The slave of the lamp, p.6
The Slave of the Lamp,
Henry Seton Merriman
Christian Vellacott soon descended the dingy stairs and joined thewestward-wending throng in the Strand. In the midst of the crowd he wasalone, as townsmen soon learn to be. The passing faces, the roar oftraffic, and the thousand human possibilities of interest around him inno way disturbed his thoughts. In his busy brain the traffic of thought,passing and repassing, crossing and recrossing, went on unaffected byoutward things. A modern poet has confessed that his muse loves thepavement--a bold confession, but most certainly true. Why does talentgravitate to cities? Because there it works its best--because frictionnecessarily produces brilliancy. Nature is a great deceiver; she drawsus on to admire her insinuating charms, and in the contemplation of themwe lose our energy.
Christian had been born and bred in cities. The din and roar of life wasto him what the voice of the sea is to the sailor. In the midst ofcrowded humanity he was in his element, and as he walked rapidly alonghe made his way dexterously through the narrow places without thinkingof it. While meditating deeply he was by no means absorbed. In hisactive life there had been no time for thoughts beyond the present, noleisure for dreaming. He could not afford to be absent-minded. Numbersof men are so situated. Their minds are required at all moments, in fullworking order, clear and rapid--ready, shoes on feet and staff in hand,to go whithersoever they may be called.
Although he was going to the saddest home that ever hung like amill-stone round a young neck, Christian wasted no time. The glory ofthe western sky lay ruddily over the river as he emerged from the smallstreets behind Chelsea and faced the broad placid stream. Presently hestopped opposite the door of a small red-brick house, which formed thecorner of a little terrace facing the river and a quiet street runninginland from it.
With a latch-key he admitted himself noiselessly--almostsurreptitiously. Once inside he closed the door without unnecessarysound and stood for some moments in the dark little entrance-hall,apparently listening.
Presently a voice broke the silence of the house. A querulous,high-pitched voice, quavering with the palsy of extreme age. The soundof it was no new thing for Christian Vellacott. To-night his lips gave alittle twist of pain as he heard it. The door of the room on the groundfloor was open, and he could hear the words distinctly enough.
"You know, Mrs. Strawd, we have a nephew, but he is always gaddingabout, I am sure; he has been a terrible affliction to us. A frothy,good-for-nothing boy--that is what he is. We have not set eyes on himfor a month or more. Why, I almost forget his name!"
"Christian, that is his name--a most inappropriate one, I am sure,"chimed in another voice, almost identical in tone. "Why Walter shouldhave given him such a name I cannot tell. Ah! sister Judith, things aredifferent from what they used to be when we were younger!"
The frothy one outside the door seemed in no great degree impressed bythese impartial views upon himself, though the pained look was stillupon his lips as he turned to hang up his hat.
"He's coming home to-night, though, Miss Judith," said another voice, ina coaxing, wheedling tone, such as one uses towards petulant children."He's coming home to-night, sure enough!" It was a pleasant voice, witha strong, capable ring about it. One instinctively felt that thepossessor of it was a woman to be relied upon at a crisis.
"Is he now--is he now?" said the first speaker reflectively. "Well, I amsure it is time he did. We will just give him a lesson, eh, sisterHester?--we will give him a lesson, shall we not?"
At this moment the door opened, and a little woman, quiet thoughsomewhat anxious looking, came out. She evinced no surprise at the sightof the good-for-nothing nephew in the dimly-lighted passage, greetinghim in a low voice.
"How have they been to-day, nurse?" he asked.
"Oh, they have been well enough, Master Christian," was the reply, in acheerful undertone.
"Aunt Judith has 'most got rid of her cold. But they've been verytrying, sir--just like children, as wilful as could be--the samequestion over and over again till I was fit to cry. They are quieternow, but--but it's you they're abusing now, Master Chris!"
The young fellow looked down into the little woman's face. His eyes weresympathetic enough, but he said nothing. With a little nod and asuppressed sigh he turned away from her. He laid his hand upon the doorand then stopped.
"As soon as you have brought up tea," he said, looking back, "I willtake them for the evening, and you can have your rest as usual."
From the room came, at intervals, the ring of silver, as if some onewere moving the spoons and forks from the table. Christian waited untilthese sounds had ceased before he entered.
"Good evening, Aunt Judith. Good evening, Aunt Hester," he saidcheerily.
They were exactly alike, these two old ladies; the same marvellouslywrinkled features and silver hair; voluminous caps and white woollenshawls identical. With exaggerated marks of respect he kissed each byturn on her withered cheek.
"May I sit down, Aunt Judith?" he asked, and without waiting for ananswer drew a chair towards the fireplace, where a small fire burntthough it was the month of August.
"Yes, Nephew Vellacott, you may take a seat," replied Aunt Judith withchill severity, "and you may also tell us where you have been during thelast four weeks."
Poor old human wreck! Only ten hours earlier her nephew had bid herfarewell for the day. Christian began an explanation in a weary,mechanical way, like an actor tired of the part assigned to him, but theold ladies would not listen. Aunt Hester interrupted him promptly.
"Your shallow excuses are wasted on us, Nephew Vellacott. You havedoubtless been away, enjoying yourself and leaving us--us who supportyou and deprive ourselves in order to keep a decent coat upon yourback--leaving us to the mercy of all the thieves in London. And tell us,pray--what are we to do for spoons and forks to-night?"
"What?" exclaimed Christian with perfunctory interest, "have the spoonsgone--?" he almost said "again," but checked himself in time. He turnedto look at the table, which had been carefully denuded of every piece ofsilver.
"There, you see!" quavered Aunt Judith triumphantly; and the two oldladies rubbed their hands, nodded their palsied old heads at each other,and chuckled in utter delight at their nephew's discomfiture, until AuntJudith was attacked by a violent fit of coughing, which seemed to betearing her to pieces. Christian watched her with the ready keenness ofa sick-nurse.
"How did it occur?" he asked, when the old lady had recovered.
"There, you see," remarked Aunt Hester, with the precise intonation ofher accomplice.
"I _am_ sure!" panted Aunt Judith triumphantly.
"I _am_ sure!" echoed Aunt Hester.
They allowed their nephew's remorse full scope, and then proceededlaboriously to extract the missing articles from the side of AuntJudith's arm-chair. This farce was rehearsed every night, nearly wordfor word. A pleasant recreation for an intellectual man, assuredly. Theonly relief to the monotony was the occasional loss of a spoon in thecrevice between the arm and the seat of Aunt Judith's chair. Thenfollowed such a fumbling and a "dear me-ing" until the worthless nephewwas perforce called to the rescue, to fish and probe with a paper-knifetill the lost treasure was recovered.
"We only wished, Nephew Vellacott, to show you what might have happenedduring your unconscionable absence. Servants are only too ready to talkto the first comer of their mistresses' wealth and position. They haveno discrimination." said Aunt Judith in a reproving tone. The old ladieswere very fond of boasting of their wealth and position, whereas, inreality, their nephew was the only barrier between them and theworkhouse.
"Well, Aunt Judith," replied Christian patiently, "I will try and stayat home more in future. But you know it is time I was doing something toearn my own livelihood now. I cannot exist on your kindness all mylife!"
He had learnt to humour these two silly old women. During the two yearswhich had just passed he had gradually recognised the utter futility ofendeavouring to make them realise the true state of their affairs. Theyspo
There is something pathetic about the decay of a mind which has beendriven to death by constant work, but there is a compensating thought toalleviate the sadness. It may rattle and grow loose, like some worn-outengine, where the friction presses; but it will work till it collapsestotally, and some of the work achieved is good and permanent. It isbound to be so. Infinitely sadder is the sight of a mind which isfalling to pieces by reason of the rust that has eaten into its verycore. For rust must needs mean idleness--and no human intellect_need_ be idle. So it had been with these two old ladies. Born in awofully unintellectual age, they had never left a certain groove inlife. When their brother married Christian Vellacott's grandmother, theyhad left his house in Honiton to go and live in Bodmin upon a limitedbut sufficient income. These "sufficient incomes" are a curse; they donot allow of charity and make no call for labour.
When Christian Vellacott arrived in England, an orphan with no greatwealth, he made it his first duty to visit the only living relations hepossessed. He was just in time to save them, literally, from starvation.It was obvious that he could not make a literary livelihood in Bodmin,so he made a home for the two old wrecks of humanity in London. Theirmeans, like their minds, were simply exhausted. Aunt Judith wasninety-three; Aunt Hester ninety-one. During that vast blank (for blankit was, so far as their lives were concerned) stretching away back intoa perspective of time which few around them could gauge--they had neverbeen separated for one day. Like two apples they had grown side by side,until their very contact had engendered disease--a slow, deadly,creeping rot, finding its source at the point of contact, reaching itsgoal at the heart of each. They had _existed_ thus with terriblelongevity--lived a mere animal life of sleeping and eating, such ashundreds of women are living around us now.
"Of course, you must learn to make your daily bread, Nephew Vellacott!"answered Aunt Hester. "The desire does you credit; but you should becareful into what society you go without us. Girls are very designing,and many a one would like to marry a nephew of mine--eh, Judith?"
"Yes, that they would," replied the old lady. "The minxes know that theymight do worse than catch the nephew of Judith and Hester Vellacott!"
"Look at us," continued Aunt Hester, drawing up her shrunken old formwith a touch of pride. "Look at us? We have always avoided marriage, andwe are very nice and happy, I am sure!"
She waited for a confirmation of this bold statement, but Christian wasnot listening. He was leaning forward with his hands clasped between hisknees, gazing into the fire. He was recalling the conversation which hadpassed in the little room in the Strand. Could he leave these twohelpless old creatures. Could he get away from it all for a littletime--away from the maddening prattle of unguided tongues, from thedread monotony of hopeless watching? He knew that he was wasting hismanhood, neglecting his intellectual opportunities, and endangering hiscareer; but his course of duty was marked out with terribledistinctness. He never saw the pathos of it, as a woman would have seenit, gathering perhaps some slight alleviation from the sight. It neverentered his thoughts to complain, and he never conceived the idea ofdrawing comparisons between his position and that of other young menwho, instead of being slaves to their relatives, made very good use ofthem. He merely went on doing his obvious duty and striving not to lookforward too eagerly to a release at some future period.
Fortunately, Mrs. Strawd was not long in bringing in the simple eveningmeal; and the attention of the old ladies was at once turned to themystery hidden beneath the dish-cover. What was it, and would there beenough for Nephew Vellacott?
Deftly, Christian poured out the tea. Two cups very weak and onestronger. Then two thin slices of crustless bread had to be buttered.This operation required great judgment and impartiality.
"Excuse me, Nephew Vellacott!" said Aunt Judith, with dangerousseverity. "Is that first slice intended for Aunt Hester? It appears tome that the butter is very thick--much thicker than on the second, whichis doubtless intended for me!"
"Do you think so, Aunt Judith?" asked Christian in a voice purposelyloud in order to drown Aunt Hester's remonstrance. "Then I will take alittle off!" He passed the knife harmlessly over the faulty slice, andlaid the two side by side upon a plate. Then the old ladies promptlyheld a survey on them--that declared to be more heavily buttered beingawarded to Aunt Judith in recognition of her seniority.
With similar fruitful topics of conversation the meal was pleasantlydespatched. The turn of Dick and Mick followed thereon. Dick, theproperty of Aunt Judith, was a canary of thoughtful temperament. Thepart he played in the domestic economy of the small household was acontemplative rather than an active one. Mick, Aunt Hester's bird, wasof a more lively nature. He had, as a rule, something to say upon allsubjects--and said it.
Now Aunt Hester, in her inmost heart, loved a silent bird, and secretlycoveted Dick, but as Mick was her property, and Dick the silent wasowned by Aunt Judith, she never lost an opportunity of enlarging uponthe stupidity and uselessness of silent birds. Aunt Judith, on the otherhand, admired a lively and talkative canary; consequently she wasweighed down with the conviction that her sister's bird was the superiorarticle. Altogether, birds as a topic of conversation were best avoided.Dick and Mick were housed in cages of similar build--indeed, most thingswere strictly in duplicate in the whole household. Every eveningChristian brought the cages, and Aunt Judith and Aunt Hester carefullyplaced within the wires a small piece of bread-and-butter, which NurseStrawd as carefully removed, untouched, the next morning.
When the birds' wants had been attended to, it was Christian's duty tosettle the old ladies comfortably in their respective arm-chairs. Thishe did tenderly and cleverly as a woman, but it was not a pleasant sightto look upon. The man, with his lean, strong face, long jaw, andprominent chin, was so obviously out of place. These peaceful dutieswere never meant for such as he. His somewhat closely-set eyes were notsuch as wax tender over drowning flies, for even in repose they weresomewhat direct and stern in their gaze. In fact, Christian Vellacottwas so visibly created for strife and the forefront of life's battle,that it was almost painful to see him fulfilling a more peacefulavocation.
As a rule he devoted himself to the amusement of his aged relatives foran hour or so; but this evening he sat down to the piano at once, withthe deliberate intention of playing them off to sleep. Ten o'clock wastheir hour for retiring, and before that they would not move, althoughthey dozed in their chairs.
He was no mean musician, this big West-countryman, with a true ear and atouch peculiarly light and tender for a man. He played gently anddrowsily for some time, half forgetting that he was not alone in theroom. Presently he turned round, letting his fingers rest on the keys.Aunt Judith was asleep, and Aunt Hester made a sign for him to go onplaying. Five minutes more, gradually toned down till the very soundsseemed to fall asleep, and Aunt Hester was peacefully slumbering.Silently the player rose, and crossing the room, he resumed his seat atthe table from which the white cloth had not yet been removed. Pen, ink,and paper were within reach, and in a few minutes he had written thefollowing note:--
"DEAR SIDNEY,--May I retract the letter I wrote yesterday and acceptyour invitation? I have been requested to take a holiday, and, ratherthan offend the powers that be, have given in. I can think of no happierway of spending it than in seeing you all again and recalling the jollyold Prague days. With kind regards, yours ever,
He folded the note and sli
"If I went away for three weeks," he said, "could you do without me?"
"Of course I could," replied the little woman readily. "Just you go awayand take a holiday, Master Christian. You need it sorely, that I know.You do indeed. We shall get on splendidly without you. I'll just have mysister to come and stay, same as I did when you had to go to the ParisHouse of Parliament."
"I have not had much of a holiday, you see, for two years now!"
"Of course you haven't, and you want it. It's only human nature--and youa young man that ought to be in the open air all day. For an old womanlike me it's different. We're made differently by the good God onpurpose, I think."
"Well, then, if your sister comes it must be understood, nurse, that Imake the same arrangement with her as exists with you. She must simplybe a duplicate of you--you understand?"
The little woman laughed, lightly enough.
"Oh, yes, Master Christian, that is all right. But you need not havetroubled about that. She never would have thought of such a thing aswages, I'm sure!"
"No," replied he gravely, "I know she would not, but it will be better,I think, to have it understood beforehand. Gratitude is a very nicething to work for, but some work is worth more than gratitude. If youare going out for your walk, perhaps you will post this letter."
Before Christian went to bed that night he held a candle close to themirror and looked long and hard at his own reflection. There were darkstreaks under his eyes, his small mouth was drawn and dry, his lipscolourless. At each temple the bone stood out rather prominently, andthe skin was brilliant in its whiteness and reflected the light of thecandle. He felt his own pulse. It was beating, at one moment fast andirregular, at the next it was hardly perceptible.
"Yes!" he muttered, with a professional nod--in his training as ajournalist he had learnt a little of many sciences--"yes, old Bodery wasright."
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