SIMON THE JESTER
By William J. Locke
I met Renniker the other day at the club. He is a man who knows everything—from the method of trimming a puppy's tail for a dog-show, without being disqualified, to the innermost workings of the mind of every European potentate. If I want information on any subject under heaven I ask Renniker.
"Can you tell me," said I, "the most God-forsaken spot in England?"
Renniker, being in a flippant mood, mentioned a fashionable watering-place on the South Coast. I pleaded the seriousness of my question.
"What I want," said I, "is a place compared to which Golgotha, Aceldama, the Dead Sea, the Valley of Jehoshaphat, and the Bowery would be leafy bowers of uninterrupted delight."
"Then Murglebed-on-Sea is what you're looking for," said Renniker. "Are you going there at once?"
"At once," said I.
"It's November," said he, "and a villainous November at that; so you'll see Murglebed-on-Sea in the fine flower of its desolation."
I thanked him, went home, and summoned my excellent man Rogers.
"Rogers," said I, "I am going to the seaside. I heard that Murglebed is a nice quiet little spot. You will go down and inspect it for me and bring back a report."
He went blithe and light-hearted, though he thought me insane; he returned with the air of a serving-man who, expecting to find a well-equipped pantry, had wandered into a charnel house.
"It's an awful place, sir. It's sixteen miles from a railway station. The shore is a mud flat. There's no hotel, and the inhabitants are like cannibals."
"I start for Murglebed-on-Sea to-morrow," said I.
Rogers started at me. His loose mouth quivered like that of a child preparing to cry.
"We can't possibly stay there, sir," he remonstrated.
"We are not going to try," I retorted. "I'm going by myself."
His face brightened. Almost cheerfully he assured me that I should find nothing to eat in Murglebed.
"You can amuse yourself," said I, "by sending me down a daily hamper of provisions."
"There isn't even a church," he continued.
"Then you can send me down a tin one from Humphreys'. I believe they can supply one with everything from a tin rabbit-hutch to a town hall."
He sighed and departed, and the next day I found myself here, in Murglebed-on-Sea.
On a murky, sullen November day Murglebed exhibits unimagined horrors of scenic depravity. It snarls at you malignantly. It is like a bit of waste land in Gehenna. There is a lowering, soap-suddy thing a mile away from the more or less dry land which local ignorance and superstition call the sea. The interim is mud—oozy, brown, malevolent mud. Sometimes it seems to heave as if with the myriad bodies of slimy crawling eels and worms and snakes. A few foul boats lie buried in it.
Here and there, on land, a surly inhabitant spits into it. If you address him he snorts at you unintelligibly. If you turn your back to the sea you are met by a prospect of unimagined despair. There are no trees. The country is flat and barren. A dismal creek runs miles inland—an estuary fed by the River Murgle. A few battered cottages, a general shop, a couple of low public-houses, and three perky red-brick villas all in a row form the city, or town, or village, or what you will, of Murglebed-on-Sea. Renniker is a wonderful man.
I have rented a couple of furnished rooms in one of the villas. It has a decayed bit of front garden in which a gnarled, stunted stick is planted, and it is called The Laburnums. My landlord, the owner of the villas, is a builder. What profits he can get from building in Murglebed, Heaven alone knows; but, as he mounts a bicycle in the morning and disappears for the rest of the day, I presume he careers over the waste, building as he goes. In the evenings he gets drunk at the Red Cow; so I know little of him, save that he is a red-faced man, with a Moustache like a tooth-brush and two great hands like hams.
His wife is taciturn almost to dumbness. She is a thick-set, black-haired woman, and looks at me disapprovingly out of the corner of her eye as if I were a blackbeetle which she would like to squash under foot. She tolerates me, however, on account of the tongues and other sustenance sent by Rogers from Benoist, of which she consumes prodigious quantities. She wonders, as far as the power of wonder is given to her dull brain, what on earth I am doing here. I see her whispering to her friends as I enter the house, and I know they are wondering what I am doing here. The whole village regards me as a humorous zoological freak, and wonders what I am doing here among normal human beings.
And what am I doing here—I, Simon de Gex, M.P., the spoilt darling of fortune, as my opponent in the Labour interest called me during the last electoral campaign? My disciple and secretary, young Dale Kynnersley, the only mortal besides Rogers who knows my whereabouts, trembles for my reason. In the eyes of the excellent Rogers I am horn-mad. What my constituents would think did they see me taking the muddy air on a soggy afternoon, I have no conception. Dale keeps them at bay. He also baffles the curiosity of my sisters, and by his diplomacy has sent Eleanor Faversham on a huffy trip to Sicily. She cannot understand why I bury myself in bleak solitude, instead of making cheerful holiday among the oranges and lemons of the South.
Eleanor is a girl with a thousand virtues, each of which she expects to find in counterpart in the man to whom she is affianced. Until a week or two ago I actually thought myself in love with Eleanor. There seemed a whimsical attraction in the idea of marrying a girl with a thousand virtues. Before me lay the pleasant prospect of reducing them—say, ten at a time—until I reached the limit at which life was possible, and then one by one until life became entertaining. I admired her exceedingly—a strapping, healthy English girl who looked you straight in the eyes and gripped you fearlessly by the hand.
My friends "lucky-dog'd" me until I began to smirk to myself at my own good fortune. She visited the constituency and comported herself as if she had been a Member's wife since infancy, thereby causing my heart to swell with noble pride. This unparalleled young person compelled me to take my engagement almost seriously. If I shot forth a jest, it struck against a virtue and fell blunted to the earth. Indeed, even now I am sorry I can't marry Eleanor. But marriage is out of the question.
I have been told by the highest medical authorities that I may manage to wander in the flesh about this planet for another six months. After that I shall have to do what wandering I yearn for through the medium of my ghost. There is a certain humourousness in the prospect. Save for an occasional pain somewhere inside me, I am in the most robust health.
But this same little pain has been diagnosed by the Faculty as the symptom of an obscure disease. An operation, they tell me, would kill me on the spot. What it is called I cannot for the life of me remember. They gave it a kind of lingering name, which I wrote down on my shirt-cuff.
The name or characteristics of the thing, however, do not matter a fig. I have always hated people who talked about their insides, and I am not going to talk about mine, even to myself. Clearly, if it is only going to last me six months, it is not worth talking about. But the quaint fact of its brief duration is worth the attention of a contemplative mind.
It is in order perfectly to focus this attention that I have come to Murglebed-on-Sea. Here I am alone with the murk and the mud and my own indrawn breath of life. There are no flowers, blue sky, smiling eyes, and dainty faces—none of the adventitious distractions of the earth. There are no Blue-books. Before the Faculty made their jocular pronouncement I had been filling my head with statistics on pauper lunacy so as to please my constituency, in which the rate has increased alarmingly of late years. Perhaps that is why I found myself their representative in Parliament. I was to father a Bill on the subject next session. Now the labour will fall on other shoulders. I interest myself in pauper lunacy no more. A man requires less flippant occupation for the premature sunset of his days. Well, in Murglebed I can think, I can weigh the pros and cons of existence with an even mind, I can accustom myself to the concept of a Great Britain without Simon de Gex. M.P.
Of course, when I go I shall "cast one longing, lingering look behind." I don't particularly want to die. In fact, having otherwise the prospect of an entertaining life, I regard my impending dissolution in the light of a grievance. But I am not afraid. I shall go through the dismal formality with a graceful air and as much of a smile on my face as the pain in my inside will physically permit.
My dear but somewhat sober-sided friend Marcus Aurelius says: "Let death surprise me when it will, and where it will, I may be eumoiros, or a happy man, nevertheless. For he is a happy man who in his lifetime dealeth unto himself a happy lot and portion. A happy lot and portion in good inclinations of the soul, good desires, good actions."
The word eumoiros according to the above definition, tickles my fancy. I would give a great deal to be eumoirous. What a thing to say: "I have achieved eumoiriety,"—namely the quintessence of happy-fatedness dealt unto oneself by a perfect altruism!
I don't think that hitherto my soul has been very evilly inclined, my desires base, or my actions those of a scoundrel. Still, the negatives do not qualify one for eumoiriety. One wants something positive. I have an idea, therefore, of actively dealing unto myself a happy lot or portion according to the Marcian definition during the rest of the time I am allowed to breathe the upper air. And this will be fairly easy; for no matter how excellently a man's soul may be inclined to the performance of a good action, in ninety cases out of a hundred he is driven away from it by dread of the consequences. Your moral teachers seldom think of this—that the consequences of a good action are often more disastrous than those of an evil one. But if a man is going to die, he can do good with impunity. He can simply wallow in practical virtue. When the boomerang of his beneficence comes back to hit him on the head—he won't be there to feel it. He can thus hoist Destiny with its own petard, and, besides, being eumoirous, can spend a month or two in a peculiarly diverting manner. The more I think of the idea the more am I in love with it. I am going to have a seraph of a time. I am going to play the archangel.
I shall always have pleasant memories of Murglebed. Such an idea could not have germinated in any other atmosphere. In the scented groves of sunny lands there would have been sown Seeds of Regret, which would have blossomed eventually into Flowers of Despair. I should have gone about the world, a modern Admetus, snivelling at my accursed luck, without even the chance of persuading a soft-hearted Alcestis to die for me. I should have been a dismal nuisance to society.
"Bless you," I cried this afternoon, waving, as I leaned against a post, my hand to the ambient mud, "Renniker was wrong! You are not a God-forsaken place. You are impregnated with divine inspiration."
A muddy man in a blue jersey and filthy beard who occupied the next post looked at me and spat contemptuously. I laughed.
"If you were Marcus Aurelius," said I, "I would make a joke—a short life and an eumoiry one—and he would have looked as pained as you."
"What?" he bawled. He was to windward of me.
I knew that if I repeated my observation he would offer to fight me. I approached him suavely.
"I was wondering," I said, "as it's impossible to strike a match in this wind, whether you would let me light my pipe from yours."
"It's empty," he growled.
"Take a fill from my pouch," said I.
The mud-turtle loaded his pipe, handed me my pouch without acknowledgment, stuck his pipe in his breeches pocket, spat again, and, deliberately turning his back, on me, lounged off to another post on a remoter and less lunatic-ridden portion of the shore. Again I laughed, feeling, as the poet did with the daffodils, that one could not but be gay in such a jocund company.
There are no amenities or urbanities of life in Murglebed to choke the growth of the Idea. This evening it flourishes so exceedingly that I think it safe to transplant it in the alien soil of Q 3, The Albany, where the good Rogers must be leading an idle existence peculiarly deleterious to his morals.
This gives one furiously to think. One of the responsibilities of eumoiriety must be the encouragement and development of virtue in my manservant.
Also in my young friend and secretary, Dale Kynnersley. He is more to me than Rogers. I may confess that, so long as Rogers is a sober, honest, me-fearing valet, in my heart of hearts I don't care a hang about Rogers's morals. But about those of Dale Kynnersley I do. I care a great deal for his career and happiness. I have a notion that he is erring after strange goddesses and neglecting the little girl who is in love with him. He must be delivered. He must marry Maisie Ellerton, and the two of them must bring lots of capable, clear-eyed Kynnersleys into the world. I long to be their ghostly godfather.
Then there's Eleanor Faversham—but if I begin to draw up a programme I shall lose that spontaneity of effort which, I take it, is one of the chief charms of dealing unto oneself a happy lot and portion. No; my soul abhors tabulation. It would make even six months' life as jocular as Bradshaw's Railway Guide or the dietary of a prison. I prefer to look on what is before me as a high adventure, and with that prospect in view I propose to jot down my experiences from time to time, so that when I am wandering, a pale shade by Acheron, young Dale Kynnersley may have not only documentary evidence wherewith to convince my friends and relations that my latter actions were not those of a lunatic, but also, at the same time, an up-to-date version of Jeremy Taylor's edifying though humour-lacking treatise on the act of dying, which I am sorely tempted to label "The Rule and Example of Eumoiriety." I shall resist the temptation, however. Dale Kynnersley—such is the ignorance of the new generation—would have no sense of the allusion. He would shake his head and say, "Dotty, poor old chap, dotty!" I can hear him. And if, in order to prepare him, I gave him a copy of the "Meditations," he would fling the book across the room and qualify Marcus Aurelius as a "rotter."
Dale is a very shrewd fellow, and will make an admirable legislator when his time comes. Although his highest intellectual recreation is reiterated attendance at the musical comedy that has caught his fancy for the moment and his favourite literature the sporting pages of the daily papers, he has a curious feline pounce on the salient facts of a political situation, and can thread the mazes of statistics with the certainty of a Hampton Court guide. His enthusiastic researches (on my behalf) into pauper lunacy are remarkable in one so young. I foresee him an invaluable chairman of committee. But he will never become a statesman. He has too passionate a faith in facts and figures, and has not cultivated a sense of humour at the expense of the philosophers. Young men who do not read them lose a great deal of fun.
Well, to-morrow I leave Murglebed for ever; it has my benison. Democritus returns to London.
I was at breakfast on the morning after my arrival in London, when Dale Kynnersley rushed in and seized me violently by the hand.
"By Jove, here you are at last!"
I smoothed my crushed fingers. "You have such a vehement manner of proclaiming the obvious, my dear Dale."
"Oh, rot!" he said. "Here, Rogers, give me some tea—and I think I'll have some toast and marmalade."
"Haven't you breakfasted?"
A cloud overspread his ingenuous countenance.
"I came down late, and everything was cold and mother was on edge. The girls are always doing the wrong things and I never do the right ones—you know the mater—so I swallowed a tepid kidney and rushed off."
"Save for her worries over you urchins," said I, "I hope Lady Kynnersley is well?"
He filled his mouth with toast and marmalade, and nodded. He is a good-looking boy, four-and-twenty—idyllic age! He has sleek black hair brushed back from his forehead over his head, an olive complexion, and a keen, open, clean-shaven face. He wore a dark-brown lounge suit and a wine-coloured tie, and looked immaculate. I remember him as the grubbiest little wretch that ever disgraced Harrow.
He swallowed his mouthful and drank some tea.
"Recovered your sanity?" he asked.
"The dangerous symptoms have passed over," I replied. "I undertake not to bite."
He regarded me as though he were not quite certain, and asked in his pronounless way whether I was glad to be back in London.
"Yes," said I. "Rogers is the only human creature who can properly wax the ends of my moustache. It got horribly limp in the air of Murglebed. That is the one and only disadvantage of the place."
"Doesn't seem to have done you much good," he remarked, scanning me critically. "You are as white as you were before you went away. Why the blazes you didn't go to Madeira, or the South of France, or South Africa I can't imagine."
"I don't suppose you can," said I. "Any news?"
"I should think I have! But first let me go through the appointments."
He consulted a pocket-book. On December 2nd I was to dine with Tanners' Company and reply to the toast of "The House of Commons." On the 4th my constituency claimed me for the opening of a bazaar at Wymington. A little later I was to speak somewhere in the North of England at a by-election in support of the party candidate.
"It will be fought on Tariff Reform, about which I know nothing," I objected.
"I know everything," he declared. "I'll see you through. You must buck up a bit, Simon, and get your name better known about the country. And this brings me to my news. I was talking to Raggles the other day—he dropped a hint, and Raggles's hints are jolly well worth while picking up. Just come to the front and show yourself, and there's a place in the Ministry."
"Sanderson?" I queried, interested, in spite of myself, at these puerilities. "What's the matter with him?"
"Swelled head. There have been awful rows—this is confidential—and he's got the hump. Thinks he ought to be the Chancellor of the Exchequer, or at least First Lord, instead of an Under Secretary. So he's going to chuck it, before he gets the chuck himself—see?"
"I perceive," said I, "that your conversational English style is abominable."
He lit a cigarette and continued, loftily taking no notice of my rebuke.
"There's bound to be a vacancy. Why shouldn't you fill it? They seem to want you. You're miles away over the heads of the average solemn duffers who get office."
I bowed acknowledgment of his tribute.
"Well, you will buck up and try for it, won't you? I'm awfully proud of you already, but I should go off my head with joy if you were in the Ministry."
I met his honest young eyes as well as I could. How was I going to convey to his candid intelligence the fact of my speedy withdrawal from political life without shattering his illusions? Besides, his devotion touched me, and his generous aspirations were so futile. Office! It was in my grasp. Raggles, with his finger always on the pulse of the party machine, was the last man in the world to talk nonsense. I only had to "buck up." Yet by the time Sanderson sends in his resignation to the King of England, I shall have sent in mine to the King of Hosts. I moved slightly in my chair, and a twinge of the little pain inside brought a gasp to my throat. But I felt grateful to it. It was saving me from an unconscionable deal of worry. Fancy going to a confounded office every morning like a clerk in the City! I was happier at peace. I rose and warmed myself by the fire. Dale regarded me uncomprehendingly.
"You look as if the prospect bored you to tears. I thought you would be delighted."
"Vanitas vanitatum," said I. "Omnia vanitas."
"Rot!" said Dale.
"I must fetch Eleanor Faversham back from Sicily," said Dale.
"Don't," said I.
"Well, I give you up," he declared, pushing his chair from the table and swinging one leg across the other. I leaned forward and scrutinised his ankles.
"What are you looking at?"
"There must be something radically wrong with you, Dale," I murmured sympathetically. "It is part of the religion of your generation to wear socks to match your tie. To-day your tie is wine-coloured and your socks are green——"
"Good Lord," he cried, "so they are! I dressed myself anyhow this morning."
"What's wrong with you?"
He threw his cigarette impatiently into the fire.
"Every infernal thing that can possibly be. Everything's rotten—but I've not come here to talk about myself."
"It isn't the game. I'm here on your business, which is ever so much more important than mine. Where are this morning's letters?"
I pointed to an unopened heap on a writing-table at the end of the room. He crossed and sat down before them. Presently he turned sharply.
"You haven't looked through the envelopes. Here is one from Sicily."
I took the letter from him, and sighed to myself as I read it. Eleanor was miserable. The Sicilians were dirty. The Duomo of Palermo did not come up to her expectations. The Mobray-Robertsons, with whom she travelled, quarrelled with their food. They had never even heard of Theocritus. She had a cold in her head, and was utterly at a loss to explain my attitude. Therefore she was coming back to London.
I wish I could find her a nice tame husband who had heard of Theocritus. It would be such a good thing for everybody, husband included. For, I repeat, Eleanor is a young woman of fine character, and the man to whom she gives her heart will be a fortunate fellow.
While I was reading the letter and meditating on it, with my back to the fire, Dale plunged into the morning's correspondence with an air of enjoyment. That is the astonishing thing about him. He loves work. The more I give him to do the better he likes it. His cronies, who in raiment, manners, and tastes differ from him no more than a row of pins differs from a stray brother, regard a writing-chair as a mediaeval instrument of torture, and faint at the sight of ink. They will put themselves to all kinds of physical and pecuniary inconvenience in order to avoid regular employment. They are the tramps of the fashionable world. But in vain do they sing to Dale of the joys of silk-hatted and patent-leather-booted vagabondage and deride his habits of industry; Dale turns a deaf ear to them and urges on his strenuous career. Rogers, coming in to clear away the breakfast things, was despatched by my young friend to fetch a portfolio from the hall. It contained, he informed me, the unanswered letters of the past fortnight with which he had found himself unqualified to deal. He grasped the whole bundle of correspondence, and invited me to follow him to the library and start on a solid morning's work. I obeyed meekly. He sat down at the big table, arranged the pile in front of him, took a pencil from the tray, and began:
"This is from Finch, of the Universal Review."
I put my hand on his shoulder.
"Tell him, my boy, that it's against my custom to breakfast at afternoon tea, and that I hope his wife is well."
At his look of bewilderment I broke into a laugh.
"He wants me to write a dull article for his stupid paper, doesn't he?"
"Yes, on Poor Law Administration."
"I'm not going to do it. I'm not going to do anything these people ask me. Say 'No, no, no, no,' to everybody."
"In Heaven's name, Simon," he cried, laying down his pencil, "what has come over you?"
"Old age," said I.
He uttered his usual interjection, and added that I was only thirty-seven.
"Age is a relative thing," I remarked. "Babes of five have been known to die of senile decay, and I have seen irresponsible striplings of seventy."
"I really think Eleanor Faversham had better come back from Sicily."
I tapped the letter still in my hand. "She's coming."
"I'm jolly glad to hear it. It's all my silly fault that she went away. I thought she was getting on your nerves. But you want pulling together. That confounded place you've been to has utterly upset you."
"On the contrary," said I, "it has steadied and amplified my conception of sublunary affairs. It has shown me that motley is much more profitable wear than the edged toga of the senator—"
"Oh, for God's sake, dry up," cried young England, "and tell me what answers I'm to give these people!"
He seemed so earnest about it that I humoured him; and my correspondents seemed so earnest that I humoured them. But it was a grim jest. Most of the matters with which I had to deal appeared so trivial. Only here and there did I find a chance for eumoiriety. The Wymington Hospital applied for their annual donation.
"You generally give a tenner," said Dale.
"This time I'll give them a couple of hundred," said I.
Dale earmarked the amount wonderingly; but when I ordered him to send five pounds apiece to the authors of various begging letters he argued vehemently and quoted the Charity Organisation Society.
"They're frauds, all of them," he maintained.
"They're poor necessitous devils, at any rate," said I, "and they want the money more than I do."
This was a truth whose significance Dale was far from realising. Of what value, indeed, is money to me? There is none to whom I can usefully bequeath my little fortune, my sisters having each married rich men. I shall not need even Charon's obolus when I am dead, for we have ceased to believe in him—which is a pity, as the trip across the Styx must have been picturesque. Why, then, should I not deal myself a happy lot and portion by squandering my money benevolently during my lifetime?
It behooves me, however, to walk warily in this as in other matters, for if my actions too closely resemble those of a lunatic at large, trustees may be appointed to administer my affairs, which would frustrate my plans entirely.
When my part in the morning's work was over, I informed my secretary that I would go out and take the air till lunch-time.
"If you've nothing better to do," said he, "you might run round to Eccleston Square and see my mother."
"For any particular reason?"
"She wants to see you. Home for inebriate parrots or something. Gave me a message for you this morning."
"I'll wait," said I, "on Lady Kynnersley with pleasure."
I went out and walked down the restful covered way of the Albany to the Piccadilly entrance, and began my taking of the air. It was a soft November day, full of blue mist, and invested with a dying grace by a pale sunshine struggling through thin, grey rain-cloud. It was a faded lady of a day—a lady of waxen cheeks, attired in pearl-grey and old lace, her dim eyes illumined by a last smile. It gave an air of unreality to the perspective of tall buildings, and treated with indulgent irony the passing show of humans—on foot, on omnibuses, in cabs and motors—turning them into shadow shapes tending no whither. I laughed to myself. They all fancied themselves so real. They all had schemes in their heads, as if they were going to live a thousand years. I walked westwards past the great clubs, moralising as I went, and feeling the reaction from the excitement of Murglebed-on-Sea. I looked up at one of my own clubs, a comfortable resting-place, and it struck me as possessing more attractions than the family vault in Highgate Cemetery. An acquaintance at the window waved his hand at me. I thought him a lucky beggar to have that window to stand by when the street will be flooded with summer sunshine and the trees in the green Park opposite wave in their verdant bravery. A little further a radiant being, all chiffons and millinery, on her way to Bond Street for more millinery and chiffons, smiled at me and put forth a delicately-gloved hand.
"Oh, Mr. de Gex, you're the very man I was longing to see!"
"How simply are some human aspirations satisfied!" said I.
"Farfax"—that's her husband, Farfax Glenn, a Member on my side of the House—"Farfax and I are making plans already for the Easter recess. We are going to motor to Athens, and you must come with us. You can tell us all about everything as we pass by."
I looked grave. "Easter is late next year."
"What does that matter? Say you'll come."
"Alas! my dear Mrs. Glenn," I said, with a smile, "I have an engagement at Easter—a very important one."
"I thought the wedding was not to take place till June."
"It isn't the wedding," said I.
"Then break the engagement."
"It's beyond human power," said I.
She held up her bracelet, from which dangled some charms.
"I think you're a ——" And she pointed to a little golden pig.
"I'm not," I retorted.
"What are you, then?"
"I'm a gentleman in a Greek tragedy."
We laughed and parted, and I went on my way cheered by the encounter. I had spoken the exact truth, and found amusement in doing so. One has often extracted humour from the contemplation of the dissolution of others—that of the giant in "Jack the Giant-killer" for instance, and the demise of the little boy with the pair of skates in the poem. Why not extract it from the contemplation of one's own?
The only disadvantage of my position is that it give me, in spite of myself, an odd sense of isolation from my kind. They are looking forward to Easters and Junes and summers, and I am not. I also have a fatuous feeling of superiority in being in closer touch than they with eternal verities. I must take care that I do not play too much to the gallery, that I do not grow too conceited over the singularity of my situation, and arrive at the mental attitude of the criminal whose dominant solicitude in connection with his execution was that he should be hanged in his dress clothes. These reflections brought me to Eccleston Square.
Lady Kynnersley is that type of British matron who has children in fits of absent-mindedness, and to whom their existence is a perpetual shock. Her main idea in marrying the late Sir Thomas Kynnersley was to associate herself with his political and philanthropic schemes. She is the born committee woman, to whom a home represents a place where one sleeps and eats in order to maintain the strength required for the performance of committee duties. Her children have always been outside the sphere of her real interests, but, afflicted, as such women are, with chronic inflammation of the conscience, she had devoted the most scrupulous care to their upbringing. She formed herself into a society for the protection of her own children, and managed them by means of a committee, which consisted of herself, and of which she was the honorary secretary. She drew up articles of association and regulations. If Dale contracted measles, she applied by-law 17. If Janet slapped Dorothy, by-law 32 was brought into play. When Dale clamoured for a rocking-horse, she found that the articles of association did not provide for imaginative equitation. As the children grew up, the committee had from time to time to revise the articles and submit them to the general body for approval. There were many meetings before the new sections relating to a University career for the boy and the coming out for the girls were satisfactorily drafted. Once given the effect of law, however, there was no appeal against these provisions. Both committee and general body were powerless. Dale certainly owed his methodical habits to his mechanical training, but whence he derived and how he maintained his exuberance and spontaneity has often puzzled me. He himself accounts for it on the score of heredity, in that an ancestress of his married a highwayman who was hanged at Tyburn under William and Mary.
In person Lady Kynnersley is lean and blanched and grey-haired. She wears gold spectacles, which stand out oddly against the thin whiteness of her face; she is still a handsome, distinguished woman, who can have, when she chooses, a most gracious manner. As I, worldling and jester though I am, for some mysterious reason have found favour in the lady's eyes, she manifests this graciousness whenever we foregather. Ergo, I like Lady Kynnersley, and would put myself to much inconvenience in order to do her a service.
She kept me waiting in the drawing-room but a minute before she made her appearance, grasped my hand, proclaimed my goodness in responding so soon to her call, bade me sit down on the sofa by her side, inquired after my health, and, the gods of politeness being propitiated, plunged at once into the midst of matters.
Dale was going downhill headlong to Gadarene catastrophe. He had no eyes or ears or thoughts for any one in the world but for a certain Lola Brandt, a brazen creature from a circus, the shape of whose limbs was the common knowledge of mankind from Dublin to Yokohama, and whose path by sea and land, from Yokohama to Dublin, was strewn with the bodies of her victims. With this man-eating tigress, declared Lady Kynnersley, was Dale infatuated. He scorched himself morning, noon, and night in her devastating presence. Had cut himself adrift from home, from society. Had left trailing about on his study table a jeweller's bill for a diamond bracelet. Was committing follies that made my brain reel to hear. Had threatened, if worried much longer, to marry the Scarlet One incontinently. Heaven knew, cried Lady Kynnersley, how many husbands she had already—scattered along the track between Dublin and Yokohama. There was no doubt about it. Dale was hurtling down to everlasting bonfire. She looked to me to hold out the restraining hand.
"You have already spoken to Dale on the subject?" I asked, mindful of the inharmonious socks and tie.
"I can talk to him of nothing else," said Lady Kynnersley desperately.
"That's a pity," said I. "You should talk to him of Heaven, or pigs, or Babylonic cuneiform—anything but Lola Brandt. You ought to go to work on a different system."
"But I haven't a system at all," cried the poor lady. "How was I to foresee that my only son was going to fall in love with a circus rider? These are contingencies in life for which one, with all the thought in the world, can make no provision. I had arranged, as you know, that he should marry Maisie Ellerton, as charming a girl as ever there was. Isn't she? And an independent fortune besides."
"A rosebud wrapped in a gold leaf," I murmured.
"Now he's breaking the child's heart——"
"There was never any engagement between them, I am sure of that," I remarked.
"There wasn't. But I gave her to understand it was a settled affair—merely a question of Dale speaking. And, instead of speaking, he will have nothing to do with her, and spends all his time—and, I suppose, though I don't like to refer to it, all his money—in the society of this unmentionable woman."
"Is she really so—so red as she is painted?" I asked.
"She isn't painted at all. That's where her artful and deceitful devilry comes in——"
"I suppose Dale," said I, "declares her to be an angel of light and purity?"
"An angel on horseback! Whoever heard of such a thing?"
"It's the name of a rather fiery savoury," said I.
"In a circus!" she continued.
"Well," said I, "the ring of a circus is not essentially one of the circles in Dante's Inferno."
"Of course, my dear Simon," she said, with some impatience, "if you defend him—"
I hastened to interrupt her. "I don't. I think he is an egregious young idiot; but before taking action it's well to get a clear idea of the facts. By the way, how do you know she's not painted?"
"I've seen her—seen her with my own eyes in Dale's company—at the Savoy. He's there supping with her every night. General Lamont told me. I wouldn't believe it—Dale flaunting about in public with her. The General offered to take me there after the inaugural meeting of the International Aid Society at Grosvenor House. I went, and saw them together. I shall never forget the look in the boy's eyes till my dying day. She has got him body and soul. One reads of such things in the poets, one sees it in pictures; but I've never come across it in real life—never, never. It's dreadful, horrible, revolting. To think that a son of mine, brought up from babyhood to calculate all his actions with mathematical precision, should be guilty of this profligacy! It's driving me mad, Simon; it really is. I don't know what to do. I've come to the end of my resources. It's your turn now. The boy worships you."
A wild appeal burned in her eyes and was refracted oddly through her near-sighted spectacles. I had never seen her betray emotion before during all the years of our friendship. The look and the tone of her voice moved me. I expressed my sympathy and my readiness to do anything in my power to snatch the infatuated boy from the claw and fang of the syren and hale him to the forgiving feet of Maisie Ellerton. Indeed, such a chivalrous adventure had vaguely passed through my mind during my exalted mood at Murglebed-on-Sea. But then I knew little beyond the fact that Dale was fluttering round an undesirable candle. Till now I had no idea of the extent to which his wings were singed.
"Hasn't Dale spoken to you about this creature?" his mother asked.
"Young men of good taste keep these things from their elders, my dear Lady Kynnersley," said I.
"But you knew of it?"
"In a dim sort of way."
"The baby boys of Dale's set regard taking out the chorus to supper as a solemn religious rite. They wouldn't think themselves respectable if they didn't. I've done it myself—in moderation—when I was very young."
"Men are mysteries," sighed Lady Kynnersley.
"Please regard them as such," said I, with a laugh, "and let Dale alone. Allow him to do whatever irrational thing he likes, save bringing the lady here to tea. If you try to tear him away from her he'll only cling to her the closer. If you trumpet abroad her infamy he'll proclaim her a slandered and martyred saint. Leave him to me for the present."
"I'll do so gladly," said Lady Kynnersley, with surprising meekness. "But you will bring him back, Simon? I've arranged for him to marry Maisie. I can't have my plans for the future upset."
By-law 379! Dear, excellent, but wooden-headed woman!
"I have your promise, haven't I?" she said, her hand in mine.
"You have," said I nobly.
But how in the name of Astaroth I'm going to keep it I haven't the remotest conception.
Some letters in Dale's round handwriting lay on the library table awaiting my signature. Dale himself had gone. A lady had called for him, said Rogers, in an electric brougham. As my chambers are on the second floor and the staircase half-way down the arcade, Rogers's detailed information surprised me. I asked him how he knew.
"A chauffeur in livery, sir, came to the door and said that the brougham was waiting for Mr. Kynnersley."
"I don't see how the lady came in," I remarked.
"She didn't, sir. She remained in the brougham," said Rogers.
So Lola Brandt keeps an electric brougham.
I lunched at the club, and turned up the article "Lola Brandt" in the living encyclopaedia—that was my friend Renniker. The wonderful man gave me her history from the cradle to Cadogan Gardens, where she now resides. I must say that his details were rather vague. She rode in a circus or had a talking horse—he was not quite sure; and concerning her conjugal or extra-conjugal heart affairs he admitted that his information was either unauthenticated or conjectural. At any rate, she had not a shred of reputation. And she didn't want it, said Renniker; it would be as much use to her as a diving suit.
"She has young Dale Kynnersley in tow," he remarked.
"So I gather," said I. "And now can you tell me something else? What is the present state of political parties in Guatemala?"
I was not in the least interested in Guatemala; but I did not care to discuss Dale with Renniker. When he had completed his sketch of affairs in that obscure republic, I thanked him politely and ordered coffee.
Feeling in a gregarious, companionable humour—I have had enough solitude at Murglebed to last me the rest of my short lifetime—I went later in the afternoon to Sussex Gardens to call on Mrs. Ellerton. It was her day at home, and the drawing-room was filled with chattering people. I stayed until most of them were gone, and then Maisie dragged me to the inner room, where a table was strewn with the wreckage of tea.
"I haven't had any," she said, grasping the teapot and pouring a treacly liquid into a cup. "You must have some more. Do you like it black, or with milk?"
She is a dainty slip of a girl, with deep grey eyes and wavy brown hair and a sea-shell complexion. I absently swallowed the abomination she handed me, for I was looking at her over the teacup and wondering how an exquisite-minded gentleman like Dale could forsake her for a Lola Brandt. It was not as if Maisie were an empty-headed, empty-natured little girl. She is a young person of sense, education, and character. She also adores musical comedy and a band at dinner: an excellent thing in woman—when she is very young.
"Why are you looking at me like that?" she asked.
"Because, my dear Maisie," said I, "you are good to look upon. You are also dropping a hairpin."
She hastily secured the dangling thing. "I did my hair anyhow to-day," she explained.
Again I thought of Dale's tie and socks. The signs of a lover's "careless desolation," described by Rosalind so minutely, can still be detected in modern youth of both sexes. I did not pursue the question, but alluded to autumn gaieties. She spoke of them without enthusiasm. Miss Somebody's wedding was very dull, and Mrs. Somebody Else's dance manned with vile and vacuous dancers. At the Opera the greatest of German sopranos sang false. All human institutions had taken a crooked turn, and her cat could not be persuaded to pay the commonest attention to its kittens. Then she asked me nonchalantly:
"Have you seen anything of Dale lately?"
"He was working with me this morning. I've been away, you know."
"When did you last see him?" I asked.
"Oh, ages ago! He has not been near us for weeks. We used to be such friends. I don't think it's very polite of him, do you?"
"I'll order him to call forthwith," said I.
"Oh, please don't! If he won't come of his own accord—I don't want to see him particularly."
She tossed her shapely head and looked at me bravely.
"You are quite right," said I. "Dale's a selfish, ill-mannered young cub."
"He isn't!" she flashed. "How dare you say such things about him!"
I smiled and took both her hands—one of them held a piece of brown bread-and-butter.
"My dear," said I, "model yourself on Little Bo-Peep. I don't know who gave her the famous bit of advice, but I think it was I myself in a pastoral incarnation. I had a woolly cloak and a crook, and she was like a Dresden china figure—the image of you."
Her eyes swam, but she laughed and said I was good to her. I said:
"The man who wouldn't be good to you is an unhung villain."
Then her mother joined us, and our little confidential talk came to an end. It was enough, however, to convince me that my poor little Ariadne was shedding many desperate tears in secret over her desertion.
On my way home I looked in on my doctor. His name is Hunnington. He grasped me by the hand and eagerly inquired whether my pain was worse. I said it was not. He professed delight, but looked disappointed. I ought to have replied in the affirmative. It is so easy to make others happy.
I dined, read a novel, and went to sleep in the cheerful frame of mind induced by the consciousness of having made some little progress on the path of eumoiriety.
The next morning Dale made his customary appearance. He wore a morning coat, a dark tie, and patent-leather boots.
"Well," said I, "have you dressed more carefully today?"
He looked himself anxiously over and inquired whether there was anything wrong. I assured him of the impeccability of his attire, and commented on its splendour.
"Are you going to take Maisie out to lunch?"
He started and reddened beneath his dark skin. Before he could speak I laid my hand on his shoulder.
"I'm an old friend, Dale. You mustn't be angry with me. But don't you think you're treating Maisie rather badly?"
"You've no right to say so," he burst out hotly. "No one has the right to say so. There was never a question of an engagement between Maisie and myself."
"Then there ought to have been," I said judicially. "No decent man plays fast and loose with a girl and throws her over just at the moment when he ought to be asking her to marry him."
"I suppose my mother's been at you. That's what she wanted to see you about yesterday. I wish to God she would mind her own business."
"And that I would mind mine?"
Dale did not reply. For some odd reason he is devotedly attached to me, and respects my opinion on worldly matters. He walked to the window and looked out. Presently, without turning round, he said:
"I suppose she has been rubbing it in about Lola Brandt?"
"She did mention the lady's name," said I. "So did Renniker at the club. I suppose every one you know and many you don't are mentioning it."
"Well, what if they are?"
"They're creating an atmosphere about your name which is scarcely that in which to make an entrance into public life."
Still with his back turned, he morosely informed me in his vernacular that he contemplated public life with feelings of indifference, and was perfectly prepared to abandon his ambitions. I took up my parable, the same old parable that wise seniors have preached to the deluded young from time immemorial. I have seldom held forth so platitudinously even in the House of Commons. I spoke as impressively as a bishop. In the midst of my harangue he came and sat by the library table and rested his chin on his palm, looking at me quietly out of his dark eyes. His mildness encouraged me to further efforts. I instanced cases of other young men of the world who had gone the way of the flesh and had ended at the devil.
There was Paget, of the Guards, eaten to the bone by the Syren—not even the gold lace on his uniform left. There was Merridew, once the hope of the party, now living in ignoble obscurity with an old and painted mistress, whom he detested, but to whom habit and sapped will-power kept him in thrall. There was Bullen, who blew his brains out. In a generous glow I waxed prophetic and drew a vivid picture of Dale's moral, mental, physical, financial, and social ruin, and finished up in a masterly peroration.
Then, without moving, he calmly said:
"My dear Simon, you are talking through your hat!"
He had allowed me to walk backwards and forwards on the hearthrug before a blazing fire, pouring out the wealth of my wisdom, experience, and rhetoric for ten minutes by the clock, and then coolly informed me that I was talking through my hat.
I wiped my forehead, sat down, and looked at him across the table in surprise and indignation.
"If you can point out one irrelevant or absurd remark in my homily, I'll eat the hat through which you say I'm talking."
"The whole thing is rot from beginning to end!" said he. "None of you good people know anything at all about Lola Brandt. She's not the sort of woman you think. She's quite different. You can't judge her by ordinary standards. There's not a woman like her in the wide world!"
I made a gesture of discouragement. The same old parable of the wise had evoked the same old retort from the deluded young. She was quite different from other women. She was misunderstood by the cynical and gross-minded world. A heart of virgin purity beat beneath her mercenary bosom. Her lurid past had been the reiterated martyrdom of a noble nature. O Golden Age! O unutterable silliness of Boyhood!
"For Heaven's sake, don't talk in that way!" he cried (I had been talking in that way), and he rose and walked like a young tiger about the room. "I can't stand it. I've gone mad about her. She has got into my blood somehow. I think about her all day long, and I can't sleep at night. I would give up any mortal thing on earth for her. She is the one woman in the world for me! She's the dearest, sweetest, tenderest, most beautiful creature God ever made!"
"And you honour and respect her—just as you would honour and respect Maisie?" I asked quietly.
"Of course I do!" he flashed. "Don't I tell you that you know nothing whatever about her? She is the dearest, sweetest——" etc., etc. And he continued to trumpet forth the Olympian qualities of the Syren and his own fervent adoration. I was the only being to whom he had opened his heart, and, the floodgates being set free, the torrent burst forth in this tempestuous and incoherent manner. I let him go on, for I thought it did him good; but his rhapsody added very little to my information.
The lady who had "houp-la'd" her way from Dublin to Yokohama was the spotless queen of beauty, and Dale was frenziedly, idiotically in love with her. That was all I could gather. When he had finished, which he did somewhat abruptly, he threw himself into a chair and took out his cigarette-case with shaky fingers.
"There. I suppose I've made a damn-fool exhibition of myself," he said, defiantly. "What have you got to say about it?"
"Precisely," I replied, "what I said before. I'll repeat it, if you like."
Indeed, what more was there to say for the present about the lunatic business? I had come to the end of my arguments.
He reflected for a moment, then rose and came over to the fireplace.
"Look here, Simon, you must let me go my own way in this. In matters of politics and worldly wisdom and social affairs and honourable dealing and all that sort of thing I would follow you blindly. You're my chief, and a kind of elder brother as well. I would do any mortal thing for you. You know that. But you've no right to try to guide me in this matter. You know no more about it than my mother. You've had no experience. You've never let yourself go about a woman in your life. Lord of Heaven, man, you have never begun to know what it means!"
Oh, dear me! Here was the situation as old as the return of the Prodigal or the desertion of the trusting village maiden, or any other cliche in the melodrama of real life. "You are making a fool of yourself," says Mentor. "Ah," shrieks Telemachus, "but you never loved! You don't know what love is."
I looked at him whimsically.
My thoughts sped back down the years to a garden in France. Her name was Clothilde. We met in a manner outrageous to Gallic propriety, as I used to climb over the garden wall to the peril of my epidermis. We loved. We were parted by stern parents—not mine—and Clothilde was packed off to the good Sisters who had previously had care of her education. Now she is fat and happy, and the wife of a banker and the mother of children.
But the romance was sad and bad and mad enough while it lasted; and when Clothilde was (figuratively) dragged from my arms I cursed and swore and out-Heroded Herod, played Termagant, and summoned the heavens to fall down and crush me miserable beneath their weight. And then her brother challenged me to fight a duel, whereupon, as the most worshipped of all She's had not received a ha'porth of harm at my hands, I called him a silly ass and threatened to break his head if he interfered any more in my legitimate despair. I smile at it now; but it was real at two-and-twenty—as real, I take it, as Dale's consuming passion for the lady of the circus.
There was also, I remembered, a certain —— But this had nothing to do with Dale. Neither had the tragedy of my lost Clothilde. The memories, however, brought a wistful touch of sympathy into my voice.
"You soberly think, my dear old Dale," said I, "that I know nothing of love and passion and the rest of the divine madness?"
"I'm sure you don't," he cried, with an impatient gesture. "If you did, you wouldn't—"
He came to an abrupt and confused halt.
"Nothing. I forgot what I was going to say. Let us talk of something else."
"It was on the tip of your impulsive tongue," said I cheerfully, "to refer to my attitude towards Miss Faversham."
"I'm desperately sorry," said he, reddening. "It was unpardonable. But how did you guess?"
I laughed and quoted the Latin tag about the ingenuous boy of the ingenuous visage and ingenuous modesty.
"Because I don't feverishly search the postbag for a letter from Miss Faversham you conclude I'm a bloodless automaton?"
"Please don't say any more about it, Simon," he pleaded in deep distress.
A sudden idea struck me. I reflected, walked to the window, and, having made up my mind, sat down again. I had a weapon to hand which I had overlooked, and with the discovery came a weak craving for the boy's sympathy. I believe I care more for him than for any living creature. I decided to give him some notion of my position.
Sooner or later he would have to learn it.
"I would rather like to tell you something," said I, "about my engagement—in confidence, of course. When Eleanor Faversham comes back I propose to ask her to release me from it."
He drew a long breath. "I'm glad. She's an awfully nice girl, but she's no more in love with you than my mother is. But it'll be rather difficult, won't it?"
"I don't think so," I replied, shaking my head. "It's a question of health. My doctors absolutely forbid it."
A look of affectionate alarm sprang into his eyes. He broke into sympathy. My health? Why had I not told him before? In Heaven's name, what was the matter with me?
"Something silly," said I. "Nothing you need worry about on my account. Only I must go piano for the rest of my days. Marriage isn't to be thought of. There is something else I must tell you. I must resign my seat."
"Resign your seat? Give up Parliament? When?"
"As soon as possible."
He looked at me aghast, as if the world were coming to an end.
"We had better concoct an epistle to Raggles this morning."
"But you can't be serious?"
"I can sometimes, my dear Dale. This is one of the afflicting occasions."
"You out of Parliament? You out of public life? It's inconceivable. It's damnable. But you're just coming into your own—what Raggles said, what I told you yesterday. But it can't be. You can hold on. I'll do all the drudgery for you. I'll work night and day."
And he tramped up and down the room, uttering the disconnected phrases which an honest young soul unaccustomed to express itself emotionally blurts out in moments of deep feeling.
"It's no use, Dale," said I, "I've got my marching orders."
"But why should they come just now?"
"When the sweets of office are dangling at my lips? It's pretty simple." I laughed. "It's one of the little ironies that please the high gods so immensely. They have an elementary sense of humour—like that of the funny fellow who pulls your chair from under you and shrieks with laughter when you go wallop on to the floor. Well, I don't grudge them their amusement. They must have a dull time settling mundane affairs, and a little joke goes a long way with them, as it does in the House of Commons. Fancy sitting on those green benches legislating for all eternity, with never a recess and never even a dinner hour! Poor high gods! Let us pity them."
I looked at him and smiled, perhaps a little wearily. One can always command one's eyes, but one's lips sometimes get out of control. He could not have noticed my lips, however, for he cried:
"By George, you're splendid! I wish I could take a knock-out blow like that!"
"You'll have to one of these days. It's the only way of taking it. And now," said I, in a businesslike tone, "I've told you all this with a purpose. At Wymington it will be a case of 'Le Roi est mort. Vive le Roi!' The vacancy will have to be filled up at once. We'll have to find a suitable candidate. Have you one in your mind?"
"Not a soul."
"Me?" He nearly sprang into the air with astonishment.
"They'd never adopt me."
"I think they would," I said. "There are men in the House as young as you. You're well known at Wymington and at headquarters as my right-hand man. You've done some speaking—you do it rather well; it's only your private conversational style that's atrocious. You've got a name familiar in public life up and down the country, thanks to your father and mother. It's a fairly safe seat. I see no reason why they shouldn't adopt you. Would you like it?"
"Like it?" he cried. "Why I'd give my ears for it."
"Then," said I, playing my winning card, "let us hear no more about Lola Brandt."
He gave me a swift glance, and walked up and down the room for a while in silence. Presently he halted in front of me.
"Look here, Simon, you're a beast, but"—he smiled frankly at the quotation—"you're a just beast. You oughtn't to rub it in like that about Lola until you have seen her yourself. It isn't fair."
"You speak now in language distinctly approaching that of reason," I remarked. "What do you want me to do?"
"Come with me this afternoon and see her."
My young friend had me nicely in the trap. I could not refuse.
"Very well," said I. "But on the distinct understanding—"
"Oh, on any old understanding you like!" he cried, and darted to the door.
"Where are you going?"
"To ring her up on the telephone and tell her you're coming."
That's the worst of the young. They have such a disconcerting manner of clinching one's undertakings.
My first impression of Lola Brandt in the dimness of the room was that of a lithe panther in petticoats rising lazily from the depths of an easy chair. A sinuous action of the arm, as she extended her hand to welcome me, was accompanied by a curiously flexible turn of the body. Her hand as it enveloped, rather than grasped, mine seemed boneless but exceedingly powerful. An indoor dress of brown and gold striped Indian silk clung to her figure, which, largely built, had an appearance of great strength. Dark bronze hair and dark eyes, that in the soft light of the room glowed with deep gold reflections, completed the pantherine suggestion. She seemed to be on the verge of thirty. A most dangerous woman, I decided—one to be shut up in a cage with thick iron bars.
"It's charming of you to come. I've heard so much of you from Mr. Kynnersley. Do sit down."
Her voice was lazy and languorous and caressing like the purr of a great cat; and there was something exotic in her accent, something seductive, something that ought to be prohibited by the police. She sank into her low chair by the fire, indicating one for me square with the hearthrug. Dale, so as to leave me a fair conversational field with the lady, established himself on the sofa some distance off, and began to talk with a Chow dog, with whom he was obviously on terms of familiarity. Madame Brandt make a remark about the Chow dog's virtues, to which I politely replied. She put him through several tricks. I admired his talent. She declared her affections to be divided between Adolphus (that was the Chow dog's name) and an ouistiti, who was confined to bed for the present owing to the evil qualities of the November air. For the first time I blessed the English climate. I hate little monkeys. I also felt a queer disappointment. A woman like that ought to have caught an ourang-outang.
She guessed my thought in an uncanny manner, and smiled, showing strong, white, even teeth—the most marvellous teeth I have ever beheld—so even as to constitute almost a deformity.
"I'm fonder of bigger animals," she said. "I was born among them. My father was a lion tamer, so I know all the ways of beasts. I love bears—I once trained one to drive a cart—but"—with a sigh—"you can't keep bears in Cadogan Gardens."
"You may get hold of a human one now and then," said Dale.
"I've no doubt Madame Brandt could train him to dance to whatever tune she played," said I.
She turned her dark golden eyes lazily, slumberously on me.
"Why do you say that, Mr. de Gex?"
This was disconcerting. Why had I said it? For no particular reason, save to keep up a commonplace conversation in which I took no absorbing interest. It was a direct challenge. Young Dale stopped playing with the Chow dog and grinned. It behooved me to say something. I said it with a bow and a wave of my hand:
"Because, though your father was a lion-tamer, your mother was a woman."
She appeared to reflect for a moment; then addressing Dale:
"The answer doesn't amount to a ha'porth of cats'-meat, but you couldn't have got out of it like that."
I was again disconcerted, but I remarked that he would learn in time when my mentorship was over and I handed him, a finished product, to society.
"How long will that be?" she asked.
"I don't know. Are you anxious for his immediate perfecting?"
Her shoulders gave what in ordinary women would have been a shrug: with her it was a slow ripple. I vow if her neck had been bare one could have seen it undulate beneath the skin.
"What is perfection?"
"Can you ask?" laughed Dale. "Behold!" And he pointed to me.
"That's cheap," said the lady. "I've heard Auguste say cleverer things."
"Who's Auguste?" asked Dale.
"Auguste," said I, "is the generic name of the clown in the French Hippodrome."
"Oh, the Circus!" cried Dale.
"I'll be glad if you'll teach him to call it the Hippodrome, Mr. de Gex," she remarked, with another of her slumberous glances.
"That will be one step nearer perfection," said I.
The short November twilight had deepened into darkness; the fire, which was blazing when we entered, had settled into a glow, and the room was lit by one shaded lamp. To me the dimness was restful, but Dale, who, with the crude instincts of youth, loves glare, began to fidget, and presently asked whether he might turn on the electric light. Permission was given. My hostess invited me to smoke and, to hand her a box of cigarettes which lay on the mantelpiece, I rose, bent over her while she lit her cigarette from my match, and resuming an upright position, became rooted to the hearthrug.
With the flood of illumination, disclosing everything that hitherto had been wrapped in shadow and mystery, came a shock.
It was a most extraordinary, perplexing room. The cheap and the costly, the rare and the common, the exquisite and the tawdry jostled one another on walls and floor. At one end of the Louis XVI sofa on which Dale had been sitting lay a boating cushion covered with a Union Jack, at the other a cushion covered with old Moorish embroidery. The chair I had vacated I discovered to be of old Spanish oak and stamped Cordova leather bearing traces of a coat-of-arms in gold. My hostess lounged in a low characterless seat amid a mass of heterogeneous cushions. There were many flowers in the room—some in Cloisonne vases, others in gimcrack vessels such as are bought at country fairs. On the mantelpiece and on tables were mingled precious ivories from Japan, trumpery chalets from the Tyrol, choice bits of Sevres and Venetian glass, bottles with ladders and little men inside them, vulgar china fowls sitting on eggs, and a thousand restless little objects screeching in dumb agony at one another.
The more one looked the more confounded became confusion. Lengths of beautifully embroidered Chinese silk formed curtains for the doors and windows; but they were tied back with cords ending in horrible little plush monkeys in lieu of tassels. A Second Empire gilt mirror hung over the Louis XVI sofa, and was flanked on the one side by a villainous German print of "The Huntsman's Return" and on the other by a dainty water-colour. Myriads of photographs, some in frames, met the eye everywhere—on the grand piano, on the occasional tables, on the mantelpiece, stuck obliquely all round the Queen Anne mirror above it, on the walls. Many of them represented animals—bears and lions and pawing horses. Dale's photograph I noticed in a silver frame on the piano. There was not a book in the place. But in the corner of the room by a further window gleamed a large marble Venus of Milo, charmingly executed, who stood regarding the welter with eyes calm and unconcerned.
I was aroused from the momentary shock caused by the revelation of this eccentric apartment by an unknown nauseous flavour in my mouth. I realised it was the cigarette to which I had helped myself from the beautifully chased silver casket I had taken from the mantelpiece. I eyed the thing and concluded it was made of the very cheapest tobacco, and was what the street urchin calls a "fag." I learned afterwards that I was right. She purchased them at the rate of six for a penny, and smoked them in enormous quantities. For politeness' sake I continued to puff at the unclean thing until I nearly made myself sick. Then, simulating absentmindedness, I threw it into the fire.
Why, in the sacred name of Nicotine, does a luxurious lady like Lola Brandt smoke such unutterable garbage?
On the other hand, the tea which she offered us a few minutes later, and begged us to drink without milk, was the most exquisite I have tasted outside Russia. She informed us that she got it direct from Moscow.
"I can't stand your black Ceylon tea," she remarked, with a grimace.
And yet she could smoke "fags." I wondered what other contradictious tastes she possessed. No doubt she could eat blood puddings with relish and had a discriminating palate for claret. Truly, a perplexing lady.
"You must find leisure in London a great change after your adventurous career," said I, by way of polite conversation.
"I just love it. I'm as lazy as a cat," she said, settling with her pantherine grace among the cushions. "Do you know what has been my ambition ever since I was a kid?"
"Whatever of woman's ambitions you had you must have attained," said I, with a bow.
"Pooh!" she said. "You mean that I can have crowds of men falling in love with me. That's rubbish." She was certainly frank. "I meant something quite different. I wonder whether you can understand. The world used to seem to me divided into two classes that never met—we performing people and the public, the thousand white faces that looked at us and went away and talked to other white faces and forgot all about performing animals till they came next time. Now I've got what I wanted. See? I'm one of the public."
"And you love Philistia better than Bohemia?" I asked.
She knitted her brows and looked at me puzzled.
"If you want to talk to me," she said, "you must talk straight. I've had no more education than a tinker's dog."
She made this peculiar announcement, not defiantly, not rudely, but appealingly, graciously. It was not a rebuke for priggishness; it was the unpresentable statement of a fact. I apologized for a lunatic habit of speech and paraphrased my question.
"In a word," cried Dale, coming in on my heels with an elucidation of my periphrasis, "what de Gex is driving at is—Do you prefer respectability to ramping round?"
She turned slowly to him. "My dear boy, when do you think I was not respectable?"
He jumped from the sofa as if the Chow dog had bitten him.
"Good Heavens, I never meant you to take it that way!"
She laughed, stretched up a lazy arm to him, and looked at him somewhat quizzically in the face as he kissed her finger-tips. Although I could have boxed the silly fellow's ears, I vow he did it in a very pretty fashion. The young man of the day, as a general rule, has no more notion how to kiss a woman's hand than how to take snuff or dance a pavane. Indeed, lots of them don't know how to kiss a girl at all.
"My dear," she said. "I was much more respectable sitting on the stage at tea with my horse, Sultan, than supping with you at the Savoy. You don't know the deadly respectability of most people in the profession, and the worst of it is that while we're being utterly dull and dowdy, the public think we're having a devil of a time. So we don't even get the credit of our virtues. I prefer the Savoy—and this." She turned to me. "It is nice having decent people to tea. Do you know what I should love? I should love to have an At Home day—and receive ladies, real ladies. And I have such a sweet place, haven't I?"
"You have many beautiful things around you," said I truthfully.
She sighed. "I should like more people to see them."
"In fact," said I, "you have social ambitions, Madame Brandt?"
She looked at me for a moment out of the corner of her eye.
"Are you skinning me?" she asked.
Where she had picked up this eccentric metaphor I know not. She had many odd turns of language as yet not current among the fashionable classes. I gravely assured her that I was not sarcastic. I commended her praiseworthy aspirations.
"But," said I innocently, "don't you miss the hard training, the physical exercise, the delight of motion, the excitement, the——?"—my vocabulary failing me, I sketched with a gesture the equestrienne's classical encouragement to her steed.
She looked at me uncomprehendingly.
"The what?" she asked.
"What are you playing at?" inquired Dale.
"I was referring to the ring," said I.
They both burst out laughing, to my discomfiture.
"What do you take me for? A circus rider? Performing in a tent and living in a caravan? You think I jump through a hoop in tights?"
"All I can say," I murmured, by way of apology, "is that it's a mendacious world. I'm deeply sorry."
Why had I been misled in this shameful manner?
Madame Brandt with lazy good nature accepted my excuses.
"I'm what is professionally known as a dompteuse," she explained. "Of course, when I was a kid I was trained as an acrobat, for my father was poor; but when he grew rich and the owner of animals, which he did when I was fourteen, I joined him and worked with him all over the world until I went on my own. Do you mean to say you never heard of me?"
"Madame Brandt," said I, "the last thing to be astonished at is human ignorance. Do you know that 30 per cent of the French army at the present day have never heard of the Franco-Prussian War?"
"My dear Simon," cried Dale, "the two things don't hang together. The Franco-Prussian War is not advertised all over France like Beecham's Pills, whereas six years ago you couldn't move two steps in London without seeing posters of Lola Brandt and her horse Sultan."
"Ah, the horse!" said I. "That's how the wicked circus story got about."
"It was the last act I ever did," said Madame Brandt. "I taught Sultan—oh, he was a dear, beautiful thing—to count and add up and guess articles taken from the audience. I was at the Hippodrome. Then at the Nouveau Cirque at Paris; I was at St. Petersburg, Vienna, Berlin—all over Europe with Sultan."
"And where is Sultan now?" I asked.
"He is dead. Somebody poisoned him," she replied, looking into the fire. After a pause she continued in a low voice, singularly like the growl of a wrathful animal, "If ever I meet that man alive it will go hard with him."
At that moment the door opened and the servant announced:
"Professor Anastasius Papadopoulos!"
Whereupon the shortest creature that ever bore so lengthy a name, a dwarf not more than four feet high, wearing a frock coat and bright yellow gloves, entered the room, and crossing it at a sort of trot fell on his knees by the side of Madame Brandt's chair.
"Ah! Carissima, je vous vois enfin, Ach liebes Herz! Que j'ai envie de pleurer!"
Madame Brandt smiled, took the creature's head between her hands and kissed his forehead. She also caressed his shoulders.
"My dear Anastasius, how good it is to see you. Where have you been this long time? Why didn't you write and let me know you were in England? But, see, Anastasius, I have visitors. Let me introduce you."
She spoke in French fluently, but with a frank British accent, which grated on a fastidious ear. The dwarf rose, made two solemn bows, and declared himself enchanted. Although his head was too large for his body, he was neither ill-made nor repulsive. He looked about thirty-five. A high forehead, dark, mournful eyes, and a black moustache and imperial gave him an odd resemblance to Napoleon the Third.
"I arrived from New York this morning, with my cats. Oh, a mad success. I have one called Phoebus, because he drives a chariot drawn by six rats. Phoebus Apollo was the god of the sun. I must show him to you, Madonna. You would love him as I love you. And I also have an angora, my beautiful Santa Bianca. And you, gentlemen"—he turned to Dale and myself and addressed us in his peculiar jargon of French, German, and Italian—"you must come and see my cats if I can get a London engagement. At present I must rest. The artist needs repose sometimes. I will sun myself in the smiles of our dear lady here, and my pupil and assistant, Quast, can look after my cats. Meanwhile the brain of the artist," he tapped his brow, "needs to lie fallow so that he can invent fresh and daring combinations. Do such things interest you, messieurs?"
"Vastly," said I.
He pulled out of his breast pocket an enormous gilt-bound pocket-book, bearing a gilt monogram of such size that it looked like a cartouche on an architectural panel, and selected therefrom three cards which he gravely distributed among us. They bore the legend:
PROFESSOR ANASTASIUS PAPADOPOULOS
GOLD AND SILVER MEDALLIST
THE CAT KING
LE ROI DES CHATS
DER KATZEN KONIG
London Agents: MESSRS. CONTO & BLAG,
172 Maiden Lane, W.C.
"There," said he, "I am always to be found, should you ever require my services. I have a masterpiece in my head. I come on to the scene like Bacchus drawn by my two cats. How are the cats to draw my heavy weight? I'll have a noiseless clockwork arrangement that will really propel the car. You must come and see it."
"Delighted, I'm sure," said Dale, who stood looking down on the Liliputian egotist with polite wonder. Lola Brandt glanced at him apologetically.
"You mustn't mind him, Dale. He has only two ideas in his head, his cats and myself. He's devoted to me."
"I don't think I shall be jealous," said Dale in a low voice.
"Foolish boy!" she whispered.
During the love scene, which was conducted in English, a language which Mr. Papadopoulos evidently did not understand, the dwarf scowled at Dale and twirled his moustache fiercely. In order to attract Madame Brandt's attention he fetched a packet of papers from his pocket and laid them with a flourish on the tea-table.
"Here are the documents," said he.
"A full inquiry into the circumstances attending the death of Madame Brandt's horse Sultan."
"Have you found out anything, Anastasius?" she asked, in the indulgent tone in which one addresses an eager child.
"Not exactly," said he. "But I have a conviction that by this means the murderer will be brought to justice. To this I have devoted my life—in your service."
He put his hand on the spot of his tightly buttoned frock-coat that covered his heart, and bowed profoundly. It was obvious that he resented our presence and desired to wipe us out of our hostess's consideration. I glanced ironically at Dale's disgusted face, and smiled at the imperfect development of his sense of humour. Indeed, to the young, humour is only a weapon of offence. It takes a philosopher to use it as defensive armour. Dale burned to outdo Mr. Papadopoulos. I, having no such ambition, laid my hand on his arm and went forward to take my leave.
"Madame Brandt," said I, "old friends have doubtless much to talk over. I thank you for the privilege you have afforded me of making your acquaintance."
She rose and accompanied us to the landing outside the flat door. After saying good-bye to Dale, who went down with his boyish tread, she detained me for a second or two, holding my hand, and again her clasp enveloped it like some clinging sea-plant. She looked at me very wistfully.
"The next time you come, Mr. de Gex, do come as a friend and not as an enemy."
I was startled. I thought I had conducted the interview with peculiar suavity.
"An enemy, dear lady?"
"Yes. Can't I see it?" she said in her languorous, caressing voice. "And I should love to have you for a friend. You could be such a good one. I have so few."
"I must argue this out with you another time," said I diplomatically.
"That's a promise," said Lola Brandt.
"What's a promise?" asked Dale, when I joined him in the hall.
"That I will do myself the pleasure of calling on Madame again."
The porter whistled for a cab. A hansom drove up. As my destination was the Albany, and as I knew Dale was going home to Eccleston Square, I held out my hand.
"Good-bye, Dale. I'll see you to-morrow."
"But aren't you going to tell me what you think of her?" he cried in great dismay.
The pavement was muddy, the evening dark, and a gusty wind blew the drizzle into our faces. It is only the preposterously young who expect a man to rhapsodise over somebody else's inamorata at such a moment. I turned up the fur collar of my coat.
"She is good-looking," said I.
"Any idiot can see that!" he burst out impatiently. "I want to know what opinion you formed of her."
I reflected. If I could have labelled her as the Scarlet Woman, the Martyred Saint, the Jolly Bohemian, or the Bold Adventuress, my task would have been easy. But I had an uncomfortable feeling that Lola Brandt was not to be classified in so simple a fashion. I took refuge in a negative.
"She would hardly be a success," said I, "in serious political circles."
With that I made my escape.
I wish I had not called on Lola Brandt. She disturbs me to the point of nightmare. In a fit of dream paralysis last night I fancied myself stalked by a panther, which in the act of springing turned into Lola Brandt. What she would have done I know not, for I awoke; but I have a haunting sensation that she was about to devour me. Now, a woman who would devour a sleeping Member of Parliament is not a fit consort for a youth about to enter on a political career.
The woman worries me. I find myself speculating on her character while I ought to be minding my affairs; and this I do on her own account, without any reference to my undertaking to rescue Dale from her clutches. Her obvious attributes are lazy good nature and swift intuition, which are as contrary as her tastes in tobacco and tea; but beyond the obvious lurks a mysterious animal power which repels and attracts. Were not her expressions rather melancholy than sensuous, rather benevolent than cruel, one might take her as a model for Queen Berenice or the estimable lady monarchs who yielded themselves adorably to a gentleman's kisses in the evening and saw to it that his head was nicely chopped off in the morning. I can quite understand Dale's infatuation. She may be as worthless as you please, but she is by no means the vulgar syren I was led to expect. I wish she were. My task would be easier. Why hasn't he fallen in love with one of the chorus whom his congeners take out to supper? He is an aggravating fellow.
I have declined to discuss her merits or demerits with him. I could scarcely do that with dignity, said I; a remark which seemed to impress him with a sense of my honesty. I asked what were his intentions regarding her. I discovered that they were still indefinite. In his exalted moments he talked of marriage.
"But what has become of her husband?" I inquired, drawing a bow at a venture.
"I suppose he's dead," said Dale.
"But suppose he isn't?"
He informed me in his young magnificence that Lola and himself would be above foolish moral conventions.
"Indeed?" said I.
"Don't pretend to be a Puritan," said he.
"I don't pretend to like the idea, anyhow," I remarked.
He shrugged his shoulders. It was not the time for a lecture on morality.
"How do you know that the lady returns your passion?" I asked, watching him narrowly.
He grew red. "Is that a fair question?"
"Yes," said I. "You invited me to call on her and judge the affair for myself. I'm doing it. How far have things gone up to now?"
He flashed round on me. Did I mean to insinuate that there was anything wrong? There wasn't. How could I dream of such a thing? He was vastly indignant.
"Well, my dear boy," said I, "you've just this minute been scoffing at foolish moral conventions. If you want to know my opinion," I continued, after a pause, "it is this—she doesn't care a scrap for you."
Of course I was talking nonsense.
I did not condescend to argue. Neither did I dwell upon the fact that her affection had not reached the point of informing him whether she had a husband, and if so, whether he was alive or dead. This gives me an idea. Suppose I can prove to him beyond a shadow of doubt that the lady, although flattered by the devotion of a handsome young fellow of birth and breeding, does not, as I remarked, care a scrap for him. Suppose I exhibit her to him in the arms, figuratively speaking, of her husband (providing one is lurking in some back-alley of the world), Mr. Anastasius Papadopoulos, a curate, or a champion wrestler. He would do desperate things for a month or two; but then he would wake up sane one fine morning and seek out Maisie Ellerton in a salutary state of penitence. I wish I knew a curate who combined a passion for bears and a yearning for ladylike tea-parties. I would take him forthwith to Cadogan Gardens. Lola Brandt and himself would have tastes in common and would fall in love with each other on the spot.
Of course there is the other time-honoured plan which I have not yet tried—to arm myself with diplomacy, call on Madame Brandt, and, working on her feelings, persuade her in the name of the boy's mother and sweetheart to make a noble sacrifice in the good, old-fashioned way. But this seems such an unhumourous proceeding. If I am to achieve eumoiriety I may as well do it with some distinction.
"Who doth Time gallop withal?" asks Orlando.
"With a thief to the gallows," says Rosalind. It is true. The days have an uncanny way of racing by. I see my little allotted span of life shrinking visibly, like the peau de chagrin. I must bestir myself, or my last day will come before I have accomplished anything.
When I jotted down the above not very original memorandum I had passed a perfectly uneumoirous week among my friends and social acquaintances. I had stood godfather to my sister Agatha's fifth child, taking upon myself obligations which I shall never be able to perform; I had dined amusingly at my sister Jane's; I had shot pheasants at Farfax Glenn's place in Hampshire; and I had paid a long-promised charming country-house visit to old Lady Blackadder.
When I came back to town, however, I consulted my calendar with some anxiety, and set out to clear my path.
I have now practically withdrawn from political life. Letters have passed; complimentary and sympathetic gentlemen have interviewed me and tried to weaken my decision. The great Raggles has even called, and dangled the seals of office before my eyes. I said they were very pretty. He thought he had tempted me.
"Hang on as long as you can, for the sake of the Party."
I spoke playfully of the Party (a man in my position, with one eye on Time and the other on Eternity, develops an acute sense of values) and Raggles held up horrified hands. To Raggles the Party is the Alpha and Omega of things human and divine. It is the guiding principle of the Cosmos. I could have spoken disrespectfully of the British Empire, of which he has a confused notion; I could have dismissed the Trinity, on which his ideas are vaguer, with an airy jest; in the expression of my views concerning the Creator, whom he believes to be under the Party's protection, I could have out-Pained Tom Paine, out-Taxiled Leo Taxil, and he would not have winced. But to blaspheme against the Party was the sin for which there was no redemption.
"I always thought you a serious politician!" he gasped.
"Good God!" I cried. "In my public utterances have I been as dull as that? Ill-health or no, it is time for me to quit the stage."
He laughed politely, because he conjectured I was speaking humourously—he is astute in some things—and begged me to explain.
I replied that I did not regard mustard poultices as panaceas, the vox populi as the Vox Dei, or the policy of the other side as the machinations of the Devil; that politics was all a game of guess-work and muddle and compromise at the best; that, at the worst, as during a General Election, it was as ignoble a pastime as the wit of man had devised. To take it seriously would be the course of a fanatic, a man devoid of the sense of proportion. Were such a man, I asked, fitted to govern the country?
He did not stop to argue, but went away leaving me the conviction that he thanked his stars on the Government's providential escape from so maniacal a minister. I hope I did not treat him with any discourtesy; but, oh! it was good to speak the truth after all the dismal lies I have been forced to tell at the bidding of Raggle's Party. Now that I am no longer bound by the rules of the game, it is good to feel a free, honest man.
Never again shall I stretch forth my arms and thunder invectives against well-meaning people with whom in my heart I secretly sympathise. Never again shall I plead passionately for principles which a horrible instinct tells me are fundamentally futile. Never again shall I attempt to make mountains out of mole-hills or bricks without straw or sunbeams out of cucumbers.
I shall conduct no more inquiries into pauper lunacy, thank Heaven! And as for the public engagements which Dale Kynnersley made for me during my Thebaid existence on Murglebed-on-Sea, the deuce can take them all—I am free.
I only await the stewardship of the Chiltern Hundreds, for which quaint post under the Crown I applied, to cease to be a Member of Parliament. And yet, in spite of all my fine and superior talk, I am glad I am giving up in the recess. I should not like to be out of my seat were the House in session.
I should hate to think of all the fascinating excitement over nothing going on in the lobbies without me, while I am still hale and hearty. When Parliament meets in February I shall either be comfortably dead or so uncomfortably alive that I shall not care.
Ce que c'est que de nous! I wonder how far Simon de Gex and I are deceiving each other?
There is no deception about my old friend Latimer, who called on me a day or two ago. He is on the Stock Exchange, and, muddle-headed creature that he is, has been "bearing" the wrong things. They have gone up sky-high. Settling-day is drawing near, and how to pay for the shares he is bound to deliver he has not the faintest notion.
He stamped up and down the room, called down curses on the prying fools who came across the unexpected streak of copper in the failing mine, drew heart-rending pictures of his wife and family singing hymns in the street, and asked me for a drink of prussic acid. I rang the bell and ordered Rogers to give him a brandy and soda.
"Now," said I, "talk sense. How much can you raise?"
He went into figures and showed me that, although he stretched his credit to the utmost, there were still ten thousand pounds to be provided.
"It's utter smash and ruin," he groaned. "And all my accursed folly. I thought I was going to make a fortune. But I'm done for now." Latimer is usually a pink, prosperous-looking man. Now he was white and flabby, a piteous spectacle. "You are executor under my will," he continued. "Heaven knows I've nothing to leave. But you'll see things straight for me, if anything happens? You will look after Lucy and the kids, won't you?"
I was on the point of undertaking to do so, in the event of the continuance of his craving for prussic acid, when I reflected upon my own approaching bow and farewell to the world where Lucy and the kids would still be wandering. I am always being brought up against this final fireproof curtain. Suddenly a thought came which caused me to exult exceedingly.
"Ten thousand pounds, my dear Latimer," said I, "would save you from being hammered on the Stock Exchange and from seeking a suicide's grave. It would also enable you to maintain Lucy and the kids in your luxurious house at Hampstead, and to take them as usual to Dieppe next summer. Am I not right?"
He begged me not to make a jest of his miseries. It was like asking a starving beggar whether a dinner at the Carlton wouldn't set him up again.
"Would ten thousand set you up?" I persisted.
"Yes. But I might as well try to raise ten million."
"Not so," I cried, slapping him on the shoulder. "I myself will lend you the money."
He leaped to his feet and stared at me wildly in the face. He could not have been more electrified if he had seen me suddenly adorned with wings and shining raiment. I experienced a thrill of eumoiriety more exquisite than I had dreamed of imagining.
"You don't understand. I can give you no security whatsoever."
"I don't want security and I don't want interest," I exclaimed, feeling more magnanimous than I had a right to be, seeing that the interest would be of no use to me on the other side of the Styx. "Pay me back when and how you like. Come round with me to my bankers and I'll settle the matter at once."
He put out his hands; I thought he was about to fall at my feet; he laughed in a silly way and, groping after brandy and soda, poured half the contents of the brandy decanter on to the tray. I took him in a cab, a stupefied man, to the bank, and when he left me at the door with my draft in his pocket, there were tears in his eyes. He wrung my hand and murmured something incoherent about Lucy.
"For Heaven's sake, don't tell her anything about it," I entreated. "I love Lucy dearly, as you know; but I don't want to have her weeping on my door-mat."
I walked back to my rooms with a springing step. So happy was I that I should have liked to dance down Piccadilly. If the Faculty had not made their pronouncement, I could have no more turned poor Latimer's earth from hell to heaven than I could have changed St. Paul's Cathedral into a bumblebee. The mere possibility of lending him the money would not have occurred to me.
A man of modest fortune does not go about playing Monte Cristo. He gives away a few guineas in charity; but he keeps the bulk of his fortune to himself. The death sentence, I vow, has compensations. It enables a man to play Monte Cristo or any other avatar of Providence with impunity, and to-day I have discovered it to be the most fascinating game in the world.
When Latimer recovers his equilibrium and regards the transaction in the dry light of reason, he will diagnose a sure symptom of megalomania, and will pity me in his heart for a poor devil.
I have seen Eleanor Faversham, and she has released me from my engagement with such grace, dignity, and sweet womanliness that I wonder how I could have railed at her thousand virtues.
"It's honourable of you to give me this opportunity of breaking it off, Simon," she said, "but I care enough for you to be willing to take my chance of illness."
"You do care for me?" I asked.
She raised astonished eyes. "If I didn't, do you suppose I should have engaged myself to you? If I married you I should swear to cherish you in sickness and in health. Why won't you let me?"
I was in a difficulty. To say that I was in ill-health and about to resign my seat in Parliament and a slave to doctor's orders was one thing; it was another to tell her brutally that I had received my death warrant. She would have taken it much more to heart than I do.
The announcement would have been a shock. It would have kept the poor girl awake of nights. She would have been for ever seeing the hand of Death at my throat. Every time we met she would have noted on my face, in my gait, infallible signs of my approaching end. I had not the right to inflict such intolerable pain on one so near and dear to me.
Besides, I am vain enough to want to walk forth somewhat gallantly into eternity; and while I yet live I particularly desire that folks should not regard me as half-dead. I defy you to treat a man who is only going to live twenty weeks in the same pleasant fashion as you would a man who has the run of life before him.
There is always an instinctive shrinking from decay. I should think that corpses must feel their position acutely.
It was entirely for Eleanor's sake that I refrained from taking her into my confidence. To her question I replied that I had not the right to tie her for life to a helpless valetudinarian. "Besides," said I, "as my health grows worse my jokes will deteriorate, until I am reduced to grinning through a horse-collar at the doctor. And you couldn't stand that, could you?"
She upbraided me gently for treating everything as a jest.
"It isn't that you want to get rid of me, Simon?" she asked tearfully, but with an attempt at a smile.
I took both hands and looked into her eyes—they are brave, truthful eyes—and through my heart shot a great pain. Till that moment I had not realised what I was giving up. The pleasant paths of the world—I could leave them behind with a shrug. Political ambition, power, I could justly estimate their value and could let them pass into other hands without regret. But here was the true, staunch woman, great of heart and wise, a helper and a comrade, and, if I chose to throw off the jester and become the lover in real earnest and sweep my hand across the hidden chords, all that a woman can become towards the man she loves. I realised this.
I realised that if she did not love me passionately now it was only because I, in my foolishness, had willed it otherwise. For the first time I longed to have her as my own; for the first time I rebelled. I looked at her hungeringly until her cheeks grew red and her eyelids fluttered. I had a wild impulse to throw my arms around her, and kiss her as I had never kissed her before and bid her forget all that I had said that day. Her faltering eyes told me that they read my longing. I was about to yield when the little devil of a pain inside made itself sharply felt and my madness went from me. I fetched a thing half-way between a sigh and a groan, and dropped her hands.
"Need I answer your question?" I asked.
She turned her head aside and whispered "No."
Presently she said, "I am glad I came back from Sicily. I shouldn't have liked you to write this to me. I shouldn't have understood."
"Do you now?"
"I think so." She looked at me frankly. "Until just now I was never quite certain whether you really cared for me."
"I never cared for you so much as I do now, when I have to lose you."
"And you must lose me?"
"A man in my condition would be a scoundrel if he married a woman."
"Then it is very, very serious—your illness?"
"Yes," said I, "very serious. I must give you your freedom whether you want it or not."
She passed one hand over the other on her knee, looking at the engagement ring. Then she took it off and presented it to me, lying in the palm of her right hand.
"Do what you like with it," she said very softly.
I took the ring and slipped it on one of the right-hand fingers.
"It would comfort me to think that you are wearing it," said I.
Then her mother came into the room and Eleanor went out. I am thankful to say that Mrs. Faversham who is a woman only guided by sentiment when it leads to a worldly advantage, applauded the step I had taken. As a sprightly Member of Parliament, with an assured political and social position, I had been a most desirable son-in-law. As an obscure invalid, coughing and spitting from a bath-chair at Bournemouth (she took it for granted that I was in the last stage of consumption), I did not take the lady's fancy.
"My dear Simon," replied my lost mother-in-law, "you have behaved irreproachably. Eleanor will feel it for some time no doubt; but she is young and will soon get over it. I'll send her to the Drascombe-Prynnes in Paris. And as for yourself, your terrible misfortune will be as much as you can bear. You mustn't increase it by any worries on her behalf. In that way I'll do my utmost to help you."
"You are kindness itself, Mrs. Faversham," said I.
I bowed over the delighted lady's hand and went away, deeply moved by her charity and maternal devotion.
But perhaps in her hardness lies truth. I have never touched Eleanor's heart. No romance had preceded or accompanied our engagement. The deepest, truest incident in it has been our parting.
Dale's occupation, like Othello's, being gone, as far as I am concerned, Lady Kynnersley has despatched him to Berlin, on her own business, connected, I think, with the International Aid Society. He is to stay there for a fortnight.
How he proposes to bear the separation from the object of his flame I have not inquired; but if forcible objurgations in the vulgar tongue have any inner significance, I gather that Lady Kynnersley has not employed an enthusiastic agent.
Being thus free to pursue my eumoirous schemes without his intervention, for you cannot talk to a lady for her soul's good when her adorer is gaping at you, I have taken the opportunity to see something of Lola Brandt.
I find I have seen a good deal of her; and it seems not improbable that I shall see considerably more. Deuce take the woman!
On the first afternoon of Dale's absence I paid her my promised visit. It was a dull day, and the room, lit chiefly by the firelight, happily did not reveal its nerve-racking tastelessness. Lola Brandt, supple-limbed and lazy-voiced, talked to me from the cushioned depths of her chair.
We lightly touched on Dale's trip to Berlin. She would miss him terribly. It was so kind of me to come and cheer her lonely hour. Politeness forbade my saying that I had come to do nothing of the sort. To my vague expression of courtesy she responded by asking me with a laugh how I liked Mr. Anastasius Papadopoulos.