"My dear John," she said, gently, "you forget that, while you are at business, I am here all day. I can't help seeing the people who come to look at the house. Such people!" she continued, turning to Mr. Kendrew. "They distrust every thing, from the scraper at the door to the chimneys on the roof. They force their way in at all hours. They ask all sorts of impudent questions--and they show you plainly that they don't mean to believe your answers, before you have time to make them. Some wretch of a woman says, 'Do you think the drains are right?'--and sniffs suspiciously, before I can say Yes. Some brute of a man asks, 'Are you quite sure this house is solidly built, ma'am?'--and jumps on the floor at the full stretch of his legs, without waiting for me to reply. Nobody believes in our gravel soil and our south aspect. Nobody wants any of our improvements. The moment they hear of John's Artesian well, they look as if they never drank water. And, if they happen to pass my poultry-yard, they instantly lose all appreciation of the merits of a fresh egg!"
Mr. Kendrew laughed. "I have been through it all in my time," he said. "The people who want to take a house are the born enemies of the people who want to let a house. Odd--isn't it, Vanborough?"
Mr. Vanborough's sullen humor resisted his friend as obstinately as it had resisted his wife.
"I dare say," he answered. "I wasn't listening."
This time the tone was almost brutal. Mrs. Vanborough looked at her husband with unconcealed surprise and distress.
"John!" she said. "What can be the matter with you? Are you in pain?"
"A man may be anxious and worried, I suppose, without being actually in pain."
"I am sorry to hear you are worried. Is it business?"
"Consult Mr. Kendrew."
"I am waiting to consult him."
Mrs. Vanborough rose immediately. "Ring, dear," she said, "when you want coffee." As she passed her husband she stopped and laid her hand tenderly on his forehead. "I wish I could smooth out that frown!" she whispered. Mr. Vanborough impatiently shook his head. Mrs. Vanborough sighed as she turned to the door. Her husband called to her before she could leave the room.
"Mind we are not interrupted!"
"I will do my best, John." She looked at Mr. Kendrew, holding the door open for her; and resumed, with an effort, her former lightness of tone. "But don't forget our 'born enemies!' Somebody may come, even at this hour of the evening, who wants to see the house."
The two gentlemen were left alone over their wine. There was a strong personal contrast between them. Mr. Vanborough was tall and dark--a dashing, handsome man; with an energy in his face which all the world saw; with an inbred falseness under it which only a special observer could detect. Mr. Kendrew was short and light--slow and awkward in manner, except when something happened to rouse him. Looking in his face, the world saw an ugly and undemonstrative little man. The special observer, penetrating under the surface, found a fine nature beneath, resting on a steady foundation of honor and truth.
Mr. Vanborough opened the conversation.
"If you ever marry," he said, "don't be such a fool, Kendrew, as I have been. Don't take a wife from the stage."
"If I could get such a wife as yours," replied the other, "I would take her from the stage to-morrow. A beautiful woman, a clever woman, a woman of unblemished character, and a woman who truly loves you. Man alive! what do you want more?"
"I want a great deal more. I want a woman highly connected and highly bred--a woman who can receive the best society in England, and open her husband's way to a position in the world."
"A position in the world!" cried Mr. Kendrew. "Here is a man whose father has left him half a million of money--with the one condition annexed to it of taking his father's place at the head of one of the greatest mercantile houses in England. And he talks about a position, as if he was a junior clerk in his own office! What on earth does your ambition see, beyond what your ambition has already got?"
Mr. Vanborough finished his glass of wine, and looked his friend steadily in the face.
"My ambition," he said, "sees a Parliamentary career, with a Peerage at the end of it--and with no obstacle in the way but my estimable wife."
Mr. Kendrew lifted his hand warningly. "Don't talk in that way," he said. "If you're joking--it's a joke I don't see. If you're in earnest--you force a suspicion on me which I would rather not feel. Let us change the subject."
"No! Let us have it out at once. What do you suspect?"
"I suspect you are getting tired of your wife."
"She is forty-two, and I am thirty-five; and I have been married to her for thirteen years. You know all that--and you only suspect I am tired of her. Bless your innocence! Have you any thing more to say?"
"If you force me to it, I take the freedom of an old friend, and I say you are not treating her fairly. It's nearly two years since you broke up your establishment abroad, and came to England on your father's death. With the exception of myself, and one or two other friends of former days, you have presented your wife to nobody. Your new position has smoothed the way for you into the best society. You never take your wife with you. You go out as if you were a single man. I have reason to know that you are actually believed to be a single man, among these new acquaintances of yours, in more than one quarter. Forgive me for speaking my mind bluntly--I say what I think. It's unworthy of you to keep your wife buried here, as if you were ashamed of her."
"I am ashamed of her."
"Wait a little! you are not to have it all your own way, my good fellow. What are the facts? Thirteen years ago I fell in love with a handsome public singer, and married her. My father was angry with me; and I had to go and live with her abroad. It didn't matter, abroad. My father forgave me on his death-bed, and I had to bring her home again. It does matter, at home. I find myself, with a great career opening before me, tied to a woman whose relations are (as you well know) the lowest of the low. A woman without the slightest distinction of manner, or the slightest aspiration beyond her nursery and her kitchen, her piano and her books. Is that a wife who can help me to make my place in society?--who can smooth my way through social obstacles and political obstacles, to the House of Lords? By Jupiter! if ever there was a woman to be 'buried' (as you call it), that woman is my wife. And, what's more, if you want the truth, it's because I can't bury her here that I'm going to leave this house. She has got a cursed knack of making acquaintances wherever she goes. She'll have a circle of friends about her if I leave her in this neighborhood much longer. Friends who remember her as the famous opera-singer. Friends who will see her swindling scoundrel of a father (when my back is turned) coming drunk to the door to borrow money of her! I tell you, my marriage has wrecked my prospects. It's no use talking to me of my wife's virtues. She is a millstone round my neck, with all her virtues. If I had not been a born idiot I should have waited, and married a woman who would have been of some use to me; a woman with high connections--"
Mr. Kendrew touched his host's arm, and suddenly interrupted him.
"To come to the point," he said--"a woman like Lady Jane Parnell."
Mr. Vanborough started. His eyes fell, for the first time, before the eyes of his friend.
"What do you know about Lady Jane?" he asked.
"Nothing. I don't move in Lady Jane's world--but I do go sometimes to the opera. I saw you with her last night in her box; and I heard what was said in the stalls near me. You were openly spoken of as the favored man who was singled out from the rest by Lady Jane. Imagine what would happen if your wife heard that! You are wrong, Vanborough--you are in every way wrong. You alarm, you distress, you disappoint me. I never sought this explanation--but now it has come, I won't shrink from it.