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A Vagabond Heroine.
BY MRS. EDWARDES,
“LAGRIMAS!” Miss LYDIA BURKE is by no means an unfavourable sample, outwardly, of the Woman of the Future. She has a tolerable sandy complexion, tolerable sandy hair, teeth almost over white and even, and a pair of very wide-awake small grey eyes. Her walk is wiry; her figure like a bit of watch spring; her age—the hitherward side of forty. What in this bright energetic-looking lady should have introduced the sad elements of hatred and disbelief into Belinda's young life? What has caused the inalienable discrepancies between them ?
Mainly, I imagine, this unchangeable law: that reality and shams will no more mix together than will oil and water. Born of no superhonest stock, reared in no super-honest school, one virtue, from her earliest babyhood, took sturdy root in Belinda's soul- the virtue of absolute truth. Organisations exist, so finely tempered that their possessors can detect the presence of certain flowers or animals, as if by instinct. Belinda is gifted with the same prescience, the same kind of moral divining wand, as regards imposture. And poor Miss Burke, while she for ever preaches Earnestness, Woman's Work, Woman's Mission (with big capitals), is an arch impostor ; false, sham, to her finger tips! Not an uninteresting type to the philosophic student of character; but to an ignorant ardent mind like Belinda's, about as nauseating a specimen of human nature as our race can produce.
Ten, fifteen years ago, say the traditions of Eastern travellers, Miss Lydia Burke used to haunt the hotels of Egypt and Palestine. She was a prettyish woman then; prettyish, unprotected, and, though not a girl, young enough to be regarded with suspicion by ladies travelling under the legitimate wing of husbands or brothers. Perhaps there were no really queer stories about her—I mean, perhaps none of the queer stories about her had real foundation. That she was in the habit of borrowing money from any man who would lend her money is matter of fact. But in those days, it must be remembered, Miss Lydia Burke had projects of founding ragged Jew schools in the Levant. Who shall say that the loans did not go to ragged Jew schools in the Levant? Later on, she frequented the Alps; unprotected still; still short of money; an indomitable climber; Bloomerish in dress ; rather less shunted by ladies than formerly
(alas ! her prettiness was fading); feared exceedingly by bachelor parties of young men, on whom, under various pretexts, she was wont to fasten with a cruel and leech-like tenacity. After this-well, after this, Miss Burke wrote a book, 'My Experiences.' Then, a little more Bloomerish, a little more faded, financial resources at a lower ebb than ever, turned up in London.
The book, a hash of doubtful Oriental narrative, and still more doubtful Exeter Hall piety, was simply below criticism; but, by one of those outside chances occasionally to be met with in the world of writers as of men, it sold. It sold, and Miss Burke straightway manufactured a three-volume novel, carefully flavoured with the same kind of spice as before, but with the piety omitted, which did not sell. And then she became Earnest for life; shortened her skirts, had her jackets cut after the fashion of men's coats, wriggled her way, ere long, upon platforms, I think made a speech or two about female suffrage, and began in common conversation to speak of women as Woman. And it was just when she had reached this melancholy turning-point in the downward road that the advertisement in the Times brought Belinda O'Shea into her hands.
Finding herself a good deal snubbed by the leading members of the strong sisterhood in London-neophytes without cash are apt, in more sects than one, to be lightly looked upon by the elders-poor Burke had to consider how Earnestness could be made to pay, and in a happy moment of inspiration composed the advertisement that sealed Belinda's fate. And then commenced the adventuress life again on the Continent—the adventuress life, but with a difference !
Earnest English people, pious English people, all English people, as far as the writer has personally known or heard of, like to be connected with anything that is connected with an earl. Miss Burke liked exceedingly to be connected with the Earl of Liskeard's granddaughter, although, from the first moment Belinda's eyes looked her hollow soul through, she disliked the society of the child herself.
“The Honourable Belinda O'Shea and Miss Burke.” So, during the early days of their wanderings, she invariably caused their names to be written in hotel books or on continental church lists, despite all Belinda's angry protests against the imposture. If they travelled in the same railway carriage with an Englishman, if they sat opposite an Englishman at breakfast or dinner, Miss Burke always contrived to trade upon him with her small companion's birth and parentage, and, with singularly few exceptions, found the venture answer. Belinda remembers still — bitterly, chokingly remembers—dinners and drives and theatre tickets presented to them, at that period, by chance table-d’hôte acquaintance, and of which she now knows her poor little forlorn aristocratic society must have been the price. Facts proving two things, reader: first, that Miss Burke had inborn aptitude for the
money-raising or adventuress craft ; secondly, that there are men in the world who will pay to shake hands with an earl's granddaughter, just as others will pay to see General Tom Thumb or the Twoheaded Nightingale.
As time went on, Belinda, it need hardly be said, turned rebellious on this as on most other points. “I am not an honourable, and I will not havo you write me down as one, madam. The earl, my grandpapa, has never seen me, does not mean to see me, does not acknowledge my existence. If you bring in his name before any of these commis-voyageurs again, I will tell them the truth.”
And Miss Burke knew the sturdy, nothing-fearing nature of her charge too well to risk the experiment.
They never came to open or violent rupture. Belinda's money stood between Miss Burke and want. Miss Burke stood between Belinda and her stepmother. They detested each other, were necessary to each other, kept together. Is not a good half of the world for ever performing that same duo in this queer comedy of errors, this jamble of mistaken enforced companionships, that we call society ?
“ Poor little Belinda is so curiously frivolous, so thoroughly, constitutionally devoid of all seriousness of purpose,” Miss Burke explains, whenever the subject seems to require self-extenuation. “But her health being delicate, her papa and mamma both in an early grave, I try to reconcile the out-of-door life she leads to my conscience.”
“Burke is the out-and-outest impostor that ever walked,” Belinda will say to her gamin friends. “I saw Tartuffe at the play once, and, by Heaven, he was nothing to her! What is she an impostor for ? If I knew that I might detest her less. I believe the creature is false to her own conscience. I believe she dreams lies.”
So things have gone on until they are as we see them now: Miss Burke collecting ideas for her new great work on social reform, 'The Woman of the Future ;' Belinda running wild, neglected, as nearly on the road to ruin as was ever innocent, honest, little human soul, about the streets of St. Jean de Luz. The practical at war with the ideal, as we so often find to be the case in this imperfect world.
Nothing can be blander than the meeting between Belinda's stepmamma and her preceptress. Miss Burke has held religiously to the letter of the bargain sealed between them in London, has kept the girl conveniently out of Rosie's way during the past three years. Rosie has held to hers; each quarterly payment for maternal watchfulness and superior intellectual culture has been paid, in advance, without a question. They begin to talk platitudes. Rose thinks dear Belinda grown, though a little sunburnt. Miss Burke trusts dear Mrs. O'Shea has overcome the fatigues of travelling. A very wearying journey from London to St.-Jean de Luz.
“Yes, indeed, especially when one is travelling alone with one's
maid,” cries Rose, sensitive ever as to the smaller proprieties, and virtuously conscious that she only “met” Roger Temple in Paris, Bordeaux, and elsewhere. “One does feel so miserably helpless without a gentleman.”
“Well, for my part, I see no use in them whatever,” says Miss Burke. “When you are alone you have nothing but your luggage to look after. When you are burdened with a man,” this with a depreciatory glance in the direction of Roger, “ you have to look after him and your things too.”
My things !” exclaims Belinda, in her mocking voice. “ Well, Miss Burke, in the present state of affairs my 'things' would not require much looking after, with a man, or without one. know, ma'am," seriously, “ the washerwoman says there is really nothing more of mine for her to bring back? The last remaining tatters I had have vanished-carried away by the birds, I suppose, to build their nests."
She perches herself in her accustomed favourite place, the corner of the table, and looks round cheerfully on the company, as she volunteers this information. A cold glitter comes into Burke's eye.
“ You are almost of an age, I must say, Miss O'Shea, to begin to care for order. No achievement in life can be ever made without order. When I was seventeen I had no greater delight than in the neat arrangement of my wardrobe.”
“But I have no wardrobe to keep neat, ma'am. Wardrobe! Why, this is my only frock; and as to stock
“ Belinda, my dear Belinda, you forget. Another time,” interrupts Rose, colouring. “What have you been doing with yourself to-day, my love ? And last night. Did Mr. Jones see you safe home? I had a note from him this morning, saying he had gone off to the mountains, and that I must ask you for particulars. Now, what does it all mean ?”
She frisks over like a little lambkin to her stepdaughter's side, and, putting her arm round her waist-Belinda holding herself uncompromisingly stiff under the caress-begins to gush and titter, schoolgirl fashion, in her ear. Miss Burke and Roger are thus left to make conversation for each other.
“A very interesting country this, sir,” observes the lady, looking -sourly at Roger's handsome face. Sourly? Oh, Miss Burke ! You who, fifteen years ago, could look at no man without a melting smile! But such are the results of Earnestness. “Interesting, I mean, to those who visit it with a Purpose."
“Yes; I am told you get very fair snipe-shooting here in winter," answers Roger, who does not understand the argot of Miss Burke's sect.
“I speak of the inhabitants, sunk now in superstition, but the remnants of a noble race. You are, perhaps, not aware that the
Basque has outlived five distinct peoples—the Carthaginians, Celts, Romans, Goths, and Saracens ?”
(“Murray,” says Belinda, in a stage whisper. “·Introductory Remarks on the Pyrenees,' page two hundred and forty-nine.")
Roger strokes his moustache and tries to look edified. “The Basque must certainly be very old,” he begins, foolishly.
“But the work that I am engaged on at present—the work that, indeed, fills every moment of my time, is the search of illustration. You have perhaps heard, through Miss O'Shea, that I am writing a book ? No? I might have guessed as much. Miss O'Shea's interests do not lie in the direction of my own. A book entitled 'The Woman of the Future.' I am a labourer, sir, though a humble one, in the greatest reformation of our day-the work of restoring Woman to the pedestal from whence the blinded prejudices of centuries have dethroned her.”
“Ah, yes,” says Roger, in no very enthusiastic tone, and glancing, as he speaks, at the patches where darns ought to be on Belinda's stockings. “For my part,” he adds gallantly, “ I cannot see that any reformation is needed. It seems to me that women are exceedingly charming as they are.'
“As the Turk, as the Debased Asiatic thinks of bis slaves !" cries Miss Burke. “The age has past, sir, for such cheap chivalry. Do you, an Englishman, actually advance the proposition that “to be charming' is a fit motive for an immortal being's existence ?"
“The most charming women appear to me to be so without any motive at all,” says Roger, mentally measuring the distance between his adversary and the door. “But I am really the worst fellow living at an argument."
“Oh! that is a very easy way of escape. It is perfectly evident to what cynical school you belong-the surface light in which you regard our sex! Can you solemnly affirm, sirI ask it with the earnestness the subject requires—that you do not look upon us as Toys ?"
Thus put, as it were, upon oath, Roger Temple considers Miss Burke's personal attractions more closely than he has yet done the thin cold features, the glistening eyes, the watch-spring figure. He feels that he does not, that in his wildest moments he never could look upon her in the obnoxious light she deprecates, and with a perfectly clear conscience answers, "No."
Then may I ask what do you look upon us as ?” says Burke, pitilessly.
Roger not only measures the distance between himself and the door, he rises to his feet. He has been held a brave soldier in action, a hardy sportsman in the field; but he is horribly afraid of Miss Lydia Burke.
"I–I really beg pardon—but I have usually looked upon women as women,” he answers, humbly.