George Bernard Shaw.

The Irrational Knot Being the Second Novel of His Nonage online

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thinking that I wish to snub Conolly. He will be glad enough to have me
at his dinner-table. I am afraid I must hurry away now: I have an
appointment at the club. Can I do anything for you in town?"

"No, thank you, Sholto. I thought you would have stayed with me for a
cup of tea."

"Thank you, dear mother, no: not to-day. I promised to be at the club."

"If you promised, of course, you must go. Good-bye. You will come again
soon, will you not?"

"Some day next week, if not sooner. Good-bye, mother."

Douglas left Manchester Square, not to go to his club, where he had no
real appointment, but to avoid spending the afternoon with his mother,
who, though a little hurt at his leaving her, was also somewhat relieved
by being rid of him. They maintained toward one another an attitude
which their friends found beautiful and edifying; but, like artists'
models, they found the attitude fatiguing, in spite of their practice
and its dignity.

At Hyde Park Corner, Douglas heard his name unceremoniously shouted.
Turning, he saw Marmaduke Lind, carelessly dressed, walking a little
behind him.

"Where are you going to?" said Marmaduke, abruptly.

"Why do you ask?" said Douglas, never disposed to admit the right of
another to question him.

"I want to have a talk with you. Come and lunch somewhere, will you?"

"Yes, if you wish."

"Let's go to the South Kensington Museum."

"The South - - ! My dear fellow, why not suggest Putney, or the Star and
Garter? Why do you wish to go westward from Hyde Park in search of
luncheon?"

"I have a particular reason. I am to meet someone at the Museum this
afternoon; and I want to ask your advice first. You might as well come;
it's only a matter of a few minutes if we drive."

"Well, as you please. I have not been to the Museum for years."

"All right. Come al - - oh, damn! There's Lady Carbury and Constance
coming out of the Park. Dont look at them. Come on."

But Constance, sitting a little more uprightly than her mother, who was
supine upon the carriage cushions, had seen the two gentlemen as they
stood talking.

"Mamma," she said, "there's Marmaduke and Sholto Douglas."

"Where???" said the Countess, lifting her head quickly. "Josephs, drive
slowly. Where are they, Constance?"

"They are going away. I believe Marmaduke saw us. There he is, passing
the hospital."

"We must go and speak to them. Look pleasant, child; and dont make a
fool of yourself."

"Surely youll not speak to him, mamma! You dont expect me - - "

"Nonsense. I heard a great deal about him the other day. He has moved
from where he was living, and is quite reformed. His father is very ill.
Do as I tell you. Josephs, stop half way to the hotel."

"I say," said Marmaduke, finding himself out-manoeuvred: "come back.
There they are right ahead, confound them. What are they up to?"

"It cannot be helped," said Douglas. "There is no escape. You must not
cross: it would be pointedly rude."

Marmaduke went on grumbling. When he attempted to pass, the Countess
called his name, and greeted him with smiles.

"We want to know how your father is," she said. "We have had such
alarming accounts of him. I hope he is better."

"They havnt told me much about him," said Marmaduke. "There was deuced
little the matter with the governor when I saw him last."

"Wicked prodigal! What shall we do to reform him, Mr. Douglas? He has
not been to see us for three years past, and during that time we have
had the worst reports of him."

"You never asked me to go and see you."

"Silly fellow! Did you expect me to send you invitations and leave cards
on you, who are one of ourselves? Come to-morrow to dinner. Your uncle
the Bishop will be there; and you will see nearly all the family
besides. You cannot plead that you have not been invited now. Will you
come?"

"No. I cant stand the Bishop. Besides, I have taken to dining in the
middle of the day."

"Come after dinner, then?"

"Mamma," said Constance, peevishly, "can't you see that he does not want
to come at all? What is the use of persecuting him?"

"No, I assure you," said Marmaduke. "It's only the Bishop I object to.
I'll come after dinner, if I can."

"And pray what is likely to prevent you?" said the Countess.

"Devilment of some sort, perhaps," he replied. "Since you have all given
me a bad name, I dont see why I should make any secret of earning it."

The Countess smiled slyly at him, implying that she was amused, but must
not laugh at such a sentiment in Constance's presence. Then, turning so
as to give the rest of the conversation an air of privacy, she
whispered, "I must tell you that you no longer have a bad name. It is
said that your wild oats are all sown, and I will answer for it that
even the Bishop will receive you with open arms."

"And dry my repentant tears on his apron, the old hypocrite," said
Marmaduke, speaking rather more loudly than before. "Well, we must be
trotting. We are going to the South Kensington Museum - to improve our
minds."

"Why, that is where we are going; at least, Constance is. She is going
to work at her painting while I pay a round of visits. Wont you come
with us?"

"Thank you: I'd rather walk. A man should have gloves and a proper hat
for your sort of travelling."

"Nonsense! you look very nice. Besides, it is only down the Brompton
Road."

"The worst neighborhood in London to be seen in with me. I know all
sorts of queer people down Brompton way. I should have to bow to them if
we met; and that wouldnt do before _her_," - indicating Constance, who
was conversing with Douglas.

"You are incorrigible: I give you up. Good-bye, and dont forget
to-morrow evening."

"I wonder," said Marmaduke, as the carriage drove off, "what she's
saying about me to Constance now."

"That you are the rudest man in London, perhaps."

"Serve her right! I hate her. I have got so now that I can't stand that
sort of woman. You see her game, dont you; she can't get Constance off
her hands; and she thinks there's a chance of me still. How well she
knows about the governor's state of health! And Conny, too, grinning at
me as if we were the best friends in the world. If that girl had an
ounce of spirit she would not look on the same side of the street with
me."

Douglas, without replying, called a cab. Marmaduke's loud conversation
was irksome in the street, and it was now clear that he was unusually
excited. At the museum they alighted, and passed through the courts into
the grill-room, where they sat down together at a vacant table, and
ordered luncheon.

"You were good enough to ask my advice about something," said Douglas.
"What is the matter?"

"Well," said Marmaduke, "I am in a fix. Affairs have become so
uncomfortable at home that I have had to take up my quarters elsewhere."

"I did not know that you had been living at home. I thought your father
and you were on the usual terms."

"My father! Look here: I mean home - _my_ home. My place at Hammersmith,
not down at the governor's."

"Oh! I beg your pardon."

"Of course, you know all about my establishment there with Lalage
Virtue? her real name is Susanna Conolly."

"Is it true, then, that she is a cousin of Marian's husband?"

"Cousin! She's his sister, and Marian's sister-in-law."

"I never believed it."

"It's true enough. But thats not the mischief. Douglas: I tell you she's
the cleverest woman in London. She can do anything she likes. She can
manage a conversation with any foreigner in his own language, whether
she knows it or not. She gabbles Italian like a native. She can learn
off her part in a new piece, music and all, between breakfast and
luncheon, any day. She can cook: she can make a new bonnet out of the
lining of an old coat: she can drive a bargain with a Jew. She says she
never learns a thing at all unless she can learn it in ten minutes. She
can fence, and shoot. She can dance anything in the world. I never knew
such a mimic as she is. If you saw her take off the Bones at the Christy
Minstrels, you'd say she was the lowest of the low. Next minute she will
give herself the airs of a duchess, or do the ingenuous in a style that
would make Conny burst with envy. To see her preaching like George would
make you laugh for a week. There's nothing she couldnt do if she chose.
And now, what do you think she has taken to? Liquor. Champagne by the
gallon. She used to drink it by the bottle: now she drinks it by the
dozen - by the case. She wanted it to keep up her spirits. That was the
way it began. If she felt down, a glass of champagne would set her up.
Then she was always feeling down, and always setting herself up. At last
feeling down came to mean the same thing as being sober. You dont know
what a drunken woman is, Douglas, unless youve lived in the same house
with one." Douglas recoiled, and looked very sternly at Marmaduke, who
proceeded more vehemently. "She's nothing but a downright beast. She's
either screaming at you in a fit of rage, or clawing at you in a fit of
fondness that makes you sick. When she falls asleep, there she is, a
besotted heap tumbled anyhow into bed, snoring and grunting like a pig.
When she wakes, she begins planning how to get more liquor. Think of
what you or I would feel if we saw our mothers tipsy. By God, that child
of mine wouldnt believe its eyes if it saw its mother sober. Only for
Lucy, I'd have pitched her over long ago. I did all I could when I first
saw that she was overdoing the champagne. I swore I'd break the neck of
any man I caught bringing wine into the house. I sacked the whole staff
of servants twice because I found a lot of fresh corks swept into the
dustpan. I stopped drinking at home myself: I got in doctors to frighten
her: I tried bribing, coaxing, threatening: I knocked her down once when
I caught her with a bottle in her hand; and she fell with her head
against the fender, and frightened me a good deal more than she hurt
herself. It was no use. Sometimes she used to defy me, and say she
_would_ drink, she didnt care whether she was killing herself or not.
Other times she cried; implored me to save her from destroying herself;
asked me why I didnt thrash the life out of her whenever I caught her
drunk; promised on her oath never to touch another drop. The same
evening she would be drunk again, and, when I taxed her with it, say
that she wasn't drunk, that she was sick, and that she prayed the
Almighty on her knees to strike her dead if she had a bottle in the
house. Aye, and the very stool she knelt on would be a wine case with a
red cloth stuck to it with a few gilt-headed nails to make it look like
a piece of furniture. Next day she would laugh at me for believing her,
and ask me what use I supposed there was in talking to her. How she
managed to hold on at the theatre, I dont know. She wouldnt learn new
parts, and stuck to old ones that she could do in her sleep, she knew
them so well. She would go on the stage and get through a long part when
she couldnt walk straight from the wing to her dressing-room. Of course,
her voice went to the dogs long ago; but by dint of screeching and
croaking she pulls through. She says she darent go on sober now; that
she knows she should break down. The theatre has fallen off, too. The
actors got out of the place one by one - they didnt like playing with
her - and were replaced by a third-rate lot. The audiences used to be
very decent: now they are all cads and fast women. The game is up for
her in London. She has been offered an engagement in America on the
strength of her old reputation; but what is the use of it if she
continues drinking."

"That is very sad," said Douglas, with cold disgust, perfunctorily
veiled by a conventional air of sympathy. "But if she is irreclaimable,
why not leave her?"

"So I would, only for the child. I _have_ left her - at least, I've taken
lodgings in town; but I am always running out to Laurel Grove. I darent
trust Lucy to her; and she knows it; for she wouldnt let me take the
poor little creature away, although she doesnt care two straws for it.
She knows that it gives her a grip over me. Well, I have not seen her
for a week past. I have tried the trick of only going out in the evening
when she has to be at the theatre. And now she has sent me a long
letter; and I dont exactly know what to do about it. She swears she has
given up drinking - not touched a spoonful since I saw her last. She's as
superstitious as an old woman; and yet she will swear to that lie with
oaths that make _me_ uncomfortable, although I am pretty thick-skinned
in religious matters. Then she goes drivelling on about me having
encouraged her to drink at first, and then turned upon her and deserted
her when I found out the mischief I had done. I used to stand plenty of
champagne, but I am sure I never thought what would come of it. Then she
says she gave up every friend in the world for me: broke with her
brother, and lost her place in society. _Her_ place in society, mind
you, Douglas! Thats not bad, is it? Then, of course, I am leaving her to
die alone with her helpless child: I might have borne with her a little
longer: she will not trouble me nor anyone else much more; and so on.
The upshot is that she wants me to come back. She says I ought to be
there to save the child from her, if I dont care to save her from
herself; that I was the last restraint on her; and that if I dont come
she will make an end of the business by changing her tipple to prussic
acid. The whole thing is a string of maudlin rot from beginning to end;
and I believe she primed herself with about four bottles of champagne to
write it. Still, I dont want to leave her in the lurch. You are a man
who stand pretty closely on your honor. Do you think I ought to go back?
I may tell you that as regards money she is under no compliment to me.
Her earnings were a good half of our income; and she saved nothing out
of them. In fact, I owe her some money for two or three old debts she
paid for me. We always shared like husband and wife."

"I hardly understand your hesitation, Lind. You can take the little girl
out of her hands; allow her something; and be quit of her."

"Thats very easy to say; but I cant drag her child away from her if she
insists on keeping it."

"Well, so much the better for you. It would be a burden to you. Pay her
for its maintenance: that is probably what she wants."

"No, no," said Marmaduke, impatiently. "You dont understand. Youre
talking as if I were a rake living with a loose woman."

Douglas looked at him doubtfully. "I confess I do not understand," he
said. "Perhaps you will be good enough to explain."

"It's very simple. I went to live with her because I fell in love with
her, and she wouldnt marry me. She had a horror of marriage; and I was
naturally not very eager for it myself. Matters must be settled between
us as if we were husband and wife. Paying her off is all nonsense. She
doesnt want money; and I want the child; so she has the advantage of me.
Only for the drink I would go back to her to-morrow; but I cant stand
her when she is not sober. I bore with it long enough; and now all I
want is to get Lucy out of her hands and be quit of her, as you
say - although it seems mean to leave her."

"She must certainly be a very extraordinary woman if she refused to
marry you. Are you sure she is not married already?"

"Bosh! Not she. She likes to be independent; and she has a sort of
self-respect - not like Constance and the old Countess, who hunted me
long enough in the hope of running me down at last in a church."

"If you offered her marriage, that certainly frees you from the least
obligation to stay with her. She reserved liberty to leave you; and, of
course, the same privilege was implied on your part. If you have no
sentimental wish to return to her, you are most decidedly not bound in
honor to."

"I'm fond enough of her when she is sober; but I loathe her when she is
fuddled. If she would only give up drinking, we might make a fresh
start. But she wont."

"You must not think of doing that. Get rid of her, my dear fellow. This
marriage of Marian's has put the affair on a new footing altogether. I
tell you candidly, I think that under the circumstances your connexion
with Conolly's sister is a disgraceful one."

"Hang Conolly! Everybody thinks of Marian, and nobody of Susanna. I
have heard enough of that side of the question. Marian married him with
her eyes open."

"Do you mean to say that she knew?"

"Of course she did. Conolly told her, fairly enough. He's an
extraordinary card, that fellow."

"Reginald Lind told my mother that the discovery was made by accident
after the marriage, and that they were all shocked by it. It was he who
said that it was Conolly's _cousin_ that you were with."

"Uncle Rej. is an old liar. So are most of the family: I never believe a
word they say."

"Marian must have been infatuated. I advise you to break the connexion.
She will be glad to give you the child if she sees that you are resolved
to leave her. She only holds on because she hopes to make it the means
of bringing you back."

"I expect youre about right. She wants me to meet her here to-day at
half past three. Thats the reason I came."

"Do you know that it now wants twenty minutes of four?"

"Whew! So it does. I had better go and look for her. I'm very much
obliged to you, old fellow, for talking it over with me. I suppose you
dont want to meet her."

"I should be in the way at present."

"Then good-bye."

Marmaduke, leaving Douglas in the grill-room, went upstairs to the
picture galleries, where several students were more or less busy at
their easels. Lady Constance was in the Sheepshanks gallery, copying
"Sterne's Maria," by Charles Landseer, as best she could. She had been
annoyed some minutes before by the behavior of a stout woman in a rich
costume of black silk, who had stopped for a moment to inspect her
drawing. Lady Constance, by a look, had made her aware that she was
considered intrusive, whereupon she had first stared Lady Constance out
of countenance, and then deliberately scanned her work with an
expression which conveyed a low opinion of its merit. Having thus
revenged herself, she stood looking uneasily at the door for a minute,
and at last wandered away into the adjoining gallery. A few minutes
later Marmaduke entered, looking round as if in search of someone.

"Here I am," said Constance to him, playfully.

"So I see," said Marmaduke, recognizing her with rueful astonishment.
"You knew I was looking for you, did you?"

"Of course I did, sir."

"Youre clever, so you are. What are you doing here?"

"Dont you see? I am copying a picture."

"Oh! it's very pretty. Which one are you copying?"

"What an impertinent question! You can tell my poor copy well enough,
only you pretend not to."

"Yes, now that I look closely at it, I fancy it's a little like Mary the
maid of the inn there."

"It's not Mary: it's Maria - Sterne's Maria."

"Indeed! Do you read Sterne?"

"Certainly not," said Constance, looking very serious.

"Then what do you paint his Maria for? How do you know whether she is a
fit subject for you?"

"Hush, sir! You must not interrupt my work."

"I suppose you have lots of fun here over your art studies, eh?"

"Who?"

"You, and all the other girls here."

"Oh, I am sure I dont know any of them."

"Quite right, too, your ladyship. Dont make yourself cheap. I hope none
of the low beggars ever have the audacity to speak to you."

"I dont know anything about them," said Lady Constance, pettishly. "All
I mean is that they are strangers to me."

"Most likely theyll remain so. You all seem to stick to the little
pictures tremendously. Why dont you go in for high art? There's a big
picture of Adam and Eve! Why dont you paint that?"

"Will you soon be leaving town?" she replied, looking steadily at her
work, and declining to discuss Adam and Eve, who were depicted naked.
Receiving no reply, she looked round, and saw Marmaduke leaving the room
with the woman in the black silk dress.

"Who is that girl?" said Susanna, as they went out.

"That's Lady Constance, whom I was to have married."

"I guessed as much when I saw you talking to her. She is a true English
lady, heaven bless her! I took the liberty of looking at her painting;
and she stared at me as if I had bitten her."

"She is a little fool."

"She will not be such a little fool as to try to snub me again, I think.
Bob: did you get my letter?"

"Of course I got it, or I shouldnt be here."

"Well?"

"Well, I dont believe a word of it."

"That's plain speaking."

"There is no use mincing matters. You are just as likely to stop
drinking as you are to stop breathing."

"Perhaps I shall stop breathing before long."

"Very likely, at your present rate."

"That will be a relief to you."

"It will be a relief to everybody, and a release for yourself. You have
made me miserable for a year past; and now you expect me to be
frightened at the prospect of being rid of you."

"I dont expect you to be frightened. I expect you to do what all men do:
throw me aside as soon as I have served your turn."

"Yes. Of course, _you_ are the aggrieved party. Where's Lucy?"

"I dont know, and I dont care."

"Well, I want to know; and I do care. Is she at home?"

"How do I know whether she is at home or not. I left her there. Very
likely she is with her Aunt Marian, telling stories about her mother."

"She is better there than with you. What harm has she done you that you
should talk about her in that way?"

"No harm. I dont object to her being there. She has very pleasant
conversations with Mrs. Ned, which she retails to me at home. 'Aunty
Marian: why do you never drink champagne? Mamma is always drinking it.'
And then, 'Mamma: why do you drink so much wine? Aunty Marian never
drinks any.' Good heavens! the little devil told me this morning by way
of consolation that she always takes care not to tell her Aunty that I
get drunk."

"What did you do to her for saying it?"

"Dont lose your temper. I didnt strangle her, nor even box her ears.
Why should I? She only repeats what you teach her."

"She repeats what her eyes and ears teach her. If she learned the word
from me, she learned the meaning from you. A nice lesson for a child
hardly three years old."

Susanna sat down on a bench, and looked down at her feet. After a few
moments, she tightened her lips; rose; and walked away.

"Hallo! Where are you going to?" said Marmaduke, following her.

"I'm going to get some drink. I have been sober and miserable ever since
I wrote to you. I have not got much thanks for it, except to be made
more miserable. So I'll get drunk, and be happy."

"No, you shant," said Marmaduke, seizing her arm, and forcibly stopping
her.

"What does it matter to you whether I do or not? You say you won't come
back. Then leave me to go my own way."

"Here! you sit down," he said, pushing her into a chair. "I know your
game well enough. You think you have me safe as long as you have the
child."

"Oh, thats it, is it? Why dont you go out; take a cab; and go to Laurel
Grove for her? There is nothing to prevent you taking her away."

"I have a good mind to do it."

"Well, _do_ it. I wont stop you. Why didnt you do it long ago? Her home
is no place for her. I'm not fit to have charge of her. I have no fancy
for having her talking about me, and most likely mimicking me to other
people."

"Thats exactly what I want to arrange with you to do, if you will only
be reasonable. Listen. Let us part friends, Susanna, since there is no
use in our going on together. You must give me the child. It would only
be a burden to you; and I can have it well taken care of. You can keep
the house just as it is: I will pay the rent of it."

"What good is the house to me?"

"Can't you hear me out? It will be good to you to live in, I suppose; or
you can set it on fire, and wipe it off the face of the earth, for what
I care. I can give you five hundred pounds down - - "

"Five hundred pounds! And what will you live on until your October
dividends come in? On credit, I suppose. Do you think you can impose on
me by flourishing money before me? I will never take a halfpenny from
you; no, not if I starve for it."

"Thats all nonsense, Susanna. You must."

"Must I? Do you think you can make me take your money as you made me sit
down here? by force!"

"I only offer you what I owe you. Those debts - - "

"I dont want what you owe me. If you think it mean to leave me, you
shant plaster up your conscience with bank notes. You would like to be
able to say in your club that you treated me handsomely."


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Online LibraryGeorge Bernard ShawThe Irrational Knot Being the Second Novel of His Nonage → online text (page 18 of 27)