A Girl of the North. A Story of London and Canada
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His expression and intonation were not lost on her – they meant power in herself; he could not leave her; and the desire of power comes after love in the aspirations of some women.
“No, stay,” she said. “Sit down.”
He chose a chair near her and the silence was restful – most women consider it fatal. He had begun to compare her with other women.
“You heard my discord?”
“I heard it,” he replied.
“And interpreted it?”
“No, I cannot say that.”
“I will play to you,” she said, rising with a quick litheness which reminded him of a serpent.
She played Liszt’s arrangement of Mendelssohn’s “Auf Fl?geln des Gesanges.”
“Thank you; I have enjoyed it intensely,” he said, when she had finished. “ ‘Thank you’ is poor – it cannot express my meaning. You play magnificently.”
“I am glad you think so,” she replied. “When you came I was wishing I could do nothing. You understand? To acquiesce is happiness if one knows no better.”
“But if one does know? Believe me, acquiescence is misery. The wings of song carried you somewhere far away?”
“How do you know?” she asked suddenly. “To fight, to be, and to do, are the best.”
“Like our childish friend the verb; you have left out to suffer,” he suggested softly.
She laughed, and he felt baffled.
“Let us go and have tea.”
“On the principle of feed a man when he bores you,” Mr. Wainbridge said with irritation.
“No, not at all. I love my tea, and it will be cold. Tell me first how you like my music-room? It is my own particular abode; you were admitted by mistake.”
“May I be admitted again?”
“Perhaps – tell me about my room?”
He had forgotten to look at the surroundings. The room was long, and rather high – the walls were a dull rich cream colour; quantities of flowers were arranged everywhere, principally irises with their long leaves, in immense dull brown jars. Standing near the piano was a eucalyptus tree, its dull grey-green leaves hung over Launa. Green, brown, and cream were the colours in the room, with red here and there – the warm red of autumn leaves.
“The room suits you,” he replied.
Mr. Wainbridge found personal conversation was over with the change of room. She talked of the last new book, and of bicycling. He made himself agreeable. He was a prudent young man, and well received everywhere; plain daughters of dukes and marquises were glad to talk to him – he was a Possibility; there was a doubt owing to his uncle and the Plymouth Sister. There was a legend about Mr. Wainbridge that he once had loved someone of the lower classes – the someone was indefinite – it was supposed she had died or married. Some people gave Mr. Wainbridge credit for the virtue of forsaking her.
They had finished tea when Mr. George was announced. He had a large book with him. It was his own book of proverbs, and he brought it to present to Launa.
“Precept is better than example,” he began.“Don’t you think so, Wainbridge? I always have set a good example, but – ”
“Mrs. Carden,” said the maid, and the rest of Mr. George’s sentence was lost in the rustle of that lady’s entrance.
She was arrayed principally in bugles. She looked war-like, and as if she might suddenly sound the call to battle on one of her ornaments.
Launa introduced the men to her. Mrs. Carden accepted tea, and observed that George was away.
“I am here,” whispered Mr. George softly. “Does she want me?”
Launa frowned at him.
“Yes,” she replied; “he is in Norway. I heard from him to-day.”
“I am sure Mrs. Carden will agree with me,” said Mr. George agreeably, “about proverbs. Precept is better than example. Miss Launa, your father plainly thinks so. He is away enjoying himself. He sets you a bad example, but his precepts are excellent. My edition of the proverbs is so convincing.”
Mrs. Carden gazed at him, her cake in her hand half-way to her mouth, which was open.
“Is it really precept is better than example? Did Solomon say it? I only know his proverbs. I brought my son up on them.”
She was rather at sea as to Mr. George’s position, he seemed so self-assured and so moral. Could he be the head of a new sect, or the editor of a paper?
“Solomon says, ‘The lips of a strange woman drop as an honeycomb,’ ” said Mrs. Carden. “He is a very wise man.”
“That is not a mere precept,” said Mr. Wainbridge softly. “He said it from experience.”
“Solomon’s example was variable,” said George.
“But he was very wise,” observed Mrs. Carden.
“Very,” said George solemnly. “Precept is better than example.”
“What?” she asked, “surely you have made a mistake, and the true version is ‘example is better than precept.’ ”
She wore an air of triumph, and glanced proudly round her.
“Mr. George is writing a book,” said Launa, “on proverbs. He is – ”
“Correcting the faults of the world,” said Mr. George, humbly.
“A necessary task,” said Mrs. Carden, “in these degenerate days. Mr. McCarthy, who preaches at St. Luke’s, Launa (I advise you to go and hear him), is a son of Dr. Willis, in the faith – ”
“What a good name. I did not know that was what they called it,” said Mr. George softly; “but add in love – in faith and love.”
“Miss Archer was playing to me,” said Mr. Wainbridge. “Have you heard her?”
He addressed his question to Mrs. Carden, who appeared perturbed.
“No. I am sure she can play. But I dislike music excessively. I played myself once; and my son has a flute. I find it disturbing.”
“There is so much wind needed for the flute,” said Mr. George. “It is an instrument which reminds one of a hurricane.”
“I love a penny whistle,” said Launa. “I can play ‘Honey, my honey,’ on mine.”
“Play it now,” said Mr. George. “Please, Miss Archer. I really cannot call you Miss Archer any longer. Miss Launa is so much prettier; and Launa is the prettiest name in the world.”
“You may call me Launa if you like. I never was called Miss Archer as much as I have been since I came to England. I will play the penny whistle for you some day. Mrs. Carden would not like it now.”
“Pray do not mind me; I must go. I am always at home at half-past five; I dine at six. I came, my dear Launa, to ask you to come and spend a few quiet days with me while your father is away. Charlie is also away.”
“Thank you. It is very kind of you to think of me,” replied Launa. “I cannot come and stay, for I promised my father I would not leave the flat just now. You see all our servants are new, and he would not like me to leave them alone.”
“How terrible if they danced in your music room,” said Mr. Wainbridge, with a smile.
“Terrible,” said Launa.
“There is no reason why we should not dance there,” observed Mr. George. “Example! precept! Let us dance.”
“I think, Launa, it would be much better for you to come to the shelter of an English home, during the time of your father’s absence. It is not proper for you to remain here alone.”
“I prefer a Canadian shelter,” said Launa, with sweetness.
“Are you having music lessons, dear Launa?” asked Mrs. Carden. “And have you taken up any serious study, yet?”
“I go to Herr Winderthal’s twice a week and play for him, and with him. He has two other men for the violin and the ’cello; we play trios and quartettes. You know the quartette with ‘Die Forelle,’ motif by Schubert?”
“Alone?” inquired Mrs. Carden, with apprehension.
“Alone? No. Three people play in a trio, and four in a quartette,” said Launa.
Mr. George laughed, and said: —
“No one will listen to me. And I do so want to explain my proverb to you, Miss Launa. You see, if a woman has a brutal temper she does absolutely as she likes, and never sets an example; her precepts are obeyed, she has a good time, the best; and you see a saint whose example is quite heavenly, does any one imitate her? No, they only make her do more, work harder, and set a better example. Then they admire her.”
“You have met that woman?” said Mr. Wainbridge.
“Several of them,” said the other.
“Good-bye,” began Mrs. Carden. “I am disappointed in you, Launa.”
Launa did not inquire the reason of her disappointment, but shook hands with her, accompanying her to the door, followed by the two men.
“Come to me when you are in difficulties,” said Mrs. Carden. “Your housemaids – ”
She waved her parasol as the lift bore her down, and went home in a state of agitation; for in the future Launa would have great possessions, and the Carden exchequer was low. Could it be that the young man with the proverbs had discovered this? That he would desire Launa?
She resolved to invite herself to lunch with Launa the next Sunday, and to make Charlie call the day of his return.
Mrs. Carden drove home in a hansom, a strange and unusual extravagance. At Launa’s she had been bewildered – the conversation was so difficult to understand, so full of proverbs and of Solomon.
In the hansom Mrs. Carden would think well. She turned the situation over in her mind and stopped at a telegraph office to send Charlie a telegram. He was fishing with some uninteresting cousins in Kent. Mrs. Carden sent for her friend and confidante, Miss Sims. Miss Sims had been fat, she now was thin, and weighed only seven stone – she gloried in thin arms and a scraggy neck, and told everybody about herself in a sad voice. It is better to be poor and lean than poor and fat, the rich ask one to dine more frequently.
Mrs. Carden told her lean friend as much of the subject as was necessary for her to know.
Mrs. Carden’s principles were good – on principle. She was firmly persuaded that Charlie was deeply, virginly in love with Launa, and that Launa was wandering – was being attracted by strange men who talked of books and pianos with intimacy, and of proverbs. At first she had an idea that Mr. George was a leader of some kind. From the sheltered seclusion of beyond Bayswater she had read the papers, and had heard that at one fashionable church the clergyman lectured on dress in the pulpit, while his wife wore a becoming cassock in the chancel. Miss Sims and Mrs. Carden took counsel together, and the result thereof was that Charlie loved Launa, and Launa must see the advantage of such affection.
Mrs. Carden sent Launa a post-card, saying she would go to lunch the next Sunday at two o’clock. If Launa was obliged to go out, she must leave lunch for her relative, and empty rooms – Mrs. Carden adored rooms without their owners.
Mrs. Phillips was still staying at Marlow; Mr. Herbert, too, was there. She was in the uncomfortable situation of indecision; he in an equally uncomfortable one. He had made up his mind, but a solitary mind which has determined on its own course of action is weariness, because for happiness it requires the acquiescence of the other person, and Lily would not agree that what would make him happy would necessarily make her so.
Her doubt had not spoiled her appetite, the arrangement of her neckties, nor any one of those details to which a well-dressed woman is always attentive, but it did spoil the sunshine and the river; the wind in the rushes made her shiver, and the backwaters were lonely and too convenient for episodes. The locks and people were delightful; the puffing of steam launches was a sound of joy. She took to rowing, and suffered tortures afterwards from stiff arms and a stiffer back. When she did not row, Mr. Herbert did; she sat in the stern and discoursed to him, and he enjoyed her conversation. The boat was delightful: it was quite cranky, and neither person dared to move about; conversation with three yards between them must be of the day and not of the feelings, or if feelings are mentioned, one means those delightful, unexplainable sensations which are merely useful as subjects of conversation, and do not agitate one sufficiently to make one uncomfortable.
At the end of a month Mrs. Phillips went up to Paddington. Mr. Herbert accompanied her; they sat in opposite corners of the carriage, and she read the Lady’s Pictorial while he smoked. At Paddington they parted, and she drove to Victoria Mansions to stay with Launa.
Mr. Wainbridge was there, and they were having tea. Mrs. Phillips found it cool and restful, and the sensation of being not the first and only woman was novel and possessed a reposeful charm. They were arguing about music, and the room was full of flowers.
When Launa received Mrs. Carden’s post-card she threw it to her friend Lily.
“There,” she said.
Mrs. Phillips groaned.
“I cannot endure that woman. Who are you having to lunch as well?”
“Mr. Herbert, Mr. Wainbridge, you and I.”
“Shall I ask papa? He is so cheerful.”
“Do, if you think he will not be bored.”
“My dear, he admires you immensely.”
Sir John Bloomfield was a cheerful old gentleman; he took this world as it treated him, and that was well. He had been married twice. The second lady, Lily’s stepmother, had money, and did not live long. She had taken life seriously, and it killed her. Sir John’s curly hair was white, and also his moustache; he wore his hat with a gentle incline to one side of his head. It gave him a rakish air of joviality; he affected the society of young married women, all except his daughters – he took no interest in either of them. He came to lunch on Sunday, fresh from a stroll with a delightful young woman, after an hour’s contemplation of the smartest bonnets in church, and having listened to the cleverest preacher in London, whose sermons lasted ten minutes only. He was a brilliant man.
They were all in the drawing-room when Mrs. Carden rustled in.
Sir John attached himself to Launa as he objected to elderly ladies, because they were so apt to take it for granted that his opinions were like theirs – middle-aged – and Sir John was quite modern.
At lunch Mrs. Carden sat between Mr. Herbert and Sir John, who devoted himself to Launa. There was another reason to account for his youthful air – he had not the gluttonous enjoyment of food the middle-aged and old acquire.
Mr. Herbert was absorbed in his lunch. Mrs. Carden began to talk. She was hungry, but the waves of Sir John’s anecdotes threatened to engulf her and to reduce her to silence.
She talked of music halls and of morality. In those days both were subjects of conversation and of argument.
“I hate morality,” said Launa. “It means nothing. It is only a name. Maud is so fond of talking of it. Maud is very vulgar.”
Mrs. Carden pushed away her plate with impatience. She ate the pudding afterwards, for it was excellent. She was horrified.
Sir John helped himself to cream with deliberation. Mr. Wainbridge looked at Launa. Mrs. Phillips saw the look and interpreted it.
“My dear Miss Archer,” said Sir John, “the world is very hard; its rules are firm and not easily broken.”
“I do not agree with you,” said Mrs. Carden. “They are broken with impunity very easily.”
“Probably you do not agree with me,” said Sir John. “I haven’t tried to break any. I do not speak from experience.”
“The world does not mind its rules being broken,” said Mrs. Phillips. “It minds only when it discovers the hole and is obliged to notice it.”
“There are saints to whom the good people would not, could not speak,” said Sir John.
“Purity and morality are often mistaken,” said Launa, “by the world. It is unjust, and justice is cruelty.”
“It is law,” observed Mr. Wainbridge, with a sigh.
“Law and the promises,” said Sir John.
“Prophets,” corrected Mrs. Carden.
“Promises are interesting,” he continued, talking rapidly because he knew he had made a mistake. “A man should always keep a promise.”
“No,” said Launa.
“Yes,” said Mr. Wainbridge.
“I would rather hear the truth,” said Launa, “even if it hurt. One moment’s pain would be better than days of regret.”
Mrs. Carden shook her head and waved her hands. Pantomime was her only resource.
Sir John assumed his spritely air.
“We are too sad; we are discussing such uninteresting subjects. No man ever breaks a promise to such charming ladies as there are here. Lily, tell us about your river adventures.”
Mr. Herbert smiled.
“We went out in the boat every day – Lily rowed occasionally and I rowed frequently. We disagreed on various subjects every day, on the marriage question and on – on – ”
“On what?” said Launa.
“On that – ”
They laughed together.
“What is ‘that’?” said Mrs. Carden.
“A preposition,” answered Mr. Herbert shortly.
“Oh, no,” said Lily, “it’s a pronoun.”
“ ‘That’ is an adverb,” said Mrs. Carden. “Launa, I shall tell Maud that you called her – vulgar.”
“Women always tell,” said Mr. Herbert. “I told a woman something once and she told. She – ”
“I am not a woman,” said Mrs. Carden, “who carries tales.”
“But you are going to tell someone what Miss Archer said of her,” observed Mr. Herbert. “Men don’t do that.”
“Nobody tells, really.”
“I did not tell, Jack,” said Mrs. Phillips.
“Tell us now,” said Sir John. “If you get the credit of telling we may as well derive some amusement from the story. Miss Archer, what do men usually tell you.”
“Different things. They do not confide in me. I am not sympathetic enough.”
“Are you not?” inquired Mr. Wainbridge. “I think you are. I should love to confide in you.”
He looked again at her, so did Mr. Herbert, and Lily observing both looks concerned herself with Mr. Herbert’s, which was one of admiration – developing admiration.
It was then that marriage with him appeared desirable, or rather the owning of him would be pleasant. Mrs. Phillips imagined her wedding and the wedding dress! He could admire another woman!
They got up from the table, and Mrs. Phillips stayed with the men to smoke. After his cigarette Sir John went to the Club. Mrs. Carden seated herself on a sofa and demanded a footstool, then when Launa announced an engagement for the afternoon, Lavinia arose and took her departure. Launa and Mr. Wainbridge drove off in a hansom.
“Do you think they are really going to hear music?” asked Mr. Herbert, when Lily and he were alone.
“Because it is so hot, and because I would much rather talk to you here, so I naturally suppose every other man would rather talk to the woman he loves than listen to any music. I have made up my mind to marry you in a month.”
She smiled enigmatically.
“Very well. You know my bargain. I cannot live with my sister; she swamps me. Her mind and her life are like a bog. It is dull living alone; you would provide an element of excitement.”
“You say marriage is not love. Is it exciting?” he asked.
“A husband should be reviving,” she answered, “and should endeavour to be – a lover – always.”
Mr. Herbert came over to her.
“I shall always be your lover.”
“And you agree to my conditions?”
“You are to keep your rooms; I am to keep mine. Is that it?”
“Yes. What else?”
“We are seldom to have breakfast together.”
“Very seldom,” she answered.
“After our honeymoon?”
“After our – after that – yes,” she said.
“But dinner always.”
“Dinner often,” she corrected.
“Take off your rings,” he said.
Mrs. Phillips frowned.
“You are too commanding.”
“You do it,” and she held out her hand.
He gravely pulled off first one with two large turquoises – he had given it to her – next a small one with a diamond, then her wedding ring which he put in his pocket, and replaced it with one almost exactly like it.
“With my body I thee worship,” he said, and he added a ring with three large sapphires in a light gold setting. The stones were set high and they shone.
“You do not wear his ring now.”
“How beautiful the stones are,” she answered.
“I have always been jealous of that ring,” he said.
“Have you? ‘Jealousy is as cruel as the grave,’ saith Solomon. Do not be cruel.”
“I could not be anything with you but kind,” he replied, with a sort of unsteadiness, for though she was not lovely she was alluring, fascinating. He could have followed her away from everything, through disasters and fire without feeling it, until she left him.
“The honeymoon was invented for Adam and Eve before the Fall,” she said slowly, “and before the appearance of the serpent. Is there necessarily a serpent now?”
“You spoil everything by analysing it,” he replied. “You should look on things as a whole, and not dissect them; that is one of your own maxims. You told it to me when I asked of what your new hat was made. You said it was a whole and a creation.”
“But honeymoons are not wholes, nor are emotions. Everything is largely constituted of them.”
“They are moments. Live for one moment.”
“It passes so quickly,” she said, and sighed.
“Then, in a month,” he suggested, with an outward air of boldness, though inwardly he was doubtful and quaking, “you will marry me.”
“In a month! How soon!”
“How far away. Where shall we go for our tour?”
“Not to Paris. I hate Paris.”
“Shall we stay in London?”
“No, no! How commonplace! We shall live in London. Suggest something new.”
“Shall we go into the country? To the real country, where there are nightingales and roses?”
She sang softly:
“Rubinstein, isn’t it?” he asked. “Well, will you come?”
“Yes, it is risky, but I will for once hear the nightingales and feel young again.”
“I love you.”
“Do you? Love – it is so old, so new, so impossible.”
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