From The House of Cobwebs and Other Stories (1906).
Harvey Munden had settled himself in a corner of the club smoking-room, with a cigar and a review. At eleven o'clock on a Saturday morning in August he might reasonably expect to be undisturbed. But behold, there entered a bore, a long-faced man with a yellow waistcoat, much dreaded by all the members; he stood a while at one of the tables, fingering newspapers and eyeing the solitary. Harvey heard a step, looked up, and shuddered.
The bore began his attack in form; Harvey parried with as much resolution as his kindly nature permitted.
'You know that Dr. Shergold is dying?' fell casually from the imperturbable man.
Munden was startled into attention, and the full flow of gossip swept about him. Yes, the great Dr. Shergold lay dying; there were bulletins in the morning papers; it seemed unlikely that he would see another dawn.
'Who will benefit by his decease?' inquired the bore. 'His nephew, do you think?'
'A remarkable man, that--a most remarkable man. He was at Lady Teasdale's the other evening, and he talked a good deal. Upon my word, it reminded one of Coleridge, or Macaulay,--that kind of thing. Certainly most brilliant talk. I can't remember what it was all about--something literary. A sort of fantasia, don't you know. Wonderful eloquence. By the bye, I believe he is a great friend of yours?'
'Oh, we have known each other for a long time.'
'Somebody was saying that he had gone in for medicine--walking one of the hospitals--that kind of thing.'
'Yes, he's at Guy's.'
To avoid infinite questioning, Harvey flung aside his review and went to glance at the Times. He read the news concerning the great physician. Then, as his pursuer drew near again, he hastily departed.
By midday he was at London Bridge. He crossed to the Surrey side, turned immediately to the left, and at a short distance entered one of the vaulted thoroughfares which run beneath London Bridge Station. It was like the mouth of some monstrous cavern. Out of glaring daylight he passed into gloom and chill air; on either side of the way a row of suspended lamps gave a dull, yellow light, revealing entrances to vast storehouses, most of them occupied by wine merchants; an alcoholic smell prevailed over indeterminate odours of dampness. There was great concourse of drays and waggons; wheels and the clang of giant hoofs made roaring echo, and above thundered the trains. The vaults, barely illumined with gas-jets, seemed of infinite extent; dim figures moved near and far, amid huge barrels, cases, packages; in rooms partitioned off by glass framework men sat writing. A curve in the tunnel made it appear much longer than it really was; till midway nothing could be seen ahead but deepening darkness; then of a sudden appeared the issue, and beyond, greatly to the surprise of any one who should have ventured hither for the first time, was a vision of magnificent plane-trees, golden in the August sunshine--one of the abrupt contrasts which are so frequent in London, and which make its charm for those who wander from the beaten tracks; a transition from the clangorous cave of commerce to a sunny leafy quietude, amid old houses--some with quaint tumbling roofs--and byways little frequented.
The planes grow at the back of Guy's Hospital, and close by is a short narrow street which bears the name of Maze Pond. It consists for the most part of homely, flat-fronted dwellings, where lodgings are let to medical students. At one of these houses Harvey Munden plied the knocker.
He was answered by a trim, rather pert-looking girl, who smiled familiarly.
'Mr. Shergold isn't in, sir,' she said at once, anticipating his question. 'But he will be very soon. Will you step in and wait?'
'I think I will.'
As one who knew the house, he went upstairs, and entered a sitting-room on the first floor. The girl followed him.
'I haven't had time to clear away the breakfast things,' she said, speaking rapidly and with an air. 'Mr. Shergold was late this mornin'; he didn't get up till nearly ten, an' then he sat writin' letters. Did he know as you was comin', sir?'
'No; I looked in on the chance of finding him, or learning where he was.'
'I'm sure he'll be in about half-past twelve, 'cause he said to me as he was only goin' to get a breath of air. He hasn't nothing to do at the 'ospital just now.'
'Has he talked of going away?'
'Going away?' The girl repeated the words sharply, and examined the speaker's face. 'Oh, he won't be goin' away just yet, I think.'
Munden returned her look with a certain curiosity, and watched her as she began to clink together the things upon the table. Obviously she esteemed herself a person of some importance. Her figure was not bad, and her features had the trivial prettiness so commonly seen in London girls of the lower orders,--the kind of prettiness which ultimately loses itself in fat and chronic perspiration. Her complexion already began to show a tendency to muddiness, and when her lips parted, they showed decay of teeth. In dress she was untidy; her hair exhibited a futile attempt at elaborate arrangement; she had dirty hands.
Disposed to talk, she lingered as long as possible, but Harvey Munden had no leanings to this kind of colloquy; when the girl took herself off, he drew a breath of satisfaction, and smiled the smile of an intellectual man who has outlived youthful follies.
He stepped over to the lodger's bookcase. There were about a hundred volumes, only a handful of them connected with medical study. Seeing a volume of his own Munden took it down and idly turned the pages; it surprised him to discover a great many marginal notes in pencil, and an examination of these showed him that Shergold must have gone carefully through the book with an eye to the correction of its style; adjectives were deleted and inserted, words of common usage removed for others which only a fine literary conscience could supply, and in places even the punctuation was minutely changed. Whilst he still pondered this singular manifestation of critical zeal, the door opened, and Shergold came in.
A man of two-and-thirty, short, ungraceful, ill-dressed, with features as little commonplace as can be imagined. He had somewhat a stern look, and on his brow were furrows of care. Light-blue eyes tended to modify the all but harshness of his lower face; when he smiled, as on recognising his friend, they expressed a wonderful innocence and suavity of nature; overshadowed, in thoughtful or troubled mood, by his heavy eyebrows, they became deeply pathetic. His nose was short and flat, yet somehow not ignoble; his full lips, bare of moustache, tended to suggest a melancholy fretfulness. But for the high forehead, no casual observer would have cared to look at him a second time; but that upper story made the whole countenance vivid with intellect, as though a light beamed upon it from above.
'You hypercritical beggar!' cried Harvey, turning with the volume in his hand. 'Is this how you treat the glorious works of your contemporaries?'
Shergold reddened and was mute.
'I shall take this away with me,' pursued the other, laughing. 'It'll be worth a little study.'
'My dear fellow--you won't take it ill of me--I didn't really mean it as a criticism,' the deep, musical voice stammered in serious embarrassment.
'Why, wasn't it just this kind of thing that caused a quarrel between George Sand and Musset?'
'Yes, yes; but George Sand was such a peremptory fellow, and Musset such a vapourish young person. Look! I'll show you what I meant.'
'Thanks,' said Munden, 'I can find that out for myself.' He thrust the book into his coat-pocket. 'I came to ask you if you are aware of your uncle's condition.'
'Of course I am.
'When did you see him last?'
'See him?' Shergold's eyes wandered vaguely. 'Oh, to talk with him, about a month ago.'
'Did you part friendly?'
'On excellent terms. And last night I went to ask after him. Unfortunately he didn't know any one, but the nurse said he had been mentioning my name, and in a kind way.'
'Capital! Hadn't you better walk in that direction this afternoon?'
'Yes, perhaps I had, and yet, you know, I hate to have it supposed that I am hovering about him.'
'All the same, go.'
Shergold pointed to a chair. 'Sit down a bit. I have been having a talk with Dr. Salmon. He discourages me a good deal. You know it's far from certain that I shall go on with medicine.'
'Far from certain!' the other assented, smiling. 'By the bye, I hear that you have been in the world of late. You were at Lady Teasdale's not long ago.'
Perhaps it was partly his vexation at the book incident,--Shergold seemed unable to fix his thoughts on anything; he shuffled in his seat and kept glancing nervously towards the door.
'I was delighted to hear it,' said his friend. 'That's a symptom of health. Go everywhere; see everybody--that's worth seeing. They got you to talk, I believe?'
'Who has been telling you? I'm afraid I talked a lot of rubbish; I had shivers of shame all through a sleepless night after it. But some one brought up Whistler, and etching, and so on, and I had a few ideas of which I wanted to relieve my mind. And, after all, there's a pleasure in talking to intelligent people. Henry Wilt was there with his daughters. Clever girls, by Jove! And Mrs. Peter Rayne--do you know her?'
'Know of her, that's all.'
'A splendid woman--brains, brains! Upon my soul, I know no such delight as listening to a really intellectual woman, when she's also beautiful. I shake with delight--and what women one does meet, nowadays! Of course the world never saw their like. I have my idea of Aspasia--but there are lots of grander women in London to-day. One ought to live among the rich. What a wretched mistake, when one can help it, to herd with narrow foreheads, however laudable your motive! Since I got back among the better people my life has been trebled--oh, centupled--in value!'
'My boy,' remarked Munden quietly, 'didn't I say something to this effect on a certain day nine years ago?'
'Don't talk of it,' the other replied, waving his hand in agitation. 'We'll never look back at that.'
'Your room is stuffy,' said Munden, rising. 'Let us go and have lunch somewhere.'
'Yes, we will! Just a moment to wash my hands--I've been in the dissecting-room.'
The friends went downstairs. At the foot they passed the landlady's daughter: she drew back, but, as Shergold allowed his companion to pass into the street, her voice made itself heard behind him.
'Shall you want tea, Mr. Shergold?'
Munden turned sharply and looked at the girl. Shergold did not look at her, but he delayed for a moment and appeared to balance the question. Then, in a friendly voice, he said--
'No, thank you. I may not be back till late in the evening.' And he went on hurriedly.
'Cheeky little beggar that,' Munden observed, with a glance at his friend.
'Oh, not a bad girl in her way. They've made me very comfortable. All the same, I shan't grieve when the day of departure comes.'
It was not cheerful, the life-story of Henry Shergold. At two-and-twenty he found himself launched upon the world, with a university education incomplete and about forty pounds in his pocket. A little management, a little less of boyish pride, and he might have found the means to go forward to his degree, with pleasant hopes in the background; but Henry was a Radical, a scorner of privilege, a believer in human perfectibility. He got a place in an office, and he began to write poetry--some of which was published and duly left unpaid for. A year later there came one fateful day when he announced to his friend Harvey Munden that he was going to be married. His chosen bride was the daughter of a journeyman tailor--a tall, pale, unhealthy girl of eighteen, whose acquaintance he had made at a tobacconist's shop, where she served. He was going to marry her on principle--principle informed with callow passion, the passion of a youth who has lived demurely, more among books than men. Harvey Munden flew into a rage, and called upon the gods in protest. But Shergold was not to be shaken. The girl, he declared, had fallen in love with him during conversations across the counter; her happiness was in his hands, and he would not betray it. She had excellent dispositions; he would educate her. The friends quarrelled about it, and Shergold led home his bride.
With the results which any sane person could have foretold. The marriage was a hideous disaster; in three years it brought Shergold to an attempted suicide, for which he had to appear at the police-court. His relative, the distinguished doctor, who had hitherto done nothing for him, now came forward with counsel and assistance. Happily the only child of the union had died at a few weeks old, and the wife, though making noisy proclamation of rights, was so weary of her husband that she consented to a separation.
But in less than a year the two were living together again; Mrs. Shergold had been led by her relatives to believe that some day the poor fellow would have his uncle's money, and her wiles ultimately overcame Shergold's resistance. He, now studying law at the doctor's expense, found himself once more abandoned, and reduced to get his living as a solicitor's clerk. His uncle had bidden him good-bye on a postcard, whereon was illegibly scribbled something about 'damned fools.'
He bore the burden for three more years, then his wife died. One night, after screaming herself speechless in fury at Shergold's refusal to go with her to a music-hall, she had a fit on the stairs, and in falling received fatal injuries.
The man was free, but terribly shattered. Only after a long sojourn abroad, at his kinsman's expense, did he begin to recover health. He came back and entered himself as a student at Guy's, greatly to Dr. Shergold's satisfaction. His fees were paid and a small sum was allowed him to live upon--a very small sum. By degrees some old acquaintances began to see him, but it was only quite of late that he had accepted invitations from people of social standing, whom he met at the doctor's house. The hints of his story that got about made him an interesting figure, especially to women, and his remarkable gifts were recognised as soon as circumstances began to give him fair play. All modern things were of interest to him, and his knowledge, acquired with astonishing facility, formed the fund of talk which had singular charm alike for those who did and those who did not understand it. Undeniably shy, he yet, when warmed to a subject, spoke with nerve and confidence. In days of jabber, more or less impolite, this appearance of an articulate mortal, with soft manners and totally unaffected, could not but excite curiosity. Lady Teasdale, eager for the uncommon, chanced to observe him one evening as he conversed with his neighbour at the dinner-table; later, in the drawing-room, she encouraged him with flattery of rapt attention to a display of his powers; she resolved to make him a feature of her evenings. Fortunately, his kindred with Dr. Shergold made a respectable introduction, and Lady Teasdale whispered it among matrons that he would inherit from the wealthy doctor, who had neither wife nor child. He might not be fair to look upon, but handsome is that handsome has.
And now the doctor lay sick unto death. Society was out of town, but Lady Teasdale, with a house full of friends about her down in Hampshire, did not forget her protege; she waited with pleasant expectation for the young man's release from poverty.
It came in a day or two. Dr. Shergold was dead, and an enterprising newspaper announced simultaneously that the bulk of his estate would pass to Mr. Henry Shergold, a gentleman at present studying for his uncle's profession. This paragraph caught the eye of Harvey Munden, who sent a line to his friend, to ask if it was true. In reply he received a mere postcard: 'Yes. Will see you before long.' But Harvey wanted to be off to Como, and as business took him into the city, he crossed the river and sought Maze Pond. Again the door was opened to him by the landlady's daughter; she stood looking keenly in his face, her eyes smiling and yet suspicious.
'Mr. Shergold in?' he asked carelessly.
'No, he isn't.' There was a strange bluntness about this answer. The girl stood forward, as if to bar the entrance, and kept searching his face.
'When is he likely to be?'
'I don't know. He didn't say when he went out.'
A woman's figure appeared in the background. The girl turned and said sharply, 'All right, mother, it's only somebody for Mr. Shergold.'
'I'll go upstairs and write a note,' said Munden, in a rather peremptory voice.
The other drew back and allowed him to pass, but with evident disinclination. As he entered the room, he saw that she had followed. He went up to a side-table, on which lay a blotting-book, with other requisites for writing, and then he stood for a moment as if in meditation.
'Your name is Emma, isn't it?' he inquired, looking at the girl with a smile.
'Yes, it is.'
'Well then, Emma, shut the door, and let's have a talk. Your mother won't mind, will she?' he added slyly.
The girl tossed her head.
'I don't see what it's got to do with mother.' She closed the door, but did not latch it. 'What do you want to talk about?'
'You're a very nice girl to look at, Emma, and I've always admired you when you opened the door to me. I've always liked your nice, respectful way of speaking, but somehow you don't speak quite so nicely to-day. What has put you out?'
Her eyes did not quit his face for a moment; her attitude betokened the utmost keenness of suspicious observation.
'Nothing's put me out, that I know of.'
'Yet you don't speak very nicely--not very respectfully. Perhaps'--he paused--'perhaps Mr. Shergold is going to leave?'
'P'r'aps he may be.'
'And you're vexed at losing a lodger.'
He saw her lip curl and then she laughed.
'You're wrong there.'
'Then what is it?'
He drew near and made as though he would advance a familiar arm. Emma started back.
'All right,' she exclaimed, with an insolent nod. 'I'll tell Mr. Shergold.'
'Tell Mr. Shergold? Why? What has it to do with him?'
'A good deal.'
'Indeed? For shame, Emma! I never expected that!'
'What do you mean?' she retorted hotly. 'You keep your impudence to yourself. If you want to know, Mr. Shergold is going to marry me--so there!'
The stroke was effectual. Harvey Munden stood as if transfixed, but he recovered himself before a word escaped his lips.
'Ah, that alters the case. I beg your pardon. You won't make trouble between old friends?'
Vanity disarmed the girl's misgiving. She grinned with satisfaction.
'That depends how you behave.'
'Oh, you don't know me. But promise, now; not a word to Shergold.'
She gave a conditional promise, and stood radiant with her triumph.
'Thanks, that's very good of you. Well, I won't trouble to leave a note. You shall just tell Shergold that I am leaving England to-morrow for a holiday. I should like to see him, of course, and I may possibly look round this evening. If I can't manage it, just tell him that I think he ought to have given me a chance of congratulating him. May I ask when it is to be?'
Emma resumed an air of prudery, 'Before very long, I dessay.'
'I wish you joy. Well, I mustn't talk longer now, but I'll do my best to look in this evening, and then we can all chat together.'
He laughed and she laughed back; and thereupon they parted.
A little after nine that evening, when only a grey reflex of daylight lingered upon a cloudy sky, Munden stood beneath the plane-trees by Guy's Hospital waiting. He had walked the length of Maze Pond and had ascertained that his friend's window as yet showed no light; Shergold was probably still from home. In the afternoon he had made inquiry at the house of the deceased doctor, but of Henry nothing was known there; he left a message for delivery if possible, to the effect that he would call in at Maze Pond between nine and ten.
At a quarter past the hour there appeared from the direction of London Bridge a well-known figure, walking slowly, head bent. Munden moved forward, and, on seeing him, Shergold grasped his hand feverishly.
'Ha! how glad I am to meet you, Munden! Come; let us walk this way.' He turned from Maze Pond. 'I got your message up yonder an hour or two ago. So glad I have met you here, old fellow.'
'Well, your day has come,' said Harvey, trying to read his friend's features in the gloom.
'He has left me about eighty thousand pounds,' Shergold replied, in a low, shaken voice. 'I'm told there are big legacies to hospitals as well. Heavens! how rich he was!'
'When is the funeral?'
'Where shall you live in the meantime?'
'I don't know--I haven't thought about it.'
'I should go to some hotel, if I were you,' said Munden, 'and I have a proposal to make. If I wait till Saturday, will you come with me to Como?'
Shergold did not at once reply. He was walking hurriedly, and making rather strange movements with his head and arms. They came into the shadow of the vaulted way beneath London Bridge Station. At this hour the great tunnel was quiet, save when a train roared above; the warehouses were closed; one or two idlers, of forbidding aspect, hung about in the murky gaslight, and from the far end came a sound of children at play.
'You won't be wanted here?' Munden added.
'No--no--I think not.' There was agitation in the voice.
'Then you will come?'
'Yes, I will come.' Shergold spoke with unnecessary vehemence and laughed oddly.
'What's the matter with you?' his friend asked.
'Nothing--the change of circumstances, I suppose. Let's get on. Let us go somewhere--I can't help reproaching myself; I ought to feel or show a decent sobriety; but what was the old fellow to me? I'm grateful to him.'
'There's nothing else on your mind?'
Shergold looked up, startled.
'What do you mean? Why do you ask?'
They stood together in the black shadow of an interval between two lamps. After reflecting for a moment, Munden decided to speak.
'I called at your lodgings early to-day, and somehow I got into talk with the girl. She was cheeky, and her behaviour puzzled me. Finally she made an incredible announcement--that you had asked her to marry you. Of course it's a lie?'
'To marry her?' exclaimed the listener hoarsely, with an attempt at laughter. 'Do you think that likely--after all I have gone through?'
'No, I certainly don't. It staggered me. But what I want to know is, can she cause trouble?'
'How do I know?--a girl will lie so boldly. She might make a scandal, I suppose; or threaten it, in hope of getting money out of me.'
'But is there any ground for a scandal?' demanded Harvey.
'Not the slightest, as you mean it.'
'I'm glad to hear that. But she may give you trouble. I see the thing doesn't astonish you very much; no doubt you were aware of her character.'
'Yes, yes; I know it pretty well. Come, let us get out of this squalid inferno; how I hate it! Have you had dinner? I don't want any. Let us go to your rooms, shall we? There'll be a hansom passing the bridge.'
They walked on in silence, and when they had found a cab they drove westward, talking only of Dr. Shergold's affairs. Munden lived in the region of the Squares, hard by the British Museum; he took his friend into a comfortably furnished room, the walls hidden with books and prints, and there they sat down to smoke, a bottle of whisky within easy reach of both. It was plain to Harvey that some mystery lay in his friend's reserve on the subject of the girl Emma; he was still anxious, but would not lead the talk to unpleasant things. Shergold drank like a thirsty man, and the whisky seemed to make him silent. Presently he fell into absolute muteness, and lay wearily back in his chair.
'The excitement has been too much for you,' Munden remarked.
Shergold looked at him, with a painful embarrassment in his features; then suddenly he bent forward.
'Munden, it's I who have lied. I did ask that girl to marry me.'
'Because for a moment I was insane.' They stared at each other.
'Has she any hold upon you?' Munden asked slowly.
'None whatever, except this frantic offer of mine.'
'Into which she inveigled you?'
'I can't honestly say she did; it was entirely my own fault. She has never behaved loosely, or even like a schemer. I doubt whether she knew anything about my uncle, until I told her last night.'
He spoke rapidly, in a thick voice, moving his arms in helpless protestation. His look was one of unutterable misery.
'Well,' observed Munden, 'the frenzy has at all events passed. You have the common-sense to treat it as if it had never been; and really I am tempted to believe that it was literal lunacy. Last night were you drunk?'
'I had drunk nothing. Listen, and I will tell you all about it. I am a fool about women. I don't know what it is--certainly not a sensual or passionate nature; mine is nothing of the sort. It's sheer sentimentality, I suppose. I can't be friendly with a woman without drifting into mawkish tenderness--there's the simple truth. If I had married happily, I don't think I should have been tempted to go about philandering. The society of a wife I loved and respected would be sufficient. But there's that need in me--the incessant hunger for a woman's sympathy and affection. Such a hideous mistake as mine when I married would have made a cynic of most men; upon me the lesson has been utterly thrown away. I mean that, though I can talk of women rationally enough with a friend, I am at their mercy when alone with them--at the mercy of the silliest, vulgarest creature. After all, isn't it very much the same with men in general? The average man--how does he come to marry? Do you think he deliberately selects? Does he fall in love, in the strict sense of the phrase, with that one particular girl? No; it comes about by chance--by the drifting force of circumstances. Not one man in ten thousand, when he thinks of marriage, waits for the ideal wife--for the woman who makes capture of his soul or even of his senses. Men marry without passion. Most of us have a very small circle for choice; the hazard of everyday life throws us into contact with this girl or that, and presently we begin to feel either that we have compromised ourselves, or that we might as well save trouble and settle down as soon as possible, and the girl at hand will do as well as another. More often than not it is the girl who decides for us. In more than half the marriages it's the woman who has practically proposed. She puts herself in a man's way. With her it rests almost entirely whether a man shall think of her as a possible wife or not. She has endless ways of putting herself forward without seeming to do so. As often as not, it's mere passivity that effects the end. She has only to remain seated instead of moving away; to listen with a smile instead of looking bored; to be at home instead of being out,--and she is making love to a man. In a Palace of Truth how many husbands would have to confess that it decidedly surprised them when they found themselves engaged to be married? The will comes into play only for a moment or two now and then. Of course it is made to seem responsible, and in a sense it is responsible, but, in the vast majority of cases, purely as an animal instinct, confirming the suggestion of circumstances.'
'There's something in all this,' granted the listener, 'but it doesn't explain the behaviour of a man who, after frightful experience in marriage--after recovering his freedom--after finding himself welcomed by congenial society--after inheriting a fortune to use as he likes--goes and offers himself to an artful hussy in a lodging-house.'
'That's the special case. Look how it came to pass. Months ago I knew I was drifting into dangerous relations with that girl. Unfortunately I am not a rascal: I can't think of girls as playthings; a fatal conscientiousness in an unmarried man of no means. Day after day we grew more familiar. She used to come up and ask me if I wanted anything; and of course I knew that she began to come more often than necessary. When she laid a meal for me, we talked--half an hour at a time. The mother, doubtless, looked on with approval; Emma had to find a husband, and why not me as well as another? They knew I was a soft creature--that I never made a row about anything--was grateful for anything that looked like kindness--and so on. Just the kind of man to be captured. But no--I don't want to make out that I am their victim; that's a feeble excuse, and a worthless one. The average man would either have treated the girl as a servant, and so kept her at her distance, or else he would have alarmed her by behaviour which suggested anything you like but marriage. As for me, I hadn't the common-sense to take either of these courses. I made a friend of the girl; talked to her more and more confidentially; and at last--fatal moment--told her my history. Yes, I was ass enough to tell that girl the whole story of my life. Can you conceive such folly?
'Yet the easiest thing in the world to understand. We were alone in the house one evening. After trying to work for about an hour I gave it up. I knew that the mother was out, and I heard Emma moving downstairs. I was lonely and dispirited--wanted to talk--to talk about myself to some one who would give a kind ear. So I went down, and made some excuse for beginning a conversation in the parlour. It lasted a couple of hours; we were still talking when the mother came back. I didn't persuade myself that I cared for Emma, even then. Her vulgarisms of speech and feeling jarred upon me. But she was feminine; she spoke and looked gently, with sympathy. I enjoyed that evening--and you must bear in mind what I have told you before, that I stand in awe of refined women. I am their equal, I know; I can talk with them; their society is an exquisite delight to me;--but when it comes to thinking of intimacy with one of them--! Perhaps it is my long years of squalid existence. Perhaps I have come to regard myself as doomed to life on a lower level. I find it an impossible thing to imagine myself offering marriage--making love--to a girl such as those I meet in the big houses.'
'You will outgrow that,' said Munden.
'Yes, yes,--I hope and believe so. And wouldn't it be criminal to deny myself even the chance, now that I have money? All to-day I have been tortured like a soul that beholds its salvation lost by a moment's weakness of the flesh. You can imagine what my suffering has been; it drove me into sheer lying. I had resolved to deny utterly that I had asked Emma to marry me--to deny it with a savage boldness, and take the consequences.'
'A most rational resolve, my dear fellow. Pray stick to it. But you haven't told me yet how the dizzy culmination of your madness was reached. You say that you proposed last night?'
'Yes--and simply for the pleasure of telling Emma, when she had accepted me, that I had eighty thousand pounds! You can't understand that? I suppose the change of fortune has made me a little light-headed; I have been going about with a sense of exaltation which has prompted me to endless follies. I have felt a desire to be kind to people--to bestow happiness--to share my joy with others. If I had some of the doctor's money in my pocket, I should have given away five-pound notes.'
'You contented yourself,' said Munden, laughing, 'with giving a promissory-note for the whole legacy.'
'Yes; but try to understand. Emma came up to my room at supper-time, and as usual we talked. I didn't say anything about my uncle's death--yet I felt the necessity of telling her creep fatally upon me. There was a conflict in my mind, between common-sense and that awful sentimentality which is my curse. When Emma came up again after supper, she mentioned that her mother was gone with a friend to a theatre. "Why don't you go?" I said. "Oh, I don't go anywhere." "But after all," I urged consolingly, "August isn't exactly the time for enjoying the theatre." She admitted it wasn't; but there was the Exhibition at Earl's Court, she had heard so much of it, and wanted to go. "Then suppose we go together one of these evenings?"
'You see? Idiot!--and I couldn't help it. My tongue spoke these imbecile words in spite of my brain. All very well, if I had meant what another man would; but I didn't, and the girl knew I didn't. And she looked at me--and then--why, mere brute instinct did the rest--no, not mere instinct, for it was complicated with that idiot desire to see how the girl would look, hear what she would say, when she knew that I had given her eighty thousand pounds. You can't understand?'
'As a bit of morbid psychology--yes.'
'And the frantic proceeding made me happy! For an hour or two I behaved as if I loved the girl with all my soul. And afterwards I was still happy. I walked up and down my bedroom, making plans for the future--for her education, and so on. I saw all sorts of admirable womanly qualities in her. I was in love with her, and there's an end of it!'
Munden mused for a while, then laid down his pipe.
'Remarkably suggestive, Shergold, the name of the street in which you have been living. Well, you don't go back there?'
'No. I have come to my senses. I shall go to an hotel for to-night, and send presently for all my things.'
'To be sure, and on Saturday--or on Friday evening, if you like, we leave England.'
It was evident that Shergold rejoiced with trembling.
'But I can't stick to the lie.' he said. 'I shall compensate the girl. You see, by running away I make confession that there's something wrong. I shall see a solicitor and put the matter into his hands.'
'As you please. But let the solicitor exercise his own discretion as to damages.'
'Damages!' Shergold pondered the word. 'I suppose she won't drag me into court--make a public ridicule of me? If so, there's an end of my hopes. I couldn't go among people after that.'
'I don't see why not. But your solicitor will probably manage the affair. They have their methods,' Munden added drily.
Early the next morning Shergold despatched a telegram to Maze Pond, addressed to his landlady. It said that he would be kept away by business for a day or two. On Friday he attended his uncle's funeral, and that evening he left Charing Cross with Harvey Munden, en route for Como.
There, a fortnight later, Shergold received from his solicitor a communication which put an end to his feigning of repose and hopefulness. That he did but feign, Harvey Munden felt assured; signs of a troubled conscience, or at all events of restless nerves, were evident in all his doing and conversing; now he once more made frank revelation of his weakness.
'There's the devil to pay. She won't take money. She's got a lawyer, and is going to bring me into court. I've authorised Reckitt to offer as much as five thousand pounds,--it's no good. He says her lawyer has evidently encouraged her to hope for enormous damages, and then she'll have the satisfaction of making me the town-talk. It's all up with me, Munden. My hopes are vanished like--what is it in Dante?--il fumo in aere ed in aqua la schiuma!'
Smoking a Cavour, Munden lay back in the shadow of the pergola, and seemed to disdain reply.
'What's the good of advising a man born to be fooled? Why, let the ---- do her worst!'
'We mustn't forget that it's all my fault.'
'Yes, just as it's your own fault you didn't die on the day of your birth!'
'I must raise the offer--'
'By all means; offer ten thousand. I suppose a jury would give her two hundred and fifty.'
'But the scandal--the ridicule--'
'Face it. Very likely it's the only thing that would teach you wisdom and save your life.'
'That's one way of looking at it. I half believe it might be effectual.'
He kept alone for most of the day. In the evening, from nine to ten, he went upon the lake with Harvey, but could not talk; his blue eyes were sunk in a restless melancholy, his brows were furrowed, he kept making short, nervous movements, as though in silent remonstrance with himself. And when the next morning came, and Harvey Munden rang the bell for his coffee, a waiter brought him a note addressed in Shergold's hand. 'I have started for London,' ran the hurriedly written lines. 'Don't be uneasy; all I mean to do is to stop the danger of a degrading publicity; the fear of that is too much for me. I have an idea, and you shall hear how I get on in a few days.'
The nature of that promising idea Munden never learnt. His next letter from Shergold came in about ten days; it informed him very briefly that the writer was 'about to be married,' and that in less than a week he would have started with his wife on a voyage round the world. Harvey did not reply; indeed, the letter contained no address.
One day in November he was accosted at the club by his familiar bore.
'So your friend Shergold is dead?'
'Dead? I know nothing of it.'
'Really? They talked of it last night at Lady Teasdale's. He died a few days ago, at Calcutta. Dysentery, or something of that kind. His wife cabled to some one or other.'
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Return to the George Gissing library , or . . . Read the next short story; A Poor Gentleman