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Chapter 24 Barbara

Another shock was waiting for me farther down the story, for we had resumed our adventures, though we seldom saw Bailey now. At long intervals we met him on our way to or from the Gardens, and, if there was none from Pilkington’s to mark him, methought he looked at us somewhat longingly, as if beneath his real knickerbockers a morsel of egg-shell still adhered. Otherwise he gave David a not unfriendly kick in passing, and called him “youngster”. That was about all.

When Oliver disappeared from the life of the Gardens we had lofted him out of the story, and did very well without him, extending our operations to the mainland, where they were on so vast a scale that we were rapidly depopulating the earth. And then said David one day,

“Shall we let Barbara in?”

We had occasionally considered the giving of Bailey’s place to some other child of the Gardens, divers of David’s year having sought election, even with bribes; but Barbara was new to me.

“Who is she?” I asked.

“She’s my sister.”

You may imagine how I gaped.

“She hasn’t come yet,” David said lightly, “but she’s coming.”

I was shocked, not perhaps so much shocked as disillusioned, for though I had always suspicioned Mary A---- as one who harboured the craziest ambitions when she looked most humble, of such presumption as this I had never thought her capable.

I wandered across the Broad Walk to have a look at Irene, and she was wearing an unmistakable air. It set me reflecting about Mary’s husband and his manner the last time we met, for though I have had no opportunity to say so, we still meet now and again, and he has even dined with me at the club. On these occasions the subject of Timothy is barred, and if by any unfortunate accident Mary’s name is mentioned, we immediately look opposite ways and a silence follows, in which I feel sure he is smiling, and wonder what the deuce he is smiling at. I remembered now that I had last seen him when I was dining with him at his club (for he is become member of a club of painter fellows, and Mary is so proud of this that she has had it printed on his card), when undoubtedly he had looked preoccupied. It had been the look, I saw now, of one who shared a guilty secret.

As all was thus suddenly revealed to me I laughed unpleasantly at myself, for, on my soul, I had been thinking well of Mary of late. Always foolishly inflated about David, she had been grudging him even to me during these last weeks, and I had forgiven her, putting it down to a mother’s love. I knew from the poor boy of unwonted treats she had been giving him; I had seen her embrace him furtively in a public place; her every act, in so far as they were known to me, had been a challenge to whoever dare assert that she wanted any one but David. How could I, not being a woman, have guessed that she was really saying good-bye to him?

Reader, picture to yourself that simple little boy playing about the house at this time, on the understanding that everything was gong on as usual. Have not his toys acquired a new pathos, especially the engine she bought him yesterday?

Did you look him in the face, Mary, as you gave him that engine? I envy you not your feelings, ma’am, when with loving arms he wrapped you round for it. That childish confidence of his to me, in which unwittingly he betrayed you, indicates that at last you have been preparing him for the great change, and I suppose you are capable of replying to me that David is still happy, and even interested. But does he know from you what it really means to him? Rather, I do believe, you are one who would not scruple to give him to understand that B (which you may yet find stands for Benjamin) is primarily a gift for him. In your heart, ma’am, what do you think of this tricking of a little boy?

Suppose David had known what was to happen before he came to you, are you sure he would have come? Undoubtedly there is an unwritten compact in such matters between a mother and her first-born, and I desire to point out to you that he never breaks it. Again, what will the other boys say when they know? You are outside the criticism of the Gardens, but David is not. Faith, madam, I believe you would have been kinder to wait and let him run the gauntlet at Pilkington’s.

You think your husband is a great man now because they are beginning to talk of his foregrounds and middle distances in the newspaper columns that nobody reads. I know you have bought him a velvet coat, and that he has taken a large, airy and commodious studio in Mews Lane, where you are to be found in a soft material on first and third Wednesdays. Times are changing, but shall I tell you a story here, just to let you see that I am acquainted with it?

Three years ago a certain gallery accepted from a certain artist a picture which he and his wife knew to be monstrous fine. But no one spoke of the picture, no one wrote of it, and no one made an offer for it. Crushed was the artist, sorry for the denseness of connoisseurs was his wife, till the work was bought by a dealer for an anonymous client, and then elated were they both, and relieved also to discover that I was not the buyer. he came to me at once to make sure of this, and remained to walk the floor gloriously as he told me what recognition means to gentlemen of the artistic callings. O, the happy boy!

But months afterward, rummaging at his home in a closet that is usually kept locked, he discovered the picture, there hidden away. His wife backed into a corner and made trembling confession. How could she submit to see her hear’s masterpiece ignored by the idiot public, and her dear himself plunged into gloom thereby? She knew as well as he (for had they not been married for years?) how the artistic instinct hungers for recognition, and so with her savings she bought the great work anonymously and stored it away in a closet. At first, I believe, the man raved furiously, but by-and-by he was on his knees at the feet of this little darling. You know who she was, Mary, but, bless me, I seem to be praising you, and that was not the enterprise on which I set out. What I intended to convey was that though you can now venture on small extravagances, you seem to be going too fast. Look at it how one may, this Barbara idea is undoubtedly a bad business.

How to be even with her? I cast about for a means, and on my lucky day I did conceive my final triumph over Mary, at which I have scarcely as yet dared to hint, lest by discovering it I should spoil my plot. For there has been a plot all the time.

For long I had known that Mary contemplated the writing of a book, my informant being David, who, because I have published a little volume on Military tactics, and am preparing a larger one on the same subject (which I shall never finish), likes to watch my methods of composition, how I dip, and so on, his desire being to help her. He may have d............

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