THE SOUR FRENCH WINE
WHILE the line to be taken by the new railway between Culm and Everill was still under discussion, the engineer caused some difference of opinion among the moneyed men who were the first Directors of the Company, by asking if they proposed to include among their Stations the little old town of Honeybuzzard.
For years past, commerce had declined, and population had decreased in this ancient and curious place. Painters knew it well, and prized its mediaeval houses as a mine of valuable material for their art. Persons of cultivated tastes, who were interested in church architecture of the fourteenth century, sometimes pleased and flattered the Rector by subscribing to his fund for the restoration of the tower, and the removal of the accumulated rubbish of hundreds of years from the crypt. Small speculators, not otherwise in a state of insanity, settled themselves in the town, and tried the desperate experiment of opening a shop; spent their little capital, put up the shutters, and disappeared. The old market-place still showed its list of market-law’s, issued by the Mayor and Corporation in the prosperous bygone times; and every week there were fewer and fewer people to obey the laws. The great empty enclosure looked more cheerful, when there was no market held, and when the boys of the town played in the deserted place. In the last warehouse left in a state of repair, the crane was generally idle; the windows were mostly shut up; and a solitary man represented languishing trade, idling at a half-opened door. The muddy river rose and fell with the distant tide. At rare intervals a collier discharged its cargo on the mouldering quay, or an empty barge took in a load of hay. One bold house advertised, in a dirty window, apartments to let. There was a lawyer in the town, who had no occasion to keep a clerk; and there was a doctor who hoped to sell his practice for anything that it would fetch. The directors of the new railway, after a stormy meeting, decided on offering (by means of a Station) a last chance of revival to the dying town. The town had not vitality enough left to be grateful; the railway stimulant produced no effect. Of all his colleagues in Great Britain and Ireland, the station-master at Honeybuzzard was the idlest man—and this, as he said to the unemployed porter, through no want of energy on his own part.
Late on a rainy autumn afternoon, the slow train left one traveller at the Station. He got out of a first-class carriage; he carried an umbrella and a travelling-bag; and he asked his way to the best inn. The station-master and the porter compared notes. One of them said: “Evidently a gentleman.” The other added: “What can he possibly want here?”
The stranger twice lost his way in the tortuous old streets of the town before he reached the inn. On giving his orders, it appeared that he wanted three things: a private room, something to eat, and, while the dinner was being cooked, materials for writing a letter.
Answering her daughter’s questions downstairs, the landlady described her guest as a nice-looking man dressed in deep mourning. “Young, my dear, with beautiful dark brown hair, and a grand beard, and a sweet sorrowful look. Ah, his eyes would tell anybody that his black clothes are not a mere sham. Whether married or single, of course I can’t say. But I noticed the name on his travelling-bag. A distinguished name in my opinion—Hugh Mountjoy. I wonder what he’ll order to drink when he has his dinner? What a mercy it will be if we can get rid of another bottle of the sour French wine!”
The bell in the private room rang at that moment; and the landlady’s daughter, it is needless to say, took the opportunity of forming her own opinion of Mr. Hugh Mountjoy.
She returned with a letter in her hand, consumed by a vain longing for the advantages of gentle birth. “Ah, mother, if I was a young lady of the higher classes, I know whose wife I should like to be!” Not particularly interested in sentimental aspirations, the landlady asked to see Mr. Mountjoy’s letter. The messenger who delivered it was to wait for an answer. It was addressed to: “Miss Henley, care of Clarence Vimpany, Esquire, Honeybuzzard.” Urged by an excited imagination, the daughter longed to see Miss Henley. The mother was at a loss to understand why Mr. Mountjoy should have troubled himself to write the letter at all. “If he knows the young lady who is staying at the doctor’s house,” she said, “why doesn’t he call on Miss Henley?” She handed the letter back to her daughter. “There! let the ostler take it; he’s got nothing to do.”
“No, mother. The ostler’s dirty hands mustn’t touch it—I’ll take the letter myself. Perhaps I may see Miss Henley.” Such was the impression which Mr. Hugh Mountjoy had innocently produced on a sensitive young person, condemned by destiny to the barren sphere of action afforded by a country inn!
The landlady herself took the dinner upstairs—a first course of mutton chops and potatoes, cooked to a degree of imperfection only attained in an English kitchen. The sour French wine was still on the good woman’s mind. “What would you choose to drink, sir?” she asked. Mr. Mountjoy seemed to feel no interest in what he might have to drink. “We have some French wine, sir.”
“Thank you, ma’am; that will do.”
When the bell rang again, and the time came to produce the second course of cheese and celery, the landlady allowed the waiter to take her place. Her experience of the farmers who frequented the inn, and who had in some few cases been induced to taste the wine, warned her to anticipate an outbreak of just anger from Mr. Mountjoy. He, like the others, would probably ask what she “meant by poisoning him with such stuff as that.” On the return of the waiter, she put the question: “Did the gentleman complain of the French wine?”
“He wants to see you about it, ma’am.”
The landlady turned pale. The expression of Mr. Mountjoy’s indignation was evidently reserved for the mistress of the house. “Did he swear,” she asked, “when he tasted it?”
“Lord bless you, ma’am, no! Drank it out of a tumbler, and—if you will believe me—actually seemed to like it.”
The landlady recovered her colour. Gratitude to Providence for having sent a customer to the inn, who could drink sour wine without discovering it, was the uppermost feeling in her ample bosom as she entered the private room. Mr. Mountjoy justified her anticipations. He was simple enough—with his tumbler before him, and the wine as it were under his nose—to begin with an apology.
“I am sorry to trouble you, ma’am. May I ask where you got this wine?”
“The wine, sir, was one of my late husband’s bad debts. It was all he could get from a Frenchman who owed him money.”
“It’s worth money, ma’am.”
“Yes, indeed. This is some of the finest and purest claret that I have tasted for many a long day past.”
An alarming suspicion disturbed the serenity of the landlady’s mind. Was his extraordinary opinion of the wine sincere? Or was it Mr. Mountjoy’s wicked design to entrap her into praising her claret and then to imply that she was a cheat by declaring what he really thought of it? She took refuge in a cautious reply:
“You are the first gentleman, sir, who has not found fault with it.”
“In that case, perhaps you would like to get rid of the wine?” Mr. Mountjoy suggested.
The landlady was still cautious. “Who will buy it of me, sir?”
“I will. How much do you charge for it by the bottle?”
It was, by this time, clear that he was not mischievous—only a little crazy. The worldly-wise hostess took advantage of that circumstance to double the price. Without hesitation, she said: “Five shillings a bottle, sir.”
Often, too often, the irony of circumstances brings together, on this earthly scene, the opposite types of vice and virtue. A lying landlady and a guest incapable of deceit were looking at each other across a narrow table; equally unconscious of the immeasurable moral gulf that lay between them, Influenced by honourable feeling, innocent Hugh Mountjoy lashed the landlady’s greed for money to the full-gallop of human cupidity.
“I don’t think you are aware of the value of your wine,” he said. “I have claret in my cellar which is not so good as this, and which costs more than you have asked. It is only fair to offer you seven-and-sixpence a bottle.”
When an eccentric traveller is asked to pay a price, and deliberately raises that price against himself, where is the sensible woman—especially if she happens to be a widow conducting an unprofitable business—who would hesitate to improve the opportunity? The greedy landlady raised her terms.
“On reflection, sir, I think I ought to have ten shillings a bottle, if you please.”
“The wine may be worth it,” Mountjoy answered quietly; “but it is more than I can afford to pay. No, ma’am; I will leave you to find some lover of good claret with a longer purse than mine.”
It was in this man’s character, when he said No, to mean No. Mr. Mountjoy’s hostess perceived that her crazy customer was not to be trifled with. She lowered her terms again with the headlong hurry of terror. “You shall have it, Sir, at your own price,” said this entirely shameless and perfectly respectable woman.
The bargain having been closed under these circumstances, the landlady’s daughter knocked at the door. “I took your letter myself, sir,” she said modestly; “and here is the answer.” (She had seen Miss Henley, and did not think much of her.) Mountjoy offered the expression of his thanks, in words never to be forgotten by a sensitive young person, and opened his letter. It was short enough to be read in a moment; but it was evidently a favourable reply. He took his hat in a hurry, and asked to be shown the way to Mr. Vimpany’s house.
THE MAN SHE REFUSED
MOUNTJOY had decided on travelling to Honeybuzzard, as soon as he heard that Miss Henley was staying with strangers in that town. Having had no earlier opportunity of preparing her to see him, he had considerately written to her from the inn, in preference to presenting himself unexpectedly at the doctor’s house. How would she receive the devoted friend, whose proposal of marriage she had refused for the second time, when they had last met in London?
The doctor’s place of residence, situated in a solitary by-street, commanded a view, not perhaps encouraging to a gentleman who followed the medical profession: it was a view of the churchyard. The door was opened by a woman-servant, who looked suspiciously at the stranger. Without waiting to be questioned, she said her master was out. Mountjoy mentioned his name, and asked for Miss Henley.
The servant’s manner altered at once for the better; she showed him into a small drawing-room, scantily and cheaply furnished. Some poorly-framed prints on the walls (a little out of place perhaps in a doctor’s house) represented portraits of famous actresses, who had been queens of the stage in the early part of the present century. The few books, too, collected on a little shelf above the chimney-piece, were in every case specimens of dramatic literature. “Who reads these plays?” Mountjoy asked himself. “And how did Iris find her way into this house?”
While he was thinking of her, Miss Henley entered the room.
Her face was pale and careworn; tears dimmed her eyes when Mountjoy advanced to meet her. In his presence, the horror of his brother’s death by assassination shook Iris as it had not shaken her yet. Impulsively, she drew his head down to her, with the fond familiarity of a sister, and kissed his forehead. “Oh, Hugh, I know how you and Arthur loved each other! No words of mine can say how I feel for you.”
“No words are wanted, my dear,” he answered tenderly. “Your sympathy speaks for itself.”
He led her to the sofa and seated himself by her side. “Your father has shown me what you have written to him,” he resumed; “your letter from Dublin and your second letter from this place. I know what you have so nobly risked and suffered in poor Arthur’s interests. It will be some consolation to me if I can make a return—a very poor return, Iris—for all that Arthur’s brother owes to the truest friend that ever man had. No,” he continued, gently interrupting the expression of her gratitude. “Your father has not sent me here—but he knows that I have left London for the express purpose of seeing you, and he knows why. You have written to him dutifully and affectionately; you have pleaded for pardon and reconciliation, when he is to blame. Shall I venture to tell you how he answered me, when I asked if he had no faith left in his own child? ‘Hugh,’ he said, ‘you are wasting words on a man whose mind is made up. I will trust my daughter when that Irish lord is laid in his grave—not before.’ That is a reflection on you, Iris, which I cannot permit, even when your father casts it. He is hard, he is unforgiving; but he must, and shall, be conquered yet. I mean to make him do you justice; I have come here with that purpose, and that purpose only, in view. May I speak to you of Lord Harry?”
“How can you doubt it!”
“My dear, this is a delicate subject for me to enter on.”
“And a shameful subject for me!” Iris broke out bitterly. “Hugh! you are an angel, by comparison with that man—how debased I must be to love him—how unworthy of your good opinion! Ask me anything you like; have no mercy on me. Oh,” she cried, with reckless contempt for herself, “why don’t you beat me? I deserve it!”
Mountjoy was well enough acquainted with the natures of women to pass over that passionate outbreak, instead of fanning the flame in her by reasoning and remonstrance.
“Your father will not listen to the expression of feeling,” he continued; “but it is possible to rouse his sense of justice by the expression of facts. Help me to speak to him more plainly of Lord Harry than you could speak in your letters. I want to know what has happened, from the time when events at Ardoon brought you and the young lord together again, to the time when you left him in Ireland after my brother’s death. If I seem to expect too much of you, Iris, pray remember that I am speaking with a true regard for your interests.”
In those words, he made his generous appeal to her. She proved herself to be worthy of it.
Stated briefly, the retrospect began with the mysterious anonymous letters which had been addressed to Sir Giles.
Lord Harry’s explanation had been offered to Iris gratefully, but with some reserve, after she had told him who the stranger at the milestone really was. “I entreat you to pardon me, if I shrink from entering into particulars,” he had said. “Circumstances, at the time, amply justified me in the attempt to use the banker’s political influence as a means of securing Arthur’s safety. I knew enough of Sir Giles’s mean nature to be careful in trusting him; but I did hope to try what my personal influence might do. If he had possessed a tenth part of your courage, Arthur might have been alive, and safe in England, at this moment. I can’t say any more; I daren’t say any more; it maddens me when I think of it!” He abruptly changed the subject, and interested Iris by speaking of other and later events. His association with the Invincibles—inexcusably rash and wicked as he himself confessed it to be—had enabled him to penetrate, and for a time to defeat secretly, the murderous designs of the brotherhood. His appearances, first at the farmhouse and afterwards at the ruin in the wood were referable to changes in the plans of the assassins which had come to his knowledge. When Iris had met with him he was on the watch, believing that his friend would take the short way back through the wood, and well aware that his own life might pay the penalty if he succeeded in warning Arthur. After the terrible discovery of the murder (committed on the high road), and the escape of the miscreant who had been guilty of the crime, the parting of Lord Harry and Miss Henley had been the next event. She had left him, on her return to England, and had refused to consent to any of the future meetings between them which he besought her to grant.
At this stage in the narrative, Mountjoy felt compelled to ask questions more searching than he had put to Iris yet. It was possible that she might be trusting her own impressions of Lord Harry, with the ill-placed confidence of a woman innocently self-deceived.
“Did he submit willingly to your leaving him?” Mountjoy said.
“Not at first,” she replied.
“Has he released you from that rash engagement, of some years since, which pledged you to marry him?”
“Did he allude to the engagement, on this occasion?”
“He said he held to it as the one hope of his life.”
“And what did you say?”
“I implored him not to distress me.”
“Did you say nothing more positive than that?”
“I couldn’t help thinking, Hugh, of all that he had tried to do to save Arthur. But I insisted on leaving him—and I have left him.”
“Do you remember what he said at parting?”
“He said, ‘While I live, I love you.'”
As she repeated the words, there was an involuntary change to tenderness in her voice which was not lost on Mountjoy.
“I must be sure,” he said to her gravely, “of what I tell your father when I go back to him. Can I declare, with a safe conscience, that you will never see Lord Harry again?”
“My mind is made up never to see him again.” She had answered firmly so far. Her next words were spoken with hesitation, in tones that faltered. “But I am sometimes afraid,” she said, “that the decision may not rest with me.”
“What do you mean?”
“I would rather not tell you.”
“That is a strange answer, Iris.”
“I value your good opinion, Hugh, and I am afraid of losing it.”
“Nothing has ever altered my opinion of you,” he replied, “and nothing ever will.”
She looked at him anxiously, with the closest attention. Little by little, the expression of doubt in her face disappeared; she knew how he loved her—she resolved to trust him.
“My friend,” she began abruptly, “education has done nothing for me. Since I left Ireland, I have sunk (I don’t know how or why) into a state of superstitious fear. Yes! I believe in a fatality which is leading me back to Lord Harry, in spite of myself. Twice already, since I left home, I have met with him; and each time I have been the means of saving him—once at the milestone, and once at the ruin in the wood. If my father still accuses me of being in love with an adventurer, you can say with perfect truth that I am afraid of him. I am afraid of the third meeting. I have done my best to escape from that man; and, step by step, as I think I am getting away, Destiny is taking me back to him. I may be on my way to him here, hidden in this wretched little town. Oh, don’t despise me! Don’t be ashamed of me!”
“My dear, I am interested—deeply interested in you. That there may be some such influence as Destiny in our poor mortal lives, I dare not deny. But I don’t agree with your conclusion. What Destiny has to do with you and with me, neither you nor I can pretend to know beforehand. In the presence of that great mystery, humanity must submit to be ignorant. Wait, Iris—wait!”
She answered him with the simplicity of a docile child: “I will do anything you tell me.”
Mountjoy was too fond of her to say more of Lord Harry, for that day. He was careful to lead the talk to a topic which might be trusted to provoke no agitating thoughts. Finding Iris to all appearance established in the doctor’s house, he was naturally anxious to know something of the person who must have invited her—the doctor’s wife.
Categories: English Literature