FROM ONE GENERATION TO ANOTHER
HENRY SETON MERRIMAN
I. THE SEED
V. AFTER NINETEEN YEARS
VI. FOR HIS COUNTRY
VII. ON THE ROOF OF THE WORLD
X. A LAST THROW
XI. A CARPET KNIGHT
XII. BAD NEWS
XIII. ON THIN ICE
XIV. THE CURSE OF A GOOD INTENTION
XV. THE TOUCH OF NATURE
XVI. THE SPIDER AND THE FLY
XVII. TWO MOTIVES
XVIII. LIKE SHIPS UPON THE SEA
XIX. AT HURLINGHAM
XX. IN A SIDE PATH
XXII. ACROSS THE YEARS
XXIII. AND THE TIME PASSES SOMEHOW
XXIV. A STAB IN THE DARK
XXV. FROM THE JAWS OF DEATH
XXVI. BALANCING ACCOUNTS
XXVII. AT BAY
XXVIII. THE LAST LINK
FROM ONE GENERATION TO ANOTHER
Il faut se garder des premiers mouvements, parce qu'ils sont presque toujours honnetes.
"Dearest Anna,—I see from the newspaper before me of March 13, that I am reported dead. Before attempting to investigate the origin of this mistake, I hasten to write to you, knowing, dearest, what a shock this must have been to you. It is true that I was in the Makar Akool affair, and was slightly wounded—a mere scratch in the arm—but nothing more. I have not written to you for some months past because I have been turning something over in my mind. Anna, dearest, there is no chance of my being in a position to marry for some years yet, and I feel it incumbent upon me ..."
This letter, half written, lay on a camp table before a keen-faced young officer. He ceased writing suddenly, and, leaping to his feet, walked to the door of his bungalow, which was open to the four winds of heaven. In doing this he passed from the range of the lazy punkah flapping somnolently over table and bed. It may have been this sudden change to hotter air that caused him to raise his hand to his forehead, which was high and strangely rounded.
"By George!" he said, "suppose I do it that way!"
He walked rapidly backwards and forwards with the lithe actions of a man of steel, a light weight, of medium height, keen and quick as a monkey. His black eyes flitted from one object to another with such restlessness that it was impossible to say whether he comprehended what he saw or merely looked at things from force of habit.
He was dark of hair with a sallow complexion and a long drooping nose—the nose of Semitic ancestors. A small mouth, and the chin running almost to a point. A face full of interest, devoid of distinct vice—heartless. Here was a man with a future before him—a man whose vices were all negative, whose virtues depended entirely upon expediency. Here was a man who could be almost anything he liked; as some men can. If expediency prompted he could be a very depot of virtues; for his body, with all the warmer failings of that part of humanity, was in perfect control. On the other hand, there was no love of good for goodness' sake—no conscience behind the subtle eyes. All this, and more, was written in the face of Seymour Michael, whose handwriting had dried some moments before on the half-filled sheet of letter-paper.
He returned and stood at the table with slightly bowed legs—not the result of much riding, although he wore top-boots and breeches as if of daily habit—but a racial defect handed down like the nasal brand from remote progenitors. He looked at letter and newspaper as they lay side by side—not with the doubtfulness of warfare between conscience and temptation, but with a calculating thoughtfulness. He was not wondering what was best to do, but what the most expedient.
Those were troublesome times in India, for the Mutiny was not quelled, and each mail took home a list of killed, slowly compiled from news that dribbled in from outlying stations, forts, and towns. Those were days when men's lives were made or lost in the Eastern Empire, for it seems to be in Fortune's balance that great danger weighs against great gain. No large wealth has ever been acquired without proportionate risk of life or happiness. To the tame and timorous city clerk comes small remuneration and a nameless grave, while to more adventurous spirits larger stakes bring vaster rewards. The clerk, pure and simple, has, within these later years, found his way to India, sitting side by side with the Baboo, and consequently it is as easy to make a fortune in London as in Calcutta and Madras. The clerk has carried his sordid civilisation and his love of personal safety with him, sapping at the glorious uncertainty from which the earlier pioneers of a hardier commerce wrested quick-founded fortunes.
Seymour Michael had come into all this with the red coat of a soldier and the keen, ambitious heart of a Jew, at the very nick of time. He saw at once the enormous possibilities hidden in the near future for a man who took this country at its proper value, handling what he secured with coolness and foresight. He know that he only possessed one thing to risk, namely, his life; and true to his racial instinct, he valued this very highly, looking for an extortionate usury on his stake.
At this moment he was like Aladdin in the cave of jewels: he did not know which way to turn, which treasure to seize first.
Anna—dearest Anna—to whom this half-completed letter was addressed, was a person for whom he had not the slightest affection. At the outset of his career he had paused, decided in haste, and had resolved to make use of the passing opportunity. Anna Hethbridge had therefore been annexed en passant. In person she was youthful and rather handsome—her fortune was extremely handsome. So Seymour Michael went out to India engaged to be married to this girl who was unfortunate enough to love him.
In India two things happened. Firstly, Seymour Michael met a second young lady with a fortune twice as large as that of Miss Anna Hethbridge. Secondly, the Mutiny broke out, and India lay before the ambitious young officer a very land of Ophir. He promptly decided to cut the first string of his bow. Anna Hethbridge was now useless—nay, more, she was a burthen. Hence the letter which lay half-written on the table of his bungalow.
He paused before this wrong to a blameless woman, and contemplated the perpetration of a greater. He weighed pro and con—carefully withholding from the balance the casting weight of Right against Wrong. Then he took up the letter and slowly tore it to small pieces. He had decided to leave the report of his death uncontradicted. It was morally certain that five weeks before that day Anna Hethbridge had read the news in the printed column lying before him. He resolved to leave her in ignorance of its falseness. Seymour Michael was not, however, a selfish man. All that he did at this time, and later in life—all the lives that he ruined—the hearts he broke—the men he sacrificed were not offered upon the altar of Self (though the distinction may appear subtle), but sold to his career. Career was this man's god. He wanted to be great, and rich, and powerful; and yet he was conscious of having no definite use for greatness, or riches, or power when acquired.
Here again was the taint of the blood that ran in his veins. The curse had reached him—in addition to the long, sad nose and the bandy legs. The sense of enjoyment was never to be his. The greed of gain—gain of any sort—filled his heart, and ennui secretly nestling in his soul said: "Thou shalt possess, but not enjoy."
He was conscious of this voice, but did not understand it then. He only burned to possess; looking to possession to provide enjoyment. In this he was not quite alone—with him in his error are all men and women. And so we talk of Love coming after marriage—and so women marry without Love, believing that it will follow. God help them! That which comes afterwards is not even the ghost of Love, it is only Custom. This was the spirit of Seymour Michael. He had already acquired one or two objects of a vague ambition; and, possessing them, had only learnt to be accustomed to them—not to value them.
There was no elation in the thought that he was freed from the encumbrance of Anna Hethbridge by a chance misprint. Neither was there hesitation in turning accident ruthlessly to his own advantage. There was only a steady pressing forward—an unceasing, unwearying attention to his own gain.
In those days news travelled slowly, and the personal had not yet taken precedence in journalism. In the anxiety for the State, the Individual was apt to be overlooked. Seymour Michael counted on six months of oblivion at the least—he hoped for more, but with characteristic caution acted always in anticipation of the worst.
He had scarcely thrown the newspaper aside when a comrade entered the bungalow carrying another copy of the same journal.
"I say, Michael," exclaimed this man, "do you see that you're put in among the killed?"
"Yes," replied Seymour Michael, without haste, without hesitation. "I have already written to contradict it. Not that there is any one to care whether I am dead or alive. But it might do me harm in Leadenhall Street. I can't afford to be dead even for a week when so much promotion is going forward."
This was artistic. Most of us forget to preserve our own characteristics in diverging from the truth. The tangled web is only woven when first we practise to deceive. Later on the facility is greater, the handling superior, and the web runs smooth and straight. Seymour Michael was apparently no novice at this sort of thing. He was even at that moment making mental note of the fact that up-country mails were in a state of disorganisation, and a letter which was never written may easily be made to have miscarried later on.
But even he could not foresee everything—no one can. Not even the righteous man, much less the liar.
"Do you mean to say," pursued the newcomer, "that you are not writing to your family about it—only to the Company?"
"That is all."
"Rum chap you are, Michael," said the other, lighting a cheroot. "Heartless beggar I take it."
"Not at all. The simple fact is that I have no one to write to. I only possess one or two distant relatives, and they would probably be rather sorry than otherwise to have the report contradicted."
The younger officer—a mere boy—with a beardless, happy face, walked to the door of the bungalow.
"Of course there is always this in it," he said carelessly. "By the time the contradiction reaches home the news may be true."
Seymour Michael laughed lamely. A joke of this description made him feel rather sick, for a Jew never makes a soldier or a sailor, and they are rarely found in those positions unless great gain is holden up.
With this pleasantry the youth departed, leaving Michael to write the letter which he had advised as written. As he drew the writing materials towards him he cursed his brother officer quietly and politely for a meddling young fool. He wrote a formal letter to the Company—the old East India Company which administered an empire with ledger and daybook—calling their attention to the mistake in the newspaper, and begging them not to trouble to give the matter publicity, as he had already advised his friends.
This done, he proceeded with the ordinary routine of his daily life. Such men as this are case-hardened. They carry with them a conscience like the floor of an Augean stable, but they know how to walk thereon. Moreover, he was one of those who assign to their dealings with men quite a different code of morals to that reserved for women. His was the code of "not being found out." Men are more suspicious—they find out sooner: ergo the morals to be observed vis a vis to them are of a stricter order. Railway companies and women are by many looked upon as fair game for deception. Consciences tender in many other respects have a subtle contempt for these two exceptions. Many a so-called honest man travels gaily in a first-class carriage with a second-class ticket, and lies to a woman at each end of his journey without so much as casting a shadow upon his conscience.
Seymour Michael carried this code to the farthest limit of safety. All through the months that followed he went about his business with a clear conscience and a heart slightly relieved by the removal of Anna Hethbridge from his path to prosperity. He served his country and the Company with a keenness of foresight and a soldierly exposure of the lives of others which did not fail, in the course of time, to bring him in a harvest of honours and rewards. Neither did he put his candle under a bushel, but set it in the very highest candlestick available.
But, as has been previously stated, he could not foresee everything. He did not know, for instance, that his cheroot-smoking subaltern—a youth as guileless as he was indiscreet, for the two usually go together—possessed a memory like a dry-plate. He did not foresee that a passing conversation in an Indian bungalow might perchance photograph itself on the somewhat sparsely covered tablets of a man's mind, to be reproduced at the wrong moment with a result lying twenty-six years ahead in the womb of time.
L'amour fait tout excuser, mais il faut etre bien sur qu'il y a de i amour.
Miss Anna Hethbridge loved Seymour Michael with as great a love as her nature could compass.
When the news of his death reached her, at the profusely laden breakfast-table at Jaggery House, Clapham Common, her first feeling was one of scornful anger towards a Providence which could be so careless. Life had always been prosperous for her, in a bourgeois, solidly wealthy way, entirely suited to her turn of mind. She had always had servants at her beck and call, whom she could abuse illogically and treat with an utter inconsequence inherent in her nature. She had been the spoilt child of a ponderous, thick-skinned father and a very suburban mother, who, out of her unexpected prosperity, could deny her daughter nothing.
Three months after the receipt of the news Anna Hethbridge went down into Hertfordshire, where, in the course of a visit at Stagholme Rectory, she met and became engaged to the Squire of Stagholme, James Edward Agar.
A month later she became the second wife of the simple-minded old country gentleman. It would be hard to say what motives prompted her to this apparently heartless action. Some women are heartless—we know that. But Anna Hethbridge was too impulsive, too excitable, and too much given to pleasure to be devoid of heart. Behind her action there must have been some strange, illogical, feminine motive, for there was a deliberation in every move—one of those motives which are quite beyond the masculine comprehension. One notices that when a woman takes action in this incomprehensible way her lady friends are never surprised; they seem to have some subtle sympathy with her. It is only the men who look puzzled, as if the ground beneath their feet were unstable. Therefore there must be some influence at work, probably the same influence, under different forms, which urges women to those strange, inconsequent actions by which their lives are rendered miserable. Men have not found it out yet.
Anna Hethbridge was at this time twenty-four years of age, rather pretty, with a vivacity of manner which only seemed frivolous to the more thoughtful of her acquaintances. The idea of her marrying old Squire Agar within six months of the untimely death of her clever lover, Seymour Michael, seemed so preposterous that her hostess, good, sentimental Mrs. Glynde, never dreamt of such a possibility until, in the form of a fact, it was confided to her by Miss Hethbridge, one afternoon soon after her arrival at the rectory.
"Confound it, Maria," exclaimed the Rector testily, when the information was passed on to him later in the evening. "Why could you not have foreseen such an absurd event?"
Poor Mrs. Glynde looked distressed. She was a thin little woman, with an unsteady head, physically and morally speaking; full of kindness of heart, sentimentality, high-flown principles, and other bygone ladylike commodities. Her small, eager face, of a ruddy and weather-worn complexion—as if she had, at some early period of her existence, been left out all night in an east wind—was puckered up with a sense of her own negligence.
She tried hard, poor little woman, to take a deep and Christian interest in the welfare of her neighbours; but all the while she was conscious of failure. She knew that even at that moment, when she was sitting in her small arm-chair with clasped, guilty hands, her whole heart and soul were absorbed beyond retrieval in a small bundle of white flannel and pink humanity in a cradle upstairs.
The Rector had dropped his weekly review upon his knees and was staring at her angrily.
"I really can't tell," he continued, "what you can have been thinking about to let such a ridiculous thing come to pass. What are you thinking about now?"
"Well, dear," confessed the little woman shamedly, "I was thinking of Baby—of Dora."
"Thought so," he snapped, with a little laugh, returning to his paper with a keen interest. But he did not seem to be following the printed lines.
"I suppose she was all right when you were up just now!" he said carelessly after a moment, and without lowering his paper.
"Yes, dear," the lady replied. "She was asleep."
And this young mother of forty smiled softly to herself as if at some recollection.
This happiness had come late, as happiness must for us to value it fully, and Mrs. Glynde's somewhat old-fashioned Christianity was of that school which seeks to depreciate by hook or by crook the enjoyment of those sparse goods that the gods send us. The stone in her path at this time was an exaggerated sense of her own unworthiness—a matter which she might safely have left to another and wiser judgment.
Presently the Rector laid aside the newspaper, and rose slowly from his chair.
"Are you going upstairs, dear?" inquired his tactless spouse.
"Um—er. Yes! I am just going up to get—a pocket-handkerchief."
Mrs. Glynde said nothing; but as she knew the creak of every board in the room overhead she became aware shortly afterwards that the Rector had either diverged slightly from the path of which he was the ordained finger-post, or that he had suddenly taken to keeping his pocket-handkerchiefs in the far corner of the room where the cradle stood.
It will be readily understood that in a household ruled, as this rectory was, by a sleepy little morsel of humanity, Anna Hethbridge was in no way hindered in the furtherance of her own personal purposes—one might almost add periodical purposes, for she never held to one for long.
The Squire was very lonely. His boy Jem, aged four, would certainly be the happier for a mother's care. Above all, Miss Hethbridge seemed to want the marriage, and so it came about.
If Anna Hethbridge had been asked at that time why she wanted it, she would probably have told an untruth. She was rather given, by the way, to telling untruths. Had she, in fact, given a reason at all, she would perforce have left the straight path, because she had no reason in her mind.
The real motive was probably a love of excitement; and Miss Anna Hethbridge is not the only woman, by many thousands, who has married for that same reason.
The wedding was celebrated quietly at the Clapham parish church. A humiliating day for the stiff-necked old Squire of Stagholme; for he was introduced to many new relatives, who, if they could have bought up Stagholme and its master, were but poorly equipped with the letter "h." The bourgeois ostentation and would-be high-toned graciousness of the ladies, jarred on his nerves as harshly as did the personal appearance of their respective husbands.
Altogether it was just possible that Squire Agar began to realise the extent of his own foolishness before the effervescence had left the champagne that flowed freely to the health of bride and bride-groom.
The event was duly announced in the leading newspapers, and in the course of a few days a copy of the Times containing the insertion started eastward to meet Seymour Michael on his way home from India.
Anna Agar came home to Stagholme to begin her new life; for which peaceful groove of existence she was by the way totally unfitted; for she had breathed the fatal air of Clapham since her birth. This atmosphere is terribly impregnated with the microbe of bourgeoisie.
But the novelty of the great house had that all-absorbing fascination exercised over shallow minds by anything that is new. At first she maintained excitedly that there was no life like a country life—no centre more suited for such an ideal existence than Stagholme. For a time she forgot Seymour Michael; but love is eminently deceitful. It lies in a comatose silence for many years and then suddenly springs to life. Sometimes the long period of rest has strengthened it—sometimes the time has been passed in a chrysalis stage from which Love awakens to find itself changed into Hatred.
Little Jem, her stepson—sturdy, fair, silent—was her first failure.
"Come to your mother, dear," she said, with unguarded enthusiasm one afternoon when there were callers in the room.
"I cannot go to my mother," replied the youthful James, with his mouth full of cake, "because she is dead."
There was an uncompromising matter-of-factness about this simple statement, made in all good faith and honesty, which warned the second Mrs. Agar to press the matter no farther just then. But she was so intent upon exhibiting to her neighbours the maternal affection which she persuaded herself that she felt for the plain-spoken heir to Stagholme, that she took him to task afterwards. With great care and an utter lack of logic she devoted some hours to the instruction of Jem in the somewhat crooked ways of her social creed.
"And when," she added, "I tell you to come to your mother, you must come and kiss me."
This last item she further impressed upon him by the gift of an orange, and then asked him if he understood.
After scratching his head meditatively for some moments, he looked into her comely face with very steady blue eyes and said:
"I don't think so—not quite."
"Then," replied his stepmother angrily, "you are a very stupid little boy—and you must go up to the nursery at once."
This puzzled Jem still more, and he walked upstairs reflecting deeply. Years afterwards, when he was a man, the sunlight falling on the wall through the skylight over the staircase had the power of bringing back that moment to him—a moment when the world first began to open itself before him and to puzzle him.
It happened that at that precise time when Mrs. Agar was endeavouring To teach her little stepson the usages of polite society, a small, keen-faced man was standing near the table in the smoking-room in the Hotel Wagstaff at Suez. He was idly turning over the newspapers lying there in the hopes of finding something comparatively recent in date.
Presently he came upon a copy of the Times, with which he repaired to one of the long chairs on that verandah overlooking the desert which some of us know only too well.
After idly conning the general news he glanced at the births, deaths, and marriages, and there he read of the recent ceremony in the parish church of Clapham.
"D——n it!" he muttered, with that racial love of an expletive which makes a Jew a profane man.
In addition to a strong feeling of wounded vanity that Anna Hethbridge should so soon have forgotten him, Seymour Michael was distinctly disappointed that this heiress should no longer be within his reach. The truth was, that the young lady in India had transferred her valuable affections, with all solid appurtenances attaching thereto, to a young officer in the Navy who had been invalided at Calcutta.
To men who intend, despite all and at any cost, to get on in the world the first failures are usually very bitter. It is only those who press stolidly forward without expecting much, who profit from a check. Seymour Michael was just the man to fail by being too acute, too unscrupulous. He was usually in such a hurry to help himself that he never allowed another the very fruitful pleasure of giving.
In India his zeal had led him into one or two small mistakes to which he himself attached no importance, but they were remembered against him. He had cruelly thrown aside Anna Hethbridge when a richer marriage offered itself. Now he had missed both bone and reflection, and he sat with a smile on his dark face, looking out over the dreary desert.
The evil is sown, but the destruction thereof is not yet come.
James Edward Makerstone Agar was not at the age of five the material from which the heroes of children's stories are evolved. He was not a good boy, nor a clean, nor particularly interesting. He was, however, honest—and that is deja quelque chose. He was as far removed from the "misunderstood" type as could be wished; and he was quite happy.
Before his stepmother had laid aside the title and glory of a bride, he had, by his deadly honesty, made her understand that even a child of five requires what she could not give him—namely, logic. Had she been clever enough to reason logically she might have undermined the little fellow's innate honesty of character, despite the fact that he lacked a child's chief incentive to learn from its mother, namely, the sympathy of heredity.
Gradually and steadily Mrs. Agar "gave him up," to make use of her own expression. She was one of those women who either fear or despise that which they do not understand. She could scarcely fear Jem, so she persuaded herself that he was stupid and unattractive. At this time there came another influence to militate against any excess of love between Jem and his stepmother. It came to her, for he was ignorant of it. And this was the knowledge that before long the little heir's undisputed reign in the nursery would come to an end.
With a suburban horror of being a long distance from the chemist, Mrs. Agar protested that she could not possibly remain at Stagholme during the ensuing winter, and that her child must be born at Clapham. It was vain to argue or reason, and at last the Squire was forced to swallow this second humiliation, which was quite beyond his wife's comprehension. He only dared to hint that all the Agars had seen the light at Stagholme since time immemorial; but feelings of this description found no answering note in her practical and essentially commonplace mind. So Mr. And Mrs. Agar emigrated to Clapham, leaving Jem behind them.
It happened that a few days after their arrival at the stately house overlooking the Common, a young officer called to see Mr. Hethbridge, who was at that time one of the Directors of the East India Company. Now it furthermore happened that this young soldier was he whom we last saw smoking a cheroot in the doorway of Seymour Michael's bungalow in India. As chance would have it, he called in the evening, and the estimable Mr. Hethbridge, warmed into an unusual hospitality by the fumes of his own port wine, pressed him to pass into the drawing-room and take a dish of tea with the ladies. The subaltern accepted, chiefly because it was the Director's self that pressed, and presently followed that short-winded gentleman into the drawing-room—thereby shaping lives yet uncreated—thereby unconsciously helping to work out a chain of events leading ultimately to an end which no man could foresee.
"Yes," he said, in reply to Mrs. Agar's question, "I am just back from India."
It happened that these two were left almost beyond earshot at the far end of the room. The old people, among whom was Mrs. Agar's husband, were settling down to a game of whist. Mrs. Agar was leaning forward with considerable interest. This was not a mere passing curiosity to hear further of a country and of an event which have not lost their glamour yet.
The very word "India" had stirred something up within her heart of the presence of which she had been unsuspicious. She was as one who, having a closed room in her life, and thinking the door thereof securely barred, suddenly finds herself within that room.
"Whereabouts in India were you?" she asked, with a sudden dryness of the lips.
"Oh—I was north of Delhi."
"North of Delhi—oh, yes."
She moistened her lips, with a strange, sidelong glance round the room, as if she were preparing to jump from a height.
"And—and I suppose you saw a great deal of the Mutiny?"
Even then—after many months, in a drawing-room in peaceful Clapham—the young man's eyes hardened.
"Yes, I saw a good deal," he answered.
Mrs. Agar leant back in her chair, drawing her handkerchief through her fingers with jerky, unnatural movements.
"And did you lose many friends?" she asked.
"Yes," answered the young fellow, "in one way and another."
"How? What do you mean?" She had a way of leaning forward and listening when spoken to, which passed very well for sympathy.
"Well, a time like the Mutiny brings out all that is in a man, you know. And some men had less in them than one might have thought, while others—quiet-going fellows—seemed to wake up."
"Yes," she said; "I see."
"One or two," he continued, "betrayed themselves. They showed that there was that in them which no one had suspected. I lost one friend that way."
It was marvellous how the merest details of India interested this woman, who, like most of us, did not know herself. Moreover, she never learnt to do so thoroughly, thereby being spared the horrid pain of knowing oneself too late.
"I made a mistake," he explained. "I thought he was a gentleman and a brave man. I found that he was a coward and a cad."
Something urged her to go on with her pointless questions—the same inevitable Fate which, according to the Italians, "stands at the end of everything," and which had prompted Mr. Hethbridge to bring this stranger into the drawing-room.
"But how did you find it out?"
"Oh, I did not do it all at once. I first began by a mere trifle. It happened that this man was reported dead in the Gazette—I showed it to him myself."
The young officer, who was not accustomed to ladies' society, and felt rather nervous at his own loquaciousness, kept his eyes fixed on his boots, and did not notice the deathly pallor of Mrs. Agar's face, nor the convulsive clutch of her fingers on the velvet arm of the chair.
She turned right round, with a peculiar movement of the throat as if swallowing something, and made sure that the whist-players were interested in their game. In that position she heard the next words.
"He did not even take the trouble to write home to his friends. I thought it rather strange at the time, and told him so. Later on I heard the truth of it. I heard him tell some one else that he was engaged to a girl in England, and he thought it a very good way of getting out of the engagement."
"You heard him tell that, with your own ears?"
"Yes; and he seemed to think it a good joke."
Mrs. Agar was shuffling about in the chair as if in pain.
Then she asked again in a strangely metallic voice, "Did he say that he—did not love her?"
"Yes, the cad!"
"He cannot have been a nice man," she said, with that evenness of enunciation which betrays that the tongue is speaking without the direct aid of the mind.
The young officer rose with a glance towards the clock.
"No," he said, "he was not. He did other things afterwards which made it quite impossible for a man with any self-respect whatever to look upon him as a friend."
"Did he," asked Mrs. Agar, "say anything about her personal appearance? Was it that?"
The subaltern looked puzzled. It was as well for Mrs. Agar that he was not a man of deep experience. Instead of being puzzled he might suddenly have seen clear.
"No—no," he replied. "It was not that. It was merely a matter of expediency, I believe."
But, womanlike, Mrs. Agar did not believe him. She sat while he made his farewell speech over the whist-table, but as he went to the door she rose and followed him slowly.
In the hall she watched the servant help him on with his coat—her features twisted into a stereotype smile of polite leave-taking.
"By the way," she said, with a sickening little laugh, "what was the man's name—your friend, whom you lost?"
Then she turned and walked slowly upstairs.
We are apt to read indifferently of human ills, whether of the flesh or the soul. We are apt to overlook the fact that what we read may apply to us. Some of us even bear upon us the mark of hereditary disease and refuse to believe in it. Then suddenly comes a day when a pain makes itself felt—a dumb, little creeping pain, which may mean nothing. We sit down and, so to speak, feel ourselves. Before long all doubt goes. We have it. The world darkens, and behold we are in the ranks of those upon whom we looked a little while back with a semi-indifferent pity.
It was thus with Mrs. Agar. As some play with nature, so had she played with her own heart. She had heard of a consuming love which is near akin to hatred. She had read of passion which is stronger than the strongest worldliness. She had smilingly doubted the existence of the broken heart pure and simple. And now she sat in her own room, numbly, blindly feeling herself, like one to whom the first warning of an internal deadly disease has been manifested. She was conscious of something within herself which she could not get at, over which she had no control.
With quivering lips she sat and wondered what she could do to hurt this man. She did not only want to inflict bodily pain, but that other gnawing pain of the heart which she herself was now feeling for the first time. And through it all there ran the one thought that he must die. It was strange that hate should first teach her that love is a living, undeniable reality in the lives of all of us. She had never realised this before. Her bringing-up, her surroundings, all her teaching had been that money and a great house, and servants, and carriages were the good things of this life, the things to be sought after.
She had been conscious of a vague admiration for Seymour Michael, and that was the full extent of her knowledge of herself. This admiration took the worldly form of a conviction that he was destined one day to be a great man, and she had a strongly developed, common-minded desire to be a great lady.
There are some things in this life which to a moderate intelligence are quite unmistakable. Most of us, having left childhood behind, recognise at once an earthquake, and death. Love is as unmistakable when it really comes. And Anna Agar, having suddenly learnt to hate Seymour Michael, knew that she had loved him with that one all-absorbing love which comes but once to a woman.
She was not a deep-thinking or a subtle woman. Her actions were usually based upon impulse, and her one all-absorbing desire now was to see him, to speak to him face to face. In this indefinite longing there was probably a vulgar love of vituperation—the taint of her low-born ancestors.
She wanted to shout and shriek her hatred into the evil face of the man who had tricked her. She wanted to frighten him, to threaten, to lash him with her tongue. For she was conscious all the while of her own inability to harm him. Without defining the thought, her common-sense taught her one lamentable, unjust fact; namely, that unless a woman is loved by the object of her wrath she can hardly make him suffer.
She rose at last, and, lighting the candles on the writing-table, she proceeded to write to Seymour Michael. Even in this epistle the natural cunning of her nature appeared.
"DEAR SEYMOUR "—she wrote on a sheet of paper bearing the address of the house in which she was staying, the roof under which Seymour Michael had first paid his careless tribute to her wealth—"I learnt by accident this evening that your regiment has returned to England. If you are in London, I hope you will make time to come and see me. Come to-morrow evening at four, if that time is convenient to you. ANNA."
She purposely signed her Christian name only, purposely refrained from vouchsafing any personal news. She did not know how much or how little he might know.
Ringing for her maid, she sent the letter to the post, addressed to Seymour Michael, at the Service Club, of which she knew him to be a member. Then she went to bed to toss and turn all night. The doctors, good, portly Clapham practitioners, had warned her in the usual way to spare herself all bodily fatigue and mental worry for the sake of the little one. It is so easy to urge each other to spare all mental worry, and so eminently useful.
I shall remember while the light lives yet, And in the darkness I shall not forget.
Seymour Michael was no coward where hard words and no hard knocks were to be exchanged. His faith in his own keenness of intellect and unscrupulousness of tongue was unbounded.
He smiled when he read Anna Agar's letter over a dainty breakfast at his club the next morning. The cunning of it was obvious to his cunning comprehension, and the fact of her suppressing her newly-acquired surname only convinced him that she knew but little about himself.
That same evening at four o'clock he presented himself at the lordly hall-door of Mr. Hethbridge. Since first he had raised his hand to this knocker, fingering his letter of introduction to the East India director, Seymour Michael had learnt many things, but the knowledge was not yet his that indiscriminate untruths are apt to fly home to roost.
Anna Agar had easily managed to send her mother out of the house; her husband spent his days as far from Clapham as circumstances would allow. She was seated on a sofa at the far end of the room when Seymour Michael was shown in, and the first thing that struck her was his diminutiveness. After the hearty country gentlemen who habitually carried mud into the Stagholme drawing-room, this small-limbed dapper soldier of fortune looked almost puny. But there is a depth in every woman's heart which is only to be reached by one man. Whatever betide them both, that one is different from the rest all through life.
Neither of these two persons spoke until the servant had closed the door. Then, as is usual in such cases, the more indifferent spoke first.
"Why did you never write to me?" said Seymour Michael, fixing his mournful glance on her face.
"Because I thought you were dead."
"You never got my letter contradicting the report?"
"No," she answered, with so cheap a cunning that it deceived him.
"And," he went on, with the heartlessness of a small man, for large men respect woman with a deeper chivalry than every puny knight yet compassed, "and you did not trouble to inquire. You did not even give me six months' grace to cool in my grave."
"How did you send your letter?" she asked, with a suppressed excitement which he misread entirely.
"By the usual route. I wrote off at once."
"Liar! liar! liar!" she shrieked.
She had risen, and stood pointing an accusatory finger at him. Then suddenly the dramatic force of the situation seemed to fail, and she burst out laughing. For some seconds it seemed as if her laughter was getting beyond her control, but at last she checked it with a gurgle.
The complete success of the trap which she had laid for him almost disappointed her. Few things are more disappointing than complete success. She hated him, and yet for the sake of the one gleam of good love that had flickered once in her essentially sordid heart, she had nourished a vague hope that he would clear himself—that at all events he would have the cleverness to see through her stratagem.
"Liar!" she repeated. "In this room last night—not twenty-four hours ago—Mr. Wynderton told me all about it. He said that you told several men in his presence that you did not love me, and that your death reported in the papers was the best way of breaking off the engagement."
Seymour Michael's eyes never wavered. For once they were still, with that solemn depth of gaze which tells of the curse laid on a smitten, miserable race. It was strange that before honest men and women his glance wavered ever—he could never meet honest eyes; but looking at Anna Agar they were as steady as those of a true man.
"Wynderton," ho said, "the man whose promotion I stopped, by a report against him for looting."
When Nature makes a fool in the guise of a woman she turns out a finished work. Mrs. Agar's eyes actually lighted up. Seymour Michael saw; but he knew that he had no case. Nevertheless, in view of the Squire's advanced age (a fact of which he had made sure), he attempted to carry through a forlorn hope.
"And you believe this man before you believe me?" said Michael. It is strange how often one hears the word "believe" on the lips of those whose veracity is doubtful.
Now it happened that Mr. Hethbridge had spoken of Wynderton at breakfast that morning in terms which left no doubt as to the untruth of the statement just made in regard to him. But even this would have been passed over by the woman who had a natural tendency towards falsehood herself, had not Seymour Michael made a hideous mistake. A wiser man than any of us has said that there is a time for all things. Most distinctly defined is the time for making love. More men come to grief by making too much love than too little. Seymour Michael, being heartless, deemed erroneously that this was a propitious moment to essay the power which had once been his over this woman.
He accompanied his reproachful speech with a tender glance, which in olden times had never failed to call forth an answering look of love in her eyes. Now, it suddenly aroused her to realise the extent of her hatred. In some subtle way it humiliated her; for she looked back into the past, and saw herself therein a dupe to this man.
"No!" she cried, and her raised voice had a sudden twang in it—suggestive of the streets; of the People. "No—you needn't trouble to make soft eyes at me. I know you now—I know that what that man said was true. He called you a coward and a cad. You are worse! You are a Jew—a mean, lying Jew."
There are few greater trials to a man's dignity than vituperation from the lips of a woman. She walked towards him, clumsily, menacingly and raised her hand as if to strike him.
Seymour Michael's brown face turned yellow beneath her blazing anger.
"Sit down!" he commanded, "and don't make a fool of yourself."
He was mean enough to pay her back in her own coin—the paltry, loud-ringing coin which is all that a woman has.
"I do not mean to wrangle," he said coolly; "but I may as well tell you now that I never cared a jot for you. I was laughing at you in my sleeve all the time. I did not want you but your money. I concluded that the money would be too dear at the price, so I determined to throw you over. The way I chose to do it was as good as any other, because it saved me the trouble of writing to you."
Anna Agar had obeyed him. She was sitting down in a stiff-backed arm-chair, looking stupidly at the pattern of the carpet as if it were something new to her. Between physical pain and mental excitement she was beginning to wander. She was the sort of woman to lose control over her mind with a temperature of one hundred and one.
Michael looked keenly at her. He had a racial terror of physical ailment. He saw that something was wrong, but his knowledge went no further. He had never seen a woman faint, so limited had been his experience of the sex.
"Come," he said consolingly, "it is all for the best. We made a mistake. In a few years we shall look back to this, and thank Heaven for saving us many years of unhappiness. We are not suited to each other, Anna. We never should have been happy."
It was characteristic of the man to be more afraid of a fainting fit than of a broken heart.
He went to her side and stood, not daring to touch her, for fear of arousing another of those fits of passion in her which neither of them seemed to understand. At length she spoke in a singular monotonous tone which an experienced doctor would have recognised at once as the speech of a tongue unguided for the time being. She did not look up, but kept her eyes fixed on the carpet as if reading there.
"Some day," she said, "I will pay you back. Some day—some day. I do not know how, but I feel that you will be sorry you ever did this."
Twenty-five years afterwards these words came back to him in a flash. They passed through his brain—conglomerate—in a flash, in a hundredth part of the time required to speak them.
Even at the time of hearing them, spoken in that voice which did not seem to belong to Anna Hethbridge at all, he turned pale. For all the hatred that burnt within her like a fire smouldered in the deliberate tones of her voice. Hatred and love can teach us more in a moment than the experience of a lifetime; for through either of them we see ourselves face to face. This hatred made Anna Agar in twenty-four hours, and the woman thus created went through a lifetime unchanged.
Michael went towards the bell.
"I am going to ring," he said, "for your maid."
"Twice," she muttered in the same vague way.
He obeyed her, ringing twice.
Presently the woman came.
"Your mistress," said Michael in a low voice to her at the door, "has been suddenly seized with faintness. I leave her to you."
Without looking round he passed through the doorway and out into his own self-seeking life. But Anna Agar's revenge began from that moment. To a man of his nature, in whose veins ran the taint of a semi-superstitious Oriental blood, there was a nameless terror in the hatred of a human being, however helpless. Surely the hell of the coward will be a twilight land of vague shadowy dangers ever approaching and receding.
In such a land Seymour Michael moved for some months, until he returned to India; and there, in the daily round of a new life, he gradually learnt to shake off the past. The world is very large despite chance meetings. It is easy enough to find room for two even in the same county, with the exercise of a little care.
Twenty-five years elapsed before these two met again, and then they only had time to exchange a glance. By that time the result of their own actions had passed beyond their control.
Seymour Michael walked across the Common, which was in those days still wild and almost beautiful; and on the whole he was pleased with the result of this interview. He knew that it was destined to come sooner or later—he had known that all along; and it might have been worse. It is characteristic of an untruthful nature to be impervious to the shame of mere detection. In Eastern countries the liar detected smiles in one's face. Detection is to an Oriental no punishment; something more tangible is required to pierce his mental epidermis.
Being quite incapable of a strong love this man was innocent of consuming hatred. He therefore vaguely wondered whether the day might come wherein he would once more lay siege to the affections of Anna Agar, a rich widow.
Had he seen the face of the woman whom he had just left as it lay at that moment, hardly less pale than the pillow between the fluted mahogany pillars of a huge four-post bed, he would not have understood its meaning. He would never have divined that the dull gleam shining between her half-closed eyelids was simple hatred of himself, that the restless, twitching lips were whispering curses upon his head, that the half-stunned brain was struggling back to circulation and thought for the sole purpose of devising hurt to him.
Seymour Michael, ignorant of all this, went peaceably back to his club, where he dressed, dined, and proceeded to pass the evening at a theatre.
That night, while he was displaying his diamond studs in the stalls of Drury Lane Theatre, was born into the world—long before his time—a child, Arthur Agar, destined to walk the smoothest paths of life, literally in silk attire; for he grew up to love such things.
But the ways of Nature are strange. She is very quiet; patient as death itself. She holds her hand for years—sometimes for a generation—but she strikes at last.
She is more cruel than man, or even than woman which is saying much, She is the best friend we have, and the worst foe, for she never forgives an outrage.
Nature raised her hand over this puny, whimpering child, Arthur Agar. She never forgot a mother's selfish passion. She forgets nothing. When first he opened his little pink lids upon the world he looked round with a scared wonder in a pair of colourless blue-grey eyes; and that vague look of expectation never left his eyes in later life. It almost seemed as if the infant orbs could see ahead into the future—could discern the lowering hand of outraged Nature.
This hand was suspended over the ill-fated, poorly-endowed head for years, then Nature struck—hard.
AFTER NINETEEN YEARS
A sharp judgment shall be to them that be in high places.
"Yes, dear. I have great news for you to take back to your mother. Jem has got his commission—in a Goorkha regiment!"
The lady who spoke leant back in her chair, half turning her head, but not looking entirely round in the direction of the only other occupant of the room—a girl of nineteen.
"In a Goorkha regiment, Aunt Anna?" repeated the girl; "what is that? It sounds as if he would have to black his face and wear a turban. It suggests curry and gymkhanas (whatever they may be) and pyjamas and bananas and other pickles. A Goorkha regiment."
There was a faint drop in her tone—on the last three words, which to very keen ears might have signified reproach, but the hearer was not keen—merely cunning, which is quite a different matter.
"Yes, dear. They tell me that these Indian regiments are much the best for a young man who is likely to get on. There are so many more chances of promotions and—er—er—distinction."
The girl was standing by the open window, and she turned her head without otherwise moving, looking at the speaker with a pair of exceedingly discriminating eyes.
"Bosh, my dear aunt!" she whispered confidingly to the blind-cord.
"Yes," pursued the lady, with the eager credulity of her first mother, ever ready to believe the last speaker when belief is convenient—"Yes. Sister Cecilia tells me that all the great men began in the Indian Service."
"Oh! I wonder where they finished. Royal Academy—finishing Academy. Regimentals and a gold frame—leaning heroically on a mild-looking cannon with battles in the background."
"Yes, dear," replied Mrs. Agar, who only half understood Dora Glynde at all times; "it is such a good thing for Jem. Such a splendid opportunity, you know!"
"Yes," echoed the girl, with a twist of her humorous lips. "Splendid!"
She had turned again, and was looking out of the window across a soft old lawn where two Wellingtonians towered side by side like sentries. Without glancing in the direction of her companion she knew the expression of Mrs. Agar's face, the direction of her gaze; the very thought in her shallow mind. She knew that Mrs. Agar was sitting with her arms on the little davenport, gazing rapturously at the photograph of an insipid young man with a silk-faced smoking jacket; with clean linen, clean countenance, clean hands, immaculate hair, and a general air of being too weak to be mean.
"Sister Cecilia," went on the elder lady, "seems to know all about it."
It is useless to attempt concealment of the fact that at this juncture Dora Glynde made a face—an honest schoolgirl behind-your-back Face—indicative of supreme scorn for some person or persons unspecified.
Hers was a countenance which lent itself admirably to the purpose, with lips full of humour, and capable, as such lips are, of expressing a great and wonderful tenderness. The face, du reste, was that of a healthy, fair-skinned English girl, liable to honest change from pale to pink, according to the dictates of an arbitrary climate. Her eyes were of a dark grey-blue, straightforward and steady, with a shadow of thought in them which made wise people respect her presence. She was not painfully beautiful, like the heroine of a novel—nor abnormally plain, like the antitype who has found her way into fiction, and there (alone) brings all hearts to her feet.
"Is Jem glad?" she asked cheerfully. "Is he thirsting for gore and glory?"
"Oh, delighted! Arthur will be so pleased too. Dear boy, he is so interested in soldiers, but of course he could not go into the army! He is too delicate—besides, the life is rough, and the risks are very great."
Mrs. Agar was speaking with her head slightly inclined to one side, and she never raised her adoring eyes from the photograph of the insipid young man. Had she done so she would have seen a look of patient, if comic, resignation come over the face of her youthful companion at the mention of her son's name.
"I will tell mother," said Dora Glynde, purposely ignoring Arthur Agar, whose name was always dragged sooner or later into every conversation. "Fancy Jem in a helmet, or a turban, with his face blacked! All the same, if I were a man I should be a soldier. When does he go—to join his regiment?"
"Oh, almost at once."
The girl winced, quietly, between herself and the blind-cord.
"And in the meantime," she said lightly, "I suppose he is fully engaged in buying swords and guns and bomb-shells, or whatever the Goorkhas use in warfare."
"He is coming home to-morrow for Sunday," replied Jem Agar's stepmother absently. She was thinking of her own son, and therefore did not hear the quick sigh which was almost a gasp; did not note the sudden light in the girl's eyes.
Dora Glynde was rather a solitary-minded young person. The only child of elderly parents, she had never learnt in the nursery to indulge in the indiscretions of confiding girlhood. She had the good fortune to be without a bosom-friend who related her most sacred secrets to other bosom friends and so on, as is the way of maidens. From her father she had inherited a discriminating mind and a most admirable habit of reserve. She was quite happy when alone, which, according to La Bruyere, is a great safeguard against all evil.
She wanted to be alone now, and therefore passed out of the open window with a non-committing "Good-bye, Aunt Anna!"
"Good-bye, dear," replied the lady, awaking suddenly from a reverie. But by the time she had turned round in her chair, the girl was gone.
Dora crossed the lawn, passing between the sentinel pines and crossing the moat by the narrow footbridge. She climbed the railing with all the ease of nineteen years and struck a bee-line across the park. She never raised her eyes from the ground, never paused in her swinging gait, until she reached the brown hush of the beechwood which divided the Rectory garden from the southern extremity of the park.
Having climbed the railing again she sat on a mossy mound at the foot of a huge beech tree. Her manner of doing so subtly indicated that she did not only know the spot, but was in the habit of sitting there, possibly to think. A youthful privilege of doubtful value, for, as we get busier in life we have to do the thinking as we go along.
"Oh!" she muttered, "oh, how awful!"
A new expression had come over her face. She looked older, and all the vivacity had suddenly left her lips.
While she was still sitting there the crisp sound of footsteps on the fallen leaves approached through the wood. Looking up she saw her father, following the winding path through the spinney towards his home.
A grave man was the Rector of Stagholme in his declining years; hopelessly, wisely pessimistic, with sudden youthful returns of interest in matters literary and theological. As he came he read a book.
Instantly the expression of Dora's face changed. She rose and went towards him, smiling contemptuously towards his lowering gravity. He looked up, gave a little grunt of recognition, and closed his book.
"Father," she said, "I've just heard a piece of news."
"Bad, I suppose."
"Well," she answered, "I suppose we shall survive it. Jem has got his commission, in a Goorkha regiment."
"Goorkha regiment? Nonsense!"
"Aunt Anna has just told me so. She is very pleased, and seems prepared for the—best."
"That is the custom of fools, to be prepared for the best—only."
The Rector gave a despairing shrug of the shoulders. He was a man who allowed himself, after the manner of the ancients with whom he lived mentally, a few gestures. He smoked a very expressive cigarette. He was smoking one at this moment, and threw it away half consumed. This divine was possessed of a rooted conviction that the Almighty made a great mistake whenever He invested temporal power in a woman, whom he was ungallantly inclined to classify under a celebrated dictum of Mr. Carlyle's respecting the population of these happy Isles, who, truth to tell, care not one jot what Mr. Carlyle may think of them.
The Reverend Thomas Glynde and his daughter walked all the way home without exchanging another word. In the Rectory drawing-room they found Mrs. Glynde, small, nervous, worried. She had evidently devoted considerable thought and attention to the preservation of the hot buttered toast. Poor humble little soul, she was quite content to minister to the bodily requirements of her spouse, having long been convinced of the inferiority of her own sex in every respect except a certain limited knowledge of housekeeping matters.
She was vaguely conscious of inferiority to Dora from a literary point of view, and talked with abject humility to her own daughter of all things appertaining to books. But on all other points connected with the child of her old age this quiet little woman was absolute mistress. Years before the Rector had made a great mistake; he had, as the plain-spoken East Burgen doctor put it, made an ass of himself on the matter of a childish illness, thereby imperilling Dora's half-fledged little life. Mrs. Glynde had then, like a diminutive tigress, stood up boldly before her awesome lord and master, saying such things to him that the remembrance of them made her catch her breath even now. From that time forth the Rector was allowed to hold forth on symptoms to his heart's content, to take down from his library shelf a stout misguided book of medical short-cuts to the grave, but nothing more.
He never referred to the asinine business, and in the course of years he forgave the doctor (having in view the fact that that practitioner had been carried away by a right and proper sense of the importance of the case), but he tacitly acknowledged that in the practice of home-administered medical assistance, his knowledge was second to a mother's instinct.
"It appears," he said sharply, while he was stirring his tea, "that Jem Agar has got his commission in a Goorkha regiment."
Now Mrs. Glynde knew more about the organisation of the heavenly bands than of the administration of the Indian army. She did not know whether to rejoice or lament, and having been sharply pulled up—any time during the last twenty years—for doing one or the other in the wrong place, she meekly took soundings.
"What is that, dear?" she inquired.
"The Goorkhas are native Indian soldiers," explained the Rector. "Very good fellows, no doubt. They get all the hard knocks in small frontier wars and none of the half-pence. What the woman can have been thinking of, I don't know."
Mrs. Glynde was anxiously glancing towards Dora, who was nicking the nose of a sportive kitten with the tassel of the tea-cosy.
"And will he go to India?" she asked, with laudable mental grovellings in the mire of her own ignorance.
"Course he will."
"And," added Dora cheerfully, "he will come home covered with glory and medals, with a weakness for strong pickles and hot language—I mean hot pickles and strong language."
"But," said Mrs. Glynde rather breathlessly, "are they never stationed in England?"
"No—never," replied her husband snappishly.
Mrs. Glynde had a pink patch on each cheek—precisely on the spot whore two such patches had appeared years ago when the doctor spoke so strongly. Those patches were maternal, and only appeared when Dora's affairs, spiritual or temporal, were concerned.
"I don't know," put in Dora again, "but I have a sort of lurking conviction that Jem will have to wear a turban and red morocco boots."
"But," pursued Mrs. Glynde, with that courage which cometh with a red patch on either cheek, "I always thought these Indian regiments were meant for people who are badly off."
The Rector gave a short laugh.
"You are not so very far wrong, my dear," he admitted. "And no one can say that Jem is badly off. He will be very rich some day."
The Rector assumed an air of superior discretion, to which he usually treated his women-folk when he thought fit to consider that they were touching on matters beyond their jurisdiction.
"Some more tea, please, mother," put in Dora appropriately. "Excuse my appetite. I suppose it is the autumn air."
There was a short silence, during which Mrs, Glynde sought to propitiate her angered spouse with sodden toast and a second brew of tea.
"I always said," observed the Rector at last, "that your cousin was a fool."
And in some indefinite way Mrs. Glynde felt that she was once more responsible.
FOR HIS COUNTRY
Shall I forget on this side of the grave? I promise nothing; you must wait and see.
From the train arriving at East Burgen station at eight o'clock that same evening there alighted a youth who seemed suddenly to have taken manhood upon his shoulders. He stood on the platform and pointed out to a porter, who called him Master James, a large Gladstone bag and a new sword-case.
Although he could have carried the luggage under one arm and the porter under the other, he carefully refrained from offering to convey anything except his own walking-stick. Such is the force of education. This boy had been brought up to expect service. He was to be served all his life, and so the sword-case had to be left to the porter whom he envied.
During the journey down—between the farthest-removed stations—the sword had flashed more than once in the dim light of the carriage lamp. Ah! those first swords! Not Toledo nor Damascus can produce their equal in after years.
The porter, honest father of two private soldiers of the line himself, saw it all—at once. He carried the sword-case with an exaggerated reverence and forbore from remark just then. Afterwards, beneath the station-lamp, he looked at the shilling—the first of its kind from that quarter—with a pathetic, meaning smile.
It was Saturday night. The streets of East Burgen were rather crowded, and Jem Agar—with elbows well in and the whip at the regulation angle across old Lasher's face, who could not help squinting at the pendant thong—shouted to the country-folk in a new voice of mighty deep register.
He carried his boyish head stiffly, and had for ever discarded a turn-down collar. At first he kept old Lasher at a respectful distance, asking in a somewhat curt and business-like manner after the stables. Then gradually, as they bowled along the country road in the familiar hush of an April evening, he thawed, and proceeded to vouchsafe to that steady coachman a series of very interesting details of military matters in general and the Indian army in particular.
"Well, I'm sure, Mas—sir," opined Mr. Lasher at length; "if there's any one as has got into his right rut, so to speak, in this world, it's you. I always said you was a born soldier."
"Ah—then you've heard that I've got my commission?" inquired Jem airily, as if he had had many such in bygone years.
"Oh yes, sir! Miss Dora it was that told me."
Somehow this caused a little silence.
Truth to tell, Dora had lost her rank as the most beautiful and accomplished maiden in Christendom. This situation was at that moment occupied by a young person hight Evelina Louisa Barmond, sister to Billy Barmond of the Hundred and second, a veteran fellow-soldier and comrade who had jumped five feet six at the Sandhurst sports a year before. Miss Evelina Louisa was twenty-four, five years Dora's senior, and only three years and two months older than Jem Agar himself. He had spoken to her twice, and thought about her in the intervals allowed by such weighty matters as uniform and the new sword, which, however, required almost constant consideration at that time.
"Well," said Jem, with exaggerated nonchalance, "I am afraid I should never be fit for anything else."
Whereat Lasher laughed and touched his hat. He made it a rule to salute a joke in that manner, either from a general respect for humour, or looking at it in the light of a mental gratuity offered by his betters.
"There's one thing you can do, Master Jem, sir—leastwise, which you can do as well as any man in the British army," he said, with pardonable pride, "and that is sit a 'orse."
"Thanks to you, Lasher," Jem was kind enough to say with a flourish of his whip.
The dignity was now ebbing fast, and by the time that the clever little cob swung round the gate-post into the avenue of Stagholme, Jem and Lasher were fully re-established on the old familiar footing.
There was a bright moon overhead, and at the end of the avenue beyond the dip where the lake gleamed mysteriously, the gables and solid towers of Stagholme stood peacefully confessed.
Jem Agar was firmly convinced that England only contained one Stagholme, and perhaps he was right. Six miles from the nearest station, the great house stands self-sufficient, self-contained. The moat, now dry and cultivated, is still traceable, and requires bridging in two places. Surrounded by vast park-like meadowland, where huge trees guard against cutting wind or prying modern journalistic instinct, the house is only approached by a private road.
Inside the gates of this road there is something ancient and feudal in the very scent of the air. The tones of the big bell striking the hour over the wide portico die away over the lands that still belong to Stagholme, despite the vicissitudes through which all ancient families run.
Jem, however, whose childhood and youth had been passed amidst companions with names as good as his, had learnt long ago to keep his pride to himself. He was Jem Agar, and the family name seemed somehow to belong exclusively to his father still, although that thorough old sportsman had lain for three years and more beneath the quiet turf of the little churchyard within his own park gates.
As he pulled up at the door this was thrown open, and within its frame of light he saw the gracious form of his stepmother waiting to welcome him. Behind her, in the shadow, and amidst the decoration of staghorns, ancient pike and hanger, loomed a tall dark figure startlingly in keeping with the semi-monastic architecture of the house. This was Sister Cecilia. She was always thus—behind Mrs. Agar, with clasped hands and a vaguely approving smile, as if Mrs. Agar conferred a benefit upon suffering humanity by the mere act of existing.
A slightly bored expression came into Jem's patient eyes. It was not that he had very much in common with his stepmother, although he had an honest affection for her; but he instinctively disliked Sister Cecilia and all her works. These latter were of the class termed "good." That is to say, this lady, the spinster daughter of a former rector in the neighbourhood, considered that the earthly livery of a marvellous black bonnet which was almost a cap, and quite hideous, justified a shameless interference in the most intimate affairs of her neighbours, rich and poor.
Under the cover of charity she committed a thousand social sins. She constituted herself mother-confessor to all who were weak enough to confide in her or seek her advice, and in soul she was the most arrant time-server who ever flattered a rich woman.
Jem distrusted her soft and "holy" ways, more especially her speech, which had the lofty condescension of the saved towards the damned in prospective. In his calmly commanding way he had, months before, forbidden Dora Glynde to kiss Sister Cecilia, because that ostentatiously virtuous person was in the habit of kissing the maids when she met them; and he maintained that this Christian practice, if very estimable theoretically, was socially an insult either to the mistress or the maid.
In view of the important changes in his own life which were about to supervene, that is to say, firstly, his departure for India, and secondly, his coming of age before he could hope to return from that land of promise, he had counted on a quiet evening with his mother. Moreover, he was vaguely conscious of the fact that a right-minded person would have carefully abstained from accepting the most pressing invitation to form a third that evening.
In view of this Jem Agar had recourse to the last refuge of the simple. He retired within himself, and, so to speak, shut the door. He had dined with these women before, and knew that the conversation would follow its usual mazy course through a forest of cross-questions upon all subjects, and notably upon those intimate matters which were essentially his own business.
Sister Cecilia, good mistaken soul that she was, tried her best. She was lively in a Sunday-school-tea style. She was by turns tender and warlike as occasion seemed to demand; but no scrap or tittle of personal information did she extract from Jem, stiffly on guard behind his high collar. Mrs. Agar was excited and failed utterly to follow the wiser footsteps of her bosom friends. She talked such arrant nonsense about India, the Goorkhas, and matters military, that more than once Jem glanced at the imperturbable servants with misgiving.
The next day was Sunday, and after morning service Jem eagerly accepted an invitation to have supper at the Rectory after evening church. Sister Cecilia was staying from Saturday till Monday, which alone was sufficient reason for this young soldier to pass his last evening in Stagholme under another than his own historic roof. With her in the house he knew that the chances of serious conversation were small; for she encouraged such topics as the possibility of sending fresh eggs packed in lime to the Goorkhas of his prospective half-company. So Jem retired within himself, and finally left England without having said many things which should have been said between stepmother and son.
At the Rectory he found a very different atmosphere—that air of cheerful intellectuality which comes from the presence of cultivated men and women.
The Rector held strong views on the rare virtue of minding one's own business, and in loyalty to such, deemed it right to refrain from mentioning his opinion as to the wisdom of selecting a native branch of the military service for the heir to Stagholme.
The supper passed pleasantly enough in the discussion of general topics all bordering on the great question they had at heart. They were like people seeking for each other in the dark around the edge of a pit—the pit being India. Dora, and Dora alone, laughed and treated matters lightly. Mrs. Glynde blundered several times, and stepping backwards over an abyss of years, called the new soldier "darling" more than once. Twice she required helping out by Dora, and on the second occasion something was said which Jem remembered afterwards with a stolid British memory.
"Jem," said the girl, buttering a biscuit with a light hand, "you should write a diary. All great men write diaries which their friends publish afterwards."
"I do not think," replied Jem, with that contempt for the pen which the possession of a new sword ever justifies, "that writing a diary is much in my line."
"Ah, you can never tell till you try. Of course it would not be published straight off. Some literary person would be hired to cross the t's and dot the i's."
There was a little pause. Dora glanced at Jem Agar, and something made him say:
"All right. I'll try."
"Who knows?" said the Rector, with a smile of indulgent affection. "There may be great literary capacity lying dormant in Jem. The worst of a diary is that one may come to look at it in after years, when one finds a very different story has been written from what one intended to write."
"Oh," said Dora, lightly skipping over the chasm of gravity, "that is Providence. We must blame Providence for these little contretemps. Some one must be blamed, and Providence obviously does not mind."
Jem laughed—somewhat lamely; but still it was a laugh. Supper was despatched somehow—as last meals are. Some of us never forget the flavour of those cups of tea gulped down in the gorgeous steamer-saloon while the stewards get the hand luggage on board. It was a late meal on Sunday evening at the Rectory, and the servants soon followed their betters into the drawing-room for prayers.
Then the Rector lighted his last cigarette, and Mrs. Glynde began to show symptoms of a patch of pink in either cheek.
At last Jem rose—awkwardly—in the midst of a sally from Dora, who seemed afraid to stop speaking.
"Must be going," he said; and he shook hands with the Rector.
Mrs. Glynde, with nervous deliberation, kissed him and squeezed his hand jerkily.
"Dora—will open the door for you," she said, with an apprehensive glance towards her husband, who, however, showed no inclination to move from his chair.
Dora not only opened the door, but left it open, and walked with him across the lawn towards the stile. When they reached it there was a little pause. He vaulted over and she quietly followed—without his proffered assistance.
Then at last Jem spoke.
"You don't seem to care!" he said gruffly—with his new voice.
"Oh, don't!" she whispered imploringly.
And they walked on beneath the murmuring trees where the yellow moonlight stole in and out between the trunks. It was not cheerful. For when Nature joins her sadness to the sad libretto of life she usually breaks a heart or two. Fortunately for us we mostly act our tragedies in the wrong scenery—the scenery that was painted for a comedy.
"I don't understand it," said the girl at length.
"I suppose it is in order to save money for Arthur."
"If I don't, go," replied Jem, "it will be a question of letting Stagholme."
Dora knew of the ancient horror of such a necessity, handed down from one Agar to another, like a family tradition. Moreover, women seem to respect men who have some simple creed and hold to it simply. Are they not one of our creeds themselves, though by seeking for rights instead of contenting themselves with privileges, some of them try to make atheists of us?
"So," she said nevertheless, "you are being sacrificed to Arthur!"
He answered nothing, but he had forgotten for ever Miss Evelina Louisa Barmond.
"When do you go?" asked Dora suddenly, with something in her voice which no one had ever heard before. She was startled at it herself.
He waited until the soft old church bell finished striking ten, then he answered:
They had reached the farthest limit of the wood and stood at the park railing.
"Then—," she paused, and seemed to collect herself as if for a leap; "then good-bye, Jem!"
He took the outstretched hand; his large grasp seemed to swallow it up.
"Good-bye!" he said.
He climbed the rail without agility, paused for a moment, and the moonlight happened to gleam on his face through the gently waving branches as he looked down at her in dumb distress.
Then he turned and walked away across the shimmering grass.
A few minutes later Dora re-entered the drawing room. Her father and mother were seated close together, closer than she had seen them for years. Mrs. Glynde was pale, with two scarlet patches.
Dora collected her belongings, preparatory to going to bed.
"Jem," she said quietly, "is absurdly proud of his new honours. It affects his chin, which has gone up exactly one inch."
Then she went to bed.
ON THE ROOF OF THE WORLD
The more a man has in himself, the less he will want from other people.
As no one replied to this summons either, by voice or approach, the young man subsided into occupied silence.
He was a very large young man, with a fair moustache which looked almost flaxen against the deep tan of his face. This last, like the rest of him, was ludicrously typical of that race which has wandered farther than the Jews, and has hitherto managed, like them, to retain a few of its characteristics. The Anglo-Saxonism of this youth was almost aggressive. It lurked in the neat droop of moustache, which was devoid of that untidy suggestion of a beer-mug characterising the labial adornment of a northern flaxen nation of which we wot. It shone calmly in the glance of a pair of reflectively deep blue eyes—it threw itself at one from the pockets of an old tweed jacket worn in conjunction with regulation top-boots and khaki breeches.
Moreover, it gave birth to a quiet sense of being as good as any one else, and possibly better, which sat without conceit on his brow.
It would seem that he really did not want to be answered just then, for he did not raise a voice accustomed to dominate the clatter of horses' feet, nor did he pass any comment on the carelessness or criminal absence of some person or persons unknown.
He merely took up his pen again, and proceeded to handle that mighty weapon with an awkwardness suggestive of a greater skill with another instrument only less powerful. He was seated on two reversed buckets, pyramidally balanced, at a small table which had the air of wide capabilities in some other sphere of usefulness. There was a weird cunning in the legs of this table indicative of subtle change into a camp-bed or possibly a canoe.
The writing materials consisted of a vaseline bottle (fourpenny size) full of ink, and two weary pieces of blotting-paper. The paper upon which he was writing had a travelled and somewhat jaundiced air, the penholder was of gold. In the furniture of the tent, as in the canvas thereof, there was that mournful suggestion of better days which is held to be a virtue in furnished apartments. But over all there hovered that sense of well-scrubbed cleanliness which comes from the touch of a native military servant. An indulgence in this habit of rubbing and scrubbing was indeed accountable for much dilapidation; for that silent little Ghoorka man, Ben Abdi, had rubbed and scrubbed many things not intended by an ingenious camp-furnisher for such treatment. James Edward Makerstone Agar was engaged in the compilation of a diary, which volume there is reason to believe is still preserved in a woman's jewel drawer.
It has not run through any editions—indeed, no compositor's finger has up to this time defiled its pages. This, in fact, was one of those literary works, ground slowly out from the millstones of the brain, of which the style fails to please the taste of the present day. To catch the fancy of a slang-loving and thoughtless generation the writer must throw off his works. This is an age of "throwing off," and it is to be presumed that future ages will throw the result away. One must be brilliant, shallow, slightly unpleasant and very unwholesome, to acquire nowadays that best of all literary reputations which leaveth a balance at one's bank.
J.E.M. Agar—or "Jem" as his friends call him to his face and his servants behind his back—Jem Sahib to wit—was no Pepys. His literary style was disjointed, heavy, and occasionally illiterate. This last peculiarity, by the way, is of no consequence nowadays, but it is mentioned here for ulterior motives. In the pages of this little black-bound volume there were no scintillating thoughts scribbled there with suspicious neatness of diction, such as one finds in the diaries of great men who, it would seem, are not above post-mortem vanity. The diary was a chronicle of solid facts—Jem being essentially solid and a man of the very plainest facts.
Speaking as an impartial critic, one would incline to the opinion that Agar devoted too much thought to his work—in strong contrast, perhaps, to the literary tendency of his day. He nibbled the leisure end of his penholder too much, and allowed the business extremity thereof to dry in inky conglomeration. The result was a distinct sense of labour in the style of the work. After having called in vain, perhaps for assistance, the scribe returned to the contemplation of his latest effort. The book was one of Letts's diaries, three days in a page, which are in themselves fatal to a finished style of literature. There is always too much to say or too little. One's thoughts never fit the rhomboid apportioned by Mr. Letts for their accommodation. Great men who have thoughts when the diary is handy do not, of course, patronise Letts, because he could not be expected to know when there would be a sunset likely to stir up poetic reflections, or a moonrise comparable with the cold light cast by some unsympathetic young woman's eyes upon the poet's life.
For such men, however, as Agar, Mr. Letts is a guardian angel. The space is there, and facts must be forthcoming to fill it. Agar was, and is still—thank Heaven—a conscientious man. He had promised to keep this diary and keep it he did. And surely he hath his reward—remembering the jewel drawer.
At the moment under consideration he was filling in yesterday's rhomboid, and paused at the conclusion of the following remarks:
"Seven A.M. Turned out, and shot a Ghilzai. Saw him sneaking up the valley. Long shot—should put it down at a hundred and seventy-five yards. Hit him in the stom—abd—chest. Looked like rain until two o'clock. Then cleared up. Walter caught a mongoose and brought him in with much triumph. He got conceited afterwards and slept on my bed till kicked off by Ben Abdi. I see it's Sunday. Church four hundred odd miles away."
This, my masters, is not the stuff to quote in extenso, and yet in its day this diary was cried over—before it was put away in the jewel drawer. Truly women are strange—one can never tell how a thing will present itself to them. Honest Jem Agar, nibbling his penholder and jerking these lucid observations out of his military brain by mere force of discipline, never suspected the heart that was in it all—that minute particle of himself that lay in the blot in the corner carefully absorbed by the exhausted blotting-paper.
"Sunday, egad!" he muttered, leaning his arms on the cunning table, and gazing out across the pine-clad valley that lay below him in a deep blue haze.
He stared into the haze, and there he saw those whom he called "his people" walking across a neat English park toward a peaceful little English church. To them came presently a young person; a young person clad in pink cotton, who walked with a certain demure sureness of tread, as if she knew her own mind and other things besides. Her path came into the park from the left, and among the trees into which it disappeared behind her there stood the red chimneys of a long low house.