THE LADY OF THE RED SHAWL
The hum of humanity now waxed louder and nearer. The scattered lights grew more concentrated, the air became more stifling, and they entered a gallery, long-vistaed like those of a museum. Here many people were waiting about, some in evening dress, others in the ordinary tweeds of unconventional life, one or two in decent black which suggested the respectable Scot in Sunday attire. The majority of these were strolling about like day-trippers on a pier, while a few looked listlessly over a kind of balcony, as from the boxes of a theatre one may look down on a disturbance in the pit. Not a soul took the slightest notice of the travellers or appeared to recognise in the young man the future owner of this strange house.
Marcus went forward to where there was a break in the ranks and looked over the iron rail. Then, after a glance, he beckoned the girls forward.
"Now please just pinch yourselves to make sure that you are alive, and then look!" he said.
Ione came to the balustrade and did as she was bidden. Directly beneath her, where the pit of a theatre would be, there appeared a dusky chapel enveloped in a blue haze of incense smoke, and scantily illuminated by lamps let down from the ceiling, which glimmered, mere points of twinkling fire, here and there in the gloom. The chapel-like ground-floor was shaped like the deck of a ship. The back part of it was filled with pews of the most ordinary design, wherein many people sat crowded together.
The upper end, corresponding pretty closely to the choir of an ordinary church, was dotted all round with little points of light at about mid-way its height, making a complete circle of flame which cast a subdued straw-coloured radiance upon semi-prostrate forms and deep blue hangings.
The figures appeared to be kneeling, and were arranged in a semi-circle as at a communion rail, while two others, clad in priestly robes of spotless white, went to and fro as if administering a rite. Ione fairly gasped, and began to fear, either that her mind must be giving way, or that she had unwittingly set foot in a mad-house. Then her eyes, growing accustomed to the gloom, distinguished two great chairs enthroned on either side of the choir, on which (and directly opposite to each other) sat an elderly lady and gentleman. The lady wore a low-necked evening gown, and held a vinaigrette in one hand, while with the other she continually rearranged a huge red shawl about her head and shoulders, which as persistently managed to slip down again as soon as she had got it to her mind.
Occasionally, when the white-robed figures came near in the performance of the function, this lady nodded and smiled to them in a friendly and encouraging way like a past master familiar with all mysteries. The other throne was occupied by a fine-looking old man in full evening dress, who sat dangling one foot over the other knee, a glimpse of red flowered stocking showing coquettishly on his shrunk shank, and his ten fingers triangled in front of him, precisely in the attitude most affected by the respectable old gentlemen who come down to the House of Peers to support Her Majesty's Government every time the constitution is in danger.
"That's the mater and my uncle the Admiral on the judge's stand down there," whispered Marcus, irreverently; "but I can't make out what these Johnnies in the centre are up to — oiling up, or anointing, or something, it seems to me!"
As he spoke one of the kneeling figures at the rail, immediately on having some liquid dropped on the parting of her hair ("exactly like sweetening a bicycle bearing," said Marcus) leaped up and shouted, "Thank the Lord, I'm cured."
"Praise the Lord — our sinful sister is healed!" rejoined a chorus of twenty or thirty people from the gloom of the chapel, prompt as an echo.
"Stand up and give praise to the Healer," said a deep, stern voice, which proceeded from the taller of the white officiating figures.
The woman who had been anointed rose and began a chant, strange, high, strident — a howl rather than a song — which rose and fell and diminished, and then again took on volume till many of those who had been languidly perambulating the balcony were attracted to the rail of the balustrade.
"Praise the Lord!" Ione heard one white-bearded man say, "she has got IT. Jane Grace Tomlins is speaking with tongues."
Marcus for the first time grew somewhat uneasy.
"This is quite a new dodge," he murmured — "how that woman howls! It is worse than the kennels on a moonlight night. I should just like to go down and stop the noise with a dog-whip."
Then one by one, leaping up unexpectedly here and there, like the hammers of a disfronted piano when you play without watching the keys, men and women rose from the kneeling circle, crying out that they had found "healing" or "grace." Then they joined the horrible swaying medley of discord till the chorus began to affect all in the chapel, while some even among the promenaders on the gallery fell on their knees and showed hysterical symptoms as the wild barbaric chant rose and swelled beneath them. Tears dropped down bearded faces. Apparent strangers clasped one another round the neck, and the torrent of sound rose and swirled dismayingly among the weird iron arches and gaunt, black, cobwebby network of beams overhead, till the roof itself seemed in danger of being rent off by the explosion of pent-up emotion.
"O Marcus, take me away; I cannot stand this! Do you hear? Why did you bring me to such a horrible place?" cried Idalia, suddenly clutching her husband by the arm, "I know I shall scream the next moment, or jump over the edge of the gallery."
Marcus Hardy looked very grim, and took his wife firmly by the wrist.
"This is a game I knew nothing about — quite a fresh deal since my time. But you shan't see it again, little girl! Just wait a moment to shake hands with the mater for decency's sake, and then I’ll take you to more respectable quarters."
Even as he spoke the turmoil stilled itself as if by magic. Ione, perhaps owing to the feeble state of her health, was thoroughly fascinated, and could not take her eyes off the pair of veiled, white, officiating figures. They had retired into the deep blue gloom, and now stood with hands above their heads, illuminated duskily by the circle of pale willow-leaves of fire which flickered in a semi-circle around them.
"All things are possible to them that believe," intoned the slow, stern voice of the taller officiant; "only have faith and your diseases do not exist. Give praise to the Healer and He will heal you. Those to whom He has given power are but instruments in his hands. Praise them not."
The lights went out as on a set scene. The white figures vanished into the darkness behind, and from the body of the chapel there came up the ordinary sounds of an audience dispersing.
"Come on," said Marcus hastily, "let us go and trap the mater before she goes to bed, or else we won't see her till goodness knows when."
And with his wife still clinging distressfully to his arm, and Ione more impressed than she cared to admit even to herself, Marcus Hardy descended a narrow iron winding-stair, which led to a different part of the castle. Ione was growing faint for want of something to eat, while her journey, the drive through the shrewd winterish air, and her strange abrupt entrance upon this place of horrors, mockeries, and incantations had almost deprived her of the powers of thought and speech.
Marcus moved like one who desires to get an unpleasant duty over, and Ione followed him thinking her friend's husband more of a man than ever she had done before.
"Honour thy father and thy mother," she said to herself— "it was never harder to do!"
As the three crossed a dimly-lighted corridor, they saw before them a hall covered with thick Indian matting. The lady and gentleman who had been seated on either side of the choir in the chapel, were walking up and down arm in arm.
"Mother!" said Marcus, going up hastily to the woman of the red shawl.
The lady turned and looked at her son. She was tall, dark, and had been strikingly handsome. Her straight thick eyebrows almost met over her close-set eyes. At this time the lady's weight must have reached eighteen stones. Her nose was prominently hooked, the lower part slightly pendulous, as if her habit of perpetually caressing it with the fingers had given to the point a permanent droop.
"My son!" cried Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy, opening her arms, "you are restored to me — you have returned to Grace. Tranter, see that Master Marcus has a mustard footbath in his room! Prodigal, I welcome you! Why did you not send me word, and I would have come out and - "
"Yes, mother, I know," said Marcus; "fallen on my neck and kissed me — with new effects and dresses, also a brand new fatted calf. But the fact is, I'd rather not — on the station platform at least. But, I say, you're looking pretty fit, mater!"
"I have at last found peace, my son," returned the tall dark lady, impressively, "this time, indeed, undoubtedly so. I have had THE SECRET revealed to me. There is no more left to discover. These blessed angels, Mr. and Mrs. Arminell Howard-Hodge, have completely solved the mystery of life. The Millennium itself has begun at Rayleigh Abbey. Yes, indeed; and it is such a privilege! So precious! We have had such a beauu-tiful meeting — so refreshing, was it not. Admiral? It would have greatly benefited your soul, my poor dear unbelieving boy. But who are these two ladies?"
"One of them is my wife, mother!" said Marcus, abruptly. "Idalia, come and kiss your mother!"
It was somewhat of the suddenest. But the blood of Cyrus Judd was capable of anything. Idalia ran forward with a little gesture of self-renunciation, as if, in her husband's interest, she had been about to fight with all the beasts of Ephesus. As she went she sent one glance up at Marcus which said as plain as print, "See what I am ready to do for your sake!"
But Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy fended her off adroitly with one hand.
"Avaunt, woman!" she said haughtily, her eyebrows raised almost to the roots of her hair, "think not to come near me. My son has doubtless been in the far country, and has been spending his substance - ahem - among the usual sort of people!"
"Mother!" said Marcus warningly.
The lady of the eyebrows stopped. Clearly she had her own reasons for being afraid of her son.
"Well," she continued in a milder tone, "remember, if you are really married you have made your bed, and you must lie on it. And if you and this woman are a pair of paupers, don't come whining to me and thinking that I will do anything for you! As you know, my little money is all embarked in the sacred service of the Cause. You won't get a penny beyond your allowance so long as I am alive! So I warn you!"
And she hitched her red shawl over her head, and glowered, like an elderly Fate of a determined frame of mind, down upon the rash couple.
But Marcus, like Pet Marjorie's duck, was more than usual calm. He knew his mother.
"Mater,'' he said, nonchalantly, "I told you that this was my wife. Her maiden name was Idalia Judd, and she is the daughter of Mr. John Cyrus Judd, the great American millionaire."
It was the first time and the last in his life that Marcus used the substantive and attributive adjectives to describe his father-in-law.
Now on this occasion Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy proved herself a woman of quick capacities and a sympathetic heart. No sooner had she heard the distinguished and world-famous (or, according to the point of view, infamous) name, than she flew towards Idalia, who in her turn submitted with a good grace to be enfolded and temporarily lost to sight in that capacious maternal embrace.
“My beloved daughter!" she cried, with the beautiful impulsiveness born of a lifetime of prescribing mustard and water, "I was prepared to love you from the first moment. One glimpse of your sweet face, and nothing more was needed! It was as if it had been revealed. But who may this be? Your sister? So like you; your very image, indeed! I love and welcome her too for your sake! Such an acquisition as you will both be! We shall hold a thanksgiving service at once. Tranter, go and ask Mr. and Mrs. Arminell Howard-Hodge to come to me!"
"This is Miss March, a friend my wife brought with her as a companion! "interposed Marcus, hastily, just in time to save Ione from sharing the fate of Idalia. He saw from Ione's face that in her present frame of mind, she could not stand that infliction.
"Oh, a companion!" ejaculated Martyria Evicta Lucretia, instantly checking her enthusiasm and promptly losing interest.
She turned to Idalia.
"But tell me about yourself, my love! Is your dear, de-e-ar father with you ? Or your charming mother — your mother, I suppose, is living? They might both be of immense use to us in the Cause, if they could only be brought to see the light. I hope you will be instrumental, my dear!"
"Thank you," said Idalia, "my father and mother are both quite well. They are unfortunately not with us."
Then she added to Marcus in a lower tone unheard by Martyria, "But I bet a bright new dollar they're after us!"
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First serialised in 'Woman at Home' as 'The Woman of Fortune' in 1899.