A Simpleton by Charles Reade
There came a reaction, and Phoebe was prostrated with grief and alarm. Her brother never doubted now that Reginald had run to Cape Town for a lark. But Phoebe, though she thought so too, could not be sure; and so the double agony of bereavement and desertion tortured her by turns, and almost together. For the first time these many years, she was so crushed she could not go about her business, but lay on a little sofa in her own room, and had the blinds down, for her head ached so she could not bear the light.
She conceived a bitter resentment against Staines; and told Dick never to let him into her sight, if he did not want to be her death.
In vain Dick made excuses for him: she would hear none. For once she was as unreasonable as any other living woman: she could see nothing but that she had been happy, after years of misery, and should be happy now if this man had never entered her house. "Ah, Collie!" she cried, "you were wiser than I was. You as good as told me he would make me smart for lodging and curing him. And I was so happy!"
Dale communicated this as delicately as he could to Staines. Christopher was deeply grieved and wounded. He thought it unjust, but he knew it was natural: he said, humbly, "I feel guilty myself, Mr. Dale; and yet, unless I had possessed omniscience, what could I do? I thought of her in all--poor thing! poor thing!"
The tears were in his eyes, and Dick Dale went away scratching his head and thinking it over. The more he thought, the less he was inclined to condemn him.
Staines himself was much troubled in mind, and lived on thorns. He wanted to be off to England; grudged every day, every hour, he spent in Africa. But Mrs. Falcon was his benefactress; he had been, for months and months, garnering up a heap of gratitude towards her. He had not the heart to leave her bad friends, and in misery. He kept hoping Falcon would return, or write.
Two days after his return, he was seated, disconsolate, gluing garnets and carbuncles on to a broad tapering bit of lambskin, when Ucatella came to him and said, "My doctor child sick?"
"No, not sick: but miserable." And he explained to her, as well as he could, what had passed. "But," said he, "I would not mind the loss of the diamonds now, if I was only sure he was alive. I think most of poor, poor Mrs. Falcon."
While Ucatella pondered this, but with one eye of demure curiosity on the coronet he was making, he told her it was for her--he had not forgot her at the mines.
"These stones," said he, "are not valued there; but see how glorious they are!"
In a few minutes he had finished the coronet, and gave it her. She uttered a chuckle of delight, and with instinctive art, bound it, in a turn of her hand, about her brow; and then Staines himself was struck dumb with amazement. The carbuncles gathered from those mines look like rubies, so full of fire are they, and of enormous size. The chaplet had twelve great carbuncles in the centre, and went off by gradations into smaller garnets by the thousand. They flashed their blood-red flames in the African sun, and the head of Ucatella, grand before, became the head of the Sphinx, encircled with a coronet of fire. She bestowed a look of rapturous gratitude on Staines, and then glided away, like the stately Juno, to admire herself in the nearest glass like any other coquette, black, brown, yellow, copper, or white.
That very day, towards sunset, she burst upon Staines quite suddenly, with her coronet gleaming on her magnificent head, and her eyes like coals of fire, and under her magnificent arm, hard as a rock, a boy kicking and struggling in vain. She was furiously excited, and, for the first time, showed signs of the savage in the whites of her eyes, which seemed to turn the glorious pupils into semicircles. She clutched Staines by the shoulder with her left hand, and swept along with the pair, like dark Fate, or as potent justice sweeps away a pair of culprits, and carried them to the little window, and cried "Open--open!"
Dick Dale was at dinner; Phoebe lying down. Dick got up, rather crossly, and threw open the window. "What is up now?" said he crossly: he was like two or three more Englishmen--hated to be bothered at dinner-time.
"Dar," screamed Ucatella, setting down Tim, but holding him tight by the shoulder; "now you tell what you see that night, you lilly Kafir trash; if you not tell, I kill you dead;" and she showed the whites of her eyes, like a wild beast.
Tim, thoroughly alarmed, quivered out that he had seen lilly master ride up to the gate one bright night, and look in, and Tim thought he was going in: but he changed his mind, and galloped away that way; and the monkey pointed south.
"And why couldn't you tell us this before?" questioned Dick.
"Me mind de sheep," said Tim apologetically. "Me not mind de lilly master: jackals not eat him."
"You no more sense dan a sheep yourself," said Ucatella loftily.
"No, no: God bless you both," cried poor Phoebe: "now I know the worst:" and a great burst of tears relieved her suffering heart.
Dick went out softly. When he got outside the door, he drew them all apart, and said, "Yuke, you are a good-hearted girl. I'll never forget this while I live; and, Tim, there's a shilling for thee; but don't you go and spend it in Cape smoke; that is poison to whites, and destruction to blacks."
"No, master," said Tim. "I shall buy much bread, and make my tomach tiff;" then, with a glance of reproach at the domestic caterer, Ucatella, "I almost never have my tomach tiff."
Dick left his sister alone an hour or two, to have her cry out.
When he went back to her there was a change: the brave woman no longer lay prostrate. She went about her business; only she was always either crying or drowning her tears.
He brought Dr. Staines in. Phoebe instantly turned her back on him with a shudder there was no mistaking.
"I had better go," said Staines. "Mrs. Falcon will never forgive me."
"She will have to quarrel with me else," said Dick steadily. "Sit you down, doctor. Honest folk like you and me and Phoebe wasn't made to quarrel for want of looking a thing all round. My sister she hasn't looked it all round, and I have. Come, Pheeb, 'tis no use your blinding yourself. How was the poor doctor to know your husband is a blackguard?"
"He is not a blackguard. How dare you say that to my face?"
"He is a blackguard, and always was. And now he is a thief to boot. He has stolen those diamonds; you know that very well."
"Gently, Mr. Dale; you forget: they are as much his as mine."
"Well, and if half a sheep is mine, and I take the whole and sell him, and keep the money, what is that but stealing? Why, I wonder at you, Pheeb. You was always honest yourself, and yet you see the doctor robbed by your man, and that does not trouble you. What has he done to deserve it? He has been a good friend to us. He has put us on the road. We did little more than keep the pot boiling before he came--well, yes, we stored grain; but whose advice has turned that grain to gold, I might say? Well, what's his offence? He trusted the diamonds to your man, and sent him to you. Is he the first honest man that has trusted a rogue? How was he to know? Likely he judged the husband by the wife. Answer me one thing, Pheeb. If he makes away with fifteen hundred pounds that is his, or partly yours--for he has eaten your bread ever since I knew him-- and fifteen hundred more that is the doctor's, where shall we find fifteen hundred pounds, all in a moment, to pay the doctor back his own?"
"My honest friend," said Staines, "you are tormenting yourself with shadows. I don't believe Mr. Falcon will wrong me of a shilling; and, if he does, I shall quietly repay myself out of the big diamond. Yes, my dear friends, I did not throw away your horse, nor your rifle, nor your money: I gave them all, and the lion's skin--I gave them all--for this."
And he laid the big diamond on the table.
It was as big as a walnut, and of the purest water.
Dick Dale glanced at it stupidly. Phoebe turned her back on it, with a cry of horror, and then came slowly round by degrees; and her eyes were fascinated by the royal gem.
"Yes," said Staines sadly, "I had to strip myself of all to buy it, and, when I had got it, how proud I was, and how happy I thought we should all be over it, for it is half yours, half mine. Yes, Mr. Dale, there lies six thousand pounds that belong to Mrs. Falcon."
"Six thousand pounds!" cried Dick.
"I'm sure of it. And so, if your suspicions are correct, and poor Falcon should yield to a sudden temptation, and spend all that money, I shall just coolly deduct it from your share of this wonderful stone: so make your mind easy. But no; if Falcon is really so wicked as to desert his happy home, and so mad as to spend thousands in a month or two, let us go and save him."
"That is my business," said Phoebe. "I am going in the mail-cart to-morrow."
"Well, you won't go alone," said Dick.
"Mrs. Falcon," said Staines imploringly, "let me go with you."
"Thank you, sir. My brother can take care of me."
"Me! You had better not take me. If I catch hold of him, by --- I'll break his neck, or his back, or his leg, or something; he'll never run away from you again, if I lay hands on him," replied Dick.
"I'll go alone. You are both against me."
"No, Mrs. Falcon; I am not," said Staines. "My heart bleeds for you."
"Don't you demean yourself, praying her," said Dick. "It's a public conveyance: you have no need to ask her leave."
"That is true: I can't hinder folk from going to Cape Town the same day," said Phoebe sullenly.
"If I might presume to advise, I would take little Tommy."
"What! all that road? Do you want me to lose my child, as well as my man?"
"O Mrs. Falcon!"
"Don't speak to her, doctor, to get your nose snapped off. Give her time. She'll come to her senses before she dies."
Next day Mrs. Falcon and Staines started for Cape Town. Staines paid her every attention, when opportunity offered. But she was sullen and gloomy, and held no converse with him.
He landed her at an inn, and then told her he would go at once to the jeweller's. He asked her piteously would she lend him a pound or two to prosecute his researches. She took out her purse, without a word, and lent him two pounds.
He began to scour the town: the jewellers he visited could tell him nothing. At last he came to a shop, and there he found Mrs. Falcon making her inquiries independently. She said coldly, "You had better come with me, and get your money and things."
She took him to the bank--it happened to be the one she did business with--and said, "This is Dr. Christie, come for his money and jewels."
There was some demur at this; but the cashier recognized him, and Phoebe making herself responsible, the money and jewels were handed over.
Staines whispered Phoebe, "Are you sure the jewels are mine?"
"They were found on you, sir."
Staines took them, looking confused. He did not know what to think. When they got into the street again, he told her it was very kind of her to think of his interest at all.
No answer: she was not going to make friends with him over such a trifle as that.
By degrees, however, Christopher's zeal on her behalf broke the ice; and besides, as the search proved unavailing, she needed sympathy; and he gave it her, and did not abuse her husband as Dick Dale did.
One day, in the street, after a long thought, she said to him, "Didn't you say, sir, you gave him a letter for me?"
"I gave him two letters; one of them was to you."
"Could you remember what you said in it?"
"Perfectly. I begged you, if you should go to England, to break the truth to my wife. She is very excitable; and sudden joy has killed ere now. I gave you particular instructions."
"And you were very wise. But whatever could make you think I would go to England?"
"He told me you only wanted an excuse."
"When he told me that, I caught at it, of course. It was all the world to me to get my Rosa told by such a kind, good, sensible friend as you; and, Mrs. Falcon, I had no scruple about troubling you, because I knew the stones would sell for at least a thousand pounds more in England than here, and that would pay your expenses."
"I see, sir; I see. 'Twas very natural: you love your wife."
"Better than my life."
"And he told you I only wanted an excuse to go to England?"
"He did, indeed. It was not true?"
"It was anything but true. I had suffered so in England; I had been so happy here: too happy to last. Ah! well, it is all over. Let us think of the matter in hand. Sure that was not the only letter you gave my husband? Didn't you write to her?"
"Of course I did; but that was enclosed to you, and not to be given to her until you had broken the joyful news to her. Yes, Mrs. Falcon, I wrote and told her everything: my loss at sea; how I was saved, after, by your kindness. Our journeys, from Cape Town, and then to the diggings; my sudden good fortune, my hopes, my joy-- O my poor Rosa! and now I suppose she will never get it. It is too cruel of him. I shall go home by the next steamer. I can't stay here any longer, for you or anybody. Oh, and I enclosed my ruby ring that she gave me, for I thought she might not believe you without that."
"Let me think," said Phoebe, turning ashy pale. "For mercy's sake, let me think!
"He has read both those letters, sir.
"She will never see hers: any more than I shall see mine."
She paused again, thinking harder and harder.
"We must take two places in the next mail steamer. I must look after my husband, and you after your wife."