Fiction - Short Stories - Lady Letitia’s Lilliput Hand
Lady Letitia’s Lilliput Hand
Part I, Temple Bar, IV (March, 1862 - p.551-569); Part II, V (April, 1862 - p.114-131).
Lady Letitia’s Lilliput Hand.
A STORY IN FOUR CHAPTERS. BY THE AUTHOR OF “A HEART STRUGGLE.”
HOW THE HAND WAS SOUGHT.
WHO sought it? Many men, wise or foolish men, as the case might be; but her eyes had a knack of luring-on the least impressionable. Faites votre jeu, messieurs, they were always saying, in looks more eloquent than words. Faites votre jeu; our mistress is a dainty prize for the daintiest—who wins? That last question was one very difficult to answer. Was the winner to be winged Mercury, or warm Cupid, or cold Mammon? Enough to say, in the mean time, that the lilliput hand waved the players on to the game, and that the game was made accordingly.
There was a French count, who had once written a book, and whose name had been familiar in the mouth of the king, who once, for conveniency’s sake, bore the appellation of plain John Smith. This worthy subsisted on his title, and on his former relation to the Bourbon régime; but having put all his brains into his book—which, by the way, was about the English—the Count de Dashe found the existence of a diner-out rather unprofitable and tedious. Disgusted with a single life in scantily furnished apartments, he looked about for some fair dame in estimation at her banker’s; and the result was that he consented to be charmed within the magic circle of the Lady Letitia. For the Lady Letitia was beautiful, and the Count de Dashe thought she was rich. There was a baronet, a member of parliament, and (whatever that means) a liberal conservative. Sir Slowe Mudled was one of those modern politicians who truckled to no party, supported black and white alternately on principle, and could be relied on by nobody either in or out of power. Further, he was fifty years of age, a widower, and wealthy; he wanted, not money, but a woman capable of presiding over a dashing establishment. He also was one of the smitten; for the Lady Letitia was beautiful, and he thought she was accomplished. Then there was Major Blenheim, of the Horse Guards; Blenheim, whose four-year old Sesostris (out of Miss Kitty) won the gold cup at Ascot two years in succession. Being a middle-aged rake of the good-natured school, the Major wanted to reform. He had money enough to purchase a wife, and he desiderated personal comeliness. The Lady Letitia was beautiful, and he thought her “a devilish fine woman.” Shall we go on with the catalogue? Shall we mention slim Mr. Slekemeke, who thought she was bold; dashing Jack Burgundy, who feared she was cold; lame Lawyer Davies, who thought she was sharp; obese Mr. Formulus, the rector, 552 who thought she was mild; timorous young Hare O’Parrent, who thought she was wild? Nobody else? Yes, the Lady Letitia was beautiful, and Edward Vansittart thought she was good.
Beautiful, rich, accomplished, bold, cold, sharp, mild, wild, good—here was a list of contradictory qualifications! Au reste, they were not more contradictory than the Lady Letitia herself. She changed as the clouds change, according to being shone on more or less. She could talk with wise men, vain men, fast men, or fools; and she knew all their hobbies. She was so clever, that even the women knew not what to make of her; but the women liked her less than the men did, and rather avoided her society. She had a smart dashing way of making cutting remarks; she had brought all the cunning artillery of the sex into perfection. Prudes had no chance against her. Matrons were shocked at her. Dowagers were afraid of her. Plain girls envied her. Pretty girls shrank away from her. So she contented herself with the company of gentlemen, whom she laughed at, and who thought her an angel.
The Lady Letitia was tall, and gracefully formed; she had the neatest ancle and most bewitching little foot in the world. It was her foot that first fairly conquered Blenheim, who was a connoisseur in such things, and was the self-constituted critic of the ballet at the Italian Opera. Her bust, from the head downwards, was superb. Her eyes were resplendently dark, flashing liquid fire; her teeth were faultless ivory, and her lips were rosebuds; her features were perfectly chiseled, and shone like alabaster stained in wine. Poets said that a glance of those eyes was worth kingdoms. Tender young gentlemen vowed that a kiss from those lips would be cheaply purchased with a fortune. Vive l’amour! cried gouty old gentlemen, with the heydey of youth titillating for a moment in their dry veins. But it was by her beautiful hands that the Lady Letitia achieved her choicest triumphs. Hands so tinily, delicately lovely were never imitated by sculptor; and when she waved them before her slaves, the heart was hushed with admiration. She was strangely careful of those delicate hands of hers, insomuch that people bantered her for the same. In full dress or morning dress, in the ball-room or on the promenade, any where, every where, save in the sanctuary of her chamber, she kept them always gloved, and no one ever had a glimpse at their delicate whiteness.
“Confound it!” muttered Jack Burgundy; “I should object to keep my lady there in kid-gloves. She must spend a little income on her fingers alone.”
“They are worth an income,” growled the Major, with a savage look.
“A hundred thousand incomes,” echoed timorous Hare O’Parrent.
It was mysterious certainly—in another woman it might have looked suspicious; but the Lady Letitia was so droll, had such strange ideas, and liked to set society at defiance. So she used her charms on her followers one and all; and they danced their dance of folly, while the Lady was beating time with her Lilliput Hand.
553 But for those adjectives which the suitors individually applied to her? It was universally acknowledged that she was beautiful; for who is ninny enough to deny that the sun shines at midnoon? Rich? Humph; she lived in good style, and seemed to have money in plenty. Accomplished? She could play on the piano; she talked French and German; she had a taste for art, and could paint; and she could handle a cue at billiards. Bold? Perhaps. Cold? I fear not. Sharp? She was no fool, I warrant you. Mild? Sometimes. Wild? With some people. Good? I am puzzled at last; for what can I make of such a piece of contradictions? She paid her bills, was liberal to the poor, went to church once every Sunday, read her Bible, and was fond of children and dumb animals. For the latter, she kept in her establishment a cat, two small white poodles, a canary, and a parrot; and she told Jack Burgundy, with a significant look, that she thought dogs more interesting than puppies. I really can’t say whether she was good or not. Most respectable people pay their rent regularly; our lawyer occasionally gives a penny to the crossing-sweeper; Dives went to church or synagogue; bloody Queen Mary read her Bible; Mr. Squeers was fond of children; and Count Fosco adored white mice. So that all the little human traits I have mentioned may or may not go for nothing. None of us are so perfect as to bear a very close examination. Taken all in all, the Lady Letitia was as good as her neighbours; and if some few female errors fell to her lot, she waved her lilliput hand, and you forgot them all.
It will readily be understood that the circle over which the Lady Letitia reigned was fashionable, but not select. It was, as the reader has already guessed, a mixed circle; composed of very admirable fragments, but having a vagabond look, when made up into a whole of shreds and patches. The lady herself was aware that hers was an equivocal supremacy, and it was partly for this reason that she made up her mind to re-enter the holy bonds of wedlock. To reënter those bonds, do I say? Certainly; for she was a widow. Her late husband, Lord Augustus Marlowe, died mysteriously in Switzerland. He was a coarse, good-natured tyrant, fifteen years older than his young wife, whom he treated very shabbily. He had commenced life early as a young gentleman of fortune, and had visited the Continent, accompanied by his tutor, an M.A., who joined his dissipations, and got drunk at the table-d’hôte. Then he had split upon the gaming- table. The croupier bade him make his game, and shovelled his money away as if by enchantment. A nearly ruined man, he took to drinking, and the result was soon shown in a naturally good-humoured fellow being converted into a beast of prey. He laid heavy bets; he lost more money, and (what is worse) he lost credit. He was soon known as one of the most depraved speculators on the Continent. Match-making mammas gave him up as a bad job. Suddenly there appeared among the births, marriages, and deaths of the Times an announcement setting forth that Lord Augustus Marlowe had led to the hymeneal altar Miss Letitia Ludlow, aged nineteen, daughter of the late Lumley 554 Ludlow, Esq. Society tossed her head. Who the dash was Letitia Ludlow? Where, when, how was she born, and what was her parentage? Nobody knew. Some people said she had been a ballet-dancer, noted previously for an intrigue with a little German grand-duke. Others said that she had been a governess. Others again averred that she was the only daughter of a Manchester soap-manufacturer, who had cut his business connexions in order to show off and marry his heiress. Be that as it may, Letitia Ludlow, spinster, ætat. nineteen, married Lord Augustus Marlowe, ætat. thirty-four. They were married in Geneva, whence they shortly afterwards passed into Germany. Three years passed, and little further was heard of the married couple. It was current that they led a cat-and-dog life. But one fine morning it was reported in the Morning Post that Lord Augustus Marlowe had been found dead in his bed in an hotel at Berne; and, in spite of the attempts made by his relatives to hush up the matter, it was whispered in divers reliable circles that my lord had committed suicide.
Certain it is that, for reasons of their own, Lord Augustus’s relatives gave the cold shoulder to his widow. She had, however, been left a comfortable income, and did not mind his family a bit. She laughed at them. She openly avowed her belief that her late husband was a brute, and quite shocked Mrs. Grundy by refusing to go into full mourning. She went off into Italy, and was only heard of when she drew her quarterly income at a Venetian banker’s. She had been a widow two years when she came to London, where we found her waving her lilliput hand at the beginning of this chapter.
She was now twenty-four years of age, in the full luxuriance of youthful loveliness. Her marriage had given to her form the rounded completeness of womanhood. Her eyes were torches for the temple of Hymen.
Perhaps the most disinterested of all Lady Letitia’s suitors was young Edward Vansittart, the painter; the same Vansittart whose “Donkey feeding on Thistles” (121) was so much commended by Mr. Buskin for the pre-Raphaelite vigour of its drawing.* He was a rising man, Vansittart. His worst foes were his theories; a pet one of which was, that pre-Raphaelitism was impossible in landscape. “Because, you see,” he put it, “the first principle the P.R.’s go upon is fidelity to the thing copied; and they put this into practice, you know, by painting landscape down to the last touch in the open air. Now, I’ll put a case, old fellow. Suppose I sat down to draw a duck-pond; say I could paint it in a day
* Subjoined is a very brief extract from this remarkable criticism: “What I praise in this work is conscience. Mr. Vansittart follows the painters who came before Raphael, and he finds truth. Nor does his religious copying of physical nature at all mar the naked force of his conception. His ‘Donkey feeding on Thistles’ will stand out to all time as the representation of the Christian principle of patience. On a common like that before us, Raphael would have placed the mythological white ass of Silenus. Vansittart has conscience, and, instead of the myth, he gives us moral Christian truth.” —Art Notes for 18—, vol.iii.
555 (I couldn’t, but grant it); well, that duck-pond would change its appearance at least fifty times in a day; clouds would come over it, cows might walk into it, ducks would ruffle its surface. You perceive? While I’m painting, the thing being painted is changing; and nature changes every blessed moment. What’s the result? I jumble every thing together; I produce, perhaps, a duck, a cow, a pond, neither of which harmonises with its neighbour, and none of which harmonises with the general picture.” Poor Vansittart! he read too much and worked too little; he had fits of idleness and fits of superhuman energy. He did nothing for two years, and then painted his “Distant Prospect of a Skylark” (the atmosphere of which was described by Pallette, of the Art Diurnal, as foggy) in a fortnight. He was too impetuous; to prove which I need only say that, three hours after their first introduction, he wished Lady Letitia to sit for the principal figure in his “Spanish Girl nursing a sick Kid.” Unfortunately for his devotion to art, he had too much pocket-money, and could do as he pleased. His friends were rich people, and he had money; indeed he had first studied art simply as an amateur, and it was only after a hard fight that he was allowed to become a professional artist, a “trade” which his friends considered extremely low.
Edward adored the Lady Letitia; he adored her for her beauty, for her goodness, and for her sympathy with art. He thought her perfection. What to some seemed boldness, to others accomplishment, and to others wildness, appeared in his eyes to be charming innocence. Her eyes had all the wealth of the Indies for him. A frown from her obscured him in his littleness like a cloud. Poor fellow! now his life was all sunshine, now it was all darkness. Now he would threaten to pitch into the Major, simply because that gallant soldier boasted of being favoured by his mistress. Again, he would ask the Count de Dashe, not quite politely, to go a very long journey, simply because the gallant Frenchman had danced with the angel twice in succession. His jealousy made him as yellow-livered as a rajah. “By Jove, sir,” he would say to a friend, “it makes my blood boil to see that poor innocent creature doomed to be bored by a parcel of roués and fools—yes, fools! Why doesn’t she cut them? She can’t see them in their true light, poor innocent dove! and honi soit qui mal y pense.” The fact being, of course, that Edward feared some one of these roués and spoons would step in, like bailiffs, and take possession of the coveted temple. He knew how often money makes the mare to go—ay, to gallop at a swingeing pace post-haste to the brink of Acheron. He was afraid to propose, lest he should be driven crazy by contemptuous rejection. But a thousand delicate little attentions, made under a battery of bewitching glances, avouched his devotion. Comme ça! The Lady Letitia was not quite blind to the wishes of her young admirer.
I have said that the Lady Letitia had made up her mind to reënter the holy bonds of matrimony, and I will just hint that it was not mere 556 matter o’ money which would make her sacrifice herself a second time. So that the French count had a better chance of winning the lilliput hand than had the wealthy Sir Slowe Mudled. The Lady Letitia, in fact, was young, passionate, impressionable. Having once married a brute, she now wished to marry a gentleman; having once married for money, she now wished to marry for love. These light, dashing, seemingly frivolous women are deeper than the men think them; they often form grand passions. Their love is of the senses, perhaps; but it is of the senses spiritualised. It is intense, and embraces all conditions; it will immolate itself to purchase the loved one a dinner. Upon whom, of her many suitors, did the Lady Letitia look with the most favour? and to whom, of them all, was she most likely to give her lilliput hand? It is hard to say; but I know who had the most real merit—I mean Vansittart. He had manly qualifications. Physically, he was handsome: fine fair hair, handsomely-cut mobile features, a clear gray eye, dark moustache, and a tall, firm-set figure. Morally, he was honourable, courageous, self-reliant; he was, in some respects, egotistical, but his egotism had no pettiness in it. Intellectually, he had real gifts; his enthusiasm brought out dormant power of mind, and almost transfigured it to genius. Above all, he loved—honestly, unselfishly. Could Lady Letitia be blind to his love, or to the fine qualities which recommended his love? Did she prefer an adventurer, like the Count de Dashe? a fuzzy, empty humbug, like Sir Slowe Mudled? a military gay deceiver, like the Major? an oily tyrant in embryo, like Mr. Slekemeke? a dare-the-devil wine-drinking scamp, like Burgundy? a greedy old miser, like Lawyer Davies? an apoplectic stupid preacher, like Formulus? or a “muff,” with great expectations, like Hare O’Parrent? I hope not. Her first marriage had opened those fine eyes of hers not a little. But again, we now come to a question which involved the whole happiness of either party. Was that lilliput hand worth having? Was it a prize worth winning, for better, for worse? Was it a hand capable of anointing the bridegroom with the oils and spices of a righteous love? Or was the Lady Letitia a kind of ghoul, doomed to revisit the glimpses of the day until she should have purged away a sin? And was the lilliput hand, itself a skeleton, capable of dealing death to him who should hold it at the foot of the altar? We shall see.
HOW TIIE HAND WAS WON.
“OF my dozen admirers,” thought the Lady Letitia, “there is only one whom a woman of sense could respect. Vansittart, in spite of his affectations, is an honest man, and a well-bred gentleman. What am I to do? My position grows more dangerous every day; and at this juncture I really need the protection of some one with a strong will and strong nerves. Is Vansittart such a one? At all events, I hope so. Yet a man cannot have two mistresses—Art and Love; the one is the 557 enemy of the other, and both are so strong, that, when a battle between them takes place, both must fall and perish.”
So thought the Lady Letitia, not knowing, or not caring to own, that Love and Art are one.
It was an evening late in the autumn, and she was sitting by the fire in her boudoir, in a house surrounded by some of the most wealthy residences of middle-class London. One of the white poodles was in her lap, and the other was lolling at her feet. She smoothed the silken ears of the dog with her hand, and watched the faces in the fire. What saw she in the shifting burning coals? Strange visions, doubtless; among them an ugly haunting face, that was always the same.
“Go away, Shadow,” she said to herself. “It will not go; it will never go. Miserable little me! So weak, so beautiful, so simple. Did I err? Conscience answers yes; pride cries no. Is it righteous that blood should wipe out wrongs like mine? Let those who may accuse me remember what I suffered—remember the dog’s life I led with a brute beast, who stained my pure soul unaware, and be merciful. Merciful! I am haunted by a fiend incarnate. O Hand, little Hand, you gave and you took away, and you would now, with the filth upon thee, give again. Out upon thee!”
She dashed the lilliput hand against the chimney-piece, and made no gesture of pain. Was this the gay, buoyant, daring Lady Letitia, who had such confidence in herself, and who threw such voluntary defiance into the teeth of the world? She lifted up the left hand, and turned it over, and looked at it; then she shook her head, and gave a light sneering laugh.
“And this is the only gift that I, who talk about love, have to give away. A sorry gift! I yielded it once before, when it was real flesh and blood, at a time when my heart was stainless snow. The world knows the result. But now! The hand is like the heart—withered and hard and dead. For Vansittart’s sake, I would it were otherwise.”
The lady was not all marble; for big scalding tears fell over the small gloved fingers, and she wept. As she wept, through the glamour of her falling tears she could still see the faces in the fire. She could still see that one face, with its haunting terror, and it glared at her mockingly. The tears ceased; she grew very pale and beautiful.
“I could love that man! Five years ago I could have laid down my life for him; and even now I could do much for the sake of being happy with him. What have I done? No confession can save me now; no atonement can wholly blot out my sin. It was my fate, my fate, to be wedded to a brute beast.”
So there was a worm in the bud, after all. My lady had her cares, as well as the meanest of her fellow-creatures; and she was not quite perfect. Was the haunting face in the fire that of her husband? Doubtless. They had never loved each other, and perhaps, perhaps—no, I am sure that my lady was not the woman to be foolishly indiscreet. She 558 had been very miserable, but very pure. The marriage-bed was never defiled by that fair form.
She watched the face in the fire, and still it seemed to threaten danger. Then she arose hastily and shook her hand at it, as if she hated the face. The face was changeless. She walked hurriedly up and down the room. It was easy to perceive that she was violently agitated. The coals shifted with a dull rustling sound, and still the face was there.
She was negligently dressed in black silk; her hair, which was unpinned, fell in long ringlets down her back: very beautiful she looked in her strange passion. At last she conquered herself; she reseated herself. Resolute, pale, excited, she again watched the face in the fire. There was still no encouragement. “I am a fool!” she muttered, throwing herself back in a chair, and taking up a novel by Alfred de Musset. She read for some few minutes in silence. At last she threw down the book impatiently, and busied her lilliput fingers in thoughtfully pulling the long silken ears of her pet dog.
“There are sins which not love can wipe out,” she exclaimed in the still small voice. “I have undone myself utterly. Cursed be he who takes this little bloodless hand in his!”
For a long hour she sat in a brown study, with a cloud no bigger than the prophet’s hand upon her fair brow. She was presently interrupted by her servant, who came to say that Mr. Vansittart was below in the drawing-room. At this announcement a soft liquid smile stole over the beautiful face, and the Lady Letitia forgot all her troubles.
“You had better show him up-stairs,” she said.
The domestic disappeared. The Lady Letitia hastily arranged her hair at a large mirror which hung over the mantlepiece, and stood waiting to receive her visitor.
Vansittart entered a moment afterwards. There was a flush upon his cheek, and a deep light in his eyes, and his lips were firmly set together. The gentleman meant business of some sort.
“Good evening, Mr. Vansittart,” said my lady with a bewitching smile, but one of those peculiar smiles by which handsome women try to show their indifference towards the party they welcome.
“Good evening, Lady Letitia,” said Vansittart, with a look which showed that the smile had its effect upon his sensitive organisation. My lady seated herself, and waved her visitor into a chair. Never had she looked so bewitching as at that moment; never did the eyes of the artist gaze upon her with warmer adoration. The Lady Letitia was none of those marble women who attack men through the intellect. Hers was a mesmeric power, vitally born of glowing flesh and- blood. She took possession of the senses, which she consumed, till they dissolved away in an incense which, ascending softly to the brain, soothed the thoughts into warm and rapturous joy of her presence.
There was a pause. My lady’s influence was trebling itself every moment. The painter was in the toils; he resigned himself to the spells 559 with the languor of one who sinks to slumber in the Paradise of Hasheesh.
“You were at the Opera last night, Mr. Vansittart? I saw you talking with that stupid creature the Major.”
Admirable woman! In these few words she showed twofold tact. First, in introducing the Opera, with its brilliant dazzling delirium of lights and music; for as she spoke, soft airs, lovely fragments, floated in the artist’s memory, and rendered him powerless with the sense of beauty. Second, by alluding to the Major, carelessly enough, but in a tone calculated to show that he at least had no chance of conquering the susceptible little heart of the speaker. Vansittart could not trust himself to speak; he simply bent his head.
“She is a charming woman, that Madame Aldori, and a delightful singer. I was entranced. The new opera is delightful.”
Commonplace of commonplaces, which seemed to Vansittart like the music of the spheres.
“Of all fashionable dissipations,” continued her ladyship, “I think the Opera is the most dangerous. It is beautifully false and artificial; it makes one out of temper with the serious business of life. It gratifies us much, and instructs us scarcely at all.”
“There I hardly agree with you,” cried Vansittart. “It is a hobby of mine, that the artist who has our souls under control, who exalts and rarefies them for the time being, is nobler, and that simply because his work is nobler, than he who finds out more practical problems. You smile? Well, is it not just that we should prize beauty for its own sake, without going out of our way to inquire whether its worldly value is or is not in a minimum? That which teaches us to forget, again, is the deepest, profoundest art; for it is only by separating ourselves from the thousand pettinesses of life that we reach even in imagination to the exalted world in which the artist lives, breathes, and has his being.”
“You are an artist,” said Lady Letitia tenderly.
“Without mere beauty, art, as revealed to us, would be stale, flat, and unprofitable,” continued Vansittart, acknowledging the interruption with a bow. “To instruct us indirectly, art must deaden or spiritualise those senses which contact with gross things has perhaps defiled. To be beautiful alone, is to be all-powerful; for beauty trances the gazer into forgetfulness. The painter, gazing on nature, discards his prison of clay, and is part of the eternal lovely universe. The singer, dissolved into the music, ascends to heaven on the invisible wings of harmony, and has visions of the celestial gate. So the painter paints and the singer sings, and the world in its turn forgets. It is only when we can cast off our earthly fetters unaware that we are perfectly happy. What is love, in its very essence, but a dream, a forgetfulness of the plodding daily cares which make men miserable? The lover lives in a vision, blind to the meanness of the soil he walks on; and things of the elements, dream-created, minister to him 560 and do him courtesies. The lover is the slave of the beautiful, and beauty is the mother of love.”
“Do you think, then, that love can give forgetfulness?” murmured the Lady Letitia very softly.
“Yes, Lady Letitia.”
There was a long awkward pause. Vansittart was annoyed at having allowed his imagination to run away with him. He made a great effort, and tried to discourse about trifles.
“To return to the point from which we started, I like the new opera very much, and think Aldori a very promising singer. There is perhaps a slight want of dramatic power in her acting; she lacks dignity.”
The Lady Letitia was not listening. She was sitting abstractedly, watching the face in the fire. As the voice ceased, she turned her face to his, and her eyes were full of tears. It was enough; he spoke out.
“Lady Letitia, there are some natures which are so blind as to need prompting in all matters of the heart; there are others which understand the heart intuitively. I came here to-night with a determination, and my soul tells me that you have already guessed my secret. I love you.”
Her eyes were on the face, and she started as if from a blow. Her cheek turned pale; her hand shook.
“I love you. You may think me bold, impertinent; but I make the confession in perfect honesty, relying on your truth and goodness to save me from misconstruction. I am not a poor man, I am well born; and believe me, Lady Letitia, you are dearer to me than any thing in life.”
It was a low pleading moan. She had hidden her face in her hands. He looked at her for a moment, and then rose to his feet.
“Tell me that you do not love me, and I will leave this room without a bitter thought. You are silent. Is it not so? Speak !”
“Hush! you know not what you say.”
“Am I mistaken in hoping that I was not quite indifferent to you? In pity to my great love, Lady Letitia, speak.”
“No, no! It is not that!”
“Not that!” he cried fiercely. “What else can come between us? What other opposition dare stand in the way of a love so strong as mine? You love me? Say you love me. I ask no more.”
“God forgive me, I do, I do.”
He caught her in his arms with a cry of joy, and pressed her passionately to his bosom.
“Mine, mine,” he murmured, bewildered by his happiness. But she disengaged herself, lifted up a pale tearful face to his, and looked at him searchingly.
“You know not what you ask. Go, Vansittart! The love you seek is not worth having. You know not what you ask.”
He looked at her in surprise.
“Vansittart, this is not the first time I learn that you have seriously 561 cared for me; and I know that your love is pure and noble. Be content! Our union would be neither for your happiness nor for mine.”
“Where love is—”
“Death may be. Let us part.”
“Never!” he cried, again pressing her to his bosom. “You have made a confession to-night which renders you mine for ever.”
She fairly burst out into passionate tears, crying, “What shall I do? What shall I do?” At last she yielded, for the man was really dear to her. She promised to marry him.
“Leave me!” she whispered at last. “Come again to-morrow.”
He kissed her, and stood looking into her face, holding her hands in his. Then he noticed with wonder, for the first time, that while the right hand was warm as fire, the left one was icy cold. He hurried from the room.
The Lady Letitia was once more left alone, communing with the face in the fire. It did not change. It was the same hard, unrelenting face, ever the same.
“Forgetfulness!” murmured my lady. “Can it then be true that love brings forgetfulness? I am lonely, very lonely, and need this consolation. The confession I prayed for, yet dreaded, is brought about, and it seems very horrible. Have I a right to deceive this man, who loves me so deeply and so disinterestedly?”
She retired to her bedchamber, but not to sleep. All night long she tossed on her pillow, and argued and debated with herself, as she had done before the face in the fire. She kept the lamp burning all night in the room, for she hated the dark. In the morning she composed herself with laudanum; she arose early, and went down-stairs quite calm. Had you watched her closely, you would have noticed two small hectic spots on the cheek; these indicated the presence of disease. For a long time she had never felt so happy. She had decided on consulting her own happiness, and keeping to the promise she had made the night before. She was proud of her love, proud of her lover, proud of the new hope she had in the future. She would never be miserable any more; the face in the fire should be banished utterly; she would forget; she would live for love alone; and when love passed away and perished, she would die. Poor little lady! She was building on very slender foundations; as well might she have attempted to build a palace on Goodwin Sands. There was no hope for her, no refuge, no pity. It was sad, for she was so very beautiful.
When Edward Vansittart called, according to promise, the next day, the Lady Letitia had a confession to make to him. She was the daughter, she said, of poor honest people, but, through the bounty of a rich uncle, she had been well educated. When she first met Lord Augustus, her first husband, she was only that despised thing, a governess, and was living in a gentleman’s family at Paris. Our poor young friend reflected for a moment; then, in his enthusiastic way, he declared his lofty contempt for 562 petty social distinction, and professed to love her a hundred times more for her candour.
“Besides, you see,” he added with a smile, “your marriage made you a new woman; and whatever your parentage, your union with Lord Augustus made you a lady. Lord Augustus—”
“Don’t mention him—don’t, if you love me!” cried my lady, with a shudder. Vansittart smiled, put his arm round her waist, kissed her, and was quite contented.
The affair soon got abroad. The rumour that Edward Vansittart, the wealthy artist, had won the lilliput hand of Lady Letitia Marlowe soon became absolute certainty. When the question was put to him, Vansittart openly avowed the truth, and asked the questioner to drink his health. He bore his honours in quite a conqueror’s fashion. He was proud of his prize—doubly proud, because he felt that he deserved it. The other suitors took the news in various ways; some wildly, some scornfully, some philosophically. The Count de Dashe called on the painter with a brace of loaded pistols. Vansittart was no coward; but having a rough insular notion that duelling was unfair and cowardly, he heard the Count patiently for ten minutes, and then kicked him into the street. Sir Slowe Mudled, being stupid and a stoic, buried his loss under parliamentary blue-books. Blenheim threatened to call Vansittart out, but hearing of the poor Count’s fate he prudently refrained from putting the threat into execution. The only fellow who behaved handsomely was Jack Burgundy, who wished his rival luck at the club, and good-naturedly cracked a bottle with him. Society, of course, was indignant. Vansittart had been the cynosure of the eyes of mammas innumerable, and each mamma had looked upon him as the prospective husband of her daughter. Even those slowcoaches, the papas, felt aggrieved, because the news put their sweet wives out of temper, and made home miserable. All the old fibs about the Lady Letitia were revived. She was an artful, unprincipled creature, who had been the death of her first husband. Lord Augustus, poor man, had led a sad life with her. She had no self-respect. Lady Letitia could defy malice like this; it only gave her strength. She moved through the very ranks of the enemy, annihilating them with her cool, artless superiority. Enough that she was loved. If there had been no haunting face in the fire, I think she might have been perfectly happy. She was still young, and the canker of the world had not wholly eaten into her woman’s heart.
Vansittart’s relatives did not oppose the match. They knew the young man’s disposition was not of a kind calculated to endure much opposition. He had a will of his own, and he was headstrong. More than this, he had common sense, and had generally discrimination enough to distinguish good from bad. So Edward Vansittart, Esq., was engaged to be married to the Lady Letitia, relict of the late Lord Augustus Marlowe, on the Sunday following Christmas-day.
The time passed on. The artist’s passion did not cool; but I regret to say that Vansittart began to grow nervous and fidgety. He had no 563 reasonable grounds for uneasiness, but he could not help remarking the peculiarity about the hands of his lady. When he clasped them that morning, one was warm, the other cold. He clasped them again and again, with the same result. The right hand glowed, the left hand was icy as stone. He puzzled his brains to ascertain the meaning of this. Do what he would, he could not rid himself of an unpleasant impression. He further remarked a circumstance already alluded to, and which went far to confirm him in his uneasiness. The left hand of Lady Letitia was never ungloved. Mysterious, certainly! Should he request an explanation? By so doing he would imply doubt, and he was loth to pain the beloved one. It would never do to cause her a moment’s annoyance. Thus it was that Vansittart began first to guess the secret of the lilliput hand.
A fortnight before Christmas-day, Mrs. Mortimer Mortrix gave a party, at which there was a little dancing, a little singing, a good deal of eating and drinking, a little of every thing. Mrs. Mortimer Mortrix was the larger half of a wealthy merchant; a vulgar man, who hated ceremony, and had a passion for unlimited loo. She was one of those charming women who seem at home in any sort of society, simply because they look dignified, say and do little, and take care never to commit or expose themselves in any way. Under a pseudonym of “Diana,” she had published in the Domestic Jew’s Harp a series of articles on female employment; one of which, “On the Moral Affinity of Grenadiers and Perambulators,” created quite a sensation in the purlieus of the Park. So much for the host and hostess. The party went off pleasantly enough; for the lady of the house had a knack of making her servants miserable, and her guests comfortable. Edward Vansittart and his betrothed were among the invited. The Lady Letitia dazzled all beholders; beauty flashed from her as she moved among the smitten. The heart of the lover, who seldom danced, and who thought parties a bore, beat high with pride. She was so gentle, so considerate to him; so distant, so cold to all the others. Her old liveliness had deserted her; but in its place had come a radiant, peaceful look very like happiness. She was the belle of the evening. No wonder that one very gloomy young man, with weak eyes and long lank hair, and who was afterwards discovered to be one of the poets of Dozes and Sun, rushed off in a fit of inspiration to the conservatory, and there, in throes very much resembling those of indigestion, gave birth to an ode to the Lady Letitia’s eyebrow. This poem being published shortly afterwards, led to the discovery that the gloomy young man was an impostor, as he had previously been received as a moral young man, with great expectations.
Among the guests was a gentleman who was introduced to the Lady Letitia as Mr. Montague Vernon. My lady conceived a dislike for this gentleman in a moment; she shrank away from him, and turned pale when his eyes were on her, as if he scared her. For something in the face seemed familiar. It was a handsome face. The forehead was high and narrow, the eyebrows dark and the hazel eyes piercing, and the nose 564 and mouth finely and firmly cut. Mr. Vernon wore short curly black hair, large dark moustache, and very large whiskers. He was tall and slight, but muscular. On the whole, there was nothing extraordinary in his appearance. His eyes, however, were cold and piercing, and harmonised with the habitual sneer of the nether lip. They followed her in all directions, from room to room; they met hers fixedly whenever she looked in the direction of the owner, who lounged in a corner and watched the amusements, without partaking in them. Vansittart noticed his manner, thought it impertinent, and determined to have a word or two with the gentleman when the party broke up. So while he was dancing, his blood was boiling at the audacity of the good-looking stranger.
At length Mr. Montague Vernon changed his position, reflected for a moment, and then walked over to the Lady Letitia, who was standing alone in a corner of the room. Vansittart watched him from the distance with jealous eyes. He bowed; she bent her head quietly. Their eyes met; she turned pale. He had the honour to ask her ladyship’s hand for the next quadrille.
“I am engaged for the whole evening.”
Surprised at the tone in which the word was uttered, she looked at him again, and trembled. He smiled slightly.
“Pardon me, I —”
“Thank you; you will be my partner in the next quadrille.”
She looked at him in amazement as he sauntered away. The face in the fire came back to haunt her, and she felt very weak and ill. Up came her lover, flushing hot.
“Who is that fellow?” he whispered. She shook her head to express her inability to answer the question.
“Humph! Has he been rude?”
“The puppy! Leave him to me, and I’ll settle accounts with him. Don’t be frightened; I’m not going to make a scene.”
He was walking off, with his blood up, when in a low frightened tone she called him back.
He turned, with a smile of rage.
“Stop! You know not what you do. Do not molest that man, as you love your life.”
“Ask no questions, Edward; all shall be explained on another occasion. Hush! He is coming towards us.”
At sight of the pale pleading face, Vansittart turned away, and walked to the further end of the room. He was undetermined what to do. With an easy self-assured air, Mr. Montague Vernon approached the lady, and bowed.
565 “With your leave, madam,” he said; and, ere she was aware, led her out to the dance.
Vansittart scowled at the gentleman, wondering what was to come next. He did not care to interfere just yet, lest he should make himself look ridiculous in the eyes of the company. But the poor fellow began to feel the gnawings of the green-eyed monster. Why did his mistress at once repel and encourage the impertinent stranger? There was at the bottom of her conduct some mystery which he could not well make out. He felt hurt, then furious, then indignant. Meantime the dance had begun. The stranger and the Lady Letitia held whispered converse between the figures. Vansittart saw that the stranger’s warm gaze was fixed upon the face of his partner, who, for her part, did not dare or care to put a stop to the insolence.
“Who is that fellow?” asked the lover of his host, the vulgar Mr. Mortimer Mortrix, who was standing doing nothing particular in a lonely corner of the apartment.
“Humph! You mean that dark-whiskered party who is dancing with the Lady Letitia? His name is Vernon— Montague Vernon; and he’s doosedly good-looking. His antecedents? Can’t say, I’m sure; respectable, I suppose. All I know is, that he is a friend of somebody, who is a friend of another party, who is a friend of my wife.”
“Thank you;” and the suspicious lover, not much enlightened, walked back to his former place, and scowled at the dancers as before.
“What’s the matter with Vansittart?” asked Mr. Hare O’Parrent of bold Major Blenheim. Both these discarded suitors were among the company.
“Eh?” exclaimed the Major, who had been ogling a huge widow lady who had property.
“What’s the matter with Vansittart? He’s frowning at that dark-whiskered fellow who is dancing with Lady Letitia. What does it mean?”
“Jealousy, by Jove!” replied our gallant soldier; “the green-eyed monster which doth make the meat it feeds on. I don’t envy him a straw. She’ll lead him a nice dance before all’s over, or my name’s not Jack Blenheim.”
The whisper passed round the room. The company was too well bred to titter; but Vansittart saw that his agitation was observed and secretly enjoyed. He endeavoured to shake off the scowl. He tried to say something funny to a corpulent little gentleman who was standing close by; but the corpulent gentleman thought he himself was being made fun of, and addressed the speaker as “Sir.” An exclamation, not a polite one, and commencing “Go to —,” was on the artist’s lips, when the dance ceased, and Mr. Vernon led the Lady Letitia to her seat. She had grown very pale. As she seated herself, Vansittart saw her partner press her hand with a significant look, and lounge away.
The lover, looking very black, walked up to his mistress. She sprang up as he approached her, and grasped his arm with a trembling hand.
566 “Take me away! take me away!” she whispered. He cast one searching imploring glance into her face; but begging him to be silent, she led him from the apartment. They halted below, in the lobby of the house.
“Had you not better let Mrs. Mortrix know that you are leaving?” asked Vansittart impatiently.
“No! no! I must leave immediately. Stay, I have forgotten my cloak. Will you fetch it for me?”
“But the carriage? It is not yet arrived.”
“One of the servants must fetch me a cab.”
Vansittart hurried up-stairs. He had scarcely been gone a minute, when the trembling lady heard a voice at her back.
“Pardon me, but madam seems in haste to leave our pleasant party.”
She turned tremblingly, and met the keen sneering gaze of Mr. Montague Vernon.
“Who and what are you?” she cried, as if by a sudden impulse.
“Pooh, a friend. Listen, madam. Two evenings hence, at ten o’clock, I shall call at your house. I shall expect to find you at home, and alone; for I have an important communication to make to you. For the present, I bid you farewell.”
Before she could offer any remark, the speaker had passed up-stairs again, and was lost to view. Vansittart came down a few moments afterwards. A cab was sent for, and the lady and her lover were driven off to the house of the former. Arrived there, Vansittart would have accompanied her indoors; but she stopped him with a decided gesture.
“Not now, not now,” she cried. “Come in the morning. I must think, I must think.”
The artist, already indignant, made no remonstrance. He politely wished the lady good evening, and walked off into the night. He was put out. The agitated manner of his mistress made him impatient and suspicious. The. mystery of the lilliput hand associated itself strangely in his mind with the mystery of the insolent stranger. He would demand an explanation; and if that explanation was not forthcoming, he would break off the engagement. Such were his first reflections. His second thoughts were more gentle. Perhaps the poor little lady was more entitled to pity than resentment; and the mystery would be entirely cleared up on the following morning.
Meanwhile the Lady Letitia had hurried to her boudoir, and there, alone and unseen, was pacing up and down the apartment in extreme agitation. Her face changed alternately from red to pale, and she bit her lips till they bled, to keep down the tears that were choking her. At last she yielded. Flinging herself into a chair, she wept passionately and petulantly; and looking up through her tears, she again saw the horrible face in the fire.
“Go away, devil! go away!” she cried, gnashing her teeth at it. “I am dying! Go away!”
567 But it would not go away at her bidding. Conscience, that makes cowards of us all, kept her its slave. An hour passed thus. She rang for coffee; and, after having partaken of it, she became calmer. She must look her danger in the face; that was no time for weakness or hesitation.
“Can my first fears be true?” she asked herself; “or am I simply deceived by my own nervousness? The man was insolent, rude; but there was nothing in his words to show that he knew my secret . Even if it be the man I fear—but no, it cannot be the same; there is no resemblance between the two but in the eyes; and the other was years younger than this man. But even he is ignorant of my secret. Perhaps it is some insolent scoundrel, some brutal friend of my husband, who, knowing my mean birth, thinks to extort money from me by threats of exposure. He shall find out his mistake ere long. Vansittart shall know all; and he will protect me from extortioners like this. Let the man come—he shall find me prepared. I will hear his message, and defy him.”
She tried to convince herself that she had nothing to fear; that the secret of the lilliput hand rested only between her and her Maker; but the face in the fire said to her that it had hunted her down at last. New hope took possession of her. If the worst came to the worst, could she not make terms? She had money, she had beauty—were these too insignificant to purchase the silence of an adventurer? Come what might, she would not submit without a struggle; she would die first. It was hard, hard, that she should be tried thus when on the point of gaining that love which gives forgetfulness; that the cup of Lethe should be withheld from her lips when it was most coveted; and that an unknown hand reaching out of the darkness should threaten to dash the cup into fragments.
Bewildered, maddened, over-wrought by what she had seen and heard, she went to rest. That night she slept soundly, as condemned felons sometimes sleep; but her dreams were horrible. In the morning, when her lover called, he received a message to the effect that my lady was too ill to see him. He hurried away, divided between anxiety and jealousy. In the afternoon he called again, and received a little pink note, softly perfumed, which he opened in the street and read:
“MY DEAREST EDWARD,—Do not call upon me again until the day after to-morrow. I am on the eve of a dreadful danger, from which your presence would be helpless to save me. If I escape, all shall be explained; if the result be otherwise, forget and forgive me.
It is impossible to convey any notion of our poor friend’s condition immediately after reading the above; he forgot every thing in his fears for the safety of the beloved one. He forgave her a hundred times for her 568 mysterious manner, for the circumstances which had caused him so much jealous agony; he only prayed that she might pass through the danger uninjured. He hurried hack to the door—insisted on seeing her ladyship; for he wished to beg and pray of her to let him assist her. Pardon, her ladyship’s orders were strict; her ladyship was much indisposed; to see her ladyship was quite impossible. He made a virtue of necessity, and determined to keep away until the time mentioned in the note.
That day passed, and the next. On the evening of the second day, Lady Letitia, elegantly attired, sat by the large fire of her drawing-room. She sat in a large easy-chair, the back of which was towards the room-door; and at her side was a small writing-desk, on which she rested her left hand, with the open palm upward. With her right hand she fondled her dog. She had a high colour; but a close observer would have seen that it was artificial. She was calm and still; but a physician would have perceived that she was under the influence of opium. Very beautiful did she look in her cold unnatural calmness. She had no fear now; her eyes burned with light like inspiration, and her lips were firmly clenched. She was dangerous that night. Again and again she looked at her tiny gold watch; and when the small gold hands pointed to the hour of ten, she listened impatiently for a knock or ring. All was silence. She began to dream and dose. In this lethargy, she was not conscious of a figure which stole in at the door, and slipped behind the heavy curtain of the window. Hope animated her; she began to think the man she dreaded would not arrive.
“I was a fool,” she murmured aloud. “He repents his folly; he will not come.”
“He is here!”
Mr. Montague Vernon, elegantly attired, sauntered sneeringly to the fireplace, stood with his back to the fire, and politely wished the Lady Letitia good evening. She trembled for a moment, but did not change her attitude. They looked at one another; she became more and more convinced that she had been mistaken, and her courage rose.
“I am punctual, your ladyship will perceive,” observed Mr. Vernon coolly.
The Lady Letitia nodded her head with the greatest sang froid.
“My time is short,” she observed, looking at her watch; “and I must beg you to make your communication speedily. Your business?”
“Your ladyship will pardon me for begging you to be patient; discretion, you are aware, is the best part of valour. You are a plucky little woman, Letitia Ludlow, but you must be cautious, very cautious.”
She smiled at his mention of her maiden name, for it convinced her that her suspicions were correct.
“Proceed,” she said; “you have now the advantage over me; but it is needless to say that you shall account for your insolence.”
He laughed, and walked carelessly to the other end of the room, looking at the pictures and articles of virtù. A thought had struck him. 569 With his back towards Lady Letitia, who did not move, he drew from his pocket a long- bladed dagger-knife, which he opened, and held concealed behind him when he again advanced. She reclined in the same attitude, with her lilliput hand on the writing-desk, and looked at him scornfully.
“Letitia Ludlow, you give yourself fine airs for a woman of your character.”
“Bah! you extortioner. Of what do you accuse me?”
“Letitia Ludlow, I accuse you of the wilful murder of Lord Augustus Marlowe; and my witness is—here!”
Before she could make a movement or draw a breath, he had lifted his arm, and the knife was plunged into the palm of the little hand, fastening it firmly to the wooden desk. The Lady Letitia crouched in horror; but the pain, if pain she felt, did not give her strength to release the little lilliput hand, from which no blood came.
Part II, Temple Bar V (April, 1862 - p.114-31).
THE STORY OF THE HAND.
MONSIEUR and Madame Boissy were well-to-do fashionable people, and they lived in Paris the Gay and Beautiful. Boissy was a vigorous journalist,—one of the editors of Le Frappeur, an Ultramontane organ; but it was confidently suggested in certain circles that Madame wrote the leading articles. A strong-minded woman, Madame,—une femme, sans peur et sans reproche, and with a bold will of her own. She did not bully Monsieur; but she curbed him gently, with just sufficient strength to show him that he was not altogether his own master.
“My dear Clothilde,” suggested Monsieur to Madame one morning over his chocolate, “it is high time that our children should be initiated into the rudiments of useful knowledge.”
“Truly,” responded Madame; “Clothilde is eight years of age; Eugene, six. What would you propose to do with them?”
Madame put the question in a conciliatory tone, evincing the highest possible contempt for any suggestion which might be offered by her lord and master.
“Do with them, my soul? Send them off to school at once; briefly, to a school in the sunny south.”
“Boissy, this is cruel. You wring my heart. You wound me, Boissy. Could I think of parting with my sweet children? of sending them away to a great cross madame without a mother’s heart? No, no; we must have a governess.”
The word of Madame was spoken, and it became law. It was now Monsieur’s task to set in motion the machinery which would supply them with the necessary article. With this view he advertised in several conspicuous quarters. The connexion was aristocratic and advantageous, said the advertisement; the salary nominal. There were many unsuccessful applicants, several of whom possessed characters not capable of the strictest investigation. But; at last Madame—whose catalogue of strong passions, be it known, did not include jealousy—was satisfied. She was in ecstasies. For there came to her a pale, beautiful young English girl, refined and (in every sense of the word) accomplished. The name of this applicant for the nominal salary was Letitia Ludlow; and in a very short time she was engaged in developing the young ideas of the sweet children, Eugene and Clothilde.
The special recommendation of the young governess appeared to be her face and figure; but she was very patient and decided, and could 115 talk sensibly on sensible themes, when her mistress’s mood was conversational. Beautiful, accomplished, good, &c., according to my former catalogue. The children liked her, because between lessons she would amuse them with imaginative stories; Madame liked her, because she was lady-like, respectful, superior; Monsieur liked her, because his wife liked her. Thus all parties were satisfied with Miss or Mdlle. Ludlow, and every body thought her an acquisition. There is nothing surprising in the fact that her beautiful face excited the comments of both visitors and neighbours. The pale English mademoiselle found herself speedily drawn from the retirement to which she had been previously accustomed. She was called upon to exhibit her accomplishments before her master’s guests; and several fits of temper, shown on those occasions, only served to render her all the more handsome and interesting. Several mild young men, of the French order of milksops, went mad about her; and even the water-carrier was said to declare that Mdlle. Letitia had awakened in his bosom a passion much akin to love. This last-named party was of the sans-culotte order of Republicans; but he lacked the courage to assert to our young lady the doctrinal necessity of perfect equality. To be brief, Madame Boissy’s young English governess became quite the rage, and she had eyes in her head to perceive the advantageous points of her position.
Eyes in her head? Ay, sharp ones. I am afraid that at this period her heart was not wholly unselfish; that the hope of speculating successfully in the great game of matrimony was not altogether lost sight of; that, in fact, she had some crude notions about marrying into both riches and position. To some silly people it would seem there is but one goddess, Hymen, and Mammon himself is her prophet. So it is not surprising that Letitia, being accomplished and beautiful, looked forward to a great triumph over some unfortunate cavalier of the male sex. You see, she had been brought up peculiarly. Removed at an early age from the purifying sphere of home, and accustomed to study prunes and prism under the stern auspices of a French Mrs. General, she had early learned to disguise her emotions, nay, to conquer them. She was not demonstrative. Only an earthquake could make her capable of a grand passion. In plain point of fact, she was cold,—an icicle. She was none the colder to all seeming, because it afterwards turned out that she hid under her snows, Hecla-like, an undeveloped volcano of self-pride, passion, sentiment. Now she was accustomed to argue with herself; and she argued thus: “I am not likely to fall in love; but, nevertheless, I have my way to work in the world, and I must live. I have no foolish notions on the subject of spiritual affinities. Given, a gentleman, easy-tempered, rich, who loves me. Love or no love, I will marry him, and with the deliberate intention of doing my duty by him. I shall make as disinterested a wife as most women of the present commercial generation.” She had persuaded herself that the golden age of Cupid had died away on the birth of the steam-engine. Henceforth there was to be nothing but marrying and giving in marriage, 116 child- bearing, and matter-of-fact eating and drinking. “I am no better than my neighbours, I dare say,” thought Mademoiselle; “but perhaps I am a little sharper than some of them. I am not a young lady capable of a serious indiscretion.”
It was not long before an eligible opportunity presented itself. A distinguished visitor, and a countryman of her own, became entangled in the slyly-woven web of the young governess. It was confidently reported that the Lord Augustus Marlowe was as rich as Timon of Athens in his prosperity; and there was no doubting the fact that he was a real live lord.
Lord Augustus, turning one evening into the Rue ——, to chat with that droll creature Boissy, found that both Monsieur and Madame had gone to the Grand Opéra; and it happened, quite accidentally, that my lord talked for an hour with the beautiful young governess. Mademoiselle had previously summed up his qualifications. He was not a Paris, nor an Apollo, and he was fifteen years older than herself; but then, on the other hand, he was good-looking, well-bred, and (it was said) was a lord with a large rent-roll. Well, on that particular evening, my lord, who respected no law, human nor divine, save his own pleasure, put his great fingers into the palm of Letitia’s lilliput hand, proposed in due form, and was then and there accepted.
Now, boldly to avail herself of this brilliant offer required a great deal of courage on the part of my faulty heroine. It was certain that the world would make a great outcry against her, would bristle fiercely, and turn its tabby-coloured back upon her. “What will Mrs. Grundy say? What will Mrs. Grundy think? Canst thee be quiet, let us alone, and behave thysel’ pretty?”* No; it is very difficult indeed to behave prettily and at the same time set the social bugbear at defiance. No woman was more aware of this profound truth than Letitia Ludlow. But Lord Augustus’s personal and social recommendations overweighed all abstract dangers, and it was to be hoped that the tide would turn in a bold little woman’s favour. She determined to be his, for better, for worse, in spite of love, sentiment, and the terrible Mrs. Grundy. It was rash, it was foolish; but the roots of Letitia’s heart had flourished in a gravelly soil, and they would suffer very little when transplanted into marly mould. Her education had not developed in her the clinging nature of the ivy, and her tendrils had not enwound themselves around any particular branch or tree. Necessity, who is the mother of invention, had made her an adventuress, and this was to be her first and boldest stroke for fortune.
First came the marriage, about which, be certain, a great many fibs were told. Society was shocked at the idea of a union between a lord and a governess. Madame Boissy went into hysterics; abused Monsieur the editor, and called upon Heaven to save the sweet children,
* Thomas Morton’s Speed the Plough.
117 Eugene and Clothilde, from the evil communications of that designing serpent English. She rode about Paris, poisoning Mrs. Grundy’s mind against the lost “acquisition.” But the affair blew over. The bottle of scandal was opened with a pop; but it soon grew flat, and turned sour on the stomach. Letitia Ludlow was forgotten in the grand preparations for the Emperor’s ball.
Then came the awakening. Fate had been against the adventurous maiden; she had been rearing a palatial structure on a basis as shifting and unsubstantial as the sea-sand. She had married a gambler given to strong liquors, and tottering on the verge of bankruptcy; a haunter of Continental gambling-houses; a man without position, without character. The terrible truth suddenly dawned on her by means of some correspondence which she discovered accidentally, and it was confirmed by the habits of her husband. Here, then, was a miserable dilemma. The poor little goose’s golden egg turned out to be addled; she had not even the consolation which wealth sometimes gives to the unhappy. It was hard, very hard. She had never cared for the man, and she had sold herself to him as a matter of pure business. She had been infinitely better off when, as plain Letitia Ludlow, she had been the favoured instructress of the infants Boissy.
On the discovery of her mistake, the little lady was like a tiger in the toils. She stormed, she wept, she wrung her poor little hands; in the recesses of her own chamber she formed a thousand desperate resolves. I fairly believe that, in her first fit of anger, she could have stabbed my lord to the heart. Was he not a brute, a black-leg? Was it not shameful, cruel of him to cheat a poor little lady with her own marked cards? Was it not brutal and inhuman of him to have proposed marriage at all under the circumstances? Yes; a million times. But he should suffer for it. Oh, he should suffer for it!
How was it that the gossips of Paris had been ignorant of Lord Augustus’s true character, and of his outrageous poverty? The truth was, that in that locality his position was imperfectly understood. The scene of his operations was in far-away Germany; and only when he had money to spend did he rush into the gay dissipations of the French metropolis. There was a rumour, it is true, that he was not so well-to-do; but this rumour had not reached the select circle in which Madame Boissy lived, breathed, and made laws for Monsieur the journalist.
Truly, my lady had some reason to believe herself injured; but it is to be remembered that she was simply the victim of her own manœuvring. Somehow or other her thoughts on the subject of the discovery were random and highly virtuous. Looking into the mirror of her young heart, she saw, or seemed to see, a guileless, confiding girl, pure as snow and impressible as clay, who had been beguiled and deceived by a villain. She altered the truth as to her own ambition, in order to soften the sting of the awakening. She would not own to herself that her conduct, in the first instance, had been very contemptible and wicked. She became 118 an injured woman. By constantly representing herself to her own mind in this light, she became dogged on the subject of her imaginary wrongs; and, after all, it was pleasanter to feel oneself an innocent victim than a duped adventuress.
Up to a certain point, my lord was all that could be expected. He was delighted with his young wife; and he flitted with her from place to place in a perfect glamour of pleasure. Three short months, however, served to exhaust his ready money and his devotion. He began to find that matrimony was a bore; that Lady Letitia had her faults. He was the sooner driven to this way of thinking, because my lady studiously made herself as disagreeable as possible. She had a way of flinging cutting things at him, which was far from pleasant; but matters came to a pretty pass when it was found that he had learned a knack of retaliating with cups and saucers. Neither man nor woman were overstocked with patience. Beauty behaved like a fury; the Beast did justice to his brutal nature. No kind angel could allay the dark waves of storm. Terrible scenes sometimes took place. My lord would come home late violently intoxicated, and would seek out Madame, and would taunt her bitterly; for even he—blind brute though he was—was sharp enough to guess that she had never cared a fig for him. Under abuse like this, my lady was very white and patient; but a nasty green light burned in her eyes, and seemed consuming her inwardly. Once he struck her a fierce blow with his open hand, and she sprang up, flushing with crimson blood, and lifted up a large sharp dinner-knife, and would have plunged it into the villain’s heart but for the opportune interference of Louis Carr.
This Louis Carr was a young man, born of French and English parents, and a year after the marriage he had been picked up by his friend Marlowe at Rome. The relations between the two men seemed intricate; they had speculations in common, and they depended a good deal upon one another. It was settled that Carr should take up his residence with my lord. My lord and lady and the new member of the household set out for Baden-Baden; and here there took place certain mysterious dealings which compelled them to leave in haste, after a not unpleasant sojourn of two months. Carr had considerable influence over Marlowe, and he did much to preserve decency in the household. For all this, my lady did not like him, though she instinctively sought to conceal her dislike from those penetrating eyes of his. Personally, Carr was tall, good-looking, with a dangerous expression in his eyes. Morally, he was wicked, daring, calculating. He was about twenty-eight years of age, and he had manners which recommended him to the favourable notice of the sex.
It was partly owing to the arrangements of Louis Carr that my lord and my lady did not separate. For a purpose of his own, he so managed matters that they continued to live together. He taught them to conceal their antipathy to each other, and to look upon him as a useful 119 mediator. When he had brought them to this pitch, he had them thoroughly in his power. He so worked upon the cowardice of the man and the pride of the woman, that the very cause of their degraded intercourse became the object of its continuance. He wove his subtle web about their lives, and prepared new poisons to be instilled slowly into the veins of both.
Strange to say, Lady Letitia’s daily annoyances did not impair the beauty which she had possessed previous to her marriage. She had no children. Her face, as if in mockery of her hidden grief, was as fair as ever. Every body admired, and many pitied, Lady Letitia Marlowe. The outer world, which never saw her out of temper, thought her an angel; and few would believe that her origin had been “low.” It was some consolation for the poor little lady to be thus admired. She drugged herself with the incense of flattery. She went to balls and parties; sang, danced, was gayest of the gay; and she hugged to her bosom the sorry comfort of being so lovely and so clever. It was pleasant to feel that the wife was admired, however much the husband might be despised; and it was another comfort to know that her husband, villain as he was, was nevertheless a lord. The drowning man clutches at a straw; and the Lady Letitia sought balm in trifles, and in the knowledge that Lord Augustus was envied far and wide on her account. Her silly pride was useful to her at this crisis of her life; it kept her pulses, her thoughts, pure. Much as she despised her husband, she was never once, up till a certain period, untrue to him, even in thought. She was not wholly degraded in her own estimation; for she had not lost the fine sense of womanly shame.
But hour by hour and day by day the poison of Louis Carr’s companionship was conveyed into her soul. By a thousand significant hints and gestures, Carr led her mind to reflect on what might have been, had she only been capable of a strong human love. She became fretful and irritable. He carefully managed to make her feel that he pitied her,— sympathised with her sorrow; and later on awoke in her bosom a wild dream of revenge on her husband. He fostered the delusion that she had been duped, ensnared; and he impressed her with a belief that to punish her betrayer and to consult her own pleasure would be pardonable. Then arose a wild impulse to sin, for the sake of sinning,—to do something which would utterly sever the bonds which bound her to her husband. This feeling, again, awoke a fresh train of emotions; and she began to ask herself if it were still possible for her to love, to sacrifice her young life on the terrible altar of Unfaith. Looking at this stage into the darkened mirror of her heart, she met the admiring eyes of Louis Carr,— and shuddered. She had disliked the man, but now she feared him. The bare possibility of yielding to his influence weakened her power to resist him. His image, unpleasant as it was, forced itself upon her in secret; it haunted her. She was like one bewitched by a serpent. Latterly, the mania to sin for sinning’s sake merged into a mad, fearful 120 impulse to fling herself into the arms of the man she feared most; and she was like one who, from long gazing on a dark, troublous torrent, is magnetically impelled to jump blindly into the rush of deadly waters.
A scene further in the drama, and then, secretly instigated by Louis Carr, my lord began to grow jealous. It was a vain, selfish jealousy, having no root in love; and it evinced itself, pettily and maliciously, in eavesdropping and contumely. In spite of himself, he was proud of his wife’s fine face, and he could not bear the thought of being laughed at. He employed Louis Carr as a spy on my lady; a fact of which she was soon indirectly informed by Carr himself. Monsieur the spy pretended to find his task a sad and uncongenial one; but in reality he was tearing the man and woman still more widely apart. Marlowe suspected every body but Carr; not because he had any doubt that Carr was a villain, but because he believed him to be a villain who was linked body and soul to himself (Marlowe), and whose mind was far too busily employed in money-making to trouble itself with an intrigue. Habitual intercourse had almost convinced my lord that Carr, though the enemy of all the rest of the world, was a “good sort of fellow,” and devoted to his master. In this he was of course mistaken. Carr was a bad sort of fellow, and possessed the most profound contempt for his lordship. He was bold and crafty; he had taken a fancy to the person of Lady Letitia, and he had no superfluous principles on the score of friendship to deter him from accomplishing his object. He had no fear of quarreling with his companion. Lord Augustus was almost bankrupt both in pocket and courage; and Louis Carr only waited a favourable opportunity of ending a not very advantageous connexion.
Lady Marlowe took a morbid delight in feeding her husband’s appetite for objects of suspicion; she rejoiced at his jealousy, and it gave her double advantage over him. She flirted with all and sundry in his very teeth. She deliberately sneered at him, and slighted him in all companies. Doubtless this was all very wicked; but you have long ago learned that Lady Letitia was not an angel. Throughout all her fantastic pranks, she had no deliberate intention of being false to her husband: her sole object was to mortify and annoy him. She would have stormed, and believed herself basely wronged, had any one hinted at the bare possibility of her unfaith. She relied implicitly on her own self-command and virtue; she leant for support too heavily on the brittle staff of personal or social pride. Poor fool! She was tottering dizzily on the brink of a precipice; she was playing with edged tools. It was not in nature that she should approach so near to sin and be entirely out of danger. Gradually she was losing self-respect, which is an impassable safeguard around virtue. Her interpretation of the vow she had made at the altar was not sufficiently refined; for she regarded herself as bound by a law too grossly physical. Love had not instructed her to perceive that the moral obligation, which is that physical law’s very essence, serves in its turn to 121 purify and spiritualise the fleshly passion out of which it is slowly and laboriously born.
When the iron was at last hot, Louis Carr made passionate advances. At first he assumed an air of distant idolatry; but gradually he drew nearer and nearer to the woman’s heart, and stretched out his arms towards her in silence. Her hot face showed that she felt his power and knew his designs; and a wild, threatening look arose in the little lady’s eyes. But the mesh was too safely enwoven round about her; she had lost almost the power to resist. Intimacy and daily habit had gradually conquered her dislike for Carr; and the fact that he was her protector against my lord’s wilder fits of brutality made her feel under unwilling obligations to him. Desperate with the empty loveless void in her yearning heart, she began wildly to ask herself whether this man had awakened in her a passion akin to love. His bold, daring disposition dazzled her now. He was not much older than herself, and a man of spirit; and she could not help looking up to him, in her mad moods, as to something braver and stronger than herself. At this stage Carr feigned entire devotion, threw over his attitude towards her the spirit of a romance almost chivalric, and pierced the depths of her soul with the first dazzling gleams of wild, dissatisfied unrest.
Then, on a day when the Beast had been unusually brutal to Beauty, and when the woman’s blood was burning with rage and indignation, Louis Carr made an avowal of love. He spoke wildly and passionately, with the ardour of a lover, with the courage of a hero. His eyes spoke worship, his voice faltered, his fine frame shook with ill-suppressed emotion. She heard him for some minutes in silence; then she turned round on him like a tiger, and spurned him from her, and heaped on his head all the bitterness she felt for my lord. To assume the air of a martyr was an easy task to such an admirable actor as Carr. Sadly and patiently he bent his proud head beneath the storm, till Beauty almost pitied him. Then he crept from her presence, as if rebuked and heart-broken; but well aware that Beauty was more and more immeshed in the toils. In this terrible hour of trial Lady Letitia had no refuge. She was far too proud to let her husband know the truth; she would have died sooner. She had no friendly bosom into which to pour her troubles; she had no true friend of her own sex, no kind adviser. Poor little lady! what was she to do? Alas, she still retained a foolish notion that she was strong enough to resist the Tempter. In her blind folly she thought of encouraging Carr, up to a certain point, in order to make my lord mad and miserable. She had no fear that she herself would yield to the spell, and be lost utterly. But her mind was a chaos; her heart was a tempest. The solid ground of pride was crumbling underneath her. In this fierce agony she invoked a demon, who promised her rest from her weariness, and a full draught of the waters of Lethe—OPIUM. By slow degrees the demon made her his slave. She became bound to him body and soul. By turns he delighted and tormented her. To him she 122 flew for refuge from the storms breaking over her head, and he gave her forgetfulness. She dwelt in a dream. Now the dream was sweet and beautiful,—a land of perfumed flowers. Now it was dark and deadly,— nightshade, nightshade. But through the flowers and the poisonous plants alike she saw a slimy serpent, dragging its loathsome length along; and it drew nearer and nearer to her, and it had the cruel, fascinating eyes of Louis Carr.
Again and again he besought her, and gradually she was yielding to his prayer. Hour by hour, day by day, he poisoned her mind and heart, and half made her believe that shame such as he besought her to incur would be a just retribution on the head of the man who had made her young life miserable. And her demon whispered in her ear that it was useless to resist the serpent any longer. It was Fate.
Throughout all these trials and temptations the Lady Letitia changed but little to outward seeming. In the eyes of the world she was still gay, blooming, bold, volatile,—a beautiful, daring woman, with a sharp little heel to set on the head of the adder Care. She danced, flirted, rode, sang, played, and was one of the most bewitching of Continental sirens. She was neither happy nor good; but she possessed that ebullient outward gaiety which is so often mistaken for innocence and happiness. As yet her demon did not clutch at the bloom on her cheeks; but he put a stranger beauty into her eyes, and infused a warmer eloquence into her speech.
Thus matters rolled on for three years. Then came the climax.
They—that is to say, my lord, my lady, and Louis Carr—were residing at an hotel in Berne. They had come from Germany; where Carr, in a mysterious manner, had accumulated a considerable sum of money. Lord Augustus was very much depressed. His funds had sunk very low, and he was under heavy obligations. He scowled and swore at his wife, as if she were to blame for his bad fortune.
“I tell you what it is, Carr,” said my lord one evening, as the two men sat alone together, “you must lend me some more money.”
“Must I?” asked Carr sardonically, smoking his cigar.
“I know you’re flush; for you must have done something handsome by that Italian. Come, how much are you going to lend, on the old security?”
My lord opened his eyes, and gave vent to a very audible oath, expressive of surprise.
“What do you mean? Are you mad, Carr? Come, I say, I’m dashed if I understand this sort of thing. You’re chaffing.”
“No, I’m not. I mean what I say. You already owe me two thousand pounds, which is a pretty considerable debt for a man who has not a rag of property to stand on. If I went on lending you money at this rate, I should soon he ruined,—a state of matters which I am not at all anxious to bring about just yet.”
123 “Dash you, you villain! haven’t I been the making of you?”
“Don’t talk like a fool. You have no more pluck than a cur; and you would have gone to the dogs long ago if it hadn’t been for me. But we won’t discuss the point. I’ve told you what I mean; and you know well enough that I’m not the man to break my word.”
“But, I say, Carr, what the dash am I to do?”
Carr shrugged his shoulders, and smiled in contemptuous pity.
Continued my lord, “Then you mean to say that it’s your deliberate intention to split partnership?”
“Precisely so. I can get along much better without you. So just hand me over my two thousand pounds, and we’ll part company.”
“A good idea! I say, Carr, you’ve been drinking. There, dash you! go and sleep it off, and come back when you’re willing to let me have another thousand pounds.”
“Don’t deceive yourself, Marlowe. I’m in earnest. Stop! I won’t lend you the money, for I know you’d never willingly repay me. But I tell you what I’ll do, if you really need the capital,—I’ll buy your wife!”
“Dash you, you villain!” cried my lord, starting up white with fury; “how dare you insult me in this manner? But there, there, I see you are only laughing at me. Buy my lady indeed!—ha! ha! ha! And devilish glad I should be to get rid of her.”
“The two thousand you already owe me,” continued Carr, quite coolly, “and another loan of one thousand, would make three thousand pounds,—a fair price for a high-mettled wench like Letitia. You hate her, and she hates you; you will be well rid of one another. Say it’s a bargain, Marlowe, and I’ll give you a receipt in full this very night.”
My lord doubted his ears, doubted his eyes, doubted all his senses. Bad as he was, he was proud, and his blood boiled at the insult; yet he had not courage to take summary vengeance on the author of a proposal so infamous.
“Leave the room, sir; leave the room,” he cried, nearly choking; “and come back to me when you’re ready to apologise for your dashed insolence.”
Carr laughed, sneeringly at first; then he burst out into a loud guffaw.
“I was sure of it!” he cried. “I always said that you had a lingering, maudlin fondness for her, in spite of your bully and brag. Oho! When I tell her this, Marlowe, she will never believe me. She believes you hate her as much as she hates and despises you, and thinks you’d sell her to Old Harry himself for a five-pound note.”
A couple of coarse ruffians these; but Carr could be a gentleman when it suited his turn, and when he was moving in society capable of appreciating refinement. Their conversation continued for some time in the same elegant train; and again Lord Augustus was hoodwinked as to Carr’s real intentions, and was rendered trebly bitter against my lady. They patched up the quarrel somehow; but Louis Carr insisted on 124 having time to deliberate before he advanced another farthing. To tell the truth, he had not the slightest intention of advancing a single penny. For a year past he had been diligently plotting the ruin of his companion, and that ruin was now fast approaching. To torture before slaying his victim was only one of those pastimes in which men of Louis Carr’s temperament delight. The possession of Lady Letitia now seemed absolute certainty; and he was only waiting for the day when he might successfully carry off his ill-earned prize.
A few days passed, during which my lord confined himself almost entirely to his own apartment. He was out of temper with himself, with Carr, with all the world. In the mean time he received communications which showed that his position was growing more and more embarrassed. His creditors had first grown suspicious, then insolent, then clamorous. He made up his mind to fly; but he lacked courage to carry his purpose into execution. He had hopes that Carr would advance the thousand pounds; and, armed with that sum, he had hopes of recovering his social balance.
But while Lord Augustus was fretting and fuming, Carr was urging my lady to the final sin. On the evening of the fifth day they took tea together in one of the large rooms of the hotel. They talked long and earnestly, Carr driving the woman to desperation. At last, worn out with fear and annoyance, the poor little lady yielded. She consented to fly with him. An hour afterwards, my lord summoned Carr to his presence, and again pressed him for money. Carr firmly refused to make the desired advance. The two men parted in wrath; and my lord was left to the consciousness of utter misery and ruin. Carr returned to my lady, cold, cruel, and triumphant.
Left alone to his mad thoughts, Lord Augustus rang the bell and ordered brandy. In an hour he was intoxicated to that extent when a man has most of his senses about him, but when all his worst passions seem to develop themselves instantaneously. At this stage, when he felt quarrelsome, he bethought him of pouring his bitter spleen on the head of my lady. It seemed to his poor comprehension that she was partly the cause of his ruin, and he was disposed to pick a quarrel with her on the head of his own antipathy. Down to the great room stamped my lord, and entered suddenly, unannounced. Diable! what a picture met his lordship’s gaze. My lady and Louis Carr were seated side by side upon the sofa, and my lady’s face was white as snow, and the arm of the villain was wound warmly around my lady’s waist. Both sprang up at once, my lady blushing crimson. For a moment his lordship was stunned with surprise. Then he recovered himself, rushed over to his wife, and struck her a violent blow, for the second and last time in his wicked life. Carr hurled him back fiercely, and stooped to raise Letitia, who had fallen insensible to the ground. With a savage look, and a muttered threat of vengeance, his lordship rushed back to his own apartment. Shutting the door hurriedly, with the room spinning around him, he fixed 125 on a desperate resolve,—not for the first time since he had become aware of his ruin.
“The game is over; dash it, I’ll die like a man;” and he rang the bell for coffee.
The coffee was brought, and found him still wild with rage and drink. Strangely fearful lest in his last agony he should lose courage and summon assistance in time to save his miserable life, he cut away the bell-rope. The chamber was a large, old-fashioned one, with great iron-sashed windows, which, when opened, had to be supported by thin iron bars made for the purpose. In an inner chamber was the bed in which he slept. His lordship took from a small medicine-chest a package containing a gritty white powder, which he poured into his cup of coffee.
“Now for my revenge,” he muttered. “Ha! ha! my lady, this night’s work will put a stop to all your pranks.”
Looking up hastily, he met the wild, gleaming eyes of his wife. Her face was quite white, and the blood was oozing from a small cut in her forehead. She did not quail at his expression, and she could not guess his purpose.
“I’ve followed you here,” she murmured hotly, “to tell you how much I hate and despise you. You coward, you! I could kill you! I could kill you!”
His lordship sneered; and then, in the very face of her, he drank off the poisoned cup of coffee. It was not very pleasant to the palate; but he made no grimace of dislike. He leered at my lady with horrid malice, not attempting to approach her.
“I hate you! I scorn you! You have broken my heart, and made my life miserable. You are as bad as a murderer; you have murdered my soul. Think you I have one grain of liking for yonder Louis Carr, save because I know he is your enemy, and because, by his means, I can cause you shame and torture?”
“Dash you, my woman, you’d better mind what you are saying. I’m in no humour to be humbugged.”
“I am not afraid of you, you villain. I defy you!” cried my lady; and with a fierce look she swept away to her own chamber. She flung herself upon the bed, and gave vent to bitter tears; she smote her fair forehead with her clenched hands, and sobbed and moaned. Then she started up fiercely; for Louis Carr was standing by her bedside, watching her. “Go away!” she cried.
But with a tender, pitying expression he flung his arms about her, pressed her to his bosom, and kissed her on the cheek. Shame tingled through every vein, and she tore herself from his embrace.
“Away! you are to blame for this misery—you are to blame. You are as contemptible as he is, and I hate you both. If you touch me again, I will murder you.”
“Do not talk to me, I say; I shall go mad. This is no place for you.”
126 “Letitia, my heart bleeds for you, and I would save you from future torment. Let me take you in my arms, and carry you far away out of that villain’s reach.”
“Not until you promise to be mine. I love you twenty-fold for your sorrow,—so beautiful, so good, so unhappy!”
“Go away; I will speak with you to-morrow.”
Before she was aware, he had again drawn her to his heart, and kissed her passionately. Her blood ran cold at his touch. Then he left the room, and went below.
Now it so happened that Carr had had more than one reason for bringing his connexion with my lord to a crisis; but that one reason was special. He had heard, privately and on indisputable authority, that an information was out against him for complicity in divers frauds at the gaming-table. His lordship was also involved. Their hiding-place would soon be detected, and an arrest would speedily follow. So he had determined on immediate flight to England; and his departure was delayed only by the hope that my lady would accompany him. He would live in privacy, and under an assumed name, until the affair had blown over; but his lordship should be left, unwarned, to his fate.
My lady’s apartment was not far from that of my lord, and there were no other rooms intervening. Later in the night Lady Letitia heard a loud groan from my lord’s room, and a cry as of some one in agony, and then a sound like the falling of some heavy body. She listened again, and the groan was repeated. White as death, she sprang from the bed on which she had been lying undressed, and, seizing a lamp, moved hurriedly in the direction of the noise; the door of my lord’s chamber was unlocked, and she entered noiselessly. All was silent. Nobody was in the outer room; but the lamp was lit, and on the table were writing-materials, and a folded sheet of note-paper. As if by instinct, forgetful for the moment of her situation, she seized the paper, and read:
“I am dying. I have been poisoned by my wife!
There was a movement behind her; and there, between her and the door by which she had entered, stood her husband, white as death, and foaming at the mouth. With a cry of fear, she dropped the paper, and moved towards the window.
“Water! water!” moaned my lord.
But she shrank away in horror and fear. Whether to beg her aid or to attack her person, I know not, but he made a fierce spring towards her, and fell at her feet, clutching the skirts of her dress. With a slight scream, she lifted up the heavy window to call for aid; but her hand trembled, and the weight was too much for her strength. My lord rolled over in agony, still clutching her robe, and the heavy window fell 127 loudly, crushing the left hand underneath its iron weight. Stupefied with mingled pain and fear, she became insensible.
When she recovered consciousness she was lying in her own bed, and there was a great hubbub of distant voices. She felt languid and weak, and fell back into a dream. Some days passed thus. Then she recovered, and knew all.
Her hand had been amputated during her insensibility, and was a bandaged stump at the wrist. On the bed before her was a letter addressed to herself, which she opened and read.
“MY DEAR MADAME,—An unfortunate affair, in which Lord Augustus was concerned, has driven me from your side. The morning after my lord’s death an attempt was made to arrest me; but I eluded the pursuit. I am now in hiding; but we shall meet again.—Your faithful
Heaven be praised! she was free at least from his importunities—free for a time. But on what a horrible picture had her eyes opened!—her husband dead; she herself crippled. It was like a wild vision.
Why delay longer over this crisis in the Lady Letitia’s life? The authorities decided that Lord Augustus Marlowe had committed suicide; but the matter was hushed up, and he received a decent burying. A short time after the funeral his widow—whose heart was appalled, because she blamed herself, justly or unjustly, as the cause of the suicide—was living a quiet life in one of the sunny cities of far-off Italy.
THE LAST OF THE HAND AND THE LADY.
A GRIM smile played upon the features of Mr. Montague Vernon as he stood in the Lady Letitia’s drawing-room, holding the knife which pinioned the gloved lilliput hand. There was silence. The man kept his eyes steadily fixed upon those of the lady. She seemed to shrink away from him in terror; but no physical pain was expressed in her pale, beautiful face. With an expression, half of fear, half of defiant hatred, she examined the features of the man before her. Recognition slowly dawned upon her. There came from the clenched teeth the name, in tones like the hiss of a serpent:
The gentleman bowed low. He then raised his head, and quietly released the lady’s hand. She drew it quickly towards her, and hid it in the folds of her dress. Carr closed his knife, and put it into his pocket.
“Neatly managed, that, dear Lady Letitia. I was afraid that your ladyship had forgotten me.”
“Let us have as few words as possible,” said the lady, still speaking in that low, suppressed voice. “You are loathsome to my eyes; for you bring with you memories of evil days. I know your object in thus attempting to appal me.”
128 “Humph,” murmured Louis Carr dubiously.
“You want money?”
My lady had satisfied herself in a moment that the object of the visit was simply to extort money. Finding herself mistaken, she was quite at a loss to understand the man. Could it be possible that he really meant to prefer that dreadful charge against her? At length Carr spoke.
“This is not the first time that your ladyship has done me an injustice. I have come to ask your hand in marriage.”
He spoke with the emphasis of one who was asking what he might easily command.
“My hand in marriage, man!” cried the lady passionately. “Are you mad? Will you never understand that I hate you, loathe you, with all the strength of my woman’s nature.”
“I know it; I have always known it,” he said quietly.
“Then why come here, heaping outrage on outrage, with the vainest of all errands?”
“Because I knew that my errand would not be vain. Letitia Ludlow, beware. You forget that I have the means wherewith to compel your compliance.”
Mr. Carr had hitherto been standing; now he took a chair, playfully twirling a small piece of note-paper between the fingers of his right hand.
“I am perfectly aware that your ladyship unfortunately entertains feelings of a disagreeable nature towards your slave. Do not imagine that, at this stage, I feel towards you any other sentiment than that of self-interest. You will be useful to me in my private speculations, and I ask you to become my wife.”
“And you have had my answer—Go!”
She pointed to the door as she spoke; but he only burst into a loud laugh. Then his manner suddenly changed from sarcasm to fierceness and passion.
“I have not done with you yet, Lady Letitia Marlowe. Your husband was poisoned with arsenic, and the poison was given to him in coffee. I have the means of proving that you threatened him; that you had access to his private medicine- chest; that you were in his room previous to his partaking of the coffee; that—”
“Villain!” screamed my lady, “you know that I am innocent.”
“That is between ourselves. It suits my purpose to put your innocence to the proof. Look here!”
Carr opened out the paper in his hand, and read from it the malicious words written by Marlowe previous to his death. The lady glanced at it for a moment, and then sank back in her chair.
“Hundreds are able to swear to this signature. Now, observe. When I, who was first to ascertain all, released that white little hand from its 129 captor, carried you to your own room, and alarmed the house, I found this bit of paper, and carefully concealed it on my person. It is not too late to use it. Will you consent to my proposition?”
“No!” cried the little lady fiercely.
“Is this your final answer?” he asked.
“It is,” was the firm response.
“Bien! I must call upon Monsieur the Justice.”
The lady rose to her feet, crying,
“Fool! I would die a hundred deaths rather than suffer your polluted touch. Bring this false, unholy charge against me, if you will. I know my danger. But do you know yours? Bring me to the hall of justice, and I will bring you to the scaffold.”
“By swearing that you were my accomplice and instigator.”
Carr started. This was a proposition which he had not anticipated. My lady saw her advantage.
“But I know you too well,” she continued, “to fear that you will trouble justice more than you can help. Should I fail in having you hung as the poisoner of Lord Marlowe, I have in my escritoire papers which would procure your conviction as a forger and gambler, and condemn you to the galleys.”
Carr was checkmated. He had had no intention of voluntarily confronting justice. He had fancied the simple threat would be sufficient. He would compromise the matter at once; and in attempting to do so he was deterred by no sense of shame.
“Well, I’m not disposed to be malignant,” he said. “Let us settle the matter amicably between ourselves. Give me a couple of thousand pounds, and those documents which were in Marlowe’s possession.”
“No; I will give you one thousand pounds, to get you out of the way, on your handing me that note.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Then take your own course.”
“Be assured that I shall do so.”
He lifted up his hat, and walked to the door. He touched the handle. He turned.
“Are you determined?” he asked.
“You know I am.”
“Give me the money, then,” said Carr, biting his thin nether lip.
My lady opened the lid of her desk, and took out a cheque-book. She wrote the order. She handed it to Carr; at the same moment receiving her husband’s last note.
Carr now seemed fully satisfied, and became quite sprightly.
“I have the honour to wish your ladyship good evening,” he said merrily, as he left the room.
Lady Letitia drew a long sigh of relief. She lit the paper at the fire, and held it between her fingers till it had burnt within an inch of them. 130 She dropped it into the blazing fire, and watched it turn into ashes. Then she drew forth the lilliput hand, looked at it with a strange smile, and then wrapped her muslin handkerchief around it.
Meanwhile M. Louis Carr walked with a jaunty air into the hall, gave a douceur to the servant who opened the door for him, and passed out into the night. He had only gone a very few steps when two men of strange features and garb seized him in the pleasantest way possible. He was handcuffed in a minute, and put into a cab. That very night he was on his way to Germany. Shortly after, Lady Letitia ascertained from one of the French papers that a man named Carr, who had distinguished himself by numerous gambling exploits, had been sentenced to the galleys.
The little lady had gained a complete victory; but in fighting out the battle she had been compelled to turn her eyes inward, and she saw within her heart a record of shame and sin such as made her cup still more bitter. That night she retired early, but not to sleep. Her brain was in a tumult, and her heart was burning. Vansittart, her lover, was to visit her the next day; and it was on his account that she was struggling with herself. She must renounce him. With the sins of the past upon her head, she was unworthy to become his wife. He was too pure, too noble, for companionship like hers. She loved him far too dearly to make his young life miserable.
The excitement of that terrible interview served at least one purpose. It partly freed her from the torturing stings of conscience. The worst had come to the worst, and she had done her duty by the memory of her husband—bad though he was—by spurning the advances of his enemy. Now, more than ever before, she longed for love, for sympathy,—such sympathy and love as Vansittart could give, did he continue to love her after she had told him all. But that was impossible. When apprised of her wicked weakness, he would cast her off like a tattered garment, and turn his face from her for evermore.
Vansittart came, and was ushered into Lady Letitia’s presence. He would have rushed forward and clasped her to his heart; but she coldly waved him back.
“Hush! this must not be,” she said. “We two must part for ever.”
“Yes; I can never be your wife.”
He started back. She was quite cold and pale, but her lips quivered convulsively. Their eyes met; and both man and woman trembled—the woman with shame of what she had to tell; the man with fear of something horrible to come.
“Letitia, I beg you to speak; you say you cannot be my wife. Explain.”
“I am unworthy. I said so once before; but now I speak more strongly, because I feel my own unworthiness more bitterly. Go, Vansittart; some purer, better woman may win your heart; though, Heaven knows, no woman can love you more deeply than I have done.”
“Do you ask for an explanation?”
“You shall have one. Edward, look here!”
And she drew her left hand from her bosom as she spoke, and freed it from the folds of the muslin kerchief; when Vansittart saw an exquisitely formed false Hand, of some hard substance, covered by a white-kid glove. The blow of the knife had split the Hand in twain, and only the fingers of the glove kept it together.
He gave a cry of wonder, and gazed inquiringly at the lady. She was looking at the hand, with a sad and quiet smile.
“An artist made me this in Florence. It cost me a large sum of money. You see an accident has deprived me of one of my principal attractions. Is it not a pretty piece of workmanship?”
She spoke with affected carelessness; but her whole body was in a tremble.
“What does this mean?” cried Vansittart wildly.
She waved him to a seat.
“Listen,” she said, “and I will tell you all.”
And she thereupon told to her lover, without sparing herself, the whole true Story of the Lilliput Hand.
“And now, Mr. Vansittart, I must say farewell. In a few days I shall quit England, leaving my secret in the hands of a gentleman who is too good and honourable to cause an exposure which would kill me.”
In spite of herself the soft tears forced themselves from under her eyelids, and rained over her beautiful face. In a fit of inspiration Vansittart flung doubt, scandal, the world, to the winds, and (for the second time) threw himself at the Lady Letitia’s feet.
“Hear me, Letitia. This parting must not be. The candour with which you have told me the whole truth proves your goodness and innocence. You are dearer to me now than ever. I love you, truly love you, for your past sorrow and for your confidence in him who will make your future life happy.”
He arose, and clasped her in his arms. She had no power to resist him then; and his great, noble love transformed her that day into a truer, better woman.
They were married.
“And, by Jove, sir,” said Vansittart many years afterwards to the writer hereof,—“by Jove, sir, a better, truer little lady could not be found in a year’s journey from Land’s End to John o’ Groats. Try that claret. She died a year after our marriage in giving birth to my eldest daughter. Poor little lady! Yes, that’s her portrait—a study for Chaucer’s Patient Griselda, that fine old story out of Boccaccio. It shows you what she was after marriage. Heaven rest her, for I loved her; and I keep the Lilliput Hand as a memento.”
R. W. B.
Next: A Roman Supper
or back to Fiction: Short Stories