Volume 1
Chapter II. A Difficult Situation
 

When Mrs. Frank Armour arrived at Montreal she still wore her Indian costume of clean, well-broidered buckskin, moccasins, and leggings, all surmounted by a blanket. It was not a distinguished costume, but it seemed suitable to its wearer. Mr. Armour's agent was in a quandary. He had received no instructions regarding her dress. He felt, of course, that, as Mrs. Frank Armour, she should put off these garments, and dress, so far as was possible, in accordance with her new position. But when he spoke about it to Mackenzie, the elderly maid and companion, he found that Mr. Armour had said that his wife was to arrive in England dressed as she was. He saw something ulterior in the matter, but it was not his province to interfere. And so Mrs. Frank Armour was a passenger by the Aphrodite in her buckskin garments.

What she thought of it all is not quite easy to say. It is possible that at first she only considered that she was the wife of a white man,-- a thing to be desired, and that the man she loved was hers for ever-- a matter of indefinable joy to her. That he was sending her to England did not fret her, because it was his will, and he knew what was best. Busy with her contented and yet somewhat dazed thoughts of him,--she was too happy to be very active mentally, even if it had been the characteristic of her race,--she was not at first aware how much notice she excited, and how strange a figure she was in this staring city. When it did dawn upon her she shrank a little, but still was placid, preferring to sit with her hands folded in her lap, idly watching things. She appeared oblivious that she was the wife of a man of family and rank; she was only thinking that the man was hers--all hers. He had treated her kindly enough in the days they were together, but she had not been a great deal with him, because they travelled fast, and his duties were many, or he made them so--but the latter possibility did not occur to her.

When he had hastily bidden her farewell at Port Arthur he had kissed her and said: "Good-bye, my wife." She was not yet acute enough in the inflections of Saxon speech to catch the satire--almost involuntary--in the last two words. She remembered the words, however, and the kiss, and she was quite satisfied. To what she was going she did not speculate. He was sending her: that was enough.

The woman given to her as maid had been well chosen. Armour had done this carefully. She was Scotch, was reserved, had a certain amount of shrewdness, would obey instructions, and do her duty carefully. What she thought about the whole matter she kept to herself; even the solicitor at Montreal could not find out. She had her instructions clear in her mind; she was determined to carry them out to the letter--for which she was already well paid, and was like to be better paid; because Armour had arranged that she should continue to be with his wife after they got to England. She understood well the language of Lali's tribe, and because Lali's English was limited she would be indispensable in England.

Mackenzie, therefore, had responsibility, and if she was not elated over it, she still knew the importance of her position, and had enough practical vanity to make her an efficient servant and companion. She already felt that she had got her position in life, from which she was to go out no more for ever. She had been brought up in the shadow of Alnwick Castle, and she knew what was due to her charge--by other people; herself only should have liberty with her. She was taking Lali to the home of General Armour, and that must be kept constantly before her mind. Therefore, from the day they set foot on the Aphrodite, she kept her place beside Mrs. Armour, sitting with her,--they walked very little,-- and scarcely ever speaking, either to her or to the curious passengers. Presently the passengers became more inquisitive, and made many attempts at being friendly; but these received little encouragement. It had become known who the Indian girl was, and many wild tales went about as to her marriage with Francis Armour. Now it was maintained she had saved his life at an outbreak of her tribe; again, that she had found him dying in the woods and had nursed him back to life and health; yet again, that she was a chieftainess, a successful claimant against the Hudson's Bay Company--and so on.

There were several on board who knew the Armours well by name, and two who knew them personally. One was Mr. Edward Lambert, a barrister of the Middle Temple, and the other was Mrs. Townley, a widow, a member of a well-known Hertfordshire family, who, on a pleasant journey in Scotland, had met, conquered, and married a wealthy young American, and had been left alone in the world, by no means portionless, eighteen months before. Lambert knew Richard Armour well, and when, from Francis Armour's solicitor, with whom he was acquainted, he heard, just before they started, who the Indian girl was, he was greatly shocked and sorry. He guessed at once the motive, the madness, of this marriage. But he kept his information and his opinions mostly to himself, except in so far as it seemed only due to friendship to contradict the numberless idle stories going about. After the first day at sea he came to know Mrs. Townley, and when he discovered that they had many common friends and that she knew the Armours, he spoke a little more freely to her regarding the Indian wife, and told her what he believed was the cause of the marriage.

Mrs. Townley was a woman--a girl--of uncommon gentleness of disposition, and, in spite of her troubles, inclined to view life with a sunny eye. She had known of Frank Armour's engagement with Miss Julia Sherwood, but she had never heard the sequel. If this was the sequel--well, it had to be faced. But she was almost tremulous with sympathy when she remembered Mrs. Armour, and Frank's gay, fashionable sister, Marion, and contemplated the arrival of this Indian girl at Greyhope. She had always liked Frank Armour, but this made her angry with him; for, on second thoughts, she was not more sorry for him and for his people than for Lali, the wife. She had the true instinct of womanhood, and she supposed that a heathen like this could have feelings to be hurt and a life to be wounded as herself or another. At least she saw what was possible in the future when this Indian girl came to understand her position--only to be accomplished by contact with the new life, so different from her past. Both she and Lambert decided that she was very fine-looking, not withstanding her costume. She was slim and well built, with modest bust and shapely feet and ankles. Her eyes were large, meditative, and intelligent, her features distinguished. She was a goodly product of her race, being descended from a line of chiefs and chieftainesses--broken only in the case of her grandfather, as has been mentioned. Her hands (the two kindly inquisitors decided) were almost her best point. They were perfectly made, slim, yet plump, the fingers tapering, the wrist supple. Mrs. Townley then and there decided that the girl had possibilities. But here she was, an Indian, with few signs of civilisation or of that breeding which seems to white people the only breeding fit for earth or heaven.

Mrs. Townley did not need Lambert's suggestion that she should try to approach the girl, make friends with her, and prepare her in some slight degree for the strange career before her.

Mrs. Townley had an infinite amount of tact. She knew it was best to approach the attendant first. This she did, and, to the surprise of other lady-passengers, received no rebuff. Her advance was not, however, rapid. Mackenzie had had her instructions. When she found that Mrs. Townley knew Francis Armour and his people, she thawed a little more, and then, very hesitatingly, she introduced her to the Indian wife. Mrs. Townley smiled her best--and there were many who knew how attractive she could be at such a moment. There was a slight pause, in which Lali looked at her meditatively, earnestly, and then those beautiful wild fingers glided out, and caught her hand, and held it; but she spoke no word. She only looked inquiringly, seriously, at her new-found friend, and presently dropped the blanket away from her, and sat up firmly, as though she felt she was not altogether an alien now, and had a right to hold herself proudly among white people, as she did in her own country and with her own tribe, who had greatly admired her. Certainly Mrs. Townley could find no fault with the woman as an Indian. She had taste, carried her clothes well, and was superbly fresh in appearance, though her hair still bore very slight traces of the grease which even the most aristocratic Indians use.

But Lali would not talk. Mrs. Townley was anxious that the girl should be dressed in European costume, and offered to lend and rearrange dresses of her own, but she came in collision with Mr. Armour's instructions. So she had to assume a merely kind and comforting attitude. The wife had not the slightest idea where she was going, and even when Mackenzie, at Mrs. Townley's oft-repeated request, explained very briefly and unpicturesquely, she only looked incredulous or unconcerned. Yet the ship, its curious passengers, the dining saloon, the music, the sea, and all, had given her suggestions of what was to come. They had expected that at table she would be awkward and ignorant to a degree. But she had at times eaten at the trader's table at Fort Charles, and had learned how to use a knife and fork. She had also been a favourite with the trader's wife, who had taught her very many civilised things. Her English, though far from abundant, was good. Those, therefore, who were curious and rude enough to stare at her were probably disappointed to find that she ate like "any Christom man."

"How do you think the Armours will receive her?" said Lambert to Mrs. Townley, of whose judgment on short acquaintance he had come to entertain a high opinion.

Mrs. Townley had a pretty way of putting her head to one side and speaking very piquantly. She had had it as a girl; she had not lost it as a woman, any more than she had lost a soft little spontaneous laugh which was one of her unusual charms--for few women can laugh audibly with effect. She laughed very softly now, and, her sense of humour supervening for the moment, she said:

"Really, you have asked me a conundrum. I fancy I see Mrs. Armour's face when she gets the news,--at the breakfast-table, of course, and gives a little shriek, and says: 'General! oh, General!' But it is all very shocking, you know," she added, in a lower voice. "Still I think they will receive her and do the best they can for her; because, you see, there she is, married hard and fast. She bears the Armour name, and is likely to make them all very unhappy, indeed, if she determines to retaliate upon them for any neglect."

"Yes. But how to retaliate, Mrs. Townley?" Lambert had not a suggestive mind.

"Well, for instance, suppose they sent her away into seclusion,--with Frank's consent, another serious question,--and she should take the notion to fly her retirement, and appear inopportunely at some social function clothed as she is now! I fancy her blanket would be a wet one in such a case--if you will pardon the little joke."

Lambert sighed. "Poor Frank--poor devil!" he said, almost beneath his breath.

"And wherefore poor Frank? Do you think he or the Armours of Greyhope are the only ones at stake in this? What about this poor girl? Just think why he married her, if our suspicions are right,--and then imagine her feelings when she wakes to the truth over there, as some time she is sure to do!"

Then Lambert began to see the matter in a different light, and his sympathy for Francis Armour grew less as his pity for the girl increased. In fact, the day before they got to Liverpool he swore at Armour more than once, and was anxious concerning the reception of the heathen wife by her white relatives.

Had he been present at a certain scene at Greyhope a day or two before, he would have been still more anxious. It was the custom, at breakfast, for Mrs. Armour to open her husband's letters and read them while he was engaged with his newspaper, and hand to him afterwards those that were important. This morning Marion noticed a letter from Frank amongst the pile, and, without a word, pounced upon it. She was curious--as any woman would be--to see how he took Miss Sherwood's action. Her father was deep in his paper at the time. Her mother was reading other letters. Marion read the first few lines with a feeling of almost painful wonder, the words were so curious, cynical, and cold.

Richard sat opposite her. He also was engaged with his paper, but, chancing to glance up, he saw that she was becoming very pale, and that the letter trembled in her fingers. Being a little short-sighted, he was not near enough to see the handwriting. He did not speak yet. He watched. Presently, seeing her grow more excited, he touched her foot under the table. She looked up, and caught his eye. She gasped slightly. She gave him a warning look, and turned away from her mother. Then she went on reading to the bitter end.

Presently a little cry escaped her against her will. At that her mother looked up, but she only saw her daughter's back, as she rose hurriedly from the table, saying that she would return in a moment. Mrs. Armour, however, had been startled. She knew that Marion had been reading a letter, and, with a mother's instinct, her thoughts were instantly on Frank. She spoke quickly, almost sharply:

"Marion, come here."

Richard had risen. He came round the table, and, as the girl obeyed her mother, took the letter from her fingers and hastily glanced over it. Mrs. Armour came forward and took her daughter's arm. "Marion," she said, "there is something wrong--with Frank. What is it?"

General Armour was now looking up at them all, curiously, questioningly, through his glasses, his paper laid down, his hands resting on the table.

Marion could not answer. She was sick with regret, vexation, and shame; at the first flush, death--for Frank--had been preferable to this. She had a considerable store of vanity; she was not very philosophical. Besides, she was not married; and what Captain Vidall, her devoted admirer and possible husband, would think of this heathenish alliance was not a cheer ful thought to her. She choked down a sob, and waved her hand towards Richard to answer for her. He was pale too, but cool. He understood the case instantly; he made up his mind instantly also as to what ought to be--must be--done.

"Well, mother," he said, "it is about Frank. But he is all right; that is, he is alive and well-in body. But he has arranged a hateful little embarrassment for us--he is married."

"Married!" exclaimed his mother faintly. "Oh, poor Lady Agnes!"

Marion sniffed a little viciously at this.

"Married? Married?" said his father. "Well, what about it? eh? what about it?"

The mother wrung her hands. "Oh, I know it is something dreadful-- dreadful! He has married some horrible wild person, or something."

Richard, miserable as he was, remained calm. "Well," said he, "I don't know about her being horrible. Frank is silent on that point; but she is wild enough--a wild Indian, in fact."

"Indian? Indian? Good God--a red nigger!" cried General Armour harshly, starting to his feet.

"An Indian? a wild Indian?" Mrs. Armour whispered faintly, as she dropped into a chair.

"And she'll be here in two or three days," fluttered Marion hysterically.

Meanwhile Richard had hastily picked up the Times. "She is due here the day after to-morrow," he said deliberately. "Frank is as decisive as he is rash. Well, it's a melancholy tit-for-tat."

"What do you mean by tit-for-tat?" cried his father angrily.

"Oh, I mean that--that we tried to hasten Julia's marriage--with the other fellow, and he is giving us one in return; and you will all agree that it's a pretty permanent one."

The old soldier recovered himself, and was beside his wife in an instant. He took her hand. "Don't fret about it, wife," he said; "it's an ugly business, but we must put up with it. The boy was out of his head. We are old, now, my dear, but there was a time when we should have resented such a thing as much as Frank--though not in the same fashion, perhaps-- not in the same fashion." The old man pressed his lips hard to keep down his emotion.

"Oh, how could he--how could he!" said his mother: "we meant everything for the best."

"It is always dangerous business meddling with lovers' affairs," rejoined Richard. "Lovers take themselves very seriously indeed, and--well, here the thing is! Now, who will go and fetch her from Liverpool? I should say that both my father and my mother ought to go."

Thus Richard took it for granted that they would receive Frank's Indian wife into their home. He intended that, so far as he was concerned, there should be no doubt upon the question from the beginning.

"Never--she shall never come here!" said Marion, with flashing eyes; "a common squaw, with greasy hair, and blankets, and big mouth, and black teeth, who eats with her fingers and grunts! If she does, if she is brought to Greyhope, I will never show my face in the world again. Frank married the animal: why does he ship her home to us? Why didn't he come with her? Why does he not take her to a home of his own? Why should he send her here, to turn our house into a menagerie?"

Marion drew her skirt back, as if the common squaw, with her blankets and grease, was at that moment near her.

"Well, you see," continued Richard, "that is just it. As I said, Frank arranged this little complication with a trifling amount of malice. No doubt he didn't come with her because he wished to test the family loyalty and hospitality; but a postscript to this letter says that his solicitor has instructions to meet his wife at Liverpool, and bring her on here in case we fail to show her proper courtesy."

General Armour here spoke. "He has carried the war of retaliation very far indeed, but men do mad things when their blood is up, as I have seen often. That doesn't alter our clear duty in the matter. If the woman were bad, or shameful, it would be a different thing; if--"

Marion interrupted: "She has ridden bareback across the continent like a jockey,--like a common jockey, and she wears a blanket, and she doesn't know a word of English, and she will sit on the floor!"

"Well," said her father, "all these things are not sins, and she must be taught better."

"Joseph, how can you?" said Mrs. Armour indignantly. "She cannot, she shall not come here. Think of Marion. Think of our position."

She hid her troubled, tear-stained face behind her handkerchief. At the same time she grasped her husband's hand. She knew that he was right. She honoured him in her heart for the position he had taken, but she could not resist the natural impulse of a woman where her taste and convention were shocked.

The old man was very pale, but there was no mistaking his determination. He had been more indignant than any of them, at first, but he had an unusual sense of justice when he got face to face with it, as Richard had here helped him to do. "We do not know that the woman has done any wrong," he said. "As for our name and position, they, thank God! are where a mad marriage cannot unseat them. We have had much prosperity in the world, my wife; we have had neither death nor dishonour; we--"

"If this isn't dishonour, father, what is?" Marion flashed out.

He answered calmly. "My daughter, it is a great misfortune, it will probably be a lifelong trial, but it is not necessarily dishonour."

"You never can make a scandal less by trying to hide it," said Richard, backing up his father. "It is all pretty awkward, but I daresay we shall get some amusement out of it in the end."

"Richard," said his mother through her tears, "you are flippant and unkind!"

"Indeed, mother," was his reply, "I never was more serious in my life. When I spoke of amusement, I meant comedy merely, not fun--the thing that looks like tragedy and has a happy ending. That is what I mean, mother, nothing more."

"You are always so very deep, Richard," remarked Marion ironically, "and care so very little how the rest of us feel about things. You have no family pride. If you had married a squaw, we shouldn't have been surprised. You could have camped in the grounds with your wild woman, and never have been missed--by the world," she hastened to add, for she saw a sudden pain in his face.

He turned from them all a little wearily, and limped over to the window. He stood looking out into the limes where he and Frank had played when boys. He put his finger up, his unhandsome finger, and caught away some moisture from his eyes. He did not dare to let them see his face, nor yet to speak. Marion had cut deeper than she knew, and he would carry the wound for many a day before it healed.

But his sister felt instantly how cruel she had been, as she saw him limp away, and caught sight of the bowed shoulders and the prematurely grey hair. Her heart smote her. She ran over, and impulsively put her hands on his shoulder. "Oh, Dick," she said, "forgive me, Dick! I didn't mean it. I was angry and foolish and hateful."

He took one of her hands as it rested on his shoulder, she standing partly behind him, and raised it to his lips, but he did not turn to her; he could not.

"It is all right--all right," he said; "it doesn't make any difference. Let us think of Frank and what we have got to do. Let us stand together, Marion; that is best."

But her tears were dropping on his shoulder, as her forehead rested on her hand. He knew now that, whatever Frank's wife was, she would not have an absolute enemy here; for when Marion cried her heart was soft. She was clay in the hands of the potter whom we call Mercy--more often a stranger to the hearts of women than of men. At the other side of the room also the father and mother, tearless now, watched these two; and the mother saw her duty better and with less rebelliousness. She had felt it from the first, but she could not bring her mind to do it. They held each other's hands in silence. Presently General Armour said: "Richard, your mother and I will go to Liverpool to meet Frank's wife."

Marion shuddered a little, and her hands closed on Richard's shoulder, but she said nothing.