A Girl of the North. A Story of London and Canada
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The door opened, and announced by the new butler – Launa always had maids, but with the prospect of a husband she had engaged a butler – Mrs. Herbert and Captain Carden walked in.
The former looked very handsome; her face was unusually pink; her crape bonnet and long veil thrown back suited her.
“Lily!” said Launa, “how kind of you! I am so very glad to see you. You will stay, of course.”
She avoided Captain Carden’s hand.
“How are you?” he asked. “Well, I hope?”
Launa had turned to Lily, and did not answer his inquiries.
“Where is – where are the others?” asked Lily.
“Are you alone already?” added Captain Carden.
Mr. Wainbridge came in and greeted them with a bored air.
“I have come on business,” said Captain Carden stiffly.
“And you, Lily, have come to stay,” said Launa.
“If you will have me I shall be very glad to stay.”
“I may as well tell you the object of my visit,” said Carden, with importance. “Mrs. Wainbridge, I – ”
“Stop!” said Launa.
“Never mind,” said Lily, taking hold of her hand and almost crushing it. “Let him say what he has to say, and then go.”
“I did not tell you before, because I have always wanted to remind you of one day at Victoria Mansions – the day you turned me out. I loved you, and now I am quite willing to marry you, even after the disgrace of having lived for some days as this man’s mistress, for Wainbridge is married.”
A strange and awful silence settled on them. Mr. Wainbridge’s lips were parted, and trembled slightly as he made an effort to speak. Captain Carden looked supremely triumphant, and continued:
“I have proofs here. His wife lives in Edinburgh; he married her legally. You, Launa, are – what are you?”
“Not married, thank God; not married.”
Turning, she saw Paul behind her.
“Paul!” she cried, “help me!”
Paul remembered that this was the third time that she had turned to him in an uncertain situation. Was this the lucky time?
“Launa,” he said, “come away. Let me settle this for you.”
He was already her protector, and they both felt it.
“I must hear it all,” she answered.
“He has two children,” said Captain Carden. “One a son. Your child, Launa – ”
“Stop,” interrupted Wainbridge. “If you insult Miss Archer again I shall kick you.”
“Miss Archer!” repeated Carden, with a laugh. “You give in very quickly – you acknowledge she has no right to your name.”
“Nor has she. We are not married.”
“Of course not,” said Captain Carden, with a laugh.
“No, not married!” said Launa.
“The 30th was to be the wedding day,” said Sylvia.
“Damn you,” shouted Carden, turning to Lily. “And you knew!”
“Yes. I have won.”
“Take the proofs. I don’t want them.” He threw down a bundle of letters and turned away. “Oh, that I had succeeded! That you, Launa, were shamed in the sight of all men and all women.When a man trusts a woman she always betrays him! Beaten by five days. Think of it – by five days.”
He rushed from the room like a whirlwind – if he had succeeded, and brought shame to a woman and guilt to a man, he would have faced them all bravely. The women followed him – Launa still stood by Paul, who held her hand. She even returned the pressure of his fingers. Mr. Wainbridge went towards her, and Paul left the room.
“Good-bye, Launa,” said Mr. Wainbridge. “Good-bye. I suppose it is all over; I suppose you could not forget.”
“Forget. Do not say what I never can forget.”
“And yet women have faced the Divorce Court for a man they love.”
“When a woman loves; but when she pities – no. I told you once – ”
“I am not married to her,” he continued, with what he considered much passion. “You know I do not believe in marriage as a binding ceremony. Love only is binding. I went with her to a priest, and we signed our names. How can a priest – a mortal man – marry men and women for eternity?”
“Great Heaven!” said Launa, “and I meant to marry you. Thank God, I escaped.” Her piety would not have been so excessive had she loved him. “You would not have believed in your marriage with me?”
“No; but I had settled all I have or will have upon you by your name and on your children – I love you, but I see it is all over… Good-bye… Launa, my darling, wish me well.”
“I pray for that woman who is your wife, and I rejoice that I escaped. I thank Heaven – you told me lies, you wanted my pity, you – ”
“Heaven had but little to do with this. Carden was the ruling spirit.”
“Go!” said Launa; “go before I say all I want to.”
The new butler helped him on with his overcoat – he had listened at the key-hole, and Mr. Wainbridge would be a lord some day. He was a religious man, and remembered the chief butler and Joseph, but no quotation occurred to him which would apply to the situation; besides, he was a good servant and knew his place.
Mr. Wainbridge had the satisfaction of driving away in the trap which had brought Captain Carden to Shelton – therefore Carden would have to walk to the station and miss his train – unless Launa had out her horses for him. The reflections of Mr. Wainbridge during his journey to Paddington were unpleasant. There was his uncle to face, and he must make explanations to him.
Nothing was so disquieting as Launa’s cry for help to Paul. Why Paul? Why not to Sylvia or Lily or anyone? And the sound of relief in her voice – relief – was there joy? She had never loved him; if she had, she would have loved him married or dead. She was the sort of woman who does not – who cannot change. Therefore if she had loved him she could have risked all for him.
His only consolation was Carden’s walk in the dark to the station, and journey by a slow train at 1 a. m. to town. Carden would swear; it stopped at every station.
Paul consigned his beloved to Mrs. Herbert and went up to town. Mrs. Cooper and Sylvia were useless. The former wept over the disgrace and made speeches beginning with “if” – the latter said “everyone was unfortunate and miserable.” Paul felt as if everyone were happy, beginning with himself and including Launa. Her cry to him had not been the cry of disappointment and sorrow; it had been what? He could not define it. Relief was too mild, joy too great a name.
Mr. Wainbridge found a certain amount of awkwardness in the interview with his uncle, which had to take place at once on account of the approaching marriage, which was now broken off. It was so difficult to explain what had transpired and to do it with a due regard for his own feelings.
Lord Wainbridge expressed much disappointment at his nephew’s engagement being broken off. He had received an announcement thereof by telegraph.
“Why! why! why!” he exclaimed. “My temper is very much upset to-day. Your aunt is most trying.”
“We have disagreed about settlements,” said the nephew.
“Damn settlements. That is rubbish. What else?”
“There is,” said his nephew slowly, “only one insurmountable barrier and she knows it.”
“Well? Can’t you do away with it?”
“I am married already.”
“Married? What a fool! You mean that you have had an establishment which you will give up now, of course, and she will not forgive this. She will naturally in time. Things will come right, do not be alarmed.”
“No, this will never come right for I am really married.”
“Yet you love Launa, and you meant to marry her and to live with her as your wife?”
“To commit bigamy – in spite of the insurmountable barrier?”
“Yes,” replied Wainbridge.
His uncle stared at him aghast. Admiration, blended with contempt, showed in his countenance – admiration for the audacity of the plan, contempt for its failure.
“I thought, when I did think,” said the nephew, “that if we were once married, if she were only bound to me by indissoluble ties, she could not leave me, and if at any time she heard rumours, well, she would have kept quiet about it. The other woman does not know my name.”
“It is dreadful,” said Lord Wainbridge. “Now there is no heir and your aunt – ” he sighed. “I wish you had not told me. I should have preferred your being reticent with me. It is most unfortunate. I wish I did not know it.”
His was the hopeless lament of the aged.
“How old you are,” thought his nephew, who was more than sorry; but he did not groan – that was of no avail.
“There is an heir,” he said.
“You are a greater fool than I thought you. What will you tell your aunt?”
“Nothing – or the settlement story? which you prefer.”
He regretted being found out. His god had been the fear of discovery; he worshipped it, and to it he had made many sacrifices. But it was all over.
“He is quiet, and bears it well,” thought Lord Wainbridge; but then we should always bear the result of our own wrong-doing with philosophy. No one – Lord Wainbridge least of all – would have pitied him had he not endured it with patience. Inwardly Hugh Wainbridge was raging – raging with a wild longing to possess Launa – to have held her in his arms alone, while she was his – to have kissed the life and breath out of her. It was intolerable to think that it was over, that she was not his, and never would be. All through his own stupidity, which he cursed, he felt a mad wild beast, just an animal longing to kill anyone in his way, and to possess the one object of his passion. How he wished he had not told his uncle. Lord Wainbridge was so disappointed.
Mr. Wainbridge sat and meditated on the unsatisfactoriness, the dreariness of all things. His one desire was withheld from him, the desire which now threatened to become madness. He was hardly aware of his uncle’s departure – he seemed to see Launa with a smile of triumph, of victory, on her face, and he could not get to her; she eluded him. How he loved her! – loved her, would, must have her.
Paul wrote to Launa; then he waited and did not go down to see her, much as he longed to do so.
One afternoon he met Sylvia alone. She greeted him with joy. She looked different.
“You look wicked,” he said; and she laughed.
“When are you going to Launa? Go soon. One woman may as well think she is going to be happy in this world. As for me, I have learned that there is no happiness anywhere. I have vanquished my illusions.”
“How is Launa?”
“Alone down there in this dreary weather,” she replied. “She sent us all away – got rid of us very cleverly, even of Mrs. Herbert, and is there by herself.”
“Where are you going?” asked Paul.
“Home – I am wretched. I am so lonely and so weary of – virtue. I think it is very dull. My thoughts annoy me, and they continue so incessantly.”
“Come and have some tea with me,” he said.
For he was glad to be able to talk to her. He could not well rush down to Shelton at five o’clock, and he doubted the expediency of doing so.
“Launa took it quietly,” said Sylvia, as she drank her tea. “After we were alone she was so different – so glad. I rejoice when I remember how she said, ‘Paul!’ Did you hear the sound in her voice when she called you? – as if she could not be relieved and grateful enough. I am thinking of marriage – serious, uncomfortable marriage myself.”
“You are? I thought – ”
“You thought me broken-hearted. So I am; I am wretched – tired of waiting, of longing, and of thinking what a fool I have been. He loved me, and it is too late. I long for love until I feel nearly mad, so I am going to marry. I shall be bound, tied up, and there will be no escape, and so I must feel peaceful.”
“You will not.”
“Ah, but I shall. Why did I not go with him? Why did I not love him while I could?”
“Who are you going to marry?”
“A man who knows it all. I am not going to deceive him. He says the heart of a woman cannot remain in a man’s grave for ever. But.. when he is with me I see.. the other. It is ghastly.”
“So I should think, and it will be worse. Don’t do it, Sylvia. You will regret it always.”
“No, I think you are mistaken. Let us talk of Launa.”
That night Paul wrote to her. He waited with impatience for her answer.
When it came, she said she was leaving for Canada and the letter was posted at Liverpool.
Launa’s first feeling was relief, relief – so intense, so endless, that she felt buoyant, joyful, secure. But after some days she felt shame. What had Hugh Wainbridge thought of her? What could a man think of a woman whom he could propose to wrong so terribly? And what had Paul thought of her? Why did he not come?
Why should she think he cared still? She had no reason to think so. Doubt, misery, and loneliness, became torturing demons; in action she saw the only relief possible, and then she remembered Canada, “Solitude,” the woods, the shore. Paul despised her, she was sure; she would go away, go home.
The penetrating depressing autumn mist was slowly making its way over the land, it was almost rain, it was so thick, and far more wetting. The river was shrouded in a white ghostly mantle. She thought of the keen air at “Solitude,” of the clear sky, and of the shore with the far-away landscape, mysterious and, always to her, enticing. And then of the storms, howling, fierce, and powerful, like the terrible force and presence of an unseen mighty power, the devastating Great Spirit of the North who, for five months of the year, reigns supreme, who is real, tangible, brutal, unlike the horrible slowness of this climate.
“Solitude” was empty, Launa cabled to the gardener’s wife who inhabited a lodge, and who once had been housekeeper.
When Paul got her letter, she and her maid were out on the Atlantic, rapidly going farther away.
Launa was beginning to forget the Wainbridge incident, though at first her anger had seemed unending.
The weather became very cold as they neared Halifax. The big blue harbour, with its white-capped waves and white-covered shores, was home. The drifting bits of ice were gaily rushing on, tossed by the waves, the tide, and the wash of the big steamer. The decks and rigging were covered with ice, the sea had swept the ship, and, after sweeping it, the frost demon bound everything in his cold arms. She wondered how she had existed so long in that grey land without sun. The sky looked higher and more deeply blue.
“Solitude” was quite ready for her, huge fires blazed everywhere, old servants had come back. She drove ten miles from the nearest station, how the sleigh runners creaked, and the bells rang clear, a big yellow moon was up before she arrived; everything was so strong, so intense, so cold.
“Solitude” was lonely. She spent the greater part of the days out of doors. She was young, and the horribleness of Mr. Wainbridge’s behaviour became dimmer. She had only been angry, how would she have felt if she had loved him?
After a week of driving and snowshoeing she got out her toboggan.
The land from “Solitude” to the Bay sloped down for about half a mile, and then the Bay was frozen, the ice covered with snow, and she could toboggan straight across it. The crust of the snow was very hard. The toboggan started slowly, then went faster, faster, little bits of crisp snow flew in her face, the air whistled past her as she rushed along, the pace became swifter, – it was glorious: the sun, the air, and the clear blue sky were life-giving as she tore on. The toboggan bounded over the rough blocks of ice on the edge of the Bay which were broken by the tide. On the flat stretch of ice it began to move more slowly and then stopped. It was splendid. She spent all the afternoon at it; the thermometer was ten below zero, but it was so still and sunny that she could not feel cold.
It was snowing hard and blowing from the north-east; the view from “Solitude” was dim, whirling snow hurled by the wind, little drifting eddies of snow curled round the top of the drifts already forming quickly.
Launa started on snowshoes. The wind knocked her about and she staggered before it. She waited in the shelter of the porch until the fury of the blast seemed to have swept past, then she went on again. The snow was loose, and the walking, even on snowshoes, very heavy. She struggled to the little post-office, though there was no need for this, for they would have sent up her letters; the one she wanted was not there. She wandered on in the storm to pass the time hoping to grow very tired. The road was gone, it had disappeared in a level plain of snow, only like black specks occasional stones showed up in the walls. The snow drifted and whirled, and the wind was so keen and cold, like knives, with a stinging burning sensation. The snow made its way under her big fur collar and chilled her neck and face though she was so hot.
Suddenly she saw a dark figure coming nearer. It was a man. “Good-night,” she said as they passed. She doubted if he could hear, the wind crashed by them, it roared over their heads and howled behind them.
The man turned, and with two steps towards her, said:
He put his arms round her, and then walked on her snowshoes, nearly knocking her over, and Launa lay in his arms; her feet were most uncomfortable, one snowshoe was on its side.
“Paul!” she gasped.
His thick blanket coat against her mouth prevented conversation.
“Come back to ‘Solitude,’ ” he said; “it is too cold and too stormy for you to be out.”
He took her hand, and they trudged on for the greater part of the way in silence; it was too windy to talk, and neither knew when the other spoke unless their heads were close together.
At “Solitude” Paul undid her snowshoes and his own, then they went into the hall, all bright with a huge fire and flowers. Paul put his arms round her and kissed her. She was covered with snow.
“I must go. Let me go, Paul; you will stay. There are things you can put on in the dressing-room; but I must get them for you. I want to tell you about him.”
“I don’t want to know anything. He was a beast; you are mine now. I am not wet, Launa; you have forgotten the snow is dry. Even Mrs. Grundy could not turn a man out on a dark night, with the thermometer at zero and a gale blowing.”
When she came down he was waiting. He came towards her. She loved him, he loved her; was there anything in the world she needed now?
He put his arms round her.
“You have forgiven me?” he said, and he kissed her.
“Paul, you won’t hate me?”
“Probably I shall. Tell me why?”
“Well, you know I do not like – much kissing.”
“I have observed that with regret, or rather I hear you say it with sorrow; for since I came I have kissed you several times and you – ”
“Yes,” she interrupted, “but do you not think we had better be careful? It might get – common, we might grow accustomed to it, and not – like it as much.”
“Tell me how you got here?” she asked. They were sitting by the tea-table. “The roads are blocked, and it snowed all night as well as to-day.”
“Changing the subject rapidly was always one of your accomplishments. Kissing and roads – I see the connection to you.”
“I started to drive,” he answered. “At last we stuck in a drift near Montague’s; so I came on snowshoes.”
“It was a dreadful tramp.”
“It was the best I ever had – with you at the end of it. I wonder if you will ever know? How soon will you marry me? I cannot stay at ‘Solitude,’ and fifteen miles is too far apart for you and me.”
“You never came back! You never wrote to me at ‘Shelton.’ I thought you did not care – that you despised me, and thought me a beast.”
“And you? You were going to marry someone else. I tried to stop you – ”
“I believe I was going to run away the day of the wedding,” she said. “Wasn’t it ghastly?”
“Awful,” he said briefly. “Sylvia has promised to marry the Member for Hackney. Did she write to you?”
“No. She will marry Lord Fairmouth? Ugh! how can she? Is it true?”
“You will marry me soon,” he said. “And we will go – where shall we go?”
“We shall stay here until the spring, and then go up to the North,” she answered. “I am glad we are ‘born Canadian.’ Aren’t you?”
And Paul kissed her.
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