JAMES BRANCH CABELL
Martha Louise Branch
In trust that the enterprise may be judged less by the merits of its factor than by those of its patron
Colonel Thomas Hugonin, formerly in the service of Her Majesty the Empress of India, Margaret Hugonin's father.
Frederick R. Woods, the founder of Selwoode, Margaret's uncle by marriage.
Billy Woods, his nephew, Margaret's quondam fiance.
Hugh Van Orden, a rather young young man, Margaret's adorer.
Martin Jeal, M.D., of Fairhaven, Margaret's family physician.
Cock-Eye Flinks, a gentleman of leisure, Margaret's chance acquaintance.
Petheridge Jukesbury, president of the Society for the Suppression of Nicotine and the Nude, Margaret's almoner in furthering the cause of education and temperance.
Felix Kennaston, a minor poet, Margaret's almoner in furthering the cause of literature and art.
Sarah Ellen Haggage, Madame President of the Ladies' League for the Edification of the Impecunious, Margaret's almoner in furthering the cause of charity and philanthropy. Kathleen Eppes Saumarez, a lecturer before women's clubs, Margaret's almoner in furthering the cause of theosophy, nature study, and rational dress.
Adele Haggage, Mrs. Haggage's daughter, Margaret's rival with Hugh Van Orden.
And Margaret Hugonin.
The other participants in the story are Wilkins, Celestine, The Spring Moon and The Eagle.
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"'Altogether,' says Colonel Hugonin, 'they strike me as being the most ungodly menagerie ever gotten together under one roof since Noah landed on Ararat'"
"Then, for no apparent reason, Margaret flushed, and Billy ... thought it vastly becoming"
"Billy unfolded it slowly, with a puzzled look growing in his countenance"
"'My lady,' he asked, very softly, 'haven't you any good news for me on this wonderful morning?'"
"Miss Hugonin pouted. 'You needn't, be such a grandfather,' she suggested helpfully."
"Regarded them with alert eyes"
THE EAGLE'S SHADOW
This is the story of Margaret Hugonin and of the Eagle. And with your permission, we will for the present defer all consideration of the bird, and devote our unqualified attention to Margaret.
I have always esteemed Margaret the obvious, sensible, most appropriate name that can be bestowed upon a girl-child, for it is a name that fits a woman—any woman—as neatly as her proper size in gloves.
Yes, the first point I wish to make is that a woman-child, once baptised Margaret, is thereby insured of a suitable name. Be she grave or gay in after-life, wanton or pious or sullen, comely or otherwise, there will be no possible chance of incongruity; whether she develop a taste for winter-gardens or the higher mathematics, whether she take to golf or clinging organdies, the event is provided for. One has only to consider for a moment, and if among a choice of Madge, Marjorie, Meta, Maggie, Margherita, Peggy, and Gretchen, and countless others—if among all these he cannot find a name that suits her to a T—why, then, the case is indeed desperate and he may permissibly fall back upon Madam or—if the cat jump propitiously, and at his own peril—on Darling or Sweetheart.
The second proof that this name must be the best of all possible names is that Margaret Hugonin bore it. And so the murder is out. You may suspect what you choose. I warn you in advance that I have no part whatever in her story; and if my admiration for her given name appear somewhat excessive, I can only protest that in this dissentient world every one has a right to his own taste. I knew Margaret. I admired her. And if in some unguarded moment I may have carried my admiration to the point of indiscretion, her husband most assuredly knows all about it, by this, and he and I are still the best of friends. So you perceive that if I ever did so far forget myself it could scarcely have amounted to a hanging matter.
I am doubly sure that Margaret Hugonin was beautiful, for the reason that I have never found a woman under forty-five who shared my opinion. If you clap a Testament into my hand, I cannot affirm that women are eager to recognise beauty in one another; at the utmost they concede that this or that particular feature is well enough. But when a woman is clean-eyed and straight-limbed, and has a cheery heart, she really cannot help being beautiful; and when Nature accords her a sufficiency of dimples and an infectious laugh, I protest she is well-nigh irresistible. And all these Margaret Hugonin had.
And surely that is enough.
I shall not endeavour, then, to picture her features to you in any nicely picked words. Her chief charm was that she was Margaret.
And besides that, mere carnal vanities are trivial things; a gray eye or so is not in the least to the purpose. Yet since it is the immemorial custom of writer-folk to inventory such possessions of their heroines, here you have a catalogue of her personal attractions. Launce's method will serve our turn.
Imprimis, there was not very much of her—five feet three, at the most; and hers was the well-groomed modern type that implies a grandfather or two and is in every respect the antithesis of that hulking Venus of the Louvre whom people pretend to admire. Item, she had blue eyes; and when she talked with you, her head drooped forward a little. The frank, intent gaze of these eyes was very flattering and, in its ultimate effect, perilous, since it led you fatuously to believe that she had forgotten there were any other trousered beings extant. Later on you found this a decided error. Item, she had a quite incredible amount of yellow hair, that was not in the least like gold or copper or bronze—I scorn the hackneyed similes of metallurgical poets—but a straightforward yellow, darkening at the roots; and she wore it low down on her neck in great coils that were held in place by a multitude of little golden hair-pins and divers corpulent tortoise-shell ones. Item, her nose was a tiny miracle of perfection; and this was noteworthy, for you will observe that Nature, who is an adept at eyes and hair and mouths, very rarely achieves a creditable nose. Item, she had a mouth; and if you are a Gradgrindian with a taste for hairsplitting, I cannot swear that it was a particularly small mouth. The lips were rather full than otherwise; one saw in them potentialities of heroic passion, and tenderness, and generosity, and, if you will, temper. No, her mouth was not in the least like the pink shoe-button of romance and sugared portraiture; it was manifestly designed less for simpering out of a gilt frame or the dribbling of stock phrases over three hundred pages than for gibes and laughter and cheery gossip and honest, unromantic eating, as well as another purpose, which, as a highly dangerous topic, I decline even to mention.
There you have the best description of Margaret Hugonin that I am capable of giving you. No one realises its glaring inadequacy more acutely than I.
Furthermore, I stipulate that if in the progress of our comedy she appear to act with an utter lack of reason or even common-sense—as every woman worth the winning must do once or twice in a lifetime—that I be permitted to record the fact, to set it down in all its ugliness, nay, even to exaggerate it a little—all to the end that I may eventually exasperate you and goad you into crying out, "Come, come, you are not treating the girl with common justice!"
For, if such a thing were possible, I should desire you to rival even me in a liking for Margaret Hugonin. And speaking for myself, I can assure you that I have come long ago to regard her faults with the same leniency that I accord my own.
We begin on a fine May morning in Colonel Hugonin's rooms at Selwoode, which is, as you may or may not know, the Hugonins' country-place. And there we discover the Colonel dawdling over his breakfast, in an intermediate stage of that careful toilet which enables him later in the day to pass casual inspection as turning forty-nine.
At present the old gentleman is discussing the members of his daughter's house-party. We will omit, by your leave, a number of picturesque descriptive passages—for the Colonel is, on occasion, a man of unfettered speech—and come hastily to the conclusion, to the summing-up of the whole matter.
"Altogether," says Colonel Hugonin, "they strike me as being the most ungodly menagerie ever gotten together under one roof since Noah landed on Ararat."
Now, I am sorry that veracity compels me to present the Colonel in this particular state of mind, for ordinarily he was as pleasant-spoken a gentleman as you will be apt to meet on the longest summer day.
You must make allowances for the fact that, on this especial morning, he was still suffering from a recent twinge of the gout, and that his toast was somewhat dryer than he liked it; and, most potent of all, that the foreign mail, just in, had caused him to rebel anew against the proprieties and his daughter's inclinations, which chained him to Selwoode, in the height of the full London season, to preside over a house-party every member of which he cordially disliked. Therefore, the Colonel having glanced through the well-known names of those at Lady Pevensey's last cotillion, groaned and glared at his daughter, who sat opposite him, and reviled his daughter's friends with point and fluency, and characterised them as above, for the reason that he was hungered at heart for the shady side of Pall Mall, and that their presence at Selwoode prevented his attaining this Elysium. For, I am sorry to say that the Colonel loathed all things American, saving his daughter, whom he worshipped.
And, I think, no one who could have seen her preparing his second cup of tea would have disputed that in making this exception he acted with a show of reason. For Margaret Hugonin—but, as you know, she is our heroine, and, as I fear you have already learned, words are very paltry makeshifts when it comes to describing her. Let us simply say, then, that Margaret, his daughter, began to make him a cup of tea, and add that she laughed.
Not unkindly; no, for at bottom she adored her father—a comely Englishman of some sixty-odd, who had run through his wife's fortune and his own, in the most gallant fashion—and she accorded his opinions a conscientious, but at times, a sorely taxed, tolerance. That very month she had reached twenty-three, the age of omniscience, when the fallacies and general obtuseness of older people become dishearteningly apparent.
"It's nonsense," pursued the old gentleman, "utter, bedlamite nonsense, filling Selwoode up with writing people! Never heard of such a thing. Gad, I do remember, as a young man, meeting Thackeray at a garden-party at Orleans House—gentlemanly fellow with a broken nose— and Browning went about a bit, too, now I think of it. People had 'em one at a time to lend flavour to a dinner—like an olive; we didn't dine on olives, though. You have 'em for breakfast, luncheon, dinner, and everything! I'm sick of olives, I tell you, Margaret!" Margaret pouted.
"They ain't even good olives. I looked into one of that fellow Charteris's books the other day—that chap you had here last week. It was bally rot—proverbs standing on their heads and grinning like dwarfs in a condemned street-fair! Who wants to be told that impropriety is the spice of life and that a roving eye gathers remorse? You may call that sort of thing cleverness, if you like; I call it damn' foolishness." And the emphasis with which he said this left no doubt that the Colonel spoke his honest opinion.
"Attractive," said his daughter patiently, "Mr. Charteris is very, very clever. Mr. Kennaston says literature suffered a considerable loss when he began to write for the magazines."
And now that Margaret has spoken, permit me to call your attention to her voice. Mellow and suave and of astonishing volume was Margaret's voice; it came not from the back of her throat, as most of our women's voices do, but from her chest; and I protest it had the timbre of a violin. Men, hearing her voice for the first time, were wont to stare at her a little and afterward to close their hands slowly, for always its modulations had the tonic sadness of distant music, and it thrilled you to much the same magnanimity and yearning, cloudily conceived; and yet you could not but smile in spite of yourself at the quaint emphasis fluttering through her speech and pouncing for the most part on the unlikeliest word in the whole sentence.
But I fancy the Colonel must have been tone-deaf. "Don't you make phrases for me!" he snorted; "you keep 'em for your menagerie Think! By gad, the world never thinks. I believe the world deliberately reads the six bestselling books in order to incapacitate itself for thinking." Then, his wrath gathering emphasis as he went on: "The longer I live the plainer I see Shakespeare was right—what fools these mortals be, and all that. There's that Haggage woman—speech-making through the country like a hiatused politician. It may be philanthropic, but it ain't ladylike—no, begad! What has she got to do with Juvenile Courts and child-labour in the South, I'd like to know? Why ain't she at home attending to that crippled boy of hers—poor little beggar!—instead of flaunting through America meddling with other folk's children?"
Miss Hugonin put another lump of sugar into his cup and deigned no reply.
"By gad," cried the Colonel fervently, "if you're so anxious to spend that money of yours in charity, why don't you found a Day Nursery for the Children of Philanthropists—a place where advanced men and women can leave their offspring in capable hands when they're busied with Mothers' Meetings and Educational Conferences? It would do a thousand times more good, I can tell you, than that fresh kindergarten scheme of yours for teaching the children of the labouring classes to make a new sort of mud-pie."
"You don't understand these things, attractive," Margaret gently pointed out. "You aren't in harmony with the trend of modern thought."
"No, thank God!" said the Colonel, heartily.
Ensued a silence during which he chipped at his egg-shell in an absent-minded fashion.
"That fellow Kennaston said anything to you yet?" he presently queried.
"I—I don't understand," she protested—oh, perfectly unconvincingly. The tea-making, too, engrossed her at this point to an utterly improbable extent.
Thus it shortly befell that the Colonel, still regarding her under intent brows, cleared his throat and made bold to question her generosity in the matter of sugar; five lumps being, as he suggested, a rather unusual allowance for one cup.
Then, "Mr. Kennaston and I are very good friends," said she, with dignity. And having spoiled the first cup in the making, she began on another.
"Glad to hear it," growled the old gentleman. "I hope you value his friendship sufficiently not to marry him. The man's a fraud—a flimsy, sickening fraud, like his poetry, begad, and that's made up of botany and wide margins and indecency in about equal proportions. It ain't fit for a woman to read—in fact, a woman ought not to read anything; a comprehension of the Decalogue and the cookery-book is enough learning for the best of 'em. Your mother never—never—"
Colonel Hugonin paused and stared at the open window for a little. He seemed to be interested in something a great way off.
"We used to read Ouida's books together," he said, somewhat wistfully. "Lord, Lord, how she revelled in Chandos and Bertie Cecil and those dashing Life Guardsmen! And she used to toss that little head of hers and say I was a finer figure of a man than any of 'em—thirty years ago, good Lord! And I was then, but I ain't now. I'm only a broken-down, cantankerous old fool," declared the Colonel, blowing his nose violently, "and that's why I'm quarrelling with the dearest, foolishest daughter man ever had. Ah, my dear, don't mind me—run your menagerie as you like, and I'll stand it."
Margaret adopted her usual tactics; she perched herself on the arm of his chair and began to stroke his cheek very gently. She often wondered as to what dear sort of a woman that tender-eyed, pink-cheeked mother of the old miniature had been—the mother who had died when she was two years old. She loved the idea of her, vague as it was. And, just now, somehow, the notion of two grown people reading Ouida did not strike her as being especially ridiculous.
"Was she very beautiful?" she asked, softly.
"My dear," said her father, "you are the picture of her."
"You dangerous old man!" said she, laughing and rubbing her cheek against his in a manner that must have been highly agreeable. "Dear, do you know that is the nicest little compliment I've had for a long time?"
Thereupon the Colonel chuckled. "Pay me for it, then," said he, "by driving the dog-cart over to meet Billy's train to-day. Eh?"
"I—I can't," said Miss Hugonin, promptly.
"Why?" demanded her father.
"Because——" said Miss Hugonin; and after giving this really excellent reason, reflected for a moment and strengthened it by adding, "Because——"
"See here," her father questioned, "what did you two quarrel about, anyway?"
"I—I really don't remember," said she, reflectively; then continued, with hauteur and some inconsistency, "I am not aware that Mr. Woods and I have ever quarrelled."
"By gad, then," said the Colonel, "you may as well prepare to, for I intend to marry you to Billy some day. Dear, dear, child," he interpolated, with malice aforethought, "have you a fever?—your cheek's like a coal. Billy's a man, I tell you—worth a dozen of your Kennastons and Charterises. I like Billy. And besides, it's only right he should have Selwoode—wasn't he brought up to expect it? It ain't right he should lose it simply because he had a quarrel with Frederick, for, by gad—not to speak unkindly of the dead, my dear—Frederick quarrelled with every one he ever knew, from the woman who nursed him to the doctor who gave him his last pill. He may have gotten his genius for money-making from Heaven, but he certainly got his temper from the devil. I really believe," said the Colonel, reflectively, "it was worse than mine. Yes, not a doubt of it—I'm a lamb in comparison. But he had his way, after all; and even now poor Billy can't get Selwoode without taking you with it," and he caught his daughter's face between his hands and turned it toward his for a moment. "I wonder now," said he, in meditative wise, "if Billy will consider that a drawback?"
It seemed very improbable. Any number of marriageable males would have sworn it was unthinkable.
However, "Of course," Margaret began, in a crisp voice, "if you advise Mr. Woods to marry me as a good speculation—"
But her father caught her up, with a whistle. "Eh?" said he. "Love in a cottage?—is it thus the poet turns his lay? That's damn' nonsense! I tell you, even in a cottage the plumber's bill has to be paid, and the grocer's little account settled every month. Yes, by gad, and even if you elect to live on bread and cheese and kisses, you'll find Camembert a bit more to your taste than Sweitzer."
"But I don't want to marry anybody, you ridiculous old dear," said Margaret.
"Oh, very well," said the old gentleman; "don't. Be an old maid, and lecture before the Mothers' Club, if you like. I don't care. Anyhow, you meet Billy to-day at twelve-forty-five. You will?—that's a good child. Now run along and tell the menagerie I'll be down-stairs as soon as I've finished dressing."
And the Colonel rang for his man and proceeded to finish his toilet. He seemed a thought absent-minded this morning.
"I say, Wilkins," he questioned, after a little. "Ever read any of Ouida's books?"
"Ho, yes, sir," said Wilkins; "Miss 'Enderson—Mrs. 'Aggage's maid, that his, sir—was reading haloud hout hof 'Hunder Two Flags' honly last hevening, sir."
"H'm—Wilkins—if you can run across one of them in the servants' quarters—you might leave it—by my bed—to-night."
"And—h'm, Wilkins—you can put it under that book of Herbert Spencer's my daughter gave me yesterday. Under it, Wilkins—and, h'm, Wilkins—you needn't mention it to anybody. Ouida ain't cultured, Wilkins, but she's damn' good reading. I suppose that's why she ain't cultured, Wilkins."
And now let us go back a little. In a word, let us utilise the next twenty minutes—during which Miss Hugonin drives to the neighbouring railway station, in, if you press me, not the most pleasant state of mind conceivable—by explaining a thought more fully the posture of affairs at Selwoode on the May morning that starts our story.
And to do this I must commence with the nature of the man who founded Selwoode.
It was when the nineteenth century was still a hearty octogenarian that Frederick R. Woods caused Selwoode to be builded. I give you the name by which he was known on "the Street." A mythology has grown about the name since, and strange legends of its owner are still narrated where brokers congregate. But with the lambs he sheared, and the bulls he dragged to earth, and the bears he gored to financial death, we have nothing to do; suffice it, that he performed these operations with almost uniform success and in an unimpeachably respectable manner.
And if, in his time, he added materially to the lists of inmates in various asylums and almshouses, it must be acknowledged that he bore his victims no malice, and that on every Sunday morning he confessed himself to be a miserable sinner, in a voice that was perfectly audible three pews off. At bottom, I think he considered his relations with Heaven on a purely business basis; he kept a species of running account with Providence; and if on occasions he overdrew it somewhat, he saw no incongruity in evening matters with a cheque for the church fund.
So that at his death it was said of him that he had, in his day, sent more men into bankruptcy and more missionaries into Africa than any other man in the country.
In his sixty-fifth year, he caught Alfred Van Orden short in Lard, erected a memorial window to his wife and became a country gentleman. He never set foot in Wall Street again. He builded Selwoode—a handsome Tudor manor which stands some seven miles from the village of Fairhaven—where he dwelt in state, by turns affable and domineering to the neighbouring farmers, and evincing a grave interest in the condition of their crops. He no longer turned to the financial reports in the papers; and the pedigree of the Woodses hung in the living-hall for all men to see, beginning gloriously with Woden, the Scandinavian god, and attaining a respectable culmination in the names of Frederick R. Woods and of William, his brother.
It is not to be supposed that he omitted to supply himself with a coat-of-arms. Frederick R. Woods evinced an almost childlike pride in his heraldic blazonings.
"The Woods arms," he would inform you, with a relishing gusto, "are vert, an eagle displayed, barry argent and gules. And the crest is out of a ducal coronet, or, a demi-eagle proper. We have no motto, sir—none of your ancient coats have mottoes."
The Woods Eagle he gloried in. The bird was perched in every available nook at Selwoode; it was carved in the woodwork, was set in the mosaics, was chased in the tableware, was woven in the napery, was glazed in the very china. Turn where you would, an eagle or two confronted you; and Hunston Wyke, who is accounted something of a wit, swore that Frederick R. Woods at Selwoode reminded him of "a sore-headed bear who had taken up permanent quarters in an aviary."
There was one, however, who found the bear no very untractable monster. This was the son of his brother, dead now, who dwelt at Selwoode as heir presumptive. Frederick R. Woods's wife had died long ago, leaving him childless. His brother's boy was an orphan; and so, for a time, he and the grim old man lived together peaceably enough. Indeed, Billy Woods was in those days as fine a lad as you would wish to see, with the eyes of an inquisitive cherub and a big tow-head, which Frederick R. Woods fell into the habit of cuffing heartily, in order to conceal the fact that he would have burned Selwoode to the ground rather than allow any one else to injure a hair of it.
In the consummation of time, Billy, having attained the ripe age of eighteen, announced to his uncle that he intended to become a famous painter. Frederick R. Woods exhorted him not to be a fool, and packed him off to college.
Billy Woods returned on his first vacation with a fragmentary mustache and any quantity of paint-tubes, canvases, palettes, mahl-sticks, and such-like paraphernalia. Frederick R. Woods passed over the mustache, and had the painters' trappings burned by the second footman. Billy promptly purchased another lot. His uncle came upon them one morning, rubbed his chin meditatively for a moment, and laughed for the first time, so far as known, in his lifetime; then he tiptoed to his own apartments, lest Billy—the lazy young rascal was still abed in the next room—should awaken and discover his knowledge of this act of flat rebellion.
I dare say the old gentleman was so completely accustomed to having his own way that this unlooked-for opposition tickled him by its novelty; or perhaps he recognised in Billy an obstinacy akin to his own; or perhaps it was merely that he loved the boy. In any event, he never again alluded to the subject; and it is a fact that when Billy sent for carpenters to convert an upper room into an atelier, Frederick R. Woods spent two long and dreary weeks in Boston in order to remain in ignorance of the entire affair.
Billy scrambled through college, somehow, in the allotted four years. At the end of that time, he returned to find new inmates installed at Selwoode.
For the wife of Frederick R. Woods had been before her marriage one of the beautiful Anstruther sisters, who, as certain New Yorkers still remember—those grizzled, portly, rosy-gilled fellows who prattle on provocation of Jenny Lind and Castle Garden, and remember everything—created a pronounced furor at their debut in the days of crinoline and the Grecian bend; and Margaret Anstruther, as they will tell you, was married to Thomas Hugonin, then a gallant cavalry officer in the service of Her Majesty, the Empress of India.
And she must have been the nicer of the two, because everybody who knew her says that Margaret Hugonin is exactly like her.
So it came about naturally enough, that Billy Woods, now an Artium Baccalaureus, if you please, and not a little proud of it, found the Colonel and his daughter, then on a visit to this country, installed at Selwoode as guests and quasi-relatives. And Billy was twenty-two, and Margaret was nineteen.
* * * * *
Precisely what happened I am unable to tell you. Billy Woods claims it is none of my business; and Margaret says that it was a long, long time ago and she really can't remember.
But I fancy we can all form a very fair notion of what is most likely to occur when two sensible, normal, healthy young people are thrown together in this intimate fashion at a country-house where the remaining company consists of two elderly gentlemen. Billy was forced to be polite to his uncle's guest; and Margaret couldn't well be discourteous to her host's nephew, could she? Of course not: so it befell in the course of time that Frederick R. Woods and the Colonel—who had quickly become a great favourite, by virtue of his implicit faith in the Eagle and in Woden and Sir Percival de Wode of Hastings, and such-like flights of heraldic fancy, and had augmented his popularity by his really brilliant suggestion of Wynkyn de Worde, the famous sixteenth-century printer, as a probable collateral relation of the family—it came to pass, I say, that the two gentlemen nodded over their port and chuckled, and winked at one another and agreed that the thing would do.
This was all very well; but they failed to make allowances for the inevitable quarrel and the subsequent spectacle of the gentleman contemplating suicide and the lady looking wistfully toward a nunnery. In this case it arose, I believe, over Teddy Anstruther, who for a cousin was undeniably very attentive to Margaret; and in the natural course of events they would have made it up before the week was out had not Frederick R. Woods selected this very moment to interfere in the matter.
Ah, si vieillesse savait!
The blundering old man summoned Billy into his study and ordered him to marry Margaret Hugonin, precisely as the Colonel might have ordered a private to go on sentry-duty. Ten days earlier Billy would have jumped at the chance; ten days later he would probably have suggested it himself; but at that exact moment he would have as willingly contemplated matrimony with Alecto or Medusa or any of the Furies. Accordingly, he declined. Frederick R. Woods flew into a pyrotechnical display of temper, and gave him his choice between obeying his commands and leaving his house forever—the choice, in fact, which he had been according Billy at very brief intervals ever since the boy had had the measles, fifteen years before, and had refused to take the proper medicines.
It was merely his usual manner of expressing a request or a suggestion. But this time, to his utter horror and amaze, the boy took him at his word and left Selwoode within the hour.
Billy's life, you see, was irrevocably blighted. It mattered very little what became of him; personally, he didn't care in the least. But as for that fair, false, fickle woman—perish the thought! Sooner a thousand deaths! No, he would go to Paris and become a painter of worldwide reputation; the money his father had left him would easily suffice for his simple wants. And some day, the observed of all observers in some bright hall of gaiety, he would pass her coldly by, with a cynical smile upon his lips, and she would grow pale and totter and fall into the arms of the bloated Silenus, for whose title she had bartered her purely superficial charms.
Yes, upon mature deliberation, that was precisely what Billy decided to do.
Followed dark days at Selwoode. Frederick R. Woods told Margaret of what had occurred; and he added the information that, as his wife's nearest relative, he intended to make her his heir.
Then Margaret did what I would scarcely have expected of Margaret. She turned upon him like a virago and informed Frederick R. Woods precisely what she thought of him; she acquainted him with the fact that he was a sordid, low-minded, grasping beast, and a miser, and a tyrant, and (I think) a parricide; she notified him that he was thoroughly unworthy to wipe the dust off his nephew's shoes—an office toward which, to do him justice, he had never shown any marked aspirations—and that Billy had acted throughout in a most noble and sensible manner; and that, personally, she wouldn't marry Billy Woods if he were the last man on earth, for she had always despised him; and she added the information that she expected to die shortly, and she hoped they would both be sorry then; and subsequently she clapped the climax by throwing her arms about his neck and bursting into tears and telling him he was the dearest old man in the world and that she was thoroughly ashamed of herself.
So they kissed and made it up. And after a little the Colonel and Margaret went away from Selwoode, and Frederick R. Woods was left alone to nourish his anger and indignation, if he could, and to hunger for his boy, whether he would or not. He was too proud to seek him out; indeed, he never thought of that; and so he waited alone in his fine house, sick at heart, impotent, hoping against hope that the boy would come back. The boy never came.
No, the boy never came, because he was what the old man had made him—headstrong, and wilful, and obstinate. Billy had been thoroughly spoiled. The old man had nurtured his pride, had applauded it as a mark of proper spirit; and now it was this same pride that had robbed him of the one thing he loved in all the world.
So, at last, the weak point in the armour of this sturdy old Pharisee was found, and Fate had pierced it gaily. It was retribution, if you will; and I think that none of his victims in "the Street," none of the countless widows and orphans that he had made, suffered more bitterly than he in those last days.
It was almost two years after Billy's departure from Selwoode that his body-servant, coming to rouse Frederick R. Woods one June morning, found him dead in his rooms. He had been ailing for some time. It was his heart, the doctors said; and I think that it was, though not precisely in the sense which they meant.
The man found him seated before his great carved desk, on which his head and shoulders had fallen forward; they rested on a sheet of legal-cap paper half-covered with a calculation in his crabbed old hand as to the value of certain properties—the calculation which he never finished; and underneath was a mass of miscellaneous papers, among them his will, dated the day after Billy left Selwoode, in which Frederick R. Woods bequeathed his millions unconditionally to Margaret Hugonin when she should come of age.
Her twenty-first birthday had fallen in the preceding month. So Margaret was one of the richest women in America; and you may depend upon it, that if many men had loved her before, they worshipped her now—or, at least, said they did, and, after all, their protestations were the only means she had of judging. She might have been a countess—and it must be owned that the old Colonel, who had an honest Anglo-Saxon reverence for a title, saw this chance lost wistfully—and she might have married any number of grammarless gentlemen, personally unknown to her, whose fervent proposals almost every mail brought in; and besides these, there were many others, more orthodox in their wooing, some of whom were genuinely in love with Margaret Hugonin, and some—I grieve to admit it—who were genuinely in love with her money; and she would have none of them.
She refused them all with the utmost civility, as I happen to know. How I learned it is no affair of yours.
For Miss Hugonin had remarkably keen eyes, which she used to advantage. In the world about her they discovered very little that she could admire. She was none the happier for her wealth; the piled-up millions overshadowed her personality; and it was not long before she knew that most people regarded her simply as the heiress of the Woods fortune—an unavoidable encumbrance attached to the property, which divers thrifty-minded gentlemen were willing to put up with. To put up with!—at the thought, her pride rose in a hot blush, and, it must be confessed, she sought consolation in the looking-glass.
She was an humble-minded young woman, as the sex goes, and she saw no great reason there why a man should go mad over Margaret Hugonin. This decision, I grant you, was preposterous, for there were any number of reasons. Her final conclusion, however, was for the future to regard all men as fortune-hunters and to do her hair differently.
She carried out both resolutions. When a gentleman grew pressing in his attentions, she more than suspected his motives; and when she eventually declined him it was done with perfect, courtesy, but the glow of her eyes was at such times accentuated to a marked degree.
Meanwhile, the Eagle brooded undisturbed at Selwoode. Miss Hugonin would allow nothing to be altered.
"The place doesn't belong to me, attractive," she would tell her father. "I belong to the place. Yes, I do—I'm exactly like a little cow thrown in with a little farm when they sell it, and all my little suitors think so, and they are very willing to take me on those terms, too. But they shan't, attractive. I hate every single solitary man in the whole wide world but you, beautiful, and I particularly hate that horrid old Eagle; but we'll keep him because he's a constant reminder to me that Solomon or Moses, or whoever it was that said all men were liars, was a person of very great intelligence."
So that I think we may fairly say the money did her no good.
If it benefited no one else, it was not Margaret's fault. She had a high sense of her responsibilities, and therefore, at various times, endeavoured to further the spread of philanthropy and literature and theosophy and art and temperance and education and other laudable causes. Mr. Kennaston, in his laughing manner, was wont to jest at her varied enterprises and term her Lady Bountiful; but, then, Mr. Kennaston had no real conception of the proper uses of money. In fact, he never thought of money. He admitted this to Margaret with a whimsical sigh.
Margaret grew very fond of Mr. Kennaston because he was not mercenary.
Mr. Kennaston was much at Selwoode. Many people came there now—masculine women and muscleless men, for the most part. They had, every one of them, some scheme for bettering the universe; and if among them Margaret seemed somewhat out of place—a butterfly among earnest-minded ants—her heart was in every plan they advocated, and they found her purse-strings infinitely elastic. The girl was pitiably anxious to be of some use in the world.
So at Selwoode they gossiped of great causes and furthered the millenium. And above them the Eagle brooded in silence.
And Billy? All this time Billy was junketing abroad, where every year he painted masterpieces for the Salon, which—on account of a nefarious conspiracy among certain artists, jealous of his superior merits—were invariably refused.
Now Billy is back again in America, and the Colonel has insisted that he come to Selwoode, and Margaret is waiting for him in the dog-cart. The glow of her eyes is very, very bright. Her father's careless words this morning, coupled with certain speeches of Mr. Kennaston's last night, have given her food for reflection.
"He wouldn't dare," says Margaret, to no one in particular. "Oh, no, he wouldn't dare after what happened four years ago."
And, Margaret-like, she has quite forgotten that what happened four years ago was all caused by her having flirted outrageously with Teddy Anstruther, in order to see what Billy would do.
The twelve forty-five, for a wonder, was on time; and there descended from it a big, blond young man, who did not look in the least like a fortune-hunter.
Miss Hugonin resented this. Manifestly, he looked clean and honest for the deliberate purpose of deceiving her. Very well! She'd show him!
He was quite unembarrassed. He shook hands cordially; then he shook hands with the groom, who, you may believe it, was grinning in a most unprofessional manner because Master Billy was back again at Selwoode. Subsequently, in his old decisive way, he announced they would walk to the house, as his legs needed stretching.
The insolence of it!—quite as if he had something to say to Margaret in private and couldn't wait a minute. Beyond doubt, this was a young man who must be taken down a peg or two, and that at once. Of course, she wasn't going to walk back with him!—a pretty figure they'd cut strolling through the fields, like a house-girl and the milkman on a Sunday afternoon! She would simply say she was too tired to walk, and that would end the matter.
So she said she thought the exercise would do them both good.
They came presently with desultory chat to a meadow bravely decked in all the gauds of Spring. About them the day was clear, the air bland. Spring had revamped her ageless fripperies of tender leaves and bird-cries and sweet, warm odours for the adornment of this meadow; above it she had set a turkis sky splashed here and there with little clouds that were like whipped cream; and upon it she had scattered largesse, a Danae's shower of buttercups. Altogether, she had made of it a particularly dangerous meadow for a man and a maid to frequent.
Yet there Mr. Woods paused under a burgeoning maple—paused resolutely, with the lures of Spring thick about him, compassed with every snare of scent and sound and colour that the witch is mistress of.
Margaret hoped he had a pleasant passage over. Her father, thank you, was in the pink of condition. Oh, yes, she was quite well. She hoped Mr. Woods would not find America—
"Well, Peggy," said Mr. Woods, "then, we'll have it out right here."
His insolence was so surprising that—in order to recover herself—Margaret actually sat down under the maple-tree. Peggy, indeed! Why, she hadn't been called Peggy for—no, not for four whole years!
"Because I intend to be friends, you know," said Mr. Woods.
And about them the maple-leaves made a little island of sombre green, around which more vivid grasses rippled and dimpled under the fitful spring breezes. And everywhere leaves lisped to one another, and birds shrilled insistently. It was a perilous locality.
I fancy Billy Woods was out of his head when he suggested being friends in such a place. Friends, indeed!—you would have thought from the airy confidence with which he spoke that Margaret had come safely to forty year and wore steel-rimmed spectacles!
But Miss Hugonin merely cast down her eyes and was aware of no reason why they shouldn't be. She was sure he must be hungry, and she thought luncheon must be ready by now.
In his soul, Mr. Woods observed that her lashes were long—long beyond all reason. Lacking the numbers that Petrarch flowed in, he did not venture, even to himself, to characterise them further. But oh, how queer it was they should be pure gold at the roots!—she must have dipped them in the ink-pot. And oh, the strong, sudden, bewildering curve of 'em! He could not recall at the present moment ever noticing quite such lashes anywhere else. No, it was highly improbable that there were such lashes anywhere else. Perhaps a few of the superior angels might have such lashes. He resolved for the future to attend church more regularly.
Aloud, Mr. Woods observed that in that case they had better shake hands.
It would have been ridiculous to contest the point. The dignified course was to shake hands, since he insisted on it, and then to return at once to Selwoode.
Margaret Hugonin had a pretty hand, and Mr. Woods, as an artist, could not well fail to admire it. Still, he needn't have looked at it as though he had never before seen anything quite like it; he needn't have neglected to return it; and when Miss Hugonin reclaimed it, after a decent interval, he needn't have laughed in a manner that compelled her to laugh, too. These things were unnecessary and annoying, as they caused Margaret to forget that she despised him.
For the time being—will you believe it?—she actually thought he was rather nice.
"I acted like an ass," said Mr. Woods, tragically. "Oh, yes, I did, you know. But if you'll forgive me for having been an ass I'll forgive you for throwing me over for Teddy Anstruther, and at the wedding I'll dance through any number of pairs of patent-leathers you choose to mention."
So that was the way he looked at it. Teddy Anstruther, indeed! Why, Teddy was a dark little man with brown eyes—just the sort of man she most objected to. How could any one ever possibly fancy a brown-eyed man? Then, for no apparent reason, Margaret flushed, and Billy, who had stretched his great length of limb on the grass beside her, noted it with a pair of the bluest eyes in the world and thought it vastly becoming.
"Billy," said she, impulsively—and the name having slipped out once by accident, it would have been absurd to call him anything else afterward—"it was horrid of you to refuse to take any of that money."
"But I didn't want it," he protested. "Good Lord, I'd only have done something foolish with it. It was awfully square of you, Peggy, to offer to divide, but I didn't want it, you see. I don't want to be a millionaire, and give up the rest of my life to founding libraries and explaining to people that if they never spend any money on amusements they'll have a great deal by the time they're too old to enjoy it. I'd rather paint pictures."
So that I think Margaret must have endeavoured at some time to make him accept part of Frederick R. Woods's money.
"You make me feel—and look—like a thief," she reproved him.
Then Billy laughed a little. "You don't look in the least like one," he reassured her. "You look like an uncommonly honest, straightforward young woman," Mr. Woods added, handsomely, "and I don't believe you'd purloin under the severest temptation."
She thanked him for his testimonial, with all three dimples in evidence.
This was unsettling. He hedged.
"Except, perhaps—" said he.
"Yes?" queried Margaret, after a pause.
However, she questioned him with her head drooped forward, her brows raised; and as this gave him the full effect of her eyes, Mr. Woods became quite certain that there was, at least, one thing she might be expected to rob him of, and wisely declined to mention it.
Margaret did not insist on knowing what it was. Perhaps she heard it thumping under his waistcoat, where it was behaving very queerly.
So they sat in silence for a while. Then Margaret fell a-humming to herself; and the air—will you believe it?—chanced by the purest accident to be that foolish, senseless old song they used to sing together four years ago.
Billy chuckled. "Let's!" he obscurely pleaded.
Spring prompted her.
"Oh, where have you been, Billy boy?" queried Margaret's wonderful contralto,
"Oh, where have you been, Billy boy, Billy boy? Oh, where have you been, charming Billy?"
She sang it in a low, hushed voice, just over her breath. Not looking at him, however. And oh, what a voice! thought Billy Woods. A voice that was honey and gold and velvet and all that is most sweet and rich and soft in the world! Find me another voice like that, you prime donne! Find me a simile for it, you uninventive poets! Indeed, I'd like to see you do it.
But he chimed in, nevertheless, with his pleasant throaty baritone, and lilted his own part quite creditably.
"I've been to seek a wife, She's the joy of my life; She's a young thing, and cannot leave her mother"—
Only Billy sang it "father," just as they used to do.
And then they sang it through, did Margaret and Billy—sang of the dimple in her chin and the ringlets in her hair, and of the cherry pies she achieved with such celerity—sang as they sat in the spring-decked meadow every word of that inane old song that is so utterly senseless and so utterly unforgettable.
It was a quite idiotic performance. I set it down to the snares of Spring—to her insidious, delightful snares of scent and sound and colour that—for the moment, at least—had trapped these young people into loving life infinitely.
But I wonder who is responsible for that tatter of rhyme and melody that had come to them from nowhere in particular? Mr. Woods, as he sat up at the conclusion of the singing vigorously to applaud, would have shared his last possession, his ultimate crust, with that unknown benefactor of mankind. Indeed, though, the heart of Mr. Woods just now was full of loving kindness and capable of any freakish magnanimity.
For—will it be believed?—Mr. Woods, who four years ago had thrown over a fortune and exiled himself from his native land, rather than propose marriage to Margaret Hugonin, had no sooner come again into her presence and looked once into her perfectly fathomless eyes than he could no more have left her of his own accord than a moth can turn his back to a lighted candle. He had fancied himself entirely cured of that boy-and-girl nonsense; his broken heart, after the first few months, had not interfered in the least with a naturally healthy appetite; and, behold, here was the old malady raging again in his veins and with renewed fervour.
And all because the girl had a pretty face! I think you will agree with me that in the conversation I have recorded Margaret had not displayed any great wisdom or learning or tenderness or wit, nor, in fine, any of the qualities a man might naturally look for in a helpmate. Yet at the precise moment he handed his baggage-check to the groom, Mr. Woods had made up his mind to marry her. In an instant he had fallen head over ears in love; or to whittle accuracy to a point, he had discovered that he had never fallen out of love; and if you had offered him an empress or fetched Helen of Troy from the grave for his delectation he would have laughed you to scorn.
In his defense, I can only plead that Margaret was an unusually beautiful woman. It is all very well to flourish a death's-head at the feast, and bid my lady go paint herself an inch thick, for to this favour she must come; and it is quite true that the reddest lips in the universe may give vent to slander and lies, and the brightest eyes be set in the dullest head, and the most roseate of complexions be purchased at the corner drug-store; but, say what you will, a pretty woman is a pretty woman, and while she continue so no amount of common-sense or experience will prevent a man, on provocation, from alluring, coaxing, even entreating her to make a fool of him. We like it. And I think they like it, too.
So Mr. Woods lost his heart on a fine spring morning and was unreasonably elated over the fact.
And Margaret? Margaret was content.
They talked for a matter of a half-hour in the fashion aforetime recorded—not very wise nor witty talk, if you will, but very pleasant to make. There were many pauses. There was much laughter over nothing in particular. There were any number of sentences ambitiously begun that ended nowhere. Altogether, it was just the sort of talk for a man and a maid.
Yet some twenty minutes later, Mr. Woods, preparing for luncheon in the privacy of his chamber, gave a sudden exclamation. Then he sat down and rumpled his hair thoroughly.
"Good Lord!" he groaned; "I'd forgotten all about that damned money! Oh, you ass!—you abject ass! Why, she's one of the richest women in America, and you're only a fifth-rate painter with a paltry thousand or so a year! You marry her!—why, I dare say she's refused a hundred better men than you! She'd think you were mad! Why, she'd think you were after her money! She—oh, she'd only think you a precious cheeky ass, she would, and she'd be quite right. You are an ass, Billy Woods! You ought to be locked up in some nice quiet stable, where your heehawing wouldn't disturb people. You need a keeper, you do!"
He sat for some ten minutes, aghast. Afterward he rose and threw back his shoulders and drew a deep breath.
"No, we aren't an ass," he addressed his reflection in the mirror, as he carefully knotted his tie. "We're only a poor chuckle-headed moth who's been looking at a star too long. It's a bright star, Billy, but it isn't for you. So we're going to be sensible now. We're going to get a telegram to-morrow that will call us away from Selwoode. We aren't coming back any more, either. We're simply going to continue painting fifth-rate pictures, and hoping that some day she'll find the right man and be very, very happy."
Nevertheless, he decided that a blue tie would look better, and was very particular in arranging it.
At the same moment Margaret stood before her mirror and tidied her hair for luncheon and assured her image in the glass that she was a weak-minded fool. She pointed out to herself the undeniable fact that Billy, having formerly refused to marry her—oh, ignominy!—seemed pleasant-spoken enough, now that she had become an heiress. His refusal to accept part of her fortune was a very flimsy device; it simply meant he hoped to get all of it. Oh, he did, did he!
Margaret powdered her nose viciously.
She saw through him! His honest bearing she very plainly perceived to be the result of consummate hypocrisy. In his laughter her keen ear detected a hollow ring; and his courteous manner she found, at bottom, mere servility. And finally she demonstrated—to her own satisfaction, at least—that his charm of manner was of exactly the, same sort that had been possessed by many other eminently distinguished criminals.
How did she do this? My dear sir, you had best inquire of your mother or your sister or your wife, or any other lady that your fancy dictates. They know. I am sure I don't.
And after it all—
"Oh, dear, dear!" said Margaret; "I do wish he didn't have such nice eyes!"
On the way to luncheon Mr. Woods came upon Adele Haggage and Hugh Van Orden, both of whom he knew, very much engrossed in one another, in a nook under the stairway. To Billy it seemed just now quite proper that every one should be in love; wasn't it—after all—the most pleasant condition in the world? So he greeted them with a semi-paternal smile that caused Adele to flush a little.
For she was—let us say, interested—in Mr. Van Orden. That was tolerably well known. In fact, Margaret—prompted by Mrs. Haggage, it must be confessed—had invited him to Selwoode for the especial purpose of entertaining Miss Adele Haggage; for he was a good match, and Mrs. Haggage, as an experienced chaperon, knew the value of country houses. Very unexpectedly, however, the boy had developed a disconcerting tendency to fall in love with Margaret, who snubbed him promptly and unmercifully. He had accordingly fallen back on Adele, and Mrs. Haggage had regained both her trust in Providence and her temper.
In the breakfast-room, where luncheon was laid out, the Colonel greeted Mr. Woods with the enthusiasm a sailor shipwrecked on a desert island might conceivably display toward the boat-crew come to rescue him. The Colonel liked Billy; and furthermore, the poor Colonel's position at Selwoode just now was not utterly unlike that of the suppositious mariner; were I minded to venture into metaphor, I should picture him as clinging desperately to the rock of an old fogeyism and surrounded by weltering seas of advanced thought. Colonel Hugonin himself was not advanced in his ideas. Also, he had forceful opinions as to the ultimate destination of those who were.
Then Billy was presented to the men of the party—Mr. Felix Kennaston and Mr. Petheridge Jukesbury. Mrs. Haggage he knew slightly; and Kathleen Saumarez he had known very well indeed, some six years previously, before she had ever heard of Miguel Saumarez, and when Billy was still an undergraduate. She was a widow now, and not well-to-do; and Mr. Woods's first thought on seeing her was that a man was a fool to write verses, and that she looked like just the sort of woman to preserve them.
His second was that he had verged on imbecility when he fancied he admired that slender, dark-haired type. A woman's hair ought to be an enormous coronal of sunlight; a woman ought to have very large, candid eyes of a colour between that of sapphires and that of the spring heavens, only infinitely more beautiful than either; and all petticoated persons differing from this description were manifestly quite unworthy of any serious consideration.
So his eyes turned to Margaret, who had no eyes for him. She had forgotten his existence, with an utterness that verged on ostentation; and if it had been any one else Billy would have surmised she was in a temper. But that angel in a temper!—nonsense! And, oh, what eyes she had! and what lashes! and what hair!—and altogether, how adorable she was, and what a wonder the admiring gods hadn't snatched her up to Olympus long ago!
Thus far Mr. Woods.
But if Miss Hugonin was somewhat taciturn, her counsellors in divers schemes for benefiting the universe were in opulent vein. Billy heard them silently.
"I have spent the entire morning by the lake," Mr. Kennaston informed the party at large, "in company with a mocking-bird who was practising a new aria. It was a wonderful place; the trees were lisping verses to themselves, and the sky overhead was like a robin's egg in colour, and a faint wind was making tucks and ruches and pleats all over the water, quite as if the breezes had set up in business as mantua-makers. I fancy they thought they were working on a great sheet of blue silk, for it was very like that. And every once in a while a fish would leap and leave a splurge of bubble and foam behind that you would have sworn was an inserted lace medallion."
Mr. Kennaston, as you are doubtless aware, is the author of "The King's Quest" and other volumes of verse. He is a full-bodied young man, with hair of no particular shade; and if his green eyes are a little aged, his manner is very youthful. His voice in speaking is wonderfully pleasing, and he has a habit of cocking his head on one side, in a bird-like fashion.
"Indeed," Mr. Petheridge Jukesbury observed, "it is very true that God made the country and man made the town. A little more wine, please."
Mr. Jukesbury is a prominent worker in the cause of philanthropy and temperance. He is ponderous and bland; and for the rest, he is president of the Society for the Suppression of Nicotine and the Nude, vice-president of the Anti-Inebriation League, secretary of the Incorporated Brotherhood of Benevolence, and the bearer of divers similar honours.
"I am never really happy in the country," Mrs. Saumarez dissented; "it reminds me so constantly of our rural drama. I am always afraid the quartette may come on and sing something."
Kathleen Eppes Saumarez, as I hope you do not need to be told, is the well-known lecturer before women's clubs, and the author of many sympathetic stories of Nature and animal life of the kind that have had such a vogue of late. There was always an indefinable air of pathos about her; as Hunston Wyke put it, one felt, somehow, that her mother had been of a domineering disposition, and that she took after her father.
"Ah, dear lady," Mr. Kennaston cried, playfully, "you, like many of us, have become an alien to Nature in your quest of a mere Earthly Paradox. Epigrams are all very well, but I fancy there is more happiness to be derived from a single impulse from a vernal wood than from a whole problem-play of smart sayings. So few of us are natural," Mr. Kennaston complained, with a dulcet sigh; "we are too sophisticated. Our very speech lacks the tang of outdoor life. Why should we not love Nature—the great mother, who is, I grant you, the necessity of various useful inventions, in her angry moods, but who, in her kindly moments—" He paused, with a wry face. "I beg your pardon," said he, "but I believe I've caught rheumatism lying by that confounded pond."
Mrs. Saumarez rallied the poet, with a pale smile. "That comes of communing with Nature," she reminded him; "and it serves you rightly, for natural communications corrupt good epigrams. I prefer Nature with wide margins and uncut leaves," she spoke, in her best platform manner. "Art should be an expurgated edition of Nature, with all the unpleasant parts left out. And I am sure," Mrs. Saumarez added, handsomely, and clinching her argument, "that Mr. Kennaston gives us much better sunsets in his poems than I have ever seen in the west."
He acknowledged this with a bow.
"Not sherry—claret, if you please," said Mr. Jukesbury. "Art should be an expurgated edition of Nature," he repeated, with a suave chuckle. "Do you know, I consider that admirably put, Mrs. Saumarez—admirably, upon my word. Ah, if our latter-day writers would only take that saying to heart! We do not need to be told of the vice and corruption prevalent, I am sorry to say, among the very best people; what we really need is continually to be reminded of the fact that pure hearts and homes and happy faces are to be found to-day alike in the palatial residences of the wealthy and in the humbler homes of those less abundantly favoured by Fortune, and yet dwelling together in harmony and Christian resignation and—er—comparatively moderate circumstances."
"Surely," Mrs. Saumarez protested, "art has nothing to do with morality. Art is a process. You see a thing in a certain way; you make your reader see it in the same way—or try to. If you succeed, the result is art. If you fail, it may be the book of the year."
"Enduring immortality and—ah—the patronage of the reading public," Mr. Jukesbury placidly insisted, "will be awarded, in the end, only to those who dwell upon the true, the beautiful, and the—er —respectable. Art must cheer; it must be optimistic and edifying and—ah—suitable for young persons; it must have an uplift, a leaven of righteousness, a—er—a sort of moral baking-powder. It must utterly eschew the—ah—unpleasant and repugnant details of life. It is, if I may so express myself, not at home in the menage a trois or—er—the representation of the nude. Yes, another glass of claret, if you please."
"I quite agree with you," said Mrs. Haggage, in her deep voice. Sarah Ellen Haggage is, of course, the well-known author of "Child-Labour in the South," and "The Down-Trodden Afro-American," and other notable contributions to literature. She is, also, the "Madame President" both of the Society for the Betterment of Civic Government and Sewerage, and of the Ladies' League for the Edification of the Impecunious.
"And I am glad to see," Mrs. Haggage presently went on, "that the literature of the day is so largely beginning to chronicle the sayings and doings of the labouring classes. The virtues of the humble must be admitted in spite of their dissolute and unhygienic tendencies. Yes," Mrs. Haggage added, meditatively, "our literature is undoubtedly acquiring a more elevated tone; at last we are shaking off the scintillant and unwholesome influence of the French."
"Ah, the French!" sighed Mr. Kennaston; "a people who think depravity the soul of wit! Their art is mere artfulness. They care nothing for Nature."
"No," Mrs. Haggage assented; "they prefer nastiness. All French books are immoral. I ran across one the other day that was simply hideously indecent—unfit for a modest woman to read. And I can assure you that none of its author's other books are any better. I purchased the entire set at once and read them carefully, in order to make sure that I was perfectly justified in warning my working-girls' classes against them. I wish to misjudge no man—not even a member of a nation notoriously devoted to absinthe and illicit relations."
She breathed heavily, and looked at Mr. Woods as if, somehow, he was responsible. Then she gave the name of the book to Petheridge Jukesbury. He wished to have it placed on the Index Expurgatorius of the Brotherhood of Benevolence, he said.
"Dear, dear," Felix Kennaston sighed, as Mr. Jukesbury made a note of it; "you are all so practical. You perceive an evil and proceed at once, in your common-sense way, to crush it, to stamp it out. Now, I can merely lament certain unfortunate tendencies of the age; I am quite unable to contend against them. Do you know," Mr. Kenneston continued gaily, as he trifled with a bunch of grapes, "I feel horribly out-of-place among you? Here is Mrs. Saumarez creating an epidemic of useful and improving knowledge throughout the country, by means of her charming lectures. Here is Mrs. Haggage, the mainspring, if I may say so, of any number of educational and philanthropic alarm clocks which will some day rouse the sleeping public from its lethargy. And here is my friend Jukesbury, whose eloquent pleas for a higher life have turned so many workmen from gin and improvidence, and which in a printed form are disseminated even in such remote regions as Africa, where I am told they have produced the most satisfactory results upon the unsophisticated but polygamous monarchs of that continent. And here, above all, is Miss Hugonin, utilising the vast power of money—which I am credibly informed is a very good thing to have, though I cannot pretend to speak from experience—and casting whole bakeryfuls of bread upon the waters of charity. And here am I, the idle singer of an empty day—a mere drone in this hive of philanthropic bees! Dear, dear," said Mr. Kennaston, enviously, "what a thing it is to be practical!" And he laughed toward Margaret, in his whimsical way.
Miss Hugonin had been strangely silent; but she returned Mr. Kennaston's smile, and began to take part in the conversation.
"You're only an ignorant child," she rebuked him, "and a very naughty child, too, to make fun of us in this fashion."
"Yes," Mr. Kennaston assented, "I am wilfully ignorant. The world adores ignorance; and where ignorance is kissed it is folly to be wise. To-morrow I shall read you a chapter from my 'Defense of Ignorance,' which my confiding publisher is going to bring out in the autumn."
So the table-talk went on, and now Margaret bore a part therein.
* * * * *
However, I do not think we need record it further.
Mr. Woods listened in a sort of a daze. Adele Haggage and Hugh Van Orden were conversing in low tones at one end of the table; the Colonel was eating his luncheon, silently and with a certain air of resignation; and so Billy Woods was left alone to attend and marvel.
The ideas they advanced seemed to him, for the most part, sensible. What puzzled him was the uniform gravity which they accorded equally—as it appeared to him—to the discussion of the most pompous platitudes and of the most arrant nonsense. They were always serious; and the general tone of infallibility, Billy thought, could be warranted only by a vast fund of inexperience.
But, in the main, they advocated theories he had always held—excellent theories, he considered. And he was seized with an unreasonable desire to repudiate every one of them.
For it seemed to him that every one of them was aimed at Margaret's approval. It did not matter to whom a remark was ostensibly addressed—always at its conclusion the speaker glanced more or less openly toward Miss Hugonin. She was the audience to which they zealously played, thought Billy; and he wondered.
I think I have said that, owing to the smallness of the house-party, luncheon was served in the breakfast-room. The dining-room at Selwoode is very rarely used, because Margaret declares its size makes a meal there equivalent to eating out-of-doors.
And I must confess that the breakfast-room is far cosier. The room, in the first place, is of reasonable dimensions; it is hung with Flemish tapestries from designs by Van Eyck representing the Four Seasons, but the walls and ceiling are panelled in oak, and over the mantel carved in bas-relief the inevitable Eagle is displayed.
The mantel stood behind Margaret's chair; and over her golden head, half-protectingly, half-threateningly, with his wings outstretched to the uttermost, the Eagle brooded as he had once brooded over Frederick R. Woods. The old man sat contentedly beneath that symbol of what he had achieved in life. He had started (as the phrase runs) from nothing; he had made himself a power. To him, the Eagle meant that crude, incalculable power of wealth he gloried in. And to Billy Woods, the Eagle meant identically the same thing, and—I am sorry to say—he began to suspect that the Eagle was really the audience to whom Miss Hugonin's friends so zealously played.
Perhaps the misanthropy of Mr. Woods was not wholly unconnected with the fact that Margaret never looked at him. She'd show him!—the fortune-hunter!
So her eyes never strayed toward him; and her attention never left him. At the end of luncheon she could have enumerated for you every morsel he had eaten, every glare he had directed toward Kennaston, every beseeching look he had turned to her. Of course, he had taken sherry—dry sherry. Hadn't he told her four years ago—it was the first day she had ever worn the white organdie dotted with purple sprigs, and they sat by the lake so late that afternoon that Frederick R. Woods finally sent for them to come to dinner—hadn't he told her then that only women and children cared for sweet wines? Of course he had—the villain!
Billy, too, had his emotions. To hear that paragon, that queen among women, descant of work done in the slums and of the mysteries of sweat-shops; to hear her state off-hand that there were seventeen hundred and fifty thousand children between the ages of ten and fifteen years employed in the mines and factories of the United States; to hear her discourse of foreign missions as glibly as though she had been born and nurtured in Zambesi Land: all these things filled him with an odd sense of alienation. He wasn't worthy of her, and that was a fact. He was only a dumb idiot, and half the words that were falling thick and fast from philanthropic lips about him might as well have been hailstones, for all the benefit he was deriving from them. He couldn't understand half she said.
In consequence, he very cordially detested the people who could—especially that grimacing ass, Kennaston.
Altogether, neither Mr. Woods nor Miss Hugonin got much comfort from their luncheon.
After luncheon Billy had a quiet half-hour with the Colonel in the smoking-room.
Said Billy, between puffs of a cigar:
"Peggy's changed a bit."
The Colonel grunted. Perhaps he dared not trust to words.
"Seems to have made some new friends."
A more vigorous grunt.
"Cultured lot, they seem?" said Mr. Woods. "Anxious to do good in the world, too—philanthropic set, eh?"
A snort this time.
"Eh?" said Mr. Woods. There was dawning suspicion in his tone.
The Colonel looked about him. "My boy," said he, "you thank your stars you didn't get that money; and, depend upon it, there never was a gold-ship yet that wasn't followed."
"Pirates?" Billy Woods suggested, helpfully.
"Pirates are human beings," said Colonel Hugonin, with dignity. "Sharks, my boy; sharks!"
That evening, after proper deliberation, "Celestine," Miss Hugonin commanded, "get out that little yellow dress with the little red bandanna handkerchiefs on it; and for heaven's sake, stop pulling my hair out by the roots, unless you want a raving maniac on your hands, Celestine!"
Whereby she had landed me in a quandary. For how, pray, is it possible for me, a simple-minded male, fittingly to depict for you the clothes of Margaret?—the innumerable vanities, the quaint devices, the pleasing conceits with which she delighted to enhance her comeliness? The thing is beyond me. Let us keep discreetly out of her wardrobe, you and I.
Otherwise, I should have to prattle of an infinity of mysteries—of her scarfs, feathers, laces, gloves, girdles, knots, hats, shoes, fans, and slippers—of her embroideries, rings, pins, pendants, ribbons, spangles, bracelets, and chains—in fine, there would be no end to the list of gewgaws that went to make Margaret Hugonin even more adorable than Nature had fashioned her. For when you come to think of it, it takes the craft and skill and life-work of a thousand men to dress one girl properly; and in Margaret's case, I protest that every one of them, could he have beheld the result of their united labours, would have so gloried in his own part therein that there would have been no putting up with any of the lot.
Yet when I think of the tiny shoes she affected—patent-leather ones mostly, with a seam running straight up the middle (and you may guess the exact date of our comedy by knowing in what year these shoes were modish); the string of fat pearls she so often wore about her round, full throat; the white frock, say, with arabesques of blue all over it, that Felix Kennaston said reminded him of Ruskin's tombstone; or that other white-and-blue one—decollete, that was—which I swear seraphic mantua-makers had woven out of mists and the skies of June: when I remember these things, I repeat, almost am I tempted to become a boot-maker and a lapidary and a milliner and, in fine, an adept in all the other arts and trades and sciences that go to make a well-groomed American girl what she is—the incredible fruit of grafted centuries, the period after the list of Time's achievements—just that I might describe Margaret to you properly.
But the thing is beyond me. I leave such considerations, then, to Celestine, and resolve for the future rigorously to eschew all such gauds. Meanwhile, if an untutored masculine description will content you—
Margaret, I have on reliable feminine authority, was one of the very few blondes whose complexions can carry off reds and yellows. This particular gown—I remember it perfectly—was of a dim, dull yellow—flounciful (if I may coin a word), diaphanous, expansive. I have not the least notion what fabric composed it; but scattered about it, in unexpected places, were diamond-shaped red things that I am credibly informed are called medallions. The general effect of it may be briefly characterised as grateful to the eye and dangerous to the heart, and to a rational train of thought quite fatal.
For it was cut low in the neck; and Margaret's neck and shoulders would have drawn madrigals from a bench of bishops.
And in consequence, Billy Woods ate absolutely no dinner that evening.
It was an hour or two later when the moon, drifting tardily up from the south, found Miss Hugonin and Mr. Kennaston chatting amicably together in the court at Selwoode. They were discussing the deplorable tendencies of the modern drama.
The court at Selwoode lies in the angle of the building, the ground plan of which is L-shaped. Its two outer sides are formed by covered cloisters leading to the palm-garden, and by moonlight—the night bland and sweet with the odour of growing things, vocal with plashing fountains, spangled with fire-flies that flicker indolently among a glimmering concourse of nymphs and fauns eternally postured in flight or in pursuit—by moonlight, I say, the court at Selwoode is perhaps as satisfactory a spot for a tete-a-tete as this transitory world affords.
Mr. Kennaston was in vein to-night; he scintillated; he was also a little nervous. This was probably owing to the fact that Margaret, leaning against the back of the stone bench on which they both sat, her chin propped by her hand, was gazing at him in that peculiar, intent fashion of hers which—as I think I have mentioned—caused you fatuously to believe she had forgotten there were any other trousered beings extant.
Mr. Kennaston, however, stuck to apt phrases and nice distinctions. The moon found it edifying, but rather dull.
After a little Mr. Kennaston paused in his boyish, ebullient speech, and they sat in silence. The lisping of the fountains was very audible. In the heavens, the moon climbed a little further and registered a manifestly impossible hour on the sun-dial. It also brightened.
It was a companionable sort of a moon. It invited talk of a confidential nature.
"Bless my soul," it was signalling to any number of gentlemen at that moment, "there's only you and I and the girl here. Speak out, man! She'll have you now, if she ever will. You'll never have a chance like this again, I can tell you. Come, now, my dear boy, I'm shining full in your face, and you've no idea how becoming it is. I'm not like that garish, blundering sun, who doesn't know any better than to let her see how red and fidgetty you get when you're excited; I'm an old hand at such matters. I've presided over these little affairs since Babylon was a paltry village. I'll never tell. And—and if anything should happen, I'm always ready to go behind a cloud, you know. So, speak out!—speak out, man, if you've the heart of a mouse!"
Thus far the conscienceless spring moon.
Mr. Kennaston sighed. The moon took this as a promising sign and brightened over it perceptibly, and thereby afforded him an excellent gambit.
"Yes?" said Margaret. "What is it, beautiful?"
That, in privacy, was her fantastic name for him.
The poet laughed a little. "Beautiful child," said he—and that, under similar circumstances, was his perfectly reasonable name for her—"I have been discourteous. To be frank, I have been sulking as irrationally as a baby who clamours for the moon yonder."
"You aren't really anything but a baby, you know." Indeed, Margaret almost thought of him as such. He was so delightfully naif.
He bent toward her. A faint tremor woke in his speech. "And so," said he, softly, "I cry for the moon—the unattainable, exquisite moon. It is very ridiculous, is it not?"
But he did not look at the moon. He looked toward Margaret—past Margaret, toward the gleaming windows of Selwoode, where the Eagle brooded:
"Oh, I really can't say," Margaret cried, in haste. "She was kind to Endymion, you know. We will hope for the best. I think we'd better go into the house now."
"You bid me hope?" said he.
"Beautiful, if you really want the moon, I don't see the least objection to your continuing to hope. They make so many little airships and things nowadays, you know, and you'll probably find it only green cheese, after all. What is green cheese, I wonder?—it sounds horribly indigestible and unattractive, doesn't it?" Miss Hugonin babbled, in a tumult of fear and disappointment. He was about to spoil their friendship now; men were so utterly inconsiderate. "I'm a little cold," said she, mendaciously, "I really must go in."
He detained her. "Surely," he breathed, "you must know what I have so long wanted to tell you—"
"I haven't the least idea," she protested, promptly. "You can tell me all about it in the morning. I have some accounts to cast up to-night. Besides, I'm not a good person to tell secrets to. You—you'd much better not tell me. Oh, really, Mr. Kennaston," she cried, earnestly, "you'd much better not tell me!"
"Ah, Margaret, Margaret," he pleaded, "I am not adamant. I am only a man, with a man's heart that hungers for you, cries for you, clamours for you day by day! I love you, beautiful child—love you with a poet's love that is alien to these sordid days, with a love that is half worship. I love you as Leander loved his Hero, as Pyramus loved Thisbe. Ah, child, child, how beautiful you are! You are fairest of created women, child—fair as those long-dead queens for whose smiles old cities burned and kingdoms were lightly lost. I am mad for love of you! Ah, have pity upon me, Margaret, for I love you very tenderly!"
He delivered these observations with appropriate fervour.
"Mr. Kennaston," said she, "I am sorry. We got along so nicely before, and I was so proud of your friendship. We've had such good times together, you and I, and I've liked your verses so, and I've liked you—Oh, please, please, let's keep on being just friends!" Margaret wailed, piteously.
"Friends!" he cried, and gave a bitter laugh. "I was never friends with you, Margaret. Why, even as I read my verses to you—those pallid, ineffectual verses that praised you timorously under varied names—even then there pulsed in my veins the riotous paean of love, the great mad song of love that shamed my paltry rhymes. I cannot be friends with you, child! I must have all or nothing. Bid me hope or go!"
Miss Hugonin meditated for a moment and did neither.
"Beautiful," she presently queried, "would you be very, very much shocked if I descended to slang?"
"I think," said he, with an uncertain smile, "that I could endure it."
"Why, then—cut it out, beautiful! Cut it out! I don't believe a word you've said, in the first place; and, anyhow, it annoys me to have you talk to me like that. I don't like it, and it simply makes me awfully, awfully tired."
With which characteristic speech, Miss Hugonin leaned back and sat up very rigidly and smiled at him like a cherub.
"It shall be as you will," he assured her, with a little quaver in his speech that was decidedly effective. "And in any event, I am not sorry that I have loved you, beautiful child. You have always been a power for good in my life. You have gladdened me with the vision of a beauty that is more than human, you have heartened me for this petty business of living, you have praised my verses, you have even accorded me certain pecuniary assistance as to their publication—though I must admit that to accept it of you was very distasteful to me. Ah!" Felix Kennaston cried, with a quick lift of speech, "impractical child that I am, I had not thought of that! My love had caused me to forget the great barrier that stands between us."
He gasped and took a short turn about the court.
"Pardon me, Miss Hugonin," he entreated, when his emotions were under a little better control, "for having spoken as I did. I had forgotten. Think of me, if you will, as no better than the others—think of me as a mere fortune-hunter. My presumption will be justly punished."
"Oh, no, no, it isn't that," she cried; "it isn't that, is it? You—you would care just as much about me if I were poor, wouldn't you, beautiful? I don't want you to care for me, of course," Margaret added, with haste. "I want to go on being friends. Oh, that money, that nasty money!" she cried, in a sudden gust of petulance. "It makes me so distrustful, and I can't help it!"
He smiled at her wistfully. "My dear," said he, "are there no mirrors at Selwoode to remove your doubts?"
"I—yes, I do believe in you," she said, at length. "But I don't want to marry you. You see, I'm not a bit in love with you," Margaret explained, candidly.
Ensued a silence. Mr. Kennaston bowed his head.
"You bid me go?" said he.
"No—not exactly," said she.
He indicated a movement toward her.
"Now, you needn't attempt to take any liberties with me," Miss Hugonin announced, decisively, "because if you do I'll never speak to you again. You must let me go now. You—you must let me think."
Then Felix Kennaston acted very wisely. He rose and stood aside, with a little bow.
"I can wait, child," he said, sadly. "I have already waited a long time."
Miss Hugonin escaped into the house without further delay. It was very flattering, of course; he had spoken beautifully, she thought, and nobly and poetically and considerately, and altogether there was absolutely no excuse for her being in a temper. Still, she was.
The moon, however, considered the affair as arranged.
For she had been no whit more resolute in her refusal, you see, than becomes any self-respecting maid. In fact, she had not refused him; and the experienced moon had seen the hopes of many a wooer thrive, chameleon-like, on answers far less encouraging than that which Margaret had given Felix Kennaston.
Margaret was very fond of him. All women like a man who can do a picturesque thing without bothering to consider whether or not he be making himself ridiculous; and more than once in thinking of him she had wondered if—perhaps—possibly—some day—? And always these vague flights of fancy had ended at this precise point—incinerated, if you will grant me the simile, by the sudden flaming of her cheeks.
The thing is common enough. You may remember that Romeo was not the only gentleman that Juliet noticed at her debut: there was the young Petruchio; and the son and heir of old Tiberio; and I do not question that she had a kind glance or so for County Paris. Beyond doubt, there were many with whom my lady had danced; with whom she had laughed a little; with whom she had exchanged a few perfectly affable words and looks—when of a sudden her heart speaks: "Who's he that would not dance? If he be married, my grave is like to prove my marriage-bed." In any event, Paris and Petruchio and Tiberio's young hopeful can go hang; Romeo has come.
Romeo is seldom the first. Pray you, what was there to prevent Juliet from admiring So-and-so's dancing? or from observing that Signor Such-an-one had remarkably expressive eyes? or from thinking of Tybalt as a dear, reckless fellow whom it was the duty of some good woman to rescue from perdition? If no one blames the young Montague for sending Rosaline to the right-about—Rosaline for whom he was weeping and rhyming an hour before—why, pray, should not Signorina Capulet have had a few previous affaires du coeur? Depend upon it, she had; for was she not already past thirteen?
In like manner, I dare say that a deal passed between Desdemona and Cassio that the honest Moor never knew of; and that Lucrece was probably very pleasant and agreeable to Tarquin, as a well-bred hostess should be; and that Helen had that little affair with Theseus before she ever thought of Paris; and that if Cleopatra died for love of Antony it was not until she had previously lived a great while with Caesar.
So Felix Kennaston had his hour. Now Margaret has gone into Selwoode, flame-faced and quite unconscious that she is humming under her breath the words of a certain inane old song:
"Oh, she sat for me a chair; She has ringlets in her hair; She's a young thing and cannot leave her mother"—
Only she sang it "father." And afterward, she suddenly frowned and stamped her foot, did Margaret.
"I hate him!" said she; but she looked very guilty.
In the living-hall of Selwoode Miss Hugonin paused. Undeniably there were the accounts of the Ladies' League for the Edification of the Impecunious to be put in order; her monthly report as treasurer was due in a few days, and Margaret was in such matters a careful, painstaking body, and not wholly dependent upon her secretary; but she was entirely too much out of temper to attend to that now.
It was really all Mr. Kennaston's fault, she assured a pricking conscience, as she went out on the terrace before Selwoode. He had bothered her dreadfully.
There she found Petheridge Jukesbury smoking placidly in the effulgence of the moonlight; and the rotund, pasty countenance he turned toward her was ludicrously like the moon's counterfeit in muddy water. I am sorry to admit it, but Mr. Jukesbury had dined somewhat injudiciously. You are not to stretch the phrase; he was merely prepared to accord the universe his approval, to pat Destiny upon the head, and his thoughts ran clear enough, but with Aprilian counter-changes of the jovial and the lachrymose.
"Ah, Miss Hugonin," he greeted her, with a genial smile, "I am indeed fortunate. You find me deep in meditation, and also, I am sorry to say, in the practise of a most pernicious habit. You do not object? Ah, that is so like you. You are always kind, Miss Hugonin. Your kindness, which falls, if I may so express myself, as the gentle rain from Heaven upon all deserving charitable institutions, and daily comforts the destitute with good advice and consoles the sorrowing with blankets, would now induce you to tolerate an odour which I am sure is personally distasteful to you."
"But really I don't mind," was Margaret's protest.
"I cannot permit it," Mr. Jukesbury insisted, and waved a pudgy hand in the moonlight. "No, really, I cannot permit it. We will throw it away, if you please, and say no more about it," and his glance followed the glowing flight of his cigar-end somewhat wistfully. "Your father's cigars are such as it is seldom my privilege to encounter; but, then, my personal habits are not luxurious, nor my private income precisely what my childish imaginings had pictured it at this comparatively advanced period of life. Ah, youth, youth!—as the poet admirably says, Miss Hugonin, the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts, but its visions of existence are rose-tinged and free from care, and its conception of the responsibilities of manhood—such as taxes and the water-rate—I may safely characterise as extremely sketchy. But pray be seated, Miss Hugonin," Petheridge Jukesbury blandly urged.
Common courtesy forced her to comply. So Margaret seated herself on a little red rustic bench. In the moonlight—but I think I have mentioned how Margaret looked in the moonlight; and above her golden head the Eagle, sculptured over the door-way, stretched his wings to the uttermost, half-protectingly, half-threateningly, and seemed to view Mr. Jukesbury with a certain air of expectation.
"A beautiful evening," Petheridge Jukesbury suggested, after a little cogitation.
She conceded that this was undeniable.
"Where Nature smiles, and only the conduct of man is vile and altogether what it ought not to be," he continued, with unction—"ah, how true that is and how consoling! It is a good thing to meditate upon our own vileness, Miss Hugonin—to reflect that we are but worms with naturally the most vicious inclinations. It is most salutary. Even I am but a worm, Miss Hugonin, though the press has been pleased to speak most kindly of me. Even you—ah, no!" cried Mr. Jukesbury, kissing his finger-tips, with gallantry; "let us say a worm who has burst its cocoon and become a butterfly—a butterfly with a charming face and a most charitable disposition and considerable property!"