A Simpleton by Charles Reade
"Sublata causa tollitur effectus." The stays being gone, and dissipation moderated, Mrs. Staines bloomed again, and they gave one or two unpretending little dinners at the Bijou. Dr. Staines admitted no false friends to these. They never went beyond eight; five gentlemen, three ladies. By this arrangement the terrible discursiveness of the fair, and man's cruel disposition to work a subject threadbare, were controlled and modified, and a happy balance of conversation established. Lady Cicely Treherne was always invited, and always managed to come; for she said, "They were the most agweeable little paaties in London, and the host and hostess both so intewesting." In the autumn, Staines worked double tides with the pen, and found a vehicle for medical narratives in a weekly magazine that did not profess medicine.
This new vein put him in heart. His fees, towards the end of the year, were less than last year, because there was no hundred-guinea fee; but there was a marked increase in the small fees, and the unflagging pen had actually earned him two hundred pounds, or nearly. So he was in good spirits.
Not so Mrs. Staines; for some time she had been uneasy, fretful, and like a person with a weight on her mind.
One Sunday she said to him, "Oh, dear, I do feel so dull. Nobody to go to church with, nor yet to the Zoo."
"I'll go with you," said Staines.
"You will! To which?"
"To both; in for a penny, in for a pound."
So to church they went; and Staines, whose motto was "Hoc age," minded his book. Rosa had intervals of attention to the words, but found plenty of time to study the costumes.
During the Litany in bustled Clara, the housemaid, with a white jacket on so like her mistress's, that Rosa clutched her own convulsively, to see whether she had not been skinned of it by some devilish sleight-of-hand.
No, it was on her back; but Clara's was identical.
In her excitement, Rosa pinched Staines, and with her nose, that went like a water-wagtail, pointed out the malefactor. Then she whispered, "Look! How dare she? My very jacket! Earrings too, and brooches, and dresses her hair like mine."
"Well, never mind," whispered Staines. "Sunday is her day. We have got all the week to shine. There, don't look at her--'From all evil speaking, lying, and slandering'"--
"I can't keep my eyes off her."
"Attend to the Litany. Do you know, this is really a beautiful composition?"
"I'd rather do the work fifty times over myself."
"Hush! people will hear you."
When they walked home after church, Staines tried to divert her from the consideration of her wrongs; but no--all other topics were too flat by comparison.
She mourned the hard fate of mistresses--unfortunate creatures that could not do without servants.
"Is not that a confession that servants are good, useful creatures, with all their faults? Then as to the mania for dress, why, that is not confined to them. It is the mania of the sex. Are you free from it?"
"No, of course not. But I am a lady, if you please."
"Then she is your intellectual inferior, and more excusable. Anyway, it is wise to connive at a thing we can't help."
"What keep her, after this? no, never."
"My dear, pray do not send her away, for she is tidy in the house, and quick, and better than any one we have had this last six months; and you know you have tried a great number."
"To hear you speak, one would think it was my fault that we have so many bad servants."
"I never said it was your fault; but I think, dearest, a little more forbearance in trifles"--
"Trifles! trifles--for a mistress and maid to be seen dressed alike in the same church? You take the servants' part against me, that you do."
"You should not say that, even in jest. Come now, do you really think a jacket like yours can make the servant look like you, or detract from your grace and beauty? There is a very simple way; put your jacket by for a future occasion, and wear something else in its stead at church."
"A nice thing, indeed, to give in to these creatures. I won't do it."
"Why won't you, this once?"
"Because I won't--there!"
"That is unanswerable," said he.
Mrs. Staines said that; but when it came to acting, she deferred to her husband's wish; she resigned her intention of sending for Clara and giving her warning. On the contrary, when Clara let her in, and the white jackets rubbed together in the narrow passage, she actually said nothing, but stalked to her own room, and tore her jacket off, and flung it on the floor.
Unfortunately, she was so long dressing for the Zoo, that Clara came in to arrange the room. She picks up the white jacket, takes it in both hands, gives it a flap, and proceeds to hang it up in the wardrobe.
Then the great feminine heart burst its bounds.
"You can leave that alone. I shall not wear that again."
Thereupon ensued an uneven encounter, Clara being one of those of whom the Scripture says, "The poison of asps is under their tongues."
"La, ma'am," said she, "why, 'tain't so very dirty."
"No; but it is too common."
"Oh, because I've got one like it. Ay. Missises can't abide a good-looking servant, nor to see 'em dressed becoming."
"Mistresses do not like servants to forget their place, nor wear what does not become their situation."
"My situation! Why, I can pay my way, go where I will. I don't tremble at the tradesmen's knock, as some do."
"Leave the room! Leave it this moment."
"Leave the room, yes--and I'll leave the house too, and tell all the neighbors what I know about it."
She flounced out and slammed the door; and Rosa sat down, trembling.
Clara rushed to the kitchen, and there told the cook and Andrew Pearman how she had given it to the mistress, and every word she had said to her, with a good many more she had not.
The cook laughed and encouraged her.
But Andrew Pearman was wroth, and said, "You to affront our mistress like that! Why, if I had heard you, I'd have twisted your neck for ye."
"It would take a better man than you to do that. You mind your own business. Stick to your one-horse chay."
"Well, I'm not above my place, for that matter. But you gals must always be aping your betters."
"I have got a proper pride, that is all, and you haven't. You ought to be ashamed of yourself to do two men's work; drive a brougham and wait on a horse, and then come in and wait at table, You are a tea-kettle groom, that is what you are. Why, my brother was coachman to Lord Fitz-James, and gave his lordship notice the first time he had to drive the children. Says he, 'I don't object to the children, my lord, but with her ladyship in the carriage.' It's such servants as you as spoil places. No servant as knows what's due to a servant ought to know you. They'd scorn your 'quaintance, as I do, Mr. Pearman."
"You are a stuck-up hussy, and a soldier's jade," roared Andrew.
"And you are a low tea-kettle groom."
This expression wounded the great equestrian soul to the quick; the rest of Sunday he pondered on it; the next morning he drove the doctor, as usual, but with a heavy heart.
Meantime, the cook made haste and told the baker Pearman had "got it hot" from the housemaid, and she had called him a tea-kettle groom; and in less than half an hour after that it was in every stable in the mews. Why, as Pearman was taking the horse out of the brougham, didn't two little red-headed urchins call out, "Here, come and see the tea-kettle groom!" and at night some mischievous boy chalked on the black door of the stable a large white tea- kettle, and next morning a drunken, idle fellow, with a clay pipe in his mouth, and a dirty pair of corduroy trousers, no coat, but a shirt very open at the chest, showing inflamed skin, the effect of drink, inspected that work of art with blinking eyes and vacillating toes, and said, "This comes of a chap doing too much. A few more like you, and work would be scarce. A fine thing for gentlefolks to make one man fill two places! but it ain't the gentlefolks' fault, it's the man as humors 'em."
Pearman was a peaceable man, and made no reply, but went on with his work; only during the day he told his master that he should be obliged to him if he would fill his situation as soon as convenient.
The master inquired the cause, and the man told him, and said the mews was too hot for him.
The doctor offered him five pounds a year more, knowing he had a treasure; but Pearman said, with sadness and firmness, that he had made up his mind to go, and go he would.
The doctor's heart fairly sank at the prospect of losing the one creature he could depend upon.
Next Sunday evening Clara was out, and fell in with friends, to whom she exaggerated her grievance.
Then they worked her up to fury, after the manner of servants' friends. She came home, packed her box, brought it down, and then flounced into the room to Doctor and Mrs. Staines, and said, "I shan't sleep another night in this house."
Rosa was about to speak, but Dr. Staines forbade her: he said, "You had better think twice of that. You are a good servant, though for once you have been betrayed into speaking disrespectfully. Why forfeit your character, and three weeks' wages?"
"I don't care for my wages. I won't stay in such a house as this."
"Come, you must not be impertinent."
"I don't mean to, sir," said she, lowering her voice suddenly; then, raising it as suddenly, "There are my keys, ma'am, and you can search my box."
"Mrs. Staines will not search your box; and you will retire at once to your own part of the house."
"I'll go farther than that," said she, and soon after the street door was slammed; the Bijou shook.
At six o'clock next morning, she came for her box. It had been put away for safety. Pearman told her she must wait till the doctor came down. She did not wait, but went at eleven A.M. to a police- magistrate, and took out a summons against Dr. Staines, for detaining a box containing certain articles specified--value under fifteen pounds.
When Dr. Staines heard she had been for her box, but left no address, he sent Pearman to hunt for her. He could not find her. She avoided the house, but sent a woman for her diurnal love letters. Dr. Staines sent the woman back to fetch her. She came, received her box, her letters, and the balance of her wages, which was small, for Staines deducted the three weeks' wages.
Two days afterwards, to his surprise, the summons was served.
Out of respect for a court of justice, however humble, Dr. Staines attended next Monday to meet the summons.
The magistrate was an elderly man, with a face shaped like a hog's, but much richer in color, being purple and pimply; so foul a visage Staines had rarely seen, even in the lowest class of the community.
Clara swore that her box had been opened, and certain things stolen out of it; and that she had been refused the box next morning.
Staines swore that he had never opened the box, and that, if any one else had, it was with her consent, for she had left the keys for that purpose. He bade the magistrate observe that if a servant went away like this, and left no address, she put it out of the master's power to send her box after her; and he proved he had some trouble to force the box on her.
The pig-faced beak showed a manifest leaning towards the servant, but there wasn't a leg to stand on; and he did not believe, nor was it credible, that anything had been stolen out of her box.
At this moment, Pearman, sent by Rosa, entered the court with an old gown of Clara's that had been discovered in the scullery, and a scribbling-book of the doctor's, which Clara had appropriated, and written amorous verses in, very superior--in number--to those that have come down to us from Anacreon.
"Hand me those," said the pig-faced beak.
"What are they, Dr. Staines?"
"I really don't know. I must ask my servant."
"Why, more things of mine that have been detained," said Clara.
"Some things that have been found since she left," said Staines.
"Oh! those that hide know where to find."
"Young woman," said Staines, "do not insult those whose bread you have eaten, and who have given you many presents besides your wages. Since you are so ready to accuse people of stealing, permit me to say that this book is mine, and not yours; and yet, you see, it is sent after you because you have written your trash in it."
The purple, pig-faced beak went instantly out of the record, and wasted a deal of time reading Clara's poetry, and trying to be witty. He raised the question whose book this was. The girl swore that it was given her by a lady who was now in Rome. Staines swore he bought it of a certain stationer, and happening to have his passbook in his pocket, produced an entry corresponding with the date of the book.
The pig-faced beak said that the doctor's was an improbable story, and that the gown and the book were quite enough to justify the summons. Verdict, one guinea costs.
"What, because two things she never demanded have been found and sent after her? This is monstrous. I shall appeal to your superiors."
"If you are impertinent I'll fine you five pounds."
"Very well, sir. Now hear me: if this is an honest judgment, I pray God I may be dead before the year's out; and, if it isn't, I pray God you may be."
Then the pig-faced beak fired up, and threatened to fine him for blaspheming.
He deigned no reply, but paid the guinea, and Clara swept out of the court, with a train a yard long, and leaning on the arm of a scarlet soldier who avenged Dr. Staines with military promptitude.
Christopher went home raging internally, for hitherto he had never seen so gross a case of injustice.
One of his humble patients followed him, and said, "I wish I had known, sir; you shouldn't have come here to be insulted. Why, no gentleman can ever get justice against a servant girl when he is sitting. It is notorious, and that makes these hussies so bold. I've seen that jade here with the same story twice afore."
Staines reached home more discomposed than he could have himself believed. The reason was that barefaced injustice in a court of justice shook his whole faith in man. He opened the street door with his latch-key, and found two men standing in the passage. He inquired what they wanted.
"Well, sir," said one of them, civilly enough, "we only want our due."
"For goods delivered at this house, sir. Balance of account." And he handed him a butcher's bill, L88, 11s. 5 1/2d.
"You must be mistaken; we run no bills here. We pay ready money for everything."
"Well, sir," said the butcher, "there have been payments; but the balance has always been gaining; and we have been put off so often, we determined to see the master. Show you the books, sir, and welcome."
"This instant, if you please." He took the butcher's address, who then retired, and the other tradesman, a grocer, told him a similar tale; balance, sixty pounds odd.
He went to the butcher's, sick at heart, inspected the books, and saw that, right or wrong, they were incontrovertible; that debt had been gaining slowly, but surely, almost from the time he confided the accounts to his wife. She had kept faith with him about five weeks, no more.
The grocer's books told a similar tale.
The debtor put his hand to his heart, and stood a moment. The very grocer pitied him, and said, "There's no harry, doctor; a trifle on account, if settlement in full not convenient just now. I see you have been kept in the dark."
"No, no," said Christopher; "I'll pay every shilling." He gave one gulp, and hurried away.
At the fishmonger's, the same story, only for a smaller amount.
A bill of nineteen pounds at the very pastrycook's; a place she had promised him, as her physician, never to enter.
At the draper's, thirty-seven pounds odd.
In short, wherever she had dealt, the same system: partial payments, and ever-growing debt.
Remembering Madame Cie, he drove in a cab to Regent Street, and asked for Mrs. Staines's account.
"Shall I send it, sir?"
"No; I will take it with me."
"Miss Edwards, make out Mrs. Staines's account, if you please."
Miss Edwards was a good while making it out; but it was ready at last. He thrust it into his pocket, without daring to look at it there; but he went into Verrey's, and asked for a cup of coffee, and perused the document.
The principal items were as follows:--
L s. May 4. Re-shaping and repairing elegant lace mantle, 1 8 Chip bonnet, feather, and flowers . . . . 4 4 May 20. Making and trimming blue silk dress--material part found . . . . . . . . . . . 19 19 Five yards rich blue silk to match. . . . 4 2 June 1. Polonaise and jacket trimmed with lace-- material part found . . . . . . . . 17 17 June 8. One black silk dress, handsomely trimmed with jet guipure and lace . . . . . . 49 18
A few shreds and fragments of finery, bought at odd times, swelled the bill to L99 11s. 6d.--not to terrify the female mind with three figures.
And let no unsophisticated young lady imagine that the trimmings, which constituted three-fourths of this bill, were worth anything. The word "lace," in Madame Cie's bill, invariably meant machine- made trash, worth tenpence a yard, but charged eighteen shillings a yard for one pennyworth of work in putting it on. Where real lace was used, Madame Cie always let her customers know it. Miss Lucas's bill for this year contained the two following little items:--
L s. Rich gros de cecile polonaise and jacket to match, trimmed with Chantilly lace and valenciennes . . . 68 5 Superb robe de chambre, richly trimmed with skunk fur. 40 0
The customer found the stuff; viz., two shawls. Carolina found the nasty little pole-cats, and got twenty-four shillings for them; Madame Cie found the rest.
But Christopher Staines had not Miss Lucas's bill to compare his wife's with. He could only compare the latter with their income, and with male notions of common sense and reason.
He went home, and into his studio, and sat down on his hard beech chair; he looked round on his books and his work, and then, for the first time, remembered how long and how patiently he had toiled for every hundred pounds he had made; and he laid the evidences of his wife's profusion and deceit by the side of those signs of painful industry and self-denial, and his soul filled with bitterness. "Deceit! deceit!"
Mrs. Staines heard he was in the house, and came to know about the trial. She came hurriedly in, and caught him with his head on the table, in an attitude of prostration, quite new to him; he raised his head directly he heard her, and revealed a face, pale, stern, and wretched.
"Oh! what is the matter now?" said she.
"The matter is what it has always been, if I could only have seen it. You have deceived me, and disgraced yourself. Look at those bills."
"What bills? Oh!"
"You have had an allowance for housekeeping."
"It wasn't enough."
"It was plenty, if you had kept faith with me, and paid ready money. It was enough for the first five weeks. I am housekeeper now, and I shall allow myself two pounds a week less, and not owe a shilling either."
"Well, all I know is, I couldn't do it: no woman could."
"Then, you should have come to me, and said so; and I would have shown you how. Was I in Egypt, or at the North Pole, that you could not find me, to treat me like a friend? You have ruined us: these debts will sweep away the last shilling of our little capital; but it isn't that, oh, no! it is the miserable deceit."
Rosa's eye caught the sum total of Madame Cie's bill, and she turned pale. "Oh, what a cheat that woman is!"
But she turned paler when Christopher said, "That is the one honest bill; for I gave you leave. It is these that part us: these! these! Look at them, false heart! There, go and pack up your things. We can live here no longer; we are ruined. I must send you back to your father."
"I thought you would, sooner or later," said Mrs. Staines, panting, trembling, but showing a little fight. "He told you I wasn't fit to be a poor man's wife."
"An honest man's wife, you mean: that is what you are not fit for. You will go home to your father, and I shall go into some humble lodging to work for you. I'll contrive to keep you, and find you a hundred a year to spend in dress--the only thing your heart can really love. But I won't have an enemy here in the disguise of a friend; and I won't have a wife about me I must treat like a servant, and watch like a traitor."
The words were harsh, but the agony with which they were spoken distinguished them from vulgar vituperation.
They overpowered poor Rosa; she had been ailing a little some time, and from remorse and terror, coupled with other causes, nature gave way. Her lips turned white, she gasped inarticulately, and, with a little piteous moan, tottered, and swooned dead away.
He was walking wildly about, ready to tear his hair, when she tottered; he saw her just in time to save her, and laid her gently on the floor, and kneeled over her.
Away went anger and every other feeling but love and pity for the poor, weak creature that, with all her faults, was so lovable and so loved.
He applied no remedies at first: he knew they were useless and unnecessary. He laid her head quite low, and opened door and window, and loosened all her dress, sighing deeply all the time at her condition.
While he was thus employed, suddenly a strange cry broke from him: a cry of horror, remorse, joy, tenderness, all combined: a cry compared with which language is inarticulate. His swift and practical eye had made a discovery.
He kneeled over her, with his eyes dilating and his hands clasped, a picture of love and tender remorse.
Then he made haste, and applied his remedies, and brought her slowly back to life; he lifted her up, and carried her in his arms quite away from the bills and things, that, when she came to, she might see nothing to revive her distress. He carried her to the drawing-room, and kneeled down and rocked her in his arms, and pressed her again and again gently to his heart, and cried over her. "O my dove, my dove! the tender creature God gave me to love and cherish, and have I used it harshly? If I had only known! if I had only known!"
While he was thus bemoaning her, and blaming himself, and crying over her like the rain,--he, whom she had never seen shed a tear before in all his troubles,--she was coming to entirely, and her quick ears caught his words, and she opened her lovely eyes on him.
"I forgive you, dear," she said feebly. "But I hope you will be a kinder father than a husband."
These quiet words, spoken with rare gravity and softness, went through the great heart like a knife.
He gave a sort of shiver, but said not a word.
But that night he made a solemn vow to God that no harsh word from his lips should ever again strike a being so weak, so loving, and so beyond his comprehension. Why look for courage and candor in a creature so timid and shy, she could not even tell her husband that until, with her subtle sense, she saw he had discovered it?