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Moth and Rust; Together with Geoffrey's Wife and The Pitfall By Mary Cholmondeley Characters: 16243

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"Tous les hommes sont menteurs, inconstants, faux, bavards, hypocrites, orgueilleux, ou laches, méprisables et sensuels: toutes les femmes sont perfides, artificieuses, vaniteuses, curieuses et dépravées: ... mais il y a au monde une chose sainte et sublime, c'est l'union de deux de ces êtres si imparfaits et si affreux."

-Alfred de Musset.

As the four-wheeler neared Lowndes Square the traffic became blocked, not by carriages, but by large numbers of people on foot. At last the cabman drew to the side, uncorked himself from the box, and came to the window.

"Is it Lowndes Mansions as you're a-asking for?" he said.

"Yes," said Janet.

"Why, it's there as the fire was yesterday."

"The fire!"

"Yes! The top floors is mostly burnt out. You can't get a wehicle near it."

"Were any lives lost?" said Janet. The Brands lived on one of the upper floors.

"No, miss," said a policeman, approaching, urbane, helpful, not averse to imparting information.

Janet explained that she was on her way to stay in the Mansions, and the policeman, who said that other "parties" had already arrived with the same object but could not be taken in, advised her to turn back and go with her luggage to one of the private hotels in Sloane Street, until she could, as he expressed it, "turn round."

Janet did as she was bid, and half an hour later made her way on foot through the crowd to the entrance of Lowndes Mansions.

The hall porter recognised her, for she had frequently stayed with the Brands, and Janet's face was not quickly forgotten. He bade the policeman who barred the entrance let her pass.

The central hall, with its Oriental hangings and sham palms, was crowded with people. Idle, demoralized housemaids belonging to the upper floors, whose sphere of work was gone, stood together in whispering groups watching the spectacle. Grave men in high hats and over-long buttoned-up frock-coats greeted each other silently, and then produced passes which admitted them to the jealously guarded iron staircase. The other staircase was burnt out at the top, though from the hall it showed no trace of anything but of the water which yesterday had flowed down it in waves, and which still oozed from the heavy pile stair-carpet, which the salvage men were beginning to take up.

The hall porter and the unemployed lift man stood together, silent, stupefied, broken with fatigue, worn out with answering questions.

"Are Mr and Mrs Brand all right?" gasped Janet, thrilled by the magnitude of the unseen disaster above, which seemed to strike roots of horror down to the basement.

"Every one is all right," said the lift man automatically. "No lives lost. Two residents shook. One leg broke hamong the hemployees-compound fracture."

"Mrs Brand was shook," said the hall porter callously. "She had a fall."

"Where is she now?" enquired Janet.

The hall porter looked at her apathetically, and continued: "Mr Brand was taking 'orse exercise in the Park. Mrs Brand was still in her bedroom. The fire broke out, cause unbeknownst, at ten o'clock yesterday morning precisely. Ten by the barracks clock it was. The hemployees worked the hose until the first hingine arrived at quarter past."

"Twenty past," corrected the lift man.

"And Mrs Brand?" said Janet again.

"Mrs Brand must 'ave been dressing, for she was in her dressing-gown, and she must ha' run down the main staircase afore it got well alight; at least, she was found unconscious-like three flights down. Some say as she was mazed by the smoke, and some say as she fell over the banisters."

"The banisters is gone," said the lift man.

"Where is she now? Where is Mr Brand? I must see him at once," said Janet, at last realizing that the history of the fire would go on for ever.

"Mrs Brand was took into the billiard-room," said the lift man. "Mr Brand is with her, and the doctor. There! The doctor is coming out now."

A grey-haired man shot out through the crowd, ran down the steps, and disappeared into a brougham privileged to remain at the entrance.

"Take me to Mr Brand this instant," said Janet, shaking the hall porter by the arm.

The man looked as if he would have been surprised at her vehemence if there were any spring of surprise left in him, but it had obviously run down from overwinding. He slowly led the way through a swing door, and down a dark passage lit by electric light. At a large ground-glass door with "Billiard-Room" on it he stopped, and tapped.

There was no answer.

Janet opened the door, went in, and closed it behind her.

She almost stumbled against Mr Brand, who was standing with his back towards her, his face to the wall, in the tiny antechamber, bristling with empty pegs, which led into the billiard-room.

It was dark save for the electric light in the passage, which shone feebly through the ground-glass door.

Mr Brand turned slowly as Janet almost touched him. His death-white face was the only thing visible. He did not speak. Janet gazed at him horror-struck.

Gradually, as her eyes became accustomed to the dim light, she saw the little dapper, familiar figure, with its immaculate frock-coat, and corseted waist, and the lean, sallow, wrinkled face, with its retreating forehead and dyed hair, and waxed, turned-up moustaches. One of the waxed ends had been bent, and drooped forlornly, grotesquely. It was perhaps inevitable that the money-lender should be nicknamed "Monkey Brand," a name pronounced by many with a sneer not devoid of fear.

"How is she?" said Janet at last.

"She is dying," said Monkey Brand, his chin shaking. "Her back is broken."

A nurse in cap and apron silently opened the inner door into the billiard-room.

"Mrs Brand is asking for you, sir," she said gently.

"I will come," he said, and he went back into the billiard-room.

The nurse looked enquiringly at Janet.

"I am Mrs Brand's friend," said Janet. "She is expecting me."

"She takes it very hard now, poor thing," said the nurse; "and she was so brave at first."

And they both went into the billiard-room, and remained standing at the further end of it.

It was a large, gaudily-decorated room, adorned with sporting prints, and lit by a skylight, on to which opaque bodies, evidently fallen from a height, lay in blots, starring the glass.

The billiard-table was littered with doctors' appliances, and at the end near the door the nurse had methodically arranged a line of towels and basins, with a tin can of hot water and a bucket swathed in flannel with ice in it.

The large room, with its glaring upper light, was hot and still, and smelt of stale smoke and chloroform.

At the further end, on an improvised bed of mattresses and striped sofa cushions, a white, rigid figure was lying, the eyes fixed on the skylight.

Monkey Brand knelt down by his wife, and bending over her, kissed, without raising it, one of the pale clenched hands.

"Cuckoo," he said, and until she heard him speak it seemed to Janet that she had never known to what heights tenderness can reach.

His wife turned her eyes slowly upon him, and looked at him. In her eyes, dark with coming death, there was a great yearning towards her husband, and behind the yearning an anguish unspeakable. Janet shrank before it. The fear of death never cut so deep as that.

A cry, uncouth, terrible, as of one pushed past the last outpost of endurance to the extremity of agony, rent the quiet room.

"I cannot bear it," she wailed. And she, who could not raise her hands, to which death had come already, raised them once above her head.

They fell heavily, lifelessly, striking her husband's face.

"I would die for you if I might," said Monkey Brand, and he hid his face against the hand that had struck him.

Cuckoo looked at the bowed, blue-black head, and her wide eyes wandered away past it, set in the vacancy of despair. They fell on Janet.

"Who is that?" she said suddenly.

The nurse brought Janet forward.

"You remember me, Cuckoo?" said Janet gently, her calm smile a little tremulous, her face white and beautiful

as that of an angel.

"It is Janet. Thank God!" said Cuckoo, and she suddenly burst into tears.

They passed quickly.

"I have no time for tears," said Cuckoo, smiling faintly at her husband, as he wiped them away with a shaking brown hand. "Janet is come. I must speak to her a little quite alone."

"You would not send me from you?" said Monkey Brand, his face twitching. "You would not be so hard on me, Cuckoo?"

"Yes," she said, "I would."

The pretty, vulgar, dying face, under its crooked fringe, was illuminated. A sort of shadow of Cuckoo's hard little domineering manner had come back to her.

"I must be alone with Janet for a little bit, quite alone. You and the nurse will go outside, and wait till Janet comes to you. And then," she looked at her husband with tender love, "you will come back to me, and stay with me to the last."

He still hesitated.

"Go now, Arthur," she said, "and take nurse with you."

The habit of obedience to her whim, her fancy, her slightest wish, was ingrained years deep in him. He got upon his feet, signed to the nurse, and left the room with her.

"Is the door shut?" said Cuckoo.

"Yes."

"Go and make sure."

Janet went to the door, and came back.

"It is shut."

"Kneel down by me. I can't speak loud."

Janet knelt down.

"Now listen to me. I'm dying. I'm not going to die this minute, because I won't; but all the same it's coming. I can't hold on. There is no time for being surprised, or for explanations. There's no time for anything, except for you to listen to me, and do something for me quickly. Will you do it?"

"Yes," said Janet.

Cuckoo looked for a moment at the innocent, fair face above her, and a faint colour stained her cheek. But she remembered her husband, and summoned her old courage. She spoke quickly, with the clearness and precision which had made her such an excellent woman of business, so invaluable on the committees of fashionable charities.

"I am a bad woman, Janet. I have concealed it from you, and from every one. Arthur-has never guessed it. Don't shudder. Don't turn away. There's not time. Keep all that for later-when I'm gone. And don't drive me to distraction by thinking this is a dying hallucination. I know what I am saying, and I, who have lied so often, am driven to speak the truth at last."

"Don't," said Janet. "If it's true, don't say it, but let it die with you. Don't break Mr Brand's heart now at the last moment."

Cuckoo's astute eyes dwelt on Janet's face. How slow she was! What a blunt instrument had Fate vouchsafed to her.

"I speak to save him," she said. "Don't interrupt again, but listen. It all goes back a long way. I was forced into marrying Arthur. I disliked him, for I was in love with some one else-some one, as I see now, not fit to black his boots. I was straight when I married Arthur, but-I did not stay straight afterwards. Arthur is a hard man, but he was good and tender to me always, and he trusted me absolutely. I deceived him-for years. The child is not Arthur's. Arty is not Arthur's. I never was really sorry until a year ago, when he-the other-left me for some one else. He said he had fallen in love with a good woman-a snowflake." Even now Cuckoo set her teeth at the remembrance of that speech. But she hurried on. "That was the time I fell ill. And Arthur nursed me. You don't know what Arthur is. I never seemed to have noticed before. Other people fail, but Arthur never fails. And I seemed to come to myself. I could not bear him out of my sight. And ever since I have loved him, as I thought people only loved in poetry books. I saw he was the only one. And I thought he would never know. If he did, it would break his heart and mine, wherever I was."

Cuckoo waited a moment, and then went on with methodical swiftness:

"But I never burnt the-the other one's letters. I always meant to, and I always didn't. It has been in my mind ever since I was ill to burn them. I never thought I should die like this. I put it off. The truth is, I could not bear to look at them, and remember how I'd-but I meant to do it. I knew when I came to myself at the foot of the stairs that I was dying, but I did not really mind-except for leaving Arthur, for he told me all our flat was burnt and everything in it, and I only grieved at leaving him. But this morning, when the place was cold enough for people to go up, Arthur told me-he thought it would please me-that my sitting-room, and part of the other rooms, were still standing with everything in them, and he heard that my picture was not even touched. It hangs over the Italian cabinet. But when I heard it I thought my heart would break, for the letters are in the Italian cabinet, and I knew that some day when I am gone-perhaps not for a long time, but some day-Arthur would open that cabinet-my business papers are in it, too-and would find the letters."

Cuckoo's weak, metallic voice weakened yet more.

"And he would see I had deceived him for years, and that Arty is not his child. Arthur was so pleased when Arty was born."

There was an awful silence; the ice dripped in the pail.

"I don't mind what happens to me," said Cuckoo, "or what hell I go to, if only Arthur might stay loving me when I'm gone, as he always has-from the very first."

"What do you want me to do?" said Janet.

"I want you to go up to the flat without being seen, and burn those letters. Try and go up by the main staircase. They may let you if you bluff them; I could do it;-and it may not be burnt out at the top as they say. If it really is burnt out, you must go up by the iron staircase. If they won't let you pass, bribe the policeman: you must go up all the same. The letters are in the lowest left-hand drawer of the Italian cabinet. The key-O my God! The key! Where is the key?"

Cuckoo's mind, brought to bay, rose unflinching.

"The key is on the pearl chain that I wear every day. But where is the chain? Let me think. I had it on. I know I had it on. I wear the pearls against my neck, under my gown. I was in my dressing-gown. Then I had it on. Look on the billiard-table."

Janet looked.

"Look on the mantelpiece. I saw the nurse put something down there which she took off me."

Janet looked. "There is a miniature of Arty on a ribbon."

"I had it in my hand when the alarm reached me. Look on me. Perhaps I have got it on still."

Janet unfastened the neck of the dressing-gown, which, though lacerated by the nurse's scissors, still retained the semblance of a garment. After an interminable moment she drew out a pearl chain.

"Thank God!" said Cuckoo. "Don't raise my head; I might die if you did, and I can't die yet. Break the chain. There! Now the key slips off. Take it, go up, and burn the letters. There are a good many, but you will know them because they are tied with my hair. The lowest left-hand drawer, remember. You will burn them-there are some matches on the mantelpiece behind Arthur's photograph-and wait till they are really burnt. Will you do this, Janet?"

"I will."

"And will you promise me that, whatever happens, you will never tell any one that you have burnt anything?"

"I promise."

"You swear it?"

"I swear it."

"Let me see; you must have some reason for going, in case you are seen. If you are asked, say I sent you to see if my picture was uninjured. I am a vain woman. Anyone will believe that. Stick to that if you are questioned. And now go. Go at once. And throw away the key when you have locked up the cabinet. I shall not be able to be alone with you again, Janet. Arthur won't leave me a second time. When you come back, stand where I can see you; and if you have destroyed everything put your hand against your forehead. I shall understand. I shall not be able to thank you, but I shall thank you in my heart, and I shall die in peace. Now go, and tell Arthur to come back to me."

Janet found Monkey Brand in the antechamber, his ashen, ravaged face turned with dog-like expectancy towards the billiard-room door, waiting for it to open. Without a word, he went back to his wife.

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