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Part 1 Chapter 11 In which Philip is Very ILL-Tempered

Philip had long divined a part of his dear little friend’s history. An uneducated young girl had been found, cajoled, deserted by a gentleman of the world. And poor Caroline was the victim, and Philip’s own father the seducer. He easily guessed as much as this of the sad little story. Dr. Firmin’s part in it was enough to shock his son with a thrill of disgust, and to increase the mistrust, doubt, alienation, with which the father had long inspired the son. What would Philip feel, when all the pages of that dark book were opened to him, and he came to hear of a false marriage, and a ruined and outcast woman, deserted for years by the man to whom he himself was most bound? In a word, Philip had considered this as a mere case of early libertinism, and no more: and it was as such, in the very few words which he may have uttered to me respecting this matter, that he had chosen to regard it. I knew no more than my friend had told me of the story as yet; it was only by degrees that I learned it, and as events, now subsequent, served to develop and explain it.

The elder Firmin, when questioned by his old acquaintance, and, as it appeared, accomplice of former days, regarding the end of a certain intrigue at Margate, which had occurred some four or five and twenty years back, and when Firmin, having reason to avoid his college creditors, chose to live away and bear a false name, had told the clergyman a number of falsehoods, which appeared to satisfy him. What had become of that poor little thing about whom he had made such a fool of himself? Oh, she was dead, dead ever so many years before. He had pensioned her off. She had married, and died in Canada — yes, in Canada. Poor little thing! Yes, she was a good little thing, and, at one time, he had been very soft about her. I am sorry to have to state of a respectable gentleman, that he told lies, and told lies habitually and easily. But, you see, if you commit a crime, and break a seventh commandment let us say, or an eighth, or choose any number you will — you will probably have to back the lie of action by the lie of the tongue, and so you are fairly warned, and I have no help for you. If I murder a man, and the policeman inquires, “Pray, sir, did you cut this here gentleman’s throat?” I must bear false witness, you see, out of self-defence, though I may be naturally a most reliable, truth-telling man. And so with regard to many crimes which gentlemen commit — it is painful to have to say respecting gentlemen, but they become neither more nor less than habitual liars, and have to go lying on through life to you, to me, to the servants, to their wives, to their children, to — oh, awful name! I bow and humble myself. May we kneel, may we kneel, nor strive to speak our falsehoods before Thee!

And so, my dear sir, seeing that after committing any infraction of the moral laws, you must tell lies in order to back yourself out of your scrape, let me ask you, as a man of honour and a gentleman, whether you had not better forego the crime, so as to avoid the unpleasant, and daily-recurring necessity of the subsequent perjury? A poor young girl of the lower orders, cajoled, or ruined, more or less, is of course no great matter. The little baggage is turned out of doors — worse luck for her — or she gets a place, or she marries one of her own class, who does not care to remember bygones, — and there is an end of her. But if you marry her privately and irregularly yourself, and then throw her off, and then marry somebody else, you are brought to book in all sorts of unpleasant ways. I am writing of quite an old story, be pleased to remember. The first part of the history, I myself printed some twenty years ago; and if you fancy I allude to any more modern period, madam, you are entirely out in your conjecture.

It must have been a most unpleasant duty for a man of fashion, honour, and good family, to lie to a poor tipsy, disreputable bankrupt merchant’s daughter, such as Caroline Gann; but George Brand Firmin, Esq., M.D., had no other choice, and when he lied, — as in severe cases, when he administered calomel — he thought it best to give the drug freely. Thus he lied to Hunt, saying that Mrs. Brandon was long since dead in Canada; and he lied to Caroline, prescribing for her the very same pill, as it were, and saying that Hunt was long since dead in Canada too. And I can fancy few more painful and humiliating positions for a man of rank and fashion and reputation, than to have to demean himself so far as to tell lies to a little low-bred person, who gets her bread as nurse of the sick, and has not the proper use of her h’s .

“Oh, yes, Hunt!” Firmin had said to the Little Sister, in one of those sad little colloquies which sometimes took place between him and his victim, his wife of old days. “A wild, bad man, Hunt was — in days when I own I was little better! I have deeply repented since, Caroline; of nothing more than of my conduct to you; for you were worthy of a better fate, and you loved me truly — madly.”

“Yes,” says Caroline.

“I was wild, then! I was desperate! I had ruined my fortunes, estranged my father from me, was hiding from my creditors under an assumed name — that under which I saw you. Ah, why did I ever come to your house, my poor child? The mark of the demon was upon me. I did not dare to speak of marriage before my father. You have yours, and tend him with your ever constant goodness. Do you know that my father would not see me when he died? Oh, it’s a cruel thing to think of!” And the suffering creature slaps his tall forehead with his trembling hand; and some of his grief about his own father, I dare say, is sincere, for he feels the shame and remorse of being alienated from his own son.

As for the marriage — that it was a most wicked and unjustifiable deceit, he owned; but he was wild when it took place, wild with debt and with despair at his father’s estrangement from him — but the fact was, it was no marriage.

“I am glad of that!” sighed the poor Little Sister.

“Why?” asked the other eagerly. His love was dead, but his vanity was still hale and well. “Did you care for somebody else, Caroline? Did you forget your George, whom you used to — ”

“No!” said the little woman, bravely. “But I couldn’t live with a man who behaved to any woman so dishonest as you behaved to me. I liked you because I thought you was a gentleman. My poor painter was, whom you used to despise and trample to hearth — and my dear, dear Philip is, Mr. Firmin. But gentlemen tell the truth! Gentlemen don’t deceive poor innocent girls, and desert ’em without a penny!”

“Caroline! I was driven by my creditors. I— ”

“Never mind. It’s over now. I bear you no malice, Mr. Firmin, but I wouldn’t marry you, no, not to be doctor’s wife to the queen!”

This had been the Little Sister’s language when there was no thought of the existence of Hunt, the clergyman who had celebrated their marriage; and I don’t know whether Firmin was most piqued or pleased at the divorce which the little woman pronounced of her own decree. But when the ill-omened Hunt made his appearance, doubts and terrors filled the physician’s mind. Hunt was needy, greedy, treacherous, unscrupulous, desperate. He could hold this marriage over the doctor. He could threaten, extort, expose, perhaps invalidate Philip’s legitimacy. The first marriage, almost certainly, was null, but the scandal would be fatal to Firmin’s reputation and practice. And the quarrel with his son entailed consequences not pleasant to think of. You see George Firmin, Esq., M.D., was a man with a great development of the back head; when he willed a thing, he willed it so fiercely that he must have it, never mind the consequences. And so he had willed to make himself master of poor little Caroline: and so he had willed, as a young man, to have horses, splendid entertainments, roulette and écarté, and so forth; and the bill came at its natural season, and George Firmin, Esq., did not always like to pay. But for a grand, prosperous, highly-bred gentleman in the best society — with a polished forehead and manners, and universally looked up to — to have to tell lies to a poor little timid, un-complaining, sick-room nurse, it was humiliating, wasn’t it? And I can feel for Firmin.

To have to lie to Hunt was disgusting: but somehow not so exquisitely mean and degrading as to have to cheat a little trusting, humble, houseless creature, over the bloom of whose gentle young life his accursed foot had already trampled. But then this Hunt was such a cad and ruffian that there need be no scruple about humbugging him; and if Firmin had had any humour he might have had a grim sort of pleasure in leading the dirty clergyman a dance thoro’ bush thoro’ briar. So, perhaps (of course I have no means of ascertaining the fact), the doctor did not altogether dislike the duty which now devolved on him of hoodwinking his old acquaintance and accomplice. I don’t like to use such a vulgar phrase regarding a man in Doctor Firmin’s high social position, as to say of him and the gaol-chaplain that it was “thief catch thief;” but at any rate Hunt is such a low, graceless, friendless vagabond, that if he comes in for a few kicks, or is mystified, we need not be very sorry. When Mr. Thurtell is hung we don’t put on mourning. His is a painful position for the moment; but, after all, he has murdered Mr. William Weare.

Firmin was a bold and courageous man, hot in pursuit, fierce in desire, but cool in danger, and rapid in action. Some of his great successes as a physician arose from his daring and successful practice in sudden emergency. While Hunt was only lurching about the town an aimless miscreant, living from dirty hand to dirty mouth, and as long as he could get drink, cards, and shelter, tolerably content, or at least pretty easily appeased by a guinea-dose or two — Firmin could adopt the palliative system; soothe his patient with an occasional bounty; set him to sleep with a composing draught of claret or brandy; and let the day take care of itself. He might die; he might have a fancy to go abroad again; he might be transported for forgery or some other rascaldom, Dr. Firmin would console himself; and he trusted to the chapter of accidents to get rid of his friend. But Hunt, aware that the woman was alive whom he had actually, though unlawfully, married to Firmin, became an enemy whom it was necessary to subdue, to cajole, or to bribe, and the sooner the doctor put himself on his defence the better. What should the defence be? Perhaps the most effectual was a fierce attack on the enemy; perhaps it would be better to bribe him. The course to be taken would be best ascertained after a little previous reconnoitring.

“He will try and inflame Caroline,” the doctor thought, “by representing her wrongs and her rights to her. He will show her that, as my wife, she has a right to my name and a share of my income. A less mercenary woman never lived than this poor little creature. She disdains money, and, except for her father’s sake, would have taken none of mine. But to punish me for certainly rather shabby behaviour; to claim and take her own right and position in the world as an honest woman, may she not be induced to declare war against me, and stand by her marriage? After she left home, her two Irish half-sisters deserted her and spat upon her; and when she would have returned, the heartless women drove her from the door. Oh, the vixens! And now to drive by them in her carriage, to claim a maintenance from me, and to have a right to my honourable name, would she not have her dearest revenge over her sisters by so declaring her marriage?”

Firmin’s noble mind misgave him very considerably on this point. He knew women, and how those had treated their little sister. Was it in human nature not to be revenged? These thoughts rose straightway in Firmin’s mind, when he heard that the much dreaded meeting between Caroline and the chaplain had come to pass.

As he ate his dinner with his guest, his enemy, opposite to him, he was determining on his plan of action. The screen was up, and he was laying his guns behind it, so to speak. Of course he was as civil to Hunt as the tenant to his landlord when he comes with no rent. So the doctor laughed, joked, bragged, talked his best, and was thinking the while what was to be done against the danger.

He had a plan which might succeed. He must see Caroline immediately. He knew the weak point of her heart, and where she was most likely to be vulnerable. And he would act against her as barbarians of old acted against their enemies, when they brought the captive wives and children in front of the battle, and bade the foe strike through them. He knew how Caroline loved his boy. It was through that love he would work upon her. As he washes his pretty hands for dinner, and bathes his noble brow, he arranges his little plan. He orders himself to be sent for soon after the second bottle of claret — and it appears the doctor’s servants were accustomed to the delivery of these messages from their master to himself. The plan arranged, now let us take our dinner and our wine, and make ourselves comfortable until the moment of action. In his wild-oats days, when travelling abroad with wild and noble companions, Firmin had fought a duel or two, and was always remarkable for his gaiety of conversation and the fine appetite which he showed at breakfast before going on to the field. So, perhaps, Hunt, had he not been stupefied by previous drink, might have taken the alarm by remarking Firmin’s extra courtesy and gaiety, as they dined together. It was nunc vinum, cras ?quor.

When the second bottle of claret was engaged, Dr. Firmin starts. He has an advance of half-an-hour at least on his adversary, or on the man who may be his adversary. If the Little Sister is at home, he will see her — he will lay bare his candid heart to her, and make a clean breast of it. The Little Sister was at home.

“I want to speak to you very particularly about that case of poor Lady Humandhaw,” says he, dropping his voice.

“I will step out, my dear, and take a little fresh air,” says Captain Gann; meaning that he will be off to the “Admiral Byng;” and the two are together.

“I have had something on my conscience. I have deceived you, Caroline,” says the doctor, with the beautiful shining forehead and hat.

“Ah, Mr. Firmin,” says she, bending over her work; “you’ve used me to that.”

“A man whom you knew once, and who tempted me for his own selfish ends to do a very wrong thing by you — a man whom I thought dead is alive:— Tufton Hunt, who performed that — that illegal ceremony at Margate, of which so often and often on my knees I have repented, Caroline!”

The beautiful hands are clasped, the beautiful deep voice thrills lowly through the room; and if a tear or two can be squeezed out of the beautiful eyes, I daresay the doctor will not be sorry.

“He has been here to-day. Him and Mr. Philip was here and quarrelled. Philip has told you, I suppose, sir?”

“Before heaven, on the word of a gentleman, when I said he was dead, Caroline, I thought he was dead! Yes, I declare, at our college, Maxwell — Dr. Maxwell — who had been at Cambridge with us, told me that our old friend Hunt had died in Canada.” (This, my beloved friends and readers, may not have been the precise long bow which George Firmin, Esq., M.D., pulled; but that he twanged a famous lie out, whenever there was occasion for the weapon, I assure you is an undoubted fact.) “Yes, Dr. Maxwell told me our old friend was dead. Our old friend? My worst enemy and yours! But let that pass. It was he, Caroline, who led me into crimes which I have never ceased to deplore.”

“Ah, Mr. Firmin,” sighs the Little Sister, “since I’ve known you, you was big enough to take care of yourself in that way.”

“I have not come to excuse myself, Caroline,” says the deep sweet voice. “I have done you enough wrong, and I feel it here — at this heart. I have not come to speak about myself, but of some one I love the best of all the world — the only being I do love — some one you love, you good and generous soul — about Philip.”

“What is it about Philip?” asks Mrs. Brandon, very quickly.

“Do you want harm to happen to him?”

“Oh, my darling boy, no!” cries the Little Sister, clasping her little hands.

“Would you keep him from harm?”

“Ah, sir, you know I would. When he had the scarlet fever, didn’t I pour the drink down his poor throat, and nurse him, and tend him, as if, as if — as a mother would her own child?”

“You did, you did, you noble, noble woman; and heaven bless you for it! A father does. I am not all heartless, Caroline, as you deem me, perhaps.”

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