Dizain des Fetes Galantes
JAMES BRANCH CABELL
WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY LOUIS UNTERMEYER
"Half in masquerade, playing the drawing-room or garden comedy of life, these persons have upon them, not less than the landscape among the accidents of which they group themselves with fittingness, a certain light that we should seek for in vain upon anything real."
JAMES ROBINSON BRANCH
THIS VOLUME, SINCE IT TREATS OF GALLANTRY, IS DEDICATED, AS BOTH IN LIFE AND DEATH AN EXPONENT OF THE WORD'S HIGHEST MEANING
"A brutish man knoweth not, neither doth a fool understand this.... Shall the throne of iniquity have fellowship with Thee, which frameth mischief by a law?"
These paragraphs, dignified by the revised edition of Gallantry and spuriously designated An Introduction, are nothing more than a series of notes and haphazard discoveries in preparation of a thesis. That thesis, if it is ever written, will bear a title something academically like The Psychogenesis of a Poet; or Cabell the Masquerader. For it is in this guise—sometimes self-declared, sometimes self-concealed, but always as the persistent visionary—that the author of some of the finest prose of our day has given us the key with which (to lapse into the jargon of verse) he has unlocked his heart.
On the technical side alone, it is easy to establish Cabell's poetic standing. There are, first of all, the quantity of original rhymes that are scattered through the dozen volumes which Cabell has latterly (and significantly) classified as Biography. Besides these interjections which do duty as mottoes, chapter-headings, tailpieces, dedications, interludes and sometimes relevant songs, there is the volume of seventy-five "adaptations" in verse, From the Hidden Way, published in 1916. Here Cabell, even in his most natural role, declines to show his face and amuses himself with a new set of masks labelled Alessandro de Medici, Antoine Riczi, Nicolas de Caen, Theodore Passerat and other fabulous minnesingers whose verses were created only in the mind of Cabell. It has pleased him to confuse others besides the erudite reviewer of the Boston Transcript by quoting the first lines of the non-existent originals in Latin, Italian, Provencal—thus making his skilful ballades, sestinas and the less mediaeval narratives part of a remarkably elaborate and altogether successful hoax.
And, as this masquerade of obscure Parnassians betrayed its creator, Cabell—impelled by some fantastic reticence—sought for more subtle makeshifts to hide the poet. The unwritten thesis, plunging abruptly into the realm of analytical psychology, will detail the steps Cabell has taken, as a result of early associative disappointments, to repress or at least to disguise, the poet in himself—and it will disclose how he has failed. It will burrow through the latest of his works and exhume his half-buried experiments in rhyme, assonance and polyphony. This part of the paper will examine Jurgen and call attention to the distorted sonnet printed as a prose soliloquy on page 97 of that exquisite and ironic volume. It will pass to the subsequent Figures of Earth and, after showing how the greater gravity of this volume is accompanied by a greater profusion of poetry per se it will unravel the scheme of Cabell's fifteen essays in what might be called contrapuntal prose. It will unscramble all the rhymes screened in Manuel's monologue beginning on page 294, quote the metrical innovations with rhymed vowels on page 60, tabulate the hexameters that leap from the solidly set paragraphs and rearrange the brilliant fooling that opens the chapter "Magic of the Image Makers." This last is in itself so felicitous a composite of verse and criticism—a passage incredibly overlooked by the most meticulous of Cabell's glossarians—that it deserves a paper for itself. For here, set down prosaically as "the unfinished Rune of the Blackbirds" are four distinct parodies—including two insidious burlesques of Browning and Swinburne—on a theme which is familiar to us to-day in les mots justes of Mother Goose. "It is," explains Freydis, after the thaumaturgists have finished, "an experimental incantation in that it is a bit of unfinished magic for which the proper words have not yet been found: but between now and a while they will be stumbled on, and then this rune will live perpetually." And thus the poet, speaking through the mouth-piece of Freydis, discourses on the power of words and, in one of Cabell's most eloquent chapters, crystallizes that high mood, presenting the case for poetry as it has been pleaded by few of her most fervid advocates.
Here the thesis will stop quoting and argue its main contention from another angle. It will consider the author in a larger and less technical sense: disclosing his characters, his settings, his plots, even the entire genealogical plan of his works, to be the design of a poet rather than a novelist. The persons of Cabell's imagination move to no haphazard strains; they create their own music. And, like a set of modulated motifs, they combine to form a richer and more sonorous pattern. With its interrelation of figures and interweaving of themes, the Cabellian "Biography" assumes the solidity and shapeliness of a fugue, a composition in which all the voices speak with equal precision and recurring clarity.
And what, the diagnostician may inquire, of the characters themselves? They are, it will be answered, motivated by pity and irony; the tolerant humor, the sympathetic and not too distant regard of their Olympian designer agitate them so sensitively that we seldom see what strings are twitched. These puppets seem to act of their own conviction—possibly because their director is careful not to have too many convictions of his own. It may have been pointed out before this that there are no undeviating villains in his masques and, as many an indignant reviewer has expostulated, few untarnished heroes. Cabell's, it will be perceived, is a frankly pagan poetry. It has no texts with which to discipline beauty; it lacks moral fervor; it pretends to no divinity of dogmatism. The image-maker is willing to let his creatures ape their living models by fluctuating between shifting conventions and contradictory ideals; he leaves to a more positive Author the dubious pleasure of drawing a daily line between vice and virtue. If Cabell pleads at all, he pleads with us not to repudiate a Villon or a Marlowe while we are reviling the imperfect man in a perfect poet. "What is man, that his welfare be considered?" questions Cabell, paraphrasing Scripture, "an ape who chatters to himself of kinship with the archangels while filthily he digs for groundnuts.... Yet do I perceive that this same man is a maimed god.... He is under penalty condemned to compute eternity with false weights and to estimate infinity with a yardstick—and he very often does it."
This, the thesis will contend, is the only possible attitude to the mingled apathy and abandon of existence—and it is, in fine, the poetic attitude. Romantic it is, without question, and I imagine Cabell would be the last to cavil at the implication. For, mocked by a contemptuous silence gnawing beneath the howling energy of life, what else is there for the poet but the search for some miracle of belief, some assurance in a world of illimitable perplexities? It is the wish to attain this dream which is more real than reality that guides the entire Cabell epos—"and it is this will that stirs in us to have the creatures of earth and the affairs of earth, not as they are, but as 'they ought to be.'"
Such a romantic vision, which concludes that glowing testament, Beyond Life, is the shining thread that binds the latest of Cabell's novels with the earliest of his short stories. It is, in effect, one tale he is telling, a tale in which Poictesme and the more local Lichfield are, for all their topographical dissimilarities, the same place, and all his people interchangeable symbols of the changeless desires of men. Whether the allegory is told in the terms of Gallantry with its perfumed lights, its deliberate artifice and its technique of badinage, or presented in the more high-flying mood of Chivalry with its ready passions and readier rhetoric, it prefigures the subsequent pageant in which the victories might so easily be mistaken for defeats. In this procession, amid a singularly ordered riot of color, the figure of man moves, none too confidently but with stirring fortitude, to an unrealized end. Here, stumbling through the mazes of a code, in the habiliments of Ormskirk or de Soyecourt, he passes from the adventures of the mind (Kennaston in The Cream of the Jest, Charteris in Beyond Life) through the adventures of the flesh (Jurgen) to the darker adventures of the spirit (Manuel in Figures of Earth). Even this Gallantry, the most candidly superficial of Cabell's works, is alive with a vigor of imagination and irony. It is not without significance that the motto on the new title-page is: "Half in masquerade, playing the drawing-room or garden comedy of life, these persons have upon them, not less than the landscape among the accidents of which they group themselves, a certain light that we should seek for in vain upon anything real."
The genealogically inclined will be happy to discover that Gallantry, for all its revulsion from reality, deals with the perpetuated life of Manuel in a strangely altered milieu. The rest of us will be quicker to comprehend how subtly this volume takes its peculiar place in its author's record of struggling dreams, how, beneath, a surface covered with political finery and sentimental bric-a-brac, the quest goes on, stubbornly and often stupidly, in a forgotten world made suddenly animate and as real as our own.
And this, the thesis will conclude, is because Cabell is not as much a masquerader as he imagines himself to be. None but a visionary could wear so constantly upon his sleeve the desire "to write perfectly of beautiful happenings." None but the poet, shaken with the strength of his vision, could cry to-day, "It is only by preserving faith in human dreams that we may, after all, perhaps some day make them come true." For poetry, to which all literature aspires, is not the shadow of reality but the image of perfection, the light of disembodied beauty toward which creation gropes. And that poetic consciousness is the key to the complex and half-concealed art of James Branch Cabell.
New York City, April, 1922.
THE EPISTLE DEDICATORY
I SIMON'S HOUR
II LOVE AT MARTINMAS
III THE CASUAL HONEYMOON
IV THE RHYME TO PORRINGER
V ACTORS ALL
VI APRIL'S MESSAGE
VII IN THE SECOND APRIL
VIII HEART OF GOLD
IX THE SCAPEGOATS
X THE DUCAL AUDIENCE
LOVE'S ALUMNI: THE AFTERPIECE
THE EPISTLE DEDICATORY
TO MRS. GRUNDY
Madam,—It is surely fitting that a book which harks back to the manners of the second George should have its dedication and its patron. And these comedies claim naturally your protection, since it likewise appears a custom of that era for the poet to dedicate his book to his most influential acquaintance and the one least likely to value it.
Indeed, it is as proper that the plaudits of great persons be reserved for great performances as it is undeniable these
tiny pictures of that tiny time Aim little at the lofty and sublime.
Yet cognoscenti still esteem it an error in the accomplished Shakespeare that he introduced a game of billiards into his portrayal of Queen Cleopatra's court; and the impropriety had been equal had I linked the extreme of any passion with an age and circle wherein abandonment to the emotions was adjudged bucolic, nay, Madam, the Eumenides were very terrifying at Delphi, no doubt, but deck them with paint, patch, and panniers, send them howling among the beau monde on the Pantiles, and they are only figures of fun; nor may, in reason, the high woes of a second Lear, or of a new Prometheus, be adequately lighted by the flambeaux of Louis Quinze.
Conceive, then, the overture begun, and fear not, if the action of the play demand a lion, but that he shall be a beast of Peter Quince's picking. The ladies shall not be frighted, for our chief comedians will enact modish people of a time when gallantry prevailed.
Now the essence of gallantry, I take it, was to accept the pleasures of life leisurely and its inconveniences with a shrug. As requisites, a gallant person will, of course, be "amorous, but not too constant, have a pleasant voice, and possess a talent for love-letters." He will always bear in mind that in love-affairs success is less the Ultima Thule of desire than its coup de grace, and he will be careful never to admit the fact, especially to himself. He will value ceremony, but rather for its comeliness than for its utility, as one esteeming the lily, say, to be a more applaudable bulb than the onion. He will prink; and he will be at his best after sunset. He will dare to acknowledge the shapeliness of a thief's leg, to contend that the commission of murder does not necessarily impair the agreeableness of the assassin's conversation; and to insist that at bottom God is kindlier than the genteel would regard as rational. He will, in fine, sin on sufficient provocation, and repent within the moment, quite sincerely, and be not unconscionably surprised when he repeats the progression: and he will consider the world with a smile of toleration, and his own doings with a smile of honest amusement, and Heaven with a smile that is not distrustful.
This particular attitude toward life may have its merits, but it is not conducive to meticulous morality; therefore, in advance, I warn you that my Dramatis Personae will in their display of the cardinal virtues evince a certain parsimony. Theirs were, in effect, not virtuous days. And the great man who knew these times au fond, and loved them, and wrote of them as no other man may ever hope to do, has said of these same times, with perfect truth:
"Fiddles sing all through them; wax-lights, fine dresses, fine jokes, fine plate, fine equipages, glitter and sparkle: never was there such a brilliant, jigging, smirking Vanity Fair. But wandering through that city of the dead, that dreadfully selfish time, through those godless intrigues and feasts, through those crowds, pushing, and eager, and struggling,—rouged, and lying, and fawning,—I have wanted some one to be friends with. I have said, Show me some good person about that Court; find me, among those selfish courtiers, those dissolute gay people, some one being that I can love and regard." And Thackeray confesses that, for all his research, he could not find anybody living irreproachably, at this especial period....
Where a giant fails one may in reason hesitate to essay. I present, then, people who, as people normally do, accepted their times and made the best of them, since the most estimable needs conform a little to the custom of his day, whether it be Caractacus painting himself sky-blue or Galileo on his knees at Santa Maria. And accordingly, many of my comedians will lie when it seems advisable, and will not haggle over a misdemeanor when there is anything to be gained by it; at times their virtues will get them what they want, and at times their vices, and at other times they will be neither punished nor rewarded; in fine, Madam, they will be just human beings stumbling through illogical lives with precisely that lack of common-sense which so pre-eminently distinguishes all our neighbors from ourselves.
For the life that moved in old Manuel of Poictesme finds hereinafter in his descendants, in these later Allonbys and Bulmers and Heleighs and Floyers, a new milieu to conform and curb that life in externes rather than in essentials. What this life made of chivalrous conditions has elsewhere been recorded: with its renewal in gallant circumstances, the stage is differently furnished and lighted, the costumes are dissimilar; but the comedy, I think, works toward the same denouement, and certainly the protagonist remains unchanged. My protagonist is still the life of Manuel, as this life was perpetuated in his descendants; and my endeavor is (still) to show you what this life made (and omitted to make) of its tenancy of earth. 'Tis a drama enactable in any setting.
Yet the comedy of gallantry has its conventions. There must be quite invaluable papers to be stolen and juggled with; an involuntary marriage either threatened or consummated; elopements, highwaymen, and despatch-boxes; and a continual indulgence in soliloquy and eavesdropping. Everybody must pretend to be somebody else, and young girls, in particular, must go disguised as boys, amid much cut-and-thrust work, both ferric and verbal. For upon the whole, the comedy of gallantry tends to unfold itself in dialogue, and yet more dialogue, with just the notice of a change of scene or a brief stage direction inserted here and there. All these conventions, Madam, I observe.
A word more: the progress of an author who alternates, in turn, between fact and his private fancies (like unequal crutches) cannot in reason be undisfigured by false steps. Therefore it is judicious to confess, Madam, that more than once I have pieced the opulence of my subject with the poverty of my inventions. Indisputably, to thrust words into a dead man's mouth is in the ultimate as unpardonable as the axiomatic offence of stealing the pennies from his eyes; yet if I have sometimes erred in my surmise at what Ormskirk or de Puysange or Louis de Soyecourt really said at certain moments of their lives, the misstep was due, Madam, less to malevolence than to inability to replevin their superior utterance; and the accomplished shade of Garendon, at least, I have not travestied, unless it were through some too prudent item of excision.
Remains but to subscribe myself—in the approved formula of dedicators—as,
Your ladyship's most humble and most obedient servant,
SPOKEN BY LADY ALLONBY, WHO ENTERS IN A FLURRY
The author bade we come—Lud, I protest!— He bade me come—and I forget the rest. But 'tis no matter; he's an arrant fool That ever bade a woman speak by rule.
Besides, his Prologue was, at best, dull stuff, And of dull writing we have, sure, enough. A book will do when you've a vacant minute, But, la! who cares what is, and isn't, in it?
And since I'm but the Prologue of a book, What I've omitted all will overlook, And owe me for it, too, some gratitude, Seeing in reason it cannot be good Whose author has as much but now confessed,— For, Who'd excel when few can make a test Betwixt indifferent writing and the best? He said but now.
And I:—La, why excel, When mediocrity does quite as well? 'Tis women buy the books,—and read 'em, say, What time a person nods, en negligee, And in default of gossip, cards, or dance, Resolves t' incite a nap with some romance.
The fool replied in verse,—I think he said 'Twas verses the ingenious Dryden made, And trust 'twill save me from entire disgrace To cite 'em in his foolish Prologue's place. Yet, scattered here and there, I some behold, Who can discern the tinsel from the gold; To these he writes; and if by them allowed, 'Tis their prerogative to rule the crowd, For he more fears, like, a presuming man, Their votes who cannot judge, than theirs can.
As Played at Stornoway Crag, March 25, 1750
"You're a woman—one to whom Heaven gave beauty, when it grafted roses on a briar. You are the reflection of Heaven in a pond, and he that leaps at you is sunk. You were all white, a sheet of lovely spotless paper, when you first were born; but you are to be scrawled and blotted by every goose's quill."
LORD ROKESLE, a loose-living, Impoverished nobleman, and loves Lady Allonby.
SIMON ORTS, Vicar of Heriz Magna, a debauched fellow, and Rokesle's creature.
PUNSHON, servant to Rokesle.
LADY ALLONBY, a pleasure-loving, luxurious woman, a widow, and rich.
The Mancini Chamber at Stornoway Crag, on Usk.
PROEM:—The Age and a Product of It
We begin at a time when George the Second was permitting Ormskirk and the Pelhams to govern England, and the Jacobites had not yet ceased to hope for another Stuart Restoration, and Mr. Washington was a promising young surveyor in the most loyal colony of Virginia; when abroad the Marquise de Pompadour ruled France and all its appurtenances, and the King of Prussia and the Empress Maria Theresa had, between them, set entire Europe by the ears; when at home the ladies, if rumor may be credited, were less unapproachable than their hoop-petticoats caused them to appear, [Footnote: "Oft have we known that sevenfold fence to fail, Though stiff with hoops, and armed with ribs of whale."] and gentlemen wore swords, and some of the more reckless bloods were daringly beginning to discard the Ramillie-tie and the pigtail for their own hair; when politeness was obligatory, and morality a matter of taste, and when well-bred people went about the day's work with an ample leisure and very few scruples. In fine, we begin toward the end of March, in the year 1750, when Lady Allonby and her brother, Mr. Henry Heleigh, of Trevor's Folly, were the guests of Lord Rokesle, at Stornoway Crag, on Usk.
As any person of ton could have informed you, Anastasia Allonby was the widow (by his second marriage) of Lord Stephen Allonby, the Marquis of Falmouth's younger brother; and it was conceded by the most sedate that Lord Stephen's widow, in consideration of her liberal jointure, possessed inordinate comeliness.
She was tall for a woman. Her hair, to-night unpowdered, had the color of amber and something, too, of its glow; her eyes, though not profound, were large and in hue varied, as the light fell or her emotions shifted, through a wide gamut of blue shades. But it was her mouth you remembered: the fulness and brevity of it, the deep indentation of its upper lip, the curves of it and its vivid crimson—these roused you to wildish speculation as to its probable softness when Lady Allonby and Fate were beyond ordinary lenient. Pink was the color most favorable to her complexion, and this she wore to-night; the gown was voluminous, with a profusion of lace, and afforded everybody an ample opportunity to appraise her neck and bosom. Lady Allonby had no reason to be ashamed of either, and the last mode in these matters was not prudish.
To such a person, enters Simon Orts, chaplain in ordinary to Lord Rokesle, and Vicar of Heriz Magna, one of Lord Rokesle's livings.
"Now of a truth," said Simon Orts, "that is curious—undeniably that is curious."
He stayed at the door for a moment staring back into the ill-lit corridor. Presently he shut the door, and came forward toward the fireplace.
Lady Allonby, half-hidden in the depths of the big chair beside the chimney-piece, a book in her lap, looked up inquiringly. "What is curious, Mr. Orts?"
The clergyman stood upon the hearth, warming his hands, and diffusing an odor of tobacco and stale alcohol. "Faith, that damned rascal—I beg your pardon, Anastasia; our life upon Usk is not conducive to a mincing nicety of speech. That rascal Punshon made some difficulty over admitting me; you might have taken him for a sentinel, with Stornoway in a state of siege. He ruffled me,—and I don't like it," Simon Orts said, reflectively, looking down upon her. "No, I don't like it. Where's your brother?" he demanded on a sudden.
"Harry and Lord Rokesle are at cards, I believe. And Mrs. Morfit has retired to her apartments with one of her usual headaches, so that I have been alone these two hours. You visit Stornoway somewhat late, Mr. Orts," Anastasia Allonby added, without any particular concealment of the fact that she considered his doing so a nuisance.
He jerked his thumb ceilingward. "The cloth is at any rascal's beck and call. Old Holles, my Lord's man, is dying up yonder, and the whim seized him to have a clergyman in. God knows why, for it appears to me that one knave might very easily make his way to hell without having another knave to help him. And Holles?—eh, well, from what I myself know of him, the rogue is triply damned." His mouth puckered as he set about unbuttoning his long, rain-spattered cloak, which, with his big hat, he flung aside upon a table. "Gad!" said Simon Orts, "we are most of us damned on Usk; and that is why I don't like it—" He struck his hand against his thigh. "I don't like it, Anastasia."
"You must pardon me," she languidly retorted, "but I was never good at riddles."
He turned and glanced about the hall, debating. Lady Allonby meanwhile regarded him, as she might have looked at a frog or a hurtless snake. A small, slim, anxious man, she found him; always fidgeting, always placating some one, but never without a covert sneer. The fellow was venomous; his eyes only were honest, for even while his lips were about their wheedling, these eyes flashed malice at you; and their shifting was so unremittent that afterward you recalled them as an absolute shining which had not any color. On Usk and thereabouts they said it was the glare from within of his damned soul, already at white heat; but they were a plain-spoken lot on Usk. To-night Simon Orts was all in black; and his hair, too, and his gross eyebrows were black, and well-nigh to the cheek-bones of his clean-shaven countenance the thick beard, showed black through the skin.
Now he kept silence for a lengthy interval, his arms crossed on his breast, gnawing meanwhile at the fingernails of his left hand in an unattractive fashion he had of meditating. When words came it was in a torrent.
"I will read you my riddle, then. You are a widow, rich; as women go, you are not so unpleasant to look at as most of 'em. If it became a clergyman to dwell upon such matters, I would say that your fleshly habitation is too fine for its tenant, since I know you to be a good-for-nothing jilt. However, you are God's handiwork, and doubtless He had His reasons for constructing you. My Lord is poor; last summer at Tunbridge you declined to marry him. I am in his confidence, you observe. He took your decision in silence—'ware Rokesle when he is quiet! Eh, I know the man,—'tisn't for nothing that these ten years past I have studied his whims, pampered his vanity, lied to him, toadied him! You admire my candor?—faith, yes, I am very candid. I am Rokesle's hanger-on; he took me out of the gutter, and in my fashion I am grateful. And you?—Anastasia, had you treated me more equitably fifteen years ago, I would have gone to the stake for you, singing; now I don't value you the flip of a farthing. But, for old time's sake, I warn you. You and your brother are Rokesle's guests—on Usk! Harry Heleigh [Footnote: Henry Heleigh, thirteenth Earl of Brudenel, who succeeded his cousin the twelfth Earl in 1759, and lived to a great age. Bavois, writing in 1797, calls him "a very fine, strong old gentleman."] can handle a sword, I grant you,—but you are on Usk! And Mrs. Morfit is here to play propriety—propriety on Usk, God save the mark! And besides, Rokesle can twist his sister about his little finger, as the phrase runs. And I find sentinels at the door! I don't like it, Anastasia. In his way Rokesle loves you; more than that, you are an ideal match to retrieve his battered fortunes; and the name of my worthy patron, I regret to say, is not likely ever to embellish the Calendar of Saints."
Simon Orts paused with a short laugh. The woman had risen to her feet, her eyes widening and a thought troubled, though her lips smiled contemptuously.
"La, I should have comprehended that this late in the evening you would be in no condition to converse with ladies. Believe me, though, Mr. Orts, I would be glad to credit your warning to officious friendliness, were it not that the odor about your person compels me to attribute it to gin."
"Oh, I have been drinking," he conceded; "I have been drinking with a most commendable perseverance for these fifteen years. But at present I am far from drunk." Simon Orts took a turn about the hall; in an instant he faced her with an odd, almost tender smile, "You adorable, empty-headed, pink-and-white fool," said Simon Orts, "what madness induced you to come to Usk? You know that Rokesle wants you; you know that you don't mean to marry him. Then why come to Usk? Do you know who is king in this sea-washed scrap of earth?—Rokesle. German George reigns yonder in England, but here, in the Isle of Usk, Vincent Floyer is king. And it is not precisely a convent that he directs. The men of Usk, I gather, after ten years' experience in the administering of spiritual consolation hereabouts"—and his teeth made their appearance in honor of the jest,—"are part fisherman, part smuggler, part pirate, and part devil. Since the last ingredient predominates, they have no very unreasonable apprehension of hell, and would cheerfully invade it if Rokesle bade 'em do so. As I have pointed out, my worthy patron is subject to the frailties of the flesh. Oh, I am candid, for if you report me to his Lordship I shall lie out of it. I have had practice enough to do it handsomely. But Rokesle—do you not know what Rokesle is—?"
The Vicar of Heriz Magna would have gone on, but Lady Allonby had interrupted, her cheeks flaming. "Yes, yes," she cried;' "I know him to be a worthy gentleman. 'Tis true I could not find it in my heart to marry him, yet I am proud to rank Lord Rokesle among my friends." She waved her hand toward the chimney-piece, where hung—and hangs to-day,—the sword of Aluric Floyer, the founder of the house of Rokesle. "Do you see that old sword, Mr. Orts? The man who wielded it long ago was a gallant gentleman and a stalwart captain. And my Lord, as he told me but on Thursday afternoon, hung it there that he might always have in mind the fact that he bore the name of this man, and must bear it meritoriously. My Lord is a gentleman. La, believe me, if you, too, were a gentleman, Mr. Orts, you would understand! But a gentleman is not a talebearer; a gentleman does not defame any person behind his back, far less the person to whom he owes his daily bread."
"So he has been gulling you?" said Simon Orts; then he added quite inconsequently: "I had not thought anything you could say would hurt me. I discover I was wrong. Perhaps I am not a gentleman. Faith, no; I am only a shabby drunkard, a disgrace to my cloth, am I not, Anastasia? Accordingly, I fail to perceive what old Aluric Floyer has to do with the matter in hand. He was reasonably virtuous, I suppose; putting aside a disastrous appetite for fruit, so was Adam: but, viewing their descendants, I ruefully admit that in each case the strain has deteriorated."
There was a brief silence; then Lady Allonby observed: "Perhaps I was discourteous. I ask your forgiveness, Mr. Orts. And now, if you will pardon the suggestion, I think you had better go to your dying parishioner."
But she had touched the man to the quick. "I am a drunkard; who made me so? Who was it used to cuddle me with so many soft words and kisses—yes, kisses, my Lady!—till a wealthier man came a-wooing, and then flung me aside like an old shoe?"
This drenched her cheeks with crimson, "I think we had better not refer to that boy-and-girl affair. You cannot blame me for your debauched manner of living. I found before it was too late that I did not love you. I was only a girl, and 'twas natural that at first I should be mistaken in my fancies."
The Vicar had caught her by each wrist. "You don't understand, of course. You never understood, for you have no more heart than one of those pink-and-white bisque figures that you resemble. You don't love me, and therefore I will go to the devil' may not be an all-rational deduction, but 'tis very human logic. You don't understand that, do you, Anastasia? You don't understand how when one is acutely miserable one remembers that at the bottom of a wineglass—or even at the bottom of a tumbler of gin,—one may come upon happiness, or at least upon acquiescence to whatever the niggling gods may send. You don't understand how one remembers, when the desired woman is lost, that there are other women whose lips are equally red and whose hearts are tenderer and—yes, whose virtue is less exigent. No; women never understand these things: and in any event, you would not understand, because you are only an adorable pink-and-white fool."
"Oh, oh!" she cried, struggling, "How dare you? You insult me, you coward!"
"Well, you can always comfort yourself with the reflection that it scarcely matters what a sot like me may elect to say. And, since you understand me now no more than formerly, Anastasia, I tell you that the lover turned adrift may well profit by the example of his predecessors. Other lovers have been left forsaken, both in trousers and in ripped petticoats; and I have heard that when Chryseis was reft away from Agamemnon, the cnax andron made himself tolerably comfortable with Briseis; and that, when Theseus sneaked off in the night, Ariadne, after having wept for a decent period, managed in the ultimate to console herself with Theban Bacchus,—which I suppose to be a courteous method of stating that the daughter of Minos took to drink. So the forsaken lover has his choice of consolation—in wine or in that dearer danger, woman. I have tried both, Anastasia. And I tell you—"
He dropped her hands as though they had been embers. Lord Rokesle had come quietly into the hall.
"Why, what's this?" Lord Rokesle demanded. "Simon, you aren't making love to Lady Allonby, I hope? Fie, man! remember your cloth."
Simon Orts wheeled—a different being, servile and cringing. "Your Lordship is pleased to be pleasant. Indeed, though, I fear that your ears must burn, sir, for I was but now expatiating upon the manifold kindnesses your Lordship has been so generous as to confer upon your unworthy friend. I was admiring Lady Allonby's ruffle, sir,—Valenciennes, I take it, and very choice."
Lord Rokesle laughed. "So I am to thank you for blowing my trumpet, am I?" said Lord Rokesle. "Well, you are not a bad fellow, Simon, so long as you are sober. And now be off with you to Holles—the rascal is dying, they tell me. My luck, Simon! He made up a cravat better than any one in the kingdom."
"The ways of Providence are inscrutable," Simon Orts considered; "and if Providence has in verity elected to chasten your Lordship, doubtless it shall be, as anciently in the case of Job the Patriarch, repaid by a recompense, by a thousandfold recompense." And after a meaning glance toward Lady Allonby,—a glance that said: "I, too, have a tongue,"—he was mounting the stairway to the upper corridor when Lord Rokesle called to him.
"By my conscience! I forgot," said Lord Rokesle; "don't leave Stornoway without seeing me again, I shall want you by and by."
Lord Rokesle sat down upon the long, high-backed bench, beside the fire, and facing Lady Allonby's arm-chair.
Neither he nor Lady Allonby spoke for a while.
In a sombre way Lord Rokesle was a handsome man, and to-night, in brown and gold, very stately. His bearing savored faintly of the hidalgo; indeed, his mother was a foreign woman, cast ashore on Usk, from a wrecked Spanish vessel, and incontinently married by the despot of the island. For her, Death had delayed his advent unmercifully; but her reason survived the marriage by two years only, and there were those familiar with the late Lord Rokesle's [Footnote: Born 1685, and accidentally killed by Sir Piers Sabiston in 1738; an accurate account of this notorious duellist, profligate, charlatan, and playwright is given in Ireson's Letters.] peculiarities who considered that in this, at least, the crazed lady was fortunate. Among these gossips it was also esteemed a matter deserving comment that in the shipwrecks not infrequent about Usk the women sometimes survived, but the men never.
Now Lord Rokesle regarded Lady Allonby, the while that she displayed conspicuous interest in the play of the flames. But by and by, "O vulgarity!" said Lady Allonby. "Pray endeavor to look a little more cheerful. Positively, you are glaring at me like one of those disagreeable beggars one so often sees staring at bakery windows."
He smiled. "Do you remember what the Frenchman wrote—et pain ne voyent qu'aux fenetres? There is not an enormous difference between me and the tattered rascal of Chepe, for we both stare longingly at what we most desire. And were I minded to hunt the simile to the foot of the letter, I would liken your coquetry to the intervening window-pane,—not easily broken through, but very, very transparent, Anastasia."
"You are not overwhelmingly polite," she said, reflectively; "but, then, I suppose, living in the country is sure to damage a man's manners. Still, my dear Orson, you smack too much of the forest."
"Anastasia," said Lord Rokesle, bending toward her, "will you always be thus cruel? Do you not understand that in this world you are the only thing I care for? You think me a boor; perhaps I am,—and yet it rests with you, my Lady, to make me what you will. For I love you, Anastasia—"
"Why, how delightful of you!" said she, languidly.
"It is not a matter for jesting. I tell you that I love you." My Lord's color was rising.
But Lady Allonby yawned. "Your honor's most devoted," she declared herself; "still, you need not boast of your affection as if falling in love with me were an uncommonly difficult achievement. That, too, is scarcely polite."
"For the tenth time I ask you will you marry me?" said Lord Rokesle.
"Is't only the tenth time? Dear me, it seems like the thousandth. Of course, I couldn't think of it. Heavens, my Lord, how can you expect me to marry a man who glares at me like that? Positively you look as ferocious as the blackamoor in the tragedy,—the fellow who smothered his wife because she misplaced a handkerchief, you remember."
Lord Rokesle had risen, and he paced the hall, as if fighting down resentment. "I am no Othello," he said at last; "though, indeed, I think that the love I bear you is of a sort which rarely stirs our English blood. 'Tis not for nothing I am half-Spaniard, I warn you, Anastasia, my love is a consuming blaze that will not pause for considerations of policy nor even of honor. And you madden me, Anastasia! To-day you hear my protestations with sighs and glances and faint denials; to-morrow you have only taunts for me. Sometimes, I think, 'tis hatred rather than love I bear you. Sometimes—" He clutched at his breast with a wild gesture. "I burn!" he said. "Woman, give me back a human heart in place of this flame you have kindled here, or I shall go mad! Last night I dreamed of hell, and of souls toasted on burning forks and fed with sops of bale-fire,—and you were there, Anastasia, where the flames leaped and curled like red-blazoned snakes about the poor damned. And I, too, was there. And through eternity I heard you cry to God in vain, O dear, wonderful, golden-haired woman! and we could see Him, somehow,—see Him, a great way off, with straight, white brows that frowned upon you pitilessly. And I was glad. For I knew then that I hated you. And even now, when I think I must go mad for love of you, I yet hate you with a fervor that shakes and thrills in every fibre of me. Oh, I burn, I burn!" he cried, with the same frantic clutching at his breast.
Lady Allonby had risen.
"Positively, I must ask you to open a window if you intend to continue in this strain. D'ye mean to suffocate me, my Lord, with your flames and your blazes and your brimstone and so on? You breathe conflagrations, like a devil in a pantomime. I had as soon converse with a piece of fireworks. So, if you'll pardon me, I will go to my brother."
At the sound of her high, crisp speech his frenzy fell from him like a mantle. "And you let me kiss you yesterday! Oh, I know you struggled, but you did not struggle very hard, did you, Anastasia?"
"Why, what a notion!" cried Lady Allonby; "as if a person should bother seriously one way or the other about the antics of an amorous clodhopper! Meanwhile, I repeat, my Lord, I wish to go to my brother."
"Egad!" Lord Rokesle retorted, "that reminds me I have been notably remiss. I bear you a message from Harry. He had to-night a letter from Job Nangle, who, it seems, has a purchaser for Trevor's Folly at last. The fellow is with our excellent Nangle at Peniston Friars, and offers liberal terms if the sale be instant. The chance was too promising to let slip, so Harry left the island an hour ago. It happened by a rare chance that some of my fellows were on the point of setting out for the mainland,—and he knew that he could safely entrust you to Mrs. Morfit's duennaship, he said."
"He should not have done so," Lady Allonby observed, as if in a contention of mind. "He—I will go to Mrs. Morfit, then, to confess to her in frankness that, after all these rockets and bonfires—"
"Why, that's the unfortunate part of the whole affair," said Lord Rokesle. "The same boat brought Sabina a letter which summoned her to the bedside of her husband, [Footnote: Archibald Morfit, M.P. for Salop, and in 1753 elected Speaker, which office he declined on account of ill-health. He was created a baronet in 1758 through the Duke of Ormskirk's influence.] who, it appears, lies desperately ill at Kuyper Manor. It happened by a rare chance that some of my fellows were on the point of setting out for the mainland—from Heriz pier yonder, not from the end of the island whence Harry sailed,—so she and her maid embarked instanter. Of course, there was your brother here to play propriety, she said. And by the oddest misfortune in the world," Lord Rokesle sighed, "I forgot to tell her that Harry Heleigh had left Usk a half-hour earlier. My memory is lamentably treacherous."
But Lady Allonby had dropped all affectation. "You coward! You planned this!"
"Candidly, yes. Nangle is my agent as well as Harry's, you may remember. I have any quantity of his letters, and of course an equal number of Archibald's. So I spent the morning in my own apartments, Anastasia,—tracing letters against the window-pane, which was, I suppose, a childish recreation, but then what would you have? As you very justly observe, country life invariably coarsens a man's tastes; and accordingly, as you may now recall, I actually declined a game of ecarte with you in order to indulge in these little forgeries. Decidedly, my dear, you must train your husband's imagination for superior flights—when you are Lady Rokesle."
She was staring at him as though he had been a portent. "I am alone," she said. "Alone—in this place—with you! Alone! you devil!"
"Your epithets increase in vigor. Just now I was only a clodhopper. Well, I can but repeat that it rests with you to make me what you will. Though, indeed, you are to all intent alone upon Usk, and upon Usk there are many devils. There are ten of them on guard yonder, by the way, in case your brother should return inopportunely, though that's scarcely probable. Obedient devils, you observe, Anastasia,—devils who exert and check their deviltry as I bid 'em, for they esteem me Lucifer's lieutenant. And I grant the present situation is an outrage to propriety, yet the evil is not incurable. Lady Allonby may not, if she value her reputation, pass to-night at Stornoway; but here am I, all willingness, and upstairs is the parson. Believe me, Anastasia, the most vinegarish prude could never object to Lady Rokesle's spending to-night at Stornoway."
"Let me think, let me think!" Lady Allonby said, and her hands plucked now at her hair, now at her dress. She appeared dazed. "I can't think!" she wailed on a sudden. "I am afraid. I—O Vincent, Vincent, you cannot do this thing! I trusted you, Vincent. I know I let you make love to me, and I relished having you make love to me. Women are like that. But I cannot marry you, Vincent. There is a man, yonder in England, whom I love. He does not care for me any more,—he is in love with my step-daughter. That is very amusing, is it not, Vincent? Some day I may be his mother-in-law. Why don't you laugh, Vincent? Come, let us both laugh—first at this and then at the jest you have just played on me. Do you know, for an instant, I believed you were in earnest? But Harry went to sleep over the cards, didn't he? And Mrs. Morfit has gone to bed with one of her usual headaches? Of course; and you thought you would retaliate upon me for teasing you. You were quite right, 'Twas an excellent jest. Now let us laugh at it. Laugh, Vincent! Oh!" she said now, more shrilly, "for the love of God, laugh, laugh!—or I shall go mad!"
But Lord Rokesle was a man of ice, "Matrimony is a serious matter, Anastasia; 'tis not becoming in those who are about to enter it to exhibit undue levity. I wonder what's keeping Simon?"
"Simon Orts!" she said, in a half-whisper. Then she came toward Lord Rokesle, smiling. "Why, of course, I teased you, Vincent, but there was never any hard feeling, was there? And you really wish me to marry you? Well, we must see, Vincent. But, as you say, matrimony is a serious matter. D'ye know you say very sensible things, Vincent?—not at all like those silly fops yonder in London. I dare say you and I would be very happy together. But you wouldn't have any respect for me if I married you on a sudden like this, would you? Of course not. So you will let me consider it. Come to me a month from now, say,—is that too long to wait? Well, I think 'tis too long myself. Say a week, then. I must have my wedding-finery, you comprehend. We women are such vain creatures—not big and brave and sensible like you men. See, for example, how much bigger your hand is than mine—mine's quite lost in it, isn't it? So—since I am only a vain, chattering, helpless female thing,—you are going to indulge me and let me go up to London for some new clothes, aren't you, Vincent? Of course you will; and we will be married in a week. But you will let me go to London first, won't you?—away from this dreadful place, away—I didn't mean that. I suppose it is a very agreeable place when you get accustomed to it. And 'tis only for clothes—Oh, I swear it is only for clothes, Vincent! And you said you would—yes, only a moment ago you distinctly said you would let me go. 'Tis not as if I were not coming back—who said I would not come back? Of course I will. But you must give me time, Vincent dear,—you must, you must, I tell you! O God!" she sobbed, and flung from her the loathed hand she was fondling, "it's no use!"
"No," said Lord Rokesle, rather sadly. "I am not Samson, nor are you Delilah to cajole me. It's of no use, Anastasia. I would have preferred that you came to me voluntarily, but since you cannot, I mean to take you unwilling. Simon," he called, loudly, "does that rascal intend to spin out his dying interminably? Charon's waiting, man."
From above, "Coming, my Lord," said Simon Orts.
The Vicar of Heriz Magna descended the stairway with deliberation. His eyes twitched from the sobbing woman to Lord Rokesle, and then back again, in that furtive way Orts had of glancing about a room, without moving his head; he seemed to lie in ambush under his gross brows; and whatever his thoughts may have been, he gave them no utterance.
"Simon," said Lord Rokesle, "Lady Allonby is about to make me the happiest of men. Have you a prayer-book about you, Master Parson?—for here's a loving couple desirous of entering the blessed state of matrimony."
"The match is somewhat of the suddenest," said Simon Orts. "But I have known these impromptu marriages to turn out very happily—very happily, indeed." he repeated, rubbing his hands together, and smiling horribly. "I gather that Mr. Heleigh will not grace the ceremony with his presence?"
They understood each other, these two. Lord Rokesle grinned, and in a few words told the ecclesiastic of the trick which had insured the absence of the other guests; and Simon Orts also grinned, but respectfully,—the grin, of the true lackey wearing his master's emotions like his master's clothes, at second-hand.
"A very pretty stratagem," said Simon Orts; "unconventional, I must confess, but it is proverbially known that all's fair in love."
At this Lady Allonby came to him, catching his hand. "There is only you, Simon. Oh, there is no hope in that lustful devil yonder. But you are not all base, Simon. You are a man,—ah, God! if I were a man I would rip out that devil's heart—his defiled and infamous heart! I would trample upon it, I would feed it to dogs—!" She paused. Her impotent fury was jerking at every muscle, was choking her. "But I am only a woman. Simon, you used to love me. You cannot have forgotten, Simon. Oh, haven't you any pity on a woman? Remember, Simon—remember how happy we were! Don't you remember how the night-jars used to call to one another when we sat on moonlit evenings under the elm-tree? And d'ye remember the cottage we planned, Simon?—where we were going to live on bread and cheese and kisses? And how we quarrelled because I wanted to train vines over it? You said the rooms would be too dark. You said—oh, Simon, Simon! if only I had gone to live with you in that little cottage we planned and never builded!" Lady Allonby was at his feet now. She fawned upon him in somewhat the manner of a spaniel expectant of a thrashing.
The Vicar of Heriz Magna dispassionately ran over the leaves of his prayer-book, till he had found the marriage service, and then closed the book, his forefinger marking the place. Lord Rokesle stood apart, and with a sly and meditative smile observed them.
"Your plea is a remarkable one," said Simon Orts. "As I understand it, you appeal to me to meddle in your affairs on the ground that you once made a fool of me. I think the obligation is largely optional. I remember quite clearly the incidents to which you refer; and it shames even an old sot like me to think that I was ever so utterly at the mercy of a good-for-nothing jilt. I remember every vow you ever made to me, Anastasia, and I know they were all lies. I remember every kiss, every glance, every caress—all lies, Anastasia! And gad! the only emotion it rouses in me is wonder as to why my worthy patron here should want to marry you. Of course you are wealthy, but, personally, I would not have you for double the money. I must ask you to rise, Lady Rokesle.—Pardon me if I somewhat anticipate your title."
Lady Allonby stumbled to her feet. "Is there no manhood in the world?" she asked, with a puzzled voice. "Has neither of you ever heard of manhood, though but as distantly as men hear summer thunder? Had neither of you a woman for a mother—a woman, as I am—or a father who was not—O God!—not as you are?"
"These rhetorical passages," said Lord Rokesle, "while very elegantly expressed, are scarcely to the point. So you and Simon went a-philandering once? Egad, that lends quite a touch of romance to the affair. But despatch, Parson Simon,—your lady's for your betters now."
"Dearly beloved,—" said Simon Orts.
"Simon, you are not all base. I am helpless, Simon, utterly helpless. There was a Simon once would not have seen me weep. There was a Simon—"
"—we are gathered together here in the sight of God—"
"You cannot do it, Simon,—do I not know you to the marrow? Remember—not me—not the vain folly of my girlhood!—but do you remember the man you have been, Simon Orts!" Fiercely Lady Allonby caught him by the shoulder. "For you do remember! You do remember, don't you, Simon?"
The Vicar stared at her. "The man I have been," said Simon Orts, "yes!—the man I have been!" Something clicked in his throat with sharp distinctness.
"Upon my word," said Lord Rokesle, yawning, "this getting married appears to be an uncommonly tedious business."
Then Simon Orts laid aside his prayer-book and said: "I cannot do it, my Lord. The woman's right."
She clapped her hands to her breast, and stood thus, reeling upon her feet. You would have thought her in the crisis of some physical agony; immediately she breathed again, deeply but with a flinching inhalation, as though the contact of the air scorched her lungs, and, swaying, fell. It was the Vicar who caught her as she fell.
"I entreat your pardon?" said Lord Rokesle, and without study of Lady Allonby's condition. This was men's business now, and over it Rokesle's brow began to pucker.
Simon Orts bore Lady Allonby to the settie. He passed behind it to arrange a cushion under her head, with an awkward, grudging tenderness; and then rose to face Lord Rokesle across the disordered pink fripperies.
"The woman's right, my Lord. There is such a thing as manhood. Manhood!" Simon Orts repeated, with a sort of wonder; "why, I might have boasted it once. Then came this cuddling bitch to trick me into a fool's paradise—to trick me into utter happiness, till Stephen Allonby, a marquis' son, clapped eyes on her and whistled,—and within the moment she had flung me aside. May God forgive me, I forgot I was His servant then! I set out to go to the devil, but I went farther; for I went to you, Vincent Floyer. You gave me bread when I was starving,—but 'twas at a price. Ay, the price was that I dance attendance on you, to aid and applaud your knaveries, to be your pander, your lackey, your confederate,—that I puff out, in effect, the last spark of manhood in my sot's body. Oh, I am indeed beholden to you two! to her for making me a sot, and to you for making me a lackey. But I will save her from you, Vincent Floyer. Not for her sake"—Orts looked down upon the prostrate woman and snarled. "Christ, no! But I'll do it for the sake of the boy I have been, since I owe that boy some reparation. I have ruined his nimble body, I have dulled the wits he gloried in, I have made his name a foul thing that honesty spits out of her mouth; but, if God yet reigns in heaven, I cleanse that name to-night!"
"Oh, bless me," Lord Rokesle observed; "I begin to fear these heroics are contagious. Possibly I, too, shall begin to rant in a moment. Meanwhile, as I understand it, you decline to perform the ceremony. I have had to warn you before this, Simon, that you mustn't take too much gin when I am apt to need you. You are very pitifully drunk, man. So you defy me and my evil courses! You defy me!" Rokesle laughed, genially, for the notion amused him. "Wine is a mocker, Simon. But come, despatch, Parson Tosspot, and let's have no more of these lofty sentiments."
"I cannot do it. I—O my Lord, my Lord! You wouldn't kill an unarmed man!" Simon Orts whined, with a sudden alteration of tone; for Lord Rokesle had composedly drawn his sword, and its point was now not far from the Vicar's breast.
"I trust that I shall not be compelled to. Egad, it is a very ludicrous business when the bridegroom is forced to hold a sword to the parson's bosom all during the ceremony; but a ceremony we must have, Simon, for Lady Allonby's jointure is considerable. Otherwise—Harkee, my man, don't play the fool! there are my fellows yonder, any one of whom would twist your neck at a word from me. And do you think I would boggle at a word? Gad, Simon, I believed you knew me better!"
The Vicar of Heriz Magna kept silence for an instant; his eyes were twitching about the hall, in that stealthy way of his. Finally, "It is no use," said he. "A poor knave cannot afford the luxury of honesty. My life is not a valuable one, perhaps, but even vermin have an aversion to death. I resume my lackeyship, Lord Rokesle. Perhaps 'twas only the gin. Perhaps—In any event, I am once more at your service. And as guaranty of this I warn you that you are exhibiting in the affair scant forethought. Mr. Heleigh is but three miles distant. If he, by any chance, get wind of this business, Denstroude will find a boat for him readily enough—ay, and men, too, now that the Colonel is at feud with you. Many of your people visit the mainland every night, and in their cups the inhabitants of Usk are not taciturn. An idle word spoken over an inn-table may bring an armed company thundering about your gates. You should have set sentinels, my Lord."
"I have already done so," Rokesle said; "there are ten of 'em yonder. Still there is something in what you say. We will make this affair certain."
Lord Rokesle crossed the hall to the foot of the stairway and struck thrice upon the gong hanging there. Presently the door leading to the corridor was opened, and a man came into the hall.
"Punshon," said Lord Rokesle, "have any boats left the island to-night?"
"No, my Lord."
"You will see that none do. Also, no man is to leave Stornoway to-night, either for Heriz Magna or the mainland; and nobody is to enter Stornoway. Do you understand, Punshon?"
"Yes, my Lord."
"If you will pardon me," said Simon Orts, with a grin, "I have an appointment to-night. You'd not have me break faith with a lady?"
"You are a lecherous rascal, Simon. But do as you are bid and I indulge you. I am not afraid of your going to Harry Heleigh—after performing the ceremony. Nay, my lad, for you are thereby particeps criminis. You will pass Mr. Orts, Punshon, to the embraces of his whore. Nobody else."
Simon Orts waved his hand toward Lady Allonby. "'Twere only kindness to warn Mr. Punshon there may be some disturbance shortly. A lamentation or so."
At this Lord Rokesle clapped him upon the shoulder and heartily laughed. "That's the old Simon—always on the alert. Punshon, no one is to enter this wing of the castle, on any pretext—no one, you understand. Whatever noises you may hear, you will pay no attention. Now go."
He went toward Lady Allonby and took her hand. "Come, Anastasia!" said he. "Hold, she has really swooned! Why, what the devil, Simon—!"
Simon Orts had flung the gong into the fire. "She will be sounding that when she comes to," said Simon Orts. "You don't want a rumpus fit to vex the dead yonder in the Chapel." Simon Orts stood before the fire, turning the leaves of his prayer-book. He seemed to have difficulty in finding again the marriage service. You heard the outer door of the corridor closing, heard chains dragged ponderously, the heavy falling of a bolt. Orts dropped the book and, springing into the arm-chair, wrested Aluric Floyer's sword from its fastening. "Tricked, tricked!" said Simon Orts. "You were always a fool, Vincent Floyer."
Lord Rokesle blinked at him, as if dazzled by unexpected light. "What d'ye mean?"
"I have the honor to repeat—you are a fool, I did not know the place was guarded—you told me. I needed privacy; by your orders no one is to enter here to-night. I needed a sword—you had it hanging here, ready for the first comer. Oh, beyond doubt, you are a fool, Vincent Floyer!" Standing in the arm-chair, Simon Orts bowed fantastically, and then leaped to the ground with the agility of an imp.
"You have tricked me neatly," Lord Rokesle conceded, and his tone did not lack honest admiration. "By gad, I have even given them orders to pass you—after you have murdered me! Exceedingly clever, Simon,—but one thing you overlooked. You are very far from my match at fencing. So I shall presently kill you. And afterward, ceremony or no ceremony, the woman's mine."
"I am not convinced of that," the Vicar observed. "'Tis true I am no swordsman; but there are behind my sword forces superior to any which skill might muster. The sword of your fathers fights against you, my Lord—against you that are their disgrace. They loved honor and truth; you betrayed honor, you knew not truth. They revered womanhood; you reverence nothing, and your life smirches your mother's memory. Ah, believe me, they all fight against you! Can you not see them, my Lord?—yonder at my back?—old Aluric Floyer and all those honest gentlemen, whose blood now blushes in your body—ay, blushes to be confined in a vessel so ignoble! Their armament fights against you, a host of gallant phantoms. And my hatred, too, fights against you—the cur's bitter hatred for the mastering hand it dares not bite. I dare now. You made me your pander, you slew my manhood; in return, body and soul, I demolish you. Even my hatred for that woman fights against you; she robbed me of my honor—is it not a tragical revenge to save her honor, to hold it in my hand, mine, to dispose of as I elect,—and then fling it to her as a thing contemptible? Between you, you have ruined me; but it is Simon's hour to-night. I shame you both, and past the reach of thought, for presently I shall take your life—in the high-tide of your iniquity, praise God!—and presently I shall give my life for hers. Ah, I a fey, my Lord! You are a dead man, Vincent Floyer, for the powers of good and the powers of evil alike contend against you."
He spoke rather sadly than otherwise; and there was a vague trouble in Lord Rokesle's face, though he shook his head impatiently. "These are fine words to come from the dirtiest knave unhanged in England."
"Great ends may be attained by petty instruments, my Lord; a filthy turtle quenched the genius of AEschylus, and they were only common soldiers who shed the blood that redeemed the world."
Lord Rokesle pished at this. Yet he was strangely unruffled. He saluted with quietude, as equal to equal, and the two crossed blades.
Simon Orts fought clumsily, but his encroachment was unwavering. From the first he pressed his opponent with a contained resolution. The Vicar was as a man fighting in a dream—with a drugged obstinacy, unswerving. Lord Rokesle had wounded him in the arm, but Orts did not seem aware of this. He crowded upon his master. Now there were little beads of sweat on Lord Rokesle's brow, and his tongue protruded from his mouth, licking at it ravenously. Step by step Lord Rokesle drew back; there was no withstanding this dumb fanatic, who did not know when he was wounded, who scarcely parried attack.
"Even on earth you shall have a taste of hell," said Simon Orts. "There is terror in your eyes, my worthy patron."
Lord Rokesle flung up his arms as the sword dug into his breast. "I am afraid! I am afraid!" he wailed. Then he coughed, and seemed with his straining hands to push a great weight from him as the blood frothed about his lips and nostrils. "O Simon, I am afraid! Help me, Simon!"
Old custom spoke there. Followed silence, and presently the empty body sprawled upon the floor. Vincent Floyer had done with it.
Simon Orts knelt, abstractedly wiping Aluric Floyer's sword upon the corner of a rug. It may be that he derived comfort from this manual employment which necessitated attention without demanding that it concentrate his mind; it may have enabled him to forget how solitary the place was, how viciously his garments rustled when he moved: the fact is certain that he cleaned the sword, over and over again.
Then a scraping of silks made him wince. Turning, he found Lady Allonby half-erect upon the settle. She stared about her with a kind of Infantile wonder; her glance swept, over Lord Rokesle's body, without to all appearance finding it an object of remarkable interest. "Is he dead?"
"Yes," said Simon Orts; "get up!" His voice had a rasp; she might from his tone have been a refractory dog. But Lady Allonby obeyed him.
"We are in a devil of a mess," said Simon Orts; "yet I see a way out of it—if you can keep your head. Can you?"
"I am past fear," she said, dully. "I drown, Simon, in a sea of feathers. I can get no foothold, I clutch nothing that is steadfast, and I smother. I have been like this in dreams. I am very tired, Simon."
He took her hand, collectedly appraising her pulse. He put his own hand upon her bared bosom, and felt the beat of her heart. "No," said Simon Orts, "you are not afraid. Now, listen: You lack time to drown in a sea of feathers. You are upon Usk, among men who differ from beasts by being a thought more devilish, and from devils by being a little more bestial; it is my opinion that the earlier you get away the better. Punshon has orders to pass Simon Orts. Very well; put on this."
He caught up his long cloak and wrapped it about her. Lady Allonby stood rigid. But immediately he frowned and removed the garment from her shoulders.
"That won't do. Your skirts are too big. Take 'em off."
Submissively she did so, and presently stood before him in her under-petticoat.
"You cut just now a very ludicrous figure, Anastasia. I dare assert that the nobleman who formerly inhabited yonder carcass would still be its tenant if he had known how greatly the beauty he went mad for was beholden to the haberdasher and the mantua-maker, and quite possibly the chemist. Persicos odi, Anastasia; 'tis a humiliating reflection that the hair of a dead woman artfully disposed about a living head should have the power to set men squabbling, and murder be at times engendered in a paint-pot. However, wrap yourself in the cloak. Now turn up the collar,—so. Now pull down the hatbrim. Um—a—pretty well. Chance favors us unblushingly. You may thank your stars it is a rainy night and that I am a little man. You detest little men, don't you? Yes, I remember." Simon Orts now gave his orders, emphasizing each with a not over-clean forefinger. "When I open this door you will go out into the corridor. Punshon or one of the others will be on guard at the farther end. Pay no attention to him. There is only one light—on the left. Keep to the right, in the shadow. Stagger as you go; if you can manage a hiccough, the imitation will be all the more lifelike. Punshon will expect something of the sort, and he will not trouble you, for he knows that when I am fuddled I am quarrelsome. 'Tis a diverting world, Anastasia, wherein, you now perceive, habitual drunkenness and an unbridled temper may sometimes prove commendable,—as they do to-night, when they aid persecuted innocence!" Here Simon Orts gave an unpleasant laugh.
"But I do not understand—"
"You understand very little except coquetry and the proper disposition of a ruffle. Yet this is simple. My horse is tied at the postern. Mount—astride, mind. You know the way to the Vicarage, so does the horse; you will find that posturing half-brother of mine at the Vicarage. Tell Frank what has happened. Tell him to row you to the mainland; tell him to conduct you to Colonel Denstroude's. Then you must shift for yourself; but Denstroude is a gentleman, and Denstroude would protect Beelzebub if he came to him a fugitive from Vincent Floyer. Now do you understand?"
"Yes," said Lady Allonby, and seated herself before the fire,—"yes, I understand. I am to slip away in the darkness and leave you here to answer for Lord Rokesle's death—to those devils. La, do you really think me as base as that?"
Now Simon Orts was kneeling at her side. The black cloak enveloped her from head to foot, and the turned-up collar screened her sunny hair; in the shadow of the broad hatbrim you could see only her eyes, resplendent and defiant, and in them the reflection of the vaulting flames. "You would stay, Anastasia?"
"I will not purchase my life at the cost of yours. I will be indebted to you for nothing, Simon Orts."
The Vicar chuckled. "Nor appeared Less than archangel ruined," he said. "No, faith, not a whit less! We are much of a piece, Anastasia. Do you know—if affairs had fallen out differently—I think I might have been a man and you a woman? As it is—" Kneeling still, his glance devoured her. "Yes, you would stay. And you comprehend what staying signifies. 'Tis pride, your damnable pride, that moves you,—but I rejoice, for it proves you a brave woman. Courage, at least, you possess, and this is the first virtue I have discovered in you for a long while. However, there is no necessity for your staying. The men of Usk will not hurt Simon Orts."
She was very eager to believe this. Lady Allonby had found the world a pleasant place since her widowhood. "They will not kill you? You swear it, Simon?"
"Why, the man was their tyrant. They obeyed him—yes, through fear. I am their deliverer, Anastasia. But if they found a woman here—a woman not ill-looking—" Simon Orts snapped his fingers. "Faith, I leave you to conjecture," said he.
They had both risen, he smiling, the woman in a turbulence of hope and terror. "Swear to it, Simon!"
"Anastasia, were affairs as you suppose them, I would have a curt while to live. Were affairs as you suppose them, I would stand now at the threshold of eternity. And I swear to you, upon my soul's salvation, that I have nothing to fear. Nothing will ever hurt me any more."
"No, you would not dare to lie in the moment of death," she said, after a considerable pause. "I believe you. I will go. Good-bye, Simon." Lady Allonby went toward the door opening into the corridor, but turned there and came back to him. "I shall never see you again. And, la, I think that I rather hate you than otherwise, for you remind me of things I would willingly forget. But, Simon, I wish we had gone to live in that little cottage we planned, and quarrelled over, and never built! I think we would have been happy."
Simon Orts raised her hand to his lips. "Yes," said he, "we would have been happy. I would have been by this a man doing a man's work in the world, and you a matron, grizzling, perhaps, but rich in content, and in love opulent. As it is, you have your flatterers, your gossip, and your cards; I have my gin. Good-bye, Anastasia."
"Simon, why have you done—this?"
The Vicar of Heriz Magna flung out his hands in a gesture of impotence. "I dare confess now that which even to myself I have never dared confess. I suppose the truth of it is that I have loved you all my life."
"I am sorry. I am not worth it, Simon."
"No; you are immeasurably far from being worth it. But one does not justify these fancies by mathematics. Good-bye, Anastasia."
Holding the door ajar, the Vicar of Heriz Magna heard a horse's hoofs slap their leisurely way down the hillside. Presently the sound died and he turned back into the hall.
"A brave woman, that! Oh, a trifling, shallow-hearted jilt, but a brave creature!
"I had to lie to her. She would have stayed else. And perhaps it is true that, in reality, I have loved her all my life,—or in any event, have hankered after the pink-and-white flesh of her as any gentleman might. Pschutt! a pox on all lechery says the dying man,—since it is now necessary to put that strapping yellow-haired trollop out of your mind, Simon Orts—yes, after all these years, to put her quite out of your mind. Faith, she might wheedle me now to her heart's content, and my pulse would never budge; for I must devote what trivial time there is to hoping they will kill me quickly. He was their god, that man!"
Simon Orts went toward the dead body, looking down into the distorted face. "And I, too, loved him. Yes, such as he was, he was the only friend I had. And I think he liked me," Simon Orts said aloud, with a touch of shy pride. "Yes, and you trusted me, didn't you, Vincent? Wait for me, then, my Lord,—I shall not be long. And now I'll serve you faithfully. I had to play the man's part, you know,—you mustn't grudge old Simon his one hour of manhood. You wouldn't, I think. And in any event, I shall be with you presently, and you can cuff me for it if you like—just as you used to do."
He covered the dead face with his handkerchief, but in the instant he drew it away. "No, not this coarse cambric. You were too much of a fop, Vincent. I will use yours—the finest linen, my Lord. You see old Simon knows your tastes."
He drew himself erect exultantly.
"They will come at dawn to kill me; but I have had my hour. God, the man I might have been! And now—well, perhaps He would not be offended if I said a bit of a prayer for Vincent."
So the Vicar of Heriz Magna knelt beside the flesh that had been Lord Rokesle, and there they found him in the morning.
LOVE AT MARTINMAS As Played at Tunbridge Wells, April 1, 1750
"He to love an altar built Of twelve vast French romances, neatly gilt. There lay three garters, half a pair of gloves, And all the trophies of his former loves; With tender billet-doux he lights the pyre, And breathes three amorous sighs to raise the fire; Then prostrate falls, and begs with ardent eyes Soon to obtain, and long possess the prize."
MR. ERWYN, a gentleman of the town, ceremonious and a coxcomb, but a man of honor. LADY ALLONBY, a woman of fashion, and widow to Lord Stephen Allonby. MISS ALLONBY, daughter to Lord Stephen by a former marriage, of a considerable fortune in her own hands. FOOTMEN to Lady Allonby; and in the Proem FRANCIS ORTS, commonly know as FRANCIS VANBINGHAM, a dissolute play-actor.
A drawing-room In Lady Allonby's villa at Tunbridge Wells.
LOVE AT MARTINMAS
PROEM:—To be Filed for Reference Hereafter
Lady Allonby followed in all respects the Vicar's instructions; and midnight found her upon the pier of Bishops Onslow, Colonel Denstroude's big and dilapidated country-residence. Frank Orts had assisted her from the rowboat without speaking; indeed, he had uttered scarcely a word, save to issue some necessary direction, since the woman first came to him at the Vicarage with her news of the night's events. Now he composedly stepped back into the boat.
"You've only to go forward," said Frank Orts. "I regret that for my own part I'm no longer an acceptable visitor here, since the Colonel and I fought last summer over one Molly Yates. Nay, I beseech you, put up your purse, my Lady."
"Then I can but render you my heartfelt thanks," replied Lady Allonby, "and incessantly remember you in daily prayers for the two gallant men who have this night saved a woman from great misery. Yet there is that in your voice which is curiously familiar, Mr. Orts, and I think that somewhere you and I have met before this."
"Ay," he responded, "you have squandered many a shilling on me here in England, where Francis Vanringham bellows and makes faces with the rest of the Globe Company. On Usk, you understand, I'm still Frank Orts, just as I was christened; but elsewhere the name of Vanringham was long ago esteemed more apt to embellish and adorn the bill of a heroic play. Ay, you've been pleased to applaud my grimaces behind the footlights, more than once; your mother-in-law, indeed, the revered Marchioness-Dowager of Falmouth, is among my staunchest patrons."
"Heavens! then we shall all again see one another at Tunbridge!" said Lady Allonby, who was recovering her spirits; "and I shall have a Heaven-sent opportunity, to confirm my protestations that I am not ungrateful. Mr. Vanringham, I explicitly command you to open in The Orphan, since: as Castalio in that piece you are the most elegant and moving thing in the universal world." [Footnote: This was the opinion of others as well. Thorsby (Roscius Anglicanus) says, "Mr. Vanringham was good in tragedy, as well as in comedy, especially as Castalio in Otway's Orphan, and the more famous Garrick came, in that part, far short of him." Vanringham was also noted for his Valentine in Love for Love and for his Beaugard in The Soldier's Fortune.]
"Your command shall be obeyed," said the actor. "And meantime, my Lady, I bid you an au revoir, with many millions of regrets for the inconveniences to which you've been subjected this evening, Oho, we are lamentably rustic hereabout."
And afterward as he rowed through the dark the man gave a grunt of dissatisfaction.
"I was too abrupt with her. But it vexes me to have Brother Simon butchered like this.... These natural instincts are damnably inconvenient,—and expensive, at times, Mr. Vanringham,—beside being ruinous to one's sense of humor, Mr. Vanringham. Why, to think that she alone should go scot-free! and of her ordering a stage-box within the hour of two men's destruction on her account! Upon reflection, I admire the woman to the very tips of my toes. Eh, well! I trust to have need of her gratitude before the month is up."
Since Colonel Denstroude proved a profane and dissolute and helpful person, Lady Allonby was shortly re-established in her villa at Tunbridge Wells, on the Sussex side, where she had resolved to find a breathing-space prior to the full season in London. And thereupon she put all thoughts of Usk quite out of her mind: it had been an unhappy business, but it was over. In the meanwhile her wardrobe needed replenishing now that spring was coming in; the company at the Wells was gay enough; and Lady Allonby had always sedulously avoided anything that was disagreeable.
Mr. Erwyn Lady Allonby was far from cataloguing under that head. Mr. George Erwyn had been for years a major-general, at the very least, in Fashion's army, and was concededly a connoisseur of all the elegancies.
Mr. Erwyn sighed as he ended his recital—half for pity of the misguided folk who had afforded Tunbridge its latest scandal, half for relief that, in spite of many difficulties, the story had been set forth in discreet language which veiled, without at all causing you to miss, the more unsavory details.
"And so," said he, "poor Harry is run through the lungs, and Mrs. Anstruther has recovered her shape and is to be allowed a separate maintenance."
"'Tis shocking!" said Lady Allonby.
"'Tis incredible," said Mr. Erwyn, "to my mind, at least, that the bonds of matrimony should be slipped thus lightly. But the age is somewhat lax and the world now views with complaisance the mad antics of half-grown lads and wenches who trip toward the altar as carelessly as if the partnership were for a country-dance."
Lady Allonby stirred her tea and said nothing. Notoriously her marriage had been unhappy; and her two years of widowhood (dating from the unlamented seizure, brought on by an inherited tendency to apoplexy and French brandy, which carried off Lord Stephen Allonby of Prestonwoode) had to all appearance never tempered her distrust of the matrimonial state. Certain it was that she had refused many advantageous offers during this period, for her jointure was considerable, and, though in candid moments she confessed to thirty-three, her dearest friends could not question Lady Allonby's good looks. She was used to say that she would never re-marry, because she desired to devote herself to her step-daughter, but, as gossip had it at Tunbridge, she was soon to be deprived of this subterfuge; for Miss Allonby had reached her twentieth year, and was nowadays rarely seen in public save in the company of Mr. Erwyn, who, it was generally conceded, stood high in the girl's favor and was desirous of rounding off his career as a leader of fashion with the approved comoedic denouement of marriage with a young heiress.
For these reasons Lady Allonby heard with interest his feeling allusion to the laxity of the age, and through a moment pondered thereon, for it seemed now tolerably apparent that Mr. Erwyn had lingered, after the departure of her other guests, in order to make a disclosure which Tunbridge had for many months expected.
"I had not thought," said she, at length, "that you, of all men, would ever cast a serious eye toward marriage. Indeed, Mr. Erwyn, you have loved women so long that I must dispute your ability to love a woman—and your amours have been a byword these twenty years."
"Dear lady," said Mr. Erwyn, "surely you would not confound amour with love? Believe me, the translation is inadequate. Amour is but the summer wave that lifts and glitters and laughs in the sunlight, and within the instant disappears; but love is the unfathomed eternal sea itself. Or—to shift the metaphor—Amour is a general under whom youth must serve: Curiosity and Lustiness are his recruiting officers, and it is well to fight under his colors, for it is against Ennui that he marshals his forces. 'Tis a resplendent conflict, and young blood cannot but stir and exult as paradoxes, marching and countermarching at the command of their gay generalissimo, make way for one another in iridescent squadrons, while through the steady musketry of epigram one hears the clash of contending repartees, or the cry of a wailing sonnet. But this lord of laughter may be served by the young alone; and by and by each veteran—scarred, it may be, but not maimed, dear lady—is well content to relinquish the glory and adventure of such colorful campaigns for some quiet inglenook, where, with love to make a third, he prattles of past days and deeds with one that goes hand in hand with him toward the tomb."
Lady Allonby accorded this conceit the tribute of a sigh; then glanced, in the direction of four impassive footmen to make sure they were out of earshot.
"And so—?" said she.
"Split me!" said Mr. Erwyn, "I thought you had noted it long ago."
"Indeed," she observed, reflectively, "I suppose it is quite time."
"I am not," said Mr. Erwyn, "in the heyday of my youth, I grant you; but I am not for that reason necessarily unmoved by the attractions of an advantageous person, a fine sensibility and all the graces."
He sipped his tea with an air of resentment; and Lady Allonby, in view of the disparity of age which existed between Mr. Erwyn and her step-daughter, had cause to feel that she had blundered into gaucherie; and to await with contrition the proposal for her step-daughter's hand that the man was (at last) about to broach to her, as the head of the family.
"Who is she?" said Lady Allonby, all friendly interest.
"An angel," said Mr. Erwyn, fencing.
"Beware," Lady Allonby exhorted, "lest she prove a recording angel; a wife who takes too deep an interest in your movements will scarcely suit you."
"Oh, I am assured," said Mr. Erwyn, smiling, "that on Saturdays she will allow me the customary half-holiday."
Lady Allonby, rebuffed, sought consolation among the conserves.
"Yet, as postscript," said Mr. Erwyn, "I do not desire a wife who will take her morning chocolate with me and sup with Heaven knows whom. I have seen, too much of mariage a la mode, and I come to her, if not with the transports of an Amadis, at least with an entire affection and respect."
"Then," said Lady Allonby, "you love this woman?"
"Very tenderly," said Mr. Erwyn; "and, indeed, I would, for her sake, that the errors of my past life were not so numerous, nor the frailty of my aspiring resolutions rendered apparent—ah, so many times!—to a gaping and censorious world. For, as you are aware, I cannot offer her an untried heart; 'tis somewhat worn by many barterings. But I know that this heart beats with accentuation in her presence; and when I come to her some day and clasp her in my arms, as I aspire to do, I trust that her lips may not turn away from mine and that she may be more glad because I am so near and that her stainless heart may sound an echoing chime. For, with a great and troubled adoration, I love her as I have loved no other woman; and this much, I submit, you cannot doubt."
"I?" said Lady Allonby, with extreme innocence. "La, how should I know?"
"Unless you are blind," Mr. Erwyn observed—"and I apprehend those spacious shining eyes to be more keen than the tongue of a dowager,—you must have seen of late that I have presumed to hope—to think—that she whom I love so tenderly might deign to be the affectionate, the condescending friend who would assist me to retrieve the indiscretions of my youth—"
The confusion of his utterance, his approach to positive agitation as he waved his teaspoon, moved Lady Allonby. "It is true," she said, "that I have not been wholly blind—"
"Anastasia," said Mr. Erwyn, with yet more feeling, "is not our friendship of an age to justify sincerity?"
"Oh, bless me, you toad! but let us not talk of things that happened under the Tudors. Well, I have not been unreasonably blind,—and I do not object,—and I do not believe that Dorothy will prove obdurate."
"You render me the happiest of men," Mr. Erwyn stated, rapturously. "You have, then, already discussed this matter with Miss Allonby?"
"Not precisely," said she, laughing; "since I had thought it apparent to the most timid lover that the first announcement came with best grace from him."
"O' my conscience, then, I shall be a veritable Demosthenes," said Mr. Erwyn, laughing likewise; "and in common decency she will consent."
"Your conceit." said Lady Allonby, "is appalling."
"'Tis beyond conception," Mr. Erwyn admitted; "and I propose to try marriage as a remedy. I have heard that nothing so takes down a man."
"Impertinent!" cried Lady Allonby; "now of whatever can the creature be talking!"
"I mean that, as your widowship well knows, marrying puts a man in his proper place. And that the outcome is salutary for proud, puffed-up fellows I would be the last to dispute. Indeed, I incline to dispute nothing, for I find that perfect felicity is more potent than wine. I am now all pastoral raptures, and were it not for the footmen there, I do not know to what lengths I might go."
"In that event," Lady Allonby decided, "I shall fetch Dorothy, that the crown may be set upon your well-being. And previously I will dismiss the footmen." She did so with a sign toward those lordly beings.
"Believe me," said Mr. Erwyn, "'tis what I have long wished for. And when Miss Allonby honors me with her attention I shall, since my life's happiness depends upon the issue, plead with all the eloquence of a starveling barrister, big with the import of his first case. May I, indeed, rest assured that any triumph over her possible objections may be viewed with not unfavorable eyes?"
"O sir," said Lady Allonby, "believe me, there is nothing I more earnestly desire than that you may obtain all which is necessary for your welfare. I will fetch Dorothy."
The largest footman but one removed Mr. Erwyn's cup.
Mr. Erwyn, left alone, smiled at his own reflection in the mirror; rearranged his ruffles with a deft and shapely hand; consulted his watch; made sure that the padding which enhanced the calves of his most notable legs was all as it should be; seated himself and hummed a merry air, in meditative wise; and was in such posture when the crimson hangings that shielded the hall-door quivered and broke into tumultuous waves and yielded up Miss Dorothy Allonby.
Being an heiress, Miss Allonby was by an ancient custom brevetted a great beauty; and it is equitable to add that the sourest misogynist could hardly have refused, pointblank, to countersign the commission. They said of Dorothy Allonby that her eyes were as large as her bank account, and nearly as formidable as her tongue; and it is undeniable that on provocation there was in her speech a tang of acidity, such (let us say) as renders a salad none the less palatable. In a word, Miss Allonby pitied the limitations of masculine humanity more readily than its amorous pangs, and cuddled her women friends as she did kittens, with a wary and candid apprehension of their power to scratch; and decision was her key-note; continually she knew to the quarter-width of a cobweb what she wanted, and invariably she got it.
Such was the person who, with a habitual emphasis which dowagers found hoydenish and all young men adorable, demanded without prelude:
"Heavens! What can it be, Mr. Erwyn, that has cast Mother into this unprecedented state of excitement?"
"What, indeed?" said he, and bowed above her proffered hand.
"For like a hurricane, she burst into my room and cried, 'Mr. Erwyn has something of importance to declare to you—why did you put on that gown?—bless you, my child—' all in one eager breath; then kissed me, and powdered my nose, and despatched me to you without any explanation. And why?" said Miss Allonby.
"Why, indeed?" said Mr. Erwyn.
"It is very annoying," said she, decisively.
"Sending you to me?" said Mr. Erwyn, a magnitude of reproach in his voice.
"That," said Miss Allonby, "I can pardon—and easily. But I dislike all mysteries, and being termed a child, and being—"
"Yes?" said Mr. Erwyn.
"—and being powdered on the nose," said Miss Allonby, with firmness. She went to the mirror, and, standing on the tips of her toes, peered anxiously into its depths. She rubbed her nose, as if in disapproval, and frowned, perhaps involuntarily pursing up her lips,—which Mr. Erwyn intently regarded, and then wandered to the extreme end of the apartment, where he evinced a sudden interest in bric-a-brac.
"Is there any powder on my nose?" said Miss Allonby.
"I fail to perceive any," said Mr. Erwyn.
"Come closer," said she.
"I dare not," said he.
Miss Allonby wheeled about. "Fie!" she cried; "one who has served against the French, [Footnote: This was not absolutely so. Mr. Erwyn had, however, in an outburst of patriotism, embarked, as a sort of cabin passenger, with his friend Sir John Morris, and possessed in consequence some claim to share such honor as was won by the glorious fiasco of Dungeness.] and afraid of powder!"
"It is not the powder that I fear."
"What, then?" said she, in sinking to the divan beside the disordered tea-table.
"There are two of them," said Mr. Erwyn, "and they are so red—"
"Nonsense!" cried Miss Allonby, with heightened color.
"'Tis best to avoid temptation," said Mr. Erwyn, virtuously.
"Undoubtedly," she assented, "it is best to avoid having your ears boxed."
Mr. Erwyn sighed as if in the relinquishment of an empire. Miss Allonby moved to the farther end of the divan.
"What was it," she demanded, "that you had to tell me?"
"'Tis a matter of some importance—" said Mr. Erwyn.
"Heavens!" said Miss Allonby, and absent-mindedly drew aside her skirts; "one would think you about to make a declaration."
Mr. Erwyn sat down beside her, "I have been known," said he, "to do such things."
The divan was strewn with cushions in the Oriental fashion. Miss Allonby, with some adroitness, slipped one of them between her person and the locality of her neighbor. "Oh!" said Miss Allonby.
"Yes," said he, smiling over the dragon-embroidered barrier; "I admit that I am even now shuddering upon the verge of matrimony."
"Indeed!" she marvelled, secure in her fortress. "Have you selected an accomplice?"
"Split me, yes!" said Mr. Erwyn.
"And have I the honor of her acquaintance?" said Miss Allonby.
"Provoking!" said Mr. Erwyn; "no woman knows her better."
Miss Allonby smiled. "Dear Mr. Erwyn," she stated, "this is a disclosure I have looked for these six months."
"Split me!" said Mr. Erwyn.
"Heavens, yes!" said she. "You have been a rather dilatory lover—"
"I am inexpressibly grieved, that I should have kept you waiting—"
"—and in fact, I had frequently thought of reproaching you for your tardiness—"
"Nay, in that case," said Mr. Erwyn, "the matter could, no doubt, have been more expeditiously arranged."
"—since your intentions have been quite apparent."
Mr. Erwyn removed the cushion. "You do not, then, disapprove," said he, "of my intentions?"
"Indeed, no," said Miss Allonby; "I think you will make an excellent step-father."
The cushion fell to the floor. Mr. Erwyn replaced it and smiled.
"And so," Miss Allonby continued, "Mother, believing me in ignorance, has deputed you to inform me of this most transparent secret? How strange is the blindness of lovers! But I suppose," sighed Miss Allonby, "we are all much alike."
"We?" said Mr. Erwyn, softly.
"I meant—" said Miss Allonby, flushing somewhat.
"Yes?" said Mr. Erwyn. His voice sank to a pleading cadence. "Dear child, am I not worthy of trust?"
There was a microscopic pause.
"I am going to the Pantiles this afternoon," declared Miss Allonby, at length, "to feed the swans."
"Ah," said Mr. Erwyn, and with comprehension; "surely, he, too, is rather tardy."
"Oh," said she, "then you know?"
"I know," he announced, "that there is a tasteful and secluded summer-house near the Fountain of Neptune."
"I was never allowed," said Miss Allonby, unconvincingly, "to go into secluded summer-houses with any one; and, besides, the gardeners keep their beer jugs there—under the biggest bench."
Mr. Erwyn beamed upon her paternally. "I was not, till this, aware," said he, "that Captain Audaine was so much interested in ornithology. Yet what if, even when he is seated upon that biggest bench, your Captain does not utterly lose the head he is contributing to the tete-a-tete?"
"Oh, but he will," said Miss Allonby, with confidence; then she reflectively added: "I shall have again to be painfully surprised by his declaration, for, after all, it will only be his seventh."
"Doubtless," Mr. Erwyn considered, "your astonishment will be extreme when you rebuke him, there above hortensial beer jugs—"
"And I shall be deeply grieved that he has so utterly misunderstood my friendly interest in his welfare; and I shall be highly indignant after he has—in effect, after he has—"
"But not until afterward?" said Mr. Erwyn, holding up a forefinger. "Well, I have told you their redness is fatal to good resolutions."
"—after he has astounded me by his seventh avowal. And I shall behave in precisely the same manner the eighth time he recurs to the repugnant subject."
"But the ninth time?" said Mr. Erwyn.
"He has remarkably expressive eyes," Miss Allonby stated, "and really, Mr. Erwyn, it is the most lovable creature when it raves about my flint-heartedness and cutting its poor throat and murdering every man I ever nodded to!"
"Ah, youth, youth!" sighed Mr. Erwyn. "Dear child, I pray you, do not trifle with the happiness that is within your grasp! Si jeunesse savait—the proverb is somewhat musty. But we who have attained the St. Martin's summer of our lives and have grown capable of but a calm and tempered affection at the utmost—we cannot but look wistfully upon the raptures and ignorance of youth, and we would warn you, were it possible, of the many dangers whereby you are encompassed. For Love is a deity that must not be trifled with; his voice may chaunt the requiem of all which is bravest in our mingled natures, or sound a stave of such nobility as heartens us through life. He is kindly, but implacable; beneficent, a bestower of all gifts upon the faithful, a bestower of very terrible gifts upon those that flout him; and I who speak to you have seen my own contentment blighted, by just such flippant jesting with Love's omnipotence, before the edge of my first razor had been dulled. 'Tis true, I have lived since in indifferent comfort; yet it is but a dreary banquet where there is no platter laid for Love, and within the chambers of my heart—dust-gathering now, my dear!—he has gone unfed these fifteen years or more."
"Ah, goodness!" sighed Miss Allonby, touched by the ardor of his speech. "And so, you have loved Mother all of fifteen years?"
"Nay, split me—!" said Mr. Erwyn.
"Your servant, sir," said the voice of Lady Allonby; "I trust you young people have adjusted matters to your satisfaction?"
"Dear madam," cried Miss Allonby, "I am overjoyed!" then kissed her step-mother vigorously and left the room, casting in passage an arch glance at Mr. Erwyn.
"O vulgarity!" said Lady Allonby, recovering her somewhat rumpled dignity, "the sweet child is yet unpolished. But, I suppose, we may regard the matter as settled?"
"Yes," said Mr. Erwyn, "I think, dear lady, we may with safety regard the matter as settled."
"Dorothy is of an excitable nature," she observed, and seated herself upon the divan; "and you, dear Mr. Erwyn, who know women so thoroughly, will overlook the agitation of an artless girl placed in quite unaccustomed circumstances. Nay, I myself was affected by my first declaration,"'