A Girl of the North. A Story of London and Canada
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Launa did not know her father’s address. Miss Black’s relations were merely cousins, to whom her death and funeral were matters of indifference.
So Launa stayed alone with the dead woman weeping tears of sorrow – some tears were for the loss of companionship, some for the love and never ceasing care. The idea of a funeral was terrible to her; death meant earth and creepy things. At last Mr. Archer got his telegram, and came home.
Launa felt as if the end had come to her. Death, the intruder, had entered into her life; he was a powerful enemy, and hitherto she had only regarded him as a sleeping brother.
Mr. Archer’s grief was not perfunctory, he grieved honestly and really. Miss Black was his friend – if any longing for a nearer and perhaps dearer connection (the dearness thereof is wont to depart when the nearness is an accomplished fact) had ever crossed his mind, it had crossed only and never taken root. The constancy of man is more frequently attributable to circumstances than to everlasting love.
Mr. Archer observed that Launa had grown different – older, more absorbed in something, more sympathetic. Always a child of deep emotions, she had developed into a woman. But because her heart was not navigable to floundering old women, the world near “Solitude” called her cold, unfeeling, and indifferent.
Her father regretted this alteration. She had been a child, but apparently death had stepped in and changed her.
He studied her gravely and with attention. “Solitude” was dreary. Launa’s admirers grew weary of vain visits, of fruitless attempts to see her, and they ceased to come. They said she was in love with an unknown man; they had to account for her refusal to see them, and pique and vanity suggested this solution.
After a long, cold winter, spring was beginning. All life was breaking out again. The world was glad, triumphant, new, and Mr. George Archer’s mind turned to England. Launa must go there for change of scene and air, so they left Canada on the first of May.
Launa and Paul had never met since the memorable day he had shot the horse. Mr. Archer casually mentioned that Paul was in Montreal. Launa had a burning desire to hear tidings of him, but she repressed it; she pushed it back, back, back in her mind, far away into those cupboards everyone has, and keeps locked and sealed always, by sheer force of will.
The long streak of smoke from the steamer’s funnel lay black on the calm sea; the strong throb of the engines sounded like the measure of a waltz to Launa. She sat on deck every day after the first woe of sea-sickness was over, and felt utterly and completely miserable. She wanted to go back again, for the ache of unconquered pain remained in her heart. She gave herself a little shake and tried to make herself agreeable to a young man who was returning to England to be married. He told her happily that the engines were playing the “Wedding March”; to her it was a hateful discord, with the refrain of a waltz to which she had danced with Paul.The young man hummed Mendelssohn, and she heard Paul’s voice, and fancied his kisses on the warm cheek of the squaw.
“When I am married I would rather have the ‘Dead March in Saul’ played than that,” said Launa at last.
The triumphant whistler gazed incredulously at her. He found her irresponsive, so he left her alone, and went to get a whisky and soda. No doubt the poor girl was feeling sick. She would not argue about anticipation and realisation, or time and love. She seemed so cold. He could imagine her sailing on through life alone. She evidently did not care for men; anyhow she did not encourage him.
Launa was occupied with her thoughts. She was trying to seal up her life as if it were a book and could be put away. The long, uneventful days were good for reflection, but they were trying and full of remorse and regret.
“I am young,” she said to herself; “only nineteen, and I will forget,” said her mind, “and I wish for Paul,” said her heart, which was like the ship’s engines – an essential part of movement and life.
“Hearts,” she said to the young man with anticipations, when he returned, “are only necessary to one’s being as the engines are to a steamer.”
She considered herself very wise.
“You are so young,” he answered, wondering why she should mention her heart.
Just then Mr. Archer appeared at the companion door to breathe the air. He was writing a paper on the intestines of salmon and grayling. The young man turned to him and said:
“Miss Archer compares our hearts to the engines.”
“A very good way,” murmured the father.
The young man left them and went to play poker; they were an unsuitable pair. Mr. Archer came over to Launa, who turned quickly to him.
“Father, I heard you talking to Mrs. Montmorency that day on the Lethe– about Mr. Harvey – was it true?”
Mr. Archer frowned.
“What did you hear?”
“Something about – a squaw and a child.”
“It was quite true about the squaw and the child,” he answered slowly.
“Ah!” she exclaimed with a little gasp. “Then a man can think of two women at the same time.”
Then he turned and looked at her.
“Men are very brutal.”
“You said he was thinking of marriage?”
She turned her face away from him, for his kind, penetrating look hurt her, and just then she needed him to be cross to her.
“Why do you ask me these questions, child?”
“Because it seemed so strange to me – I could not understand him.”
“Merely strange and not brutal? Nothing to you? Well, you hardly knew him, Launa.”
“Nothing to me,” she repeated, and her father returned to his writing.
The young man with anticipations saw his departure, and hastened to talk to Launa. He was singularly anxious to realise the pleasure of Miss Archer’s society; she was quite original.
“You look pale,” he said, with solicitude.
“And worried. As if someone were dead.”
“Some one is dead.”
“Relations of yours? Cheer up. Wait until you get to London.”
“Then? Oh, you can have a good time. You can have the best of good times in London – the very best – and forget everything disagreeable, too. I give you my word, it is just like morphia. When I am in a hole, and feel down on my luck, I go to town.”
“Is that the fog? I think I should not like the after effect of morphia.”
“Fog?” he asked. “No, it isn’t fog, and yet it is fog, too; it deadens the brain. When someone threw me over, you bet I felt bad. I went up to town and forgot for a week. I did, really.”
“A week! It lost its effect in a week, so quickly?”
“Well, she wrote then and forgave me, and I hadn’t done anything wrong; she flirted. But she took me back, and I just licked her boots.”
“But suppose she had not taken you back?”
“Then I should have lived and forgotten her; I’m hanged if I wouldn’t,” he said, with energy. “Life does it.”
“Life? – you mean time.”
“I mean living it down.”
“But suppose you could not forget? Suppose you were so fond that you thought of her always?”
“I would forget. I mean – Well, I couldn’t, you know,” he said, and laughed. “Now I’ve got her, you see, and don’t need to try. I do not mind telling you – you seem so interested, and are so sympathetic to-day – that I only forgot her when it was noisy and all that. But when I was alone and quiet – at night, you know – I was miserable. You have nothing like that to worry you, Miss Archer? It is very kind of you to take so much interest in my trouble. You won’t think of your relations when you get to town. Are they in Canada?”
“And one died – a girl, I suppose? And the others want to interfere with you; they want you to be dull because they are? Relations always do that. Now, I have an aunt – she’s a caution; she thinks I ought not to marry. But I would not stand that. Have you any aunts in town?”
“No. My father has a cousin; Mrs. Carden is her name.”
“She won’t bother you, I expect. You are lucky. Your father adores you. You have plenty of money, and are young. My Aunt Maria is a – Oh, the very deuce.”
Here he launched forth into anecdotes of his relations, and Launa murmured a polite accompaniment to his reminiscences until the bell rang for dinner.
“We’ll meet after dinner, won’t we, and finish our talk? It’s very jolly,” he said. “You have such a nice voice, too.”
“You have done me a great deal of good,” she answered. “Time is all one wants.”
“And life, amusement, and love,” he added softly, with a glance at her, which, considering the state of his feelings for another lady, was unnecessarily kind.
“Leave out love,” she answered. “I am hungry.”
On deck after dinner when he looked for her she was not to be seen, so he concluded she was tired and had gone to bed, wherefore he played poker.
But Launa was not tired. She had hidden from him. His talks about his Aunt Maria had no interest for her, except when she regarded them as a narcotic, and then his musings were soothing. That evening she wanted to think and to be alone.
Her father had insisted on her drinking champagne at dinner. Mr. Archer said a voyage was exhausting, and he looked weary. He had not recovered from the surprise which his daughter’s questions had produced. Were they caused merely by curiosity – the curiosity of an ignorant girl – or by interest? Curiosity is merely an inheritance from Eve; interest is the first instinct towards a man when a woman loves him or is going to love him.
“Launa must drink champagne to-night,” he decided. “And soon we shall be in London. But why did she ask those curious questions?”
Launa took some cushions and rugs and went forward behind the boats. The steamer was surging on, the wind was rising, and the waves were breaking below with big white heads of foam. She began to think; she drew a picture of it all for herself in her mind and called herself a fool. Suppose Paul were there on the steamer, suppose he came to her with love in his eyes, and he were hers for the time – and that was it, that was what hurt – for the time, perhaps only for a time. Would she be willing to take him at the price of another woman’s shame? And to know and to remember what was between her and him, like a bar, or a hand – the warm soft hand of a woman! No, it was over. She would shut up the book. Paul was dead, her Paul, the Paul she loved – she would think of him as she did of her dead mother – sometimes. But her mother was with the angels, and Paul was alive. She shivered a little; it was cold and damp, and the swirl of the waves as the steamer rushed through them was cruel.
She resolved to begin again, to rub out the writing of the first episode of life – such a new book to her – and to make the page ready for London and fresh impressions.
When the Archers arrived in London they took a flat near the Thames Embankment, and Launa revelled in new clothes, music, and horses. Her father soon had many friends. His wee world was exciting itself about the question of bones of fish, and he flung himself with ardour into the controversy.
After some days of continual absence on his part, and loneliness on Launa’s, she went to him and said: —
“I want to know some women. I love nice women. Don’t you know some?”
He looked surprised.
“There is your cousin, Lavinia Carden; she lives in town. I will take you to see her. Her husband is dead; poor man, he never was happy. He yearned for the country and for pigs – Lavinia only appreciated bacon, and would not live out of Bayswater. A month at the seaside was all poor Carden got in the way of country.”
“I shall not like her.”
“She will give you good advice, Launa,” he said, laughing. “You don’t like that.”
Mrs. Carden lived in a semi-detached house, beyond Bayswater, far from the region of the fashionable, in the heart of cheap villadom, where twelve pennies had to make a little over a shilling. Endeavouring to save a farthing on one’s rolls or one’s fire-lighters is an absorbing occupation, and it seems to have most interest for those to whom it is immaterial whether they do save their farthing or not. Mrs. Carden had one son. When he was at home she saw what she considered life – an occasional visit to the theatre, or a dull dinner party, both reached with due propriety in a four-wheeler.
Mrs. Carden was a selfish woman, with a firm belief in her own opinions, and her own importance; anyone who contradicted her or disagreed with her was at once a detestable person. Her affection for her son was expressed in long letters, and the frequent use of “dearest.” But her love was variable, and when he was at home he disturbed her breakfasts, while her nights were made feverish by his late hours, which kept the hall gas a-light until sometimes past twelve o’clock. Her servants assumed a more frivolous demeanour on his arrival, and it seemed to her that while their caps were coquettishly crooked and smart, her stiff house became sometimes slightly untidy.
Charlie Carden was in a line regiment stationed at Malta, with one hundred and fifty pounds a year besides his pay. His mother wondered why he never became dashing, or soldier-like, or anything of a hero, with a sprinkling from the pepper-pot of wickedness – to possess this is the bounden duty of every man when he puts on a red coat or a sword. Carden remained dull, and his mother almost despised him; he was not even selfish, nor did he bully her.
George Archer and Lavinia Carden were second cousins, she was the only relation left whom he had known as a boy. His recollections of her were hazy. In these she figured as a muslin-fichued, sandy-haired girl, in whose face piety and cruelty struggled for mastery; now she parted her hair deliberately in the middle, and indulged in them both. In her youth she had regarded George as a possible husband, and, not loving him, had forgotten him, therefore when reminded of his existence she felt angry with him. Was it not his fault that she had married a man whose only inclinations were to have a farmyard, against which she had had to struggle all her life?
The day before the Archers went to 52 Lancaster Road a note was sent to Lavinia to prepare her for their visit. Mrs. Carden therefore left off her cap for the afternoon, braving the smile of her parlourmaid with the fortitude of a widow who has given up hope of a second marriage, and who suddenly finds the wonderful idea returning with unwonted sweetness – brought back to her by the visit of a man who was long ago considered a possibility. His fondness for a walk from church on Sunday evenings with her had more than proclaimed this fact. She forgot he had a daughter, and that it was five and twenty years since they had met.
The outside of Lavinia’s house was grey. Inside her drawing-room suggested the past and dust, which was constantly being removed; its mark was on the carpet, the walls and the furniture. Only the red blinds shed a little cheerful light, which the drab curtains chastened and subdued.
Mrs. Carden began by relating reminiscences of the family, and then pitied George Archer for his long residence among Colonists. He explained that his residence was quite voluntary, and that he regarded it as the happiest period of his life.
“Did you think my father was obliged to live in Canada whether he liked it or not?” asked Launa; “that he was suffering an unwilling exile?”
“Not exactly that,” said Mrs. Carden. “Where are you staying?”
When she heard of the flat, and contemplated Launa’s boots and dress, she murmured to herself, “Money.”
“George, sometimes when you are busy I should be so glad to take care of Launa; I would take her to – ” She paused. Where could she take Launa? “We might go to the Zoo.”
“Thank you very much,” said Launa politely. She did not press Mrs. Carden to name the day for this expedition; she was not favourably impressed by her relative.
“You will come and dine with us, Mrs. Carden,” said Launa.
“Call me Lavinia,” said Mrs. Carden.
“Come any evening next week; which one will suit you?” asked Mr. Archer.
“Next Thursday,” answered Lavinia.
Then they talked of Mr. Archer’s old home, and looked at photographs of the whole of the family.
“Those happy days,” murmured Mrs. Carden, not without an uneasy feeling that her hair was growing thin at the parting; besides, she began to feel cold without her cap.
They drank weak tea, and Lavinia asked Launa her impressions of England.
“I think London is perfectly delightful,” she answered. “I don’t like the horses much. You use bearing reins. The river is quite perfect, and so different from ours. And yet sometimes I long for a stretch of rocky country, for more freedom. But the music and the life are so interesting. Yes, I love London.”
“Horses, river, life,” repeated Mrs. Carden.
A horse to her was a vehicle of locomotion, like an engine; it conveyed her to the station or to a party. Some deluded beings owned horses; she preferred hers hired, with no responsibility as to legs or grooms.
“You love boating and freedom,” remarked Mrs. Carden. “They are both often dangerous.”
“In this country, yes – where freedom frequently ends in trespassing,” answered Launa.
“Or worse – the loss of one’s reputation,” Lavinia said with decision.
Then she turned to George and told him anecdotes. She conversed rapidly and loudly; when she was a girl her family had told her she was arch.
When they rose to go she said: “George, my dear son will be at home in a few days. May I bring him to dine? Launa, he is your cousin.”
“Do bring him,” said Mr. Archer; “Launa will be glad to see him, I know.”
What a name – Launa! reflected Lavinia after their departure. What a fatality there is in our annexing the Colonies! Still, there is money behind the girl, and she is young.
By which reflection we may infer that Mrs. Carden thought of her son in connection with the money and Launa.
The Archers went home in a hansom.
“You call her a woman, daddy; now I call her a fossil,” said Launa. “She is not the sort of woman friend I need. I want a living woman – not one who has existed on husks until she withers everyone who goes near her.”
“She is a type,” he answered vacantly.
“She is an imitation. Show me some one who is brave – who has or knows life.”
“Would you like Mrs. Phillips to come and see you? She is Sir John Blomfield’s daughter, a widow and young. She wants to know you.”
“I am doubtful, not whether she will like me,” with sublime conceit, “but whether I shall like her.”
“You must try her,” he laughed.
His daughter amused him with her odd ideas.
However, when Mrs. Phillips did come, Launa approved of her.
All this time Launa was learning. She was filled with a desire to know and see more; people and life were so interesting. It was like a new play. She noticed how differently her father, herself, and the others were affected by it, and the noise was soothing, even at times deadening.
Launa found Mrs. Phillips entertaining. She explained some of the parts in this vast human drama. She found Miss Archer absurdly young in many of her notions, and absurdly old in others.
“I want to see everything,” said Launa, “and to live myself. It is terrible to feel oneself growing old. It will soon be over, and I haven’t done what I meant to do.”
Mrs. Phillips laughed.
“Go on. What did you mean to do?”
“I should like,” said Launa, “to be happy.”
“So should we all. Tell me more.”
“I want to play a little first, and then – to make the world a little brighter for someone.”
“If I were you, I would simply play myself and leave the others alone. Playing is real and not difficult. Once you begin to mix other people in your life, with your or their happiness depending on you, you will probably be very miserable.”
The admiration of one woman for another is sincere when it is felt when with her, and not merely expressed to a man.
Mrs. Phillips admired Launa for her youth, for her length of limb, and for her slight, graceful body and her warm brown skin. Launa’s mind was attractive. She made friends quickly; she seemed very adaptable; everyone interested her. Some men adored her as they had done at Musquodobit. To others, with a taste for sensuality, she was an indefinite slight girl, while to the few she was wholly desirable – madly desirable. Of course to the crowd she was just a girl.
Music exercised all its old fascination for her. She practised with diligence, and she listened greedily. It transported her to “Solitude,” to the wild sea there, to the rivers and lakes, the life which she loved and missed, which life and Paul she strove every day to forget. And in music she was with him. It was a dream life – she lived in it. Paul was dead to her, but for all that he existed sometimes. She was stared at in her canoe on the river, her paddling was so strong and vigorous, her body so lithe, her arms so round and firm as she took long, almost masculine, strokes, and nowhere did she miss Paul so much as she did there.
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