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Cambridge, 1887
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The Perversity Of Human Nature.
[1] Chapter I. Amongst the hundreds and thousands of pretty and cosy little villa houses that cluster round our Melbourne city, The Nest, at St. Kilda is one that seldom escapes the notice of the passer-by. It stands a little back from the street, at the top of a sloping lawn, a one storied, broad verandahed, rose embowered bungalow - as charming a nest as you would wish to see. Jupiter Pluvius twirls upon the velvet grass and the gorgeous flower borders, making a delicate liquid tinkle and patter with its spreading showers. The gravel path, sweeping in the form of a horse shoe from the front gate, has never a weed on its smooth face. The shrubs are glossy and bushy; the fern trees thrive as in their native forests; the dark pines that line the enclosure and guard the little dwelling and its exquisite garden from wind and dust and prying eyes are dense and shapely, without a ragged branch anywhere. And the house itself, retiring under its spreading eaves, is simply perfection in the finish of its simple appointments and the almost glittering cleanliness of every part of it. [2]
The inside matches the outside. Persian carpets on the dark floors; Liberty stuffs at the windows; Morris chintzes on the chairs and sofas; good, though not rare, pictures on the walls, which are tinted on purpose to suit them; low book cases running like dados round the rooms, filled with books to read and not to look at, and bearing on the top shelf dainty bric-a-brac, of which every piece has been selected on its own merits, and not at the command of a vulgar fashion. A thoroughly refined and harmonious house, in short; such a house as could only belong to cultivated and enlightened people. 
Three years ago - and it was then very much as it is now - these people were newly settled in it. They were two only - a young Australian husband and his English wife, to whom he had been married about eighteen months. He had met her at the Grosvenor Gallery, a bright girl fresh from Girton, when he was himself enjoying a six months' trip to Europe. He was then, as now, partner in a flourishing firm of stock and station agents having offices in Collins-street west - Brown, Brown and Ponsonby. He was the second Brown - Brown the younger; the old one was his uncle. Until the memorable occasion when he met his wife, he had never travelled beyond the bounds of his native continent; and he went to England with the conviction that he knew as much as the old country could teach him and a little more - except on one point. He was prepared to own, and subsequently did own, that England could furnish more and better pictures than all he had seen in Australia. It was his one artistic taste. Goodness knows how he came by it, but there it was. From a child he had been fond of drawing and fond of pictures - of which, naturally, he considered himself a connoisseur - after his return from Europe, an infallible judge. 
So he went to the Grosvenor Gallery. And so (for she was fond of pictures, too) he met Miss Alexandra Hay. She was an orphan, of five and twenty, independent of guardians and interfering relatives, entirely mistress of herself and of a safe little income of £200 a year. She lived - or had been living - with a fellow Girtonian in aesthetically furnished lodgings in Whitechapel, and made "slumming" her profession - scorning delights (except such as rush bottomed chairs and high art cups and saucers), and living laborious days, enjoying the very life for which, if she had not had it, she would have sighed and aspired as the highest and most satisfying that could fall to the lot of woman. But at the time of this visit to the Grosvenor - for the East-End missionaries took their little artistic diversions in the West End occasionally, as a duty to themselves and to everybody - she was very unhappy. She and her dearest friend had quarrelled irrevocably (I am sorry to say they often did it), and life, that had been so rich and full, was now utterly blank and desolate. They had gone the length of selling their furniture and dividing the proceeds; and Alexandra Hay was alone in the world. A mutual acquaintance introduced Robert Brown to her at this juncture - he was a fine figure of a man, tall, broad shouldered, blue-eyed, with a handsome red beard - and she took his arm to walk through the crowd and look at the pictures with a sense that, after all, it was possible that men were more generous, more constant, and more to be depended on than women. But how she came to marry him, and that within six weeks of their first meeting, she declares to this very day that she never knew. My own notion is that she did it because she thought it would be nice, when her dear friend came to her to "make it up," and beg for a resumption of the old life, to be able to say "It is too late now." Or because the suddenness and strikingness of the enterprise was irresistible to her impulsive nature and dramatic imagination. But how can I tell? It is one of those things that no one is expected to understand. They were both lonely, and on the look out for sympathy; and Robert Brown, criticising the Grosvenor Gallery pictures, showed to the best advantage. She thought him a most cultivated person, with the true artist's soul. And time was short. Robert's passage was taken, and she had to make up her mind quickly. There were no parents to consult, and, of course, she, with her training, had nothing but scorn for conventional practices. So in six weeks they became man and wife, walking out to be married in their everyday clothes, and afterwards lunching tête-a-tête at an hotel. And thereafter they lived together, as she often bitterly expressed it, like a pair of convicts dragging their connecting leg-irons between them, and feeling the weight and pain of them at every step. 
When they arrived in Australia they went to live in the Riverina, where Robert Brown had charge of a branch office and a good deal of country business. Here young Mrs. Brown, cut off from every interest she had in the world, and disappointed in her marriage, moped and moped until she nearly went melancholy mad. At the end of the first year her nervous state was such that the doctors ordered her change of scene and a change of life - declared that it was absolutely necessary to her mental health that she should have more cheerful surroundings. Thereupon her husband, anxious to do his best for her, exchanged posts with Mr. Ponsonby and transferred himself to the office in town. And they went to live at The Nest - that abode of love and peace, as it appeared to the uninitiated spectator out of doors - and made an attempt to start afresh and turn over a new leaf. 
At St. Kilda Mrs. Brown grew stronger, and for a little time she was happier - for just so long as she was occupied in the fitting up of her new house and making it pretty, according to her own ideas. When that was done, and she had nothing more to do, with her husband at business all day, and often at his club at night, and herself refusing to associate with the intellectually benighted persons amongst whom she had come to dwell, her solitude was as complete and depressing as before, and she became more miserable and more melancholy than ever. 
On the evening of Christmas day three years ago she and her husband sat in their charming drawingroom together. Christmas in these parts is seldom a complete success, under the most favorable conditions; to them, as a reason of domestic festivity, it was the most dismal failure imaginable, and both were longing for the interminable hours to pass and bring the common days again. Robert sat in one of the luxurious Morris chairs, sorely tempted to go away and smoke off the effects of the plum pudding, but feeling that it would be an impropriety to do so on such an occasion, which demanded that the head of the household should devote himself to his family; and, between the little dozes into which he lapsed at intervals, he gazed at his wife - who seemed, for her part, unconscious of his existence. She sat by an open window, leaning an elbow on the sill and her cheek in her hand, and stared at the sky with eyes that evidently saw nothing. They were very pretty, sad, dark eyes, with a kind of starry brilliance in them - strictly speaking, the only beauty of her face, which was nevertheless intelligent and interesting. She was picturesquely dressed in sage-tinted Liberty silk, draped Greek fashion in mysterious loose folds from her shoulders to her feet, and slightly held to her slender figure with a silk cord tasselled at the ends. The Philistines of the tight waists, whose acquaintance she would not condescend to, called her Mrs. Cimabue Brown, and scoffed at her eccentric garments, of which they caught a glimpse occasionally; but, all the same, she contrived to look very graceful in them. Her husband thought so to-night, as he studied her - sitting in the dying daylight - from his chair in the shadow of the room. She had been his choice, and he still believed in her as a most elegant and superior woman, bitterly as she had disappointed him. 
"Lexie," he said, breaking a long silence, and speaking kindly and cheeringly, "don't look so utterly miserable." 
She did not move her position, nor did her face lighten. "You needn't look at me," she said indifferently. He felt repulsed, but made no verbal retort. With an impatient, ostentatious sigh, he kicked away a footstool, rose, and, taking a match box from his pocket, proceeded to light the gas under half a dozen tinted shades. 
"It's a nice sort of Christmas," he grumbled presently, beginning to perambulate the room with his hands behind him. "A nice sort of home - after a man has done his best to make his wife comfortable and happy." She took no notice of this remark, and he added sharply, "If you don't shut that window you'll have the mosquitoes in." 
She shut the window with an exasperating air of humble obedience, and turned into the room to seek another seat. As the soft pink light fell upon her face, and he saw how pale and worn it looked, another twinge of uxorious pity visited him. 
"I don't mean to find fault with you, my dear. But I wish you had a more occupied life, and enjoyed your home and did more to make yourself and me happy. You have everything that heart can wish - nothing to do but to amuse yourself - and a good husband, though I say it that shouldn't. It isn't every man that would make the sacrifices I have done to give his wife pleasure." 
"What sacrifices?" 
"Coming to town, when I was doing so well where I was." 
"I am very sorry you came, if it involved a sacrifice. I am very sorry" - here her voice trembled - "that I ever came across your path, to be so much trouble to you." 
"Now, Lexie, don't begin that." 
"It was the most unlucky day in my whole life - the day that I married you," she declared recklessly. 
"Well, at any rate, you did it of your own accord. You can't say I forced you," said Robert, with a grim smile. 
"Are you going to insult me by implying that I threw myself at your head - that I ran after you?" she demanded, her woman's soul burning within her. 
His grim smile relaxed, and there was a twinkle in his blue eyes. "Like Barkis, you were willin', Lexie. You were very willin', my dear. You know you were, so don't pretend you weren't." 
For a moment her rage and indignation at this deadly and unexpected outrage deprived her of the power of speech. She looked at him with her dark eyes blazing, her delicate nostrils quivering, her lips compressed, her hands clenched. Then she broke out wildly - addressing the walls and furniture - "O, it serves me right! It richly serves me right! I have brought it upon myself - I ought to have known better than to expose myself to the indignities and degradations of a married woman's lot! I ought to have listened to Emily Price! - she warned me of what I was doing, and how bitterly I should repent it when it was too late!" &c., &c., &c. She raved with fluency and bitterness for full five minutes, and her husband only interrupted her once. 
"It's all very well to talk about your dear Emily Price now; you know that when you were with her you quarrelled like cat and dog," said he. "You couldn't even live under the same roof." 
"We never quarrelled," said Lexie, solemnly. "We did not always agree on the surface, but at bottom we understood each other thoroughly. We had one heart and mind in everything." And then she went off into harrowing reminiscences of her Girton and Whitechapel life with Emily, contrasting the noble freedom of that happy time with the present ignominious bondage. "I only wish," she concluded fervently, "that I were back in that old life now!" 
"I'm sure I wish you were," said Robert, for his patience was exhausted. It was the first time he had expressed himself in those terms, and after he had done so he was rather sorry for it. Lexie looked as if he had struck her; she quite staggered as she stood. She thought nothing of telling him that she wished herself away from him; but that he should wish himself away from her was quite a different matter. She sat down silently, laid her arms upon a little table near and her face in her arms, and broke into a tempest of hysterical tears and sobs. She felt herself utterly desolate and abandoned now. 
Robert let her cry for a little, for he was angry, and he thought she deserved no pity. Then he reminded himself that she was only a woman and that her health was delicate, and made an attempt at consolation. 
"You're just moped with having nothing to do," said he. "Why don't you get some needlework? Other women occupy themselves embroidering things and so on, but I never see you with a needle in your hand. Get some crewel work - or knit me some socks; that'll be better for you than always reading and thinking and idling about. You've no idea how charming a woman looks in a man's eyes when she's doing those feminine kind o' things - sitting by her fireside and stitching away ---" 
He laid his hand on her shoulder as he spoke, meaning the gesture for a caress. But she snatched herself from it with a shudder, as if it had been a toad or a snake. "O let me alone!" she cried sharply. "Don't speak to me! Don't touch me!" 
He drew himself up straight, and then turned away, deeply offended. "All right," he retorted roughly, "please yourself; I'll not meddle with you. You may go to the devil for what I care; I'm sick and tired of your tantrums." 
And with that he went off to bed, banging the doors behind him. 

Chapter II. Like many another woman, Lexie dearly loved a grievance, though she would never have forgiven the frank friend who dared to tell her so. And now she had one of sufficient importance to satisfy her. Robert had told her he wished she was gone - had called her abusive names, sworn at her - treated her, in short, as no woman who respected herself could submit to be treated. Therefore, she determined not to speak to him again until he had suitably apologised, and nursed vague but desperate plans for the vindication of her honor and dignity. 
Robert, for his part, thought it was high time for a husband of spirit to put his foot down. He had borne with her tantrums, because she was delicate and "only a woman," until he had completely spoilt her. Therefore he resolved that, until she made amends for her conduct, he would withhold his pardon and favor. And so it came to pass that for many days they were not on speaking terms, except at meal times when the servants were in the room. Robert went off to his business after breakfast, returned to dinner, went off again to spend the evening at his club; and, when he came home at night and found his wife gone to bed and her door locked, retired peaceably to rest in his dressing room. And Lexie, her sense of injury deepening hour by hour with the continuance of this state of things, her nerves overwrought with the long strain upon them, became nearly frantic. In her husband's presence pride kept her severely calm and composed; but when he was out of the house, or she could hear him snoring in his bachelor bed on the other side of the locked door, as if nothing were the matter, she cried, and wrung her hands, and paced wildly about the floor, and declared that she could not and would not stand it. 
Since she had come to St. Kilda her favorite and only amusement had been to look at the sea and the ships. In the hottest weather she would walk along the beach till she found a sufficiently lonely spot, and there sit down on a sand hummock, or a bit of driftwood, clasp her hands round her knees, and stare from under her lowered hat brim at the twinkling water and the arriving and departing vessels, for hours together. After dinner, when her husband was not at home, she would put a light wrap over her evening dress and walk down to the pier, and there sit till bed time without stirring, wistfully gazing at the clustering lights of Williamstown and Sandridge - the riding lights of the great ships resting in port between their ocean voyages. Frequently she went to the piers where those ships were berthed to have a nearer look at them - wandering up and down amongst the trucks and the smoke and the clatter, and watching the loading and unloading of cargo going on busily on both sides - to the surprise and curiosity of idle sailors and sweating stevedores, who could not make out what a lady, all by herself, could be wanting there. What she really wanted was to look at the fabric and the faces that had come direct from England and were going back there again - to get, in fact, as near to England itself as possible. She looked back to England now as the true believer looks forward to Heaven. There was the home of the elect - the city of satisfied desires - the haven where she would be. 
One day, when loitering on the pier at Sandridge, she was astonished to hear her name called. 
"Miss Hay - ahem! - Mrs. Brown - Lexie!" 
It was the voice of a young sailor lad who leaned over the poop railing of a big clipper that she was slowly passing, her attention at the moment being absorbed by a still bigger steamer on the other side. With a start she looked up, and recognised Joe Price - none other than her darling Emily's own cousin. She had known of his going to sea, but had not known in what direction - in fact, had not cared. In those old days boys were of no interest to her whatever. Now she hurried to meet him as he ran down the gangway, and nearly threw herself into his arms. 
"Joe! Joe!" she cried excitedly. "My dear, dear boy, how did you come here? Is this your ship? Oh, how glad I am to meet you again! And when did you see them last? How did you leave Emily? Oh, do tell me all about everything!" 
"Come up on deck," said Joe. And up on deck they went accordingly. There was an awning over the poop, and the captain's wicker chair stood there. "Sit here," said Joe, "and I'll tell them to get you some lemonade or something." He was third mate, it appeared, and in charge of the ship. She was one of the few passenger sailing ships left on the line, but there were no passengers on her now, and, for a wonder, no cargo going in or out. It was very peaceful in contrast with the racket of the pier. Lexie sat down in the captain's chair, refreshed herself with lemonade, and had a long talk with her new found friend. [3]
"No," said Joe. "She never seemed to care for anybody else after you were gone. She tried living with Miss Fothergill, but that didn't answer at all. They were ready to tear each other's hair off in a week." 
"Bless her!" ejaculated Lexie fervently, with tears in her eyes. 
"So she gave up slumming and went home and took to painting. She's regularly studying at it now - Royal Academy and all that sort of thing, you know. She's going to be a great gun someday, like Mrs. Butler and the Montalbas - at least, so she says. For my part, I wish she'd take pattern by you, and get married and be comfortable, like other people." 
"Oh, don't wish anything so cruel!" cried Lexie, with a tragical air. "Let her be as she is - free and happy, and using all her faculties. Believe me, she is far better off than she has any idea of." 
Joe gave her a long look, feeling rather as if he had put his foot in it, and hastened to change the conversation. But Mrs. Brown did not want to talk upon the new topic; she went back to the old one lovingly. 
"How well I remember the first day we became friends! It was at Girton, soon after I went there - dear Girton! I had to go out one afternoon, and it was cold, and I wanted my fire kept in; so I put a notice on my door, asking anyone who happened to pass to look in and see to it; and when I returned there was Emily on her knees blowing it up. She was wearing a terra-cotta cashmere - I can see it now! And then I put the kettle on, and we had tea together, and a long, long talk. That was the beginning, and from that day to this," said Lexie, without a falter or a blush, "there has never been a cloud between us." 
Joe rounded his mouth to whistle, but forbore. "You certainly seemed to suit each other down to the ground," he said gravely. "She always said you were the only real friend she ever had." 
"I was - I was," said Lexie, clasping her hands in her lap. "And she was my only one. Oh, if I could only be with her now - if we could only work together as we used to do!" 
"Oh, well," said Joe encouragingly, "I suppose you will be coming home some day. Then you can do things." 
"Ah! what wouldn't I give!" 
"You must talk to Mr. Brown. Tell him a change would do him good. Nothing like the sea, you know. You ought to come along with us." 
"When are you leaving?" 
"In about a month, I suppose. Come and have a look round." And he jumped up from the flag box on which he had been sitting. He was proud of his ship, of course, though in the matter of art and luxury she was not much to boast of in comparison with the great steam vessels which had rendered her nearly obsolete; and he showed his guest over her with a complacent and superior air. "Ever so much better than the mail boats, you know. No noise, no vibration, no coal dust, no smells fit to knock you backwards, no Red Sea, no dressing up and bothering yourself. [4] There's no romance on those modern steamers - you might as well be in an hotel at once." 
Lexie let him ramble on, and said nothing in reply. He thought it was because she was so impressed and interested that she was so silent. But, in point of fact, she did not take in a word that he was saying. The great enterprise of her life was just then shaping itself in her brain. 
"I will go," she was thinking to herself - the thought had been in her mind for days, but only now presented itself as a practicable idea. "I will run away to England and to Emily - I will get off secretly, so that Robert shall not find it out and stop me. He wants to get rid of me - he said so. He will be happy when I am gone." (This was what she persuaded herself to be the case, but what she knew in her inmost heart was that he would be miserable when she was gone; and therein lay the great merit of the scheme.) 
"I am afraid you are not well," Joe said at last, when he saw that she was really inattentive, and looked perturbed and nervous. 
"Yes, I am," she replied, mouth and hands trembling. "But I must be going now. I have a great deal to do." 
He protested against this sudden hurry, and begged her to wait for lunch, which would be ready in half an hour; but she would not stay another minute. So he escorted her down the gang way, and they said good-bye, and she hastened up the pier to the station without having made any appointment for seeing him again. He looked after her with a gloomy face, wondering why she hadn't asked him to her house, when she must have known that he had no other friend in Melbourne, where he was going to kick his heels for a month or more. "She always was a queer girl," he soliloquised, as he returned to the deck. "And I fancy she's got a brute of a husband by the manner of her. She was afraid to stay any longer for fear he'd make a row." 

Chapter III. Lexie went home in a fever of excitement. Minute by minute her desperate plan grew more distinct and looked more reasonable and more attractive. Minute by minute her determination to carry it out increased. It was full of difficulties, but the difficulties disappeared when she strenuously thought them out. She had the woman's quickness of imagination and readiness of resource. By the time she reached home the whole thing was arranged in her mind down to the most trifling detail. It was like an inspiration. It would set Robert free, who openly wished himself rid of her; and (only of course she didn't consider that) it would give her the most dramatic and magnificent revenge. "I will do it," she said, setting her teeth. And do it she did. 
When she reached The Nest, hot, dusty, and tired, though not conscious that she was tired, she found her lunch ready for her in the cool and pretty diningroom. She sat down and tried to eat because the housemaid was there to wait upon her, but she had no appetite for food. She messed a plate or two, drank two tumblers of iced water, and then went to her bedroom, taking the morning newspaper with her. Locking the door, she sat down to read the shipping advertisements, and found that a mail steamer was to leave in two days. This was the ship she decided to go by, for she felt that if the thing was to be done it must be done quickly, before her courage could cool. Then she thought of her luggage. What should she take? She must not be seen packing and making arrangements, nor carrying boxes from the house. And yet she must have clothes and necessaries. Here was the chief difficulty of her undertaking. 
She called for a cup of tea, and while it was being prepared went into the boxroom to look at the chests and portmanteaus stowed there to see if there was anything she could make use of. It was a vain search, as she knew it would be. On every article, hers as well as his, "Robert Brown" or "R.B." was printed in staring letters (he had had it done when they were married without asking her leave); and she did not mean to take her passage under that name. Besides, she did not want to carry off anything that would be missed. Robert would eventually guess where she was gone, and probably would follow to fetch her back; but, considering what a husband's powers were, and that the telegraph and police might be used to supplement them, it was necessary to the success of her scheme that she should get as long a start as possible. She looked at the rows of lettered trunks with a curling lip. "A married woman has not even a name of her own," she said to herself bitterly. "The husband swallows us up. We have no longer any individuality whatever." 
Then she returned to her bedroom, and Ellen brought her tea. Her servants were excellent of their kind, but she had only two in the house, cook and housemaid. A boy came for an hour or two in the early morning and a gardener twice a week. This was not the gardener's day, fortunately. Lexie looked at her watch and saw that it was past two. 
"Ellen," she said carelessly, "when you have cleared away the lunch things you may go and see your mother, if you like."