Clara Vaughan. Volume 1 of 3
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"Follow me all; I know the way!" cried Major Vaughan, right cheerily.
"And if you do, man," said the King, "your eyes are made of dashers."
[What this meant, I used as a child to wonder; but now I know.]
For six dark miles the Major led them without default, until they came to a lonely heathman's house, where they slept in safety. He never told them how he did it; being apt, I suppose, as men of the second order are, to hug superior knowledge. But it was a most simple thing. That strangely sensitive moss follows the course of the sun, and therefore the lambent light can only be seen from the west. So all the time he could see it-the others never saw it at all-he knew that they were wending from west to east, which was their proper course.
To return to myself. I put the finishing touch to a view of rock and woodland scenery, north-west of Tossil's Barton, and set off to try my fortune with it. Some young ladies, born to my position, would have thought this errand one of much degradation, but it did not appear so to me. So I walked briskly-for I hate an omnibus, and could ill afford a cab-to the shop of a well-known dealer in pictures, not far from the Haymarket. It was my first venture into the heart of London, but I found the way very easily, having jotted it down from a map. The day was dark and drizzly; the pavement grimy and slimy, and hillocked with mud at the joints of the flags. It was like walking on a peeled kneading-trough with dollops of paste left in it. Along the far reach of the streets, and the gardens in the squares, wisps of fog were crawling, and almost every one was coughing.
The dealer received me politely. Too politely in fact: for it seemed to savour of kindness, which I did not want from him. What I wanted was business, and nothing else. He took my poor drawing, done only in water-colours, and set it up in a square place made perhaps for the purpose, where the brown flaw fell upon it from a skylight formed like a Devonshire chimney. Then he drew back and clasped his hands, then shaded his eyes with them, as if the light were too strong, whereas the whole place was like a well turned upside down. He seemed uneasy because I did not care to follow him throughout all this little performance.
"And now," I said, for my foolish pride was up, and I spoke as I would have done to the porter at our lodge, not with the least contempt-I was never so low as that-but with a long perspective, "Now, Mr. Oxgall, it will soon be dark. What will you give me for it?"
"Allow me, Miss; allow me one moment. The light is a leetle too strong. Ah, the mark of the brush comes out. Strong touch, but indiscreet. A year of study required. Shade too broad and massive. A want of tone in the background. Great feeling of nature, but inexperienced rendering. More mellowness desiderated. Full however of promise. All the faults on the right side. Most energetic handling; no weak stippling here. But water-colours are down just now; a deal depends on the weather and time of year."
"How so, Mr.Oxgall?"
"Hot sun, and off they go. Fog and murk and frost, and the cry is all for oil. Excuse me, Miss-a thousand pardons, your name escaped me, you did not pronounce it strongly."
"Miss Valence!" I said, with an emphasis that startled him out of his mincing.
"Miss Valence, you think me very long. All young ladies do. But my object is to do them justice, and if they show any power, to encourage them."
"Thank you, I want no encouragement. I know I can draw a little; and there it is. The fog is thickening. I have far to go. Your price, if you please?"
I went up many steps in his opinion, by reason of my curtness and independence.
"Miss Valence, I will give you three guineas, although no doubt I shall be a loser."
"Then don't give it," said I in pure simplicity.
I went up several steps more. How utterly men of the world are puzzled by plain truth!
"Miss Valence, if you will forgive the observation, I would beg to remark that your conversation as well as your painting is crisp. I will take this little piece at all hazards, because it is full of character. Will you forgive me for one word of advice?"
"There is nothing to forgive. I shall thank you heartily for it."
"It is simply this: – The worst part of your work is the perspective. And figure-drawing will be of service to you. Study at a school of design, if you have one near you; and be not above drawing stiff and unsightly objects. Houses are the true guides to perspective. I cannot paint or even draw; but I am so much with great artists, that I know well how to advise."
"Thank you. Can you kindly suggest anything more?"
"Yes. Your touch is here and there too harsh. Keep your hand light though bold, and your brush just a leetle wetter. But you have the grand things quite unattainable, when not in the grain. I mean, of course, freedom of handling and an artist's eye."
"Do you think I could do any good in oils?"
"I have no doubt you could, but not for a long time. If fame is your object, take to oils. If speedy returns, stick to water-colours. Leave me your address, if you have no objection; and bring me your next work. If I do well with this, I will try to give you more."
He took from a desk three new sovereigns and three new shillings, wrapped them neatly in silver paper, and handed them to me. I never imagined I could be so proud of money.
Light of heart I left the shop, not that I had made my fortune yet, but what was greater happiness, I thought myself likely to make it.
Soon I perceived, with some alarm, how thick and murky the air had grown. The fog was stooping heavily down, and was now become like a wash of gamboge and lamp-black. All the street-lamps were lit, though they could not see one another, and every shop-keeper had his little jet. The pavement was no longer slippery, but sticky and dry; and a cold, that pierced to the bones, was stealing along. Already it had begun to freeze; and I, so familiar both with white and black frost, observed with no small interest the grey or fog-frost, which was new to me. How different from the pure whiteness when the stars are sparkling, and the earth is gleaming, and the spirit of man so buoyant! This grey fog-frost is rather depressing to most natures, and a chilly damp creeps to the core of all things. Thick encrusting rime comes with it, and sometimes a freezing rain.
Before I reached the New Road, the fog had grown so dense and dark, that I was much inclined to take a cab, for fear of losing my way. But I could not see one, and finding myself at last in a main thoroughfare called the Hampstead Road, I walked on briskly and bravely till I reached Camden Town, when I knew what course to pursue.
Slowly wending up College Street, for I was getting tired and the fog thicker than ever, indeed every step seemed a thrust into an ochred wall, I heard a plaintive, and rather musical, voice chanting, much as follows: -
"Christian friends, and sisters in the Lord, all who own a heart that feels for undeserved distress, aid, I implore you, a bereaved wife and mother, who has this very moment seven small lovely children, starving in a garret, three of them upon a bed of sickness, and the inhuman landlord, for the sake of a few shillings about to turn them this bitter night into the flinty streets. Christian friends, may you never know what it is to be famished as I and my seven darlings are this very night, in the midst of plenty. From Plymouth in Devonshire, I walked two hundred and fifty miles afoot all the way to join my beloved husband in London. When I came to this Christian city-Georgiana, pick up that halfpenny-he had been ordered off in the transport ship Hippopotamus, to shed his blood for his Queen and country; and I who have known the smiles of plenty in my happy rustic home, I am compelled for the sake of my children to the degradation of publicly soliciting alms. The smallest trifle, even an old pair of shoes or a left off garment will be received with the heartfelt gratitude of the widow and orphan. My eldest child, ma'am, the oldest of seven, bad in the whooping cough. Georgiana, curtsey to the pretty lady, and show her your broken chilblains."
"No thank you," I said: I could just see her through the fog. She looked like one who had seen better days, and the thought of my own vicissitudes opened my heart towards her. How could I show my gratitude better for the money I had just earned, than by bestowing a share in charity upon worthy objects? So I took out my purse, an elegant little French one given me by dear mother, and placed my three new shillings in the poor creature's hand, as she stood in the gutter. She was overpowered with gratitude, and could not speak for a moment. Then she came nearer, to bless me.
"Sweet lady, in the name of seven famishing innocents, whom you have saved from death this night, may He who guards the fatherless and the widow from His mercy-seat above, may He shower his richest blessings-"
Snap-she had got my purse and was out of sight in the fog. Georgiana's red heels were the last thing I saw. For an instant I could not believe it; but thought that the fog had affected my sight. Then I darted across the road, almost under the feet of a horse, and down a place called "Pratt Street." It was hopeless, utterly hopeless; and not only my three pounds were gone, but half besides of all I had in the world. I had taken that money with me, because I meant, if fortunate with my landscape, to buy a large box of colours in Rathbone-place; but the fog had deterred me. She had snatched my purse while I tried to clasp it, for my glove had first got in the way. All was gone, dear mother's gift, my first earnings, and all. More than all I felt sore at heart from the baseness of the robbery. Nothing is so bitterly grievous to youth as a blow to faith in one's species.
I am not ashamed to confess that feeling all alone in the fog, I leaned against some iron railings and cried away like a child. Child I was still at heart, despite all my trials and spirit; and more so perhaps than girls who have played out their childhood. In the full flow of my passion, for I was actually sobbing aloud, ashamed of myself all the while, I felt an arm steal round my waist, and starting in fear of another thief, confronted the loveliest face that human eyes ever looked on. With soft caresses, and sweetest smiles, it drew close to my own stormy and bitter countenance.
"Are you better now, dear? Oh don't cry so. You'll break your poor little heart. Do tell me what it is, that's a dear. I'll do anything to help you."
"You can't help me: " I exclaimed through my sobs: "Nobody can help me! I was born to ill luck, and shall have nothing else till I die."
"Don't say so dear. You mustn't think of it. My father, who never is wrong, says there's no such thing as luck."
"I know that well enough. People always say that who have it on their side."
"Ah, I never thought of that. But I hope you are wrong. But tell me, dear, what is the matter with you. I'm sure you have done no harm, and dear papa says no one can be unhappy who has not injured any one."
"Can't they though? Your papa is a moralist. Now I'll just tell you facts." And to prove my point, I told her of this new trouble, hinted at previous ones and my many great losses, of which money was the least. Even without the controversial spirit, I must have told her all. There was no denying anything to such a winning loving face.
"Dear me!" she cried very thoughtfully, with her mites of hands out of her muff-she had the prettiest set of fur I ever beheld, and how it became her! – "Dear me! she couldn't have meant it, I feel quite sure she couldn't. You'll come to my opinion when you have time to consider, dear" – this was said so sagely that I could have kissed her all over like a duck of a baby. "To steal from you who had just given her more than you could afford! Now come with me, dear, you shall have all the money I have got; though I don't think it's anything like the nine pounds you have lost, and I'm sure it is not new money. Only I haven't got it with me. I never carry money. Do you know why, dear?"
"No. How should I?"
"Well, I don't mind telling you. Because then I can't spend it, or give it away. I don't care a bit about money. What good is it to me? Why, I can never keep it, somehow or other. But papa says if I can show five pounds on Christmas-day, he will put five more on the top of it, and then do you know what I'll do? I'll give away five, and spend the rest for Pappy and Conrad." And the lively little thing clapped her hands at the prospect, quite forgetting that she had just offered me all her store. Presently this occurred to her.
"No. Now I come to think of it, I won't have the five pounds on Christmas-day. As the girls at the College say, I'll just sell the old Pappy. That will be better fun still. He will find a good reason for it. He always does for everything. You shall have every bit of it. Come home with me now, that's a dear. You are better now, you know. Come, that's a love. I am sure I shall love you with all my heart, and you are so terribly unlucky."
I yielded at once. She was so loving and natural, I could not resist her. She broke upon me like soft sunshine through the fog, laughing, smiling, dancing, her face all light and warmth, yet not a shallow light, but one that played up from the fount of tears. Her deep rich violet eyes seldom used their dark lashes, except when she was asleep. She was life itself, quick, playful, loving life, feeling for and with all life around; pitying, trusting, admiring all things; yet true as the hearth to household ties. I never found another such nature: it was the perfection of maiden womanhood, even in its unreason. And therefore nobody could resist her. With me, of ten times her strength of will, and power of mind-small though it be-she could do in a moment exactly as she liked; I mean of course in trivial matters. It was impossible to be offended with her.
When she had led me a few steps towards her home-for I went with her (not, of course, to take her money, but to see her safe), she turned round suddenly: -
"Oh I forgot, dear; I must not take you to our house. We have had new orders. But where do you live? I will bring you my little bag to-morrow. They won't let me out again to-night. Now I know you will oblige me. I am so sorry that I mustn't see you safe home, dear." This she said with the finest air of protection imaginable.
I gave her my name and address, and asked for hers.
"My name is Isola Ross, I am seventeen and a half, and my papa is Professor at the College. I ran away from old Cora. It seemed such fun to be all alone in the fog. What trouble I shall get into! But they can't be angry with me long. Kiss me, darling. Mind, to-morrow!"
Off she danced through the fog; and I went sadly home, yet thinking more of her, than of my serious and vexatious loss.
Inspector Cutting, upon the first tidings of the robbery, came at once, and assured me that he knew the "party" well, and wanted her for several other plants, and crafty as she was ("leary" was the elegant word he used) he was sure to be down upon her in the course of a very short time.
Isola Ross, to my great surprise, did not come the next day, nor even the day after; so I set out to look for her, at the same time wondering at myself for doing so. Knowing that College Street must take its name from some academic building in or near it, I concluded of course that there I should find Professor Ross and my lovely new friend. So without consulting Mrs. Shelfer, who would have chattered for an hour, away I went one tine frosty morning to ask about the College.
I found that a low unsightly building, which I had often passed, near the bottom of the street, was the only College there; so I entered a small quadrangle, to make further inquiries.
The first person I saw was a young man dressed like one of my father's grooms, and cracking a long whip and whistling. He had a brilliant scarlet neckcloth, green sporting coat, and black boots up to his knees. I studied him for a moment because it struck me that he would look well in a foreground, when toned down a little, as water colours would render him. He appreciated my attention, and seemed proud of it.
"Now, Polly, what can I do for you, dear?"
He must have been three parts drunk, or he would never have dared to address me so. Of course I made no answer, but walked on. He cracked his whip like a pistol, to startle me.
"Splendid filly," I heard him mutter, "but cussed high action." What he meant I do not know or care.
The next I met was a fussy little man, dressed all in brown, who smelt of musty hay.
"Will you kindly tell me," I asked, "where to find Professor Ross?'
"Ross, Ross! Don't know the name. No Ross about here. What's he Professor of?"
"That I was not told. But it is something the young ladies study."
"No young ladies about here. But I see you have brought your dear mamma's lapdog. Take it out of the bag. Let me look at it."
"Is not this the College?"
"Yes to be sure. The best College in London. Quick, let me see the dog."
"I have no dog, sir. I have made some mistake."
"Then you have got a pony. Pet over-fed. Shetland breed."
"No indeed. Nothing except myself; and I am looking for Miss Ross."
"Young lady, you have made a very great mistake. You have kept me five minutes from a lecture on the navicular disease. And my practice is controverted by an upstart youth from the country. I am in search of authorities." And off he darted, I suppose to the library.
It was clear that I had made some mistake, so I found my way back to the street, and asked in the nearest shop what building it was that I had just left.
"Oh, them's the weterans," said the woman, "and a precious set they be!"
"Why, they did not look like soldiers."
"No, no, Miss. Weterans, where they takes in all the sick horses and dogs. And very clever they are, I have heard say."
"And where is the College where the young ladies are?"
"I don't know of no other College nearer than High Street, where the boys wear flat caps. But there's a girls' school down the road."
"I don't want a school. I want a College where young ladies go."
"Then I cant help you, Miss." And back I went to consult Mrs. Shelfer.
"Bless my soul, Miss Valence," cried the little woman, out of breath with amazement, "have you been among them niggers? It's a mercy they didn't skin and stuff you. What do you think now they did to my old Tom?"
"How can I guess, Mrs. Shelfer?"
"No, no, to be sure not. I forgot, my good friend. Why, they knowed him well it seems, because he had been there in dear Miss Minto's time, for a salmon bone that had got crossways in his oesop, so they said at least, but they are the biggest liars-so only a year ago come next Boxing-day, here comes to the door half a dozen of them, bus-cad and coachman all in one, all looking as grave as judges. When I went to the door they all pulled their hats off, as if I had been the Queen at the very least. 'What can I do for you, my good friends?' says I; for Shelfer was out of the way, and catch me letting them in for all their politeness. No, no, thank you. 'Mrs. Shelfer,' says the biggest of them, a lantern-jawed young fellow with covers over his pockets, 'Mrs. Shelfer, you are possessed of a most remarkable cat. An animal, ma'am, of unparalleled cemetery and organic dewelopment. Our Professor, ma'am, is delivering a course of lectures on the Canonical Heapatightness of the Hirumbillycuss."
"Well done, Mrs. Shelfer! What a memory you must have!"
"Pretty well, Miss, pretty well. Particular for long words, when I likes the sound of them. 'Well sir,' I says, feeling rather taken aback, 'thank God I haven't got it.' 'No, ma'am,' says he, 'your blooming countenance entirely negatives any such dyingnoses. But the Professor, in passing the other morning, observed some symptoms of it in your magnificent cat, for whom he entertains the most sincere attachment, and whom he will cure for our advancement and edification upon the lecture table. And now, ma'am, Professor Sallenders desires his most respectful compliments, and will you allow us to take that dear good cat to be cured. The Professor was instrumental once in preserving his honoured existence, therefore he feels assured that you will not now refuse him.' Well you see, Miss, I didn't half like to let him go, but I was afraid to offend the Professor, because of all my animals, for I knew that he could put a blight upon them, birds and all, if he chose. Old Tom was lying roasting his back again the fender, the same as you see him now, poor soul; so I catched him up and put him in a double covered basket, with a bit of flannel over him, because the weather was cold; and he was so clever, would you believe it, he put up his old paws to fight me, he knew he was going to mischief, and that turned me rather. 'Now will you promise to bring him back safe?' I says. 'Ma'am,' says the lantern-jawed young man, bowing over his heart, and as serious as a pulpit, 'Ma'am, in less than an hour. Rely upon the honour of Weteran Arian Gent."
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