W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM
AUTHOR OF "THE MOON AND SIXPENCE," "OF HUMAN BONDAGE," ETC., ETC.
GEORGE H. DORAN COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1907, BY
COPYRIGHT, 1909, BY
THE BAKER & TAYLOR COMPANY
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
MY DEAR MRS. G. W. STEEVENS
The sea was very calm. There was no ship in sight, and the sea-gulls were motionless upon its even greyness. The sky was dark with lowering clouds, but there was no wind. The line of the horizon was clear and delicate. The shingly beach, no less deserted, was thick with tangled seaweed, and the innumerable shells crumbled under the feet that trod them. The breakwaters, which sought to prevent the unceasing encroachment of the waves, were rotten with age and green with the sea-slime. It was a desolate scene, but there was a restfulness in its melancholy; and the great silence, the suave monotony of colour, might have given peace to a heart that was troubled. They could not assuage the torment of the woman who stood alone upon that spot. She did not stir; and, though her gaze was steadfast, she saw nothing. Nature has neither love nor hate, and with indifference smiles upon the light at heart and to the heavy brings a deeper sorrow. It is a great irony that the old Greek, so wise and prudent, who fancied that the gods lived utterly apart from human passions, divinely unconscious in their high palaces of the grief and joy, the hope and despair, of the turbulent crowd of men, should have gone down to posterity as the apostle of brutish pleasure.
But the silent woman did not look for solace. She had a vehement pride which caused her to seek comfort only in her own heart; and when, against her will, heavy tears rolled down her cheeks, she shook her head impatiently. She drew a long breath and set herself resolutely to change her thoughts.
But they were too compelling, and she could not drive from her mind the memories that absorbed it. Her fancy, like a homing bird, hovered with light wings about another coast; and the sea she looked upon reminded her of another sea. The Solent. From her earliest years that sheet of water had seemed an essential part of her life, and the calmness at her feet brought back to her irresistibly the scenes she knew so well. But the rippling waves washed the shores of Hampshire with a persuasive charm that they had not elsewhere, and the broad expanse of it, lacking the illimitable majesty of the open sea, could be loved like a familiar thing. Yet there was in it, too, something of the salt freshness of the ocean, and, as the eye followed its course, the heart could exult with a sense of freedom. Sometimes, in the dusk of a winter afternoon, she remembered the Solent as desolate as the Kentish sea before her; but her imagination presented it to her more often with the ships, outward bound or homeward bound, that passed continually. She loved them all. She loved the great liners that sped across the ocean, unmindful of wind or weather, with their freight of passengers; and at night, when she recognised them only by the long row of lights, they fascinated her by the mystery of their thousand souls going out strangely into the unknown. She loved the little panting ferries that carried the good folk of the neighbourhood across the water to buy their goods in Southampton, or to sell the produce of their farms; she was intimate with their sturdy skippers, and she delighted in their airs of self-importance. She loved the fishing boats that went out in all weathers, and the neat yachts that fled across the bay with such a dainty grace. She loved the great barques and the brigantines that came in with a majestic ease, all their sails set to catch the remainder of the breeze; they were like wonderful, stately birds, and her soul rejoiced at the sight of them. But best of all she loved the tramps that plodded with a faithful, grim tenacity from port to port; often they were squat and ugly, battered by the tempest, dingy and ill-painted; but her heart went out to them. They touched her because their fate seemed so inglorious. No skipper, new to his craft, could ever admire the beauty of their lines, nor look up at the swelling canvas and exult he knew not why; no passengers would boast of their speed or praise their elegance. They were honest merchantmen, laborious, trustworthy, and of good courage, who took foul weather and peril in the day's journey and made no outcry. And with a sure instinct she saw the romance in the humble course of their existence and the beauty of an unboasting performance of their duty; and often, as she watched them, her fancy glowed with the thought of the varied merchandise they carried, and their long sojourning in foreign parts. There was a subtle charm in them because they went to Southern seas and white cities with tortuous streets, silent under the blue sky.
Striving still to free herself of a passionate regret, the lonely woman turned away and took a path that led across the marshes. But her heart sank, for she seemed to recognise the flats, the shallow dykes, the coastguard station, which she had known all her life. Sheep were grazing here and there, and two horses, put out to grass, looked at her listlessly as she passed. A cow heavily whisked its tail. To the indifferent, that line of Kentish coast, so level and monotonous, might be merely dull, but to her it was beautiful. It reminded her of the home she would never see again.
And then her thoughts, which had wandered around the house in which she was born, ever touching the fringe as it were, but never quite settling with the full surrender of attention, gave themselves over to it entirely.
* * *
Hamlyn's Purlieu had belonged to the Allertons for three hundred years, and the recumbent effigy, in stone, of the founder of the family's fortunes, with his two wives in ruffs and stiff martingales, was to be seen in the chancel of the parish church. It was the work of an Italian sculptor, lured to England in company of the craftsmen who made the lady-chapel of Westminster Abbey; and the renaissance delicacy of its work was very grateful in the homely English church. And for three hundred years the Allertons had been men of prudence, courage, and worth, so that the walls of the church by now were filled with the lists of their virtues and their achievements. They had intermarried with the great families of the neighbourhood, and with the help of these marble tablets you might have made out a roll of all that was distinguished in Hampshire. The Maddens of Brise, the Fletchers of Horton Park, the Daunceys of Maiden Hall, the Garrods of Penda, had all, in the course of time, given daughters to the Allertons of Hamlyn's Purlieu; and the Allertons of Hamlyn's Purlieu had given in exchange richly dowered maidens to the Garrods of Penda, the Daunceys of Maiden Hall, the Fletchers of Horton Park, and the Maddens of Brise.
And with each generation the Allertons grew prouder. The peculiar situation of their lands distinguished them a little from their neighbours; for, whereas the Garrods, the Daunceys, and the Fletchers lived within walking distance of each other, and Madden of Brise, because of his rank and opulence the most distinguished person in the county, within six or seven miles, Hamlyn's Purlieu was near the sea and separated by forest land from other places. The seclusion in which its owners were thus forced to dwell differentiated their characters from those of the neighbouring gentlemen. They found much cause for self-esteem in the number of their acres, and, though many of these consisted of salt marshes, and more of wild heath, others were as good as any in Hampshire; and the grand total made a formidable array in works of reference. But they found greater reason still for self-congratulation in their culture. No pride is so great as the pride of intellect, and the Allertons never doubted that their neighbours were boors beside them. Whether it was due to the peculiar lie of the land on which they were born and bred, that led them to introspection, or whether it was due to some accident of inheritance, the Allertons had all an interest in the things of the mind, which had never troubled the Fletchers or the Garrods of Penda, the Daunceys or my lords Madden of Brise. They were as good sportsmen as the others, and hunted or shot with the best of them, but they read books as well, and had a subtlety of intelligence which was no less unexpected than pleasing. The fat squires of the county looked up to them as miracles of learning, and congratulated themselves over their port on possessing in their midst persons who combined, in such excellent proportions, gentle birth and a good seat in the saddle with adequate means and an encyclopedic knowledge. Everything conspired to give the Allertons a good opinion of themselves. They not only looked down from superior heights on the persons with whom they habitually came in contact-that is common enough—but these very persons without question looked up to them.
The Allertons made the grand tour in a style befitting their dignity; and the letters which each son of the house wrote in turn, describing Paris, Vienna, Dresden, Munich, and Rome, with the persons of consequence who entertained him, were preserved with scrupulous care among the family papers. They testified to an agreeable interest in the arts; and each of them had made a point of bringing back with him, according to the fashion of his day, beautiful things which he had purchased on his journey. Hamlyn's Purlieu, a fine stone house goodly to look upon, was thus filled with Italian pictures, French cabinets of delicate workmanship, bronzes of all kinds, tapestries, and old Eastern carpets. The gardens had been tended with a loving care, and there grew in them trees and flowers which were unknown to other parts of England. Each Allerton in his time cherished the place with a passionate pride, looking upon it as his greatest privilege that he could add a little to its beauty and hand on to his successor a more magnificent heritage.
* * *
But at length Hamlyn's Purlieu came into the hands of Fred Allerton; and the gods, blind for so long to the prosperity of this house, determined now, it seemed, to wreak their malice. Fred Allerton had many of the characteristics of his race, but in him they took a sudden turn which bore him swiftly to destruction. They had been marked always by good looks, a persuasive manner, and a singular liberality of mind; and he was perhaps the handsomest, and certainly the most charming of them all. But the freedom from prejudice which had prevented the others from giving way too much to their pride had in him degenerated into a singular unscrupulousness. His parents died when he was twenty, and a year later he found himself master of a great estate. The times were hard then for those who depended upon their land, and Fred Allerton was not so rich as his forebears. But he flung himself extravagantly into the pursuit of pleasure. He was the only member of his family who had failed to reside habitually at Hamlyn's Purlieu. He seemed to take no interest in it, and except now and then to shoot, never came near his native county. He lived much in Paris, which in the early years of the third republic had still something of the wanton gaiety of the Empire; and here he soon grew notorious for his prodigality and his adventures. He was an unlucky man, and everything he did led to disaster. But this never impaired his cheerfulness. He boasted that he had lost money in every gambling hell in Europe, and vowed that he would give up racing in disgust if ever a horse of his won a race. His charm of manner was irresistible, and no one had more friends than he. His generosity was great, and he was willing to lend money to everyone who asked. But it is even more expensive to be a man whom everyone likes than to keep a stud, and Fred Allerton found himself in due course much in need of ready money. He did not hesitate to mortgage his lands, and till he came to the end of these resources also, continued gaily to lead a life of splendour.
At length he had raised on Hamlyn's Purlieu every penny that he could, and was crippled with debt besides; but he still rode a fine horse, lived in expensive chambers, dressed better than any man in London, and gave admirable dinners to all and sundry. He realised then that he could only retrieve his fortunes by a rich marriage. Fred Allerton was still a handsome man, and he knew from long experience how easy it was to say pleasant things to a woman. There was a peculiar light in his blue eyes which persuaded everyone of the goodness of his heart. He was amusing and full of spirits. He fixed upon a Miss Boulger, one of the two daughters of a Liverpool manufacturer, and succeeded after a surprisingly short time in assuring her of his passion. There was a convincing air of truth in all he said, and she returned his flame with readiness. It was clear to him that her sister was equally prepared to fall in love with him, and he regretted with diverting frankness to his more intimate friends that the laws of the land prevented him from marrying them both and acquiring two fortunes instead of one. He married the younger Miss Boulger, and on her dowry paid off the mortgages on Hamlyn's Purlieu, his own debts, and succeeded for several years in having an excellent time. The poor woman, happily blind to his defects, adored him with all her soul. She trusted him entirely with the management of her money and only regretted that the affairs connected with it kept him so much in town. With marriage and his new connection with commerce Fred Allerton had come to the conclusion that he had business abilities, and he occupied himself thenceforward with all manner of financial schemes. With unwearied enthusiasm he entered upon some new affair which was going to bring him untold wealth as soon as the last had finally sunk into the abyss of bankruptcy. Hamlyn's Purlieu had never known such gaieties as during the fifteen years of Mrs. Allerton's married life. All kinds of people were brought down by Fred; and the dignified dining-room, which for centuries had witnessed discussions, learned or flippant, on the merits of Greek and Latin authors, or the excellencies of Italian masters, now heard strange talk of stocks and shares, companies, syndicates, options and holdings. When Mrs. Allerton died suddenly she was entirely unconscious that her husband had squandered every penny of the money which had been settled on her children, had mortgaged once more the broad fields of his ancestors, and was head over ears in debt. She expired with his name upon her lips, and blessed the day on which she had first seen him. She had one son and one daughter. Lucy was a girl of fifteen when her mother died, and George, the boy, was ten.
It was Lucy, now a woman of twenty-five, who turned her back upon the Kentish sea and slowly walked across the marsh. And as she walked, the recollection of the ten years that had passed since then was placed before her as it were in a single Sash.
At first her father had seemed the most wonderful being in the world, and she had worshipped him with all her childish heart. The love that bound her to her mother was pale in comparison, for Lucy could not divide her affections, giving part here, part there; her father, with his wonderful gift of sympathy, his indescribable charm, conquered her entirely. It was her greatest delight to be with him. She was entertained and exhilarated by his society, and she hated the men of business who absorbed so much of his time.
When Mrs. Allerton died George was sent to school, but Lucy, in charge of a governess, remained year in, year out, at Hamlyn's Purlieu with her books, her dogs, and her horses. And gradually, she knew not how, it was borne in upon her that the father who had seemed such a paragon of chivalry, was weak, unreliable, and shifty. She fought against the suspicions that poisoned her mind, charging herself bitterly with meanness of spirit, but one small incident after another brought the truth home to her. She recognised with a shiver of anguish that his standard of veracity was utterly different from hers. He was not very careful to keep his word. He was not scrupulous in money matters. With her, honesty, truthfulness, exactness in all affairs, were not only instinctive, but deliberate; for the pride of her birth was so great that she felt it incumbent upon her to be ten times more careful in these things than the ordinary run of men.
And then, from a word here and a word there, by horrified guesses and by a kind of instinctive surmise, she realised presently the whole truth of her father's life. She found out that Hamlyn's Purlieu was mortgaged for every penny it was worth, she found out that there was a bill of sale on the furniture, that money had been raised on the pictures; and, at last, that her mother's money, left in her father's trust to her and George, had been spent. And still Fred Allerton lived with prodigal magnificence.
It was only very gradually that Lucy discovered these things. There was no one whom she could consult, and she had to devise some mode of conduct by herself. It was all a matter of supposition, and she knew almost nothing for certain. She made up her mind that she would probe no deeper. But since such knowledge as she had came to her only by degrees, she was able the better to adapt her behaviour to it. The pride which for so long had been a characteristic of the Allertons, but had unaccountably missed Fred, in her enjoyed all its force; and what she knew now served only to augment it. In the ruin of her ideals she had nothing but that to cling to, and she cherished it with an unreasoning passion. She had a cult for the ancestors whose portraits looked down upon her in one room after another of Hamlyn's Purlieu, and from their names and the look of them, which was all that remained, she made them in her fancy into personalities whose influence might somehow counteract the weakness of her father. In them there was so much uprightness, strength, and simple goodness; the sum total of it must prevail in the long run against the unruly instincts of one man. And she loved her old home, with all its exquisite contents, with its rich gardens, its broad, fertile fields, above all with its wild heath and flat sea-marshes, she loved it with a hungry devotion, saddened and yet more vehement because her hold on it was jeopardised. She set the whole strength of her will on preserving the place for her brother. Her greatest desire was to fill him with the determination to reclaim it from the foreign hands that had some hold upon it, and to restore it to its ancient freedom.
Upon George were set all Lucy's hopes. He could restore the fallen fortunes of their race, and her part must be to train him to the glorious task. He was growing up, and she made up her mind to keep from him all knowledge of her father's weakness. To George he must seem to the last an honest gentleman.
Lucy transferred to her brother all the love which she had lavished on her father. She watched his growth fondly, interesting herself in his affairs, and seeking to be to him not only a sister, but the mother he had lost and the father who was unworthy. When he was of a fit age she saw that he was sent to Winchester. She followed his career with passion and entered eagerly into all his interests.
But if Lucy had lost her old love for her father, its place had been taken by a pitying tenderness; and she did all she could to conceal from him the change in her feelings. It was easy when she was with him, for then it was impossible to resist his charm; and it was only afterwards, when he was no longer there to explain things away, that she could not crush the horror and resentment with which she regarded him. But of this no one knew anything; and she set herself deliberately not only to make such headway as she could in the tangle of their circumstances, but to conceal from everyone the actual state of things.
For presently Fred Allerton seemed no longer to have an inexhaustible supply of ready money, and Lucy had to resort to a very careful economy. She reduced expenses in every way she could, and when left alone in the house, lived with the utmost frugality. She hated to ask her father for money, and since often he did not pay the allowance that was due to her, she was obliged to exercise a good deal of self-denial. As soon as she was old enough, Lucy had taken the household affairs into her own hands and had learned to conduct them in such a way as to hide from the world how difficult it was to make both ends meet. Now, feeling that things were approaching a crisis, she sold the horses and dismissed most of the servants. A great fear seized her that it would be impossible to keep Hamlyn's Purlieu, and she was stricken with panic. She was willing to make every sacrifice but that, and if she were only allowed to remain there, did not care how penuriously she lived.
But the struggle was growing harder. None knew what she had endured in her endeavour to keep their heads above water. And she had borne everything with perfect cheerfulness. Though she saw a good deal of the neighbouring gentry, connected with her by blood or long friendship, not one of them divined her great anxiety. She felt vaguely that they knew how things were going, but she held her head high and gave no one an opportunity to pity her. Her father was now absent from home more frequently and seemed to avoid being alone with her. They had never discussed the state of their affairs, for he assumed with Lucy a determined flippancy which prevented any serious conversation. On her twenty-first birthday he had made some facetious observation about the money of which she was now mistress, but had treated the matter with such an airy charm that she had felt unable to proceed with it. Nor did she wish to, for if he had spent her money nothing could be done, and it was better not to know for certain. Notwithstanding settlements and wills, she felt that it was really his to do what he liked with, and she made up her mind that nothing in her behaviour should be construed as a reproach.
At length the crash came.
She received a telegram one day—she was nearly twenty-three then—from Richard Lomas, an old friend of her mother's, to say that he was coming down for luncheon. She walked to the station to meet him. She was very fond of him, not only for his own sake, but because her mother had been fond of him, too; and the affection which had existed between them, drew her nearer to the mother whom she felt now she had a little neglected. Dick Lomas was a barrister, who, after contesting two seats unsuccessfully, had got into Parliament at the last general election and had made already a certain name for himself by the wittiness of his speeches and the bluntness of his common sense. He had neither the portentous gravity nor the dogmatic airs which afflicted most of his legal colleagues in the house. He was a man who had solved the difficulty of being sensible without tediousness and pointed without impertinence. He was wise enough not to speak too often, and if only he had not possessed a sense of humour—which his countrymen always regard with suspicion in an English politician—he might have looked forward to a brilliant future. He was a wiry little man, with a sharp, good-humoured face and sparkling eyes. He carried his seven and thirty years with gaiety.
But on this occasion he was unusually grave. Lucy, already surprised at his sudden visit, divined at once from the uneasiness of his pleasant, grey eyes that something was amiss. Her heart began to beat more quickly. He forced himself to smile as he took her hand, congratulating her on the healthiness of her appearance; and they walked slowly from the station. Dick spoke of indifferent things, while Lucy distractedly turned over in her mind all that could have happened. Luncheon was ready for them, and Dick sat down with apparent gusto, praising emphatically the good things she set before him; but he ate as little as she did. He seemed impatient for the meal to end, but unwilling to enter upon the subject which oppressed him. They drank their coffee.
'Shall we go for a turn in the garden?' he suggested.
After his last visit, Dick had sent down an old sundial which he had picked up in a shop in Westminster, and Lucy took him to the place which they had before decided needed just such an ornament. They discussed it at some length, but then silence fell suddenly upon them, and they walked side by side without a word. Dick slipped his arm through hers with a caressing motion, and Lucy, unused to any tenderness, felt a sob rise to her throat. They went in once more and stood in the drawing-room. From the walls looked down the treasures of the house. There was a portrait by Reynolds, and another by Hoppner, and there was a beautiful picture of the Grand Canal by Guardi, and there was a portrait by Goya of a General Allerton who had fought in the Peninsular War. Dick gave them a glance, and his blood tingled with admiration. He leaned against the fireplace.
'Your father asked me to come down and see you, Lucy. He was too worried to come himself.'
Lucy looked at him with grave eyes, but made no reply.
'He's had some very bad luck lately. Your father is a man who prides himself on his business ability, but he has no more knowledge of such matters than a child. He's an imaginative man, and when some scheme appeals to his feeling for romance, he loses all sense of proportion.'
Dick paused again. It was impossible to soften the blow, and he could only put it bluntly.
'He's been gambling on the Stock Exchange, and he's been badly let down. He was bulling a number of South American railways, and there's been a panic in the market. He's lost enormously. I don't know if any settlement can be made with his creditors, but if not he must go bankrupt. In any case, I'm afraid Hamlyn's Purlieu must be sold.'
Lucy walked to the window and looked out. But she could see nothing. Her eyes were blurred with tears. She breathed quickly, trying to control herself.
'I've been expecting it for a long time,' she said at last. 'I've refused to face it, and I put the thought away from me, but I knew really that it must come to that.'
'I'm very sorry,' said Dick helplessly.
She turned on him fiercely, and the colour rose to her cheeks. But she restrained herself and left unsaid the bitter words that had come to her tongue. She made a pitiful gesture of despair. He felt how poor were his words of consolation, and how inadequate to her great grief, and he was silent.
'And what about George?' she asked.
George was then eighteen, and on the point of leaving Winchester. It had been arranged that he should go to Oxford at the beginning of the next term.
'Lady Kelsey has offered to pay his expenses at the 'Varsity,' answered Dick, 'and she wants you to go and stay with her for the present.'
'Do you mean to say we're penniless?' asked Lucy, desperately.
'I think you cannot depend on your father for much regular assistance.'
Lucy was silent again.
Lady Kelsey was the elder sister of Mrs. Allerton, and some time after that lady's marriage had accepted a worthy merchant whose father had been in partnership with hers; and he, after a prosperous career crowned by surrendering his seat in Parliament to a defeated cabinet-minister—a patriotic act for which he was rewarded with a knighthood—had died, leaving her well off and childless. She had but one other nephew, Robert Boulger, her brother's only son, but he was rich with all the inherited wealth of the firm of Boulger & Kelsey; and her affections were placed chiefly upon the children of the man whom she had loved devotedly and who had married her sister.
'I was hoping you would come up to town with me now,' said Dick. 'Lady Kelsey is expecting you, and I cannot bear to think of you by yourself here.'
'I shall stay till the last moment.'
Dick hesitated again. He had wished to keep back the full brutality of the blow, but sooner or later it must be given.
'The place is already sold. Your father accepted an offer from Jarrett—you remember him, he has been down here; he is your father's broker and chief creditor—and everything else is to go to Christy's at once.'
'Then there is no more to be said.'
She gave Dick her hand.
'You won't mind if I don't come to the station with you?'
'Won't you come up to London?' he asked again.
She shook her head.
'I want to be alone. Forgive me if I make you go so abruptly.'
'My dear girl, it's very good of you to make sure that I don't miss my train,' he smiled drily.
'Good-bye and thank you.'
While Lucy wandered by the seashore, occupied with painful memories, her old friend Dick, too lazy to walk with her, sat in the drawing-room of Court Leys, talking to his hostess.
Mrs. Crowley was an American woman, who had married an Englishman, and on being left a widow, had continued to live in England. She was a person who thoroughly enjoyed life; and indeed there was every reason that she should do so, since she was young, pretty, and rich; she had a quick mind and an alert tongue. She was of diminutive size, so small that Dick Lomas, by no means a tall man, felt quite large by the side of her. Her figure was exquisite, and she had the smallest hands in the world. Her features were so good, regular and well-formed, her complexion so perfect, her agile grace so enchanting, that she did not seem a real person at all. She was too delicate for the hurly-burly of life, and it seemed improbable that she could be made of the ordinary clay from which human beings are manufactured. She had the artificial grace of those dainty, exquisite ladies in the Embarquement pour Cithere of the charming Watteau; and you felt that she was fit to saunter on that sunny strand, habited in satin of delicate colours, with a witty, decadent cavalier by her side. It was preposterous to talk to her of serious things, and nothing but an airy badinage seemed possible in her company.
Mrs. Crowley had asked Lucy and Dick Lomas to stay with her in the house she had just taken for a term of years. She had spent a week by herself to arrange things to her liking, and insisted that Dick should admire all she had done. After a walk round the park he vowed that he was exhausted and must rest till tea-time.
'Now tell me what made you take it. It's so far from anywhere.'
'I met the owner in Rome last winter. It belongs to a Mrs. Craddock, and when I told her I was looking out for a house, she suggested that I should come and see this.'
'Why doesn't she live in it herself?'
'Oh, I don't know. It appears that she was passionately devoted to her husband, and he broke his neck in the hunting-field, so she couldn't bear to live here any more.'
Mrs. Crowley looked round the drawing-room with satisfaction. At first it had borne the cheerless look of a house uninhabited, but she had quickly made it pleasant with flowers, photographs, and silver ornaments. The Sheraton furniture and the chintzes suited the style of her beauty. She felt that she looked in place in that comfortable room, and was conscious that her frock fitted her and the circumstances perfectly. Dick's eye wandered to the books that were scattered here and there.
'And have you put out these portentous works in order to improve your mind, or with the laudable desire of impressing me with the serious turn of your intellect?'
'You don't think I'm such a perfect fool as to try and impress an entirely flippant person like yourself?'
On the table at his elbow were a copy of the Revue des Deux Mondes and one of the Fortnightly Review. He took up two books, and saw that one was the Froehliche Wissenschaft of Nietzsche, who was then beginning to be read in England by the fashionable world and was on the eve of being discovered by men of letters, while the other was a volume of Mrs. Crowley's compatriot, William James.
'American women amaze me,' said Dick, as he put them down. 'They buy their linen at Doucet's and read Herbert Spencer with avidity. And what's more, they seem to like him. An Englishwoman can seldom read a serious book without feeling a prig, and as soon as she feels a prig she leaves off her corsets.'
'I feel vaguely that you're paying me a compliment,' returned Mrs. Crowley, 'but it's so elusive that I can't quite catch it.'
'The best compliments are those that flutter about your head like butterflies around a flower.'
'I much prefer to fix them down on a board with a pin through their insides and a narrow strip of paper to hold down each wing.'
It was October, but the autumn, late that year, had scarcely coloured the leaves, and the day was warm. Mrs. Crowley, however, was a chilly being, and a fire burned in the grate. She put another log on it and watched the merry crackle of the flames.
'It was very good of you to ask Lucy down here,' said Dick, suddenly.
'I don't know why. I like her so much. And I felt sure she would fit the place. She looks a little like a Gainsborough portrait, doesn't she? And I like to see her in this Georgian house.'
'She's not had much of a time since they sold the family place. It was a great grief to her.'
'I feel such a pig to have here the things I bought at the sale.'
When the contents of Hamlyn's Purlieu were sent to Christy's, Mrs. Crowley, recently widowed and without a home, had bought one or two pictures and some old chairs. She had brought these down to Court Leys, and was much tormented at the thought of causing Lucy a new grief.
'Perhaps she didn't recognise them,' said Dick.
'Don't be so idiotic. Of course she recognised them. I saw her eyes fall on the Reynolds the very moment she came into the room.'
'I'm sure she would rather you had them than any stranger.'
'She's said nothing about them. You know, I'm very fond of her, and I admire her extremely, but she would be easier to get on with if she were less reserved. I never shall get into this English way of bottling up my feelings and sitting on them.'
'It sounds a less comfortable way of reposing oneself than sitting in an armchair.'
'I would offer to give Lucy back all the things I bought, only I'm sure she'd snub me.'
'She doesn't mean to be unkind, but she's had a very hard life, and it's had its effect on her character. I don't think anyone knows what she's gone through during these ten years. She's borne the responsibilities of her whole family since she was fifteen, and if the crash didn't come sooner, it was owing to her. She's never been a girl, poor thing; she was a child, and then suddenly she was a woman.'
'But has she never had any lovers?'
'I fancy that she's rather a difficult person to make love to. It would be a bold young man who whispered sweet nothings into her ear; they'd sound so very foolish.'
'At all events there's Bobbie Boulger. I'm sure he's asked her to marry him scores of times.'
Sir Robert Boulger had succeeded his father, the manufacturer, as second baronet; and had promptly placed his wealth and his personal advantages at Lucy's feet. His devotion to her was well known to his friends. They had all listened to the protestations of undying passion, which Lucy, with gentle humour, put smilingly aside. Lady Kelsey, his aunt and Lucy's, had done all she could to bring the pair together; and it was evident that from every point of view a marriage between them was desirable. He was not unattractive in appearance, his fortune was considerable, and his manners were good. He was a good-natured, pleasant fellow, with no great strength of character perhaps, but Lucy had enough of that for two; and with her to steady him, he had enough brains to make some figure in the world.
'I've never seen Mr. Allerton,' remarked Mrs. Crowley, presently. 'He must be a horrid man.'
'On the contrary, he's the most charming creature I ever met, and I don't believe there's a man in London who can borrow a hundred pounds of you with a greater air of doing you a service. If you met him you'd fall in love with him before you'd got well into your favourite conversation on bimetallism.'
'I've never discussed bimetallism in my life,' protested Mrs. Crowley.
'All women do.'
'Fall in love with him. He knows exactly what to talk to them about, and he has the most persuasive voice you ever heard. I believe Lady Kelsey has been in love with him for five and twenty years. It's lucky they've not yet passed the deceased wife's sister's bill, or he would have married her and run through her money as he did his first wife's. He's still very good-looking, and there's such a transparent honesty about him that I promise you he's irresistible.'
'And what has happened to him since the catastrophe?'
'Well, the position of an undischarged bankrupt is never particularly easy, though I've known men who've cavorted about in motors and given dinners at the Carlton when they were in that state, and seemed perfectly at peace with the world in general. But with Fred Allerton the proceedings before the Official Receiver seem to have broken down the last remnants of his self-respect. He was glad to get rid of his children, and Lady Kelsey was only too happy to provide for them. Heaven only knows how he's lived during the last two years. He's still occupied with a variety of crack-brained schemes, and he's been to me more than once for money to finance them with.'
'I hope you weren't such a fool as to give it.'
'I wasn't. I flatter myself that I combined frankness with good-nature in the right proportion, and in the end he was always satisfied with the nimble fiver. But I'm afraid things are going harder with him. He has lost his old alert gaiety, and he's a little down at heel in character as well as in person. There's a furtive look about him, as though he were ready for undertakings that were not quite above board, and there's a shiftiness in his eye which makes his company a little disagreeable.'
'You don't think he'd do anything dishonest?' asked Mrs. Crowley quickly.
'Oh, no. I don't believe he has the nerve to sail closer to the wind than the law allows, and really, at bottom, notwithstanding all I know of him, I think he's an honest man. It's only behind his back that I have any doubts about him; when he's there face to face with me I succumb to his charm. I can believe nothing to his discredit.'
At that moment they saw Lucy walking towards them. Dick Lomas got up and stood at the window. Mrs. Crowley, motionless, watched her from her chair. They were both silent. A smile of sympathy played on Mrs. Crowley's lips, and her heart went out to the girl who had undergone so much. A vague memory came back to her, and for a moment she was puzzled; but then she hit upon the idea that had hovered about her mind, and she remembered distinctly the admirable picture by John Furse at Millbank, which is called Diana of the Uplands. It had pleased her always, not only because of its beauty and the fine power of the painter, but because it seemed to her as it were a synthesis of the English spirit. Her nationality gave her an interest in the observation of this, and her wide, systematic reading the power to compare and analyse. This portrait of a young woman holding two hounds in leash, the wind of the northern moor on which she stands, blowing her skirts and outlining her lithe figure, seemed to Mrs. Crowley admirably to follow in the tradition of the eighteenth century. And as Reynolds and Gainsborough, with their elegant ladies in powdered hair and high-waisted gowns, standing in leafy, woodland scenes, had given a picture of England in the age of Reason, well-bred and beautiful, artificial and a little airless, so had Furse in this represented the England of to-day. It was an England that valued cleanliness above all things, of the body and of the spirit, an England that loved the open air and feared not the wildness of nature nor the violence of the elements. And Mrs. Crowley had lived long enough in the land of her fathers to know that this was a true England, simple and honest; narrow perhaps, and prejudiced, but strong, brave, and of great ideals. The girl who stood on that upland, looking so candidly out of her blue eyes, was a true descendant of the ladies that Sir Joshua painted, but she had a bath every morning, loved her dogs, and wore a short, serviceable skirt. With an inward smile, Mrs. Crowley acknowledged that she was probably bored by Emerson and ignorant of English literature; but for the moment she was willing to pardon these failings in her admiration for the character and all it typified.
Lucy came in, and Mrs. Crowley gave her a nod of welcome. She was fond of her fantasies and would not easily interrupt them. She noted that Lucy had just that frank look of Diana of the Uplands, and the delicate, sensitive face, refined with the good-breeding of centuries, but strengthened by an athletic life. Her skin was very clear. It had gained a peculiar freshness by exposure to all manner of weather. Her bright, fair hair was a little disarranged after her walk, and she went to the glass to set it right. Mrs. Crowley observed with delight the straightness of her nose and the delicate curve of her lips. She was tall and strong, but her figure was very slight; and there was a charming litheness about her which suggested the good horse-woman.
But what struck Mrs. Crowley most was that only the keenest observer could have told that she had endured more than other women of her age. A stranger would have delighted in her frank smile and the kindly sympathy of her eyes; and it was only if you knew the troubles she had suffered that you saw how much more womanly she was than girlish. There was a self-possession about her which came from the responsibilities she had borne so long, and an unusual reserve, unconsciously masked by a great charm of manner, which only intimate friends discerned, but which even to them was impenetrable. Mrs. Crowley, with her American impulsiveness, had tried in all kindliness to get through the barrier, but she had never succeeded. All Lucy's struggles, her heart-burnings and griefs, her sudden despairs and eager hopes, her tempestuous angers, took place in the bottom of her heart. She would have been as dismayed at the thought of others seeing them as she would have been at the thought of being discovered unclothed. Shyness and pride combined to make her hide her innermost feelings so that no one should venture to offer sympathy or commiseration.
'Do ring the bell for tea,' said Mrs. Crowley to Lucy, as she turned away from the glass. 'I can't get Mr. Lomas to amuse me till he's had some stimulating refreshment.'
'I hope you like the tea I sent you,' said Dick.
'Very much. Though I'm inclined to look upon it as a slight that you should send me down only just enough to last over your visit.'
'I always herald my arrival in a country house by a little present of tea,' said Dick. 'The fact is it's the only good tea in the world. I sent my father to China for seven years to find it, and I'm sure you will agree that my father has not lived an ill-spent life.'
The tea was brought and duly drunk. Mrs. Crowley asked Lucy how her brother was. He had been at Oxford for the last two years.
'I had a letter from him yesterday,' the girl answered. 'I think he's getting on very well. I hope he'll take his degree next year.'
A happy brightness came into her eyes as she talked of him. She apologised, blushing, for her eagerness.
'You know, I've looked after George ever since he was ten, and I feel like a mother to him. It's only with the greatest difficulty I can prevent myself from telling you how he got through the measles, and how well he bore vaccination.'
Lucy was very proud of her brother. She found a constant satisfaction in his good looks, and she loved the openness of his smile. She had striven with all her might to keep away from him the troubles that oppressed her, and had determined that nothing, if she could help it, should disturb his radiant satisfaction with the world. She knew that he was apt to lean on her, but though she chid herself sometimes for fostering the tendency, she could not really prevent the intense pleasure it gave her. He was young yet, and would soon enough grow into manly ways; it could not matter if now he depended upon her for everything. She rejoiced in the ardent affection which he gave her; and the implicit trust he placed in her, the complete reliance on her judgment, filled her with a proud humility. It made her feel stronger and better capable of affronting the difficulties of life. And Lucy, living much in the future, was pleased to see how beloved George was of all his friends. Everyone seemed willing to help him, and this seemed of good omen for the career which she had mapped out for him.
The recollection of him came to Lucy now as she had last seen him. They had been spending part of the summer with Lady Kelsey at her house on the Thames. George was going to Scotland to stay with friends, and Lucy, bound elsewhere, was leaving earlier in the afternoon. He came to see her off. She was touched, in her own sorrow at leaving him, by his obvious emotion. The tears were in his eyes as he kissed her on the platform. She saw him waving to her as the train sped towards London, slender and handsome, looking more boyish than ever in his whites; and she felt a thrill of gratitude because, with all her sorrows and regrets, she at least had him.
'I hope he's a good shot,' she said inconsequently, as Mrs. Crowley handed her a cap of tea. 'Of course it's in the family.'
'Marvellous family!' said Dick, ironically. 'You would be wiser to wish he had a good head for figures.'
'But I hope he has that, too,' she answered.
It had been arranged that George should go into the business in which Lady Kelsey still had a large interest. Lucy wanted him to make great sums of money, so that he might pay his father's debts, and perhaps buy back the house which her family had owned so long.
'I want him to be a clever man of business—since business is the only thing open to him now—and an excellent sportsman.'
She was too shy to describe her ambition, but her fancy had already cast a glow over the calling which George was to adopt. There was in the family an innate tendency toward the more exquisite things of life, and this would colour his career. She hoped he would become a merchant prince after the pattern of those Florentines who have left an ideal for succeeding ages of the way in which commerce may be ennobled by a liberal view of life. Like them he could drive hard bargains and amass riches—she recognised that riches now were the surest means of power—but like them also he could love music and art and literature, cherishing the things of the soul with a careful taste, and at the same time excel in all sports of the field. Life then would be as full as a man's heart could wish; and this intermingling of interests might so colour it that he would lead the whole with a certain beauty and grandeur.
'I wish I were a man,' she cried, with a bright smile. 'It's so hard that I can do nothing but sit at home and spur others on. I want to do things myself.'
Mrs. Crowley leaned back in her chair. She gave her skirt a little twist so that the line of her form should be more graceful.
'I'm so glad I'm a woman,' she murmured. 'I want none of the privileges of the sex which I'm delighted to call stronger. I want men to be noble and heroic and self-sacrificing; then they can protect me from a troublesome world, and look after me, and wait upon me. I'm an irresponsible creature with whom they can never be annoyed however exacting I am—it's only pretty thoughtlessness on my part—and they must never lose their tempers however I annoy—it's only nerves. Oh, no, I like to be a poor, weak woman.'
'You're a monster of cynicism,' cried Dick. 'You use an imaginary helplessness with the brutality of a buccaneer, and your ingenuousness is a pistol you put to one's head, crying: your money or your life.'
'You look very comfortable, dear Mr. Lomas,' she retorted. 'Would you mind very much if I asked you to put my footstool right for me?'
'I should mind immensely,' he smiled, without moving.
'Oh, please do,' she said, with a piteous little expression of appeal. 'I'm so uncomfortable, and my foot's going to sleep. And you needn't be horrid to me.'
'I didn't know you really meant it,' he said, getting up obediently and doing what was required of him.
'I didn't,' she answered, as soon as he had finished. 'But I know you're a lazy creature, and I merely wanted to see if I could make you move when I'd warned you immediately before that—I was a womanly woman.'
'I wonder if you'd make Alec MacKenzie do that?' laughed Dick, good-naturedly.
'Good heavens, I'd never try. Haven't you discovered that women know by instinct what men they can make fools of, and they only try their arts on them? They've gained their reputation for omnipotence only on account of their robust common-sense, which leads them only to attack fortresses which are already half demolished.'
'That suggests to my mind that every woman is a Potiphar's wife, though every man isn't a Joseph,' said Dick.
'Your remark is too blunt to be witty,' returned Mrs. Crowley, 'but it's not without its grain of truth.'
Lucy, smiling, listened to the nonsense they talked. In their company she lost all sense of reality; Mrs. Crowley was so fragile, and Dick had such a whimsical gaiety, that she could not treat them as real persons. She felt herself a grown-up being assisting at some childish game in which preposterous ideas were bandied to and fro like answers in the game of consequences.
'I never saw people wander from the subject as you do,' she protested. 'I can't imagine what connection there is between whether Mr. MacKenzie would arrange Julia's footstool, and the profligacy of the female sex.'
'Don't be hard on us,' said Mrs. Crowley. 'I must work off my flippancy before he arrives, and then I shall be ready to talk imperially.'
'When does Alec come?' asked Dick.
'Now, this very minute. I've sent a carriage to meet him at the station. You won't let him depress me, will you?'
'Why did you ask him if he affects you in that way?' asked Lucy, laughing.
'But I like him—at least I think I do—and in any case, I admire him, and I'm sure he's good for me. And Mr. Lomas wanted me to ask him, and he plays bridge extraordinarily well. And I thought he would be interesting. The only thing I have against him is that he never laughs when I say a clever thing, and looks so uncomfortably at me when I say a foolish one.'
'I'm glad I laugh when you say a clever thing,' said Dick.
'You don't. But you roar so heartily at your own jokes that if I hurry up and slip one in before you've done, I can often persuade myself that you're laughing at mine.'
'And do you like Alec MacKenzie, Lucy?' asked Dick.
She paused for a moment before she answered, and hesitated.
'I don't know,' she said. 'Sometimes I think I rather dislike him. But I'm like Julia, I certainly admire him.'
'I suppose he is rather alarming,' said Dick. 'He's difficult to know, and he's obviously impatient with other people's affectations. There's a certain grimness about him which disturbs you unless you know him intimately.'
'He's your greatest friend, isn't he?'
Dick paused for a little while.
'I've known him for twenty years now, and I look upon him as the greatest man I've ever set eyes on. I think it's an inestimable privilege to have been his friend.'
'I've not noticed that you treated him with especial awe,' said Mrs. Crowley.
'Heaven save us!' cried Dick. 'I can only hold my own by laughing at him persistently.'
'He bears it with unexampled good-nature.'
'Have I ever told you how I made his acquaintance? It was in about fifty fathoms of water, and at least a thousand miles from land.'
'What an inconvenient place for an introduction!'
'We were both very wet. I was a young fool in those days, and I was playing the giddy goat—I was just going up to Oxford, and my wise father had sent me to America on a visit to enlarge my mind—I fell over-board, and was proceeding to drown, when Alec jumped in after me and held me up by the hair of my head.'
'He'd have some difficulty in doing that now, wouldn't he?' suggested Mrs. Crowley, with a glance at Dick's thinning locks.
'And the odd thing is that he was absurdly grateful to me for letting myself be saved. He seemed to think I had done him an intentional service, and fallen into the Atlantic for the sole purpose of letting him pull me out.'
Dick had scarcely said these words when they heard the carriage drive up to the door of Court Leys.
'There he is,' cried Dick eagerly.
Mrs. Crowley's butler opened the door and announced the man they had been discussing. Alexander MacKenzie came in.
He was just under six feet high, spare and well-made. He did not at the first glance give you the impression of particular strength, but his limbs were well-knit, there was no superfluous flesh about him, and you felt immediately that he had great powers of endurance. His hair was dark and cut very close. His short beard and his moustache were red. They concealed the squareness of his chin and the determination of his mouth. His eyes were not large, but they rested on the object that attracted his attention with a peculiar fixity. When he talked to you he did not glance this way or that, but looked straight at you with a deliberate steadiness that was a little disconcerting. He walked with an easy swing, like a man in the habit of covering a vast number of miles each day, and there was in his manner a self-assurance which suggested that he was used to command. His skin was tanned by exposure to tropical suns.
Mrs. Crowley and Dick chattered light-heartedly, but it was clear that he had no power of small-talk, and after the first greetings he fell into silence; he refused tea, but Mrs. Crowley poured out a cup and handed it to him.
'You need not drink it, but I insist on your holding it in your hand. I hate people who habitually deny themselves things, and I can't allow you to mortify the flesh in my house.'
Alec smiled gravely.
'Of course I will drink it if it pleases you,' he answered. 'I got in the habit in Africa of eating only two meals a day, and I can't get out of it now. But I'm afraid it's very inconvenient for my friends.' He looked at Lomas, and though his mouth did not smile, a look came into his eyes, partly of tenderness, partly of amusement. 'Dick, of course, eats far too much.'
'Good heavens, I'm nearly the only person left in London who is completely normal. I eat my three square meals a day regularly, and I always have a comfortable tea into the bargain. I don't suffer from any disease. I'm in the best of health. I have no fads. I neither nibble nuts like a squirrel, nor grapes like a bird—I care nothing for all this jargon about pepsins and proteids and all the rest of it. I'm not a vegetarian, but a carnivorous animal; I drink when I'm thirsty, and I decidedly prefer my beverages to be alcoholic.'
'I was thinking at luncheon to-day,' said Mrs. Crowley, 'that the pleasure you took in roast-beef and ale showed a singularly gross and unemotional nature.'
'I adore good food as I adore all the other pleasant things of life, and because I have that gift I am able to look upon the future with equanimity.'
'Why?' asked Alec.
'Because a love for good food is the only thing that remains with man when he grows old. Love? What is love when you are five and fifty and can no longer hide the disgraceful baldness of your pate. Ambition? What is ambition when you have discovered that honours are to the pushing and glory to the vulgar. Finally we must all reach an age when every passion seems vain, every desire not worth the trouble of achieving it; but then there still remain to the man with a good appetite three pleasures each day, his breakfast, his luncheon, and his dinner.'
Alec's eyes rested on him quietly. He had never got out of the habit of looking upon Dick as a scatter-brained boy who talked nonsense for the fun of it; and his expression wore the amused disdain which one might have seen on a Saint Bernard when a toy-terrier was going through its tricks.
'Please say something,' cried Dick, half-irritably.
'I suppose you say those things in order that I may contradict you. Why should I? They're perfectly untrue, and I don't agree with a single word you say. But if it amuses you to talk nonsense, I don't see why you shouldn't.'
'My dear Alec, I wish you wouldn't use the mailed fist in your conversation. It's so very difficult to play a game with a spillikin on one side and a sledge-hammer on the other.'
Lucy, sitting back in her chair, quietly, was observing the new arrival. Dick had asked her and Mrs. Crowley to meet him at luncheon immediately after his arrival from Mombassa. This was two months ago now, and since then she had seen much of him. But she felt that she knew him little more than on that first day, and still she could not make up her mind whether she liked him or not. She was glad that they were staying together at Court Leys; it would give her an opportunity of really becoming acquainted with him, and there was no doubt that he was worth the trouble. The fire lit up his face, casting grim shadows upon it, so that it looked more than ever masterful and determined. He was unconscious that her eyes rested upon him. He was always unconscious of the attention he aroused.
Lucy hoped that she would induce him to talk of the work he had done, and the work upon which he was engaged. With her mind fixed always on great endeavours, his career interested her enormously; and it gained something mysterious as well because there were gaps in her knowledge of him which no one seemed able to fill. He knew few people in London, but was known in one way or another of many; and all who had come in contact with him were unanimous in their opinion. He was supposed to know Africa as no other man knew it. During fifteen years he had been through every part of it, and had traversed districts which the white man had left untouched. But he had never written of his experiences, partly from indifference to chronicle the results of his undertakings, partly from a natural secrecy which made him hate to recount his deeds to all and sundry. It seemed that reserve was a deep-rooted instinct with him, and he was inclined to keep to himself all that he discovered. But if on this account he was unknown to the great public, his work was appreciated very highly by specialists. He had read papers before the Geographical Society, (though it had been necessary to exercise much pressure to induce him to do so), which had excited profound interest; and occasionally letters appeared from him in Nature, or in one of the ethnographical publications, stating briefly some discovery he had made, or some observation which he thought necessary to record. He had been asked now and again to make reports to the Foreign Office upon matters pertaining to the countries he knew; and Lucy had heard his perspicacity praised in no measured terms by those in power.
She put together such facts as she knew of his career.
Alec MacKenzie was a man of considerable means. He belonged to an old Scotch family, and had a fine place in the Highlands, but his income depended chiefly upon a colliery in Lancashire. His parents died during his childhood, and his wealth was much increased by a long minority. Having inherited from an uncle a ranch in the West, his desire to see this occasioned his first voyage from England in the interval between leaving Eton and going up to Oxford; and it was then he made acquaintance with Richard Lomas, who had remained his most intimate friend. The unlikeness of the two men caused perhaps the strength of the tie between them, the strenuous vehemence of the one finding a relief in the gaiety of the other. Soon after leaving Oxford, MacKenzie made a brief expedition into Algeria to shoot, and the mystery of the great continent seized him. As sometimes a man comes upon a new place which seems extraordinarily familiar, so that he is almost convinced that in a past state he has known it intimately, Alec suddenly found himself at home in the immense distances of Africa. He felt a singular exhilaration when the desert was spread out before his eyes, and capacities which he had not suspected in himself awoke in him. He had never thought himself an ambitious man, but ambition seized him. He had never imagined himself subject to poetic emotion, but all at once a feeling of the poetry of an adventurous life welled up within him. And though he had looked upon romance with the scorn of his Scottish common sense, an irresistible desire of the romantic surged upon him, like the waves of some unknown, mystical sea.
When he returned to England a peculiar restlessness took hold of him. He was indifferent to the magnificence of the bag, which was the pride of his companions. He felt himself cribbed and confined. He could not breathe the air of cities.
He began to read the marvellous records of African exploration, and his blood tingled at the magic of those pages. Mungo Park, a Scot like himself, had started the roll. His aim had been to find the source and trace the seaward course of the Niger. He took his life in his hands, facing boldly the perils of climate, savage pagans, and jealous Mohammedans, and discovered the upper portions of that great river. On a second expedition he undertook to follow it to the sea. Of his party some died of disease, and some were slain by the natives. Not one returned; and the only trace of Mungo Park was a book, known to have been in his possession, found by British explorers in the hut of a native chief.
Then Alec MacKenzie read of the efforts to reach Timbuktu, which was the great object of ambition to the explorers of the nineteenth century. It exercised the same fascination over their minds as did El Dorado, with its golden city of Monoa, to the adventurers in the days of Queen Elizabeth. It was thought to be the capital of a powerful and wealthy state; and those ardent minds promised themselves all kinds of wonders when they should at last come upon it. But it was not the desire for gold that urged them on, rather an irresistible curiosity, and a pride in their own courage. One after another desperate attempts were made, and it was reached at last by another Scot, Alexander Gordon Laing. And his success was a symbol of all earthly endeavours, for the golden city of his dreams was no more than a poverty-stricken village.
One by one Alec studied the careers of these great men; and he saw that the best of them had not gone with half an army at their backs, but almost alone, sometimes with not a single companion, and had depended for their success not upon the strength of their arms, but upon the strength of their character. Major Durham, an old Peninsular officer, was the first European to cross the Sahara. Captain Clapperton, with his servant, Richard Lander, was the first who traversed Africa from the Mediterranean to the Guinea Coast. And he died at his journey's end. And there was something fine in the devotion of Richard Lander, the faithful servant, who went on with his master's work and cleared up at last the great mystery of the Niger. And he, too, had no sooner done his work than he died, near the mouth of the river he had so long travelled on, of wounds inflicted by the natives. There was not one of those early voyagers who escaped with his life. It was the work of desperate men that they undertook, but there was no recklessness in them. They counted the cost and took the risk; the fascination of the unknown was too great for them, and they reckoned death as nothing if they could accomplish that on which they had set out.
Two men above all attracted Alec Mackenzie's interest. One was Richard Burton, that mighty, enigmatic man, more admirable for what he was than for what he did; and the other was Livingstone, the greatest of African explorers. There was something very touching in the character of that gentle Scot. MacKenzie's enthusiasm was seldom very strong, but here was a man whom he would willingly have known; and he was strangely affected by the thought of his lonely death, and his grave in the midst of the Dark Continent he loved so well. On that, too, might have been written the epitaph which is on the tomb of Sir Christopher Wren.
Finally he studied the works of Henry M. Stanley. Here the man excited neither admiration nor affection, but a cold respect. No one could help recognising the greatness of his powers. He was a man of Napoleonic instinct, who suited his means to his end, and ruthlessly fought his way until he had achieved it. His books were full of interest, and they were practical. From them much could be learned, and Alec studied them with a thoroughness which was in his nature.
When he arose from this long perusal, his mind was made up. He had found his vocation.
He did not disclose his plans to any of his friends till they were mature, and meanwhile set about seeing the people who could give him information. At last he sailed for Zanzibar, and started on a journey which was to try his powers. In a month he fell ill, and it was thought at the mission to which his bearers brought him that he could not live. For ten weeks he was at death's door, but he would not give in to the enemy. He insisted in the end on being taken back to the coast, and here, as if by a personal effort of will, he recovered. The season had passed for his expedition, and he was obliged to return to England. Most men would have been utterly discouraged, but Alec was only strengthened in his determination. He personified in a way that deadly climate and would not allow himself to be beaten by it. His short experience had shown him what he needed, and as soon as he was back in England he proceeded to acquire a smattering of medical knowledge, and some acquaintance with the sciences which were wanted by a traveller. He had immense powers of concentration, and in a year of tremendous labour acquired a working knowledge of botany and geology, and the elements of surveying; he learnt how to treat the maladies which were likely to attack people in tropical districts, and enough surgery to set a broken limb or to conduct a simple operation. He felt himself ready now for a considerable undertaking; but this time he meant to start from Mombassa.
So far Lucy was able to go, partly from her own imaginings, and partly from what Dick had told her. He had given her the proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society, and here she found Alec MacKenzie's account of his wanderings during the five years that followed. The countries which he explored then, became afterwards British East Africa.
But the bell rang for dinner, and so interrupted her meditations.
They played bridge immediately afterwards. Mrs. Crowley looked upon conversation as a fine art, which could not be pursued while the body was engaged in the process of digestion; and she was of opinion that a game of cards agreeably diverted the mind and prepared the intellect for the quips and cranks which might follow when the claims of the body were satisfied. Lucy drew Alec MacKenzie as her partner, and so was able to watch his play when her cards were on the table. He did not play lightly as did Dick, who kept up a running commentary the whole time, but threw his whole soul into the game and never for a moment relaxed his attention. He took no notice of Dick's facetious observations. Presently Lucy grew more interested in his playing than in the game; she was struck, not only by his great gift of concentration, but by his boldness. He had a curious faculty for knowing almost from the beginning of a hand where each card lay. She saw, also, that he was plainly most absorbed when he was playing both hands himself; he was a man who liked to take everything on his own shoulders, and the division of responsibility irritated him.
At the end of the rubber Dick flung himself back in his chair irritably.
'I can't make it out,' he cried. 'I play much better than you, and I hold better hands, and yet you get the tricks.'
Dick was known to be an excellent player, and his annoyance was excusable.
'We didn't make a single mistake,' he assured his partner, 'and we actually had the odd in our hands, but not one of our finesses came off, and all his did.' He turned to Alec. 'How the dickens did you guess I had those two queens?'
'Because I've known you for twenty years,' answered Alec, smiling. 'I know that, though you're impulsive and emotional, you're not without shrewdness; I know that your brain acts very quickly and sees all kinds of remote contingencies; then you're so pleased at having noticed them that you act as if they were certain to occur. Given these data, I can tell pretty well what cards you have, after they've gone round two or three times.'
'The knowledge you have of your opponents' cards is too uncanny,' said Mrs. Crowley.
'I can tell a good deal from people's faces. You see, in Africa I have had a lot of experience; it's apparently so much easier for the native to lie than to tell the truth that you get into the habit of paying no attention to what he says, and a great deal to the way he looks.'
While Mrs. Crowley made herself comfortable in the chair, which she had already chosen as her favourite, Dick went over to the fire and stood in front of it in such a way as effectually to prevent the others from getting any of its heat.
'What made you first take to exploration?' asked Mrs. Crowley suddenly.
Alec gave her that slow, scrutinising look of his, and answered, with a smile:
'I don't know. I had nothing to do and plenty of money.'
'Not a bit of it,' interrupted Dick. 'A lunatic wanted to find out about some district that people had never been to, and it wouldn't have been any use to them if they had, because, if the natives didn't kill you, the climate made no bones about it. He came back crippled with fever, having failed in his attempt, and, after asserting that no one could get into the heart of Rofa's country and return alive, promptly gave up the ghost. So Alec immediately packed up his traps and made for the place.'
'I proved the man was wrong,' said Alec quietly. 'I became great friends with Rofa, and he wanted to marry my sister, only I hadn't one.'
'And if anyone said it was impossible to hop through Asia on one foot, you'd go and do it just to show it could be done,' retorted Dick 'You have a passion for doing things because they're difficult or dangerous, and, if they're downright impossible, you chortle with joy.'
'You make me really too melodramatic,' smiled Alec.
'But that's just what you are. You're the most transpontine person I ever saw in my life.' Dick turned to Lucy and Mrs. Crowley with a wave of the hand. 'I call you to witness. When he was at Oxford, Alec was a regular dab at classics; he had a gift for writing verses in languages that no one except dons wanted to read, and everyone thought that he was going to be the most brilliant scholar of his day.'
'This is one of Dick's favourite stories,' said Alec. 'It would be quite amusing if there were any truth in it.'
But Dick would not allow himself to be interrupted.
'At mathematics, on the other hand, he was a perfect ass. You know, some people seem to have that part of their brains wanting that deals with figures, and Alec couldn't add two and two together without making a hexameter out of it. One day his tutor got in a passion with him and said he'd rather teach arithmetic to a brick wall. I happened to be present, and he was certainly very rude. He was a man who had a precious gift for making people feel thoroughly uncomfortable. Alec didn't say anything, but he looked at him; and, when he flies into a temper, he doesn't get red and throw things about like a pleasant, normal person—he merely becomes a little paler and stares at you.'
'I beg you not to believe a single word he says,' remonstrated Alec.
'Well, Alec threw over his classics. Everyone concerned reasoned with him; they appealed to his common sense; they were appealing to the most obstinate fool in Christendom. Alec had made up his mind to be a mathematician. For more than two years he worked ten hours a day at a subject he loathed; he threw his whole might into it and forced out of nature the gifts she had denied him, with the result that he got a first class. And much good it's done him.'
Alec shrugged his shoulders.
'It wasn't that I cared for mathematics, but it taught me to conquer the one inconvenient word in the English language.'
'And what the deuce is that?'
'I'm afraid it sounds very priggish,' laughed Alec. 'The word impossible.'
Dick gave a little snort of comic rage.
'And it also gave you a ghastly pleasure in doing things that hurt you. Oh, if you'd only been born in the Middle Ages, what a fiendish joy you would have taken in mortifying your flesh, and in denying yourself everything that makes life so good to live! You're never thoroughly happy unless you're making yourself thoroughly miserable.'
'Each time I come back to England I find that you talk more and greater nonsense, Dick,' returned Alec drily.
'I'm one of the few persons now alive who can talk nonsense,' answered his friend, laughing. 'That's why I'm so charming. Everyone else is so deadly earnest.'
He settled himself down to make a deliberate speech.
'I deplore the strenuousness of the world in general. There is an idea abroad that it is praiseworthy to do things, and what they are is of no consequence so long as you do them. I hate the mad hurry of the present day to occupy itself. I wish I could persuade people of the excellence of leisure.'
'One could scarcely accuse you of cultivating it yourself,' said Lucy, smiling.
Dick looked at her for a moment thoughtfully.
'Do you know that I'm hard upon forty?'
'With the light behind, you might still pass for thirty-two,' interrupted Mrs. Crowley.
He turned to her seriously.
'I haven't a grey hair on my head.'
'I suppose your servant plucks them out every morning?'
'Oh, no, very rarely; one a month at the outside.'
'I think I see one just beside the left temple.'
He turned quickly to the glass.
'Dear me, how careless of Charles! I shall have to give him a piece of my mind.'
'Come here, and let me take it out,' said Mrs. Crowley.
'I will let you do nothing of the sort I should consider it most familiar.'
'You were giving us the gratuitous piece of information that you were nearly forty,' said Alec.
'The thought came to me the other day with something of a shock, and I set about a scrutiny of the life I was leading. I've worked at the bar pretty hard for fifteen years now, and I've been in the House since the general election. I've been earning two thousand a year, I've got nearly four thousand of my own, and I've never spent much more than half my income. I wondered if it was worth while to spend eight hours a day settling the sordid quarrels of foolish people, and another eight hours in the farce of governing the nation.'
'Why do you call it that?'
Dick Lomas shrugged his shoulders scornfully.
'Because it is. A few big-wigs rule the roost, and the rest of us are only there to delude the British people into the idea that they're a self-governing community.'
'What is wrong with you is that you have no absorbing aim in politics,' said Alec gravely.
'Pardon me, I am a suffragist of the most vehement type,' answered Dick, with a thin smile.
'That's the last thing I should have expected you to be,' said Mrs. Crowley, who dressed with admirable taste. 'Why on earth have you taken to that?'
Dick shrugged his shoulders.
'No one can have been through a parliamentary election without discovering how unworthy, sordid, and narrow are the reasons for which men vote. There are very few who are alive to the responsibilities that have been thrust upon them. They are indifferent to the importance of the stakes at issue, but make their vote a matter of ignoble barter. The parliamentary candidate is at the mercy of faddists and cranks. Now, I think that women, when they have votes, will be a trifle more narrow, and they will give them for motives that are a little more sordid and a little more unworthy. It will reduce universal suffrage to the absurd, and then it may be possible to try something else.'
Dick had spoken with a vehemence that was unusual to him. Alec watched him with a certain interest.
'And what conclusions have you come to?'
For a moment he did not answer, then he gave a deprecating smile.
'I feel that the step I want to take is momentous for me, though I am conscious that it can matter to nobody else whatever. There will be a general election in a few months, and I have made up my mind to inform the whips that I shall not stand again. I shall give up my chambers in Lincoln's Inn, put up the shutters, so to speak, and Mr. Richard Lomas will retire from active life.'
'You wouldn't really do that?' cried Mrs. Crowley.
'In a month complete idleness will simply bore you to death.'
'I doubt it. Do you know, it seems to me that a great deal of nonsense is talked about the dignity of work. Work is a drug that dull people take to avoid the pangs of unmitigated boredom. It has been adorned with fine phrases, because it is a necessity to most men, and men always gild the pill they're obliged to swallow. Work is a sedative. It keeps people quiet and contented. It makes them good material for their leaders. I think the greatest imposture of Christian times is the sanctification of labour. You see, the early Christians were slaves, and it was necessary to show them that their obligatory toil was noble and virtuous. But when all is said and done, a man works to earn his bread and to keep his wife and children; it is a painful necessity, but there is nothing heroic in it. If people choose to put a higher value on the means than on the end, I can only pass with a shrug of the shoulders, and regret the paucity of their intelligence.'
'It's really unfair to talk so much all at once,' said Mrs. Crowley, throwing up her pretty hands.
But Dick would not be stopped.
'For my part I have neither wife nor child, and I have an income that is more than adequate. Why should I take the bread out of somebody else's mouth? And it's not on my own merit that I get briefs—men seldom do—I only get them because I happen to have at the back of me a very large firm of solicitors. And I can find nothing worthy in attending to these foolish disputes. In most cases it's six of one and half a dozen of the other, and each side is very unjust and pig-headed. No, the bar is a fair way of earning your living like another, but it's no more than that; and, if you can exist without, I see no reason why Quixotic motives of the dignity of human toil should keep you to it. I've already told you why I mean to give up my seat in Parliament.'
'Have you realised that you are throwing over a career that may be very brilliant? You should get an under-secretaryship in the next government.'
'That would only mean licking the boots of a few more men whom I despise.'
'It's a very dangerous experiment that you're making.'
Dick looked straight into Alec MacKenzie's eyes.
'And is it you who counsel me not to make it on that account?' he said, smiling. 'Surely experiments are only amusing if they're dangerous.'
'And to what is it precisely that you mean to devote your time?' asked Mrs. Crowley.
'I should like to make idleness a fine art,' he laughed. 'People, now-a-days, turn up their noses at the dilettante. Well, I mean to be a dilettante. I want to devote myself to the graces of life. I'm forty, and for all I know I haven't so very many years before me: in the time that remains, I want to become acquainted with the world and all the graceful, charming things it contains.'
Alec, fallen into deep thought, stared into the fire. Presently he took a long breath, rose from his chair, and drew himself to his full height.
'I suppose it's a life like another, and there is no one to say which is better and which is worse. But, for my part, I would rather go on till I dropped. There are ten thousand things I want to do. If I had ten lives I couldn't get through a tithe of what, to my mind, so urgently needs doing.'
'And what do you suppose will be the end of it?' asked Dick.
Dick nodded, but did not otherwise reply. Alec smiled faintly.
'Well, I suppose the end of it will be death in some swamp, obscurely, worn out with disease and exposure; and my bearers will make off with my guns and my stores, and the jackals will do the rest.'
'I think it's horrible,' said Mrs. Crowley, with a shudder.
'I'm a fatalist. I've lived too long among people with whom it is the deepest rooted article of their faith, to be anything else. When my time comes, I cannot escape it.' He smiled whimsically. 'But I believe in quinine, too, and I think that the daily use of that admirable drug will make the thread harder to cut.'
To Lucy it was an admirable study, the contrast between the man who threw his whole soul into a certain aim, which he pursued with a savage intensity, knowing that the end was a dreadful, lonely death; and the man who was making up his mind deliberately to gather what was beautiful in life, and to cultivate its graces as though it were a flower garden.
'And the worst of it is that it will all be the same in a hundred years,' said Dick. 'We shall both be forgotten long before then, you with your strenuousness, and I with my folly.'
'And what conclusion do you draw from that?' asked Mrs. Crowley.
'Only that the psychological moment has arrived for a whisky and soda.'
These was some rough shooting on the estate which Mrs. Crowley had rented, and next day Dick went out to see what he could find. Alec refused to accompany him.
'I think shooting in England bores me a little,' he said. 'I have a prejudice against killing things unless I want to eat them, and these English birds are so tame that it seems to me rather like shooting chickens.'
'I don't believe a word of it,' said Dick, as he set out. 'The fact is that you can't hit anything smaller than a hippopotamus, and you know that there is nothing here to suit you except Mrs. Crowley's cows.'
After luncheon Alec MacKenzie asked Lucy if she would take a stroll with him. She was much pleased.
'Where would you like to go?' she asked.
'Let us walk by the sea.'
She took him along a road called Joy Lane, which ran from the fishing town of Blackstable to a village called Waveney. The sea there had a peculiar vastness, and the salt smell of the breeze was pleasant to the senses. The flatness of the marsh seemed to increase the distances that surrounded them, and unconsciously Alec fell into a more rapid swing. It did not look as if he walked fast, but he covered the ground with the steady method of a man who has been used to long journeys, and it was good for Lucy that she was accustomed to much walking. At first they spoke of trivial things, but presently silence fell upon them. Lucy saw that he was immersed in thought, and she did not interrupt him. It amused her that, after asking her to walk with him, this odd man should take no pains to entertain her. Now and then he threw back his head with a strange, proud motion, and looked out to sea. The gulls, with their melancholy flight, were skimming upon the surface of the water. The desolation of that scene—it was the same which, a few days before, had rent poor Lucy's heart—appeared to enter his soul; but, strangely enough, it uplifted him, filling him with exulting thoughts. He quickened his pace, and Lucy, without a word, kept step with him. He seemed not to notice where they walked, and presently she led him away from the sea. They tramped along a winding road, between trim hedges and fertile fields; and the country had all the sweet air of Kent, with its easy grace and its comfortable beauty. They passed a caravan, with a shaggy horse browsing at the wayside, and a family of dinglers sitting around a fire of sticks. The sight curiously affected Lucy. The wandering life of those people, with no ties but to the ramshackle carriage which was their only home, their familiarity with the fields and with strange hidden places, filled her with a wild desire for freedom and for vast horizons. At last they came to the massive gates of Court Leys. An avenue of elms led to the house.
'Here we are,' said Lucy, breaking the long silence.
'Already?' He seemed to shake himself. 'I have to thank you for a pleasant stroll, and we've had a good talk, haven't we?'
'Have we?' she laughed. She saw his look of surprise. 'For two hours you've not vouchsafed to make an observation.'
'I'm so sorry,' he said, reddening under his tan. 'How rude you must have thought me! I've been alone so much that I've got out of the way of behaving properly.'
'It doesn't matter at all,' she smiled. 'You must talk to me another time.'
She was subtly flattered. She felt that, for him, it was a queer kind-of compliment that he had paid her. Their silent walk, she did not know why, seemed to have created a bond between them; and it appeared that he felt it, too, for afterwards he treated her with a certain intimacy. He seemed to look upon her no longer as an acquaintance, but as a friend.
* * *
A day or two later, Mrs. Crowley having suggested that they should drive into Tercanbury to see the cathedral, MacKenzie asked her if she would allow him to walk.
He turned to Lucy.
'I hardly dare to ask if you will come with me,' he said.
'It would please me immensely.'
'I will try to behave better than last time.'
'You need not,' she smiled.
Dick, who had an objection to walking when it was possible to drive, set out with Mrs. Crowley in a trap. Alec waited for Lucy. She went round to the stable to fetch a dog to accompany them, and, as she came towards him, he looked at her. Alec was a man to whom most of his fellows were abstractions. He saw them and talked to them, noting their peculiarities, but they were seldom living persons to him. They were shadows, as it were, that had to be reckoned with, but they never became part of himself. And it came upon him now with a certain shock of surprise to notice Lucy. He felt suddenly a new interest in her. He seemed to see her for the first time, and her rare beauty strangely moved him. In her serge dress and her gauntlets, with a motor cap and a flowing veil, a stick in her hand, she seemed on a sudden to express the country through which for the last two or three days he had wandered. He felt an unexpected pleasure in her slim erectness and in her buoyant step. There was something very charming in her blue eyes.
He was seized with a great desire to talk. And, without thinking for an instant that what concerned him so intensely might be of no moment to her, he began forthwith upon the subject which was ever at his heart. But he spoke as his interest prompted, of each topic as it most absorbed him, starting with what he was now about and going back to what had first attracted his attention to that business; then telling his plans for the future, and to make them clear, finishing with the events that had led up to his determination. Lucy listened attentively, now and then asking a question; and presently the whole matter sorted itself in her mind, so that she was able to make a connected narrative of his life since the details of it had escaped from Dick's personal observation.
* * *
For some years Alec MacKenzie had travelled in Africa with no object beyond a great curiosity, and no ambition but that of the unknown. His first important expedition had been, indeed, occasioned by the failure of a fellow-explorer. He had undergone the common vicissitudes of African travel, illness and hunger, incredible difficulties of transit through swamps that seemed never ending, and tropical forest through which it was impossible to advance at the rate of more than one mile a day; he had suffered from the desertion of his bearers and the perfidy of native tribes. But at last he reached the country which had been the aim of his journey. He had to encounter then a savage king's determined hostility to the white man, and he had to keep a sharp eye on his followers who, in abject terror of the tribe he meant to visit, took every opportunity to escape into the bush. The barbarian chief sent him a warning that he would have him killed if he attempted to enter his capital. The rest of the story Alec told with an apologetic air, as if he were ashamed of himself, and he treated it with a deprecating humour that sought to minimise both the danger he had run and the courage he had displayed. On receiving the king's message, Alec MacKenzie took up a high tone, and returned the answer that he would come to the royal kraal before midday. He wanted to give the king no time to recover from his astonishment, and the messengers had scarcely delivered the reply before he presented himself, unarmed and unattended.
'What did you say to him?' asked Lucy.
'I asked him what the devil he meant by sending me such an impudent message,' smiled Alec.
'Weren't you frightened?' said Lucy.
'Yes,' he answered.
He paused for a moment, and, as though unconsciously he were calling back the mood which had then seized him, he began to walk more slowly.
'You see, it was the only thing to do. We'd about come to the end of our food, and we were bound to get some by hook or by crook. If we'd shown the white feather they would probably have set upon us without more ado. My own people were too frightened to make a fight of it, and we should have been wiped out like sheep. Then I had a kind of instinctive feeling that it would be all right. I didn't feel as if my time had come.'
But, notwithstanding, for three hours his life had hung in the balance; and Lucy understood that it was only his masterful courage which had won the day and turned a sullen, suspicious foe into a warm ally.
He achieved the object of his expedition, discovered a new species of antelope of which he was able to bring back to the Natural History Museum a complete skeleton and two hides; took some geographical observations which corrected current errors, and made a careful examination of the country. When he had learnt all that was possible, still on the most friendly terms with the ferocious ruler, he set out for Mombassa. He reached it in one month more than five years after he had left it.
The results of this journey had been small enough, but Alec looked upon it as his apprenticeship. He had found his legs, and believed himself fit for much greater undertakings. He had learnt how to deal with natives, and was aware that he had a natural influence over them. He had confidence in himself. He had surmounted the difficulties of the climate, and felt himself more or less proof against fever and heat. He returned to the coast stronger than he had ever been in his life, and his enthusiasm for African travel increased tenfold. The siren had taken hold of him, and no escape now was possible.
He spent a year in England, and then went back to Africa. He had determined now to explore certain districts to the northeast of the great lakes. They were in the hinterland of British East Africa, and England had a vague claim over them; but no actual occupation had taken place, and they formed a series of independent states under Arab emirs. He went this time with a roving commission from the government, and authority to make treaties with the local chieftains. Spending six years in these districts, he made a methodical survey of the country, and was able to prepare valuable maps. He collected an immense amount of scientific material. He studied the manners and customs of the inhabitants, and made careful observations on the political state. He found the whole land distracted with incessant warfare, and broad tracts of country, fertile and apt for the occupation of white men, given over to desolation. It was then that he realised the curse of slave-raiding, the abolition of which was to become the great object of his future activity. His strength was small, and, anxious not to arouse at once the enmity of the Arab slavers, he had to use much diplomacy in order to establish himself in the country. He knew himself to be an object of intense suspicion, and he could not trust even the petty rulers who were bound to him by ties of gratitude and friendship. For some time the sultan of the most powerful state kept him in a condition bordering on captivity, and at one period his life was for a year in the greatest danger. He never knew from day to day whether he would see the setting of the sun. The Arab, though he treated him with honour, would not let him go; and, at last, Alec, seizing an opportunity when the sultan was engaged in battle with a brother who sought to usurp his sovereignty, fled for his life, abandoning his property, and saving only his notes, his specimens, and his guns.
When MacKenzie reached England, he laid before the Foreign Office the result of his studies. He pointed out the state of anarchy to which the constant slave-raiding had reduced this wealthy country, and implored those in authority, not only for the sake of humanity, but for the prestige of the country, to send an expedition which should stamp out the murderous traffic. He offered to accompany this in any capacity; and, so long as he had the chance of assisting in a righteous war, agreed to serve under any leader they chose. His knowledge of the country and his influence over its inhabitants were indispensable. He guaranteed that, if they gave him a certain number of guns with three British officers, the whole affair could be settled in a year.
But the government was crippled by the Boer War; and though, appreciating the strength of his arguments, it realised the necessity of intervention, was disinclined to enter upon fresh enterprises. These little expeditions in Africa had a way of developing into much more important affairs than first appeared. They had been taught bitter lessons before now, and could not risk, in the present state of things, even an insignificant rebuff. If they sent out a small party, which was defeated, it would be a great blow to the prestige of the country through Africa—the Arabs would carry the news to India—and it would be necessary, then, to despatch such a force that failure was impossible. To supply this there was neither money nor men.
Alec was put off with one excuse after another. To him it seemed that hindrances were deliberately set in his way, and in fact the relations of England with the rest of Europe made his small schemes appear an intolerable nuisance. At length he was met with a flat refusal.
But Alec MacKenzie could not rest with this, and opposition only made him more determined to carry his business through. He understood that it was hard at second hand to make men realise the state of things in that distant land. But he had seen horrors beyond description. He knew the ruthless cruelty of the slave-raiders, and in his ears rang, still, the cries of agony when a village was set on fire and attacked by the Arabs. Not once, nor twice, but many times he had left some tiny kraal nestling sweetly among its fields of maize, an odd, savage counterpart to the country hamlet described in prim, melodious numbers by the gentle Goldsmith: the little naked children were playing merrily; the women sat in groups grinding their corn and chattering; the men worked in the fields or lounged idly about the hut doors. It was a charming scene. You felt that here, perhaps, one great mystery of life had been solved; for happiness was on every face, and the mere joy of living was a sufficient reason for existence. And, when he returned, the village was a pile of cinders, smoking still; here and there were lying the dead and wounded; on one side he recognised a chubby boy with a great spear wound in his body; on another was a woman with her face blown away by some clumsy gun; and there a man in the agony of death, streaming with blood, lay heaped upon the ground in horrible disorder. And the rest of the inhabitants had been hurried away pellmell on the cruel journey across country, brutally treated and half starved, till they could be delivered into the hands of the slave merchant.
Alec MacKenzie went to the Foreign Office once more. He was willing to take the whole business on himself, and asked only for a commission to raise troops at his own expense. Timorous secretaries did not know into what difficulties this determined man might lead them, and if he went with the authority of an official, but none of his responsibilities, he might land them in grave complications. The spheres of influence of the continental powers must be respected, and at this time of all others it was necessary to be very careful of national jealousies. Alec MacKenzie was told that if he went he must go as a private person. No help could be given him, and the British Government would not concern itself, even indirectly, with his enterprise. Alec had expected the reply and was not dissatisfied. If the government would not undertake the matter itself, he preferred to manage it without the hindrance of official restraints. And so this solitary man made up his mind, single handed, to crush the slave traffic in a district larger than England, and to wage war, unassisted, with a dozen local chieftains and against twenty thousand fighting men The attempt seemed Quixotic, but Alec had examined the risks and was willing to take them. He had on his side a thorough knowledge of the country, a natural power over the natives, and some skill in managing them. He was accustomed now to the diplomacy which was needful, and he was well acquainted with the local politics.