A Girl of the North. A Story of London and Canada
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The Cardens both went to dinner.
Captain Carden was a nondescript. He might have been attractive if he had ever appeared interested. He was tall, fair, with grey eyes, and very ugly hands, which were forced into notice because of his constant endeavour to hide them. Launa regarded mother and son with curiosity, for they were English and new, and reminded her of the characters in Trollope’s novels. Neither Charlie Carden nor his mother appeared to have found much to interest them in this world. They were ignorant as well as superior, and gloried in knowing nothing, unlike Mrs. Phillips’s friends, who were anxious to know everything, and to impress outsiders with their knowledge.
The Archers talked first about the opera. Mrs. Carden’s ideas of it were limited to “Pinafore” as new and “Martha” as old. German opera and Wagner were nothing to her, nor did she care about books.
Captain Carden talked about horses to Launa, who gathered that he fancied his own opinion as well as his own horses and prowess.
Mrs. Carden thought George should ask her to take the head of the table; she considered Launa too young. She was disappointed when she found the table was round.
Mrs. Phillips and Mr. Herbert were the other guests. Mr. Herbert was an ugly, short man, with a square face, and a stubbly black moustache. He was a journalist – besides which he was clever. Shortly he was going to Canada to write articles for some papers on the country and its resources.
“You are going to write to me, too,” said Mrs. Phillips.
“Yes,” he replied, with a glance, full of – what?
Launa saw it; here was a man and a woman who clearly were of moment to each other. Launa was so absolutely ignorant of men; she knew only one man, and she tried to forget him. She had believed in them all as a class, and in their chivalrous respect for women – indefinite women – and in their everlasting love for one particular woman at last, but her belief was tottering.
That all men were brave she believed, too, it was part, an essential part, of her idea of a man, as all women are lovely and good. Of course she knew women existed with protruding teeth, who have no attraction, but men do not love them. Mrs. Carden she classed among them.
Captain Carden talked to her with assiduity. He told her he found London dull.
“I hate the people; they are so difficult to know. I have called over and over again on the Huntingdons. You know who he is? Lord Huntingdon in the War Office. And I go often to the club for billiards, but no one is friendly, and society is very difficult to get into.”
“But do you not go in for something? Don’t you ride, or row, or play golf? I think all men should care for things of that sort, even for making love.”
“I never make love; that means marriage, and I have no money.”
“Do you ride?” she asked, feeling perfectly indifferent as to his reply. “All soldiers do.”
This conversation was so profoundly insipid.
“Sometimes; but I hate it.I am always afraid of falling off. I go in for it because the regiment would not think much of me if I didn’t. But I hope I have not bored you,” with a sudden change of tone. “We are cousins, you know, and it is so funny how intimate I can be with you; there are so few women I like, or with whom I can be confidential.”
Launa ate an almond with deliberation.
“Perhaps some day you will come for a drive with me. I might hire a safe horse.”
“Oh, no, thank you. Please do not trouble, I do not like safe horses.”
Mr. Archer turned to Captain Carden and asked about Malta, and Launa watched Mrs. Phillips, who was talking very little, while Mr. Herbert’s conversation was incessant. His air was persuasive, his eyes eager, ardent, full of desire.
At ten the Cardens departed. Charley Carden had time to assure Launa again that she was the only woman with whom he could be confidential. Mrs. Phillips was to stay the night. Launa and she had bedrooms adjoining, with a door of communication. They both put on dressing-gowns, and Lily Phillips went into Launa’s room.
“You are not sleepy, are you? Shall we talk?”
“Sit here,” said Launa, “in this comfortable chair.”
There was a small fire.
“I am always cold,” said Launa. “I love a fire.”
“What do you think of Mr. Herbert?”
“I think him clever, and he evidently likes you.”
“Yes, he is clever. But tell me, Launa, are you modern?”
“In what way?”
“Would you ask a man who loved you if he had a past? Would you object to it if he had?”
“If a past were a present I would object. Can’t men be without past? Is there always a woman they have loved first?”
She seemed to hear the wailing of a child and the rustling of the trees, and to feel the fresh breeze. She shuddered. Mrs. Phillips observed the shudder and the look.
“I do not object. Men are different; they are coarse. They like kissing – indiscriminate kissing.”
Launa laughed, and said, “Go on.”
“If I love a man I shall not care what he has – past, present, anything, if he loves me. I would like one man to really love me.”
“You have been married,” suggested Launa.
“But not loved. My husband was nice; we never quarrelled, but we never made it up. Nice men do not love women; they ask us to marry them, to be mothers to their children. Devils love us and often leave us.”
For some time there was silence.
“You like Mr. Herbert?” again asked Mrs. Phillips.
“He wants to marry you,” said Launa.
“He thinks he does. I am afraid of marriage. I am four-and-twenty and I feel fifty; he is thirty and seems twenty.”
“If I were a man,” said Launa, “I would love you. You are not merely beautiful; you are more – not only attractive, you will never grow old.”
“Thank you, dear,” said Mrs. Phillips; “that is a compliment.”
Mrs. Phillips was small and slight; her hair was a very dark brown, her lips were red, her eyes large and dark blue. Her mouth was the most beautiful part of her face. Her fascination was great; men loved her, went mad over her, and loved her still. She was not good-tempered; a man would never have chosen her for his friend merely. She was variable; not the least of her attraction was that men never could tell how she would treat them. Some women lose their power by their variableness; Mrs. Phillips gained hers. She was cold, yet she could have been passionately fond; but she worshipped self-control, and considered a man ceases to care for a woman when once he is sure of her.
“I shall marry him,” she said. “I think I shall. He is not poor, but I shall never live with him.”
“Why not? What will you do?”
“Though he cares for me, he will grow tired of marriage, and so shall I. The accessibility of a wife is so dull. I shall live in my own flat, and he can keep his rooms. Our marriage notice in all the papers will be followed by a week’s honeymoon, and then he can go back to his work, and I can play. He must love me better for not being sure of me at breakfast, weary of me at dinner, and asleep in the drawing-room at night. All the attraction of the – ” she paused – “of the others will be mine. I shall be his wife. We can entertain, and he will be sure of me.”
“Do men always grow tired of us?” asked Launa, “even if or when they love us?”
“Not always tired, but secure. If they were merely tired, they would let us alone. They cease to desire to please us; we belong to them. Ah, my dear, love! do men love us? Yes, they love us, but do they love one woman?”
Launa’s clock struck twelve.
“I must go to bed,” said Lily Phillips. “I shall not kiss you. Women should never kiss each other. Good-night.”
“Good-night,” repeated Launa.
“That Carden man will want to marry you, Launa. Beware of them both. He is a worm, and has awful legs!”
A few nights after this, Mrs. Phillips took Launa to a ball given by some bachelors – eligible, delightful young men – whose reputation for wickedness was wholly obliterated by their fortunes or the want thereof.
Captain Carden was there. He had procured his invitation with great difficulty. The mother of one bachelor had cause for gratitude towards him. Her son was in his regiment, and when his reputation promised to become inconveniently large, Captain Carden for once used his wits, saved him from the consequences thereof, and the family felt they owed Captain Carden something. Mrs. Carden rejoiced. She thanked Providence for having delivered the sons of the enemy into her hand, and piously glanced at the ceiling (where a brass chandelier hung, symbolic of the worship of light, also brass) when Charlie related his success. He disliked Mrs. Phillips. She circumvented him by introducing several men to Launa before Captain Carden could demand more dances than he had a right to expect. But then she could give him only two.
“Mr. George will amuse you, dear,” said Mrs. Phillips to Launa. “He is clever, and will tell you about his books.”
Mr. George appeared young, and looked not more than two-and-twenty. He was tall, with a pink and white skin, yellow hair, and an infantile smile. He seemed to have vacated the pinafores of the nursery only the day before; but this was not the case, for he had really left them long ago, and he was thirty years old. He told Miss Archer he was writing a book.
“About what? Is it a novel?” she asked.
“About Beginnings,” he replied; “they are so neglected. Everyone writes about Pasts and Probable Futures, but Beginnings are so interesting. The first love-making is a joy, afterwards it palls. The Beginning – the doubt of how she will take it, and how one can make it – is rapture.”
“You think there is joy in uncertainty?” she said.
“I do,” he replied.
“But when men love, they – ”
George interrupted her.
“Dear Miss Archer, I have taken to you at once. I notice you do not use that detestable expression ‘in love.’ This is our Beginning. You were saying – ?”
“I was going to say, when men love they are never happy until they discover whether she loves them in return; uncertainty gives them no joy.”
“It does, they think it does not. That is just what I want to illustrate; when a man does know it, and she does love him, then he marries her, he is certain of her. He may become resigned, but he is not happy, and then – ”
“Yes, and then?”
“He is forever dissatisfied.”
“I thought women only were dissatisfied.”
“Men are, too,” said Mr. George; “I want to show the unhappiness of certainty. I know it.”
“This is our dance, Launa,” said Captain Carden, standing before her and endeavouring to show his proprietorship.
She did not rise. She looked at him and resented his calling her “Launa” as he did. He was not her friend. She disliked him. His jerky manner and his shifty eyes repelled her.
“Launa,” murmured Mr. George, “your name? and it was surely not given by your godfathers and godmothers?”
“Our dance,” said Captain Carden again.
“I will tell you about my name,” she said, “by and by.”
The band was playing a waltz. In spite of herself she felt gay, inspirited. To Captain Carden it was as all other waltzes. He was tired of dancing with young ladies who bored him, and equally weary of ladies who plainly showed they thought him not worthy of a look or a word.
Launa came as a change and a relief. She had intense vitality and energy; a waltz always affected her; it made her glad or sad. She loved the music, the motion, and she looked so desirable.
Captain Carden was not sure whether she was beautiful or not. He wanted to hear someone else say it; he distrusted his own opinion; he had no self-confidence. She was eligible, virtue of virtues; he was a man, she a woman, and as such glad to get him. Did a woman ever refuse a man with his advantages? Never.
Dancing gave Launa more colour. She waltzed several times round the room with him. He danced badly, and held her too close. They stopped. Her hair was ruffled. She stood near him, and he longed to possess her, to own her, to kiss her until she was breathless. His eyes shone as he looked at her. How he would reform her. She would long for his words; she would yearn for his caresses.
“Isn’t that a reviving waltz?” she asked.
“Yes,” he replied almost impulsively.
Her presence was reviving, not the music. After this she danced with Mr. George, and explained her captivating name to him. He said he adored it.
“As a Beginning,” she suggested.
“Yes,” he answered instantly.
Then he asked leave to call upon her father to explain his recently published book of Proverbs. He offered to bring a copy with him, and she accepted his offer, for he greatly amused her.
She met another man, called Wainbridge. He also expressed his intention of calling at Victoria Mansions. He called himself a musician, though he did not play any instrument; she promised to play for him.
“He will be Lord Wainbridge some day,” said Mrs. Phillips, as they drove home together. “His uncle has no children by this wife. If she were to die!” Lily Phillips shuddered, “there is another, a young woman with sons.”
“He must be a beast,” said Launa.
“No, not necessarily, only a victim to circumstances, and she is very pretty. I think Mr. Wainbridge knows her. Lady Wainbridge is a horror; she is a Plymouth sister, and wears bombazine always, and a front. She was only evangelical when he married her, and he considered she possessed the possibilities of the good wife, and he expected an heir. He has suffered intensely.”
“Rubbish,” said Launa, “the other woman suffers.”
“You may be sure he has settled all he can on her,” said Lily Phillips, “for I suppose she does suffer, principally because she is not his wife. I often wish I knew her. I wonder if she feels wicked. It would be interesting to know any one living on a volcano, as she does. His wife might die, he might marry a young and innocent girl. Men like their wives to be ignorant of their vices and peculiar passions until after marriage – then – Well, good-night. It was a very cheery ball. You liked it?”
“Immensely,” answered Launa.
“You are very young, Launa. You think men love once. You would not care for a man who could love you and kiss another woman?”
“He could not love me then.”
“My dear, men are different. There is passion and love, and not always felt for the same woman. Love and passion last; passion alone – Bah! it is nothing.”
“Nothing,” repeated Launa.
“It is an impulse; it goes, and they love you again.”
Some days after the ball they were all at tea at Mrs. Phillips’s – Mr. Wainbridge, Launa, Mr. George, and others. The two men had already called on Mr. Archer, and had been invited to dine.
“I want above all things in the world,” said Launa slowly, “to drive a hansom, to sit up high and see the world.”
“I bet you five pounds you can’t,” said Mr. George. “I beg your pardon. But I am sure you can’t.”
She laughed. “I will.”
“How will you climb up?” asked Mrs. Phillips.
“Easily. I will do it at night.”
“And drive me,” Mr. George said. “I will pay you. Don’t overcharge.”
“Take me too,” said Mr. Wainbridge.
“You may both come,” answered Launa gaily.
“You must all dine here to-morrow night,” said Lily Phillips. “Launa, make your arrangements, and get it over.”
It was after dinner. Launa and Mr. George had been delightful. Mr. Wainbridge was suffering from his feelings for her; he could not be frivolous. The carriage came for Miss Archer, who sent it away.
“Come,” she said. “Good-night, Lily, I am going to drive. Jacobs got me a hansom, and has arranged it all for me. Do hurry,” she said to Mr. George. “I feel so excited.”
She put on a long driving coat, a little cap, and a very large silk handkerchief, which went round her neck, and covered the lower part of her face completely.
Mrs. Phillips came out to the door.
“We can’t start here,” said Launa; “the hansom is in a narrow street close by.”
They found it waiting just round the corner.
“Get in quickly,” she said.
“I won’t,” said Mr. Wainbridge, “until you are up. Don’t do it. I wish you wouldn’t.”
“Rubbish,” she replied. “I am going by the back streets. I know the way, so does the mare. I am driving Nell, you know.”
She climbed up and arranged the rugs.
“It is splendid, it gives one such a grip. Let her go.”
They dashed off with a clatter. The mare evidently was pulling.
“I never thought she would do it,” said Mr. George.
“I wish to Heaven she had not tried,” said the other.
“Get out, then,” said Mr. George. “Shall I stop her?”
“No! If she is killed, I’ll be killed too!”
Mr. George laughed quietly with intense enjoyment. They drove through dark streets. Launa had been coached by Jacobs which way to go. In one place where it was brightly lighted there was a public-house and a policeman. She drove slowly. Mr. Wainbridge glanced with apprehension at the stalwart supporter of law.
Then they turned a corner, and stopped in front of Victoria Mansions. Jacobs was waiting. Launa got down.
“It was perfectly celestial,” she said. “I never enjoyed anything so much in my life.”
“Nor I,” said Mr. George, “though I owe you five pounds. There is something romantic in being driven by a woman, and that woman you, and you drive so well. I am callous when I remember that five pounds, though I was alarmed about you.”
“Of course I would not take it,” she said.
Mr. Wainbridge looked white. He helped her to take off her coat.
“You will never do it again,” he said. “Promise – never.”
She laughed softly.
“I shall do it perhaps if I want to.”
“Only with me.”
The tone was beseeching.
“No, no, with anyone I choose.”
After they left, Launa went into her father’s work-room.
“I drove to-night,” she said. “Mr. George and Mr. Wainbridge came in the hansom, and I drove it.”
“You drove a hansom cab?”
“Yes, I feel very proud, so don’t tell me I ought not to be.”
“You should be ashamed, and I must scold you.”
“Ah, no. You are a dear.”
“Was it a successful party? You like Mrs. Phillips?”
“I like her very much… Do men love women – often?”
Her father looked at her, but it was evidently a problem question, not as it affected herself, but others.
“Yes,” he replied.
“They talk so much about it.”
“I suppose so. You have.. no theories, no experience, I suppose?”
“No, I think a man in love must be rather a bore. Good-night, I am very sleepy.”
“Don’t drive any more hansoms, Launa.”
“Very well, father, I won’t.”
Mr. Archer had gone on a trip to Norway.
Mrs. Phillips was at Marlow with some friends, Mr. Herbert was there also.
Mrs. Phillips had written to Launa telling her the new shirts were becoming and the new punt a success. From this Launa gathered that Mr. Herbert, as well as the punt, was agreeable. Lily had too much experience to give in to his supplications at once, or to agree with him that love was of any avail in life. She said marriage rhymed with carriage very properly, and love with nothing. Besides, she was aware that after a woman has said “I love you” frequently there is nothing left to say.
Launa was all alone.
This particular afternoon she had arrayed herself in a wonderful tea-gown – a combination of Greece and Paris with flashes of audacity thrown in, green and cream and gold – it was loose where it is pretty to be loose, and tight where it showed the curves of her figure.
She was playing to herself – Chopin and Wagner. Her wrists had gained in strength, her tone in volume, and her mind – that, too, had gained in experience and insight. The world was opening to her – undreamt of possibilities intruded sometimes – but Lily’s ideas of taking the goods the gods give to-day while never thinking of to-morrow, were attractive. Yet Launa could not forget Paul; in her heart she believed in the future “Goldene Zeit” which must come.
It was impossible for her to realise that she could not command fate – destiny. She had assumed the command once, that day with Paul, and now she regretted it. She could not write to him; everything was against that, and if he were to come over, as she often hoped he would, how much better would it be? The Indian girl came between them. She knew her father would never consent to any marriage between herself and Paul. Launa had cultivated an ideal of women’s behaviour to other women; they should always support the wronged woman, even when it means losing a hearts desire. Until it meant losing her own heart’s desire she had derived much joy from this theory, now she realised that no one can be happy on a theory.
She played a Chopin study: relentless fate – a chilling, creeping fiend of Impossibility – went through it, which mocked the delusive sound of far-away joy and happiness somewhere – the indefinite somewhere.
She heard a faint rustle of a porti?re behind her, but she played on. When it was over she put her head in her hands, then let her hands fall with a crash upon the keys. The sound expressed her feelings, the discord was a relief.
“How do you do?” said some one softly behind her.
She started and turned round to see Mr. Wainbridge. There were tears in her eyes enough to soften them as she looked up at him. She did not rise hurriedly, or look startled as the majority of women would have done, but held out her hand, which he took.
“Shall I go away?” he asked. He admired every detail of her appearance, and the look in her eyes surprised him. “You would like to be alone and I cannot bear to leave you,” he said slowly, while still holding her hand.
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