Fiction - Short Stories (3)
1. The Peacocks’ Feathers
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.
“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?”
Back to Fiction: Short Stories
The Manchester Weekly Times (Literary Supplement) (Friday, 22 June, 1900)
(A LONDON EPISODE.)
By ROBERT BUCHANAN,
Author of “Andromeda,” “Father Anthony,”
“Lady Kilpatrick,” “Stormy Waters,” &c., &c.
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?”
“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.
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!”
“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!”