Beck Center English Dept. University Libraries Emory University
Emory Women Writers Resource Project Collections:
Women's Genre Fiction Project

A Spirit of Mirth, an electronic edition

by Peggy Webling [Webling, Peggy]

date: 1913
source publisher: Methuen & Co., Ltd.
collection: Genre Fiction

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JULES REVELL had long since made his peace with Euphrosyne. She forgave him readily enough, for no feeling of personal anger ever stayed in her mind, and when she found that he kept his promise by never repeating the indiscretion of the first night of his arrival she dismissed the incident from her mind.

Jules was no fool and possessed the quality, rare in a man of his type, of patience. He was self-controlled up to a certain point, but when that point was reached—to give the devil his due it did not often happen—he was emotional and violent, easily turned to good or evil—unnerved, another man.

He had unbounded belief in the ultimate attainment of any desire on which he really set his heart, and the manner of his self-blame, at occasional failure, only added to his colossal conceit.

"If I had worked harder or been more cunning I should have won!" he always said to himself. "When I exert the whole strength of my will it is irresistible."

His uncle liked him, for there was a touch of sincerity, if only a touch, in his enthusiasm over the subjects that solely interested Mr Revell, and it enabled him to play the part of modern ignorance, taking first lessons in antique learning, very convincingly.

Mrs Bird liked him, for if his jokes and stories lacked quality they had quantity to recommend them, and Jules made it a rule to be agreeable to every woman he came across.

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His secret attitude towards women, although he would never have confessed it, was one of contemptuous pity, mingled with never-satisfied curiosity.

Euphrosyne liked him, although she found, as at their first meeting, something oppressive in his strength and capability.

He was reticent about his home life, but apparently devoted to his Canadian mother, to whom he wrote every week, and inclined to disparage, when Mr Revell was not present, the English tastes and traits of his father. Jules judged all men by their physical strength, and his father was something of a weakling.

He was kind to Little Gus, who was too young and feeble in muscles to be worth considering as a man at all. Besides, he understood Phosie's affection for the boy, and never mistook it for more than friendship. He was troubled by no fine shades of jealousy. It was Phosie's love he was beginning to crave—love like his own, passionate and absorbing—not to share in her thoughts and fancies. Of course he admitted that they added to her charm, but her prettiness would have been none the less if she had been a stupid, unimaginative girl, Jules argued, and it was her beauty alone which attracted him.

He was a great talker, and quite unwittingly his new friends, Mr Revell, Phosie and Gus, spoilt him. The society of men of his own age, more especially of his own fighting weight, would have held his boastfulness in check.

Many of the stories of his own business successes were true. He was not reticent on his business affairs. At fifteen he had made up his mind not to go to school any longer, laughing at his father's arguments in favour of a college education, although he knew that the idea of his son graduating from one of the Canadian or American universities, Oxford or Cambridge being beyond his means, was a long-cherished dream of the exiled Englishman.

Jules's first employment had been in a store,but he soon | | 92 quarrelled with his master, owing to the latter's not unnatural objection to pertinent and impertinent criticism of his business methods. Then he worked in a soap factory for a few months, followed by a long period " on the road," as a commercial traveller, when he had the doubtful reputation of being known as "the coolest liar who ever slung dry goods."

His next venture was in partnership with a sharp American, with whom he drifted into the States, exploiting worthless articles in the shape of toilet accessories and patent medicines. This was a period of his career of which Jules rarely spoke, although, when the partnership was dissolved, he returned to his native town a fairly rich man. He was still under thirty, which perhaps accounts for the fact that he became stage-struck and toured an entertainment company of his own triumphantly through Ontario and the Lower Provinces of Canada.

It was with the profits from this tour, and what was left of his partnership money, that he was able to go to Europe for a holiday.

Phosie was greatly interested in the adventures of his little company. It was the only part of his life that really interested her, for she never forgot that her dear father had spent his boyhood in travelling companies.

Jules was easily persuaded to give her real and imaginary details.

One day, a couple of months after his first appearance at the quiet house in The Stroll, he found Euphrosyne alone. Mr Revell was at the Museum, and Little Gus had accompanied Mrs Bird to the ancestral halls of the Bird family in Peckham.

"Taking care of the house?" he asked, hanging up his soft felt hat and overcoat.

Then he turned and faced her, with his hands on his hips, his tremendous chest extended to its full breadth, and his fresh-coloured face glowing.

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"A new suit, Phosie!" he said. "What do you think of it? All right, eh?"

It was soft, rough grey serge, loose, but so well cut that it seemed to add to his height while lessening the thickness of his too heavily built frame. Phosie laid her first fingers lightly on his shoulders, and he let her twist him round.

"Millionairish!" she exclaimed. "It suits us to perfection. We always think ourselves very good-looking, but now we are simply irresistible!"

"No bluff, Phosie!" he protested, laughing. "Do you like it, straight? Does the shade suit me?"

"Do you mean your complexion?" asked Phosie, pretending to be very serious.

"Of course not! What does a man want with a complexion? Does it suit me as a whole? It doesn't make me look narrow-chested, does it?"

"That question is a little too transparent, my dear Jules!" she said. "I'm not going to pay you any compliments on your 'chest expansion,' or whatever you call it. When you puff yourself out like that you only look like a huge robin redbreast."

"Is that all you've got to say about it?" asked Jules.

"About the new suit? At present that's all. After I've recovered from the first dazzling effect I may be able to go into details," said Phosie.

"Well, I'm glad you like it," and he turned again to the hat-rack to take a packet of photographs out of his overcoat pocket. "Where are you sitting?"

"Downstairs. We never have a fire in the other rooms, you know."

She led the way into the darkness of the basement, and, kneeling down in front of the breakfast-room fire, stirred it into a blaze. Jules threw himself into Mr Revell's arm-chair, watching her. She stooped to look under the bars, her braid of thick hair falling over one shoulder and her face flushed in the heat.

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"How old are you, Phosie?" asked the young man, suddenly.

"The first bloom of youth is over! I shall never see seventeen again!" she answered, with a dramatic flourish of the tongs. Then she went on putting little tempting pieces of coal where the flames would catch them.

"What a shame it is!" said Jules, after a pause.

Phosie sat back on her heels, tongs in hand.

"What's a shame, Jules?"

"That you should be kept in prison."

"Whatever do you mean?"

He didn't answer for a minute, but took up an open book Phosie had been reading, glanced down the page curiously, looked at the title, and then threw it roughly on to the table.

"Macaulay's Essays!" he exclaimed contemptuously. "My word! What a shame! If my uncle enjoys being a fossil himself I don't see why he should try to fossilize a girl of eighteen. I think you live an awful life, Phosie, no pleasures, no friends, no change. You don't know what it is to be alive. You're treated like a child. Why, there are dozens of girls at your age who have already—"

He stopped abruptly and changed the sentence.

"You can't be content. It's impossible. I know my uncle's awfully good and all that sort of thing, but his time is over. He's forgotten his youth. He's like a dried old stick, with no sap in it. But you and I are both young. Everything is before us—everything worth having."

He bent forward eagerly, and Phosie still sat on her heels, smiling, and playing with the tongs. Her expression of amused interest at first excited, and then exasperated, her companion.

"What's the good of books and old crockery when you're eighteen?" he went on. "What's the good of living in a museum? The kind of life you lead is for old | | 95 men and worn-out women. Don't you realise that nothing matters—nothing really interests us in the world—but our personal joys and experiences? Reading's no good—talking's no good—it's life, it's action, it's love that matters."

He seized her hand and made an effort to draw her towards him, but Phosie instantly pulled herself away and rose to her feet.

"I will not let you hold my hand! I hate it. I hate to be touched! Will you ever understand that?" she said firmly and emphatically, with no air of offended dignity, but with unmistakable determination.

"Why are you so cruel and so absurd?" asked Jules, but he did not attempt to disobey her.

Her momentary seriousness was gone. She hung up the tongs on their little nail and sat down at the table.

"Now, Jules, you've been talking nonsense," she said, "and I don't want to hear any more of it. Where are the photographs you promised to show me?"

"I never met a girl like you!" he exclaimed. "You look so soft and gentle, but you're really a bit of flint. You hurt me a dozen times a week, and I—and I—"

He sprang up, and, throwing himself down beside her, tried to capture her hand again, saying all sorts of incoherent, passionate words. Not wholly sincere, or wholly playing a part, he knew the effect of mingled violence and tenderness on most women, and expected anything rather than what occurred.

If Phosie had been angry, or frightened, or even thrown herself recklessly into his arms, he would not have been so much surprised. But she suddenly laid both hands on his shoulders and gave him a smart, strong push. He was on one knee and the attack was unexpected. He swayed for a second, caught at the table to regain his balance, failed in the attempt, and rolled over sideways on to the floor.

It was not at all dignified and Phosie jumped up with a | | 96 shriek of laughter. Jules had bumped his head against the leg of the table. It was irritating and painful, and he looked, as he felt, very ridiculous. He picked himself up with a poor attempt to join in her amusement.

"If you were a boy, you imp—!" he said threateningly. "As it is, I've got half a mind to punish you."

"Come now, show me the photographs!" said Phosie, with a stamp of her foot. "You'll never please me by making yourself so stupid. I'm not at all impressed when you talk about your heart and adoration. I don't believe a word you say. I don't like you when you rave, and I'm not in the least afraid of you."

Jules did not answer. Her light indifference baffled him, but an ugly expression passed over his face. He shrugged his heavy shoulders and picked up the packet of photographs. There was something of the surly dog in his disposition, and Phosie's coolness was the whip he feared.

The photographs of his company were neatly encased in long strips of red cloth. It was not quite such a large company as she had expected from his description.

The leading man looked very old, in spite of a curly wig and dyed moustache. He was an English actor, Jules explained, and had played with Fechter and the Keans.

"I should think he might have acted with David Garrick by the look of him!" observed Phosie.

"Very likely," agreed Jules, who was vague about dates.

This old gentleman had recited, stage managed, and acted titled fathers or faithful old servants in dramatic sketches. A second man, who was photographed in a swallow-tailed coat and grey trousers, had played the piano, sung comic songs, and given what was described on the programme as "a screamingly funny, strictly refined ventriloquial act."

One other man and a lady had completed the company.

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These were the photographs which principally interested Phosie. She knitted her brows over the portrait of the young man. His face seemed familiar. Where had she seen him before? Jules marked her expression.

"Think he's a good-looking boy?" he asked, instantly jealous of her interest.

"I seem to remember his face," she answered, in a puzzled voice. "But I can't have seen it before. What was his name?"

"He was an Englishman," said Jules, turning a fold of the red cloth to hide the photograph from her fixed gaze. "He had a good voice and I got him dirt cheap, but he put on 'side,' and we had a row. I was obliged to give him a licking."

"Not an easy thing to do, I should think," said Phosie, quietly returning the case to look at the Englishman again. "What was his name?"

It was the second time she had asked the question. Jules had ignored it before.

"He called himself Frank Race—a fool name—perhaps it was a lie. What do you think of the girl?" he answered, brusquely.

Phosie was bending over the photographs with her elbows on the table. She answered without looking up, studying the face of the lady of the company. It was a thin, delicate face with rather a big mouth, slightly open, hair elaborately curled all over her head, and big, pathetic eyes.

"She looks very fragile with her tiny neck and pointed chin," she answered. "Of course she's pretty, very pretty, but there's something so sad about her face. Was she in bad health or unhappy? What a tragic little person!"

She looked at Jules with a pitying expression, unusually serious for Phosie.

"Does it strike you like that?" he asked, carelessly rising from his chair and going to the fire.

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He split a piece of coal with a smart blow of his heel and stood looking down into the sudden flame, with his back towards Phosie and his hands on the mantelpiece. She could not see the expression of his face and did not notice that his hands, at first placed lightly on the edge of the marble, gripped it with so much tension as he went on speaking that his knuckles looked as if they would break through the skin.

"She was not a very strong girl," he said, after a minute. "In fact, she was consumptive. I've never seen a prettier little actress, although she was absolutely without training. But she broke up—quickly. She is dead."

"Oh, Jules!"

Phosie was shocked at the bluntness of the words. He had spoken in abrupt jerks, and there was silence after her exclamation. Phosie felt that the subject was both painful and disagreeable to her companion. She looked at the pretty, weak face of the girl for a long time. There was a certain fascination about it. Then she turned again to the young Englishman. Where had she seen him before? No! She had not seen him. That was her second thought; he only reminded her of somebody else. It was perplexing and troublesome, not the recollection itself, but her failure to make it definite.

When Jules turned round from the fire he had recovered his self-possession and passed into one of his boisterous moods. He took a step up to Phosie and pulled away the case of photographs, folded it together, and thrust it into his pocket.

"I'm sick of the darned old pictures!" he said in his rough way. "I wish I hadn't shown them to you."

"I wish you wouldn't snatch things!" retorted the girl. "It's one of your bad habits, Mr Revell. I want to see them again, please."

"Oh, no, you don't, Phosie."

"Oh, yes, I do, Jules!"

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He pulled the packet out of his pocket, but did not give it to her. Sitting down in the low chair by the fire he unfolded the red case and deliberately wrenched out the photographs of the Englishman, Frank Race, and the fragile girl, tearing the cloth with his thick fingers.

Phosie looked on in silent amazement. His face, bent down over his task, was red and scowling. A big vein stood out on his forehead, zigzag between the eyes, and he drew in his lips with the set, sulky look of strength that always oppressed her with a knowledge of his obstinacy and physical force.

He cracked the stiff cards on which the photographs were mounted into four pieces and flung them into the fire, catching up the poker to ram them down into the red hollow of the coals, muttering some words she could not make out between his teeth.

The whole incident had taken less than three minutes, but it left a vivid impression on Euphrosyne's mind of suppressed, unaccountable rage, and brutal violence held in check.

When the bits of cards were fully burnt, but not till then, Jules looked round at her, smiling rather feebly, the dull red colour in his face, which seemed to culminate in the ugly, swollen vein on the forehead, gradually dying away.

He held out his hand to her appealingly, like a schoolboy, half repentant, half defiant after a fit of ill temper.

She could not respond. All her sensitive being was jarred. The very air of the room seemed stifling to her, as if it were charged with lurid red flashes of passion, playing round the man whom she had seen so strangely moved.

She was shaken with inward trembling—not fear, but the more subtle sensation of unexpected, overwhelming repugnance.

She turned without a word and ran out of the door. Jules sprang after her, but he was too late. She had | | 100 reached the room on the first floor and turned the key in the lock before he could reach it.

He heard her laugh within, for Phosie's moods were as swift as the dart of a swallow. She forgot her impulse of flight in her Puck-like pleasure at the failure of his pursuit. The more she thought of it, the more she laughed, and the more Jules raged.

In vain he rapped and threatened, implored and scolded at the door. She stayed in her fortress, deaf to his entreaties, till Mr Revell came home.

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