Story type: Literature
“Though–or, rather, because–VANDERHOFFEN was a child of the French Revolution, and inherited his social, political and religious–or, rather, anti-religious–views from the French writers of the eighteenth century, England was not ready for him and the unshackled individualism for which he at first contended. Recognizing this fact, he turned to an order of writing begotten of the deepest popular needs and addressed to the best intelligence of the great middle classes of the community.”
Now emperors bide their times’ rebuff
I would not be a king–enough
Of woe it is to love;
The paths of power are steep and rough,
And tempests reign above.
I would not climb the imperial throne;
‘Tis built on ice which fortune’s sun
Thaws in the height of noon.
Then farewell, kings, that squeak ‘Ha’ done!’
To time’s full-throated tune.
PAUL VANDERHOFFEN.–Emma and Caroline.
It is questionable if the announcement of the death of their Crown Prince, Hilary, upon the verge of his accession to the throne, aroused more than genteel regret among the inhabitants of Saxe-Kesselberg. It is indisputable that in diplomatic circles news of this horrible occurrence was indirectly conceded in 1803 to smack of a direct intervention of Providence. For to consider all the havoc dead Prince Fribble–such had been his sobriquet–would have created, Dei gratia, through his pilotage of an important grand-duchy (with an area of no less than eighty-nine square miles) was less discomfortable now prediction was an academic matter.
And so the editors of divers papers were the victims of a decorous anguish, court-mourning was decreed, and that wreckage which passed for the mutilated body of Prince Hilary was buried with every appropriate honor. Within the week most people had forgotten him, for everybody was discussing the execution of the Duc d’Enghein. And the aged unvenerable Grand-Duke of Saxe-Kesselberg died too in the same March; and afterward his other grandson, Prince Augustus, reigned in the merry old debauchee’s stead.
Prince Hilary was vastly pleased. His scheme for evading the tedious responsibilities of sovereignty had been executed without a hitch; he was officially dead; and, on the whole, standing bareheaded between a miller and laundress, he had found his funeral ceremonies to be unimpeachably conducted. He assumed the name of Paul Vanderhoffen, selected at random from the novel he was reading when his postchaise conveyed him past the frontier of Saxe-Kesselberg. Freed, penniless, and thoroughly content, he set about amusing himself–having a world to frisk in–and incidentally about the furnishing of his new friend Paul Vanderhoffen with life’s necessaries.
It was a little more than two years later that the good-natured Earl of Brudenel suggested to Lady John Claridge that she could nowhere find a more eligible tutor for her son than young Vanderhoffen.
“Hasn’t a shilling, ma’am, but one of the most popular men in London. His poetry book was subscribed for by the Prince Regent and half the notables of the kingdom. Capital company at a dinner-table–stutters, begad, like a What-you-may-call-’em, and keeps everybody in a roar–and when he’s had his whack of claret, he sings his own songs to the piano, you know, and all that sort of thing, and has quite put Tommy Moore’s nose out of joint. Nobody knows much about him, but that don’t matter with these literary chaps, does it now? Goes everywhere, ma’am–quite a favorite at Carlton House–a highly agreeable, well-informed man, I can assure you–and probably hasn’t a shilling to pay the cabman. Deuced odd, ain’t it? But Lord Lansdowne is trying to get him a place–spoke to me about a tutorship, ma’am, in fact, just to keep Vanderhoffen going, until some registrarship or other falls vacant. Now, I ain’t clever and that sort of thing, but I quite agree with Lansdowne that we practical men ought to look out for these clever fellows–see that they don’t starve in a garret, like poor What’s-his-name, don’t you know?”
Lady Claridge sweetly agreed with her future son-in-law. So it befell that shortly after this conversation Paul Vanderhoffen came to Leamington Manor, and through an entire summer goaded young Percival Claridge, then on the point of entering Cambridge, but pedagogically branded as “deficient in mathematics,” through many elaborate combinations of x and y and cosines and hyperbolas.
Lady John Claridge, mother to the pupil, approved of the new tutor. True, he talked much and wildishly; but literary men had a name for eccentricity, and, besides, Lady Claridge always dealt with the opinions of other people as matters of illimitable unimportance. This baronet’s lady, in short, was in these days vouchsafing to the universe at large a fine and new benevolence, now that her daughter was safely engaged to Lord Brudenel, who, whatever his other virtues, was certainly a peer of England and very rich. It seems irrelevant, and yet for the tale’s sake is noteworthy, that any room which harbored Lady John Claridge was through this fact converted into an absolute monarchy.
And so, by the favor of Lady Claridge and destiny, the tutor stayed at Leamington Manor all summer.
There was nothing in either the appearance or demeanor of the fiancee of Lord Brudenel’s title and superabundant wealth which any honest gentleman could, hand upon his heart, describe as blatantly repulsive.
It may not be denied the tutor noted this. In fine, he fell in love with Mildred Claridge after a thorough-going fashion such as Prince Fribble would have found amusing. Prince Fribble would have smiled, shrugged, drawled, “Eh, after all, the girl is handsome and deplorably cold-blooded!” Paul Vanderhoffen said, “I am not fit to live in the same world with her,” and wrote many verses in the prevailing Oriental style rich in allusions to roses, and bulbuls, and gazelles, and peris, and minarets–which he sold rather profitably.
Meanwhile, far oversea, the reigning Duke of Saxe-Kesselberg had been unwise enough to quarrel with his Chancellor, Georges Desmarets, an invaluable man whose only faults were dishonesty and a too intimate acquaintance with the circumstances of Prince Hilary’s demise. As fruit of this indiscretion, an inconsiderable tutor at Leamington Manor–whom Lady John Claridge regarded as a sort of upper servant was talking with a visitor.
The tutor, it appeared, preferred to talk with the former Chancellor of Saxe-Kesselberg in the middle of an open field. The time was afternoon, the season September, and the west was vaingloriously justifying the younger man’s analogy of a gigantic Spanish omelette. Meanwhile, the younger man declaimed in a high-pitched pleasant voice, wherein there was, as always, the elusive suggestion of a stutter.
“I repeat to you,” the tutor observed, “that no consideration will ever make a grand-duke of me excepting over my dead body. Why don’t you recommend some not quite obsolete vocation, such as making papyrus, or writing an interesting novel, or teaching people how to dance a saraband? For after all, what is a monarch nowadays–oh, even a monarch of the first class?” he argued, with what came near being a squeak of indignation. “The poor man is a rather pitiable and perfectly useless relic of barbarism, now that 1789 has opened our eyes; and his main business in life is to ride in open carriages and bow to an applauding public who are applauding at so much per head. He must expect to be aspersed with calumny, and once in a while with bullets. He may at the utmost aspire to introduce an innovation in evening dress,–the Prince Regent, for instance, has invented a really very creditable shoe-buckle. Tradition obligates him to devote his unofficial hours to sheer depravity—-“
Paul Vanderhoffen paused to meditate.
“Why, there you are! another obstacle! I have in an inquiring spirit and without prejudice sampled all the Seven Deadly Sins, and the common increment was an inability to enjoy my breakfast. A grand-duke I take it, if he have any sense of the responsibilities of his position, will piously remember the adage about the voice of the people and hasten to be steeped in vice–and thus conform to every popular notion concerning a grand-duke. Why, common intelligence demands that a grand-duke should brazenly misbehave himself upon the more conspicuous high-places of Chemosh! and personally, I have no talents such as would qualify me for a life of cynical and brutal immorality. I lack the necessary aptitude, I would not ever afford any spicy gossip concerning the Duke of Saxe-Kesselberg, and the editors of the society papers would unanimously conspire to dethrone me—-“
Thus he argued, with his high-pitched pleasant voice, wherein there was, as always, the elusive suggestion of a stutter. And here the other interrupted.
“There is no need of names, your highness.” Georges Desmarets was diminutive, black-haired and corpulent. He was of dapper appearance, point-device in everything, and he reminded you of a perky robin.
The tutor flung out an “Ouf! I must recall to you that, thank heaven, I am not anybody’s highness any longer. I am Paul Vanderhoffen.”
“He says that he is not Prince Fribble!”–the little man addressed the zenith–“as if any other person ever succeeded in talking a half-hour without being betrayed into at least one sensible remark. Oh, how do you manage without fail to be so consistently and stupendously idiotic?”
“It is, like all other desirable traits, either innate or else just unattainable,” the other answered. “I am so hopelessly light-minded that I cannot refrain from being rational even in matters which concern me personally–and this, of course, no normal being ever thinks of doing. I really cannot help it.”
The Frenchman groaned whole-heartedly.
“But we were speaking–well, of foreign countries. Now, Paul Vanderhoffen has read that in one of these countries there was once a prince who very narrowly escaped figuring as a self-conscious absurdity, as an anachronism, as a life-long prisoner of etiquette. However, with the assistance of his cousin–who, incidentally, was also his heir–the prince most opportunely died. Oh, pedant that you are! in any event he was interred. And so, the prince was gathered to his fathers, and his cousin Augustus reigned in his stead. Until a certain politician who had been privy to this pious fraud—-” The tutor shrugged. “How can I word it without seeming hypercritical?”
Georges Desmarets stretched out appealing hands. “But, I protest, it was the narrow-mindedness of that pernicious prig, your cousin–who firmly believes himself to be an improved and augmented edition of the Four Evangelists—-“
“Well, in any event, the proverb was attested that birds of a feather make strange bedfellows. There was a dispute concerning some petit larceny–some slight discrepancy, we will imagine, since all this is pure romance, in the politician’s accounts—-“
“Now you belie me—-” said the black-haired man, and warmly.
“Oh, Desmarets, you are as vain as ever! Let us say, then, of grand larceny. In any event, the politician was dismissed. And what, my dears, do you suppose this bold and bad and unprincipled Machiavelli went and did? Why, he made straight for the father of the princess the usurping duke was going to marry, and surprised everybody by showing that, at a pinch, even this Guy Fawkes–who was stuffed with all manner of guile and wickedness where youthful patriotism would ordinarily incline to straw–was capable of telling the truth. And so the father broke off the match. And the enamored, if usurping, duke wept bitterly and tore his hair to such an extent he totally destroyed his best toupet. And privily the Guy Fawkes came into the presence of the exiled duke and prated of a restoration to ancestral dignities. And he was spurned by a certain highly intelligent person who considered it both tedious and ridiculous to play at being emperor of a backyard. And then–I really don’t recall what happened. But there was a general and unqualified deuce to pay with no pitch at a really satisfying temperature.”
The stouter man said quietly: “It is a thrilling tale which you narrate. Only, I do recall what happened then. The usurping duke was very much in earnest, desirous of retaining his little kingdom, and particularly desirous of the woman whom he loved. In consequence, he had Monsieur the Runaway obliterated while the latter was talking nonsense—-“
The tutor’s brows had mounted.
“I scorn to think it even of anybody who is controlled in every action by a sense of duty,” Georges Desmarets explained, “that Duke Augustus would cause you to be murdered in your sleep.”
“A hit!” The younger man unsmilingly gesticulated like one who has been touched in sword-play. “Behold now, as the populace in their blunt way would phrase it, I am squelched.”
“And so the usurping duke was married and lived happily ever afterward.” Georges Desmarets continued: “I repeat to you there is only the choice between declaring yourself and being–we will say, removed. Your cousin is deeply in love with the Princess Sophia, and thanks to me, has now no chance of marrying her until his title has been secured by your–removal. Do not deceive yourself. High interests are involved. You are the grain of sand between big wheels. I iterate that the footpad who attacked you last night was merely a prologue. I happen to know your cousin has entrusted the affair to Heinrich Obendorf, his foster-brother, who, as you will remember, is not particularly squeamish.”
Paul Vanderhoffen thought a while. “Desmarets,” he said at last, “it is no use. I scorn your pribbles and your prabbles. I bargained with Augustus. I traded a duchy for my personal liberty. Frankly, I would be sorry to connect a sharer of my blood with the assault of yesterday. To be unpardonably candid, I have not ever found that your assertion of an event quite proved it had gone through the formality of occurring. And so I shall hold to my bargain.”
“The night brings counsel,” Desmarets returned. “It hardly needs a night, I think, to demonstrate that all I say is true.”
And so they parted.
Having thus dismissed such trifles as statecraft and the well-being of empires, Paul Vanderhoffen turned toward consideration of the one really serious subject in the universe, which was of course the bright, miraculous and incredible perfection of Mildred Claridge.
“I wonder what you think of me? I wonder if you ever think of me?” The thought careered like a caged squirrel, now that he walked through autumn woods toward her home.
“I wish that you were not so sensible. I wish your mother were not even more so. The woman reeks with common-sense, and knows that to be common is to be unanswerable. I wish that a dispute with her were not upon a par with remonstrance against an earthquake.”
He lighted a fresh cheroot. “And so you are to marry the Brudenel title and bank account, with this particular Heleigh thrown in as a dividend. And why not? the estate is considerable; the man who encumbers it is sincere in his adoration of you; and, chief of all, Lady John Claridge has decreed it. And your decision in any matter has always lain between the claws of that steel-armored crocodile who, by some miracle, is your mother. Oh, what a universe! were I of hasty temperament I would cry out, TUT AND GO TO!”
This was the moment which the man hid in the thicket selected as most fit for intervention through the assistance of a dueling pistol. Paul Vanderhoffen reeled, his face bewilderment. His hands clutched toward the sky, as if in anguish he grasped at some invisible support, and he coughed once or twice. It was rather horrible. Then Vanderhoffen shivered as though he were very cold, and tottered and collapsed in the parched roadway.
A slinking man whose lips were gray and could not refrain from twitching came toward the limp heap. “So—-!” said the man. One of his hands went to the tutor’s breast, and in his left hand dangled a second dueling pistol. He had thrown away the other after firing it.
“And so—-!” observed Paul Vanderhoffen. Afterward there was a momentary tussle. Now Paul Vanderhoffen stood erect and flourished the loaded pistol. “If you go on this way,” he said, with some severity, “you will presently be neither loved nor respected. There was a time, though, when you were an excellent shot, Herr Heinrich Obendorf.”
“I had my orders, highness,” said the other stolidly.
“Oh yes, of course,” Paul Vanderhoffen answered. “You had your orders–from Augustus!” He seemed to think of something very far away. He smiled, with quizzically narrowed eyes such as you may yet see in Raeburn’s portrait of the man. “I was remembering, oddly enough, that elm just back of the Canova Pavilion–as it was twenty years ago. I managed to scramble up it, but Augustus could not follow me because he had such short fat little legs. He was so proud of what I had done that he insisted on telling everybody–and afterward we had oranges for luncheon, I remember, and sucked them through bits of sugar. It is not fair that you must always remember and always love that boy who played with you when you were little–after he has grown up to be another person. Eh no! youth passes, but all its memories of unimportant things remain with you and are less kind than any self-respecting viper would be. Decidedly, it is not fair, and some earnest-minded person ought to write to his morning paper about it. . . . I think that is the reason I am being a sentimental fool,” Paul Vanderhoffen explained.
Then his teeth clicked. “Get on, my man,” he said. “Do not remain too near to me, because there was a time when I loved your employer quite as much as you do. This fact is urging me to dangerous ends. Yes, it is prompting me, even while I talk with you, to give you a lesson in marksmanship, my inconveniently faithful Heinrich.”
He shrugged. He lighted a cheroot with hands whose tremblings, he devoutly hoped, were not apparent, for Prince Fribble had been ashamed to manifest a sincere emotion of any sort, and Paul Vanderhoffen shared as yet this foible.
“Oh Brutus! Ravaillac! Damiens!” he drawled. “O general compendium of misguided aspirations! do be a duck and get along with you. And I would run as hard as I could, if I were you, for it is war now, and you and I are not on the same side.”
Paul Vanderhoffen paused a hundred yards or so from this to shake his head. “Come, come! I have lost so much that I cannot afford to throw my good temper into the bargain. To endure with a grave face this perfectly unreasonable universe wherein destiny has locked me is undoubtedly meritorious; but to bustle about it like a caged canary, and not ever to falter in your hilarity, is heroic. Let us, by all means, not consider the obdurate if gilded barriers, but rather the lettuce and the cuttle-bone. I have my choice between becoming a corpse or a convict–a convict? ah, undoubtedly a convict, sentenced to serve out a life-term in a cess-pool of castby superstitions.”
He smiled now over Paul Vanderhoffen’s rage. “Since the situation is tragic, let us approach it in an appropriate spirit of frivolity. My circumstances bully me. And I succumb to irrationality, as rational persons invariably end by doing. But, oh, dear me! oh, Osiris, Termagaunt, and Zeus! to think there are at least a dozen other ne’er-do-wells alive who would prefer to make a mess of living as a grand-duke rather than as a scribbler in Grub Street! Well, well! the jest is not of my contriving, and the one concession a sane man will never yield the universe is that of considering it seriously.”
And he strode on, resolved to be Prince Fribble to the last.
“Frivolity,” he said, “is the smoked glass through which a civilized person views the only world he has to live in. For, otherwise, he could not presume to look upon such coruscations of insanity and remain unblinded.”
This heartened him, as a rounded phrase will do the best of us. But by-and-bye,
“Frivolity,” he groaned, “is really the cheap mask incompetence claps on when haled before a mirror.”
And at Leamington Manor he found her strolling upon the lawn. It was an ordered, lovely scene, steeped now in the tranquillity of evening. Above, the stars were losing diffidence. Below, and within arms’ reach, Mildred Claridge was treading the same planet on which he fidgeted and stuttered.
Something in his heart snapped like a fiddle-string, and he was entirely aware of this circumstance. As to her eyes, teeth, coloring, complexion, brows, height and hair, it is needless to expatiate. The most painstaking inventory of these chattels would necessarily be misleading, because the impression which they conveyed to him was that of a bewildering, but not distasteful, transfiguration of the universe, apt as a fanfare at the entrance of a queen.
But he would be Prince Fribble to the last. And so, “Wait just a moment, please,” he said, “I want to harrow up your soul and freeze your blood.”
Wherewith he suavely told her everything about Paul Vanderhoffen’s origin and the alternatives now offered him, and she listened without comment.
“Ai! ai!” young Vanderhoffen perorated; “the situation is complete. I have not the least desire to be Grand-Duke of Saxe-Kesselberg. It is too abominably tedious. But, if I do not join in with Desmarets, who has the guy-ropes of a restoration well in hand, I must inevitably be–removed, as the knave phrases it. For as long as I live, I will be an insuperable barrier between Augustus and his Sophia. Otototoi!” he wailed, with a fine tone of tragedy, “the one impossible achievement in my life has always been to convince anybody that it was mine to dispose of as I elected!”
“Oh, man proposes—-” she began, cryptically. Then he deliberated, and sulkily submitted: “But I may not even propose to abdicate. Augustus has put himself upon sworn record as an eye-witness of my hideous death. And in consequence I might keep on abdicating from now to the crack of doom, and the only course left open to him would be to treat me as an impostor.”
She replied, with emphasis, “I think your cousin is a beast!”
“Ah, but the madman is in love,” he pleaded. “You should not judge poor masculinity in such a state by any ordinary standards. Oh really, you don’t know the Princess Sophia. She is, in sober truth, the nicest person who was ever born a princess. Why, she had actually made a mock of even that handicap, for ordinarily it is as disastrous to feminine appearance as writing books. And, oh, Lord! they will be marrying her to me, if Desmarets and I win out.” Thus he forlornly ended.
“The designing minx!” Miss Claridge said, distinctly.
“Now, gracious lady, do be just a cooing pigeon and grant that when men are in love they are not any more encumbered by abstract notions about honor than if they had been womanly from birth. Come, let’s be lyrical and open-minded,” he urged; and he added, “No, either you are in love or else you are not in love. And nothing else will matter either way. You see, if men and women had been primarily designed to be rational creatures, there would be no explanation for their being permitted to continue in existence,” he lucidly explained. “And to have grasped this fact is the pith of all wisdom.”
“Oh, I am very wise.” A glint of laughter shone in her eyes. “I would claim to be another Pythoness if only it did not sound so snaky and wriggling. So, from my trident–or was it a Triton they used to stand on?–I announce that you and your Augustus are worrying yourselves gray-headed over an idiotically simple problem. Now, I disposed of it offhand when I said, ‘Man proposes.’”
He seemed to be aware of some one who from a considerable distance was inquiring her reasons for this statement.
“Because in Saxe-Kesselberg, as in all other German states, when a prince of the reigning house marries outside of the mediatized nobility he thereby forfeits his right of succession. It has been done any number of times. Why, don’t you see, Mr. Vanderhoffen? Conceding you ever do such a thing, your cousin Augustus would become at once the legal heir. So you must marry. It is the only way, I think, to save you from regal incarceration and at the same time to reassure the Prince of Lueminster–that creature’s father–that you have not, and never can have, any claim which would hold good in law. Then Duke Augustus could peaceably espouse his Sophia and go on reigning—- And, by the way, I have seen her picture often, and if that is what you call beauty—-” Miss Claridge did not speak this last at least with any air of pointing out the self-evident.
And, “I believe,” he replied, “that all this is actually happening. I might have known fate meant to glut her taste for irony.”
“But don’t you see? You have only to marry anybody outside of the higher nobility–and just as a makeshift—-” She had drawn closer in the urgency of her desire to help him. An infinite despair and mirth as well was kindled by her nearness. And the man was insane and dimly knew as much.
And so, “I see,” he answered. “But, as it happens, I cannot marry any woman, because I love a particular woman. At least, I suppose she isn’t anything but just a woman. That statement,” he announced, “is a formal tribute paid by what I call my intellect to what the vulgar call the probabilities. The rest of me has no patience whatever with such idiotic blasphemy.”
She said, “I think I understand.” And this surprised him, coming as it did from her whom he had always supposed to be the fiancee of Lord Brudenel’s title and bank-account.
“And, well!”–he waved his hands–“either as tutor or as grand-duke, this woman is unattainable, because she has been far too carefully reared”–and here he frenziedly thought of that terrible matron whom, as you know, he had irreverently likened to a crocodile–“either to marry a pauper or to be contented with a left-handed alliance. And I love her. And so”–he shrugged–“there is positively nothing left to do save sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the deaths of kings.”
She said, “Oh, and you mean it! You are speaking the plain truth!” A change had come into her lovely face which would have made him think it even lovelier had not that contingency been beyond conception.
And Mildred Claridge said, “It is not fair for dreamers such as you to let a woman know just how he loves her. That is not wooing. It is bullying.”
His lips were making a variety of irrational noises. And he was near to her. Also he realized that he had never known how close akin were fear and joy, so close the two could mingle thus, and be quite undistinguishable. And then repentance smote him.
“I am contemptible!” he groaned. “I had no right to trouble you with my insanities. Indeed I had not ever meant to let you guess how mad I was. But always I have evaded my responsibilities. So I remain Prince Fribble to the last.”
“Oh, but I knew, I have always known.” She held her eyes away from him. “And I wrote to Lord Brudenel only yesterday releasing him from his engagement.”
And now without uncertainty or haste Paul Vanderhoffen touched her cheek and raised her face, so that he saw it plainly in the rising twilight, and all its wealth of tenderness newborn. And what he saw there frightened him.
For the girl loved him! He felt himself to be, as most men do, a swindler when he comprehended this preposterous fact; and, in addition, he thought of divers happenings, such as shipwrecks, holocausts and earthquakes, which might conceivably have appalled him, and understood that he would never in his life face any sense of terror as huge as was this present sweet and illimitable awe.
And then he said, “You know that what I hunger for is impossible. There are so many little things, like common-sense, to be considered. For this is just a matter which concerns you and Paul Vanderhoffen–a literary hack, a stuttering squeak-voiced ne’er-do-well, with an acquired knack for scribbling verses that are feeble-minded enough for Annuals and Keepsake Books, and so fetch him an occasional guinea. For, my dear, the verses I write of my own accord are not sufficiently genteel to be vended in Paternoster Row; they smack too dangerously of human intelligence. So I am compelled, perforce, to scribble such jingles as I am ashamed to read, because I must write something. . . .” Paul Vanderhoffen shrugged, and continued, in tones more animated: “There will be no talk of any grand-duke. Instead, there will be columns of denunciation and tittle-tattle in every newspaper–quite as if you, a baronet’s daughter, had run away with a footman. And you will very often think wistfully of Lord Brudenel’s fine house when your only title is–well, Princess of Grub Street, and your realm is a garret. And for a while even to-morrow’s breakfast will be a problematical affair. It is true Lord Lansdowne has promised me a registrarship in the Admiralty Court, and I do not think he will fail me. But that will give us barely enough to live on–with strict economy, which is a virtue that neither of us knows anything about. I beg you to remember that–you who have been used to every luxury! you who really were devised that you might stand beside an emperor and set tasks for him. In fine, you know—-“
And Mildred Claridge said, “I know that, quite as I observed, man proposes–when he has been sufficiently prodded by some one who, because she is an idiot–And that is why I am not blushing–very much—-“
“Your coloring is not–repellent.” His high-pitched pleasant voice, in spite of him, shook now with more than its habitual suggestion of a stutter. “What have you done to me, my dear?” he said. “Why can’t I jest at this . . . as I have always done at everything—-?”
“Boy, boy!” she said; “laughter is excellent. And wisdom too is excellent. Only I think that you have laughed too much, and I have been too shrewd–But now I know that it is better to be a princess in Grub Street than to figure at Ranelagh as a good-hearted fool’s latest purchase. For Lord Brudenel is really very good-natured,” she argued, “and I did like him, and mother was so set upon it–and he was rich–and I honestly thought—-“
“And now?” he said.
“And now I know,” she answered happily.
They looked at each other for a little while. Then he took her hand, prepared in turn for self-denial.
“The Household Review wants me to ‘do’ a series on famous English bishops,” he reported, humbly. “I had meant to refuse, because it would all have to be dull High-Church twaddle. And the English Gentleman wants some rather outrageous lying done in defense of the Corn Laws. You would not despise me too much–would you, Mildred?–if I undertook it now. I really have no choice. And there is plenty of hackwork of that sort available to keep us going until more solvent days, when I shall have opportunity to write something quite worthy of you.”
“For the present, dear, it would be much more sensible, I think, to ‘do’ the bishops and the Corn Laws. You see, that kind of thing pays very well, and is read by the best people; whereas poetry, of course– But you can always come back to the verse-making, you know—-“
“If you ever let me,” he said, with a flash of prescience. “And I don’t believe you mean to let me. You are your mother’s daughter, after all! Nefarious woman, you are planning, already, to make a responsible member of society out of me! and you will do it, ruthlessly! Such is to be Prince Fribble’s actual burial–in his own private carriage, with a receipted tax-bill in his pocket!”
“What nonsense you poets talk!” the girl observed. But to him, forebodingly, that familiar statement seemed to lack present application.