Disintegration by Degrees

We must now advance a little more rapidly. It was in the beginning of 1815 that Zachariah found himself settled in Manchester. That eventful year passed without any external change, so far as he was concerned. He became a member of the Hampden Club, to which Ogden and Bamford belonged; but he heard nothing of Maitland nor of Caillaud. He had a letter now and then from Mr. Bradshaw and it was a sore trial to him that nobody could be found in Manchester to take the place of that worthy man of God. He could not attach himself definitely to any church in the town, and the habit grew upon him of wandering into this or the other chapel as his fancy led him. His comrades often met on Sunday evenings. At first he would not go; but he was afterwards persuaded to do so. The reasons which induced him to alter his mind were, in the first place, the piety, methodistic most of it, which was then mixed up with politics; and secondly, a growing fierceness of temper, which made the cause of the people a religion. From 1816 downwards it may be questioned whether he would not have felt himself more akin with any of his democratic friends, who were really in earnest over the great struggle, than with a sleek half Tory professor of the gospel, however orthodox he might have been. In 1816 the situation of the working classes had become almost intolerable. Towards the end of the year wheat rose to a quarter, and incendiarism was common all over England. A sense of insecurity and terror took possession of everybody. Secret outrages, especially fires by night, chill the courage of the bravest, as those know well enough who have lived in an agricultural county, when, just before going to bed, great lights are seen on the horizon; when men and women collect on bridges or on hill tops, asking “Where is it?” and when fire-engines tearing through the streets arrive useless at their journey’s end because the hose has been cut. One evening in November 1816, Zachariah was walking home to his lodgings. A special meeting of the club had been called for the following Sunday to consider a proposal made for a march of the unemployed upon London. Three persons passed him⁠—two men and a woman⁠—who turned round and looked at him and then went on. He did not recognise them, but he noticed that they stopped opposite a window, and as he came up they looked at him again. He could not be mistaken; they were the Major, Caillaud, and his daughter. The most joyous recognition followed, and Zachariah insisted on their going home with him. It often happens that we become increasingly intimate with one another even when we are shut out from all intercourse. Zachariah had not seen the Major nor Caillaud nor Pauline for two years, and not a single thought had been interchanged. Nevertheless he was much nearer and dearer to them than he was before. He had unconsciously moved on a line rapidly sweeping round into parallelism with theirs. The relationship between himself and his wife during those two years had become, not openly hostile, it is true, but it was neutral. Long ago he had given up the habit of talking to her about politics, the thing which lay nearest to his heart just then. The pumping effort of bringing out a single sentence in her presence on any abstract topic was incredible, and so he learned at last to come home, though his heart and mind were full to bursting, and say nothing more to her than that he had seen her friend Mrs. Sykes, or bought his tea at a different shop. On the other hand, the revolutionary literature of the time, and more particularly Byron, increasingly interested him. The very wildness and remoteness of Byron’s romance was just what suited him. It is all very well for the happy and well-to-do to talk scornfully of poetic sentimentality. Those to whom a natural outlet for their affection is denied know better. They instinctively turn to books which are the farthest removed from commonplace and are in a sense unreal. Not to the prosperous man, a dweller in beautiful scenery, well married to an intelligent wife, is Byron precious, but to the poor wretch, say some City clerk, with an aspiration beyond his desk, who has two rooms in Camberwell and who before he knew what he was doing made a marriage⁠—well⁠—which was a mistake, but who is able to turn to that island in the summer sea, where dwells Kaled, his mistress⁠—Kaled, the Dark Page disguised as a man, who watches her beloved dying:⁠—

“Who nothing fears, nor feels, nor heeds, nor sees,
Save that damp brow which rests upon his knees;
Save that pale aspect, where the eye, though dim,
Held all the light that shone on earth for him.”

When they came indoors, and Mrs. Zachariah heard on the stairs the tramp of other feet besides those of her husband, she prepared herself to be put out of temper. Not that she could ever be really surprised. She was not one of those persons who keep a house orderly for the sake of appearances. She would have been just the same if she had been living alone, shipwrecked on a solitary island in the Pacific. She was the born natural enemy of dirt, dust, untidiness, and of every kind of irregularity, as the cat is the born natural enemy of the mouse. The sight of dirt, in fact, gave her a quiet kind of delight, because she foresaw the pleasure of annihilating it. Irregularity was just as hateful to her. She could not sit still if one ornament on the mantelpiece looked one way and the other another way, and she would have risen from her deathbed, if she could have done so, to put a chair straight. She was not, therefore, aggrieved in expectancy because she was not fit to be seen. It was rather because she resented any interruption of domestic order of which she had not been previously forewarned. As it happened, however the Major came first, and striding into the room, he shook her hand with considerable fervour and kissed it gallantly. Her gathering ill-temper disappeared with the promptitude of a flash. It was a muddy night; the Major had not carefully wiped his boots, and the footmarks were all over the floor. She saw them, but they were nothing.

“My dear Mrs. Coleman, how are you? What a blessing to be here again in your comfortable quarters.”

“Really, Major Maitland, it is very good of you to say so. I am very glad to see you again. Where have you been? I thought we had lost you forever.”

Caillaud and his daughter had followed. They bowed to her formally, and she begged them to be seated.

“Then, my dear madam,” continued the Major, laughing, “you must have thought me dead. You might have known that if I had not been dead I must have come back.”

She coloured just a trifle, but made no reply further than to invite all the company to have supper.

Zachariah was somewhat surprised. He did not know what sort of a supper it could be; but he was silent. She asked Pauline to take off her bonnet, and then proceeded to lay the cloth. For five minutes, or perhaps ten minutes, she disappeared, and then there came, not only bread and cheese, but cold ham, a plentiful supply of beer, and, more wonderful still, a small cold beefsteak pie. Everything was produced as easily as if it had been the ordinary fare, and Zachariah was astonished at his wife’s equality to the emergency. Whence she obtained the ham and beefsteak pie he could not conjecture. She apologised for having nothing hot; would have had something better if she had known, etc., etc., and then sat down at the head of the table. The Major sat on her right, Pauline next to him, and opposite to Pauline, Caillaud and Zachariah. Their hostess immediately began to ask questions about the events of that fatal night when they all left London.

The Major, however, interposed, and said that it would perhaps be better if nothing was said upon that subject.

“A dismal topic,” he observed; “talking about it can do no good, and I for one don’t want to be upset by thinking about it just before I go to bed.”

“At least,” said Zachariah, “you can tell us why you are in Manchester?”

“Certainly,” replied the Major. “In the first place, Paris is not quite so pleasant as it used to be; London, too, is not attractive; and we thought that, on the whole, Manchester was to be preferred. Moreover, a good deal will have to be done during the next twelvemonth, and Manchester will do it. You will hear all about it when your club meets next time.”

“You’ve been in Paris?” said Mrs. Zachariah. “Isn’t it very wicked?”

“Well, that depends on what you call wicked.”

“Surely there cannot be two opinions on that point.”

“It does seem so; and yet when you live abroad you find that things which are made a great deal of here are not thought so much of there; and, what is very curious, they think other things very wrong there of which we take no account here.”

“Is that because they are not Christians?”

“Oh dear no; I am speaking of good Christian people; at least so I take them to be. And really, when you come to consider it, we all of us make a great fuss about our own little bit of virtue, and undervalue the rest⁠—I cannot tell upon whose authority.”

“But are they not, Major, dreadfully immoral in France?”

Pauline leaned over her plate and looked Mrs. Coleman straight in the face.

Mrs. Coleman, you are English; you⁠—”

Her father put up his hand; he foresaw what was coming, and that upon this subject Pauline would have defied all the rules of hospitality. So he replied calmly, but with the calm of suppressed force:

Mrs. Coleman, as my daughter says, you are English; you are excusable. I will not dispute with you, but I will tell you a little story.”

“Will you not take some more beer, Mr. Caillaud, before you begin?”

“No, thank you, madam, I have finished.”

Caillaud pushed away his plate, on which three parts of what was given him, including all the ham, remained untouched, and began⁠—his Gallicisms and broken English have been corrected in the version now before the reader:

“In 1790 a young man named Dupin was living in Paris, in the house of his father, who was a banker there. The Dupins were rich, and the son kept a mistress, a girl named Victorine. Dupin the younger had developed into one of the worst of men. He was strictly correct in all his dealings, sober, guilty of none of the riotous excesses which often distinguish youth at that age, and most attentive to business; but he was utterly self-regarding, hard, and emotionless. What could have induced Victorine to love him I do not know; but love him she did, and her love instead of being a folly, was her glory. If love were always to be in proportion to desert, measured out in strictest and justest huckstering conformity therewith, what a poor thing it would be! The love at least of a woman is as the love of the Supreme Himself, and just as magnificent. Victorine was faithful to Dupin; and poor and handsome as she was, never wronged him by a loose look. Well, Dupin’s father said his son must marry, and the son saw how reasonable and how necessary the proposal was. He did marry, and he cut himself adrift from Victorine without the least compunction, allowing her a small sum weekly, insufficient to keep her. There was no scene when they parted, for his determination was communicated to her by letter. Three months afterwards she had a child of whom he was the father. Did she quietly take the money and say nothing? Did she tear up the letter in a frenzy and return him the fragments? She did neither. She wrote to him and told him that she would not touch his gold. She would never forget him, but she could not be beholden to him now for a crust of bread. She had done no wrong hitherto⁠—so she said, Mrs. Coleman; I only repeat her words⁠—they are not mine. But to live on him after he had left her would be a mortal crime. So they separated, a victim she⁠—both victims, I may say⁠—to this cursed thing we call Society. One of the conditions on which the money was to have been given was, that she should never again recognise him in any way whatever. This half of the bargain she faithfully observed. For some months she was alone, trying to keep herself and her child, but at last she was taken up by a working stonemason named Legouvé. In 1793 came the Terror, and the Dupins were denounced and thrown into the Luxembourg. Legouvé was one of the Committee of Public Safety. It came to the recollection of the younger Dupin as he lay expecting death that he had heard that the girl Victorine had gone to live with Legouvé, and a ray of light dawned on him in his dungeon. He commissioned his wife to call on Victorine and implore her to help them. She did so. Ah, that was a wonderful sight⁠—so like the Revolution! Madame Dupin, in her silks and satins, had often passed the ragged Victorine in the streets, and, of course, had never taken the slightest notice of her. Now Madame was kneeling to her! Respectability was in the dust before that which was not by any means respectable; the legitimate before the illegitimate! Oh, it was, I say, a wonderful sight in Victorine’s wretched garret! She was touched with pity, and, furthermore, the memory of her old days with Dupin and her love for him revived. Legouvé was frightfully jealous, and she knew that if she pleaded Dupin’s cause before him she would make matters worse. A sudden thought struck her. She went to Couthon and demanded an audience.

“ ‘Couthon,’ she said, ‘are the Dupins to die?’

“ ‘Yes, tomorrow.’

“ ‘Dupin the younger is the father of my child.’

“ ‘And he has deserted you, and you hate him. He shall die.’

“ ‘Pardon me, I do not hate him.’

“ ‘Ah, you love him still; but that is no reason why he should be spared, my pretty one. We must do our duty. They are plotters against the Republic, and must go.’

“ ‘Couthon, they must live. Consider; shall that man ascend the scaffold with the thought in his heart that I could have rescued him, and that I did not; that I have had my revenge? Besides, what will be said?⁠—that the Republic uses justice to satisfy private vengeance. All the women in my quarter know who I am.’

“ ‘That is a fancy.’

“ ‘Fancy! Is it a fancy to murder Dupin’s wife⁠—murder all that is good in her⁠—murder the belief in her forever that there is such a thing as generosity? You do not wish to kill the soul? That is the way with tyrants, but not with the Republic.’

“Thus Victorine strove with Couthon, and he at last yielded. Dupin and his father were released that night, and before daybreak they were all out of Paris and safe. In the morning Legouvé found that they were liberated, and on asking Couthon the reason, was answered with a smile that they had an eloquent advocate. Victorine had warned Couthon not to mention her name, and he kept his promise; but Legouvé conjectured but too truly. He went home, and in a furious rage taxed Victorine with infidelity to him, in favour of the man who had abandoned her. He would not listen to her, and thrust her from him with curses. I say nothing more about her history. I will only say this, that Pauline is that child who was born to her after Dupin left her. I say it because I am so proud that Pauline has had such a mother!”

“Pauline her daughter!” said Zachariah. “I thought she was your daughter.”

“She is my daughter: I became her father.”

Everybody was silent.

“Ah, you say nothing,” said Caillaud; “I am not surprised. You are astonished. Well may you be so that such a creature should ever have lived. What would Jesus Christ have said to her?”

The company soon afterwards rose to go.

“Goodbye, Mrs. Coleman,” said the Major in his careless way; “I am glad to find Manchester does not disagree with you. At least, I should think it does not.”

“Oh no, Major Maitland, I like it quite as well as London. Mind, you promise to come again soon⁠—very soon.”

The Major had gone downstairs first. She had followed him to the first landing, and then returned to bid Pauline and Caillaud goodbye. She stood like a statue while Pauline put on her hat.

“Good night, madam,” said Caillaud, slightly bowing.

“Good night, madam,” said Pauline, not bowing in the least.

“Good night,” she replied, without relaxing her rigidity.

As soon as they were in the street Pauline said, “Father, I abhor that woman. If she lives she will kill her husband.”

Mrs. Coleman, on the other hand, at the same moment said, “Zachariah, Pauline and Caillaud cannot come to this house again.”

“Why not?”

“Why not, Zachariah? I am astonished at you! The child of a woman who lived in open sin!”

He made no reply. Years ago not a doubt would have crossed his mind. That a member of Mr. Bradshaw’s church could receive such people as Caillaud and Pauline would have seemed impossible. Nevertheless, neither Caillaud nor Pauline were now repugnant to him; nor did he feel that any soundless gulf separated them from him, although, so far as he knew his opinions had undergone no change.

Mrs. Coleman forbore to pursue the subject, for her thoughts went off upon another theme, and she was inwardly wondering whether the Major would ever invite her to the theatre again. Just as she was going to sleep, the figure of the Major hovering before her eyes, she suddenly bethought herself that Pauline, if not handsome, was attractive. She started, and lay awake for an hour. When she rose in the morning the same thought again presented itself, to dwell with her hence forwards, and to gnaw her continually like vitriol.