinct and disposition—the father a loafing, drunken scoundrel with the head of a handsome Italian brigand, the mother a dark-eyed semi-savage Italian girl, who had first come to London in company with an organ-grinder, and had afterwards drifted into the studios, where her swarthy beauty was greatly in request among artists who affected foreign subjects generally and Scriptural ones particularly. Late in life, when her good looks were fast disappearing, the woman had cast in her lot with the idle scamp who was now her husband, and Berinthia was the result of the union.
     Berinthia’s first introduction to Art was made when she was a baby in her mother’s arms; and before she was eighteen months old she had gained the glory of being hung on “the line” at the Academy, as the black-eyed infant in a study by John Phillip, called “Spanish Mother and Child.” Later on she figured again and again on canvas as a swarthy child, saintly or unsaintly, English or Eastern, and by the time she was fifteen years of age, she was as familiar with the studios as if she had been born and bred there, as, indeed, was almost the case.
     At sixteen years old, she had so developed in budding womanhood and beauty, that she might easily have passed for eighteen or nineteen. Rather under than over the middle height, exquisitely knit, perfect in shape, slender without thinness, with admirable feet and hands, she combined the lithe supple vigour of a youth with the softness and delicacy of a girl. Hair black as the raven’s wing, eyes brilliant, yet black as sloes, a merry mobile mouth, sun-tanned cheeks, completed her resemblance to the old Greek type of athletic maidenhood. She was as alert and bright as a young Faun, and as gamesome as an Elf. In a word, she was an English “gamine,” with all the health and all the audacity of her class, plus a degree of physical beauty not often to be found in our sunless streets.
     Accustomed from earliest girlhood to the life of the studio, she pursued her profession as a model without the slightest “arriere pensee,” and in a thoroughly careless and businesslike spirit. Where there was no feeling of indelicacy there could be no shame, and, to speak frankly, Berinthia was as pure-minded and honest a girl as could be found within the sound of Bow Bells. Her purity was the more impregnable, in so far as it was not founded on ignorance or inexperience. She knew the seamy side of life thoroughly—she had been familiar, both at home and abroad, with all that is evil and ugly in our modern civilisation, she had heard the “argot” of vice even in her cradle.
     Her father was a drunken satyr, who had struck her when a child, and who cursed her when she was too old to be beaten. Her mother had developed into a scolding hag, ready at any moment to sell her child to the highest bidder, but otherwise quite indifferent to her comings and goings. In spite of all this, Berinthia remained uncontaminated, frank, fearless, audacious, and fully capable of being her own protector even in the most questionable society.
     More than once, as she increased in personal beauty, temptation came to her, but it slipped off her shoulders as water slips off a duck’s back. She could defend herself against all comers; if need be, with teeth and nails. Those who imagined that she was an easy conquest had occasion to remember that a tiger-cat might have been as easily played with. Yet she was no prude, and her conversation was now and then appallingly free and easy. Up to a certain point she was “bonne camarade,” even to the extent of a kiss or a playful embrace; beyond that point she was a vestal virgin.
     We are all of us—the greatest and the least—lost and saved by our ideals, and Berinthia was no exception to the rule. Under her wild and reckless manner, her gamesome audacity, her free and easy Bohemianism, she cherished a dream, which had come to her very early in life, and had been awakened at first, no doubt, by her childish admiration for the genteel ways and manners of certain artists. This dream was, to express it in her own language, that she should marry, if ever she married at all, “a Gentleman!”
     Now what Berinthia meant by the word “gentleman” was not, perhaps, what we mean, though it was very much what is meant by a large portion of humanity. A “gentleman” in Berinthia’s eyes was one who was well educated, who dressed nicely, who wore clean linen, good boots and gloves and was polite to the fair sex. For, above all things in the world, Berinthia disliked what she described as “common people”—people like her father and mother, and the thousands of coarse creatures who surrounded her in the London streets. Elegant persons like Mr. Somerset, persons who were refined to the finger tips, were her admiration. Yes, her mind was made up and nothing would change it; she would marry a “gentleman,” no matter how poor, and she herself would become that paragon of paragons, a “lady.”
     Of course, it was only a dream, and in some respects a very foolish one; yet it had this good result—it saved poor Berinthia from ideals even more ignoble, and it kept her pure and clean in her hard fight for bread. Wherever she went she saw before her the picture of the unknown cavalier who was to lift her, figuratively speaking, on the crupper of his steed, and gallop away with her into Fairyland where the well-dressed people came from. It never occurred to her that he would despise her for earning her living as she did, as an artist’s model. Her heart was pure, and he would know it. The greatest lady in the land had not a keener sense of purity than Berinthia.
     Sometimes, in the innocence of her heart, she talked about her fancy to her friends at the studio. Of course, they chaffed her, but all the same she saw that they thought none the worse of her. Mr. Leroy particularly was very kind. He would talk to her quite seriously, lend her nice books, recite “poetry” to her, and laboriously try to improve her mind.
     Unfortunately, Leroy had one great failing—a too great liking for the cup that cheers and inebriates. He got tipsy twice or thrice a week, and became utterly irresponsible. Even in his cups, however, he was the most amiable creature in the world, and, as his acquaintances expressed it, “nobody’s enemy but his own.”

.      .     .      .     .      .

     A few months after the scene in the studio, with which our story opened, came Easter Monday, the spring Bank Holiday; and among those who drifted out of town' with the crowd were Somerset and Leroy. Belford, who hated holidays, stayed at home, hard at work as usual.
     The two artists took the train to Teddington, and walked thence to Bushey Park, where the colonnades of horse- chesnuts were in full bloom, and which was thronged with holiday makers from the great city. It was a bright and sunny day, the grass was green as emerald, the air clear and sparkling like champagne, the whole scene frankly pagan like a glimpse of old Arcady. Men and girls danced and romped, babies sprawled on the grass, while the crowded omnibuses rolled along the dusty road between the chestnuts, followed by the city clerk in his hired dog cart and the coster on his donkey tray.

“Pan was there, and Faunus too,
All the romping sylvan crew!
Nature’s Mœnads flocking mad
From the city dark and sad,
Finding once again the free
Sunshine and its jollitie!
Gaily twanged the fiddle string,
Men and girls played kiss-in-ring
Fountains leapt against the sun,
     Roses bloomed and children played,
All the world was full of fun,
     Lovers cuddled in the shade!”

     Out at the Hampton Court end of the Park they strolled, and elbowing their way through the throng in front of the “King’s Arms,” halted at the bar for what Mr. Richard Swiveller called “a modest quencher.” Then sallying forth they entered the Court gardens and watched the throng which was swarming, thick as bees, in and out of the Maze.
     Suddenly Somerset gripped Leroy by the arm, and uttered an exclamation.
     “By Jove, look there!”
     Leroy blinked round and saw, approaching out of the Maze, the face and form of Berinthia. She wore a pretty cotton gown, a hat with feathers, and in her hand she carried a bunch of blooming lilac. Her look was radiant, and she was hanging on the arm of a young man! So absorbed was she in the contemplation of her companion and in her own abundant happiness, that she did not notice her two friends of the studio, who drew aside quietly as she approached.
     The young man was stylishly dressed in the fashion of the period; a white hat, white waistcoat, peg-top trousers, and frock coat with a rose in the button-hole. His hair was fair, his moustache fairer, and his face somewhat sickly and insipid. He wore lilac-coloured gloves, and swung a Malacca cane.
     “Who the deuce has she picked up? asked Somerset, smiling.
     “Possibly the long-expected One!” mildly suggested Leroy.
     “Looks like a counter jumper!” muttered Somerset.
     Curious to ascertain what had brought Berinthia there, they followed the pair at a respectful distance.
     “Look how she hangs on his arm!” said Somerset. “How admiringly she looks up into his face! He must be Prince Charming after all!”
     Presently they lost the pair in the crowd thronging the gardens, nor did they catch sight of them again, though they looked everywhere for them. Late that evening the artists returned to Bloomsbury, Leroy mildly tipsy as usual, Somerset full of life and spirits.
     A whole week passed, and Berinthia did not appear at the studio. This was so unusual that the three were not a little astonished. At last one morning, some ten days after the rencontre at Hampton Court, Berinthia walked in and greeted them with a smiling nod.
     “The prodigal returned!” cried Somerset. “Where on earth have you been hiding?”
     “I haven’t been hiding anywhere,” replied the maiden; “I’ve been at home.”
     “Quite sure? O Berry, I’ve had dreadful dreams about you! We dreamed—I dreamed, Billie dreamed, Leroy dreamed—that you’d been and gone and done it!”
     “Done what?” asked Berinthia.
     “Got married,” replied the young man.
     Berinthia. blushed crimson.
     “You’re only chaffing,” she cried, looking nervously towards Leroy.
     “No, Berry, I’m quite serious,” said Somerset, still in the same bantering tone. “In our dreams about you, my dear, we saw the resplendent one as large as life. Shall I describe him to you? Golden hair and moustache, white hat, lilac gloves, a malacca cane! O Berry, Berry!”
     Berinthia turned from red to pale, while her eyes opened wide in amazement. Then, meeting the laughing eyes of her tormentor, she rapidly recovered her self-possession.
     “Somebody’s been telling on me,” she cried. “Well, I don’t care! You’d have had to know some day or other, I suppose. Yes, Mr. Leroy,” she continued, addressing the individual whom she knew by experience to be the least sarcastic and most sympathetic, “I’m engaged; and that’s why I’ve come to say that I can’t sit for you any more.”
     “Why not?” growled Belford, the cynic, looking up from his work, and glaring at her with his Cyclopean eye.
     “Because!” said Berinthia. Then she paused, blushed, and simpered.
     “I see,” interrupted Somerset, “Prince Charming objects.”
     “That ain’t his name,” returned Berinthia, slyly. “But he thinks it ain’t proper for an engaged young lady to sit to  artists. P’raps it ain’t. At any rate he’s very particular!”
     There was a long silence, during which Berinthia, went over to Leroy, and, standing close to him, watched him, as he worked at a nearly finished picture. Presently he glanced round to her and said quietly;
     “Who is he, Berry?”
     “O, Mr. Leroy, he’s a gentleman—a real gentleman! You’d know that if you only saw him!”
     “Has he any profession? Does he do any work?” inquired Leroy, gently.
     “No, Mr. Leroy,” replied Berinthia. “He’s got property and he dress beautiful! And mother’s mad with me for wanting to have him. She says he’s no good but I’m going to marry him for all that!”
     “Soon?”
     “I don’t know. As soon as he likes. The sooner the better.”
     “I wish,” said Leroy, thoughtfully, “you’d bring him along and introduce him. I—I should like to see your choice. You know, Berry, I’ve always been interested in you and ——”
     “I know that, Mr. Leroy,” cried Berinthia, placing her hand softly on his shoulder, “but I can’t bring him, I daren’t bring him! Mr. Somerset would chaff me before him; and he’s dreadfully proud. Besides, I’m sure he wouldn’t come! He don’t like artists.”
     Somerset, overhearing the remark, burst into a peal of laughter.
     “He don’t like artists!” he repeated scornfully. “What a swell he must be!”
     “No mistake!” cried Berinthia, with a toss of the head.
     Several weeks passed, and Berinthia did not reappear. The three often thought of her and spoke of her, for they missed her sunny presence and elf-like ways. At last one day Leroy received the following letter, written in a round uneducated hand and bearing the Manchester post mark:—
     “Dear Mr. Leroy,—This comes hoping you are well, and to tell you that I was married last Monday and have gone with my husband into the country. He’s just what I told you, a, ‘gentleman’ every inch of him, and I’m that proud and happy I could cry for joy. Give my love to Mr. Somerset and Mr. Belford, not forgetting yourself, and believe me, your grateful and affectionate,                     BERINTHIA TOMKINS.
     “P.S.—He’s a real gentleman, and his manners are lovely!”
     Leroy read the letter aloud—not without a certain emotion.
     “Tomkins!” shouted Somerset “O, Phœbus, what a name! Berinthia Tomkins!”
     “Poor Berry!” said Leroy with a sigh. “I only hope that her marriage will turn out all right!”

berinthiaillus02

III.

     More than a year had passed away, the Christmas season was come again, and the three had neither seen nor heard of her who had been the very life and soul of the studio. Not a single line had come to tell them of her doings, and whether she was happy or unhappy, prosperous or the reverse.
     In the meantime, all the three had thriven more or less. Somerset had inherited a little money from a wealthy relation, Leroy had written a successful historical play for an eminent tragedian, and had received for the same the princely sum of five hundred pounds, while Belford, taken up by an enthusiastic clique of art-critics, was gradually being recognised as a masterly painter. Nothing was changed, however, in their habits of life, which were still thoroughly and fearlessly Bohemian.
     Winter had come, with its bleak winds and snowdrifts, ushering in the time of peace on earth and goodwill to men. Late on Christmas Eve the three sat before the fire, which was blazing brightly. They had been to the theatre to see the production of Leroy’s play, which had been received with acclamation, and they were celebrating the occasion. A kettle boiled upon the fire, glasses stood ready, and Somerset had just drawn a bottle of Scotch whisky.
     Suddenly they heard a soft knock at the studio door, which opened on the snowy bye-street adjoining the mews. “Come in,” they cried, but no one entered. Then the sound was repeated, and someone seemed to be trying to turn the handle of the door.
     “Who the devil is it?” cried Belford. “The cat I suppose!”
     Silence followed, and they were just filling their glasses and preparing to drink “A Merry Christmas” and success to the play, when Leroy started and held up a finger.
     “There’s someone there, after all!” he said. “I’ll go and see!”
     He walked somewhat unsteadily across the room, and opened the door. The wind swept in with great flakes of snow, but all around was darkness. Then suddenly as he peered out into the night, he saw something black lying on the ground, just beyond the threshold. He stooped down to inspect it more closely, and saw to his amazement that it was the figure of a woman.
     “Good Lord!” he exclaimed. “Here, you fellows, bring a light and lend a hand.”
     Belford took up the lamp from the table, while Somerset ran to join Leroy, and to assist him to raise the woman, who appeared to have fainted. They lifted her up and carried her into the studio—a limp lump of rags, soaked to the skin with melted snow, and covered with a thin shawl, beneath which her hands clutched something in desperation. Belford held up the lamp, and flashed the light upon her face. Then all three uttered an exclamation, for they recognised Berinthia!
     Berinthia, but how changed! Worn and thin and pale as if she had just risen from a sick bed; her dress poor and ragged, her eyes closed, her mouth bleeding and open, and in her arms, clutched tight to her bosom, a little sleeping  baby, the dark and elfin miniature of herself.
     She had fainted outright, and it was some little time before they could bring her to; but they placed her in an arm-chair before the fire, they chafed her cold thin, hands, and they forced spirits and water down her throat, till at last consciousness returned. When she came to herself and recognised where she was, she began to sob, hysterically, clutching Leroy by the arm, and hiding her face against his coat-sleeve, while with her other hand she held her child.
     Yes, the child was hers, but her “gentleman,” her Prince Charming, where was he? Before the night was out, and when they had soothed away her excitement and made her comfortable by the fire, she told them the whole sad story.
     She had gone into the country with her husband, and for a long time they had been happy together, though she was always puzzled to find out where he got his money. He spent the days at home in her company, and seldom went out except at night. When she questioned him as to his doings, he always answered her angrily and bade her mind her own business. As the months passed on, his manner to her grew more and more indifferent, and at last, in a fit of passion, he struck her. From that time forward their life was a miserable one, and all she had to look for at the man’s hands was coarse words and blows.
     She could have borne all that, she said, for the sake of the little one that was coming; but worse was to follow. One night, her husband informed her, coolly and deliberately, that he was going to leave her, and had no intention of returning to her again, that he was, in fact, about to leave England, and try his fortune in America. He told her at the same time that the police were after him, and that his real profession, or occupation, was that of a fashionable thief, or swell mob’s-man! Before she could recover from her horror and amazement, he had gone, taking every farthing they possessed.
     Before the night was out the police appeared in pursuit of him, but they were too late. From that time forward she had heard nothing of him, and she had no doubt that he had left both her and his native country for ever.
     We should weary the reader if we described in detail the sufferings and privations of the deserted woman, still little more than a child. Her infant had been born in a provincial workhouse, and afterwards, in despair, she made her way to London, only to be driven contemptuously into the streets by her drunken father. Finally, in sheer desperation, she had made her way to the old studio on that snowy Christmas Eve.
     Thanks to the kindness and sympathy of the three, poor Berinthia was rescued from utter shame and misery, but her old bright looks were gone, and she had changed prematurely into a weary woman. What became of her afterwards, and of her little one, is another story, not to be told now. Enough to say that she recovered from her first disillusion and was reserved for a life of tolerable happiness. In spite of her bitter experience she never failed to think with a certain tenderness of her Prince Charming, of whom she never again heard, and always when the three inveighed against him as a ruffian, and a scoundrel, she would say very pitifully—
     “Ah, but you didn’t know him! He was such a perfect gentleman!”

(The End.)

Back to Fiction: Short Stories

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An Old Reckoning

The St. Paul Globe (Minnesota, U.S.) (4 August, 1901 - p.14).

 

 

An Old Reckoning
__________

BY ROBERT BUCHANAN.

 

I.

     The bright light of morning was streaming through the blind of a large bedroom in the Hoy hotel, overlooking the green waters of Plymouth sound, when a loud knocking was heard outside the bedroom door, and a voice exclaimed—
     “Dick, Dick! Why the devil don’t you open the door? Hurry up or you’ll be late!”
     Neither voice nor knocking elicited any response for some time from the solitary tenant of the chamber, who lay on his back, breathing heavily, his two arms outstretched on the bed-clothes, and his pale face turned towards the sunshine, which crept nearer and nearer to the bedside. Not until the clamour had been continued for some minutes, and the whole house resounded with the echoes of the vigorous blows dealt on the door, did the sleeper begin to stir, yawn, open his heavy eyes, and listen drowsily.
     “Dick, me dear boy! Is it dead ye are or sleeping? Sure, its past 10 o’clock and a sunny morning! Up with ye and answer, or, by the soul of St. Patrick, I’ll break down the door!”
     Thus invoked, Dick muttered stupidly to himself, rubbed his eyes, and, rolling rather than jumping out of bed, unlocked the door; then, before it was half open, plunged back among the blankets, rolled himself up like a hound, closed his eyes, and tumbled off again into a heavy sleep or doze.
     A little, red-faced man in a high hat and tight military coat entered quickly, and, approaching the bedside, poked at the sleeper impatiently with a Malacca cane.
     “Dick, ye devil!” he cried, in a strong Irish brogue. “Bedad, he’s snoring again already! Wake up now, will ye, or shall I strip the bed clothes off ye and lave ye mother naked? It’s a shame and a sin to be sleeping here like a pig, on the very morning when the boys are waiting to dance at Letitia’s wedding!”
     “Go to blazes!” muttered Dick, turning over and groaning heavily.
     “Is it the liquor that’s still in ye, Dick? For shame, man! Leap out of bed like a lark, and put on your wedding clothes, or, as sure as my name’s Milligan, I’ll go right away to the church and give away the bride myself!”
     At last, by dint of infinite objurgations, Dick was persuaded to sit upright in bed, while his Milesian friend drew up the blinds and let in the full light of the golden day, which, streaming broadly into the room, made the occupant of the bed blink like an owl. As he sat there, rubbing his eyes and muttering, he looked sufficiently disreputable; but his face was young and handsome, his complexion excellent, despite the inroads of dissipation, and the eyes a dull but ethereal blue. His age might have been anything under thirty, for his face, being clean-shaven, with the exception of a silken mustache, gave him the look of youth. He had an elegant though faded air, even in his deshabille, and his hands were white and beautifully formed.
     “I was dreaming I was being hung,” he murmured at last, “and, now I am awake, I find it’s much the same thing. Confound the light—how it blinds me! And confound your punch, Milligan—my brain’s reeling with it still!”
     Milligan laughed loudly.
     “Up with ye, and douse your head in the basin—that’ll sober ye!” he added, looking round the room, which was strewn widely with articles of male apparel. “Sure, the room’s like the field of Salamanca after the carrion crows had eaten the bodies and left only the clothes, bad luck to them!”
     A few minutes later Dick was standing in trousers and shirt before the looking-glass. A chambermaid had brought a tray laden with brandy and soda water, and Dick, after refreshing himself with a copious draught, was trying to shave. But the razor trembled in his hand and he shook all over like a leaf. In this emergency Milligan volunteered his services, and, placing his friend in a chair, deftly completed the dangerous operation.
     “There, now,” he said, putting down the razor, “ye look more like yourself, Dick.”
     “I look more like an imp of darkness,” returned Dick, rising and peering into the glass. “A pretty picture, by Jove! There, get out and let me finish dressing! Wait for me in the coffee room.”
     Milligan obeyed the mandate and went away.
     In a quarter of an hour Dick was in full wedding costume, clean-washed, clean-shaven, scented and perfumed. In his elegant frock-coat, white waistcoat, buff trousers, and faultless boots and gloves, he looked quite a modern Adonis. He was certainly very handsome, but there was something cold-blooded and sinister in his beauty and his fine blue eyes had a cold, steel-like sparkle not altogether pleasant to behold. A gorgeous diamond, real or paste, glittered in his neck- cloth, showy rings sparkled on his white fingers, and his watch-chain was resplendent.
     Captain, the Hon. Richard Saville (to give this young man the benefit of his full title) was as good-looking a fellow and as thorough a rogue as ever fluttered the feminine dove-cots in a garrison-town, but he was just then unattached and had by no means an enviable reputation. His friend and best man, Maj. Septimus Milligan, belonged to the the —th regiment of Fusiliers, then quartered in Plymouth. Both gentlemen were well acquainted with games of chance and the bottle, but the captain was solitary in his supremacy as a lady-killer. The younger son of an impecunious and not too reputable peer, he had drained life to the dregs at six-and-twenty, and, had petty roguery and larceny been capital offenses, might have been hung at any time during the past six or seven years as a person dangerous to the public order and the morals of society.
     Descending to the coffee-room, he found the major waiting impatiently.
     “The carriage is at the door, Dick! It’s past eleven, and Letitia will be getting impatient!”
     “All right!” answered the captain. Then, taking Milligan by the elbow and looking into his face with an evil smile, he said, with a wink, “After today’s business, I shall make tracks for the continent. I don’t want to interfere with the happiness of the bridegroom, poor devil!”
     Milllgan grinned wickedly.
     “Sure, I envy him! Letitia’s a match for a prince, let alone a beggarly strolling player.”
     “Humph!” muttered Saville, while his face darkened. “I don’t half trust Letitia, though. She’s bothered with a delicate conscience, and is certain to let the cat out of the bag sooner or later.”
     “Not trust your own charming sister?” cried the other, with another malicious grin.
     “No, confound her! Well, never mind; the sooner it’s over, the better. Come along!”
     The two men left the hotel, and entered a carriage which stood at the door, with two fine grays in front of it, and a coachman, with a white satin rosette on his coat, seated on the box. They drove rapidly away into the town, and alighted presently at a dingy house in a side street, in the lower window of which was a scroll with the words “Furnished Apartments.”
     A stout, elderly woman opened the door.
     “Is my sister ready?” asked Saville, entering with his companion.
     “Quite ready, captain,” answered the woman; “and, oh don’t she look lovely in her wedding dress!”
     Hastening up a flight of narrow stairs, Saville entered a faded little drawing room on the first floor. Seated near the window was a lady in bridal white, who sprang up on his entrance with an impatient cry.
     She was tall and dark, with bold black eyes, dark eyebrows, and a brilliant complexion. Her eyes were swollen as if with weeping. A very handsome woman, with a mature figure splendidly rounded and formed, but an expression on her face not quite like the modest expression of a vestal virgin.
     “You are here at last!” she cried. “I was going to send to you to tell you that there should be no marriage, after all. I can’t do it! Dick, he'll kill me when he knows the truth!”
     “He’ll never know, it!” replied Saville sharply. “Don’t make a fool of yourself, Letitia! I tell you, it’s all for the best!”
     “It is infamous!” cried the lady; with a great sob. “Dick, for God’s sake, break it off!”
     “Too late for that! Here, Milligan, speak to my sister, and tell her there’s no time to lose.”
     While Letitia threw herself into a chair and began to cry violently, the major advanced and talked to her eagerly in a whisper. The further conversation of the three people does not concern the reader. It is enough to state here that, after a few minutes, Letitia rose with the air of a person resigned to her fate.
     “Well, I’ll do as you please,” she murmured bitterly; “but, mark my words, evil will come of it. Poor Tom!”
     “Happy Tom, you mean,” said the major gallantly. “Sure, he’s a lucky man! If I hadn’t a brace of wives of me own, one in County Limerick and the other in Philadelphi, wouldn’t I jump out of me jacket to take his place!”
     Out from the dingy lodging into the sunshine went the two men and the bride, accompanied now by a slatternly young lady in pink, the daughter of the landlady of the house, pressed into the service at short notice to act as bridesmaid. The church was close at hand. On driving up to the porch, they heard the bells ringing and saw a small crowd collected, and they were greeted with a feeble cheer.
     Inside the church the bridegroom was waiting. He was a tall, thoughtful-looking young man of three-or-four-and- twenty, with a clear-cut, handsome face, gentle and ingenuous, but not without traces of latent determination. This was Tom Cardonald, of the Plymouth theater, an actor by profession, but a gentleman by nature and education. At sight of the bride, his face lighted up to a smile of singular beauty, and it was clear that where his hand was about to be given his heart had been given freely and fondly already.
     A little, clean-shaven gentleman, with a melancholy expression of countenance, was the best man. He was well known on the Plymouth circuit as the funniest of low comedians. The bridegroom’s party was completed by several dingy ladies and gentlemen of the theatrical profession—the gentlemen not too distingue, and the ladies very good- humored and exceedingly shabby-genteel.
     The service proceeded. The organ played, and the bride and bridegroom, advancing up the aisle, knelt together before the white-robed clergyman at the altar.
     “If any man can show any just cause why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak, etc.” No one made a sign.
     “Wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded wife?” “Wilt thou have this man to thy wedded husband?”
     “I will!” answered Thomas Cardonald, the bridegroom.
     “I will!” answered Letitia Saville, the bride, in tones that were scarcely audible and choked with tears.
     “Who giveth this woman to be married to this man?”
     “I,” said Richard Saville; “I give this woman, my sister.”
     Then, after the joining and the loosing of hands, the bridegroom placed the ring on the bride’s finger, saying—
     “With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow, etc. Amen.”

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II.

     Out from the dark church again into the open sunshine went the wedding party, driving merrily down to the Hoy hotel, where a capital wedding breakfast was laid out at the expense of the brother of the bride. All save the bride herself, who had passed from a state of hysterical weeping into a curious gloom and sullenness of demeanor, were full of mirth and jollity. But surely it was only natural for the lady to feel, as brides must and will, the sadness of the situation! The bridegroom, however, was radiant, full of youth and happiness.
     The health of the bride and bridegroom was given by Maj. Milligan, in a speech full of Irish humor and tenderness. Another officer, one of several who had joined the company, drank to the bride’s loving brother and last legal protector, Capt. Richard Saville. The best man, a droll dog on the stage, but a poor extempore speaker, returned thanks dismally and briefly after a tipsy young sub-lieutenant had proposed the ladies.
     Presently the bride, accompanied by her brother, went back to her lodgings to prepare for her wedding journey and to await the coming of her husband. While the champagne was flowing and tongues were chattering gaily in the room where the wedding breakfast was spread, this was what took place in the dingy lodging house drawing room:
     Letitia, with the assistance of the landlady, had changed her white dress for a showy traveling costume, her trunks and personal luggage had been carried away to the railway station, and the brother and sister were at last left together to say a final farewell before the bridegroom came.
     The woman looked at the man, who stood pale as death and nervously twirling his mustache; then, with a wild cry, she threw her arms about his neck.
     “Dick, for God’s sake, don’t carry this thing through! It will break my heart!”
     “Nonsense!” answered Saville, with an oath; “women’s hearts are not so easily broken. You know well enough the fellow takes your fancy. Yes, by thunder! you were fond enough of spooning on him and making eyes at him; so I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone—indulge your whim and save myself from ruin.”
     “I’ll kill myself! Yes, I will!”
     “Oh, no, you won’t!” said the other, quietly pushing her off and lighting a cigar. “You’ll be happy enough. I know. Then, if you like, you can carry out your old whim and go upon the stage. He’ll coach you!”
     Her tears ceased, and, with set teeth and heaving bosom, she gazed into the cruel, handsome face before her. Despite the loathing, admiration and love were also blent in her regard.
     “Dick, you’re a devil! Yes, a cold-blooded, heartless devil! And after all I’ve been to you!”
     “It’s for our mutual convenience!” he cried. “What a fool you must be not to see it! I promised to settle you in life, and, by Jove, I’ve done it!”
     “And you? What will you do?”
     “Lord knows! I’m about as clean-broke as a man can be. I mean to try the Cape, and I don’t much care if I drown on the passage over!”
     “You never loved me—never!”
     “Oh yes, I did, and I like you still, awfully, only this little arrangement is what the parsons call inevitable. You’ll forget all about me soon enough! Come, shake hands and say good-bye!”
     A double-knock at the street door announced the bridegroom’s arrival. Rushing eagerly up stairs, Tom Cardonald found the brother and sister standing side-by-side, both comparatively calm. He ran up to Letitia, caught her in his arms, and kissed her passionately. She tried to shrink away from his embrace, but it was impossible.
     “My darling! My wife!”
     “Don’t mind me!” said Saville drily, with a curious smile.
     “Of course we don’t!” cried Tom cheerily. “Letty, my darling, are you ready?”
     With her face set like that of one being led to the scaffold, Letitia suffered herself to be led to the carriage which stood at the door. She stepped in, and her husband seated himself by her side. Dick, cigar in mouth, stood on the curbstone, cool enough, but still very pale.
     “Good-bye, old fellow!” cried Tom, shaking his hand. “We shall see you again soon. Good-bye, and God bless    you!”
     “Good-bye, Tom! Goodbye, Letitia!”
     One last shake of the hand, one last reproachful look from the bride’s livid face, and the carriage drove away. Captain the Hon. Richard Saville turned on his heel and walked up the street. “No time to lose,” he muttered. “The little bill for the wedding breakfast can wait, and I must leave Plymouth tonight.”
     Meantime, the bridal couple, seated side-by-side alone, were approaching the railway station. Cardonald drew his wife fondly to him and kissed her face, which was white and cold as marble.
     “Oh, Tom!” she sighed faintly, “do you love me very much?”
     “Much? More than my life! But why are you so sad? See how bright all is, and you, my darling, should be bright too. Letty, what ails you?”
     “I don’t know! Don’t ask me! Only—”
     “Only what, my love?”
     “Only this: May God forgive me for marrying you! I am not worthy to be your wife!”
     He laughed, not understanding, and kissed her again and again. The train was just about to start when they reached the railway station. Entering a first-class compartment which had been reserved for them, they left Plymouth.

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III.

     Tom Cardonald was not a rich man, or one who could afford to eat the bread—or say, rather, in this connection, the wedding cake—of idleness for many days together; so it had been arranged that, after a brief honeymoon of six days he should go on with his bride to Bristol, where he had an important engagement. The honeymoon, thus limited or quartered, was to be spent at Torquay, at which pretty place the bridal pair found themselves late on the afternoon of their wedding day. They discovered quiet quarters in a cosy little hotel close to the sea, and, after having dined together, wandered out for a stroll upon the beach.
     The sun was setting beyond the dim and far headlands westward, and casting innumerable prismatic gleams on the crescent azure ring of the sea, which was just touched by a faint, warm shadow of wind, like the glimmer of breath on a bright sword blade. The heavens were darkly radiant—like, Tom thought, the glorious eyes of his bride as he had sometimes seen them in happy moments. But just then, alas! there was no radiance whatever in Letitia’s eyes. Still strange and agitated, almost sullen even, she preserved a demeanor of stolid pain.
     Tom knew little or nothing of the world. He had heard, however, that brides were sometimes very nervous or miserable—and very naturally, as they had just broken all the ties of kindred and formed other ties, as yet strange and new. His own spirits were so high, his own happiness was so great, that he took the lightest possible view of Letitia’s gloom and low-spiritedness. It depressed him a little, nevertheless. As they walked side by side on the beach and looked seaward, he turned his loving eyes to hers, and was more than ever surprised at the cold, set trouble of her expression. It was not like a bride’s; it was rather like that of a woman who had just seen the light of her whole life go out, leaving her in utter darkness.
     He spoke to her gaily and tried to cheer her. She forced a pale, vacant smile, and her eyes filled with tears.
     “Are you not happy now?” he said, fondly.
     “I don’t know, Tom,” was the reply; “I’m not quite well, I think. It all seems like a dream.”
     “A blissful dream to me, dear! Look how glorious the world is growing in the sunset. I seem to be drinking in new life out of the golden and celestial cup.”
     The woman shivered, with her dark eyes fixed on the kindling heavens.
     “How cold it is!” she murmured.
     “Cold, my darling?” he cried. “Ah, you are right; you are not well! Let us go back to the inn.”
     She put her hand upon his arm.
     “Tom!”
     “Yes, Letty?”
     “Try to bear with me. I know you are good and kind, and I mean with all my heart to try and make you a loving wife. Give me a little time. You see, it’s all so strange as yet.”
     “Of course it is!” he replied, fondly. “Don’t think I’m so blind with pride and happiness as not to understand that! It must be strange, and a little sad, leaving one’s home and all one loves for the last time. Your brother, too! Poor Dick! he seemed quite cut up at parting with you.”
     A bitter smile, so faint as to be scarcely perceptible, fluttered across the woman’s face.
     “I was not thinking of him,” she said. “Parting won’t break his heart, be sure of that!”
     “Why should it? He knows how much I love you, and he can trust my love.”
     It was growing dark when they re-entered the little hotel. They were shown up into their private sitting room, where tea was prepared. When Letitia took off her cloak and hat and sat down to officiate at the table Tom thought she had never looked so beautiful. The contagion of his happiness had spread to her at last, and she almost smiled. After all, she thought, why should she not try to be happy? Was she not fortunate in so bright and handsome a protector, and might she not, after all, forget all the load she had been carrying and begin a new life?
     The window was open, and the warm scent of roses and lilac was blown into the chamber, blent with the breath of the sea. Tom drank cup after cup of tea, stopping only to kiss the hands that poured it.
     “It reminds me of the first piece I ever played in,” he said, with his arm round her: “‘A Cup of Tea.’ Have you seen it, my darling? There are only two characters, a young husband and wife. There’s a little storm, you know, in the tea cup, but it all ends happily—like this!” And, drawing her blushing face to his, he kissed her again and again.
     Suddenly there came a knock at the door. As the bridal pair started asunder, the door opened and a stranger entered tall, somewhat portly, gentleman in black, dressed in the plain livery of the Catholic priest. A massive brow, a square, bulldog face, black, piercing eyes, and a voice like a trumpet, which said—
     “Mr. Cardonald, I believe?”
     “That’s my name,” said Tom, standing erect on the hearth rug.
     “Mine is Canon Williams,” returned the newcomer. “Half an hour ago I met my friend, Father Macmillan, of  Plymouth, who told me that you were here.”
     What did it mean? Tom looked at his bride. She was shrinking in her chair, white as death, and panting like a hunted thing. Her beautiful face looked wild and haggard, her hands were clenched and her eyes were turned in fascination, almost in entreaty, on the canon’s face.
     “Sir,” said Tom, “I do not understand. I——”
     But the priest had approached Letitia. Standing over her, he said in a stern voice—
     “Then what I have heard is true? Even now I can scarcely believe it. Speak, woman!”
     “Sir!” interrupted Tom. “Whoever you are—”.
     “I’ll talk to you by-and-by, my poor lad. Meantime, I wish to hear from this woman’s own lips if she has entered into the sacrament of matrimony with you, and if, that being so, you know whom you have married.”
     “Take care!” cried Tom. “Your clerical dress shall not protect you if you presume upon it and forget that this lady is my wife!”
     “Your wife? God help you if this be so. Whoever she is this evening, she has been living for years with Richard Saville, a backlog and a swindler!”
     “Not his sister? Not his sister?” gasped Tom.
     Poor fellow, he had only to look at his bride now to be aware that his fate was sealed. Her face was distorted out of all likeness and she was shaking like a leaf.
     “Look at her and mark my words!” cried the priest. “She is a Catholic, though an evil one. Three weeks ago she came to me, asking me to bind you together according to the rites of our holy church. I refused until she had told you the truth. A few days later I left for Cornwall. A little while ago, Father Macmillan informed me that she had been married to you, at St. Judo's, Plymouth, by a Protestant clergyman. I ask you again, sir, has she told you whom you have married?”
     Livid with horror, Tom rushed over to Letitia and grasped her by the arm. “Speak! Is this true?”
     She did not speak, but, shrinking right down upon the ground, covered her face with her hands. Tom felt the room go round and staggered like a drunken man.
     “Not his sister—not his sister! My God!”
     And he would have fallen if the priest had not caught him in his arms. He recovered himself, however, in a moment, and stood erect, facing his misery like a man. Then, with a hoarse cry, he moved to the door.
     “Where are you going?” cried the canon blocking the way.
     “Going? Back to Plymouth, to find that man—and kill him!”
     The woman uttered a shriek, while the priest placed his hand gently on Tom’s shoulder.
     “My poor lad, be patient! The villain is not worth your anger.”
     “Be patient!” groaned Tom. “Not when my life is wasted and my heart broken! I loved that woman—I thought her innocent and pure—I—I—God help me! Let me pass!”
     He hurled the priest aside and rushed from the house. The woman rose, moaning, with the priest’s black eyes fixed upon her, and stretched out her arms in wild and passionate appeal.

_____

 

IV.

     Long before Cardonald had reached Plymouth, the man he sought had disappeared, and with him his chief accomplice in the dastardly trick that had been played.
     He searched high and low without avail. He soon learned enough, however, to convince himself that every word that he had heard was literally true. Mad with rage and shame, the unfortunate young man fell ill, and for many weeks tossed on a sick bed in a violent fever. A gentle sister of the church, sent by Canon Williams, nursed him back to  convalescence, but when he recovered he was the mere specter of his former self.
     From a blow so terrible and so unexpected, only one of a far harder nature and coarser fiber could have recovered; on poor Cardonald it fell with a force which left him more or less broken and aged before his time. He made no attempt to rejoin his old companions of the theater; indeed, he dreaded their mockery and shrank from such comments as they might make on his folly and infatuation. Leaving Plymouth, he fled to London, and there for some time he led a solitary and wretched existence from hand to mouth.
     He told no one of his miserable secret—indeed, he had no friend whatever in whom he could or would confide. About a year later, he changed his name and went to the United States, where he succeeded in procuring an engagement with one of the numerous touring companies.
     In the meantime he had heard nothing of the woman who had been the chief agent in his humiliation. She, too, had disappeared, leaving no trace behind her. He made no attempt to trace her, and from that period forward he never saw her face again.
     Several years had passed since the time of that strange marriage in Plymouth, and an English theatrical company, exploited by an enterprising American, was touring in South Africa. In the course of their wanderings they came to Johannesburg, where they attracted large audiences. They played the usual repertoire of English dramas and comedies, and chief among the company, intrusted with the most varied roles, was an actor called Rolleston, whose performances, especially in parts demanding power and passion, awoke general admiration. He was known among his companions as a reserved and moody individual, who encouraged no intimacy and invited no confidences; he seemed, indeed, to be constantly under the shadow of a secret grief, which he forgot only temporarily when swept away by the excitement of portraying some imaginary character.
     Of his past career nothing was known except from hearsay, which reported that, although English by birth, he had gained most of his theatrical experience in America. It was asserted, unhappily with truth, that, although superior to some of the common follies of his profession, he had one secret vice—the habit of taking morphia, under the influence of which he frequently lost his self-control.
     One night, late in autumn, a large audience was assembled to witness the performance of an old-fashioned drama, “The Corsican Brothers.” The actor Rolleston played the dual role of Fabian and Louis de Franchi, a role for which his stern, clear-cut features, his powerful, yet elegant figure, and his power of suppressed passion admirably fitted him. He was enthusiastically applauded from act to act.
     The play was approaching its conclusion when a party of three persons, a man and two loudly dressed women, paid at the doors and entered the only empty stage box. The man, although obviously a gentleman, was somewhat roughly attired, in a style familiar in mining-camps up country. It was immediately evident that he had drunk more than was good for him, for he talked so noisily to his companions as to interrupt the scene then in progress and to awaken the angry murmurs of the audience. Presently he quieted down and watched the stage with heavy, sleepy eyes, until the great duel scene between Fabien de Franchi and Chateau Renard, which ends (the reader may remember) with the breaking of the duelists’ swords and the employment of the broken blades as daggers to conclude the duel.
     The swords were just broken, and the actors were about to use the broken blades in the attack upon each other, when the man in the private box uttered an exclammation and shrank back as if in terror. At that moment his eyes met those of Rolleston, who was seen to tremble and turn deadly pale; but this agitation was only momentary. The next instant the actor turned his eyes away and resumed his part as if nothing had occurred.
     A minute later the man in the box murmuring something to his companions, had risen, and was making his way tipsily towards the box door. Suddenly, however, before the audience could realize what was forthcoming, Rolleston had released his fellow-actor, over whom he was brandishing the naked sword blade, had sprung with lightning rapidity from the stage into the box, had seized the man and dragged him back, and finally, with a wild cry, had plunged the weapon into his heart. There was a shriek from the man, a horrified scream from the women, his companions, a murmur from the audience, which rose en masse, and then, with a groan, the man fell forward on his face dead. Then, almost before one soul present could realize what had occurred, Rolleston sprang back upon the stage, panting and deadly pale, and faced the audience.
     There was a horrified silence, for it was clear that he was about to speak. At last he did so, in a low, clear voice, as follows:
     “Ladies and gentlemen, you came here tonight to witness a drama of a villain’s treachery and an injured man’s revenge. Well, you have witnesses it to the bitter end. For years I have sought the man who lies there dead, and at last I have found him, as you see. He has paid the penalty of his guilt, and I—well, I am ready to answer for my act to God!”
     Arrested and thrown into prison, Rolleston made no effort to defend himself or to explain the motive of his ghastly deed. It was clear before long, however, that his mind was shaken, and when he was brought to trial in due course, his deportment was more that of a madman than of a sane man. The result was that he was acquitted of responsibility for willful murder, and committed to an asylum as being of unsound mind; and there, some months later, he died.
     Few mourned him—no one knew anything of his past life; he passed away unknown in that strange land; but the reader has already guessed that the actor Rolleston was really no other than Thomas Cardonald, whose life had been darkened and blighted for ever by the man on whom he at last took so terrible a revenge.

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