MoboReader> Literature > The Disentanglers

   Chapter 5 THE ADVENTURE OF THE OFFICE SCREEN

The Disentanglers By Andrew Lang Characters: 23027

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


It is not to be supposed that all the enterprises of the Company of Disentanglers were fortunate. Nobody can command success, though, on the other hand, a number of persons, civil and military, are able to keep her at a distance with surprising uniformity. There was one class of business which Merton soon learned to renounce in despair, just as some sorts of maladies defy our medical science.

'It is curious, and not very creditable to our chemists,' Merton said, 'that love philtres were once as common as seidlitz powders, while now we have lost that secret. The wrong persons might drink love philtres, as in the case of Tristram and Iseult. Or an unskilled rural practitioner might send out the wrong drug, as in the instance of Lucretius, who went mad in consequence.'

'Perhaps,' remarked Logan, 'the chemist was voting at the Comitia, and it was his boy who made a mistake about the mixture.'

'Very probably, but as a rule, the love philtres worked. Now, with all our boasted progress, the secret is totally lost. Nothing but a love philtre would be of any use in some cases. There is Lord Methusalem, eighty if he is a day.'

'Methusalem has been unco "wastefu' in wives"!' said Logan.

'His family have been consulting me-the women in tears. He will marry his grandchildren's German governess, and there is nothing to be done. In such cases nothing is ever to be done. You can easily distract an aged man's volatile affections, and attach them to a new charmer. But she is just as ineligible as the first; marry he will, always a young woman. Now if a respectable virgin or widow of, say, fifty, could hand him a love philtre, and gain his heart, appearances would, more or less, be saved. But, short of philtres, there is nothing to be done. We turn away a great deal of business of that sort.'

The Society of Disentanglers, then, reluctantly abandoned dealings in this class of affairs.

In another distressing business, Merton, as a patriot, was obliged to abandon an attractive enterprise. The Marquis of Seakail was serving his country as a volunteer, and had been mentioned in despatches. But, to the misery of his family, he had entangled himself, before his departure, with a young lady who taught in a high school for girls. Her character was unimpeachable, her person graceful; still, as her father was a butcher, the duke and duchess were reluctant to assent to the union. They consulted Merton, and assured him that they would not flinch from expense. A great idea flashed across Merton's mind. He might send out a stalwart band of Disentanglers, who, disguised as the enemy, might capture Seakail, and carry him off prisoner to some retreat where the fairest of his female staff (of course with a suitable chaperon), would await him in the character of a daughter of the hostile race. The result would probably be to detach Seakail's heart from his love in England. But on reflection, Merton felt that the scheme was unworthy of a patriot.

Other painful cases occurred. One lady, a mother, of resolute character, consulted Merton on the case of her son. He was betrothed to an excitable girl, a neighbour in the country, who wrote long literary letters about Mr. George Meredith's novels, and (when abroad) was a perfect Baedeker, or Murray, or Mr. Augustus Hare: instructing through correspondence. So the matron complained, but this was not the worst of it. There was an unhappy family history, of a kind infinitely more common in fiction than in real life. To be explicit, even according to the ideas of the most abject barbarians, the young people, unwittingly, were too near akin for matrimony.

'There is nothing for it but to tell both of them the truth,' said Merton. 'This is not a case in which we can be concerned.'

The resolute matron did not take his counsel. The man was told, not the girl, who died in painful circumstances, still writing. Her letters were later given to the world, though obviously not intended for publication, and only calculated to waken unavailing grief among the sentimental, and to make the judicious tired. There was, however, a case in which Merton may be said to have succeeded by a happy accident. Two visitors, ladies, were ushered into his consulting room; they were announced as Miss Baddeley and Miss Crofton.

Miss Baddeley was attired in black, wore a thick veil, and trembled a good deal. Miss Crofton, whose dress was a combination of untoward but decisive hues, and whose hat was enormous and flamboyant, appeared to be the other young lady's confidante, and conducted the business of the interview.

'My dear friend, Miss Baddeley,' she began, when Miss Baddeley took her hand, and held it, as if for protection and sympathy. 'My dear friend,' repeated Miss Crofton, 'has asked me to accompany her, and state her case. She is too highly strung to speak for herself.'

Miss Baddeley wrung Miss Crofton's hand, and visibly quivered.

Merton assumed an air of sympathy. 'The situation is grave?' he asked.

'My friend,' said Miss Crofton, thoroughly enjoying herself, 'is the victim of passionate and unavailing remorse, are you not, Julia?' Julia nodded.

'Deeply as I sympathise,' said Merton, 'it appears to me that I am scarcely the person to consult. A mother now-'

'Julia has none.'

'Or a father or sister?'

'But for me, Julia is alone in the world.'

'Then,' said Merton, 'there are many periodicals especially intended for ladies. There is The Woman of the World, The Girl's Guardian Angel, Fashion and Passion, and so on. The Editors, in their columns, reply to questions in cases of conscience. I have myself read the replies to Correspondents, and would especially recommend those published in a serial conducted by Miss Annie Swan.'

Miss Crofton shook her head.

'Miss Baddeley's social position is not that of the people who are answered in periodicals.'

'Then why does she not consult some discreet and learned person, her spiritual director? Remorse (entirely due, no doubt, to a conscience too delicately sensitive) is not in our line of affairs. We only advise in cases of undesirable matrimonial engagements.'

'So we are aware,' said Miss Crofton. 'Dear Julia is engaged, or rather entangled, in-how many cases, dear?'

Julia shook her head and sobbed behind her veil.

'Is it one, Julia-nod when I come to the exact number-two? three? four?'

At the word 'four' Julia nodded assent.

Merton very much wished that Julia would raise her veil. Her figure was excellent, and with so many sins of this kind on her remorseful head, her face, Merton thought, must be worth seeing. The case was new. As a rule, clients wanted to disentangle their friends and relations. This client wanted to disentangle herself.

'This case,' said Merton, 'will be difficult to conduct, and the expenses would be considerable. I can hardly advise you to incur them. Our ordinary method is to throw in the way of one or other of the engaged, or entangled persons, some one who is likely to distract their affections; of course,' he added, 'to a more eligible object. How can I hope to find an object more eligible, Miss Crofton, than I must conceive your interesting friend to be?'

Miss Crofton caressingly raised Julia's veil. Before the victim of remorse could bury her face in her hands, Merton had time to see that it was a very pretty one. Julia was dark, pale, with 'eyes like billiard balls' (as a celebrated amateur once remarked), with a beautiful mouth, but with a somewhat wildly enthusiastic expression.

'How can I hope?' Merton went on, 'to find a worthier and more attractive object? Nay, how can I expect to secure the services not of one, but of four-'

'Three would do, Mr. Merton,' explained Miss Crofton. 'Is it not so, Julia dearest?'

Julia again nodded assent, and a sob came from behind the veil, which she had resumed.

'Even three,' said Merton, gallantly struggling with a strong inclination to laugh, 'present difficulties. I do not speak the idle language of compliment, Miss Crofton, when I say that our staff would be overtaxed by the exigencies of this case. The expense also, even of three-'

'Expense is no object,' said Miss Crofton.

'But would it not, though I seem to speak against my own interests, be the wisest, most honourable, and infinitely the least costly course, for Miss Baddeley openly to inform her suitors, three out of the four at least, of the actual posture of affairs? I have already suggested that, as the lady takes the matter so seriously to heart, she should consult her director, or, if of the Anglican or other Protestant denomination, her clergyman, who I am sure will agree with me.'

Miss Crofton shook her head. 'Julia is unattached,' she said.

'I had gathered that to one of the four Miss Baddeley was-not indifferent,' said Merton.

'I meant,' said Miss Crofton severely, 'that Miss Baddeley is a Christian unattached. My friend is sensitive, passionate, and deeply religious, but not a member of any recognised denomination. The clergy-'

'They never leave one alone,' said Julia in a musical voice. It was the first time that she had spoken. 'Besides-' she added, and paused.

'Besides, dear Julia is-entangled with a young clergyman whom, almost in despair, she consulted on her case-at a picnic,' said Miss Crofton, adding, 'he is prepared to seek a martyr's fate, but he insists that she must accompany him.'

'How unreasonable!' murmured Merton, who felt that this recalcitrant clergyman was probably not the favourite out of the field of four.

'That is what I say,' remarked Miss Crofton. 'It is unreasonable to expect Julia to accompany him when she has so much work to overtake in the home field. But that is the way with all of them.'

'All of them!' exclaimed Merton. 'Are all the devoted young men under vows to seek the crown of martyrdom? Does your friend act as recruiting sergeant, if you will pardon the phrase, for the noble army of martyrs?'

'Three of them have made the most solemn promises.'

'And the fourth?'

'He is not in holy orders.'

'Am I to understand that all the three admirers about whom Miss Baddeley suffers remorse are clerics?'

'Yes. Julia has a wonderful attraction for the Church,' said Miss Crofton, 'and that is what causes her difficulties. She can't write to them, or communicate to them in personal interviews (as you advised), that her heart is no longer-'

'Theirs,' said Merton. 'But why are the clergy more privileged than the laity? I have heard of such things being broken to laymen. Indeed it has occurred to many of us, and we yet live.'

'I have urged the same facts on Julia myself,' said Miss Crofton. 'Indeed I know, by personal experience, that what you say of the laity is true. They do not break their hearts when disappointed. But Julia replies that for her to act as you and I would advise might be to shatter the young clergymen's ideals.'

'To shatter the ideals of three young men in holy orders!' said Merton.

'Yes, for Julia is their ideal-Julia and Duty,' said Miss Crofton, as if she were naming a firm. 'She lives only,' here Julia twisted the hand of Miss Crofton, 'she lives only to do good. Her fortune, entirely under her own control, enables her to do a great deal of good.'

Merton began to understand that the charms of Julia were not entirely confined to her beaux yeux.

'She is a true philanthropist. Why, she rescued me from the snares and temptations of the stage,' said

Miss Crofton.

'Oh, now I understand,' said Merton; 'I knew that your face and voice were familiar to me. Did you not act in a revival of The Country Wife?'

'Hush,' said Miss Crofton.

'And Lady Teazle at an amateur performance in the Canterbury week?'

'These are days of which I do not desire to be reminded,' said Miss Crofton. 'I was trying to explain to you that Julia lives to do good, and has a heart of gold. No, my dear, Mr. Merton will much misconceive you unless you let me explain everything.' This remark was in reply to the agitated gestures of Julia. 'Thrown much among the younger clergy in the exercise of her benevolence, Julia naturally awakens in them emotions not wholly brotherly. Her sympathetic nature carries her off her feet, and she sometimes says "Yes," out of mere goodness of heart, when it would be wiser for her to say "No"; don't you, Julia?'

Merton was reminded of one of M. Paul Bourget's amiable married heroines, who erred out of sheer goodness of heart, but he only signified his intelligence and sympathy.

'Then poor Julia,' Miss Crofton went on hurriedly, 'finds that she has misunderstood her heart. Recently, ever since she met Captain Lestrange-of the Guards-'

'The fourth?' asked Merton.

Miss Crofton nodded. 'She has felt more and more certain that she had misread her heart. But on each occasion she has felt this-after meeting the-well, the next one.'

'I see the awkwardness,' murmured Merton.

'And then Remorse has set in, with all her horrors. Julia has wept, oh! for nights, on my shoulder.'

'Happy shoulder,' murmured Merton.

'And so, as she dare not shatter their ideals, and perhaps cause them to plunge into excesses, moral or doctrinal, this is what she has done. She has said to each, that what the Church, any Church, needs is martyrs, and that if they will go to benighted lands, where the crown of martyrdom may still be won, then, if they return safe in five years, then she-will think of naming a day. You will easily see the attractions of this plan for Julia, Mr. Merton. No ideals were shattered, the young men being unaware of the circumstances. They might forget her-'

'Impossible,' cried Merton.

'They might forget her, or, perhaps they-'

Miss Crofton hesitated.

'Perhaps they might never-?' asked Merton.

'Yes,' said Miss Crofton; 'perhaps they might not. That would be all to the good for the Church; no ideals would be shattered-the reverse-and dear Julia would-'

'Cherish their pious memories,' said Merton.

'I see that you understand me,' said Miss Crofton.

Merton did understand, and he was reminded of the wicked lady, who, when tired of her lovers, had them put into a sack, and dropped into the Seine.

'But,' he asked, 'has this ingenious system failed to work? I should suppose that each young man, on distant and on deadly shores, was far from causing inconvenience.'

'The defect of the system,' said Miss Crofton, 'is that none of them has gone, or seems in a hurry to go. The first-that was Mr. Bathe, Julia?'

Julia nodded.

'Mr. Bathe was to have gone to Turkey during the Armenian atrocities, and to have forced England to intervene by taking the Armenian side and getting massacred. Julia was intensely interested in the Armenians. But Mr. Bathe first said that he must lead Julia to the altar before he went; and then the massacres fell off, and he remains at Cheltenham, and is very tiresome. And then there is Mr. Clancy, he was to go out to China, and denounce the gods of the heathen Chinese in the public streets. But he insisted that Julia should first be his, and he is at Leamington, and not a step has he taken to convert the Boxers.'

Merton knew the name of Clancy. Clancy had been his fag at school, and Merton thought it extremely improbable that the Martyr's crown would ever adorn his brow.

'Then-and this is the last of them, of the clergy, at least-Mr. Brooke: he was to visit the New Hebrides, where the natives are cannibals, and utterly unawakened. He is as bad as the others. He won't go alone. Now, Julia is obliged to correspond with all of them in affectionate terms (she keeps well out of their way), and this course of what she feels to be duplicity is preying terribly on her conscience.'

Here Julia sobbed hysterically.

'She is afraid, too, that by some accident, though none of them know each other, they may become aware of the state of affairs, or Captain Lestrange, to whom she is passionately attached, may find it out, and then, not only may their ideals be wrecked, but-'

'Yes, I see,' said Merton; 'it is awkward, very.'

The interview, an early one, had lasted for some time. Merton felt that the hour of luncheon had arrived, and, after luncheon, it had been his intention to go up to the University match. He also knew, from various sounds, that clients were waiting in the ante-chamber. At this moment the door opened, and the office boy, entering, laid three cards before him.

'The gentlemen asked when you could see them, sir. They have been waiting some time. They say that their appointment was at one o'clock, and they wish to go back to Lord's.'

'So do I,' thought Merton sadly. He looked at the cards, repressed a whistle, and handed them silently to Miss Crofton, bidding the boy go, and return in three minutes.

Miss Crofton uttered a little shriek, and pressed the cards on Julia's attention. Raising her veil, Julia scanned them, wrung her hands, and displayed symptoms of a tendency to faint. The cards bore the names of the Rev. Mr. Bathe, the Rev. Mr. Brooke, and the Rev. Mr. Clancy.

'What is to be done?' asked Miss Crofton in a whisper. 'Can't you send them away?'

'Impossible,' said Merton firmly.

'If we go out they will know me, and suspect Julia.'

Miss Crofton looked round the room with eyes of desperate scrutiny. They at once fell on a large old-fashioned screen, covered with engravings, which Merton had picked up for the sake of two or three old mezzotints, barbarously pasted on to this article of furniture by some ignorant owner.

'Saved! we are saved! Hist, Julia, hither!' said Miss Crofton in a stage whisper. And while Merton murmured 'Highly unprofessional,' the skirts of the two ladies vanished behind the screen.

Miss Crofton had not played Lady Teazle for nothing.

'Ask the gentlemen to come in,' said Merton, when the boy returned.

They entered: three fair young curates, nervous and inclined to giggle. Shades of difference of ecclesiastical opinion declared themselves in their hats, costume, and jewellery.

'Be seated, gentlemen,' said Merton, and they sat down on three chairs, in identical attitudes.

'We hope,' said the man on the left, 'that we are not here inconveniently. We would have waited, but, you see, we have all come up for the match.'

'How is it going?' asked Merton anxiously.

'Cambridge four wickets down for 115, but-' and the young man stared, 'it must be, it is Pussy Merton!'

'And you, Clancy Minor, why are you not converting the Heathen Chinee? You deserve a death of torture.'

'Goodness! How do you know that?' asked Clancy.

'I know many things,' answered Merton. 'I am not sure which of you is Mr. Bathe.'

Clancy presented Mr. Bathe, a florid young evangelist, who blushed.

'Armenia is still suffering, Mr. Bathe; and Mr. Brooke,' said Merton, detecting him by the Method of Residues, 'the oven is still hot in the New Hebrides. What have you got to say for yourselves?'

The curates shifted nervously on their chairs.

'We see, Merton,' said Clancy, 'that you know a good deal which we did not know ourselves till lately. In fact, we did not know each other till the Church Congress at Leamington. Then the other men came to tea at my rooms, and saw-'

'A portrait of a lady; each of you possessed a similar portrait,' said Merton.

'How the dev-I mean, how do you know that?'

'By a simple deductive process,' said Merton. 'There were also letters,' he said. Here a gurgle from behind the screen was audible to Merton.

'We did not read each others' letters,' said Clancy, blushing.

'Of course not,' said Merton.

'But the handwriting on the envelopes was identical,' Clancy went on.

'Well, and what can our Society do for you?'

'Why, we saw your advertisements, never guessed they were yours, of course, Pussy, and-none of us is a man of the world-'

'I congratulate you,' said Merton.

'So we thought we had better take advice: it seemed rather a lark, too, don't you know? The fact is-you appear to have divined it somehow-we find that we are all engaged to the same lady. We can't fight, and we can't all marry her.'

'In Thibet it might be practicable: martyrdom might also be secured there,' said Merton.

'Martyrdom is not good enough,' said Clancy.

'Not half,' said Bathe.

'A man has his duties in his own country,' said Brooke.

'May I ask whether in fact your sorrows at this discovery have been intense?' asked Merton.

'I was a good deal cut up at first,' said Clancy, 'I being the latest recruit. Bathe had practically given up hope, and had seen some one else.' Mr. Bathe drooped his head, and blushed. 'Brooke laughed. Indeed we all laughed, though we felt rather foolish. But what are we to do? Should we write her a Round Robin? Bathe says he ought to be the man, because he was first man in, and I say I ought to be the man, because I am not out.'

'I would not build much on that,' said Merton, and he was sure that he heard a rustle behind the screen, and a slight struggle. Julia was trying to emerge, restrained by Miss Crofton.

'I knew,' said Clancy, 'that there was something-that there were other fellows. But that I learned, more or less, under the seal of confession, so to speak.'

'At a picnic,' said Merton.

At this moment the screen fell with a crash, and Julia emerged, her eyes blazing, while Miss Crofton followed, her hat somewhat crushed by the falling screen. The three young men in Holy Orders, all of them desirable young men, arose to their feet, trembling visibly.

'Apostates!' cried Julia, who had by far the best of the dramatic situation and pressed her advantage. 'Recreants! was it for such as you that I pointed to the crown of martyrdom? Was it for your shattered ideals that I have wept many a night on Serena's faithful breast?' She pointed to Miss Crofton, who enfolded her in an embrace. 'You!' Julia went on, aiming at them the finger of conviction. 'I am but a woman, weak I may have been, wavering I may have been, but I took you for men! I chose you to dare, perhaps to perish, for a Cause. But now, triflers that you are, boys, mere boys, back with you to your silly games, back to the thoughtless throng. I have done.'

Julia, attended by Miss Crofton, swept from the chamber, under her indignation (which was quite as real as any of her other emotions) the happiest woman in London. She had no more occasion for remorse, no ideals had she sensibly injured. Her entanglements were disentangled. She inhaled the fragrance of orange blossoms from afar, and heard the marriage music in the chapel of the Guards. Meanwhile the three curates and Merton felt as if they had been whipped.

'Trust a woman to have the best of it,' muttered Merton admiringly. 'And now, Clancy, may I offer a hasty luncheon to you and your friends before we go to Lord's? Your business has been rather rapidly despatched.'

The conversation at luncheon turned exclusively on cricket.

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares