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She and I, Volume 2, Page 2

John C. Hutcheson



  O! slippery state of things. What sudden turns, What strange vicissitudes in the first leaf Of man's sad history. To-day most happy, And ere to-morrow's sun has set, most abject! How scant the space between these vast extremes.

  The recollection of my strange visions which, I confess, somewhataffected me on my first waking, I put off from me at once. What werethey, after all, but dreams, "begot of nothing but vain fantasy?"

  I reasoned thus, philosophically, reflectively, rationally, withinmyself, as I dressed.

  I determined to dismiss the matter from my thought at once; for, even ifit prognosticated anything and was intended to withdraw the veil fromfuturity, it ought only to convince me of one fact, or fancy, namely,that, notwithstanding that I might have a hard struggle to win mydarling, I should win her in the end:--that, also, in spite ofantagonistic mammas and contrary circumstances, she would then be myown, my very own Min!

  Would you not have thought the same in a like case?

  I trow, yes!

  I will not deny that I expended the most elaborate pains on my toiletthat afternoon, before waiting upon Mrs Clyde in accordance with mypromise to Min. I did not otherwise comply fully with the essentialrequirements of Madame la Comtesse de Bassanville's _Code Complet duCeremonial_--such as causing an influential friend, who could speak ofmy morals and position, to have a previous audience with "theresponsible relation" of "the young person who had attracted my notice;"nor, did I don a pair of "light fresh-butter-coloured kid gloves."Still, I undoubtedly betrayed a considerable nicety of apparel all thesame.

  Indeed, I absolutely out-Hornered Horner; and, had anybody detected mewhen engaged in the mysteries of the dressing-room, I would certainlyhave been supposed to have been as anxiously considerate respecting thechoice I should make between light trousers and dark, a black coat and ablue one, and whether I would wear a white waistcoat or not, as a younglady costuming herself for a ball, and debating with her maid the rivalmerits of blush roses and pink silk, or of white tarlatan and clematis.

  It was, also, some time ere I could summon up enough resolution to knockat the door of Mrs Clyde's residence, when, my decorative preparationsaccomplished, I at length succeeded in getting round to her house.

  The expedition strangely reminded me of a visit I was once forced to payto a dentist, owing to the misdeeds of one of my best molars; the dreadof the impending interview almost inducing me to turn back on thethreshold and put off my painful purpose for a while--even as had beenmy course of procedure when calling at Signor Odonto's agonisingestablishment. On that occasion, I remember, I recoiled in fright fromthe dreaded ordeal, seeking refuge in "instant flight."

  I could not do so now, however. I had promised Min to speak to hermother as soon as possible; and, independently of that engagement, theinterview would have to be gone through sooner or later, at all hazards."An' it were done quickly, it were well done;" so, at last, myhesitation passed away under the influence of this, really vital,consideration. I nerved myself up to the knocking point. I gave a loudrat, tat, tat! that thrilled through my very boots, causing a passingbutcher's boy, awed by its important sound, to inquire, with the cynicalempressement of his race, whether I thought myself the "Emperoar ofRooshia." I turned my back on him with contempt; but, his ribald remarkmade me feel all the more nervous.

  "Mrs Clyde at home?" I asked of the handmaiden, who answered mysummons.

  Yes, Mrs Clyde was at home.

  Would I walk in?

  I would; and did.

  So far, all was plain sailing:--now, came the tug of war.

  Mrs Clyde was standing up, facing the door, as I entered the drawing-room into which the handmaiden had ushered me.

  "Won't you sit down, Mr Lorton?" she said, politely.

  She never forgot her good breeding; and, I verily believe, if it hadever been her lot to officiate in Calcraft's place, she would have askedthe culprit, whom she was about to hasten on his way to "kingdom come,"whether he found the fatal noose too tight, or comfortable and easy,around his doomed neck! She would do this, too, I'm sure, with the mostcharming solicitude possible!

  I noticed of her, that, whenever she was bent on using her sharpestweapons--of "society's" armoury and, methinks, the devil's forge-mark!--she always put on an extra gloss of politeness over her normal smoothand varnished style of address.

  I didn't like it, either.

  Civility may be all very well in its way, but I cannot say that I admirethat way of knocking a man down with a kid glove. It is a treacherousmode of attack; and very much resembles the plan Mr Chucks, theboatswain in _Peter Simple_, used to adopt when correcting the ship'sboys.

  That gentleman would, if you recollect, courteously beckon an offenderto approach him, doffing his hat the while as if speaking to thequarter-deck; and then, begging the trembling youngster's pardon fordetaining him, would proceed to inform him in the "politest and mostgenteel manner in the world" that he was "the d---d son of a seacook,"--subsequently rattaning him furiously, amidst a plethora ofexpletives before which the worst Billingsgate faded intoinsignificance.

  I may be singular in the fancy, but, do you know, I prefer civil wordsto be accompanied with civil deeds, and contrariwise:--the "poison ofasps" does not go well with honied accents!

  "Pray take a seat, Mr Lorton," said Mrs Clyde. "I was expecting youto call; and waited in, on purpose not to miss seeing you. My daughterhas told me,"--she went on, taking the initiative, ere I had a chance tospeak--cutting the ground from under my feet, as it were, and renderingmy task each moment more arduous--"My daughter has told me that she andyou were talking some nonsense together last night, which it is best forall parties, my dear Mr Lorton, should be at once forgotten! You'llagree with me, I'm sure?"

  And she looked at me with a steady gaze of determination and set purposein her eyes, before which I quailed.

  "You will agree with me, I'm sure, Mr Lorton,"--she repeated again,after a pause, as I was so bewildered by her flank attack that I couldnot get out a word at first. I declare to you, I only sat looking ather in hopeless dismay, powerless--idiotic, in fact!

  "But I love Min, Mrs Clyde,"--I stammered--"and she has promised--"

  "Dear me! This is quite delicious," laughed Mrs Clyde--a cold sneeringlaugh, which made me shiver as if cold water were running down myback--"quite a comedy, I do declare, Mr Lorton. I did not think youwere so good an actor. Love! Ha, ha, ha!" and she gave forth a merrypeal--to my intense enjoyment, you may be sure.

  Oh, yes! I enjoyed it, without doubt:--it was dreadfully comical!

  "It is no laughing matter to me, Mrs Clyde," I replied at last,emboldened by her ridicule--"I love Min; and she has promised to marryme, if you will only give your consent, which I have come to ask to-day."

  I got up as I spoke, and faced her.

  I was prepared to do battle till the death. Desperation had now made mebrave.

  "Now, _do_ let us be serious," said the lady, presently.

  She apparently found it difficult to stifle her laughter at the humourof the whole thing:--it was really such a very good joke!

  "I _am_ serious, Mrs Clyde," I said, half-petulantly, although I triedto be impressive. I was solemn enough over it all; but, my temper hasalways been, unfortunately for me, too easily provoked.

  "I never heard of such a thing in my life," she continued, taking nonotice, apparently, either of me or of my answer. "Fancy, any saneperson talking of love and marriage between a boy and girl like that!You must be joking, Mr Lorton. Really, it is too absurd to becredible!" and she affected a laugh again, in her provoking way.

  A capital joke, wasn't it?

  "I am not joking, I assure you, Mrs Clyde," I answered sturdily,endeavouring, vainly, to bear down her raillery by my gravity. "I wasnever more serious in my life. I'm not a boy, Mrs Clyde; and I'm sureMin is old enough to know her own mind, too!"

  This was an impertinent addendum on my part;
and, my opponent quicklyretorted, with a thrust, which recalled my good manners.

  "You are very good to say so, Mr Lorton; but permit _me_ to judge bestin that matter! Pray, how old are you, Mr Lorton, if I may be allowedto ask the question?"--she said, looking at me with great "society"interest, as if she were examining a specimen of the extinct dodo.

  "Three-and-twenty," I said sententiously, like a catechumen respondingto the questions supposed to be addressed to "N or M."

  "Dear me!" she ejaculated in seeming surprise. "Three--and--twenty? Ireally would not have thought it! I wouldn't have taken you to be morethan eighteen at the outside!"

  She hit me on my tenderest point. I looked young for my age; and, likemost young fellows, before time teaches them wisdom, making them striveto disguise the effect of each additional lustrum, I felt sore alwayswhen supposed to be more youthful than I actually was. I was,consequently, nettled at her remarks. She saw this, and smiled inamusement.

  "I _am_ twenty-three, however, Mrs Clyde, I assure you," I said warmly;"old enough to get married, I suppose!"

  "That entirely depends on circumstances," she said coldly, as if thematter was of no interest to her whatever; "years are no criterion forjudgment"--and she then stopped, throwing the burden of the next move onmy shoulders.

  I did not hesitate any longer, however.

  "Will you allow Min to become engaged to me?" I said, valiantly,plunging at once into the thick of the combat.

  "Pray, Mr Lorton," she replied, ignoring my query, "what means have youfor supporting a wife? People cannot live upon nothing, you know; and`love in a cottage' is an exploded fallacy."

  She spoke as lightly and pleasantly as if she were conversing upon someordinary society topic with another lady of the world like herself. Shevery well knew what she was about, however. She was "developing hermain attack"--as military strategists would say!

  You see, I had never given the subject of ways and means an instant'sconsideration, having remitted the matter to Providence with thatimplicit trust and cheerful hopefulness to which most enraptured swainsare prone. I had only thought of loving Min and being loved by her:--engagement naturally following between us; and, that, was all I hadthought of as yet.

  When the time came for us to be married, our guardian angels would, nodoubt, take care to provide us with the wherewithal!

  "Sufficient for the day" was "the evil thereof." Till then, I was quitesatisfied to let the matter rest; living, for the present, in the fairyland of my imagination where such a thing as filthy lucre was undreamtof.

  Mrs Clyde's inquiry, therefore, took me all aback. "What means had Ifor supporting a wife?" Really, it was a very uncalled-for remark!

  I had to answer it, nevertheless. Of course I could only tell thetruth.

  "I've only got two hundred and fifty pounds a-year of my own at present,Mrs Clyde," I said; "but--"

  "Two--hundred--a-year!"--she said, interrupting me ere I could finish mystatement, placing a horribly sneering emphasis on each word, which madethe sum mentioned appear so paltry and insignificant, that it struck mewith shame.--"I beg your pardon--two hundred and fifty! Why, how_young_ you are, Mr Lorton. Do you really think you could support awife and establishment on that income? I thought you were joking, mydear young friend,"--she added--"you know it would barely pay yourtailor's bill!"

  And she looked at me from head to foot with her merciless quizzing eyes,taking in all the elaborateness of the apparel that I had donned for herpersonal subjugation.

  "You have not heard me out, Mrs Clyde," I answered, spurred upon mymettle.--"I am not quite dependent on that income. I also write for thepress!"

  I said this quite grandly, on the strength of my contributing anoccasional magazine article at stray intervals to one of the currentperiodicals--getting one accepted for every dozen that were "declinedwith thanks;" and, being the "musical critic" of a very weakly weekly!

  "O-oh, indeed!" she exclaimed.

  There was a most aggravating tone of pity mingled with her surprise.

  She evidently now looked upon me as more presumptuous than ever, andhopelessly beyond the pale of her social circle!

  "And how much,"--she asked, in a patronising way which galled me to thequick,--"do you derive from this source? That is, if you will kindlyexcuse my saying so? The proposal which you have done my daughter andmyself the honour to suggest, necessitates my making such delicateinquiries, you know."

  "I do not earn very much by my pen, as yet, Mrs Clyde," Ianswered--"but, I hope to do more in a little time, when my name getsrecognised. I'm only a beginner as yet."

  "Well, if you would take my advice, Mr Lorton, you would remain so.I've heard it frequently said by some of your penny-a-liners--I believethat is what you literary gentlemen call yourselves--that, authorshipreaps very poor pay. It makes a very good stick, but a bad crutch; andI don't think you can expect to increase your income very largely fromthat quarter! The only author I ever knew personally, sank into it,poor fellow, because he could do nothing else; and, _he_ led a wretchedexistence from hand to mouth! He was never recognised afterwards insociety, of course!"

  "Genius is not always acknowledged at first, Mrs Clyde," I saidloftily.

  Her sneers at the profession, which I regarded as one of the highest inthe world, provoked me.

  Fancy her calling all authors "penny-a-liners!"

  "So, all unsuccessful men say!" she replied curtly.--"But,"--she wenton, putting aside all my literary prospects as beneath her notice, andreturning to the main point at issue,--"is _that_ all you have got todepend upon for your anticipated wife and establishment?"

  She smiled sweetly, playing with me as a cat would with a mouse.

  "All I have, certainly, at present, Mrs Clyde,"--I said, abashed at thesarcasm thus directed against my miserable income, which she did nottake the slightest pains to conceal.--"But I shall have more by-and-by.We are both young; and, if you will only give me some hope of gainingyour consent, when I have achieved what you may consider sufficient forthe purpose, I will work for her and win her. O Mrs Clyde!"--Ipleaded,--"let me only have the assurance that you will allow her towait for me. I will work most nobly that I may deserve her!"

  "All this is mere rhapsody, Mr Lorton,"--she said in her icy accents,throwing a shower of metaphorical cold water on my earnestenthusiasm.--"Do you seriously think for a moment that I would give myconsent to my daughter's engagement to you in your present position?"

  "I hoped so, Mrs Clyde," I replied, timidly.

  I did not know what else to say.

  "Then you hoped wrongly," she said. "You are really _very_ young, MrLorton! I do not mean merely in years, but in knowledge of the world!You positively wish me to sacrifice all my daughter's prospects, and lether be bound to a wearisome engagement, on the mere chance of your beingable at some distant period to marry her! Do I understand you aright?I certainly gave you credit for possessing more good sense, Mr Lorton,or I should never have admitted you to my house."

  "O, Mrs Clyde," I said, "be considerate! Be merciful! Remember, that_you_ were young once."

  "I am considerate," she answered--"still, I must think of my daughter'swelfare, before regarding the foolish wishes of a comparative stranger!"

  Throughout the interview, she invariably alluded to Min as "herdaughter," never mentioning her name.

  It seemed as if she wished to avoid even the idea of our intimacy, andto make me understand how great a gulf lay between us.

  "But I love her so, Mrs Clyde!" I pleaded again, in one last effort."I love her dearly, and she loves me, I know. Do not, oh! do not partus so cruelly!"

  "This is very foolish, Mr Lorton,"--she replied, coldly;--"and there isnot much use, I think, in our prolonging the conversation; for, none ofyour arguments would convince me to give my consent to any such hair-brained scheme. Even if your offer had otherwise my approval, which ithas not, I could not bear the idea of a long engagement for my daughter.You yourself ought to be more g
enerous than to wish to tie a girl downto an arrangement which would waste her best years, blight her life;and, probably, end in her being a sour, disappointed woman--as I haveknown hundreds of such cases to end!"

  "I do not wish to bind her," I said. "I only want your provisionalconsent, Mrs Clyde. I will diligently try to deserve it; and you willnever regret it, you may be assured."

  "I cannot give it, Mr Lorton,"--she replied in a decisive way.--"And ifyou meet my daughter again, you must promise me that it shall be only asa friend."

  "And, what if I refuse to do so?"--I said defiantly.

  "I should leave the neighbourhood," she said promptly.--"And, if youwere so very ungentlemanlike, as still to persecute her with yourattentions, I should soon take measures to put a stop to them."

  What could I say or do? She was armed at all points, and I waspowerless!

  "Will you let me see your daughter; and, learn from her own lips if shebe of the same opinion as yourself?" I asked.

  I was longing to see Min. I wanted to know whether she had beenconvinced by her mother's worldly policy, or no.

  "It is impossible for me to grant your request," said Mrs Clyde. "Mydaughter is not at home. She went down to the country this morning on avisit to her aunt; and the date of her return depends mainly on yourdecision now."

  This was the finishing blow.

  I succumbed completely before this master-stroke of policy, which mywary antagonist had not disclosed until the last.

  "Oh! Mrs Clyde," I said; "how very hard you are to me!"

  "Pardon me, Mr Lorton," she replied, as suave as ever.--"But, you willthink differently by-and-by, and thank me for acting as I have done!Your foolish fancy for my daughter will soon wear off; and you will liveto laugh at your present folly!"

  "Never!" I said, determinedly, with a full heart.

  "But you will promise not to speak to my daughter otherwise than as afriend, when you see her again?" she urged:--not at all eagerly, but,quite coolly, as she had spoken all along.

  I would have preferred her having been angry, to that calm, irritatingimpassiveness she displayed. She appeared to be a patent condenser ofall emotion.

  "I suppose I must consent to your terms!"--I said,despairingly.--"Although, Mrs Clyde, I give you fair warning that, whenI am in a position to renew my suit under better auspices, I will nothold myself bound by this promise."

  "Very well, Mr Lorton," she said, "I accept your proviso; but, when youmake your fortune it will be time enough to talk about it! In themeanwhile, relying upon your solemn word as a gentleman not to renewyour offer to my daughter, or single her out with your attentions--whichmight seriously interfere with her future prospects--I shall still bepleased to welcome you _occasionally_"--with a marked emphasis on theword--"at my house. What we have spoken about had, now, better beforgotten by all parties as soon as possible, excepting your promise, ofcourse, _mind_!" and she bowed me out triumphantly--she victorious, Ithoroughly defeated.

  What a sad, sad change had occurred since happy last night!

  All my bright hopes were obscured, my ardent longings quenched byfashionable matter-of-fact; and, Min herself had gone from me, withoutone single parting word!

  I was born to be unlucky, I think; everything went wrong with me now.Like the lonely, hopeless hero in Longfellow's translation of Min'sfavourite _Coplas de Manrique_, I might well exclaim in my misery--

  "Let no one fondly dream again, That Hope and all her shadowy train Will not decay; Fleeting as were the dreams of old, Remembered like a tale that's told, They pass away!"

  How did I know, too, but, that, ere I saw my darling again, months mightelapse, during which time all thoughts of me might be banished from herheart?

  One proverb tells us that "absence makes the heart grow fonder;"another, equally entitled to belief, warns anxious lovers that "out ofsight" is to be "out of mind."

  Which of the two could I credit?

  Besides, even if she were constant and true to me, Mrs Clyde wouldcertainly never give her consent to our engagement, I was confident--no,not if we both lived and loved until doomsday!

  All these bitter thoughts flashed through my mind in a moment, one afterthe other.

  I was angry, indignant, wretched.