Ebooks, Fiction, Non-Fiction 1000s of Free books and stories online to read now ~ Main Page

 

 

 

An Impossible Man by Ian Maclaren

I

We must have Trixy Marsden on the Thursday"—for Mrs. Leslie was arranging two dinner parties. "She will be in her element that evening; but what are we to do with Mr. Marsden?"

"Isn't it rather the custom to invite a husband with his wife? he might even expect to be included," said John Leslie. "Do you know I'm glad we came to Putney; spring is lovely in the garden."

"Never mind spring just now," as Leslie threatened an exit to the lawn; "you might have some consideration for an afflicted hostess, and give your mind to the Marsden problem."

"It was Marsden brought spring into my mind," and Leslie sat down with that expression of resignation on his face peculiar to husbands consulted on domestic affairs; "he was telling me this morning in the train that he had just finished a table of trees in the order of their budding, a sort of spring priority list; his love for statistics is amazing.

"He is getting to be known on the 9 train; the men keep their eye on him and bolt into thirds to escape; he gave a morning on the influenza death-rate lately, and that kind of thing spreads.

"But he's not a bad fellow for all that," concluded Leslie; "he's perfectly straight in business, and that is saying something; I rather enjoy half an hour with him."

"Very likely you do," said his wife with impatience, "because your mind has a squint, and you get amusement out of odd people; but every one has not your taste for the tiresome. He is enough to devastate a dinner table; do you remember that escapade of his last year?"

"You mean when he corrected you about the length of the American passage, and gave the sailings of the Atlantic liners since '80," and Leslie lay back to enjoy the past: "it seemed to me most instructive, and every one gave up conversation to listen."

"Because no one could do anything else with that voice booming through the room. I can still hear him: 'the Columba six days, four hours, five minutes.' Then I rose and delivered the table."

"It was only human to be a little nettled by his accuracy; but you ought not to have retreated so soon, for he gave the express trains of England a little later, and hinted at the American lines. One might almost call such a memory genius."

"Which is often another name for idiocy, John. Some one was telling me yesterday that quiet, steady men rush out of the room at the sound of his voice, and their wives have to tell all sorts of falsehoods about their absence.

"Trixy is one of my oldest and dearest friends, and it would be a shame to pass her over; but I will not have her husband on any account."

"Perhaps you are right as a hostess; it is a little hard for a frivolous circle to live up to Marsden, and I hear that he has got up the temperatures of the health resorts; it's a large subject, and lends itself to detail."

"It will not be given in this house. What Trixy must endure with that man! he's simply possessed by a didactic devil, and ought never to have married. Statistics don't amount to cruelty, I suppose, as a ground of divorce?"

"Hardly as yet; by-and-bye incompatibility in politics or fiction will be admitted; but how do you know, Florence, that Mrs. Marsden does not appreciate her husband? You never can tell what a woman sees in a man. Perhaps this woman hungers for statistics as a make-weight She is very amusing, but a trifle shallow, don't you think?"

"She used to be the brightest and most charming girl in our set, and I have always believed that she was married to Mr. Marsden by her people. Trixy has six hundred a year settled on her, and they were afraid of fortune-hunters. Mothers are apt to feel that a girl is safe with a man of the Marsden type, and that nothing more can be desired."

"Perhaps they are not far wrong. Marsden is not a romantic figure, and he is scarcely what you would call a brilliant raconteur; but he serves his wife like a slave, and he will never give her a sore heart."

"Do you think it nothing, John, that a woman with ideals should be tied to a bore all her days? What a contrast between her brother and her husband, for instance. Godfrey is decidedly one of the most charming men I ever met."

"He has a nice tenor voice, I grant, and his drawing-room comedies are very amusing. Of course, no one believes a word he says, and I think that he has never got a discharge from his last bankruptcy; but you can't expect perfection. Character seems to oscillate between dulness and dishonesty."

"Don't talk nonsense for the sake of alliteration, John. Trixy's brother was never intended for business; he ought to have been a writer, and I know he was asked to join the staff of the Boomeller. Happy thought! I'll ask him to come with his sister instead of Mr. Marsden."

And this was the note:

"My dear Trixy,—

"We are making up a dinner party for the evening of June 2nd, at eight o'clock, and we simply cannot go on without you and Mr. Mars-den. Write instantly to say you accept; it is an age since I've seen you, and my husband is absolutely devoted to Mr. Marsden. He was telling me only a minute ago that one reason why he goes by the 9 train is to get the benefit of your husband's conversation. With much love,

"Yours affectionately,

"Florence Leslie.

"P.S.—It does seem a shame that Mr. Marsden should have to waste an evening on a set of stupid people, and if he can't tear himself from his books, then you will take home a scolding to him from me.

"P.S.—If Mr. Marsden will not condescend, bring Godfrey to take care of you, and tell him that we shall expect some music."

II

"Come to this corner, Trixy, and let us have a quiet talk before the men arrive from the dining-room. I hope your husband is duly grateful to me for allowing him off this social ordeal. Except perhaps John, I don't think there is a person here fit to discuss things with him."

"Oh, Mr. Marsden does not care one straw whether they know his subjects or not so long as people will listen to him, and I'm sure he was quite eager to come, but I wanted Godfrey to have a little pleasure.

"I'm so sorry for poor Godfrey," and Mrs. Marsden settled herself down to confidences. "You know he lost all his money two years ago through no fault of his own. It was simply the stupidity of his partner, who was quite a common man, and could not carry out Godfrey's plans. My husband might have helped the firm through their difficulty but he was quite obstinate, and very unkind also. He spoke as if Godfrey had been careless and lazy, when the poor fellow really injured his health and had to go to Brighton for two months to recruit."

"Yes, I remember," put in Mrs. Leslie; "we happened to be at the Metropole one week end, and Godfrey looked utterly jaded."

"You have no idea how much he suffered, Florrie, and how beautifully he bore the trial. Why, had it not been for me, he would not have had money to pay his hotel bill, and that was a dreadful change for a man like him. He has always been very proud, and much petted by people. The poor fellow has never been able to find a suitable post since, although he spends days in the city among his old friends, and I can see how it is telling on him. And—Florrie, I wouldn't mention it to any one except an old friend—Mr. Marsden has not made our house pleasant to poor Godfrey."

"You don't mean that he... reflects on his misfortunes."

"Doesn't he? It's simply disgusting what he will say at times. Only yesterday morning—this is absolutely between you and me, one must have some confidant—Godfrey made some remark in fun about the cut of Tom's coat; he will not go, you know, do what I like, to a proper tailor."

"Godfrey is certainly much better dressed," said Mrs. Leslie, "than either of our husbands."

"Perhaps it was that made Tom angry, but at any rate he said quite shortly, 'I can't afford to dress better,' and of course Godfrey knew what he meant. It was cruel in the circumstances, for many men spend far more on their clothes than Godfrey. He simply gives his mind to the matter and takes care of his things; he will spend any time selecting a colour or getting a coat fitted."

"Is your brother quite... dependent on... his friends, Trixy?"

"Yes, in the meantime, and that is the reason why we ought to be the more considerate. I wished to settle half my income on him, but it is only a third of what it used to be—something to do with investments has reduced it—and Mr. Marsden would not hear of such a thing; he allows Godfrey one hundred a year, but that hardly keeps him in clothes and pocket money."

"Still, don't you think it's all Godfrey could expect?" and Mrs. Leslie was inclined for once to defend this abused man. "Few husbands would do as much for a brother-in-law."

"Oh, of course he does it for my sake, and he means to be kind. But, Florrie, Mr. Marsden is so careful and saving, always speaking as if we were poor and had to lay up for the future, while I know he has a large income and a sure business.

"Why, he would not leave that horrid street in Highbury, say what I could; and I owe it to Godfrey that we have come to Putney. When Tom went out to Alexandria, my brother simply took our present house and had it furnished in Mr. Marsden's name, and so when he came home from Alexandria we were established in The Cottage."

"John is the best of husbands, but I dare not have changed our house in his absence," and Mrs. Leslie began to get new views on the situation. "Was not Mr. Marsden rather startled?"

"He was inclined to be angry with Godfrey, but I sent the boy off to Scarborough for a month; and he is never hasty to me, only tiresome—you can't imagine how tiresome."

"Is it the statistics?"

"Worse than that. He has begun the Reformation now, and insists on reading from some stuffy old book every evening, Dumas' History, I think, till I wish there never had been such a thing, and we were all Roman Catholics."

"Very likely he would have read about the Popes, then, or the saints. My dear girl, you don't wish to have your mind improved. You ought to be proud of your husband; most men sleep after dinner with an evening paper in their hands, and are quite cross if they're wakened. But there they come, and we must have Godfrey's last song."

III

"Nurse will rise at four and bring you a nice cup of tea. Are you sure you will not weary, being alone for two hours?" and Mrs. Marsden, in charming outdoor dress, blew eau-de-Cologne about the room. "Don't you love scent?"

"Where are you going?" asked Marsden, following her with fond eyes. "You told me yesterday, but I forget; this illness has made me stupider than ever, I think. Wasn't it some charity?"

"It's the new society every one is so interested in, 'The Working Wives' Culture Union.' What is wanted is happy homes for the working men," quoting freely from an eloquent woman orator, "and the women must be elevated; so the East End is to be divided into districts, and two young women will be allotted to each. Are you listening?"

"Yes, dear; but it rests me to lie with my eyes closed. Tell me all about your society. What are the young ladies to do?"

"Oh, they're to visit the wives in the afternoon and read books to them: solid books, you know, about wages and... all kinds of things working men like. Then in the evening the wives will be able to talk with their husbands on equal terms, and the men will not want to go to the public-houses. Isn't it a capital idea?"

A sad little smile touched Marsden's lips for an instant "And where do you meet to-day? It's a long way for you to go to Whitechapel."

"Didn't I tell you? The Marchioness of Gloucester Is giving a Drawing Room at her town house, and Lady Helen wrote an urgent note, Insisting that I should come, even though it were only for an hour, as her mother depended on my advice so much.

"Of course I know that's just a way of putting it; but I have taken lots of trouble about founding the Union, so I think it would hardly do for me to be absent You're feeling much better, too, to-day, aren't you, Thomas?"

"Yes, much better; the pain has almost ceased; perhaps it will be quite gone when you return. Can you spare just ten minutes to sit beside me? There is something I have been wanting to say, and perhaps this is my only chance. When I am well again I may... be afraid."

Mrs. Marsden sat down wondering, and her husband waited a minute.

"One understands many things that puzzled him before, when he lies in quietness for weeks and takes an after look. I suspected it at times before, but I was a coward and put the thought away. It seemed curious that no one came to spend an hour with me, as men do with friends; and I noticed that they appeared to avoid me. I thought it was fancy, and that I had grown self-conscious.

"Everything is quite plain now, and I... am not hurt, dear, and I don't blame any person; that would be very wrong. People might have been far more impatient with me, and might have made my life miserable.

"God gave me a dull mind and a slow tongue; it took me a long time to grasp anything, and no one cared about the subjects that interested me. Beatrice... I wish now you had told me how I bored our friends; it would have been a kindness; but never mind that now; you did not like to give me pain.

"What troubles me most is that all these years you should have been tied to a very tiresome fellow," and Marsden made some poor attempt at a smile. "Had I thought of what was before you, I would never have asked you to marry me.

"Don't cry, dear; I did not wish to hurt you. I wanted to ask your pardon for... all that martyrdom, and... to thank you for... being my wife; and there's something else.

"You see when I get well and am not lying in bed here, maybe I could not tell you, so let me explain everything now, and then we need not speak about such things again.

"Perhaps you thought me too economical, but I was saving for a purpose. Your portion has not brought quite so much as it did, and I wished to make it up to you, and now you can have your six hundred a year as before; if this illness had gone against me, you would have been quite comfortable—in money, I mean, dear.

"No, I insist on your going to Lady Gloucester's; the change will do you good, and I'll lie here digesting the Reformation, you know," and he smiled, better this time, quite creditably, in fact "Will you give me a kiss, just to keep till we meet again?"

When the nurse came down at four to take charge, she was horrified to find her patient alone, and in the death agony, but conscious and able to speak.

"Don't ring... nor send for my wife... I sent... her away knowing the end was near... made her go, in fact... against her will."

The nurse gave him brandy, and he became stronger for a minute.

"She has had a great deal to bear with me, and I... did not wish her to see death. My manner has been always so wearisome... I hoped that... nobody would be here. You are very kind, nurse; no more, if you please.

"Would it trouble you... to hold my hand, nurse? It's a little lonely... I am not afraid... a wayfaring man though a fool... not err therein..."

He was not nearly so tedious with his dying as he had been with his living; very shortly afterwards Thomas Marsden had done with statistics for ever.

IV

Three days later Leslie came home from the city with tidings on his face, and he told them to his wife when they were alone that night "Marsden's lawyer made an appointment after the funeral, and I had an hour with him. He has asked me to be a trustee with himself in Mrs. Marsden's settlement."

"I'm so glad; you must accept, for it will be such a comfort to poor Beatrice; but I thought Godfrey was her sole trustee."

"So he was," said Leslie grimly, "more's the pity, and he embezzled every penny of the funds—gambled them away in card-playing and... other ways."

"Godfrey Harrison, Beatrice's brother?"

"Yes, her much-admired, accomplished, ill-used brother, the victim of her husband's stinginess."

"If that be true, then Godfrey is simply a..."

"You mean an unmitigated scoundrel. Quite so, Florence, and a number of other words we won't go over. I tell you," and Leslie sprang to his feet, "there is some use in swearing; if it had not been for one or two expressions that came to my memory suddenly to-day, I should have been ill. Curious to say, the lawyer seemed to enjoy them as much as myself, so it must be a bad case."

"But I don't understand—if Godfrey spent Trixy's money, how is there anything to manage? Did he pay it back?"

"No, he did not, and could not; he has not enough brains to earn eighteen pence except by cheating, and if by any chance he came into a fortune, would grudge his sister a pound."

"Then...?"

"Don't you begin to catch a glimpse of the facts? Why, Marsden toiled and scraped, and in the end, so the doctors say, killed himself to replace the money, and he had just succeeded before his death."

"How good of him! but I don't see the necessity of all this secrecy on his part, and all those stories about low interest that he told Trixy."

"There was no necessity; if it had been some of us, we would have let Mrs. Marsden know what kind of brother she had, and ordered him out of the country on threat of jail.

"It was Marsden's foolishness, let us call it, to spare his wife the disgrace of her idol and the loss of his company. So her husband was despised beside this precious rascal every day."

"Trixy will get a terrible shock when she is told; it would almost have been kinder to let her know the truth before he died."

"Mrs. Marsden is never to know," said Leslie; "that was his wish; she's just to be informed that new trustees have been appointed, and we are to take care that she does not waste her income on the fellow.

"People will send letters of condolence to Mrs. Marsden, but they will say at afternoon teas that it must be a great relief to her, and that it's quite beautiful to see her sorrow. In two years she will marry some well-dressed fool, and they will live on Marsden's money," and Leslie's voice had an unusual bitterness.

"Did you ever hear of another case like this, John?"

"Never; when old Parchment described Marsden giving him the instructions, he stopped suddenly.

"'Marsden,' he said, 'was the biggest fool I ever came across in the course of forty-two years' practice,' and he went over to the window."

"And you?"

"I went to the fireplace; we were both so disgusted with the man that we couldn't speak for five minutes."

After a short while Mrs. Leslie said, "It appears to me that this slow, uninteresting man, whom every one counted a bore, was in his own way... almost a hero."

"Or altogether," replied John Leslie.