Clara Vaughan. Volume 3 of 3
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"Mrs. Fletcher, how is my hair?"
"Lovely, my pretty child" – she always called me so from habit when no one else was present-"you look your very best; and I'd like to see them that could-talk to me of Lilies indeed, when our Miss Clara-"
"No smuts on my nose, Mrs. Fletcher, I hope? I never feel sure, in London. You don't know London, you see."
"No, my pretty, as clean as a whistle, and as clear as the voice of a May-bird, every atom of you. There's no such complexion nowhere out of Gloshire or in it: and its all along of the brimstone and treacle I give you, when you was small. Talk to me of Lilies-why I see three great butter spots, as big as the point of a needle, and I know by the make of her boot that her little toe turn over; and what's more than that-"
"Mrs. Fletcher, I won't hear a word of it. As to her little toe, I can most solemnly declare that you are wrong altogether; for I have seen her naked foot, and a lovelier one never was-"
"Take yours out of the way, Miss. But-"
"But– here we are; and you have made my cheeks quite red! I shall be ashamed to be seen."
However, it did not matter; for there was no one there to see me. Conrad was gone to Paris; he had quitted London quite suddenly, and there was a letter left for his sister, which the girl forgot to post, till she thought it was too late. And he said very likely he should go on to Italy; and they were not to keep the rooms, if they had a chance of letting them, only to put away the things he had left, in the cupboard. So I took the letter, directed "Miss Isola Ross," but I did not dare to open it, much as I longed to do so. Having enclosed it in a new envelope, and posted it in the nearest letter-box, with a heavy heart I re-entered the cab, and went on to Mrs. Shelfer's.
Mrs. Shelfer was of course surprised to see me so soon again. Nevertheless she was all kindness and hospitality, as usual. The residue of her little debt had been long ago released, and now I paid full rent, for I could easily afford it. In answer to my eager inquiries as to what had occurred since Wednesday, the little woman said shortly:
"Nothing at all, Miss, of any account, I thank you. Only Charley threw double size, three times running, and won-"
"I don't mean that, Mrs. Shelfer; I mean, what has happened for me?"
"Nothing, Miss Vaughan; no, nothing to concern a great lady like you: only such a queer lot come, and they seemed to be friends of yours. They ain't gone from here more than half an hour ago."
"Tell me all about them."
"They come and ringed the bell, as modest as could be; and when I went to the door, says they, 'If you please, where be Miss Clara, ma'am?' 'Miss Clara!' says I, 'a set of dressed up trollops like you, come and ask for Miss Clara! She'd Miss Clara you, pretty quick time, I doubt, if she was only here.' 'Us humbly hopes no offence, ma'am,' says the great big man, the biggest man as ever I see without paying, 'only us has come up from the country, ma'am.' 'Up from the country!' says I, 'needn't tell me that, my good giant; any fool can see that.And if you take my advice, you'll clap your hat on, and go down again, and thank God for it.' You see, Miss, he had got his hat off, and he standing out of doors, on the shady side of the street! So what I said seemed to stop him altogether, and he looked as if he wanted to think about it; and I was just a slapping the door in their faces, when the other man, the queerest guy I ever see, a hanging in his clothes like a skiver in a dish-clout, he look full in my face as grave as a heretic parson, and stretch out his skinny arm, and keep time with one foot, while he say or sing,
Then the big man laugh and clap him on the back; and the little one wink both his eyes, and look to see what I think of it. Then when he see me laugh, he make me such a coorous bow, that what with his-what do they call the plaister, Miss?"
"Diachylon, perhaps you mean, Mrs. Shelfer?"
"Ah, that's the word. What with his strange diaculum, and his dancing altitude, I declare I was a most a going to invite them in: but I recollects, no, no: If Charley gets along of such Reginalds as these, I may stand at the bed-room door and whistle for a week. There's nothing Charley loves so much as a downright Reginald."
Poor simple-minded woman; how little she perceived that she of all the number was by far the most original! And, like most of those who are truly so, she would have taken the imputation as an outrageous insult. Only the sham original glories in being thought queer.
"Well, Mrs. Shelfer, I want to hear the end of it."
"Just what I say, Miss. Yes, yes, no time to spare, and the pudding boiling. So I says, quite sharp, 'What name, my good sir, and will you leave a message? Miss Vaughan is out of town.' 'Wull,' says he, just as I tell you, Miss, 'ony plase you say, ma'am, as Jan Uxtable, and Beany Dawe, and the two beggest of the chillers has doed theirselves the honour of coming to lave their dooty.' Then the little girl look up and she flash her ribbons and say, 'Mr. Huxtable, if you please, ma'am, and Mr. Ebenezer Dawe, and Miss Huxtable, and Master John, has called.' 'Hadn't you better write it down, Miss?' says I, as innocent as possible. 'Do you suppose I can't then?' says she, with such a spitting out of her eyes, and she swinging a new parry sole. 'Just give me a sheet of papper, if you keep such a thing in the house.' 'Plase to excuse the little wanch, ma'am,' says the big man, quite humble, 'us can't hardly make head nor tail of her, since her come to this here Lunnon. If I had only knowed it I'd have had her mother along of me, that I would ees fai, and the coo be her own midwaife. But ony plase you say Jan Uxtable come if they count it dacent hereaway. Threescore acres and five, ma'am, without reckon the Cleeve, and no man have a call, to my mind, to christen himself "Mister" on less than a hundred acres, in Lunnon or out of it.' 'Very well, sir,' I says, for I took to the big man somehow, 'I will deliver your message. Miss Vaughan only went from here of middle day on Wednesday.' 'And tell her please, if she do come back,' says spirity Miss Parrysole, with the tears in her great blue eyes, 'that Sally Huxtable leave her very best love and duty, and hope so much Miss Clara will come to see the great wrestling to-morrow, twelve o'clock, and be early. And they be betting now two to one on the other man, ma'am. But he have no chance, no more than Tim Badcock with father.' 'I be much afeared, ma'am,' says the deep-voiced man, as soft as any bell, 'I be afeared our Sally will be begger by a lanyard nor ever her daddy or her mammy was. But likely it be all for the best.' And with that all four of them crooked their legs to me most polite, and went on round the corner; and after them went a score of boys, that seemed to follow them everywhere. The boys knew all about it, and so did I at last, that it was the great champion wrestling, that is to be to-morrow. Charley have been mad about it going on now two months. And can you please to tell him, Miss, which way to lay his money?"
"To be sure, I can. Let him take every offer of two to one against the Devonshire champion; and if he loses I will make it good to him, upon condition that he gives you everything he wins. Now please to let me have a cup of strong tea."
Having thus got rid of my most talkative friend, and Mrs. Fletcher having started off to buy something, I had time to think a little.
It was nearly two o'clock on the Friday afternoon. Nothing more could be done at present towards recovering Conrad, for he had not even left at his lodgings any Continental address. Possibly his place of sojourn might be revealed in the letter to his sister, posted by my hand: but it was far more likely that he himself knew not, at the time of writing, where he should find quarters. I must have been beside myself with worry and disappointment, when I dropped that letter into Her Majesty's box; for if I returned, as had been arranged, by the express at five o'clock, several hours would be saved in the delivery of its tidings. And, as yet, I little dreamed where I should be at five P.M.
In that little room, whose walls were more relieved than decorated by certain daubs of mine, which even in my narrowest straits I could not bear to part with, because an indulgent critic had found merit in them-a discovery requiring much acumen-here I now sat, gazing fondly, dreaming hazily, yearning strongly for the days gone by, yet only three months old, when I had not a crust or dress till I earned it by my labour. How that pinch enlarged my heart, God only knows, not I. Ah, then I was a happy girl, though I never guessed it. How proudly I walked down the Square, with my black straw bonnet on-which Idols called the Dowdy, – and my dark plaid shawl around me, the plainest of the plain, yet not prepared to confess myself so quotidian as my dress. Who could tell, in those happy days, who might come, or round what corner, and who could say whether of the twain would look the more accidental? And then the doubt-shall I look or not, better perhaps be intent on the fire-plug, and make him come round again?
But now. Ah me, they have heaped up riches for me, and who shall come to enjoy them?
Just as I was warming to this subject, gushing along in a fine vein of that compassion which alone of soft emotions we find it no duty to wrestle with, I mean of course self-pity-in came Mrs. Fletcher, suddenly, and in anger.
"Well, Miss Clara," she exclaimed, throwing down her parcel, "so this is London, is it?"
"To be sure, Mrs. Fletcher. What objection have you to make to it?"
"No objection, Miss, only this, that if ever I seen a set of countrified folk, the Londoners are them. Why the commonest of our kitchen-maids would be ashamed to talk so broad, and to dress so contemptuous. And here I went half a mile to buy boots, real London-made; and trees all along by the side of the road, and pots on the shelves of the windows. I never, if Gloucester don't look much more like a town."
As Mrs. Fletcher did not tell a story with the Herodotean vivacity of Tim Badcock, I will render her facts in my own unpretending version, premising only that she had taken the farmer and Sally for specimens of the true Cockney; a bit of saltatory reasoning of which she has not heard (and perhaps never will hear) the last. While then the worthy housekeeper was driving a slow but shrewd bargain, in a smart shop by the Broadway, taking the boots to the sunshine, to pick clever holes in the stitching, she observed a diminutive boy, of the genuine shoe-black order, encamping in a bight or back-eddy of pavement, just at the side of the door. This little fellow was uniformed, or rather multi-coloured, in gold, and red, and green. His cap was scarlet, and edged with gold twist; his tunic red, and his apron of very bright green baize. On his cap, and on one shoulder, appeared his number, 32, in figures of brass, an inch and a half in length. Strapped on his back he carried an oblong block of wood, like a great club-foot, and nearly as large as himself. This he deposited, with elaborate fuss, on the curb of the inner pavement, which terraced some inches above the true thoroughfare. A blacking-jar hung at one end of his block; from a drawer below he pulled out three well-worn brushes, and began to hiss and to work away, in double quick time, with both hands, at some boot projected towards him on the delicate foot of fancy. As he grew warm at his work, with one sharp eye all the while looking out for a genial passenger, there slowly came straggling towards him a bevy quite fresh from Arcadia. First, in treble importance walked, impressively rolling and leering around, Hermes, Pan, and the owl of Pallas, combined in one Ebenezer Dawe. His eyes, never too co-operative, roved away upon either side, in quest of intelligence, which they received with a blink that meant, "Pooh, don't I know it?" With occasional jerks of his lank right arm, he was dragging along, like a saw through a knot, the sturdy, tight-buttoned, and close-pronged form of our little Jack. Jack was arrayed in a black wide-awake, with blue ribbons, and a bran-new suit of broad-furrowed corduroy, made of nights by his mother and Suke, and turned out with countless pockets, each having three broad buttons, to foil the London thieves. In one of these pockets, the trouser one I do believe, in spite of all Sally had taught him, he was now chinking, to the creak of the corduroys, his last-abiding halfpence, and lagging heavily on the poet's arm, he cast fond glances at a pile of glorious peg-tops. Sticking her toes into little Jack's heels, to kick anybody that dared to steal him, came my little Sally, all fire, and wonder, and self-assertion, towing her mighty father along, like a grasshopper leading an ox. At times she strove to drag him towards the finery of the windows, and paid very little heed to his placid protestations. "Walk fitty, my dear; walk as you ought to do, my dear. Oh fai! oh fai! Whatever wull they Lunnoners think of Davonsheer, if they zees you agooin on laike this here? There, dang that Beany Dawe; blest if I baint a toornin Po?t too. Coomth of larnin to wraite, I reckon." The farmer's pockets were crammed with circulars, handbills, and puffs of every description, which he received from all who offered, and was saving them all for his wife.
"Clean your boots, my gentleman," cried a little shrill voice; "clean both your boots for a halfpenny. Never say die, Sir; polish 'em bright till the cat at home won't know them. Three-fardings-worth of blacking, and a penny in skill and labour, and all for the laughable sum of one half-penny. Pure satisfaction guaranteed, or the whole of the money returned. Up with your foot, my gentleman!"
The farmer pulled up suddenly, for fear of walking over him, as the boy, despising Beany Dawe, had dashed in between Jack and Sally, and danced before Mr. Huxtable. His brushes were whisking about, like bumble-bees roughly disturbed, and already menaced the drab of the Sunday fustian gaiters.
"Zober now," cried the farmer, who could not believe that he was addressed, having never dreamed, in his most ambitious moments (if any such he had), of ever being called a gentleman, "zober now, wull'e. Where bee'st gooin to, thou little hosebird; be they your Lunnon-town manners? Lat alo-un, I zay; lat alo-un now, wull 'e?" – as the boy got more and more tentative-"Heart alaive, cant e zee, they be my Zunday gaiters? Oh, if my missus wor here! And 'e bain't more nor naine year old! Wull, wull, where ever do 'e goo to scho?ll?"
"Hinstitooshun 66. No children or females admitted. Up with your foot, old bloke! Do the young uns and tootor half-price. Just two minutes to spare, till the Dook of Cambridge's turn. Great Exhibition polish, and all to encourage the fine arts."
The good farmer was lost beyond hope, in the multitude of subjects pressed all of a pulp on his slow understanding; nevertheless, he had presence of mind to feel first for his watch and his money, and then for the best pocket-handkerchief stitched into the crown of his hat; meanwhile the boy got hold of one foot, and began to turn up his gaiters. Then Sally and little Jack rushed to the rescue, and Jack punched the boy in the face, while Beany Dawe looked on with a grin of broad experience. But in spite of all aid, the farmer began to collapse before his mosquito enemy; when luckily three giant Life-guards (for a crowd was now collected) opened their mouths, like the ends of a monkey-fur muff, in a round and loud guffaw, with a very coarse sneer at poor Sally. The farmer looked at them in much amazement; then his perplexity went like a cloud, and his face shone with something to do, as he gave Sally his hat to hold. Till now all the mockers had been too small for him anyhow to fall foul of. Ere the echo of laughter was over, the three dandy Lifeguards lay on their backs in the mud, with their striped legs erect in the air, like the rods of a railway surveyor. The crowd fell back headlong, as if from a plunging horse, then laughed at the fallen and with the conqueror. Even the boy was humility multiplied into servility.
"Wutt be up to, arl on 'e?" asked the farmer, replacing his hat; "cas'n none on 'e lat a pacible chap alo-un? And wutt will they chillers think as coom here to get example? Why, Beany, if us had knowed this, us would have brought Bill constable with us, ees fai. Now 'e don't know nothing about it" – he remonstrated with the admiring multitude-"one o' them dree worn't throw handsome laike, ony dree pins, I tull 'e. But us'll do it over again, if he claimeth it. Can't do nothing vitty, zin I laved my missus at home. But her wadn't coom, God knows." These last two remarks were addressed to himself, but the crowd had full benefit of them. "Worn't 'e axing of lave, two or dree minutes agone, little chap with the brisk there, to tend my butts, and tuk it amost wiout axing? Us be bound laike to stap here now till us zees if them 'lisher men feels up for any moor plai. Do as 'e plase, little chap, zoon as Sally hath toorned my best gaiters up, if her bain't too grand in Lunnon."
With bright ribbons fluttering and finery flapping about her, poor Sally knelt down in a moment to work at the muddy fustian: but her father would not allow it, he had only wished to try her; so he caught her up with one hand, and kissed her, and I think, from what Mrs. Fletcher said, he must have given her sixpence at least.
It is needless to say that, although the boy worked with both hands in the most conscientious manner, the farmer's boots defied him. Neats'-foot oil, and tallow, and beeswax held their own against Day and Martin. "Coom, little chap," said Mr. Huxtable, kindly, "thee hast dooed thy very best, but our Zuke will have the laugh of thee. Tache thee perhaps it wull to be zoberer next taime, and not be quite so peart to do a dale more nor thee can do. But thee hast used more ink than ai wud over two copies. Here be a groat for the Exhibition polish."
In this little episode, as will be manifest, Sally has helped me more than Mrs. Fletcher. But now, to return to my narrative.
Almost directly after the housekeeper left me, Patty came trotting in with a large white breakfast-cup full of most powerful tea. I cannot help thinking that the little woman put some brandy in it, or allowed Mrs. Fletcher, who trusted much in that cordial, to do so; but they stoutly deny the charge, and declare that there was only a pinch of gunpowder. Whatever it was, being parched with thirst, I swallowed without tasting it, and the effect upon my jaded brain was immediate and amazing. All self-pity was gone; and self-admiration, and haughty courage succeeded. Was I, Clara Vaughan, who had groped and grubbed for years to find the hole of a blasting snake, and had now got my hand upon it, was I to start back and turn pale at his hiss, and say, "God speed you and polish your skin. Give me your slough for a keepsake?" Would I not rather seize the incarnate devil, trample his spine, and make his tongue sputter in dust? In a moment my cloak and hat were on again; I scarcely looked at the glass, but felt the hot flush on my cheeks, as I lightly skipped down the stairs, and silently left the house. What to do next I knew not, nor asked, but flew headlong before the impulse, to lift and confront-as is my nature-the danger that lay before me. As I glided along, I was conscious of one thing, the people in the street turned in surprise to watch me. As if by instinct, I hurried straight to Lucas Street, my courage mounting higher and higher as I neared the accursed threshold. Balaam and Balak stood at the bar of a tavern which commanded a view of the street, but were much too busy with beer to see me passing so swiftly. Loudly I rang the bell of No. 37; the figures were bright on the door, and looking narrowly, I perceived the old No. 19, more by the lines than the colour.
Old Cora came as usual; but started at seeing me, and turned as pale as death.
"Is your master within?" I could not use his false name.
"Yes, Meesa, but you not see him now."
"Dare you to disobey Our Lady's heart?" And I held my gordit before her. She cowered with one knee on the mat and kissed it; then led me into the presence of Lepardo Della Croce.
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