Story type: Literature
As Played at Tunbridge Wells, April 1, 1750
“But this is the most cruel thing, to marry one does not know how, nor why, nor wherefore.–Gad, I never liked anybody less in my life. Poor woman!–Gad, I’m sorry for her, too; for I have no reason to hate her neither; but I wish we could keep it secret! why, I don’t believe any of this company would speak of it.”
CAPTAIN AUDAINE, of a pompous and handsome person, and loves Miss Allonby.
LORD HUMPHREY DEGGE, younger son to the Marquis of Venour, makes love to Miss Allonby.
GERALD ALLONBY, brother to Miss Allonby, a true raw Squire.
MR. ERWYN, betrothed to Lady Allonby.
VANRINGHAM, an impudent tragedian of the Globe Company.
QUARMBY, Vanringham’s associate.
Miss ALLONBY, an heiress, of a petulant humor, in love with Audaine.
MARCHIONESS OF FALMOUTH, an impertinent affected dowager, and grandmother to Miss Allonby.
LADY ALLONBY, step-mother to Miss Allonby and Gerald.
POSTILIONS, SERVANTS, Etc.
Tunbridge Wells, thence shifting to Chetwode Lodge, Mr. Babington-Herle’s house, on Rusthall Common, within two miles of the town.
THE CASUAL HONEYMOON
PROEM:–Introductive of Captain Francis Audaine
It appears convenient here to pursue Miss Allonby on her stroll about the Pantiles in company with Captain Audaine. The latter has been at pains to record the events of the afternoon and evening, so that I give you his own account of them, though I abridge in consideration of his leisured style. Pompous and verbose I grant the Captain, even in curtailment; but you are to remember these were the faults of his age, ingrained and defiant of deletion; and should you elect to peruse his memoirs [Footnote: There appears to have been no American edition since that, in 1836, printed in Philadelphia, “for Thomas Wardle, No. 15 Minor Street.” In England the memoirs of Lord Garendon are to all appearance equally hard to come by, and seem to have been out of print since 1907.] you will find that I have considerately spared you a majority of the digressions to which the future Earl of Garendon was lamentably addicted.
For the purpose of my tale you are to view him as Tunbridge did at this particular time: as a handsome and formal person, twenty-eight years old or thereabouts, of whom nobody knew anything quite definite–beyond the genealogic inference to be drawn from a smatch of the brogue–save that after a correspondence of gallantries, of some three weeks’ duration, he was the manifest slave of Miss Dorothy Allonby, and had already fought three duels behind Ormerod House,–with Will Pratchet, Lord Humphrey Degge, and Sir Eugene Harrabie, respectively, each one of whom was a declared suitor for her hand.
And with this prelude I begin on my transcription.
Miss Allonby (says Captain Audaine) was that afternoon in a mighty cruel humor. Though I had omitted no reasonable method to convince her of the immensity of my passion, ’twas without the twitch of an eyelash she endured the volley of my sighs and the fusillade of my respectful protestations; and candor compels me to admit that toward the end her silvery laughter disrupted the periods of a most elegant and sensible peroration. And when the affair was concluded, and for the seventh time I had implored her to make me the happiest of men, the rogue merely observed: “But I don’t want to marry you. Why on earth should I?”
“For the sake of peace,” I replied, “and in self-protection, since as long as you stay obdurate I shall continue to importune, and by and by I shall pester you to death.”
“Indeed, I think it more than probable,” she returned; “for you dog me like a bailiff. I am cordially a-weary, Captain Audaine, of your incessant persecutions; and, after all, marrying you is perhaps the civilest way to be rid of both them and you.”
But by this I held each velvet-soft and tiny hand. “Nay,” I dissented; “the subject is somewhat too sacred for jest. I am no modish lover, dearest and best of creatures, to regard marriage as the thrifty purchase of an estate, and the lady as so much bed-furniture thrown in with the mansion. I love you with completeness: and give me leave to assure you, madam, with a freedom which I think permissible on so serious an occasion that, even as beautiful as you are, I could never be contented with your person without your heart.”
She sat with eyes downcast, all one blush. Miss Dorothy Allonby was in the bloom of nineteen, and shone with every charm peculiar to her sex. But I have no mind to weary you with poetical rhodomontades till, as most lovers do, I have proven her a paragon and myself an imbecile: it suffices to say that her face, and shape, and mien, and wit, alike astounded and engaged all those who had the happiness to know her; and had long ago rendered her the object of my entire adoration and the target of my daily rhapsodies. Now I viewed her with a dissension of the liveliest hopes and fears; for she had hesitated, and had by this hesitation conceded my addresses to be not irretrievably repugnant; and within the instant I knew that any life undevoted to her service and protection could be but a lingering disease.
But by and by, “You shall have your answer this evening,” she said, and so left me.
I fathomed the meaning of “this evening” well enough. For my adored Dorothy was all romance, and by preference granted me rendezvous in the back garden, where she would tantalize me nightly, from her balcony, after the example of the Veronese lady in Shakespeare’s spirited tragedy, which she prodigiously admired. As concerns myself, a reasonable liking for romance had been of late somewhat tempered by the inclemency of the weather and the obvious unfriendliness of the dog; but there is no resisting a lady’s commands; and clear or foul, you might at any twilight’s death have found me under her window, where a host of lyric phrases asserted the devotion which a cold in the head confirmed.
This night was black as a coal-pit. Strolling beneath the casement, well wrapt in my cloak (for it drizzled), I meditated impartially upon the perfections of my dear mistress and the tyrannic despotism of love. Being the source of our existence, ’tis not unreasonably, perhaps, that this passion assumes the proprietorship of our destinies and exacts of all mankind a common tribute. To-night, at least, I viewed the world as a brave pavilion, lighted by the stars and swept by the clean winds of heaven, wherein we enacted varied rôles with God as audience; where, in turn, we strutted or cringed about the stage, where, in turn, we were beset and rent by an infinity of passions; but where every man must play the part of lover. That passion alone, I said, is universal; it set wise Solomon a-jigging in criminal byways, and sinewy Hercules himself was no stranger to its inquietudes and joys. And I cried aloud with the Roman, Parce precor! and afterward upon high Heaven to make me a little worthier of Dorothy.
Engrossed in meditations such as these, I was fetched earthward by the clicking of a lock, and, turning, saw the door beneath her balcony unclose and afford egress to a slender and hooded figure. My amazement was considerable and my felicity beyond rhetoric.
“Dorothy–!” I whispered.
“Come!” was her response; and her finger-tips rested upon my arm the while that she guided me toward the gateway opening into Jervis Lane. I followed with a trepidation you may not easily conceive; nor was this diminished when I found awaiting us a post-chaise, into which my angel hastily tripped.
I babbled I know not what inarticulate nonsense. But, “Heavens!” she retorted, “d’ye mean to keep the parson waiting all night?”
This was her answer, then. Well, ’twas more than I could have hoped for, though to a man of any sensibility this summary disposal of our love-affair could not but vaguely smack of the distasteful. Say what you will, every gentleman has about him somewhere a tincture of that venerable and artless age when wives were taken by capture and were retained by force; he prefers to have the lady hold off until the very last; and properly, her tongue must sound defiance long after melting eyes have signalled that the traitorous heart of her, like an anatomical Tarpeia, is ready to betray the citadel and yield the treasury of her charms.
Nevertheless, I stepped into the vehicle. The postilion was off in a twinkling, as the saying is, over the roughest road in England. Conversation was impossible, for Dorothy and I were jostling like two pills in a box; and as the first observation I attempted resulted in a badly bitten tongue, I prudently held my peace.
This endured for, perhaps, a quarter of an hour, at the end of which period the post-chaise on a sudden stopped, and I assisted my companion to alight. Before us was a villa of considerable dimension, and situate, so far as I could immediately detect, in the midst of a vast and desolate moor; there was no trace of human habitation within the radius of the eye; and the house itself presented not a glimpse of tenancy or illumination.
“O Lord, madam–” I began.
“Hasten!” spoke a voice from within the Parsonage. And Dorothy drew me toward a side door, overhung with ivy, where, sure enough, a dim light burned, ‘Twas but a solitary candle stuck upon a dresser at the remoter end of a large and low-ceiled apartment; and in this flickering obscurity we found a tremulous parson in full canonicals, who had united our hands and gabbled half-way through the marriage service before I had the slightest notion of what was befalling me.
And such is the unreasonable disposition of mankind that the attainment of my most ardent desires aroused a feeling not altogether unakin to irritation. This skulking celerity, this hole-and-corner business, I thought, was in ill-accord with the respect due to a sacrament; and I could have wished my marriage to have borne a less striking resemblance to the conference of three thieves in a cellar. But ’twas over in two twos. Within scantier time than it takes to tell of it, Francis and Dorothy were made one, and I had turned to salute my wife.
She gave a shriek of intolerable anguish. “Heavens!” said she, “I have married the wrong man!”
Without delay I snatched up the guttering candle and held it to my wife’s countenance. You can conceive that ’twas with no pleasurable emotion I discovered I had inadvertently espoused the Dowager Marchioness of Falmouth, my adored Dorothy’s grandmother; and in frankness I can’t deny that the lady seemed equally dissatisfied: words failed us; and the newly wedded couple stared at each other in silence.
“Captain Audaine,” said she, at last, “the situation is awkward.”
“Sure, madam,” I returned, “and that is the precise thought which has just occurred to me.”
“And I am of the opinion,” she continued, “that you owe me some sort of explanation. For I had planned to elope with Mr. Vanringham–“
“Do I understand your Ladyship to allude to Mr. Francis Vanringham, the play-actor, at present the talk of Tunbridge?”
She bowed a grave response.
“This is surprising news,” said I. “And grant me leave to tell you that a woman of mature years, possessed of an abundant fortune and unassailable gentility, does not by ordinary sneak out of the kitchen door to meet a raddle-faced actor in the middle of the night. ‘Tis, indeed, a circumstance to stagger human credulity. Oh, believe me, madam, for a virtuous woman the back garden is not a fitting approach to the altar, nor is a comedian an appropriate companion there at eleven o’clock in the evening.”
“Hey, my fine fellow,” says my wife, “and what were you doing in the back garden?”
“Among all true lovers,” I returned, “it is an immemorial custom to prowl like sentinels beneath the windows of the beauteous adored. And I, madam, had the temerity to aspire toward an honorable union with your granddaughter.”
She wrung her withered hands. “That any reputable woman should have nocturnal appointments with gentlemen in the back garden, and beguile her own grandmother into an odious marriage! I protest, Captain Audaine, the degenerate world of to-day is no longer a suitable residence for a lady!”
“Look you, sir, this is a cruel bad business,” the Parson here put in. He was pacing the apartment in an altercation of dubiety and amaze. “Mr. Vanringham will be vexed.”
“You will pardon me,” I retorted, “if I lack pity to waste upon your Mr. Vanringham. At present I devote all funds of compassion to my own affairs. Am I, indeed, to understand that this lady and I are legally married?”
He rubbed his chin. “By the Lord Harry,” says he, “’tis a case that lacks precedents! But the coincidence of the Christian names is devilish awkward; the service takes no cognizance of surnames; and I have merely united a Francis and a Dorothy.”
“O Lord, Mr. What-d’ye-call-um,” said I, “then there is but one remedy and that is an immediate divorce.”
My wife shrieked. “Have you no sense of decency, Captain Audaine? Never has there been a divorce in my family. And shall I be the first to drag that honored name into a public court,–to have my reputation worried at the bar by a parcel of sniggering lawyers, while the town wits buzz about it like flies around carrion? I pray you, do not suggest any such hideous thing.”
“Here’s the other Francis,” says the Parson, at this point. And it was,–a raffish, handsome, slender, red-haired fellow, somewhat suggestive of the royal duke, yet rather more like a sneak-thief, and with a whiff somewhere of the dancing-master. At first glance you recognized in the actor a personage, for he compelled the eye with a monstrous vividness of color and gesture. To-night he had missed his lady at their rendezvous, owing to my premature appearance, and had followed us post-haste.
“My Castalio!” she screamed. “My Beaugard!” [Footnote: I never saw the rascal act, thank Heaven, since in that event, report assures me, I might conceivably have accredited him with the possession of some meritorious qualities, however trivial; but, it appears, these two above-mentioned rôles were the especial puppetry in which Mr. Vanringham was most successful in wringing tears and laughter from the injudicious.–F.A.] She ran to him, and with disjointed talk and quavering utterance disclosed the present lamentable posture of affairs.
And I found the tableau they presented singular. My wife had been a toast, they tell me, in Queen Anne’s time, and even now the lean and restless gentlewoman showed as the abandoned house of youth and wit and beauty, with here and there a trace of the old occupancy; always her furtive eyes shone with a cold and shifting glitter, as though a frightened imp peeped through a mask of Hecuba; and in every movement there was an ineffable touch of something loosely hinged and fantastic. In a word, the Marchioness was not unconscionably sane, and was known far and wide as a gallant woman resolutely oblivious to the batterings of time, and so avid of flattery that she was ready to smile on any man who durst give the lie to her looking-glass. Demented landlady of her heart, she would sublet that antiquated chamber to the first adventurer who came prepared to pay his scot in the false coin of compliment; and ’twas not difficult to comprehend how this young Thespian had acquired its tenancy.
But now the face of Mr. Vanringham was attenuated by her revelations, and the wried mouth of Mr. Vanringham suggested that the party be seated, in order to consider more at ease the unfortunate contretemps. Fresh lights were kindled, as one and all were past fear of discovery by this; and we four assembled about a table which occupied the centre of the apartment.
“The situation,” Mr. Vanringham, began, “may reasonably be described as desperate. Here we sit, four ruined beings. For Dr. Quarmby has betrayed an unoffending couple into involuntary matrimony, an act of which his Bishop can scarcely fail to take official notice; Captain Audaine and the Marchioness are entrapped into a loveless marriage, than which there mayn’t be a greater misery in life; and my own future, I needn’t add, is irrevocably blighted by the loss of my respected Dorothy, without whom continued animation must necessarily be a hideous and hollow mockery. Yet there occurs to me a panacea for these disasters.”
“Then, indeed, Mr. Vanringham,” said I, “there is one of us who will be uncommonly glad to know the name of it.”
He faced me with a kind of compassion in his wide-set brown eyes, “You, sir, have caused a sweet and innocent lady to marry you against her will–Oho, beyond doubt, your intentions were immaculate; but the outcome remains in its stark enormity, and the hand of an inquisitive child is not ordinarily salved by its previous ignorance as to the corrosive properties of fire. You have betrayed confiding womanhood, an act abhorrent to all notions of gentility. There is but one conclusive proof of your repentance.–Need I mention that I allude to self-destruction?”
“O Lord, sir,” I observed, “suicide is a deadly sin, and I would not willingly insult any gentlewoman by evincing so marked a desire for the devil’s company in preference to hers.”
“Your argument is sophistry,” he returned, “since ’tis your death alone that can endear you to your bride. Death is the ultimate and skilled assayer of alloyed humanity: and by his art our gross constituents–our foibles, our pettinesses, nay, our very crimes–are precipitated into the coffin, the while that his crucible sets free the volatile pure essence, and shows as undefiled by all life’s accidents that part of divinity which harbors in the vilest bosom. This only is remembered: this only mounts, like an ethereal spirit, to hallow the finished-with blunderer’s renown, and reverently to enshrine his body’s resting-place. Ah, no, Captain Audaine! death alone may canonize the husband. Once you’re dead, your wife will adore you; once you’re dead, your wife and I have before us an open road to connubial felicity, a road which, living, you sadly encumber; and only when he has delivered your funeral oration may Dr. Quarmby be exempt from apprehension lest his part in your marriage ceremony bring about his defrockment. I urge the greatest good for the greatest number, Captain; living, you plunge all four of us into suffering; whereas the nobility of an immediate felo-de-se will in common decency exalt your soul to Heaven accompanied and endorsed by the fervent prayers of three grateful hearts.”
“And by the Lord Harry,” says the Parson, “while no clergyman extant has a more cordial aversion to suicide, I cannot understand why a prolonged existence should tempt you. You love Miss Dorothy Allonby, as all Tunbridge knows; and to a person of sensibility, what can be more awkward than to have thrust upon him grandfathership of the adored one? You must in this position necessarily be exposed to the committal of a thousand gaucheries; and if you insist upon your irreligious project of procuring a divorce, what, I ask, can be your standing with the lady? Can she smile upon the suit of an individual who has publicly cast aside the sworn love and obedience of the being to whom she owes her very existence? or will any clergyman in England participate in the union of a woman to her ex-grandfather? Nay, believe me, sir, ’tis less the selfishness than the folly of your clinging to this vale of tears which I deplore. And I protest that this rope”–he fished up a coil from the corner–“appears to have been deposited here by a benign and all-seeing Providence to Suggest the manifold advantages of hanging yourself as compared with the untidy operation of cutting one’s throat.”
“And conceive, sir,” says my wife, “what must be the universal grief for the bridegroom so untimelily taken off in the primal crescence of his honeymoon! Your funeral will be unparalleled both for sympathy and splendor; all Tunbridge will attend in tears; and ’twill afford me a melancholy but sincere pleasure to extend to you the hospitality of the Allonby mausoleum, which many connoisseurs have accounted the finest in the three kingdoms.”
“I must venture,” said I, “to terminate this very singular conversation. You have, one and all, set forth the advantages of my immediate demise; your logic is unassailable and has proven suicide my plain duty; and my rebuttal is confined to the statement that I will see every one of you damned before I’ll do it.”
Mr. Francis Vanringham rose with a little bow. “You have insulted both womanhood and the Established Church by the spitting out of that ribald oath; and me you have with equal levity wronged by the theft of my affianced bride. I am only a play-actor, but in inflicting an insult a gentleman must either lift his inferior to his own station or else forfeit his gentility. I wear a sword, Captain Audaine. Heyho, will you grant me the usual satisfaction?”
“My fascinating comedian,” said I, “if ’tis a fight you are desirous of, I can assure you that in my present state I would cross swords with a costermonger, or the devil, or the Archbishop of Canterbury, with equal impartiality. But scarcely in the view of a lady, and, therefore, as you boast the greater influence in that quarter, will you kindly advise the withdrawal of yonder unexpected addition to my family?”
“There’s an inner room,” says he, pointing to the door behind me; and I held it open as my wife swept through.
“You are the epitome of selfishness,” she flung out, in passing; “for had you possessed an ounce of gallantry, you would long ago have freed me from this odious marriage.”
“Sure, madam,” I returned, with a congée; “and is it not rather a compliment that I so willingly forfeit a superlunar bliss in order to retain the pleasure of your society?”
She sniffed, and I closed the door; and within the moment the two men fell upon me, from the rear, and presently had me trussed like a fowl and bound with that abominable Parson’s coil of rope.
“Believe me,” says Mr. Vanringham, now seated upon the table and indolently dangling his heels,–the ecclesiastical monstrosity, having locked the door upon Mrs. Audaine, had occupied a chair and was composedly smoking a churchwarden,–“believe me, I lament the necessity of this uncouth proceeding. But heyho! man is a selfish animal. You take me, sir, my affection for yonder venerable lady does not keep me awake o’ nights; yet is a rich marriage the only method to amend my threadbare fortunes, so that I cheerfully avail myself of her credulity. By God!” cried he, with a quick raising of the voice, “to-morrow I had been a landed gentleman but for you, you blundering omadhaun! And is a shabby merry-andrew from the devil knows where to pop in and spoil the prettiest plot was ever hatched?”
‘Twas like a flare of lightning, this sudden outburst of malignity; for you saw in it, quintessentialized, the man’s stark and venomous hatred of a world which had ill-used him; and ’twas over with too as quickly as the lightning, yielding to the pleasantest smile imaginable. Meanwhile you are to picture me, and my emotions, as I lay beneath his oscillating toes, entirely helpless. “‘Twas not that I lacked the courage to fight you,” he continues, “nor the skill, either. But there is always the possibility that by some awkward thrust or other you might deprive the stage of a distinguished ornament; and as a sincere admirer of my genius, I must, in decency, avoid such risks. ‘Twas necessary to me, of course, that you be got out of this world speedily, since a further continuance of your blunderings would interfere with my plans for the future; having gone thus far, I cannot reasonably be expected to cede my interest in the Marchioness and her estate. Accordingly I decide upon the handiest method and tip the wink to Quarmby here; the lady quits the apartment in order to afford us opportunity to settle our pretensions, with cutlery as arbiter; and she will return to find your perforated carcass artistically displayed in yonder extremity of the room. Slain in an affair of honor, my dear Captain! The disputed damsel will think none the worse of me, a man of demonstrated valor and affection; Quarmby and I’ll bury you in the cellar; and being freed from her recent and unfortunate alliance, my esteemed Dorothy will seek consolation in the embraces of a more acceptable spouse. Confess, sir, is it not a scheme of Arcadian simplicity?”
‘Twas the most extraordinary sensation to note the utterly urbane and cheerful countenance with which Mr. Vanringham disclosed the meditated atrocity. This unprincipled young man was about to run me through with no more compunction than a naturalist in the act of pinning a new beetle among his collection may momentarily be aware of.
Then my quickened faculties were stirred on a sudden, and for the first time I opened my mouth. Whatever claim I had upon Vanringham, there was no need to advance it now.
“You were about to say–?” he queried.
“I was about to relieve a certain surplusage of emotion,” I retorted, “by observing that I regret to find you, sir, a chattering, lean-witted fool–a vain and improvident fool!”
“Harsh words, my Captain,” says he, with lifted eyebrows.
“O Lord, sir, but not of an undeserved asperity!” I returned, “D’ye think the Marchioness, her flighty head crammed with scraps of idiotic romance, would elope without regard for the canons of romance? Not so; depend upon it, a letter was left upon her pin-cushion announcing her removal with you, and in the most approved heroic style arraigning the obduracy of her unsympathetic grandchildren. D’ye think Gerald Allonby will not follow her? Sure, and he will; and the proof is,” I added, “that you may hear his horses yonder on the heath, as I heard them some moments ago.”
Vanringham leaped to the floor and stood thus, all tension. He raised clenched, quivering hands toward the ceiling. “O King of Jesters!” he cried, in horrid blasphemy; and then again, “O King of Jesters!”
And by this time men were shouting without, and at the door there was a prodigious and augmenting hammering. And the Parson wrung his hands and began to shake like a dish of jelly in a thunder-storm.
“Captain Audaine,” Mr. Vanringham resumed, with more tranquillity, “you are correct. Clidamira and Parthenissa would never have fled into the night without leaving a note upon the pin-cushion. The folly I kindled in your wife’s addled pate has proven my ruin. Remains to make the best of Hobson’s choice.” He unlocked the door. “Gentlemen, gentlemen!” says he, with deprecating hand, “surely this disturbance is somewhat outré, a trifle misplaced, upon the threshold of a bridal-chamber?”
Then Gerald Allonby thrust into the room, followed by Lord Humphrey Degge, [Footnote: I must in this place entreat my reader’s profound discredit of any aspersions I may rashly seem to cast upon this honest gentleman, whose friendship I to-day esteem as invaluable; but I wrote, as always, currente calamo, and the above was penned in an amorous misery, sub Venire, be it remembered; and in such cases a wrong bias is easily hung upon the mind.–F.A.] my abhorred rival for Dorothy’s affection, and two attendants.
“My grandmother!” shrieks Gerald. “Villain, what have you done with my grandmother?”
“The query were more fitly put,” Vanringham retorts, “to the lady’s husband.” And he waves his hand toward me.
Thereupon the new-comers unbound me with various exclamations of wonder. “And now,” I observed, “I would suggest that you bestow upon Mr. Vanringham and yonder blot upon the Church of England the bonds from which I have been recently manumitted, or, at the very least, keep a vigilant watch upon those more than suspicious characters, the while that I narrate the surprising events of this evening.”
Subsequently I made a clean breast of affairs to Gerald and Lord Humphrey Degge. They heard me with attentive, even sympathetic, countenances; but by and by the face of Lord Humphrey brightened as he saw a not unformidable rival thus jockeyed from the field; and when I had ended, Gerald rose and with an oath struck his open palm upon the table.
“This is the most fortunate coincidence,” he swears, “that I have ever known of. I come prepared to find my grandmother the wife of a beggarly play-actor, and I discover that, to the contrary, she has contracted an alliance with a gentleman for whom I entertain sincere affection.”
“Surely,” I cried, aghast, “you cannot deliberate acceptance of this iniquitous and inadvertent match!”
“What is your meaning, Captain Audaine?” says the boy, sharply. “What other course is possible?”‘
“O Lord!” said I, “after to-night’s imbroglio I have nothing to observe concerning the possibility of anything; but if this marriage prove a legal one, I am most indissuadably resolved to rectify matters without delay in the divorce court.”
Now Gerald’s brows were uglily compressed. “A divorce,” said he, with an extreme of deliberation, “means the airing of to-night’s doings in the open. I take it, ’tis the duty of a man of honor to preserve the reputation of his grandmother stainless; whether she be a housemaid or the Queen of Portugal, her frailties are equally entitled to endurance, her eccentricities to toleration: can a gentleman, then, sanction any proceeding of a nature calculated to make his grandmother the laughing-stock of England? The point is a nice one.”
“For, conceive,” said Lord Humphrey, with the most knavish grin I ever knew a human countenance to pollute itself with, “that the entire matter will be convoyed by the short-hand writers to the public press, and after this will be hawked about the streets; and that the venders will yell particulars of your grandmother’s folly under your very windows; and that you must hear them in impotence, and that for some months the three kingdoms will hear of nothing else. Gad, I quite feel for you, my dear.”
“I have fallen into a nest of madmen,” I cried. “You know, both of you, how profoundly I adore Mr. Gerald’s sister, the accomplished and bewitching Miss Allonby; and in any event, I demand of you, as rational beings, is it equitable that I be fettered for life to an old woman’s apron-strings because a doctor of divinity is parsimonious of his candles?”
But Gerald had drawn with a flourish. “You have repudiated my kinswoman,” says he, “and you cannot deny me the customary satisfaction. Harkee, my fine fellow, Dorothy will marry my friend Lord Humphrey if she will be advised by me; or if she prefer it, she may marry the Man in the Iron Mask or the piper that played before Moses, so far as I am concerned: but as for you, I hereby offer you your choice between quitting this apartment as my grandfather or as a corpse.”
“I won’t fight you!” I shouted. “Keep the boy off, Degge!” But when the infuriate lad rushed upon me, I was forced, in self-protection, to draw, and after a brief engagement to knock his sword across the room.
“Gerald,” I pleaded, “for the love of reason, consider! I cannot fight you. Heaven knows this tragic farce hath robbed me of all pretension toward your sister, and that I am just now but little better than a madman; yet ’tis her blood which exhilarates your veins, and with such dear and precious fluid I cannot willingly imbrue my hands. Nay, you are no swordsman, lad,–keep off!”
And there I had blundered irretrievably.
“No swordsman! By God, I fling the words in your face, Frank Audaine! must I send the candlestick after them?” And within the instant he had caught up his weapon and had hurled himself upon me, in an abandoned fury. I had not moved. The boy spitted himself upon my sword and fell with a horrid gasping.
“You will bear me witness, Lord Humphrey,” said I, “that the quarrel was not of my provokement.”
But at this juncture the outer door reopened and Dorothy tripped into the room, preceding Lady Allonby and Mr. George Erwyn. They had followed in the family coach to dissuade the Marchioness from her contemplated match by force or by argument, as the cat might jump; and so it came about that my dear mistress and I stared at each other across her brother’s lifeless body.
And ’twas in this poignant moment I first saw her truly. In a storm you have doubtless had some utterly familiar scene leap from the darkness, under the lash of lightning, and be for the instant made visible and strange; and I beheld her with much that awful clarity. Formerly ’twas her beauty had ensnared me, and this I now perceived to be a fortuitous and happy medley of color and glow and curve, indeed, yet nothing more. ‘Twas the woman I loved, not her trappings; and her eyes were no more part of her than were the jewels in her ears. But the sweet mirth of her, the brave heart, the clean soul, the girl herself, how good and generous and kind and tender,–’twas this that I now beheld, and knew that this, too, was lost;–and, in beholding, the little love of yesterday fled whimpering before the sacred passion which had possessed my being. And I began to laugh.
“My dear,” said I, “’twas to-night that you promised me your answer, and to-night you observe in me alike your grandfather and your brother’s murderer.”
Lady Allonby fell to wringing her hands, but Dorothy had knelt beside the prostrate form and was inspecting the ravages of my fratricidal sword. “Oh, fy! fy!” says she immediately, and wrinkles her saucy nose; “had none of you the sense to perceive that Gerald was tipsy? And as for the wound, ’tis only a scratch here on the left shoulder. Get water, somebody.” And her command being obeyed, she cleansed the hurt composedly and bandaged it with the ruffle of her petticoat.
Meanwhile we hulking men stood thick about her, fidgeting and foolishly gaping like a basket of fish; and presently a sibilance of relief went about our circle as Gerald opened his eyes. “Sister,” says he, with a profoundly tragic face, “remember–remember that I perished to preserve the honor of our family.”
“To preserve a fiddlestick!” said my adored Dorothy. And, rising, she confronted me, a tinted statuette of decision. “Now, Frank,” says she, “I would like to know the meaning of this nonsense.”
And thereupon, for the second time, I recounted the dreadful and huddled action of the night.
When I had ended, “The first thing,” says she, “is to let Grandmother out of that room. And the second is to show me the Parson.” This was done; the Dowager entered in an extremity of sulkiness, and the Parson, on being pointed out, lowered his eyes and intensified his complexion.
“As I anticipated,” says my charmer, “you are, one and all, a parcel of credulous infants. ‘Tis a parson, indeed, but merely the parson out of Vanbrugh’s Relapse; only last Friday, sir, we heartily commended your fine performance. Why, Frank, the man is one of the play-actors.”
“I fancy,” Mr. Vanringham here interpolates, “that I owe the assembled company some modicum of explanation. ‘Tis true that at the beginning of our friendship I had contemplated matrimony with our amiable Marchioness, but, I confess, ’twas the lady’s property rather than her person which was the allure. And reflection dissuaded me; a legal union left me, a young and not unhandsome man, irrevocably fettered to an old woman; whereas a mock-marriage afforded an eternal option to compound the match–for a consideration–with the lady’s relatives, to whom, I had instinctively divined, her alliance with me would prove distasteful. Accordingly I had availed myself of my colleague’s skill [Footnote: I witnessed this same Quarmby’s hanging in 1754, and for a burglary, I think, with an extraordinary relish.–F.A.] in the portrayal of clerical parts rather than resort to any parson whose authority was unrestricted by the footlights. And accordingly–“
“And accordingly my marriage,” I interrupted, “is not binding?”
“I can assure you,” he replied, “that you might trade your lawful right in the lady for a twopenny whistle and not lose by the bargain.”
“And what about my marriage?” says the Marchioness–“the marriage which was never to be legalized?–’twas merely that you might sell me afterward, like so much mutton, was it, you jumping-jack–!”
But I spare you her ensuing gloss upon this text.
The man heard her through, without a muscle twitching. “It is more than probable,” he conceded, “that I have merited each and every fate your Ladyship is pleased to invoke. Indeed, I consider the extent of your distresses to be equaled only by that of your vocabulary. Yet by ordinary the heart of woman is not obdurate, and upon one lady here I have some claim–“
Dorothy had drawn away from him, with an odd and frightened cry. “Not upon me, sir! I never saw you except across the footlights. You know I never saw you except across the footlights, Mr. Vanringham!”
Fixedly he regarded her, with a curious yet not unpleasing smile. “I am the more unfortunate,” he said, at last. “Nay, ’twas to Lady Allonby I addressed my appeal.”
The person he named had been whispering with George Erwyn, but now she turned toward the actor. “Heavens!” said Lady Allonby, “to think I should be able to repay you this soon! La, of course, you are at liberty, Mr. Vanringham, and we may treat the whole series of events as a frolic suited to the day. For I am under obligations to you, and, besides, your punishment would breed a scandal, and, above all, anything is preferable to being talked about in the wrong way.”
Having reasons of my own, I was elated by the upshot of this rather remarkable affair. Yet in justice to my own perspicacity, I must declare that it occurred to me, at this very time, that Mr. Vanringham had proven himself not entirely worthy of unlimited confidence, I reflected, however, that I had my instructions, and that, if a bad king may prove a good husband, a knave may surely carry a letter with fidelity, the more so if it be to his interest to do it.
I rode back to Tunbridge in the coach, with Dorothy at my side and with Gerald recumbent upon the front seat,–where, after ten minutes’ driving the boy very philanthropically fell asleep.
“And you have not,” I immediately asserted–“after all, you have not given me the answer which was to-night to decide whether I be of all mankind the most fortunate or the most miserable. And ’tis nearing twelve.”
“What choice have I?” she murmured; “after to-night is it not doubly apparent that you need some one to take care of you? And, besides, this is your eighth proposal, and the ninth I had always rather meant to accept, because I have been in love with you for two whole weeks.”
My heart stood still. And shall I confess that for an instant my wits, too, paused to play the gourmet with my emotions? She sat beside me in the darkness, you understand, waiting, mine to touch. And everywhere the world was filled with beautiful, kind people, and overhead God smiled down upon His world, and a careless seraph had left open the door of Heaven, so that quite a deal of its splendor flooded the world about us. And the snoring of Gerald was now inaudible because of a stately music which was playing somewhere.
“Frank–!” she breathed. And I noted that her voice was no less tender than her lips.