Read THE BEAUTIFUL WRETCH: CHAPTER XVII of The Beautiful Wretch The Pupil of Aurelius and The Four Macnicols , free online book, by William Black, on


’Oh, Nan, here is the cab. What shall I say to him? What am I to say to him?’

‘I think you ought to know yourself, dear,’ said Nan, gently, and then she slipped away from the room, leaving Madge alone and standing at the window.

But after all it was not so serious a matter. Some one came into the room, and Madge turned.

‘May I call you Madge?’ said he, holding both her hands.

She answered, with her eyes cast down

‘I suppose I must call you Frank.’

That was all, for at the same moment Mr. Tom was heard calling to his mother and sisters that Captain King had arrived; and directly after, Lady Beresford and Edith entered the room, followed by Mr. Tom, who was declaring that they must have dinner put forward to six o’clock, if they were all to go to the pantomime.

There was a little embarrassment not much. Frank King kept looking towards the door. He wondered why Nan had not come with the others. He was curious to see how much she had changed. Perhaps he should not even recognise her? Without scarcely knowing why, he was hoping she might not be quite like the Nan of former days.

Mr. Tom consulted his watch again.

‘Shall I ring and tell them to hurry on dinner, mother?’

‘We cannot alter the dinner hour now,’ Lady Beresford said, plaintively. ’It has already been altered once. Both Mr. Roberts and Mr. Jacomb promised to come at half-past six, so that you might all go to the pantomime together in good time.’

‘What?’ cried Mr. Tom. ‘Jacomb? Did you say Jacomb, mother?’

‘I said Mr. Roberts and Mr. Jacomb,’ said his mother.

‘And what the etcetera is he doing in that gallery!’ exclaimed Mr. Tom. ’Well, I guess we shall have a high old time of it at dinner. Soda-water and incense. But there’s one thing they always agree about. Get them on to port-wine vintages, and they run together like a brace of greyhounds.’

Here Captain King begged to be excused, as there was but little time for him to go along to his hotel and get dressed for this early dinner. When being accompanied to the door by Mr. Tom himself he had left, Madge said

‘How do you like him, mamma? Are you pleased with him?’

‘He has not spoken to me yet, you know,’ said the mother, wearily; she had had to go through several such scenes, and they worried her.

‘Oh, but it’s all arranged,’ Madge said, cheerfully. ’He won’t bother you about a solemn interview. It’s all arranged. How did you think he looked, Edith? I do hope he won’t lose that brown colour by not going back to sea; it suits him; I don’t like pastey-faced men. Now, Mr. Jacomb isn’t pastey-faced, although he is a clergyman. By-the-way, what has become of Nan?’

Nan had been quite forgotten. Perhaps she was dressing early, or looking after the dinner-table; at all events, it was time for the other sisters to go and get ready also.

Punctual to the moment, Captain King arrived at the door, and entered, and went upstairs. He was not a little excited. Now he would see Nan and not only her, but also this clergyman, whom he was also curious to see. At such a moment arriving as Madge’s accepted suitor it was not Nan that he ought to have been thinking about. But it was Nan whom his-first quick glance round the drawing-room sought out; and instantly he knew she was not there.

Everybody else was, however. Mr. Roberts, with his conspicuous red opal and diamonds, was standing on the hearth-rug with his back to the fire, talking to Lady Beresford, who was cushioned up in an easy-chair. Mr. Jacomb was entertaining the two sisters, Edith and Madge, who were laughing considerably. Mr. Tom was walking about with his hands in his pockets, ferocious, for dinner was already eighteen seconds late.

Frank King had not much time to study the looks or manners of this clergyman, to whom he was briefly introduced; for already his attention, which was at the moment exceedingly acute, was drawn to the opening of the door. It was Nan who slipped in, quietly. Apparently she had seen the others before; for when she caught sight of him, she at once advanced towards him, with a grave, quiet smile on her face, and an outstretched hand.

‘Oh, how do you do, Captain King,’ she said, in the most friendly way, and without the least trace of embarrassment.

Of course she looked at his eyes as she said so. Perhaps she did not notice the strange, startled look that had dwelt there for an instant as he regarded her a look as if he had seen some one whom he had not expected to see some one whom he almost feared to see. He could not speak, indeed. For the moment he had really lost command of himself, and seemed bewildered. Then he stammered

’How do you do, Miss Anne? I am glad to see you looking so well. You you have not altered much anything during these last three or four years.’

‘Oh, Nan has altered a great deal I can tell you,’ said Mr. Tom; ’and for the better. She isn’t half as saucy as she used to be.’

But Nan had turned to her mother, to say privately

’They are quite ready, mamma. The shades just came in time; and the candles are all lit now.’

Then she turned to Captain King again. If she was acting non-embarrassment, she was acting very well. The clear, friendly, gray-blue eyes regarded him with frankness; there was no touch of tell-tale colour in the fair, piquant, freckled face; she smiled, as if to one in whom she had perfect confidence.

‘It is so kind of you,’ she said, ’to have let my brother pay you a visit to Kingscourt; I am afraid he must be dull here sometimes. And he says he enjoyed it immensely, and that every one was so kind to him. I hope he didn’t disgrace himself I mean in the shooting; you see he has not had a great deal of practice.’

‘Oh, he shot very well,’ said Captain Frank King, somewhat hurriedly. ’Oh yes, very well. I should call him a very good shot. I am glad he liked his visit.’ But Frank King was not looking into Nan’s eyes as he spoke.

Then some one at the door said, ‘Dinner is served, your Ladyship;’ and the company arranged themselves according to order, and went downstairs. It fell to Captain King’s lot to go down last, with Lady Beresford; but when they reached the dining-table he found that his neighbour was to be Madge, and he was glad of that.

Nan was opposite to him; he had discovered that at the first glance, and thereafter he rather avoided looking that way. He endeavoured to entertain Lady Beresford, and occasionally spoke a little to Madge; but he was somewhat preoccupied on the whole; and very frequently he might have been caught regarding the clergyman-guest with an earnest scrutiny. Mr. Jacomb, to do him justice, was making himself the friend of everybody. He could talk well and pleasantly; he had a number of little jokes and stories; and he was making himself generally agreeable. The efflorescent Roberts was anxious to know as anxious, that is, as a very devoted regard for his menu would permit the precise position held by a certain High Churchman who was being harried and worried by the law courts at this time; but Mr. Jacomb, with great prudence, would have nothing to say on such subjects. He laughed the whole matter off. He preferred to tell anecdotes about his Oxford days; and gave you to understand that these were not far removed from the present time. You might have guessed that he and his companions were the least little bit wild. The names of highly respectable dignitaries in the Church were associated with stories of scrapes that were quite alarming, and with sayings that just bordered here and there on the irreverent. But then, to a clergyman much is permitted; for it is his business to know where the line should be drawn; other people might not feel quite so safe.

All this time Captain Frank King was intently regarding Mr. Jacomb; and Nan saw it. The smile died away from her face. She grew self-absorbed; she scarcely lifted her eyes.

‘Nan, what’s the matter with you?’ said her brother Tom to her, privately. ‘You’re not going to cry, are you?’

She looked up with her frank, clear eyes, and said

’I was trying to remember some lines near the beginning of Faust. They are about a clergyman and a comedian.’

This was beyond Mr. Tom; and so he said nothing. But what Nan had meant had been uttered in a moment of bitterness, and was entirely unjust. Mr. Jacomb was not failing in any proper respect for his sacred calling. But he was among some young people; he hoped they would not think his costume coercive; he wished to let them know that his youth also had only been the other day, as it were, and that he appreciated a joke as well as any one. If his speech at the moment was frivolous and, indeed, intentionally frivolous his life had not been frivolous. He had never intrigued or cajoled for preferment, but had done the work that lay nearest him. At Oxford he had toadied no one. And his ‘record,’ as the Americans say, in that parish in the southeast of London, was unblemished and even noble.

But he made a hash of it that evening, somehow. Nan Beresford grew more and more depressed and disheartened almost ashamed. If Frank King had not been there, perhaps she would have cared less; but she knew without daring to look that Frank King was regarding and listening with an earnest and cruel scrutiny.

When the time came for their starting for the theatre, Nan disappeared. Tom began to make a noise, and then the message came that, Please sir, Miss Anne had a headache, and might she be excused? Tom made a further noise, and declared that the whole thing must be put off. Go to see a pantomime without Nan he would not. Then a further message came from Miss Anne, saying that she would be greatly distressed if they did not go; and so, after no end of growling and grumbling, Mr. Tom put his party into two cabs and took them off. Nan heard the roll of the wheels lessen and cease.

It was about half-past eleven that night that someone noisily entered Nan’s room, and lit the gas. Nan opening her eyes for she was in bed and asleep beheld a figure there, all white with snow.

‘Oh, Nan,’ said this new-comer, in great excitement, ’I must tell you all about it. There has been such fun. Never such a gale known on the south coast ’

‘Child!’ said the now thoroughly awakened sister, ’go at once and take off your things. You will be wet through!’

‘Oh, this is nothing,’ said Madge, whose pink cheeks showed what she had faced. ’I left a whole avalanche in the hall. The streets are a foot deep already. Not a cab to be got. We had to fight our way from the theatre arm in arm; the wind and snow were like to lift us off our feet altogether. Frank said it reminded him of Canada. All the gentlemen are below; Tom would have them come in to get them some mulled claret.’

Madge’s ejaculatory sentences came to an end simply for want of breath. She was all panting.

’Such a laughing there was! Frank and I ran full tilt against a gentleman who was coming full sail before the wind. “Hard-a-port!” Frank cried. There was an awful smash. My hat blew off; and we hid in a doorway till Frank got it back again.’

At Nan’s earnest entreaties, her younger sister at last consented to take off her outer garments and robe herself in some of Nan’s meantime shaking a good deal of snow on to the carpet. Then she came and sat down.

‘I must tell you all about it, dear Nan,’ she said, ’for I am so happy; and it has been such a delightful evening. You can’t imagine what a splendid companion Frank is taking everything free and easy, and always in such a good humour. Well, we went to the theatre; and of course Edith wanted to show herself off, so I had the corner of the box with the curtains, and Frank sat next me, of course it was “Cinderella” beautiful! I never saw such brilliant costumes; and even Edith was delighted with the way they sang the music. Mind, we didn’t know that by this time the storm had begun. It was all like fairyland. But am I tiring you, Nan?’ said Madge with a sudden compunction. ‘Would you rather go to sleep again?’

‘Oh no, dear.’

‘Is your headache any better?’

‘A great deal.’

‘Shall I get you some eau-de-cologne?’

‘Oh no.’

’Does it sound strange to you that I should call him Frank? It did to me at first. But of course it had to be done; so I had to get over it.’

‘You don’t seem to have had much difficulty,’ said Nan, with an odd kind of smile.

‘Well,’ Madge confessed, ’he isn’t like other men. There’s no pretence about him. He makes friends with you at once. And you can’t be very formal with any one who is lugging you through the snow.’

‘No, of course not,’ said Nan gravely. ’I was not saying there could be anything wrong in calling him Frank.’

’Well, the pantomime; did I tell you how good it was? Mr. Roberts says he never saw such beautifully-designed dresses in London; and the music was lovely oh! if you had heard Cinderella, how she sang, you would have fallen in love with her, Nan. We all did. Then we had ices. There’s a song which Cinderella sings Frank promised to get for me; but I can’t sing. All I’m good for is to show off Edith.’

‘You ought to practise more, dear.’

’But it’s no good once you are married. You always drop it. If I have any time I’ll take to painting. You see you have no idea, in a house like this, the amount of trouble there is in keeping up a place like Kingscourt.’

‘But you know, Madge, Mrs. Holford King is there.’

‘She can’t be there always; she’s very well up in years,’ said the practical Madge. ’And you know the whole estate is now definitely settled on Frank though there are some heavy mortgages. We shan’t be able to entertain much for the first few years, I daresay but we shall always be glad to have you, Nan.’

Nan did not say anything; she turned her face away a little bit.

‘Nan,’ said her sister, presently, ’didn’t Mary and Edith have a notion that Captain King was at one time rather fond of you?’

Nan’s face flushed hastily.

‘They they imagined something of that kind, I believe.’

‘But was it true?’

Nan raised herself up, and took her sister’s hand in her two hands.

‘You see, dear,’ she said, gently, and with her eyes cast down, ’young men I mean very young men have often passing fancies that don’t mean very much. Later on they make their serious choice.’

‘But,’ said Madge, persistently, ’but I suppose he never really asked you to be his wife?’

‘His wife!’ said Nan, with well-simulated surprise. ’Recollect, Madge, I was just over seventeen. You don’t promise to be anybody’s wife at an age like that; you are only a child then.’

‘I am only eighteen,’ said Madge.

’But there is a great difference. And recollect that Captain King is now older, and knows better what his wishes are, and what way his happiness lies. You ought to be very proud, Madge; and you should try to make him proud of you also.’

’Oh, I will, Nan; I will really. I wish you would teach me a lot of things.’

‘What things?’

’Oh, you know. All the sort of stuff that you know. Tidal waves and things.’

‘But Captain King won’t have anything more to do with tidal waves.’

’Then we’ll go round the shops to-morrow, Nan; and you’ll tell me about Chippendale furniture and blue china.’

’Don’t you think there will be enough of that at Kingscourt; and just such things as you couldn’t get to buy in any shops?’

‘Then what am I to do, Nan?’

‘You can try to be a good wife, dear; and that’s better than anything.’

Madge rose.

’I’ll let you off, Nan. But I do feel terribly selfish. I haven’t said a single word about you ’

‘Oh, but I don’t want anything said about me,’ said Nan, almost in alarm.

’Well, you know, Nan, everybody says this: that a clergyman’s wife has more opportunities of doing good than any other woman; for, you see, they are in the middle of it all, and they can interfere as no one else can, and it is expected of them, and the poor people don’t object to them as they might to others.’

‘Oh, I think that is quite true,’ said Nan, thoughtfully perhaps with a slight sigh. ‘Yes, I have often thought of that.’

‘And you know, dear, that was what Providence meant you to be,’ said Madge, with a friendly smile. ’That is just what you were made for to be kind to other people. Good-night, old Mother Nan!’

‘Good-night, dear.’

They kissed each other; and Madge turned off the gas and left. Presently, however, Madge returned, opened the door, and came in on tiptoe.

‘Nan, you are not asleep yet?’

‘Of course not.’

’I wanted to ask you, Nan; do you think he would like me to work a pair of slippers for him?’

‘No doubt he would,’ was the quiet answer.

’For I was thinking it would be so nice if you would come with me to-morrow and help me to choose the materials; and then, you see, Nan, you might sketch me some design, out of your own head, for you are so clever at those things, and that would be better than a shop pattern. And then,’ added Madge, ‘I should tell him it was your design.’

Nan paused for a second.

’I will do whatever you want, Madge but you must not say that I made the design for you. It won’t be worth much at the best. I would rather have nothing said about it, dear.’

‘Very well, Nan; that’s just like you.’