One morning in the early fifties of the last century, a young woman opened the private door of a scientific instrument-maker’s shop in Holborn, looked calmly and briskly about her before crossing the busy road, and then stepped quickly into an omnibus that announced its direction as Barnsbury, Islington and Highbury Barn.
Alighting, after half-an-hour’s run, at the first of these suburbs, which in those days was the comfortable retreat of prosperous middleclass families, she walked steadily forward with the assured manner of one who knows the way too well to think about it. High Summer was in the air, and the day was sultry; the chestnut trees in the garden hung their great leaves down as though they were tired, the nurse-girls with their perambulators looked hot and blowsy, even the butcher’s boy on his round was merciful to his sweating beast.
Summer too had touched the cheeks of the visitor from Holborn, whose proper season would seem to have been the Spring, for she was not more than twenty, and the clear fresh beauty of her face showed abundant health. Her eyes, though grave at this moment, looked as though they could sparkle with anger or enthusiasm, her chin betrayed a little more determination than was considered altogether fitting in a woman at that period. But the masses of soft brown hair which surrounded the forehead and almost hid her ears made amends for the purposeful chin. She had a good figure, rather under the medium height, and she was well dressed in the quiet fashion that only good breeding ever attains. Altogether she was a girl made for admiration and love, and it was in the nature of things that she should marry and in due course have children. The man who won her would secure a prize, but a prize that would by no means be satisfied with merely being exhibited in her own drawingroom.
Something in her tread, as well as the tell-tale chin, showed character and a wilfulness that might make for happiness or its opposite, as the lines of her life fell in congenial or uncongenial circumstances.
She knocked at a door, and presently entered one of those vast square mansions which were built for the large families of that prolific age. Children could be heard quarrelling in a nursery upstairs; downstairs in the basement were the usual kitchen noises indicative of that enforced cleanliness which may be next to godliness but is by no means always next to comfort; on the ground floor someone was playing a piano. The touch was brilliant but a little hard, as though the player had a clever head but no heart.
The piano ceased as the visitor entered, and a young matron rose from the music-stool. “Why, my dear Isabel,” she said, as she kissed her friend, “I hardly expected you so soon.”
“It was so hot in Holborn, I felt stifled,” answered the girl.
“I would rather be stifled in London than buried in the country as we are here,” retorted Mrs. Tadworth. “I used to think Suffolk dull, but Barnsbury is a living death.”
She pouted, and Isabel laughed. “You don’t look nearly dead yet, Marion — or even very miserable.”
But Marion Tadworth was not listening. (Her complaint was merely against her husband who refused to live in Hyde Park as she wished). She had noticed that the engagement ring which Isabel Virtue usually wore was missing; this promised news, excitement, and gossip.
“How is dear James?” she asked abruptly. She believed in coming to the point.
“I don’t know; I haven’t seen him lately,” answered the girl, who had only meant to broach the subject after lunch. We may mean to tell our secrets, but we do not always like to be surprised out of them.
“Not seen him? Is he ill?” said Mrs. Tadworth. But she knew that engagement rings are not left off because of illness; she guessed that the engagement was broken off. And Isabel knew that she knew.
“He is perfectly well,” replied the girl. “He called at our house only yesterday. But I have refused to see him. The fact is, the engagement is broken off.”
“My dear,” said Mrs. Tadworth, in a tone of genuine sympathy. Every married woman who hears of broken engagements feels like the retired mariner ashore, who watches a good ship foundering in a storm. “I should not have thought James faithless or inconstant. But you never know what men are like till you prove them.”
“He was not faithless,” answered Isabel. “But be was ungodly. And I devised a test for him. I asked him to teach with me in Sunday School, and he refused. And I asked him to give up smoking, but he only laughed, and said dreadful things about a saint in petticoats, and I said he should not marry me at all unless he gave up evil ways and he said cigars were not evil ways, and I was — oh, Marion, he said I was a silly little puritan.”
The matron shook her head, for Mr. Tadworth slept the sleep of the replete on Sunday afternoon instead of teaching in Sunday school, and he smoked promiscuously. The second wife of a middle-aged merchant makes no such trivial conditions when she marries for a home.
But a dreadful possibility remained.
“Dear James is not a Catholic?” asked Marion, in an apprehensive whisper.
“Oh, no,” replied her friend, outraged at the slur upon her lover, “only indifferent to all religion.”
Marion was inexpressibly relieved, for it was the day when the recision of Newman and Manning had convulsed our fathers. “Then all may yet be well,” she answered. “Of course you could not marry a Catholic.”
“Never,” said Isabel firmly.
“But mere indifference, — so many men are indifferent nowadays. Perhaps if you marry him he may change.”
“Jim will never change,” sighed Isabel, with a miserable assurance of her lover’s constancy in evil ways.
“But my dear girl, consider. I am the last woman to despise religion. I was brought up in the right way, and I am bringing my children up in the right way, I hope. But we must think of this world as well as the next while we are in it. And we women cannot get all we want. In my own case — I admit it to you, dear Isabel, — what I have never even hinted to anyone else — I have much to bear. Dear Henry is irregular — shockingly irregular. And indifferent too. And altogether worldly. I knew it when I married him. But what else was there to do? My mother urged me on, and I gave way. One has to give up something; one compromises, and one’s ideals disappear, one accommodates oneself, — one must. The perfect man is rare. All things considered, it is not so bad; in fact it is worth while. It is a sad trial of one’s faith I admit, but anything is better than being an old maid. My poor sister now —”
Isabel interrupted her sage advice. “I will never barter my belief for a home.”
“Then my dear, you run the risk of never getting a home at all. We women have to resign ourselves — to give things up — so long as there are men it will be so. And there are compensations. We get other things in exchange.”
“Children?” whispered Isabel intimately, and then blushed.
“Well, yes, perhaps,” admitted Marion grudgingly. “But children quarrel dreadfully you know, and try the temper. But one must be — what I mean is that a girl must settle herself in life — she must come to terms; we all have to in the end; it all depends on the terms whether one is reasonably happy or not.”
A violent scuffle and a shriek outside forbade further counsel.
“Those boys are fighting again,” said Marion hastily. She opened the door and issued commands: “Henry, go to bed at once; Mowbray, come here; Henrietta, I am surprised at you. There now, the boys have woken baby.”
Henry disappeared, stamping vigorously to mark displeasure at his banishment; Mowbray, his younger brother, entered the room, so consciously virtuous that he was clearly guilty; Henrietta, a girl of sixteen, and Marion’s stepdaughter, volunteered an explanation.
“Mowbray took Henry’s ball,” she remarked.
But step-daughters who attempt to get justice done are properly snubbed.
“Go and practice your scales, child, instead of waiting about here. Poor little Mowbray, you always blame him. Come here, Mowbray darling, and look at little Milly.”
“Shan’t,” retorted the six-year-old angel, in a pet. “And I hate Amelia.”
“You’re a very naughty boy,” replied the mother angrily, “and I shall box your ears next time you say anything like that. Now, keep quiet while I put baby to sleep again.” Mowbray made a face, and vanished kitchenwards. A jammy mouth presently proclaimed his thefts.
“Poor Milly,” said her mother, as she held up the baby for inspection. “She’s my only girl, and she’s not pretty. It’s a dreadful thing for a girl to be plain. My husband told me Henrietta had all the looks. It was cruel of him.”
She looked round guiltily to see if her step-daughter had overheard the jealous confession, but the girl had prudently vanished, and a distant piano proclaimed her obedience.
Peace returned at length, as the lunch-bell rang and the nurse appeared to claim her charges. And that afternoon, when the children had been ordered out of doors to “take the air” in the decorous manner befitting that genteel suburb, the two women talked long and earnestly of love and matrimony, its necessary compromises and possible compensations. Marion Tadworth liked her wilful friend more than she liked anybody except herself, and she was genuinely distressed about the misunderstanding — she would not believe it was anything more — and the broken engagement. She urged her prudent little creed of give and take, of a balance of advantages, and the inevitableness of barter in matrimony, with the energy of a sincere well-wisher, and the patient tolerance that the learned professor of some abstruse science shows towards a reluctant but favourite pupil.
But in vain, Isabel remained stubborn, and merciless towards her lover. Perhaps it was because she loved him more than her friend loved the excellent Tadworth; for passion will either make all allowances or none — it is only cold, calculating prudence that weighs qualities against scruples, like an apothecary, and strikes an even balance of heart and head. Be sure that the housewife who first said that half a loaf is better than no bread made a marriage de convenance with an industrious baker after the rich miller had failed to respond to her bashful advances; and I have no doubt for my part that the match turned out well, and rewarded the lady with cakes and tarts instead of the miserable half a loaf, whereas the miller, as everyone knows, neglected his business and went bankrupt, and drowned himself in his own mill-stream, and the baker bought the whole concern for a mere song and retired some years later with a fortune.
Isabel was obdurate. When at last she left the Tadworth mansion, unconvinced by Marion’s arguments, little Henry squirted some dirty water at her from his bedroom. It was his revenge for the disgrace and punishment of the forenoon, and he had waited long for the opportunity. But a moment later there were sounds of woe, possibly of contrition, for retribution had been swift and painful.
“Poor Marion,” mused Isabel, as she walked away, “if those are her compensations I don’t envy her being settled in life. For all her matronly airs, she does not know how to manage children — there will be trouble in that family someday.”
With which profound reflection the young lady hailed the homeward omnibus.
Chapter 2 — The Spinster’s Call
Three years after Marion Tadworth had explained the whole philosophy of matrimony to her inexperienced friend Isabel Virtue, that fastidious young woman was still a spinster. The rejected James White had married somebody else almost immediately, and Isabel had neither seen nor heard of him since; nobody had taken his place in her affections, and the other shopkeepers’ daughters in Holborn already spoke of her contemptuously as a sour old maid. Sour because her tongue was sometimes a trifle sharp where small feminine follies were concerned; old maid because she was twenty-three, and therefore hopelessly ancient.
Yet she looked as fresh and young as ever. Perhaps the sneers of the local beauties were really more due to fear than pity, for none could rival the brightness of her eyes, or the clear flush of her complexion. She could have had any of the young men in Holborn, or in Marylebone either for the matter of that, had she chosen, but she did not choose. The fact was she still loved Jim.
Not to anyone would she have admitted it, not even to Marion, but she was honest with herself. She still kept Jim’s letters, and took them out and read them from time to time; the miniature painting of her rejected lover, which he had given her when they were betrothed, was still locked in her desk. She knew she loved him; she fought against it, as a weakness of the flesh, for he was one of the ungodly, she trampled on her unruly heart, which had disobeyed God in hankering after this man; but her heart refused to be subdued. She dreamed of Jim. She had spurned him when she could have had him, and now she longed for him, she could no longer have him.
She wondered vaguely what his wife was like, and if they had any children yet. Supposing his wife were to die, would Jim come back to her? She crushed the thought as wicked, but it returned. After all, wives did sometimes die young, and men did sometimes marry their first loves. Would she again refuse Jim unless he gave up smoking and promised to teach in the Sunday School? Perhaps, like Marion, she would compromise in the end, and allow him cigars if he would teach, or let him off teaching if he would throw away his cigars. Would that be making terms with evil? Doing evil that good might come? Then she remembered that it was not in her power to make terms with good or evil, for Jim had vanished clean out of her life.
Her life too had suddenly changed at home, and she must now make a decision. A month ago her father had died; he had left her a small independence, but the instrument-making business was sold, and she would have to look out for other quarters. There was no immediate hurry; her father’s manager, who had bought the business, had not wanted the house above the shop, and told her he hoped she would stay on there as long as she liked, but he had said it with such a meaning smile that she determined to leave as soon as possible. He had tried to ingratiate himself with the haughty beauty, poor fellow, and both the offer and the nervous propitiatory grin with which he made it were meant to prove his unselfishness. (Fool! What woman cares for unselfishness in a man she does not love?) Isabel recalled similar attentions during her father’s lifetime, and made up her mind to have done with the place and its lovesick proprietor. It was her home no longer, and she had little of the usual sentimental regard for the walls and furniture that had surrounded her from infancy.
That morning too she had received a letter from India to say that her brother had been killed in the Mutiny. Her correspondent was unknown to her, but he wrote that the lad had died bravely, fighting against odds, and that a hard-pressed company of troops would ever remember his name with honour. Isabel knew nothing of martial glory, but she had been fond of this scapegrace brother whom her stern father had banished. He had disgraced a respectable family by enlisting in the Army, for in those days, and for long after, that strange view was widely held by the respectable classes in England — his father had said so, and had foretold that God would cut him off in the midst of his sins.
It seemed a hard doctrine even to Isabel, the more so as he had brought Jim to the house, and often played the patient gooseberry for his sister and lover; but it had now fulfilled itself. Her Puritan father’s authority on these matters was unquestioned; the old instrument-maker knew his bible as he knew the stars in the heavens and it seemed sometimes as though he looked through one of his telescopes straight to the very throne of God when he spoke of destiny and duty. At such times his eyes would glow with fire, and his words ring forth with a solemn conviction that awed the listener to silence. It was in such a mood that he had spoken on his deathbed, and had prophesied that the only son who had rebelled against God and dishonoured his father by becoming a soldier would be cut off in the midst of his wickedness, according to the fifth commandment on the same day the boy had been killed. It seemed a judgment.
Isabel would have liked to pray for her brother, but her harsh creed forbade it. It was hard on him; he had been such a generous-hearted, lovable fellow — but there was no loophole of escape. She bowed unwillingly to the strict authority of her faith.
And her brother’s death left her quite alone in the world. Her mother had died in infancy; she had no other brothers or sisters and she knew of no distant relatives. Her father, a self-centred man, who had seldom stirred abroad, had never spoken of family affairs, and neither aunts nor uncles had ever visited the house. If there were any other Virtues in the world she did not know them, and the great family bible in her father’s bedroom bore no record of them. She was utterly alone.
She must find something useful to do, she decided, for she was of an active disposition, and idleness was abhorrent to her. But she had never thought of any definite occupation before — it had been enough to keep house for her father. She had no definite tastes or preferences that she knew of, and in those days there were few employments open to women except matrimony, domestic service, and the worse slavery of becoming a governess; all of which she ruled out in advance.
But at least she was independent; she was not compelled to work, and she could take time to discover some congenial occupation.
As she sat thinking over the future, and feeling rather dismally alone and purposeless in the solitary sitting-room over the shop, she heard a step coming up the stairs. For a second she was afraid it was the unwelcome manager come to pester her — perhaps to offer her his hand, for the love-lorn shopkeeper below had made no secret of his passion — but when the door opened it was Jim that stood before her; Jim with a bundle in his arms.
She was so startled that she called him familiarly by his name as of old. “Why Jim,” she said, and a queer pain like a knife seemed suddenly to pass through her.
“Yes, Bel, I’ve come back to you,” he answered slowly. She noticed now that he bore the marks of suffering, His face was drawn and haggard, and dark lines lay beneath his eyes. Incidentally he, like Isabel, was in black. Her heart leapt at a conclusion, beat hurriedly, and then seemed to stop.
“I want you to do something for me, Bel, for old sake’s sake, and the love you once bore me,” he went on, speaking in a hard, dry voice that tried to conceal his emotion, and failed.
He crossed the room, and placed the bundle in Isabel’s arms.
“That is my baby girl,” he said simply.
Isabel peeped shyly at the little one that lay asleep within the wrappings, and a multitude of sensations surged through her as she looked at what might have been her child. But she said nothing. She could not have said anything at that moment had she wished.
“I am sure you will do what I ask you, Bel, if not for me, then for this little innocent of mine. Listen, my poor wife died three weeks ago; there is no one to look after the child. Her people lived somewhere in Ireland. We lost sight of them; my folk, well I quarrelled with them when I married. I’ve got to leave London for a month or so on business; I can’t take the child with me. Of course I could hire help. But you know how much that sort of person is worth. This child is all that I have.” He paused in abrupt embarrassment.
“You want me to take care of her till you come back?” interrupted Isabel, helping him out with a difficult proposition.
“I do,” he answered.
“I was just thinking I must get something useful to do,” said Isabel. “You came at the right moment.” She told him briefly of the change in her home circumstances.
By common consent they avoided more delicate topics. Jim promised to let her know when he returned from Liverpool; he expected it would be six weeks, or two months at the outside. He forgot to thank her or tell her the child’s name — that was typical of Jim.
Isabel recollected that her charge had no name the moment he had gone. She flung up the window, the first-floor sitting-room over the shop where he had found her, and called down to him as he passed along Holborn: “What’s baby’s name?”
“Mary Louisa White,” he cried back cheerily. He waved his hand and was lost in the throng.
Isabel sat for a long time after he had gone, looking at the child as she lay asleep in her arms. It was a pretty little girl with a long, delicate oval face and curly auburn hair, whose baby ringlets seemed to dance in the afternoon sun; so far as she could judge, the child would be nearly two years old.
Well, she had found something useful to do. She reflected uneasily that she knew nothing about babies, what they ate or drank, how long they ought to sleep, or the thousand and one engrossing details that formed the staple conversation of the young matrons of the neighbourhood. To be sure she could ask them, but then, could she ask? She knew little of them, and had always rather avoided their society and the trivial small talk of the shopkeeper’s tea-tables in Holborn. To ask for advice would entail explanations, and she had no mind to explain. She was too proud to have her love-affair with Jim talked over in every parlour, and all the gossips busied with conduct — and her future.
Her future? — she dared not think of it herself. Here was Jim a widower — her dream, that she had rebuked herself for, had come true after all — and he had come back to her; he must love her still, or he would never have done so. She knew she loved him — she might conceal it to others — even to Jim, but in her own heart was no doubt at all. She must wait and —
The child stirred in her arms, and rubbed a tiny fist into its eyes. It woke, and looked about. “I want Daddy,” it said.
“Daddy will come back presently,” said Isabel softly.
“Who are you?” asked the child wonderingly, as she stared at her with the comprehensive gaze of infancy.
“You can call me Auntie Bel,” replied Isabel.
“Baby hungry,” was the next remark.
And for the rest of the day her new duties engrossed her. But when Isabel lay down to sleep that night beside the child she understood that she was no longer alone in the world, her mission in life had come to her unsought, as a gift from God, and what other rewards or punishments He might deal out to her she humbly left with Him. She prayed and slept, and the tiny arms sought her neck and the little head her bosom, as Jim’s baby settled in its new home.