Mrs. Abington was in her chair

Mrs. Abington was in her chair.

[page 185 .

Mrs. Abington was in her chair. She had just been to see her friends at Bath-Easton, and was hoping that she would be in time for service at the Abbey. That was why she stopped Dick in the street. What did he think? would she be in time for the service? She would be quite content to accept Dick’s opinion on the subject.

Dick looked at his watch.

“Madam,” he said, after calculating a moment, “you will not be in time for the Confession, which seems rather a pity; but I promise you that you will be in good time for the Absolution, if you make haste, and that will be to your advantage.”

“Sir, you are a rude boor!” cried the lady very prettily.

“If so, madam, I am rude at my own expense,” said he. “My words implied a ‘Nunc Dimittis’.”

“Now that I come to think on’t, that is so,” said she. “But I am sure that you, being a man, must hold with me that the ideal Church is the one that grants absolution without insisting on confession.”

“I am a sound Churchman, Mrs. Abington,” said he; “I will not countenance the least suspicion of what is not orthodox.”

“Psha! sir, that is equivalent to a confession that you like your salads without vinegar,” said she—“your punch without lemon—your spice-cakes without spice—your charmer without a bit of Mother Eve.”

“Madam,” said he, “’tis now you who are orthodox—ay, up to the first chapter of Genesis; but for my part, I adore your sex, from Genesis until the Revelation comes.”

“The Revelation? Do you mean until the revealing of the woman or the Revelation of the Divine?”

“Mrs. Abington, I am orthodox: I cannot admit that there is any difference between the two.”

“You are a quibbler, I vow; but I would not hear your worst enemy accuse you of being orthodox.”

“You can silence such an aspersion, madam, by letting it be known that you extended your friendship to me.”

“More quibbling? I swear that ’tis a relief to have a simple chat with young Mr. Linley, after all this battledore and shuttlecock with you wits. Oh yes, Tom is a charming boy.”

“I am told that he can illustrate the progress of a passion from Genesis to the Revelation.”

“Ay, sir; but with the Apocryphal books left out.”

“You can hear passages from them read out in the Abbey.”

“He has made me wild to learn the violin. But, I fear, alas! that ’twill be too much for me.”

“Faith, Mrs. Abington, ’twill not be for want of strings to your bow,” cried Dick, dropping the tone of the man of fashion and assuming the good fellowship of the Irishman, even to his manner of raising his hat and bowing; he hoped that the hint would be taken by the Irish chairmen to lower the roof and resume their journey.

Mrs. Abington put up her hand to the roof.

“Tom is a charming boy,” she cried, smiling the enigmatical smile of Miss Prue. “Oh yes; ’twas you who said that his heart was buried in his violin.”

“I perceive that ’twas not a safe place of sepulture,” said Dick.

“You said the truth when you told me that his heart was there,” said she. “Yes, I can hear the poor thing wail to be released every time he draws his bow across the strings. You will come to see me at my lodgings, will you not, Mr. Sheridan?”

“I will wait until your heart is buried beside Tom’s within the frame of his fiddle; ’twere not safe else,” cried Dick. “Hasten to your Abbey, or you will miss even the Blessing.”

“Meantime, you will think out an epitaph to scratch into the varnish of the violin.”

“A simple Resurgam will do, for, by the Lord Harry, your heart will not rest long in one place, you beautiful creature!” cried Dick, standing with his hat in his hand while the roof of the chair was lowered on its hinges, and the chairmen went off with their fair burden.

Dick made up his mind that he would be in no haste to visit her at her lodgings. She had made him somewhat afraid of her two nights before, when she had lapsed into sincerity in the Assembly Rooms, and he had not yet come to regard her as free from any element of danger to his peace of mind. He felt, however, that he had accused her wrongfully of the butterfly quality of fickleness: nearly forty-eight hours had passed since she had thought it worth while to captivate Tom Linley, and yet it seemed that she was still faithful to him.

But why should she think it worth her while to captivate Tom Linley?

Dick thought out this question while walking to Mr. Long’s house, and before he pulled the bell he had come to the conclusion that Mrs. Abington was merely adapting to her own purposes the advice which Angelo, the fencing-master, was accustomed to give to his pupils. “Have a bout with the foils every day of your life, if only for ten minutes with your little brother in the nursery,” was the advice which Angelo gave to pupils when urging on them the need to keep in constant practice. Yes, Mrs. Abington must have heard him say that.

Tom Linley represented the young brother in the nursery. That was all very well, so long as the fencing was done with foils; but it would be an act of cruelty for an accomplished fencer to introduce rapiers into the nursery. He hoped that little brother Tom would come unscathed out of the encounter which represented to Mrs. Abington nothing more than a laudable desire to keep her hand in.

Dick found Mr. Long alone in his sitting-room. His left hand was rather more elaborately bandaged than it had been when Dick had seen it last. But Mr. Long assured him that the wounds were quite trifling—mere scratches, in fact, scarcely asking for the attention of a surgeon, although his valet had on his own responsibility called in an excellent young man, who could be trusted to do as little as possible to the wounds and so give them a chance of healing speedily, and who also could be trusted to hold his tongue in regard to the occurrence.

“I have been using the cudgel on my brains all the morning trying to invent some plausible excuse for carrying a bandaged hand for a day or two,” said Mr. Long; “but up to the present I cannot boast of the result. My dull ass will not mend his pace by beating. Can you come to my help in this matter, as you did in the matter that placed me in need of such a story? Come, Mr. Sheridan, you are a man of imagination and resource.”

“Alas, sir,” said Dick, “all that I can offer to do is to bear testimony to the truth of any inaccuracy you may find needful.”

“Whatever story we may invent, it will not be believed in Bath—so much is certain,” said Mr. Long.

“I begin to think that, after all, we might as well tell the truth,” said Dick.

“What! you think the case is so desperate as all that?” said Mr. Long.

“There is no better way of mystifying people than by telling the truth, especially when it sounds improbable,” said Dick.

“I give you my word, Mr. Sheridan, you seem to speak with the authority of one who had tried what you suggest. Perhaps you may, under the stress of circumstances, have been led into the tortuous paths of the truth. Well, I think that, on the whole, we had better brazen the matter out, and give all Bath a chance of disbelieving us. But if we do so, we must also be prepared with a story to account for our being on the road at so late an hour. Ah, you will find, Mr. Sheridan, that telling the truth necessitates a great deal of tergiversation.”

“I must confess, sir,” said Dick, “I could scarcely hope to be believed if I were to make the attempt to account for my midnight walk on the simple ground of the fineness of the night.”

“It would certainly be thought a very weak plea. Thank Heaven if I say that I supped at Mr. Lambton’s and thought it prudent to have a stroll afterwards, I will be believed—at any rate, by such as know that Mr. Lambton has a French cook.”

“Then I think it would be as well if we were to make an agreement not to mention my name in connection with the assault upon you; that will save the need for my thinking out a moderately plausible story to account for my presence on the scene.”

“What! you would have me face all Bath with the story of having beaten off three footpads single-handed? Oh no, Mr. Sheridan! Anything in reason I am quite willing to state, but I have still some respect left for our acquaintance in Bath, and I decline to lay such a trust in their credulity. Why, sir, Falstaff’s story of the knaves in Kendal Green would seem rational compared with mine! The wits would dub me Sir John the first day I appeared abroad after telling such a tale. And the lampooners—that pitiful tribe who fancy that possessing Pope’s scurrility is the same thing as possessing his genius—— Ah, I hear some of the doggerel—I could even make a quatrain or two myself on my own valour! Well, we shall not trouble ourselves further on this matter just now; we shall let our good friends take the first step. So soon as we hear what story they invent to account for my wounds, we shall know how much truth is needed; but we must economise our store. By the way, Mr. Sheridan, I wonder, if one of us had been killed last night, would Miss Linley be more distressed had it been you than if I had been the victim?”

The suddenness of Mr. Long’s remark produced upon Dick the same effect as his remark of the previous night had done—that remark which Dick had pondered over during his sleepless hours.

He had no reply ready for such a question as Mr. Long had suggested to him—unless, indeed, Mr. Long would accept his unreadiness as a reply—his unreadiness and the confused, downcast look on his face, of which he himself was painfully conscious.

Some time had passed before Dick recovered himself sufficiently to be able to glance at Mr. Long, and then the expression which Mr. Long wore did not tend to make him feel more at ease. The smile which Dick saw on his face was a curious one—a disconcerting one.

“My poor boy,” said Mr. Long, “I have no right to plague you with suggestions such as these. Still, I cannot help wondering if you are yet reconciled to the thought of Miss Linley’s having promised to marry me?”

“I am reconciled, sir,” said Dick in a low voice. “I was not so until I went to see her yesterday. I went, I may as well confess to you, Mr. Long, in a spirit of—of—no, not mockery; I could not think of myself falling so low as to have a desire to mock her—no; I only meant to show her that I did not mind—that I did not mind.”

“And all the time you were eating your heart out? My poor boy, I can appreciate what was in your mind, not merely because I am not without imagination, but because I have an excellent memory. But you saw her, and I do not think that you were quite the same man when you left her; I cannot understand any man remaining unchanged in the presence of that divine creature.”

“She changed me. She made me to look on life differently from the way in which I had previously thought of it. She made me to perceive what ’tis to have a soul. She made me see that the real life which is worthy to be lived by a man is—is——”

“You can feel what it is, that is enough,” said Mr. Long when Dick paused, lacking the words to express what was in his heart. “’Tis enough for a man to feel—only to the few is it given to put these feelings into words, and those few we call poets. The poet is the one who has the power to give expression to what the man feels. ’Tis doing an injustice to men to suggest, as some people do, that all the feeling is on the part of the poet. Have I interrupted your thoughts by anticipating you, Mr. Sheridan?”

“You have said what was on my mind and in my heart—to-day,” cried Dick. “I was a fool to make the attempt to define what I felt. I am not a poet.”

“I am not so sure of that. Our friend Mr. Linley will tell you that the pauses in music are quite as important as the combination of notes in interpreting the emotions; and you have made some eloquent and touching pauses, Mr. Sheridan. Believe me, my friend, those pauses did not speak in vain to me, and now ... well, you took that long walk in the mystery of the moonlight. Did that represent the final struggle with yourself, my boy? When you found out that it was I whom you had rescued from death, there was nothing in your heart but satisfaction? You were glad that you had saved me for her?”

“God knows it—God knows it!” said Dick, with bent head.

“I knew it too, my boy. I knew that you had taken the first step on that path to the new life which that sweet girl opened up before your eyes—a life in which self plays but the part of the minister to the happiness of others. And I ... it may occur to you that I can make but an indifferent preacher on this subject, since it was I who asked Miss Linley to give me her promise. There are some people who say that marriage is the most pronounced form of selfishness in existence. I fear that in addition to being called by a considerable number of persons ‘an old fool,’ I am also called a ‘selfish old fool.’ Selfish; yes, they call me selfish because, appreciating the nature of that girl, and seeing how intolerable her position had become to her, mainly through the persecution of the very people who now call me selfish and ridiculous, I had the courage to ask her to give me the privilege of freeing her from surroundings that were stifling to her nature. Is the man who opens the door of its cage for the linnet impelled by selfish motives? I think that he is not. But in any case, the carping and criticism—the playful winks which I have seen exchanged between good people when I have passed with Miss Linley by my side—the suggestive nudges which I have noticed—I daresay you noticed them too——”

“I heard the remarks that were made when you appeared with her for the first time,” said Dick.

“I did not hear them; but I saw the expression on the faces of the groups—that was enough for me. I had no difficulty in translating that expression into words. But you, who know,—you who have learned something of the nature of that girl——”

“Since yesterday—only since yesterday, sir.”

“Even so—you, I say, knowing something of her nature, perceiving how her father had simply come to see in her the means of filling his purse—poor man! he was only acting according to his lights, and the nest of linnets takes much feeding—you, Mr. Sheridan, recognising the shrinking of that sweet creature from the public life which was being forced upon her, will, I think, not be hard upon me because I came forward to save her from all that was changing the beautiful spirit with which she was endowed by Heaven, into something commonplace—as commonplace as the musical education which her father was forcing upon her. She did not pay full attention to the dotted quavers, he told me one day in confidence, when I noticed the traces of tears upon her face. Dotted quavers! Good heavens! think of the position of the man who found fault with the song of the linnet on account of its inattention to the dotted quavers!... Her father understood as little of the spirituality of the linnet’s song as did the fashionable folk who crowded to her concerts, not because they loved the linnet’s song—not because it told them of the joy of the springtime come back to make the world a delight—no, but only because Fashion had decreed that it was fashionable to attend Miss Linley’s concerts.”

“Poor Betsy!”

“Poor Betsy! ay, and poor, poor Fashion! The child confided in me. So terrible an effect had that life to which she was condemned upon her that—you will scarce believe it—she was ready to become the prey of any adventurer who might promise to release her from it.”

“And I failed to see this—I failed to see this,” said Dick. His voice sounded like a moan of pain.

“You know the men who paid her attention—who were encouraged by her father; you know some of them,” continued Mr. Long. “One of them, who was reported to be the owner of a fortune, found great favour in the eyes of her father. He obtained easy access to the house, and he might actually have prevailed upon her to run away with him, for there was no lack of promises with him, if I had not come here. It was to save her from him that I asked her to give me her promise; for I knew that he had a wife already.”

Dick started to his feet, his eyes blazing.

“The infamous hound!” he cried. “Who is he? What is his name? Only let me know what is his name, that I may kill him.”

“There is no need for me to mention his name,” said Mr. Long; “there is no immediate need for you to kill him or to give him a chance of killing you.”

“Can you sit there before me, and tell me that ’tis not the duty of every man to do his best to rid the world of such a ruffian?” cried Dick passionately.

“I will not take it upon me to define what is the duty of a man in certain circumstances,” said Mr. Long. “But I assure you that I should be sorry to go so far as to assert that the world would not be well rid of this particular ruffian; still, I know that the killing of him just now would be to overwhelm one who, we know, shrinks from even a publicity which is wholly honourable. There are doubtless many girls who retain so much of the feminine animal in their nature as causes them to delight to be made the subject of a fight between two men; that is—unhappily, it seems to me, but that may be because I do not understand all the principles of nature—an ordinary trait of the sex; but—you and I—ah, we know something of her, do we not?”

“But a fellow who set himself to bring about her ruin—— He is not still in Bath—you would not allow him to remain in Bath?”

“I have seen to that. I have reason to believe that he has fled. At any rate, he has not been seen in public since I gave him a hint, the purport of which he could scarcely mistake. We will talk no more of him. I only referred to him as an instance of the dangers which, I perceived, surrounded Miss Linley, and which led me to make a move for her protection. I have been judged harshly. I was prepared for that. Sometimes in this matter I have felt disposed to judge myself much more harshly than any one else might feel. I wonder if you think that I was justified in asking Miss Linley to give me her promise when I saw that she was anxious to escape from a life which was killing her—when I saw that she was anxious to save her sisters from the necessity to appear in public and to sing for money—when I saw that she was set on this, and on helping all the other members of her family. Do you think that I was justified in asking her for her promise to marry me, seeing all that I tell you I saw, and knowing something of her pure and self-sacrificing nature?”

Dick was overcome by his own thoughts; but through all the discord in which they enveloped him there rang out clearly one note:

“You saved her,” he said. “You saved her; that is all that I can think. Let me go away now.”

He had spoken with his head bent, but his voice did not falter. And then he leapt up from his chair and turned to the door.

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook