An Engagement of Convenience: A Novel

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An Engagement
of Convenience

 

A Novel

 

By

Louis Zangwill

Author of “The World and a Man,”
“One’s Womenkind,” &c., &c.

 

London

Brown, Langham & Co., Ltd.

78 New Bond Street, W.
1908


“In tragic life, God wot,
No villain need be!”
George Meredith.

An
Engagement of Convenience


I

Miss Robinson had first seen Wyndham and fallen in love with him on the day that he appeared in the road as a neighbour and set up his studio there. But that was years before, and she had never made his acquaintance. He was the Prince Charming of the romances, handsome, of knightly bearing, with a winning smile on his frank face. From her magic window in the big corner house where the road branched off into two, she had narrowly observed his goings and comings, had watched eagerly all that was visible of his romantic, mysterious profession—the picturesque Italian models that pulled his bell, the great canvasses and frames that, during the earlier years at least, were borne in through his door, to reappear in due course as finished pictures on their way to the exhibitions—and it was sometimes possible to catch glimpses of stately figure-paintings and fascinating scenes and landscapes.

Then, too, there was the suggestion of his belonging to a brilliant social world: she had indeed felt that at her first sight of him. Smart broughams and victorias in which nestled stylish people not unfrequently drew up at his studio about tea-time, and in the season he could be seen going off every night in garb of ceremony; not to speak of his occasional departures—to important country-houses, no doubt—with portmanteaus and dressing-bags stacked on the roof of his hansom.

And not less eagerly had Miss Robinson followed his work, scanning the magazines for his drawings, and haunting the galleries in the search for his paintings. No one guessed how much he was the interest of her life: her parents had no suspicion at all, though they knew of their unusual neighbour, and spoke of him occasionally at table. But Alice Robinson was the humblest of womankind. Her youth lay already in the past: she accounted herself the plainest of the plain. So she idealised and worshipped her hero at a distance, feeling immeasurably farther from him than the hundred yards of respectable Hampstead pavement that separated their lives.

One morning at breakfast her father read out from his paper the news of a sensational bankruptcy. A world-famous house of solicitors had fallen, and some of the first families in England were losers. Immense trust funds had gone for building speculations, and amongst the fashionable creditors who had been hit the worst were Mr. Walter Lloyd Wyndham, the artist, of Hampstead, and Miss Mary Wyndham, his sister. It seemed a curious little fact to Mr. Robinson that this affair should vibrate so near to them, and a mild and not unpleasant stimulation was thereby imparted to the breakfast-table. But Miss Robinson was hard put to it to dissimulate her deeper interest in the announcement. Her agitation was profound, shattering: she was glad to escape, and sit alone with her secret. It seemed a sacrilege that earthly vicissitude should touch this brilliant existence. And thereafter she watched her hero more narrowly than ever, reading in his bearing a stern defiance of adversity.

At first indeed there was little difference visible in Wyndham’s outward seemings, and Miss Robinson was thankful that the calamity had ruffled him so imperceptibly. Yet, as the year went by, it began to dawn upon her that things nevertheless were changing. She had learnt to read with consummate skill all the little activities that beat around the studio, and it did not escape her attention that he was going into society rarely, that smart visitors were fewer, and that pictures were being returned to him after astonishingly brief intervals. And gradually, as if in corroboration of her own conclusions, she found his work missing from the exhibitions, and knew with a sinking of her heart that his brilliant days were waning.

And as time further passed, and one year merged into another, she realised definitely that his vogue had ended. She could not even find anything of his in the magazines, though she purchased them prodigally, and searched them through with a hope that was desperation, and a fear that was well-nigh frenzy.

The last year or two a dead unnatural calm had settled over the studio. Pictures were neither despatched nor returned: if models rang the bell, it was only to turn away the next minute with disappointed faces. Of fashionable visitors there was never a sign now: not even a comrade or fellow-artist came to look him up. But only a tall, sad-faced girl, who somehow resembled him, called there at long intervals, and Miss Robinson envied this sister the sympathy she could bring him.

He did not leave London now. All through the summer he kept in town, lying low, as Miss Robinson could well see from the pallor of his face on her return from her own conventional holiday at the seaside. She could cherish no delusions—he was a beaten man!

Time and again she brushed close to him, passing him by chance in the street, and observed the languor of his step, the growing sadness of his features. Other details did not escape her. There was no one to attend on him; no one to care for him. Even a charwoman was a rarity at last, and Wyndham could be seen shopping almost furtively in the adjoining streets, and bearing back his own provisions to the studio. Miss Robinson divined, under their wrappings, the tin of sardines, the potted tongue, the loaf of bread. She knew that he never took a meal out now, and that, if he left the studio in the daytime, it was only to escape from the misery of solitude and hopelessness.

She alone observed him so minutely. Her mother had in some degree shared her interest in his work, and had sometimes accompanied her to the galleries; but the common interest of the family in their neighbour was casual and fitful. Miss Robinson hardly dared mention his name now: it seemed to her that to draw attention to his poverty was to humiliate him. Besides, she feared to reveal her own emotion.

One day Miss Robinson’s own life caught her with a breathless upheaval. An honoured and intimate friend of her father’s, successful, opulent, came forward with an avowal of esteem for her; deferentially desired her association with him in his second essay in matrimony! Mr. Shanner seemed to spring it on her with untempered abruptness; though the attentive courtesies that had preceded the crisis might have glimmered some little warning. But Mr. Shanner’s footing in the house was as old-established as the rest of his appertainings; and Miss Robinson’s spirit was ever at the nadir of diffidence. Men as a rule shunned her: women cared as little to talk to her. That anybody might ever wish to marry her had seemed impossible, inconceivable. Mr. Shanner had many pretensions to style, yet, to her spoiled eye, he seemed merely of clay indifferent.

She strung herself to the ordeal of refusing him, though her real strength knew no faltering. For he proved insistent; wooed her—soberly—decorously—as became the dignity of five decades completed; wooed her with reasons of urgency, and implications of sentiment. He was to depart on a mission to the New World; wished to bear her promise with him. He would treasure it; would think of the new light to shine in his household. But within her lay an unfailing inspiration, and her innermost soul stood like a tower impregnable; though she was all wounds and distress, and quivered with the hurt. Was not her heart with her Prince Charming? her one dream in life the privilege of helping him?

Mr. Shanner had to sail away disconsolate!

But, though Miss Robinson’s mind was occupied day and night with this problem of Wyndham’s salvation, she could arrive at no plausible solution. For how should she ever dare to give him a sign? She who would have yielded her life for him could only watch him drifting downwards with an agonised sense of her helplessness.

And he all the while unsuspecting of this obscure, loving historian of his existence; of the warm heart that beat for him in these evil days on which he had fallen!


II

For hours the rain had beaten against his windows, and at last, now that a lull had declared itself, Wyndham dragged himself to the door, and looked out into the gray afternoon. His eye took in the familiar vista, but, as it rested on the great bow-windowed house at the corner where the road branched into two, he turned away with a shudder. For years the sight of that house had irritated him: its ugly brick bulk had been symbolic of all Suburbia, of everything in life to which he was instinctively hostile as an artist and a gentleman.

But presently he laughed: it had struck him as comic that he should have preserved in its freshness his full youthful contempt for all this Philistine universe!—he, a half-starved devil of an artist, down in the mouth, with a solitary half-crown in his pocket, speculating with bitter humiliation whether his hard-worked sister had yet a little to spare for him, after all the life-blood which, leech-like, he had sucked out of her! Nay, more, he was conscious that his distaste for this surrounding wilderness of affluent homes, in the midst of which he had so long dwelt as an isolated superior intelligence, had grown more marked in direct proportion as he had become poorer and poorer.

The prosperous figure of the owner of the bow-windowed house rose before him. Immersed in his own existence, Wyndham had deigned to notice very few indeed of his neighbours. But old Mr. Robinson was one of the few, not only because of the regularity with which he passed the studio every day at six o’clock as he came home from business, but also because he invariably bore something in a plaited rush-bag that had a skewer thrust through it, suggesting visits to Leadenhall Market, and purchases of game or salmon for the good wife according to season. But Mr. Robinson’s mild aspect, benevolent white beard, and gentle amble had never impressed Wyndham with much of a sense of human fellowship. He might concede that the old man was “a decent sort, no doubt, in his own way”; but they were creatures belonging to different planets.

Still amused at his own disdain, though the corners of his mouth were set a trifle grimly, Wyndham turned back into the studio with the idea of making himself presentable and going to see his sister—since it now seemed possible to get across town without the prospect of an absolute drenching. Happily his wardrobe had substantial resources: in the old days he had kept it well replenished, and his simple life of late here in the studio had made small demands on it. Thus he could still go out faultlessly clad and shod. Nobody need suspect his poverty, he flattered himself, if he ever chose to dip into his own world again. Only he did not choose; there was always so much questioning to face. “We’ve seen nothing of yours in the last two or three Academies—when are you going to give us another masterpiece?” “Still on the big picture? How is it getting along?” However genially thrown out, such usual interrogation annoyed him beyond measure. It was so long since anything had been “getting along.” On all sides he was regarded as a doomed man, and suspected it: suspecting it, he was morbidly sensitive. His life was unnatural and not worth the living. Months and months had been wasted in apathy. Each day he dreamt of a new lease of energy and courage to begin on the morrow; but, after making his bed and clearing away his breakfast and purchasing his food for the day, he would find himself dejected and incapable of a single stroke.

And yet he could not wholly realise the change that had come over the scene. He rubbed his eyes sometimes, as if expecting to awake from an unhappy dream. Was not the flourish of early trumpets still in his ears? The dazzle of admiration still on his retina? The gush of extensive and important family connections still tickling his self-esteem? The sweeter approval of a superior art-clique still flattering his deeper vanity?

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