Frivolous Cupid by Anthony Hope
Chapter III. A Change of Heart.
It was common knowledge that Smugg was engaged to be married.
Familiarity had robbed the fact of some of its surprisingness, but there remained a substratum of wonder, not removed even by the sight of his betrothed's photograph and the information that she was a distant relative who had been brought up with him from infancy. The features and the explanation between them rescued Smugg from the incongruity of a romance, but we united in the opinion that the lady was ill-advised in preferring Smugg to solitude. Still, for all that he was a ridiculous creature, she did, and hence it happened that Smugg, desiring to form a furnishing fund, organized a reading party, which Gayford, Tritton, Bird, and I at once joined.
Every morning at nine Smugg, his breakfast finished, cleared his corner of the table, opened his books, and assumed an expectant air; so Mary the maid told us; we were never there ourselves; we breakfasted at 9.30 or 10 o'clock, and only about 11 did we clear our corners, light our pipes, open our books, and discuss the prospects of the day.
As we discussed them, Smugg construed in a gentle bleat; what he construed or why he construed it (seeing that nobody heeded him) was a mystery; the whole performance was simply a tribute to Smugg's conscience, and, as such, was received with good-natured, scornful toleration.
Suddenly a change came.
One morning there was no Smugg! Yet he had breakfasted--Mary and an eggshell testified to that effect. He reappeared at 11.30, confused and very warm (he had exceptional powers in the way of being warm). We said nothing, and he began to bleat Horace. In a minute of silence I happened to hear what it was: it referred to a lady of the name of Pyrrha; the learned may identify the passage for themselves. The next day the same thing happened except that it was close on twelve before Smugg appeared. Gayford and Tritton took no notice of the aberration; Bird congratulated Smugg on the increased docility of his conscience. I watched him closely as he wiped his brow--he was very warm, indeed. A third time the scene was enacted; my curiosity was aroused; I made Mary call me very early, and from the window I espied Smugg leaving the house at 9.15, and going with rapid, furtive steps along the little path that led to old Dill's tiny farm. I slipped downstairs, bolted a cup of tea, seized a piece of toast, and followed Smugg. He was out of sight, but presently I met Joe Shanks, the butcher's son, who brought us our chops. Joe was a stout young man, about twenty-one, red-faced, burly, and greasy. We used to have many jokes with Joe; even Smugg had before now broken a mild shaft of classical wit on him; in fact, we made a butt of Joe, and his good-humored, muttony smile told us that he thought it a compliment.
"Seen Mr. Smugg as you came along, Joe?" I asked.
"Yes, sir. Gone toward Dill's farm, sir."
"Ah, Dill's farm!"
The chop-laden Joe passed on. I mended my pace, and soon found myself on the outskirts of Dill's premises. I had been there before; we had all been there before. Dill had a daughter. I saw her now in a sunbonnet and laced boots. I may say at once that Betsy Dill was very pretty, in a fine, robust style, and all four of us were decidedly enamored of her charms. Usually we courted her in a body, and scrupulous fairness was observed in the matter of seeking private interviews.
Smugg had never spoken to her--so we should all have sworn. But now my wondering eyes saw, opposite Pyrrha (we began from this day to call her Pyrrha) the figure of Smugg. Pyrrha was leaning against a barn, one foot crossed over the other, her arms akimbo, a string of her bonnet in her mouth, and her blue eyes laughing from under long lashes. Smugg stood limply opposite her, his trousers bagging over his half-bent knees, his hat in one hand, and in the other a handkerchief, with which, from time to time, he mopped his forehead. I could not hear (of course I did not wish to) what they were saying; indeed, I have my doubts if they said anything; but presently Smugg moved a hesitating step nearer, when Pyrrha, with a merry laugh, darted by him and ran away, turning a mocking face over her shoulder. Smugg stood still for a minute, then put on his hat, looked at his watch, and walked slowly away.
I did not keep Smugg's secret; I felt under no obligation to keep it. He deserved no mercy, and I exposed him at breakfast that very morning. But I could not help being a little sorry for him when he came in. He bent his head under the shower of reproach, chaff, and gibing; he did not try to excuse himself; he simply opened his book at the old place, and we all shouted the old ode, substituting "Betsa" for "Pyrrha" wherever we could. Still, in spite of our jocularity, we all felt an under-current of real anger.
We considered that Smugg was treating Pyrrha very badly--Smugg, an engaged man, aged thirty, presumably past the heat and carelessness of youth. We glowed with a sense of her wrongs, and that afternoon we each went for a solitary walk--at least, we started for a solitary walk--but half an hour later we all met at the gate leading to Dill's meadows, and, in an explosion of laughter, acknowledged our secret design of meeting Pyrrha, and opening her eyes to Smugg's iniquity.
The great surprise was still to come. At eleven the next morning, when we had just sat down to work, and Smugg had slid into the room with the stealthy, ashamed air he wore after his morning excursions, Mary appeared, and told us that Joe Shanks, the butcher's son, had come with the chops, and wanted to speak to us. We hailed the diversion, and had Joe shown in. Gayford pushed the beer jug and a glass toward him, saying:
"Help yourself, Joe."
Joe drank a draught, wiped his mouth on his blue sleeve, and remarked:
"No offense, gentlemen."
"None," said Gayford, who seemed to have assumed the chairmanship of the meeting.
Joe, seeming slightly embarrassed, cleared his throat, and looked round again.
"No offense, gentlemen," he repeated; "but she's bin walking with me two years come Michaelmas."
A pause followed. Then the chairman expressed the views of the meeting.
"The deuce she has!" said he.
"Off and on," added Joe candidly.
I looked at Smugg. He had shrunk down low in his seat, and rested his head on his hand. His face was half hidden; but he was very warm, and the drops trickled from his forehead down his nose.
"It seems to be a good deal off," said the chairman judicially.
"No offense," said Joe; "but I don't take it kind of you, gentlemen. I've served you faithful."
"The chops are excellent," conceded the chairman.
"And I don't take it kind."
"Develop your complaint," said the chairman. "I mean, what's the row, Joe?"
"Since you gentlemen came she's been saucy," said Joe.
"I do not see," observed the chairman, "that anything can be done. If Pyrrha prefers us, Joe [he treated the case collectively, which was certainly wise], what then?"
"Beg pardon, sir?"
"Oh, I mean if the lady prefers us, Joe?"
Joe brought his fat fist down on the table with a thump.
"It aint as if you meant it," said he doggedly; "you just unsettles of 'er. I s'pose I can't help ye talking, and laughing, and walking along of 'er, but you aint no call to kiss 'er."
Another pause ensued. The chairman held a consultation with Tritton, who sat on his right hand.
"The meeting," said Gayford, "will proceed to declare, one by one, whether it has ever--and if so, how often--kissed the lady. I will begin. Never! Mr. Tritton?"
"Never!" said Tritton.
"Never!" said Bird.
"Never!" said I.
"I seed 'im this very morning!" cried Joe, like an accusing angel.
Smugg took his hand away from his face, after giving his wet brow one last dab. He looked at Gayford and at Joe, but said nothing.
"Mr. Smugg?" repeated the chairman.
"Mr. Smugg," interposed Tritton suavely, "probably feels himself in a difficulty. The secret is not, perhaps, entirely his own."
We all nodded.
"We enter a plea of not guilty for Mr. Smugg," observed the chairman gravely.
"I seed 'im do it," said Joe.
No one spoke. Joe finished his beer, pulled his forelock, and turned on his heel. Suddenly Smugg burst into speech. He could hardly form his words, and they jostled one another in the breathless confusion of his utterance.
"I--I--you've no right. I say nothing. If I choose, I shall--no one has a right to stop me. If I love her--if she doesn't mind-- I say nothing--nothing at all. I won't hear a word. I shall do as I like."
Joe had paused to hear him, and now stood looking at him in wonder. Then he stepped quickly up to the table, and, leaning across, asked in a harsh voice:
"You mean honest, do you, by her? You'd make her your wife, would you?"
Smugg, looking straight in front of him, answered:
Joe drew back, touched his forelock again, and said:
"Then it's fair fighting, sir, begging your pardon; and no offense. But the girl was mine first, sir."
Then Gayford interposed.
"Mr. Smugg," said he, "you tell Joe, here, that you'd marry this lady. May I ask how you can--when----"
But for once Smugg was able to silence one of his pupils. He arose from his seat, and brought his hand heavily down on Gayford's shoulder.
"Hold your tongue!" he cried. "I must answer to God, but I needn't answer to you."
Joe looked at him with round eyes, and, with a last salute, slowly went out. None of us spoke, and presently Smugg opened his Thucydides.
For my part, I took very considerable interest in Pyrrha's side of the question. I amused myself by constructing a fancy-born love of Pyrrha's for her social superior, and if he had been one of ourselves, I should have seen no absurdity. But Smugg refused altogether to fit into my frame. There was no glamour about Smugg; and, to tell the truth, I should have thought that any girl, be her station what it might, faced with the alternative of Smugg and Joe, would have chosen Joe. In my opinion, Pyrrha was merely amusing herself with Smugg, and I was rather comforted by this reversal of the ordinary roles. Still, I could not rest in conjecture, and my curiosity led me up to Dill's little farm on the afternoon of the day of Joe's sudden appearance. The others let me go alone. Directly after dinner Smugg went to his bedroom, and the other three had gone off to play lawn tennis at the vicar's. I lit my pipe, and strolled along till I reached the gate that led to Dill's meadow. Here I waited till Pyrrha should appear.
As I sat and smoked, a voice struck suddenly on my ear--the voice of Mrs. Dill, raised to shrillness by anger.
"Be off with you," she said, "and mind your ways, or worse 'll happen to you. 'Ere's your switch."
After a moment Pyrrha turned the corner, and came toward me. She was wiping her eyes with the corner of her apron, and carried in her hand a light hazel switch, which she used to guide errant cows. She was almost at the gate before she saw me. She started, and blushed very red.
"Lor! is it you, Mr. Robertson?" she said.
I nodded, but did not move.
"Let me pass, sir, please. I've no time to stop."
"What, not to talk to me, Pyrrha--Betsy, I mean?"
"Mother don't like me talking to gentlemen."
"You've been crying," said I.
"No, I haven't," said Pyrrha, quite violently.
"Mother been scolding you?"
"I wish you'd let me by, sir."
"It's all your fault," burst out Pyrrha. "I didn't want you; no, nor him, either. What do you come and get me into trouble for?"
"I haven't done anything, Betsy. Come now!"
"You aint as bad as some," she conceded, a dim smile breaking through the clouds.
"You mean Smugg," I observed.
"Who told you?" she cried.
"Joe," said I.
"Seems he's got a lot to say to everybody," she commented resentfully.
"Ah! he told your mother, did he? Well, you know you shouldn't, Betsy."
"I won't never speak to him again--I meant I won't ever [the grammarian is abroad], Mr. Robertson."
"What! Not to Joe?"
"Joe! No; that Smugg."
"But Joe told of you."
"Well, and it was his right."
If she thought so, I had no more to say. Notions differ among different sets. But I pressed the point a little.
"Joe got you your scolding."
Now, I can't say whether I did or did not emphasize the last word unduly, but Pyrrha blushed again, and remarked:
"You want to know too much, sir, by a deal."
So I left that aspect to the subject, and continued:
"I suppose it was for letting Mr. Smugg kiss you?"
"I couldn't help it."
I had great doubts of that--she could have tackled Smugg with one hand; but I said pleasantly:
"No more could he, I'm sure."
Pyrrha cast an alarmed glance at the house.
"Oh, I'll be careful," I laughed. "Yes, and I'll let you go. But just tell me, Betsy, what do you think of Mr. Smugg?"
"I don't think that of him!" said she, snapping her pretty red fingers. "Joe 'ud make ten of him. I wish Joe'd talk to him a bit."
The end came soon after this, and, in spite of our attitude (I speak of us four, not of Smugg) of whole-heartedness, I think it was rather a shock to us all, when Joe announced one morning, on his arrival with the chops, that he was to be made a happy man at the church next day. Smugg was not in the room, and the rest of us congratulated Joe, and made up a purse for him to give Pyrrha, with our best respects, and he bowed himself out, mightily pleased, and asseverating that we were real gentlemen. Then we sat and looked at the table.
"It robs us of a resource," pronounced Gayford, once again making himself the mouthpiece of the party. We all nodded, and filled fresh pipes.
Presently Smugg sidled in. We had seen little of him the last week; save when he was construing he had taken refuge in his own room. When he came in now, Gayford wagged his head significantly at me; apparently, it was my task to bell the cat. I rose, and went to the mantelpiece. Smugg had sat down at the table, and my back was to him. I took a match from the box, struck it, and applied it to my pipe, and, punctuating my words with interspersed puffings, I said carelessly:
"By the way, Smugg, Pyrrha's going to be married to Joe Shanks to-morrow."
I don't know how he looked. I kept my face from him, but, after a long minute's pause, he answered:
"Thank you, Robertson. It's Aeschylus this morning, isn't it?"
We had a noisy evening that night. I suppose we felt below par, and wanted cheering up. Anyhow, we made an expedition to the grocer's, and amazed him with a demand for his best champagne and his choicest sherry. We carried the goods home in a bag, and sat down to a revel. Smugg had some bread and cheese in his own room; he said that he had letters to write. We dined largely, and drank still more largely; then we sang, and at last--it was near on twelve, a terrible hour for that neighborhood--we made our way, amid much boisterousness and horseplay, to bed; where I, at least, was asleep in five minutes.
As the church clock struck two, I awoke. I heard a sound of movement in Smugg's room next door. I lay and listened. Presently his door opened, and he creaked gently downstairs. I sprang out of bed and looked out of the window. Smugg, fully dressed, was gliding along the path toward Dill's farm. Some impulse--curiosity only, very likely--made me jump into my trousers, seize a flannel jacket, draw on a pair of boots, and hastily follow him. When I got outside he was visible in the moonlight, mounting the path ahead of me. He held on his way toward the farm, I following. When he reached the yard he stopped for a moment, and seemed to peer up at the windows, which were all dark and unresponsive. I stood as quiet as I could, twenty yards from him, and moved cautiously on again when he turned to the right and passed through the gate into the meadows.
I saw no signs of Pyrrha. Smugg held on his way across the meadows, down toward the stream; and suddenly the thought leaped to my brain that the poor fool meant to drown himself. But I could hardly believe it. Surely he must merely be taking a desperate lover's ramble, a last sad visit to the scenes of his silly, irrational infatuation. If I went up to him, I should look a fool, too; so I hung behind, ready to turn upon him if need appeared.
He walked down to the very edge of the stream; it ran deep and fast just here, under a high bank and a row of old willows. Smugg sat down on the bank, wet though the grass was, and clasped his hands over his knees. I crouched down a little way behind him, ready and alert. I am a good swimmer, and I did not doubt my power to pull him out, even if I were not in time to prevent him jumping in. I saw him rise, look over the brink, and sit down again. I almost thought I saw him shiver. And presently, through the stillness of the summer night, came the strangest, saddest sound; catching my ear as it drifted across the meadow. Smugg was sobbing, and his sobs--never loud--rose and fell with the subdued stress of intolerable pain.
Suddenly he leaped up, cried aloud, and flung his hands above his head. I thought he was gone this time; but he stopped, poised, as it seemed, over the water, and I heard him cry, "I can't, I can't!" and he sank down all in a heap on the bank, and fell again to sobbing. I hope never to see a man--if you can call Smugg a man--like that again.
He sat where he was, and I where I was, till the moon paled and a distant hint of day discovered us. Then he rose, brushed himself with his hands, and slunk quickly from the bank. Had he looked anywhere but on the ground, he must have seen me; as it was, I only narrowly avoided him, and fell again into my place behind him. All the way back to our garden I followed him. As he passed through the gate, I quickened my pace, overtook him, and laid my hand on his arm. The man's face gave me what I remember my old nurse used to call "quite a turn."
"You're an average idiot, aren't you?" said I. "Oh, yes; I've been squatting in the wet by that infernal river, too. You ought to get three months, by rights."
He looked at me in a dazed sort of way.
"I daren't," he said. "I wanted to, but I daren't."
There is really nothing more. We went to the wedding, leaving Smugg in bed; and in the evening we, leaving Smugg still in bed (I told Mary to keep an eye on him), and carrying a dozen of the grocer's best port, went up to dance at Dill's farm. Joe was polished till I could almost see myself in his cheek, and Pyrrha looked more charming than ever. She and Joe were to leave us early, to go to Joe's own house in the village, but I managed to get one dance with her. Indeed, I believe she wanted a word with me.
"Well, all's well that ends well, isn't it?" I began. "No more scoldings! Not from Mrs. Dill, anyhow."
"You can't let that alone, sir," said Pyrrha.
I chuckled gently.
"Oh, I'll never refer to it again," said I. "This is a fine wedding of yours, Betsy."
"It's good of you and the other gentlemen to come, sir."
"We had to see the last of you," and I sighed very ostentatiously.
Pyrrha laughed. She did not believe in it, and she knew that I knew she did not, but the little compliment pleased her, all the same.
"Smugg," I pursued, "is ill in bed. But perhaps he wouldn't have come, anyhow."
"If you please, sir----" Pyrrha began; but she stopped.
"Yes, Betsy? What is it?"
"Would you take a message for me, sir?"
"If it's a proper one, Betsy, for a married lady to send."
She laughed a little, and said:
"Oh, it's no harm, sir. I'm afraid he aint--he's rather down, sir."
"Why, that Smugg, sir."
"Oh, that Smugg! Why, yes; a little down, Betsy, I fear."
"You might tell him as I bear no malice, sir--as I'm not angry-- with him, I mean."
"Certainly," said I. "It will probably do him good."
"He got me into trouble; but there, I can make allowances; and it's all right now, sir."
"In fact you forgive him?"
"I think you might tell him so, sir," said Betsy.
"But," said I, "are you aware that he was another's all the time?"
"Oh, yes! engaged to be married."
"Well, I never! Him! What, all the while he----"
"Well, that beats everything. Oh, if I'd known that!"
"I'll give him your message."
"No, sir, not now, I thank you. The villain!"
"You are right," said I. "I think your mother ought to have-- scolded him, too."
"Now you promised, sir----" but Joe came up, and I escaped.