A Simpleton by Charles Reade
From this time Falcon was always welcome at Kent Villa. He fascinated everybody in the house. He renewed his acquaintance with Mr. Lusignan, and got asked to stay a week in the house. He showed Rosa and her father the diamonds, and, the truth must be owned, they made Rosa's eyes sparkle for the first time this eighteen months. He insinuated rather than declared his enormous wealth.
In reply to the old man's eager questions, as the large diamonds lay glittering on the table, and pointed every word, he said that a few of his Hottentots had found these for him; he had made them dig on a diamondiferous part of his estate, just by way of testing the matter; and this was the result; this, and a much larger stone, for which he had received eight thousand pounds from Posno.
"If I was a young man," said Lusignan, "I would go out directly, and dig on your estate."
"I would not let you do anything so paltry," said "le Menteur." "Why, my dear sir, there are no fortunes to be made by grubbing for diamonds; the fortunes are made out of the diamonds, but not in that way. Now, I have thirty thousand acres, and am just concluding a bargain for thirty thousand more, on which I happen to know there are diamonds in a sly corner. Well, of my thirty thousand tried acres, a hundred only are diamondiferous. But I have four thousand thirty-foot claims leased at ten shillings per month. Count that up."
"Why, it is twenty-four thousand pounds a year."
"Excuse me: you must deduct a thousand a year for the expenses of collection. But this is only one phase of the business. I have a large inn upon each of the three great routes from the diamonds to the coast; and these inns are supplied with the produce of my own farms. Mark the effect of the diamonds on property. My sixty thousand acres, which are not diamondiferous, will very soon be worth as much as sixty thousand English acres, say two pounds the acre per annum. That is under the mark, because in Africa the land is not burdened with poor-rates, tithes, and all the other iniquities that crush the English land-owner, as I know to my cost. But that is not all, sir. Would you believe it? even after the diamonds were declared, the people out there had so little foresight that they allowed me to buy land all round Port Elizabeth, Natal, and Cape Town, the three ports through which the world get at the diamonds, and the diamonds get at the world. I have got a girdle of land round those three outlets, bought by the acre; in two years I shall sell it by the yard. Believe me, sir, English fortunes, even the largest, are mere child's play, compared with the colossal wealth a man can accumulate, if he looks beyond these great discoveries to their consequences, and lets others grub for him. But what is the use of it all to me?" said this Bohemian, with a sigh. "I have no taste for luxuries; no love of display. I have not even charity to dispense on a large scale; for there are no deserving poor out there; and the poverty that springs from vice, that I never will encourage."
John heard nearly all this, and took it into the kitchen; and henceforth Adoration was the only word for this prince of men, this rare combination of the Adonis and the millionnaire.
He seldom held such discourses before Rosa; but talked her father into an impression of his boundless wealth, and half reconciled him to Rosa's refusal of Lord Tadcaster, since here was an old suitor, who, doubtless, with a little encouragement, would soon come on again.
Under this impression, Mr. Lusignan gave Falcon more than a little encouragement, and, as Rosa did not resist, he became a constant visitor at the villa, and was always there from Saturday to Monday.
He exerted all his art of pleasing, and he succeeded. He was welcome to Rosa, and she made no secret of it.
Emily threw herself in his way, and had many a sly talk with him, while he was pretending to be engaged with young Christie. He flattered her, and made her sweet on him, but was too much in love with Rosa, after his fashion, to flirt seriously with her. He thought he might want her services: so he worked upon her after this fashion; asked her if she would like to keep an inn.
"Wouldn't I just?" said she frankly.
Then he told her that, if all went to his wish in England, she should be landlady of one of his inns in the Cape Colony. "And you will get a good husband out there directly," said he. "Beauty is a very uncommon thing in those parts. But I shall ask you to marry somebody who can help you in the business--or not to marry at all."
"I wish I had the inn," said Emily. "Husbands are soon got when a girl hasn't her face only to look to."
"Well, I promise you the inn," said he, "and a good outfit of clothes, and money in both pockets, if you will do me a good turn here in England."
"That I would, sir. But, laws, what can a poor girl like me do for a rich gentleman like you?"
"Can you keep a secret, Emily?"
"Nobody better. You try me, sir."
He looked at her well; saw she was one of those who could keep a secret, if she chose, and he resolved to risk it.
"Emily, my girl," said he sadly, "I am an unhappy man."
"You, sir! Why, you didn't ought to be."
"I am then. I am in love; and cannot win her."
Then he told the girl a pretty tender tale, that he had loved Mrs. Staines when she was Miss Lusignan, had thought himself beloved in turn, but was rejected; and now, though she was a widow, he had not the courage to court her, her heart was in the grave. He spoke in such a broken voice that the girl's good-nature fought against her little pique at finding how little he was smitten with her, and Falcon soon found means to array her cupidity on the side of her good-nature. He gave her a five-pound note to buy gloves, and promised her a fortune, and she undertook to be secret as the grave, and say certain things adroitly to Mrs. Staines.
Accordingly, this young woman omitted no opportunity of dropping a word in favor of Falcon. For one thing, she said to Mrs. Staines, "Mr. Falcon must be very fond of children, ma'am. Why, he worships Master Christie."
"Indeed! I have not observed that."
"Why, no, ma'am. He is rather shy over it; but when he sees us alone, he is sure to come to us, and say, 'Let me look at my child, nurse;' and he do seem fit to eat him. Onst he says to me, 'This boy is my heir, nurse.' What did he mean by that, ma'am?"
"I don't know."
"Is he any kin to you, ma'am?"
"None whatever. You must have misunderstood him. You should not repeat all that people say."
"No, ma'am; only I did think it so odd. Poor gentleman, I don't think he is happy, for all his money."
"He is too good to be unhappy all his life."
"So I think, ma'am."
These conversations were always short, for Rosa, though she was too kind and gentle to snub the girl, was also too delicate to give the least encouragement to her gossip.
But Rosa's was a mind that could be worked upon, and these short but repeated eulogies were not altogether without effect.
At last the insidious Falcon, by not making his approaches in a way to alarm her, acquired her friendship as well as her gratitude; and, in short, she got used to him and liked him. Not being bound by any limit of fact whatever, he entertained her, and took her out of herself a little by extemporaneous pictures; he told her all his thrilling adventures by flood and field, not one of which had ever occurred, yet he made them all sound like truth; he invented strange characters, and set them talking; he went after great whales, and harpooned one, which slapped his boat into fragments with one stroke of its tail; then died, and he hung on by the harpoon protruding from the carcass till a ship came and picked him up. He shot a lion that was carrying off his favorite Hottentot. He encountered another, wounded him with both barrels, was seized, and dragged along the ground, and gave himself up for lost, but kept firing his revolver down the monster's throat till at last he sickened him, and so escaped out of death's maw; he did not say how he had fired in the air, and ridden fourteen miles on end, at the bare sight of a lion's cub; but, to compensate that one reserve, plunged into a raging torrent and saved a drowning woman by her long hair, which he caught in his teeth; he rode a race on an ostrich against a friend on a zebra, which went faster, but threw his rider, and screamed with rage at not being able to eat him; he, Falcon, having declined to run unless his friend's zebra was muzzled. He fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and shot a wild elephant in the eye; and all this he enlivened with pictorial descriptions of no mean beauty, and as like South Africa as if it had been feu George Robins advertising that continent for sale.
In short, never was there a more voluble and interesting liar by word of mouth, and never was there a more agreeable creature interposed between a bereaved widow and her daily grief and regrets. He diverted her mind from herself, and did her good.
At last, such was the charm of infinite lying, she missed him on the days he did not come, and was brighter when he did come and lie.
Things went smoothly, and so pleasantly, that he would gladly have prolonged this form of courtship for a month or two longer, sooner than risk a premature declaration. But more than one cause drove him to a bolder course; his passion, which increased in violence by contact with its beautiful object, and also a great uneasiness he felt at not hearing from Phoebe. This silence was ominous. He and she knew each other, and what the other was capable of. He knew she was the woman to cross the seas after him, if Staines left the diggings, and any explanation took place that might point to his whereabouts.
These double causes precipitated matters, and at last he began to throw more devotion into his manner; and having so prepared her for a few days, he took his opportunity and said, one day, "We are both unhappy. Give me the right to console you."
She colored high, and said, "You have consoled me more than all the world. But there is a limit; always will be."
One less adroit would have brought her to the point; but this artist only sighed, and let the arrow rankle. By this means he out-fenced her; for now she had listened to a declaration and not stopped it short.
He played melancholy for a day or two, and then he tried her another way. He said, "I promised your dying husband to be your protector, and a father to his child. I see but one way to keep my word, and that gives me courage to speak--without that I never could. Rosa, I loved you years ago, I am unmarried for your sake. Let me be your husband, and a father to your child."
Rosa shook her head. "I could not marry again. I esteem you, I am very grateful to you: and I know I behaved ill to you before. If I could marry again, it would be you. But I cannot. Oh, never! never!"
"Then we both are to be unhappy all our days."
"I shall, as I ought to be. You will not, I hope. I shall miss you sadly; but, for all that, I advise you to leave me. You will carry my everlasting gratitude, go where you will; that and my esteem are all I have to give."
"I will go," said he; "and I hope he who is gone will forgive my want of courage."
"He who is gone took my promise never to marry again."
"Dying men see clearer. I am sure he wished--no matter; it is too delicate." He kissed her hand and went out, a picture of dejection.
Mrs. Staines shed a tear for him.
Nothing was heard of him for several days; and Rosa pitied him more and more, and felt a certain discontent with herself, and doubt whether she had done right.
Matters were in this state, when one morning Emily came screaming in from the garden, "The child!--Master Christie!--Where is he?-- Where is he?"
The house was alarmed. The garden searched, the adjoining paddock. The child was gone.
Emily was examined, and owned, with many sobs and hysterical cries, that she had put him down in the summer-house for a minute, while she went to ask the gardener for some balm, balm tea being a favorite drink of hers. "But there was nobody near that I saw," she sobbed.
Further inquiry proved, however, that a tall gypsy woman had been seen prowling about that morning; and suspicion instantly fastened on her. Servants were sent out right and left; but nothing discovered; and the agonized mother, terrified out of her wits, had Falcon telegraphed to immediately.
He came galloping down that very evening, and heard the story. He galloped into Gravesend, and after seeing the police, sent word out he should advertise. He placarded Gravesend with bills, offering a reward of a thousand pounds, the child to be brought to him, and no questions asked.
Meantime the police and many of the neighboring gentry came about the miserable mother with their vague ideas.
Down comes Falcon again next day; tells what he has done, and treats them all with contempt. "Don't you be afraid, Mrs. Staines," said he. "You will get him back. I have taken the sure way. This sort of rogues dare not go near the police, and the police can't find them. You have no enemies; it is only some woman that has fancied a beautiful child. Well, she can have them by the score, for a thousand pounds."
He was the only one with a real idea; the woman saw it, and clung to him. He left late at night.
Next morning out came the advertisements, and he sent her a handful by special messenger. His zeal and activity kept her bereaved heart from utter despair.
At eleven that night came a telegraph:--
"I have got him. Coming down by special train."
Then what a burst of joy and gratitude! The very walls of the house seemed to ring with it as a harp rings with music. A special train, too! he would not let the mother yearn all night.
At one in the morning he drove up with the child and a hired nurse.
Imagine the scene! The mother's screams of joy, her furious kisses, her cooing, her tears, and all the miracles of nature at such a time. The servants all mingled with their employers in the general rapture, and Emily, who was pale as death, cried and sobbed, and said, "Oh, ma'am, I'll never let him out of my sight again, no, not for one minute." Falcon made her a signal, and went out. She met him in the garden.
She was much agitated, and cried, "Oh, you did well to bring him to-day. I could not have kept it another hour. I'm a wretch."
"You are a good kind girl; and here's the fifty pounds I promised you."
"Well, and I have earned it."
"Of course you have. Meet me in the garden to-morrow morning, and I'll show you you have done a kind thing to your mistress, as well as me. And as for the fifty pounds, that is nothing; do you hear? it is nothing at all, compared with what I will do for you, if you will be true to me, and hold your tongue."
"Oh! as for that, my tongue shan't betray you, nor shame me. You are a gentleman, and I do think you love her, or I would not help you."
So she salved her nursemaid's conscience--with the help of the fifty pounds.
The mother was left to her rapture that night. In the morning Falcon told his tale.
"At two P.M. a man had called on him, and had produced one of his advertisements, and had asked him if that was all square--no bobbies on the lurk. 'All square, my fine fellow.' 'Well,' said he, 'I suppose you are a gentleman.' 'I am of that opinion too.' 'Well, sir,' says he, 'I know a party as has found a young gent as comes werry nigh your advertisement.' 'It will be a very lucky find to that party,' I said, 'if he is on the square.' 'Oh, we are always on the square, when the blunt is put down.' 'The blunt for the child, when you like, and where you like,' said I. 'You are the right sort,' said he. 'I am,' replied I. 'Will you come and see if it is all right?' said he. 'In a minute,' said I. Stepped into my bedroom, and loaded my six-shooter."
"What is that?" said Lusignan.
"A revolver with six barrels: by the by, the very same I killed the lion with. Ugh! I never think of that scene without feeling a little quiver; and my nerves are pretty good, too. Well, he took me into an awful part of the town, down a filthy close, into some boozing ken--I beg pardon, some thieves' public-house."
"Oh, my dear friend," said Rosa, "were you not frightened?"
"Shall I tell you the truth, or play the hero? I think I'll tell you the truth. I felt a little frightened, lest they should get my money and my life, without my getting my godson: that is what I call him now. Well, two ugly dogs came in, and said, 'Let us see the flimsies, before you see the kid.'
"'That is rather sharp practice, I think,' said I; 'however, here's the swag, and here's the watch-dog.' So I put down the notes, and my hand over them with my revolver cocked, and ready to fire."
"Yes, yes," said Rosa pantingly. "Ah, you were a match for them."
"Well, Mrs. Staines, if I was writing you a novel, I suppose I should tell you the rogues recoiled; but the truth is they only laughed, and were quite pleased. 'Swell's in earnest,' said one, 'Jem, show the kid.' Jem whistled, and in came a great tall black gypsy woman, with the darling. My heart was in my mouth, but I would not let them see it. I said, 'It is all right. Take half the notes here, and half at the door.' They agreed, and then I did it quick, walked to the door, took the child, gave them the odd notes, and made off as fast as I could, hired a nurse at the hospital--and the rest you know."
"Papa," said Rosa, with enthusiasm, "there is but one man in England who would have got me back my child, and this is he."
When they were alone, Falcon told her she had said words that gladdened his very heart. "You admit I can carry out one half of his wishes?" said he.
Mrs. Staines said "Yes," then colored high; then, to turn it off, said, "But I cannot allow you to lose that large sum of money. You must let me repay you."
"Large sum of money!" said he. "It is no more to me than sixpence to most people. I don't know what to do with my money; and I never shall know, unless you will make a sacrifice of your own feelings to the wishes of the dead. O Mrs. Staines--Rosa, do pray consider that a man of that wisdom sees the future, and gives wise advice. Sure am I that, if you could overcome your natural repugnance to a second marriage, it would be the best thing for your little boy--I love him already as if he were my own--and in time would bring you peace and comfort, and some day, years hence, even happiness. You are my only love; yet I should never have come to you again if he had not sent me. Do consider how strange it all is, and what it points to, and don't let me have the misery of losing you again, when you can do no better now, alas! than reward my fidelity."
She was much moved at this artful appeal, and said, "If I was sure I was obeying his will. But how can I feel that, when we both promised never to wed again?"
"A man's dying words are more sacred than any other. You have his letter."
"Yes, but he does not say 'marry again.'"
"That is what he meant, though."
"How can you say that? How can you know?"
"Because I put the words he said to me together with that short line to you. Mind, I don't say that he did not exaggerate my poor merits; on the contrary, I think he did. But I declare to you that he did hope I should take care of you and your child. Right or wrong, it was his wish, so pray do not deceive yourself on that point."
This made more impression on her than anything else he could say, and she said, "I promise you one thing, I will never marry any man but you."
Instead of pressing her further, as an inferior artist would, he broke into raptures, kissed her hand tenderly, and was in such high spirits, and so voluble all day, that she smiled sweetly on him, and thought to herself, "Poor soul! how happy I could make him with a word!"
As he was always watching her face--a practice he carried further than any person living--he divined that sentiment, and wrought upon it so, that at last he tormented her into saying she would marry him some day.
When he had brought her to that, he raged inwardly to think he had not two years to work in; for it was evident she would marry him in time. But no, it had taken him more than four months, close siege, to bring her to that. No word from Phoebe. An ominous dread hung over his own soul. His wife would be upon him, or, worse still, her brother Dick, who he knew would beat him to a mummy on the spot; or, worst of all, the husband of Rosa Staines, who would kill him, or fling him into a prison. He must make a push.
In this emergency he used his ally, Mr. Lusignan; he told him Mrs. Staines had promised to marry him, but at some distant date. This would not do; he must look after his enormous interests in the colony, and he was so much in love he could not leave her.
The old gentleman was desperately fond of Falcon, and bent on the match, and he actually consented to give his daughter what Falcon called a little push.
The little push was a very great one, I think.
It consisted in directing the clergyman to call in church the banns of marriage between Reginald Falcon and Rosa Staines.
They were both in church together when this was done. Rosa all but screamed, and then turned red as fire and white as a ghost, by turns. She never stood up again all the service; and in going home refused Falcon's arm, and walked swiftly home by herself. Not that she had the slightest intention of passing this monstrous thing by in silence. On the contrary, her wrath was boiling over, and so hot that she knew she should make a scene in the street if she said a word there.
Once inside the house she turned on Falcon, with a white cheek and a flashing eye, and said, "Follow me, sir, if you please." She led the way to her father's study. "Papa," said she, "I throw myself on your protection. Mr. Falcon has affronted me."
"Oh, Rosa!" cried Falcon, affecting utter dismay.
"Publicly--publicly: he has had the banns of marriage cried in the church, without my permission."
"Don't raise your voice so loud, child. All the house will hear you."
"I choose all the house to hear me. I will not endure it. I will never marry you now--never!"
"Rosa, my child," said Lusignan, "you need not scold poor Falcon, for I am the culprit. It was I who ordered the banns to be cried."
"Oh! papa, you had no right to do such a thing as that."
"I think I had. I exercised parental authority for once, and for your good, and for the good of a true and faithful lover of yours, whom you jilted once, and now you trifle with his affection and his interests. He loves you too well to leave you; yet you know his vast estates and interests require supervision."
"That for his vast estates!" said Rosa contemptuously. "I am not to be driven to the altar like this, when my heart is in the grave. Don't you do it again, papa, or I'll get up and forbid the banns; affront for affront."
"I should like to see that," said the old gentleman dryly.
Rosa vouchsafed no reply, but swept out of the room, with burning cheeks and glittering eyes, and was not seen all day, would not dine with them, in spite of three humble, deprecating notes Falcon sent her.
"Let the spiteful cat alone," said old Lusignan. "You and I will dine together in peace and quiet."
It was a dull dinner; but Falcon took advantage of the opportunity, impregnated the father with his views, and got him to promise to have the banns cried next Sunday. He consented.
Rosa learned next Sunday morning that this was to be done, and her courage failed her. She did not go to church at all.
She cried a great deal, and submitted to violence, as your true women are too apt to do. They had compromised her, and so conquered her. The permanent feelings of gratitude and esteem caused a reaction after her passion, and she gave up open resistance as hopeless.
Falcon renewed his visits, and was received with the mere sullen languor of a woman who has given in.
The banns were cried a third time.
Then the patient Rosa bought laudanum enough to reunite her to her Christopher, in spite of them all; and having provided herself with this resource, became more cheerful, and even kind and caressing.
She declined to name the day at present, and that was awkward. Nevertheless the conspirators felt sure they should tire her out into doing that, before long; for they saw their way clear, and she was perplexed in the extreme.
In her perplexity, she used to talk to a certain beautiful star she called her Christopher. She loved to fancy he was now an inhabitant of that bright star; and often on a clear night she would look up, and beg for guidance from this star. This I consider foolish: but then I am old and sceptical; she was still young and innocent, and sorely puzzled to know her husband's real will.
I don't suppose the star had anything to do with it, except as a focus of her thoughts; but one fine night, after a long inspection of Christopher's star, she dreamed a dream. She thought that a lovely wedding-dress hung over a chair, that a crown of diamonds as large as almonds sparkled ready for her on the dressing-table, and she was undoing her black gown, and about to take it off, when suddenly the diamonds began to pale, and the white satin dress to melt away, and in its place there rose a pale face and a long beard, and Christopher Staines stood before her, and said quietly, "Is this how you keep your vow?" Then he sank slowly, and the white dress was black, and the diamonds were jet; and she awoke, with his gentle words of remonstrance and his very tones ringing in her ear.
This dream, co-operating with her previous agitation and misgivings, shook her very much; she did not come down-stairs till near dinner-time; and both her father and Falcon, who came as a matter of course to spend his Sunday, were struck with her appearance. She was pale, gloomy, morose, and had an air of desperation about her.
Falcon would not see it; he knew that it is safest to let her sex alone when they look like that; and then the storm sometimes subsides of itself.
After dinner, Rosa retired early; and soon she was heard walking rapidly up and down the dressing-room.
This was quite unusual, and made a noise.
Papa Lusignan thought it inconsiderate; and after a while, remarking gently that he was not particularly fond of sound, he proposed they should smoke the pipe of peace on the lawn.
They did so; but after a while, finding that Falcon was not smoking, he said, "Don't let me detain you. Rosa is alone."
Falcon took the hint, and went to the drawing-room. Rosa met him on the stairs, with a scarf over her shoulders. "I must speak to papa," said she. "Where is he?"
"He is on the lawn, dear Rosa," said Falcon, in his most dulcet tones. He was sure of his ally, and very glad to use him as a buffer to receive the first shock.
So he went into the drawing-room, where all the lights were burning, and quietly took up a book. But he did not read a line; he was too occupied in trying to read his own future.
The mean villain, who is incapable of remorse, is, of all men, most capable of fear. His villany had, to all appearance, reached the goal; for he felt sure that all Rosa's struggles would, sooner or later, succumb to her sense of gratitude and his strong will and patient temper. But when the victory was won, what a life! He must fly with her to some foreign country, pursued from pillar to post by an enraged husband, and by the offended law. And if he escaped the vindictive foe a year or two, how could he escape that other enemy he knew, and dreaded--poverty? He foresaw he should come to hate the woman he was about to wrong, and she would instantly revenge herself, by making him an exile and, soon or late, a prisoner, or a pauper.
While these misgivings battled with his base but ardent passion, strange things were going on out of doors--but they will be best related in another sequence of events, to which indeed they fairly belong.