ANNE DOUGLAS SEDGWICK (MRS. BASIL DE SELINCOURT)
Author of "Franklin Winslow Kane," "A Fountain Sealed," "Amabel Channice," "The Shadow of Life," Etc.
New York The Century Co. 1912
Copyright, 1911, by The Century Co.
Published, December, 1911.
It was the evening of Madame Okraska's concert at the old St. James's Hall. London was still the place of the muffled roar and the endearing ugliness. Horse-'buses plied soberly in an unwidened Piccadilly. The private motor was a curiosity. Berlin had not been emulated in an altered Mall nor New York in the facades of giant hotels. The Saturday and Monday pops were still an institution; and the bell of the muffin-man, in such a wintry season, passed frequently along the foggy streets and squares. Already the epoch seems remote.
Madame Okraska was pausing on her way from St. Petersburg to New York and this was the only concert she was to give in London that winter. For many hours the enthusiasts who had come to secure unreserved seats had been sitting on the stone stairs that led to the balcony or gallery, or on the still narrower, darker and colder flight that led to the orchestra from Piccadilly Place. From the adjacent hall they could hear the strains of the Moore & Burgess Minstrels, blatant and innocuously vulgar; and the determined mirth, anatomized by distance, sounded a little melancholy. To those of an imaginative turn of mind it might have seemed that they waited in a tunnel at one far end of which could be perceived the tiny memory of tea at an Aerated Bread shop and at the other the vision of the delights to which they would emerge. For there was no one in the world like Madame Okraska, and to see and hear her was worth cold and weariness and hunger. Not only was she the most famous of living pianists but one of the most beautiful of women; and upon this restoring fact many of the most weary stayed themselves, returning again and again to gaze at the pictured face that adorned the outer cover of the programme.
Illuminated by chill gas-jets, armed with books and sandwiches, the serried and devoted ranks were composed of typical concert-goers, of types, in some cases, becoming as extinct as the muffin-man; young art-students from the suburbs, dressed in Liberty serges and velveteens, and reading ninepenny editions of Browning and Rossetti—though a few, already, were reading Yeats; middle-aged spinsters from Bayswater or South Kensington, who took their weekly concert as they took their daily bath; many earnest young men, soft-hatted and long-haired, studying scores; the usual contingent of the fashionable and economical lady; and the pale-faced business man, bringing an air of duty to the pursuit of pleasure.
Some time before the doors opened a growing urgency began to make itself felt. People got up from their insecurely balanced camp-stools or rose stiffly from the stone steps to turn and stand shoulder to shoulder, subtly transformed from comrades in discomfort to combatants for a hazardous reward. The field for personal endeavour was small; the stairs were narrow and their occupants packed like sardines; yet everybody hoped to get a better seat than their positions entitled them to hope for. Hope and fear increased in intensity with the distance from the doors, those mute, mystic doors behind which had not yet been heard a chink or a shuffle and against which leaned, now balefully visible, the earliest comers of all, jaded, pallid, but insufferably assured. The summons came at length in the sound of drawn bolts and chains and a peremptory official voice, blood-tingling as a trumpet-call; and the crowd, shoulder to shoulder and foot to foot, with rigid lips and eyes uplifted, began to mount like one man. Step by step they went, steady and wary, each pressing upon those who went before and presenting a resistant back to those who followed after. The close, emulous contacts bred stealthy strifes and hatreds. A small lady, with short grey hair and thin red face and the conscienceless, smiling eye of a hypnotized creature, drove her way along the wall and mounted with the agility of a lizard to a place several steps above. Others were infected by the successful outlawry and there were some moments of swaying and striving before the crowd adjusted itself to its self-protective solidity. Emerged upon the broader stairs they ascended panting and scurrying, in a wild stampede, to the sudden quiet and chill and emptiness of the familiar hall, with its high-ranged plaster cupids, whose cheeks and breasts and thighs were thrown comically into relief by a thick coating of dust. Here a permanent fog seemed to hang under the roof; only a few lights twinkled frugally; and the querulous voice of the programme-seller punctuated the monotonous torrent of feet. Row upon row, the seats were filled as if by tumultuous waters entering appointed channels, programmes rustled, sandwiches were drawn from clammy packets, and the thin-faced lady, iniquitously ensconced in the middle of the front row in the gallery, had taken out a strip of knitting and was blandly ready for the evening.
"I always come up here," said one of the ladies from Kensington to a friend. "One hears her pianissimo more perfectly than anywhere else. What a magnificent programme! I shall be glad to hear her give the Schumann Fantaisie in C Major again."
"I think I look forward more to the Bach Fantaisie than to anything," said her companion.
She exposed herself to a pained protest: "Oh surely not; not Bach; I do not come for my Bach to Okraska. She belongs too definitely to the romantics to grasp Bach. Beethoven, if you will; she may give us the Appassionata superbly; but not Bach; she lacks self-effacement."
"Liszt said that no one played Bach as she did."
Authority did not serve her. "Liszt may have said it; Brahms would not have;" was the rejoinder.
Down in the orchestra chairs the audience was roughly to be divided into the technical and the personal devotees; those who chose seats from which they could dwell upon Madame Okraska's full face over the shining surfaces of the piano or upon her profile from the side; and those who, from behind her back, were dedicated to the study of her magical hands.
"I do hope," said a girl in the centre of the front row of chairs, a place of dizzy joy, for one might almost touch the goddess as she sat at the piano, "I do hope she's not getting fat. Someone said they heard she was. I never want to see her again if she gets fat. It would be too awful."
The girl with her conjectured sadly that Madame Okraska must be well over forty.
"I beg your pardon," a massive lady dressed in an embroidered sack-like garment, and wearing many strings of iridescent shells around her throat, leaned forward from behind to say: "She is forty-six; I happen to know; a friend of mine has met Madame Okraska's secretary. Forty-six; but she keeps her beauty wonderfully; her figure is quite beautiful."
An element of personal excitement was evident in the people who sat in these nearest chairs; it constituted a bond, though by no means a friendly one. Emulation, the irrepressible desire to impart knowledge, broke down normal barriers. The massive lady was slightly flushed and her manner almost menacing. Her information was received with a vague, half resentful murmur.
"She looks younger," she continued, while her listeners gave her an unwilling yet alert attention. "It is extraordinary how she retains her youth. But it tells, it tells, the tragic life; one sees it in her eyes and lips."
The first girl now put forward with resolution her pawn of knowledge.
"It has been tragic, hasn't it. The dreadful man she was married to by her relations when she was hardly more than a child, and the death of her second husband. He was the Baron von Marwitz; her real name is von Marwitz; Okraska is her maiden name. He was drowned in saving her life, you know."
"The Baron von Marwitz was drowned no one knows how; he was found drowned; she found his body. She went into a convent after his death."
"A convent? I was reading a life of her in a magazine the other day and nothing was said about a convent."
The massive lady smiled tolerantly: "Nothing would be. She has a horror of publicity. Yes, she is a mystic as well as an artist; she only resigned the religious life because of what she felt to be her duty to her adopted daughter. One sees the mystical side in her face and hears it in her music."
Madame Okraska was one of those about whose footsteps legends rise, and legend could add little to the romantic facts of her life;—the poverty of her youth; her debut as a child prodigy at Warsaw and the sudden fame that had followed it; the coronets that had been laid at her feet; her private tragedies, cosmopolitan friendships, her scholarship, caprices and generosities. She had been the Egeria, smiling in mystery, of half a dozen famous men. And it was as satisfactory to the devotee to hear that she always wore white and drank coffee for her breakfast, as that Rubinstein and Liszt had blessed her and Leschetitsky said that she had nothing to learn. Her very origin belonged to the realm of romantic fiction. Her father, a Polish music-master in New Orleans, had run away with his pupil, a beautiful Spanish girl of a good Creole family. Their child had been born in Cracow while the Austrians were bombarding it in 1848.
The lights were now all up and the stalls filling. Ladies and gentlemen from the suburbs, over early, were the first comers; eager schoolgirls marshalled by governesses; scrupulous students with music under their arms, and, finally, the rustling, shining, chattering crowd of fashionable London.
The massive lady had by now her little audience, cowed, if still slightly sulky, well in hand. She pointed out each notability to them, and indirectly, to all her neighbours. The Duchess of Bannister and Lady Champney, the famous beauty; the Prime Minister, whom the girls could have recognized for themselves, and Sir Alliston Compton, the poet. Had they read his sonnet to Madame Okraska, last year, in the "Fortnightly"? They had not. "I wonder who that odd looking girl is with him and the old lady?" one of them ventured.
"A little grand-daughter, a little niece," said the massive lady, who did not know. "Poor Sir Alliston's wife is in a lunatic asylum; isn't it a melancholy head?"
But now one of her listeners, a lady also in the front row, leaned forward to say hurriedly and deprecatingly, her face suffused with shyness: "That nice young girl is Madame Okraska's adopted daughter. The old lady is Mrs. Forrester, Madame Okraska's great friend; my sister-in-law was for many years a governess in her family, and that is how I come to know."
All those who had heard her turned their eyes upon the young girl, who, in an old-fashioned white cloak, with a collar of swansdown turned up round her fair hair, was taking her place with her companions in the front row of the orchestra-stalls. Even the massive lady was rapt away to silence.
"But I thought the adopted daughter was an Italian," one girl at last commented, having gazed her fill at the being so exalted by fortune. "Her skin is rather dark, but that yellow hair doesn't look Italian."
"She is a Norwegian," said the massive lady, keeping however an eye on the relative of Mrs. Forrester's governess; "the child of Norwegian peasants. Don't you know the story? Madame Okraska found the poor little creature lost in a Norwegian forest, leaped from her carriage and took her into her arms; the parents were destitute and she bought the child from them. She is the very soul of generosity."
"She doesn't look like a peasant," said the girl, with a flavour of discontent, as though a more apparent rusticity would have lent special magnanimity to Madame Okraska's benevolence. But the massive lady assured her: "Oh yes, it is the true Norse type; their peasantry has its patrician quality. I have been to Norway. Sir Alliston looks very much moved, doesn't he? He has been in love with Madame Okraska for years." And she added with a deep sigh of satisfaction: "There has never been a word whispered against her reputation; never a word—'Pure as the foam on midmost ocean tossed.'"
Among the crowds thronging densely to their places, a young man of soldierly aspect, with a dark, narrow face, black hair and square blue eyes, was making his way to a seat in the third row of stalls. His name was Gregory Jardine; he was not a soldier—though he looked one—but a barrister, and he was content to count himself, not altogether incorrectly, a Philistine in all matters aesthetic. Good music he listened to with, as he put it, unintelligent and barbarous enjoyment; and since he had, shamefully, never yet heard the great pianist, he had bought the best stall procurable some weeks before, and now, after a taxing day in the law courts, had foregone his after-dinner coffee in order not to miss one note of the opening Appassionata; it was a sonata he was very fond of. He sometimes picked out the air of the slow movement on the piano with heavy deliberation; his musical equipment did not carry him as far as the variations.
When he reached his seat he found it to be by chance next that of his sister-in-law, his brother Oliver's wife, a pretty, jewelled and jewel-like young woman, an American of a complicatedly cosmopolitan type. Gregory liked Betty Jardine, and always wondered how she had come to marry Oliver, whom he rather scorned; but he was not altogether pleased to find her near him. He preferred to take his music in solitude; and Betty was very talkative.
"Well, this is nice, Gregory!" she said. "You and Captain Ashton know each other, don't you. No, I couldn't persuade Oliver to come; he wouldn't give up his whist. Isn't Oliver dreadful; he moves from the saddle to the whist-table, and back again; and that is all. Captain Ashton and I have been comparing notes; we find that we have missed hardly any of Madame Okraska's concerts in London. I was only ten when I heard the first she ever gave here; my governess took me; and actually Captain Ashton was here on that day, too. Wasn't she a miracle of loveliness? It was twenty years ago; she had already her European reputation. It was just after she had divorced that horrible first husband of hers and married the Baron von Marwitz. This isn't your initiation, of course, Gregory?"
"Actually my initiation," said Gregory, examining the portrait of Madame Okraska on the cover of the programme.
"But you've seen her at Mrs. Forrester's? She always stays with Mrs. Forrester."
"I know; but I've always missed her, or, at all events, never been asked to meet her."
"I certainly never have been," said Betty Jardine. "But Mrs. Forrester thinks of me as frivolity personified, I know, and doesn't care to admit anything lower than a cabinet minister or a poet laureate when she has her lion domiciled. She is an old darling; but, between ourselves, she does take her lions a little too seriously, doesn't she. Well, prepare for a coup de foudre, Gregory. You'll be sure to fall in love with her. Everybody falls in love with her. Captain Ashton has been in love with her for twenty years. She is extraordinary."
"I'm ready to be subjugated," said Gregory. "Do people really hang on her hands and kiss them? Shall I want to hang on her hands and kiss them?"
"There is no telling what she will do with us," said Lady Jardine.
Gregory Jardine's face, however, was not framed to express enthusiasm. It was caustic, cold and delicate. His eyes were as clear and as hard as a sky of frosty morning, and his small, firm lips were hard. His chin and lower lip advanced slightly, so that when he smiled his teeth met edge to edge, and the little black moustache, to which he often gave an absent upward twist, lent an ironic quality to this chill, gay smile, at times almost Mephistophelian. He sat twisting the moustache now, leaning his head to listen, amidst the babel of voices, to Betty Jardine's chatter, and the thrills of infectious expectancy that passed over the audience like breezes over a corn-field left him unaffected. His observant, indifferent glance had in it something of the schoolboy's barbarian calm and something of the disabused impersonality of worldly experience.
"Who is the young lady with Mrs. Forrester?" he asked presently. "In white, with yellow hair. Just in front of us. Do you know?"
Betty had leaned forward to look. "Don't you even know her by sight?" she said. "That is Miss Woodruff, the girl who follows Madame Okraska everywhere. She attached herself to her years ago, I believe, in Rome or Paris;—some sort of little art-student she was. What a bore that sort of devotion must be. Isn't she queer?"
"I had heard that she's an adopted daughter," said Captain Ashton; "the child of Norwegian peasants, and that Madame Okraska found her in a Norwegian forest—by moonlight;—a most romantic story."
"A fable, I think. Someone was telling me about her the other day. She is only a camp-follower and protegee; and a compatriot of mine. She is an orphan and Madame Okraska supports her."
"She doesn't look like a protegee," said Gregory Jardine, his eyes on the young person thus described; "she looks like a protector."
"I should think she must be most of all a problem," said Betty. "What a price to pay for celebrity—these hangers-on who make one ridiculous by their infatuation. Madame Okraska is incapable of defending herself against them, I hear. The child's clothes might have come from Norway!"
The protegee, protector or problem, who turned to them now and then her oddly blunted, oddly resolute young profile, had tawny hair, and a sun-browned skin. She wore a little white silk frock with flat bows of dull blue upon it. Her evening cloak was bordered with swansdown. Two black bows, one at the crown of her head and one at the nape of her neck, secured the thick plaits of her hair, which was parted and brushed up from her forehead in a bygone school-girlish fashion. She made Gregory think of a picture by Alfred Stevens he had seen somewhere and of an archaic Greek statue, and her appearance and demeanour interested him. He continued to look at her while the unrest and expectancy of the audience rolled into billows of excitement.
A staid, melancholy man, forerunner of the great artist, had appeared and performed his customary and cryptic function. "Why do they always screw up the piano-stool at the last moment!" Betty Jardine murmured. "Is it to pepper our tongues with anguish before the claret?—Oh, she must be coming now! She always keeps one waiting like this!"
The billows had surged to a storm. Signs of frenzy were visible in the faces on the platform. They had caught a glimpse of the approaching divinity.
"Here she is!" cried Betty Jardine. Like everybody else she was clapping frantically, like everybody, that is, except Gregory Jardine; for Gregory, his elbow in his hand, his fingers still neatly twisting the end of his moustache, continued to observe the young girl in the front row, whose face, illuminated and irradiated, was upturned to the figure now mounting to the platform.
The hush that had fallen was like the hush that falls on Alpine watchers in the moment before sunrise, and, with the great musician's slow emerging from below, it was as if the sun had risen.
She came, with her indolent step, the thunder of hands and voices greeting her; and those who gazed at her from the platform saw the pearl-wreathed hair and opulent white shoulders, and those who gazed at her from beneath saw the strange and musing face. Then she stood before them and her dark eyes dwelt, impassive and melancholy, upon the sea of faces, tumultuous and blurred with clapping hands. The sound was like the roaring of the sea and she stood as a goddess might have stood at the brink of the ocean, indifferent and unaware, absorbed in dreams of ancient sorrow. The ovation was so prolonged and she stood there for so long—hardly less the indifferent goddess because, from time to time, she bowed her own famous bow, stately, old-fashioned, formally and sublimely submissive,—that every eye in the great audience could feast upon her in a rapturous assurance of leisure.
She was a woman of forty-eight, of an ample though still beautiful figure. Her flowing dress of white brocade made no attempt to compress, to sustain or to attenuate. No one could say that a woman who stood as she did, with the port of a goddess—the small head majestically poised over such shoulders and such a breast—was getting fat; yet no one could deny that there was redundancy. She was not redundant as other women were; she was not elegant as other women were; she seemed in nothing like others. Her dress was strange; it had folds and amplitudes and dim disks of silver broideries at breast and knee that made it like the dress of some Venetian lady, drawn at random from an ancestral marriage coffer and put on dreamily with no thought of aptness. Her hair was strange; no other woman's hair was massed and folded as was hers, hair dark as night and intertwined and looped with twisted strands of pearl and diamond. Her face was strange, that crowning face, known to all the world. Disparate racial elements mingled in the long Southern oval and the Slavonic modelling of brow and cheek-bone. The lips, serene and passionate, deeply sunken at the corners and shadowed with a pencilling of down, were the lips of Spain; all the mystery of the South was in the grave and tragic eyes. Yet the eyes were cold; and touches of wild ancestral suffering, like the sudden clash of spurs in the languors of a Polonaise, marked the wide nostrils and the heavy eyelids and the broad, black crooked eyebrows that seemed to stammer a little in the perfect sentence of her face.
She subjugated and she appealed. Her adorers were divided between the longing to lie down under her feet and to fold her protectingly in their arms. Calf-love is an undying element in human-nature, a shame-faced derogatory name for the romantic, self-immolating emotion woven from fancy, yearning and the infection of other's ardour. Love of this foam and flame quality, too tender to be mere aesthetic absorption in a beautiful object, too selfless to be sensual, too intense to be only absurd, rose up towards Madame Okraska and encompassed her from hundreds of hearts and eyes. The whole audience was for her one vast heart of adoration, one fixed face of half-hypnotized tenderness. And there she stood before them;—Madame Okraska whom crowned heads delighted to honour; Madame Okraska who got a thousand pounds a night; Madame Okraska who played as no one in the world could play; looking down over them, looking up and around at them, as if, now, a little troubled by the prolonged adulation, patient yet weary, like a mistress assaulted, after long absence, by the violent joy of a great Newfoundland dog; smiling a little, though buffeted, and unwilling to chill the ardent heart by a reprimand. And more than all she was like a great white rose that, fading in the soft, thick, scented air of a hot-house, droops languidly with loosened petals.
They let her go at last and she took her place at the piano. Her hands fell softly on a group of dreamy ascending chords. Her face, then, in a long pause, took on a rapt expectancy and power. She was the priestess waiting before her altar for the descent of the god, glorious and dreadful. And it was as if with the chill and shudder of a possession that, breathing deeply, drawing her shoulders a little together, she lifted her hands and played. She became the possessed and articulate priestess, her soul, her mind, her passion lent to the message spoken through her. The tumult and insatiable outcry of the Appassionata spread like a river over her listeners. And as she played her face grew more rapt in its brooding concentration, the eyes half-closed, the nostrils wide, the jaw dropping and giving to the mouth an expression at once relaxed and vigilant.
To criticize with the spell of Madame Okraska's personality upon one was hardly possible. Emerged from the glamour, there were those, pretending to professional discriminations, who suggested that she lacked the masculine and classic disciplines of interpretation; that her rendering, though breathed through with noble dignities, was coloured by a capricious and passionate personality; that it was the feeling rather than the thought of the music that she excelled in expressing, its suffering rather than its serenity. Only a rare listener, here and there among her world-wide audiences, was aware of deeper deficiencies and of the slow changes that time had wrought in her art. For it was inspiration no longer; it was the memory of inspiration. The Nemesis of the artist who expresses, not what he feels, but what he is expected to feel, what he has undertaken to feel, had fallen upon the great woman. Her art, too, showed the fragrant taint of an artificial atmosphere. She had played ten times when she should have played once. She lived on her capital of experience, no longer renewing her life, and her renderings had lost that quality of the greatest, the living communication with the experience embodied in the music. It was on the stereotyped memories of such communication that she depended, on the half hypnotic possession by the past; filling in vacancies with temperamental caprice or an emotion no longer the music's but her own.
But to the enchanted ear of the multitude, professional and unprofessional, the essential vitality was there, the vitality embodied to the enchanted eye by the white figure with its drooping, pearl-wreathed head and face sunken in sombre ecstasy. She gave them all they craved:—passion, stormy struggle, the tears of hopeless love, the chill smile of lassitude in accepted defeat, the unappeasable longing for the past. They listened, and their hearts lapsed back from the hallucinated unity of enthusiasm each to its own identity, an identity isolated, intensified, tortured exquisitely by the expression of dim yearnings. All that had been beautiful in the pain and joy that through long ages had gone to the building up of each human consciousness, re-entered and possessed it; the fragrance of blossoming trees, the farewell gaze of dying eyes, the speechless smile of lovers, ancestral memories of Spring-times, loves, and partings, evoked by this poignant lure from dim realms of sub-consciousness, like subterranean rivers rising through creaks and crannies towards the lifted wand of the diviner. It seemed the quintessence of human experience, the ecstasy of perfect and enfranchising sorrow, distilled from the shackling, smirching half-sorrows of actual life. Some of the listening faces smiled; some were sodden, stupefied rather than enlightened; some showed a sensual rudimentary gratification; some, lapped in the tide, yet unaware of its significance, were merely silly. But no Orpheus, wildly harping through the woods, ever led more enthralled and subjugated listeners.
Gregory Jardine's face was neither sodden nor silly nor sensual; but it did not wear the enchanted look of the true votary. Instinctively this young man, though it was emotion that he found in music, resisted any too obvious assault upon his feelings, taking refuge in irony from their force when roused. For the form of music, and its intellectual content, he had little appreciation, and he was thus the more exposed to its emotional appeal; but his intuition of the source and significance of the appeal remained singularly just and accurate. He could not now have analysed his sense of protest and dissatisfaction; yet, while the charm grasped and encircled him, making him, as he said to himself, idiotically grovel or inanely soar, he repelled the poignant sweetness and the thrills that went through him were thrills of a half-unwilling joy.
He sat straightly, his arms folded, his head bent as he twisted the end of his moustache, his eye fixed on the great musician; and he wondered what was the matter with him, or with her. It was as if he couldn't get at the music. Something interfered, something exquisite yet ambiguous, alluring yet never satisfying.
His glance fell presently from the pianist's drooping head to the face of the protegee, and the contrast between what was expressed by this young person's gaze and attitude and what he was himself feeling again drew his attention to her. No grovelling and no soaring was here, but an elation almost stern, a brooding concentration almost maternal, a dedicated power. Madame Okraska, he reflected, must be an extraordinary person if she really deserved that gaze. He didn't believe that she quite did. His dissatisfaction with the music extended itself to the musician and, looking from her face to the girl's, he remembered with scepticism Betty's account of their relation.
A group of Chopin Preludes and a Brahms Rhapsodie Hongroise brought the first half of the concert to a close, and Gregory watched with amusement, during the ensuing scene, the vagaries of the intoxicated crowd. People rose to their feet, clapping, shouting, bellowing, screaming. He saw on the platform the face of the massive lady, haggard, fierce, devouring; the face of the shy lady, suffused, the eyes half dazed with adoration like those of a saint in rapture. Old Mrs. Forrester, with her juvenile auburn head, laughed irrepressibly while she clapped, like a happy child. The old poet was nearly moved to tears. Only the protegee remained, as it were, outside the infection. She smiled slightly and steadily, as if in a proud contentment, and clapped now and then quite softly, and she turned once and scanned the audience with eyes accustomed to ovations and appraising the significance of this one.
Madame Okraska was recalled six times, but she could not be prevailed upon to give an encore, though for a long time a voice bayed intermittently:—"The Berceuse! Chopin's Berceuse!" The vast harmonies of entreaty and delight died down to sporadic solos, taken up more and more faint-heartedly by weary yet still hopeful hands.
Still smiling slightly, with a preoccupied air, the young girl looked about her, or leaned forward to listen to some kindly bantering addressed to her by Sir Alliston. She hardly spoke, but Gregory perceived that she was by no means shy. She so pleasantly engaged his attention that when Sir Alliston got up from his seat next hers there was another motive than the mere wish to speak to his old friend in his intention of joining Mrs. Forrester for a few moments. The project was not definite and he abandoned it when his relative, Miss Eleanor Scrotton, tense, significant and wearing the sacramental expression customary with her on such occasions, hurried to the empty seat and dropped into it. Eleanor's enthusiasms oppressed him and Betty had told him that Madame Okraska was become the most absorbing of them. His mother and Eleanor's had been cousins. Her father, the late Sir Jonas Scrotton, heavily distinguished in the world of literature and politics, had died only the year before. Gregory remembered him as a vindictive and portentous old man presiding at Miss Scrotton's tea-parties in a black silk skull-cap, and one could but admire in Miss Scrotton the reverence and devotion that had not only borne with but gloried in him. If the amplitude of his mantle had not descended upon her one might metaphorically say that the black skull-cap had. Gregory felt that he might have liked Eleanor better if she hadn't been so unintermittently and unilluminatingly intelligent. She wrote scholarly articles in the graver reviews—articles that he invariably skipped—she was always armed with an appreciation and she had the air of thinking the intellectual reputation of London very much her responsibility. Above all she was dowered with an overwhelming power of enthusiasm. Eleanor dressed well and had a handsome, commanding profile with small, compressed lips and large, prominent, melancholy eyes that wickedly reminded Gregory of the eyes of a beetle. Beneath the black feather boa that was thrown round her neck, her thin shoulder-blades, while she talked to Mrs. Forrester and sketched with pouncing fingers the phrasing of certain passages, jerked and vibrated oddly. Mrs. Forrester nodded, smiled, acquiesced. She was rather fond of Eleanor. Their talk was for each other. Miss Woodruff, unheeded, but with nothing of the air of one consciously insignificant, sat looking before her. Beside Eleanor's vehemence and Mrs. Forrester's vivacity she made Gregory think of a tranquil landscape seen at dawn.
He was thus thinking, and looking at her, when, as though sub-consciously aware of his gaze, she suddenly turned her head and looked round at him.
Her eyes, in the long moment while their glances were interchanged, were so clear and deliberate, so unmoved by anything but a certain surprise, that he felt no impulse to pretend politely that he had not been caught staring. They scrutinized each other, gravely, serenely, intently, until a thunder of applause, like a tidal wave surging over the hall, seemed to engulf their gaze. Madame Okraska was once more emerging. Miss Scrotton, catching up her boa, her programme and her fan, scuttled back to her seat with an air of desperate gravity; Sir Alliston returned to his; Mrs. Forrester welcomed him with a smile and a finger at her lips; and as the pianist seated herself and cast a long glance over the still disarranged and cautiously rustling audience, Gregory saw that Miss Woodruff had no further thought for him.
Mrs. Forrester was dispensing tea in her lofty drawing-room which, with its illumined heights and dim recesses, gave to the ceremony an almost ritualistic state. Mrs. Forrester's drawing-room and Mrs. Forrester herself were long-established features of London, and not to have sat beneath the Louis Quinze chandelier nor have drunk tea out of the blue Worcester cups was to have missed something significant of the typical London spectacle.
The drawing-room seemed most characteristic when one came to it from a fog outside, as people had done to-day, and when Mrs. Forrester was found presiding over the blue cups. She was an old lady with auburn hair elaborately dressed and singularly bound in snoods of velvet. She wore flowing silken trains and loose ruffled sacques of a curious bygone cut, and upon each wrist was clasped, mounted on a velvet band, a large square emerald, set in heavily chased gold. The glance of her eyes was as surprisingly youthful as the color of her hair, and her face, though complicatedly wrinkled, had an almost girlish gaiety and vigour. Abrupt and merry, Mrs. Forrester was arresting to the attention and rather alarming. She swept aside bores; she selected the significant; socially she could be rather merciless; but her kindness was without limits when she attached herself, and in private life she suffered fools, if not gladly at all events humorously, in the persons of her three heavy and exemplary sons, who had married wives as unimpeachable and as uninteresting as themselves and provided her with a multitude of grandchildren. Mrs. Forrester fulfilled punctiliously all her duties towards these young folk, and it never occurred to her sons and daughters-in-law that they and their interests were not her chief preoccupation. The energy and variety of her nature were, however, given, to her social relations and to her personal friendships, which were many and engrossing. These friendships were always highly flavoured. Mrs. Forrester had a flair for genius and needed no popular accrediting to make it manifest to her. And it wasn't enough to be merely a genius; there were many of the species, eminent and emblazoned, who were never asked to come under the Louis Quinze chandelier. She asked of her talented friends personal distinction, the power of being interesting in more than their art.
Such a genius, pre-eminently such a one, was Madame von Marwitz. She was more than under the chandelier; Mrs. Forrester's house, when she was in London, was her home. "I am safe with you," she had said to Mrs. Forrester, "with you I am never pursued and never bored." Where Mrs. Forrester evaded and relegated bores, Madame von Marwitz sombrely and helplessly hated them. "What can I do?" she said. "If no one will protect me I am delivered to them. It is a plague of locusts. They devour me. Oh their letters! Oh their flowers! Oh their love and their stupidity! No, the earth is black with them."
Madame von Marwitz was protected from the swarms while she visited her old friend. The habits of the house were altered to suit hers. She stayed in her rooms or came down as she chose. She had complete liberty in everything.
To-day she had not as yet appeared, and everyone had come with the hope of seeing her. There was Lady Campion, the most tactful and discreet of admirers; and Sir Alliston, who would be perhaps asked to go up to her if she did not come down; and Eleanor Scrotton who would certainly go up unasked; and old Miss Harding, a former governess of Mrs. Forrester's sons and a person privileged, who had come leading an evident yet pathetic locust, her brother's widow, little Mrs. Harding, the shy lady of the platform. Miss Harding had told Mrs. Forrester about this sister-in-law and of how, since her husband's death, she had lived for philanthropy, and music in the person of Madame Okraska. She had never met her. She did not ask to meet her now. She would only sit in a corner and gaze. Mrs. Forrester had been moved by the account of such humble faith and had told Miss Harding to bring her sister-in-law.
"I have sent for Karen," Mrs. Forrester said, greeting Gregory Jardine, who came in after Miss and Mrs. Harding; "she will tell us if our chances are good. It was your first time, last night, wasn't it, Gregory? I do hope that she may come down."
Gregory Jardine was not a bore, but Mrs. Forrester suspected him to be one of the infatuated. He belonged, she imagined, seeing him appear so promptly after his initiation, to the category of dazzled circlers who fell into her drawing-room in their myriads while Mercedes was with her, like frizzled moths into a candle. Mrs. Forrester had sympathy with moths, and was fond of Gregory, whom she greeted with significant kindliness.
"I never ask her to come down," she went on now to explain to him and to the Hardings. "Never, never. She could not bear that. But she often does come; and she has heard to-day from Karen Woodruff that special friends are hoping to see her. So your chances are good, I think. Ah, here is Karen."
Gregory did not trouble to undeceive his old friend. It was his habit to have tea with her once or twice a month, and his motive in coming to-day had hardly been distinguishable from his usual impulse. If he had come hoping to see anybody, it had been to see the protegee, and he watched her now as she advanced down the great room with her cheerful, unembarrassed look, the look of a person serenely accustomed to a publicity in which she had no part.
Seen thus at full length and in full face he found her more than ever like an Alfred Stevens and an archaic Greek statue. Long-limbed, thick-waisted, spare and strong, she wore a straight, grey dress—the dress of a little convent girl coming into the parloir on a day of visits—which emphasized the boyish aspect of her figure. Narrow frills of white were at wrist and neck; her shoes were low heeled and square toed; and around her neck a gold locket hung on a black velvet ribbon.
Mrs. Forrester held out her hand to her with the undiscerning kindliness that greets the mere emissary. "Well, my dear, what news of our Tante? Is she coming, do you think?" she inquired. "This is Lady Campion; she has never yet met Tante." The word was pronounced in German fashion.
"I am not sure that she will come," said Miss Woodruff, looking around the assembled circle, while Mrs. Forrester still held her hand. "She is still very tired, so I cannot be sure; I hope so." She smiled calmly at Sir Alliston and Miss Scrotton who were talking together and then lifted her eyes to Gregory who stood near.
"You know Mr. Jardine?" Mrs. Forrester asked, seeing the pleased recognition on the girl's face. "It was his first time last night."
"No, I do not know him," said Miss Woodruff, "but I saw him at the concert. Was it his first time? Think of that."
"Now sit here, child, and tell me about Tante," said Mrs. Forrester, drawing the girl down to a chair beside her. "I saw that she was very tired this morning. She had her massage?" Mrs. Forrester questioned in a lower voice.
"Yes; and fortunately she was able to sleep for two hours after that. Then Mr. Schultz came and she had to see him, and that was tiring."
Mr. Schultz was Madame Okraska's secretary.
"Dear, dear, what a pity that he had to bother her. Did she drink the egg-flip I had sent up to her? Mrs. Jenkins makes them excellently as a rule."
"I did my best to persuade her," said Miss Woodruff, "but she did not seem to care for it."
"Didn't care for it? Was it too sweet? I warned Mrs. Jenkins that her tendency was to put in too much sugar."
"That was it," Miss Woodruff smiled at the other's penetration. "She tasted it and said: 'Trop sucre,' and put it down. But it was really very nice. I drank it!" said Miss Woodruff.
"But I am so grieved. I shall speak severely to Mrs. Jenkins," Mrs. Forrester murmured, preoccupied. "I am afraid our chances aren't good to-day, Lady Campion," she turned from Miss Woodruff to say. "You must come and dine one night while she is with me. I am always sure of her for dinner."
"She really isn't coming down?" Miss Scrotton leaned over the back of Miss Woodruff's chair to ask with some asperity of manner. "Shall I wait for a little before I go up to her?"
"I can't tell," the young girl replied. "She said she did not know whether she would come or not. She is lying down and reading."
"She does not forget that she comes to me for tea to-morrow?"
"I do not think so, Miss Scrotton."
"Lady Campion wants to talk to you, Karen," Mrs. Forrester now said; "come to this side of the table." And as Sir Alliston was engaged with Miss and Mrs. Harding, Gregory was left to Eleanor Scrotton.
Miss Scrotton felt irritation rather than affection for Gregory Jardine. Yet he was not unimportant to her. Deeper than her pride in old Sir Jonas was her pride in her connection with the Fanshawes, and Gregory's mother had been a Fanshawe. Gregory's very indifference to her and to the standards of the Scrottons had always given to intercourse with him a savour at once acid yet interesting. Though she knew many men of more significance, she remained far more aware of him and his opinions than of theirs. She would have liked Gregory to show more consciousness of her and his relationship, of the fact that she, too, had Fanshawe blood in her veins. She would have liked to impress, or please or, at worst, to displease him. She would very much have liked to secure him more frequently for her dinners and her teas. He vexed and he allured her.
"Do you really mean that last night was the first time you ever heard Mercedes Okraska?" she said, moving to a sofa, to which, somewhat unwillingly, Gregory followed her. "It makes me sorry for you. It's as if a person were to tell you that they'd never before seen the mountains or the sea. If I'd realised that you'd never met her I could have arranged that you should. She often comes to me quite quietly and meets a few friends. She was so devoted to dear father; she called him The Hammer of the Gods. I have the most wonderful letter that she wrote me when he died," Miss Scrotton said, lowering her voice to a reverent pause. "Between ourselves," she went on, "I do sometimes think that our dear Mrs. Forrester cherishes her a little too closely. I confess that I love nothing more than to share my good things. I don't mean that dear Mrs. Forrester doesn't; but I should ask more people, frequently and definitely, to meet Mercedes, if I were in her place."
"But if Madame Okraska won't come down and see them?" Gregory inquired.
"Ah, but she will; she will," Miss Scrotton said earnestly; "if it is thought out; arranged for carefully. She doesn't, naturally, care to come down on chance, like to-day. She does want to know whom she's to meet if she makes the effort. She knows of course that Sir Alliston and I are here, and that may bring her; I do hope so for your sake; but of course if she does not come I go up to her. With Mrs. Forrester I am, I think, her nearest friend in England. She has stayed with me in the country;—my tiny flat here would hardly accommodate her. I am going, did you know it, to America with her next week."
"No; really; for a tour?"
"Yes; through the States. We shall be gone till next summer. I know several very charming people in New York and Boston and can help to make it pleasant for Mercedes. Of course for me it is the opportunity of a life-time. Quite apart from her music, she is the most remarkable woman I have ever known."
"Clever is too trivial a word. Her genius goes through everything. We read a great deal together—Dante, Goethe, French essayists, our English poets. To hear her read poetry is almost as wonderful an experience as to hear her play. Isn't it an extraordinary face? One sees it all in her face, I think."
"She is very unusual looking."
"Her face," Miss Scrotton pursued, ignoring her companion's trite comments, "embodies the thoughts and dreams of many races. It makes me always think of Pater's Mona Lisa—you remember: 'Hers is the head upon which all the ends of the world are come and the eyelids are a little weary.' She is, of course, a profoundly tragic person."
"Has she been very unfortunate?"
"Unfortunate indeed. Her youth was passed in bitter poverty; her first marriage was disastrous, and when joy came at last in an ideal second marriage it was shattered by her husband's mysterious death. Yes; he was drowned; found drowned in the lake on their estate in Germany. Mercedes has never been there since. She has never recovered. She is a broken-hearted woman. She sees life as a dark riddle. She counts herself as one of the entombed."
"Dear me," Gregory murmured.
Miss Scrotton glanced at him with some sharpness; but finding his blue eyes fixed abstractedly on Karen Woodruff exonerated him from intending to be disagreeable. "Her childlessness has been a final grief," she added; "a child, as she has often told me, would be a resurrection from the dead."
"And the little girl?" Gregory inquired. "Is she any solace? What is the exact relationship? I hear that she calls her Tante."
"The right to call her Tante is one of Mercedes's gifts to her. She is no relation at all. Mercedes picked her up, literally from the roadside. She is twenty-four, you know; not a child."
"So the story is true, about the Norwegian peasants and the forest?"
"I have to contradict that story at least twice a day," said Miss Scrotton with a smile half indulgent and half weary. "It is true that Karen was found in a forest, but it was the forest of Fontainebleau, tout simplement; and it is true that she has Norwegian blood; her mother was a Norwegian; she was the wife of a Norwegian artist in Rome, and there Karen's father, an American, a sculptor of some talent, I believe, met her and ran away with her. They were never married. They lived on chestnuts up among the mountains in Tuscany, I believe, and the mother died when Karen was a little child and the father when she was twelve. Some relatives of the father's put her in a convent school in Paris and she ran away from it and Mercedes found her on the verge of starvation in the forest of Fontainebleau. The Baron von Marwitz had known Mr. Woodruff in Rome and Mercedes persuaded him to take the child into their lives. She hadn't a friend or a penny in the world. The father's relatives were delighted to be rid of her and Mercedes has had her on her hands ever since. That is the true story."
"Isn't she fond of her?" Gregory asked.
"Yes, she is fond of her," Miss Scrotton with some impatience replied; "but she is none the less a burden. For a woman like Mercedes, with a life over-full and a strength continually overtaxed, the care and responsibility is an additional weight and weariness."
"Well, but if she misses children so much; this takes the place," Gregory objected.
"Takes the place," Miss Scrotton repeated, "of a child of her own? This little nobody, and an uninteresting nobody, too? Oh, she is a good girl, a very good girl; and she makes herself fairly useful in elementary ways; but how can you imagine that such a tie can satisfy maternal craving?"
"How does she make herself useful?" Gregory asked, waiving the question of maternal cravings. He had vexed Miss Scrotton a good deal, but the theme was one upon which she could not resist enlarging; anything connected with Madame von Marwitz was for her of absorbing interest.
"Well, she is a great deal in Cornwall, at Mercedes's place there," she informed him. "It's a wonderfully lovely place; Les Solitudes; Mercedes built the house. Karen and old Mrs. Talcott look after the little farm and keep things in order."
"Old Mrs. Talcott? Where does she come in?"
"Ah, that is another of Mercedes's romantic benevolences. Mrs. Talcott is a sort of old pensioner; a distant family connection; the funniest old American woman you can conceive of. She has been with Mercedes since her childhood, and, like everybody else, she is so devotedly attached to her that she regards it as a matter of course that she should be taken care of by her for ever. The way Karen takes her advantages as a matter of course has always vexed me just a little."
"Is Mrs. Talcott interesting?" Gregory pursued his questions with a placid persistence that seemed to indicate real curiosity.
"Good heavens, no!" Miss Scrotton said. "The epitome of the commonplace. She looks like some of the queer old American women one sees in the National Gallery with Baedekers in their hands and bags at their belts; fat, sallow, provincial, with defective grammar and horrible twangs; the kind of American, you know," said Miss Scrotton, warming to her description as she felt that she was amusing Gregory Jardine, "that the other kind always tell you they never by any chance would meet at home."
"And what kind of American is Miss Woodruff? The other kind or Mrs. Talcott's kind?"
"By the other kind I mean Lady Jardine's," said Miss Scrotton; "or—no; she constitutes a further variety; the rarest of all; the kind who would never think about Mrs. Talcott one way or the other. But surely Karen is no kind at all. Could you call her an American? She has never been there. She is a sort of racial waif. The only root, the only nationality she seems to have is Mercedes; her very character is constituted by her relation to Mercedes; her only charm is her devotion—for she is indeed sincerely and wholeheartedly devoted. Mercedes is a sort of fairy-godmother to her, a sun-goddess, who lifted her out of the dust and whirled her away in her chariot. But she isn't interesting," Miss Scrotton again assured him. "She is literal and unemotional, and, in some ways, distinctly dull. I have seen the poor fairy-godmother sigh and shrug sometimes over her inordinately long letters. She writes to her with relentless regularity and I really believe that she imagines that Mercedes quite depends on hearing from her. No; I don't mean that she is conceited; it's not that exactly; she is only dull; very, very dull; and I don't know how Mercedes endures having her so much with her. She feels that the girl depends on her, of course, and she is helplessly generous."
Gregory Jardine listened to these elucidations, leaning back in the sofa, a hand clasping his ankle, his eyes turning now on Miss Scrotton and now on the subject of their conversation. Miss Scrotton had amused him. She was entertainingly simple if at moments entertainingly intelligent, and he had divined that she was jealous of the crumbs that fell to Miss Woodruff's share from the table of Madame von Marwitz's bounty. A slight malice that had gathered in him during his talk with Eleanor Scrotton found expression in his next remark. "She is certainly charming looking; anyone so charming looking has a right to be dull." But Miss Scrotton did not heed him. She had risen to her feet. "Here she is!" she exclaimed, looking towards the door in radiant satisfaction. "You will meet her after all. I'll do my very best so that you shall have a little talk with her."
The door had been thrown open and Madame Okraska had appeared upon the threshold.
She stood for a moment, with her hand resting on the lintel, and she surveyed an apparently unexpected audience with contemplative melancholy. If she was not pleased to find them so many, she was, at all events unresentful, and Gregory imagined, from Mrs. Forrester's bright flutter in rising, that resentment from the sun-goddess was a peril to be reckoned with. Smiling, though languidly smiling, she advanced up the room, after her graceful and involuntary pause. White fringes rippled softly round her; a white train trailed behind her; on her breast the silken cloak that she wore over a transparent under-robe was clasped with pearls and silver. She was very lovely, very stately, very simple; but she struck her one hypercritical observer as somewhat prepared; calculated and conscious, as well.
"Thanks, dearest friend," she said to Mrs. Forrester, who, meeting her halfway down the room and taking her hand, asked her solicitously how she did; "I am now a little rested; but it has been a bad night and a busy morning." She spoke with a slightly foreign accent in a voice at once fatigued and sonorous. Her eyes, clear, penetrating and singularly steady, passed over the assembled faces, turned, all of them, towards herself.
She greeted Sir Alliston with a welcoming smile and a lift of the strange crooked eyebrows, and to Miss Scrotton, who, eager and illuminated, was beside her: "Ah, ma cherie," she said, resting her hand affectionately on her shoulder. Mrs. Forrester had her other hand, and, so standing between her two friends, she bowed gravely and graciously to Lady Campion, to Miss Harding, to Mrs. Harding—who, in the stress of this fulfilment had become plum-coloured—and to Gregory Jardine. Then she was seated. Mrs. Forrester poured out her tea, Miss Harding passed her cake and bread-and-butter, Lady Campion bent to her with frank and graceful compliments, Miss Scrotton sat at her feet on a low settle, and Sir Alliston, leaning on the back of her chair, looked down at her with eyes of antique devotion. Gregory was left on the outskirts of the group and his attention was attracted by the face of little Mrs. Harding, who, all unnoticed and unseated, gazed upon Madame Okraska with the intent liquid eye of a pious dog; the wavering, uncertain smile that played upon her lips was like the humble thudding of the dog's tail. Gregory remembered her face now as one of those, rapt and hypnotized, that he had seen on the platform the night before. In the ovation that Madame Okraska had received at the end of the concert he had noticed this same plum-coloured little lady seizing and kissing the great woman's hand. Shy, by temperament, as he saw, to the point of suffering, he felt sure that only the infection of the crowd had carried her to the act of uncharacteristic daring. He watched her now, finding her piteous and absurd.
But someone beside himself was aware of Mrs. Harding. Miss Woodruff approached her, smiling impersonally, with rather the air of a kindly verger at a church. Yes, she seemed to say, she could find a seat for her. She pointed to the one she had risen from. Mrs. Harding, almost tearful in her gratitude, slid into it with the precaution of the reverent sight-seer who fears to disturb a congregation at prayer, and Miss Woodruff, moving away, went to a table and began to turn over the illustrated papers that lay upon it. Her manner, retired and cheerful, had no humility, none of the poor dependent's unobtrusiveness; rather, Gregory felt, it showed a happy pride, as if, a fortunate priestess in the temple, she had opportunities and felicities denied to mere worshippers. She was interested in her papers. She examined the pictures with something of a child's attentive pleasure.
Gregory came up to her and raising her eyes she smiled at him as though, on the basis of last night's encounter, she took him for granted as potentially a friend.
"What are you looking at?" he asked her, as he might have asked a friendly child.
She turned the paper to him. "The Great Wall of China. They are wonderful pictures."
Gregory stood beside her and looked. The photographs were indeed impressive. The sombre landscape, the pallid sky, and, winding as if for ever over hill and valley, the astonishing structure, like an infinite lonely consciousness. "I should like to see that," said Miss Woodruff.
"Well, you travel a great deal, don't you?" said Gregory. "No doubt Madame Okraska will go to China some day."
Miss Woodruff contemplated the desolate wall. "But this is thousands and thousands of miles from the places where concerts could be given; and I do not know that my guardian has ever thought of China; no, it is not probable that she will ever go there. And then, unfortunately, I do not always go with her. I travel a great deal; but I stop at home a great deal, too. My guardian likes best to be called von Marwitz in private life, by those who know her personally," Miss Woodruff added, smiling again as she presented him with the authorized liturgy.
Gregory was slightly taken aback. He couldn't have defined Miss Woodruff's manner as assured, yet it was singularly competent; and no one could have been in less need of benevolent attentions.
"I see," he said. "She looks so much more Polish than German, doesn't she? What do you call home?" he added. "Have you lived much in England?"
"By home I mean Cornwall," said Miss Woodruff, who was evidently used to being asked questions. "My guardian has a house there; but it has not been for long. It used to be in Germany, and then for a little in Italy; she has only had Les Solitudes for four years." She looked across at the group under the chandelier. "There is still room for a chair." Her glance indicated a gap in Madame von Marwitz's circle.
This kindly solicitude amused Gregory very much. She had him on her mind as a sight-seer, as she had had Mrs. Harding; and she was full of sympathy for sight-seers. "Oh—thanks—no," he said, his eyes following hers. "I won't go crowding in."
"She won't mind. She will not even notice;" Miss Woodruff assured him.
"Oh, well, I like to be noticed if I do crowd," Gregory returned smiling.
His slight irony was lost upon her; yet, he was sure of it, she was not dull. Her smile showed him that she congratulated him on an ambitious spirit. "Well, later, then, we will hope," she said. "You would of course rather talk with her. And here is Mr. Drew, so that this chance is gone."
"Who is that singular young man?" Gregory inquired watching with Miss Woodruff the newcomer, who found a place at once in the gap near Madame von Marwitz and was greeted by her with a brighter interest than she had yet shown.
"Mr. Claude Drew?" Miss Woodruff replied with some surprise. "Do you not know? I thought that everybody in London knew him. He is quite a famous writer. He has written poetry and essays. 'Artemis Wedded' is by him—that is poetry; and 'The Bow of Ulysses'—the essay on my guardian comes in that. Oh, he is quite well known."
Mr. Claude Drew was suave and elegant, and his high, stock-like collar and folded satin neck-gear gave him a somewhat recondite appearance. With his dark eyes, pale skin, full, smooth, golden hair, and the vivid red of an advancing Hapsburgian lip, he had the look of a young French dandy drawn by Ingres.
"My guardian is very much interested in him," Miss Woodruff went on. "She believes that he has a great future. She is always interested in promising young men." This, no doubt, was why Miss Woodruff had so kindly encouraged him to take his chances.
"He looks a clever fellow," said Gregory.
"Do you like his face?" Miss Woodruff inquired. Mr. Drew, as if aware of their scrutiny, had turned his eyes upon them for a moment. They were large, jaded eyes, lustrous, yet with the lustre of a surface rather than of depth; dense, velvety and impenetrable.
"Well, no, I don't," said Gregory, genially decisive. "He looks unwholesome, I think."
"Oh! Unwholesome?" Miss Woodruff repeated the word thoughtfully rather than interrogatively. "Yes; perhaps it is that. It is a danger of talented modern young men, isn't it. They are not strong enough to be so intelligent; one must be very strong—in character, I mean—if one is to be so intelligent. Perhaps he is not strong in character. Perhaps that is what one feels. Because I do not like his face, either; and I go greatly by faces."
"So do I," said Gregory. After a moment, in which they both continued to look at Mr. Drew, he went on. "I wondered last night what nationality you belonged to. I had been wondering about you for a long while before you looked round at me."
"You had heard about me?" she asked.
He was pleased to be able to say: "Oh, I wondered about you before I heard."
"People are so often interested in me because of my guardian," said Miss Woodruff; "everything about her interests them. But I am an American—if you were not told; that is to say my father was an American—and my mother was a Norwegian; but though I have never been to America I count myself as an American, and with right, I think," she added. "We always spoke English when I was a child, and I remember so many of my father's friends. Some day I hope I may go to America. Have you been there? Do you know New England? My father came from New England."
"No; I've never been there. I'm very insular and untravelled."
"Are you? It is a pity not to travel, isn't it," Miss Woodruff remarked.
"But you like it here in England?"
"Yes, I like it here, with Mrs. Forrester; and in Cornwall. But here with Mrs. Forrester always seems to me more like the life of Europe. English life, as a rule, is, I think, rather like boxes one inside the other." She was perfectly sweet and undogmatic, but her air of cosmopolitan competence amused Gregory, serenely of opinion, for his part, that English was the only life.
"Well, the great thing is that the boxes should fit comfortably into one another, isn't it," he observed; "and I think that on the whole we've come to fit pretty well in England. And we all come out of our boxes, don't we," he added, pleased with his application of her simile, "for a Madame von Marwitz."
"Yes, I know," said Miss Woodruff, also, evidently, pleased. "That is quite true; you all come out of your boxes for her. But, as a nation, they are not artists, the English, are they? They are kind to the beautiful things; they like to see them; they will take great trouble to see them; but they do not make them. Beauty does not grow here—that is what I mean. It is in its box, too, and it is taken out and passed round from time to time. You do not mind my saying this? You, perhaps, are yourself an artist?"
"Dear me, no; I'm only a lawyer. I'm shut up in the tightest of the boxes," said Gregory.
Miss Woodruff scrutinized him with a smile. "I should not think that of you," she said. "You do not look like an artist, it is true; few of us can be artists; but you do not look shut into a box, either. Beauty, to you, is something real; not a pastime, a fashion; no, I cannot think it. When I saw your face last night I thought: Here is one who cares. One counts those faces on one's fingers—even at a great concert. So many think they care who only want to care. To you art is a serious thing and an artist the greatest thing a country can produce. Is not that so?"
Gregory continued to be amused by what he felt to be Miss Woodruff's naivete. He was inclined to think that artists, however admirable in their functions, were undesirable in their persons, and the reverent enthusiasm that Miss Woodruff imagined in him was singularly uncharacteristic. He didn't quite know how to tell her so without seeming rude, so he contented himself with confessing that beauty, in his life, was kept, he feared, very much in its box.
They, went on talking, going to an adjacent sofa where Miss Woodruff, while they talked, stroked the deep fur of an immense Persian cat, Hieronimus by name, who established himself between them. Gregory found her very easy to talk to, though they had so few themes in common, and her face he discovered to be even more charming than he had thought it the night before. She was not at all beautiful and he imagined that in her world of artists she would not be particularly appreciated; nor would she be appreciated in his own world of convention—a girl with such a thick waist, such queer clothes, a face so broad, so brown, so abruptly modelled. She was, he felt, a grave and responsible young person, and something in her face suggested that she might have been through a great deal; but she was very cheerful and she laughed with facility at things he said and that she herself said; and when she laughed her eyes nearly closed and the tip of her tongue was caught, with an effect of child-like gaiety, between her teeth. The darkness of her skin made her lips, by contrast, of a pale rose, and her hair, where it grew thickly around her brows and neck, of an almost infantile fairness. Her broad, brown eyebrows lay far apart and her grey eyes were direct, deliberate and limpid.
From where Gregory sat he had Madame von Marwitz in profile and he observed that once or twice, when they laughed, she turned her head and looked at them. Presently she leaned a little to question Mrs. Forrester and then, rather vexed at a sequence, natural but unforeseen, he saw that Mrs. Forrester got up to fetch him.
"Tante has sent for you!" Miss Woodruff exclaimed. "I am so glad."
It really vexed him a little that he should still be supposed to be pining for an introduction; he would so much rather have stayed talking to her. On the sofa she continued to stroke Hieronimus and to keep a congratulatory gaze upon him while he was conducted to a seat beside the great woman.
Madame von Marwitz was very lovely. She was the type of woman with whom, as a boy, he would have fallen desperately in love, seeing her as poetry personified. And she was the type of woman, all indolent and indifferent as she was, who took it for granted that people would fall desperately in love with her. Her long gaze, now, told him that. It seemed to give him time, as it were, to take her in and to arrange with himself how best to adjust himself to a changed life. It was not the glance of a flirt; it held no petty consciousness; it was the gaze of an enchantress aware of her own inevitable power. Gregory met the cold, sweet, melancholy eyes. But as she gazed, as she slowly smiled, he was aware, with a perverse pleasure, that his present seasoned self was completely immune from her magic. He opposed commonplace to enchantment, and in him Madame von Marwitz would find no victim.
"I have never seen you here before, I think," she said. She spoke with a beautiful precision; that of the foreigner perfectly at ease in an alien tongue, yet not loving it sufficiently to take liberties with it.
Gregory said, no, she had never seen him there before.
"Mrs. Forrester is, it seems, a mutual friend," said Madame von Marwitz. "She has known you since boyhood. You have been very fortunate."
"She tells me that you are in the law," Madame von Marwitz pursued; "a barrister. I should not have thought that. A diplomat; a soldier, it should have been. Is it not so?"
Gregory had not wanted to be a barrister. It did not please him that Madame von Marwitz should guess so accurately at a disappointment that had made his youth bitter. "I'm a younger son, you see," he said. "And I had to make my living."
When Madame von Marwitz's gaze grew more intent she did not narrow her eyes, but opened them more widely. She opened them more widely now, putting back her head a little. "Ah," she said. "That was hard. That meant suffering. You are caged in a calling you do not care for."
"Oh, no," said Gregory, smiling; "I'm very well off; I'm quite contented."
"Contented?" she raised her crooked eyebrow. "Are you indeed so fortunate?—or so unfortunate?"
To this large question Gregory made no reply, continuing to offer her the non-committal coolness of his smile. He was not liking Madame von Marwitz, and he was becoming aware that if one didn't like her one did not appear to advantage in talking with her. He cast about in his mind for an excuse to get away.
"The law," Madame von Marwitz mused, her eyes dwelling on him. "It is stony; yet with stone one builds. You would not be content, I think, with the journeyman's work of the average lawyer. You shape; you create; you have before you the vision of the strong fortress to be built where the weak may find refuge. You are an architect, not a mason. Only so could you find contentment in your calling."
"I'm afraid that I don't think about it like that," said Gregory. "I should say that the fortress is built already."
There was now a change in her cold sweetness; her smile became a little ambiguous. "You remind me," she said, "that I was speaking in somewhat pretentious similes. I was not asking you what had been done, but what you hoped to do. I was asking—it was that that interested me in you, as it does in all the young men I meet—what was the ideal you brought to your calling."
It was as though, with all her sweetness, she had seen through his critical complacency and were correcting the manners of a conceited boy. Gregory was a good deal taken aback. And it was with a touch of boyish sulkiness that he replied: "I don't think, really, that I can claim ideals."
Definitely, now, the light of mockery shone in her eye. In evading her, in refusing to be drawn within her magic circle, he had aroused an irony that matched his own. She was not the mere phrase-making woman; by no means the mere siren. "How afraid you English are of your ideals," she said. "You live by them, but you will not look at them. I could say to you—as Statius to Virgil in the Purgatorio—that you carry your light behind you so that you light those who follow, but walk yourselves in darkness. You will not claim them; no, and above all, you will not talk about them. Do not be afraid, my young friend; I shall not tamper with your soul." So she spoke, sweetly, deliberately, yet tersely, too, as though to make him feel that she had done all she could for him and that he had proved himself not worth her trouble. Mr. Claude Drew was still on her other hand, carrying on an obviously desultory conversation with Miss Scrotton, and to him Madame von Marwitz turned, saying: "And what is it you wished to tell me of your Carducci? You will send me the proofs? Good. Oh, I shall not be too tired to read what you have written."
Here was a young man, evidently, who was worth her trouble. Gregory sat disposed of and a good deal discomposed, the more so since he had to own that he had opened himself to the rebuff. He rose and moved away, looking about and seeing that Miss Woodruff had left the room; but Mrs. Forrester came to him, her brilliant little face somewhat clouded.
"What is it, my dear Gregory?" she questioned. "She asked to have you brought. Haven't you pleased her?"
Mrs. Forrester, who had known not only himself, but his father in boyhood, was fond of him, but was not disposed to think of him as important. And she expected the unimportant to know, in a sense, their place and to show the important that they did know it. There was a hint, now, of severity, in her countenance.
It would sound, he knew, merely boyish and sulky to say: "She hasn't pleased me." But he couldn't resist: "I wasn't a la hauteur."
Mrs. Forrester, at this, looked at him hard for a moment. She then diagnosed his case as, one of bad temper rather than of malice, and could forgive it in one who had failed to interest the great woman and been discarded in consequence; Mercedes, she knew, could discard with decision.
"Well, when you talk to a woman like Madame von Marwitz, you must try to be worthy of your opportunities," she commented, tempering her severity with understanding. "You really had an opportunity. Your face interested her, and your kindness to little Karen. She always likes people who are kind to little Karen."
It was pleasantly open to him now to say: "Little Karen has been kind to me."
"A dear, good child," said Mrs. Forrester. "I am glad that you talked to her. You pleased Mercedes in that."
"She is a delightful girl," said Gregory.
He now took his departure. But he was again to encounter Miss Woodruff. She was in the hall, talking French to a sallow little woman in black, evidently a ladies' maid, who had the oppressed, anxious countenance and bright, melancholy eyes of a monkey.
"Allons," Miss Woodruff was saying in encouraging tones, while she paused on the first step of the stairs, her hand on the banister; "ce n'est pas une cause perdue, Louise; nous arrangerons la chose."
"Ah, Mademoiselle, c'est que Madame ne sera pas contente, pas contente du tout quand elle verra la robe," was Louise's mournful reply as Gregory came up.
"I hoped we might go on with our talk," he said. He still addressed her somewhat as one addresses a friendly child; "I wanted to hear the end of that story about the Hungarian student."
"He died, in Davos, poor boy," said Miss Woodruff, looking down at him from her slightly higher place, while Louise stood by dejectedly. "He wrote to my guardian and we went to him there and she played to him. It made him so happy. We were with him till he died."
"Shall I see you again?" Gregory asked. "Will you be here for any time? Are you staying in London?"
"My guardian goes to America next week—did you not know?—with Miss Scrotton."
"Oh yes, Eleanor told me. And you're not going too? You're not to see America yet?"
"No; not this time. I go to Cornwall."
"You are to be alone with Mrs. Talcott all the winter?"
"You know Mrs. Talcott?" Miss Woodruff exclaimed in pleased astonishment.
"No; I don't know her; Eleanor told me about her, too."
"It is not being alone," said Miss Woodruff. "She and I have a most happy time together. I thought it strange that you should know Mrs. Talcott. I never met anyone who knew her unless they knew my guardian very well."
"And when are you coming back?"
"From Cornwall? I do not know. I am afraid we shall not see each other—oh, for a very long time," said Miss Woodruff. She smiled. She gave him her hand, leaning down to him from behind the banister. Gregory said that he had friends in Cornwall and that he might run down and see them one day—and then he might see her and Les Solitudes, too. And Miss Woodruff said that that would be very nice.
He heard the last words of the colloquy with Louise as his coat was put on in the hall. "Alors il ne faut pas renvoyer la robe, Mademoiselle?"
"Mais non, mais non; nous nous tirerons d'affaire," Miss Woodruff replied, springing gaily up the stairs, her arm, with a sort of dignified familiarity, in which was encouragement and protection, cast round Louise's shoulders.
Gregory walked at a brisk pace from Mrs. Forrester's house in Wilton Crescent to Hyde Park Corner, and from there, through St. James's Park, to Queen Anne's Mansions where he had a flat. He had moved into it from dismal rooms when prosperity had first come to him, five or six years ago, and was much attached to it. It was high up in the large block of buildings and its windows looked over the greys and greens and silvers of the park, the water shining in the midst, and the dim silhouettes of Whitehall rising in stately significance on the evening sky. Gregory went to the balcony and overhung his view contemplatively for a while. The fog had lifted, and all London was alight.
The drawing-room behind him expressed an accepted convention rather than a personal predilection. It was not the room of a young man of conscious tastes. It was solid, cheerful and somewhat naif. There was a great deal of very clean white paint and a great deal of bright wall-paper. There were deep chairs covered with brighter chintz. There were blue and white tiles around the fireplace and heavy, polished brass before. On the tables lay buff and blue reviews and folded evening papers, massive paper-cutters and large silver boxes. Photographs in silver frames also stood there, of female relatives in court dress and of male relatives in uniform. Behind the photographs were pots of growing flowers; and on the walls etchings and engravings after well-known landscapes. It was the room of a young man uninfluenced by Whistler, unaware of Chinese screens and indifferent to the rival claims of Jacobean and Chippendale furniture. It was civilised, not cultivated; and it was thoroughly commonplace.
Gregory thought of himself as the most commonplace of types;—the younger son whose father hadn't been able to do anything for him beyond educating him; the younger son who, after years of uncongenial drudgery had emerged, tough, stringy, professional, his boyish dreams dead and his boyish tastes atrophied; a useful hard-working, clear-sighted member of society. And there was truth in this conception of himself. There was truth, too, in Madame von Marwitz's probe. He had more than the normal English sensitiveness where ideals were concerned and more than the normal English instinct for a protective literalness. He didn't intend that anybody should lay their hand on his heart and tell him of lofty aims that it would have made him feel awkward to look at by himself; his fastidiousness was far from commonplace, and so were his disdains; they made cheap successes and cheap ambitions impossible to him. He would never make a fortune out of the law; yet already he was distinguished among the younger men at the bar. With nothing of the air of a paladin he brought into the courts a flavour of classic calm and courtesy. He was punctiliously fair. He never frightened or bullied or confused. His impartiality could become alarming at times to his own clients, and shady cases passed him by. Everybody respected Gregory Jardine and a good many people disliked him. A few old friends, comrades at Eton and Oxford, were devoted to him and looked upon him, in spite of his reputation for almost merciless common-sense, as still potentially Quixotic. As a boy he had been exceptionally tender-hearted; but now he was hard, or thought himself so. He had no vanity and looked upon his own resolution and dignity as the heritage of all men worth their salt; in consequence he was inclined to theoretic severity towards the worsted. The sensitiveness of youth had steeled itself in irony; he was impatient of delusions and exaltations, and scornful of the shambling, shame-faced motives that moved so many of the people who came under his observation.
Yet, leaning on the iron railing, his gaze softening to a grave, peaceful smile as he looked over the vast, vaporous scene, laced with its moving and motionless lines of light, it was this, and its mysteries, its delicacies, its reticent radiance, that expressed him more truly than the commonplaces of the room behind him, accurately as these symbolized the activities of his life. The boy and youth, emotional and poetic, dreamy if also shrewdly humorous, still survived in a sub-conscious region of his nature, an Atlantis sunken beneath the traffic of the surface; and, when he leaned and gazed, as now, at the lovely evocations of the evening, it was like hearing dimly, from far depths, the bells of the buried city ringing.
He was thinking of nothing as he leaned there, though memories, linked in their associated loveliness, floated across his mind—larch-boughs brushed exquisitely against a frosty sky on a winter morning in Northumberland, when, a boy, with gun and dogs, he had paused on the wooded slopes near his home to look round him; or the little well of chill, clear water that he had found one summer day gushing from a mossy source under a canopy of leaves; or the silver sky, and hills folded in greys and purples, that had surrounded him on a day in late autumn when he had walked for miles in loneliness and, again, had paused to look, receiving the scene ineffaceably, so that certain moods always made it rise before him. And linked by some thread of affinity with these pictures, the face of the young girl he had met that afternoon rose before him. Not as he had just seen her, but as he had seen her, for the first time, the night before at the concert. Her face came back to him with the larch-boughs and the spring of water and the lonely hills, while he looked at London beneath him. She touched and interested him, and appealed to something sub-conscious, as music did. But when he passed from picturing her to thinking about her, about her origin and environment and future, it was with much the same lucid and unmoved insight with which he would have examined some unfortunate creature in the witness-box.
Miss Woodruff seemed to him very unfortunate. For her irregular birth he had contempt and for her haphazard upbringing only pity. He saw no place in a well-ordered society for sculptors who ran away with other men's wives and lived on chestnuts and left their illegitimate children to be picked up at the roadside. He was the type of young man who, theoretically, admitted of and indeed admired all independences in women; practically he preferred them to be sheltered by their male relatives and to read no French novels until they married—if then. Miss Woodruff struck him as at once sheltered and exposed. Her niche under the extended wing of the great woman seemed to him precarious. He saw no real foothold for her in her present milieu. She only entered Mrs. Forrester's orbit, that was evident, as a tiny satellite in attendance on the streaming comet. In the wake of the comet she touched, it was true, larger orbits than the artistic; but it was in this accidental and transitory fashion, and his accurate knowledge of the world saw in the nameless and penniless girl the probable bride of some second-rate artist, some wandering, dishevelled musician, or ill-educated, ill-regulated poet. Girls like that, who had the aristocrat's assurance and simplicity and unconsciousness of worldly lore, without the aristocrat's secure standing in the world, were peculiarly in danger of sinking below the level of their own type.
He went in to dress. He was dining with the Armytages and after thinking of Miss Woodruff it was indeed like passing from memories of larch-woods into the chintzes and metals and potted flowers of the drawing-room to think of Constance Armytage. Yet Gregory thought of her very contentedly while he dressed. She was well-dowered, well-educated, well-bred; an extremely nice and extremely pretty young woman with whom he had danced, dined and boated frequently during her first two seasons. The Armytages had a house at Pangbourne and he spent several week-ends with them every summer. Constance liked him and he liked her. He was not in love with her; but he wondered if he might not be. To get married to somebody like Constance seemed the next step in his sensible career. He could see her established most appropriately in the flat. He could see her beautifully burnished chestnut hair, her pretty profile and bright blue eyes above the tea-table; he could see her at the end of the dinner-table presiding charmingly at a dinner. She would be a charming mother, too; the children, when babies, would wear blue sashes and would grow up doing all the proper things at the proper times, from the French bonne and the German Fraeulein to Eton and Oxford and dances and happy marriages. She would continue all the traditions of his outer life, would fulfil it and carry it on peacefully and honourably into the future.
The Armytages lived in a large house in Queen's Gate Gardens. They were not interesting people, but Gregory liked them none the less for that. He approved of the Armytage type—the kind, courageous, intolerant old General who managed to find Gladstone responsible for every misfortune that befell the Empire—blithe, easy-going Lady Armytage, the two sons in the army and the son in the navy and the two unmarried girls, of whom Constance was one and the other still in the school-room. It was a small dinner-party that night; most of the family were there and they had music after it, Constance singing very prettily—she was taking lessons—the last two songs she had learned, one by Widor and one by Tosti.
Yet as he drove home late Gregory was aware that Constance still remained a pleasant possibility to contemplate and that he had come no nearer to being in love with her. It might be easier, he mused, if only she could offer some trivial trick or imperfection, if she had been freckled, say, or had had a stammer, or prominent teeth. He could imagine being married to her so much more easily than being in love with her, and he was a little vexed with himself for his own insusceptibility.
Constance was the last thing that he thought of before going to sleep; yet it was not of her he dreamed. He dreamed, very strangely, of the little cosmopolitan waif whom he had met that afternoon. He was walking down a road in a forest. The sky above was blue, with white clouds heaving above the dark tree-tops, and it was a still, clear day. His mood was the boyish mood of romance and expectancy, touched with a little fear. At a turning of the road he came suddenly upon Karen Woodruff. She was standing at the edge of the forest as if waiting for him, and she held a basket of berries, not wild-strawberry and not bramble, but a fairy-tale fruit that a Hans Andersen heroine might have gathered, and she looked like such a heroine herself, young, and strange, and kind, and wearing the funny little dress of the concert, the white dress with the flat blue bows. She held out the basket to him as he approached, and, smiling at each other in silence, they ate the fruit with its wild, sweet savour. Then, as if he had spoken and she were answering him, she said: "And I love you."
Gregory woke with this. He lay for some moments still half dreaming, with no surprise, conscious only of a peaceful wonder. He had forgotten the dream in the morning; but it returned to him later in the day, and often afterwards. It persisted in his memory like a cluster of unforgettable sensations. The taste of the berries, the scent of the pine-trees, the sweetness of the girl's smile, these things, rather than any significance that they embodied, remained with him like one of the deep impressions of his boyhood.
On the morning that Gregory Jardine had waked from his dream, Madame von Marwitz sat at her writing-table tearing open, with an air of impatient melancholy, note after note and letter after letter, and dropping the envelopes into a waste-paper basket beside her. A cigarette was between her lips; her hair, not dressed, was coiled loosely upon her head; she wore a white silk peignoir bordered with white fur and girdled with a sash of silver tissue. She had just come from her bath and her face, though weary, had the freshness of a prolonged toilet.
The room where she sat, with its grand piano and its deep chairs, its sofa and its capacious writing-table, was accurately adjusted to her needs. It, too, was all in white, carpet, curtains and dimity coverings. Madame von Marwitz laughed at her own vagary; but it had had only once to be clearly expressed, and the greens and pinks that had adorned her sitting-room at Mrs. Forrester's were banished as well as the rose-sprigged toilet set and hangings of the bedroom. "I cannot breathe among colours," she had said. "They seem to press upon me. White is like the air; to live among colours, with all their beauty, is like swimming under the water; I can only do it with comfort for a little while."