SWORD AND GOWN.
BY THE AUTHOR OF "GUY LIVINGSTONE."
NEW YORK: FRANKLIN SQUARE. 1859.
[Transcriber's note: the author was George Alfred Lawrence]
"There is something in this climate, after all. I suppose there are not many places where one could lie on the shore in December, and enjoy the air as much as I have done for the last two hours."
Harry Molyneux turned his face seaward again as he spoke, and drank in the soft breeze eagerly; he could scarcely help thanking it aloud, as it stole freshly over his frame, and played gently with his hair, and left a delicate caress on his cheek—the cheek that was now always so pale, save in the one round scarlet spot where, months ago, Consumption had hung out her flag of "No surrender."
There is enough in the scene to justify an average amount of enthusiasm. Those steep broken hills in the background form the frontier fortress of the maritime Alps, the last outwork of which is the rocky spur on which Molyneux and his companion are lying. Fir woods feather the sky-line; and from among these, here and there, the tall stone pines stand up alone, like sentinels—steady, upright, and unwearied, though their guard has not been relieved for centuries. All around, wild myrtle, and heath, and eglantine curl and creep up the stems of the olives, trying, from the contact of their fresh youth, to infuse new life and sap into the gray, gnarled old trees, even as a fair Jewish maiden once strove to cherish her war-worn, decrepit king. There are other flowers too left, though December has begun, enough to give a faint fragrance to the air and gay colors to the ground. Just below their feet is a narrow strip of dark ribbed sand, and then the tangle of weed, scarcely stirred by the water, that all along this coast fringes like a beard the languid lip of the Mediterranean Sea.
Molyneux appreciated and admired all this, after his simple fashion, and said so; his companion did not answer immediately; he only shrugged his shoulders and lifted his eyebrows, as if he could have disputed the point if it had not been too much trouble. An optimist in nothing, least of all was Royston Keene grateful or indulgent to the beauties and bounties of inanimate creation.
"Ah well!" Harry went on, resignedly, "I know it's useless trying to get a compliment to Nature out of you. I ought to have given you up that night when we showed you the Alps from the terrace at Berne. You had never seen the Jungfrau before, and she had got her prettiest pink evening dress on, poor thing! and all you would say was, 'There's not much the matter with the view.'"
"It was a concession to your wife's enthusiasm," Keene replied; "a sudden check might have been dangerous just then, or I should have spoken more bitterly, after being brought out to look at mountains, when I was dusty and travel-stained, wanting baths, and dinners, and other necessaries of life."
The voice was deep-toned and melodious enough that spoke these words, but too slow and deliberate to be quite a pleasant one, though there was nothing like a drawl in it. One could easily fancy such a voice ironical or sarcastic, but hardly raised much in anger; in the imperative mood it might be very successful, but it seemed as if it could never have pleaded or prayed. It matched the speaker's exterior singularly well. Had you seen him for the first time—couchant, as he was then—you would have had only an impression of great length and laziness; but as you gazed on, the vast deep chest expanded under your eye; the knotted muscles, without an ounce of superfluous flesh to dull their outline, developed themselves one by one; so that gradually you began to realize the extent of his surpassing bodily powers, and wondered that you could have been deceived even for a moment. The face guarded its secret far more successfully. The features were bold and sharply cut, bronzed up to the roots of the crisp light-brown beard and hair, except where the upper brow retained its original fairness—presenting a startling contrast, like a wreath of snow lying late in spring-time high up on the side of a black fell. You would hardly say that they were devoid of expression, any more than that a perfectly drilled soldier is incapable of activity; but you got puzzled in making out what their natural expression was: it was not sternness, far less ferocity—the face was much too impassible for either; and yet its listlessness could never be mistaken for languor. The thin short lips might be very pitiless when compressed, very contemptuous and provocative when curling; but the enormous mustache, sweeping over them like a wave, and ending in a clean stiff upward curve, made even this a matter of mere conjecture. The cold, steady, dark eyes seldom flashed or glittered; but, when their pupils contracted, there came into them a sort of sullen, suppressed, inward light, like that of jet or cannel coal. One curious thing about them was, that they never seemed to care about following you, and yet you felt you could not escape from them. The first hand-gripe, however, settled the question with most people: few, after experiencing the involuntary pressure, when he did not in the least mean to be cordial, doubted that there were passions in Royston Keene—difficult perhaps to rouse, but yet more difficult to appease or subdue.
His profession was evident. Indeed, it must be confessed that the dragoon is not easily dissembled. I know a very meritorious parish-priest, of fair repute too as a preacher, who has striven for years, hard but unavailingly, to divest himself of the martial air he brought with him out of the K.D.G. He strides down the village street with a certain swagger and roll, as if the steel scabbard were still trailing at his heel, acknowledging rustic bows with a slight quick motion of the finger, like troopers' salutes; on the smooth shaven face is shadowed forth the outline of a beard, nurtured and trimmed in old days with more than horticultural science; in the pulpit and reading-desk gown and surplice hang uneasily, like a disguise, on the erect soldierly figure, and the effect of his ministrations is thereby sadly marred; for apposite text, earnest exhortation, and grave rebuke flow with a curious inconsistency from the lips of that well-meaning but unmitigated Plunger.
Royston Keene was no exception to this rule, though he did not like to be told so, and rather ignored the profession than otherwise. Perhaps he had begun it early enough to have got tired of it; for he had now been for some time on half-pay, and a brevet-major, after doing good service in the Indian wars, and was not yet thirty-four. Molyneux had served in the same light cavalry regiment as his subaltern, and there the foundation was laid of their close alliance. It was not a very fair or well-balanced one, being made up of implicit obedience, reliance, and reverence on the one side, and a sort of protecting condescension on the other—much like the old Roman relation between Client and Patron; nevertheless it had outlasted many more sympathetic and better-looking friendships.
They used to say of "The Cool Captain" (so he was always called off parade), that "he could bring a boy to his bearings sooner than any man in the army." Yet he was a favorite with them all. There was a regular ovation among those "Godless horsemen" whenever he came into the Club, or into their mess-rooms; they hung upon his simplest words with a touchingly devout attention, and thought it was their own stupidity when they could see nothing in them to laugh at or admire; they wrote off all that they could remember of his sarcasms and repartees—generally strangely travestied and spoiled by carriage—to unlucky comrades, martyrized on far-off detachments, or vegetating with friends in the country; the more ambitious, after much private practice, strove to imitate his way of twisting his mustache as he stood before the fire, though with some, to whom nature had been niggard of hirsute honors, it was grasping a shadow and fighting with the air.
Certainly Molyneux never was so happy as in that society. Fond as he was of his pretty wife, her influence was as nothing in the scale. She complained of this, half in earnest, soon after they were married. The fever of post-nuptial felicity was strong upon Harry just then, but he did not attempt to deny the imputation. He only said, "My pet, I have known him so much the longest!" I wonder, now, how many brides would have admitted that somewhat unsatisfactory and illogical excuse? Fanny Molyneux did; she was the best-natured little woman alive, and wise, too, in her generation, for she never brought matters to a crisis, or measured her strength against the "heavy-weight."
Indeed, they got on together extremely well. Whenever Keene happened to be with them—which was not often—she gave up the management of Harry's Foreign Affairs to him, reserving to herself the control of the Home Department, and, between the two, they ruled their vassal right royally. After some months' acquaintance they became the greatest friends; on Royston's side it was one of the few quite pure and unselfish feelings he had ever cherished toward one of her sex not nearly akin to him in blood. He always seemed to look on her as a very nice, but rather spoiled child, to be humored and petted to any amount, but very seldom to be reasoned with or gravely consulted. Considering her numerous fascinations, and the little practice he had had in the paternal or fraternal line, he really did it remarkably well: be it understood, it was only en petite comite that all this went on; in general society his manner was strictly formal and deferential. It provoked her though, sometimes, and one day she ventured to say, "I wish you would learn to treat me like a grown-up woman!" Royston's eyes darkened strangely; and one glance flashed out of the gloom that made her shrink away from him then, and blush painfully when she thought of it afterward alone. He was frowning, too, as he answered, in a voice unusually harsh and constrained, "It seems to me we go on very well as it is. But women never will leave well alone." She did not like to analyze his answer or her own feelings too closely, so she tried to persuade herself it was a very rude speech, and that she ought to be offended at it. There was a coolness between those two for some days, amounting to distant courtesy. But the dignified style did not suit ma mignonne (as Harry delighted to call her) at all, and was, indeed, a lamentable failure; it made her look as if she had been trying on one of her great-grandmother's short-waisted dresses; so they soon fell back into their old ways, and, like the model prince and princess, "lived very happily ever afterward."
Keene had spent some time with the Molyneuxs during the autumn and winter, and had conducted himself so far with perfect propriety, certainly keeping Harry straighter than he would have gone alone; for he was, unluckily, of a convivial turn of mind wholly incompatible with delicate health and a frail constitution. Being a favorite with the world in general, he felt bound, I suppose, to reciprocate, so, albeit strictly enjoined to keep the earliest hours, he would sit up till dawn if any one encouraged him, and then come home, perfectly sober perhaps, but staggering from mere weakness. He did not care for deep drinking in the least, but the number of magnums he had assisted in flooring, when on a regimen of "three glasses of sherry," would have made a double row of nails round the coffin of a larger man. Nature, however, being a Dame, won't stand being slighted, or having her admonitions disregarded, and the way she asserted herself on the morrow was retributive in the extreme. Harry was always so very ill after one of those nights "upon the war-path." On such occasions, his feelings, without being quite remorseful, were beautifully and curiously penitent; they manifested themselves chiefly by an extraordinary ebullition of the domestic affections. "Bring me my children" (he had two tiny ones), he would cry on waking, just as another man would call for brandy and soda; and, strange to say, the presence of those innocents seemed to have a similarly invigorating and refreshing effect: during all that day he would make pilgrimages to their cribs, and gaze upon them sleeping with the reverence of an old devote kneeling before the shrine of her most efficacious saint. Then he would go forth, and return with a present for his wife, bearing an exact proportion in value to the extent and duration of the past misdemeanor; so that her jewel-case and writing-table soon became as prettily suggestive as the votive chapel of Notre Dame des Dunes. Very unnecessary were these peace-offerings; for that dear little woman never dreamt of "hitting him when he was down," or taking any other low advantage of his weakness. She would make his breakfast beamingly, at all untimely hours, and otherwise pet and caress him, so that he might have been a knight returning wounded from some Holy War, instead of a discomfited scalp-hunter, bearing still evident traces of the "war-paint." A stern old lady told her once that such condonation of offenses was unprincipled and immoral. It may be so, but I can not think the example is likely to be dangerously contagious. Whatever happens, there will always remain a sufficiency of matronly Dicaearchs, over whose judgment-seats the legend is very plainly inscribed, Nescia flecti.
These Ember days formed the only exceptions to the remarkably easy way in which Molyneux took every thing; there seemed to be no rough places about his disposition for trouble or care to take hold of. Hunting four days a week through the winter; six weeks in town during the season, with incidentals of Epsom, Goodwood, saumon a la Trafalgar, bouquets, and opera-stalls; living all the rest of the year at a mess curious as to the quality of its dry Champagne—these simple pleasures involve a certain expenditure hardly "fairly warranted by our regimental rate of pay." To accomplish all this on about L500 a year, and yet to steer clear of ruin, is an ingenious process doubtless, but a sum not to be wrought out (most soldiers will tell you) without some anxiety and travail of mind. Now, in the very tightest state of the money-market, Harry was never known to disquiet himself in vain. He would not borrow from any of his comrades, refusing all such proffers of assistance gratefully but consistently. No Mussulman ever equaled his contented reliance on the resources of futurity, and his implicit belief in the same. He would anchor his hopes on some such improbability as "a long shot coming off," or "his Aunt Agnes coming down" (a proverbially awful widow, who had forgiven him seven times already; and, after each fresh offense, had sworn unrelenting enmity to him and his heirs forever). Strong in this faith, he met condoling friends with a pleasant, reassuring smile: with the same demeanor he confronted threatening creditors. He used no arts, and condescended to no subterfuge in dealing with these last; but, as one of them observed, retreating from the barracks moneyless but gratified, "Mr. Molyneux seems to feel for one, at all events." So he did. He sympathized with his tailor, not in the least because he owed him money, but because he was a fellow-creature in difficulties, regretting heartily it was not in his own power to relieve them; just as a very charitable but improvident person might feel on reading a case of real distress in the Times. Strange to say, hitherto he had always pulled through. Either the outsider did win, or the aunt, touched in the soft place of her heart through her ruffled feathers, was brought down by a "wild shot," when considered quite out of distance, and "parted" freely.
The last and hardest trial of all—long debility and frequent illness—had failed to shake this intense serenity. He was never cross or unreasonable, and tried to give as little trouble as possible; but was grateful to a degree for every thing that was done for him: he could even manage to thank people for their advice, whether he took it not. So far as one could make out, he was nearly as much interested in the state of his own health, as one would be about that of any pleasant casual acquaintance.
It must be confessed, that poor Harry and his like are by no means strong-minded, or large-brained, or persevering men; they seldom or never rise to eminence, and rarely have greatness thrust upon them. They do not often volunteer to lead the vanguard of any great movement, shouting out on the slightest provocation the war-cry of "life is earnest;" for they are the natural subalterns of the world's mighty battalia, and could hardly manoeuvre one of its companies, without hopelessly entangling it, and exposing themselves: indeed, if they are useful at all in their generation, it is in a singularly modest and unobtrusive way. Yet there is an attraction about them, a power of attachment, that the great and wise ones of the earth have appreciated and envied, ere now. It is curious, too, to see what an apparent contradiction to themselves the extremes of the class—those who exaggerate nonchalance into insensibility, and softness into effeminacy—have shown, when brought face to face with imminent peril or certain destruction. France held few more terrible ferrailleurs than the curled painted minions of her third Henry: the sun never looked down on a more desperate duel than that in which Quelus, Schomberg, and Maugiron did their devoir manfully to the last. Nay, though he came delicately to his doom, the King of Amalek met it, I fancy, gallantly and gracefully enough, when once he read his sentence in the eyes of the pitiless Seer, who ordained that he "should be hewn in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal."
R. I. P.
There was silence for some minutes after the few words that opened this story; and then Royston Keene spoke again.
"Hal, do you remember that miserable impostor in Paris being enthusiastic about Dorade and its advantages, describing it as a sort of happy hunting-ground, and so deciding us on choosing it in preference to Nice?"
"Ah! he did drivel a good deal. I think he had been drinking," the other answered.
"No; I understand him now. He had been bored here into a sullen, vicious misanthropy; and he wanted to take it out on the human race by getting others in the same mess. It's just like that jealous old Heathfield, who, when he is up to his girths in a squire-trap, never halloos ''ware bog,' till five or six more are in it. I can fancy the hoary-headed villain gloating hideously over us now. I wish I had him here. I could be so unkind to him! He talked about the shooting and the society. Bah! there's about one cock to every thousand acres of forest; and as for women fair to look upon, I've not flushed one since we came. I don't think I can stand it much longer."
"I am very sorry," Harry said; "I knew you were being bored to death, and it's all on my account; but I didn't like to ask you about it. I'm so horribly selfish!" The shadow of an imminent penitence began to steal over him, when Royston broke in—
"Don't be childish. I liked to stay—never mind why—or I should not have done so. Only now—you are getting better, and I realize the situation more. I hardly know where to go. Not back to England, certainly, yet. Besides the nuisance and chance work of picking up a stud in the middle of the season, it isn't pleasant to be consoled for a blank day by, 'you should have been here last month. Never was such scent; and heaps of straight-running foxes!' And then they indulge themselves in an imaginative 'cracker,' knowing you can't contradict them. Shall I go to Albania? I should like to kill something before I turn homeward."
Harry seemed musing. Suddenly he half started up, clapping his hands. "I knew I had forgotten!"
"Not such a singular circumstance as to warrant all that indecent exultation," was the reply. "Well, out with it."
"I never told you that Fan had a letter this morning from Cecil Tresilyan (they're immense friends, you know) to ask her to engage rooms for them. They are in Paris now, and will be here in three days."
Keene raised himself on his arm, regarding his comrade with a sort of admiration. "You're a natural curiosity, mon cher. None of us ever quite appreciated you. I don't believe there's another man in existence, situated as we are, who would have kept that intelligence at the back of his head so long. The Tresilyan, of course? I remember hearing about her in India. Annesley came back from sick leave perfectly insane on the subject. She must be something extraordinary, for the recollection of her made even him poetical—when he was sober. I asked about her when I got to England, but her mother was taken very ill, or did something equally unjustifiable, so she left town before I saw her."
"The mother really was ill," Molyneux said, apologetically; "at least she died soon after that. Miss Tresilyan has never shown much since. But you've no idea of the sensation she made during her season and a half. They called her The Refuser, she had such a fabulous number of offers, and wouldn't look at any of them. By-the-by, there's rather a good story about that. You know Margate? He's going to the bad very fast now, but he was the crack puppy of that year's entry; good-looking, long minority, careful guardians, leases falling in, mother one of the best Christians in England, and all that sort of thing. Well, Tom Cary took him in hand, and brought him out in great form before long. They were talking over their preparations for the moors, for they were going to start the next day. 'I believe that's all,' Margate asked, 'or have we forgotten any thing?' 'Wait a minute,' said Tom, and reflected (provident man, Tom; fond of his comforts, and proud of it)—'Ah! I thought there was something. You haven't proposed to The Tresilyan.' They say Margate's face was a study. He never disputed the orders of his private trainer, so he only said, piteously, 'But I don't want to marry any one,' and looked as if he was going to cry. 'You are "ower young,"' Cary said, encouragingly, 'and it's about the last thing I should press upon you. It wouldn't suit my book at all. But I don't see how that affects the question. I can lay ten ponies to one she won't have you. It's the thing to do, depend upon it. All the other good men have had a turn, and you have no right to be singular; it's bad taste. Rank has its duties, my lord. Noblesse oblige, and so forth. You understand?' Margate didn't in the least, but he went and proposed quite properly, and was rejected rather more decidedly than his fellows. Then he went down into Perthshire, and missed his grouse, and lost his salmon, with a comfortable consciousness of having discharged his obligations to society."
Royston Keene actually groaned, "Why didn't she come sooner?" he said. "What a luxury, in this God-forgotten place, to talk to a clever handsome woman, who tramples on strawberry-leaves!"
"Perhaps she would have come if she had known how much we wanted her," replied Harry. "They say she is a model of charity, and several other virtues too. She is coming here for the health of some companion, or governess, who lives with her. Yet she flirts outrageously at times, in her own imperial way. Better late than never. I'm certain you'll like her, and perhaps she'll like you."
"Qui vivra verra," Keene said, rising slowly. "Let us go home now. Draw your plaid closer round you, it's getting chilly."
There is a terrace in Dorade, fenced in from every wind that blows, except the south, and even that has to creep cautiously and cunningly round a sharp corner to make its entrance good. Four small stunted palms grow there; they look painfully out of place, and conscious of it; for they are always bowing their heads in a meek humiliation, and shiver in a strange unhealthy way at the slightest breeze, just as you may see Asiatics doing in our "land of mist and snow." But the natives regard those unhappy exotics with a fanatical pride, pointing them out to all comers as living witnesses to the perfection of the climate; they would gladly stone any irreverent stranger who should suggest a comparison between their sacred shrubs and the giants of Indian seas. The only inhabitant of the place who ever attained any eminence any where (he really was a good tailor), bequeathed a certain sum for the beautifying of the renowned allee, instead of endowing charitable institutions, and his townsmen endorsed the act by erecting a little mural tablet to commemorate his public spirit.
The view is rather pretty, stretching over vineyards, and gardens, and olive-grounds down to the shore, with the islands in the far foreground rearing themselves against the sky, clear and blue, or if the weather is misty to seaward, sleeping in an aureole of golden haze, so that the whole effect would be cheerful if it were not for the melancholy invalids who haunt the spot perpetually. Faces and figures are to be seen sometimes that would send an uncomfortable shiver of revulsion through you if you met them on the Boulevard des Italiens, strengthened by your ante-prandian absinthe. Here, the place belonged to them so completely, that a man in rude health felt like an unwarrantable intruder, in which light I am sure the hypochondriacs always regarded him. As such a one passed, you might see a glare, half-envious, half-resentful, light up some hollow eyes, and thin parched lips worked nervously, as though they were uttering a very equivocal blessing.
Does the character gain much by the extermination of more impulsive passions, when their place is possessed by the two devils that neither age nor sickness can exorcise—Avarice and Envy? It is with this last, perhaps, that we have most to do; and the shadow of it, however indistinct and distant, makes the landscape near the horizon look somewhat dreary. The nature of many of us is so faulty and ill regulated, that it may be doubted if even advancing years will make us much better or wiser; but, when winter shall have closed in, and our hot blood is more than cool, is there no chance of an "open season?" Must it come to this—that the mere sight of the youth, and strength, and beauty that have left us far behind shall stir our bile, as though it were an insolent parade—that the choicest delicacies at our neighbor's wedding-breakfast shall not pique our palate like the baked meats at his funeral? Not so; if we must give ground let us retreat in good order, leaving no shield behind us that our enemy may build into his trophy. If we are rash enough to assail Lady Violet Vavasour with petitions for a waltz, and see her look doubtfully down her scribbled tablets, till the "sweetest lips that ever were kissed" can find no gentler answer than the terrible "Engaged," let us not gnash suicidally our few remaining teeth, even though Brabazon Leslie—all the handsomer for the scar on his smooth forehead—should come up upon our traces, and ride roughshod over those hieroglyphics, as he did at Balaclava through Russian squadrons. Rather let us try to sympathize with his triumph, while he carries off his beautiful prize from under the enemy's guns, as Dundonald may have cut out a frigate beneath the batteries of Vera Cruz. Non omnia corripit aevum. Hath the savor departed wholly from the Gascon wine, because the name of no living love crowns the draught? Shall we stay sullenly at home when all the world is flocking to the tournament, because our limbs have stiffened so that we may no longer sit saddlefast, and hold our own in the melee? A corner in the cushioned gallery is left to us still. Come, comrade of mine—nate mecum Consule Manlio—we will go up and lounge there among the Chatelaines: some may be found good-natured enough to listen (in the pauses of the tilting), while we tell how, not so many years back, plume and pennon went down before our lance.
I place no great reliance on the Pleasures of Memory. But, if pearls and bright shells be rarely found there, surely waifs, better than echini and sting-rays, are to be gathered on the "shores of long ago." Ah, cynic! you are strong enough to be merciful—just this once. Spare us the string of examples that would overwhelm us utterly. Does it not suffice that we confess the truth of that saddest adage, tolled in our ears by every passing bell,
Those whom the gods love well die young?
Royston and his companion were crossing the terrace on their way home when the former stopped suddenly.
"Go on, Hal," he said; "it is too late for you to be standing about, but I must speak to that poor Chateaumesnil. I shall see you at dinner." He went up to a wheeled chair that was being drawn by at the time.
Its occupant was a man of large frame, as far as could be made out through the thick wrappings of furs; his head was bent forward and low, resting on his hands, that were crossed on a crutch-handle. He appeared profoundly unconscious of all that was passing, and never moved till Keene addressed him. Then, very slowly, he lifted up his face. Few of us, fortunately for those who have strong imaginations and weak nerves, see its like twice in a lifetime, or there would be wild work in dreamland.
It was not distorted in any way, nor deformed, except by a ghastly, livid pallor; gaunt and drawn as the features were, they still bore evident traces of a rare manly beauty, that even the neglected beard of iron-gray could not conceal. But it was the savage face of one who has wrestled with physical pain till it has assumed almost the visible and tangible shape of a personal enemy—a mocking devil, that always is ready, with fresh ingenuity of torture, to answer and punish the rebellious question, "Art thou come to torment me before my time?" The lines on the forehead were so strongly marked and dreadfully distinct, that, like the markings of the locust, they seemed to form characters that might be read, if it were given to mortal cabalists to decipher the handwriting of God.
Look once more: it is worth while, if you are curious in contrasts and comparisons. Five years ago that bowed, blasted cripple was the most reckless dare-devil, the most splendid Paladin, in all the army of Algiers; the man for whom, after an unusually brilliant exploit, St. Arnaud, loving him as his own right hand, could find no higher praise than to write in his dispatches, "Les 3me Chasseurs se sont conduits en heros; leur chef-d'escadron en—Chateaumesnil." And it was true that the annals of his house could boast of no nobler soldier, though they had been fighting hard since Clovis's day. His name is known very well in Africa. The spahis talk of it still over their watch-fires, and the wild Bedouins load it with guttural curses—their lips white with hatred and remembered fear: they do not forget how far and fast they fled into their desert strong-holds, and never could shake off the light cloud of whirling dust that told how Armand and his stanch gaze-hounds were hard upon their trail.
Rheumatic fever, coming close on a severe bullet wound, had brought him very near to death; and the first thing he heard when he began to recover, was that he would never stand upright again.
He is answering Keene's salutation.
"My friend, you failed us last night at the Cercle, and yet we waited for you long." A hoarse, hollow voice—very measured and slow, as if carefully disciplined to repress groans—yet every now and then there will come a modulation, that shows how rich and cheery it might have been when trolling a chanson a boire—how clear and sonorous when, over the stamping of hoofs and the rattle of scabbards, it rang out the one word "Charge!"—how winning and musical when whispering into a small, pink ear laid against his lips lovingly.
The Vicomte de Chateaumesnil cares for but one thing on earth now—play, as deep as he can make or find it. It is not a pastime, or a distraction, or an occasional fever-fit, but the sole interest of his existence. A fearfully unworthy and unsatisfactory one, you will say. Granted; but try and realize his condition.
He is not forty yet. All the passions of mature manhood were alive within him; not one desire or impulse had been tamed by natural or even premature decay at the time he was struck down, and cut off from every object and aim of his former life, when it was too late to form or turn to others. Imagine how eagerly his strong fiery nature must have grasped at some of these—how it must have appreciated the alternations of glory, pleasure, and peril—all worse than blanks now. You dare not speak to him of woman's love. Worse than all other torments of the Titan's bed of pain, would be wild dreams of impossible Oceanides!
Remember that his only change of scene is from one of the waters of Marah to another, according to his own or his physician's fancy about mineral springs. Remember, too, that the cleverest or the most sanguine of them all have only ventured to promise an abatement of his agonies: of their cessation they say no word; nor can they even prophesy that the end will come quickly. He is not allowed to read much, even if his taste lay that way, which it does not; for a literary Chasseur d'Afrique is such a whim as Nature never yet indulged herself in. So perhaps he caught at the only resource that could have saved him from worse things; under which, I presume, is to be included the temptation to take laudanum in proportions by no means prescribed or sanctioned by the Faculty.
Every day about noon his servant helped him into the card-room at the club, and settled him at his own table, where, with the two hours respite of dinner, he sat till midnight, ready to give battle to all comers at all weapons, just as the Knights of Lyonnesse used to keep a bridge or a pass while achieving their vows. It is needless to say that the changes of good or bad luck affected him not at all. Few men of his stamp indulge in the weakness of railing at Fortune, which is the privilege and consolation of the roturier. Neither was he ever heard to reproach a partner, or become bitter against an adversary. He seemed to take a pleasure in disappointing those who were always expecting from him some savage outbreak of temper: they judged from his appearance, and had some grounds for their anticipations; for, winning or losing, that strange look, half-weary, half-defiant, never was off his face. But, with Armand de Chateaumesnil, the grand seigneur had not been merged in the soldier: the brusquerie of the camp had not overlaid the manner of the courtly school in which he and all his race had been trained; the school of those who would stab their enemy to the heart with sarcasm or innuendo, but scorned to stun him with blatant abuse—of those who would never have dreamt of listening to a woman with covered head, though they might be deaf as the nether millstone to her entreaties or her tears. It was with the Revolution that the rapier went out, and the savate came in.
Very few men came up to his standard of play; for he was hard to please in style as well as in stakes. Keene did fully; and this, with a certain similarity of tastes, accounted for his liking the latter so well. He had little regard to throw away, and was chary of it in proportion. On the other hand, Royston treated the invalid with an amount of deference very unusual with him, in whom the bump of Veneration was probably represented by a cavity.
The two were still talking on the terrace, when a man passed them, who lifted his hat slightly, and then sighed audibly, looking upward with an ostentatious contrition, as though he apologized to heaven for such a bowing-down to Rimmon. This was the Rev. James Fullarton, British chaplain at Dorade. A difficult and anomalous position—in which the unlucky divine, in addition to his anxiety about the conscientious discharge of his duties, has to cultivate the friendship of a vast number of unrighteous Mammons, if he would be allowed to perform his functions at all. Our countrymen are popularly supposed to take out a special license for liberty of thought and action as soon as they cross the Channel; and the pastor's pulpit-cushion can hardly be stuffed with roses when every other member of his congregation—embracing devotees of about a dozen different shades of High, Low, and Broad Church—thinks it his or her daily duty to decide, if the formula—Quamdiu se bene gesserit—has been duly complied with. Perhaps foreign air and warmer climates develop, like a hot-bed, our innate instinct of destructiveness. Look at portly respectable fathers of families—householders who, at home, have accepted their spiritual position without a murmur for a quarter of a century, roused to revolt by no vexed question of copes, candles, or church-rates—even these can not escape contagion. When once the game is afoot, they will open on the scent with the perseverance of the steadiest "line-hunter," and join in the "worry" as savagely as the youngest hound. I remember seeing a similar case in Scotland, where a minister was preaching before "the Men" who were appointed to judge of his qualifications. Right in front of him, on a low bench, sat the awful Three, silent, stolid, and stern. His best rounded periods, his neatest imagery, his aptest quotations, brought no light into their vacant gray eyes: perhaps they were looking beyond all these, straight at the doctrine. The breeze blew freshly from the German Ocean, over the purple hills; but it brought no coolness to that miserable Boanerges. How he did perspire! I could not wonder at it; and though he preached for ninety-five minutes, and wearied me even to death, I bore him no enmity, but pitied him from my soul.
Mr. Fullarton, however, had steered through the reefs and quicksands with better skill or luck than his fellows, and, judging from the ruddiness of his broad, beardless face, and the amplitude of his black waistcoat, the cares of office had not hitherto affected his health materially. He was a well-meaning, conscientious man, ready to work hard for his flock and his family; indeed, barring a certain frail leaning toward gourmandise, of which a full pendulous lip told tales, and an occasional infirmity of temper, he had as few outward failings as could be desired. For one of no extreme views, he could count an extraordinary number of adherents. Without being particularly agreeable or instructive, he possessed a rather imposing readiness and rotundity of speech, and had a knack of turning his arm-chair into a pulpit somewhat oftener than was quite in good taste. However, I suppose the best of us will talk "shop" when we see a fair opening. He had a large wife and several small children. No one admired him more devotedly than this truly excellent woman. As far as sharing in her husband's successes went, or partaking in any other advantages of society, she might as well have been the squaw of an Iowa brave; for her time was more than taken up in tending her offspring, and in providing for her lord the savory meats in which he delighted; but she looked the picture of contentment, and so nobody thought it necessary to pity her.
From the first moment of their meeting, the chaplain had entertained a nervous dislike, approaching to a presentiment, toward Royston Keene. He regarded him as a brand likely to inflame others, but itself by no means to be plucked from the burning. The latter saw his gesture as he passed, and smiled—not pleasantly. "Remark the shepherd, M. le Vicomte," he said; "he sees the wolves prowling, and trembles for his lambs."
"One wolf, at least, is toothless," answered Chateaumesnil. "What have we to do with lambs, except en supreme? But the sun is down; I must go home, or these cursed pains will avenge themselves. Till this evening."
"I will not fail; but you will permit me to accompany you so far," said Keene, bending over the invalid with the grand courteous air that became him well; and he walked by the other's side till they reached his door, talking over the varying fortunes of last night's play.
You have found out already that you are only looking at a chaplet of cameos, with just enough of story to string them together. Under these circumstances, the right thing of course to do is to work out each character by the rules of metaphysical mathematics, and then to reverse the process and "prove" the result. But I never tried to extract the square root out of any thing without failing miserably, and one can only speak, and act, and write according to one's light. After all, it seems a more uncertain science than astronomy. Comets will appear, now and then, at abnormal times, and in places where they have no heavenly business; and people are still to be found, so very ill-regulated as to go right or wrong in opposition to all rules and precedents. Where the variations are so infinite, it is difficult to argue safely from one singular example to another, and, if you miss one step, your whole deduction is apt to come to grief. Some one said, that "there were corners in the nature of the simplest peasant-girl to which the cleverest man alive could never find a key." Perhaps, too, those who fancy, rightly or wrongly, that they have mesmerized the heart even of one fellow-creature so completely that the poor thing could not, if it would, keep back a single secret, think it hardly fair to give the world in general the full benefit of their discoveries. Practically, does all this help one much? It is possible that some who have passed for the deepest observers of human nature, owed their renown more to an acute observation of the phenomena of feeling, an intuitive knowledge of what people like and dislike, a retentive memory, and a happy knack of making all these available at the right moment, than to any profound reasoning on abstract principles. Like some untaught arithmeticians, their calculations came out correct, but they could not have gone through the steps of the process.
There lives, even now, a sublime theorist, who professes to have made feminine physiology his peculiar study. Sitting at his desk, or in his arm-chair, he will trace the motives, impulses, and sensations which a woman must necessarily have experienced under any given circumstances, as lucidly as a skillful pathologist, scalpel in hand, may lecture on the material mysteries of the blood or brain: he will analyze for you the waters of the Fons Lacrymarum, just as Letheby or Taylor might do those of a new chalybeate spring. A fearful power, is it not, and fatal, if used tyrannously? Well, I remember hearing a very beautiful and charming person speak of an evening she had spent in the society of The Adept, during which she was conscious of being subjected to the action of his microscope, stethoscope, and other engines of science. She said "It did not hurt her much," and, on the whole, seemed by no means so impressed with awe and admiration as could be wished. Indeed, before they parted, if any one was disquieted, discomfited, or otherwise damaged, I fancy it was—not the loveliest Margaret. From my slight acquaintance with that tremendous philosopher, supposing that he were turned loose among a bevy of perfectly well-educated women, and meant mischief, I should be disposed to lay longer odds against his chances than I would against those of many men who have never read one word of Balzac, Michelet, or Kant.
Still, as was aforesaid, in the days of high art and high farming, high physiology is clearly the thing to go for. So, for my shortcomings, to all critics—ethic, dialectic, aesthetic, and ascetic—I cry mea culpa, thus audibly.
Nevertheless, while they are waiting for her at Dorade, we will try to sketch Cecil Tresilyan.
Her father died when she was too young to remember him, and the first fourteen years of her life were spent almost entirely in the old Cornish manor-house from which her family took its name. That great, rambling pile stood at the head of a glen, terraced at first into gardens, and then thickly wooded, and stretching down to the shore. There was a small bay just here, the mouth of which curved inward very abruptly. It seemed as if the black cliffs had caught the sea in a trap, and stood forward to keep the outlet fast forever: the waves were free to come and go for a certain distance, but never to rave or rebel any more: when their brethren of the open main went out to war, the captives inside might hear the din, but not break out to join them; they could only leap up weakly against their prison bars. There was nothing at all remarkable in the house itself, except its furniture and panelings of black oak, and two pictures, to which was attached a story bearing on the hereditary failing which had made the family proverbial. The first was the likeness of a lovely girl, in the court dress of James the Second's time, with beautiful hazel eyes, half timid, half trusting, like a pet doe's. The second represented a woman, perhaps of middle age: in this the hood of a dark gray dress was drawn far forward, and under it the eyes shone out of the colorless face with a fixed expression of helpless, agonized terror, as of one fascinated by some ghostly apparition. You were sorry when you realized that they were portraits of the same person.
Sir Ewes Tresilyan was a man of strong passions and rather weak brain—of few words and fewer sympathies; he never made a companion of Mabel, his daughter, though his love for her was the feeling next his heart, after his almost insane pride; but he trusted her implicitly—less because he had faith in her truth and goodness, than because he held it as impossible for a Tresilyan to disgrace herself or otherwise derogate, as for the moon to fall from heaven. He was no classic, you see, and had never read of Endymion.
In her solitary rides Mabel met the son of a neighboring squire, and they soon began to love each other after the good old fashion. Neither had one thought that was not honest and pure; but they were so afraid of her father that they dared not ask his consent to their marriage as yet. They were prudent, but not prudent or patient enough. So there came about meetings—first at noon in the woods, then at twilight in the park, then at midnight in the garden; and at last Sir Ewes Tresilyan heard of it all; and heard, too, that his daughter's name was abroad in the country-side, and more than lightly spoken of. That day, as the sun was setting, two men stood foot to foot, with their doublets off, on the very spot of smooth turf where the lovers parted last; and Arthur Bampfylde had to hold his own as best he might with the deadliest rapier in the western shires. Poor boy! he would scarcely have had the heart to do his uttermost against Mabel's father; but better will and skill would have availed little against the thirsty point that came creeping along his blade and leaping over his guard like a viper's tongue. At the sixth pass his enemy shook him heavily off his sword, wounded to the death. He had tried explanation before, utterly in vain; but the true heart would make one effort more to get justice done, before it ceased to beat. He gasped out these words through the rush of blood that was choking him, "Mabel—I swear, she is as pure as the Mother of God; and I—what had I done?"
Sir Ewes knelt down and lifted Arthur's head upon his knee—not in pity, but that he might hear the more distinctly—"I will tell you," he said; "you have wooed a Tresilyan like a yeoman's daughter." The homicide wrote in his confession of all this that, as he laid the head gently down, a smile came upon the lips before they set. Was it that the parting spirit—standing on the threshold of Eternity, and almost within the light of the grand secret—fathomed the earth-worm's miserable vanity, and could not refrain its scorn?
Mabel was sitting alone when her father returned. She had no idea that any thing had been discovered; but the instant she saw his face, she cast herself on her knees, crying—"I am innocent; indeed I have done no wrong!"
He griped her arm and raised her up, gazing straight and steadfastly at her for some moments: then he gave his verdict—"Guilty of having brought shame on your house; not guilty of sin, I know, or this should only half atone," and he drew out the blade that had never been wiped since it drank her lover's blood.
She slid slowly down out of his grasp, never speaking, but bearing in her eyes the awful look of horror that became frozen there forever. The second picture might have been taken then, though it was not painted till long afterward. She never thenceforth, while her father lived, left the wing of the manor-house in which her rooms lay; neither did he, nor any one else, except the two servants who attended her, look upon her face. People pitied her very much at first, and then forgot her entirely. Once the superior of a Belgian convent, a relation of the family, offered to admit Mabel, if she chose to take the vows. Perhaps Sir Ewes Tresilyan was more gratified than he liked to show, for the best blood in Europe was to be found in that sisterhood; but his reply was not a gracious one:
"I thank the abbess," he wrote; "but we are used to choose for our gifts the most precious thing we have—not the most worthless. I will not lighten my house from a heavy burden, by offering it to God."
He relented, however, when he was dying, and sent for his daughter. Very reluctantly she came. He had prepared, I believe, a pompous and proper oration, wherein he was to pardon her and even bestow a sort of qualified blessing; but the wan face and wild, hollow eyes, not seen for twelve years, frightened all his grandeur out of his head; and the obstinate, narrow-minded tyrant collapsed all at once into a foolish, fond old man. Something too late (that's one comfort) to avail him much. In Mabel's nature, soft and yielding as it appeared, there was the black spot that nothing but harshness and cruelty could have brought out—the utter incapacity of relenting, which had given rise to the rude rhyme known through three counties—
In Tresilyan's face Fault finds no grace.
So, when the sick man cried out to her, through his sobs, to kiss him and forgive him, the dreary, monotonous voice only answered, "I can kiss you, father;" and when she had laid her icicles of lips on his forehead, she glided out of the room like a ghost that has accomplished its mission and hastens away to its own place. Sir Ewes never tried to call her back; he scarcely spoke at all intelligibly after that; but lay, for the few remaining hours of life, moaning to himself, his face turned to the wall.
For a very short time after her father's death, Mabel seemed to take a pleasure in roaming about the gardens and woods from which she had been debarred so long; but the walks grew gradually shorter, and she soon shut herself up in the house entirely, seeing only a few of her near relatives. It was one of these who, at her own request, painted the second portrait—a rude performance, but it must have been a likeness. She seemed to feel an odd sort of satisfaction in looking at the two and comparing them. Her brain was somewhat clouded and unsteady; but I fancy she was counting up all the harm and wrong the hard world had done to her, and calculating what amends would be made in the next. I doubt not they were kind and pitiful and indulgent enough there; but on earth she found no source of comfort strong enough to banish from her eyes that terrible look which haunted them within five minutes of her end.
When spirits assemble from the four corners of heaven, how many thousand companions, think you, will greet the Gileadite's daughter?
Before you saw Cecil Tresilyan's face, the curve of her neck, and the way her head was set on it, told you that she was by no means exempt from the family failing which had laid its hand so heavily on her ancestors. Yet it was not a hard or habitually haughty, or even a very decided face. There was nothing alarmingly severe about the slight aquiline of the nose; the chin did not look as if it were "carved in marble," or "clasped in steel," or as if it were made of any thing but soft flesh prettily dimpled; the delicate scarlet lip, when it curled, rarely went beyond sauciness; though the splendid violet eyes could well express disdain, this was not their favorite expression—and they had many. The head would certainly have been too small had it not been for the glossy masses of dark chestnut hair sweeping down low all round it, smooth and unbroken as a deep river in its first curl over a cataract. Candid friends said her complexion was not bright enough; perhaps they were right; but the color had not forgotten how to come and go there at fitting seasons; at any rate, the grand clear white could never be mistaken for an unhealthy pallor. An extraordinarily good constitution was ever part of a Tresilyan's inheritance; and if you doubted whether her blood circulated freely you had only to compare her cheek on a bitter March day with some red-and-white ones, when a sharp east wind had forced those last to mount all the stripes of the tricolor. By the way, are not the "roses dipped in milk" going out of fashion just now? A humble but stanch adherent of the house of York, I like to think—how many battle-fields, since Towton, our Flower has won!
But if Cecil's face was not faultless, her figure was. Had one single proportion been exaggerated or deficient, she could never have carried off her height so lithely and gracefully. She might take twenty poses in a morning, and people always thought they would choose the last one to have her painted in. Here, she was quite inimitable. For instance, women, I believe, used to practice in their own room for hours to catch her peculiar way of half-reclining in an arm-chair; but the most painstaking of them all never achieved any thing beyond a caricature. Yet no one could accuse her of studying stage-effects. If a trifle of the Incedo Regina marked her walk and carriage, it was a l'Eugenie, not a la Statira.
Indeed, she was thoroughly natural all over; cleverer and more fascinating, certainly, than ninety-nine women out of every hundred; but not one bit more strong-minded, or heroic, or self-denying. She had been very well brought up, and had undeniably good principles; but she would yield to occasional small temptations with perfect grace and facility. Great ones she had never yet encountered; for Cecil, if not quite fancy-free, had only read and perhaps dreamed of passions. She had known one remorse, of which you may hear hereafter (not a heavy allowance, considering her opportunities), and one grief—the death of her mother. She entertained a remarkable reverence for all ministers of the Established Church; yet she was about the last woman alive to have married a clergyman, and would have considered the charge of the old women and schools of a country parish as a lingering and unsatisfactory martyrdom. There never was a more constant attendant at all sorts of divine service; though perhaps the most casual of worshipers had never been more bored than she was by some of the discourses to which she listened so patiently. She would confess this to you at luncheon, and then start for the same church in the afternoon, with an edifying but rather comic expression of resignation. I am sure she would not deliberately have vexed the smallest child; and yet the number of athletic men who ascribed the loss of their peace of mind to her, was, as the Yankees have it, "a caution." Some of the "regulars," wary adventuresses of three seasons' standing, had brought off several pretty good things by following her, and picking up the victims fluttering about helpless in their first despair, just as the keepers after a battue go round the covers with the retrievers.
If there were any more antitheses in her character, they had better speak for themselves hereafter; nor is there much that need be told about her companions.
Mrs. Danvers, or "Bessie," as she liked to be called, had been Cecil's last governess, and was retired on full-pay, which, she flattered herself, she earned in the capacity of traveling chaperone and censor; but, inasmuch as when she really held some tutelar authority, her pupil had never taken the slightest notice of her prohibitions, she could hardly be expected now to exercise any very salutary influence or control.
Dick Tresilyan was absurdly proud and fond of his sister, and performed all her behests with a blind obedience; but when he heard that he was to attend her during a whole winter's residence abroad, he did think that it was stretching her prerogative to the verge of tyranny. No wonder. A dragoon who has lost his horse, a goose on a turnpike-road, or any other popular type of helplessness, does not present so lamentable a picture as a Briton in a foreign land, without resources in himself, and with a rooted aversion to the use of any language except his own. In this case, the victim actually attempted some feeble remonstrance and argument on the subject. Cecil was almost as much astonished as the Prophet was under similar circumstances; but she considered that habits of discussion in beasts of burden and the lower order of animals generally were inconvenient, and rather to be discouraged; so she cut it short, now, somewhat imperiously. Thereupon, Dick Tresilyan slid into a slough of despond, in which he had been wallowing ever since. A faint gleam of sunshine broke in when one of his intimates, hearing he was going to France, suggested "that's where the brandy comes from;" but it was instantly overclouded by the remark which followed. "I suppose, though, you won't be able to drink much more of it than you do here:" on realizing which crushing fact, his melancholy became, if possible, more profound than ever. Indeed, since he crossed the Channel, he had spent most of his leisure moments in a sort of chronic blasphemy, which, it is to be hoped, afforded him some slight relief and consolation, as it was wholly unintelligible to his audience; for, to do Dick justice, in his sister's presence the door of his lips was always strictly guarded.
However, to Dorade they came—hours after their time, of course, but perfectly safe: no accident ever does happen in France to any thing properly booked, except to luggage sent by roulage, to which there attaches the romantic uncertainty of Vanderdecken's correspondence. Cecil rather liked traveling; it never tired her; so, by midnight she had seen Mrs. Danvers, weary and querulous, to bed—gone through a variety of gymnastics in the way of accolades, with Fanny Molyneux—taken some trouble in inquiring about shooting and other amusements likely to divert her brother from his sorrows—and yet did not feel very sleepy.
They ignore shutters in these climes; and her reflection was still flitting backward and forward across the white window-blinds as Royston Keene came home from the Cercle. He knew the room, or guessed who the shadow belonged to; and as he moved away, after pausing a minute or two, he waved his hand toward it, with a gesture so unwarrantably like a salute that, were silhouettes sensitive or prudish, it might have proved an offense not easily forgiven.
The next morning was so soft and sunny that it tempted Miss Tresilyan out on the terrace of their hotel very soon after breakfast. She was waiting for her brother on the top of the steps leading down into the road, when Major Keene passed by again. If he had never heard of her before, the smooth sweeping outline of her magnificent form, and the careless grace of her attitude, as she stood leaning against the stone balustrade, were not likely to escape an eye that was wont to light on every point of feminine perfection, as a poacher's does on a sitting hare. But he never got so far as her face then; and hardly had time to criticise her figure; for at that moment a brisk gust of the mistral swept round the corner, and revealed a foot and ankle so marvelously exquisite, that they attracted his eyes, as long as he dared to fix them without risking a stare; and kept his thoughts busy till he saw her again. "Caramba!" he muttered, half aloud. "I don't wonder at any one who has seen that not looking at a nautch-girl afterward." And he quickened his pace toward Mr. Molyneux's house. He met them before he reached their door.
"I am going to Miss Tresilyan," Fanny said. "Isn't it lucky, her first morning here being such a delicious one?"
"Ah! I thought that was your point," answered Keene. "There must be a tremendous amount of 'gushing' to be got through still: the accumulation of—how many months? I suppose you only took the rough edge off last night. Don't hurt her, please, that's all. And, Hal, you were actually going to preside over the meeting of two young hearts, and gloat over their emotions, and spoil their innocent amusements? I wonder at you. Means well, Mrs. Molyneux; but he's so thoughtless."
Fanny laughed. "I think I could do without him. But we mean to walk this afternoon, and he may come then; and you too, Major Keene, if you are good."
"I'll enter into all sorts of recognizances to keep the peace," was the reply; "but I should have thought you might trust me by this time. It's that excitable husband of yours that wants disciplining. I'll give him some soda-water by way of a precaution. Then, when you have sacrificed to friendship sufficiently, you will lionize Miss Tresilyan? The Castle first, of course. Shall we meet you there at two?"
Harry did not quite see the thing in this light, and looked slightly disappointed; but he yielded the point, as he always did, and went away dutifully with his superior officer.
"Describe the brother," the latter said, abruptly, when they had gone a few steps.
"Well, I believe he's the most ignorant man in Great Britain," answered Molyneux: "that's his specialite. He never had much education; and he has been trying to forget that little, 'hard all,' ever since he was eighteen. You remember how our fellows used to laugh at me about my epistles? I could give him 21lb., and a beating any day. They say, two men have to stand over him whenever he tries to write a letter, for no one is strong enough to keep him straight in his spelling and grammar. If he tries it on alone, he gets bewildered in the second sentence, and wanders up and down, knocking his head against particles and parts of speech, like the man in the Maze; and throws up the sponge at last, utterly beat. Helplessly devoted to his sister, but rather obstinate with other people, and apt to be sulky sometimes; but good-natured on the whole; and drinks very fair."
"Oh, he drinks fair, does he?" Royston said, meditatively. "Has that any thing to do with his brotherly affection? Every body who is fond of Miss Tresilyan seems to take to liquor. Annesley was pretty sober till he knew her. It's rather odd. I don't suppose she encourages them?"
"Certainly not; at least, I know she has tried to stint Dick in his brandy very often. It's the only point she has never been able to carry."
"A man must be firm about some one thing," the other remarked, "or there's an end of free-agency altogether. He has no intellects to be affected by it apparently; and I dare say his health does not suffer much yet. It's a question of constitution, after all."
He dropped the subject then, and was very silent all the rest of the morning, till they came to the place of meeting. Somehow or another, it did not occur to him to mention to Harry what he had seen on the terrace.
They had not waited long before the three women came slowly up the zigzags of the path that wound round the Castle-hill. Dick Tresilyan had "got his pass signed" for the day, and had started off, with his courier, to make the lives of several natives a burden to them, on the subject of becasses and becassines.
Cecil might have been known by her walk among ten thousand. She seemed to float along without any visible exertion, as if her dress were buoyant, and bore her up in some mysterious fashion; but, looking closer, and marking how straight and firmly and lightly every footfall was planted, you gave the narrow arched instep, and the slender rounded ankle, the credit they well deserved; marveling only that so delicate a symmetry could conceal so much sinewy power. Upon this occasion, she was evidently accommodating her pace to that of Mrs. Danvers; and no racing man could have seen the two, without thinking of one of the Flyers of the turf walking down by the side of the trainer's pony.
Miss Tresilyan's hat, of a soft black felt, shaded by a black cock's feather, was decidedly in advance of her age: for that very provocative head-gear, with the many-colored panaches, had not then become so common; and even the Passionate Pilgrim might hope (with luck) to walk along a pier or a parade, without meeting a succession of Red Rovers—each capable of boarding him at a minute's notice, and making all his affections walk the plank. Her tunic of iron-gray velvet, without fitting tightly to her figure, still did it fair justice; and, from the tie of her neck-ribbon, down to the wonderful boots that slid in and out from under the striped scarlet kirtle over which her dress was looped up, there was not the minutest detail that might not have challenged and baffled criticism.
Royston Keene appreciated all this thoroughly. No man alive held the stale old adage of "Beauty when unadorned," etc., in profounder scorn. A pair of badly-fitting gloves, a soiled collerette, or a tumbled dress, had cured more than one of the fever fits of his younger days; and he was ten times as fastidious now.
He drew a long, slow breath of intense enjoyment, as a thirsty cricketer may do after the first deep draught of claret-cup that rewards a two hours' innings. "It's very refreshing, after weeks of total abstinence, to see a woman who goes in for dress, and does it thoroughly well." He had no time for more, for the others were almost within hearing.
When the introductions were over, Mrs. Danvers said she was tired, and must rest a little. Very few words will do justice to her personal appearance. Brevity, and breadth, and bluntness were her chief characteristics, which applied equally to her figure, her face, and her extremities, and, not unfrequently, to her speech too. Her health was really infirm, but she never could attain the object of many an invalid's harmless ambition—looking interesting. Illness made her cheeks look pasty, but not pale; it could not fine down the coarsely moulded features, or purify their ignoble outline. Her voice was against her, certainly; perhaps this was the reason why, when she bemoaned herself, so many irreverent and hard-hearted reprobates called it "whining." It was very unfortunate; for few could be found, even in the somewhat exacting class to which she belonged, more anxious and active in enlisting sympathy. She was looking especially ill-tempered just then, but Major Keene was not easily daunted, and he went in at her straight and gallantly—about the weather, it is needless to say, both being English. While Mrs. Danvers was disagreeing with him, Cecil took her turn at inspection. Royston's name was familiar to her, of course, for no one ever talked to Mrs. Molyneux for ten minutes without hearing it. Though she had scarcely glanced at him in the morning, she had decided that the tall, erect figure and the enormous mustache, with its crocs a la mousquetaire, could only belong to Fanny's Household Word. It was very odd—she had not a shade of a reason for it—but neither had she mentioned that rencontre to her friend. Perhaps they had so many other things to talk about. She could scan him now more narrowly, for his face was turned away from her. The result was satisfactory: when Major Keene stood up on his feet, not even his habitual laziness could disguise the fair proportions and trained vigor of a stalwart man-at-arms; and be it known that Cecil's eye, though not so professional as that of Good Queen Bess, loved to light upon such dearly.
"Harry," Mrs. Molyneux observed, "Mr. Fullarton called while I was at the Lion d'Or this morning, and staid half an hour. He is so very anxious to get Cecil to lead the singing in church."
"Yes; he has been, so to speak, throwing his hat up ever since he heard you were coming, Miss Tresilyan," was the reply. "I suppose he calculated on your vocal talents; there's the nuisance of having an European reputation, you are always expected to do something for somebody's benefit. I hope you'll indulge him, in charity to us. You have no idea what it has been. Two Sundays ago, for instance, a Mr. Rolleston and his wife volunteered to give us a lead. He didn't look like a racing man; and yet he must have been. I never saw any thing more artistically done. He went off at score, and made the pace so strong that he cut them all down in the first two verses; and then the wife, who had waited very patiently, came and won as she liked—nothing else near her."
Cecil thought the illustration rather irreverent, and did not smile. Keene saw this as he turned round.
"The turf slang has got into your constitution, I think, since you won that Garrison Cup. It's very wrong of you not to cure yourself, when you know how it annoys Mrs. Molyneux. He is right, though, Miss Tresilyan; it is a case of real distress: our vocal destitution is pitiable; so, if you have any benevolence to spare, do bestow it upon us, and your petitioners will ever pray, etc."
Now it so happened that Fanny valued that same cup above all her earthly possessions, as a mark of her husband's prowess. No testimonial ever gave so much satisfaction to a popular rector's wife as that little ugly mug afforded her, albeit it was the very wooden-spoon of racing plate. So she first smiled consolingly at the culprit, who was already contrite, and then looked up at the last speaker with amusement and wonder glittering in her pretty brown eyes. She did not see what interest the subject could have for Keene, who had only darkened the chapel doors once since they came. Mr. Fullarton, indeed, was supposed to have alluded to him several times—his discourses were apt to take a personal and individualizing turn—but he had never had the satisfaction of a "shot in the open" at that stout-hearted sinner.
Royston caught la mignonne's glance, and understood it perfectly, but not a line of his face moved. He was waiting for Cecil's reply very anxiously: he had not heard her speak yet.
"Mr. Fullarton is rather rash," she said, "for our acquaintance is slight, and I don't think he ever heard me sing. But I shall do my best next Sunday. Every one ought to help in such a case as much as they can."
"Yes, and you will do it so beautifully, dearest!" Cecil bit her lip, and colored angrily. Nothing annoyed her like Mrs. Danvers' obtrusive partisanship and uncouth flattery.
The gleam of pleasure that shone out on Keene's dark face for a moment, only Harry interpreted rightly. He had scarcely listened to the words, but he thought, "I knew I was right; I knew the voice would match the rest!" When they moved on again, he walked by Miss Tresilyan's side, and "still their speech was song."
His first remark was, "I hope you condescend to ballads sometimes? I confess to not deriving much pleasure from those elaborate performances where the voice tries dangerous feats of strength and agility: even at the Opera they make one rather uncomfortable. Some of the very scientific pieces suggest ideas of homicide or suicide, as the case may be, according to my temper at the moment. Of course, I know less than nothing about music; but I don't think this quite accounts for it. I really believe that unsophisticated human nature revolts at the bravura."
It was rare good fortune, so early in their acquaintance, to tempt forth the brilliant smile that always betrayed when Cecil was well pleased.
"Mrs. Molyneux has told you what my tastes are?" she said. "I have never tried bravuras since I left off masters, and even then I only attempted them under protest. But there are some quiet songs I like so much that I sing them to myself when I am out of spirits, and it does me good. Don't you like the old-fashioned ones best? I fancy, in those days, people felt more what they wrote, and did not consider only how the words would suit the composer."
"Probably," Keene replied. "If Charles Edward was of no other use, some good strong lines were written about him. I do not think he lived in vain. There are no partisans now. The only songs of the sort that I ever saw with any verve in them were some seditious Irish ones: rather spirited—only they had not grammar enough to ballast them. The writer either was, or wanted to be, transported. We are all very fond of the Guelphs—at least every body in decent society is—and that is just the reason why we are not enthusiastic. We are all ready to 'die for the throne,' etc., but we don't see any immediate probability of our devotion being tested. So the laureate only rhymes loyally, and he at stated seasons, and in a temperate, professional style."
"Please don't laugh at Tennyson," she interrupted; "I suppose it is very easy to do so, for so many people try it; but I never listen to them if I can help it."
"A premature warning," was the grave reply; "I had no such idea. I admire Tennyson fully as much as you can do, and read him, I dare say, much oftener. I was only speaking of his performances in the manege; indeed, there is not enough of these to make a fair illustration, so I was wrong to bring them in. When he settles to his stride, few of the 'cracks' of last century seem able to live with him. They have not set all his best things to music. A clever composer might do great things, I fancy, with 'The Sisters,' and the refrain of 'the wind in turret and tree.'"
"It would never be a very general favorite," Miss Tresilyan observed. "It seems hardly right to set to music even an imaginary story of great sin and sorrow. I saw a sketch of it some time ago. The murderess was sitting on a cushion close to the earl's body, with her head bent so low that one of her black tresses almost touched his smooth golden curls; you could just see the hilt of the dagger under her left hand. That, and the corpse's quiet, pale face were the only two objects that stood out in relief; for the storm outside was stirring the window-curtains, and making the one lamp flare irregularly. Her features were in the shadow, and you had to fancy how hard, and rigid, and dreary they must be. It was the merest sketch, but if it had been worked out, it would have made a very terrible picture."
"A good conception," Royston said; "well, perhaps it would not be a pleasant song to sing, but better, I should think, than some of those dreadful sentimental ones. They are not much worse than the Strephon and the Chloe class, in which our ancestors delighted; still, they are indefensible. If our Lauras find Petrarchs now, they are usually very beardless ones, and the green morocco cover, with its golden lock, covers their indiscretions. Those who write love ditties for the piano must celebrate a shadow who can't be critical. Imagine any man insulting a real woman of average intellect with 'Will you love me then as now!'"
"Yes," she assented, "they are too absurd as a rule. They make our cheeks burn, as if we were performing some very ridiculous part in low comedy; but they do not warm one's heart, like 'Annie Laurie.'"
"Ah! it's curious how that always suggests itself as the standard to compare others with: not fair, though, for it makes most of them sound so feeble and effeminate. Douglas of Finland wrote it, you know, in the campaign which finished him. Long before that the charming Annie had given her promise true to Craigdarroch; and she had to keep it, tant bien que mal, for it was pronounced in the Tron Church, instead of on the braes of Maxwellton. I wonder if she inscribed those verses in her scrap-book? I dare say she did, and sang them to her grandchildren, in a cracked treble."
"I am so sorry you told me that," Cecil exclaimed; "my romance was quite a different one, and not nearly so sad. I always fancied the man who wrote those lines must have ended so happily! One would despise her thoroughly if she could ever have forgiven herself, or forgotten him."
Her eyes brightened, and her cheeks flushed as she spoke. The momentary excitement made her look so handsome that Keene's glance could not withhold admiration; but there was no sympathy in it, any more than in his cold, quiet tones.
"No, don't despise her," he said. "She could scarcely be expected to wait for a corporal in the Scottish regiment. When the cavaliers sailed from home they knew they were leaving every thing but honor behind them; of course, their mistresses went with the other luxuries. They had not many of these in the brigade, if we can believe history. Fortunately for us (or we should have missed the song) Finland never knew of the 'fresh fere' who dried the bright blue eyes so soon. He would not have carried his pike so cheerily either, if his eyes had been good enough to see across the German Ocean. Well, perhaps the story isn't true; very few melodramatic legends are."
"I shall try not to believe it; but I am afraid you have destroyed an illusion."
"You don't say so?" was the reply. "I regret it extremely. If I had but known you carried such things about with you! Indeed, I will be more careful for the future. We are out-walking the main-guard, I see. Shall we wait for them here? It is a good point of view. One forgets that there are two invalids to be considered."
Did Royston Keene speak thus purposely, on the principle of those practiced periodical writers, who always leave their hero in extreme peril, or their heroine on the verge of a moral precipice, in order to keep our curiosity tense till the next number? If not, chance favored him by producing the very effect he would have desired.
His companion's fair cheek flashed again, and this time a little vexation had something to say to it. It was incontestably correct to wait for the rest of the party, but she would have preferred originating the suggestion. Besides, the conversation had begun to interest her; and she liked being amused too well not to be sorry for its being cut short abruptly. She thought Major Keene talked epigrammatically; and the undercurrent of irony that ran through all he said was not so obtrusive as to seriously offend her.
It was no light ordeal he had just passed through. First impressions are not made on women of Cecil Tresilyan's class so easily as they are upon guileless debutantes; but they are far more important and lasting. It is useless attempting to pass off counterfeit coin on those expert money-changers; but they value the pure gold all the more when it rings sharp and true. It is always so with those who have once been Queens of Beauty. A certain imperial dignity attaches to them long after they have ceased to reign: over the brows that have worn worthily the diadem there still hangs the phantasm of a shadowy crown. There need be nothing of repellent haughtiness, or, what is worse, of evident condescension; but, though they are perfectly gentle and good-natured, we risk our little sallies and sarcasms with timidity, or at least diffidence; feeling especially that a commonplace compliment would be an inexcusable profanation. Our sword may be ready and keen enough against others, but before them we lower its point, as the robber did to Queen Margaret in the lonely wood. We are conscious of treading on ground where stronger, and wiser, and better men have knelt before us; and own that the altar on which things so rare and precious have been laid has a right to be fastidious as to the quality of incense.
Not the less did such glory of past royalty surround the Tresilyan because she had abdicated, and never been dethroned.
There is something singularly refreshing in the enthusiasm that one pretty and fascinating woman will display when speaking of another highly gifted as herself—perhaps even more so. It seems to me there is more honesty here, and less stage-trick and conventionality, than is to be found in most manifestations of sentiment that take place in polite society. A perfectly plain and unattractive female may, of course, be sincerely attached to her beautiful friend, but her partisanship must be somewhat theoretical; it has not the esprit de corps which characterizes the other class. These last can count victories enough of their own to be able to sympathize heartily with the triumphs of their fellows without envying or grudging them one. What does it matter if Rose has slain her thousands and Lilian her tens of thousands? It is always "so much scored up to our side."
Would you like to assist, invisibly, at one of those two-handed "free-and-easies," where notes are compared and confidences exchanged, where the fair warriors "shoulder their fans, and show how fields were won?" Perhaps our vanity would suffer though our curiosity were gratified. The proverb about listeners has come in since the time of Gyges, it is true; but his luck was exceptional, and would not often follow his Ring. Campaspe en deshabille is not invariably kind. It is a popular superstition that men are apt, at certain seasons, to speak rather lightly, if not superciliously, of the beings whom they ought to delight to honor. If so, be sure the medal has its reverse. When you secured that gardenia from Amy's bouquet, or that ribbon from Helen's glove trimming, you went home with a placid sense of self-gratulation, flattering yourself you had done it rather diplomatically, without compromising your boasted freedom by word or sign. Perhaps, two hours later, you figured conspicuously in a train of shadowy captives adorning the conqueror's ideal ovation. A change of color of which you were unconscious, a tremulous pressure of fingers that you risked involuntarily—a sentence that was meant to be careless and indifferent, but ended by being earnest and imploring—all these were commented upon in the select committee, and estimated at their proper value.
Very keen-sighted are those soft almond eyes ambushed behind their trailing lashes, and from them the sternest stoic may not long conceal his wound. The Knight of Persia never groaned, or shrank, or drooped his crest when the quarrel struck him; but Amala needed only to look down to see his blood red upon the waters of the ford. Some penalty must attach itself to unauthorized intruders, even in thought, upon the Cerealia. I don't wish to be disagreeable, or to suggest unpleasant misgivings to the masculine mind, but—do you think we are always compassionated as much as we deserve? I own to a horrible suspicion that our betrayals of weakness form matter of exultation, and that our tenderest emotions are not unfrequently derided.
Clearly this delightful sympathy can only exist where fancies, and ambitions, and interests do not clash. They seldom need do so: there is room enough for all. So much disposable devotion is abroad in this world, that no one woman can monopolize it. It is a tolerably fair handicap, on the whole; and even the second horse may land a very satisfactory stake. Never was night when the moon shone so dazzlingly as to blind us to the brilliancy of "a star or two beside." Bothwell, and Chatelet, and Rizzio were not the only love-stricken ones in Holyrood. Had the Queen of Scots been thrice as charming, glances, and sighs, and words enough would still have been found to satisfy the most exacting of her Maries.
Fanny Molyneux was a capital specimen of the thorough-paced partisan. She was terribly indignant at dinner on that first day of their meeting, when Major Keene would not endorse all her raptures about her favorite. He assented to every thing, certainly; but though his approbation was decided it was perfectly calm. He intrenched himself behind his natural and acquired sang-froid, and the fair assailant could not force those lines.
"Don't be unreasonable," Royston said at last. "As Macdonough always says when he has lost the first two rubbers, 'the night is young and drink is plenty.' Admiration will develop itself if you only give it time. I have serious thoughts already of adding another to the many little poems that must have been written about Miss Tresilyan. Shall I send it to the 'United Service Gazette?' It would be a great credit to our branch of the profession. No dragoon has published a rhyme since Lovelace, I believe. I've got as far as the first line:
Ah, Cecil! hide those eyes of blue."
"I think I've heard something very like that before," Fanny answered, laughing. "She deserves a prettier compliment than a rechauffe."
"Have you heard it before? Well, I shouldn't wonder. You don't expect one to be original and enthusiastic at the same moment, when both are out of one's line? I own it, though. Your princess merits all the vassalage she has found—better than she will meet with here—if only for the perfection of her costume. That is a triumph. Honor to the artist who built her hat. I drink to him now, and I wish the Burgundy were worthier of the toast. (Hal, this Corton does not improve.) I should advise you to secure the address of her bottier. You know her well enough to ask for it, perhaps? It must be a secret."
"Then you have not found out how very clever she is?"
"Pardon me," was the reply; "I can imagine Miss Tresilyan perfectly well educated; so well, that she might dispense with carrying about a living voucher in the shape of that dreadful ex-institutrice. I never knew what makes very nice women cling so to very disagreeable governesses. Perhaps there is a satisfaction in patronizing where you have been ruled, and in conferring favors where you have only received 'impositions'—a pleasant consciousness of returning good for evil. There is no other rational way of accounting for it."
La mignonne was not indignant now, as might have been expected; but she gazed at the speaker long and more searchingly than was her wont, with something very like pity in her kind, earnest eyes.
"I suppose you would not sneer so at every thing if you could help it," she said. "I am not wise enough to do so; but I don't envy you."
Royston's hard cold face changed for an instant, and the faintest flush lingered there, about as long as your breath would upon polished steel. It was not the first time that one of her random shafts had struck him home. All the sarcasm had died out of his voice as he answered slowly—
"Don't you envy me? You are right there. And you think you are not wise enough to be cynical? If there was any school to teach us how to turn our talents to the best account, I know which of us two would have most to learn." When he spoke again it was in his usual manner, but upon another and perfectly indifferent subject.
Harry had taken no part in the discussion. Always languid, toward night he generally felt especially disinclined to any bodily or mental exertion. At such times there was nothing he liked so well as to lie on his sofa and assist at a passage-of-arms between his wife and Keene, encouraging either party occasionally with an approving smile, but preserving a cautious and complete neutrality. On the present occasion he had his own reasons for not being disappointed about the latter's appreciation of Miss Tresilyan. Had he felt any such misgivings, they would have vanished later in the evening.
The doctor was a stern man; but he must have been more than human to have stood fast against the entreaties and cajolement with which his patient backed up the petition, "to be allowed just one cigar before going to roost." The prospect of this compensating weed had supported poor Harry through the dullness and privations of many monotonous days. As the appointed time drew nigh, he would freshen up visibly, just like the camels when, staggering fetlock deep through the sand-wastes, they scent the water or sight the clump of palms. Was there more in all this than could be traced to the mere soothing influence of the nicotine and flavor of the tobacco? Might not this one old habit still indulged have been the only link that sensibly connected the invalid with those pleasant days, when he enjoyed life so heartily, with so many cheery comrades to keep him in countenance—when he would have laughed at the idea of any thing short of a sabre-cut, a shot-wound, or a rattling fall over an "oxer," bringing him down to that state of helpless dependence, when our conception of womankind resolves itself into the ministering angel? Harry certainly could not have told you if this were so; for an inquiry into the precise nature of his sensations would have posed him at any time quite as completely as a question in hydrostatics or plane trigonometry. At any rate, the consumption of The Cigar was a very important ceremony with him; not conducted in the thoughtless and improvident spirit of men who smoke a dozen or so a day, but partaking rather of the character of a sacrifice, at once festal and solemn. There were times, as we have said before, when he would break out of bounds recklessly; but upon such occasions he gave himself no time to reflect; so there was nothing then of calm and deliberate enjoyment; and these escapades grew more and more rare as the warnings of his constitution spoke more imperiously.