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Moth and Rust; Together with Geoffrey's Wife and The Pitfall By Mary Cholmondeley Characters: 20339

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"C'est son ignorance qui fixe son malheur."

-Maeterlinck.

Did you ever, as a child, see ink made? Did you ever watch, with wondering intentness, the mixing of one little bottle of colourless fluid-which you imagined to be pure water-with another equally colourless? No change. Then at last, into the cup of clear water, the omnipotent parent hand pours out of another tiny phial two or three crystal drops.

The latent ink rushes into being at the contact of those few drops. The whole cup is black with it, transfused with impenetrable darkness, terrible to look upon.

We are awed, partly owing to the exceeding glory of the magician with the Vandyke hand, who knows everything, and who can work miracles at will, and partly because we did not see the change coming. We were warned that it would come by that voice of incarnate wisdom. We were all eyes. But it was there before we knew. Some of us, as older children, watch with our ignorant eyes the mysterious alchemy in our little cup of life. We are warned, but we see not. We somehow miss the sign. The water is clear, quite clear. Something more is coming, straight from the same Hand. In a moment all is darkness.

A wiser woman than Janet would perhaps have known, would at any rate have feared, that a certain small cloud on her horizon, no larger than a man's hand, meant a great storm. But until it broke she did not realize that that ever-increasing ominous pageant had any connection with the hurricane that at last fell upon her: just as some of us see the rosary of life only as separate beads, not noticing the divine constraining thread, and are taken by surprise when we come to the cross.

* * *

The cloud first showed itself, or rather Janet first caught sight of it, on a hot evening towards the end of June, when Fred returned from London, whither he had been summoned by Mr Brand, a fortnight after his wife's death.

The days which had passed since Cuckoo's death had not had power to numb the pain at Janet's heart. The shock had only so far had the effect of shifting the furniture of her mind into unfamiliar, jostling positions. She did not know where to put her hand on anything, like a woman who enters her familiar room after an earthquake, and finds the contents still there, but all huddled together or thrown asunder.

Her deep affection for her brother, and her friend Cuckoo, were wrenched out of place, leaving horrible gaps. She had always felt a vague repulsion to Monkey Brand, with his dyed hair and habit of staring too hard at her. The repulsion towards him had shifted, and had crashed up against her love for Fred, and Monkey Brand had acquired a kind of dignity, even radiance. Even her love for George had altered in the general dislocation. Its halo had been jerked off. Who was true? Who was good? She looked at him wistfully, and with a certain diffidence. She felt a new tenderness for him. George had noticed the change in her manner towards him since her return from London, and, not being an expert diver into the recesses of human nature, he had at first anxiously inquired whether she still loved him the same. Janet looked slowly into her own heart before she made reply. Then she turned her grave gaze upon him. "More," she said, as every woman, whose love is acquainted with grief must answer if she speaks the truth.

It was nearly dark when Janet caught the sounds of Fred's dog-cart, driving swiftly along the lanes, too swiftly considering the darkness. He drove straight to the stables, and then came out into the garden, where she was walking up and down waiting for him. It was such a small garden, merely a strip out of the field in front of the house, that he could not miss her.

He came quickly towards her, and even in the starlight she saw how white his face was. Her heart sank. She knew Fred had gone to London in compliance with a request from Mr Brand. Had Mr Brand refused to renew his bond, or to wait?

Fred took her suddenly in his arms, and held her closely to him. He was trembling with emotion. His tears fell upon her face. She could feel the violent beating of his heart. She could not speak. She was terrified. She had never known him like this.

"You have saved me," he stammered, kissing her hair and forehead. "Oh! my God! Janet, I will never forget this, never while I live. I was ruined, and you have saved me."

She did not understand. She led him to the garden seat, and they sat down together. She thought he had been drinking. He generally cried when he was drunk. But she saw in the next moment that he was sober.

"Will Mr Brand renew?" she said, though she knew he would not. Monkey Brand never renewed.

Fred laughed. It was the nervous laugh of a shallow nature, after a hairbreadth escape.

"Brand will not renew, and he will not wait," he said. "You know that as well as I do. Janet, I misjudged you. All these awful days, while I have been expecting the blow to fall-it meant ruin, sheer ruin, for you as well as me-all this time I thought you did not care what became of me. You seemed so different lately, so cold."

"I did care."

"I know. I know now. You are a brave woman. It was the only thing to do. If you had not burnt it he would have foreclosed. And of course I shall pay him back when I can. I said so. He knows I'm a gentleman. He has my word for it. A gentleman's word is as good as his bond. I shall repay him gradually."

"I don't understand," said Janet, who felt as if a cold hand had been laid upon her heart.

"Oh! You can speak freely to me. And to think of your keeping silence all this time-even to me. You always were one to keep things to yourself, but you might have just given me a hint. My I O U is not forthcoming, and Brand as good as knows you burned it. He knows you went up to his flat and burned something when his wife was dying. He wasn't exactly angry; he was too far gone for that, as if he couldn't care for anything one way or the other. He looks ten years older. But, of course, he's a business man, whether his wife is alive or dead, and I could see he was forcing himself to attend to business to keep himself from thinking. He said very little. He was very distant. Infernally distant he was. He is no gentleman, and he doesn't understand the feelings of one. If it hadn't been that he was in trouble, and well-for the fact that I had borrowed money of him-I would not have stood it for a moment. I'm not going to allow any cad to hector over me, be he who he may. He mentioned the facts. He said he had always had a high opinion of you, and that he should come down and see you on the subject next week. You must think what to say, Janet."

"I never burned your I O U," said Janet in a whisper, becoming cold all over. It was a revelation to her that Fred could imagine she was capable of such a dishonourable action.

"Why, Fred," she said, deeply wounded, "you know I could not do such a thing. It would be the same as stealing."

"No, it wouldn't," said Fred, with instant irritation, "because you know I should pay him back. And so I will-only I can't at present. And, of course, you knew too, you must have guessed, that your two thousand-- And as you are going to be married, that is important too. I should have been ruined, sold up, if that I O U had turned up, and you yourself would have been in a fix. You knew that when you got hold of it and burned it. Come, Janet, you can own to me you burned it-between ourselves."

"I burnt nothing."

Fred peered at her open-mouthed.

"Janet, that's too thin. You must go one better than that when Brand comes. He knows you burnt something when you went up to his flat."

"I burnt nothing," said Janet again. It was too dark to see her face.

Did she realise that the first heavy drops were falling round her of the storm that was to wreck so much?

"Well," said Fred, after a pause, "I take my cue from you. You burnt nothing then. I don't see how you are going to work it, but that's your affair.... But oh, Janet, if that cursed paper had remained! If you had known what I've been going through since you came home a fortnight ago, when my last shred of hope left me when I found you had not spoken to the Brands. It wasn't only the money-that was bad enough-it wasn't only that-but--"

And Fred actually broke down, and sobbed with his head in his hands. Presently, when he recovered himself, he told her, in stammering, difficult words, that he had something on his conscience, that his life had not been what it should have been, but that a year ago he had come to a turning-point; he had met some one-even his light voice had a graver ring in it-some one who had made him feel how-in short, he had fallen in love, with a woman like herself, like his dear Janet-good and innocent, a snowflake; and for a long time he feared she could never think of him, but how at last she seemed less indifferent, but how her father was a strict man and averse to him from the first. And if he had been sold up, all hope-what little hope there was-would have been gone.

"But, please God, now," said Fred, "I will make a fresh start. I've had a shock lately, Janet. I did not talk about it, but I've had a shock. I've thought of a good many things. I mean to turn round and do better in future. There are things I've done, that lots of men do and think nothing of them, that I won't do again. I mean to try from this day forward to be worthy of her, to put the past behind me; and if I ever do win her-if she'll take me in the end-I shall not forget, Janet, that I owe it to you."

He kissed her again with tears.

She was too much overcome to speak. Cuckoo had repented, and now Fred was sorry too. It was the first drop of healing balm which had fallen on that deep wound which Cuckoo's dying voice had inflicted how many endless days ago.

"It is Venetia Ford," said Fred shyly, but not without triumph. "You remember her? She is Archdeacon Ford's eldest daughter."

A recollection rose before Janet's mind of the eldest Miss Ford, with the pretty pink and white empty face, and the demure, if slightly supercilious, manner that befits one conscious

of being an Archdeacon's daughter. Janet knew her slightly, and admired her much. The eldest Miss Ford's conversation was always markedly suitable. Her sense of propriety was only equalled by her desire to impart information. Her slightly clerical manner resembled the full-blown Archidiaconal deportment of her parent, as home-made marmalade resembles an orange. Archdeacon Ford was a pompous, much-respected prelate, with private means. Mrs Smith was distantly related to the Fords, and very proud of the connection. She seldom alluded to the eldest Miss Ford without remarking that Venetia was her ideal of what a perfect lady should be.

"O Fred, I am so glad!" said Janet, momentarily forgetting everything else in her rejoicing that Fred should have attached himself seriously at last, and to a woman for whom she felt respectful admiration, who had always treated herself with the cold civility that was, in Janet's eyes, the hall-mark of social and mental superiority.

"And does she like you?" she said, with pride. She could not see Fred any longer, but her mind's eye saw him-handsome, gay, irresistible. Of course she adored him.

"Sometimes I think she does," said Fred, "and sometimes I'm afraid she doesn't." And he expounded at great length, garnished with abundant detail, his various meetings with her; how on one occasion she had hardly looked at him; on another she had spoken to him of Browning-that was the time when he had bought Browning's works; on a third, how there had been another man there-a curate-a beast, but thinking a lot of himself; on a fourth she had said that balls-the Mudbury ball where he had danced with her-were an innocent form of recreation, etc., etc.

Janet drank in every word. It reminded her, she said, of "her and George." Indeed, there were many salient points of resemblance between the two courtships. The brother and sister sat long together hand in hand in the soft summer night. Only when she got up at last did the thought of the missing I O U return to Janet.

"O Fred!" she said, as they walked towards the house, "supposing after all your I O U turns up? How dreadful! What would happen?"

"It won't turn up," said Fred, with a laugh.

When Janet was alone in her room she remembered again, with pained bewilderment, that Fred had actually believed that she had destroyed that missing paper. It did not distress her that Monkey Brand evidently believed the same. She would, of course, tell him that he was mistaken. But Fred! He ought to have known better. Her thoughts returned speedily to her brother's future. He would settle down now, and be a good man, and marry the eldest Miss Ford. She felt happier about him than she had done since Cuckoo's death. Her constant prayer, that he might repent and lead a new life, had evidently been heard.

As she closed her eyes she said to herself, "I daresay Fred and Venetia will be married the same day as George and me."

* * *

Monkey Brand appeared at Ivy Cottage a few days later. Janet was in the field with Fred, taking the setter puppies for a run, when the "Trefusis Arms" dog-cart from Mudbury drove up, and Nemesis, in the shape of Monkey Brand, got slowly down from it, wrong leg first. Even in the extreme heat Monkey Brand wore a high hat and a long buttoned-up frock-coat and varnished boots. As he came towards them in the sunshine, there was a rigid, controlled desolation in his yellow lined face, which made Janet feel suddenly ashamed of her happiness in her own love.

"I had better go," said Fred hurriedly. "I don't want to be uncivil to the brute in my own house."

"Go!" said Janet. "But, of course, you must stop. Mr Brand has come down on purpose to see us."

She went forward to meet him, and, as he took her hand somewhat stiffly, he met the tender sympathy in her clear eyes, and winced under it.

His face became a shade less rigid. He looked shrunk and exhausted, as if he had undergone the extreme rigour of a biting frost. Perhaps he had.

"I have come to see you on business," he said to Janet, hardly returning Fred's half nervous, half defiant greeting.

Janet led the way into the little parlour, and they sat down in silence. Fred sat down near the door, and began picking at the rose in his buttonhole.

Monkey Brand held his hat in his hand. He took off one black glove, dropped it into his hat, and looked fixedly at it.

The cloud on Janet's horizon lay heavy over her whole sky. A single petal, loosened by a shaking hand, fell from Fred's rose on to the floor.

"I am sure, Miss Black," said Monkey Brand, "that you will offer me an explanation respecting your visit to my flat when my wife was dying."

"I went up at her wish," said Janet, breathing hard. She seemed to see again Cuckoo's anguished fading eyes fixed upon her.

"Why?"

"She asked me to go and see if her picture was safe."

"I had already told her it was safe."

Janet did not answer.

The rose in Fred's buttonhole fell petal by petal.

Monkey Brand's voice had hardened when he spoke again.

"I am sure," he said, and for a moment he fixed his dull sinister eyes upon her, "that you will see the advisability, the necessity, of telling me why you burnt some papers when you clandestinely visited my flat."

"I burnt nothing."

He looked into his hat. Janet's bewildered eyes followed the direction of his, and looked into his hat too. There was nothing in it but a glove.

"There were ashes of burnt papers in the grate," he continued. "The lift man saw you leave the room, which had smoke in it. A valuable paper, your brother's I O U is missing. I merely state established facts, which it is useless, which it is prejudicial, to you to contradict."

"I burnt nothing," said Janet again, but there was a break in her voice. Her heart began to struggle like some shy woodland animal, which suddenly sees itself surrounded.

Monkey Brand looked again at her. His wife had loved her. Across the material, merciless face of the money-lender a flicker passed of some other feeling besides the business of the moment; as if, almost as if he would not have been averse to help her if she would deal straightforwardly with him.

"You were my wife's friend," he said after a moment's pause. "She often spoke of you with affection. I also regarded you with high esteem. A few days before you came to stay with us I was looking over my papers one evening, and I mentioned that your brother's I O U would fall due almost immediately. She said she believed it would ruin him if I called in the money then. I said I should do so, for I had waited once already against my known rules of business. I never wait. I should not be in the position which I occupy to-day if I had ever waited. She said, 'Wait at least till after Janet's wedding. It might tell against her if her brother went smash just before.' I replied that I should foreclose, wedding or none. She came across to me, and, by a sudden movement, took the I O U out of my hand before I could stop her. 'I won't have Janet distressed,' she said. 'I shall keep it myself till after the wedding,' and she locked it up before my eyes in a cabinet I had given her, in which she kept her own papers. I seldom yield to sentiment, but she-she recalled to me my own wedding-and in this instance I did so. It was the last evening we spent at home alone together. She went much to the theatre and into society, and I seldom had time to accompany her."

Monkey Brand stopped a moment. Then he went on:

"My wife saw you alone when she was dying. She was evidently anxious to see you alone. It was like her, even then, to think of others. If you tell me, on your word of honour, that she asked you to go up to the flat and burn that I O U, and that she told you where to find it-No; if she even gave you leave, as you were no doubt anxious on the subject,-if you assure me that she yielded to your entreaties, and that she even gave you leave to destroy it,-I will believe it. I will accept your statement. The last wish of my wife-if you say it was her wish-is enough for me." Monkey Brand looked out of the window at the still noonday sunshine. "I would abide by it," he said, and his face worked.

"She never spoke to me on the subject of the I O U," said Janet, two large tears rolling down her quivering cheeks. "She never gave me leave to burn it. I didn't burn it. I burnt nothing."

"Janet," almost shrieked Fred, nearly beside himself. "Janet, don't you see that-that-- Confess. Tell him you did it. We both know you did it. Own the truth."

Janet looked from one to the other.

"I burnt nothing," she said, but her eyes fell. Her word had never been doubted before.

Both men saw she was lying.

Monkey Brand's face changed. It became once again as many poor wretches had seen it, whose hard-wrung money had gone to buy his wife's gowns and diamonds.

He got up. He took his glove out of the crown of his hat, put on his hat in the room, and walked slowly out of the house. In the doorway he looked back at Janet, and she saw, directed at her for the first time, the expression with which she was to grow familiar, that which meets the swindler and the liar.

The brother and sister watched in silence the rigid little departing figure, as it climbed back wrong leg first into the dog-cart and drove away.

Then Fred burst out.

"Oh! you fool, you fool!" he stammered, shaking from head to foot. "Why didn't you say Mrs Brand told you to burn it? His wife was his soft side. Oh! my God! what a chance, and you didn't take it. That man will ruin us yet. I saw it in his face."

"But she didn't tell me to burn it."

Janet looked like a bewildered, distressed child, who suddenly finds herself in a room full of machinery of which she understands nothing, and whose inadvertent touch, as she tries to creep away, has set great malevolent wheels whirring all round her.

"I daresay she didn't," said Fred fiercely, and he flung out of the room.

He went and stood a long time leaning over the fence into the paddock where his yearlings were.

"It's an awful thing to be a fool," he said to himself.

* * *

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