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The Bird of Paradise

Chapter XXVIII. A Beacon-Light of the American Methodist Church. Marvel's Companions. The Bird of Paradise at the Country Concert

Chapter XXVIII. A Beacon-Light of the American Methodist Church. Marvel's Companions. The Bird of Paradise at the Country Concert.

Twelve months passed. Not even a cross word, not a sign of any altercation—not even a symptom of any disapproval of their mutual relations and reflex conduct was ever heard in Bendemeer. The seasons came and glided away, and whatever foibles there might have been on either side were either unnoticed or overlooked as not worth falling out about. Instead of reproachful sullen gravity all was complaisant mutual admiration. The doctor was successful, prosperous and, as indeed he always had been, he was deeply attached to his wife. The life of Marvel was like a light and sunny dream.

True, Lady Kincaird had called twice or three times during the year, and several more cartes de visite—printed on some of them the one word "Kincaird"—lay conspicuous upon the little stack in the drawingroom; but the honourable Lady Harriet and the honourable Lady Henrietta ever since Marvel had returned, had apparently slighted her by rigidly staying page 211away from Bendemeer. The returns to the calls of Lady Kincaird had been in all due form and ceremony religiously observed by Marvel, and paid upon the days appointed for the reception of visitors at the manor house; but during these return calls she had never caught even a glimpse of the daughters of the earl. All she had seen at the courtly receptions were my lady herself and a few of the commoners of the town, whom she disdainfully affected to hold aloof from and despise.

The wife of the local solicitor in particular she had deliberately planned out a quarrel with, for no other reason than that she was formerly very intimate with the honourable lady Henrietta, from which fact she was suspected by Marvel of having had something disparaging to herself to say to the honourable young lady. In no other way could she account for the growing indifference towards herself on the part of the crème de la crème of the Sabine River society; although the doctor would endeavour to solace his wife with the theory that Harriet was jealous of her playing on the occasion of the musical evening at Rotojingolong, and that Henrietta must be vain and insincere. Nothing, nevertheless, could drive the presentiment out of Marvel's head that the passive slights put upon her by the masterly inactivity exhibited by the young ladies in the matter of calls were the doing of Mrs. Alexander. With the assiduity of revenge she raked up all the history of the solicitor's wife, and wherever she visited she spread a terrible story, which she heard from somebody else and knew it was perfectly true, as her friend had heard it on good authority from a third party, namely—that the wife of the solicitor before she was married had been an amanuensis1, and that her employer had said that she was a first-rate girl to spoon with in the moonlight on the verandah. The enjoyable evenings which she and her husband had spent at the solicitor's house were discarded by Marvel as altogether lowering; but the doctor himself used to go, as he was a very close companion of the lawyer, whose wife was very much liked all over the district. The bird of Paradise, however, cut the lady dead and preferred to stay at home; nor, strange to say, did she manifest any signs of chagrin or disapproval at her husband's solitary visits, probably fancying she might be able to glean from him all the little inns and outs of what occurred in Mrs. Alexander's drawingroom, with a view to promulgating them in a distorted and derogatory form to her own little circle of admirers. Of these she now had very few, but such as they were they formed a little school of gossip, treachery, scandal, envy, malice, conspiracy and all uncharitableness—a ring of women that traduced the character of every good man and virtuous lady in the district.

The most frequent guests of the doctor and his wife after their first twelve months in Bendemeer were the heads of a large family living a mile away, of which the pillar of the house was a pillar of the church of John Wesley. He could scarcely be called the key-stone of the Primitive Methodist Church as, although he was an intellectual and well-read man, he had been weighed in the balance and found wanting in originality and force of character. He was not pugnacious enough to make a distinguished page 212theologian. His sermons were nothing more than a barrel-organ-like reading of the sermons of some eminent divine, all of which he kept in his study in a tub, which he turned upside down every two years, so as to keep his sequences correct. Personally he was too deficient in the art of jumbling the judgment and confounding the senses of his congregations to make a successful preacher. Still, he managed to conduct his services satisfactorily to the little vestry and the sparse assemblage of dissenters, every portion of the psalm-singing, ranting service being produced in the same barrel-organ way. No man could read the solemn service for the burial of the dead with more genuine pathos than could the reverend lugubrious and sickly Erasmus Field; moreover, no man could offer his services with more refined grace wherever he heard a death had occurred, for the trifle of two dollars each delivery. Amongst the dignitaries of the church he was not exactly a beacon shining along the deep, and many of the congregation who "sat under him," although they came to pray remained to sleep, and afterwards went home to scoff.

Like the jaunty mercurial Ambrose, he had gone through many mills before he was received into the arms of his mother, the Church. His early career had been that of a draper's cashier, from which post he had emerged into a trade debt-collecting agency: next he became a teacher at a private school; next a law student for a year, and back to school again; next, a law student again, a teacher, and back to the debt-collecting; next, back to school again for six months, and a private writing-master for twelve; next, a reporter for a newspaper and a journalist, and back to school again; next, an inspector of factories and an assistant in a lawyer's office; next, a letter-writer for the public, a managing law clerk, and back again to the newspapers: all along the gamut interspersing his duties with lay-reading and alternating the cycles with the study of cant and divine rant, and clinging to the oar of the life-boat, to reach at last the safe haven of rest in the pulpit of the glory-grinding church.

The pillar that could hardly be called the keystone grew to be very fond of spending his evenings at the doctor's house, showing a marked and consistent predilection for the bird of Heaven; occasionally too he brought his morose and melancholy wife. The music had a marvellous effect upon her melancholial hypochondriacal frame of mind, which the pillar explained had begun with an inordinate jealousy of himself when perforce attending to the bi-weekly meetings of the young ladies who conducted juvenile classes at the Sunday school. He won more hearts than souls—did Erasmus.

The Reverend Erasmus Field seldom missed a week without spending two or three evenings at the paradisal abode. The pillar himself would stand on the base of his hind legs, spread out like poppet-legs, during the whole of the evening, rejecting the admonitions and solicitations of the celestial bird to be seated, and occupying quite an hour in the dining-room smoking a little Cameo2 cigarette. He did not care very much for smoking them at all, and bought, he said himself, the boxes for the sake of the pretty page 213pictures therein contained: albeit, he was never seen with any French or Neapolitan cards in his possession. Most of the time during which the cigarette kept alight it was fizzling and smoking away, not between his lips but between his fingers, offering as it were incense to himself as the pillar of the Methodist Church. Occasionally, however, he would put it in his mouth, open wide the wide mouth which he had, and not being at all proficient in weaving smoke ring-drifts, which he could not have made to save his life, he let the volume escape the best way it could, gazing all the while at the pierre carton work of the ceiling and the centre-flower in the doctor's dining-room, not so much like a dying duck in a thunderstorm as like a saint in the attitude of supplication and prayer.

If ever, over his left shoulder, he saw his melancholial and hypochondriacal dove brooding over the family album, he would whisper into the private ear of the bird of Paradise, slily preferring a request that she should play something like Sir George Macfarren's oratorio of "St. John the Baptist," or the air of "I rejoice in my youth," or even "Rock of Ages," while he made a sort of attempt, poco piu lento, at a song.

The better half of the pillar would thereupon stealthily approach from behind and in a most sacrilegious manner deliver a sounding smack on the right cheek of the pillar himself, who appeared to be meekly turning the other also as he revolved on his axis and lightly tapped his own forehead with his fore-finger, in order to signify to the doctor that the jealous theory of the causation of her melancholia was quite correct.

He borrowed books on the subject of insanity from the doctor, and after reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting the subject in which he was most intensely interested, he would debate with the doctor upon the question, and strive with such powers of persuasion as he possessed to prevail upon Whitworth to commit his wife to a lunatic asylum. His prayers, however, were not granted, and the melancholia was left to keep the church militant in correction, and to shadow and show it up whithersoever it wandered.

The medical work in connection with the waifs and strays from the slums of New Orleans brought Lady Kincaird and Dr. Whitworth frequently into contact, sometimes in houses where the destitute children were kept in penury, knocked about and neglected, sometimes at the monthly meetings of the visiting committee held at Rotojingolong, where also for some time he had been attending to one of the servants who was ill. During his professional visits to the servant he was importuned again and again by Marvel to find out what the wife of the solicitor had been saying to Lady Henrietta; but, although he had promised to do so as an emissary for his wife and he fully expected that he would meet the young ladies when the first message came for him to go to Rotojingolong, the self-torment of Marvel on this score was not relieved. The portentous butler would marshal Eugene from the front door, through the hall curtains up the stairs to the first landing, up the stairs again to the second landing, round the corner, down the passage, up the steps, and round the page 214corner, to a little back attic in the clouds. When the attendance on the servant was over, the butler marshalled him back the same way, up the steps, down the passage, round the corner, down the steps, round the corner, down the passage, down the stairs and through the hall curtains again out of the big front door, without affording him a glance at the honourable young ladies at all, and he was afraid to open his mouth about the forbidden vision in case he would, metaphorically speaking, put his foot in his mouth.

Lady Kincaird herself had always shown some attention to the lady of Bendemeer, but her visits, as Marvel said, could scarcely be chalked up as noteworthy, insomuch she paid visits to all the little street-arabs, gutter snipes and other common people, one of whom was Marvel's Sabinnial bête noire.

In aid of the metropolitan charity school funds, my lady conceived the noble idea of arranging a first-class concert under the auspices of the inhabitants of the nicotinal district. She engaged the Masonic Hall for the night of the twenty-fourth of May, 1849, that night being chosen in order that the concert might bear the interpretation of being a sort of compliment to royalty, of which it was to be supposed the royal, brave, and doughty viscount was a sort of representative tendril. She called upon all the artistes, pianistes and vocalists of whom she could think in the town. The local solicitor and his wife, the hated Mrs. Alexander, were the first to accord their services; others, whose fathers Brick Bore had cheated and helped to ruin, and even the uproarious, yet occasionally melodious Brick Bore himself, together with several of the minor folk also joined in the plan and smilingly consented to play or to sing.

Marvel alone, of all the celebrities, stood out and frowned upon the meritorious work. The bird of Paradise was not going to perform at the same concert and on the same platform as the wife of a common solicitor, and if it wasn't good enough for Lady Harriet and Lady Henrietta to sing, it wasn't good enough for the bird of Paradise to play. So she argued with herself, and expressed her unalterable intention to her husband a fortnight before Lady Kincaird called on an occasion which she put down in the diary made out of a birthday book as a formal stereotyped society call by my lady and Kincaird of Rotojingolong. My lady explained that the success of the concert was assured if only the bird of Paradise would consent to play the same pieces as she played at her manor-house. Before the vision of the celestial Marvel, like a revelation to St. John the divine, the heavens opened: she learnt her visitor had received a letter from her daughters, Lady Harriet and Lady Henrietta, expressing their anxiety to be in time for the coming concert, and the fact of such paramount importance, namely, that Lady Henrietta was going to sing—"When other lips and other hearts their tales of love shall tell."

"Oh! my! are they going, my lady?" exclaimed the enlightened page 215Marvel: "I thought they didn't intend to patronise it, as it is only a country amateur concert."

"Why not?" exclaimed my lady: "my girls are very good that way. I always taught them to do all they could for the poor; when they are at home, they often pay visits to the poor little children; but you know, Mrs. Whitworth, for the last twelve months off and on they have been away on one of our tobacco-plantations in Virginia. I have had to do all the visiting myself."

The load was lifted from the fretful Marvel—the incubus that preyed upon her mind melted away into airy nothingness; the solution of the puzzling riddle over which she had racked her brains was that the young ladies had both been away from home.

"If you think it worth while, my lady," she enthusiastically replied, "I shall be glad to do anything I can; whatever you ask me to play, I shall do so willingly: I will ask the doctor to take ten dollars' worth of tickets and give them to our servants."

"Shall I say two then?" smiled my lady: "say something from Beethoven and something else from—what other name shall I say?"

"Just as you please, my lady," responded the radiant Marvel: "but I think Gounod's Faust and Rubinstein's Hungarian Rhapsodies would be very suitable for a concert," said Marvel, with all the amour propre of an impresario.

"Very well, my dear," returned Lady Kincaird, writing notes in a little pocket-book: "there, I've put it down in my concert memorandum book, so you must come now. Good-bye." My lady walked out of the room, stepped into the pony phaëton and drove away from Bendemeer.

One of the ring of envy, hatred and malice, who often avowed to the doctor that his wife was a lady after her own heart, upon hearing that Marvel was going to take part in the coming concert—whereas she herself had not even been asked to contribute anything to the signal success which it promised to be—was the wife of the warden. His municipal worship's wife was a Mexican lady of Italian extract—an austere, domineering, uncompromising, acrimonious woman about forty—a woman whose closely-contracted and vindictive brow bore a close resemblance to the face of Marvel's mother. There was, moreover, a sort of fellow-feeling between her and Marvel's mother, insomuch his Worship was a bit of a rake and so was the great and mighty himself, though a different sort of a rake. His Worship's random rakishness expended itself mostly at the beer-shop known as "The Hark up to Nudger," and at the Hallelujah Inn of Daniel Carter, where he would sit from sunrise till the place was closed, keeping the establishment, with the able unfailing assistance of the roystering Daniel, in a continual drunken uproar. In the proprietor of the "Hallelujah" he had a man after his own heart, and they devoted their time to painting the town red arm in arm and shoulder to shoulder on long bouts of drunkenness and disorder. Daniel was times without number locked up by the police. His Worship, after a spree with Daniel page 216the night before, would sit upon him in the police court the next morning and fine Daniel one dollar, whereat in the court Daniel would loudly declare that it was half-a-dollar too much.

Her municipal ladyship called upon Marvel on the night after Lady Kincaird's formal afternoon call, and unfolded before her a terrible tale of woe. His Worship had for six months every night called her the foulest and filthiest names that had ever been coined in the dirtiest philological mint in the world, pulled her out of bed, blackened her eyes, kicked her and turned her out of the house, burnt all her dresses till the chimney caught fire, spat on her, and left her without a penny to get a meal.

"The wretch is a perfect demon and a maniac," she said, laying it all down with her umbrella before the receptive Marvel: "I am going to apply for a divorce, for if ever a woman ought to be pitied it's me. He is that mad with drink that I shall have him at once kept in a lunatic asylum or some refractory institution,—perhaps gaol."

While the injured woman talked away to Marvel, drinking tea out of dainty plate-mounted china étagères, delicious, prim, quaint little handleless cups, and munching biscuits as light as thistle-down at a specially-designed five o'clock tea-table in the drawingroom, the bell rang and the servant brought a little girl into the surgery. Her father had sent her to ask the doctor to come over and see him as soon as he possibly could. Assuming his hat, he left with the little girl, who appeared to be in dire distress and cried all the way till they reached her father's home, when a little boy opened the door and exclaimed in great excitement—"Doctor, did Elsie tell you that mother shot father last night? but he's not dead, Doctor, he's in there;" when, as the doctor entered the room, he saw the civic warden of the town drunk on the outside of the bed, and quivering from head to foot. What appeared to be all the crockery in the house lay in little pieces on the floor. Crack, crack, crack, crack, crack, as he walked over it to the side of the bed. His Worship's face was ghastly white, and a cold perspiration bathed his forehead and arms. In wild and incoherent language he exclaimed, raising himself upon his elbow on the bed—"I'm glad you have come; I've been on the beer lately, and when I got home last night that bitch stabbed me here," pulling up his shirt over his chest: "can you see?"

"I can," said the doctor; "lie down: there are three wounds, but none of them positively dangerous and they are not very deep. That one between the ribs might easily have been worse, but it's a little low down to be dangerous."

"It was deep enough to wake me up, anyway," said His Worship: "I didn't feel anything much though till I heard her call out—'Die, you devil, die,' when she ran out of the room and around the side of the house. I couldn't see who it was at first, but I picked up the derringer and fired it—do you see that round hole in the window: I'm sorry it missed her."

"Never mind now," said the doctor, "I'll give you some morphine to make you sleep; it's the beer that's at the bottom of it. You've been page 217breaking the furniture, smashing the crockery and abusing her when you came home. She is a hot-headed woman—you told me yourself she was of Italian extract, so be careful in future. There's no necessity to say anything outside. The best thing to do is to give up the beer and everything will be all right." He injected some morphine with a hypodermic syringe into the delirious man's arm, and as he quickly subsided into a narcotic stupor, the doctor was leaving by the front gate, when the two innocent little children ran after him calling out vociferously "Doctor, Doctor, will father die?"

"Oh no," said Whitworth, "father won't die. Don't yon tell anybody—here's a dollar; if father wakes up you buy some brandy and give it to father. Good-bye, don't cry any more."

The interview between Marvel and her boon companion had not ended when the doctor returned, and for some time, as he sat in the surgery, the lying lips of the would-be cold-blooded murderer sounded like sweetest music in the ears of his paradisal wife.

The domestic tragedy in the house of the warden was, as is mostly the case, the result of drink and jealousy. His wife had been away from home with one of the children staying at a seaside hotel at Brownsville for weeks: she had just returned to her home. What the jealousy did not bring out in her husband the beer did, and on the evening in question he wandered home full of the devil to meet her. His maudlin imagination led him to accuse her of certain improprieties with the landlord and all the men about the health-resort. He had called her such names as a virtuous woman most abhors. In the heated passion and treachery of her race she had revenged herself by trying to murder him in cold blood. Had it not been for the mediation and intercession of the doctor, she would have been arraigned for attempted murder, and probably sentenced to penal servitude for life—her life in a living grave—her husband's wrong-doing gnawing at his vitals for ever after; remorse-demons dragging him down to an early grave, and those innocent children red-branded for ever like Cain.

Upon Mrs. Blackhall leaving the house, Marvel told the doctor the varnished version of the enormity of the mayor's abuse, but she did not seem to know anything of the wounds in the warden's side and the bullet-hole in the window. Not desirous of discussing the subject with Marvel, he proceeded with the writing of a letter upon which he was engaged, simply remarking that it would be better for her to choose her friends with more discrimination. To this, however, she retorted that she would be very sorry indeed to speak to the jockeys of his acquaintance, and vouchsafing the remark that all men were alike, she swept herself out in a monologous storm from the room.

When the evening of the twenty-fourth of May came, the concert under the auspices of the Rotojingolong aristocracy took place in the hired hall of the Working Men's Institute, which, by the way, had by this time received a new name, as it had been purchased from the Freemasons by the borough page 218council. The large hall was crowded. It was soon transparent that every farmer and vigneron had come with his wife and family, the estimated attendance in the building being fifteen hundred people. All the celebrities of the town and district poured into the hall by the dozen. The country maidens made quite a galaxy of simplicity, innocence and beauty. It could not have been called a critical audience. Lady Kincaird had not thought it necessary to introduce any of the musical and vocal talent from the metropolis. Her object was not so much to place a high-class and attractive concert before the inhabitants as to enhance the languishing funds of the benevolent society, so that all the amateur artistes that evening sang and played no more than they had been in the habit of doing before amongst each other's homes. The local solicitor's wife, who had taken a very active part in the propagation of its success, sang a song about a dream, while the old lawyer himself sang something which seemed to be a contradiction of his wife, and declared that it was not a dream at all. The forgiven Brick Bore produced a combination of gems upon the guitar and the mandolin, with which instruments he was quite as adept as he was on the banjo. He was awarded with vociferous applause, and he brought down the house with "The Zouave" and "The Maid of Llangöllen." The cadences of "Remember me," as the voice of Lady Henrietta rose and fell in its perfect concert pitch undulated in harmony with the expansion and decline of her smooth ivory bosom. Marvel had not spoken to the smartly-dressed wife of the lawyer, and when the doctor remarked that Mrs. Alexander had made quite an impression, she acknowledged the remark with an expressive and disdainful pout of her lips and a subdued grunted ejaculation of inexorable contempt. It was now drawing close upon her turn to make her début before the footlights. As she sat next to her husband he could feel the thrill of her high-strung nerves throbbing in her trembling frame and notice her nervous agitation, when she ascended the proscenium of the stage and was conducted by him to the grand Collard and Collard, which had been provided by the countess of Rotojingolong. The bird of Paradise had attained quite a kudos for her playing in private, and as soon as she ascended the platform the audience began clapping with their hands and stamping with their feet, though it was hard to say if some of them were not labouring under the delusion that it was the doctor himself that was going to perform. However, he accepted the compliment on her behalf, but the cheering did not cease until she had played a few bars of the music. She did not play it from the music-sheets. It had a better effect upon the gallery and she wanted them all to see that she could dispense with the printed pages even in such difficult compositions as those of Gounod and Rubinstein. Not even half a note was wrong and if there had been there was nobody there to notice and cavil at it—not even Lady Henrietta, who sat all the time covered with beaming smiles, while the bird of Paradise covered herself with a nimbus of musical glory. The rich runs in the Hungarian rhapsodies as she exhibited her versatility of style and full command of the keyboard page 219elicited ringing cheers and applause; but the pièce de résistance for the gallery was yet a musical feast to come, and when for the second time she ascended the platform and the large hall re-echoed with the grand tones of the Collard and Collard in the music of the church scene and the harmonious portions of Faust, the crowd clapped their loud applause and stamped their feet in ecstasy, while the galleries yelled "ankor," "ankor." It was folly to attempt to evade that clamorous "ankor," and Marvel was obliged to produce Faust again. The galleries yelled and screeched all the more: "ankor" "ankor" "ankor" came down upon the platform like imperious commands, as if "the gods" were desirous of getting the music well drummed into their heads with a view of whistling it themselves about the streets. The lawyer thinking he would catch her, sent up Mendelssohn's Andante and Rondo Capriccioso as it was something new. Eugene put it on the piano frame. Marvel looked over a few pages, sat down and played it off as vigorously as if she was Mendelssohn himself; after which she left the platform with her bouquets and returned with Eugene to her seat in the body of the hall, while all "the gods" stood up, stamping and whistling; all the country people clapped their hands and the clamour and confusion in the Working Men's Institute was almost as great as on the roaring day when Moss Rose won the Coronation Plate.

When the programme was finished Lady Harriet met her and, after complimenting her upon her performances, she invited her to Rotojingolong next day to spend the afternoon at archery. Marvel thanked her for the invitation, promised to go next day, and although it was only two hundred yards to Bendemeer, the buggy, the pair and the cockaded Frederick took the charming pianiste home.

Her mind was the home of most serene tranquillity; the illusion that Mrs. Alexander had maligned her passed away under the force of the disillusion, when Lady Harriet invited her to Rotojingolong; the delusion regarding Mrs. Downward passed away too, and for months in the Sabine home the paradisal life of Marvel was as glorious as the gleaming poppies and the summer blooms of Bendemeer. Her husband was doing well, her servants she had trained into perfect models of industry and obedience, her children were pictures of health, strength and joyousness. The wine in the paradisal chalice was full to overflowing—she knew not a sorrow, she dried not a tear, and her daily life was one continuous flow of harmony and unison with the lives of her husband and children.

Amidst plenty of excitement Marvel was the gayest and the giddiest of the most joyous throng; in loneliness and care she was like a child in the dark. If left alone to her own thoughts and resources she would cry aloud to her friends and relations for help and relief. She had been spoilt as a child. She had no calibre, no bravery, no power to battle against an adversity; but if extraneous circumstances were conducive to her merriment and kittenish playfulness, she was the boldest soarer into the regions of mirth. Left alone and with a cumbersome task to perform, she would bemoan her sad lot and pass on the duty to others nobler, more stout-page 220hearted and more enduring. By the side of Guinevere in trouble she was as helpless as the new-born babe. Placed upon the whirligig and the razzle-dazzle of light-hearted frivolity, among the grand flaneurs of a ball-room, her giddiness, her butterfly flightiness and ostentation knew no bounds. When all was well, Marvel was exuberance itself; when anything went wrong, she was prostrated in fretfulness, peevishness and confusion. She was the antithesis of Guinevere. Guinevere was a heroine, but Marvel died away at the first breath of reverse.

1 One who copies or writes from the dictation of another. OED Online.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

2 An American cigarette imported to Australia during Dutton's time. Advertiser Adelaide September 1893.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]