Chapter 7 - The Escape
"It's all turned out exactly like what I said it was going to, exactly to a T," said Mrs. Symes, wrapping her wet arms in her apron and leaning them on the fence; "if it wasn't that it's Tuesday and me behindhand as it is, I'd tell you all about it."
"Do the things good to lay a bit in the rinse-water," said Mrs. James, also leaning on the fence, "sorter whitens them's what I always say. I don't mind if I lend you a hand with the wringing after. What's turned out like you said it was going to?"
"Miss Betty's decline." Mrs. Symes laughed low and huskily. "What did I tell you, Mrs. James?"
"I don't quite remember not just at the minute," said Mrs. James; "you tells so many things."
"And well for some people I do. Else they wouldn't never know nothing. I told you as it wasn't no decline Miss Betty was setting down under. I said it was only what's natural, her being the age she is. I said what she wanted was a young man, and I said she'd get one. And what do you think?"
"I don't know, I'm sure."
"She did get one," said Mrs. Symes impressively, "that same week, just as if she'd been a-listening to my very words. It was as it might be Friday you and me had that little talk. Well, as it might be the Saturday, she meets the young man, a-painting pictures in the Warren - my Ernest's youngest saw 'em a-talking, and told his mother when he come home to his dinner."
"To think of that, and me never hearing a word!" said Mrs. James with frank regret.
"I knew it ud be 'Whistle and I'll come to you, my lad,'" Mrs. Symes went on with cumbrous enjoyment, "and so it was. They used to keep their rondyvoos in the wood - six o'clock in the morning. Mrs. Wilson's Tom used to see 'em reg'lar every day as he went by to his work."
"Lor," said Mrs. James feebly.
"Of course Tom he never said nothing, except to a few friends of his over a glass. They enjoyed the joke, I promise you. But old George Marbould - he ain't never been quite right in his head, I don't think, since his Ruby went wrong. Pity, I always think. A great clumsy plain-faced girl like her might a kept herself respectable. She hadn't the temptation some of us might have had in our young days."
"No indeed," said Mrs. James, smoothing her hair, "and old George - what silliness was he up to this time?"
"Why he sees the two of 'em together one fine morning and 'stead of doing like he'd be done by he ups to the Vicarage and tells the old man. 'You come alonger me, Sir,' says he, 'and have a look at your daughter a-kissin' and huggin' up in Beale's shed, along of a perfect stranger.' So the old man he says, 'God bless you,' - George is proud of him saying that - and off he goes, in a regular fanteague, beats the young master to a jelly, for all he's an old man and feeble, and shuts Miss up in her room. Now that wouldn't a been my way."
"No, indeed," said Mrs. James.
"I should a asked him in," said Mrs. Symes, "if it had been a gell of mine, and give him a good meal with a glass of ale to it, and a tiddy drop of something to top up with, and I'd a let him light his nasty pipe, - and then when he was full and contented I'd a up and said, 'Now my man, you've 'ad time to think it over, and no one can't say as I've hurried you nor flurried you. But it's time as we began talking. So just you tell me what you're a-goin to do about it. If you 'ave the feelings of a man,' I'd a said 'you'll marry the girl.'"
"Yes, indeed," said Mrs. James with emotion.
"Instead of which, bless your 'art, he beats the young man off with a stick, like as if he was a mad dog; and young Miss is a goin' to be sent to furrin parts to a strick boardin' school, to learn her not to have any truck with young chaps."
"'Ard, I call it," said Mrs. James.
"An' well you may - crooil 'ard. How's he expect the girl to get a husband if he drives the young fellers away with walking-sticks? Pore gell! I shouldn't wonder but what she lives and dies a maid, after this set-out."
"We shall miss 'er when she goes," said Mrs. James.
"I don't say we shan't. But there ain't no one as you can't get on without if you're put to it And whether or not, she's going to far foreign parts where there ain't no young chaps."
"Poor young thing," said Mrs. James, very sympathetic. "I think I'll drop in as I'm passing, and see how she takes it"
"If you do," said Mrs. Symes, unrolling her arms, white and wrinkled with washing, to set them aggressively on her lips, "it's the last word as passes between us, Mrs. James, so now you know."
"Lord, Maria, don't fly out at me that way." Mrs. James shrank back: "How was I to know you'd take it like that?"
"Do you suppose," asked Mrs. Symes, "as no one ain't got no legs except you? I'm a going up, soon as I've got the things on the line and cleaned myself. I only heard it after I'd got every blessed rag in soak, or I'd a gone up afore."
"Mightn't I step up with you for company?" Mrs. James asked.
"No, you mightn't. But I don't mind dropping in as I come home, to tell you about it. One of them Catholic Nunnery schools, I expect, which it's sudden death to a man but to set his foot into."
"Poor young thing," said Mrs. James again.
Betty was going to Paris.
There had been "much talk about and about" the project. Now it was to be.
There had been interviews.
There was the first in which the elder Miss Desmond told her brother-in-law in the plain speech she loved exactly what sort of a fool he had made of himself in the matter of Betty and the fortune-telling.
When he was convinced of error - it was not easily done - he would have liked to tell Betty that he was sorry, but he belonged to a generation that does not apologise to the next.
The second interview was between the aunt and Betty. That was the one in which so much good advice was given.
"You know," the aunt wound up, "all young women want to be in love, and all young men too. I don't mean that there was anything of that sort between you and your artist friend. But there might have been. Now look here, - I'm going to speak quite straight to you. Don't you ever let young men get monkeying about with your hands; whether they call it fortune-telling or whether they don't, their reason for doing so is always the same - or likely to be. And you want to keep your hand - as well as your lips - for the man you're going to marry. That's all, but don't you forget it. Now what's this I hear about your wanting to go to Paris?"
"I did want to go," said Betty, "but I don't care about anything now. Everything's hateful."
"It always is," said the aunt, "but it won't always be."
"Don't think I care a straw about not seeing Mr. Vernon again," said Betty hastily. "It's not that."
"Of course not," said the aunt sympathetically.
"No, - but Father was so hateful - you've no idea. If I'd - if I'd run away and got married secretly he couldn't have made more fuss."
"You're a little harsh - just a little. Of course you and I know exactly how it was, but remember how it looked to him. Why, it couldn't have looked worse if you really had been arranging an elopement."
"He hadn't got his arm around me," insisted Betty; "it was somewhere right away in the background. He was holding himself up with it."
"Don't I tell you I understand all that perfectly? What I want to understand is how you feel about Paris. Are you absolutely off the idea?"
"I couldn't go if I wasn't."
"I wonder what you think Paris is like," mused the aunt. "I suppose you think it's all one wild razzle-dazzle - one delirious round of - of museums and picture galleries."
"No, I don't," said Betty rather shortly.
"If you went you'd have to work."
"There's no chance of my going."
"Then we'll put the idea away and say no more about it. Get me my Continental Bradshaw out of my dressing-bag: I'm no use here. Nobody loves me, and I'll go to Norway by the first omnibus to-morrow morning."
"Don't," said Betty; "how can you say nobody loves you?"
"Your step-father doesn't, anyway. That's why I can make him do what I like when I take the trouble. When people love you they'll never do anything for you, - not even answer a plain question with a plain yes or no. Go and get the Bradshaw. You'll be sorry when I'm gone."
"Aunt Julia, you don't really mean it."
"Of course not. I never mean anything except the things I don't say. The Bradshaw!"
Betty came and sat on the arm of her aunt's chair.
"It's not fair to tease me," she said, "and tantalise me. You know how mizzy I am."
"No. I don't know anything. You won't tell me anything. Go and get - "
"Dear, darling, pretty, kind, clever Aunt," cried Betty, "I'd give my ears to go."
"Then borrow a large knife from cook, and sharpen it on the front door-step! No - I don't mean to use it on your step-father. I'll have your pretty ears mummified and wear them on my watch-chain. No - mind my spectacles! Let me go. I daresay it won't come to anything."
"Do you really mean you'd take me?"
"I'd take you fast enough, but I wouldn't keep you. We must find a dragon to guard the Princess. Oh, we'll get a nice tame kind puss-cat of a dragon, - but that dragon will not be your Aunt Julia! Let me go, I say. I thought you didn't care about anything any more?"
"I didn't know there could be anything to care for," said Betty honestly, "especially Paris. Well, I won't if you hate it so, but oh, aunt - " She still sat on the floor by the chair her aunt had left, and thought and thought. The aunt went straight down to the study.
"Now, Cecil," she said, coming briskly in and shutting the door, "you've made that poor child hate the thought of you and you've only yourself to thank."
"I know you think so," said he, closing the heavy book over which he had been stooping.
"I don't mean," she added hastily, for she was not a cruel woman, "that she really hates you, of course. But you've frightened her, and shaken her nerves, locking her up in her room like that. Upon my word, you are old enough to know better!"
"I was so alarmed, so shaken myself - " he began, but she interrupted him.
"I didn't come in and disturb your work just to say all that, of course," she said, "but really, Cecil, I understand things better than you think. I know how fond you really are of Betty."
The Reverend Cecil doubted this; but he said nothing.
"And you know that I'm fond enough of the child myself. Now, all this has upset you both tremendously. What do you propose to do?"
"I - I - nothing I thought. The less said about these deplorable affairs the better. Lizzie will soon recover her natural tone, and forget all about the matter."
"Then you mean to let everything go on in the old way?"
"Why, of course," said he uneasily.
"Well, it's your own affair, naturally," she spoke with a studied air of detachment which worried him exactly as it was meant to do.
"What do you mean?" he asked anxiously. He had never been able wholly to approve Miss Julia Desmond. She smoked cigarettes, and he could not think that this would have been respectable in any other woman. Of course, she was different from any other woman, but still - . Then the Reverend Cecil could not deem it womanly to explore, unchaperoned, the less well-known quarters of four continents, to penetrate even to regions where skirts were considered improper and side-saddles were unknown. Even the nearness of Miss Desmond's fiftieth birthday hardly lessened at all the poignancy of his disapproval. Besides, she had not always been fifty, and she had always, in his recollection of her, smoked cigarettes, and travelled alone. Yet he had a certain well-founded respect for her judgment, and for that fine luminous common-sense of hers which had more than once shewn him his own mistakes. On the rare occasions when he and she had differed he had always realized, later, that she had been in the right. And she was "gentlemanly" enough never once to have said: "I told you so!"
"What do you mean?" he asked again, for she was silent, her hands in the pockets of her long coat, her sensible brown shoes sticking straight out in front of her chair.
"If you really want to know, I'll tell you," she said, "but I hate to interfere in other people's business. You see, I know how deeply she has felt this, and of course I know you have too, so I wondered whether you hadn't thought of some little plan for - for altering the circumstances a little, so that everything will blow over and settle down, so that when you and she come together again you'll be better friends than ever."
"Come together again," he repeated, and the paper-knife was still restless, "do you want me to let her go away? To London?"
Visions of Lizzie, in unseemly low-necked dresses surrounded by crowds of young men - all possible Vernons - lent a sudden firmness to his voice, a sudden alertness to his manner."
"No, certainly not," she answered the voice and the manner as much as the words. "I shouldn't dream of such a thing. Then it hadn't occurred to you?"
"It certainly had not."
"You see," she said earnestly, "it's like this - at least this is how I see it: She's all shaken and upset, and so are you, and when I've gone - and I must go in a very little time - you'll both of you simply settle down to thinking over it all, and you'll grow farther and farther apart!"
"I don't think so," said he; "things like this always right themselves if one leaves them alone. Lizzie and I have always got on very well together, in a quiet way. We are neither of us demonstrative."
"Now Heaven help the man!" was the woman's thought. She remembered Betty's clinging arms, her heartfelt kisses, the fervency of the voice that said, "Dear darling, pretty, kind, clever Aunt! I'd give my ears to go." Betty not demonstrative! Heaven help the man!
"No," she said, "I know. But when people are young these thinks rankle."
"They won't with her," he said. "She has a singularly noble nature, under that quiet exterior."
Miss Desmond drew a long breath and began afresh.
"Then there's another thing. She's fretting over this - thinks now that it was something to be ashamed of; she didn't think so at the time, of course."
"You mean that it was I who - "
This was thin ice again. Miss Desmond skated quickly away from it with, "Well, you see, I've been talking to her. She really is fretting. Why she's got ever so much thinner in the last week."
"I could get a locum," he said slowly, "and take her to a Hydropathic Establishment for a fortnight."
"Oh dear, oh dear!" said Miss Desmond to herself. Aloud she said: "That would be delightful, later. But just now - well, of course it's for you to decide, - but it seems to me that it would be better for you two to be apart for a while. If you're here alone together - well, the very sight of you will remind each other - That's not grammar, as you say, but - "
He had not said anything. He was thinking, fingering the brass bosses on the corners of the divine Augustine, and tracing the pattern on the stamped pigskin.
"Of course if you care to risk it," she went on still with that fine air of detachment, - "but I have seen breaches that nothing could heal arise in just that way."
Two people sitting down together and thinking over everything they had against each other."
"But I've nothing against Lizzie."
"I daresay not," Miss Desmond lost patience at last, "but she has against you, or will have if you let her stay here brooding over it. However if you like to risk it - I'm sorry I spoke." She got up and moved to the door.
"No, no," he said hastily, "do not be sorry you spoke. You have given me food for reflection. I will think it all over quietly and - and - " he did not like to talk about prayers to Miss Desmond somehow, "and - calmly and if I see that you are right - I am sure you mean most kindly by me."
"Indeed I do," she said heartily, and gave him her hand in the manly way he hated. He took it, held it limply an instant, and repeated:
He thought it over for so long that the aunt almost lost hope.
"I have to hold my tongue with both hands to keep it quiet. And if I say another word I shall spoil the song," she told Betty. "I've done my absolute best. If that doesn't fetch him, nothing will!"
It had "fetched him." At the end of two interminable days he sent to ask Miss Desmond to speak to him in the study. She went.
"I have been thinking carefully," he said, "most carefully. And I feel that you are right. Perhaps I owe her some amends. Do you know of any quiet country place?"
Miss Desmond thought Betty had perhaps for the moment had almost enough of quiet country places.
"She is very anxious to learn drawing," he said, "and perhaps if I permitted her to do so she might understand it as a sign that I cherish no resentment on account of what has passed. But - "
"I know the very thing," said the Aunt, and went on to tell of Madame Gautier, of her cloistral home in Paris where she received a few favoured young girls, of the vigilant maid who conducted them to and from their studies, of the quiet villa on the Marne where in the summer an able master - at least 60 or 65 years of age - conducted sketching parties, to which the students were accompanied either by Madame herself, or by the dragon-maid.
"I'll stand the child six months with her," she said, "or a year even. So it won't cost you anything. And Madame Gautier is in London now. You could run up and talk to her yourself."
"Does she speak English?" he asked, anxiously, and being reassured questioned further.
"And you?" he asked. And when he heard that Norway for a month and then America en route for Japan formed Miss Desmond's programme for the next year he was only just able to mask, with a cough, his deep sigh of relief. For, however much he might respect her judgment, he was always easier when Lizzie and her Aunt Julia were not together.
He went up to town, and found Madame Gautier, the widow of a French pastor, established in a Bloomsbury boarding-house. She was a woman after his own heart - severe, simple, earnest. If he had to part with his Lizzie, he told himself in the returning train, it could be to no better keeper than this.
He himself announced his decision to Betty.
"I have decided," he said, and he spoke very coldly because it was so very difficult to speak at all, "to grant you the wish you expressed some time ago. You shall go to Paris and learn drawing."
"Do you really mean it?" said Betty, as coldly as he.
"I am not in the habit of saying things which I do not mean."
"Thank you very much," said Betty. "I will work hard, and try that the money shan't be wasted."
"Your aunt has kindly offered to pay your expenses."
"When do I go?" asked Betty.
"As soon as your garments can be prepared. I trust that I shall not have cause to regret the confidence I have decided to place in you."
His phrasing was seldom well-inspired. Had he said, "I trust you, my child, and I know I shan't regret it," which was what he meant, she would have come to meet him more than half-way. As it was she said, "Thank you!" again, and left him without more words. He sighed.
"I don't believe she is pleased after all; but she sees I am doing it for her good. Now it comes to the point her heart sinks at the idea of leaving home. But she will understand my motives."
The one thought Betty gave him was:
"He can't bear the sight of me at all now! He's longing to be rid of me! Well, thank Heaven I'm going to Paris! I will have a grass-lawn dress over green, with three rows of narrow lace insertion, and a hat with yellow roses and - oh, it can't be true. It's too good to be true. Well, it's a good thing to be hated sometimes, by some people, if they only hate you enough!"
"'So you're going to foreign parts, Miss,' says I."
Mrs. Symes had flung back her bonnet strings and was holding a saucerful of boiling tea skilfully poised on the fingers of one hand. "'Yes, Mrs. Symes,' says she, 'don't you wish you was going too?' she says. And she laughed, but I'm not easy blinded, and well I see as she only laughed to 'ide a bleedin' 'art. 'Not me, Miss,' says I; 'nice figure I should look a-goin' to a furrin' boardin' school at my time of life.'
"'It ain't boardin' school,' says she. 'I'm a-going to learn to paint pictures. I'll paint your portrait when I come home,' says she, and laughs again - I could see she done it to keep the tears back.
"'I'm sorry for you, Miss, I'm sure,' I says, not to lose the chance of a word in season, 'but I hope it'll prove a blessing to you - I do that.'"
"'Oh, it'll be a blessing right enough,' says she, and keeps on laughing a bit wild like. When the art's full you can't always stop yourself. She'd a done better to 'ave a good cry and tell me 'er troubles. I could a cheered her up a bit p'raps. You know whether I'm considered a comfort at funerals and christenings, Mrs. James."
"I do," said Mrs. James sadly; "none don't know it better."
"You'd a thought she'd a bin glad of a friend in need. But no. She just goes on a-laughing fit to bring tears to your eyes to hear her, and says she, 'I hope you'll all get on all right without me.'"
"I hope you said as how we should miss her something dreadful," said Mrs. James anxiously, "Have another cup."
"Thank you, my dear. Do you take me for a born loony? Course I did. Said the parish wouldn't be the same without her, and about her pretty reading and all. See here what she give me."
Mrs. James unrolled a violet petticoat.
"Good as new, almost," she said, looking critically at the hem. "Specially her being taller'n me. So what's not can be cut away, and no loss. She kep' on a-laughing an' a-smiling till the old man he come in and he says in his mimicking way, 'Lizzie,' says 'e, 'they're a-waitin' to fit on your new walkin' costoom,' he says. So I come away, she a-smiling to the last something awful to see."
"Dear, dear," said Mrs. James.
"But you mark my words - she don't deceive me. If ever I see a bruised reed and a broken 'art on a young gell's face I see it on hers this day. She may laugh herself black in the face, but she won't laugh me into thinking what I knows to be far otherwise."
"Ah," said Mrs. James resignedly, "we all 'as it to bear one time or another. Young gells is very deceitful though, in their ways, ain't they?"