Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 16

A DISCOVERY.


One Saturday night, my husband happening to be out, an event of rare occurrence, Roger called; and as there were some things I had not been able to get during the day, I asked him to go with me to Tottenham Court Road. It was not far from the region where we lived, and I did a great part of my small shopping there. The early closing had, if I remember rightly, begun to show itself; anyhow, several of the shops were shut, and we walked a long way down the street, looking for some place likely to supply what I required.

"It was just here I came up with the girl and the brown jug," said Roger, as we reached the large dissenting chapel.

"That adventure seems to have taken a great hold of you, Roger," I said.

"She was so like Miss Clare!" he returned. "I can't get the one face clear of the other. When I met her at Lady Bernard's, the first thing I thought of was the brown jug."

"Were you as much pleased with her conversation as at our house?" I asked.

"Even more," he answered. "I found her ideas of art so wide, as well as just and accurate, that I was puzzled to think where she had had opportunity of developing them. I questioned her about it, and found she was in the habit of going, as often as she could spare time, to the National Gallery, where her custom was, she said, not to pass from picture to picture, but keep to one until it formed itself in her mind,--that is the expression she used, explaining herself to mean, until she seemed to know what the painter had set himself to do, and why this was and that was which she could not at first understand. Clearly, without ever having taken a pencil in her hand, she has educated herself to a keen perception of what is demanded of a true picture. Of course the root of it lies in her musical development.--There," he cried suddenly, as we came opposite a paved passage, "that is the place I saw her go down."

"Then you do think the girl with the beer-jug was Miss Clare, after all?"

"Not in the least. I told you I could not separate them in my mind."

"Well, I must say, it seems odd. A girl like that and Miss Clare! Why, as often as you speak of the one, you seem to think of the other."

"In fact," he returned, "I am, as I say, unable to dissociate them. But if you had seen the girl, you would not wonder. The likeness was absolutely complete."

"I believe you do consider them one and the same; and I am more than half inclined to think so myself, remembering what Judy said."

"Isn't it possible some one who knows Miss Clare may have seen this girl, and been misled by the likeness?"

"But where, then, does Miss Clare live? Nobody seems to know."

"You have never asked any one but Mrs. Morley."

"You have yourself, however, given me reason to think she avoids the subject. If she did live anywhere hereabout, she would have some cause to avoid it."

I had stopped to look down the passage.

"Suppose," said Roger, "some one were to come past now and see Mrs. Percivale, the wife of the celebrated painter, standing in Tottenham Court Road beside the swing-door of a corner public-house, talking to a young man."

"Yes; it might have given occasion for scandal," I said. "To avoid it, let us go down the court and see what it is like."

"It's not a fit place for you to go into."

"If it were in my father's parish, I should have known everybody in it."

"You haven't the slightest idea what you are saying."

"Come, anyhow, and let us see what the place is like," I insisted.

Without another word he gave me his arm, and down the court we went, past the flaring gin-shop, and into the gloom beyond. It was one of those places of which, while the general effect remains vivid in one's mind, the salient points are so few that it is difficult to say much by way of description. The houses had once been occupied by people in better circumstances than its present inhabitants; and indeed they looked all decent enough until, turning two right angles, we came upon another sort. They were still as large, and had plenty of windows; but, in the light of a single lamp at the corner, they looked very dirty and wretched and dreary. A little shop, with dried herrings and bull's-eyes in the window, was lighted by a tallow candle set in a ginger-beer bottle, with a card of "Kinahan's LL Whiskey" for a reflector.

"They can't have many customers to the extent of a bottle," said Roger. "But no doubt they have some privileges from the public-house at the corner for hanging up the card."

The houses had sunk areas, just wide enough for a stair, and the basements seemed full of tenants. There was a little wind blowing, so that the atmosphere was tolerable, notwithstanding a few stray leaves of cabbage, suggestive of others in a more objectionable condition not far off.

A confused noise of loud voices, calling and scolding, hitherto drowned by the tumult of the street, now reached our ears. The place took one turn more, and then the origin of it became apparent. At the farther end of the passage was another lamp, the light of which shone upon a group of men and women, in altercation, which had not yet come to blows. It might, including children, have numbered twenty, of which some seemed drunk, and all more or less excited. Roger turned to go back the moment he caught sight of them; but I felt inclined, I hardly knew why, to linger a little. Should any danger offer, it would be easy to gain the open thoroughfare.

"It's not at all a fit place for a lady," he said.

"Certainly not," I answered; "it hardly seems a fit place for human beings. These are human beings, though. Let us go through it."

He still hesitated; but as I went on, he could but follow me. I wanted to see what the attracting centre of the little crowd was; and that it must be occupied with some affair of more than ordinary interest, I judged from the fact that a good many superterrestrial spectators looked down from the windows at various elevations upon the disputants, whose voices now and then lulled for a moment only to break out in fresh objurgation and dispute.

Drawing a little nearer, a slight parting of the crowd revealed its core to us. It was a little woman, without bonnet or shawl, whose back was towards us. She turned from side to side, now talking to one, and now to another of the surrounding circle. At first I thought she was setting forth her grievances, in the hope of sympathy, or perhaps of justice; but I soon perceived that her motions were too calm for that. Sometimes the crowd would speak altogether, sometimes keep silent for a full minute while she went on talking. When she turned her face towards us, Roger and I turned ours, and stared at each other. The face was disfigured by a swollen eye, evidently from a blow; but clearly enough, if it was not Miss Clare, it was the young woman of the beer-jug. Neither of us spoke, but turned once more to watch the result of what seemed to have at length settled down into an almost amicable conference. After a few more grumbles and protestations, the group began to break up into twos and threes. These the young woman seemed to set herself to break up again. Here, however, an ill-looking fellow like a costermonger, with a broken nose, came up to us, and with a strong Irish accent and offensive manner, but still with a touch of Irish breeding, requested to know what our business was. Roger asked if the place wasn't a thoroughfare.

"Not for the likes o' you," he answered, "as comes pryin' after the likes of us. We manage our own affairs down here--we do. You'd better be off, my lady."

I have my doubts what sort of reply Roger might have returned if he had been alone, but he certainly spoke in a very conciliatory manner, which, however, the man did not seem to appreciate, for he called it blarney; but the young woman, catching sight of our little group, and supposing, I presume, that it also required dispersion, approached us. She had come within a yard of us, when suddenly her face brightened, and she exclaimed, in a tone of surprise,--

"Mrs. Percivale! You here?"

It was indeed Miss Clare. Without the least embarrassment, she held out her hand to me, but I am afraid I did not take it very cordially. Roger, however, behaved to her as if they stood in a drawing-room, and this brought me to a sense of propriety.

"I don't look very respectable, I fear," she said, putting her hand over her eye. "The fact is, I have had a blow, and it will look worse to-morrow. Were you coming to find me?"

I forget what lame answer either of us gave.

"Will you come in?" she said.

On the spur of the moment, I declined. For all my fine talk to Roger, I shrunk from the idea of entering one of those houses. I can only say, in excuse, that my whole mind was in a condition of bewilderment.

"Can I do any thing for you, then?" she asked, in a tone slightly marked with disappointment, I thought.

"Thank you, no," I answered, hardly knowing what my words were.

"Then good-night," she said, and, nodding kindly, turned, and entered one of the houses.

We also turned in silence, and walked out of the court.

"Why didn't you go with her?" said Roger, as soon as we were in the street.

"I'm sorry I didn't if you wanted to go, Roger; but"--

"I think you might have gone, seeing I was with you," he said.

"I don't think it would have been at all a proper thing to do, without knowing more about her," I answered, a little hurt. "You can't tell what sort of a place it may be."

"It's a good place, wherever she is, or I am much mistaken," he returned.

"You may be much mistaken, Roger."

"True. I have been mistaken more than once in my life. I am not mistaken this time, though."

"I presume you would have gone if I hadn't been with you?"

"Certainly, if she had asked me, which is not very likely."

"And you lay the disappointment of missing a glimpse into the sweet privacy of such a home to my charge?"

It was a spiteful speech; and Roger's silence made me feel it was, which, with the rather patronizing opinion I had of Roger, I found not a little galling. So I, too, kept silence, and nothing beyond a platitude had passed between us when I found myself at my own door, my shopping utterly forgotten, and something acid on my mind.

"Don't you mean to come in?" I said, for he held out his hand at the top of the stairs to bid me good-night. "My husband will be home soon, if he has not come already. You needn't be bored with my company--you can sit in the study."

"I think I had better not," he answered.

"I am very sorry, Roger, if I was rude to you," I said; "but how could you wish me to be hand-and-glove with a woman who visits people who she is well aware would not think of inviting her if they had a notion of her surroundings. That can't be right, I am certain. I protest I feel just as if I had been reading an ill-invented story,--an unnatural fiction. I cannot get these things together in my mind at all, do what I will."

"There must be some way of accounting for it," said Roger.

"No doubt," I returned; "but who knows what that way may be?"

"You may be wrong in supposing that the people at whose houses she visits know nothing about her habits."

"Is it at all likely they do, Roger? Do you think it is? I know at least that my cousin dispensed with her services as soon as she came to the knowledge of certain facts concerning these very points."

"Excuse me--certain rumors--very uncertain facts."

When you are cross, the slightest play upon words is an offence. I knocked at the door in dudgeon, then turned and said,--

"My cousin Judy, Mr. Roger"--

But here I paused, for I had nothing ready. Anger makes some people cleverer for the moment, but when I am angry I am always stupid. Roger finished the sentence for me.

--"Your cousin Judy is, you must allow, a very conventional woman," he said.

"She is very good-natured, anyhow. And what do you say to Lady Bernard?"

"She hasn't repudiated Miss Clare's acquaintance, so far as I know."

"But, answer me,--do you believe Lady Bernard would invite her to meet her friends if she knew all?"

"Depend upon it, Lady Bernard knows what she is about. People of her rank can afford to be unconventional."

This irritated me yet more, for it implied that I was influenced by the conventionality which both he and my husband despised; and Sarah opening the door that instant, I stepped in, without even saying good-night to him. Before she closed it, however, I heard my husband's voice, and ran out again to welcome him.

He and Roger had already met in the little front garden. They did not shake hands--they never did--they always met as if they had parted only an hour ago.

"What were you and my wife quarrelling about, Rodge?" I heard Percivale ask, and paused on the middle of the stair to hear his answer.

"How do you know we were quarrelling?" returned Roger gloomily.

"I heard you from the very end of the street," said my husband.

"That's not so far," said Roger; for indeed one house, with, I confess, a good space of garden on each side of it, and the end of another house, finished the street. But notwithstanding the shortness of the distance it stung me to the quick. Here had I been regarding, not even with contempt, only with disgust, the quarrel in which Miss Clare was mixed up; and half an hour after, my own voice was heard in dispute with my husband's brother from the end of the street in which we lived! I felt humiliated, and did not rush down the remaining half of the steps to implore my husband's protection against Roger's crossness.

"Too far to hear a wife and a brother, though," returned Percivale jocosely.

"Go on," said Roger; "pray go on. Let dogs delight comes next. I beg Mrs. Percivale's pardon. I will amend the quotation: 'Let dogs delight to worry'"--

"Cats," I exclaimed; and rushing down the steps, I kissed Roger before I kissed my husband.

"I meant--I mean--I was going to say lambs."

"Now, Roger, don't add to your vices flattery and"--

"And fibbing," he subjoined.

"I didn't say so."

"You only meant it."

"Don't begin again," interposed Percivale: "Come in, and refer the cause in dispute to me."

We did go in, and we did refer the matter to him. By the time we had between us told him the facts of the case, however, the point in dispute between us appeared to have grown hazy, the fact being that neither of us cared to say any thing more about it. Percivale insisted that there was no question before the court. At length Roger, turning from me to his brother, said,--

"It's not worth mentioning, Charley; but what led to our irreconcilable quarrel was this: I thought Wynnie might have accepted Miss Clare's invitation to walk in and pay her a visit; and Wynnie thought me, I suppose, too ready to sacrifice her dignity to the pleasure of seeing a little more of the object of our altercation. There!"

My husband turned to me and said,--

"Mrs. Percivale, do you accept this as a correct representation of your difference?"

"Well," I answered, hesitating--"yes, on the whole. All I object to is the word dignity."

"I retract it," cried Roger, "and accept any substitute you prefer."

"Let it stand," I returned. "It will do as well as a better. I only wish to say that it was not exactly my dignity"--

"No, no; your sense of propriety," said my husband; and then sat silent for a minute or two, pondering like a judge. At length he spoke:--

"Wife," he said, "you might have gone with your brother, I think; but I quite understand your disinclination. At the same time, a more generous judgment of Miss Clare might have prevented any difference of feeling in the matter."

"But," I said, greatly inclined to cry, "I only postponed my judgment concerning her."

And I only postponed my crying, for I was very much ashamed of myself.


George MacDonald