A Simpleton by Charles Reade
Staines and Mrs. Falcon landed at Plymouth, and went up to town by the same train. They parted in London, Staines to go down to Gravesend, Mrs. Falcon to visit her husband's old haunts, and see if she could find him.
She did not find him; but she heard of him, and learned that he always went down to Gravesend from Saturday till Monday.
Notwithstanding all she had said to Staines, the actual information startled her, and gave her a turn. She was obliged to sit down, for her knees seemed to give way. It was but a momentary weakness. She was now a wife and a mother, and had her rights. She said to herself, "My rogue has turned that poor woman's head long before this, no doubt. But I shall go down and just bring him away by the ear."
For once her bitter indignation overpowered every other sentiment, and she lost no time, but late as it was went down to Gravesend, ordered a private sitting-room and bedroom for the night, and took a fly to Kent Villa.
But Christopher Staines had the start of her. He had already gone down to Gravesend with his carpet-bag, left it at the inn, and walked to Kent Villa that lovely summer night, the happiest husband in England.
His heart had never for one instant been disturbed by Mrs. Falcon's monstrous suspicion; he looked on her as a monomaniac; a sensible woman insane on one point, her husband.
When he reached the villa, however, he thought it prudent to make sure that Falcon had come to England at all, and discharged his commission. He would not run the risk, small as he thought it, of pouncing unexpected on his Rosa, being taken for a ghost, and terrifying her, or exciting her to madness.
Now the premises of Kent Villa were admirably adapted to what they call in war a reconnaissance. The lawn was studded with laurestinas and other shrubs that had grown magnificently in that Kentish air.
Staines had no sooner set his foot on the lawn, than he heard voices; he crept towards them from bush to bush; and standing in impenetrable shade, he saw in the clear moonlight two figures-- Mr. Lusignan and Reginald Falcon.
These two dropped out only a word or two at intervals; but what they did say struck Staines as odd. For one thing, Lusignan remarked, "I suppose you will want to go back to the Cape. Such enormous estates as yours will want looking after."
"Enormous estates!" said Staines to himself. "Then they must have grown very fast in a few months."
"Oh, yes," said Falcon; "but I think of showing her a little of Europe first."
Staines thought this still more mysterious; he waited to hear more, but the succeeding remarks were of an ordinary kind.
He noticed, however, that Falcon spoke of his wife by her Christian name, and that neither party mentioned Christopher Staines. He seemed quite out of their little world.
He began to feel a strange chill creep down him.
Presently Falcon went off to join Rosa; and Staines thought it was quite time to ask the old gentleman whether Falcon had executed his commission, or not.
He was only hesitating how to do it, not liking to pounce in the dark on a man who abhorred everything like excitement, when Rosa herself came flying out in great agitation.
Oh! the thrill he felt at the sight of her! With all his self- possession, he would have sprung forward and taken her in his arms with a mighty cry of love, if she had not immediately spoken words that rooted him to the spot with horror. But she came with the words in her very mouth; "Papa, I am come to tell you I cannot, and will not, marry Mr. Falcon."
"Oh, yes, you will, my dear."
"Never! I'll die sooner. Not that you will care for that. I tell you I saw my Christopher last night--in a dream. He had a beard; but I saw him, oh, so plain; and he said, 'Is this the way you keep your promise?' That is enough for me. I have prayed, again and again, to his star, for light. I am so perplexed and harassed by you all, and you make me believe what you like. Well, I have had a revelation. It is not my poor lost darling's wish I should wed again. I don't believe Mr. Falcon any more. I hear nothing but lies by day. The truth comes to my bedside at night. I will not marry this man."
"Consider, Rosa, your credit is pledged. You must not be always jilting him heartlessly. Dreams! nonsense. There--I love peace. It is no use your storming at me; rave to the moon and the stars, if you like, and when you have done, do pray come in, and behave like a rational woman, who has pledged her faith to an honorable man, and a man of vast estates--a man that nursed your husband in his last illness, found your child, at a great expense, when you had lost him, and merits eternal gratitude, not eternal jilting. I have no patience with you."
The old gentleman retired in high dudgeon.
Staines stood in the black shade of his cedar-tree, rooted to the ground by this revelation of male villany and female credulity.
He did not know what on earth to do. He wanted to kill Falcon, but not to terrify his own wife to death. It was now too clear she thought he was dead.
Rosa watched her father's retiring figure out of sight. "Very well," said she, clenching her teeth; then suddenly she turned, and looked up to heaven. "Do you hear?" said she, "my Christie's star? I am a poor perplexed creature. I asked you for a sign, and that very night I saw him in a dream. Why should I marry out of gratitude? Why should I marry one man, when I love another? What does it matter his being dead? I love him too well to be wife to any living man. They persuade me, they coax me, they pull me, they push me. I see they will make me. But I will outwit them. See-- see!" and she held up a little phial in the moonlight. "This shall cut the knot for me; this shall keep me true to my Christie, and save me from breaking promises I ought never to have made. This shall unite me once more with him I killed, and loved."
She meant she would kill herself the night before the wedding, which perhaps she would not, and perhaps she would. Who can tell? The weak are violent. But Christopher, seeing the poison so near her lips, was perplexed, took two strides, wrenched it out of her hand, with a snarl of rage, and instantly plunged into the shade again.
Rosa uttered a shriek, and flew into the house.
The farther she got, the more terrified she became, and soon Christopher heard her screaming in the drawing-room in an alarming way. They were like the screams of the insane.
He got terribly anxious, and followed her. All the doors were open.
As he went up-stairs, he heard her cry, "His ghost! his ghost! I have seen his ghost! No, no. I feel his hand upon my arm now. A beard! and so he had in the dream! He is alive. My darling is alive. You have deceived me. You are an impostor--a villain. Out of the house this moment, or he shall kill you."
"Are you mad?" cried Falcon. "How can he be alive, when I saw him dead?"
This was too much. Staines gave the door a blow with his arm, and strode into the apartment, looking white and tremendous.
Falcon saw death in his face; gave a shriek, drew his revolver, and fired at him with as little aim as he had at the lioness; then made for the open window. Staines seized a chair, followed him, and hurled it at him; and the chair and the man went through the window together, and then there was a strange thud heard outside.
Rosa gave a loud scream, and swooned away.
Staines laid his wife flat on the floor, got the women about her, and at last she began to give the usual signs of returning life.
Staines said to the oldest woman there, "If she sees me, she will go off again. Carry her to her room; and tell her, by degrees, that I am alive."
All this time Papa Lusignan had sat trembling and whimpering in a chair, moaning, "This is a painful scene--very painful." But at last an idea struck him--"Why, you have robbed the office!"
Scarcely was Mrs. Staines out of the room, when a fly drove up, and this was immediately followed by violent and continuous screaming close under the window.
"Oh, dear!" sighed Papa Lusignan.
They ran down, and found Falcon impaled at full length on the spikes of the villa, and Phoebe screaming over him, and trying in vain to lift him off them. He had struggled a little, in silent terror, but had then fainted from fear and loss of blood, and lying rather inside the rails, which were high, he could not be extricated from the outside.
As soon as his miserable condition was discovered, the servants ran down into the kitchen, and so up to the rails by the area steps. These rails had caught him; one had gone clean through his arm, the other had penetrated the fleshy part of the thigh, and a third pierced his ear.
They got him off; but he was insensible, and the place drenched with his blood.
Phoebe clutched Staines by the arm. "Let me know the worst," said she. "Is he dead?"
Staines examined him, and said "No."
"Can you save him?"
"Yes. Who can, if you cannot? Oh, have mercy on me!" and she went on her knees to him, and put her forehead on his knees.
He was touched by her simple faith; and the noble traditions of his profession sided with his gratitude to this injured woman. "My poor friend," said he, "I will do my best, for your sake."
He took immediate steps for stanching the blood; and the fly carried Phoebe and her villain to the inn at Gravesend.
Falcon came to on the road; but finding himself alone with Phoebe, shammed unconsciousness of everything but pain.
Staines, being thoroughly enraged with Rosa, yet remembering his solemn vow never to abuse her again, saw her father, and told him to tell her he should think over her conduct quietly, not wishing to be harder upon her than she deserved.
Rosa, who had been screaming, and crying for joy, ever since she came to her senses, was not so much afflicted at this message as one might have expected. He was alive, and all things else were trifles.
Nevertheless, when day after day went by, and not even a line from Christopher, she began to fear he would cast her off entirely; the more so as she heard he was now and then at Gravesend to visit Mrs. Falcon at the inn.
While matters were thus, Uncle Philip burst on her like a bomb. "He is alive! he is alive! he is alive!" And they had a cuddle over it.
"Oh, Uncle Philip! Have you seen him?"
"Seen him? Yes. He caught me on the hop, just as I came in from Italy. I took him for a ghost."
"Oh, weren't you frightened?"
"Not a bit. I don't mind ghosts. I'd have half a dozen to dinner every day, if I might choose 'em. I couldn't stand stupid ones. But I say, his temper isn't improved by all this dying: he is in an awful rage with you; and what for?"
"O uncle! what for? Because I'm the vilest of women!"
"Vilest of fiddlesticks! It's his fault, not yours. Shouldn't have died. It's always a dangerous experiment."
"I shall die if he will not forgive me. He keeps away from me and from his child."
"I'll tell you. He heard, in Gravesend, your banns had been cried: that has moved the peevish fellow's bile."
"It was done without my consent. Papa will tell you so; and, O uncle, if you knew the arts, the forged letter in my darling's hand, the way he wrought on me! O villain! villain! Uncle, forgive your poor silly niece, that the world is too wicked and too clever for her to live in."
"Because you are too good and innocent," said Uncle Philip. "There, don't you be down-hearted. I'll soon bring you two together again--a couple of ninnies. I'll tell you what is the first thing: you must come and live with me. Come at once, bag and baggage. He won't show here, the sulky brute."
Philip Staines had a large house in Cavendish Square, a crusty old patient, like himself, had left him. It was his humor to live in a corner of this mansion, though the whole was capitally furnished by his judicious purchases at auctions.
He gave Rosa and her boy and his nurse the entire first floor, and told her she was there for life. "Look here," said he, "this last affair has opened my eyes. Such women as you are the sweeteners of existence. You leave my roof no more. Your husband will make the same discovery. Let him run about, and be miserable a bit. He will have to come to book."
She shook her head sadly.
"My Christopher will never say a harsh word to me. All the worse for me. He will quietly abandon a creature so inferior to him."
Now, she was always running to the window, in hope that Christopher would call on his uncle, and that she might see him; and one day she gave a scream so eloquent, Philip knew what it meant. "Get you behind that screen, you and your boy," said he, "and be as still as mice. Stop! give me that letter the scoundrel forged, and the ring."
This was hardly done, and Rosa out of sight, and trembling from head to foot, when Christopher was announced. Philip received him very affectionately, but wasted no time.
"Been to Kent Villa yet?"
"No," was the grim reply.
"Because I have sworn never to say an angry word to her again; and, if I was to go there, I should say a good many angry ones. Oh, when I think that her folly drove me to sea, to do my best for her, and that I was nearer death for that woman than ever man was, and lost my reason for her, and went through toil and privations, hunger, exile, mainly for her, and then to find the banns cried in open church, with that scoundrel!--say no more, uncle. I shall never reproach her, and never forgive her."
"She was deceived."
"I don't doubt that; but nobody has a right to be so great a fool as all that."
"It was not her folly, but her innocence, that was imposed on. You a philosopher, and not know that wisdom itself is sometimes imposed on, and deceived by cunning folly! Have you forgotten your Milton?--
"'At Wisdom's gate, Suspicion sleeps, And deems no ill where no ill seems.'
Come, come! are you sure you are not a little to blame? Did you write home the moment you found you were not dead?"
Christopher colored high.
"Evidently not," said the keen old man. "Ah, my fine fellow! have I found the flaw in your own armor?"
"I did wrong, but it was for her. I sinned for her. I could not bear her to be without money, and I knew the insurance--I sinned for her. She has sinned against me."
"And she had much better have sinned against God, hadn't she? He is more forgiving than we perfect creatures that cheat insurance companies. And so, my fine fellow, you hid the truth from her for two or three months."
"Strike off those two or three months; would the banns have ever been cried?"
"Well, uncle," said Christopher, hard pressed, "I am glad she has got a champion; and I hope you will always keep your eye on her."
"I mean to."
"No; don't be in a hurry. I have something else to say, not so provoking. Do you know the arts by which she was made to believe you wished her to marry again?"
"I wished her to marry again! Are you mad, uncle?"
"Whose handwriting is on this envelope?"
"Mine, to be sure."
"Now, read the letter."
Christopher read the forged letter.
"This was given her with your ruby ring, and a tale so artful that nothing we read about the devil comes near it. This was what did it. The Earl of Tadcaster brought her title, and wealth, and love."
"What, he too! The little cub I saved, and lost myself for--blank him! blank him!"
"Why, you stupid ninny! you forget you were dead; and he could not help loving her. How could he? Well, but you see she refused him. And why? because he came without a forged letter from you. Do you doubt her love for you?"
"Of course I do. She never loved me as I loved her."
"Christopher, don't you say that before me, or you and I shall quarrel. Poor girl! she lay, in my sight, as near death for you as you were for her. I'll show you something."
He went to a cabinet, and took out a silver paper; he unpinned it, and laid Rosa's beautiful black hair upon her husband's knees. "Look at that, you hard-hearted brute!" he roared to Christopher, who sat, anything but hard-hearted, his eyes filling fast, at the sad proof of his wife's love and suffering.
Rosa could bear no more. She came out with her boy in her hand. "O uncle, do not speak harshly to him, or you will kill me quite!"
She came across the room, a picture of timidity and penitence, with her whole eloquent body bent forward at an angle. She kneeled at his knees, with streaming eyes, and held her boy up to him: "Plead for your poor mother, my darling. She mourns her fault, and will never excuse it."
The cause was soon decided. All Philip's logic was nothing, compared with mighty nature. Christopher gave one great sob, and took his darling to his heart, without one word; and he and Rosa clung together, and cried over each other. Philip slipped out of the room, and left the restored ones together.
I have something more to say about my hero and heroine, but must first deal with other characters, not wholly uninteresting to the reader, I hope.
Dr. Staines directed Phoebe Falcon how to treat her husband. No medicine, no stimulants; very wholesome food, in moderation, and the temperature of the body regulated by tepid water. Under these instructions, the injured but still devoted wife was the real healer. He pulled through, but was lame for life, and ridiculously lame, for he went with a spring halt,--a sort of hop-and-go-one that made the girls laugh, and vexed Adonis.
Phoebe found the diamonds, and offered them all to Staines, in expiation of his villany. "See," she said, "he has only spent one."
Staines said he was glad of it, for her sake, for he must be just to his own family. He sold them for three thousand two hundred pounds; but for the big diamond he got twelve thousand pounds, and I believe it was worth double the money.
Counting the two sums, and deducting six hundred for the stone Mr. Falcon had embezzled, he gave her over seven thousand pounds.
She stared at him, and changed color at so large a sum. "But I have no claim on that, sir."
"That is a good joke," said he. "Why, you and I are partners in the whole thing--you and I and Dick. Was it not with his horse and rifle I bought the big diamond? Poor dear, honest, manly Dick! No, the money is honestly yours, Mrs. Falcon; but don't trust a penny to your husband."
"He will never see it, sir. I shall take him back, and give him all his heart can ask for, with this; but he will be little more than a servant in the house now, as long as Dick is single; I know that;" and she could still cry at the humiliation of her villain.
Staines made her promise to write to him; and she did write him a sweet, womanly letter, to say that they were making an enormous fortune, and hoped to end their days in England. Dick sent his kind love and thanks.
I will add, what she only said by implication, that she was happy after all. She still contrived to love the thing she could not respect. Once, when an officious friend pitied her for her husband's lameness, she said, "Find me a face like his. The lamer the better; he can't run after the girls, like some."
Dr. Staines called on Lady Cicely Treherne; the footman stared. He left his card.
A week afterwards, she called on him. She had a pink tinge in her cheeks, a general animation, and her face full of brightness and archness.
"Bless me!" said he bluntly, "is this you? How you are improved!"
"Yes," said she; "and I am come to thank you for your pwescwiption: I followed it to the lettaa."
"Woe is me! I have forgotten it."
"You diwected me to mawwy a nice man."
"Never: I hate a nice man."
"No, no--an Iwishman: and I have done it."
"Good gracious! you don't mean that! I must be more cautious in my prescriptions. After all, it seems to agree."
"He loves you?"
"He amuses you?"
"Pwodigiously. Come and see."
Dr. and Mrs. Staines live with Uncle Philip. The insurance money is returned, but the diamond money makes them very easy. Staines follows his profession now under great advantages: a noble house, rent free; the curiosity that attaches to a man who has been canted out of a ship in mid-ocean, and lives to tell it; and then Lord Tadcaster, married into another noble house, swears by him, and talks of him; so does Lady Cicely Munster, late Treherne; and when such friends as these are warm, it makes a physician the centre of an important clientele; but his best friend of all is his unflagging industry, and his truly wonderful diagnosis, which resembles divination. He has the ball at his feet, and above all, that without which worldly success soon palls, a happy home, a fireside warm with sympathy.
Mrs. Staines is an admiring, sympathizing wife, and an admirable housekeeper. She still utters inadvertencies now and then, commits new errors at odd times, but never repeats them when exposed. Observing which docility, Uncle Philip has been heard to express a fear that, in twenty years, she will be the wisest woman in England. "But, thank heaven!" he adds, "I shall be gone before that."
Her conduct and conversation afford this cynic constant food for observation; and he has delivered himself oracularly at various stages of the study: but I cannot say that his observations, taken as a whole, present that consistency which entitles them to be regarded as a body of philosophy. Examples: In the second month after Mrs. Staines came to live with him, he delivered himself thus: "My niece Rosa is an anomaly. She gives you the impression she is shallow. Mind your eye: in one moment she will take you out of your depth or any man's depth. She is like those country streams I used to fish for pike when I was young; you go along, seeing the bottom everywhere; but presently you come to a corner, and it is fifteen deep all in a moment, and souse you go over head and ears: that's my niece Rosa."
In six months he had got to this--and, mind you, each successive dogma was delivered in a loud, aggressive tone, and in sublime oblivion of the preceding oracle--"My niece Rosa is the most artful woman. (You may haw! haw! haw! as much as you like. You have not found out her little game--I have.) What is the aim of all women? To be beloved by an unconscionable number of people. Well, she sets up for a simpleton, and so disarms all the brilliant people, and they love her. Everybody loves her. Just you put her down in a room with six clever women, and you will see who is the favorite. She looks as shallow as a pond, and she is as deep as the ocean."
At the end of the year he threw off the mask altogether. "The great sweetener of a man's life," said he, "is 'a simpleton.' I shall not go abroad any more; my house has become attractive: I've got a simpleton. When I have a headache, her eyes fill with tender concern, and she hovers about me and pesters me with pillows: when I am cross with her, she is afraid I am ill. When I die, and leave her a lot of money, she will howl for months, and say I don't want his money: 'I waw-waw-waw-waw-want my Uncle Philip, to love me, and scold me.' One day she told me, with a sigh, I hadn't lectured her for a month. 'I am afraid I have offended you,' says she, 'or else worn you out, dear.' When I am well, give me a simpleton, to make me laugh. When I am ill, give me a simpleton to soothe me with her innocent tenderness. A simpleton shall wipe the dews of death, and close my eyes: and when I cross the river of death, let me be met by a band of the heavenly host, who were all simpletons here on earth, and too good for such a hole, so now they are in heaven, and their garments always white--because there are no laundresses there."
Arrived at this point, the Anglo-Saxon race will retire, grinning, to fresh pastures, and leave this champion of "a Simpleton," to thunder paradoxes in a desert.