Mr Cosway and the Landlady Page 01
MR. COSWAY AND THE LANDLADY.
THE guests would have enjoyed their visit to Sir Peter's country house--but for Mr. Cosway. And to make matters worse, it was not Mr. Cosway but the guests who were to blame. They repeated the old story of Adam and Eve, on a larger scale. The women were the first sinners; and the men were demoralized by the women.
Mr. Cosway's bitterest enemy could not have denied that he was a handsome, well-bred, unassuming man. No mystery of any sort attached to him. He had adopted the Navy as a profession--had grown weary of it after a few years' service--and now lived on the moderate income left to him, after the death of his parents. Out of this unpromising material the lively imaginations of the women built up a romance. The men only noticed that Mr. Cosway was rather silent and thoughtful; that he was not ready with his laugh; and that he had a fancy for taking long walks by himself. Harmless peculiarities, surely? And yet, they excited the curiosity of the women as signs of a mystery in Mr. Cosway's past life, in which some beloved object unknown must have played a chief part.
As a matter of course, the influence of the sex was tried, under every indirect and delicate form of approach, to induce Mr. Cosway to open his heart, and tell the tale of his sorrows. With perfect courtesy, he baffled curiosity, and kept his supposed secret to himself. The most beautiful girl in the house was ready to offer herself and her fortune as consolations, if this impenetrable bachelor would only have taken her into his confidence. He smiled sadly, and changed the subject.
Defeated so far, the women accepted the next alternative.
One of the guests staying in the house was Mr. Cosway's intimate friend--formerly his brother-officer on board ship. This gentleman was now subjected to the delicately directed system of investigation which had failed with his friend. With unruffled composure he referred the ladies, one after another, to Mr. Cosway. His name was Stone. The ladies decided that his nature was worthy of his name.
The last resource left to our fair friends was to rouse the dormant interest of the men, and to trust to the confidential intercourse of the smoking-room for the enlightenment which they had failed to obtain by other means.
In the accomplishment of this purpose, the degree of success which rewarded their efforts was due to a favoring state of affairs in the house. The shooting was not good for much; the billiard-table was under repair; and there were but two really skilled whist-players among the guests. In the atmosphere of dullness thus engendered, the men not only caught the infection of the women's curiosity, but were even ready to listen to the gossip of the servants' hall, repeated to their mistresses by the ladies' maids. The result of such an essentially debased state of feeling as this was not slow in declaring itself. But for a lucky accident, Mr. Cosway would have discovered to what extremities of ill-bred curiosity idleness and folly can lead persons holding the position of ladies and gentlemen, when he joined the company at breakfast on the next morning.
The newspapers came in before the guests had risen from the table. Sir Peter handed one of them to the lady who sat on his right hand.
She first looked, it is needless to say, at the list of births, deaths, and marriages; and then she turned to the general news--the fires, accidents, fashionable departures, and so on. In a few minutes, she indignantly dropped the newspaper in her lap.
"Here is another unfortunate man," she exclaimed, "sacrificed to the stupidity of women! If I had been in his place, I would have used my knowledge of swimming to save myself, and would have left the women to go to the bottom of the river as they deserved!"
"A boat accident, I suppose?" said Sir Peter.
"Oh yes--the old story. A gentleman takes two ladies out in a boat. After a while they get fidgety, and feel an idiotic impulse to change places. The boat upsets as usual; the poor dear man tries to save them--and is drowned along with them for his pains. Shameful! shameful!"
"Are the names mentioned?"
"Yes. They are all strangers to me; I speak on principle." Asserting herself in those words, the indignant lady handed the newspaper to Mr. Cosway, who happened to sit next to her. "When you were in the navy," she continued, "I dare say your life was put in jeopardy by taking women in boats. Read it yourself, and let it be a warning to you for the future."
Mr. Cosway looked at the narrative of the accident--and revealed the romantic mystery of his life by a burst of devout exclamation, expressed in the words:
"Thank God, my wife's drowned!"
To declare that Sir Peter and his guests were all struck speechless, by discovering in this way that Mr. Cosway was a married man, is to say very little. The general impression appeared to be that he was mad. His neighbors at the table all drew back from him, with the one exception of his friend. Mr. Stone looked at the newspaper: pressed Mr. Cosway's hand in silent sympathy--and addressed himself to his host.
"Permit me to make my friend's apologies," he said, until he is composed enough to act for himself. The circumstances are so extraordinary that I venture to think they excuse him. Will you allow us to speak to you privately?"
Sir Peter, with more apologies addressed to his visitors, opened the door which communicated with his study. Mr. Stone took Mr. Cosway's arm, and led him out of the room. He noticed no one, spoke to no one--he moved mechanically, like a man walking in his sleep.
After an unendurable interval of nearly an hour's duration, Sir Peter returned alone to the breakfast-room. Mr. Cosway and Mr. Stone had already taken their departure for London, with their host's entire approval.
"It is left to my discretion " Sir Peter proceeded, "to repeat to you what I have heard in my study. I will do so, on one condition--that you all consider yourselves bound in honor not to mention the true names and the real places, when you tell the story to others."
Subject to this wise reservation, the narrative is here repeated by one of the company.