Long Odds

Chapter LI

The Other End of the Chain

Marcus Clarke

THE RECEIPT of Binns’ hurried letter had confirmed a suspicion which had long been shaping itself in the mind of Bland. That poor, good heart was sorely troubled. Amidst the smoke of his meerschaum he had dimly discerned a strange picture of impending evil; and he would ponder, in his lonely room by night, long and earnestly over all the doubts and fears with which the conduct of the brilliant contributor to the Mercury had inspired him. This concealment of marriage, this hiding away of a wife under a false name, was opposed to all Bland’s old-fashioned notions of truth and honour. Yet there were reasons—strong reasons—reasons rendered familiar by plays, and novels, and stories innumerable—reasons plausible enough—reasons difficult to dispute—the old, stale arguments anent family pride and family embarrassment. But the concealment had lasted long enough, and the echo of society’s rumour of Cyril’s “engagement” had reached even the ears of unfashionable and Bohemian Bland. He was unwilling to credit it. In his love for Binns he tried to put away such thoughts, and did not care to imagine even for a moment that any disgrace could come to the girl whom his friend’s heart delighted to honour.

He had gone—so artfully, poor fellow—to the Mantonian residence, and over many a “tea” had, through the intervals of many a rubber, obtained full and fair accounts of the marriage and the quarrel. He had given himself over, bound, into the hands of the Jittlebury and the Perkin, and with his grey hair wildly rumpled, and his teeth on edge with nervous irritation, would gravely beat time to the mangled melodies of those Sirens, and never, by a syllable, betray the torture he was suffering. He would hand round muffins with an elegance that astonished himself, would find himself relating anecdotes of such literary lions as it had been his fortune to meet with,—found himself even, one memorable evening, actually singing “Barbara Allen,” in a high-pitched voice, with a marvellous embellishment of quavers, and shakes, and trills, and sudden dashings at high notes, and consequent confusion and shame; would sit, with the tobacco-fiend gnawing at him for hours, and listen to long, rambling stories of the widow’s vanished youth, and would sternly repress the savage desire to rush away, tear off his old, ill-fitting gala coat, and, plunging into his ragged dressing-gown, smoke madly in all the unfettered freedom of bountiful Bohemia. He endured, with the patient tenderness that is the nobility of such mediocre hearts as his, all the clack and chatter, the ungrammatical gabble of sordid cares, and griefs, and joys; studiously ignored the widow’s slips of tongue, and pardoned with a smile the vanities and follies of all the mock gentility among which he found himself. He was as courteous to the Jittlebury as if she had been a duchess; and though his toil-wearied feet had never trodden the soft carpets that fit the perfumed chambers of the great, his bow to the blushing Perkin would not have disgraced St. James’s. For the sake of Binns—the enthusiastic boy who had chosen to call him “friend”—he bore his martyrdom without a murmur; happy if he could hear such news of the little girl who had so trustingly accepted his escort through the London streets, as would allay the fears of the poor boy who loved her.

It seems a small sacrifice, perhaps, to pass a few hours each evening away from books and thought and smoke. But these were all that made life endurable to the disappointed, wearied man, who had found the odds too great against him, and had gone down in the fight. With books and thought and smoke he could defy his memories, could banish all regrets of past failures, and smile at all vain dreams of future fame. But with the new affection that had arisen in a life barren of all save pity since his young wife died—had arisen the new delight of self-sacrifice, the sweetest and purest joy in all Love’s golden horn.

Bland, in the Mantonian domestic circle, presented a picture that was at once ludicrous and pitiful. His long, lean, angular figure, clad in well-brushed black of rigid respectability. His serviceable boots, pieced here and there, perhaps, but polished to reflective power. His double-breasted black cloth waistcoat, made after the fashion of a bygone age—when he was young, and spruce, and handsome, and hopeful. His serviceable thickness of silken watch-guard, which attached itself to the fat, old-fashioned, shining, silver watch, that ticked with a pert and obtrusive noisiness, heard distinctly at a distance of two feet from his person. His tall collars, uncomfortably respectable as his coat. His thin hands, that always looked painfully clean and dry. His finger nails, clipped into filbert shape, and adorned with a carefully scraped rim of purest white. His scraps of grizzled whisker. His new-scraped chin and long upper lip. His hollow, cavernous eyes, that sparkled with a dry humour and honest kindness, for all that was weak and helpless, and glittered sometimes with an enthusiasm that defied the crow’s-feet round them, and seemed in its genial heat to melt at once the gathered snows of his sixty winters. The little tricks and habits of the man. The knack he had of taking off his spectacles to laugh at a joke of the widow’s, and putting them on again upside down. His merry confusion when told of his mistake; and the unconscious way in which he did the same thing again ten minutes afterwards. His feeling about for his pipe when interested in conversation, and awaking blankly to the knowledge that he was in “ladies’ society;” his actually pulling out that implement of consolation bodily on one occasion, and cramming it back into the wrong pocket immediately, with profuse blushes. His harmless stories of harmless junketings and revellings which he related always with the qualifying remark to the virgin Jittlebury, that “I was younger then, you know.” His unassuming manner. His reverence for the great past masters in literature. His humble worship of the living great ones, who were still scoring their names upon the sand of popular fame. His rotundity of metaphor and Queen Anne stateliness of aphorism. His multifarious and marvellous knowledge of all that was quaint, and curious, and recondite, and useless. His outspoken detestation of all that was base and cowardly and cruel. His manly sympathy for all that was noble and honest, and his childish delight in all that was pure, and laughable, and innocent, and mirth-provoking. All these things, with a thousand other little touches of quaint goodness that cannot be painted in words, made up a picture that might have moved to laughter or compelled to tears. A picture which, as I strive to realise it, takes me back into that strange land, where the pathetic and the ridiculous go hand in hand—a land thrilling with tearful whispers, murmuring with tender laughter, and sighing with lost illusions; that land which we have all trodden in our childhood, which holds yet the mournful ghosts of our childish hopes, and fears, and faith; that happy, simple, twilight land, the memory of which, the turning of a sentence, the echo of a song, the perfume of a flower may bring back to us for a moment, but out of whose sweet shadow we have passed for ever.

Bland had succeeded in completely gaining the confidence of the widow. She—good, motherly, vulgar woman—had quickly discovered the true heart that was hidden by the shabby coat of the newspaper hack; and if her vulgarities grated occasionally upon the sensitive Bland, and each “h” that she dropped stuck into him like a pin and made him wince, he honoured her for her honest struggle with the world, and her love for her daughter. Out of the fullness of that love, and because she did not want to see her daughter made unhappy, the widow had respected Cyril’s commands, and had never visited Carry. With the exception of that night, so long ago now, when the poor child, terrified at her husband’s neglect, and haunted, perhaps, by some dim presentiment of coming evil, had sought the shelter of her mother’s arms, she had not even seen her. Rupert Dacre, having made good his footing in the St. John’s Wood villa, and learning from Carry that her mother had tacitly consented to be separated from her, had not repeated his visit to Dym-street, and all communication between the two places had ceased. Mrs. Manton, confident in the knowledge that the marriage had been legally performed, and that Cyril could not repudiate it, was quite innocent of suspicion of wrong. But the continued concealment began to alarm her, as it had alarmed Bland.

“At fust it was to be jest temporary—to gain time to h’explain, you see, Mr. Bland, but now it looks as if he was waitin’ for his father’s death. Don’t it?”

“It is not right. I cannot think it right,” said Bland; but he could advise no course of action. “That friend of Mr. Chatteris, too, I do not understand that he should be so often at the house. Robert and myself have seen him leave,—quite late.”

“Yes—but lor, that’s nothink! Besides, didn’t young Binns go to the office”—the widow spoke of all places of business indifferently as the “office”—“and find out that it was all right? Oh, I know my Carry!”

So things had gone on from day to day. Upon the receipt of Binns’s letter, however, Bland, as I have said, was sorely troubled. At last, after much smoke and cogitation, he resolved that he would inform the mother, of Binns’s suspicions and the rumours of an intended marriage between Cyril and his cousin, and would beg her to go and see her daughter herself.

The poor woman wanted but little urging. Hastily putting on her bonnet, and pinning her shawl with hands that trembled as much with anxiety as with anger, she took her way to her daughter’s house.

“I’ll soon get to the bottom of it!” she said. “I’ll soon find out what he’s been up to, the villain! My darling! Marry his cousin, indeed! I’ll cousin him!” and so on.

Bland felt himself awfully guilty when he saw the widow’s grief, and began to regret that he had told her. “Perhaps, it is not true after all. Robert only said that he suspected, you know, and rumour always exaggerates.”

“Poof!—True!—Ho ho!” laughed the widow in ghastly glee. “I don’t believe a word of it.”

But she did, for all that, Bland knew.

All that day his conscience smote him for his cruelty, and yet he had a lurking conviction that the warning was necessary. He hurried to Dym-street as quickly as possible that evening, calling there on his way home. Mrs. Manton had not yet returned. At his lodgings he found a letter.

DEAR MR. BLAND—Please come up at once. Things is much worse than we thought. Carry’s ill, and I’m all alone here excep the servant.
    Yours truly,

When he read this, he immediately imagined all sorts of horrors; blamed himself for not having wit enough to see the condition of things before, and so deeply was he agitated and moved to wrath against himself, that he struck himself several savage thumps upon the chest and took a fiendish pleasure in sitting exactly where the draught from the window of the omnibus that bore him to his destination would cut him most severely. When he reached the house it was eight o’clock. Mrs. Manton opened the door.

“It’s you, Mr. Bland!” she said. “Thank God you’ve come! He’ll be here in an hour.”

“Who?” asked Bland, alarmed.

“That villain Dacre. You must see him. She’s ill. They were killing her amongst them.”

“What do you mean?”

“Come in, and I’ll tell you!” said she. “Oh, I thought that you would never come!”

The widow had taken the villa by storm—rang violently at the bell—stopped the servant-maid’s mouth with a “Oh, stuff and rubbish, don’t talk to me!” and dashed into the little drawingroom like a wounded lioness. At the sound of her voice, there was a little scream, and then her daughter had flown down stairs, all crimson, and panting, and crying, and flung herself into her arms. A silly sight, doubtless; no grand phrases, nor pretty sentiments; only a poor, distracted, miserable girl, clinging round her vulgar mother’s neck, with sobs, and gasps, and kisses, and little pats and murmurs, and “Oh, Mother! Mother! It is you! My dear! My darling! Oh!—oh! Help me! Save me! Take me home! Oh, mother!”

By-and-bye the terrified woman got her up stairs, and soothed her a little, and drew the story out of her piecemeal. How her husband had neglected her and despised her. How Mr. Rupert Dacre came with his soft voice and protecting manner. How he flattered her vanity and made her think she loved him. “For I didn’t, mother, I didn’t!” she cried, in a sort of terror. How Cyril had gone, and how lonely she had been; and how Mr. Rupert Dacre had told her that it was for love of Kate Ffrench that her husband had left her alone so often. How she had gone to the theatre with him, and how Cyril had returned that night. That she had been nearly mad. That she used to drink laudanum in order to sleep. That she used to think of killing herself sometimes. That she would have told Cyril all, but that when she begged him to forbid the house to Dacre he had laughed, and told her that Dacre was his friend, and he wished her to know him; and, “oh, mother!” she said, “I thought then that he knew what had been passing in my mind, and that he wished to be rid of me. That he well knew what his friend would have me do, and that he gave him opportunities of seeing me in order that I might listen to him, and—”

“Why did you not come to me?” says Mrs. Manton, between her sobs of rage and grief.

“Oh, mother, I daren’t; and beside—beside, I began to think that I did love my husband’s friend, and that he loved me and would take care of me! Oh, mother, don’t shrink from me! It was wrong, it was wicked, I know; but oh, mother, it was so lonely, and I did so want to be loved by some one!”

She stopped a moment to sob at the recollection of her loneliness.

“My poor dear!” said the mother, and patted her hand caressingly.

Carry went on in a low voice.

“He came again the next night. I was very miserable. I thought that Cyril didn’t love me”—another sob—“and I had made up my mind to leave him. I told Mr. Dacre that I would go with him. He said that I must wait; that he had to go down to Kirkminster about his election. Cyril came in, and I saw that he knew, or had guessed at what had passed. He did not speak to me, and left me in the morning without a word. I then thought of coming home, mother, but I was afraid; and one day, when he had been gone a week or more, and I had heard nothing of him, I wrote to Mr. Dacre, and told him that I would wait for him to-night, and that if he came to fetch me I would go with him—”

“To-night!” cries the widow, alarmed.

“Yes, to-night. He is to be here at nine o’clock.”

“Oh, Carry!”

“Mother, dear mother, I would not have gone; indeed I would not. I was mad, I think, when I promised to go; worse than mad when I wrote that letter. But I would not have gone. I had made up my mind what to do.”

“What?” cries the poor woman, in a new terror.

“To—to—have died,” says the girl with a shudder. “To have died and forgotten it all. It’s there!” she cried, starting up— “there on the table behind you! Oh, throw it away! Take it, mother, darling, and throw it away!”

The widow turned round, and instinct divined the meaning of the broken sentence. The little bottle was standing in the same place where Cyril had seen it on the night when he had returned from Matcham. The mother snatched it and hid it in her bosom.

“Not that, my child, my darling!” she said—“not that—not that!”

And then the two fell into each other’s arms again.

Long Odds - Contents    |     Chapter LII - Heart Against Head

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