Skip to Content
Indiana University

Search Options




View Options


The Autobiography of Christopher Kirkland, Vol. 2. Linton, E. Lynn (Elizabeth Lynn), 1822–1898.
previous
next
page: 99

CHAPTER IV.

ALTHEA CARTWRIGHT lived with her aunt, Mrs. Pratten, in a pretty house in South Bank, where, for all that South Bank was then looked on as so much in the country as to be almost beyond the reach of Londoners, they saw a great deal of society and attracted many well-conditioned people. Ladies certainly grumbled at the distance, and made that and the possibility of foot-pads on dark nights their excuse for keeping away; but men found the weekly receptions delightful and the more intimate association full of charm; and Mnemosyne Lodge, as page: 100 the place was somewhat strangely called, was never without its attractions and its visitors. It was a kind of social honeypot round which the flies continually buzzed, and no man who once went there ever failed to put in a second appearance.

There was a mystery in Mrs. Pratten's life which no one understood. When a young woman she had married a man apparently her suitable match in every way; and she had kept with him four days. On the fifth she went back to her mother's house, and never left it again. What happened to divide these wedded lovers no one knew. It was one of those well-kept secrets on which all may make theories at pleasure; for no one can either disprove or verify, and one hypothesis is as good as another. Neither the husband, who was still alive and who enjoyed life as a bachelor in Paris, nor Mrs. Pratten herself, told more than the mere fact betrayed:—They had married a life page: 101 time ago, and they had parted after four days, never to meet again.

Since that time the one ever spoke with the bitterest contempt of women—the other with the profoundest horror of men. To Mrs. Pratten all men were marked with the Sign of the Beast; and she was accustomed to say that nothing tried her faith in God so severely as the creation of such monsters as men. To Mr. Pratten, whom I afterwards knew in Paris, women were mere jointed dolls, and there was no hope for the human race, doomed to the degradation of being mothered by such unredeemed and absolute fools.

Being so uncompromising a man-hater, Mrs. Pratten was, of course, a misogamist. She lectured every girl of her acquaintance on the sin of matrimony, as if this were indeed a crime; and, though she accepted women who were already wives when she knew them, she repudiated those who took to page: 102 themselves husbands after she had known them as girls. She professed for them a horror only equalled by that which she felt for the men themselves.

With Althea she was explicit enough. If ever she were to fall away from grace and virtue so much as to marry, she would be cut out of her aunt's will as irrevocably as she would be banished from her aunt's house. If she remained unmarried, as a good and modest woman should, she would come in for all. And as Mrs. Pratten was a wealthy woman, who lived up to about half her income and put out the other half to interest, the bribe was considerable, and so far had proved successful. Althea Cartwright was Althea Cartwright still; and everyone knew that she would not marry, and indeed could not, unless she got hold of a millionnaire.

When I knew her she was some way past thirty—a tall, fair woman with an almost perfect figure, at once generous and graceful, page: 103 where the outlines were long and flowing and the filling-in rich and firmly modelled. Her face was not strictly beautiful, and yet she was more attractive than many confessedly beautiful women. She had an abundance of shining flaxen hair, with a shade of red to be sometimes seen in the sunlight, and her skin was of that clear but not unhealthy pallor which generally goes with flaxen hair. What would else have been its exquisite transparency, however, was marred by freckles, which were the standing sorrow of her life. Her eyes were light-hazel, large, finely-shaped and wonderfully brilliant; her nose was short, rather blunt, but beautiful in profile; her lips were curved, flexible and delightfully expressive of her emotions; her hands and arms were simply perfection; and she was singularly soft in manner, speech, voice and texture. Indeed, her main characteristic was softness. Yet she was not weak; still less was page: 104 she flaccid or without grip. She knew what she wanted, and she took it and held it for so long as it pleased her; and when she no longer cared for it she let it drop, and walked on without it. She had the most consummate ability that way, and was no more to be held against her will than a mermaid in the water—no more to be constrained than the cloud which once looked like Juno. More Ixions than one knew this; and no one had yet found the charm which could compel her to maintain any kind of relation whatsoever when she wished to abandon it. From friends to servants, she held while she would and took the good while she could; and then she slipped aside and discarded without a second thought. No; Althea Cartwright, the softest, sweetest, and apparently the most pliant creature in the world, was certainly not weak nor yet flaccid.

Her central point was her devotion to her page: 105 aunt, whose moods she divined with almost intuitive perception, and to whose humours she adapted herself with marvellous plasticity. For among her other qualities she had the temper of an angel, and a power of sympathetic receptivity which made her the favourite confidant of all who had anything to confide. But though she was thus devoted to her aunt, she managed to live her own life with tolerable breadth of margin; and, while Mrs. Pratten never went out in the evening, Althea was never at home, save on the nights when they themselves received. Popular as she was, everyone wanted her. Women seemed to love her as much as men admired her; and when once a house-door was opened to her it was rarely shut again. The oddest part of the whole thing was, she always seemed to have some strange power in those houses where she was intimate. I think she did a good deal for her lady-friends as well as for the men; page: 106 and I know that she sometimes screened them and sometimes helped them. At all events, she was useful; and she was far too good-natured to refuse a request, whatever it might be. But these concentric circles revolved round and never broke into the standing duty of her life; and her aunt had no cause to feel herself neglected.

Mrs. Pratten was a kind of palimpsest of all the crazy faiths that float about the world. She had gone through the whole cycle of religious experiences, yet had learned no self-distrust from her repeated failures. Her last state was always her final revelation; and for all that the voice of God had already spoken to her in so many different dialects, she was invariably sure that this last was that in which He had spoken to Moses on Mount Sinai. ‘Guided by the Spirit’—that was her phrase. Were this so, it cannot be denied that she had been guided into many queer corners page: 107 and landed among many odd heaps of rubbish. She had adopted every mystical creed extant, and was now in the full swing of the most mystical of all:—it was before the days of Theosophy and Occult Buddhism. She was a Swedenborgian, and a ‘spiritist’ of the school known a few years afterwards as that of Alan Kardec. His ideas had been in the air before he consolidated them into a system; and Mrs. Pratten, who caught all floating theories as boys catch moths, had adopted them for herself. She believed in successive incarnations of the spirit, and amused herself by tracing back the pedigree of her friends' souls, and locating each in its special tabernacle.

Of her own incarnations she was never weary of talking. She was a frail, meagre little woman, with a mousy face, a nervous manner and a temperament as timid as a hare's; but she gave to herself all sorts of heroic and spiritually splendid antecedents, page: 108 and jumbled up her pre-incarnations into an olla podrida of the oddest kind. She had been Miriam and Judith, Joan of Arc and St. Theresa, Queen Elizabeth of England and Queen Elizabeth of Hungary, Dorcas and Elizabeth Fry, besides others which I have forgotten. She added to her impersonations so often that she herself got somewhat ‘mixed,’ and lost all hold of a dominant idea; and I, among others, was hopelessly muddled.

Her niece, Althea, had been a whole string of interesting frailties; among whom I remember figured Bathsheba, Aspasia, Fair Rosamond and Mademoiselle de la Vallière. Her penultimate incarnation had been Marie Antoinette, as a sign of progressive improvement. But Mrs. Pratten spoke with pride of the moral superiority of her present condition, and the cleansing fires through which her soul had manifestly passed. This avatar was better than all the page: 109 others. Even Marie Antoinette was married:—Althea, thank heaven! was husband-less, and one of those divinely marked on the forehead.

Me she called Nero. Certainly, in the daguerreotype taken of me, I had a curiously Roman look, not visible, I fancy, in my real face. But I did not feel conscious of my identity with the imperial madman who, she said, had been my former self. When I objected on the ground of non-recognition, she became more than ever positive that she was right, and assured me that this was the best proof I could give, both of my identity and my spiritual advance. I was ashamed of my former self and therefore repudiated the connection. I had forgotten my then cherished sins, just as we forget the angry passions of our childhood. So far I too was cleansed, and by just so much was nearer to ultimate regeneration. Perhaps this was my last incarnation, as it was her page: 110 own and Althea's. She was certain of these; and she hoped, but was not quite so sure, of mine. She thought I had in me still too much of the original red earth of which the first man was made. And while we had any of that left in us, we were too heavily weighted to soar upward to the New Jerusalem.

Another of her amusements was to find out the correspondences of her friends in the animal world, and to determine whether they were the further evolution of that energy, the enlargement of that idea, which had initially expressed itself in beasts of prey or beasts of burden; in the animals which are the sustaining sacrifice or in those which are the companions and servants of man; in singing birds which delight him; in insects which torment him; in reptiles which destroy him. She subdivided even these divisions, as when she gravely pondered on the question whether I was a setter or a retriever. page: 111 She finally settled it by a spiritual ukase:—I was a retriever. For herself, she was the solitary unpaired female eagle—the third of the nest; and Althea was a butterfly—that which had crawled having now learned to fly.

Also, it cost her many hours of anxious thought to determine to which organ of the Great Man, which she and her co-religionists say makes the shape and conditions of Heaven, we should all be assigned when we had done with our re-incarnations, and had finally shaken off the last grains of that red earth which was the cause of our bondage and the chain of our darkness. She placed herself in the eye, ‘seeing’ being her faculty. Althea was in the great sympathetic nerve; but she moved my locality from organ to organ as she shifted her ideas of my character—and when I last heard of myself I was in the nerves of the tongue, as the discriminator of spiritual food.

page: 112

Odd as she was in all this, Mrs. Pratten was not substantially insane. She was on the borders, I admit; as must needs be when a woman with an active brain of small size, and more imagination than critical faculty, has allowed her reasoning powers to become practically abortive, while she has cultivated indiscriminate belief as the alpha and omega of spiritual insight, and passes her whole time in hunting out analogies. This search for analogy is neither more nor less than so much spiritual patch-work—piecing together forms and colours which harmonize and make a pretty pattern. For even religions follow Mrs. Pratten's own law of analogy; and some are simply mental amusements, as was hers.

Queer as she was, yet, being withal rich, hospitable, of good family—and the aunt of Althea—people flocked to her dinners and suppers; assisted at her séances and expositions; and laughed at her afterwards page: 113 as their compensation for time wasted. It was as much as their good-breeding could compass not to laugh at her to her face when she told them of the spirits who had visited her and the revelations which had been made to her. For really, to hear what Napoleon had to say about the celestial bell-shaped tent in which he lived—in the palm of the right hand—and how Marlborough and Gustavus Adolphus and the Black Prince, and all other illustrious warriors, were also living in bell-tents within a stone's-throw of each other, was rather strong meat to come between the roast and boiled! People who walk habitually in spirit-land do undoubtedly scatter a few of their wits by the way; and poor Mrs. Pratten had scattered some of hers, like the rest.

Her favourite scientific craze at this time—for she prided herself on her science equally with her religion—was the Odic Force and page: 114 mesmeric clairvoyance. She had been one of the first in society to follow after Reichenbach and to believe in the Okeys. Now she had elaborated a medium for herself. This was her maid—a certain sharp-witted little Welshwoman, called Sarah Jones in the parish register. In Mrs. Pratten's blue book she was Ruth. The extraordinary ‘sensitiveness’ which this young person possessed—the way in which she exemplified and even went beyond all Reichenbach's experiments, and the certitude with which she discovered magnets in the dark, owing to the light which played around them and streamed in purple filaments from the ends—were matters of constant wonder to the world which witnessed. The sceptical did not know how it was done; the credulous were all agape at the marvel.

I noticed that Althea avoided discussion on the topics which made her aunt's whole page: 115 happiness and filled her mental world from centre to circumference. She believed in them, of course. She accepted her former doubtful incarnations and her present progressive improvement with her customary serene grace; was quite sure of her eventual lodgment in the great sympathetic nerve; had not a doubt that Sarah Jones, the black-eyed, sharp-witted girl from Wales, was once the sweet and patient Ruth; was convinced of her ability to see a magnet when hidden in a cupboard, and of the purple filaments which streamed like flames from either end when the armature was removed; convinced also of her obedience to orders transmitted by thought from Dover to London; of her knowledge of the word written on a piece of paper and placed inside a hazel-nut or sealed up in an envelope; of her being able to travel to the exact spot where Sir John Franklin and his men were lying stark beneath the snow; page: 116 of her interpretation of the mystery of the Foley Place murder; of all the things which ‘sensitives’ do and know. All the same, out of Mrs. Pratten's presence Althea never talked on these matters. When pressed, she used to refer her interlocuter to her aunt, who understood these things so much better than she herself did! She was only in the place of an ignorant believer. How indeed, could she be a disbeliever, when such marvels were daily enacted before her eyes? But she was neither an expositor nor a teacher. She left that to her aunt; and she did not care to talk about the thing at all. It was beyond her; and she felt lost and bewildered.

If she did not actively support, she never showed the faintest doubt as to the genuineness of the phenomena; and to the last no one knew what she believed and what she discredited. For if Mrs. Pratten had dropped a few of her wits by the way, Althea had kept all hers intact. And, said the sceptical page: 117 and squareheaded: ‘How could she possibly believe such rubbish?’

From the first both aunt and niece showed me much kindness. Mrs. Pratten looked on me as a future certain convert. She recognised my love of truth; and, as she knew that she had the ‘true truth,’ she said she was as sure, as of to-morrow's sunshine, that I would come to the light wherein she stood. It was only a question of time and teaching. She knew that I was still too full of red earth; but sometimes the work of winnowing went on at rapid speed, and I might be one who, when the sifting once began, would get rid of all that clogged the spiritual machinery in less time than one could count. Also, as a literary man, I would be a valuable convert. I never blinded myself to the extrinsic importance given me by my profession; and I understood from the first that the hand of the pressman was of more account than the still page: 118 further purification of the spirit of Nero. This, therefore, was why Mrs. Pratten made so much of me and had me so often to her house; and Althea naturally followed her aunt's lead in this as in other things.

With Althea was another reason to lend additional force to these—I filled a gap. She was one of those women who have always on hand a ‘brother’ or ‘son’ or ‘uncle,’ according to relative age, with whom they go about—to the opera, the theatre, sometimes down to Richmond, to Greenwich, on the Thames; whom they take into society and introduce to their friends; and whom the world agrees to accept as adopted relations according to nomenclature. I was presented to her by Mr. King, who in his day had been her uncle; and I was presented at the time when she was looking out for a new kinsman. She had just lost her ‘favourite boy’—a young barrister who had gone out page: 119 to India; and she was therefore, as she lamented, sonless. And as she was now growing an old woman, she said with her seductive smile and a peculiar softness veiling the glitter of her greenish-hazel eyes, she preferred sons to all other relations. She was so fond of boys! They were such dear fellows with their funny fresh ways; and men were such dreadful creatures! Hence she adopted me, in the place of Ronald Ray removed; and I was quite willing that she should.

She was of immense use to me in every way. She took me with her into society, and introduced me freely to all the best people she knew. And she knew a socially higher and more fashionable set than even that to which I had been taken by my pretty patroness with the childish shoulders, or than I found staring at luminous hands in the house of the friend of Mazzini and the believer in the Floating Medium. And page: 120 of itself this was a valuable experience. She polished my manners as much as the material would allow; taught me the shibboleth; instructed me in those microscopic minutiæ which only the initiated can see, but the absence of which they detect at a glance and resent as a crime; and she wanted to make me a fine gentleman from head to heel, in character as well as in bearing. She found fault with me as I was—chiefly for my want of small change in conversation—for my want of all badinage and lightness—for my vehemence when I talked on those things wherein I was really interested—for the frankness with which I gave my opinion when I was called on to say what I thought and what I believed. And above all, she found fault with my superabundant earnestness.

‘Glissez mortels, ne vous appuyez pas,‘ was her motto; and she found my step too firm and my grip too close.

page: 121

So did her lady friends; some of whom seemed to consider me good fun because of the ‘simplicity,’ the ‘naïveté,’ the ‘innocence’ which they said more than once was ‘delicious.’ But I was not of the stuff which makes fine gentlemen nor courtiers; and through all my gratitude for their kindness, and a certain inevitable dazzle of the senses by reason of the rank, beauty and wealth of those by whom I was caressed, I kept my head steady, and the core of me was never reached. There was something about these grand ladies which intellectually repelled me, for all that personally I was attracted. There was a certain insolence of egotism to which I could never reconcile myself, and which came out in all they did and said and were. The wretched stuff which passed for Art with them; the miserable daubs; the flimsy writing; the idea-less music; the hideous jingle called poetry which they displayed to each other with page: 122 pride, and for which they received such lavish commendation! What good did their education got by foreign travel do them, if, after having seen the galleries in Florence and Rome, Dresden and Madrid, they could think simpering masks were human likenesses and tea-board abominations landscapes according to nature!

I got an ugly glimpse into something worse than self-contented incapacity, through the offers made me by more than one great lady who wanted to appear as an authoress without the trouble of writing, and who thought to buy my brains as she would have bought so many yards of silk. Did not the then famous Baroness — come to me with a bundle of woodcuts for which she wanted me to write a story under her name?—and did not Lady — and Mrs.— both ask me to take their manuscripts and put them into readable shape for so much down? And were they not all offended because I page: 123 refused? And did not Althea herself say that I was twin-brother to that Huron of old time who stands as the ideal of unpractical folly, and that I would never make a man of the world?—never!

Again, the lives of these grand ladies struck me as so fragmentary, and the scope of their energies as so small and thin! An hour in the morning given to the acquirement of an art which takes for years and years the whole day's working-time of him who would be a proficient; the importance of fashion, of etiquette, of the artificial rules of conduct by which living human nature is checked and stifled; the sense of individual and social superiority to the commonalty, and one's own consequent inferiority evidenced by their very condescension; the consciousness that any man out of their own social sphere is to them a mere toy or tool, to be used for their pleasure and cast aside when they are tired of him; their want of page: 124 thoroughness and humility, and their unbridled egotism—all this created in me a certain moral and mental revulsion which kept me from the self-abasement of social ambition.

Young as I was, I was determined that it should not be said of me, as was said of some one else: ‘He is smothered in Countesses.’

I went among these grand ladies because Althea Cartwright wished it; but I went as an outsider; and I was never anything else. I was too proud of my own order and too essentially democratic to wish to shift my place or to shine by reflected splendour. And all Althea's endeavours to make me understand the value of being seen in certain drawing-rooms failed. From the first days up to now, grand folk were and are nothing to me but curious studies. While they cannot confess to equality, I refuse to kowtow to superiority, such as is page: 125 given by mere name and fortune. Not inheritance, but acquirement, is, I think, the only true gauge of merit; and the name that is won far surpasses the lustre of that which is bequeathed. And these principles are not those which harmonize best with fine ladies and fine drawing-rooms.

Notwithstanding this stiffneckedness, Althea's kindness to me did not diminish. On the contrary, it increased, and often became so great as to be a little startling and bewildering. She called me her boy and presented me as her new son. She found out my tastes and ministered to them, even to providing for me a special kind of cake that I liked, and to giving me a certain champagne glass, which I fancy had gone the rounds. She worried newspaper editors, and all those who had the power, for boxes at the theatre and stalls at the opera; and as she had her own little brougham, these evenings cost neither her page: 126 nor myself anything beyond the flowers and the ices which were then de rigueur. She loaded me with small presents, which embarrassed me to receive and were utterly useless to keep; but she would take no denial; and when I remonstrated, she would tap my face with the tips of her fair, soft fingers, and say, with mock anger:

‘Naughty child! may not a mother do as she likes with her son?’

But in the midst of all this undeserved kindness, as the days came and went a certain strange unrest and impatience seemed, as it were, to line her satin-like softness—a certain core of almost fierceness, almost harshness, to lie within the outer envelope of her habitual tenderness. She was always kind to me in word and deed—caressing, indulgent, ‘spoiling’—and yet she seemed dissatisfied with me, as if she had secret cause of grief against me. And she was so strangely distrustful of me—so page: 127 exacting of assurances, protestations, promises! She used to make me swear every time I saw her, she holding both my hands in hers, saltier-wise, that I would be faithful to her—quite, quite faithful; that I would never have another friend like her—never take one so near to my heart, nor give to any living woman the affection I had given to her. She used to torment me—not all unpleasantly—with her jealousy, which overflowed at all four corners. In that pale pink room off the first landing, where she made her private nest and received her own especial guests, she made me go through many an agitated half-hour by jealous accusations flung broadcast, and as aimless as so many arrows shot in the air for any chance quarry that might be about, although unseen.

After I had sworn and vowed and protested with sufficiently strong emphasis to satisfy her, we used to have a grand recon- reconciliation page: 128 ciliation—if that could be called reconciliation where the fracture was all on one side; after which things would go smoothly for a day or two, and the sky would be cleared of its phantoms.

It was after one of these scenes, when she had been angry and I had been contrite for absolutely nothing, that we came to an understanding.

She took my hand and pressed it against her heart.

‘Feel that, you naughty boy!’ she said caressingly; ‘think how dear you must be to me, when you can make my heart beat like that for fear you do not love me as much as you ought!’

‘But I do love you!’ I replied. ‘You know that I do! How could I help loving you? No one has ever been so kind to me as you, and no one is so delightful.’

‘Is that true?’ she asked.

‘Yes, absolutely true,’ I said.

page: 129

Her breath came with a quick little sob.

‘If I could believe you!’ she said softly; and as she spoke the scales fell from my eyes.

True, she was many years older than I; but what of that? She was beautiful still, and delightful in every way. I was young and could work; and her certain disinheritance when she married me would free me from all suspicion of fortune-hunting. I had my own future in my own hands, and fortune would be the friend to me she always is to the self-reliant. She loved me. There was no vanity in thinking this; it would have been stupidity not to have seen it. And I—I loved her, and had forgotten Adeline Dalrymple:—of whom, by the way, I had never spoken to her.

I took her in my arms and kissed her upturned face. She closed her eyes, and, dead white as she was, I thought she had fainted, till half a smile and half a tremulous page: 130 little movement of beseeching came over her colourless lips, as she whispered tenderly:

‘I love you!’

I forget now what I said or did, for I was swept away by the emotion of the moment. I only remember pouring out a whole torrent of love and thanks and violent delight, ending by a picture of our lives when we should be married and safe in our love together.

And when I said this Althea opened her eyes and looked at me as if I were something strange and comical—something she had seen for the first time, that amused her.

She raised herself, stood erect and firm before me, and threw back her head.

‘You extraordinary child!’ she said, with a light laugh that jarred on me like a false note in music. ‘Marry you, caro mio? No! anything but that!’

So here was another tumble for that page: 131 unlucky Icarus, myself, and a new draught of that (poison or elixir?) experience.

My friendship with Mrs. Pratten and Althea lasted for some time. At my age, in the very morning of life as I was, with all to learn and so little to forget, it was a novelty to me, as delightful as it was new. But though so much in it was pleasant, there was also much that was painful; and many things grated on my sense of truth, and made me sometimes feel as if the whole earth were void and humanity but a simulacrum that held nothing, if indeed it were not a mask to conceal deformity. When I learnt from Althea the truth, which I had resolutely refused to suspect because I was afraid to believe it, that all the manifestations and proofs of sensitiveness, which passed as the unregistered data of a new science and a living truth, were made up between herself and the maid, and when, in answer to my page: 132 remonstrances, she only said, in her calm, clear, soft, but immovable way:—‘I am doing no wrong. What harm is there in making a poor old woman like my aunt happy? She likes it; why should she not have it? It is better than dram-drinking, and answers the same purpose,’ I felt as bewildered as if I had been suddenly blinded, and I mentally staggered as if I had been struck.

‘But truth?’ I said. ‘Does that count for nothing? Do you not think it wrong to aid and abet what you know to be a lie?’

‘What a Puritan you are!’ she answered, laughing. ‘As if you did not know as well as I that the whole world is one huge falsehood! You dear innocent old fellow—or you dear old hypocrite. Which is it, Crishna? You will never open your eyes, if you are really an ingénu. If you are not, you are the cleverest young Tartuffe out!’

‘Well, I do not think I am a Tartuffe,’ page: 133 I said, just a shade nettled. ‘And is opening my eyes, as you call it, synonymous with tolerance of falsehood and disbelief in rectitude?’

She looked at me a little oddly.

‘I do not think you need ask that,’ she said drily. ‘Who lives on the house-top? Do you?’

It was so much the recognised thing, as I have said, for Althea Cartwright to carry about her boys, that no one made any remark when she and I went into society together as if we had the right of close companionship by blood-relationship. A few women certainly looked at me askance, and some men laughed, as it were, behind their hands. But no one said anything, except a certain Colonel Hinds, an old ‘brother’ of Althea's. And he one evening, hitching his arm into mine as we left Mnemosyne Lodge together, said, in a half-bantering, half-warning manner:

page: 134

‘So, you have the box-seat now? All right, my boy! Give everything but your heart, do you hear? If that goes into the abyss, you may drag for it in vain. You will never fish it up again!’

Also, as time went on, Mr. King gave me a long lecture on the folly of too much sincerity. To take the world as we find it and make the best of our portion; to enjoy all that is set before us and never to examine the material; to understand men and women and not to expect more from them than they can give, but to profit by what they have, and to be always gallant and grateful and discreet—and never in earnest:—this was his advice and the lines on which he had constructed his own life. But he was sorry, he said, to see that I was too hot-headed to be wise, and too fatally in earnest to be diplomatic for the one part or on the defensive for the other.

My relations with Mnemosyne Lodge page: 135 came rather abruptly to an end. All Althea's favourites had to go by the same road; and it was interesting to watch the difference of their methods.

Among my friends was a certain James Tremlett—a splendid young fellow, handsome as a Greek god, the heir to a fine estate, with nothing to do but to enjoy life as fortune had ordered it. To do him justice, he did this to perfection. I was one day walking with him in Bond Street, when Althea passed in her pretty little open phaeton, the forerunner of the victoria. She stopped her ponies to speak to me. While she spoke to me, however, she was looking at Tremlett in that fixed, full, yet not bold way, which was one of her charms. With her exceedingly sweet and gracious manners, her low soft voice, her atmosphere of tranquillity and sympathy, that long fixed gaze had in it something indescribably alluring. It was irresistible.

page: 136

She told me of a water-party for the next week which she wished me to join; and, looking at Tremlett, then back again at me, she said with a smile, and slowly:

‘Gentlemen are always valuable at such times. Will you bring your friend?’

Whereat I presented Tremlett and left him to answer for himself.

The answer was in the affirmative; and after a little more talk she shook hands with us both—she shook hands to perfection—smiled in her sweet caressing way, and drove off; as she went, turning back her graceful head as if unconsciously, with one last look at Tremlett. He on his side looked after her with a strange smile. Then, turning to me, he said carelessly:

‘Your friend is very taking. Tell me about her.’

I told him all I could; and all that I said was in her honour. But some vague impulse of jealousy made me less enthusiastic page: 137 than I should have been had I been describing her to a woman, to an old, or to an unpersonable, man.

When I had finished, Tremlett said carelessly:

‘You are fond of her, I see. If I were you, I would not trust her with too much of my heart. I know the kind.’

‘You do not know her. She is to be trusted, I assure you,’ I answered eagerly.

‘Yes?’ was his indifferent reply. ‘Well, you see, you know her and I do not; you ought to be the best judge.’

Events proved that I was not so good a judge as he; and that he had read at sight what I had not learned after months of almost daily intercourse.

This introduction was the beginning of the end; and it is not necessary to trace the process. I was dispossessed in my place as favourite, and James Tremlett was elected in my stead. If I were to go page: 138 through the whole story, day by day and step by step, until I came to the final moment when I was refused admittance, while—as I stood by the door—Tremlett, lashing up to the house in his private cab, was taken in without delay, I could say nothing more than this:—My fair friend had tired of me; the play was played out; the lights were turned down; the curtain was lowered. And I had to accept my silent dismissal with such patience and philosophy as I could command—such patience and philosophy as others had shown.

But I was too young, too untrained and passionate, for this. I made scenes and had quarrels, followed by false assurances and false reconciliations—in each of which I felt that I had lost and that she had receded, and had become by so much the more intangible. I knew that I was doing myself no good by all this, and that I was page: 139 shouldered out and could not reinstate myself. Yet I could not help trying in the beginning—knocking my thick head against a stone wall while running after a fading rainbow.

Then, when I finally recognised that I was absolutely dispossessed, and that I could not recover what I had lost, I grew savage and sulky, and refused to go to those general At-homes which was all the intercourse that was left me. This naturally made Althea angry, inasmuch as it gave cause for gossip and forced her to find reasons. She resented that I had not let her slip gracefully and quietly, as others had done. Open breaches are such nuisances; and who on earth keeps always to the same set of friends?

My present savageness, however, was a proof of past sincerity; and so far ought to have pleased, because it flattered her. But the Althea Cartwrights of life do not page: 140 care for sincerity. They want only the amusement of the hour, without having to pay the piper when the dance is over. And a savage like myself is both a blister and a danger.

Undoubtedly it would have been more polite, more manly, better breeding altogether, had I accepted my fate with the same stolid indifference which, to all appearances, others had felt. But it must be pleaded in my self-defence that I had really loved her. Perhaps those others had not. She had played with me, but I had been desperately in earnest. And the strange manner in which she slipped away from me gave me no purchase, no point by which to hold her, but melted away like a cloud—the masterly cleverness with which she effaced and obliterated all the past, and stood like one of those German Ellewomen, unmoved by all I suffered, untouched by all I said, was beyond me to bear with page: 141 equanimity. But my turbulent despair and then my sullen resentment cost me dear, as I found afterwards.

The friendship between James Tremlett and Althea was of briefer duration than mine had been. It came abruptly to an end when Tremlett married, as he did suddenly, and broke with Mnemosyne Lodge as cleanly as a champagne glass is snapped at the stem. He saw Althea one day; the next, he wrote her a letter of eternal adieu; the week after, he married; and when he returned home with his bride and met his fair friend with her ponies in the Park, he did what no power should have made me do—and what no true man could have done—looked her full in the face and passed on without recognition. I was there, a witness to the whole thing; and for the first and only time of my acquaintance with Althea, I saw her fair clear-skinned face and rounded throat dyed crimson.

page: 142

Just at this time Althea became acquainted with Mr. Dundas, my irascible editor, who was as susceptible to the power of a pretty woman as he was violent with men; and from the first day of their acquaintance my star in the office declined. What was said I do not know. All that I do know is, I suddenly failed to please. I, who up to this time had been a kind of cherished seedling who might some day develop into the very roof-tree of the office, now could do nothing that was right. Day by day my independent articles were rejected and my routine work was undone; while I myself was rated with the peculiar force and fervency with which our chief knew so well how to flavour his displeasure. Finally, I was abruptly dismissed, and told to go to the devil, but never to show my face in that office again; and for his parting blessing Mr. Dundas hurled a wild world of invectives against me, amongst which I distinguished ‘a presumptuous and page: 143 ungrateful young brute, who does not know how to treat a lady when he sees her, and who thinks, because she has patronized and been kind to him, that he can ride roughshod over every decency of society!’

So here I was adrift on the great sea of life, with a dragging anchor and no harbour in sight!

As to Althea Cartwright, to whom I shall not recur again, I need only say that when her aunt died she found herself, as she had been always promised, supremely well-endowed, and the owner of everything, save a handsome legacy to Sarah Jones, the re-incarnate Ruth—by which this clever young person was enabled to marry the inn-keeper of her native village, and live as a lady in her degree to the end of her days.

As soon as her affairs were settled, Althea went abroad, married an Italian Marchese and became a Roman Catholic. Her husband died about two years after the marriage; but page: 144 she is still alive and well, a white-skinned, flaxen-wigged old lady, fond of tea and cards, and enjoying life in her own way. That way is the close companionship of priests, monsignori, papalini of all kinds; and the consideration which surrounds a wealthy English widow and convert in the Eternal City, where the Pope is still able to dispense social honours to the faithful, and to float on the crest of the wave those whom he favours—no matter what the secrets whispered to the discreet ears at the other side of that grating of the confessional.

previous
next