Timothy Shay Arthur
Mr. Walter Ferrars, who sat reading the morning paper, suddenly startled with an exclamation of grief and astonishment that completely roused his absent-minded wife.
"My dear Walter, what has happened?" she asked, with real anxiety.
"A man a bankrupt, whom I thought as safe as the Bank of England! Though it is true, people talked about him months ago — spoke suspiciously of his personal extravagance, and, above all, said that his wife was ruining him."
"Yes, but I cannot understand that sort of thing. A few hundreds a year more or less could be of little consequence to a man like Beaufort, and I don't suppose she spent more than you do, my darling. At any rate she was never better dressed. Yet I believe the truth was, that she got frightfully into debt unknown to him; and debt is a sort of thing that multiplies itself in a most astonishing manner, and sows by the wayside the seeds of all sorts of misery. Then people say that when payday came at last, bickerings ensued, their domestic happiness was broken up, Beaufort grew reckless, and plunged into the excitement of the maddest financial speculations."
"How dreadful!" murmured Lucy.
"Dreadful indeed! I don't know what I would do with such a wife."
"Would not you forgive her if you loved her very much?" asked Lucy, and she spoke in a singularly calm tone of suppressed emotion.
"Once, perhaps, once; and if her fault were the fault of youthful inexperience — but so much falseness, base deception, and mental deterioration must have accompanied such transactions, that — in short, I thank Heaven that I have never been put to the trial."
As he spoke, the eyes of Mr. Ferrars were fixed on the leading article of the Times, not on his wife. Presently Lucy glided from the room, without her absence being at the moment observed. Once in her dressing-room, she turned the key, and sinking into a low chair, gave vent to her grief in some of the bitterest tears she had ever shed. She, too, was in debt; "frightfully" her husband had used the right word; "hopelessly" so far as satisfying her creditors, even out of the large allowance Mr. Ferrars made her; and still she had not the courage voluntarily to tell the truth, which yet she knew must burst upon him before long. From what small beginnings had this deadly shadow come upon her! And what "falseness, base deception, and mental deterioration" had truly been hers!
Even the imagined relief of weeping was a luxury denied to her, for she feared to show the evidence of tears; thus after a little while she strove to drive them back, and by bathing her face before the looking-glass, and drawing the braids of her soft hair a little nearer her eyes, she was tolerably successful in hiding their trace. Never, when dressing for court or gala, had she consulted her mirror so closely; and now, though the tears were dried, she was shocked at the lines of anguish — those precursors of the wrinkles of old age — which marked her countenance. She sat before her looking-glass, one hand supporting her head, the other clutching the hidden letters which she had not yet the courage to open. There was a light tap at the door.
"Who is there?" inquired Lucy.
"It is I, my lady," replied Harris, her faithful maid. "Madame
Dalmas is here."
Lucy unlocked the door and gave orders that the visitor should be shown up to her room. With the name had come a flush of hope that some trifling temporary help would be hers. Madame Dalmas called herself a Frenchwoman, and called herself "Antoinette" but she was really an English Jewess of low extraction, whose true name was Sarah Solomons. Her "profession" was to purchase — and sell — the cast-off apparel of ladies of fashion; and few of the sisterhood have carried the art of double cheating to so great a proficiency. With always a roll of bank-notes in her old leather pocket-book, and always a dirty canvass bag full of bright sovereigns in her pocket, she had ever the subtle temptation for her victims ready.
Madame Dalmas — for she must be called according to the name engraved on her card — was a little poorly-dressed woman of about forty, with bright eyes and a hooked nose, a restless shuffling manner, and an ill-pitched voice. Her jargon was a mixture of bad French and worse English.
"Bon jour, lady Lucy," she exclaimed as she entered Lucy's sanctum; "I need not inquire of health, you look charming."
Poor Lucy! Too sick at heart to have any relish for Madame Dalmas' nauseous compliments, and more than half aware of her cheats and falsehoods, she yet tolerated the creature from her own dire necessities.
"Sit down, Madame Dalmas," she said, "I am dreadfully in need of money; but I really don't know what I have for you."
"The green velvet, which you not let me have before Easter, I still give you four pounds for it, if you haven't worn it very much since then."
"Only twice — only seven times in all — and it cost me twenty guineas," sighed Lucy.
"Ah — but so old-fashioned — I do believe I will see my money for it."
"If I sell the green velvet — I must have another next winter!" murmured Lucy.
"I tell you what — you let me have also the white lace robe you showed me once."
"My wedding-dress? Oh, no, I cannot sell my wedding-dress!" exclaimed poor Lucy, pressing her hands conclusively together.
"What — I will give you twenty-two pounds for it."
"Twenty-two pounds! — why, it is Brussels point, and cost a hundred and twenty pounds."
"Ah, I know — but you forget I will perhaps keep it ten years and not be able to sell it." and Madame Dalmas shook her head with the solemnity of a sage.
"No, no; I cannot sell my wedding-dress," again murmured the wife. And be it recorded, the temptress, for once, was baffled; but, at the expiration of an hour, Madame Dalmas left the house, with a huge bundle under her arm, and a quiet satisfaction revealed in her countenance, had anyone thought it worth while to study the expression of her disagreeable face.
Again Lucy locked her door; and placing a bank note and some sovereigns on the table, she sank into a low chair, and while a few large silent tears flowed down her cheeks, she at last found courage to open the three letters which had hitherto remained, unread, in her apron pocket. The first and second, seemed to contain nothing to surprise her, however much there might be to annoy her; but it was different with the last; here was a gross overcharge, and perhaps it was not with quite a disagreeable feeling that Lucy found something of which she could justly complain. She rose hurriedly and unlocked a small writing-desk, which had long been used as a receptacle for old letters and accounts.
To tell the truth, the interior of the desk did not present a very orderly arrangement. Cards of address, bills paid and unpaid, and papers of many descriptions, were huddled together, and it was not by any means surprising that Lucy failed in her search for the original account by which to rectify the error in her shoemaker's bill. In the hurry and nervous trepidation, which had lately become almost a constitutional ailment with her, she turned out the contents of the writing-desk into an easy-chair, and then kneeling before it, she set herself to the task of carefully examining the papers.
Soon she came to one letter which had been little expected in that place, and which still bore the marks of a rose, whose withered leaves also remained, that had been put away in its folds. The rose Walter had given her on the eve of their marriage, and the letter was in his handwriting, and bore but a few days earlier date. With quickened pulses she opened the envelope; and though a mist arose before her eyes, it seemed to form into a mirror in which she saw the by-gone hours. And so she read — and read.
It is the fashion to laugh at love-letters, perhaps because only the silly ones ever come to light. With the noblest of both sexes such effusions are sacred, and would be profaned by the perusal of a third person: but when a warm and true heart is joined to a manly intellect; when reason sanctions and constancy maintains the choice which has been made, there is little doubt that much of simple, truthful, touching eloquence is often to be found in a lover's letter. That which the wife now perused with strange and mingled feelings, was evidently a reply to some girlish depreciation of herself, and contained these words:
"You tell me that in the scanty years of your past life, you already look back on a hundred follies, and that you have unnumbered faults of character at which I do not even guess. Making some allowance for a figurative expression, I will answer 'it may be so.' What then? I have never called you an angel, and never desired you to be perfect. The weaknesses which cling, tendril-like, to a fine nature, not unfrequently bind us to it by ties we do not seek to sever. I know you for a true-hearted girl — but with the bitter lessons of life still unlearned; let it be my part to shield you from their sad knowledge — yet whatever sorrow or evil falls upon you, I will share. Let us have no secrets; and while the truth which gives its purest luster to your eye, and its richest blush to your cheek, still reigns in your soul, I cannot dream of a fault grave enough to deserve harsher rebuke than the kiss of forgiveness."
What lines to read at such a moment! No wonder their meaning reached her mind far differently than it had done when they were first received. Then she could have little heeded it; witness how carelessly the letter had been put away — how forgotten had been its contents.
Her tears flowed in torrents — but Lucy no longer strove to check them. And yet there gleamed through them a brighter smile than had visited her countenance for many a month. A resolve approved by all her better nature was growing firm within her heart; and that which an hour before would have seemed too dreadful to contemplate was losing half its terrors. How often an ascent, which looks in the distance a bare precipice, shows us, when we approach its face, the steps by which we may climb! — and not a few of the difficulties of life yield to us, when we bravely encounter them.
"Why did I fear him so much?" murmured Lucy to herself. "I ought not to have needed such an assurance as this to throw myself at his feet, and bear even scorn and rebuke, rather than prolong the reign of falsehood and deceit. Yes — yes," and gathering a heap of papers in her hand with the "love-letter" beneath them, she descended the stairs.
There is no denying that Lucy paused at the library door — no denying that her heart beat quickly, and her breath seemed well-near spent; but she was right to act on the good impulse, and not wait until the new-born courage should sink.
Walter had finished the newspaper, and was writing an unimportant note; his back was to the door, and hearing the rustle of his wife's dress, and knowing her step, he did not turn his head sufficiently to observe her countenance — but he said, good-humoredly,
"At last! What have you been about? I thought we were to go out before lunch to look at the bracelet I mentioned to you."
"No, Walter — no bracelet — you must never give me any jewels again;" and as Lucy spoke, she leaned against a chair for support. At such words her husband turned quickly round, startled up, and exclaimed,
"Lucy, my love! — in tears — what has happened?" and finding that even when he wound his arm round her she still was mute, he continued, "Speak — this silence breaks my heart — what have I done to lose your confidence?"
"Not you — I — " gasped the wife. "Your words at breakfast — this letter — have rolled the stone from my heart — I must confess — the truth — I am like Mrs. Beaufort — in debt — frightfully in debt." And with a gesture, as if she would crush herself into the earth, she slipped from his arms and sank literally on the floor.
Whatever pang Walter felt at the knowledge of her fault, it seemed overpowered by the sense of her present anguish — an anguish that proved how bitter had been the expiation; and he lifted his wife to a sofa, bent over her with fondness, called her by all the dear pet names to which her ear was accustomed, and nearer twenty times gave her the "kiss of forgiveness."
"And it is of you I have been afraid!" cried Lucy clinging to his hand. "You who I thought would never make any excuses for faults you yourself could not have committed!"
"I have never been tempted."
"Have I? I dare not say so."
"Tell me how it all came about," said Walter, drawing her to him; "tell me from the beginning."
But his gentleness unnerved her — she felt choking — loosened the collar of her dress for breathing space — and gave him the knowledge he asked in broken sentences.
"Before I was married — it — began. They persuaded me so many — oh, so many — unnecessary things were — needed. Then they would not send the bills — and I — for a long time — never knew — what I owed — and then — and then — I thought I would have the power — but — "
"Your allowance was not sufficient?" asked Walter, pressing her hand as he spoke.
"Oh, yes, yes, yes! most generous, and yet it was always forestalled to pay old bills; and then — and then my desires were so many. I was so weak. Madame Dalmas has had dresses I could have worn, when I had new ones on credit instead, and — and Harris has had double wages to compensate for what a lady's maid thinks her benefits; even articles I might have given to poor woman I have been base enough to sell. Oh, Walter! I have been very wrong; but I have been miserable for at least three years. I have felt as if an iron cage were rising round me — from which you alone could free me — and yet, until today, I think I could have died rather than confess to you."
"My poor girl! Why should you have feared me? Have I ever been harsh?"
"Oh, no! — no — but you are so just — so strict in all these things — "
"I hope I am; and yet not the less do I understand how all this has come about. Now, Lucy — now that you have ceased to fear me — tell me the amount."
She strove to speak — but could not.
"Three figures or four? tell me."
"I am afraid — yes, I am afraid four," murmured Lucy, and hiding her face from his view; "yes, four figures, and my money received last week is gone every penny."
"Lucy, every bill shall be paid this day; but you must reward me by being happy."
"Generous! dearest! But, Walter, if you had been a poor man, what then?"
"Ah, Lucy, that would have been a very different and an infinitely sadder story. Instead of the relinquishment of some indulgence hardly to be missed, there might have been ruin and poverty and disgrace! You have one excuse — at least you knew that I could pay at last."
"Ah — but at what a price! The price of your love and confidence."
"No, Lucy — for your confession has been voluntary; and I will not ask myself what I would have felt, had the knowledge come from another. After all, you have fallen to a temptation which besets the wives of the rich far more than those of poor or struggling gentlemen."
Now, I will take you to look at the bracelet."
"Oh, no — no, dear Walter, not the bracelet."
"Yes — yes — I say yes. Though not a quarrel, this is a sorrow which has come between us, and there must be a peace-offering. Besides, I would not have you think that you had reached the limits of my will, and of my means to gratify you."
"To think that I could have doubted — that I could have feared you!" sobbed Lucy, as tears of joy coursed down her cheeks. "But Walter, it is not every husband who would have shown such generosity."
"I think there are few husbands, Lucy, who do not estimate truth and honestly as among the chief of marital virtues — ah, had you confided in me when first you felt the bondage of debt, how much anguish would have been spared you!"