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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Serio-comic Governess - Chapter 20
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The Serio-comic Governess - Chapter 20 Post by :blakekr Category :Long Stories Author :Israel Zangwill Date :May 2012 Read :1916

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The Serio-comic Governess - Chapter 20

CHAPTER XX

Eileen slept little. The dramatic possibilities of the interview with Colonel Doherty were too agitating and too numerous. This time the marionette-play needed writing. Who should receive him when he called? Eileen O'Keeffe or Nelly O'Neill?

Either possibility offered exquisite comedy.

Eileen--as plain as possible--with a high, black dress, drooped lids, stiffly brushed hair, even eyeglasses perhaps, with a deportment redolent of bread-and-butter and five-finger exercises, could perhaps disenchant him sufficiently to make him moderate his matrimonial ardour, even to hurry off apologetically to his serio-comic Circe round the corner. What a triumph of acting if she could drive him to her rival! Then as he went through the door--to loosen her hair, throw off her glasses and whistle him back to Nelly O'Neill!

The part was tempting; it bristled with opportunities. But it was also too trying. He might begin by taking lover's liberties, and the strain of repulsing him would be too great. Besides, she wasn't clear how to play the opening of the scene. But then there was another star part open to her.

Nelly O'Neill's _role was much easier: it played itself. She had only to go on with the episode. And the way the episode went on would also serve to determine finally her attitude when the moment came to throw off the mask and turn to governess. The only difficult moment would be the first--to obfuscate him immediately with the notion that he had mixed up the two addresses. Even if she failed and he realised his ghastlier blunder, it would only precipitate the dramatic duel which she must face sooner or later. All these high-strung possibilities deadened the horrible pain she knew her soul held for her, as soldiers carry wounds to be felt when the charge is over. She fell asleep near morning, her battle planned, and slept late, a sleep full of strange dreams, in one of which her drunken father counted her, and couldn't decide how many she was. "It's two I am, father asthore, only two, Eileen and Nelly," she kept crying. But he counted on.

Towards four in the afternoon she posted herself at the window. It was absolutely necessary to the comedy that she should open the door to him herself. At last a cab containing him halted at the door. She flew down, just supplanting the butler.

"How good of you, Colonel!" she cried. "But where is the Major?"

It was exquisitely calculated. She had pulled the string and the marionette moved with precision. A daze, a flash, a stammer--all the embarrassment of a man who believes that in a day-dream he has given a second address first.

"Miss--Miss O'Neill," he stuttered, mechanically removing his hat.

"Nelly to my friends," she smiled fascinatingly. "Come in!" Christopher Sly was not more bewildered when he opened his eyes on the glories of his Court.

"What--what is this address?" he blurted, as she prisoned him by closing the door.

"Why?... Oh, I know. Ha! ha! ha! You've come to the Crescent instead of the Terrace."

"That confounded cabman! I'm sure I told him the Terrace."

"Don't swear. He's more accustomed to the Crescent. So many pros coming home late, and all that!"

He hesitated at the foot of the stairs. "I really think I ought to call there first...."

Now all the coquette in Nelly O'Neill rose to detain him, subtly tangled with the actress. She pouted adorably. "Oh, now you're here, can't you put her second for once?"

"I didn't say it was a _her_."

"A she," corrected the governess, instinctively. Nelly hastened to add, "No man leaves a woman for a man."

"This is such an old appointment," he pleaded in distress.

"I see. You want to be off with the old love before you are on with the new."

"Nothing of the kind, I assure you."

"What! Not even the new?"

"Oh, that part!" He smiled and followed her up. "You won't mind my going soon?"

"The sooner the better if you talk like that!" She threw open the door of her little sitting-room. How well the Show was going!

"A soda and whisky, Colonel? I suppose that's your idea of tea." She had the scene ready. She had got it all up like a little play, writing down the articles on a sheet of paper headed "Property List": "Cigars, cigarettes, syphons, spirits, sporting-papers," all borrowed from Master Harold Lee Carter to entertain a visitor.

But at the height of the play's prosperity, while the Colonel clinked tumblers with Nelly, came a _contretemps_, and all the farce darkened swiftly to drama as the gay landscape is overgloomed by a thundercloud.

It all came from Mrs. Lee Carter's benevolent fussiness, her interest in the man who had come to marry her governess. A servant knocked at the door, stuck her head in, and said, "Mrs. Lee Carter's compliments, and would you like some tea?"

"No, thank you," said Eileen, hurriedly.

But as the door closed, the Colonel's glass fell to the ground, and he rose to his feet. His bronzed face was working wildly.

"Mrs. Lee Carter!" he gasped. "You--you are Eileen!"

"Here's a mess," she said coolly, stooping to wipe up the carpet.

"Eileen! Explain!" he said piteously.

"It's you that ought to be explaining. I've all I can do to pick up the nasty little bits of glass."

"My brain reels. Who _are you? What _are you? For God's sake."

"Hush! Who are _you_? What are _you_?"

"I know what I was--your lover."

"Whose? Mine or Nelly's?"

"Good God, Eileen! You saw how anxious I was to get to you. That I was subtly drawn to Nelly is only a proof of how you were in my blood. But you're not really Nelly O'Neill. This is some stupid practical joke. Don't torture me longer."

"It tortures you that I should be Nelly O' Neill!" All the confessed sweetness of her position came up into clear consciousness: the lights, the laughter, the very smell of the smoke endeared by a thousand triumphs. How dared he speak of Nelly O'Neill as though she couldn't be touched with a pitchfork! Yes, and Bob Maper, too--her anger ricocheted to him--with his priggish notions of saving her from black bogs! And who was it that now stood over her like a fuddled accusing angel? She pulled out his letter and read viciously:--


"'A night of memories and of sighs
I consecrate to thee.'"

"I was dying to rush to you--you wouldn't see me. And the Major dragged me--"

"Through all that mud? All those Indian escapades?"

He groaned, "And you listened--!"

"Am I not your mother-confessor?"

He seized her by the wrists. "Don't madden me! You're not really on the Halls? You _are living here as governess. It is some prank, some masquerade! Say it is!" He shook her. She tried to wrest her hands away.

"Not till you tell me the truth! You haven't been lying to me all these months?"

A sudden remembrance came to give her strength and scorn. "I _have told you the truth, only my letter crossed you on the ocean. When it returns to England, you will see."

His grip relaxed, he staggered back. "Come," she said, pursuing her unforeseen advantage. "We will talk this thing over quietly. I always said you were in love with a shadow. But I find it was I who imagined a Bayard."

"And what have I done and said worse than other men?" Again Master Harold Lee Carter's complacent sentiment came to her. Men were all alike, only their women folk didn't know.

"Worse than other men!" She laughed bitterly. "I wanted you better--all the seven heavens better--saint as well as hero, with no thought but for me, and no one before me or after me. Oh, yes, it sounds a large order, but that's what we women want. Don't speak! I know what you're going to say. Skip me. Talk of yourself."

"You get what you want. The other's only make-believe. It passes like water from a duck's back. You women don't understand. The white fire of your purity cleanses us, and that is why we will have nothing less--"

"Ah, now you have skipped _to me. I'm not pretending there isn't an evil spirit in me to match yours. It split away from me and became Nelly O'Neill. You asked which I was? I am both. Here, I am a respectable governess. Let me ring for Mrs. Lee Carter. She'll give you my character. The white fire and all that." She pressed the bell.

"Don't be so absurd. Give me time to collect my senses."

"All right, pick up the pieces, while I collect these." She stooped over the bits of glass.

"But for Heaven's sake don't bring that woman into it--"

The door opened. "Yes, miss?"

"Another glass, please." The servant disappeared.

"I do hope you won't break this one. In what country is it that the bridegroom breaks a glass in the marriage ceremonial? Oh, yes, I remember. Fossy told me. Among the Jews. There's a lot in the profession. Not that it's such a marrying profession. And to think I might have been a regular bride! But I've lost you, my dear boy, hero of a hundred hill-fights, I _know it--and the moment you've picked your little bits of senses together, you'll know it, too. Alas, we shall never go tiger-hunting together.


"'A night of memories and of sighs
I consecrate to thee.'"

"I don't say I won't keep my promise," he said sulkily.

"Your promise! Hoity toity! Upon my word! I'm no breach-of-promise lady--Chops and tomato sauce indeed! I recognise that we could never marry. There would always be that between us!"

Her fascination gripped him in proportion as she let him go.

"I don't know that I should mind if nobody really knows," he began.

"You! It's I that would mind. And I really know. Could I marry a man who had told me smoking-room stories? No, Eileen is done with you. Good-by!"

"Good-by? No, I can't go. I can't face the emptiness. You've filled me and fooled me with love all these weeks. Good God! Do you owe me nothing?"

"I leave you something--Nelly O'Neill! Go and see her. Now you're off with the old love. You mark what a prophetess I was. Nelly'll receive you very differently. No cant of superiority. You'll be just a pair of jolly good fellows. You'll sit up drinking whisky together and yarning anecdotes. No uncomfortable pretences; no black bog posing as white fire; no driven snow business, London snow nicely trodden, in. And the tales of the world you tell me--how useful they'll come in for stage-patter! Oh, we shall be happy enough! We can still pick up the pieces!"

"Eileen! Eileen! you will drive me mad. What do you mean? You know I could never have a wife on the Halls. It would ruin me in the clubs, it would--"

"In the clubs! Ha! ha! ha! Every member of which would be delighted to have tea with me! But who's proposing to you a wife on the Halls? You said I owed you myself, and it's true, but you don't suppose I could _marry a man I didn't respect? I told you we're not a marrying profession. Come, let's kiss and be friends."

He drew back as in horror. "No, no, Eileen, I respect you too much for that."

She looked at him long and curiously. "Yes, the sexes don't understand each other. Well, good-by. I almost could marry you, after all. But I'm too wise. Please go. I have a headache and it is quite possible I shall scream. Good-by, dear. I was never more than a phantom to you--a boyish memory, and a bad one at that. Don't you know you gave me a pair of black eyes? Good-by: you'll marry a dear, sweet girl in white muslin who'll never know. God bless you."

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