THE CUP OF FURY
BOOKS BY RUPERT HUGHES
The Cup of Fury The Unpardonable Sin We Can't Have Everything In a Little Town The Thirteenth Commandment Clipped Wings What Will People Say? The Last Rose of Summer Empty Pockets Long Ever Ago
HARPER & BROTHERS, NEW YORK
THE CUP OF FURY
A Novel of Cities and Shipyards
BY RUPERT HUGHES
Author of "We Can't Have Everything" "The Unpardonable Sin" etc.
ILLUSTRATED BY HENRY RALEIGH
HARPER & BROTHERS PUBLISHERS
NEW YORK AND LONDON
THE CUP OF FURY
Copyright, 1919, by Harper & Brothers Printed in the United States of America Published May, 1919
"It would be nice to be married," Marie Louise reflected, "if one could stay single at the same time." Frontispiece Facing p. He tried to swing her to the pommel, but she fought herself free and came to the ground and was almost trampled. 3 "This is the life for me. I've been a heroine and a war-worker about as long as I can." 75 "'It's beautiful overhead if you're going that way,'" Davidge quoted. He set out briskly, but Marie Louise hung back. "Aren't you afraid to push on when you can't see where you're going?" she demanded. 91 There was something hallowed and awesome about it all. It had a cathedral majesty. 166 How quaint a custom it is for people who know each other well and see each other in plain clothes every day to get themselves up with meticulous skill in the evening like Christmas parcels for each other's examination. 235 "So I have already done something more for Germany. That's splendid. Now tell me what else I can do." Nicky was too intoxicated with his success to see through her thin disguise. 270 Nobody recognized the lily-like beauty of Miss Webling in the smutty-faced passer-boy crouching at Sutton's elbow. 282
THE CUP OF FURY
Then the big door swung back as if of itself. Marie Louise had felt that she would scream if she were kept a moment outside. The luxury of simply wishing the gate ajar gave her a fairy-book delight enhanced by the pleasant deference of the footman, whose face seemed to be hung on the door like a Japanese mask.
Marie Louise rejoiced in the dull splendor of the hall. The obsolete gorgeousness of the London home had never been in good taste, but had grown as lovable with years as do the gaudy frumperies of a rich old relative. All the good, comfortable shelter of wealth won her blessing now as never before. The stairway had something of the grand manner, too, but it condescended graciously to escort her up to her own room; and there, she knew, was a solitude where she could cry as hard as she wanted to, and therefore usually did not want to. Besides, her mood now was past crying for.
She was afraid of the world, afraid of the light. She felt the cave-impulse to steal into a deep nook and cower there till her heart should be replenished with courage automatically, as ponds are fed from above.
Marie Louise wanted walls about her, and stillness, and people shut out. She was in one of the moods when the soul longs to gather its faculties together in a family, making one self of all its selves. Marie Louise had known privation and homelessness and the perils they bring a young woman, and now she had riches and a father and mother who were great people in a great land, and who had adopted her into their own hearts, their lives, their name. But to-day she asked nothing more than a deep cranny in a dark cave.
She would have said that no human voice or presence could be anything but a torture to her. And yet, when she hurried up the steps, she was suddenly miraculously restored to cheerfulness by the tiny explosion of a child's laughter instantly quenched. She knew that she was about to be ambushed as usual. She must pretend to be completely surprised once more, and altogether terrified with her perfect regularity.
Her soul had been so utterly surprised and terrified in the outer world that this infantile parody was curiously welcome, since nothing keeps the mind in balance on the tight-rope of sanity like the counterweight that comedy furnishes to tragedy, farce to frenzy, and puerility to solemnity.
The children called her "Auntie," but they were not hers except through the adoption of a love that had to claim some kinship. They looked like her children, though—so much so, indeed, that strangers thought that she was their young mother. But it was because she looked like their mother, who had died, that the American girl was a member of this British household, inheriting some of its wealth and much of its perilous destiny.
She had been ambuscaded in the street to-day by demons not of faery, but of fact, that had leaped out at her from nowhere. It solaced her somehow to burlesque the terror that had whelmed her, and, now that she was assailed by ruthless thugs of five and seven years, the shrieks she had not dared to release in the street she gave forth with vigor, as two nightgowned tots flung themselves at her with milk-curdling cries of:
Holding up pink fat hands for pistols, they snapped their thumbs at her and said:
And she emitted most amusing squeals of anguish and staggered back, stammering:
"Oh, p-p-please, Mr. Robbobber and Miss Burgurgular, take my l-l-life but spare my m-m-money."
She had been so genuinely scared before that she marred the sacred text now, and the First Murderer, who had all the conservative instincts of childhood, had to correct her misquotation of the sacred formula:
"No, no, Auntie. Say, 'Take my money but spare my life!' Now we dot to do it all over."
"I beg your pardon humbly," she said, and went back to be ambushed again. This time the boy had an inspiration. To murder and robbery he would add scalping.
But Marie Louise was tired. She had had enough of fright, real or feigned, and refused to be scalped. Besides, she had been to the hairdresser's, and she explained that she really could not afford to be scalped. The boy was bitterly disappointed, and he grew furious when the untimely maid came for him and for his ruthless sister and demanded that they come to bed at once or be reported.
As the warriors were dragged off to shameful captivity, Marie Louise, watching them, was suddenly shocked by the thought of how early in life humanity begins to revel in slaughter. The most innocent babes must be taught not to torture animals. Cruelty comes with them like a caul, or a habit brought in from a previous existence. They always almost murder their mothers and sometimes quite slay them when they are born. Their first pastimes are killing games, playing dead, stories of witches, cannibalistic ogres. The American Indian is the international nursery pet because of his traditional fiendishness.
It seemed inconsistent, but it was historically natural that the boy interrupted in his massacre of his beloved aunt should hang back to squall that he would say his prayers only to her. Marie Louise glanced at her watch. She had barely time to dress for dinner, but the children had to be obeyed. She made one weak protest.
"Fraeulein hears your prayers."
"But she's wented out."
"Well, I'll hear them, then."
"Dot to tell us fairy-'tory, too," said the girl.
"All right, one fairy-'tory—"
She went to the nursery, and the cherubs swarmed up to her lap demanding "somefin bluggy."
Invention failed her completely. She hunted through her memory among the Grimms' fairy-tales. She could recall nothing that seemed sweet and guileless enough for these two lambs.
All that she could think of seemed to be made up of ghoulish plots; of children being mistreated by harsh stepmothers; of their being turned over to peasants to slay; of their being changed into animals or birds; of their being seized by wolves, or by giants that drank blood and crunched children's bones as if they were reed birds; of hags that cut them up into bits or thrust them into ovens and cooked them for gingerbread. It occurred to her that all the German fairy-stories were murderously cruel. She felt a revulsion against each of the legends. But her mind could not find substitutes.
After a period of that fearful ordeal when children tyrannize for romances that will not come, her mind grew mutinous and balked. She confessed her poverty of ideas.
The girl, Bettina, sulked; the boy screamed:
"Aw, botheration! We might as well say our prayers and go to bed."
In the least pious of moods they dropped from her knees to their own and put their clasped hands across her lap. They became in a way hallowed by their attitude, and the world seemed good to her again as she looked down at the two children, beautiful as only children can be, innocent of wile, of hardship and of crime, safe at home and praying to their heavenly Father from whose presence they had so recently come.
But as she brooded over them motherly and took strength from them as mothers do, she thought of other children in other countries orphaned in swarms, starving in multitudes, waiting for food like flocks of lambs in the blizzard of the war. She thought still more vividly of children flung into the ocean. She had seen these children at her knees fighting against bitter medicines, choking on them and blurting them out at mouth and nose and almost, it seemed, at eyes. So it was very vivid to her how children thrown into the sea must have gagged with terror at the bitter medicine of death, strangled and smothered as they drowned.
She heard the prayers mumbled through, but at the hasty "Amen" she protested.
"You didn't thank God for anything. Haven't you anything to thank God for?"
If they had expressed any doubt, she would have told them of dozens of special mercies, but almost instantly they answered, "Oh yes!" They looked at each other, understood, nodded, clapped their hands, and chuckled with pride. Then they bent their heads, gabled their finger-tips, and the boy said:
"We t'ank Dee, O Dod, for making sink dat old Lusitania." And the girl said, "A-men!"
Marie Louise gave a start as if she had been stabbed. It was the loss of the Lusitania that had first terrified her. She had just seen it announced on the placards of newsboys in London streets, and had fled home to escape from the vision, only to hear the children thank Heaven for it! She rose so suddenly that she flung the children back from their knees to their haunches. They stared up at her in wondering fear. She stepped outside the baleful circle and went striding up and down the room, fighting herself back to self-control, telling herself that the children were not to blame, yet finding them the more repulsive for their very innocence. The purer the lips, the viler the blasphemy.
She was not able to restrain herself from denouncing them with all her ferocity. She towered over them and cried out upon them: "You wicked, wicked little beasts, how dare you put such loathsome words into a prayer! God must have gasped with horror in heaven at the shame of it. Wherever did you get so hateful an idea?"
"Wicked your own self!" the boy snapped back. "Fraeulein read it in the paper about the old boat, and she walked up and down the room like what you do, and she said, 'Ach, unser Dott—how dood you are to us, to make sink dat Lusitania!'"
He was going on to describe her ecstasy, but Marie Louise broke in: "It's Fraeulein's work, is it? I might have known that! Oh, the fiend, the harpy!"
The boy did not know what a harpy was, but he knew that his beloved Fraeulein was being called something, and he struck at Marie Louise fiercely, kicked at her shins and tried to bite her hands, screaming: "You shall not call our own precious Fraeulein names. Harpy, your own self!"
And the little girl struck and scratched and made a curdled face and echoed, "Harpy, your own self!"
It hurt Marie Louise so extravagantly to be hated by these irascible cherubs that her anger vanished in regret. She pleaded: "But, my darlings, you don't know what you are saying. The Lusitania was a beautiful ship—"
The boy, Victor, was loyal always to his own: "She wasn't as beautiful as my yacht what I sail in the Round Pond."
Marie Louise condescended to argue: "Oh yes, she was! She was a great ship, noble like Saint Paul's Cathedral, and she was loaded with passengers, men and women and children: and then suddenly she was ripped open and sunk, and little children like you were thrown into the water, into the deep, deep, deep ocean. And the big waves tore them from their mothers' arms and ran off with them, choking and strangling them and dragging them down and down—forever down."
She was dizzied by the horde of visions mobbing her brain. Then the onrush of horror was checked abruptly as she saw the supercilious lad regarding her frenzy calmly. His comment was:
"It served 'em jolly well right for bein' on 'at old boat."
Marie Louise almost swooned with dread of such a soul. She shrank from the boy and groaned, "Oh, you toad, you little toad!"
He was frightened a little by her disgust, and he took refuge in a higher authority. "Fraeulein told us. And she knows."
The bit lassiky stormed to his support: "She does so!" and drove it home with the last nail of feminine argument: "So there now!"
Marie Louise retorted, weakly: "We'll see! We'll soon see!" And she rushed out of the room, like another little girl, straight to the door of Sir Joseph, where she knocked impatiently. His man appeared and murmured through a crevice: "Sorry, miss, but Seh Joseph is dressing."
Marie Louise went to Lady Webling's door, and a maid came to whisper: "She is in her teb. We're having dinner at tome to-night, miss."
Marie Louise nodded. Dinner must be served, and on time. It was the one remaining solemnity that must not be forgotten or delayed.
She went to her own room. Her maid was in a stew about the hour, and the gown that was to be put on. Marie Louise felt that black was the only wear on such a Bartholomew's night. But Sir Joseph hated black so well that he had put a clause in his will against its appearance even at his own funeral. Marie Louise loved him dearly, but she feared his prejudices. She had an abject terror of offending him, because she felt that she owed everything she had, and was, to the whim of his good grace. Gratitude was a passion with her, and it doomed her, as all passions do, good or bad, to the penalties human beings pay for every excess of virtue or vice—if, indeed, vice is anything but an immoderate, untimely virtue.
Marie Louise let her maid select the gown. She was an exquisite picture as she stood before the long mirror and watched the buckling on of her armor, her armor of taffeta and velvet with the colors of sunlit leaves and noon-warmed flowers in carefully elected wrinkles assured with many a hook and eye. Her image was radiant and pliant and altogether love-worthy, but her thoughts were sad and stern.
She was resolved that Fraeulein should not remain in the house another night. She wondered that Sir Joseph had not ousted her from the family at the first crash of war. The old crone! She could have posed for one of the Grimms' most vulturine witches. But she had kept a civil tongue in her head till now; the children adored her, and Sir Joseph had influence enough to save her from being interned or deported.
Hitherto, Marie Louise had felt sorry for her in her dilemma of being forced to live at peace in the country her own country was locked in war with. Now she saw that the woman's oily diplomacy was only for public use, and that all the while she was imbruing the minds of the little children with the dye of her own thoughts. The innocents naturally accepted everything she told them as the essence of truth.
Marie Louise hoped to settle the affair before dinner, but by the time she was gowned and primped, the first premature guest had arrived like the rashest primrose, shy, surprised, and surprising. Sir Joseph had gone below already. Lady Webling was hull down on the stairway.
Marie Louise saw that her protest must wait till after the dinner, and she followed to do her duty to the laws of hospitality.
Sir Joseph liked to give these great affairs. He loved to eat and to see others eat. "The more the merrier," was his motto—one of the most truthless of the old saws. Little dinners at Sir Joseph's—what he called "on fameals"—would have been big dinners elsewhere. A big dinner was like a Lord Mayor's banquet. He needed only a crier at his back and a Petronius to immortalize his gourmandise.
To-night he had great folk and small fry. Nobody pretended to know the names of everybody. Sir Joseph himself leaned heavily on the man who sang out the labels of the guests, and even then his wife whispered them to him as they came forward, and for a precaution, kept slipping them into the conversation as reminders.
There were several Americans present: a Doctor and Mrs. Clinton Worthing who had come over with a special shipload of nurses. The ship had been fitted out by Mrs. Worthing, who had been Muriel Schuyler, daughter of the giant plutocrat, Jacob Schuyler, who was lending England millions of money weekly. A little American millionaire, Willie Enslee, living in England now on account of some scandal in his past, was there. He did not look romantic.
Marie Louise had no genius for names, or faces, either. To-night she was frightened, and she made some horrible blunders, greeting the grisly Mr. Verrinder by the name of Mr. Hilary. The association was clear, for Mr. Hilary had called Mr. Verrinder atrocious names in Parliament; but it was like calling "Mr. Capulet" "Mr. Montague." Marie Louise tried to redeem her blunder by putting on an extra effusiveness for the sake of Mr. and Mrs. Norcross. Mrs. Norcross had only recently shaken off the name of Mrs. Patchett after a resounding divorce. So Marie Louise called her new husband by the name of her old, which made it very pleasant.
Her wits were so badly dispersed that she gave up the attempt to take in the name of an American whom Lady Webling passed along to her as "Mr. Davidge, of the States." And he must have been somebody of importance, for even Sir Joseph got his name right. Marie Louise, however, disliked him cordially at once—for two reasons: first, she hated herself so much that she could not like anybody just then; next, this American was entirely too American. He was awkward and indifferent, but not at all with the easy amble and patrician unconcern of an English aristocrat.
Marie Louise was American-born herself, and humbly born, at that, but she liked extreme Americanism never the more. Perhaps she was a bit of a snob, though fate was getting ready to beat the snobbery out of her. And hers was an unintentional, superficial snobbery, at worst. Some people said she was affected and that she aped the swagger dialect. But she had a habit of taking on the accent and color of her environments. She had not been in England a month before she spoke Piccadilly almost impeccably. She had caught French and German intonations with equal speed and had picked up music by ear with the same amazing facility in the days when certain kinds of music were her livelihood.
In one respect her Englishness of accent was less an imitation or an affectation than a certain form of politeness and modesty. When an Englishwoman said, "Cahn't you?" it seemed tactless to answer, "No, I cann't." To respond to "Good mawning" with "Good morrning" had the effect of a contradiction or a correction. She had none of the shibboleth spirit that leads certain people to die or slay for a pronunciation. The pronunciation of the people she was talking to was good enough for her. She conformed also because she hated to see people listening less to what she said than to the Yankee way she said it.
This man Davidge had a superb brow and a look of success, but he bored her before he reached her. She made ready for flight to some other group. Then he startled her—by being startled as he caught sight of her. When Lady Webling transmitted him with a murmur of his name and a tender, "My daughter," Davidge stopped short and mumbled:
"I've had the pleasure of meeting you before, somewhere, haven't I?"
Marie Louise snubbed him flatly. "I think not."
He took the slap with a smile. "Did I hear Lady Webling call you her daughter?"
Marie Louise did not explain, but answered, curtly, "Yes," with the aristocratic English parsimony that makes it almost "Yis."
"Then you're right and I'm wrong. I beg your pardon."
"Daon't mention it," said Marie Louise, and drew closer to Lady Webling and the oncoming guest. She had the decency to reproach herself for being beastly to the stranger, but his name slipped at once through the sieve of her memory.
Destiny is the grandiose title we give to the grand total of a long column of accidents when we stop to tot up the figures. So we wait till that strange sum of accidents which we call a baby is added up into a living child of determined sex before we fasten a name that changes an it to a him or a her.
The accidents that result in a love-affair, too, we look back on and outline into a definite road, and we call that Fate. We are great for giving names to selected fragments of the chaos of life.
In after years Marie Louise and this man Davidge would see something mystic and intended in the meeting that was to be the detached prologue of their after conflicts. They would quite misremember what really happened—which was, that she retained no impression of him at all, and that he called himself a fool for mixing her with a girl he had met years and years before for just a moment, and had never forgotten because he had not known her well enough to forget her.
He had reason enough to distrust his sanity for staring at a resplendent creature in a London drawing-room and imagining for a moment that she was a long-lost, long-sought girl of old dreams—a girl he had seen in a cheap vaudeville theater in a Western state. She was one of a musical team that played all sorts of instruments—xylophones, saxophones, trombones, accordions, cornets, comical instruments concealed in hats and umbrellas. This girl had played each of them in turn, in solo or with the rest of the group. The other mummers were coarse and vaude-vulgar, but she had captivated Davidge with her wild beauty, her magnetism, and the strange cry she put into her music.
When she played the trombone she looked to him like one of the angels on a cathedral trumpeting an apocalyptic summons to the dead to bloom from their graves. When she played the cornet it was with a superhuman tone that shook his emotions almost insufferably. She had sung, too, in four voices—in an imitation of a bass, a tenor, a contralto, and finally as a lyric soprano, then skipping from one to the other. They called her "Mamise, the Quartet in One."
Davidge had thought her marvelous and had asked the manager of the theater to introduce him. The manager thought him a young fool, and Davidge had felt himself one when he went back to the dingy stage, where he found Mamise among a troupe of trained animals waiting to go on. She was teasing a chittering, cigar-smoking trained ape on a bicycle, and she proved to be an extraordinarily ordinary, painfully plebeian girl, common in voice and diction, awkward and rather contemptuous of the stage-door Johnnie. Davidge had never ceased to blush, and blushed again now, when he recalled his labored compliment, "I expect to see your name in the electric lights some of these days—or nights, Miss Mamise."
She had grumbled, "Much ubbliged!" and returned to the ape, while Davidge slunk away, ashamed.
He had not forgotten that name, though the public had. He had never seen "Mamise" in the electric lights. He had never found the name in any dictionary. He had supposed her to be a foreigner—Spanish, Polish, Czech, French, or something. He had not been able to judge her nationality from the two gruff words, but he had often wondered what had happened to her. She might have been killed in a train wreck or been married to the ape-trainer or gone to some other horrible conclusion. He had pretty well buried her among his forgotten admirations and torments, when lo and behold! she emerged from a crowd of peeresses and plutocrats in London.
He had sprung toward her with a wild look of recognition before he had had time to think it over. He had been rebuffed by a cold glance and then by an English intonation and a fashionable phrase. He decided that his memory had made a fool of him, and he stood off, humble and confused.
But his eyes quarreled with his ears, and kept telling him that this tall beauty who ignored him so perfectly, so haughtily, was really his lost Mamise.
If men would trust their intuitions oftener they would not go wrong so often, perhaps, since their best reasoning is only guesswork, after all. It was not going to be destiny that brought Davidge and Marie Louise together again so much as the man's hatred of leaving anything unfinished—even a dream or a vague desire. There was no shaking Davidge off a thing he determined on except as you shake off a snapping-turtle, by severing its body from its head.
A little later Sir Joseph sought the man out and treated him respectfully, and Marie Louise knew he must be somebody. She found him staring at her over Sir Joseph's shoulder and puzzling about her. And this made her wretchedly uncomfortable, for perhaps, after all, she fretted, he had indeed met her somewhere before, somewhere in one of those odious strata she had passed through on her way up to the estate of being called daughter by Lady Webling.
She forgot her misgivings and was restored to equanimity by the incursion of Polly Widdicombe and her husband. Polly was one of the best-dressed women in the world. Her husband had the look of the husband of the best-dressed woman in the world. Polly had a wiry voice, and made no effort to soften it, but she was tremendously smart. She giggled all the time and set people off in her vicinity, though her talk was rarely witty on its own account.
Laughter rippled all through her life. She talked of her griefs in a plucky, riant way, making eternal fun of herself as a giddy fool. She carried a delightful jocundity wherever she went. She was aristocratic, too, in the postgraduate degree of being careless, reckless, superior even to good manners. She had a good heart and amiable feelings; these made manners enough.
She had lineage as well, for her all-American family ran straight back into the sixteen hundreds, which was farther than many a duke dared trace his line. She had traveled the world; she had danced with kings, and had made two popes laugh and tweak her pointed chin. She wasn't afraid of anybody, not even of peasants and servants, or of being friendly with them, or angry with them.
Marie Louise adored her. She felt that it would make no difference to Polly's affection if she found out all there was to find out about Marie Louise. And yet Polly's friendship did not have the dull certainty of indestructibility. Marie Louise knew that one word wrong or one act out of key might end it forever, and then Polly would be her loud and ardent enemy, and laugh at her instead of for her. Polly could hate as briskly as she could love.
She was in one of her vitriolic moods now because of the Lusitania.
"I shouldn't have come to-night," she said, "except that I want to talk to a lot of people about Germany. I want to tell everybody I know how much I loathe 'em all. 'The Hymn of Hate' is a lullaby to what I feel."
Polly was also conducting a glorious war with Lady Clifton-Wyatt. Lady C.-W. had bullied everybody in London so successfully that she went straight up against Polly Widdicombe without a tremor. She got what-for, and everybody was delighted. The two were devoted enemies from then on, and it was beautiful to see them come together.
Lady Clifton-Wyatt followed Polly up the receiving line to-night and invited a duel, but Polly was in no humor for a fight with anybody but Germans. She turned her full-orbed back on Lady C.-W. and, so to speak, gnashed her shoulder-blades at her. Lady C.-W. passed by without a word, and Marie Louise was glad to hide behind Polly, for Marie Louise was mortally afraid of Lady C.-W.
She saw the American greet her as if he had met her before. Lady Clifton-Wyatt was positively polite to him. He must be a very great man.
She heard Lady Clifton-Wyatt say something about, "How is the new ship coming on?" and the American said, "She's doing as well as could be expected."
So he was a ship-builder. Marie Louise thought that his must be a heartbreaking business in these days when ships were being slaughtered in such numbers. She asked Polly and her husband if they knew him or his name.
Widdicombe shook his head. Polly laughed at her husband. "How do you know? He might be your own mother, for all you can tell. Put on your distance-glasses, you poor fish." She turned to Marie Louise. "You know how near-sighted Tom is."
"An excellent fault in a man," said Marie Louise.
"Oh, I don't know," said Polly. "You can't trust even the blind ones. And you'll notice that when Tom comes to one of these decollete dinners, he wears his reading-glasses."
All this time Widdicombe was taking out his distance-glasses, taking off his reading-glasses and pouching them and putting them away, and putting on his distance-glasses, and from force of habit putting their pouch away. Then he stared at Davidge, took off his distance-glasses, found the case with difficulty, put them up, pocketed them, and stood blearing into space while he searched for his reading-glasses, found them, put the case back in his pocket and saddled his nose with the lenses.
Polly waited in a mockery of patience and said:
"Well, after all that, what?"
"I don't know him," said Widdicombe.
It was a good deal of an anticlimax to so much work.
Polly said: "That proves nothing. Tom's got a near-memory, too. The man's a pest. If he didn't make so much money, I'd abandon him on a door-step."
That was Polly's form of baby-talk. Everybody knew how she doted on Tom: she called him names as one scolds a pet dog. Widdicombe had the helpless manner of one, and was always at heel with Polly. But he was a Titan financially, and he was signing his name now to munitions-contracts as big as national debts.
Marie Louise was summoned from the presence of the Widdicombes by one of Lady Webling's most mysterious glances, to meet a new-comer whom Lady Webling evidently regarded as a special treasure. Lady Webling was as wide as a screen, and she could always form a sort of alcove in front of her by turning her back on the company. She made such a nook now and, taking Marie Louise's hand in hers, put it in the hand of the tall and staring man whose very look Marie Louise found invasive. His handclasp was somehow like an illicit caress.
How strange it is that with so much modesty going about, people should be allowed to wear their hands naked! The fashion of the last few years compelling the leaving off of gloves was not really very nice. Marie Louise realized it for the first time. Her fastidious right hand tried to escape from the embrace of the stranger's fingers, but they clung devil-fishily, and Lady Webling's soft cushion palm was there conniving in the abduction. And her voice had a wheedling tone:
"This is my dear Nicky I have spoken of so much—Mr. Easton, you know."
"Oh yes," said Marie Louise.
"Be very nice to him," said Lady Webling. "He is taking you out to dinner."
At that moment the butler appeared, solemn as a long-awaited priest, and there was such a slow crystallization as follows a cry of "Fall in!" to weary soldiers. The guests were soon in double file and on the march to the battlefield with the cooks.
Nicky Easton still had Marie Louise's hand; he had carried it up into the crook of his right arm and kept his left hand over it for guard. A lady can hardly wrench loose from such an attention, but Marie Louise abhorred it.
Nicky treated her as a sort of possession, and she resented his courtesies. He began too soon with compliments. One hates to have even a bunch of violets jabbed into one's nose with the command, "Smell!"
She disliked his accent, too. There was a Germanic something in it as faint as the odor of high game. It was a time when the least hint of Teutonism carried the stench of death to British nostrils.
Lady Webling and Sir Joseph were known to be of German birth, and their phrases carried the tang, but Sir Joseph had become a naturalized citizen ages ago and had won respect and affection a decade back. His lavish use of his money for charities and for great industries had won him his knighthood, and while there was a certain sniff of suspicion in certain fanatic quarters at the mention of his name, those who knew him well had so long ago forgotten his alien birth that they forgave it him now.
As for Marie Louise, she no longer heeded the Prussic acid of his speech. She was as used to it as to his other little mannerisms. She did not think of the old couple as fat and awkward. She did not analyze their attributes or think of their features in detail. She thought of them simply as them. But Easton was new; he brought in a subtle whiff of the hated Germany that had done the Lusitania to death.
The fate of the ship made the dinner resemble a solemn wake. The triumphs of the chef were but funeral baked meats. The feast was brilliant and large and long, and it seemed criminal to see such waste of provender when so much of the world was hungry. The talk was almost all of the Lusitania and the deep damnation of her taking off. Many of the guests had crossed the sea in her graceful shell, and they felt a personal loss as well as a bitterness of rage at the worst of the German sea crimes.
Davidge was seated remotely from Marie Louise, far down the flowery lane of the table. She could not see him at all, for the candles and the roses. Just once she heard his voice in a lull. Its twang carried it all the way up the alley:
"A man that would kill a passenger-ship would shoot a baby in its cradle. When you think how long it takes to build a ship, how much work she represents, how sweet she is when she rides out and all that—by Gosh! there's no word mean enough for the skoundrels. There's nothing they won't do now—absolutely nothing."
She heard no more of him, and she did not see him again that night. She forgot him utterly. Even the little wince of distress he gave her by his provincialism was forgotten in the anguish her foster-parents caused her.
For Marie Louise had a strange, an odious sensation that Sir Joseph and Lady Webling were not quite sincere in their expressions of horror and grief over the finished epic, the Lusitania. It was not for lack of language; they used the strongest words they could find. But there was missing the subtile somewhat of intonation and gesture that actors call sincerity. Marie Louise knew how hard it is even for a great actor to express his simplest thoughts with conviction. No, it was when he expressed them best that he was least convincing, since an emotion that can be adequately presented is not a very big emotion; at least it does not overwhelm the soul. Inadequacy, helplessness, gaucherie, prove that the feelings are bigger than the eloquence. They "get across the footlights" between each player on the human stage and his audience.
Yes, that was it: Sir Joseph and Lady Webling were protesting too well and too much. Marie Louise hated herself for even the disloyalty of such a criticism of them, but she was repelled somehow by such rhetoric, and she liked far better the dour silence of old Mr. Verrinder. He looked a bishop who had got into a layman's evening dress by mistake. He was something very impressive and influential in the government, nobody knew just what.
Marie Louise liked still better than Verrinder's silence the distracted muttering and stammering of a young English aviator, the Marquess of Strathdene, who was recuperating from wounds and was going up in the air rapidly on the Webling champagne. He was maltreating his bread and throwing in champagne with an apparent eagerness for the inevitable result. Before he grew quite too thick to be understood, he groaned to himself, but loudly enough to be heard the whole length and breadth of the table: "I remember readin' about old Greek witch name Circe—changed human beings into shape of swine. I wonder who turned those German swine into the shape of human beings."
Marie Louise noted that Lady Webling was shocked—by the vulgarity, no doubt. "Swine" do not belong in dining-room language—only in the platters or the chairs. Marie Louise caught an angry look also in the eye of Nicholas Easton, though he, too, had been incisive in his comments on the theme of the dinner. His English had been uncannily correct, his phrases formal with the exactitude of a book on syntax or the dialogue of a gentleman in a novel. But he also was drinking too much, and as his lips fuddled he had trouble with a very formal "without which." It resulted first as "veetowit veech," then as "whidthout witch." He made it on the third trial.
Marie Louise, turning her eyes his way in wonder, encountered two other glances moving in the same direction. Lady Webling looked anxious, alarmed. Mr. Verrinder's gaze was merely studious. Marie Louise felt an odd impression that Lady Webling was sending a kind of heliographic warning, while the look of Mr. Verrinder was like a search-light that studies and registers, then moves away.
Marie Louise disliked Easton more and more, but Lady Webling kept recommending him with her solicitous manner toward him. She made several efforts, too, to shift the conversation from the Lusitania; but it swung always back. Much bewilderment was expressed because the ship was not protected by a convoy. Many wondered why she was where she was when she was struck, and how she came to take that course at all.
Lady Clifton-Wyatt, who had several friends on board and was uncertain of their fate, was unusually fierce in blaming the government. She always blamed it for everything, when it was Liberal. And now she said:
"It was nothing short of murder to have left the poor ship to steal in by herself without protection. Whatever was the Admiralty thinking of? If the Cabinet doesn't fall for this, we might as well give up."
The Liberals present acknowledged her notorious prejudices with a sigh of resignation. But the Marquess of Strathdene rolled a foggy eye and a foggy tongue in answer:
"Darlling llady, there must have been war-ships waitin' to convoy the Lusitania; but she didn't come to rendezvous because why? Because some filthy Zherman gave her a false wireless and led her into a trap."
This amazing theory with its drunken inspiration of plausibility startled the whole throng. It set eyeballs rolling in all directions like a break in a game of pool. Everybody stared at Strathdene, then at somebody else. Marie Louise's racing gaze noted that Mr. Verrinder's eyes went slowly about again, studying everybody except Strathdene.
Lady Clifton-Wyatt's eyes as they ran simply expressed a disgust that she put into words with her usual frankness:
"Don't be more idiotic than necess'ry, my dear boy; there are secret codes, you know."
"S-secret codes I know? Secret codes the Germans know—that's what you mean, sweetheart. I don't know one little secret, but Huns— Do you know how many thousand Germans there are loose in England—do you?"
Lady Clifton-Wyatt shook her head impatiently. "I haven't the faintest notion. Far more than I wish, I'm sure."
"I hope so, unless you wish fifty thousand. And God knows how many more. And I'm not alluthing to Germans in disguise, naturalized Germans—quinine pills with a little coating. I'm not referring to you, of course, Sir Joseph. Greates' respect for you. Ever'body has. You have done all you could to overcome the fatal error of your parents. You're a splen'id gen'l'man. Your 'xception proves rule. Even Germans can't all be perf'ly rotten."
"Thank you, Marquess, thank you," said Sir Joseph, with a natural embarrassment.
Marie Louise noted the slight difference between the English "Thank you" and Sir Joseph's "Thang gyou."
Then Lady Webling's eyes went around the table, catching up the women's eyes and forms, and she led them in a troop from the embarrassing scene. She brought the embarrassment with her to the drawing-room, where the women sat about smoking miserably and waiting for the men to come forth and take them home.
There must have been embarrassment enough left to go round the dining-table, too, for in an unusually brief while the men flocked into the drawing-room. And they began to plead engagements in offices or homes or Parliament.
It was not yet ten o'clock when the last of the guests had gone, except Nicholas Easton. And Sir Joseph took him into his own study. Easton walked a trifle too solemnly straight, as if he had set himself an imaginary chalk-line to follow. He jostled against the door, and as he closed it, swung with it uncertainly.
Lady Webling asked almost at once, with a nod of the head in the direction of the study door:
"Well, my dear child, what do you think of Nicky?"
"Oh, I don't know. He's nice, but—"
"We're very fond of him, Sir Joseph and I—and we do hope you will be."
Marie Louise wondered if they were going to select a husband for her. It was a dreadful situation, because there was no compulsion except the compulsion of obligation. They never gave her a chance to do anything for them; they were always doing things for her. What an ingrate she would be to rebuff their first real desire! And yet to marry a man she felt such antipathy for—surely there could be some less hateful way of obliging her benefactors. She felt like a castaway on a desert, and there was something of the wilderness in the immensity of the drawing-room with its crowds of untenanted divans and of empty chairs drawn into groups as the departed guests had left them.
Lady Webling stood close to Marie Louise and pressed for an answer.
"You don't really dislike Nicky, do you?"
"N-o-o. I've not known him long enough to dislike him very well."
She tried to soften the rebuff with a laugh, but Lady Webling sighed profoundly and smothered her disappointment in a fond "Good night." She smothered the great child, too, in a hugely buxom embrace. When Marie emerged she was suddenly reminded that she had not yet spoken to Lady Webling of Fraeulein Ernst's attack on the children's souls. She spoke now.
"There's one thing, mamma, I've been wanting to tell you all evening. Please don't let it distress you, but really I'm afraid you'll have to get rid of Fraeulein."
Lady Webling's voluminous yawn was stricken midway into a gasp. Marie Louise told her the story of the diabolical prayer. Lady Webling took the blow without reeling. She expressed shock, but again expressed it too perfectly.
She promised to "reprimand the foolish old soul."
"To reprimand her!" Marie Louise cried. "You won't send her away?"
"Send her away where, my child? Where should we send the poor thing? But I'll speak to her very sharply. It was outrageous of her. What if the children should say such things before other people? It would be frightful! Thank you for telling me, my dear. And now I'm for bed! And you should be. You look quite worn out. Coming up?"
Lady Webling laughed and glanced at the study door, implying and rejoicing in the implication that Marie Louise was lingering for a last word with Easton.
Really she was trying to avoid climbing the long stairs with Lady Webling's arm about her. For the first time in her life she distrusted the perfection of the old soul's motives. She felt like a Judas when Lady Webling offered her cheek for another good-night kiss. Then she pretended to read a book while she listened for Lady Webling's last puff as she made the top step.
At once she poised for flight. But the study door opened and Easton came out. He was bending down to murmur into Sir Joseph's downcast countenance. Easton was saying, with a tremulous emotion, "This is the beginning of the end of England's control of the sea."
Marie Louise almost felt that there was a quiver of eagerness rather than of dread in his tone, or that the dread was the awe of a horrible hope.
Sir Joseph was brooding and shaking his head. He seemed to start as he saw Marie Louise. But he smiled on her dotingly and said:
"You are not gone to bed yet?"
She shook her head and sorrowed over him with a sudden rush of gratitude to his defense. She did not reward Easton's smile with any favor, though he widened his eyes in admiration.
Sir Joseph said: "Good night, Nicky. It is long before I see you some more."
Nicholas nodded. "But I shall see Miss Marie Louise quite soon now."
This puzzled Marie Louise. She pondered it while Nicky bent and kissed her hand, heaved a guttural, gluttonous "Ah!" and went his way.
It was nearly a week later before she had a clue to the riddle. Then Sir Joseph came home to luncheon unexpectedly. He had an envelope with him, sealed with great red buttons of wax. He asked Marie Louise into his office and said, with an almost stealthy importance:
"My darling, I have a little favor to ask of you. Sometimes, you see, when I am having a big dealing on the Stock Exchange I do not like that everybody knows my business. Too many people wish to know all I do, so they can be doing the same. What everybody knows helps nobody. It is my wish to get this envelope to a man without somebody finding out something. Understand?"
"Yes, papa!" Marie Louise answered with the utmost confidence that what he did was good and wise and straight. She experienced a qualm when Sir Joseph explained that Nicky was the man. She wondered why he did not come to the house. Then she rebuked herself for presuming to question Sir Joseph's motives. He had never been anything but good to her, and he had been so whole-heartedly good that for her to give thought-room to a suspicion of him was heinous.
He had business secrets and stratagems of tremendous financial moment. She had known him to work up great drives on the market and to use all sorts of people to prepare his attacks. She did not understand big business methods. She regarded them all with childlike bewilderment. When, then, Sir Joseph asked her to meet Nicky, as if casually, in Regent's Park, and convey the envelope from her hand to Nicky's without any one's witnessing the transfer, she felt the elation of a child intrusted with an important errand. So she walked all the way to Regent's Park with the long strides of a young woman out for a constitutional. She found a bench where she was told to, and sat down to bask in the spring air, and wait.
By and by Easton sauntered along, lifted his hat to Marie Louise, and made a great show of surprise. She rose and gave him her hand. She had taken the precaution to wear gloves—also she had the envelope in her hand. She left it in Nicky's. He smuggled it into his coat pocket, and murmuring, "So sorry I can't stop," lifted his hat and hurried off.
Marie Louise sat down again and after a time resumed her constitutional.
Sir Joseph was full of thanks when she saw him at night.
Some days later he asked Marie Louise to meet Nicky outside a Bond Street shop. She was to have a small parcel and drop it. Nicky would stoop and pick it up and hand her in its stead another of similar wrapper. She was to thank him and come home.
Another day Marie Louise received from Sir Joseph a letter and a request to take the children with her for a long walk, ending at the Round Pond in Kensington Gardens. The children carried their private navies with them and squatted at the brim of the huge basin, poking their reluctant yachts to sea. The boy Victor perfected a wonderful scheme for using a long stick as a submarine. He thrust his arm under water and from a distance knocked his sister's sailboat about till its canvas was afloat and it filled and sank. All the while he wore the most distant of expressions, but canny little Bettina soon realized who had caused this catastrophe and how, and she went for Victor of the U-stick with finger-nails and feet and nearly rounded him into the toy ocean. It evidently made a difference whose ship was gored.
Marie Louise darted forward to save Victor from a ducking as well as a trouncing, and nearly ran over a man who was passing.
It was Ross Davidge, whiling away an hour between appointments. He thought he recognized Marie Louise, but he was not sure. Women in the morning look so unlike their evening selves. He dared not speak.
Davidge lingered around trying to get up the courage to speak, but Marie Louise was too distraught with the feud even to see him when she looked at him. She would not have known him, anyway.
Davidge was confirmed in his guess at her identity by the appearance of the man he had seen at her side at the dinner. But the confirmation was Davidge's exile, for the fellow lifted his hat with a look of great surprise and said to Marie Louise, "Fancy finding you heah!"
"Blah!" said Davidge to himself, and went on about his business.
Marie Louise did not pretend surprise at seeing Easton, but went on scolding Victor and Bettina.
"If any of these other boys catch you playing submarine they'll submarine you!"
And she brought the proud Bettina to book with a, "You were so glad the Lusitania was sunk, you see now how it feels!"
She felt the puerile incongruity of the rebuke, but it sufficed to send Bettina into a cyclone of grief. She was already one of those who are infinitely indifferent to the sufferings of others and infinitesimally sensitive to their own.
When Nicky heard the story he gave Marie Louise a curious look of disapproval and took Bettina into his lap. She was also already one of those ladies who find a man's lap an excellent consolation. He got rid of her adroitly and when she and Victor were once more engaged in navigation Nicky took up the business he had come for.
"May I stop a moment?" he said, and sat down.
"I have a letter for you," said Marie Louise.
His roving eyes showed him that the coast was clear, and he slipped a letter into her hand-bag which she opened, and from it he took the letter she cautiously disclosed. He chatted awhile and moved away.
This sort of meeting took place several times in several places. When the crowds were too great or a bobby loitered about, Nicky would murmur to Marie Louise that she had better start home. He would take her arm familiarly and the transfer of the parcel would be deftly achieved.
This messenger service went on for several weeks. Sir Joseph apologized for the trouble he gave Marie Louise. He seemed to be sincerely unhappy about it, and his little eyes in their fat, watery bags peered at her with a tender regret and an ulterior regret as well.
He explained a dozen times that he sent her because it was such an important business and he had no one else to trust. And Marie Louise, for all her anxiety, was sadly glad of his confidence, regarded it as sacred, and would not violate it so much as to make the least effort to learn what messages she was carrying. Nothing, of course, would have been easier than to pry open one of these envelopes. Sometimes the lapel was hardly sealed. But she would as soon have peeked into a bathroom.
Late in June the Weblings left town and settled in the great country seat Sir Joseph had bought from a bankrupt American who had bought it from nobility gone back to humility. Here life was life. There were forests and surreptitious pheasants, deer that would almost but never quite come to call, unseen nightingales that sang from lofty nave and transept like cherubim all wings and voice.
The house was usually full of guests, but they were careful not to intrude upon their hosts nor their hosts upon them. The life was like life at a big hotel. There was always a little gambling to be had, tennis, golf, or music, or a quiet chat, gardens to stroll and sniff or grub in, horses to ride, motors at beck and call, solitude or company.
Lady Clifton-Wyatt came down for a week-end and struck up a great friendship with the majestic Mrs. Prothero from Washington, D. C., so grand a lady that even Lady C.-W. was a bit in awe of her, so gracious a personage that even Lady C.-W. could not pick a quarrel with her.
Mrs. Prothero gathered Marie Louise under her wing and urged her to visit her when she came to America. But Polly Widdicombe had already pledged Marie Louise to make her home her own on that side of the sea. Polly came down, too, and had "the time of her young life" in doing a bit of the women's war work that became the beautiful fashion of the time. The justification of it was that it released men for the trenches, but Polly insisted that it was shamefully good sport.
She and Marie Louise went about in breeches and shirts and worked like hostlers around the stables and in the paddocks, breaking colts and mucking out stalls. They donned the blouses and boots of peasants, and worked in the fields with rake and hoe and harrow. They even tried the plow, but they followed it too literally, and the scallopy furrows they drew across the fields made the yokels laugh or grieve, according to their natures.
The photographers were alive to the piquancy of these revelations, and portraits of Marie Louise in knickers and puttees, and armed with agricultural weapons, appeared in the pages of all the weeklies along with other aristocrats and commoners. Some of these even reached America.
There was just one flaw for Rosalind in this "As You Like It" life and that was the persistence of the secret association with Nicky. It was the strangest of clandestine affairs.
Marie Louise had always liked to get out alone in a saddle or behind the wheel of a runabout, and Sir Joseph, when he came up from town, fell into the habit of asking her once in a while to take another little note to Nicky.
She found him in out-of-the-way places. He would step from a clump of bushes by the road and hail her car, or she would overtake him and offer him a lift to his inn, or she would take horse and gallop across country and find him awaiting her in some lonely avenue or in the twist of a ravine.
He was usually so preoccupied and furtive that he made no proffer of courtship; but once when he seemed peculiarly triumphant he rode so close to her that their knees girded and their spurs clashed, and he tried to clip her in his arms. She gathered her horse and let him go, and he plunged ahead so abruptly that the clinging Nicky dragged Marie Louise from her saddle backward. He tried to swing her to the pommel of his own, but she fought herself free and came to the ground and was almost trampled. She was so rumpled and so furious, and he so frightened, that he left her and spurred after her horse, brought him back, and bothered her no more that day.
"If you ever annoy me again," she said, "it'll be the last you'll see of me."
She was too useful to be treated as a mere beauty, and she had him cowed.
It was inevitable that Marie Louise, being silently urged to love Nicky, should helplessly resist the various appeals in his behalf.
There is no worse enemy to love than recommendation. There is something froward about the passion. It hangs back like a fretful child, loathing what is held out for its temptation, longing for the forbidden, the sharp, the perilous.
Next to being asked to love, trying to love is the gravest impediment. Marie Louise kept telling herself that she ought to marry Nicky, and herself kept refusing to obey.
From very perversity her heart turned to other interests. She was desperately in love with soldiers en masse and individually. There was safety in numbers and a canceling rivalry between those who were going out perhaps to death and those who had come back from the jaws of death variously the worse for the experience.
The blind would have been irresistible in their groping need of comfort, if there had not been the maimed of body or mind putting out their incessant pleas for a gramercy of love. Those whose wounds were hideous took on an uncanny beauty from their sacrifice.
She busied herself about them and suffered ecstasies of pity.
She wanted to go to France and get near to danger, to help the freshly wounded, to stanch the spouting arteries, to lend courage to the souls dismayed by the first horror of the understanding that thenceforth they must go through life piecemeal.
But whenever she made application she met some vague rebuff. Her appeals were passed on and on and the blame for their failure was referred always to some remote personage impossible to reach.
Eventually it dawned on her that there was actually an official intention to keep her out of France. This stupefied her for a time. One day it came over her that she was herself suspect. This seemed ridiculous beyond words in view of her abhorrence of the German cause in large and in detail. Ransacking her soul for an explanation, she ran upon the idea that it was because of her association with the Weblings.
She was ashamed to have given such a thought passage through her mind. But it came back as often as she drove it out and then the thought began to hover about her that perhaps the suspicion was not so insane as she believed. The public is generally unreasonable, but its intuitions, like a woman's, are the resultants of such complex instincts that they are above analysis.
But the note-carrying went on, and she could not escape from the suspicion or its shadow of disgrace. Like a hateful buzzard it was always somewhere in her sky.
Once the suspicion had domiciled itself in her world, it was incessantly confirmed by the minutiae of every-day existence. The interchange of messages with Nicky Easton grew unexplainable on any other ground. The theory of secret financial dealings looked ludicrous; or if the dealings were financial, they must be some of the trading with the enemy that was so much discussed in the papers.
She felt that she had been conniving in one of the spy-plots that all the Empire was talking about. She grew afraid to the last degree of fear. She saw herself on the scaffold. She resolved to carry no more messages.
But the next request of Sir Joseph's found her complying automatically. It had come to be her habit to do what he asked her to do, and to take pride in the service as a small installment on her infinite debt. And every time her resentment rose to an overboiling point, Sir Joseph or Lady Webling would show her some exquisite kindness or do some great public service that won commendation from on high.
One day when she was keyed up to protest Lady Webling discharged Fraeulein Ernst for her pro-Germanism and engaged an English nurse. Another day Lady Webling asked her to go on a visit to a hospital. There she lavished tenderness on the British wounded and ignored the German. How could Marie Louise suspect her of being anti-British? Another time when Marie Louise was almost ready to rebel she saw Sir Joseph's name heading a war subscription, and that night he made, at a public meeting, a speech denouncing Germany in terms of vitriol.
After all, Marie Louise was not English. And America was still neutral. The President had wrung from Germany a promise of better behavior, and in a sneaking way the promise was kept, with many a violation quickly apologized for.
Still, England wrestled for her life. There seemed to be hardly room in the papers for the mere names of the dead and the wounded, and those still more pitiable ones, the missing.
Marie Louise lost many a friend, and all of her friends lost and lost. She wore herself out in suffering for others, in visiting the sick, the forlorn, the anxious, the newly bereaved.
The strain on Marie Louise's heart was the more exhausting because she had a craven feeling all the while that perhaps she was being used somehow as a tool for the destruction of English plans and men. She tried to get the courage to open one of those messages, but she was afraid that she might find confirmation. She made up her mind again and again to put the question point-blank to Sir Joseph, but her tongue faltered. If he were guilty, he would deny it; if he were innocent, the accusation would break his heart. She hated Nicky too much to ask him. He would lie in any case.
She was nagged incessantly by a gadfly of conscience that buzzed in her ears the counsel to tell the police. Sometimes on her way to a tryst with Easton a spirit in her feet led her toward a police station, but another spirit carried her past, for she would visualize the sure consequences of such an exposure. If her suspicions were false, she would be exposed as a combination of dastard and dolt. If they were true, she would be sending Sir Joseph and Lady Webling perhaps to the gallows.
To betray those who had been so angelic to her was simply unthinkable.
Irresolution and meditation made her a very Hamlet of postponement and inaction. Hamlet had only a ghost for counselor, and a mother to be the first victim of his rashness. No wonder he hesitated. And Marie Louise had only hysterical suspicion to account for her thoughts; and the victims of her first step would be the only father and mother she had ever really known. America itself was another Hamlet of debate and indecision, weighing evidences, pondering theories, deferring the sword, hoping that Germany would throw away the baser half. And all the while time slid away, lives slid away, nations fell.
In the autumn the town house was opened again. There was much thinly veiled indignation in the papers and in the circulation of gossip because of Sir Joseph's prominence in English life. The Germans were so relentless and so various in their outrages upon even the cruel usages of combat that the sound of a German name grew almost unbearable. People were calling for Sir Joseph's arrest. Others scoffed at the cruelty and cowardice of such hysteria.
A once-loved prince of German blood had been frozen out of the navy, and the internment camps were growing like boom towns. Yet other Germans somehow were granted an almost untrammeled freedom, and thousands who had avoided evil activity were tolerated throughout the war.
Sir Joseph kept retorting to suspicion with subscription. He took enormous quantities of the government loans. His contributions to the Red Cross and the multitudinous charities were more like endowments than gifts. How could Marie Louise be vile enough to suspect him?
Yet in spite of herself she resolved at last to refuse further messenger service. Then she learned that Nicky had left England and gone to America on most important financial business of a most confidential nature.
Marie Louise was too glad of her release to ask questions. She rejoiced that she had not insulted her foster-parents with mutiny, and she drudged at whatever war work the committees found for her. They found nothing very picturesque, but the more toilsome her labor was the more it served for absolution of any evil she might have done.
And now that the dilemma of loyalty was taken from her soul, her body surrendered weakly. She had time to fall ill. It was enough that she got her feet wet. Her convalescence was slow even in the high hills of Matlock.
The winter had passed, and the summer of 1916 had come before Marie Louise was herself. The Weblings had moved out to the country again; the flowers were back in the gardens; the deer and the birds were in their summer garb and mood. But now the house guests were all wounded soldiers and nurses. Sir Joseph had turned over his estate for a war hospital.
Lady Webling went among her visitors like a queen making her rounds. Sir Joseph squandered money on his distinguished company. Marie Louise joined them and took what comfort she could in such diminution of pain and such contributions of war power as were permitted her. Those were the only legitimate happinesses in the world.
The tennis-courts were peopled now with players glad of one arm or one eye or even a demodeled face. On the golf-links crutched men hobbled. The horses in the stables bore only partial riders. The card-parties were squared by players using hands made by hand. The music-room resounded with five-finger improvisations and with vocalists who had little but their voices left. They howled, "Keep your head down, Fritzie boy," or, "We gave them hell at Neuve Chapelle, and here we are and here we are again," or moaned love-songs with a sardonic irony.
And the guests at tea! And the guests who could not come to tea!
Young Hawdon was there. "Well, Marie Louise," he had said, "I'm back from France, but not in toto. Fact is, I'm neither here nor there. Quite a sketchy party you have. But we'll charge it all to Germany, and some day we'll collect. Some day! Some day!" And he burst into song.
The wonder was that there was so much bravery. At times there was hilarity, but it was always close to tears.
The Weblings went back to London early and took Marie Louise with them. She wanted to stay with the poor soldiers, but Sir Joseph said that there was just as much for her to do in town. There was no lack of poor soldiers anywhere. Besides, he needed her, he said. This set her heart to plunging with the old fear. But he was querulous and irascible nowadays, and Lady Webling begged her not to excite him, for she was afraid of a paralysis. He had the look of a Damocles living under the sword.
The news from America was more encouraging to England and to the Americans in England. German spies were being arrested with amazing frequence. Ambassadors were floundering in hot water and setting up a large traffic in return-tickets. Even the trunks of certain "Americans" were searched—men and women who were amazed to learn that curious German documents had got mixed up in their own effects. Some most peculiar checks and receipts turned up.
It was shortly after a cloudy account of one of these trunk-raids had been published in the London papers that Sir Joseph had his first stroke of paralysis.
Sir Joseph was in pitiful case. His devotion to Marie Louise was heartbreaking. Her sympathy had not been exhausted, but schooled rather by its prolonged exercise, and she gave the forlorn old wretch a love and a tenderness that had been wrought to a fine art without losing any of its spontaneous reality.
At first he could move only a bit of the great bulk, sprawled like a snowdrift under the sheet. He was helpless as a shattered soldier, but slowly he won back his faculties and his members. The doors that were shut between his brain and his powers opened one by one, and he became a man again.
The first thing he wrote with his rediscovered right hand was his signature to a document his lawyer brought him after a consultation. It was a transfer of twenty thousand pounds in British war bonds, "for services rendered and other valuable considerations," to his dear daughter Marie Louise Webling.
When the warrant was handed to her with the bundle of securities, Marie Louise was puzzled, then shocked as the old man explained with his still uncertain lips. When she understood, she rejected the gift with horror. Sir Joseph pleaded with her in a thick speech that had relapsed to an earlier habit.
"I am theenkink how close I been by dyink. Du bist—zhoo are in my vwill, of coorse, but a man says, 'I vwill,' and some heirs says, 'You vwon't yet!' Better I should make sure of somethink."
"But I don't want money, papa—not like this. And I won't have you speak of wills and such odious things."
"You have been like our own daughter only more obeyink as poor Hedwig. You should not make me sick by to refuse."
She could only quiet him by accepting the wealth and bringing him the receipt for its deposit in a safe of her own.
When he was once more able to hoist his massive body to its feet and to walk to his own door, he said:
"Mein—my Gott! Look at the calendar once. It is nineteen seventeen already."
He ceased to be that simple, primitive thing, a sick man; he became again the financier. She heard of him anew on war-industry boards. She saw his name on lists of big subscriptions. He began to talk anew of Nicky, and he spoke with unusual anxiety of U-boats. He hoped that they would have a bad week. There was no questioning his sincerity in this.
And one evening he came home in a womanish flurry. He pinched the ear of Marie Louise and whispered to her:
"Nicky is here in England—safe after the sea voyage. Be a nize girl, and you shall see him soon now."
The next morning Marie Louise, waking, found her windows opaque with fog. The gardens she usually looked over, glistening green all winter through, were gone, and in their place was a vast bale of sooty cotton packed so tight against the glass that her eyes could not pierce to the sill.
Marie Louise went down to breakfast in a room like a smoky tunnel where the lights burned sickly. She was in a murky and suffocating humor, but Sir Joseph was strangely content for the hour and the air. He ate with the zest of a boy on a holi-morn, and beckoned her into his study, where he confided to her great news:
"Nicky telephoned me. He brings wonderful news out of America. Big business he has done. He cannot come yet by our house, for even servants must not see him here. So you shall go and meet him. You take your own little car, and go most careful till you find Hyde Park gate. Inside you stop and get out to see if something is matter with the engine. A man is there—Nicky. He steps in the car. You get in and drive slowly—so slowly. Give him this letter—put in bosom of dress not to lose. He tells you maybe something, and he gives you envelope. Then he gets out, and you come home—but carefully. Don't let one of those buses run you over in the fog. I should not risk you if not most important."
Marie Louise pleaded illness, and fear of never finding the place. But Sir Joseph stared at her with such wonder and pain that she yielded hastily, took the envelope, folded it small, thrust it into her chest pocket and went out to the garage, where she could hardly bully the chauffeur into letting her take her own car. He put all the curtains on, and she pushed forth into obfuscation like a one-man submarine. There was something of the effect of moving along the floor of the sea. The air was translucent, a little like water-depths, but everything was a blur.
Luck was with her. She neither ran over nor was run over. But she was so tardy in finding the gate, and Nicky was so damp, so chilled, and so uneasy with the apparitions and the voices that had haunted him in the fog that he said nothing more cordial than:
"At last! So you come!"
He climbed in, shivering with cold or fear. And she ran the car a little farther into the nebulous depths. She gave him the letter from Sir Joseph and took from him another.
Nicky did not care to tarry.
"I should get back to my house with this devil's cold I've caught," he said. "Do you still have no sun in this bedamned England?"
The "you" struck Marie Louise as odd coming from a professed Englishman, even if he did lay the blame for his accent on years spent in German banking-houses.
"How did you find the United States?" Marie Louise asked, with a sudden qualm of homesickness.
"Those United States! Ha! United about what? Money!"
"I think you can get along better afoot," said Marie Louise, as she made a turn and slipped through the pillars of the gate.
"Au revoir!" said Nicky, and he dived out, slamming the door back of him.
That night there was one of Sir Joseph's dinners. But almost nobody came, except Lieutenant Hawdon and old Mr. Verrinder. Sir Joseph and Lady Webling seemed more frightened than insulted by the last-moment regrets of the guests. Was it an omen?
It was not many days before Sir Joseph asked Marie Louise to carry another envelope to Nicky. She went out alone, shuddering in the wet and edged air. She found the bench agreed on, and sat waiting, craven and mutinous. Nicky did not come, but another man passed her, looked searchingly, turned and came back to murmur under his lifted hat:
She gave him her stingiest "Yis."
"Mr. Easton asked me to meet you in his place, and explain."
"He is not coming?"
"He can't. He is ill. A bad cold only. He has a letter for you. Have you one for him?"
Marie Louise liked this man even less than she would have liked Nicky himself. She was alarmed, and showed it. The stranger said:
"I am Mr. von Groener, a frient of—of Nicky's."
Marie Louise vibrated between shame and terror. But von Groener's credentials were good; it was surely Nicky's hand that had penned the lines on the envelope. She took it reluctantly and gave him the letter she carried.
She hastened home. Sir Joseph was in a sad flurry, but he accepted the testimony of Nicky's autograph.
The next day Marie Louise must go on another errand. This time her envelope bore the name of Nicky and the added line, "Kindness of Mr. von Groener."
Von Groener tried to question Marie Louise, but her wits were in an absolute maelstrom of terror. She was afraid of him, afraid that he represented Nicky, afraid that he did not, afraid that he was a real German, afraid that he was a pretended spy, or an English secret-service man. She was afraid of Sir Joseph and his wife, afraid to obey them or disobey them, to love them or hate them, betray them or be betrayed. She had lost all sense of direction, of impetus, of desire.
She saw that Sir Joseph and Lady Webling were in a state of panic, too. They smiled at her with a wan pity and fear. She caught them whispering often. She saw them cling together with a devotion that would have been a burlesque in a picture seen by strangers. It would have been almost as grotesque as a view of a hippopotamus and his mate cowering hugely together and nuzzling each other under the menace of a lightning-storm.
Marie Louise came upon them once comparing the envelope she had just brought with other letters of Nicky's. Sir Joseph slipped them into a book, then took one of them out cautiously and showed it to Marie Louise.
"Does that look really like the writing from Nicky?"
"Yes," she said, then, "No," then, "Of course," then, "I don't know."
Lady Webling said, "Sit down once, my child, and tell me just how this man von Groener does, acts, speaks."
She told them. They quizzed her. She was afraid that they would take her into their confidence, but they exchanged querying looks and signaled caution.
Sir Joseph said: "Strange how long Nicky stays sick, and his memory—little things he mixes up. I wonder is he dead yet. Who knows?"
"Dead?" Marie Louise cried. "Dead, and sends you letters?"
"Yes, but such a funny letter this last one is. I think I write him once more and ask him is he dead or crazy, maybe. Anyway, I think I don't feel so very good now—mamma and I take maybe a little journey. You come along with, yes?"
A rush of desperate gratitude to the only real people in her world led her to say:
"Whatever you want me to do is what I want to do—or wherever to go."
Lady Webling drew her to her breast, and Sir Joseph held her hand in one of his and patted it with the flabby other, mumbling:
"Yes, but what is it we want you to do?"
From his eyes came a scurry of tears that ran in panic among the folds of his cheeks. He shook them off and smiled, nodding and still patting her hand as he said:
"Better I write one letter more for Mr. von Groener. I esk him to come himself after dark to-night now."
Marie Louise waited in her room, watching the sunlight die out of the west. She felt somehow as if she were a prisoner in the Tower, a princess waiting for the morrow's little visit to the scaffold. Or did the English shoot women, as Edith Cavell had been shot?
There was a knock at the door, but it was not the turnkey. It was the butler to murmur, "Dinner, please." She went down and joined mamma and papa at the table. There were no guests except Terror and Suspense, and both of them wore smiling masks and made no visible sign of their presence.
After dinner Marie Louise had her car brought round to the door. There was nothing surprising about that. Women had given up the ancient pretense that their respectability was something that must be policed by a male relative or squire except in broad daylight. Neither vice nor malaria was believed any longer to come from exposure to the night air; nor was virtue regarded like a sum of money that must not be risked by being carried about alone after dark. It had been easy enough to lose under the old regime.
So Marie Louise launched out in her car much as a son of the family might have done. She drove to a little square too dingily middle class to require a policeman. She sounded her horn three squawks and swung open the door, and a man waiting under an appointed tree stepped from its shadow and into the shadow of the car before it stopped. She dropped into high speed and whisked out of the square.
"You have for me a message," said Mr. von Groener.
"Yes. Sir Joseph wants to see you."
"Yes—at the house. We'll go there at once if you please."
"Certainly. Delighted. But Nicky—I ought to telephone him I shall be gone."
"Nicky is well enough to telephone?"
"Not to come to the telephone, but there is a servant. If you will please stop somewhere. I shall be a moment only."
Marie Louise felt that she ought not to stop, but she could hardly kidnap the man. So she drew up at a shop and von Groener left her, her heart shaking her with a faint tremor like that of the engine of her car.
Von Groener returned promptly, but he said: "I think we should not go too straight to your father's house. Might be we are followed. We can tell soon. Go in the park, please, and suddenly stop, turn round, and I look at what cars follow."
She let him command her. She was letting everybody command her; she had no destination, no North Star in her life. Von Groener kept her dodging about Regent's Park till she grew angry.
"This seems rather silly, doesn't it? I am going home. Sir Joseph has worries enough without—"
"Ah, he has worries?"
She did not answer. The eagerness in his voice did not please her. He kept up a rain of questions, too, but she answered them all by referring him to Sir Joseph.
At last they reached the house. As they got out, two men closed in on the car and peered into their faces. Von Groener snapped at them, and they fell back.
Marie Louise had taken along her latchkey. She opened the door herself and led von Groener to Sir Joseph's room.
As she lifted her hand to knock she heard Lady Webling weeping frantically, crying out something incoherent. Marie Louise fell back and motioned von Groener away, but he pushed the door open and, taking her by the elbow, thrust her forward.
Lady Webling stopped short with a wail. Sir Joseph, who had been trying to quiet her by patting her hand, paused with his palm uplifted.
Before Marie Louise could speak she saw that the old couple was not alone. By the mantel stood Mr. Verrinder. By the door, almost touching Marie Louise, was a tall, grim person she had not seen. He closed the door behind von Groener and Marie Louise.
Mr. Verrinder said, "Be good enough to sit down." To von Groener he said, "How are you, Bickford?"
Sir Joseph was staring at the new-comer, and his German nativity told him what Marie Louise had not been sure of, that von Groener was no German. When Verrinder gave him an English name it shook Marie Louise with a new dismay. Sir Joseph turned from the man to Marie Louise and demanded:
"Marie Louise, you ditt not theenk this man is a Cherman?"
This one more shame crushed Marie Louise. She dropped into a chair, appealing feebly to the man she had retrieved:
"Your name is not von Groener?"
Bickford grinned. "Well, in a manner of speakin'. You might say it's my pen-name. Not that I've ever been in the pen—except with Nicky."
"Nicky is in the— He's not ill?"
"Well, he's a bit sick. He was a bit seasick to start with, and when we gave him the collar—well, he doesn't like his room."
"But his letters—" Marie Louise pleaded, her fears racing ahead of her questions.
"I was always a hand at forgery, but I thought best to turn it to the aid of me country. I'm proud if you liked me work. The last ones were not up to the mark. I was hurried, and Nicky was ugly. He refused to answer any more questions. I had to do it all on me own. Ahfterwards I found I had made a few mistakes."
When Marie Louise realized that this man had been calmly taking the letters addressed to Nicky and answering them in his feigned script to elicit further information from Sir Joseph and enmesh him further, she dropped her hands at her sides, feeling not only convicted of crime, but of imbecility as well.
Sir Joseph and Lady Webling spread their hands and drew up their shoulders in surrender and gave up hope of bluff.
Verrinder wanted to be merciful and avoid any more climaxes.
"You see it's all up, Sir Joseph, don't you?" he said.
Sir Joseph drew himself again as high as he could, though the burden of his flesh kept pulling him down. He did not answer.
"Come now, Sir Joseph, be a sport."
"The Englishman's releechion," sneered Sir Joseph, "to be ein Sportmann."
"Oh, I know you can't understand it," said Verrinder. "It seems to be untranslatable into German—just as we can't seem to understand Germanity except that it is the antonym of humanity. You fellows have no boyhood literature, I am told, no Henty or Hughes or Scott to fill you with ideas of fair play. You have no games to teach you. One really can't blame you for being such rotters, any more than one can blame a Kaffir for not understanding cricket.
"But sport aside, use your intelligence, old man. I've laid my cards on the table—enough of them, at least. We've trumped every trick, and we've all the trumps outstanding. You have a few high cards up your sleeve. Why not toss them on the table and throw yourselves on the mercy of his Majesty?"
The presence of Marie Louise drove the old couple to a last battle for her faith. Lady Webling stormed, "All what you accuse us is lies, lies!"
Verrinder grew stern:
"Lies, you say? We have you, and your daughter—also Nicky. We have—well, I'll not annoy you with their names. Over in the States they have a lot more of you fellows.
"You and Sir Joseph have lived in this country for years and years. You have grown fat—I mean to say rich—upon our bounty. We have loved and trusted you. His Majesty has given you both marks of his most gracious favor."
"We paid well for that," sneered Lady Webling.
"Yes, I fancy you did—but with English pounds and pence that you gained with the help of British wits and British freedom. You have contributed to charities, yes, and handsomely, too, but not entirely without the sweet usages of advertisement. You have not hidden that part of your bookkeeping from the public.
"But the rest of your books—you don't show those. We know a ghastly lot about them, and it is not pretty, my dear lady. I had hoped you would not force us to publish those transactions. You have plotted the destruction of the British Empire; you have conspired to destroy ships in dock and at sea; you have sent God knows how many lads to their death—and women and children, too. You have helped to blow up munitions-plants, and on your white heads is the blood of many and many a poor wretch torn to pieces at his lathe. You have made widows of women and orphans of children who never heard of you, nor you of them. Nor have you cared—or dared—to inquire.
"Sir Joseph has been perfecting a great scheme to buy up what munitions-plants he could in this country in order to commit sabotage and slow up the production of the ammunition our troops are crying for. He has plotted with others to send defective shells that will rip up the guns they do not fit, and powders that will explode too soon or not at all. God! to think that the lives of our brave men and the life of our Empire should be threatened by such people as you!