Methuen's Colonial Library
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
A Man of Mark Mr. Witt's Widow Father Stafford A Change of Air Half a Hero The Prisoner of Zenda The God in the Car The Dolly Dialogues Comedies of Courtship The Chronicles of Count Antonio The Heart of Princess Osra Phroso Simon Dale Rupert of Hentzau The King's Mirror
METHUEN & CO. 36 ESSEX STREET, W.C. LONDON 1900
I. DICK BENYON'S OUTSIDER 1 II. MOMENTS 16 III. SANDRO'S WAY 31 IV. HE'S COMING! 46 V. WHIMSY-WHAMSIES 65 VI. ON DUTY HILL 84 VII. ADVICE FROM AUNT MARIA 101 VIII. CONTRA MUNDUM 120 IX. LEAD US NOT— 137 X. PRACTICAL POLITICS 155 XI. SEVENTY-SEVEN AND SUSY SINNETT 176 XII. A HIGHLY CORRECT ATTITUDE 196 XIII. NOT SUPERHUMAN 215 XIV. OPEN EYES 235 XV. A STRANGE IDEA 257 XVI. THE IRREVOCABLE 279 XVII. DONE FOR? 301 XVIII. FOR LACK OF LOVE? 321 XIX. DEATH DEFIED 339 XX. THE QUIET LIFE TO-MORROW 355 XXI. A RELICT 371
The following sentence, found in Chapter IX., was originally printed with the "three several" error and has not been changed:
That evening Quisante brought home to dinner the gentleman whom Dick Benyon called old Foster the maltster, and who had been Mayor of Henstead three several times.
DICK BENYON'S OUTSIDER.
A shrunken sallow old lady, dressed in rusty ill-shaped black and adorned with an evidently false 'front' of fair hair, sat in a tiny flat whose windows overlooked Hyde Park from south to north. She was listening to a tall loose-built dark young man who walked restlessly about the little room as he jerked out his thoughts and challenged the expression of hers. She had known him since he was a baby, had brought him up from childhood, had always served him, always believed in him, never liked him, never offered her love nor conciliated his. His father even, her only brother Raphael Quisante, she had not loved; but she had respected Raphael. Alexander—Sandro, as she alone of all the world called him—she neither loved nor respected; him she only admired and believed in. He knew his aunt's feelings well enough; she was his ally, not his friend; kinship bound them, not affection; for his brain's sake and their common blood she was his servant, his heart she left alone.
Thus aware of the truth, he felt no obligation towards her, not even when, as now, he came to ask money of her; what else should she do with her money, where else lay either her duty or her inclination? She did not love him, but he was her one interest, the only tie that united her with the living moving world and the alluring future years, more precious to her since she could see so few of them.
"I don't mean to make myself uncomfortable," said Miss Quisante. "How much do you want?" He stopped and turned round quickly with a gleam of eagerness in his eyes, as though he had a vision of much wealth. "No, no," she added with a surly chuckle, "the least you'll take is the most I'll give."
"I owe money."
"Who to?" she asked, setting her cap uncompromisingly straight. "Jews?"
"No. Dick Benyon."
"That money you'll never pay. I shan't consider that."
The young man's eyes rested on her in a long sombre glance; he seemed annoyed but not indignant, like a lawyer whose formal plea is brushed aside somewhat contemptuously by an impatient truth-loving judge.
"You've got five hundred a year or thereabouts," she went on, "and no wife."
He threw himself into a chair; his face broke into a sudden smile, curiously attractive, although neither sweet nor markedly sincere. "Exactly," he said. "No wife. Well, shall I get one with five hundred a year?" He laughed a little. "An election any fine day would leave me penniless," he added.
"There's Dick Benyon," observed the old lady.
"They talk about that too much already," said Quisante.
"Come, Sandro, you're not sensitive."
"And Lady Richard hates me. Besides if you want to impress fools, you must respect their prejudices. Give me a thousand a year; for the present, you know."
He asked nearly half the old lady's income; she sighed in relief. "Very well, a thousand a year," she said. "Make a good show with it. Live handsomely. It'll pay you to live handsomely."
A genuine unmistakable surprise showed itself on his face; now there was even the indignation which a reference to non-payment of debts had failed to elicit.
"I shall do something with it, you might know that," he said resentfully.
"Something honest, I mean."
"Well, something not criminal," she amended, chuckling again. "I'm sorry to seem to know you so well," she added.
"Oh, we know one another pretty well," said he with a nod. "Never the jam without the powder from you."
"But always the jam," said old Maria. "And you'll find the world a good deal like your aunt, Sandro."
An odd half-cunning half-eager gleam shot across his eyes.
"A man finds the world what he makes it," he said. He rose, came and stood over her, and went on, laughing. "But the devil makes an aunt once and for all, and won't let one touch his handiwork."
"You can touch her savings, though!"
He blazed out into a sudden defiance. "Oh, refuse if you like. I can manage without you. You're not essential to me."
She smiled, her thin lips setting in a wry curve. Now and then it seemed hard that there could be no affection between her and the one being whom the course of events plainly suggested for her love. But, as Sandro said, they knew one another very well. In the result she felt entitled to assume no airs of superiority; he had not been a dutiful or a grateful nephew, she had not been a devoted or a patient aunt; as she looked back, she was obliged to remember one or two occasions when he had driven or betrayed her into a severity of which she did not willingly think. This reflection dictated the words with which she met his outburst.
"You can tell your story on Judgment Day and I'll tell mine," she said. "Oh, neither of 'em will lose in the telling, I'll be bound. Meanwhile let's be——"
"Friends?" he suggested with an obvious but not ill-natured sneer.
"Lord, no! Whatever you like! Banker and client, debtor and creditor, actor and audience? Take your choice—and send me your bank's address."
He nodded slightly, as though he concluded a bargain, not at all as though he acknowledged a favour. Yet he remarked in a ruminative tone, "I shall be very glad of the money."
A moment's pause followed. Then Miss Quisante observed reluctantly,
"The only thing I ever care to know about you is what you're planning, Sandro. Don't I earn that by my thousand a year?"
"Well, here you are. I'm started, thanks to Dick Benyon and myself. I've got my seat, I can go on now. But I'm an outsider still." He paused a moment. "I feel that; Benyon feels it too. I want to obviate it a bit. I mean to marry."
"An insider?" asked the old lady. She looked at him steadily. "Your taste's too bad," she said; he was certainly dressed in a rather bizarre way. "And your manners," she added. "She won't have you," she ended. Quisante took no notice and seemed not to hear; he stood quite still by the window, staring over the park. "Besides she'll know what you want her for."
He wheeled round suddenly and looked down at his aunt. His face was softer, the cunningness had gone from his smile, his eyes seemed larger, clearer, even (by a queer delusion of sight) better set and wider apart.
"Yes, I'll show her that," he said in a low voice, with a new richness of tone.
Old Maria looked up at him with an air of surprise.
"You do want her for that? As a help, I mean?" she asked.
His lips just moved to answer "Yes." Aunt Maria's eyes did not leave his face. She remembered that when he had come before to talk about contesting the seat in Parliament he had now won, there had been a moment (poised between long periods of calculation and elaborate forecasts of personal advantage) in which his face had taken on the same soft light, the same inspiration.
"You odd creature!" she murmured gently. "She's handsome, I suppose?"
"Superb—better than that."
"A swell?" asked old Maria scornfully.
"Yes," he nodded.
His aunt laughed. "A Queen among women?" was the form her last question took.
"An Empress," said Alexander Quisante, the more ornate title bursting gorgeously from his lips.
"Just the woman for you then!" remarked Aunt Maria. A stranger would have heard nothing in her tone save mockery. Quisante heard more, or did not hear that at all. He nodded again quite gravely, and turned back to the window. There were two reasonable views of the matter; either the lady was not what Quisante declared her, or if she were she would have nothing to do with Quisante. But Aunt Maria reserved her opinion; she was prepared to find neither of these alternatives correct.
For there was something remarkable about Sandro; the knowledge that had been hers so long promised fair to become the world's discovery. Society was travelling towards Aunt Maria's opinion, moved thereto not so much by a signally successful election fight, nor even by a knack of distracting attention from others and fixing it on himself, as by the monstrous hold the young man had obtained and contrived to keep over Dick Benyon. Dick was not a fool; here ended his likeness to Quisante; here surely ought to end his sympathy with that aspiring person? But there was much more between them; society could see that for itself, while doubters found no difficulty in overhearing Lady Richard's open lamentations. "If Dick had known him at school or at Cambridge——" "If he was somebody very distinguished——" "If he was even a gentleman——" Eloquent beginnings of unfinished sentences flowed with expressive freedom from Amy Benyon's pretty lips. "I don't want to think my husband mad," she observed pathetically to Weston Marchmont, himself one of the brightest hopes of that party which Dick Benyon was understood to consider in need of a future leader. Was that leader to be Quisante? Manners, not genius, Amy declared to be the first essential. "And I don't believe he's got genius," she added hopefully; that he had no manners did not need demonstration to Marchmont, whose own were so exquisite as to form a ready-make standard.
And it was not only Dick. Jimmy was as bad. Nobody valued Jimmy's intellect, but every one had been prepared to repose securely on the bedrock of his prejudices. He was as infatuated as his brother; Quisante had swept away the prejudices. The brethren were united in an effort to foist their man into every circle and every position where he seemed to be least wanted; to this end they devoted time, their social reputation, enthusiasm, and, as old Maria knew, hard money. They were triple-armed in confidence. Jimmy met remonstrances with a quiet shrug; Dick had one answer, always the same, given in the same way—a confident assertion, limited and followed, an instant later, by one obvious condition, seemingly not necessary to express. "You'll see, if he lives," he replied invariably when people asked him what there was after all in Mr. Quisante. Their friends could only wonder, asking plaintively what the Duke thought of his brothers' proceedings. The Duke, however, made no sign; making no sign ranked as a characteristic of the Duke's.
When Lady Richard discussed this situation with her friends the Gaston girls, she gained hearty sympathy from Fanny, but from May no more than a mocking half-sincere curiosity.
"Is it possible for a man to like both me and Mr. Quisante?" Lady Richard asked. "And after all Dick does like me very much."
"Likes both his wife and Mr. Quisante! What a man for paradoxes!" May murmured.
"Jimmy's worse if anything," the aggrieved wife went on. This remark was levelled straight at Fanny; Jimmy being understood to like Fanny, a parallel problem presented itself. Fanny recognized it but, not choosing to acknowledge Jimmy's devotion, met it by referring to Marchmont's openly professed inability to tolerate Quisante.
"I always go by Mr. Marchmont's judgment in a thing like that," she said. "He's infallible."
"There's no need of infallibility, my dear," observed Lady Richard irritably. "Ordinary common sense is quite enough." She turned suddenly on May. "You talked to him for nearly an hour the other night," she said.
"Yes—how you could!" sighed Fanny.
"I couldn't help it. He talked to me."
"About those great schemes that he's filled poor dear Dick's head with? Not that I doubt he's got plenty of schemes—of a sort you know."
"He didn't talk schemes," said Lady May. "He was worse than that."
"What did he do?" asked her sister.
A sort of gasp broke from Lady Richard's lips; she gazed helplessly at her friends. Fanny began to laugh. May preserved a meditative seriousness; she seemed to be reviewing Quisante's efforts in a judicial spirit.
"Well?" said Lady Richard after the proper pause.
"Oh well, he was atrocious, of course," May admitted; her tone, however, expressed a reluctant homage to truth rather than any resentment. "He doesn't know how to do it in the least."
"He doesn't know how to do anything," Lady Richard declared.
"Most men are either elephantine or serpentine," said Fanny. "Which was he, dear?"
"I don't think either."
"Porcine?" asked Lady Richard.
"No. I haven't got an animal for him. Well, yes, he was a little weaselly perhaps. But——" She glanced at Lady Richard as she paused, and then appeared to think that she would say no more; she frowned slightly and then smiled.
"I like his cheek!" exclaimed Fanny with a simplicity that had survived the schoolroom.
Lady Richard screwed her small straight features into wrinkles of disgust and a shrug seemed to run all over her little trim smartly-gowned figure; no presumption could astonish her in Quisante.
"Why in the world did you listen to him, May?" Fanny went on.
"He interested me. And every now and then he was objectionable in rather an original way."
With another shrug, inspired this time by her friend's mental vagaries, Lady Richard diverged to another point.
"And that was where you were all the time Weston Marchmont was looking for you?" she asked.
May began to laugh. "Somehow I'm generally somewhere else when Mr. Marchmont looks for me," she said. "It isn't deliberate, really; I like him very much, but when he comes near me, some perverse fate seems to set my legs moving in the opposite direction."
"Well, Alexander Quisante's a perverse fate, if you like," said Lady Richard.
"It's curious how there are people one's like that towards. You're very fond of them, but it seems quite certain that you'll never get much nearer to them. Is it fate? Or is it that in the end there's a—a solution of sympathy, a break somewhere, so that you stop just short of finding them absolutely satisfying?"
Neither of her friends answered her. Lady Richard did not deal in speculations; Fanny preferred not to discuss, even indirectly, her sister's feelings towards Marchmont; they bred in her a mixture of resentment and relief too complicated for public reference. It was certainly true enough that he and May got no nearer to one another; if the break referred to existed somewhere, its effect was very plain; how could it display itself more strikingly than in making the lady prefer Quisante's weaselly flirtation to the accomplished and enviable homage of Weston Marchmont? And preferred it she had, for one hour of life at least. Fanny felt the anger which we suffer when another shows indifference towards what we should consider great good fortune.
But indifference was not truly May's attitude towards Marchmont. Nobody, she honestly thought, could be indifferent to him, to his handsomeness, his grace and refinement, the fine temper of his mind, his indubitable superiority of intellect; in everything he was immeasurably above the ordinary run of her acquaintance, the well-groomed inconsiderables of whom she knew such a number. Being accustomed to look this world in the face unblinkingly, she did not hesitate to add that he possessed great wealth and the prospect of a high career. He was all, and indeed rather more, than she, widowed Lady Attlebridge's slenderly dowered daughter, had any reason to expect. She wanted to expect no more, if possible really to regard this opportunity as greater luck than she had a right to anticipate. The dissatisfaction which she sought to explain by talking of a solution of sympathy was very obstinate, but justice set the responsibility down to her account, not to his; analysing her temperament, without excusing it, she found a spirit of adventure and experiment—or should she say of restlessness and levity?—which Marchmont did not minister to nor yet assuage. The only pleasure that lay in this discovery came from the fact that it was so opposed to the general idea about her. For it was her lot to be exalted into a type of the splendid calm patrician maiden. In that sort of vein her friends spoke of her when they were not very intimate, in that sort of language she saw herself described in gushing paragraphs that chronicled the doings of her class. Stately, gracious, even queenly, were epithets which were not spared her; it would have been refreshing to find some Diogenes of a journalist who would have called her, in round set terms, discontented, mutinous, scornful of the ideal she represented, a very hot-bed of the faults the beauty of whose absence was declared in her dignified demeanour. Now what May looked, that Fanny was; but poor Fanny, being slight of build, small in feature, and gay in manner, got no credit for her exalted virtues and could not be pressed into service as the type of them. For certainly types must look typical. May's comfort in these circumstances was that Marchmont's perfect breeding and instinctive avoidance of display, of absurdity, even of betraying any heat of emotion, saved her from the usual troubles which an unsatisfied lover entails on his mistress. He looked for her no doubt, but with no greater visible perturbation than if she had been his handkerchief.
An evening or two later Dick Benyon took her in to dinner. Entirely in concession to him—for the subject had passed from her own thoughts—she asked, "Well, how's your genius going on?" Before the meal was over she regretted her question. It opened the doors to Dick's confused eloquence and vague laudations of his protege; putting Dick on his defence, it involved an infinite discussion of Quisante. She was told how Dick had picked him up at Naples, gone to Pompeii with him, travelled home with him, brought him and Jimmy together, and how the three had become friends. "And if I'm a fool, my brother's not," said Dick. May knew that Jimmy would shelter himself under a plea couched in identical language. From this point Dick became less expansive, for at this point his own benefactions and services had begun. She could not get much out of him, but she found herself trying to worm out all she could. Dick had no objection to saying that he had induced Quisante to go in for politics, and had "squared" the influential persons who distributed (so far as a free electorate might prove docile) seats in Parliament. Rumour and Aunt Maria would have supplemented his statement by telling of substantial aid given by the Benyon brothers. May, interested against her wish and irritated at her interest, yet not content, like Dick's wife, to shrug away Dick's aberrations, turned on him with a sudden, "But why, why? Why do you like him?"
"Like him!" repeated Dick half-interrogatively. He did not seem sure that his companion had chosen the right, or at any rate the best, word to describe his feelings. In response she amended her question.
"Well, I mean, what do you see in him?"
Here was another fatal question, for Dick saw everything in him. Hastily cutting across the eulogies, she demanded particulars—who was he, where did he come from, and so forth. On these heads Dick's account was scanty; Quisante's father had grown wine in Spain; and Quisante himself had an old aunt in London.
"Not much of a genealogy," she suggested. Dick was absurd enough to quote "Je suis un ancetre." "Oh, if you're as silly as that!" she exclaimed with an annoyed laugh.
"He's the man we want."
"You and Jimmy?"
"The country," Dick explained gravely. He had plenty of humour for other subjects, but Quisante, it seemed, was too sacred. "Look here," he went on. "Come and meet him again. Amy's going out of town next week and we'll have a little party for him."
"That happens best when Amy's away?"
"Well, women are so——"
"Yes, I know. I'm a woman. I won't come."
Dick looked at her not sourly but sadly, and turned to his other neighbour. May was left to sit in silence for five minutes; then a pause in Dick's talk gave her time to touch him lightly on the arm and to say when he turned, "Yes, I will, and thank you."
But she said nothing about the weaselly flirtation.
At the little dinner which Lady Richard's absence rendered more easy there were only the Benyon brothers (a wag had recently suggested that they should convert themselves into Quisante Limited), Mrs. Gellatly, Morewood the painter, and the honoured guest. Morewood was there because he was painting a kit-cat of Quisante for the host (Heaven knew in what corner Lady Richard would suffer it to hang), and Mrs. Gellatly because she had expressed a desire to meet Lady May Gaston. Quisante greeted May with an elaborate air of remembrance; his handshake was so ornate as to persuade her that she must always hate him, and that Dick Benyon was as foolish as his wife thought him. This mood lasted half through dinner; the worst of Quisante was uppermost, and the exhibition depressed the others. The brothers were apologetic, Mrs. Gellatly gallantly suave; her much-lined, still pretty face worked in laborious smiles at every loudness and every awkwardness. Morewood was so savage that an abrupt conclusion of the entertainment threatened to be necessary. May, who had previously decided that Mr. Quisante would be much better in company, was travelling to the conclusion that he was not nearly so trying when alone; to be weaselly is not so bad as to be inconsiderate and ostentatious.
Just then came the change which transformed the party. Somebody mentioned Mahomet; Morewood, with his love of a paradox, launched on an indiscriminate championship of the Prophet. Next to believing in nobody, it was best, he said, to believe in Mahomet; there, he maintained, you got most out of your religion and gave least to it; and he defended the criterion with his usual uncompromising aggressiveness. Then Quisante put his arms on the table, interrupted Morewood without apology, and began to talk. May thought that she would not have known how good the talk was—for it came so easily—had she not seen how soon Morewood became a listener, or even a foil, ready and content to put his questions not as puzzles but as provocatives. Yet Morewood was proverbially conceited, and he was fully a dozen years Quisante's senior. She stole a look round; the brothers were open-mouthed, Mrs. Gellatly looked almost frightened. Next her eyes scanned Quisante's face; he was not weaselly now, nor ostentatious. His subject filled him and lit him up; she did not know that he looked as he had when he spoke to old Maria of his Empress among women, but she knew that he looked as if nothing mentally small, nothing morally mean, nothing that was not in some way or other, for good or evil, big and spacious could ever come near him from without or proceed out from him.
She was immensely startled when, in a pause, her host whispered in her ear, "One of his moments!" The phrase was to become very familiar to her on the lips of others, even more in her own thoughts. "His moments!" It implied a sort of intermittent inspiration, as though he were some ancient prophet or mediaeval fanatic through whose mouth Heaven spoke sometimes, leaving him for the rest to his own low and carnal nature. The phrase meant at once a plenitude of inspiration and a rarity of it. Not days, nor hours, but moments were seemingly what his friends valued him for, what his believers attached their faith to, what must (if anything could) outweigh all that piled the scales so full against him. An intense curiosity then and there assailed her; she must know more of the man; she must launch a boat on this unexplored ocean—for the Benyons had not navigated it, they only stood gaping on the beach. Here was scope for that unruly spirit of hers which Marchmont's culture and Marchmont's fascination could neither minister to nor assuage.
She was gazing intently at Quisante when she became conscious of Mrs. Gellatly's eyes on her. Mrs. Gellatly looked frightened still; accustomed tactfully to screen awkwardness, she was rather at a loss in the face of naked energy. She sought to share her alarm with May Gaston, but May was like a climber fronted by a mountain range.
"You may be right and you may be wrong," said Morewood. "At least I don't know anybody who can settle the quarrel between facts and dreams."
"There isn't any quarrel."
"There's a little stiffness anyhow," urged Morewood, still unwontedly docile.
"They'd get on better if they saw more of one another," suggested May timidly. It was her first intervention. She felt its insignificance. She would not have complained if Quisante had followed Morewood's example and taken no notice of it. He stopped, turned to her with exaggerated deference, and greeted her obvious little carrying out of the metaphor as though it were a heaven-sent light. Somehow in doing this he seemed to fall all in an instant from lofty heights to depths almost beyond eyesight. While he complimented her elaborately, Morewood turned away in open impatience. Another topic was started, the conversation was killed; or, to put it as she put it to herself, that moment of Quisante's was ended. Did his moments always end like that? Did they fade before a breath, like the frailest flower? Did the contemptible always follow in a flash on the entrancing?
Presently she found a chance for a whisper to Morewood.
"How are you painting him?" she asked.
"You must come and see," he replied, with a rather sour grin.
"So I will, but tell me now. You know the difference, I mean?"
"Oh, and do you already? Well, I shall do him making himself agreeable to a lady."
"For heaven's sake don't!" she whispered, half-laughing yet not without seriousness. The man was a malicious creature and might well caricature what he was bound to idealise to the extreme limit of nature's sufferance. Such a trick would be hardly honest to Dick Benyon, but Morewood would plead his art with unashamed effrontery, and, if more were needed, tell Dick to take his cheque to the deuce and go with it himself.
The rest of the party was, to put it bluntly, a pleasant little gathering in no way remarkable and rather spoilt by the presence of one person who was not quite a gentleman. May struggled hard against the mercilessness of the judgment contained in the last words; for it ought to have proved quite final as regarded Alexander Quisante. As a fact it would not leave her mind, it established an absolutely sure footing in her convictions; and yet it did not seem quite final in regard to Quisante. Perhaps Dick Benyon would maintain the proud level of his remark about the genealogy, and remind her that somebody settled Napoleon's claims by the same verdict. But one did not meet Napoleon at little dinners, nor think of him with no countervailing achievements to his name.
Her mind was so full of the man that when she joined her mother at a party later in the evening, she had an absurd anticipation that everybody would talk to her about him. Nobody did; that evening an Arctic explorer and a new fortune-teller divided the attention of the polite; men came and discussed one or other of these subjects with her until she was weary. For once then, on Marchmont making an appearance near her, her legs did not carry her in the opposite direction; she awaited and even invited his approach; at least he would spare her the fashionable gossip, and she thought he might tell her something about Quisante. In two words he told her, if not anything about Quisante, still everything that he himself thought of Quisante.
"I met Mr. Quisante at dinner," she said.
"That fellow!" exclaimed Marchmont.
The tone was full of weariness and contempt; it qualified the man as unspeakable and dismissed him as intolerable. Was Marchmont infallible, as Fanny had said? At least he represented, in its finest and most authoritative form, the opinion of her own circle, the unhesitating judgment against which she must set herself if she became Quisante's champion. It would be much easier, and probably much more sensible, to fall into line and acquiesce in the condemnation; then it would matter nothing whether the vulgar did or did not elect to admire Dick Benyon's peculiar friend. Yet a protest stirred within her; only her sense of the ludicrous prevented her from adopting Dick's word and asking Marchmont if he had ever seen the fellow in one of his "moments." But it would be absurd to catch up the phrase like that, and it was by no means certain that even the moments would appeal to Marchmont.
Looking round, she perceived that a little space in the crowded room had been left vacant about them; nobody came up to her, no woman, in passing by, signalled to Marchmont; the constant give-and-take of companions was suspended in their favour. In fine, people supposed that they wanted to talk to one another; it would not be guessed that one of the pair wished Quisante to be the topic.
"He's got some brains," Marchmont went on, "though of rather a flashy sort, I think. Dick Benyon's been caught by them. But a more impossible person I never met. You don't like him?"
"Yes, I do," she answered defiantly. "At least I do every now and then."
"Pray make the occasions as rare as possible," he urged in his low lazy voice, with his pleasant smile and a confidential look in his handsome eyes. "And don't let them coincide with my presence."
"Really he won't hurt you; you're too particular."
"No, he won't hurt me, but I should feel rather as though he were hurting you."
"What do you mean?"
"By being near you, certainly by being anything in the least like a friend of yours."
"He'd defile me?" she asked, laughing.
"Yes," said he seriously; the next moment he smiled and shrugged his shoulders; he did not withdraw his seriousness but he apologised for it.
"Oh, I'd better get under a glass-case at once," she exclaimed, laughing again impatiently.
"Yes, and lock it, and——"
"Give you the key?"
He laughed as he said, "The most artistic emotions have some selfishness in them, I admit it."
"It would make a little variety if I sent a duplicate to Mr. Quisante!"
Here he would not follow her in her banter. He grew grave and even frowned, but all he said was, "Really there are limits, you know." It was her own verdict, expressed more tersely, more completely, and more finally. There were limits, and Alexander Quisante was beyond them; the barrier they raised could not be surmounted; he could not fly over it even on the wings of his moments.
"You above everybody oughtn't to know such people," Marchmont went on.
Now he was thinking of the type she was supposed to represent; that was the fashion in which it was appropriate to talk to the type.
"I'm not in the very least like that really," she assured him. "If you knew me better you'd find that out very soon."
"I'm willing to risk it."
Flirtation for flirtation—and this conversation was becoming one—there could be no comparison between Marchmont's and Quisante's; the one was delightful, the other odious; the one combined charm with dignity; the other was a mixture of cringing and presumption. May put the contrast no less strongly than this as she yielded to the impulse of the minute and gave the lie to Marchmont's ideal of her by her reckless acceptance of the immediate delights he offered. The ideal would no doubt cause him to put a great deal of meaning into her acceptance; whether such meaning were one she would be prepared to indorse her mood did not allow her to consider. She showed him very marked favour that evening, and in his company contrived to forget entirely the puzzle of Quisante and his moments, and the possible relation of those moments to the limits about which her companion was so decisive.
At last, however, they were interrupted. The interruption came from Dick Benyon, who had looked in somewhere else and arrived now at the tail of the evening. Far too eager and engrossed in his great theme to care whether his appearance were welcome, he dashed up to May, crying out even before he reached her, "Well, what do you say about him now? Wasn't he splendid?"
Clearly Dick forgot his earlier apologetic period; for him the moment was the evening. A cool question from Marchmont, the cooler perhaps for annoyance, forced Dick into explanations, and he sketched in his summary fashion the incident which had aroused his enthusiasm and made him look so confidently for a response from May. Marchmont was unreservedly and almost scornfully antagonistic.
"Oh, you're too cultivated to live," cried Dick. "Now isn't he too elegant, May?"
"I'm not the least elegant," said Marchmont, with quiet confidence. "But I'm—well, I'm what Quisante isn't. So are you, Dick."
"Suppose we are, and by Jove, isn't he what we aren't? I'm primitive, I suppose. I think hands and brains are better than manners."
"I'll agree, but I don't like his hands or his brains either."
"He'll mount high."
"As high as Haman. I shouldn't be the least surprised to see it."
"Well, I'm not going to give him up because he doesn't shake hands at the latest fashionable angle."
"All right, Dick. And I'm not going to take him up because he's a dab at rodomontade."
"And you neither of you need fight about him," May put in, laughing. They joined in her laugh, each excusing himself by good-natured abuse of the other.
There was no question of a quarrel, but the divergence was complete, striking, and even startling. To one all was black, to the other all white; to one all tin, to the other all gold. Was there no possibility of compromise? As she sat between the two, May thought that a discriminating view of Quisante ought to be attainable, not an oscillation from disgust to admiration, but a well-balanced stable judgment which should allow full value to merits and to defects, and sum up the man as a whole. Something of the sort she tried to suggest; neither disputant would hear of it, and Marchmont went off with an unyielding assertion that the man was a cad, no more and no less than a cad. Dick looked after him with a well-satisfied air; May fancied that opposition and the failure of others to understand intensified his satisfaction in his own discovery. But he grew mournful as he said to her,
"I shan't have a chance with you now. You'll go with Marchmont of course. And I did want you to like him."
"Mr. Marchmont doesn't control my opinions."
They were very old friends; Dick allowed himself a significant smile.
"I know what you mean," she said, smiling. "But it's nonsense. Besides, look at yourself and Amy! She hates him, and yet you——"
"Oh, she's only half-serious, and Marchmont's in deadly earnest under that deuced languid manner of his. I tell you what, he's a very limited fellow, after all."
May laughed; the limits were being turned to a new use now.
"Awfully clever and well-read, but shut up inside a sort of compartment of life. Don't you know what I mean? He's always ridden first-class, and he won't believe there's anybody worth knowing in the thirds."
"You think he's like that?" she asked thoughtfully.
"You can see it for yourself. There's no better fellow, no better friend, but, hang it, an oyster's got a broader mind."
"I like broad minds."
"Then you'll like Quis——"
"Absolutely you shan't mention that name again. Find mother for me and tell her to tell me that it's time to go home."
Going home brought with it a discovery. May was considered to have invited the world to take notice of her preference for Marchmont. This fact was first conveyed to her by Lady Attlebridge's gently affectionate and congratulatory air; at this May was little more than amused. Evidence of greater significance lay in Fanny's demeanour; she came into her sister's room and talked for a while; before leaving, but after the ordinary kiss of goodnight, she came back suddenly and kissed her again; she said nothing, but the embrace was emphatic and eloquent. It seemed to the recipient to be forgiving also; it meant "I want you to be happy, don't imagine I think of anything else." If Fanny kissed her like that, it was because Fanny supposed that she had made up her mind to marry Weston Marchmont. She was fully conscious that the inference was not a strange one to draw from her conduct that evening. But now the mood of impulse was entirely gone; she considered the matter in a cool spirit, and her talk with Dick Benyon assumed unlooked-for importance in her deliberations. To marry Marchmont was a step entirely in harmony with the ideal which her family and the world had of her, which Marchmont himself most thoroughly and undoubtingly believed in. If she were really what she was supposed to be, the match would satisfy her as well as it would everybody else. But if she were quite different in her heart? In that case it might indeed be urged that no marriage would or could permanently satisfy her or the whole of her nature. This was likely enough; to see how often something of that kind happened it was, unfortunately, only necessary to run over ten or a dozen names which offered themselves promptly enough from the list of her acquaintance. Still to marry knowing you would not be satisfied was to drop below the common fate of marrying knowing that you might not be; it gave up the golden chance; it abandoned illusion just where illusion seemed most necessary.
Oh for life, for the movement of life! It is perhaps hard to realise how often that cry breaks from the hearts of women. No doubt the aspiration it expresses is rather apt to end in antics, not edifying to the onlooker, hardly (it may be supposed) comforting to the performer. But the antics are one thing, the aspiration another, and they have the aspiration strongest who condemn and shun the antics. The matter may be stated very simply, at least if the form in which it presented itself to May Gaston in her twenty-third year be allowed to suffice. Most girls are bred in a cage, most girls expect to escape therefrom by marriage, most girls find that they have only walked into another cage. She had nothing to say, so far as her own case went, against the comfort either of the old or of the new cage; they were both indeed luxurious. But cages they were and such she knew them to be. Doubtless there must be limits, not only to the tolerance of Weston Marchmont and of society, but to everything else except infinity. But there are great expanses, wide spaces, short of infinity. When she walked out of her first cage, the one which her mother's careful fingers had kept locked on her, she would like not to walk into another, but to escape into some park or forest, not boundless, yet so large as to leave room for exploring, for the finding of new things, for speculation, for doubt, excitement, uncertainty, even for the presence of apprehension and the possibility of danger. As she surveyed the manner in which she was expected to pass her life, the manner in which she was supposed (she faced now the common interpretation of her conduct this evening) already to have elected to pass it, she felt as a speculator feels towards Consols, as a gambler towards threepenny whist. It seemed as though nothing could be good which did not also hold within it the potency of being very bad, as though certainty damned and chance alone had lures to offer. She would have liked to take life in her hand—however precious a thing, what use is it if you hoard it?—and see what she could make of it, what usury its free loan to fate and fortune would earn. She might lose it; youth made light of the risk. She might crawl back in sad plight; the Prodigal Son did not think of that when he set out. She found herself wishing she had nothing, that she might be free to start on the search for anything.
Like Quisante? Why, yes, just like Quisante. Like that strange, intolerable, vulgar, attractive, intermittently inspired creature, who presented himself at life's roulette-table, not less various in his own person than were the varying turns he courted, unaccountable as chance, baffling as fate, changeable as luck. Indeed he was like life itself, a thing you loved and hated, grew weary of and embraced, shrank from and pursued. To see him then was in a way to look on at life, to be in contact with him was to feel the throb of its movement. In her midnight musings the man seemed somehow to cease to be odious because he ceased to be individual, to be no longer incomprehensible because he was no longer apart, because he became to her less himself and more the expression and impersonation of an instinct that in her own blood ran riot and held festivity.
"I'm having moments, like Mr. Quisante himself!" she said with a sudden laugh.
First to the City, then to the doctor, then to the House, then to the dinner of the Imperial League; this was Quisante's programme for the second Wednesday in April. It promised a busy day. But of the doctor and the House he made light; the first was a formality, the second held out no prospect of excitement; the City and the dinner were the real things. They were connected with and must be made to promote the two aims which he had taken for his with perfect confidence. He wanted money and he wanted position; he saw no reason why he should not attain both in the fullest measure. Recent events had filled him with a sure and certain hope. Not allowing for the value of the good manners which he lacked, he failed to see that he excited any hostility or any distaste. Unless a man were downright rude to him, he counted him an adherent; this streak of a not unpleasing simplicity ran across his varied nature. He was far from being alive to his disadvantages; every hour assured him of his superiority. Most especially he counted on the aid and favour of women; the future might prove him right or wrong in his expectation; but he relied for its realisation not on the power which he did possess but on an accomplishment of manner and an insinuating fascination which he most absolutely lacked. The ultra-civility which repelled May Gaston was less a device than an exhibition; he embarked on it more because he thought he did it well than (as she supposed) from a desire to curry favour. He was ill-bred, but he was not mean; he was a vaunter but not a coward; he demanded adherence and did not beg alms. This was the attitude of his mind, but unhappily it was often apparently contradicted by the cringing of his body and the wheedling of his tongue. In attempting smoothness he fell into oiliness; where he aimed at polished brilliance, the result was blazing varnish. Had he known what to pray for, he would have supplicated heaven that he might meet eyes able to see the man beneath the ape. Such eyes, dimly penetrating with an unexpected vision, he had won to his side in the Benyon brothers; the rest of the world still stuck on the outside surface. But the brothers could only shield him, they could not change him; they might promote his fortunes, they could not cure his vices. He did not know that he had any vices; the first stage of amendment was still to come.
He had a cousin in the City, a stock-jobber, who made and lost large sums of money as fortune smiled or frowned. Quisante had the first five hundred of Aunt Maria's thousand pounds in his pocket and told his kinsman to use it for him.
"A spec?" asked Mr. Josiah Mandeville. "Isn't that rather rough on Aunt Maria?"
Quisante looked surprised. "She gave it me, I haven't stolen it," he said with a laugh.
"She gave it you to live on, to keep up your position, I suppose."
"I don't think she made any conditions. And if I can make money, I'll give it back to her."
"Oh, you know best, I suppose," said Mandeville. "Only if I lose it?"
"Losing money's no worse than spending it." And then he mentioned a certain venture in which the money might usefully be employed.
"How did you hear of that?" asked Mandeville with a stare; for his cousin had laid his finger on a secret, on the very secret which Mandeville had just decided not to reveal to him, kinsman though he was.
"I forget; somebody said something about it that made me think it would be a good thing." Quisante's tone was vaguely puzzled; he often knew things when he could give no account of his knowledge.
"Well, you aren't far wrong. You'll take a small profit, I suppose? Shall I use my discretion?"
"No," smiled Quisante. "I shan't take a small profit, and I'll use mine. But keep me well informed and you shan't be a loser."
Mr. Mandeville laughed. "One might think you had a million," he observed. "Or are you proposing to tip me a fiver?" The thought of his own thousands filled his tone with scorn; he did not do his speculating with Aunt Maria's money.
"If you're too proud, I can take my business somewhere else—and the name of the concern too," said Quisante, lighting a cigar. Cousin Mandeville's stare had not escaped his notice.
Mandeville hesitated; he was very much annoyed; he liked his money, if not himself, to be respected. But business is business, to say nothing of blood being thicker than water.
"Oh, well, I'll do it for you," he agreed with lofty benevolence. Quisante laughed. He would have covered his own retreat with much the same device.
The riches then were on the way; Quisante had a far-seeing eye, and Aunt Maria's five hundred was to imagination already prolific of thousands. A hansom carried him up to Harley Street; he had been there three months before and had been told to come again in three weeks. The punishment for his neglect was a severe verdict. "No liquor, no tobacco, and three months' immediate and complete rest." Quisante laughed—very much as he had at his kinsman in the City. Both doctor and stock-jobber showed such a curious ignorance of the conditions under which his life had to be lived and of his reasons for caring to live it.
"What's the matter then?" he asked.
The doctor became very technical, though not quite unreserved; the heart and the stomach were in some unholy conspiracy; this was as much as Quisante really understood.
"And if I don't do as you say?" he asked. The doctor smiled and shrugged his shoulders. "I shan't outlive Methuselah anyhow, I suppose?"
"The present conditions of your life are very wearing," said the doctor.
Quisante looked at him thoughtfully.
"But if you'd live wisely, there's no reason why you shouldn't preserve good health till an advanced age."
Aunt Maria's five hundred, invested in Consols, would bring in twelve pounds ten shillings or thereabouts every year for ever.
"Thank you," said Quisante, rising and producing the fee. But he paused before going and said meditatively, "I should really like to be able to follow your advice, you know." His brow clouded in discontent; the one serious handicap he recognised was this arbitrary unfortunate doom of a body unequal to the necessary strain of an active life. "Anyhow I'm good for a little while?" he asked.
"Dear me, you're in no sort of immediate danger, Mr. Quisante, or I should be more imperative. Only pray give yourself a chance."
On his way from Harley Street to the House, and again from the House to his own rooms in Pall Mall, his mind was busy with the speech that he was to make at the dinner. He had only to respond to the toast of the guests; few words and simple would be expected. He was thus the more resolved on a great effort; the surprise that the mere attempt at an oration would arouse should pave the way for the astonishment his triumph must create. He had no rival in the programme; the Chairman was Dick Benyon, the great gun an eminent Colonial Statesman who relied for fame on his deeds rather than his words. With his curiously minute calculation of chances Quisante had discovered that there was no social occasion of great attraction to carry off his audience after dinner; they would stay and listen if he were worth listening to; the ladies in the gallery would stay too, if at the outset he could strike a note that would touch their hearts. This was his first really good chance, the first opening for such a coup as he loved. His eyes were bright as he opened an atlas and verified with precision the exact position of the Colonial Statesman's Colony; he had known it before of course—roughly.
Lady Richard had much affection in her nature and with it a fine spice of malice. The two ingredients combined to bring her to the gallery; she wished to please Dick, and she wished to be in a position to annoy him by deriding Quisante. So there she sat looking down on the men through a haze of cigar-smoke which afflicted the ladies' noses and threatened seriously to affect their gowns.
"They might give up their tobacco for one night," muttered a girl near her.
"They'd much rather give us up, my dear," retorted a dowager who felt that she would be considered a small sacrifice and was not unwilling to make others think the same about themselves.
By Lady Richard's side sat May Gaston. The time is happily gone by when any one is allowed even to assume indifference about the Empire, yet it may be doubted whether interest in the Empire had the chief share in moving her to accept Lady Richard's invitation. Nor did she want to hear Dick Benyon, nor the Colonial Statesman; quite openly she desired and expressed her desire to see what Quisante would make of it.
"How absurd!" said Lady Richard crossly. "Besides he's only got a few words to say."
May smiled and glanced along the row of ladies. About ten places from her was a funny little old woman with an absurd false front of fair hair and a black silk gown cut in ancient fashion; her features showed vivid disgust at the atmosphere and she made frequent use of a large bottle of smelling-salts. Next to her, on the other side, was Mrs. Gellatly, who nodded and smiled effusively at May.
"Who's the funny old woman?" May asked.
Lady Richard looked round and made a constrained bow; the old lady smiled a little and sniffed the bottle again.
"Oh, she's an aunt of the man's; come to hear him, I suppose. Oh, Dick's getting up."
Amid polite attention and encouraging "Hear, hears" Dick made his way through a few appropriate sentences which his hearty sincerity redeemed from insignificance. The Colonial Statesman had a well-founded idea that the zeal of his audience outstripped its knowledge, and set himself to improve the latter rather than to inflame the former. His reward was a somewhat frigid reception. May noticed that old Miss Quisante was dozing, and Lady Richard said that she wished she was at home in bed: Quisante himself had assumed a smile of anticipation when the Statesman rose and preserved it unimpaired through the long course of the speech. The audience as a whole grew a little restless; while the next speaker addressed them, one or two men rose and slipped away unobtrusively. A quick frown and a sudden jerk of Quisante's head betrayed his fear that more would go before he could lay his grip on them.
"Why doesn't this man stop?" whispered May.
"I suppose, my dear, he thinks he may as well put Mr. Quisante off as long as possible," Lady Richard answered flippantly.
Amid yawns, the laying down of burnt-out cigars, and glances at watches, Quisante rose to make his reply. Aunt Maria was wide-awake now, looking down at her nephew with her sour smile; Lady Richard leant back resignedly. Quisante pressed back his heavy smooth black hair, opened his wide thin-lipped mouth, and began with a courteous commonplace reference to those who shared with himself the honour of being guests that night. Ordinary as the frame-work was, there was a touch of originality in what he said; one or two men who had meant to go struck matches and lit fresh cigars. Dick Benyon looked up at the gallery and nodded to his wife. Then Quisante seemed suddenly to increase his stature by an inch or two and to let loose his arms; his voice was still not loud, but every syllable fell with incisive distinctness on his listener's ears. An old Member of Parliament whispered to an elderly barrister, "He can speak anyhow," and got an assenting nod for answer. And he was looking as he had when he spoke of his Empress among women, as he had when he declared that the Spirit of God could not live and move in the grave-clothes of dead prophets. He was far away from the guests now, and he was far away from himself; it was another moment; he was possessed again. Dick looked up with a radiant triumphant smile, but his wife was frowning, and May Gaston sat with a face like a mask.
"By Jove!" murmured the elderly barrister.
The whole speech was short; perhaps it had been meant to be longer, but suddenly Quisante's pale face turned paler still, he caught his hand to his side, he stopped for a moment, and stumbled over his words; than he recovered and, with his hand still on his side, raised his voice again. But the logical mind of the elderly barrister seemed to detect a lacuna in the reasoning; the speaker had skipped something and flown straight to his peroration. He gave it now in tones firm but slower than before, with a pause here and there, yet in the end summoning his forces to a last flood of impassioned words. Then he sat down, not straight, but falling just a little on one side and making a clutch at his neighbour's shoulder; and while they cheered he sat quite still with closed eyes and opened lips. "Has he fainted?" ran in a hushed whisper round the room; Dick Benyon sprang from his chair, a waiter was hurried off for brandy, and Lady Richard observed in her delicately scornful tones, "How extremely theatrical!"
"Theatrical!" said May in a low indignant voice.
"You don't suppose he's really fainting, my dear, do you? Oh, I've seen him do the same sort of thing once before!"
An impulse carried May's eyes towards Miss Quisante; the old lady was smiling composedly and sniffing her bottle. Her demeanour was in strong contrast to Mrs. Gellatly's almost tearful excitement.
"He couldn't, he couldn't!" May moaned in horror.
If the untrue suspicion entertained by Lady Richard and possibly shared by Miss Quisante (the old lady's face was a riddle) spread at all to anybody else, the fault lay entirely at the sufferer's own door. He knew too well how real the attack had been; when the ladies mingled with the men to take tea and coffee, he was still suffering from its after-effects. But he treated the occurrence in so hopelessly wrong a way; he minced and smirked over it; he would not own to a straightforward physical illness, but preferred to hint at and even take credit for an exaggerated sensibility, as though he enhanced his own eloquence by pointing to the extraordinary exhaustion it produced. He must needs bring the frailty of his body to the front, not as an apology, but as an added claim to interest and a new title by which to win soft words, admiring looks, and sympathetic pressings from pretty hands. Who could blame Lady Richard for murmuring, "There, my dear, now you see!"? Who could wonder that Aunt Maria looked cynically indifferent? Was it strange that a good many people, without going to the length of declaring that the orator had suffered nothing at all, yet were inclined to think that he knew better than to waste, and quite well how to improve, the opportunity that a trifling fatigue or a passing touch of faintness gave him? "Knows how to fetch the women, doesn't he?" said somebody with a laugh. To be accused of that knowledge is not a passport to the admiration of men.
Before May Gaston came near Quisante himself, Jimmy Benyon seized on her and introduced her to Aunt Maria. In reply to politely expressed phrases of concern the old lady's shrewd eyes twinkled.
"Sandro'll soon come round, if they let him alone," she said.
The words were consistent with either view of the occurrence, but the tone inclined them to the side of uncharitableness.
"Is he liable to such attacks?" May asked.
"He's always been rather sickly," Miss Quisante admitted grudgingly.
"He's had a splendid triumph to-night. He was magnificent."
"Sandro makes the most of a chance."
May was surprised to find herself attracted to the dry old woman. Such an absence of feeling in regard to one who was her only relative and the hero of the evening might more naturally have aroused dislike; but Aunt Maria's coolness was funnily touched both by resignation and by humour; she mourned that things were as they were, but did not object to laughing at them. When immaculate Jimmy, a splendid type of the handsome dandified man about town, began to be enthusiastic over Quisante, she looked up at him with a sneering kindly smile, seeming to ask, "How in the world do you come to be mixed up with Sandro?" When May expressed the hope that he would be more careful of himself Aunt Maria's smile said, "If you knew as much about him as I do, you'd take it quietly. It's Sandro's way." Yet side by side with all this was the utter absence of any surprise at his exhibition of power or at the triumph he had won; these she seemed to take as the merest matter of course. She knew Quisante better than any living being knew him, and this was her attitude towards him. When they bade one another good-bye, May said that she was sure her mother would like to call on Miss Quisante. "Come yourself," said the old lady abruptly; she at least showed no oiliness, no violence of varnish; they were not in the family, it seemed.
The crowd grew thinner, but the diminished publicity brought no improvement to Quisante's manner. He was with Lady Richard and the brothers now—May noticed that nephew and aunt had been content to exchange careless nods—and Lady Richard made him nearly his worst. He knew that she did not like him, but refused to accept the defeat; he plied her more and more freely with the airs and affectations that rendered him odious to her; he could not help thinking that by enough attention, enough deference, and enough of being interesting he must in the end conciliate her favour. When May joined the group, his manner appealed from her friend to her, bidding Lady Richard notice how much more responsive May was and how pleasant he was to those who were pleasant to him. May would have despised him utterly at that instant but for two things: she remembered his moments, and she perceived that all the time he was suffering and mastering severe, perhaps poignant, pain. But again, when she asked him how he was, he smirked and flourished, till Lady Richard turned away in disgust and even the brothers looked a little puzzled and distressed as they followed her to the buffet and ministered to her wants.
"Sit down," said May, in a tone almost sharp. "No, sit at once, never mind whether I'm sitting or not."
He obeyed her with an overdone gesture of protest, but his face showed relief. She got a chair for herself and sat down by him.
"You spoke splendidly," she said, and hurried on, "No, no, don't thank me, don't tell me that you especially wished to please me, or that my approbation is your reward, or anything about beauty or bright eyes, or anything in the very least like that. It's all odious and I wonder why you—a man like you—should think it necessary to do it."
Quisante looked startled; he had been leaning back in apparent exhaustion, but now he sat up straight and prepared to speak, a conciliatory smile on his lips.
"No, don't sit up, lean back. Don't talk, don't smile, don't be agreeable." She had begun to laugh at herself by now, but the laughter did not stop her. "You were ill, you were very ill, you looked almost dead, and you battled with it splendidly, and beat it splendidly, and went on and won. And then you must—Oh, why do you?"
"Why do I do what?" he asked, quietly enough now, with a new look of puzzle and bewilderment in his eyes, although his set smile had not disappeared.
"Why, go on as if there'd been nothing much really the matter, as if you'd had the vapours or the flutters, or something women have, or used to have when they were even sillier than they are." She laughed again, adding, "Really I was expecting Dick Benyon to propose to cut your stay-laces."
The Benyons were coming back; if she had more to say, there was no time for it; yet she managed a whisper as she shook hands with him, her gesture still forbidding him to rise. Her face, a little flushed with colour, bent down towards his and her voice was eager as she whispered,
"Good-night. Be simple, be yourself; it's worth while."
Then courage failed and she hurried off with a confused nervous farewell to her friends. Her breath came quick as she lay back in the brougham and closed her eyes.
Quisante was tired and ill; he was unusually quiet in his parting talk with Lady Richard. Even she was sorry for him; and when pity entered little Lady Richard's heart it drove out all other emotions however strong, and routed all resolutions however well-founded.
"You look dead-beat, you do indeed," she said. She turned to her husband. "Dick, Mr. Quisante must come and spend a few quiet days with us in the country. Something'll happen to him, if he doesn't."
Dick could hardly believe his ears, and was full of delighted gratitude; hitherto Lady Richard had been resolute that their country house at least should be sacred from Quisante's feet. He took his wife's hand and pressed it as he joyfully seconded her invitation. Some of Quisante's effusive politeness displayed itself again, but still he was subdued, and Lady Richard, full of her impulse of compassion, escaped without realising fully the enormity of the step into which it had tempted her.
Dick Benyon was a man of plentiful ideas, but he found great difficulty in conveying them to others and even in expressing them to himself. Jimmy, his faithful disciple, could not help him here, and indeed was too much ashamed of harbouring such things as ideas to be of any service as an apostle. All the ideas were not Dick's own; in the case of the Imperial League, for example, he merely floated on the top of the flood-tide of opinion, and even the Crusade, his other and dearer pre-occupation, was the fruit of the Dean of St. Neot's brain as much as or even more than of his own. The Dean never got the credit of having ideas at all, first because he did not look like it, being short, stout, ruddy, and apparently very fond of his dinner, secondly because he never talked of his ideas to women. Mrs. Baxter did not care about ideas and possibly the Dean generalised rashly. More probably, perhaps, he had contracted a prejudice against talking confidentially to women from observing the ways of some of his brethren; he had dropped remarks which favoured this explanation. Anyhow he lost not only the soil most fruitful for propagation, but also the surest road to a reputation. Of the idea of the Crusade he was particularly careful to talk to men only; women, he felt sure, would tell him it was superb, and his wish was to be confronted with its difficulties and its absurdities, to overcome this initial opposition only with a struggle, and to enlist his antagonist as a fellow-warrior; he had especial belief in the persuasiveness of converts. Unluckily, however, as a rule only the first part of the programme passed into fact; he got the absurdities and difficulties pointed out freely enough, the conversions hung fire. Dick Benyon was almost the sole instance of the triumphant carrying-out of the whole scheme; but though Dick could believe and work, and could make Jimmy believe and nearly make Jimmy work, he could not preach himself nor make Jimmy preach in tones commanding enough to engage the respect and attention of the world. Who could then? Dick had answered "Weston Marchmont;" the Dean shook his head confidently but wistfully; he would have liked but did not expect to find a convert there.
Weston Marchmont made, as might be expected, the Great Refusal, although not in the impressive or striking manner which such a phrase may seem to imply. Twisting his claret glass in his long thin fingers, he observed with low-voiced suavity that in ecclesiastical matters, as doubtless in most others, he was behind the times; he was a loyal Establishment man and had every intention of remaining such, and for his own part he found it possible to reconcile the ultimate postulates of faith with the ultimate truths of science. As soon as ultimates came on the scene, the Dean felt that the game was up; the Crusade depended on an appeal to classes which must be reached, if they could be reached at all, by something far short of ultimates. Ultimates were for the few; one reason, among others, why Marchmont fondly affected them. Marchmont proceeded to remark that in his doubtless out-of-date view the best thing was to preserve the traditions and the traditional limits of Church work and Church influence. He did not say in so many words that the Church was a good servant but a bad master, yet Dick and the Dean gathered that this was his opinion, and that he would look with apprehension on any movement directed to bringing ecclesiastical pressure to bear on secular affairs. In all this he assumed politely that the Crusade could succeed, but the lift of his brows which accompanied the concession was very eloquent.
"Then," he ended apologetically, "there's the danger of vulgarity. One puts up with that in politics, but I confess I shrink from it in religion."
"What appeals to everybody is not necessarily vulgar," said the Dean.
"Not necessarily," Marchmont agreed, with the emphasis on the second word. "But," he added, "it's almost of necessity untrue, and after all religion has to do with truth." He was getting near his ultimates again.
There was a pause; then Marchmont laughed and said jokingly,
"You'll have to go to the Radicals, Dick. They're the dogmatic party nowadays, and they'll be just as ready to manage your soul for you as they are your property."
"That's just what I don't mean to do," said Dick obstinately. But he looked a little uncomfortable. It was important to preserve the attitude that fighting the Radicals was no part of the scheme of the Crusade. Marchmont smiled at the Dean across the table.
"I love the Church, Mr. Dean," he said, "but I'm afraid of the churchmen."
"Much what I feel about politics and politicians."
"Then if churchmen are politicians too——?" Marchmont suggested; the Dean's laughter admitted a verbal defeat. But when Marchmont had gone he shook his head over him again, saying, "He'll not be great; he's much too sane."
"He's too scrupulous," said Dick. The Dean protested with a smile. "I mean too fastidious," Dick added, correcting himself.
"Yes, yes, too fastidious," agreed the Dean contentedly. "And when I said sane perhaps I rather meant cautious, unimaginative, and cold." Both felt the happier for the withdrawal of their hastily chosen epithets.
This conversation had occurred in the early days of Dick's acquaintance with Alexander Quisante, when, although already much taken with the man, he had a clearer view of what he was than enthusiasm allowed later on. Rejecting Marchmont, or rather acquiescing in Marchmont's refusal, on the ground of his excessive caution, his want of imagination, and his fastidiousness, he had hesitated to sound Quisante in regard to the great project. It seemed to him impossible to regard his new friend as an ideal leader for this purpose; one reason is enough to indicate—the ideal leader should be absolutely unselfish by nature. By nature Quisante was very far from that, and his circumstances were not such as to enable him to overcome the bent of his disposition; whatever else he was or might become, he would be self-seeking too, and it would be impossible ever to make him steadily and deliberately forgetful of himself.
But as time went on, another way opened before Dick's eyes and was cautiously and tentatively hinted at to his confidant, the Dean. The Dean, having seen a little and heard much of Quisante, was inclined to be encouraging. There were in him possibilities not to be found in Marchmont. He was not fastidious, he would not trouble himself or other people about ultimates, above all he could be fired with imagination. Once that was achieved, he would speak and seem as though he were all that the ideal leader ought to be, as though inspiration filled him; he would express what Dick could only feel and the Dean do no more than adumbrate; nay, in time, as he grew zealous in the cause, his self-interest and personal ambition would be conquered, or at least would be so blended and fused with the nobility of the cause as to lose any grossness or meanness which might be thought to characterise them in an uncompounded condition. All this might be achieved if only the great idea could be made to seem great enough and the potentialities which lay in its realisation invested with enough pomp and dignity. After all was not such a blend of things personal and things beyond and higher than the personal as much as could reasonably be expected from human beings, and adequate to the needs of a work-a-day world?
"I don't want to be a bishop, but I do mean to stick to my deanery through thick and thin," said the Dean, smiling. Dick understood him to mean that allowance must be made for the personal element, and that a man might serve a cause very usefully without being prepared to go quite as far as the stake, or even the workhouse, for it; if this were not so, there would be less competition for places in State and Church.
Such great schemes for causing right ideas to prevail in things spiritual and temporal and for placing the right men in the right positions to ensure this important result are material here only so far as they influence the career or illustrate the character of individuals. The Crusade did not perhaps do as much towards altering the face of the world, or even of this island, as it was intended to, but it had a considerable, if temporary, effect on current politics, and it appeared to Quisante to be at once a fine conception and a notable opportunity; between these two aspects he did not, as Dick Benyon had foreseen, draw any very rigid line. To make the Church again a power with the masses; this done, to persuade the masses to use their power under the leadership of the Church; this done, to harmonise unimpaired liberty of conscience with a whole-hearted devotion to truth, and to devote both to ends which should unite the maximum of zeal for the Community with the minimum of political innovation, were aims which, if they were nothing else, might at least claim to be worthy to exercise the intellect of superior men and to inspire the eloquence of orators. That a set of people on the other side was professing to do the same things, with totally different and utterly wrong notions of the results to be obtained, afforded the whet of antagonism, and let in dialectic and partisanship as a seasoning to relieve the high severity of the main topic. Quisante's personal relations with the Church had never been intimate; he was perhaps the better able to lay hold of its romantic and picturesque aspect. The Dean, for instance, was hampered and at times discouraged by a knowledge of details. Dick Benyon had to struggle against the family point of view as regarded the family livings. Quisante came almost as a stranger, ready to be impressed, to take what suited him, to form the desired opinion and no other; if a legal metaphor may be allowed, to master what was in his brief, to use that to the full, and to know nothing to the contrary. The Empire was very well, but it was a crowded field; the new subject had advantages all its own and especial allurements.
Yet Miss Quisante laughed, as a man's relatives often will although the rest of the world is unimpeachably grave. For any person engaged in getting a complete view of Alexander Quisante it was well to turn from Dick Benyon to Aunt Maria. So May Gaston found when she took the old woman at her word and went to see her, unaccompanied by Lady Attlebridge. She listened awhile to her caustic talk and then charged her roundly with not doing justice to her nephew.
"Sandro's caught you too, has he?" was her hostess's immediate retort.
"No, he hasn't caught me, as you call it, Miss Quisante," said May, smiling. "I dislike a great deal in him." She paused before adding, "What's more, I've told him so."
"He'll be very pleased at that."
"He didn't seem to be."
"I didn't say he was pleased, I said he would be," remarked Aunt Maria placidly. "No doubt you vexed him at the time, but when he's thought it over, he'll be flattered at your showing so much interest in him."
"I shouldn't like him to take it like that," said May thoughtfully.
"It's the true way to take it, though."
"Well then, I suppose it is. Except that there's no reason why my interest should flatter anybody." She determined on an offensive movement against the sharp confident old lady. "All his faults are merely faults of bringing up. You brought him up; why didn't you bring him up better?"
Miss Quisante looked at her for several moments.
"I didn't bring him up well, that's true enough," she said. "But, my dear, don't you run off with the idea that there's nothing wrong with Sandro except his manners."
"That's exactly the idea I have about him," May persisted defiantly.
"Ah!" sighed Aunt Maria resignedly. "Probably you'll never know him well enough to find out your mistake."
Warnings pique curiosity as often as they arouse prudence.
"I intend to know him much better if he'll let me," said May.
"Oh, he'll let you." The old lady's gaze was very intent; she had by now made up her mind that this must be Sandro's Empress. Had she been omnipotent, she would at that moment have decreed that Sandro should never see his Empress again; she was quite clear that he and his Empress would not be good for one another. "I begin to hear them talking about him," she went on with a chuckle. "He's coming into fashion, he's to be the new man for a while. You London people love a new man just as you do a new craze. You're fine talkers too. I like your buzz. It's a great hum, hum, buzz, buzz. It turns some men's heads, but it only sharpens others' wits; it won't turn Sandro's head."
"I'm glad you allow him some virtues."
"Oh, if it's a virtue to look so straight forward to where you mean to get that nothing will turn your head away from it."
"That's twisting your own words, Miss Quisante. I don't think he's that sort of man at all; he isn't the least your—your iron adventurer. He's full of emotion, of feeling, of—well, almost of poetry. Oh, not always good poetry, I know. But how funny that I should be defending him and you attacking him; it would be much more natural the other way round."
"I don't see that. I know him better than you do. Now he's to champion the Church—or some such nonsense! What's Sandro got to do with your Church? What does he care about it?"
"He cared about his subject the other evening; you must admit that."
"Oh, his subject! Yes, he cares about it while it's his subject."
May laughed. "I want to take just one liberty, Miss Quisante," she said. "May I? I want to tell you that I think you're a great deal more than half wrong about your nephew."
"Even if I am, I'm right enough for practical purposes with the other part," said the obstinate old woman. She leant forward and spoke with a sudden bitter emphasis. "It's not all outside, he's wrong inside too."
"It's too bad of you, oh, it really is," cried May indignantly. "You who ought to stand up for him and be his greatest friend!"
"Oh, yes, I see! I've overshot my mark. I'm a blunderer."
"Your mark? What mark? Why do you want to tell me about him at all?"
"I don't," said Miss Quisante, folding her hands in her lap and assuming an air of resolute reticence. But her eyes dwelt now with an imperfectly disguised kindness on the tall fair girl who pleaded for justice and saw no justice in the answers that she got. But the more Aunt Maria inclined to like May Gaston, the more determined was she not to palter with truth, the more determined to have no hand in giving the girl a false idea of Sandro. So far as lay in her power, Sandro's Empress should know the whole truth about Sandro.
The buzz of London, to which Miss Quisante referred as beginning to sound her nephew's name, revealed to the ear three tolerably distinct notes. There were the people who laughed and said the thing was no affair of theirs; this section was of course the largest, embracing all the naturally indifferent as well as the solid mass of the opposite political party. There were the people who were angry at Dick Benyon's interference and at his protege's impudence; in the ranks of these were most of Dick's political comrades, together with their wives and daughters. Here the resentment was at the idea that there was any vacancy, actual or prospective, which could not be filled perfectly well without the intrusion of such a person as Quisante. Thirdly there was the small but gradually growing group which inclined to think that there was something in Dick's notions and a good deal in his friend's head. A reinforcement came no doubt from the persons who were naturally prone to love the new and took up Quisante as a welcome change, as something odd, with a flavour of the unknown and just a dash of the mystery-man about him.
The Quisante-ites had undoubtedly something to say for themselves and something to show for their faith. Handicapped as he was by his sensational success at the Imperial League dinner, with its theatrical and faintly suspicious climax, Quisante had begun well in the House. He broke away from his mentor's advice; Dick had been for more sensation, for storming the House; Quisante rejected the idea and made a quiet, almost hesitating, entry on the scene. He displayed here a peculiarity which soon came to be remarked in him; on public occasions and in regard to public audiences he possessed a tact and a power of understanding the feelings of his company which entirely and even conspicuously failed him in private life. The House did not like being stormed, especially on the strength of an outside reputation; he addressed it modestly, bringing into play, however, resources with which he had not been credited—a touch of humour and a pretty turn of sarcasm. He knew his facts too, and disposed of contradictions with a Blue-book and a smile. The hypercritical were not silenced; Marchmont still found the smile oily, and his friends traced the humour to districts which they supposed to lie somewhere east of the London Hospital; but they were bound to admit sorrowfully that, although all this was true, it might not, under democratic institutions, prove fatal to a career.
Dick Benyon was enthusiastic; he told his friend that he had scored absolutely off his own bat and that there was and could be no more question of help or obligation. He was rather surprised by a display of feeling on Quisante's part which seemed to indicate almost an excess of gratitude; but Quisante felt his foot on the ladder, and the wells of emotion were full to overflowing. Dick escaped in considerable embarrassment, telling himself that remarkable men could not be expected to behave just like other men, like his sort of man, but wishing they would. None the less he praised what he hardly liked, and the reputation of being a good friend was added to Quisante's credentials. Lastly, but far from least in importance, a story went the rounds that a very great veteran, who had taken a keen interest in Weston Marchmont, and designated him for high place in a future not remote, had recently warned him, in apparent jest indeed but with unmistakable significance, that it would not do to take things too easily, or let a rival obtain too long a start. There was nobody of whom the Statesman could be supposed to be thinking, except the dark horse that Dick Benyon had brought into the betting—Alexander Quisante! Such predictions from such quarters have no small power of self-verification; they predispose lesser men to a fatalistic acquiescence which smoothes the way of the prophecy.
Marchmont, scorning the rival, was inclined to despise the dangers of the contest, but his supineness may have been in part due to the occupation of his mind by another interest. He had come to the conclusion that he wanted May Gaston for his wife and that she would accept his proposal. A few days before the Easter holidays began he betook himself to Lady Attlebridge's with the intention of settling the matter there and then. The purpose of his coming seemed to be divined; he was shown direct to May's own room, and found her there alone. She had been reading a letter and laid it down on a table by her; Marchmont could not help his eye catching the large printed address at the head of the sheet of paper, "Ashwood." Ashwood was Dick Benyon's country place. A moment later May explained the letter.
"I've had a wail from Amy Benyon," she said. "She wants me to go to them for Easter and comfort her. Look what she writes: "You must come, dear. I must be helped through, I must have a refuge. How in the world I ever did such a thing I don't know! But I did and I can't help it now. He's coming! So you must come. We expect the Baxters and Mr. Morewood. But I want you.""
"What has she done? Who's coming?" asked Marchmont.
He paused for a moment before he said, "You won't go, I suppose?"
"I must go if Amy wants me as much as that. Besides—well, perhaps it'll be interesting."
A chill fell on Marchmont, and its influence spread to his companion. Here at least he had hoped to be rid of Quisante, to find a place where the man could not be met, and people to whom the man was as a friend impossible. May read his thoughts, but her purpose wavered. She liked him very much; that hot rebellious fit, which made her impatient of his limits, was not on her now. He had found her in a more reasonable normal mood, when his advantages pleaded hard for him, and the limits seemed figments of a disorderly transient fancy. Thus he had come happily, and success had been in the mood to kiss his standards.