Read CHAPTER II - THE "COUP DE GRACE" of A Houseful of Girls , free online book, by Sarah Tytler, on ReadCentral.com.

The crisis had come. Dr. Millar had granted a final formal interview, not without some agitation on the father’s part, to the still more agitated suitor; and after assuring him of the paternal good-will, had turned him over to the daughter the whole being done with a sorrowful prescience, shared by the unfortunate young man, of what the answer would be.

Poor Dora was hardly less to be pitied, for she had to be brought up to the supreme effort of dealing the coup de grace. Nobody could do it for her, even her mother told her that severely, in order to brace the girlish nerves, when Dora gave way to the first cowardly instinct of seeking to shirk the ordeal. If a girl was old enough to receive an offer of marriage, she was old enough to answer it for herself in person. It was the least return she could make for the high compliment which had been paid to her, to see the man and tell him with her own lips that she would have nothing to say to the honest heart and liberal hand, for he had hinted at generous settlements, which he had been only too eager to lay at her feet.

It was little use even for mild Dora to protest that she had not wished for such a compliment, and had done nothing to provoke it, so that the reckless compliment-payer was but receiving his deserts in an unconditional refusal. It did not make the step easier for her. It was no joke to her, whatever it might be to her hard-hearted young sisters.

To tell the truth, Rose and May, aye, even Annie, took much lively diversion, as Dora guessed, in secretly watching the entire proceeding. The sisters found out the hour of the compulsory interview. They covertly looked out for the arrival of the commonplace wooer anything save their idea of a lover and hero. They keenly took note of him from an upper window as he walked with a certain studied composure, yet with a blankness of aspect, through the shrubbery. They even deigned Annie as well as Rose and May surreptitiously to inspect the poor wretch between the bannisters of the staircase, as he ran desperately up the stairs, thrusting one hand through his foxy hair and carrying his hat in the other, and vanished into the drawing-room.

After this brutal behaviour on the part of a trio of English girls, one must show a little moderation in condemning the cruel conduct of the Roman dames, who contemplated with zest the deadly contests of the gladiators in the arena; at least the gladiators were strangers and barbarians, not fellow-townsmen and near relations.

As for the present victim, he was happily unconscious of any spectator beyond Bella the house-maid, but he felt relieved to be delivered from her compassionate stare. He had an instinctive sense that she knew as well as he did what he had come there for, and was pitying him an inference in which he was quite correct. For Bella was older than the unseen “chorus” on the landing, who did not think of pitying him. She had seen more of the world, and was better acquainted with its cares and troubles. She called him in her own mind “the poor young gent!” It occurred to her as it did not occur to the others, that he might take to bad ways and be a lost man, like Jem Wade the carpenter, after her pretty, flighty sister Lotty had given him the sack. Nothing less than that might be the end of this day’s work.

But such a way of looking on a lover and his woes was far from the thoughts of Bella’s young mistresses. On the contrary, they had difficulty in restraining merry little titters, though Annie did take herself to task and murmur “For shame!” when Rose made a solemn, stupid face like what she considered Tom Robinson’s on this occasion.

To do the girls justice, however, they did not laugh when Dora, who had been with her mother, came slowly across the lobby and followed the visitor into the drawing-room in order to administer the coup de grace. It might have been a veritable dagger-thrust to be dealt by a weak little shrinking hand, with the owner’s head turned and face averted such a white, grieved, frightened girl’s face it was.

Her companions’ eyes were opened, for the instant a fellow-feeling smote them. This was no light jest or piece of child’s play; it might be their turn next. Oh! who would not be sorry for Dora to have to inflict real pain and bitter disappointment, to be condemned to kill a man’s faith in woman, perhaps, certainly to murder his peace and happiness for the present, to extinguish the sweetest, brightest dream of his early manhood, for he would never have another quite so tender and radiant? Would Dora ever be quite the same again after she had done so hard a thing?

Annie pulled herself up and accused herself of getting absolutely maudlin. The idea of Tom Robinson of “Robinson’s,” with his middle size, matter-of-fact air, and foxy hair and moustache, entertaining such a dream and relinquishing it with a pang of mortal anguish that would leave a long sickening heart-ache behind! It was the infection of all the silly love stories she had ever read which had received a kind of spurious galvanic life from the very ordinary circumstance, the feather in her cap, as so many girls would have regarded it, of Dora, having to receive and refuse an offer of marriage. Why, she Annie and her sisters, including Dora herself, had been much diverted by it, as well as interested in it, until the dramatic crisis had somehow taken their breath away also, and startled them by a glimpse of the other side of the question. But though Annie strove to recover her equanimity, and Rose tried to hum a tune softly as the girls still loitered behind the bannisters, to see the end of the play, they said nothing more to each other; a sort of shyness and shame had stolen over them. It was not enough to make them run away, especially as each did not realize that what she felt was common to all. Only their lips were chained simultaneously, and they were disposed to turn aside their heads and avert their eyes, like Dora when she killed her man.

The deed did not take long not more than was necessary for him to plead once or twice with small variation on the words, “Will you not think of it, Dora? Can you not give it a little consideration? Perhaps if I were to wait, and you were to try ”

And for Dora to answer with drooping head, panting breast, and still less variety in her phrases, “Oh, no, no, Mr. Tom. Of course, I am very much obliged to you for thinking a great deal more of me than I deserve. But, indeed, indeed, it cannot be you must give it up this foolish fancy. It is a great pity that you have wasted time on such an absurd idea.”

“Wasted time!” he repeated, with a little irony and a little pathos. “Well, I don’t think it wasted even at this moment and and the idea does not seem so absurd to me; but I will not distress you by forcing my wishes upon you when you are so averse to them. You will allow me to continue your friend, Miss Dora?”

“Yes, oh yes,” sighed Dora, who would have said anything, short of agreeing to marry him, to get him to go away, “if you like, after what has happened. I know I don’t deserve your friendship; but, indeed, I could not help it, Mr. Robinson. I never guessed till lately that you thought of anything else, and then I would have stopped you, but I could not.”

“Don’t blame yourself,” he said with a faint smile, “I am not blaming you. I shall count it a favour, an honour, if you will let me do anything for you that I can.”

“Thank you very much,” she murmured humbly.

“Then you will accept a little mark of my friendly feelings?” He took a small case from his waistcoat pocket, opened it, and drew from it a valuable ring, holding it out to her.

They were the most beautiful rubies and sapphires she had ever seen. But she would not touch it; she even put her hands behind her back in her confusion and dismay. “I could not; I ought not. It is far too costly a thing, I can see that at a glance. You must keep it; you will find some far fitter girl to give it to.”

He shook his head, hesitated, and then took an old-fashioned little vinaigrette case, shaped like a tiny gold box, from the watch-chain at which he wore it. “Will you accept this from me, then? It was my mother’s, and I should like you to have it.”

“It’s so good of you,” the girl faltered. “I don’t like to deprive you of what was your mother’s, but if you care that I should have it ”

“I do care,” he said.

That last little episode was entirely between themselves. When she quitted the room, not crying, but paler than before, she had the vinaigrette case clasped tightly in her hand, while nobody except Tom Robinson knew of the gift.

He let her go, and then he left the house. When he did so there was that in his face which caused Rose Millar to cry under her breath, “Come away. It is not fair to spy upon him. I’ll never want to see anybody refused again.” As for “little May,” she burst into tears, though the principals had shed no tears.

“Hold your tongue, you little goose,” remonstrated the disturbed Annie. “He may hear you. School-girls like you and Rose should not meddle in grown-up people’s affairs.”

“I thought I had left school after the Christmas holidays,” said Rose, interrogating the world in an abstract fashion. She was herself again on the instant, carrying her funny little crumpled nose well in the air.

“It is dreadful,” said May, with a half-suppressed sob, “and he was so good-natured. He promised only last week to get Rose and me a fox-terrier puppy.”

“Oh, you selfish little creature! It is over the failure of the prospective puppy and not over the sorrows of the rejected man you are lamenting. Never mind, Maisie, I doubt if mother would have allowed us to keep the puppy. As for Mr. Tom Robinson, he is cut up just now, of course; but he will soon get over it. How long does it take a man to forget, Annie? Anyhow, presently he will be busily directing his attentions in another quarter, until the day may come, after he is successful and triumphant, well pleased with himself and his choice, when he will heartily thank Dora there for having administered to him the cold bath of a rejection, so nipping his first raw aspirations in the bud.”

“No, no,” insisted May; “you are so cynical, Rose, like everybody else now-a-days, and I hate it. He can never be glad to have lost Dora.”

“Don’t you agree with me, Annie?” Rose maintained her point.

“Really, you seem to be so well informed on the subject yourself though I cannot think where you have got your experience, any more than your slang, unless at second-hand” said Annie sarcastically, “that my opinion is of no importance.”

“Now, don’t be nasty and elder-sisterish,” was Rose’s quick rejoinder.

Though Dora shed no tears of contrition in public, Annie, who shared her sister’s room, heard her in the night crying softly.

“What ails you, Dora dear?” Annie sat up and asked sleepily. “What is the matter? It can’t be, no,” rousing herself, “it can not be you don’t mean that you repent what you’ve done, and would swallow the shop, foxy hair, and everything?”

“Oh, no,” denied Dora, “but I didn’t think a man would care like that; such a queer, gray shade came over his face, though I durst hardly look at him; and his hands which were well, were holding mine for a second, you know ”

“No, I don’t know,” interrupted Annie, smiling to herself; “but go on, what about the hands?”

“They were as cold as ice.”

“Very likely, it is only the month of April.”

“And it is not above a year since he lost both his father and mother all the near relations he had.”

“Poor man!” admitted Annie. “But you could not help that, and many men, young men especially, seem to get on quite well without near relations.”

There was a strain of hardness about pretty Annie, whether bred of that cynicism in the air of which May had complained, whether it was an integral part of Annie, or whether, as in the case of some valuable kinds of timber, it was merely an indication of the closer grain, the slower ripening, and the greater power of endurance of the moral fibre.

“Men are not like women.” Annie was continuing her lecture. “I dare say Tom Robinson will do very well all the better, perhaps, because he has no ambition, and is content to make money in the most humdrum way as a tradesman.”

Dora sat up in turn, like a white ghost in her place in her little bed, seen by the dim light. She had the instinct which causes women to look back upon the men who have made love or proposed to them, even though the women have rejected the men as in a sense their property, if not their prey, so as not by any means to relish the men’s depreciation at the hands of other women. Then it becomes a point of honour alike with the proudest and the meekest of her sex to stand up in his absence in defence of the discarded swain.

“I don’t know about ambition,” began Dora hesitatingly, “but father says Tom Robinson is not at all stupid; he took his degree with credit at Cambridge, and was not plucked like poor Ned Hewett, or that fop, Cyril Carey. Father says when he worked with Mr. Robinson in getting up the bill to lay before Parliament for closing the old churchyard, he could not have desired a more intelligent, diligent fellow-worker. All the salesmen and women at ‘Robinson’s’ have been well looked after, and are superior to the other shop-people in the town, don’t you know? There is Miss Franklin at the head of both the millinery and mantua-making departments; I am sure she looks and speaks, as well as dresses, like a lady?”

“Yes, and everybody is civil to her, but nobody thinks of making her acquaintance out of the shop, and she is wise enough to keep to her proper sphere. They say she is a distant relation of Tom Robinson’s you see he is not altogether destitute of kindred. Why does the man not marry her? That would be a suitable match.”

“Annie!” protested Dora, in nearly speechless indignation, and then she recovered breath and words. “She’s forty if she’s a day; and she’s as fat as a pin-cushion, with her cheeks a mottled red all over.”

“How can you make such unkind remarks on your neighbours’ looks? He is not an Adonis, I may be allowed to say; and I have noticed that shopkeepers are apt to marry women older than themselves, women who have been in the trade to keep the business together, I suppose.”

“At least, his father did not marry like that either in his first or in his second marriage,” retorted Dora; “for the first Mrs. Robinson was the daughter of a curate, and the second of a farmer, and she was not half his age, though she did not survive him long.”

“As you please. What’s Hecuba to me, or what am I to Hecuba?” demanded Annie airily.

“Besides,” Dora returned laboriously to the charge, “there are shopkeepers and shopkeepers, as you must be aware, Annie. Father says old Mr. Robinson was a man of independent ideas and original mind, and had his own theories of trade.”

“I have nothing to say against it, especially at this hour of the night, or morning,” said Annie, professing to strangle a yawn; “only that I do not think a linen-draper’s business, however large and well-conducted, is exactly the career of a gentleman, a man of fair ability and education. He might leave it to any respectable well-disposed tradesman. However, if you are going to exalt Tom Robinson, with his shop, into a patriot and philanthropist cherishing a noble scheme for the public good, and all that kind of thing, do it if you like, nobody will hinder you. Call him back if you care to, I dare say it is still possible if you are willing to make the concession. But oh, Dora!” appealed Annie, who had talked herself wide awake by this time, “don’t forget the loss of position involved in really keeping a shop, however eccentric and meritorious a man’s intentions may be. Why, he had better become a stonemason or a ploughman, if he is to do the thing at all; far better a gamekeeper or a soldier in time of war, the plunge would be deeper but more picturesque. Think of the entire breaking with the county with which we have a right to hold ourselves connected, not merely because father’s patients are willing to take us up and make quite a fuss about us sometimes, but because his Aunt Penny married and was welcomed into that set. You have not yourself alone to consider, remember, Dora; you might not mind, but you have the rest of us to think of, some of whom would mind very much.”

“You need have no anxiety about the matter,” said poor Dora hotly and huffily. “I am not going to marry Tom Robinson; you know I have refused him this very afternoon.”

But Annie was determined to empty out her whole budget of warnings. “Even professional people like father, all our friends and acquaintances, our relations on both sides of the house would begin to drop us, and fight shy of us. What people that had any pretensions to being gentle-folks would care to be mixed up with our brother-in-law the linen-draper? And it is not as if the temptation were great; I cannot see wherein the attraction lies; but instead of letting it beset you, please don’t lose sight of the three hundred and sixty-five days to be spent every year in Tom Robinson’s silent company. Think of the three hundred and sixty-five breakfasts, dinners, and suppers to be eaten opposite his mute figure.”

“Stop, Annie,” Dora cried energetically: “you know as well as I do that I could never face such a thing, that I never dreamt of it. Only loving a man could make it possible for a girl to give up her family in order to belong to him; and even if there had been no ‘Robinson’s’ to shock you, I do not care the least little bit for poor Tom Robinson; yet surely for that very reason,” protested Dora with a sudden revulsion of feeling, “I am at liberty to pity him.”

“If you will take my advice, Dora,” said shrewd Annie, sinking back on her pillow as a sign that the untimely discussion ought to come to an end, “you will get rid of your pity as quickly as you can. It is not your pity which he seeks very likely he would rage like a bear, for as quiet as he can look, at the mere mention of it. But it strikes me that it is not safe for either of you.”