PLAINTIFF OR PENITENT

Meanwhile, the reader shall judge by the turn of one of these
conversations whether Mrs. Buchanan was, or was not, justified in her
prevision. Mrs. Mowbray came tripping up the long stair, which was of
stone, and did not creak under foot, though she was betrayed by the
rustle of her silk dress, which was in those days a constant
accompaniment of a woman’s movements. When she approached nearer, there
were other little sounds that betrayed her,–a little jingle of
bracelets and chains, and the bugles of her mantle. She was naturally
dressed in what was the height of the fashion then, though we should
think it ridiculous now, as we always think the fashions that are past.
When Mr. Buchanan heard that little jingle and rattle, his heart failed
him. He put down his pen or his book, and the healthful colour in his
cheek failed. A look of terror and trouble came into his face.
“Here is _that_ woman again,” he said to himself. Mrs. Mowbray, on her
side, was very far from thinking herself _that_ woman; she rather
thought the minister looked forward with pleasure to her visits, that
she brought a sort of atmosphere of sunshine and the great world into
that sombre study of his, and that the commonplace of his life was
lighted up by her comings and goings. There are a great many people in
the world who deceive themselves in this way, and it would have been a
shock to Mrs. Mowbray if she had seen the appalled look of the
minister’s face when his ear caught the sound of her coming, and he
looked up to listen the better, with a gesture of impatience, almost
despair, saying to himself, “that woman again.”
She came in, however, all smiles, lightly tapping at the door, with a
little distinctive knock, which was like nobody else’s, or so at least
she thought. She liked to believe that she did everything in a
distinctive way, so that her touch and her knock and all her movements
should be at once realised as hers. She had been a pretty woman, and
might still indeed have been so, had she not been so anxious to preserve
her charms that she had undermined them for a long time, year by year.
She had worn out her complexion by her efforts to retain it and make it
brighter, and frizzed and tortured her hair till she had succeeded in
making it of no particular colour at all. The effort and wish to be
pretty were so strong in her, and so visible, that it made her remaining
prettiness almost ridiculous, and people laughed at her as an old woman
struggling to look young when she was not really old at all. Poor Mrs.
Mowbray! looking at her from one point of view, her appearance was
pathetic, for it was as much as to say that she felt herself to have no
recommendation at all but her good looks, and therefore would fight for
them to the death–which is, if you think of it, a kind of humility,
though it gets no credit for being so. She came in with a simper and
jingle of all the chains and adornments, as if she felt herself the most
welcome of visitors, and holding out her hand, said:
“Here I am again, Mr. Buchanan. I am sure you must be getting quite
tired of me.” She expected him to contradict her, but the minister did
not do so. He said:
“How do you do, Mrs. Mowbray?” rising from his chair, but the muscles of
his face did not relax, and he still held his pen in his hand.
“I am so afraid you are busy, but I really will not detain you above a
few minutes. It is such a comfort amid all the troubles of my life to
come to this home of peace, and tell you everything. You don’t know what
a consolation it is only to see you, Mr. Buchanan, sitting there so
calm, and so much above the world. It is a consolation and a reproach.
One thinks, Oh, how little one’s small troubles are in the light that
comes from heaven!”
“I am afraid you are giving me credit for much more tranquillity than I
can claim,” said the minister. “I am not without my cares, any more than
other men.”
“Ah, but what are those cares?” cried the lady. “I know; the care of
doing what you can for everybody else, visiting the poor and widows in
their affliction, and keeping yourself unspotted from the world. Oh, how
different, how different from the things that overwhelm us!”
What could the poor minister do? It seemed the most dreadful satire to
him to be so spoken to, conscious as he was of the everlasting gnawing
at his heart of what he had done, or at least left undone. But if he had
been ever so anxious to confess his sins, he could not have done it to
her; and accordingly he had to smile as best he could, and say that he
hoped he might preserve her good opinion, though he had done so very
little to deserve it. Perhaps if he had been less conscious of his own
demerits, he would have perceived, as his wife had done, that there was
a line in Mrs. Mowbray’s forehead which all her little arts could not
conceal, and which meant more than anything she had yet told him. Mrs.
Buchanan had divined this, but not the minister, who was too much
occupied with his own purgatory to be aware that amid all her rustlings
and jinglings, and old-fashioned coquetries, there was here by his side
another soul in pain.
“You cannot imagine,” said Mrs. Mowbray, spreading out her hands, “what
it is to me to think of my poor Frank deceived in his hopes, and instead
of coming into a fortune, having next to no money when he comes of age.
Oh, that coming of age, I am so frightened, so frightened for it! It is
bad enough now to deny him so many things he wants.”
“Do you deny him many things he wants?” said the minister. The question
was put half innocently, half satirically, for Frank indeed seemed a
spoilt child, having every possible indulgence, to the sturdy sons of
St. Rule’s.
Mrs. Mowbray laughed, and made a movement as of tapping the minister’s
arm with a fan.
“Oh, how unkind of you,” she said, “to be so hard on a mother’s
weakness! I have not denied him much up to this time. How could I, Mr.
Buchanan, my only child? And he has such innocent tastes. He never wants
anything extravagant. Look at him now. He has no horse, he is quite
happy with his golf, and spends nothing at all. Perhaps his tailor’s
bill is large, but a woman can’t interfere with that, and it is such a
nice thing that a boy should like to be well dressed. I like him to take
a little trouble about his dress. I don’t believe he ever touches a
card, and betting over his game on the links is nothing, he tells me:
you win one day and lose the next, and so you come out quite square at
the end. Oh, it all goes on smooth enough now. But when he comes of age!
It was bad enough last time when he came of age, for his English money
and everything was gone over. Do you think it just, Mr. Buchanan, that a
mere man of business, a lawyer, an indifferent person that knows nothing
about the family, should go over all your expenses, and tell you you
shouldn’t have done this, and you shouldn’t have done that, when he has
really nothing to do with it, and the money is all your own?”
“I am afraid,” said Mr. Buchanan, “that the business man is a necessity,
and perhaps is better able to say what you ought to spend than you are
yourself.”
“Oh, how can you say so? when perhaps he is not even a gentleman, and
does not understand anything about what one wants when one is accustomed
to good society. This man Morrison, for instance—-”
“Morrison,” said the minister, “is a gentleman both by blood and
breeding, although he is a simple man in his manners: his family—-”
“Oh, I know what you mean,” said Mrs. Mowbray, “a small Scotch squire,
and they think as much of their family as if they were dukes. I know he
is Morrison of somewhere or other, but that does not teach a man what’s
due to a lady, or what a young man wants who is entitled to expect his
season in town, and all his little diversions. Morrison, Mr. Buchanan,
would have put Frank to a trade. He would, it is quite true. I don’t
wonder you are surprised. My Frank, with so much money on both sides! He
spoke to me of an office in Edinburgh. I assure you he did–for my boy!”
“I am not in the least surprised,” said the minister; “we are all
thankful to put our sons into offices in Edinburgh, and get them
something to do.”
“I am sure you won’t think I mean anything disagreeable,” said Mrs.
Mowbray, “but your sons, Mr. Buchanan, pardon me–you have all so many
of them. And I have only one, and money, as I say, on both sides. I had
quite a nice fortune myself. I never for a moment will consent that my
Frank should go into an office. It would ruin his health, and then he is
much too old for anything of that sort. The folly of postponing his
majority till he was twenty-five! And oh, Mr. Buchanan,” she cried,
clasping her hands, “the worst of it all is, that he will find so
little, so very little when he does come into his property at last.”
There was a look almost of anguish in the poor lady’s face, her eyes
seemed full of tears, her forehead was cut across by that deep line of
trouble which Mrs. Buchanan had divined. She looked at the minister in a
sort of agony, as if asking, “May I tell him? Dare I tell him?” But of
this the minister saw nothing. He did not look at her face with any
interest. He was employed in resisting her supposed efforts to penetrate
his secret, and this concealed from him, under impenetrable veils, any
secret that she might have of her own. It was not that he was dull or
slow to understand in general cases, but in this he was blinded by his
own profound preoccupation, and by a certain dislike to the woman who
thus disturbed and assailed his peace. He could not feel any sympathy
with her; her little airs and graces, her efforts to please, poor soul,
which were intended only to make her agreeable, produced in him exactly
the opposite sensation, which often happens, alas, in our human
perversity. Neither of them indeed understood the other, because each
was occupied with himself.
“I don’t think,” said Mr. Buchanan, roused to resistance, “that you will
find things nearly so bad as you seem to expect. I am sure the estate
has been very carefully administered while in my friend Morrison’s
hands. You could not have a more honourable or a more careful steward.
He could have no interest but to do the best he could for you, and I am
sure he would do it. And property has not fallen in value in Fife so far
as I know. I think, if you will permit me to say so, that you are
alarming yourself without cause.”
All this time, Mrs. Mowbray had been looking at him through the water in
her eyes, her face contracted, her lips a little apart, her forehead
drawn together. He glanced at her from time to time while he was
speaking, but he had the air of a man who would very gladly be done with
the business altogether, and had no ear for her complaints. The poor
lady drew from the depths of her bosom a long sigh, and then her face
changed from the momentary reality into which some strong feeling had
forced it. It was a more artificial smile than ever which she forced
upon her thin lips, in which there was a quiver of pain and doubt.
“Ah, Mr. Buchanan, you always stand up for your own side. Why is it I
cannot get you to take any interest in mine?”
“My dear lady,” said the minister with some impatience, “there are no
sides in the matter. It is simple truth and justice to Morrison.”
Here she suddenly put her hand on his arm. “And how about the
defaulters?” she said.
“The defaulters!” She was as ignorant wherein the sting lay to him as he
was of the gnawing of the serpent’s tooth in her. It was now his under
lip that fell, his cheek that grew pale. “I don’t know what you mean by
defaulters,” he said, almost roughly, feeling as if she had taken
advantage when he was off his guard and stabbed him with a sharp knife.
“Oh, dear Mr. Buchanan, the men who borrowed money, and never paid it! I
am sure you could tell me about them if you would. The men who cheated
my poor Frank’s old uncle into giving them loans which they never meant
to pay.”
“Mrs. Mowbray,” he said, slowly, “I remember that you have spoken to me
on this subject before.”
“Yes, yes, I have spoken on this subject before. Isn’t it natural I
should? You as good as acknowledged it, Mr. Buchanan. You acknowledged,
I remember, that you knew one of them: of course you know all of them!
Didn’t he tell you everything? You were his minister and his spiritual
guide. He did nothing without you.”
“Mr. Anderson never asked any advice from me as to his secular
business. Why should he? He understood it much better than I did. His
spiritual guide in the sense in which you use the words, I never was,
and never could have been.”
“Oh!” cried the lady, waving her hands about in excitement, “what does
it matter about words? If you only knew how important a little more
money would be to us, Mr. Buchanan! It might make all the difference, it
might save me from–from–oh, indeed, I do not quite know what I am
saying, but I want you to understand. It is not only for the money’s
sake. I know, I am certain that you could help me; only tell me who
these men are, and I will not trouble you any more.”
“I do not know what you mean,” he said, “when you talk of those men.”
“Mr. Buchanan, you said you knew one.”
“Perhaps I said I knew one; that was only one, it was not many. And if I
did know, and knew that they had been forgiven, do you think it would be
right for me to bring those poor men into trouble, and defeat the
intentions of my friend–for what, for what, Mrs. Mowbray? I don’t know
what you suppose my inducement would be.”
She bent towards him till she almost seemed to be on her knees, and
clasping her hands, said:
“For me, Mr. Buchanan, for me!”
There was no doubt that it was genuine feeling that was in her face, and
in the gaze of the eager eyes looking out from their puckered lids; but
the poor woman’s idea of pleasing, of overcoming by her personal charms
was so strong in her, that underneath those puckered and beseeching eyes
which were so tragically real, there was a smile of ingratiating
blandishment on her mouth, which was like the stage smile of a ballet
dancer, set and fictitious, appealing to heaven knows what of the man’s
lower nature. She meant no harm, nor did she think any harm, but those
were the days when feminine influence was supposed to lie in
blandishment, in flattery, and all the arts of persuasion. Do this for
me because I am so pretty, so helpless, so dependent upon your help, but
chiefly because I am so pretty, and so anxious that you should think me
pretty, and be vanquished by my beauty! This was the sentiment on part
of Mrs. Mowbray’s face, while the other was full of eager pain and
trouble, almost desperation. That smile and those blandishments might
perhaps have moved the man had she been indeed beautiful and young, as
she almost thought she was while making that appeal. But Mr. Buchanan’s
eyes were calm, and they turned from the ballet-dancer’s smile and
ingratiating looks with something more like disgust than yielding. Alas!
these feminine arts which were then supposed to be quite independent of
common sense, or reason or justice, and to triumph over them all,
required real beauty at least and the charms of youth! To attempt to
exercise them when the natural spell had failed, was almost an insult to
a man’s intelligence. The minister was not conscious of this feeling,
but it made him angry in spite of himself.
“For you, Mrs. Mowbray?” he said, “think what you are saying. You would
like me to betray my old friend, and balk his intentions, and to disturb
a number of families and snatch from them what they have been accustomed
to consider as a free gift, and probably in no circumstances expected to
refund–for you. For you, for what? that your son, having a great deal
already, should have a little more,” (here she attempted to interrupt
him to say, “No, no, not having had a great deal, never having had
much!” which his stronger voice bore down and penetrated through), “that
you should add some luxuries to your wealthy estate. No, Mrs. Mowbray,
no. I am astonished that you should ask it of me. If I could do it, I
should despise myself.”
What high ground he took! and he felt himself justified in taking it. He
was buoyed up over all personal motives of his own by a lofty
realisation of the general question. There were many others concerned as
well as he. What right would he have to betray the fact that poor
Horsburgh, for instance, had received a loan from Mr. Anderson to
establish him in business? If Mr. Anderson’s heirs proceeded against
Horsburgh, who was still painfully keeping his head above water, the
result would be ruin–all to put another hundred pounds, perhaps, in
Frank Mowbray’s pocket, an idle lad who already had plenty, and never
did a hand’s turn. And she thought to come over him and make him do that
by the glamour of a pair of middle-aged eyes, and the flatteries of an
antiquated smile? The man was angry with the woman’s folly and revolted
by her pretensions. No, he would not betray poor Horsburgh. Was not this
the meaning after all, and a nobler meaning than he had ever thought of,
of the proceedings of the unjust steward? Take thy bill, and sit down
quickly, and write fourscore. _Thy_ bill; not mine, did not that make
all the difference in the world? Not for me, but for poor Horsburgh. The
woman was mad to think that for her, a woman who wanted nothing, he
would sacrifice a struggling family: not to say that, even now, poor
Horsburgh was, as it were, looking ruin in the face.