A Simpleton by Charles Reade
Rosa Staines had youth on her side, and it is an old saying that youth will not be denied. Youth struggled with death for her, and won the battle.
But she came out of that terrible fight weak as a child. The sweet pale face, the widow's cap, the suit of deep black--it was long ere these came down from the sickroom. And when they did, oh, the dead blank! The weary, listless life! The days spent in sighs, and tears, and desolation. Solitude! solitude! Her husband was gone, and a strange woman played the mother to her child before her eyes.
Uncle Philip was devotedly kind to her, and so was her father; but they could do nothing for her.
Months rolled on, and skinned the wound over. Months could not heal. Her boy became dearer and dearer, and it was from him came the first real drops of comfort, however feeble.
She used to read her lost one's diary every day, and worship, in deep sorrow, the mind she had scarcely respected until it was too late. She searched in his diary to find his will, and often she mourned that he had written on it so few things she could obey. Her desire to obey the dead, whom, living, she had often disobeyed, was really simple and touching. She would mourn to her father that there were so few commands to her in his diary. "But," said she, "memory brings me back his will in many things, and to obey is now the only sad comfort I have."
It was in this spirit she now forced herself to keep accounts. No fear of her wearing stays now; no powder; no trimmings; no waste.
After the usual delay, her father told her she should instruct a solicitor to apply to the insurance company for the six thousand pounds. She refused with a burst of agony. "The price of his life," she screamed. "Never! I'd live on bread and water sooner than touch that vile money."
Her father remonstrated gently. But she was immovable. "No. It would be like consenting to his death."
Then Uncle Philip was sent for.
He set her child on her knee; and gave her a pen. "Come," said he, sternly, "be a woman, and do your duty to little Christie."
She kissed the boy, cried, and did her duty meekly. But when the money was brought her, she flew to Uncle Philip, and said, "There! there!" and threw it all before him, and cried as if her heart would break. He waited patiently, and asked her what he was to do with all that: invest it?
"Yes, yes; for my little Christie."
"And pay you the interest quarterly."
"Oh, no, no. Dribble us out a little as we want it. That is the way to be truly kind to a simpleton. I hate that word."
"And suppose I run off with it? Such confiding geese as you corrupt a man."
"I shall never corrupt you. Crusty people are the soul of honor."
"Crusty people!" cried Philip, affecting amazement. "What are they?"
She bit her lip and colored a little; but answered adroitly, "They are people that pretend not to have good hearts, but have the best in the world; far better ones than your smooth ones: that's crusty people."
"Very well," said Philip; "and I'll tell you what simpletons are. They are little transparent-looking creatures that look shallow, but are as deep as Old Nick, and make you love them in spite of your judgment. They are the most artful of their sex; for they always achieve its great object, to be loved--the very thing that clever women sometimes fail in."
"Well, and if we are not to be loved, why live at all--such useless things as I am?" said Rosa simply.
So Philip took charge of her money, and agreed to help her save money for her little Christopher. Poverty should never destroy him, as it had his father.
As months rolled on, she crept out into public a little; but always on foot, and a very little way from home.
Youth and sober life gradually restored her strength, but not her color, nor her buoyancy.
Yet she was perhaps more beautiful than ever; for a holy sorrow chastened and sublimed her features: it was now a sweet, angelic, pensive beauty, that interested every feeling person at a glance.
She would visit no one; but a twelvemonth after her bereavement, she received a few chosen visitors.
One day a young gentleman called, and sent up his card, "Lord Tadcaster," with a note from Lady Cicely Treherne, full of kindly feeling. Uncle Philip had reconciled her to Lady Cicely; but they had never met.
Mrs. Staines was much agitated at the very name of Lord Tadcaster; but she would not have missed seeing him for the world.
She received him with her beautiful eyes wide open, to drink in every lineament of one who had seen the last of her Christopher.
Tadcaster was wonderfully improved: he had grown six inches out at sea, and though still short, was not diminutive; he was a small Apollo, a model of symmetry, and had an engaging, girlish beauty, redeemed from downright effeminacy by a golden mustache like silk, and a tanned cheek that became him wonderfully.
He seemed dazzled at first by Mrs. Staines, but murmured that Lady Cicely had told him to come, or he would not have ventured.
"Who can be so welcome to me as you?" said she, and the tears came thick in her eyes directly.
Soon, he hardly knew how, he found himself talking of Staines, and telling her what a favorite he was, and all the clever things he had done.
The tears streamed down her cheeks, but she begged him to go on telling her, and omit nothing.
He complied heartily, and was even so moved by the telling of his friend's virtues, and her tears and sobs, that he mingled his tears with hers. She rewarded him by giving him her hand as she turned away her tearful face to indulge the fresh burst of grief his sympathy evoked.
When he was leaving, she said, in her simple way, "Bless you"-- "Come again," she said: "you have done a poor widow good."
Lord Tadcaster was so interested and charmed, he would gladly have come back next day to see her; but he restrained that extravagance, and waited a week.
Then he visited her again. He had observed the villa was not rich in flowers, and he took her down a magnificent bouquet, cut from his father's hot-houses. At sight of him, or at sight of it, or both, the color rose for once in her pale cheek, and her pensive face wore a sweet expression of satisfaction. She took his flowers, and thanked him for them, and for coming to see her.
Soon they got on the only topic she cared for, and, in the course of this second conversation, he took her into his confidence, and told her he owed everything to Dr. Staines. "I was on the wrong road altogether, and he put me right. To tell you the truth, I used to disobey him now and then, while he was alive, and I was always the worse for it; now he is gone, I never disobey him. I have written down a lot of wise, kind things he said to me, and I never go against any one of them. I call it my book of oracles. Dear me, I might have brought it with me."
"Oh, yes! why didn't you?" rather reproachfully.
"I will bring it next time."
Then she looked at him with her lovely swimming eyes, and said tenderly, "And so here is another that disobeyed him living, but obeys him dead. What will you think when I tell you that I, his wife, who now worship him when it is too late, often thwarted and vexed him when he was alive?"
"No, no. He told me you were an angel, and I believe it."
"An angel! a good-for-nothing, foolish woman, who sees everything too late."
"Nobody else should say so before me," said the little gentleman grandly. "I shall take his word before yours on this one subject. If ever there was an angel, you are one; and oh, what would I give if I could but say or do anything in the world to comfort you!"
"You can do nothing for me, dear, but come and see me often, and talk to me as you do--on the one sad theme my broken heart has room for."
This invitation delighted Lord Tadcaster, and the sweet word "dear," from her lovely lips, entered his heart, and ran through all his veins like some rapturous but dangerous elixir. He did not say to himself, "She is a widow with a child, feels old with grief, and looks on me as a boy who has been kind to her." Such prudence and wariness were hardly to be expected from his age. He had admired her at first sight, very nearly loved her at their first interview, and now this sweet word opened a heavenly vista. The generous heart that beat in his small frame burned to console her with a life-long devotion and all the sweet offices of love.
He ordered his yacht to Gravesend--for he had become a sailor--and then he called on Mrs. Staines, and told her, with a sort of sheepish cunning, that now, as his yacht happened to be at Gravesend, he could come and see her very often. He watched her timidly, to see how she would take that proposition.
She said, with the utmost simplicity, "I'm very glad of it."
Then he produced his oracles; and she devoured them. Such precepts to Tadcaster as she could apply to her own case she instantly noted in her memory, and they became her law from that moment.
Then, in her simplicity, she said, "And I will show you some things, in his own handwriting, that may be good for you; but I can't show you the whole book: some of it is sacred from every eye but his wife's. His wife's? Ah me! his widow's."
Then she pointed out passages in the diary that she thought might be for his good; and he nestled to her side, and followed her white finger with loving eyes, and was in an elysium--which she would certainly have put a stop to at that time, had she divined it. But all wisdom does not come at once to an unguarded woman. Rosa Staines was wiser about her husband than she had been, but she had plenty to learn.
Lord Tadcaster anchored off Gravesend, and visited Mrs. Staines nearly every day. She received him with a pleasure that was not at all lively, but quite undisguised. He could not doubt his welcome; for once, when he came, she said to the servant, "Not at home," a plain proof she did not wish his visit to be cut short by any one else.
And so these visits and devoted attentions of every kind went on unobserved by Lord Tadcaster's friends, because Rosa would never go out, even with him; but at last Mr. Lusignan saw plainly how this would end, unless he interfered.
Well, he did not interfere; on the contrary, he was careful to avoid putting his daughter on her guard: he said to himself, "Lord Tadcaster does her good. I'm afraid she would not marry him, if he was to ask her now; but in time she might. She likes him a great deal better than any one else."
As for Philip, he was abroad for his own health, somewhat impaired by his long and faithful attendance on Rosa.
So now Lord Tadcaster was in constant attendance on Rosa. She was languid, but gentle and kind; and, as mourners, like invalids, are apt to be egotistical, she saw nothing but that he was a comfort to her in her affliction.
While matters were so, the Earl of Miltshire, who had long been sinking, died, and Tadcaster succeeded to his honors and estates.
Rosa heard of it, and, thinking it was a great bereavement, wrote him one of those exquisite letters of condolence a lady alone can write. He took it to Lady Cicely, and showed it her. She highly approved it.
He said, "The only thing--it makes me ashamed, I do not feel my poor father's death more; but you know it has been so long expected." Then he was silent a long time; and then he asked her if such a woman as that would not make him happy, if he could win her.
It was on her ladyship's tongue to say, "She did not make her first happy;" but she forbore, and said coldly, that was maw than she could say.
Tadcaster seemed disappointed by that, and by and by Cicely took herself to task. She asked herself what were Tadcaster's chances in the lottery of wives. The heavy army of scheming mothers, and the light cavalry of artful daughters, rose before her cousinly and disinterested eyes, and she asked herself what chance poor little Tadcaster would have of catching a true love, with a hundred female artists manoeuvring, wheeling, ambuscading, and charging upon his wealth and titles. She returned to the subject of her own accord, and told him she saw but one objection to such a match: the lady had a son by a man of rare merit and misfortune. Could he, at his age, undertake to be a father to that son? "Othahwise," said Lady Cicely, "mark my words, you will quall over that poor child; and you will have two to quall with, because I shall be on her side."
Tadcaster declared to her that child should be quite the opposite of a bone of contention. "I have thought of that," said he, "and I mean to be so kind to that boy, I shall make her love me for that."
On these terms Lady Cicely gave her consent.
Then he asked her should he write, or ask her in person.
Lady Cicely reflected. "If you write, I think she will say no."
"But if I go?"
"Then, it will depend on how you do it. Rosa Staines is a true mourner. Whatever you may think, I don't believe the idea of a second union has ever entered her head. But then she is very unselfish: and she likes you better than any one else, I dare say. I don't think your title or your money will weigh with her now. But, if you show her your happiness depends on it, she may, perhaps, cwy and sob at the very idea of it, and then, after all, say, 'Well, why not--if I can make the poor soul happy?'"
So, on this advice, Tadcaster went down to Gravesend, and Lady Cicely felt a certain self-satisfaction; for, her well-meant interference having lost Rosa one husband, she was pleased to think she had done something to give her another.
Lord Tadcaster came to Rosa Staines; he found her seated with her head upon her white hand, thinking sadly of the past.
At sight of him in deep mourning, she started, and said, "Oh!"
Then she said tenderly, "We are of one color now," and gave him her hand.
He sat down beside her, not knowing how to begin.
"I am not Tadcaster now. I am Earl of Miltshire."
"Ah, yes; I forgot," said she indifferently.
"This is my first visit to any one in that character."
"It is an awfully important visit to me. I could not feel myself independent, and able to secure your comfort and little Christie's, without coming to the lady, the only lady I ever saw, that--oh, Mrs. Staines--Rosa--who could see you, as I have done--mingle his tears with yours, as I have done, and not love you, and long to offer you his love?"
"Love! to me, a broken-hearted woman, with nothing to live for but his memory and his child."
She looked at him with a sort of scared amazement.
"His child shall be mine. His memory is almost as dear to me as to you."
"Nonsense, child, nonsense!" said she, almost sternly.
"Was he not my best friend? Should I have the health I enjoy, or even be alive, but for him? Oh, Mrs. Staines--Rosa, you will not live all your life unmarried; and who will love you as I do? You are my first and only love. My happiness depends on you."
"Your happiness depend on me! Heaven forbid--a woman of my age, that feels so old, old, old."
"You are not old; you are young, and sad, and beautiful, and my happiness depends on you." She began to tremble a little. Then he kneeled at her knees, and implored her, and his hot tears fell upon the hand she put out to stop him, while she turned her head away, and the tears began to run.
Oh! never can the cold dissecting pen tell what rushes over the heart that has loved and lost, when another true love first kneels and implores for love, or pity, or anything the bereaved can give.