Long Odds

Chapter XLVII

In the Balance

Marcus Clarke

HUSKINSON was right. He did not waste his breath in shouting. His people knew well what they had to do, and they did it. Potter raised his eyebrows when the great man told him that Dacre must be returned, but Piper simply bowed, and grinned acquiescence.

“I could have wished you had told us a little sooner, sir,” he said; but Potter-frowned him down, and ordered brown sherry.

“Mr. Dacre shall come in,” said he. “We were prepared for either course.”

“Quite so,” said Huskinson, and the matter was finished out of hand.

But poor old Saville Chatteris was quite ignorant of all this. He expected that his son would be returned without doubt, and was prepared to meet Mr. Rupert Dacre with friendly condolence, Cyril himself was not quite so sanguine. He knew, better than anyone perhaps, the real nature of the adversary who was so smilingly opposed to him; and, despite all his father’s assurances of victory, felt that the opposition wasn’t so “nominal” as he would have it. However, he put a brave face on the matter, and chatted hopefully enough as the rosetted horses bore him to the hustings. After all, what did it matter? The election was but a secondary thought with him.

As father and son drove rapidly through the crowded streets, the bystanders cheered and bowed. Saville accepted the incense with high-bred ease. Cyril smiled too, and graciously waved a benignant glove. Happy pair!

But on the heart of one of them lay a heavy remembrance—a remembrance of a dusky church, and a sudden outcoming into bright sunlight—a remembrance of a little villa and a brief week or so of happiness—and then of a silly girl, a vulgar mother-in-law, a hated wife— and a terrible time of agony, cowardice, fear, and love—that had ended in infamy and shame.

What was the future that lay before him? Here was respect, honour, triumph, affection, and esteem. The shouting crowd, the plunging horses; the noise and tumult; the hand-shakings; the congratulations; the flattery that met him on every side; these were fitting for the heir of Matcham. The dull lodging-house, the dreary companionship of an unloved woman, the toil, the poverty, and, above all, the ridicule, were past and gone. He would not think of it. No, all would be well, all would be bright and fair. Let him but once get free, and he would live honourably and virtuously, would forget the past, and, happy in Kate’s love, would make the future yield him the peace that he had missed. Mr. Rupert Dacre was hopeful also, but his calm face showed nothing. Saville Chatteris bowed graciously. “They are sure to return one of you,” he said. “Of course,” said Rupert, with a smile; “but we can guess who that one will be,” and he glanced towards the door through which his friend had passed.

Saville looked after his son with admiring eyes. “Well, Dacre,” he said, “we are so well known down here, you know—”

“My dear sir,” returned the other, “it was only a precautionary measure. The Radicals were so strong.”

“I quite understand,” says Saville, loftily. “But I think that we have no need to fear. You will dine with me to-night?”

“I am afraid that I must go up to town. In fact, I have made preparations to leave by the six o’clock train. Defeated candidates, you know, are always in the way.”

Saville bowed in a politely deprecatory manner, and went off to shake hands with the Dean.

Rupert went off to his own room smiling, and felt so elated, that, meeting his “private secretary” hurrying down the passage, he stopped him with some pleasant jest about his labours being now ended—and “’Pon my word, you look quite knocked up, Mr. Binns!” he added, as he noticed the boy’s red eyes and haggard face; and then Huskinson came up, and the two went off together.

The White Hart was divided against itself. That is to say, that one party was devoted to Mr. Dacre, and the other, to Mr. Chatteris. Both the candidates occupied the same committee-room, and Piper and Potter were in appearance the abject slaves of both, while Huskinson, flitting round about, seemed like a respectable guardian angel. But Mr. Rupert Dacre, living at the place, was the object of an attention which was denied to Cyril; and, on the other hand, the fact that Cyril was the son of the great Saville Chatteris of Matcham, invested him with an importance which Dacre could not achieve. Consequently, though landlord, landlady, waiters, and chambermaids, were all eminently conservative, there were waiters specially devoted to the Chatteris interest, and waiters specially devoted to the Dacre interest. During the last two days, a room of gloomy magnificence had been set apart for the lord of Matcham to take his temporary ease, and in that room Saville and Cyril were at present hidden from the gaze of the curious. As Binns passed the door, Cyril came out— there was a speech to be made, or something, and he was going away to make it.

“Can I speak to you, Mr. Chatteris?” asked Binns.

The young man started. Here was another witness against him. He had seen him in the lane, but had almost forgotten him.

“You!” he said—“What do you do here?”

“I came down about the election.”

“Oh!” returns Cyril, at once dismissing his suspicions. “About the election, eh? Well, what is it?”

Binns looked at the waiter in the Chatteris interest, who was prowling discreetly about the passage. “Can I speak with you alone?”

A sort of presentiment of evil came over the “heir of Matcham” as he noticed the set lines about his once despised rival’s mouth, and saw how quickly the plebeian, poetical, silly grocer’s lad had grown into a young man, earnest and determined, and self-possessed.

“What is it about?” he asked again, settling the hot-house flower in his coat, with an affectation of ease.

Binns leant forward, but the half-closed door was opened again, and Saville came out hastily. “Come, Cyril my boy, come—we must not keep these fellows waiting.”

Cyril stood a moment irresolute. What could the boy want with him? Saville looked a little wonderingly from one to the other. “Has this gentleman any pressing business?” he said.

“No—no!” says Cyril, nervously. “—I’ll see you again directly.” And in a few seconds Binns heard the crowd cheer as the pair came into view.

“When will he be back?” he said to the waiter in the Chatteris interest, who had been standing with his head on one side, like a meditative stork.

“Can’t say, sir—I’m sure, sir. Poll closes at four, sir. Any message, sir?”

“No,” says Binns, “no message”—and he went out.

He walked down the streets, away from the crowd that had gathered at the Town-hall. He could not decide on his course of action. Through the long night he had tried in vain to think out what he meant to do. Dacre had basely taken advantage of his friend’s confidence, had profited by his opportunities to instil suspicion into the mind of his friend’s wife, was this very evening to meet that wife in her husband’s absence. Yet, perhaps, it was a harmless meeting. Dacre might have told him the truth, and he might be the chosen confidant of the marriage. But, then, the wording of that fatal note. “I shall be alone.” Alone. Oh! there was little room for doubt. Dacre had lied to him, and had betrayed Cyril. And Cyril? Binns hated him. Hated him with increasing hatred. He knew now that the love he felt for Cyril’s wife was no idle passion. It might have passed away; indeed, at first, it was but the calf-love of a boy, smitten by the first pretty face, but it was more than that now. He understood how it had come to pass that he loved. It was the very fact that Carry loved another that made him love her so deeply. It was because he so hated the husband that he so loved the wife. His enforced absence had led him to invest the figure of Mrs. Manton’s daughter with all the graces his imagination could picture. Had he married her, he might have been disenchanted, as he had sometimes thought Cyril had been, but now—now his love, nourished, and fed, and fostered, had grown beyond his control. Carry might be false to her husband, false to all the world, but he should always love her. She was, for him, not a woman, but an ideal. It was for her sake that he worked, for her sake that he had read and written. “To make yourself worthy of her,” Bland had said. And now that she had fallen, had found out her husband’s baseness, or fickleness, or what not, and was about to bring shame upon herself—should he shrink from defending her? No. Though he hated Cyril with all the force that despised love and wounded vanity could lend him, he would not triumph in her dishonour. He would say to him—“The woman whom you cajoled from me by false promises and lying words, the woman, for whom you struck me and insulted me—loves you no more, she is about to fly with another man, with a man whom you think your friend—but I—I, Binns the grocer’s apprentice, the ‘cad,’ the despised and ridiculed—I have come to save her from shame and you from dishonour!” That would be a noble revenge! And she—she should never know who had rescued her from the fate which awaits all wives who break their vows; she should never know that the boy whom she had ridiculed and laughed at had saved her from a life of shame and infamy, had arrested her on the very brink of the gulf, and had placed her safe within her husband’s arms again. He would make the concealment of the part he proposed to play in the business the price of Cyril’s silence—if, indeed, any price were needed—for Cyril would be only too glad to hide from his wife the knowledge that another besides himself had discovered her intended sin. He would go to Cyril, then, and tell him of the baseness of his friend and the weakness of his wife. He would send him back to London, and all should be explained and atoned for between them. Binns did not doubt but that Cyril loved his wife, and that their estrangement was the result of some quarrel or misunderstanding—he had read of such in books—and he knew well that Carry loved her husband, and would rejoice to have him at her side again. He judged only from appearances, and did not dream that the young man, to him so well-bred, so courtly, and so refined, could have sunk so deep in infamy as to have plotted his own wife’s dishonour. No: he visited all the guilt upon Dacre’s head,—Dacre the smooth, the self-complacent, the lying, treacherous villain. He grew quite romantic over the thought of his revenge, it was so poetical, so delicate, so noble. And he hugged himself at the notion that he, the laggard in the race, the “outsider,” the nameless, obscure shop-boy, should hold all these strings in his hand, and be able to sway the destinies of the men who had sneered at him—as he willed. Who had sneered at him!—Yes. And as he walked, he began to think again.

At first—last night, in the dull silence of his shabby chamber, he had thought of a different course. He had half-proposed to himself to let matters go as fate would seem to sway them, and to leave Carry to her destiny; but the remembrance of his love, and of his promise, of her sweet eyes and soft voice, of all those happy days so far away, before she was a “lady” and he aught but a poor, ugly boy who loved her;—the remembrance of Bland, the honest-hearted, rugged expounder of the gospel of truth and honour;—the remembrance of all that “might have been,” had not the handsome face of the scapegrace son of Saville Chatteris appeared in the little Dym-street lodging-house, came upon him in the midst of his plans of vengeance, and made his dull plebeian eyes fill with tears, and his red, coarse, plebeian hands clench themselves involuntarily. As he had sat last night upon his truckle-bed in the poorly-furnished inn bedroom—barren, like all inn rooms, of aught that spoke of home or comfort—a vision had come up before him. A vision of himself, respected, honoured, admired perhaps, mixing daily in the society of men of talent and genius, recognised by them as one of that band of workers whom they were proud to lead;—a vision of himself an author, a poet, a politician, a man of the people, a leader of the people, a Name among men;—a vision of himself coming, going, moving among this brilliant crowd, cherishing the while in his own heart the knowledge that, close at hand, in some Home made radiant by love’s light, and adorned with all the nameless graces which the presence of a pure woman lends to the meanest cottage, there awaited him a loving heart, whose sweet counsels would cheer and guide him; a gentle breast, where his head alone might lay down its weight of care; a tender voice, whose pure accents would bid him hope on and despair not; and a soft hand, that in his dark hour of trial or weariness would be lifted one moment from his aching brow to point in simple confidence to Heaven.

This was the vision of what might have been, the vision of what could never be. Such pure happiness was not for him; he was not worthy of it. And then in its stead came another vision. Himself again,—poor, vulgar, debased; sinking day by day, and hour by hour, back into that slough of coarseness and ignorance from which he had striven to raise himself; losing, in the grinding misery of his daily cares, all aspirations, all hopes, all memories; becoming, like he had seen others, pure animals, eating and drinking, for to-morrow they die; and, far away, that fair figure he had seen before, happy in a luxurious home, rich in husband’s and children’s love, admired, and courted, and caressed. The thought made him clench those despised hands again. Why should she not be so? She was worthy of it. He could never hope to give her such a home. And yet why leave this happiness to another when he might destroy it with a blow? He could do it. He had but to be silent, and his enemy would be grovelling at his feet— dishonoured and disgraced, unloved and despised—as he had been. Why should he deny himself this revenge? It was fitting that Cyril should suffer. Perhaps even now he was triumphing.

There came a shouting and a beating of drums and crying. Binns shrank back into a lane to allow the troop of election rioters to pass. He had got into some tortuous lanes round about the Cathedral in his wandering, and a party of men wearing the blue riband badge of the Conservative interest pinned upon their coats, and flying from their hats, came up one of the lanes debouching upon the Cathedral square. They were on their way to the poll evidently. A man whom Binns knew as one of Piper’s most trusted agents was in the midst. A drum was beating and a fife was playing, while around the main body, leapt and ran, and reeled and staggered, a ragged, drunken crew swept up from the public-houses and taverns, and hanging like a tattered fringe upon this gay garment of electoral privilege. They were going up to vote for him, Binns thought. What could not money buy? His enemy would be victorious again; he would be the honoured and respected member for Kirkminster, and a ruler and judge over all those who, like poor grocers’ apprentices, were born to be oppressed, and ridiculed, and maltreated. All his desire for vengeance came back again. He would soon pull down the pride of this haughty aristocrat, who refused to listen to him, and took the good things of life so easily. He thrust his hand into his breast and felt the letter there. Here was the barbed arrow that would bring down this soaring falcon! He would not tell him! Let his dishonour overtake him, and let him be buried beneath it. He turned to go. But she ——? What would become of her?

He stopped, irresolute; and then—following in the train of the past procession, whose shoutings and trumpetings grew fainter in the distance—from under the lee of some old wooden-gabled houses, that masked the entrance to a poisonous, ill-paved court, staggered a hideous figure—a thing born of Night—a thing that lurks in dark corners, and hides itself from God’s sunlight in foetid cellars—a thing familiar with blows, and ready with curses—a terrible, ragged, drunken, despairing, obscene creature, in whom God’s part had long since been battered out, but who, nevertheless, reeled and staggered, and blinked with bleared eyes at the unwonted sunlight, and clutched tight some tattered fragment of a shawl with shaking hand, and crooned some butt-end of an indecent ballad with swollen, bruise-blackened lips; and was dirty, and half-naked, and drunk, and a Woman.

There was his answer! To this fate would his evil passion for revenge bring the pure, fair girl he loved. Oh! better to kill her than that. Away with his mean and despicable envy of another’s happiness! She loved Cyril;— well, he would give her back to him. He turned quickly, and walked towards the inn. The shoutings were redoubled, and he could see the crowd heaving round the Town-hall. It was late. The poll must be over; perhaps they were declaring it now. He would get speech with the new member, and would tell him that he must go up to London at once; must get there before Rupert Dacre could get there, and save his wife from the fate which awaited her. What a fate! He looked back, and saw the wretched figure going on across the flags of the Cathedral-close. The shadow of the huge towers seemed to swallow her up.

“God help her!” cried Binns.

Ay, God help her! Staggering, with some dim recollection of old days, perhaps, towards the porch, her slip-shod, down-trodden shoe had caught in some unevenness of the pavement, and she had fallen and struck her forehead heavily against the cruel iron of the fast-locked Cathedral gate.

Long Odds - Contents    |     Chapter XLVIII - Retribution

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