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Moth and Rust; Together with Geoffrey's Wife and The Pitfall By Mary Cholmondeley Characters: 12982

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"But it was even thou, my companion, my guide,

and mine own familiar friend."

It was not until Janet was sitting alone in the room she had taken at an hotel that her dazed mind began to recover itself. It did not recoil in horror from the remembrance of that grim ascent to the flat. It did not dwell on Cuckoo's death.

Janet said over and over again to herself, in tearless anguish, "Cuckoo and Fred! Cuckoo and Fred!"

The shock had succeeded to a great strain, and she succumbed to it.

She sat on her box in the middle of the room hour after hour in the stifling heat. The afternoon sun beat in on her, but she did not pull down the blind. There was an armchair in the corner, but Janet unconsciously clung to the box, as the only familiar object in an unfamiliar world. Late in the afternoon, when Anne found her, Janet was still sitting on it, gazing in front of her, with an untasted cup of tea beside her, which the chambermaid had brought her.

Anne sat down on the box and put her arms round her.

"My dear," she said; "my dear."

And Janet said no word, but hid her convulsed face on Anne's shoulder.

Janet had a somewhat confused remembrance of what happened after that. Anne ordered, and she obeyed, and there was another journey in a cab, and presently she was sitting in a cool, white bedroom leading out of Anne's room; at least Anne said it did. Anne came in and out now and then, and forced her to drink a cup of milk, and smoothed her hair with a very tender hand. But Janet made no response.

Anne was of those who do not despise the little things of life. She saw that Janet was suffering from a great shock, and she sent for the only child there was in the great, dreary London house-the vulgar kitchen kitten belonging to the cook.

Anne silently held the warm, sleepy kitten against Janet's cheek. It purred when it was touched, and then fell asleep, a little ball of comfort against Janet's neck. The white, over-strained face relaxed. Anne's gentle touch and presence had not achieved that, but the kitten did. Two large tears rolled down into its fur.

The peace and comfort and physical well-being of feeling a little life warm-asleep, pressed close against you, is perhaps not new. Perhaps it goes back as far as the wilderness, which ceased to be a wilderness when Eve brought forth her firstborn in it. I think she must have forgotten all about her lost Garden of Eden when she first heard the breathing of her sleeping child against her bosom. The brambles and the thorns would prick very little after that.

Later on, when Anne came in softly, Janet was asleep, with the kitten on her shoulder.

An hour later Anne came in once more in a wonderful white gown, and stood a moment watching Janet. Anne was not excited, but a little tumult was shaking her, as a summer wind stirs and ripples all the surface of a deep-set pool. She knew that she would meet Stephen to-night at the dinner-party for which she was already late, and that knowledge, though long experience had taught her that it was useless to meet him, that he would certainly not speak to her if he could help it, still the knowledge that she should see him caused a faint colour to burn in her pale cheek, a wavering light in her grave eyes, a slight tremor of her whole delicate being. She looked, as she stood in the half-light, a woman to whose exquisite hands even a poet might have entrusted his difficult, double-edged love, much more a hard man of business such as Stephen.

Janet's face, which had been so wan, was flushed a deep red. She stirred uneasily, and began speaking hoarsely and incoherently.

"All burnt," she said, over and over again. "All burnt. Nothing left."

Anne laid down the fan she held in her hand, and drew a step nearer.

Janet suddenly sat up, opened her eyes to a horrible width, and stared at her.

"I have burnt them all, Fred," she said, looking full at Anne. "Everything. There is nothing left. I promised I would, and I have. But oh! Fred, how could you do it? How could you, could you, do it?" And she burst into a low cry of anguish.

Anne took her by the arm.

"You are dreaming, Janet," she said. "Wake up. Look! You are here with me, Anne-your friend."

Janet winced, and her eyelids quivered. Then she looked round her bewildered, and said in a more natural voice: "I don't know where I am. I thought I was at home with Fred."

"I have sent for your brother, and he will come and take you home to-morrow."

"Something dreadful has happened," said Janet. "It is like a stone on my head. It crushes me, but I don't know what it is."

Anne looked gravely at Janet, and half unconsciously unclasped the thin chain, with its heavy diamond pendant, from her neck. Her hand trembled as she did it. She was not thinking of Janet at that moment. "I shall not see him to-night," she was saying to herself. And the delicate colour faded, the hidden tumult died down. She was calm and practical once more. She wrote a note, sent it down to the waiting carriage to deliver, got quickly out of the flowing white gown into a dressing-gown, and returned to Janet.

* * *

Fred came to London the following day. Even his mercurial nature was distressed at Cuckoo's sudden death, and at Janet's wan, fixed face. But he felt that if his sister must be ill, she could not be better placed than in that ducal household. A good many persons among Fred's acquaintances heard of Janet's illness during the next few days, and of the kindness of the Duke and Duchess of Quorn.

The Duke and Duchess really were kind. The benevolence of so down-trodden and helpless a creature as the Duke-who was of no importance except in affairs of the realm, where he was a power-his kindness, of course, was of no account. But the Duchess rose to the occasion. She was one of those small, square, kind-hearted, determined women, with a long upper lip, whose faces are set on looking upwards, who can make life vulgarly happy for struggling, middle-class men, if they are poor enough to give their wives scope for an unceasing energy on their behalf. She was a femme incomprise, misplaced. By birth she was the equal of her gentle-mannered husband, but she was one of Nature's vulgarians all the same, and directly the thin gilt of a certain youthful prettiness wore off-she had been a plump, bustling little partridge at twenty-her innate commonness came obviously to the surface; in fact, it became the surface.

"Age could no

t wither her, nor custom stale

Her infinite vulgarity."

There was no need for her to push, but she pushed. She made embarrassing jokes at the expense of her children. In society she was familiar where she should have been courteous, openly curious where she should have ignored, gratuitously confidential where she should have been reticent. She never realized the impression she made on others. She pursued her discomfortable objects of pursuit, namely, eligible young men and endless charities, with the same total disregard of appearances, the same ungainly agility, which an elderly hen will sometimes suddenly evince in chase of a butterfly.

Some one had nicknamed her "the steam roller," and the name stuck to her.

She was-perhaps not unnaturally-annoyed when Anne brought a stranger back to the house with her in the height of the season, and installed her in one of the spare rooms, while she herself was absent, talking loudly at a little musical tea-party. But when she saw Janet next day sitting in one of Anne's dressing-gowns in Anne's sitting-room, she instantly took a fancy to her; one of those heavy, prodding fancies which immediately investigate by questions-the Duchess never hesitated to ask questions-all the past life of the victim, as regards illnesses, illnesses of relations, especially if obscure and internal, cause of death of parents, present financial circumstances, etc. Janet, whose strong constitution rapidly rallied from the shock that had momentarily prostrated her, thought these subjects of conversation natural and even exhilarating. She was accustomed to them in her own society. The first time the Smiths had called on her at Ivy Cottage, had they not enquired the exact area of her little drawing-room? She found the society of the Duchess vaguely delightful and sympathetic, a welcome relief from her own miserable thoughts. And the Duchess told Janet in return about a very painful ailment from which the Duke suffered, and which it distressed him "to hear alluded to," and all about Anne's millionaire. When, a few days later, Janet was able to travel, the Duchess parted from her with real regret, and begged her to come and stay with them again after her marriage.

Anne seemed to have receded from Janet during these last days. Perhaps the Duchess had elbowed her out. Perhaps Anne divined that Janet had been told all about her unfortunate love affair. Anne's patient dignity had a certain remoteness in it. Her mother, whose hitherto thinly-draped designs on Stephen were now clothed only in the recklessness of despair, made Anne's life well-nigh unendurable to her at this time, a constant mortification of her refinement and her pride. She withdrew into herself. And perhaps also Anne was embarrassed by the knowledge that she had inadvertently become aware, when Janet's mind had wandered, of something connected with the burning of papers which Janet was concealing, and which, as Anne could see, was distressing her more even than the sudden death of Mrs Brand.

Fred took charge of his sister in an effusive manner when she was well enough to travel. She was very silent all the way home. She had become shy with her brother, depressed in his society. She had always known that evil existed in the world, but she had somehow managed to combine that knowledge with the comfortable conviction that the few people she cared for were "different." She observed nothing except what happened under her actual eyes, and then only if her eyes were forcibly turned in that direction.

She knew Fred drank only because she had seen him drunk. The shaking hand, and broken nerve, and weakly-violent temper, the signs of intemperance when he was sober, were lost upon her. She dismissed them with the reflection that Fred was like that. Cause and effect did not exist for Janet. And those for whom they do not exist sustain heavy shocks.

Cuckoo her friend, and Fred her brother!

The horror of that remembrance never left her during these days. She could not think about it. She could only silently endure it.

Poor Janet did not realize even now that the sole reason why Cuckoo had made friends with her was in order to veil the intimacy with her brother. The hard, would-be smart woman would not, without some strong reason, have made much of so unfashionable an individual as Janet in the first instance, though there was no doubt that in the end Cuckoo had grown fond of Janet for her own sake. And her genuine liking for the sister had survived the rupture with the brother.

The dog-cart was waiting for Fred and Janet at Mudbury, and, as they drove in the dusk through the tranquil country lanes, Janet drew a long breath.

"You must not take on about Mrs Brand's death too much," said Fred at last, who had also been restlessly silent for the greater part of the journey.

Janet did not answer.

"We must all die some day," continued Fred. "It's the common lot. I did not like Mrs Brand as much as you did, Janet. She was not my sort-but still-when I heard the news--"

"I loved her," said Janet hoarsely. "I would have done anything for her."

"You must cheer up," said Fred, "and try and look at the bright side. That was what the Duke was saying only yesterday when I called to thank him. He was in such a hurry that he hardly had a moment to spare, but I took a great fancy to him. No airs and soft sawder, and a perfect gentleman. I shall call again when next I am in London. I shan't forget their kindness to you."

Again no answer.

"It is your duty to cheer up," continued Fred. "George is coming over to see you to-morrow morning."

"I think, don't you think, Fred," said Janet suddenly, "that George is good-really good, I mean?"

"He is all right," said Fred. "Not exactly open-handed. You must lay your account for that, Janet. You'll find him a bit of a screw, or I'm much mistaken."

Janet was too dazed to realize what Fred's discovery of George's meanness betokened.

Silence again.

They were nearing home. The lights of Ivy Cottage twinkled through the violet dusk. Janet looked at them without seeing them.

Cuckoo her friend, and Fred her brother!

"I suppose, Janet," said Fred suddenly, "you were not able to ask Mrs Brand-no-of course not--But perhaps you were able to put in a word for me to Brand about that-about waiting for his money?"

"I never said anything to either of them," said Janet. "I never thought of it again. I forgot all about it."

* * *

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