Four Stories High

La Béguine

Marcus Clarke

“GOOD GRACIOUS!” said I, “what are you doing here?” She was a childlike little creature, having brown hair and brown eyes. She was dressed in black silk, and wore a white lace veil tied in a quaint, coquettish way over her head. She looked up and recognised me.

“Donnington’s gone away,” she said, simply, “and I don’t know what to do.”

“Don’t stay here, at all events. This is not the place to cry in. Come, let us walk down the street, and tell me all about it.”

I was a schoolboy of sixteen, Donnington was a man about town, she was one Fanny Robinson—called, from her fanciful method of dressing, La Béguine—and the place was that huge building in Great Globe Square which, commencing as a Pantechnicon, budded into a Circus, and was now the Escurial Palace.

My old and esteemed friend, Mrs. Grundy, who declines to read Fielding, but for whose behoof Aphra Behn’s novels have lately been reprinted (and such trash as “Anonyma,” “Skittles,” and “Agnes Willoughby” are sold openly at railway stations), will probably feel inclined to draw her petticoats together and metaphorically cross over to the other side. Wait a moment, dear Mrs. Grundy. With all your prejudices, you have a good heart; and I think you will be more grieved than shocked at what I am going to tell you.

We walked out into the Square—I, Horatius Marston, pupil at the Rev. Dr. Crammer’s, home for the holidays, and this wicked woman. There was no doubt about her character. She had lived with Teddy Donnington for nearly a year without being married to him, and called by their Christian names some of the best and worst people in Babylon. She was always well dressed, had as much money as she could spend, and was treated with the utmost respect by her acquaintances. What a charming life—do you say, Miss Matilda Jane? Charming, indeed, when her only refuge from the melancholy caused by the sudden desertion of a man whom it is possible she loved, was the Escurial Palace! Stay, I am wrong—there were the Macallumore Rooms, the Vampire Café, Madame Ponceau’ (Unclear:)Katherina’s, Mrs. Carey’s (or the Chateau d’Enfer), and the Streets.

“You are a good boy,” said this little person to me between her sobs, “and you ought not to be out in these places. Let us walk up the Strand. I am glad I met you.”

“Hadn’t you better go home, Mrs. Donnington? Let me call a cab.”

“No, I shall never go back any more—never! Leave me, and go home. It is wrong of your people to let you see this sort of life. You ought to have been in bed hours ago.”

She looked so charming as she spoke, so prettily formed to be some grandfather’s darling, or some honest man’s household pet, that my schoolboy heart began to thump with honest emotion.

“You are not much older than I, Fanny.”

“I! I am nineteen,” she said, and sighed.

So we two experienced profligates walked up moonlit Oxford-street together.

Let me take an instant to explain how it came about that a pupil of the Rev. Crammer’s, up in town for his holidays, should have owned such an acquaintance. My holidays, passed in my father’s widowed house, were enlivened by the coming and going of cousin Tom from Woolwich, of cousin Dick from Addiscombe, of cousin Harry from Colchester or Knightsbridge. With Tom, Dick, and Harry came a host of friends—for, as long as he was undisturbed, the head of the house rather liked to see his rooms occupied by the relatives of people with whom he was intimate—and a succession of young men of the Cinqbars, Ringwood (and, I am afraid Algernon Deuccace) sort, made my home a temporary roosting-place. I have not space to explain how such a curious ménage came to be instituted; indeed, I scarcely know myself; but such was the fact, and “little Marston,” instead of being trained in the way be should morally go, became the impertinent companion of some very wild young bloods indeed. “I took Horace to the opera last night, sir,” or “I am going to show Horatius Cocles the wonders of Cremorne this evening,” would be all that Tom, or Dick, or Harry would deign to observe, and my father would but lift his eyebrows in indifferent deprecation. So, a wild-eyed and eager schoolboy, I strayed into Bohemia, and acquired in that strange land an assurance and experience ill suited to my age and temperament. Remembering the wicked good-hearted inhabitants of that curious country, I have often wondered since “what they thought of it,” and have interpreted, perhaps not unjustly, many of the homely tendernesses which seemed to me then so strangely out of place and tune.

As we walked, my companion grew calmer, and by-and-bye related what had passed. Donnington had been called away to Scotland on “family business” (so he said), and had left her. The usual letter of farewell, in which affectation of regret thinly veiled indifference, contained the usual “provision,” tendered in the usual manner. Fanny passionately tore up the note with her little gloved hands, and demanded to be led to the Serpentine, in order that she might at once end her sorrows. In vain I urged her to go back to her house. “It is yours, you know, for six months longer. He has paid the rent. Why wander about the streets, when you have a home to go to?” “I will never go back any more, Horace, so it is no use asking me. Oh, I am very wretched!” What was to be done? It was impossible to take her to the paternal mansion—that, at all events, would not be endured—and it was impossible to leave her desperate in the streets.

Mrs. Quickly—I allude to the period before she married Pistol—was, with all her faults, a jolly soul, and, despite her liberality in the letting of lodgings, not without a touch of romance. Fanny’s breakfast, furnished in that long parlour looking from a second floor upon the Haymarket, was, I have reason to think, prepared in a great measure by the hostess’ own hands; and the slovenly domestic who waited upon her—the waiting was the great blot on Mrs. Quickly’s household management—smiled maternally upon her youthful head.

“Now, Fanny,” said I, looking round upon the worm-eaten splendour of the chamber—the George the Fourth chairs, the convex mirrors, the gilded console tables, the cloth-of-gold sofa with but three castors—and sickening in the atmosphere of secondhand prodigality, “it is impossible for you to stay here.”

She produced a handful of bank notes. “I had forgotten these.” There were some half-dozen £5 notes, I suppose; and she smoothed them out and sat looking at them with whimsical affectation of intense gravity.

“But you must keep those. No? Nonsense, put them back. Let us consider, my dear. I am at School, you know.”

She burst into a ringing laugh, and then as suddenly ended in tears. “I ran away from my school,” she said.

I suppose when one is young, one is not quite hard-hearted, or, at all events, is softer-headed than when one grows older. I went to her and tried to persuade her to go home. “You have a father and mother, Fanny, have you not?” She shook her head. “Well, one or the other, then?” No. “Relatives?” Oh, yes, she had relatives, but—with a shudder—had rather die in the streets than go back to them. “And He—the man, you know, Fanny—what of him?” Had I been older, I should have known how useless was such a question—how useless is always such a question. Faithful in all her misery, poor child, to that one dream of first affection, she resolutely put away all thoughts of betraying, by name or description, the lover who had betrayed her. “He was no one whom I knew—no one whom I was ever likely to know. Never mind him. He could do nothing. He must not be disturbed.” So—baronet or butcher (probably butcher)—his ghost was driven from us, and we tacitly agreed to mention him no more.

“At least, you will let me write to your friends, Fanny,” I urged with boyish vehemence. “Think of this life—think of what it must end in. For men,” I added, with boyish philosophy, “such an adventure as this is but an episode; for women, it is an existence. You are nineteen. What will you be at thirty-nine?”

“Frank Decimal says that many of—of us—marry well,” she returned, with a woman’s greed of argument.

“But Frank Decimal didn’t tell you,” said I, remembering a remark of Frank Decimal’s Chief at my father’s table, “that the average life of ‘us’ is four years and a half. Fanny, you must let me write.”

“Well, then, write!” she exclaimed, passionately, “and see what good it will do.”

The person to whom, by her unwilling direction, I wrote, was a Mr. Jonas Crampton, a draper in a country town, who was her stepfather. I set forth the case to the best of my boyish ability, and begged him to reply by return of post.

“And now, Fanny, you must go back to your house and wait his answer. Nonsense, you must go. You have no clothes with you, and I cannot remain away without some reason.”

She went back, and the day following I called at Mrs. Quickly’s for the reply to my letter. It was written on blue paper, in a hard, commercial hand, and was very brief. Mr. Crampton would have nothing to do with “that abandoned girl who had so ungratefully left a good home. She had disgraced herself, and disgraced her friends. If she desired to reform, let her go to the Refuge.” I showed her the tradesman’s cold-blooded reply.

“Well,” said she, “you are very good. Let us go and look at the Refuge.”

We went. A hideously clean, white building on the sordid outskirts of Babylon. The high walls suggested a gaol, and a cart stood at the barred gates. “What have you there?” I asked the driver. “Washing,” said he, with a grin; “they washes cheap in there.” It is possible that my youthful mind had not grasped the great Social Question, but at the time—with this elegantly-dressed, soft-voiced girl hanging on my arm—I felt that a Refuge which took women, accustomed to fare delicately and to be complimented by men of talent and fashion, and set them at a washtub, was not founded by Samaritans who possessed much knowledge of human nature. A hard-featured woman—the matron, perhaps—came to the gates, and interchanged looks with the driver of the washing-cart. They evidently understood our errand.

“For Heaven’s sake take me away!” cried Fanny, trembling like a leaf. God will deal justly, I think, both with me and with Mr. Jonas Crampton. I was not a Social Reformer, and I took her away.

I was chagrined at my signal failure in the cause virtue, and my peculiar Mephistopheles seized the opportunity to score a point in the game he is perpetually playing with me. “Fanny!” I cried, “it is no use trying to be good against these odds. I’ll get some money, and we’ll go to Paris until it is spent. What do you say?” Fanny clapped her hands delightedly—alas! for the Refuge. “Donnington was always promising to take me to Paris. When shall we start—to-night?”

Two days afterwards we were supping at the Pavilion Hotel, Folkstone. That obliging man the jobmaster, Mr. Levison, had bought the furniture left by Donnington for £100 (I did not know, then, that one of Mr. Levison’s multifarious professions was the purchase of furniture under such circumstances, and that he usually cleared 150 per cent on his outlay), and I had borrowed £30 from Ringwood, and obtained £25 from my father. “What do you want this money for, Horatius?” my father had asked. “I want to go to Paris, sir.” He looked at me with his cold and penetrating glance. A word, and I should have told him all. “Well, do not write for more when you have spent that; though what you mean to do in Paris with £25 I cannot imagine. There—shut the door.” So we eat Mr. Giacometti’s cold fowl in high spirits. “Fanny, you must be careful of that £100. I have only enough to last us for a week or two, and then, you know, you will want your money.” “My dearest Boy,” she cried, opening her brown eyes to their widest extent, “why didn’t you say so before. I spent every penny yesterday in gloves and things!” How we laughed—we pair of unsophisticated Bohemians—and struck out next morning boldly for the ocean of Paris with a lifebelt of £50!

The whole proceeding was, of course, utterly foolish and indefensible; yet, when I look back upon that merry, youthful time, I confess it seems to me, despite its folly, one of the most innocent periods of my life. It was early spring. Two children, we strolled arm-in-arm—I had almost written hand-in-hand—about wonderful Paris, peeped into bookshops, loitered in print-rooms, drove, rode, lounged, just as the humour took us. Fanny was as happy as a schoolgirl escaped from the blackboard, and I, gay with the gaiety of careless sixteen, rejoiced in the absolute pleasure of living. We were not extravagantly luxurious. The desperation of improvidence, the choice suppers, the sumptuous fêtes, the water-parties, the jewel-cases—all these things belong to maturer years—and the simple pleasure of being free was enough for us. If we did not say to the passing moment, “Stay, thou art so fair!” it was because we never dreamed but that each moment would be as fair as this. Yet our lifebelt of £50 soon began to fail us. We were not extravagant, simply because we had no need of the luxuries of extravagance; yet Fanny, with her vague notions as to “gloves and things,” played havoc with my Napoleons. She was by taste and temperament a true Bohemian. Having money, anything she desired she purchased. Being without money, she would laugh and forget. Did she wish to drink champagne, she ordered it; and did the whim seize her to drink water, she did not think it needful to countermand the champagne; yet had I told her that we could not afford to drink champagne, she would have ordered Comet hock at once—as being less expensive. She was not beautiful; she was not well-born; she was not well-educated—few women who have bewitched the souls of men have been either; but she had intensely that extraordinary sixth sense that nature gives to some women of never doing that which, at the moment, would appear to you to be wrong. For the rest, we were young. Ah! thou Alchemist Experience.

“Tout l’or pour toi, mais rends moi mes beaux jours!”

At last came the fatal “quarter of an hour.” We had expended our last franc. I wrote to benevolent Ringwood for another £10—the good fellow sent me £20—and we returned to London. We had been away nearly three weeks; and, as we sat after dinner in the Great Midland Hotel, I awoke to the debasing consciousness that I must go back to school in two days. To dispel care, we adopted Rousseau’s famous plan—ran away from it; and by some curious chance that was not without a sort of premeditation we found ourselves at the Escurial. A dozen men of Fanny’s acquaintance presented themselves at once, staring at me with an indifference against which my youthful impertinence was barely proof, and somebody asked where Donnington was, with an air which plainly said, “We are not to accept this one in his stead, surely!” To my relief, Rouge-Dragon appeared, and under the protecting aegis of his nascent dukedom I felt my position assured. He asked after my father, said he had dined yesterday with Tom or Dick or Harry, and was pleased to take great notice of Fanny.

I need not elaborate details. My money was spent, Dr. Crammer was imminent, and—we both had our way to make in the world. A few tears, a sigh, a kiss or two, and I reported myself to my father, with the consciousness that Fanny was “provided for.”

That term was my last at Crammer’s. On the day following my return home, I saw in the Park a tiny carriage drawn at a furious pace by two ponies, and driven by a lady whose parasol-whip concealed her face. Two mounted grooms followed it.

“And who pays for that extravagance?” I asked.

“Rouge-Dragon. Don’t you know? I though everybody knew. That is La Béguine.”

It was so. Sicilia no longer ignores Bohemia. La Béguine become the fashion, was as much a fact of modern civilisation as the Bishop of Bloomsbury. Fashionable newspapers chronicled her movements, Countesses copied her toilette, the best (male) society in England attended her parties, and she spent the income of a Princess. I never spoke to her again, for Rouge-Dragon was far too great a nobleman to ask me to his select assemblies; yet when I returned her bow, on the rare occasions when we met, I sometimes thought she did not look so happy as when in Paris.

And now methinks I hear the rustling of Mrs. Grundy’s indignant skirts, and catch a sigh of envy breathed by Miss Matilda Jane. “Is this your promised moral, sir? To scoff at Refuges, and leave your abandoned hussy riding in a pony-carriage under the protection of a Duke’s son!” “Madam,” I reply, with all humility, “you have not heard me to the end. So surely as this poor girl—who, when rescue was possible, was refused shelter by her cold-hearted relatives—became a woman whom the World (including Mr. Grundy) delighted to honour, as surely did the awful punishment decreed by Society for such offences overtake her.” Two days ago, in an English paper lying on my club table, I read this:—

“A woman, once notorious in the demi-monde under the name of La Bégnine, died yesterday at St.—— Hospital, from the combined effects o exposure to the late severe weather and habitual intemperance.”

There is your moral, Miss and Madam. I present it to you instead of a sermon, for you may deduce from it this maxim—

Put morality and orthodox religion out of the question, but you will find it better to endure the stupidest of husbands, the most colourless of lives, than to outrage society.” God may forgive you, my dears, but Society never will.

“Thank you, Marston,” said I. There was silence for a little, and then Falx said, quietly,

“That story suits my humour. I was at a funeral yesterday.”

“An old friend?”

“No, I had known him but a few months. I fell across his path by accident. A sad story. I’ll tell it as a pendant to’La Béguine,’ and will call it the tale of The Poor Artist.”

“Poetical and Pretty,” said I. “Let us have it by all means. How does it begin?”

“It begins in my room in the Peacock office,” said Falx.

Four Stories High - Contents    |     The Poor Artist

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