The Graphic, December 1, 1906.
Mr. Dewbury's Consent
by Rafael Sabatini
I am the humblest-minded man in the world, but if you should wound my feelings my humility is at once transformed into pride and self-assertiveness, my habitual meekness converted into retaliatory arrogance.
Thus, when Mr. Dewbury pointed out to mewith that brutality for which he is notoriousthat I was a young man of idle ways, that my means were too restricted to permit of idleness, and that consequently he would oppose my wedding his niece and ward, I did not adopt a humble or conciliatory tone, I didn't swear to achieve great things so as to become worthy of the union to which I aspired; I ate no humble-pie. I made no promises; I rose up in all the panoply of outraged pride, and turned to rend Mr. Dewbury.
I pointed out to him that to describe me as idle was to distort facts, and that if my means were restricted, they were at least sufficient to keep a loving couple from absolute want. Incidentally I threw it out that I belonged to the great aristocracy of genius at which Mr. Dewbury audibly sniffedand that my name was a name likely to be heard of presently.
But the rending of Mr. Dewbury was more easy to project than to achieve. Alas! The very stupidity of the man was an impenetrable bulwark, a demoralising array of chevaux-de-frise against which I hurled the onslaught of my logic and my eloquence, only to fall back baffled.
I could lure him into no fresh statement; like the dull-witted creature he was he took refuge in repeating the one odious sentence that he had coined to describe my conditiona sentence that gained in neither point nor effectiveness from being repeated. Mr. Dewbury's money was made for him in a factory, and from the rudeness he displayed on the painful occasion of which I write, I might reasonably adduce that his manners were of like origin.
I may have been foolish to have adopted the attitude of retaliation in short, to have lost my temperfor when you hope to become a man's nephew-in-law it is perhaps as well to conciliate him; when you have become his nephew-in-law you please yourself.
"The profession of letters, sir," said I, with the loftiness of the broad-minded man when drawn to dissent from one whose views are narrow, "is a profession that has been followed by men of an eminence which neither you nor I may hope to attain."
I was by no means sure that I should not attain it, but for politic reasons I thought it as well to couple myself with him.
"And as for my being idle," I repeated, "the statement is quite inaccurate. I am a student of men."
"You may study men as long and as closely as you please," said he. "That does not concern me. But I certainly intend to prevent your pursuing the study of woman in the person of my niece." He delivered himself of this with irritating smugness; to his benighted soul it may have commended itself as a witticism. "You are an idle young man," he said again with odious insistence, "and idle young men incline to vice."
"If a man incline to vice, Mr. Dewbury, he will be vicious whether idle or not."
"I do not wish to be drawn into an argument."
"That," said I, "is the last defence of one who has no argument."
It was not a wise thing to have said, perhaps. But then Dewbury was by no means an old man. He was under forty, and there was little grey in his hair. There was, however, a devilishly truculent tongue in his head, and the brutal discourtesy with which he brought our discussion to a close left me in no doubt as to the hopelessness of my condition.
Perhaps I was unnecessarily despondent, for, after all, so long as the girl be true, what signify others? But that afternoon it seemed to me that mine was a poor, blighted young life. I resolved to leave Stollbridge at once and return to town. If I had remained so long in that little provincial place it had been solely because Mildred dwelt there. Now that I was to see Mildred no more the attractions faded.
But next morning I received a note from hera hurried, panic-stricken scrawlto the effect that if the weather were fine she would be on the river that afternoon. It fortunately was fine, and hot, even for July. So after lunch I took the canoe, and a couple of miles up-stream I came upon her punt made fast under a tree of very usefully overhanging branches.
I went alongside, and passing from the canoe to the punt I assisted her to make tea. She says that I only looked on while she made it. She is probably right. Mildred is a distinctly pretty girl, and I know of few pursuits more engrossing than the contemplation of her.
At last, when she had handed me a cup, and settled herself in the rainbow of her cushions,
"Paddy," said she very sorrowfully, "the uncle has forbidden me to speak to you again."
"This disobedience," said I, "is very sweet."
"But what happened? What did he say to you?"
I told her, and she was a very angel in her indignation.
"But you are anything but idle, Paddy," she cried, and I felt that I had never really loved Mildred until that moment. She was the one person in all the world who understood me.
"That is precisely what I told your uncle, and I confirmed it by arguments that no man in his senses could have failed to appreciate. He, however," and I waved my hand widely, "refuses to look upon my occupation in the light of serious work."
"Paddy, you must do something to prove him wrong."
"Mount Parnassus is lofty," I commented dolefully. "Its heights are steep and difficult to scale even for the stronger and better equipped than I. I may be years reaching the summit; I may never reach it; and, anyhow, I can't wait."
"What I mean," she explained, "is that you should do something really useful; something that he would consider useful. Go into business."
"I have no head for figures. I should only lose the little that I have."
"A profession then," she insisted.
"What professions are there? For the Church I have no vocation; law and medicine are already overcrowded; besides, they blunt a man's individuality."
"Is there nothing else?"
"There is hair-dressing and chiropodyboth estimable professions in their way, only this is an age of prejudices, and perhaps you wouldn't care to marry me then."
"How can you laugh, Paddy?"
"Laughter," said I oracularly, "is one of sorrow's most terrible expressions. My poor Millie, I was never meant to be useful in that sense. I am just a dreamer, and to wake me would be to spoil me, or else set me to spoil other things, which might be worse."
"You are the dearest madman in all the world."
"Thanks, Mildred," I sighed gratefully.
"I'll be of age in a year," she reflected.
"And you'll wait, Millie?"
I find a difficulty in chronicling her reply, for she expressed herself without the use of words. But it convinced me, and it was very comforting and fortifying even if we did nearly upset the punt.
So much consolation did I gather from that interview that I went up to town in a moderately cheerful spirit on the morrow, and in a cheerful spirit did I write to her twice in the ensuing week. But the second of these letters was returned to me enclosed in one of the most discourteous epistles that I have ever read, from her uncle. Now for all that I had every reason to be pleased with the composition of my letters to Mildred, I hardly desired for them such publicity as this, so I wrote no more.
It was while I was a prey to my fresh sorrows at this interruption of our correspondence, that Jessie Willoughby came to the rescue like a fairy godmother. I was wandering aimlessly down Piccadilly one sunny afternoon when she suddenly confronted me.
Now, although she was my sister's dearest friend and my sometime playmate grown into a sufficiently beautiful woman to rejoice the sight of any discriminating man, so dejected was my condition that her appearance afforded me no pleasure. Still I was polite.
"II don't see the peacock," said I, looking round.
"Peacock?" she echoed, and her brows puckered, "What peacock?"
Then I laughed.
"Why bless me, it's you, Jessie. Your pardon; I mistook you for Juno."
"Oh?" And to get level she drew unflattering parallels between me and every god, demi-god and hero of the ancients, and wound up by asking me whither I was going.
"To the dogs," said I, mournfully.
"I mean this afternoon," she explained.
"Oh, anywhere. It doesn't matter."
"Come with me then."
I shook my head.
"You look too gay for me; I feel too sad for you. No doubt you are as anxious to preserve your gaiety as I am to harbour my melancholy. By association we should probably both suffer."
But she insisted, and when Jessie insists she is difficult to withstand. Five minutes later we were on our way to her studio in a hansom. She was expecting, she told me, some friends to tea. Jessie Willoughby was an artistat least she believed herself one, as did also a few admiring friends; admirers, it must be confessed, of her delightful personality, her toilettes and her beauty, rather than of her art. Blessed with a sufficiency of this world's goods, Jessie could afford to play at being a Bohemian, make nasty messes with colours and enjoy the emancipation from conventional trammels that is the prerogative of the class to which she claimedby the slenderest of artistic rightsto belong.
Surrounded by the daubs that marred what otherwise might have been a handsome room, I took Jessie into my confidence before the others arrived. She heard me through patiently and sympathetically.
"My poor Paddy, what a sombre tragedy! Won't you tell me her name?"
"Millie," said I.
"How fresh and innocent," she rhapsodised, "how pretty, how sweet, how suggestive of buttercups and things."
"Jessie, you are laughing at me," I protested.
"Indeed, no. But what is her other name? Who is she?
Of Stollbridge?" she asked, looking up with what seemed a new interest.
"Why, yes. Do you know her?"
"No, I don't know her," she replied. Her eyes danced with an amusement that I could not understand, and from her parted lips came a soft, cooing laugh.
"What amuses you?" I asked a trifle sulkily, for although we realise that our sufferings may prove a source of entertainment to the rest of the world, we hardly care for the friend to whom we expose them to laugh in our face for answer.
"Paddy," she said gravely, "I remember that you used to have a poor opinion of a woman's wit. I am going to show you how very wrong you were. Be guided by me; follow my advice implicitly, and in a week your engagement to this Millie of yours shall receive her uncle's sanction."
I think that my stare was justified.
"How can you help me?" I asked at last, and then, before she could reply, the door was opened, and to my disgust her maid announced a visitor. On the heels of this onea young man with a flowing necktie, straw-coloured hair and pince-nezcame a host of others, until her room was filled by as motley an assemblage of men and women as ever the gregariousness of human nature drew together. They were mostly Bohemians, some in stern reality, others mere make-believes like herself, and in a more placid frame of mind I might have found much to interest and amuse me in the observation of them. As it was I sat preoccupied, making abortive attempts at conversation with a fluffy-haired little girla musician, I thinkwho for her sins had been entrusted to me by our hostess. Jessie had told her that I was a young man of parts, a writer of some promise. From my general dullness she may have been justified in assuming me a humorist.
Of a sudden, however, my interest in my surroundings was vigorously aroused by the shock of surprise that I received when the maid announced"Mr. Dewbury." He was certainly the last man in the world I expected to see, and this was the last place in the world in which I expected to see him.
He came forward now, the very incarnation of geniality and eagernessa sort of transfigured Dewbury whom hitherto I had never metand as he shook hands with Jessie, I clearly heard her thank him for the flowers he had sent, whereat my wonder grew. She gave him some tea, and then leaving him in conversation with a struggling young painterwhether struggling to live or struggling to paint was not made clear to meshe came to sit beside me.
"Well?" she inquired, "Are you surprised?"
"Of course I am. I had no notion that he was in town, nor even that you knew him."
"To the observer," she murmured tritely, "life is a never-ending round of surprises. I may have one or two more for you before long. Paddy, I am your good angel."
She was smiling at me with eyes so full of adoration that but for the memory of Mildred they might have proved my undoing. I looked across at Mildred's uncle to find his glance riveted upon me. Where now was the geniality? Where now the eagerness? The Dewbury that sat there now was the Dewbury that I knewscowling and malevolent. I smiled and nodded easily. He acknowledged my greeting without warmth, and turned to struggle into conversation with the struggling painter.
Jessie seemed to forget her guests. She drew me into a spirited conversation, consisting on my part of endless inquiries into the methods she intended to pursue to assist me, and on hers of endless, evasive persiflage, which, however amusing to her, was peculiarly trying to me. Ever and anon Dewbury would glance in our direction, his eyes eloquent with unrest. It occurred to me that he wished to speak to Jessie, but that my presence restrained him.
At last her guests began to depart, and little by little the number ebbed until only Dewbury and I were left. We carried on a conversation for some momentsthat is to say, Jessie talked, addressing her remarks mainly to meuntil with an unconscious sigh Mr. Dewbury rose and murmured that he must be going.
"I hope to have the pleasure of seeing you at the Hampshire's to-night," said he. But Jessie shook her head.
"I am afraid not. Paddy has asked me to dinner," she added in her breezy way, "and we are killing the fatted calf in honour of his return to town."
Now I had done nothing of the sort, and I was aghast to hear her. But my feelings must have been as water to wine compared with Dewbury's. His eyebrows went up until they threatened to join forces with his hair, and in tones of unmistakable horror
"You are having dinner with Mr. Holford?" he gasped.
She laughed, and as if to explain
"Why Paddy and I are old friends," she cried, and he, forced to accept that explanation, withdrew.
She watched him depart, and her merry eyes became for a second quite serious. "Poor fellow," she murmured in a voice that was like a caress, and which set me thinking. Then she turned to me
"Run along now, Paddy, there's a good child. You may come and see me in the morning. Eleven o'clock sharp. And if you would serve your interests you had better bring me some flowers."
"But are you not coming to dinner?" I inquired, more and more puzzled.
"I have changed my mind."
The merriest of laughs rippled from her lips, and her grey eyes were a-dance with amusement.
"Oh, Paddy, Paddy, I always thought a writer was a professional observer. I am afraid you will never achieve greatness. But thereif you can't see what I'm doing for you, I am not going to explain. It's something I wouldn't do for anyone else, Paddy; and, anyhow, it is something that is going to lead you to buy an engagement ring this week for your little, rustic Millie."
It may be that I am, after all, a singularly dull-witted person; it certainly seems to me now that I should have understood it all along, but my mind was dense as a fog that evening. At least, however, the fog was pierced by the ray of hope she cast upon me with such encouraging assurance, and influenced by it, I grew sanguine and cheerful.
Eleven o'clock next morning found me on her doorstep, a bunch of red roses in my hand, and there, to my vast surprise, I was joined, as the maid admitted me, by Dewbury himself, also bearing a bouqueta mass of orchids, any single bloom of which must have cost as much as all my roses put together. He appeared no less surprised to meet me, and his greeting could hardly have been more thorough in its surliness. It came to me thenas, indeed, it might have come to any foolthat Dewbury was in love with Jessie. And still I did not see light.
"She was all smiles to receive us. She took his bouquet first he took excellent care that she shouldand gushed over that costly collection of rare petals. Then she took up mine, and buried her face in the roses.
"I love roses," she vowed. "They are so warm, so sweet, so- so generous. I could surround myself with roses. Couldn't you, Mr. Dewbury?"
"I daresay," he temporised, writhing visibly.
"A rose always appeals to me as a flower with a soula great soul. Do you never feel like that towards it?"
"I am afraid I have never thought about it," he grunted.
"Haven't you," said she with as much horror as though he had confessed to never attending church. "Ah, but then you are not a poet," she addedwhich after all was not a great discovery.
"Indeed no," said I, seizing the opportunity to balance matters with him. "Mr. Dewbury follows no such useless vocation. He is no dreamernot he. He is a utilitarian; believes in being useful in the world and all that; manufactures things."
St. Lawrence on the gridiron must have experienced sensations of positive delight when contrasted with Mr. Dewbury's feelings at that moment. Jessie took pity on him, and putting down the roses began to extol the beauty of the orchids until the smiles returned to his face.
We stayed half an hour and left together. But before we left Jessie slipped a note into my hand.
As we walked away from the house, Dewbury turned to me.
"Miss Willoughby seems to be a great friend of yours," he said sourly.
I nearly blurted out that we were "sort of brother and sister." But intuition came to the rescue.
"Oh, dear, yes," I assented, "Dear girl, Jessie, is she not?"
He looked at me in silence, and I thought there was a good deal of unnecessary contempt in his glance. Then he put up his hand to stop a passing hansom, and without displaying the manners to ask me whether he could give a lift, he bade me good morning.
When he was gone I opened Jessie's note. It suggested that I should get myself a stall at the Haymarket that night. She would be there with her cousins, the Sutfields, and she urged me to go up to their box. All this I did, and, standing behind Jessie's chair after the first act, I saw Dewbury's glowering eye raised to us from the stalls.
Two days later I again took tea at her studio. There was more or less the same crowd, and the by now inevitable Mr. Dewbury. Of course I was beginning to see light, and when I perceived that she really did like Millie's uncleand, after all, I daresay that there was a great deal about him that was likeable and presentableI understood what a thoroughly good sort Jessie was, and how deeply I stood in her debt.
It was a Saturday, and as I was leaving the studio, she audibly promised to meet me at Paddington at eleven o'clock next morning. Dewbury could not fail to hear and to gather, of course, that a day up the river had been planned. I left him there, and went out to dine with some friends that night. When later I got home there was a wire from Jessie commanding me not to leave my rooms on any account in the morning.
I puzzled over it, but the solution came at ten o'clock next day when Mr. Dewbury was announced.
He was very cold and very distant, and he addressed me as though I were one of the men whom he did business with.
"I have come to ask you, sir, whether you consider it consistent with honesty and dignity to write such letters as your last one to my niece while carrying on a very pronounced flirtation here with another lady."
"And may I ask you, sir," said I, in a tone that gave him back his iciness with interest, "whether you consider it consistent with the honesty and dignity to which you allude, to read letters that are addressed to somebody else?"
He bounded out of his chair at that.
"I did not read it," he exclaimed.
"Are you not rash then in passing judgement upon its contents?"
"A fool could guess them knowing the relations that existed between yourself and my niece. You don't doubt me?"
"Not for a moment," said I in tones which were meant to convey the very opposite. "May I ask, sir, how my behaviour can further concern or interest you? You have closed your house against me; you have forbidden me to see Mildred; you take care that I shall not write to her. Are you not satisfied, or is it that, taking a keen interest in my welfare, and having some notion that a literary man should be wedded only to his art, you wish to ensure for me a future of aesthetic celibacy?"
He was thoughtful for a moment. Then, instead of the anger with which I had expected him to answer me
"It has occurred to me, Paddy," said he very mildlyand this return to the use of my sobriquet made me suddenly hopeful"it has occurred to me that after all I may have been a trifle hasty over that Stollbridge affair."
"I daresay it was for the best," said I, whereat alarm spread itself upon his face.
"I mean that perhaps I had no right to separate you and Mildred. She will wait for you andwell, there's always a danger attached to a woman's waiting for a man. In a city like London there are so many distractions; so much may occur. I have been thinking it over, and do you know I have come to the conclusion that in matters of this kind perhaps young people themselves are the best judges, and that after all it might on the whole be wiser if I were to sanction your engagement."
"That is very good of you, sir," said I, in a perfectly colourless voice, which must have left him still uneasy.
"Supposing that I were to do so, Paddywhat course would you adopt?"
"I should return to Stollbridge and work there. As you say, there are rather many distractions in town, and a young man may find them militating against his work."
He was visibly relieved.
"My dear boy," said he, "if I have been hasty I am sure you will forgive me."
Of course I forgave him, for who could have withheld pardon under the circumstances. That very afternoon I travelled down to Stollbridge to bear Mildred the good news.
In the middle of the following week she had a wire from her uncle announcing his engagement.
"Isn't it droll?" she laughed, holding out the telegram to me, "Fancy the uncle being engaged! I shall be one of Jessie's bridesmaids."
"I think," said I, "that that is about the least we can do for Jessie."