A Girl of the North. A Story of London and Canada
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“It is strange how many phases one’s mind goes through in a day,” she said.
Her letter burned quickly and curled up, as if the flames hurt it, and it was in pain. She moved uneasily, for it almost hurt her.
“This morning I was different.”
“Were you?” asked Sir Ralph. “My mind never changes. I am always the same.”
“How very dull! I am never the same. Are you asked to the party of my lord and master on the 16th?”
“You have heard nothing of it?”
“Not yet. I wanted you to come with me to see the new ballet on the 16th. I came to ask you. Now, I suppose, you will not come.”
“I know not. Shall I not? Yes, I will come – alone!”
“Alone! So much the better, and to supper afterwards at the Savoy?”
“Good. You will wear?”
“I will send you some flowers.”
“The advantages of matrimony are supreme. I am enjoying it immensely.”
“Really? I should have thought it might be dull for you.”
“Oh, no; not with all of you to amuse me.”
After he left she dressed and went to a party, where she met him again. It was a cheerful entertainment, without any dull people to ask questions. Mrs. Herbert found several ladies took much interest in her affairs, and in her husband’s whereabouts. They did not ask such questions twice, but it annoyed her to know of what they thought. They blamed Jack. As a husband he ought to look after that young woman.
For the next few days, Mrs. Herbert avoided being alone with her husband. She invited him to lunch when other people were present, and he did not enjoy it, though he comforted himself by thinking of the 16th. Mr. Herbert made arrangements for his wife to stay all night at his abode, and found himself strung up to a pitch of joyful expectation.
In those days of waiting, her mood was uncertain, morose, absurd, and cross at intervals. Mr. Herbert waited for his day of reckoning; he intended to settle all things on that eventful night, to have all or nothing.
They were at the theatre watching the new play. Launa, Sylvia, Mr. George, and Mr. Wainbridge. Mr. Herbert was watching for Lily. She was often late.
A note was brought to him; he opened it with indifference, which did not last. His wife had sent it as she drove off with Sir Ralph to see the ballet.
Mr. Herbert left the theatre and walked up and down outside, mad with rage and heartache. Fool, fool, that he had been; to love her, to trust her. She had killed love and trust, he assured himself; while all the time he knew she had not, that was the greatest torture.
Mrs. Herbert and Sir Ralph had a box at the Grosvenor. Her dress was most becoming, which is the wine that maketh glad the heart of woman; but, strange to say, she could not forget her husband. It is usually so easy to forget.
She planned a breakfast party next day. Jack would come to take her out; she loved a cockney day with him, when they travelled first-class and called it cockney.There was skating, they would go together; and she would forgive him with effect and solemnity.
“Herbert’s party comprises Miss Archer as the only lady,” said Mrs. Herbert. “Well, she is beautiful.”
“He thinks so.”
“And so do I,” she replied. “Launa alone, how odd!”
“Why? I am very liberal; I cannot see why Launa and your husband should not have a party as you and I are doing.”
“We are old friends.”
“Yes. Are we anything else? We are old friends.”
“And they are new ones.”
“The length of time makes no difference,” he said. “I could love a new friend in a week better than an old friend in a year.”
How glad I am, she reflected, that Jack and I have two flats. If we were in one small space to-night we should quarrel.
She went home feeling sad. Would Jack be waiting for her? A few strong words, a few strong kisses, and where would her philosophy have been? Repentance would have replaced it.
The weather was very cold. Near Polton there was a lake, on which the skating was good. Launa and Lily had arranged to meet at Paddington, and go down there for a few days. Launa waited an hour for Lily, and then went without her.
The Polton Arms was a celebrated hotel, because the landlady was a celebrated cook. Launa took her maid, and resolved to stay and skate without Mrs. Herbert. Mr. Wainbridge did not know her address.
The luxury of solitude for a short space was pleasant to her, and the landlady had known her father. Launa spent all the day on the lake; the days were wonderfully clear and cold, and the air and the motion were as new life to her.
One day when she came back to the Polton Arms, and entered the big warm hall, in which burned a wood fire, Mr. Wainbridge came forward and took her hand.
“How are you?” he asked.
“Surprised, and well.”
“I have come to see you. I could not get on any longer without you.”
“How did you discover me? Come and have tea now.”
Her sitting-room was very pleasant, the usual hotel adornments had vanished. There was peace; and they sat and talked until it was time to dress for dinner.
“Propriety,” said Launa, “demands that you should dine downstairs, and I in my sitting-room alone; but the claims of propriety are not imperious. We will dine together.”
Wainbridge felt perfectly happy, perfectly content; Launa was feeling soothed and lulled by the sensation that someone cared excessively for her. It was so desolate to be always alone, and she wanted someone to take care of her.
For the rest of the week they met every day, and spent it together skating. As Mr. Wainbridge could not waltz on skates she taught him.
“This is a sort of honeymoon,” he said.
“Without any bother. Honeymoons are troublesome.”
“That depends on the moon and the honey. I like it in the comb.”
One day they were just starting for the lake when they met Captain Carden. Launa bowed to him, and did not appear uncomfortable at what he considered an inopportune meeting for her. Captain Carden went back to town that night, and told Mr. George, whom he met, that Launa was staying at Polton with Mr. Wainbridge.
“They are staying together,” he said. “How lucky for her she is not married, for I saw them.”
Mr. George promptly remarked that unless Captain Carden wanted kicking, he had better go, which he did.
The Cardens still felt a tender interest, an endless curiosity about Launa. They regretted her fall from grace, and Mrs. Carden felt with sorrow that she had wandered far from the safe haven of her protection; but when Charlie told her Launa was with Mr. Wainbridge, then did she mingle tears and rejoicings.
“We shall get her yet,” he said at last. “When no one else will know her, she will be glad to be Mrs. Carden.”
“A Mrs. Carden whom no one will know,” said his mother. “How terrible!”
“But her money,” he suggested.
They were drinking tea together – a pale, straw-coloured liquid. For once Mr. Carden had not grumbled; for the present they were united. The maid announced, “Mr. Harvey.”
Mrs. Carden rose and bowed. Mr. Harvey advanced with the self-possession of a Somebody, and the assurance of an American.
“I must apologise,” he said, “for troubling you. I came to get Miss Archer’s address. Her father once gave me yours as the means of finding him in town. I am a friend of theirs, and live near them in Canada.”
“Launa’s address?” repeated Carden.
“Address,” echoed his mother. “Please sit down.”
“Her address,” replied Harvey.
“Launa was in the country,” said Mrs. Carden. “She lives at Victoria Mansions, but I am sorry to say she is a very odd girl. She loves the world.”
“It is beautiful,” said the Canadian. “Then she has not changed.”
“Beautiful, is it?” observed Mrs. Carden.
“If you will kindly give me her exact address, I will not trouble you any further.”
Mrs. Carden went to her writing-table and wrote it. As she handed it to him she said:
“Are you her relation or her guardian? I believe my cousin married a Canadian.”
“I am not her guardian.”
“We – my son and I – are much worried about her. He met her down at Polton. She was staying there, and so was a man called Mr. Wainbridge.”
Here she paused for exclamations.
“Well?” said Paul.
“Not well,” said Mrs. Carden. “It is very wrong of Launa to stay at an hotel with a man – with – a – man. Do you understand?”
“No,” replied Paul. “Not what you mean me to understand.”
“They frequently had their meals together.”
“My son is in love with Miss Archer. He is as careful about her reputation as about his own.”
“He had better be,” answered Paul. “He should have held his tongue, and not have invented vile stories.”
Then he went away. Captain Carden immediately became furious, because Harvey had said he had invented stories.
Paul had been in London a week. He was determined to find Launa, to make her love him. It was only that one day she had been different. Her words, her look had been as if he were an outcast, a glance of loathing she had thrown at him. He remembered it always, but he loved her, longed for her intensely; and now he was determined to know what she had meant when she said she felt outraged. He had no reason to suppose she could care for him. Indeed, her absence from Canada, her rebuke the day after he had shot the horse, all showed that she did not love him. Yet she had not always seemed to hate him. Love and hate are closely connected, and he would know what she really felt, because he could not live without her. He had tried the North-West big game shooting; he had rushed madly about, and cried for madder music, stronger wine to help him forget; and through it all she was there.
Now these detestable people said untrue things about her; nevertheless he shuddered slightly as he remembered what they had insinuated.
He drove back to the Metropolis and walked past Victoria Mansions. Then he went in. He saw her name on the doorpost, and boldly marched up the stairs, disdaining the porter’s suggestion of the lift. Outside her door he could hear her playing and singing:
It was a Canadian song, he knew it well. He whistled it softly as he went down the stairs. Outside it was cold and beginning to rain. He did not feel it.
Captain Carden found himself in an unusual and delightful situation: he had something to say, and that something interested various people. Launa had attracted a certain amount of attention, from the British matron upwards, but being a Canadian, which, after all, is as bad as being an American, all things were expected of her, and being rich, all things were forgiven her. She had appropriated young men, but seemed to prefer quality to quantity.
Since her father’s death, she had lived in great seclusion. The world gave her no credit for it, it was the seclusion, no doubt, of one who is well amused. People talked uncertainly to her about art and music, for it was rumoured that she was composing, and in truth she was working and having lessons from Herr Donau.
Captain Carden had never forgiven her laugh that night. Ridicule to this gallant son of Mars was torture. He sallied forth garnished with importance, and carrying a full card-case to call on his many friends. He went first to Lady Blake’s. He had murmured to many people, “Have you heard about Miss Archer?”
He had no cause to think that Lady Blake would receive him with rapture, but his news would interest her.
Lady Blake was at home. She was alone and hating it, so she welcomed Captain Carden with joy. Her last party had been a failure. Mr. Wainbridge had plainly taken no interest in her latest quarrel with her husband, and Herr Donau talked of nothing but Miss Archer’s wonderful execution. Captain Carden was a man, and as such, available for conquest, and she welcomed him as a relief to her feelings.
They talked of the weather, of the opera, and finally he mentioned Launa.
“Is there no other girl in London? Must you all talk of her?”
“Why?” he asked. “Have you heard?”
“Heard what? Tell me,” she said.
“I thought you knew. I really cannot tell you.”
“I never would believe anything about another woman, it is so cruel to one’s own self – so low, I think. Unless, of course, it were absolutely true, and then I should feel sorry.”
She uttered her words with a sublime air of pity.
“Yes; I know you would. Still, some women – ”
“Are they?” she inquired.
“Free – strange in their ideas of propriety. Miss Archer is, I think.”
“We all know that Canadians are free. Canada is not exactly a Republic – not a Monarchy. The country has no institutions, and that must affect the women – don’t you think so?”
She had the sweetest, most appealing way of saying “don’t you think so,” with an accent on the “don’t” and on the “you” which men and old women found very attractive.
“There is an atmosphere of a wigwam and the wilderness about them, that is the reason men like them – before they marry them.”
“They skate so well, too,” he said. “Have you been skating? I spent a day or two at Polton. I met Miss Archer with Mr. Wainbridge, and they were staying together at the inn. She skates splendidly.”
He then said “Good-bye,” and left her considering the subject and all its various possibilities. Launa and Mr. Wainbridge together at the same hotel. There is only one way in which a man and a woman can be staying together at an hotel. Either they are married or they ought to be. She laughed and told her next visitor.
Captain Carden then went to see Mrs. Herbert. Sir Ralph, Mr. George, and various other men were there, and two women.
Captain Carden, quietly but sorrowfully, related his story to Mrs. Herbert.
“Miss Archer and Mr. Wainbridge!” she repeated, “alone at the inn. Well, what matter? If they like to be foolish, why shouldn’t they? It sounds very terrible; but if I were you, Captain Carden, I would not repeat it. Let it go. Believe me, the path of a reformer is a difficult one, and reformation is uninteresting, especially if it is impossible. Good-bye,” she added. “I am sorry you have to go.”
Sir Ralph and Mr. George stayed after everyone had left, and talked.
Mrs. Herbert did not believe Captain Carden’s story, at least not in the way he wanted her to; but she was jealous of Launa, and rather glad to hear anything to her discredit. She turned to Mr. George, and asked:
“How is your Proverb book?”
“Not progressing very rapidly,” he answered. “I have taken to interviewing. I find it more amusing.”
“Whom do you interview?”
“Young and interesting women – the women of the future.”
“Is it true what they are saying of Launa?” she asked.
“What do they say?”
“That she and Mr. Wainbridge were alone at Polton together at the hotel there.”
“That is all. You must acknowledge that if a girl stays with a man at a country hotel – ”
“A country hotel! Is that bad?” he interrupted. “The town is always respectable. I understand. What a pity they had not stayed at the Grand or the Metropole. I am so glad I live in town. Aren’t you, Egerton?”
“Rubbish,” she replied. “You misunderstand me.”
“Not at all. Tell me more,” said George.
“I am worried about Launa. Her reputation will suffer.”
Sir Ralph rose and said:
“Good-bye – to-morrow at ten.”
He hated the mere idea of moral reflections.
“Has Launa a reputation yet?” asked George. “A woman must be talked about for three seasons, and have four married men in love with her. That is a reputation. It is eating your cake and having it too, and you are endeavouring to do that.”
“What do you mean?”
“You tell me what they say of Launa. They say far worse of you. They say Sir Ralph lives here – not that you stay in the same hotel – by accident, simultaneously – which happened to her. They say that Buxton and Sir Ralph are partners, and that Herbert is useful. It is like the women in the Bible, you remember? ‘We will eat our own bread and wear our own apparel, only let us be called by thy name.’ Herbert gives the name.”
“You had better go,” she said. “You are a coward to say all these things to a woman. You would not dare say them if I were a man, or if Jack were here.”
“No; but he seldom is here, and he is useful as a shelter. I would not have said this if you had not made me angry about Launa. She is one of the best women I ever knew.”
“Your experience then is limited.”
“Good-bye. You live in too large a glass-house to throw stones, unless you are absolutely reckless and desire the smashing of your own roof.”
With this he left her, and she sat and thought it all over. She was very angry with Mr. George, and yet she laughed. She felt so absolutely sure of herself, and knew her husband was the one man in the world she loved. These others were merely to keep herself from thinking – they were to her what embroidery is to some women. Why should people talk of her? And Mr. George – what a brute he was!
What she hardly dared acknowledge to herself was her husband’s daily increasing indifference. He had been away since the 16th, and he had not told her where he was going.
Was he often with Launa? Jealousy, a raging, burning hatred of the woman who was liked so much, filled her mind, and she stamped her foot with rage. Then she wanted to cry. To feel herself powerless, to know herself mistaken, both were new emotions, both were uncomfortably true and horrible.
Marriage, she reflected, was always a failure; to keep one’s husband as a lover is impossible. At this moment Mr. Herbert came in.
“You!” she exclaimed, with mixed feelings of pleasure and surprise.
“You are alone?”
“How do you do?” she said. She always remembered the observances of polite society. “I am alone. Look behind the curtain or under the sofa if you think I have a man hidden anywhere.”
She resisted an impulse which said, “Speak, say you love him.” He looked in one of his critical moods, so she summoned all her energies to her aid and crushed away any feeling she possessed.
“I am very well,” he answered. He looked tired. “I am going to Cairo to-night to do some writing for the Signal.”
“You are going.. and I?”
“You will stay here,” he answered, with cheerful unconcern. “You have all you want.”
“All – Jack! don’t go. They say – I will even live in a house with stairs.”
“You have heard! What have you heard?”
She got up and came near him.
“I shall miss you terribly.”
“You want me to stay?”
“Yes, I do want you to stay with me, or I will go with you.”
“This is only a mood – to show your own power. When I come back, in six months, then we shall see.”
“Six months? And I am to wait. No, thank you. You will have lost me for ever then. Oh! you are cruel.”
“You are mistaken; I am not cruel. We have tried our experiment, and it has failed for me – for you, perhaps it is what you wanted. It will be all the better for you if I am not here. They – the all-powerful – will say less about you, if you are decently careful. Have you seen anything of Launa? Perhaps you will be good to her.”
“To Launa? What is she to you?”
“My friend. You cannot understand that. I – ”
“A man is never the friend of a woman.”
“You have no friends then?”
“I – I am different. Why should I console her for your departure? Is she broken-hearted?”
“No,” he replied. “Why will you misunderstand me?”
“Isn’t it enough for her to have Mr. Wainbridge, and to stay at hotels with him alone.”
“Take care what you say, and what you insinuate. Launa is perfectly innocent, she never stayed at an hotel – that is, lived with Mr. Wainbridge as you suggest. Someone may have seen them dining together. You dine with men sometimes. But I must go now.”
She walked up and down in front of him. She was like a panther, with the same quick, nervous, gliding steps, and she was raging. She wore a tea-gown; he had once admired it. The light accentuated her piercing eyes, her mocking red lips.
“I shall not come to you until you send for me,” he said.
“And I shall never send for you. Marriage is a mistake. You believe all they say of me. I have never kissed any man but you, I did love you, I might love you if – ”
“Your virtue in not kissing men is wonderful, but they may kiss you. I believe nothing about you, nor in your love for me, nor for anyone.”
“Daily life is so absorbing, the fine dust sifts in and deadens all feeling,” she said sadly.
“Does it? Well, now I must say good-bye.”
He took her hand.
“I trust you always. I cannot stay in this way. It is best for me to go and to forget.”
And so he left her.
She threw herself down on her sofa and buried her face in the cushions. “Best to go and to forget – to go and to forget.” This was the reward of a Regenerator of Matrimony.
That night Mrs. Herbert went to a dance. The waltzes all seemed to be played to the measure of a train – every minute took him further away – in intervals, when she was not talking, she composed letters which she never sent, and she hated herself for having let him go. Where was her power? Had she lost it?
She tried to use it on Sir Ralph, and the result more than justified her expectations.
“You deserve a good scolding,” said Mr. George, when he asked for a dance and she refused to give it to him. “You are eating your cake now. I hope it is bitter. Jack has gone.”
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