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A House in Bloomsbury written by Margaret Oliphant who was a Scottish novelist and historical writer. This book was published in 1894. And now republish in ebook format. We believe this work is culturally important in its original archival form. While we strive to adequately clean and digitally enhance the original work, there are occasionally instances where imperfections such as missing pages, poor pictures or errant marks may have been introduced due to either the quality of the original work. Despite these occasional imperfections, we have brought it back into print as part of our ongoing global book preservation commitment, providing customers with access to the best possible historical reprints. We appreciate your understanding of these occasional imperfections, and sincerely hope you enjoy reading this book.
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A House in Bloomsbury
“Father,” said Dora, “I am going upstairs for a little, to see Mrs. Hesketh, if you have no objection.”
“And who is Mrs. Hesketh, if I might make so bold as to ask?” Mr. Mannering said, lifting his eyes from his evening paper.
“Father! I told you all about her on Sunday—that she’s all alone all day, and sometimes her husband is so late of getting home. She is so lonely, poor little thing. And she is such a nice little thing! Married, but not so big as me.”
“And who is—— her husband?” Mr. Mannering was about to say, but he checked himself. No doubt he had heard all about the husband too. He heard many things without hearing them, being conscious rather of the pleasant voice of Dora running on than of everything she said.
This had, no doubt, been the case in respect to the young couple upstairs, of whose existence he had become dimly sensible by reason of meeting one or other of them on the stairs. But there was nothing in the appearance of either which had much attracted him. They appeared to him a commonplace couple of inferior kind; and perhaps had he been a man with all his wits keenly about him, he would not have allowed his child to run wild about the little woman upstairs. But Mr. Mannering did not keep his wits about him sharpened to any such point.
Dora was a child, but also she was a lady, proof against any contamination of acquaintance which concerned only the letters of the alphabet. Her “h’s” could take care of themselves, and so could her “r’s". As for anything else, Mr. Mannering’s dreamy yet not unobservant eyes had taken in the fact that the young woman, who was not a lady, was an innocent and good little woman; and it had never occurred to him to be afraid of any chance influence of such a kind for his daughter. He acquiesced, accordingly, with a little nod of his head, and return of his mild eyes to his paper.
These two were the best of companions; but he was not jealous of his little girl, nor did he desire that she should be for ever in his sight. He liked to read his paper; sometimes he had a book which interested him very much. The thought that Dora had a little interest in her life also, special to herself, pleased him more than if she had been always hanging upon him for her amusement and occupation. He was not afraid of the acquaintance she might make, which was a little rash, perhaps, especially in a man who had known the world, and knew, or ought to have known, the mischief that can arise from unsuitable associates.
But there are some people who never learn; indeed, few people learn by experience, so far as I have ever seen. Dora had been an independent individuality to her father since she was six years old. He had felt, as parents often feel with a curious mixture of feelings, half pleasure, half surprise, half disappointment (as if there could be three halves! the reader will say; but there are, and many more), that she was not very much influenced by himself, who was most near to her. If such things could be weighed in any balance, he was most, it may be said, influenced by her. She retained her independence. How was it possible then that, conscious of this, he should be much alarmed by any problematical influence that could be brought to bear upon her by a stranger? He was not, indeed, the least afraid.
Dora ran up the stairs, which were dark at the top, for Mrs. Simcox could not afford to let her lodgers who paid so low a rent have a light on their landing; and the landing itself was encumbered by various articles, between which there was need of wary steering. But this little girl had lived in these Bloomsbury lodgings all her life, and knew her way about as well as the children of the house. Matters were facilitated, too, by the sudden opening of a door, from which the light and, sad to say, something of the smell of a paraffin lamp shone out, illuminating the rosy face of a young woman, with a piece of sewing in her hand, who looked out in bright expectation, but clouded over a little when she saw who it was. “Oh, Miss Dora!” she said; and added in anundertone, “I thought it was Alfred home a little sooner than usual,” with a little sigh.
“I made such a noise,” said Dora, apologetically. “I couldn’t help it. Jane will leave so many things about.”
“Oh, it’s me, Miss Dora. I does my rooms myself; it saves a deal on the rent. I shouldn’t have left that crockery there, but it saves trouble, and I’m not that used to housework.”
“No,” said Dora, seating herself composedly at the table, and resisting, by a strong exercise of self-control, her impulse to point out that the lamp could not have been properly cleaned, since it smelt so. “One can see,” she added, the fact being incontestable, “that you don’t know how to do many things. And that is a pity, because things then are not so nice.”
She seemed to cast a glance of criticism about the room, to poor little Mrs. Hesketh’s excited fancy, who was ready to cry with vexation. “My family always kep’ a girl,” she said in a tone of injury subdued. But she was proud of Dora’s friendship, and would not say any more.
“So I should have thought,” said Dora, critical, yet accepting the apology as if, to a certain extent, it accounted for the state of affairs.
“And Alfred says,” cried the young wife, “that if we can only hold on for a year or two, he’ll make a lady of me, and I shall have servants of my own. But we ain’t come to that yet—oh, not by a long way.”
“It is not having servants that makes a lady,” said Dora. “We are not rich.” She said this with an ineffable air of superiority to all such vulgar details. “I have never had a maid since I was quite a little thing.” She had always been herself surprised by this fact, and she expected her hearer to be surprised. “But what does that matter?” she added. “One is oneself all the same.”
“Nobody could look at you twice,” said the admiring humble friend. “And how kind of you to leave your papa and all your pretty books and come up to sit with me because I’m so lonely! It is hard upon us to have Alfred kep’ so late every night.”
“Can’t he help it?” said Dora. “If I were you, I should go out to meet him. The streets are so beautiful at night.”
“Oh, Miss Dora!” cried the little woman, shocked. “He wouldn’t have me go out by myself, not for worlds! Why, somebody might speak to me! But young girls they don’t think of that. I sometimes wish I could be taken on among the young ladies in the mantle department, and then we could walk home together. But then,” she added quickly, “I couldn’t make him so comfortable, and then——”
She returned to her work with a smile and a blush. She was always very full of her work, making little “things,” which Dora vaguely supposed were for the shop. Their form and fashion threw no light to Dora upon the state of affairs.
“When you were in the shop, were you in the mantle department?” she asked.
“Oh, no. My figure isn’t good enough,” said Mrs. Hesketh; “you have to have a very good figure, and look like a lady. Some of the young ladies have beautiful figures, Miss Dora; and such nice black silks—as nice as any lady would wish to wear—which naturally sets them off.”
“And nothing to do?” said Dora, contemptuously. “I should not like that.”
“Oh, you! But they have a deal to do. I’ve seen ’em when they were just dropping down with tiredness. Standing about all day, and putting on mantles and things, and pretending to walk away careless to set them off. Poor things! I’d rather a deal stand behind the counter, though they’ve got the best pay.”
“Have you been reading anything to-day?” said Dora, whose attention was beginning to flag.
Mrs. Hesketh blushed a little. “I’ve scarcely sat down all day till now; I’ve been having a regular clean-out. You can’t think how the dust gets into all the corners with the fires and all that. And I’ve just been at it from morning till night. I tried to read a little bit when I had my tea. And it’s a beautiful book, Miss Dora, but I was that tired.”
“It can scarcely take a whole day,” said Dora, looking round her, “to clean out this one little room.”
“Oh, but you can’t think what a lot of work there is, when you go into all the corners. And then I get tired, and it makes me stupid.”
“Well,” said Dora, with suppressed impatience, “but when you become a lady, as you say, with servants to do all you want, how will you be able to take up a proper position if you have never read anything?”
“Oh, as for that,” said Mrs. Hesketh in a tone of relief, “that can’t be for a long time yet; and you feel different when you’re old to what you do when you’re young.”
“But I am young,” said Dora. She changed the subject, however, more or less, by her next question. “Are you really fond of sewing?” she said in an incredulous tone; “or rather, what are you most fond of? What should you like best to do?”
“Oh!” said the little wife, with large open eyes and mouth—she fell off, however, into a sigh and added, “if one ever had what one wished most!”
“And why not?” said inexperienced Dora. “At least,” she added, “it’s pleasant to think, even if you don’t have what you want. What should you like best?”
“Oh,” said Mrs. Hesketh again, but this time with a long-drawn breath of longing consciousness, “I should like that we might have enough to live upon without working, and Alfred and me always to be together,—that’s what I should like best.”
“Money?” cried Dora with irrepressible scorn.
“Oh, Miss Dora, money! You can’t think how nice it would be just to have enough to live on. I should never, never wish to be extravagant, or to spend more than I had; just enough for Alfred to give up the shop, and not be bound down to those long hours any more!”
“And how much might that be?” said Dora, with an air of grand yet indulgent magnificence, as if, though scorning this poor ideal, she might yet perhaps find it possible to bestow upon her friend the insignificant happiness for which she sighed.
“Oh, Miss Dora, when you think how many things are wanted in housekeeping, and one’s dress, and all that—and probably more than us,” said Mrs. Hesketh, with a bright blush. She too looked at the girl as if it might have been within Dora’s power to give the modest gift. “Should you think it a dreadful lot,” said the young woman, “if I said two hundred a year?”
“Two hundred pounds a year?” said Dora reflectively. “I think,” she added, after a pause, “father has more than twice as much as that.”
“La!” said Mrs. Hesketh; and then she made a rapid calculation, one of those efforts of mental arithmetic in which children and simple persons so often excel. “He must be saving up a lot,” she said admiringly, “for your fortune. Miss Dora. You’ll be quite an heiress with all that.”
This was an entirely new idea to Dora, who knew of heiresses only what is said in novels, where it is so easy to bestow great fortunes. “Oh no, I shall not be an heiress,” she said; “and I don’t think we save up very much. Father has always half a dozen pensioners, and he buys books and—things.” Dora had a feeling that it was something mean and bourgeois—a word which Mr. Mannering was rather apt to use—to save up.
“Oh!” said Mrs. Hesketh again, with her countenance falling. She was not a selfish or a scheming woman; but she had a romantic imagination, and it was so easy an exercise of fancy to think of this girl, who had evidently conceived such a friendship for herself, as “left” rich and solitary at the death of her delicate father, and adopting her Alfred and herself as companions and guardians. It was a sudden and passing inspiration, and the young woman meant no harm, but there was a visionary disappointment in her voice.
“But,” said Dora, with the impulse of a higher cultivation, “it is a much better thing to work than to do nothing. When father is at home for a few days, unless we go away somewhere, he gets restless; and if he were always at home he would begin some new study, and work harder than ever.”
“Ah, not with folks like us, Miss Dora,” said Mrs. Hesketh. Then she added: “A woman has always got plenty to do. She has got her house to look after, and to see to the dinner and things. And when there are children——” Once more she paused with a blush to think over that happy prospect. “And we’d have a little garden,” she said, “where Alfred could potter about, and a little trap that we could drive about in, and take me to see places, and oh, we’d be as happy as the day was long!” she cried, clasping her hands. The clock struck as she spoke, and she hastily put away her sewing and rose up. “You won’t mind, Miss Dora, if I lay the table and get things ready for supper? Alfred will soon be coming now.”
“Oh, I like to see you laying the table,” said Dora, “and I’ll help you—I can do it very well. I never let Jane touch our nice clean tablecloths. Don’t you think you want a fresh one?” she said, looking doubtfully at the somewhat dingy linen. “Father always says clean linen is the luxury of poor people.”
“Oh!” said little Mrs. Hesketh. She did not like criticism any more than the rest of us, nor did she like being identified with “poor people". Mr. Mannering’s wise yet foolish aphorism (for how did he know how much it cost to have clean linen in Bloomsbury—or Belgravia either, for that matter?) referred to persons in his own condition, not in hers; but naturally she did not think of that. Her pride and her blood were up, however; and she went with a little hurry and vehemence to a drawer and took out a clean tablecloth. Sixpence was the cost of washing, and she could not afford to throw away sixpences, and the other one had only been used three or four times; but her pride, as I have said, was up.
“And where are the napkins?” said Dora. “I’ll lay it for you. I really like to do it: and a nicely-laid table, with the crystal sparkling, and the silver shining, and the linen so fresh and smooth, is a very pretty object to look at, father always says.”
“Oh dear! I must hurry up,” cried Mrs. Hesketh; “I hear Alfred’s step upon the stairs.”
Now Dora did not admire Alfred, though she was fond of Alfred’s wife. He brought a sniff of the shop with him; which was disagreeable to the girl, and he called her “miss,” which Dora hated. She threw down the tablecloth hurriedly. “Oh, I’ll leave you then,” she cried, “for I’m sure he does not like to see me here when he comes in.”
“Oh, Miss Dora, how can you think such a thing?” cried her friend; but she was glad of the success of her expedient when her visitor disappeared. Alfred, indeed, did not come in for half an hour after; but Mrs. Hesketh was at liberty to make her little domestic arrangements in her own way. Alfred, like herself, knew that a tablecloth cost sixpence every time it went to the wash—which Dora, it was evident, did not do.
Dora found her father reading in exactly the same position as she had left him; he had not moved except to turn a leaf. He raised his head when she came in, and said: “I am glad you have come back, Dora. I want you to get me a book out of that bookcase in the corner. It is on the third shelf.”
“And were you so lazy, father, that you would not get up to find it yourself?”
“Yes, I was so lazy,” he said, with a laugh. “I get lazier and lazier every day. Besides, I like to feel that I have some one to do it for me. I am taking books out of shelves and putting them back again all the day long.”
Dora put her arm on her father’s shoulder, as she put down the book on the table before him. “But you like it, don’t you, father? You are not tired of it.”
“Of the Museum?” he said, with a laugh and a look of surprise. “No; I am not tired of it—any more than I am of my life.”
This was an enigmatical reply, but Dora did not attempt to fathom it. “What the little people upstairs want is just to have money enough to live on, and nothing to do,” she said.
“The little people? And what are you, Dora? You are not so very big.”
“I am growing,” said Dora, with confidence; “and I shouldn’t like to have nothing to do all my life.”
“There is a great deal to be said for that view of the question,” said Mr. Mannering. “I am not an enthusiast for mere work, unless there is something to come out of it. ‘Know what thou canst work at’ does not apply always, unless you have to earn your living, which is often a very fortunate necessity. And even that,” he said, with a smile, “has its drawbacks.”
“It is surely far better than doing nothing,” cried Dora, with her young nose in the air.
“Well, but what does it come to after all? One works to live, and consumes the fruits of one’s work in the art of living. And what better is that than if you had never been? The balance would be much the same. But this is not the sort of argument for little girls, even though they are growing,” Mr. Mannering said.
“I think the Museum must have been very stuffy to-day, father,” was the remark which Dora made.
The Mannerings lived in a house in that district of Bloomsbury which has so long meant everything that is respectable, mediocre, and dull,—at least, to that part of the world which inhabits farther West. It is possible that, regarded from the other side of the compass, Bloomsbury may be judged more justly as a city of well-sized and well-built houses, aired and opened up by many spacious breathing-places, set with stately trees. It is from this point of view that it is regarded by many persons of humble pretensions, who find large rooms and broad streets where in other districts they would only have the restricted space of respectable poverty, the weary little conventionality of the suburban cottage, or the dingy lodging-house parlours of town.
Bloomsbury is very much town indeed, surrounded on all sides by the roar of London; but it has something of the air of an individual place, a town within a town.
The pavements are wide, and so are the houses, as in the best quarter of a large provincial city. The squares have a look of seclusion, of shady walks, and retired leisure, which there is nothing to rival either in Belgravia or Mayfair. It is, or was—for it is many years since the present writer has passed over their broad pavements, or stood under the large, benignant, and stately shadow of the trees in Russell Square—a region apart, above fashion, a sober heart and centre of an older and steadier London, such as is not represented in the Row, and takes little part in the rabble and rout of fashion, the decent town of earlier days.
I do not mean to imply by this that the Mannerings lived in Russell Square, or had any pretensions to be regarded among the magnates of Bloomsbury; for they were poor people, quite poor, living the quietest life; not rich enough even to have a house of their own; mere lodgers, occupying a second floor in a house which was full of other lodgers, but where they retained the importance and dignity of having furnished their own rooms. The house was situated at the corner of a street, and thus gave them a glimpse of the trees of the Square, a view over the gardens, as the landlady described it, which was no small matter, especially from the altitude of the second floor. The small family consisted of a father and daughter—he, middle-aged, a quiet, worn, and subdued man, employed all day in the British Museum; and she, a girl very young, yet so much older than her years that she was the constant and almost only companion of her father, to whom Dora was as his own soul, the sharer of all his thoughts, as well as the only brightness in his life.
She was but fifteen at the time when this chapter of their history begins, a creature in short frocks and long hair slightly curling on her shoulders; taller, if we may state such a contradiction in words, than she was intended to be, or turned out in her womanhood, with long legs, long neck, long fingers, and something of the look of a soft-eyed, timid, yet playfully daring colt, flying up and down stairs as if she had wings on her shoulders, yet walking very sedately by the side of her father whenever they went out together, almost more steady and serious than he.
Mr. Mannering had the appearance of being a man who had always done well, yet never succeeded in life; a man with a small income, and no chance of ever bettering himself, as people say, or advancing in the little hierarchy of the great institution which he served meekly and diligently in the background, none of its promotions ever reaching him.
Scarcely any one, certainly none out of that institution, knew that there had been a period in which this gentle and modest life had almost been submerged under the bitterest wave, and in which it had almost won the highest honours possible to a man of such pursuits. This was an old story, and even Dora knew little of it. He had done so much at that forgotten and troubled time, that, had he been a rich man like Darwin, and able to retire and work in quiet the discoveries he had made, and the experiences he had attained, Robert Mannering’s name might have been placed in the rolls of fame as high as that of his more fortunate contemporary.
But he was poor when he returned from the notable wanderings during the course of which he had been given up as dead for years, poor and heartbroken, and desiring nothing but the dimmest corner in which to live out his broken days, and just enough to live upon to bring up his little daughter, and to endure his existence, his duty to God and to Dora forbidding him to make an end of it.
It would be giving an altogether false idea of the man with whom this book is to be much occupied, to say that he had continued in this despairing frame of mind. God and Dora—the little gift of God—had taken care of that. The little girl had led him back to a way which, if not brilliant or prosperous, was like a field-path through many humble flowers, sweet with the air and breath of nature. Sooth to say, it was no field-path at all, but led chiefly over the pavements of Bloomsbury; yet the simple metaphor was not untrue.
Thus he lived, and did his work dutifully day by day. No headship of a department, no assistant keepership for him; yet much esteem and consideration among his peers, and a constant reference, whenever anything in his special sphere was wanted, to his boundless information and knowledge. Sometimes a foreign inquirer would come eager to seek him, as the best and highest authority on this subject, to the consternation of the younger men in other branches, who could not understand how anybody could believe “old Mannering” to be of consequence in the place; but generally his life was as obscure as he wished it to be, yet not any hard or painful drudgery; for he was still occupied with the pursuit which he had chosen, and which he had followed all his life; and he was wise enough to recognise and be thankful for the routine which held his broken existence together, and had set up again, after his great disaster, his framework as a man.
Dora knew nothing of any disaster; and this was good for him too, bringing him back to nature. “A cheerful man I am in life,” he might have said with Thackeray, who also had good reason for being sad enough. A man who has for his chief society a buoyant, curious, new spirit, still trailing clouds of glory from her origin, still only making acquaintance with things of earth, curious about everything, asking a thousand penetrating questions, awakening a mood of interest everywhere, can scarcely be otherwise than cheerful.
The second floor at the corner of the Square which was inhabited by this pair consisted of three rooms, all good-sized and airy; the sitting-room being indeed spacious, larger than any two which could have been found in a fashionable nook in Mayfair. It was furnished, in a manner very unexpected by such chance visitors as did not know the character of the inhabitants, with furniture which would not have been out of place in Belgravia, or in a fine lady’s drawing-room anywhere, mingled strangely with certain plain pieces put in for evident use.
A square and sturdy table occupied the portion of the room which was nearest to the door, with the clearest utility, serving for the meals of the father and daughter, while the other part of the room, partially separated by a stamped leather screen, had an air of subdued luxury, a little faded, yet unmistakable. The curtains were of heavy brocade, which had a little lost their colour, or rather gained those shadings and reflections which an artist loves; but hung with the softness of their silken fabric, profoundly unlike the landlady’s nice fresh crimson rep which adorned the windows of the first floor. There was an Italian inlaid cabinet against the farther wall, which held the carefully prepared sheets of a herbarium, which Mr. Mannering had collected from all the ends of the earth, and which was of sufficient value to count for much in the spare inheritance which he meant for his only child. The writing-table, at which Dora had learned to make her first pothooks, was a piece of beautiful marqueterie, the oldest and most graceful of its kind.
But I need not go round the room and make a catalogue of the furniture. It settled quite kindly into the second floor in Bloomsbury, with that grace which the nobler kind of patrician, subdued by fortune, lends to the humblest circumstances, which he accepts with patience and goodwill. Mr. Mannering himself had never been a handsome man; and all the colour and brightness of youth had died out of him, though he was still in the fulness of middle age. But the ivory tone of his somewhat sharply cut profile and the premature stoop of his shoulders suited his surroundings better than a more vigorous personality would have done.
Dora, in her half-grown size and bigness, with her floating hair and large movements, seemed to take up a great deal more space than her father; and it was strange that she did not knock down more frequently the pretty old-fashioned things, and the old books which lay upon the little tables, or even those tables themselves, as she whisked about; but they knew Dora, and she knew them. She had spent a great part of every day alone with them, as long as she could remember, playing with those curiosities that lay upon them, while she was a child, in the long, silent, dreamy hours, when she was never without amusement, though as constantly alone.
Since she had grown older, she had taken pleasure in dusting them and arranging them, admiring the toys of old silver, and the carved ivories and trifles of all kinds, from the ends of the earth. It was her great pleasure on the Sunday afternoons, when her father was with her, to open the drawers of the cabinet and bring out the sheets of the herbarium so carefully arranged and classified. Her knowledge, perhaps, was not very scientific, but it was accurate in detail, and in what may be called locality in the highest degree. She knew what family abode in what drawer, and all its ramifications. These were more like neighbours to Dora, lodged in surrounding houses, than specimens in drawers. She knew all about them, where they came from, and their genealogy, and which were the grandparents, and which the children; and, still more interesting, in what jungle or marsh her father had found them, and which of them came from the African deserts in which he had once been lost.
By degrees she had found out much about that wonderful episode in his life, and had become vaguely aware, which was the greatest discovery of all, that it contained many things which she had not found out, and perhaps never would. She knew even how to lead him to talk about it, which had to be very skilfully done—for he was shy of the subject when assailed openly, and often shrank from the very name of Africa as if it stung him; while on other occasions, led on by some train of thought in his own mind, he would fall into long lines of recollections, and tell her of the fever attacks, one after another, which had laid him low, and how the time had gone over him like a dream, so that he never knew till long after how many months, and even years, he had lost.
Where was the mother all this time, it may be asked? Dora knew no more of this part of her history than if she had come into the world without need of any such medium, like Minerva from her father’s head.
It is difficult to find out from the veiled being of a little child what it thinks upon such a subject, or if it is aware at all, when it has never been used to any other state of affairs, of the strange vacancy in its own life. Dora never put a single question to her father on this point; and he had often asked himself whether her mind was dead to all that side of life which she had never known, or whether some instinct kept her silent; and had satisfied himself at last that, as she knew scarcely any other children, the want in her own life had not struck her imagination. Indeed, the grandchildren of Mrs. Simcox, the landlady, were almost the only children Dora had ever known familiarly, and they, like herself, had no mother, they had granny; and Dora had inquired of her father about her own granny, who was dead long ago.
“You have only me, my poor little girl,” he had said. But Dora had been quite satisfied.
“Janie and Molly have no papa,” she answered, with a little pride. It was a great superiority, and made up for everything, and she inquired no more. Nature, Mr. Mannering knew, was by no means so infallible as we think her. He did not know, however, what is a still more recondite and profound knowledge, what secret things are in a child’s heart.
I have known a widowed mother who wondered sadly for years why her children showed so little interest and asked no questions about their father; and then found out, from the lips of one grown into full manhood, what visions had been wrapt about that unknown image, and how his portrait had been the confidant of many a little secret trouble hidden even from herself. But Dora had not even a portrait to give embodiment to any wistful thoughts. Perhaps it was to her not merely that her mother was dead, but that she had never been. Perhaps—but who knows the questions that arise in that depth profound, the heart of a child?
It was not till Dora was fifteen that she received the great shock, yet revelation, of discovering the portrait of a lady in her father’s room.
Was it her mother? She could not tell. It was the portrait of a young lady, which is not a child’s ideal of a mother. It was hidden away in a secret drawer of which she had discovered the existence only by a chance in the course of some unauthorised investigations among Mr. Mannering’s private properties.
He had lost something which Dora was intent on surprising him by finding; and this was what led her to these investigations. It was in a second Italian cabinet which was in his bedroom, an inferior specimen to that in the drawing-room, but one more private, about which her curiosity had never been awakened. He kept handkerchiefs, neckties, uninteresting items of personal use in it, which Dora was somewhat carelessly turning over, when by accident the secret spring was touched, and the drawer flew open. In this there was a miniature case which presented a very strange spectacle when Dora, a little excited, opened it. There seemed to be nothing but a blank at first, until, on further examination, Dora found that the miniature had been turned face downwards in its case. It may be imagined with what eager curiosity she continued her investigations.
The picture, as has been said, was that of a young lady—quite a young lady, not much older, Dora thought, than herself. Who could this girl be? Her mother? But that girlish face could not belong to any girl’s mother. It was not beautiful to Dora’s eyes; but yet full of vivacity and interest, a face that had much to say if one only knew its language; with dark, bright eyes, and a tremulous smile about the lips. Who was it; oh, who was it? Was it that little sister of papa’s who was dead, whose name had been Dora too? Was it ——
Dora did not know what to think, or how to explain the little shock which was given her by this discovery. She shut up the drawer hastily, but she had not the heart to turn the portrait again as it had been turned, face downwards. It seemed too unkind, cruel almost. Why should her face be turned downwards, that living, smiling face? “I will ask papa,” Dora said to herself; but she could not tell why it was, any more than she could explain her other sensations on the subject, that when the appropriate moment came to do so, she had not the courage to ask papa.
There was one remarkable thing in Dora Mannering’s life which I have omitted to mention, which is, that she was in the habit of receiving periodically, though at very uncertain intervals, out of that vast but vague universe surrounding England, which we call generally “abroad,” a box. No one knew where it came from, or who it came from; at least, no light was ever thrown to Dora upon that mystery. It was despatched now from one place, now from another; and not a name, or a card, or a scrap of paper was ever found to identify the sender.
This box contained always a store of delights for the recipient, who, though she was in a manner monarch of all she surveyed, was without many of the more familiar pleasures of childhood. It had contained toys and pretty knick-knacks of many quaint foreign kinds when she was quite a child; but as she grew older, the mind of her unknown friend seemed to follow her growth with the strangest certainty of what would please these advancing youthful years.
The foundation of the box, if that word may be employed, was always a store of the daintiest underclothing, delicately made, which followed Dora’s needs and growth, growing longer as she grew taller; so that underneath her frocks, which were not always lovely, the texture, form, and colour being chiefly decided by the dressmaker who had “made” for her as long as she could remember, Dora was clothed like a princess; and thus accustomed from her childhood to the most delicate and dainty accessories—fine linen, fine wool, silk stockings, handkerchiefs good enough for any fine lady. Her father had not, at first, liked to see these fine things; he had pushed them away when she spread them out to show him her treasures, and turned his back upon her, bidding her carry off her trumpery.
It was so seldom, so very seldom, that Mr. Mannering had an objection to anything done by Dora, that this little exhibition of temper had an extraordinary effect; but the interval between one arrival and another was long enough to sweep any such recollection out of the mind of a child; and as she grew older, more intelligent to note what he meant, and, above all, more curious about everything that happened, he had changed his tone. But he had a look which Dora classified in her own mind as “the face father puts on when my box comes".
This is a sort of thing which imprints itself very clearly upon the mind of the juvenile spectator and critic. Dora knew it as well as she knew the clothes her father wore, or the unchanging habits of his life, though she did not for a long time attempt to explain to herself what it meant. It was a look of intent self-restraint, of a stoical repression. He submitted to having the different contents of the box exhibited to him without a smile on his face or the least manifestation of sympathy—he who sympathised with every sentiment which breathed across his child’s facile spirit. He wound himself up to submit to the ordeal, it seemed, with the blank look of an unwilling spectator, who has not a word of admiration for anything, and, indeed, hates the sight he cannot refuse to see.
“Who can send them, father? oh, who can send them? Who is it that remembers me like this, and that I’m growing, and what I must want, and everything? I was only a child when the last one came. You must know—you must know, father! How could any one know about me and not know you—or care for me?” Dora cried, with a little moisture springing to her eyes.
“I have already told you I don’t know anything about it,” said Mr. Mannering, oh, with such a shut-up face! Closing the shutters upon his eyes and drawing down all the blinds, as Dora said.
“Well, but suppose you don’t know, you must guess; you must imagine who it could be. No one could know me, and not know you. I am not a stranger that you have nothing to do with. You must know who is likely to take so much thought about your daughter. Why, she knows my little name! There is ‘Dora’ on my handkerchiefs.”
He turned away with a short laugh. “You seem to have found out a great deal for yourself. How do you know it is ‘she’? It might be some old friend of mine who knew that my only child was Dora—and perhaps that I was not a man to think of a girl’s wants.”
“It may be an old friend of yours, father. It must be, for who would know about me but a friend of yours? But how could it be a man? It couldn’t be a man! A man could never work ‘Dora’——”
“You little simpleton! He would go to a shop and order it to be worked. I daresay it is Wallace, who is out in South America.”
Such a practical suggestion made Dora pause; but it was not at all an agreeable idea. “Mr. Wallace! an old, selfish, dried-up ——” Then with a cry of triumph she added: “But they came long, long before he went to South America. No—I know one thing—that it is a lady. No one but a lady could tell what a girl wants. You don’t, father, though you know me through and through; and how could any other man? But I suppose you have had friends ladies as well as men?”
His closed-up lips melted a little. “Not many,” he said; then they shut up fast again. “It may be,” he said reluctantly, with a face from which all feeling was shut out, which looked like wood, “a friend—of your mother’s.”
“Oh, of mamma’s!” The girl’s countenance lit up; she threw back her head and her waving hair, conveying to the man who shrank from her look the impression as of a thing with wings. He had been of opinion that she had never thought upon this subject, never considered the side of life thus entirely shut out from her experience, and had wondered even while rejoicing at her insensibility. But when he saw the light on her face he shrank, drawing back into himself. “Oh,” cried Dora, “a friend of my mother’s! Oh, father, she must have died long, long ago, that I never remember her. Oh, tell me, who can this friend be?”
He had shut himself up again more closely than ever—not only were there shutters at all the windows, but they were bolted and barred with iron. His face was more blank than any piece of wood. “I never knew much of her friends,” he said.
“Mother’s friends!” the girl cried, with a half shriek of reproachful wonder. And then she added quickly: “But think, father, think! You will remember somebody if you will only try.”
“Dora,” he said, “you don’t often try my patience, and you had better not begin now. I should like to throw all that trumpery out of the window, but I don’t, for I feel I have no right to deprive you of —— Your mother’s friends were not mine. I don’t feel inclined to think as you bid me. The less one thinks the better—on some subjects. I must ask you to question me no more.”
“But, father ——”
“I have said that I will be questioned no more.”
“It wasn’t a question,” said the girl, almost sullenly; and then she clasped her hands about his arm with a sudden impulse. “Father, if you don’t like it, I’ll put them all away. I’ll never think of them nor touch them again.”
The wooden look melted away, his features quivered for a moment. He stooped and kissed her on the forehead. “No,” he said, making an effort to keep his lips firmly set as before. “No; I have no right to do that. No; I don’t wish it. Keep them and wear them, and take pleasure in them; but don’t speak to me on the subject again.”
This conversation took place on the occasion of a very special novelty in the mysterious periodical present which she had just received, about which it was impossible to keep silence. The box—“my box,” as Dora had got to call it—contained, in addition to everything else, a dress, which was a thing that had never been sent before.
It was a white dress, made with great simplicity, as became Dora’s age, but also in a costly way, a semi-transparent white, the sort of stuff which could be drawn through a ring, as happens in fairy tales, and was certainly not to be bought in ordinary English shops. To receive anything so unexpected, so exciting, so beautiful, and not to speak of it, to exhibit it to some one, was impossible. Dora had not been able to restrain herself. She had carried it in her arms out of her room, and opened it out upon a sofa in the sitting-room for her father’s inspection. There are some things which we know beforehand will not please, and yet which we are compelled to do; and this was the consciousness in Dora’s mind, who, besides her delight in the gift, and her desire to be able to find out something about the donor, had also, it must be allowed, a burning desire to make discoveries as to that past of which she knew so little, which had seized upon her mind from the moment when she had found the portrait turned upon its face in the secret drawer of her father’s cabinet. As she withdrew now, again carrying in her arms the beautiful dress, there was in her mind, underneath a certain compunction for having disturbed her father, and sympathy with him so strong that she would actually have been capable of sacrificing her newly-acquired possessions, a satisfaction half-mischievous, half-affectionate, in the discoveries which she had made. They were certainly discoveries; sorry as she was to “upset father,” there was yet a consciousness in her mind that this time it had been worth the while.
The reader may not think any better of Dora for this confession; but there is something of the elf in most constitutions at fifteen, and she was not of course at all sensible at that age of the pain that might lie in souvenirs so ruthlessly stirred up. And she had indeed made something by them. Never, never again, she promised herself, would she worry father with questions; but so far as the present occasion went, she could scarcely be sorry, for had not she learned much—enough to give her imagination much employment? She carried away her discoveries with her, as she carried her dress, to realise them in the shelter of her own room. They seemed to throw a vivid light upon that past in which her own life was so much involved. She threw the dress upon her bed carelessly, these other new thoughts having momentarily taken the interest out of even so exciting a novelty as that; and arranged in shape and sequence what she had found out. Well, it was not so much, after all. What seemed most clear in it was that father had not been quite friends with mother, or at least with mother’s friends. Perhaps these friends had made mischief between them—perhaps she had cared for them more than for her husband; but surely that was not possible. And how strange, how strange it was that he should keep up such a feeling so long!
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