THE LADY PARAMOUNT
By HENRY HARLAND
"THE CARDINAL'S SNUFF-BOX"
JOHN LANE: THE BODLEY HEAD
LONDON & NEW YORK — MCMII
BY JOHN LANE
All rights reserved
The Lady Paramount
On the twenty-second anniversary of Susanna's birth, old Commendatore Fregi, her guardian, whose charge, by the provisions of her father's will, on that day terminated, gave a festa in her honour at his villa in Vallanza. Cannon had been fired in the morning: two-and-twenty salvoes, if you please, though Susanna had protested that this was false heraldry, and that it advertised her, into the bargain, for an old maid. In the afternoon there had been a regatta. Seven tiny sailing-boats, monotypes,—the entire fleet, indeed, of the Reale Yacht Club d'Ilaria—had described a triangle in the bay, with Vallanza, Presa, and Veno as its points; and I need n't tell anyone who knows the island of Sampaolo that the Marchese Baldo del Ponte's Mermaid, English name and all, had come home easily the first. Then, in the evening, there was a dinner, followed by a ball, and fire-works in the garden.
Susanna was already staying at the summer palace on Isola Nobile, for already—though her birthday falls on the seventeenth of April—the warm weather had set in; and when the last guests had gone their way, the Commendatore escorted her and her duenna, the Baroness Casaterrena, down through the purple Italian night, musical with the rivalries of a hundred nightingales, to the sea-wall, where, at his private landing-stage, in the bat-haunted glare of two tall electric lamps, her launch was waiting. But as he offered Susanna his hand, to help her aboard, she stepped quickly to one side, and said, with a charming indicative inclination of the head, "The Baronessa."
The precedence, of course, was rightfully her own. How like her, and how handsome of her, thought the fond old man, thus to waive it in favour of her senior. So he transferred his attention to the Baroness. She was a heavy body, slow and circumspect in her motions; but at length she had safely found her place among the silk cushions in the stern, and the Commendatore, turning back, again held out his hand to his sometime ward. As he was in the act of doing so, however, his ears were startled by a sound of puffing and of churning which caused him abruptly to face about.
"Hi! Stop!" he cried excitedly, for the launch was several yards out in the bay; and one could hear the Baroness, equally excited, expostulating with the man at the machine:
"He! Ferma, ferma!"
"It's all right," said Susanna, in that rather deep voice of hers, tranquil and leisurely; "my orders."
And the launch, unperturbed, held its course towards the glow-worm lights of Isola Nobile.
The Commendatore stared. . . .
For a matter of five seconds, his brows knitted together, his mouth half open, the Commendatore stared, now at Susanna, now after the bobbing lanterns of the launch,—whilst, clear in the suspension, the choir of nightingales sobbed and shouted.
"Your orders?" he faltered at last. Many emotions were concentrated in the pronoun.
"Yes," said Susanna, with a naturalness that perhaps was studied. "The first act of my reign."
He had never known her to give an order before, without asking permission; and this, in any case, was such an incomprehensible order. How, for instance, was she to get back to the palace?
"But how on earth," he puzzled, "will you get back to——"
"Oh, I 'm not returning to Isola Nobile tonight," Susanna jauntily mentioned, her chin a little perked up in the air. Then, with the sweetest smile—through which there pierced, perhaps, just a faint glimmer of secret mischief?—"I 'm starting on my wander-year," she added, and waved her hand imperially towards the open sea.
It was a progression of surprises for the tall, thin old Commendatore. No sooner had Susanna thus bewilderingly spoken, than the rub and dip of oars became audible, rhythmically nearing; and a minute after, from the outer darkness, a row-boat, white and slender, manned by two rowers in smart nautical uniforms, shot forward into the light, and drew up alongside the quay.
"A boat from the Fiorimondo," he gasped, in stupefaction.
"Yes," said Susanna, pleasantly. "The Fiorimondo takes me as far as Venice. There I leave it for the train."
The Commendatore's faded old blue eyes flickered anxiously.
"I can't think I am dreaming," he remarked, with a kind of vague plaintiveness; "and of course you are not serious. My dear, I don't understand."
"Oh, I 'm as serious as mathematics," she assured him.
She gave her head a little pensive movement of affirmation, and lifted her eyes to his, bright with an expression of trustful candour. This was an expression she was somewhat apt to assume when her mood was a teasing one; and it generally had the effect of breaking down the Commendatore's gravity. "You are a witch," he would laugh, availing himself without shame of the way-worn reproach, "a wicked, irresistible little witch."
"The thing," she explained, "is as simple as good-day. I 'm starting on my travels—to see the world—Paris, which I have only seen once—London, which I have never seen—the seaports of Bohemia, the mountains of Thule, which I have often seen from a distance, in the mists on the horizon. The Fiorimondo takes me as far as Venice. That is one of the advantages of owning a steam-yacht. Otherwise, I should have to go by the Austrian-Lloyd packet; and that would n't be half so comfortable."
Her eyes, still raised to the Commendatore's, melted in a smile;—a smile seemingly all innocence, persuasiveness, tender appeal for approbation, but (I 'm afraid) with an undergleam that was like a mocking challenge.
He, perforce, smiled too, though with manifest reluctance; and at the same time he frowned.
"My dear, if it were possible, I should be angry with you. This is scarcely an appropriate hour for mystifications."
"That it is n't," agreed Susanna, heartily. And she put up her hand, to cover a weary little yawn. "But there 's no mystification. There 's a perfectly plain statement of fact. I 'm starting to-night for Venice."
He studied her intently for a moment, fixedly, pondering something. Then, all at once, the lines of dismay cleared from his lean old ivory-yellow face.
"Ha! In a ball-dress," he scoffed, and pointed a finger at Susanna's snowy confection of tulle and satin and silver embroidery, all a-shimmer in the artificial moonlight of the electric lamps, against the background of southern garden,—the outlines and masses, dim and mysterious in the night, of palms and cypresses, of slender eucalyptus-trees, oleanders, magnolias, of orange-trees, where the oranges hung, amid the dark foliage, like dull-burning lanterns. A crescent of diamonds twinkled in the warm blackness of her hair. She wore a collar of pearls round her throat, and a long rope of pearls that descended to her waist, and was then looped up and caught at the bosom by an opal clasp. A delicate perfume, like the perfume of violets, came and went in the air near her. She held a great fluffy fan of white feathers in one hand, and in the other carried loose her long white gloves; and gems sparkled on her fingers. The waters under the sea-wall beside her kept up a perpetual whispering, like a commentary on the situation. The old man considered these things, and his misgivings were entirely dissipated.
"Ha!" he scoffed, twisting his immense iron-grey moustaches with complacency. "I can't guess what prank you may be up to, but you are never starting for Venice in a ball-dress. You 're capable of a good deal, my dear, but you 're not capable of that."
"Oh, I 'm capable of anything and everything," Susanna answered, cheerfully ominous. "Besides," she plausibly admonished him, "you might do me the justice of supposing that I have changes aboard the Fiorimondo. My maid awaits me there with quite a dozen boxes. So—you see. Oh, and by the bye," she interjected, "Serafino also is coming with me. He'll act as courier—buy my tickets, register my luggage; and then, when we reach our ultimate destination, resume his white cap and apron. My ultimate destination, you must know," she said, with a lightness which, I think, on the face of it was spurious, "is a little village in England—a little village called Craford; and"—she smiled convincingly—"I hear that the cuisine is not to be depended upon in little English villages."
All the Commendatore's anxieties had revived. This time he frowned in grim earnest.
"Creforrrd!" he ejaculated.
The word fell like an explosion; and there was the climax of horrified astonishment in those reverberating r's.
"I think you are mad," he said. "Or, if you are not mad, you are the slyest young miss in Christendom."
Susanna's eyes darkened, pathetic, wistful.
"Ah, don't be cross," she pleaded. "I 'm not mad, and I 'm not sly. But I 'm free and independent. What's the good of being free and independent," she largely argued, "if you can't do the things you want to? I 'm going to Craford to realise the aspiration of a lifetime. I 'm going to find out my cousin, and make his acquaintance, and see what he 's like. And then—well, if he 's nice, who knows what may happen? I planned it ever so long ago," she proclaimed, with an ingenuousness that was almost brazen, "and made all my preparations. Then I sat down and waited for the day when I should be free and independent."
Her eyes melted again, deprecating his censure, beseeching his indulgence, yet still, with a little glint of raillery, defying him to do his worst.
His hand sawed the air, his foot tapped the ground.
"Free and independent, free and independent," he fumed, in derision. "Fine words, fine words. And you made all your preparations beforehand, in secrecy; and you 're not sly? Misericordia di Dio!"
He groaned impotently; he shook his bony old fist at the stars in the firmament.
"Perhaps you will admit," he questioned loftily, "that there are decencies to be observed even by the free and independent? It is not decent for you to travel alone. If you mean a single word of what you say, why are n't you accompanied by the Baronessa?"
"The Baronessa fatigues me," Susanna answered gently. "And I exasperate her and try her patience cruelly. She 's always putting spokes in my wheel, and I 'm always saying and doing things she disapproves of. Ah, if she only suspected the half of the things I don't say or do, but think and feel!"
She nodded with profound significance.
"We belong," she pointed out, "to discrepant generations. I 'm so intensely modern, and she 's so irredeemably eighteen-sixty. I 've only waited for this blessed day of liberty to cut adrift from the Baronessa. And the pleasure will be mutual, I promise you. She will enjoy a peace and a calm that she has n't known for ages. Ouf! I feel like Europe after the downfall of Napoleon."
She gave her shoulders a little shake of satisfaction.
"The Baronessa," she said, and I 'm afraid there was laughter in her tone, "is a prisoner for the night on Isola Nobile." I 'm afraid she tittered. "I gave orders that the launch was to start off the moment she put her foot aboard it, and on no account was it to turn back, and on no account was any boat to leave the island till to-morrow morning. I expect she 'll be rather annoyed—and puzzled. But—cosa vuole? It's all in the day's work."
Then her voice modulated, and became confidential and exultant.
"I 'm going to have such a delicious plunge. See—to-night I have put on pearls, and diamonds, and rings, that the Baronessa would never let me wear. And I 've got a whole bagful of books, to read in the train—Anatole France, and Shakespeare, and Gyp, and Pierre Loti, and Moliere, and Max Beerbohm, and everybody: all the books the Baronessa would have died a thousand deaths rather than let me look at. That's the nuisance of being a woman of position—you 're brought up never to read anything except the Lives of the Saints and the fashion papers. I 've had to do all my really important reading by stealth, like a thief in the night. Ah," she sighed, "if I were only a man, like you! But as for observing the decencies," she continued briskly, "you need have no fear. I 'm going to the land of all lands where (if report speaks true) one has most opportunities of observing them—I 'm going to England, and I 'll observe them with both eyes. And I 'm not travelling alone." She spurned the imputation. "There are Rosina and Serafino; and at the end of my journey I shall have Miss Sandus. You remember that nice Miss Sandus?" she asked, smiling up at him. "She is my fellow-conspirator. We arranged it all before she went away last autumn. I 'm to go to her house in London, and she will go with me to Craford. She 's frantically interested about my cousin. She thinks it's the most thrilling and romantic story she has ever heard. And she thoroughly sympathises with my desire to make friends with him, and to offer him some sort of reparation."
The Commendatore was pacing nervously backwards and forwards, being, I suppose, too punctilious an old-school Latin stickler for etiquette to interrupt.
But now, "Curse her for a meddlesome Englishwoman," he spluttered violently. "To encourage a young girl like you in such midsummer folly. A young girl?—a young hoyden, a young tom-boy. What? You will travel from here to London without a chaperon? And books—French novels—gr-r-r! I wish you had never been taught to read. I think it is ridiculous to teach women to read. What good will they get by reading? You deserve—upon my word you deserve . . . Well, never mind. Oh, body of Bacchus!"
He wrung his hands, as one in desperation.
"A young girl, a mere child," he cried, in a wail to Heaven; "a mere"—he paused, groping for an adequate definition—"a mere irresponsible female orphan! And nobody with power to interfere."
Susanna drew herself up.
"Young?" she exclaimed. "A mere child? I? Good gracious, I 'm twenty-two."
She said it, scanning the syllables to give them weight, and in all good faith I think, as who should say, "I 'm fifty."
"You really can't accuse me of being young," she apodictically pronounced. "I 'm twenty-two. Twenty-two long years—aie, Dio mio! And I look even older. I could pass for twenty-five. If," was her suddenly-inspired concession, "if it will afford you the least atom of consolation, I 'll tell people that I am twenty-five. There."
She wooed him anew with those melting eyes, and her tone was soft as a caress.
"It is n't every man that I 'd offer to sacrifice three of the best years of my life for—and it is n't every man that I 'd offer to tell fibs for."
She threw back her head, and stood in an attitude to invite inspection.
"Don't I look twenty-five?" she asked. "If you had n't the honour of my personal acquaintance, would it ever occur to you that I 'm what you call 'a young girl'? Would n't you go about enquiring of every one, 'Who is that handsome, accomplished, and perfectly dressed woman of the world?'"
And she made him the drollest of little quizzical moues.
In effect, with her tall and rather sumptuously developed figure, with the humour and vivacity, the character and decision, of her face, with the glow deep in her eyes, the graver glow beneath the mirth that danced near their surface,—and then too, perhaps, with the unequivocal Southern richness of her colouring: the warm white and covert rose of her skin, the dense black of her undulating abundant hair, the sudden, sanguine red of her lips,—I think you would have taken her for more than twenty-two. There was nothing of the immature or the unfinished, nothing of the tentative, in her aspect. With no loss of freshness, there were the strength, the poise, the assurance, that we are wont to associate with a riper womanhood. Whether she looked twenty-five or not, she looked, at any rate, a completed product; she looked distinguished and worth while; she looked alive, alert: one in whom the blood coursed swiftly, the spirit burned vigorously; one who would love her pleasure, who could be wayward and provoking, but who could also be generous and loyal; she looked high-bred, one in whom there was race, as well as temperament and nerve.
The Commendatore, however, was a thousand miles from these considerations. He glared fiercely at her—as fiercely as it was in his mild old eyes to glare. He held himself erect and aloof, in a posture that was eloquent of haughty indignation.
"I will ask your Excellency a single question. Are you or are you not the Countess of Sampaolo?" he demanded sternly.
But Susanna was incorrigible.
"At your service—unless I was changed at nurse," she assented, dropping a curtsey; and an imp laughed in her eyes.
"And are you aware," the Commendatore pursued, with the tremor of restrained passion in his voice, "that the Countess of Sampaolo, a countess in her own right, is a public personage? Are you aware that the actions you are proposing—which would be disgraceful enough if you were any little obscure bourgeoise—must precipitate a public scandal? Have you reflected that it will all be printed in the newspapers, for men to snigger at in their cafes, for women to cackle over in their boudoirs? Have you reflected that you will make yourself a nine-days' wonder, a subject for tittle-tattle with all the gossip-mongers of Europe? Are you without pride, without modesty?"
Susanna arched her eyebrows, in amiable surprise.
"Oh?" she said. "Have I omitted to mention that I 'm to do the whole thing in masquerade? How stupid of me. Yes,"—her voice became explanatory,—"it's essential, you see, that my cousin Antonio should never dream who I really am. He must fancy that I 'm just anybody—till the time comes for me to cast my domino, and reveal the fairy-princess. So I travel under a nom-de-guerre. I 'm a widow, a rich, charming, dashing, not too-disconsolate widow; and my name . . . is Madame Fregi."
She brought out the last words after an instant's irresolution, and marked them by a hazardous little smile.
"What!" thundered the Commendatore. "You would dare to take my name as a cloak for your escapades? I forbid it. Understand. I peremptorily forbid it."
He stamped his foot, he nodded his outraged head, menacingly.
But Susanna was indeed incorrigible.
"Dear me," she grieved; "I hoped you would be touched by the compliment. How strange men are. Never mind, though," she said, with gay resignation. "I 'll call myself something else. Let's think. . . . Would—would Torrebianca do?" Her eyes sought counsel from his face.
Torrebianca, I need n't remind those who are familiar with Sampaolo, is the name of a mountain, a bare, white, tower-like peak of rock, that rises in the middle of the island, the apex of the ridge separating the coast of Vallanza from the coast of Orca.
"Madame Torrebianca? La Nobil Donna Susanna Torrebianca?" She tried the name on her tongue. "Yes, for an impromptu, Torrebianca is n't bad. It's picturesque, and high-sounding, and yet not—not invraisemblable. You don't think it invraisemblable? So here 's luck to that bold adventuress, that knightess-errant, the widow Torrebianca."
She raised her fluffy white fan, as if it were a goblet from which to quaff the toast, and flourished it aloft.
The poor old Commendatore was mumbling helpless imprecations in his moustache. One caught the word "atrocious" several times repeated.
"And now," said Susanna brightly, "kiss me on both cheeks, and give me your benediction."
She moved towards him, and held up her face.
But he drew away.
"My child," he began, impressively, "I have no means to constrain you, and I know by experience that when you have made up that perverse little mind of yours, one might as well attempt to reason with a Hebrew Jew. Therefore I can only beg, I can only implore. I implore you not to do this fantastic, this incredible, this unheard-of thing. I will go on my knees to you. I will entreat you, not for my sake, but for your own sake, for the sake of your dead father and mother, to put this ruinous vagary from you, to abandon this preposterous journey, and to stay quietly here in Sampaolo. Then, if you must open up the past, if you must get into communication with your distant cousin, I 'll help you to find some other, some sane and decorous method of doing so."
Still once again Susanna's eyes melted, but there was no mockery in them now.
"You are kind and patient," she said, with feeling; "and I hate to be a brute. Yet what is there to do? I can't alter my resolution. And I can't bear to refuse you when you talk to me like that. So—you must forgive me if I take a brusque way of escaping the dilemma."
She ran to the edge of the quay, and sprang lightly into her boat.
"Avanti—avanti," she cried to the rowers, who instantly pushed the boat free, and bent upon their oars.
Then she waved her disfranchised guardian a kiss.
"Addio, Commendatore. I 'll write to you from Venice."
It was gay June weather, in a deep green English park: a park in the south of England, near the sea, where parks are deepest and greenest, and June weather, when it is n't grave, is gaiest. Blackbirds were dropping their liquid notes, thrushes were singing, hidden in the trees. Here and there, in spaces enclosed by hurdles, sheep browsed or drowsed, still faintly a-blush from recent shearing. The may was in bloom, the tardy may, and the laburnum. The sun shone ardently, and the air was quick with the fragrant responses of the earth.
A hundred yards up the avenue, Anthony Craford stopped his fly, a shabby victoria, piled with the manifold leather belongings of a traveller, and dismounted.
"I 'll walk the rest of the way," he said to the flyman, giving him his fare. "Drive on to the house. The servants will take charge of the luggage."
"Yes, sir," answered the flyman, briskly, and flicked his horse: whereat, displaying a mettle one was by no means prepared for, the horse dashed suddenly off in a great clattering gallop, and the ancient vehicle behind him followed with a succession of alarming leaps and lurches.
"See," declaimed a voice, in a sort of whimsical recitative,
"See how the young cabs bound, As to the tabor's sound,—"
a full-bodied baritone, warm and suave, that broke, at the end, into a note or two of laughter.
On the greensward, a few paces distant, stood a man in white flannels: rather a fat man, to avow the worst at once, but, for the rest, distinctly a pleasant-looking; with a smiling, round, pink face, smooth-shaven, and a noticeable pair of big and bright blue eyes.
"Hello. Is that you, old Rosygills?" Anthony said, with a phlegm that seemed rather premeditated.
"Now, what a question," protested the other, advancing to meet him. He walked with an odd kind of buoyant, measured step, as if he were keeping time to a silent dance-tune. "All I can tell you is that it's someone very nice and uncommonly like me. You should know at your age that a person's identity is quite the most mysterious mystery under heaven. You really must n't expect me to vouch for mine. How-d'ye-do?"
He extended, casually, in the manner of a man preoccupied, a plump, pink left hand. With his right hand he held up and flaunted, for exhibition, a drooping bunch of poppies, poignantly red and green: the subject, very likely, of his preoccupation, for, "Are n't they beauties?" he demanded, and his manner had changed to one of fervour, nothing less. "They 're the spoils of a raid on Farmer Blogrim's chalk-pit. If eyes were made for seeing, see and admire—admire and confess your admiration."
He shook them at Anthony's face. But as Anthony looked at them with composure, and only muttered, "H'm," "Oh, my little scarlet starlets," he purred and chirped to the blossoms, "would n't the apathetic man admire you?"
And he clasped them to his bosom with a gesture that was reminiscent of the grateful prima-donna.
"They look exactly as if I had plucked them from the foreground of a Fifteenth Century painting, don't they?" he went on, holding them off again. "Florentine, of course. Ah, in those days painting was a fine art, and worth a rational being's consideration,—in those days, and in just that little Tuscan corner of the world. But you," he pronounced in deep tones, mournfully, "how cold, how callous, you are. Have you no soul for the loveliness of flowers?"
Anthony sighed. He was a tall young man, (thirty, at a guess), tall and well set-up, with grey eyes, a wholesome brown skin, and a nose so affirmatively patrician in its high bridge and slender aquilinity that it was a fair matter for remark to discover it on the face of one who actually chanced to be of the patrician order. Such a nose, perhaps, carried with it certain obligations—an obligation of fastidious dressing, for example. Anthony, at any rate, was very fastidiously dressed indeed, in light-grey tweeds, with a straw hat, and a tie that bespoke a practised hand beside a discerning taste. But his general air, none the less,—the expression of his figure and his motions, as well as of his face and voice,—was somehow that of an indolent melancholy, a kind of unresentful disenchantment, as if he had long ago perceived that cakes are mostly dough, and had accommodated himself to the perception with a regret that was half amusement.
His friend, by contrast, in loose white flannels, with a flannel shirt and a leather belt, with yellowish hair, waving, under a white flannel cricket-cap, a good inch longer than the conventional cut, was plainly a man who set himself above the modes: though, in his plump, pink way debonair and vivacious, not so tall as Anthony, yet tall enough never to be contemned as short, and verging upon what he was fain to call "the flower of a sound man's youth, the golden, gladsome, romantic age of forty," he looked delightfully fresh, and wide-awake, and cheerful, and perfectly in the scheme of the blue day and the bird-notes and the smiling country. Permit me to introduce Mr. Adrian Willes, by vocation a composer and singer of songs, and—"contrapuntally," as he would explain—Anthony Craford's housemate, monitor, land-agent, and man of business.
"I 'll tell you what I admire," he answered drily. "I admire the transports of delight with which you hail my unexpected home-coming. The last you knew, I was in California; and here I might have tumbled from the skies."
Adrian regarded him with an eye in which, I think, kindled a certain malicious satisfaction.
"Silence," he said, "is the perfectest herald of joy. Besides, you must n't flatter yourself that your home-coming is so deucedly unexpected, either. I 've felt a pricking in my thumbs any time these three months; and no longer ago than yesterday morning, I said to my image in the glass, as I was shaving, 'I should n't wonder if Tony turned up to-morrow,' said I."
"That was merely your uneasy conscience," Tony expounded. "When the cat's away, the mice are always feeling prickings in their thumbs."
"Oh, if you stoop to bandying proverbs," retaliated Adrian, "there's a proverb about a penny." He raised his bunch of poppies, and posed it aloft before him, eyeing it, his head cocked a little to one side, in critical enjoyment. "Shall we set out for the house?" he asked.
"No," said Anthony, promptly, with decision. "I 'll set out for the house; and you (unless your habits have strangely altered) will frisk and gambol round about me. Come on."
And taking Adrian's arm, he led the way, amid the summer throng of delicate scents and sounds, under the opulent old trees, over the gold-green velvet of the turf, on which leaves and branches were stencilled by the sun, as in an elaborate design for lace, towards a house that was rather famous in the neighbourhood—I was on the point of saying for its beauty: but are things ever famous in English neighbourhoods for their mere beauty?—for its quaintness, and in some measure too, perhaps, for its history:—Craford Old Manor, a red-brick Tudor house, low, and, in the rectangular style of such houses, rambling; with a paved inner court, and countless tall chimneys, like minarets; with a secret chapel and a priests' "hiding-hole," for the Crafords were one of those old Catholic families whose boast it is that they "have never lost the Faith"; with a walled formal garden, and a terrace, and a sun-dial; with close-cropped bordures of box, and yews clipped to fantastic patterns: the house so placed withal, that, while its north front faced the park, its south front, ivy-covered, looked over a bright lawn and bright parterres of flowers, down upon the long green levels of Rowland Marshes, and away to the blue sea beyond,—the blue sea, the white cliffs, the yellow sands.
Anthony and Adrian, arm in arm, sauntered on without speaking, till they attained the crest of a sweeping bit of upland, and the house and the sea came in view. Here they halted, and stood for a minute in contemplation of the prospect.
"The sea," said Adrian, disengaging his arm, that he might be free to use it as a pointer, and then pointing with it, "the sea has put on her bluest frock, to honour your return. And behold, decked in the hues of Iris, that gallant procession of cliffs, like an army with banners, zigzagging up from the world's rim, to bid you welcome. Oh, you were clearly not unexpected. If no smoke rises from yonder chimneys,—if your ancestral chimney-stone is cold,—that's merely because, despite the season, we 're having a spell of warmish weather, and we 've let the fires go out. 'T is June. Town 's full; country 's depopulated. In Piccadilly, I gather from the public prints, vehicular traffic is painfully congested. Meanwhile, I 've a grand piece of news for your private ear. Guess a wee bit what it is."
"Oh, I 'm no good at guessing," said Anthony, with languor, as they resumed their walk.
"Well—what will you give me, then, if I 'll blurt it out?" asked Adrian, shuffling along sidewise, so that he might face his companion.
"My undivided attention—provided you blurt it briefly," Anthony promised.
"Oh, come," Adrian urged, swaying his head and shoulders. "Betray a little curiosity, at least."
"Curiosity is a vice I was taught in my youth to suppress," said Anthony.
"A murrain on your youth," cried Adrian, testily. "However, since there 's no quieting you otherwise, I suppose, for the sake of peace, I 'd best tell you, and have done with it. Well, then,"—he stood off, to watch the effect of his announcement,—"Craford's Folly is let."
"Ah?" said Anthony, with no sign of emotion.
Adrian's face fell.
"Was there ever such inhumanity?" he mourned. "I tell him that—thanks to my supernatural diligence in his affairs—his own particular millstone is lifted from his neck. I tell him that a great white elephant of a house, which for years has been eating its head off, and keeping him poor, is at last—by my supernatural diligence—converted into an actual source of revenue. And 'Ah?' is all he says, as if it did n't concern him. Blow, blow, thou winter wind,—thou art not so unkind as Man's ingratitude."
"Silence," Anthony mentioned, "is the perfectest herald of joy."
"Pish, tush," said Adrian. "A fico for the phrase. I 'll bet a shilling, all the same,"—and he scanned Anthony's countenance apprehensively,—"that you 'll be wanting money?"
"It's considered rather low," Anthony generalised, "to offer a bet on what you have every ground for regarding as a certainty."
"A certainty?" groaned Adrian. He tossed his plump arms heavenwards. "There it is! He 's wanting money."
And his voice broke, in something like a sob.
"Do you know," he asked, "how many pounds sterling you 've had the spending of during the past twelvemonth? Do you know how many times your poor long-suffering bankers have written to me, with tears in their eyes, to complain that your account was overdrawn, and would I be such a dear as to set it right? No? You don't? I could have sworn you did n't. Well, I do—to my consternation. And it is my duty to caution you that the estate won't stand it—to call that an estate," he divagated, with a kind of despairing sniff, "which is already, by the extravagances of your ancestors, shrunken to scarcely more than three acres and a cow. You 're wanting money? What do you do with your money? What secret profligacy must a man be guilty of, who squanders such stacks of money? Burst me, if I might n't as well be steward to a bottomless pit. However, Providence be praised,—and my own supernatural diligence,—I 'm in command of quite unhoped-for resources. Craford New Manor is let."
"So you remarked before," said Anthony, all but yawning.
"And shall again, if the impulse seizes me," Adrian tartly rejoined. "The circumstance is a relevant and a lucky one for the man you 're fondest of, since he's wanting money. If it were n't that the new house is let, he 'd find my pockets in the condition of Lord Tumtoddy's noddle. However, the saints are merciful, I 'm a highly efficient agent, and the biggest, ugliest, costliest house in all this countryside is let."
"Have it so, dear Goldilocks," said Anthony, with submission. "I 'll ne'er deny it more."
"There would be no indiscretion," Adrian threw out, "in your asking whom it's let to."
"Needless to ask," Anthony threw back. "It's let to a duffer, of course. None but a duffer would be duffer enough to take it."
"Well, then, you 're quite mistaken," said Adrian, airily swaggering. "It's let to a lady."
"Oh, there be lady duffers," Anthony apprised him.
"It's very ungallant of you to say so." Adrian frowned disapprobation. "This lady, if you can bear to hear the whole improbable truth at once, is an Italian lady."
"An Italian lady? Oh?" Anthony's interest appeared to wake a little.
"I expected that would rouse you. A Madame Torrebianca."
"Ah?" said Anthony; and his interest appeared to drop.
"Yes—la Nobil Donna Susanna Torrebianca. Is n't that a romantic name? A lady like the heroine of some splendid old Italian story,—like Pompilia, like Francesca,—like Kate the Queen, when her maiden was binding her tresses. Young, and dark, and beautiful, and altogether charming."
"H'm. And not a duffer? An adventuress, then, clearly," said Anthony. "You 'll never get the rent."
"Nothing of the sort," Adrian asserted, with emphasis. "A lady of the highest possible respectability. Trust me to know. A scrupulous Catholic, besides. It was partly because we have a chapel that she decided to take the house. Father David is hand and glove with her. And rich. She gave the very best of banker's references. 'Get the rent,' says he—as if I had n't got my quarter in advance. I let furnished—what? Well, that's the custom—rent payable quarterly in advance. And cultivated. She's read everything, and she prattles English like you or me. She had English governesses when she was a kiddie. And appreciative. She thinks I 'm without exception the nicest man she 's ever met. She adores my singing, and delights in all the brilliant things I say. She says things that are n't half bad herself, and plays my accompaniments with really a great deal of sympathy and insight. And Tony dear,"—he laid his hand impressively on Tony's arm, while his voice sank to the pitch of deep emotion,—"she has a cook—a cook—ah, me!"
He smacked his lips, as at an unutterable recollection.
"She brought him with her from Italy. He has a method of preparing sweetbreads—well, you wait. His name is Serafino—and no wonder. And she has the nicest person who was ever born to live with her: a Miss Sandus, Miss Ruth Sandus, a daughter of the late Admiral Sir Geoffrey Sandus. She 's a dove, she 's a duck, she 's a darling; she 's completely won my heart. And I"—he took a few skipping steps, and broke suddenly into song—
"'And I, and I have hers!'
We dote upon each other. She calls me her Troubadour. She has the prettiest hands of any woman out of Paradise. She 's as sweet as remembered kisses after death. She 's as sharp as a needle. She 's as bright as morning roses lightly tipped with dew. She has a house of her own in Kensington. And she's seventy-four years of age."
Anthony's interest appeared to wake again.
"Seventy-four? You call that young?" he asked, with the inflection of one who was open to be convinced.
"You deliberately put a false construction on my words. I was alluding to Miss Sandus, as you 're perfectly well aware. Madame Torrebianca is n't seventy-four, nor anything near it. She's not twenty-four. Say about twenty-five and a fraction. With such hair too—and such frocks—and eyes. Oh, my dear!" He kissed his fingers, and wafted the kiss to the sky. "Eyes! Imagine twin moons rising over a tropical—"
"Allons donc," Anthony repressed him. "Contain yourself. Where is Madame Torrebianca's husband?"
"Ah," said Adrian, with a sudden lapse of tone. "Where is Madame Torrebianca's husband? That's the question. Where?" And he winked suggestively. "How can I tell you where he is? If I could tell you that, you don't suppose I 'd be wearing myself to a shadow with uncongenial and ill-remunerated labour, in an obscure backwater of the country, like this, do you? If I could tell you that, I could tell you the secretest secrets of the sages, and I should be making my everlasting fortune—oh, but money hand over fist—as the oracle of a general information bureau, in Bond Street, or somewhere. I should be a millionaire, and a celebrity, and a regular cock-of-the-walk. Where is Madame Torrebianca's husband? Ay! Gentle shepherd, tell me where?"
"Ah?" wondered Anthony, off his guard. "A mysterious disappearance?"
"Bravo!" crowed Adrian, gleefully. "I am not only witty myself, but the cause of wit in others." He patted Anthony on the shoulder. "A mysterious disappearance. The mot is capital. That's it, to a hair's breadth. Oft thought before, but ne'er so well expressed. The gentleman (as the rude multitude in their unfeeling way would put it) is dead."
"On the whole," mused Anthony, looking him up and down with a reflective eye, "you 're an effulgent sort of egotist, as egotists go; but you yield much cry for precious little wool."
"Yes, dead," Adrian repeated, pursuing his own train of ideas. "Donna Susanna is a widow, a poor lone widow, a wealthy, eligible widow. You must be kind to her."
"Why don't you marry her?" Anthony enquired.
"Pooh," said Adrian.
"Why don't you?" Anthony insisted. "If she 's really rich? You don't dislike her—you respect her—perhaps, if you set your mind to it, you could even learn to love her. She 'd give you a home and a position in the world; she 'd make a sober citizen of you; and she 'd take you off my hands. You know whether you 're an expense—and a responsibility. Why don't you marry her? You owe it to me not to let such an occasion slip."
"Pooh," said Adrian. But he looked conscious, and he laughed a deliriously conscious laugh. "What nonsense you do talk. I 'm too young, I 'm far too young, to think of marrying."
"See him blush and giggle and shake his pretty curls," said Anthony, with scorn, addressing the universe.
By this time they had skirted the house, and come round to the southern front, where the sunshine lay unbroken on the lawn, and the smell of the box hedges, strong in the still air, seemed a thing almost ponderable: the low, long front, a mellow line of colour, with the purple of its old red bricks and the dark green of its ivy, sunlit against the darker green of the park, and the blue of the tender English sky. The terrace steps were warm under their feet, as they mounted them. In terra-cotta urns, at intervals upon the terrace balustrade, roses grew, roses red and white; and from larger urns, one at either side of the hall-door, red and white roses were espaliered, intertwining overhead.
The hall-door stood open; but the hall, as they entered it from the brightness without, was black at first, like a room unlighted. Then, little by little, it turned from black to brown, and defined itself:—"that hackneyed type of Stage-property hall," I have heard Adrian lament, "which connotes immediately a lost will, a family secret, and the ghost of a man in armour"; "a noble apartment, square and spacious, characteristic of the period when halls were meant to serve at need as guard-rooms," says the County History.
Square and spacious it was certainly, perhaps a hackneyed type none the less: the ceiling and the walls panelled in dark well-polished oak; the floor a pavement of broad stone flags, covered for the most part now by a faded Turkey carpet; the narrow windows, small-paned and leaded, set in deep stone embrasures; a vast fireplace jutting across a corner, the Craford arms emblazoned in the chimney-piece above; and a wide oak staircase leading to the upper storey. The room was furnished, incongruously enough, in quite a modern fashion, rather shabbily, and I daresay rather mannishly. There were leather arm-chairs and settles, all a good deal worn, and stout tables littered with books and periodicals. The narrow windows let in thin slants of mote-filled sunshine, vortices of gold-dust; and on the faded carpet, by the door, lay a bright parallelogram, warming to life its dim old colours. The rest of the room seemed twilit. Someone had been too wise to defeat that good oak panelling by hanging pictures on it.
"Not a creature is stirring," said Adrian, "not even a mouse. Sellers—oh, what men daily do, not knowing what they do!—is shut up in the scullery, I suppose, torturing his poor defenceless fiddle. That 's what it is to be a musical boot-and-knife boy. And Wickersmith will be at his devotions. He tells me he never gets leisure for his morning meditation till luncheon 's cleared away. And that's what it is to be a pious butler. I 'm doubting whether there was anyone to disembarrass that flyman of yours of your luggage. So he 's probably driven off with it all to his humble, happy home. I see none of it about. Never mind. There 'll be some of your old things in Mrs. W.'s camphor-chest, perhaps; or if it comes to a pinch, I can lend you a garment or so of my own,—and then won't Craford of Craford cut a figure of fun! You will make her acquaintance . . . Let me see. To-day is Wednesday. We 'll call on her to-morrow."
"On whom?" asked Anthony, looking blank.
"Have we been talking of Queen Berengaria?" Adrian, with his nose in the air, enquired. "On whom? says you. We 'll call to-morrow afternoon."
"Not I," said Anthony.
"Not to-morrow?" Adrian raised his eyebrows, well-marked crescents of reddish-brown above his ruddy face, and assumed thereby a physiognomy of almost childlike naivete. "Ah, well, on Friday, then;—though Friday is unlucky, and one rarely shines on a day of abstinence, anyhow. It's all a fallacy about fish being food for the brain. Meat, red meat, is what the brain requires." He slapped his forehead. "But Friday, since you prefer it."
Anthony seated himself on the arm of a leather chair, and, with calculated deliberation, produced his cigarette-case, selected a cigarette, returned his cigarette-case to his pocket, took out his matchbox, struck a match, and got his cigarette alight.
"No, dear Nimbletongue," he said at last, through a screen of smoke, "not Friday, either." He smiled, shaking his head.
Disquiet began to paint itself in Adrian's mien.
"Name your own day." He waited, anxious, in suspense.
"My own day is no day. I have n't the faintest desire to make the good woman's acquaintance, and I shall not call on her at all."
Adrian stretched out appealing hands.
"But Anthony—" he adjured him.
"No," said Anthony, with determination. "I 'm not a calling man. And I 've come down here for rest and recreation. I 'll pay no calls. Let that be understood. Calls, quotha! And in the country, at that. Oh, don't I know them? Oh, consecrated British dulness! The smug faces, the vacuous grins; the lifeless, limping attempts at conversation; the stares of suspicious incomprehension if you chance to say a thing that has a point; and then, the thick, sensible, slightly muddy boots. I 'll pay no calls. And as for making acquaintances—save me from those I 've made already. In broad England I can recall but three acquaintances who are n't of a killing sameness;—and one of those," he concluded sadly, with a bow to his companion, "one of those is fat, and grows old."
"Poor lad," Adrian commiserated him. "You are tired and overwrought. Go to your room, and have a bath and a brush up. That will refresh you. Then, at half-past four, you can renew the advantages of my society at tea in the garden. Oh, you 'll find your room quite ready. I 've felt a pricking in my thumbs any time these three months. Shall I send Wick?"
"Yes, if you will be so good," said Anthony. He rose, and moved towards the staircase.
Adrian waited till he had reached the top.
Then, "You 'll meet her whether you like or not on Sunday. Where on earth do you suppose she hears her Mass?" he called after him.
"Oh, hang," Anthony called back.
For, sure enough, unless she drove seven miles to Wetherleigh, where could she hear her Mass, but as his guest, in the chapel of his house?
Susanna was seated on the moss, at the roots of a wide-spreading oak. She was leaning back, so that she could look up, up, through vistas of changing greens,—black-green to gold-green,—through a thousand labyrinthine avenues and counter-avenues of leaves and branches, with broken shafts of sunlight caught in them here and there, to the glimpses of blue sky visible beyond. The tree gave you a sense of great spaces, and depths, and differences, like a world; and it was full of life, like a city. Birds came and went and hopped from bough to bough, twittering importantly of affairs to them important; squirrels scampered over the rough bark, in sudden panic haste, darting little glances, sidewise and behind, after pursuers that (we will hope) were fancied; and other birds, out of sight in the loftier regions, piped their insistent calls, or sang their tireless epithalamiums. Spiders hung in their gossamer lairs, only too tensely motionless not to seem dead; but if a gnat came—with what swift, accurate, and relentless vigour they sprang upon and garotted him. Sometimes a twig snapped, or a young acorn fell, or a caterpillar let himself down by a long silken thread. And the air under the oak was tonic with its good oaken smell.
Susanna was leaning back in a sort of reverie, held by the charm of these things. "We have no trees like this in Italy," she was vaguely thinking. "The trees and the wild creatures are never so near to one there; one never gets so intimate with them; Nature is not so accessible and friendly." She remembered having read somewhere that such enjoyment as she was now experiencing, the enjoyment of commune with the mere sweet out-of-door things of the earth, was a Pagan enjoyment, and un-Christian; and her mind revolted at this, and she thought, "No. There would n't be any enjoyment, if one did n't know that 'God's in His Heaven, all 's right with the world.'"
And just then her reverie was interrupted. . .
"He has arrived. I have seen him—what you call seen—with my own eyes seen. There are about two yards of him; and a very spruce, gentlemanlike, well-knit, and attractive two yards they are."
Thus, with a good deal of animation, in a pleasant, crisp old voice, thus spoke Miss Sandus: a little old lady in black: little and very daintily finished, with a daintily-chiselled profile, and a neat, small-framed figure; in a black walking-skirt, that was short enough to disclose a small, high-instepped, but eminently business-like pair of brown boots. Miss Sandus (she gave you her word for it) was seventy-four;—and indeed (so are the generations linked), her father had been a middie with Nelson at Trafalgar, and a lieutenant aboard the Bellerophon during that ship's historic voyage to St. Helena;—but she confronted you with the lively eyes, the firm cheeks, the fresh complexion, the erect and active carriage, of a well-preserved woman of sixty; and in her plentiful light-brown hair there was scarcely a thread of grey. She stepped trippingly across the grass, swinging a malacca walking-stick, with a silver crook-handle.
"He has arrived. I 've seen him."
So her voice broke in upon Susanna's musings; and Susanna started, and got up. She was wearing a muslin frock to-day, white, with a pattern of flowers in mauve; and she was without a hat, so that one could see how her fine black hair grew low about her brow, and thence swept away in loose full billows, and little crinkling over-waves, to where it drooped in a rich mass behind. But as she stood, awaiting Miss Sandus's approach, her face was pale, and her eyes were wide open and dark, as if with fright.
"Dear me, child. Did I startle you? I 'm so sorry," said Miss Sandus, coming up to her. "Yes, Don Antonio has arrived. I saw him as he disembarked at his native railway-station. I was ordering a book at Smith's. And such luggage, my dear. Boxes and bags, bags and boxes, till you could n't count them; and all of stout brown leather—so nice and manny. He looks nice and manny himself: tall, with nice manny clothes, and nice eyes, and a nice brown skin; and with a nose, my dear, a nose like Julius Caesar's. Well, you 'll meet him on Sunday, at your Papistical place of worship,—if he does n't call before. I daresay he 'll think himself obliged to."
"Oh, Fairy Godmother," gasped Susanna, faintly; "feel."
She took Miss Sandus's hand, and pressed it against her side.
"Feel how my heart is beating."
"Mercy!" exclaimed Miss Sandus.
"Hang it all, how she sticks in one's mind," said Anthony, with impatience. "Am I returning to my cubhood, that the mere vision of a woman should take possession of me like this?"
And then, having, I suppose, weighed the question, "It's the weather," he decided. "Yes—I 'll bet you ten-and-sixpence that it's nothing more than just this silly, sentimental, languorous June weather."
He was seated in a shaded corner of his garden, where the day was murmurous with the humming of bees, and the mingled sweetness of many flowers rose and fell in the air. Beyond the shade, the sunshine broke into a mosaic of merry colours, on larkspur and iris, pansies and pink geraniums, jessamine, sweet-peas, tulips shameless in their extravagance of green and crimson, red and white carnations, red, white, and yellow roses. The sunshine broke into colour, it laughed, it danced, it almost rioted, among the flowers; but in the prim alleys, and on the formal hedges of box, and the quaintly-clipped yews, and the old purple brick walls, where fruit trees were trellised, it lay fast, fast asleep. Without the walls, in the deep cool greenery of the park, there was a perpetual drip-drip of bird-notes. This was the web, upon which a chosen handful of more accomplished birds were embroidering and cross-embroidering and inter-embroidering their bold, clear arabesques of song. Anthony had a table and a writing-case before him, and was trying to write letters. But now he put down his pen, and, for the twentieth time this afternoon, went over the brief little encounter of the morning.
Two ladies had passed him in a dog-cart, as he was walking home from the village: a young lady driving, an oldish lady beside her, and a groom behind.
That was all: the affair of ten seconds; and at first he was not aware of any deeper or more detailed impression. He had glanced at them vaguely; he was naturally incurious; and he had been thinking of other things.
But by-and-bye, as if his retina had reacted like a photographic plate, a picture developed itself, which, in the end, by a series of recurrences, became quite singularly circumstantial. The dog-cart and its occupants, with the stretch of brown road, and the hedge-rows and meadows at either side, were visible anew to him; and he saw that the young lady who was driving had dark hair and dark eyes, and looked rather foreign; and he said, but without much concern as yet, "Ah, that was no doubt Madame Torrebianca, with her friend Miss What 's-her-name;"—and proceeded again to think of other things.
The picture faded; but presently it came back. He noticed now that the slightly foreign-looking young woman was pretty, and even interesting-looking; that besides its delicate modelling and its warm, rather Southern colouring, there was character in her face, personality; that there were intelligence, humour, vivacity; that she looked as if she would have something to say. He noticed, too, that she had what they call "a fine figure,"—that she was tall, for a woman, and slender without being thin; that she bore herself well, with an air of strength, with an air of suppleness and resistance. He could even see how she was dressed: in grey cloth, close-fitting, with grey driving-gloves, and a big black hat that carried out the darkness of her hair. And he was intrepid enough to trust his man's judgment, and to formulate an opinion of her dress. She was very well dressed, he ventured to opine; far too cunningly and meticulously dressed for an Englishwoman. There was something of French unity, intention, finish, in her toilet; there was line in it, the direct, crisp line, that only foreign women seem anxious to achieve.
And he said, "I rather hope it is Madame Torrebianca—since one has got to know her. She looks as if she might have a spice of something in her not utterly banale."
If that was n't saying a great deal, he reflected, one seldom enough, in our staid, our stale society, meets a person of whom one can say so much;—and again dismissed her.
But still again, presently, back she came; and then again and again, in spite of him. And her comings now were preceded by a strange little perturbation. A strange little vague feeling of pleasantness, as if something good had happened to him would begin, and well up, and grow within him, penetrating and intensifying his sense of the summer sweetness round about, till it distracted his attention, and he must suspend his occupation of the moment, to wonder, "What is it?" In response, the vague pleasantness, like a cloud, would draw together and take shape; and there was the spirited grey figure in the dog-cart, with the black hat, and the dark hair and eyes, again dashing past him.
And little by little he discovered that she was more than merely pretty and interesting-looking. Her face, with all its piquancy, was a serious face, a strenuous face. Under its humour and vivacity, he discovered a glow . . . a glow . . . could it be the glow of a soul? Her eyes were lustrous, but they were deep, as well. A quality shone in them rarer even than character: a natural quality, indeed, and one that should naturally be common: but one that is rare in England among women—among nice women, at least: the quality of sex. The woman in the dog-cart was nice. About that, he recognised with instant certainty, there could be no two conjectures. But she was also, he recognised with equal certainty, a woman: the opposite, the complement of man. Her eyes were eyes you could imagine laughing at you, mocking you, teasing you, leading you on, putting you off, seeing through you, disdaining you; but constant in them was the miracle of womanhood; and you could imagine them softening adorably, filling with heavenly weakness, yielding in womanly surrender, trusting you, calling you, needing you.
Our melancholic young squire of Craford was not a man much given to quick-born enthusiasms; but now, as he put down his pen, and her face shone before him for the twentieth time this sunny afternoon, now all at once, "By Jove, she's unique," he cried out. "I have never seen a woman to touch her. If she is Madame Torrebianca——"
But there he checked himself.
"Of course she is n't. No such luck," he said, in dejection.
And yet, he speculated, who else could she be? The simultaneous presence of two young foreign women in this out-of-the-way country neighbourhood seemed, of all contingencies, the most unlikely. Well, if she really was . . .
He was conscious suddenly of a sensation to the last degree unfamiliar: a commotion, piercing, regretful, desirous, actually in his heart, an organ he had for years proudly fancied immune; and he took alarm.
"Am I eighteen again? Positively, I must not think of her any more."
But it was useless. In two minutes he was thinking of her harder than ever, and the commotion in his heart was renewed.
"If she really is Madame Torrebianca," he told himself, with a thrill and a craving, "I shall see her on Sunday."
The flowers, beyond there, in the sun, the droning of the bees, the liquid bird-notes, the perfumes in the still soft air, all seemed to melt and become part of his thought of her, rendering it more poignant, more insidiously sweet.
At last he started up, in a kind of anger.
"Bah!" he cried, "It's the weather. It's this imbecile, love-sick weather."
And he carried his writing-materials indoors, to the billiard-room, a northern room, looking into the big square court, where the light was colourless, and the only perfume on the air was a ghost-like perfume of last night's tobacco-smoke.
But I don't know that the change did much good. In a few minutes—
"Bah!" he cried again, "It's those confounded eyes of hers. It's those laughing, searching, haunting, promising eyes."
"Bid me discourse, I will enchant thine ear."
It was the voice of Adrian, raised in song. And repeating the same complaisant proffer, to a tune which I suspect was improvised, it drew near along the outer passage, till, in due process, the door of the billiard-room was opened, and Adrian stood upon the threshold.
"Bid me discourse, I will enchant thine e-e-ear," he trolled robustly—and then, espying Anthony, fell silent.
Anthony appeared to be deep engrossed in letter-writing.
"Ahem," said Adrian, having waited a little.
But Anthony did not look up.
"Well, of all unlikely places," said Adrian, wondering.
Anthony's pen flew busily backwards and forwards across his paper.
"Remarkable power of mental concentration," said Adrian, on a key of philosophic comment.
"Eh? What?" Anthony at last questioned, but absently, from the depths, without raising his eyes.
"I 've been hunting far and wide for you—ransacking the house, turning the park topsy-turvy," said Adrian.
"Eh? What?" questioned Anthony, writing on.
But Adrian lost patience.
"Eh? What? I 'll eh-what you," he threatened, shaking his fist. "Come. Put aside that tiresome letter. 'Do you happen to know where your master is?' says I to Wickersmith. 'Well, if you 'll pardon my saying so, sir, I think I see him agoing in the direction of the billiard-room, saving your presence, sir,' says Wickersmith to me." Adrian pantomimed the supposed deference of the butler. Then, loftily, "But, 'Shoo' says I. 'An optical delusion, my excellent Wick. A Christian man would be incapable of such a villainy. The billiard-room, that darksome cavern, on a heaven-sent day like this? Shucks,' says I. Yet"—his attitude became exhortative—"see how mighty is truth, see how she prevails, see how the scoffer is confounded. To the billiard-room I transport myself, sceptically, on the off-chance, and—here, good-lack, you are."
"It's the weather," Anthony explained, having finally relinquished his correspondence. "I was in the garden—but I could n't stand the weather."
"The weather?" wondered Adrian. "You could n't stand the weather? My poor lamb. Ah, what a delicate constitution. He could n't stand the weather." Eyes uplifted, he wagged a compassionate head.
But suddenly, from the sarcastic note, he passed to the censorious, and then to a kind of gay rhapsodic.
"The weather? Shame upon your insinuations. I will not hear one syllable against it. The weather? There never was such weather. The weather? Oh, for the tongues of men and angels, to chant the glory of the weather. The weather is made of sugar and spice, of frankincense and myrrh, of milk and honey, of every conceivable ingredient that's nice. The sky is an inverted bowl of Sevres—that priceless bleu-royal; and there are appetising little clouds of whipped cream sticking to it. The air is full of gold, like eau-de-vie de Dantzic;—if we only had a liquefying apparatus, we could recapture the first fine careless nectar of the gods, the poor dead gods of Greece. The earth is as aromatic as an orange stuck with cloves; I can't begin to tell you all the wondrous woody, mossy, racy things it smells of. The sea is a great sheet of watered-silk, as blue as my blue eyes. And the birds, the robins and the throstles, the blackbirds and the black-caps, the linnets and the little Jenny Wrens, knowing the value of silence, are hoarding it like misers; but like prodigals, they 're squandering sound. The ear of mortal never heard such a delirious, delicious, such a crystalline, argentine, ivory-smooth, velvety-soft, such a ravishing, such an enravished tumult of sweet voices. Showers, cascades, of pearls and rubies, emeralds, diamonds, sapphires. The weather, says Anthony Rowleigh. He could n't stand the weather. The weather is as perfect as a perfect work of art—as perfect as one of my own incomparable madrigals. It is absolutely perfect."
He tossed his head, in sign of finality.
"It appears so," Anthony discriminated gloomily; "but appearances are risky things to judge by. It may have charms for a voluptuary like you; but I"—and he took a tone of high austerity—"I, as an Englishman, have my suspicions of anything so flagrantly un-English."
"Apropos of things un-English," said Adrian, "I 'm pining for a serious word with you."
Anthony pulled a wry face.
"Oh, if you 've been attacked by one of your periodic spasms of seriousness," he sighed.
"It's about calling on Madame Torrebianca," said Adrian.
"Oh," sighed Anthony. With a presence of mind that I can't help thinking rather remarkable, he feigned a continuity of mood; but something went ping within him.
"Look here," said Adrian, imperatively. "I 'll thank you to drop that air of ineffable fatigue of yours, and to sit up and listen. I don't suppose you wish to be deliberately discourteous, do you? And as those ladies happen to be new-comers, and your immediate neighbours, not to say your tenants, I expect you are sufficiently acquainted with the usages of polite society to know that a failure on your part to call would be tantamount to a direct affront. Furthermore, as one of them (Miss Sandus is, unhappily, still in the Goetterdaemmerung of the Establishment), as Madame Torrebianca is coming to your house, as your guest, to hear Mass on Sunday morning, I sincerely hope I need n't tell you that it's simply de rigueur that you should call before that occasion."
He stood off, and raised his brown-red eyebrows, as who, from an altitude, speaking de par le Roi, should challenge contumacy.
But two could play at the game of eyebrow-raising. Anthony raised his.
"Coming as my guest? Coming as my guest? I like that," he exclaimed. "What have I to do with her coming? If every stranger to whom you choose to extend the privilege of hearing Mass in the Chapel, is thereby to be constituted a guest,—my guest,—I shall have my hands full indeed. If she's a guest at all, if she's anybody's guest, she's yours; You 've created the situation. Don't try to thrust the brunt of it on me."
Adrian flung back his head, and spoke from a still loftier altitude.
"I believe you are the master of the house?"
"The titular master," Anthony distinguished. "I years ago resigned all real power into the pink and chubby hands of my mayor of the palace." And he slightly bowed.
"I disdain to answer your silly quibble over the word guest," Adrian continued, ignoring the rejoinder. "La Nobil Donna Susanna Torrebianca is a guest. And as master of the house, by your return, you ex officio supersede me in the capacity of host."
"Ex officio?" repeated Anthony, considering. "The fashion of adorning ordinary speech with classical quotations has long since passed from use."
"And therefore,"—Adrian brought his theorem to its conclusion,—"unless you particularly aspire to seem—and to be—an absolute barbarian, a bear, a boor, a churl, and a curmudgeon,"—each epithet received an augmented stress,—"you must call at Craford New Manor with the least possible delay. As I find myself in rather good form just now, and feel that I should shine to perhaps exceptional advantage, I suggest that we call forthwith."
Anthony got up, and sleepily stretched his arms.
"Ah, well," he consented; "since your fond heart is set upon it—there. It will be an awful fag; but when Dimplechin becomes importunate, I can deny him nothing."
He stifled a yawn.
Adrian's round face radiated triumph.
"You are a good child, after all," he said, "and you shall have jam with your tea."
"I think I have fooled that fellow to the top of his bent," was Anthony's silent self-gratulation.
His pulse beat high, as they walked across the park.
"How could I ever have contemplated waiting till Sunday?" he asked himself, in a maze.
Sunday, the day after the day after to-morrow, seemed, in his present eagerness, to belong to the dim distances of futurity.
And all the way, as they passed under the great trees, over the cool, close turf, with its powdering of daisies and buttercups and poppies, through alternations of warm sun and deep shadow, where sheep browsed, and little snow-white awkward lambkins sported, and birds piped, and the air was magical with the scent of the blossoming may,—all the way, amid the bright and dark green vistas of lawn and glade, the summer loveliness mixed with his anticipation of standing face to face with her, and rendered it more poignant.
"If cats were always kittens, And rats were always mice, And elderberries were younger berries, Now would n't that be nice?"—
Adrian, walking beside him, trilled joyously.
"You seem in high spirits," Anthony remarked.
"I 've been thinking of your suggestion," said Adrian.
Anthony frowned, at a loss.
"Yes—your suggestion that I should marry her."
"What?" he ejaculated.
"Yes," said Adrian, blandly. "I think the suggestion is decidedly a happy one. I think I shall pay my court to her."
"You? Man, you 're bereft of your senses," said Anthony, with force.
"You need n't be so violent," said Adrian. "It's your own idea."
"I was making game of you—I was pulling your leg. Marry her? She would n't look at you," said Anthony, contumelious.
"Why not, I should like to know?" Adrian haughtily enquired.
"You 're—you 're too young," Anthony reminded him.
"Too young?" mildly demurred Adrian, wide-eyed. "I 'm thirty, if I 'm a day."
"You 're thirty-nine, if you 're a day," said Anthony. "But you 'll never be thirty—not even when you 're forty. You breathe perennial spring."
"I confess," said Adrian, with deliberation, "I freely confess that I am not an effete and blase old thing, like—like one who shall be nameless. There is a variety of fruit (the husbandman's despair), a tough, cross-grained, sour-hearted variety of fruit, that dries up and shrivels, and never ripens. There is another variety of fruit that grows rounder and rosier, tenderer and juicier and sweeter, the longer it hangs on the tree. Time cannot wither it. The child of the sun and the zephyr, it is honey-full and fragrant even unto its inmost ripe red core."
He expanded his chest, and significantly thumped it.
"Mark you," he resumed, "I name no names. The soul of delicacy and discretion, as of modesty and kindness, I name no names. But as for myself, that I am young I acknowledge. Those whom the gods love are ever young. Yet I am old enough, at least, to be capable of fresh, impulsive feelings. I am old enough to have cast the crude, harsh pessimism of inexperience. I am old enough to have outlived my disillusions. I am old enough to have learned that the good things of life are good, and to understand that the rose-buds in the garden are there to be gathered. And I 'm not such a silly as to forbear to gather them. I think I shall make Madame Torrebianca the object of my respectful solicitations."
Anthony fixed eyes of derision on him.
"Oh, the fatuity of the man!" he jeered. "If you could see yourself. You 're sandy-haired—and miles too fat."
"I beg your pardon," said Adrian, with dignity. "My hair is of a very fashionable shade—tawny, which indicates a passionate heart, with under-waves of gold, as if the sunshine had got entangled in it. I will not dwell upon its pretty truant tendency to curl. And as for what you call fat—let me tell you that there are people who admire a rich, ample figure in a man. I admit, I am not a mere anatomy, I am not a mere hungry, lean-faced, lantern-jawed, hollow-eyed, sallow-cheeked, vulture-beaked, over-dressed exiguity, like—well, mark you, I name no names. I need not allude to my other and higher attributes—my wit, my sympathy, my charming affectations, my underlying strength of character (a lion clothed in rose-leaves—what?), my genius for the divinest of the arts. I think I shall lay myself at the feet of Donna Susanna. The rest of the sex"—his gesture put them from him—"may coif St. Catherine."
"I have n't the honour of knowing the lady in question," said Anthony, with detachment. "But if she is anything like the paragon you have led me to expect, let me, as your sincere well-wisher, let me warn you not to cherish hopes that are foredoomed to disappointment. If, on the other hand, she should indeed admire your style of rich, ample figure, I shall deem it my duty to save you from her—at no matter what cost to myself. I cannot allow you to link yourself for life to a woman without taste."
And then they rang the bell at the vast, much-bestuccoed portal of the new house; and Anthony's heart, I think, for the minute stood still within him. The door was opened, and he could look into the big, ugly, familiar marble hall;—familiar still, and yet changed and strange, and even beautified; with new soft hangings, and Persian carpets, and flowers, and books, and bibelots about; with a new aspect of luxury and elegance; with a strange new atmosphere of feminine habitation, that went a little to Anthony's head, that called up clearer than ever the dark-haired, strenuous-faced woman of the dog-cart, and turned his imagination to visions and divinings of intimate feminine things. One thought of chiffons, and faint, elusive perfumes, and the gleam and rustle of silken garments; one heard soft voices, trills of feminine laughter, the whispering of feminine secrets; one saw ladies in low chairs, reading or embroidering by lamp-light.
So, for an instant, Anthony stood at Susanna's threshold, looking into her antechamber, breathless almost with his sense of her imminence;—and then the tall flunkey said, in the fastidious accents of flunkeydom, "Net et em, sir;" and all my hero's high-strung emotion must spend itself in the depositing of a card.
As they turned away, and the summer landscape again met him with its warm breath and radiant smile, he gloomed at it savagely, from eyes of deep rebuke, as at a thing that had beguiled him with false promises, wronged and defrauded him. And he flew out petulantly at poor Adrian—
"Here's a pretty dance you 've led me, for the pleasure of a word with Mr. Yellowplush."
"Oh?" said Adrian, taken aback. "I expected you 'd be relieved. You did n't want to see them. And the exigencies of the case are satisfied by leaving cards."
"I could have sent my card by you," growled Anthony.
"You 've had a lovely walk, with a lovely comrade, in lovely weather," said Adrian.
"The weather is simply brazen," Anthony declared.
Judged by the standards of a cit, countrymen, I believe, are generally early risers; but even for a countryman, Anthony, next morning, rose at an unlikely hour. The tall clock in the hall, accenting with its slow sardonic tick the silence of the sleeping house, marked a quarter to five, as he undid the heavy old-fashioned fastenings of the door, the oaken bar, the iron bolts and chains, and let himself out.
He let himself out; but then he stood still for a minute on the terrace, arrested by the exquisite shock of the wonderful early air: the wonderful light, keen air, a fabric woven of elfin filaments, the breathings of green lives: an aether distilled of secret essences, in the night, by the earth and the sea,—for there was the sea's tang, as well as the earth's balm, there was the bitter-sweet of the sea and the earth at one.
He stood for a minute, stopped by the exquisite shock of it; and then he set forth for an aimless morning ramble.
The dew clung in big iridescent crystals to the grass, where the sheep were already wide-awake and eager at their breakfasts; it gleamed like sprinkled rubies on the scarlet petals of the poppies, and like fairies' draughts of yellow wine in the enamelled hollows of the buttercups; on the brown earth of the pathways, where the long shadows were purple, it lay white like hoar-frost. The shadows were still long, the sunbeams still almost level; the sun shone gently, as through an imperceptible thin veil, gilding with pinkish gold the surfaces it touched—glossy leaves, and the rough bark of tree-trunks, and the points of the spears of grass. A thicker veil, a gauze of pearl and silver, dimmed the blue of the sea, and blurred the architecture of the cliffs. On the sea's edge lay a long grey cloud, a long, low, soft cloud, flat, like a band of soft grey velvet. The cloud was grey indeed; but (as if prismatic fires were smouldering there) its grey held in solution all the colours of the spectrum, so that you could discern elusive rose-tints, fugitive greens, translucent reflections of amethyst and amber.
The morning was inexpressibly calm and peaceful—yet it was busy with sound and with movement. Rooks, those sanctimonious humbugs, circled overhead, cawing thieves' warnings, that had the twang of sermons, to other rooks, out of sight in neighbouring seed-fields. Lapwings, humbugs too, but humbugs in a prettier cause, started from the shrubberies where their eggs were hidden, and fluttered lamely towards the open. Sparrows innumerable were holding their noisy, high-spirited disputations; blackbirds were repeating and repeating that deep melodious love-call of theirs, which they have repeated from the beginning of the world, and no ear has ever tired of; finches were singing, greenfinches, chaffinches; thrushes were singing, singing ecstatically in the tree-tops, and lower down the imitative little blackcaps were trying to imitate them. Recurrently, from a distance, came the soft iterations of a cuckoo. Bees went about their affairs with a mien of sombre resolution, mumbling to themselves, in stolid monotone, "It-'s-got-to-be-done-and-it-'s-dogged-that-does-it, it-'s-got-to-be-done-and-it-'s-dogged-that-does-it," and showing thus that even the beautiful task of flying from flower to flower and gathering honey, may, if you are a bee, fail to interest you, and necessitate an act of will; while butterflies, charmed by the continual surprises, satisfied by the immediate joys, of the present moment, flitted irresponsibly, capriciously, whithersoever a bright colour beckoned, and gave no thought to the moments that had not yet come. Everywhere there was business, rumour, action; but everywhere, none the less, there was the ineffable peace of early morning, of the hours when man—the peace-destroyer?—is still at rest. And everywhere, everywhere, there was the wonderful pristine air, the virginal air, that seemed to penetrate beyond the senses, and to reach the imagination, a voice whispering untranslatable messages, waking mystic surmises of things unknown but somehow kindred.
Anthony strolled on at random, down the purple-shaded paths, under the spreading oaks and bending elms, over the sun-tipped greensward, satisfied, like the butterflies, by the experiences of the passing moment, enjoying, in leisurely intimacy, the aspects and vicissitudes of his way; for a melancholy man, curiously cheerful; the tears of things, the flat and unprofitable uses of the world, forgotten: for a melancholy man, even curiously elated: elated—oh, more than likely without recognising it—as one is to whom the house of life has discovered a new chamber-door, and, therewith, new promises of adventure. He strolled on at random, swinging his stick nonchalantly, . . . till, all at once, he saw something that brought him, and the heart within him, to a simultaneous standstill: something he had been more or less sub-consciously thinking of the whole time, perhaps?—for it brought him to a standstill, as if he saw his thought made flesh.
He had just mounted a little knoll, and now, glancing down before him, he saw, not twenty yards away, under a hawthorn in full blossom,—
"Madame Torrebianca, as I am alive," he gasped.
Susanna was standing under the tree, gazing intently upwards; and she was vehemently shaking her fist at its foliage, and making, from the point of her lips, a sound, sibilant, explosive (something like "Ts-s-s! Ts-s-s-s! Ts-s-s-s-s!"), that was clearly meant as an intimidation. She had on a dark-blue frock, blue flannel I think, plain to the verge of severity: a straight-falling jacket, a straight, loose skirt: plain, but appropriate to the hour no doubt; and, instead of a hat, she wore a scarf of black lace, draped over her black hair mantilla-wise.
Anthony, glowing with a sense that he was in great luck, and trying to think what practical step he should take to profit by it, watched her for a minute before she caught sight of him. An obvious practical step, she having evidently some trouble on her hands, might have been to approach her with an offer of assistance. But if all who love are poets, men near to love will be poets budding; and who was it said that the obvious is the one thing a poet is incapable of seeing?
When, however, she did catch sight of him, abruptly, without hesitation, she called him to her.
"Come here—come here at once," she called, and made an imperious gesture. (I wonder whether she realised who he was, or thought no further as yet, in her emergency, than just that here, providentially, was a man who could help.)
Marvelling, palpitating, Anthony flew to obey.
"Look," said Susanna, breathlessly, pointing into the tree. "What is one to do? He won't pay the slightest attention to me, and I have nothing that I can throw."
She had, in her left hand, a small leather-bound book, apparently a prayer-book, and, twisted round her wrist, a red-coral rosary; but I suppose she would not have liked to throw either of these.
Bewildered a little by the suddenness with which the situation had come to pass, but conscious, acutely, exultantly conscious of it as a delectable situation,—exultantly conscious of her nearness to him, of their solitude together, there in the privacy (as it were) of the morning,—and tingling to the vibrations of her voice, to the freshness and the warmth of her strong young beauty, Anthony was still able, vaguely, half-mechanically, to lift his eyes, and look in the direction whither she pointed. . .
The spectacle that met him banished immediately, for the moment, all preoccupations personal.
On one of the lower of the flowering branches, but high enough to be beyond arm's reach, or even cane's reach, in the crook of the bough, crouched, making ready to spring, a big black cat, the tip of his tail twitching with contained excitement, his yellow eyes fixed murderously on the branch next above: where, in the agitation of supreme distress, a chaffinch, a little grey hen-chaffinch, was hopping backwards and forwards, sometimes rising a few inches into the air, but always returning to the branch, and uttering a succession of terrified, agonised, despairing tweets.
It was a hateful thing to see. It was the genius of cruelty made manifest in a single intense tableau.
"Why does n't the bird fly away?" Susanna painfully questioned. She was pale, and her lips were strained; she looked sick and hopeless. "Is she fascinated? The cat will surely get her."
"No—her nest must be somewhere there—she is guarding her nestlings," said Anthony.
Then he raised his stick menacingly, and, in tones of stern command, addressed the cat.
"Patapouf! I am ashamed of you. Come down—come down from there—come down directly."
And he emphasised each staccato summons by a sharp rap of his stick against the highest point of the tree that he could reach.
The cat turned his head, to look—and the spell was broken. His attitude relaxed. Anthony put his hands on the tree, and made as if to climb it. The cat gave a resigned shrug of the shoulders, and came scrambling down. Next instant, (if you please), unabashed, tail erect, back arched, he was rubbing his whiskers against Anthony's legs, circling round them, s-shaping himself between them, and purring conciliations, as who should say, "There, there. Though you have spoiled sport, I won't quarrel with you, and I am delighted to see you." The bird, twittering, flew up, and disappeared in the higher foliage.
Susanna breathed a deep sigh of relief.
"Oh, thank you, thank you," she said, with fervour. Then she shook her finger, and frowned, at Patapouf. "Oh, you bad cat! You cruel cat!" And raising eyes dark with reproach to Anthony's, "Yet he seems to be a friend of yours?" she wondered. (By this time, of course, she must have realised who he was. Very likely she had her emotions.)
Anthony, the bird in safety, could tingle anew to the deep notes of her voice, could exult anew in their dual solitude.
"Yes," he acknowledged, "Patapouf is a friend of mine—he is even a member of my household. You must try not to think too ill of him. He really is n't half a bad sort at bottom. But he 's English, and he lives in the country. So, a true English country gentleman, he has perhaps an exaggerated passion for the pleasures of the chase—and when questions touching them arise, seems simply to be devoid of the ethical sense. He 's not a whit worse than his human neighbours—and he 's a hundred times handsomer and more intelligent."
Susanna, smiling a little, looked down at Patapouf, and considered.
"He is certainly very handsome," she agreed. "And—Patapouf? I like his name. I will not think too ill of him if he will promise never again to try to catch a—a fringuello. I don't remember the English for fringuello?"
Her glance and her inflection conveyed a request to be reminded.
But Anthony shook his head.
"And I shall at once proceed to forget it. Fringuello is so much prettier."
Susanna gave a light little trill of laughter.
"What a delicious laugh," thought he that heard it.
And, laughing, "But before it has quite gone from you, do, pray, for my instruction, just pronounce it once," she pleaded.
"How extraordinarily becoming to her that mantilla is," he thought. "How it sets off her hair and her complexion—how it brings out the sparkle of her eyes."
Her fine black hair, curling softly about her brow, and rippling away, under the soft black lace, in loose abundance; her warm, clear complexion; the texture of her skin, firm and smooth, with tiny blue veins faintly showing at the temples; her sparkling, spirited dark eyes, their merriment, their alertness, their graver underglow; the spirited, high carriage of her head; that dark-blue, simple, appropriate frock; and then her figure, upright, nervous, energetic, with its fluent lines, with its fragrance of youth and of womanhood,—oh, he was acutely conscious of them, he was thrilled by his deep sense of their nearness to him, alone there, in the wide sunny circle of green landscape, in the seclusion of that unfrequented hour.
"The word comes back to me dimly," he said, "as—as something like finch."
"Finch?" said Susanna. "Thank you very much. Ah, yes,"—with an air of recalling it,—"finch, to be sure. You are right," she smiled, "fringuello is prettier."
"What an adorable mouth," thought he. "The red of it—the curves it takes—and those incredible little white teeth, like snow shut in a rose."
"And this is a morning meet for pretty words, is it not?" he suggested. "It might strike an unprejudiced observer as rather a pretty morning."
"Oh, I should be less reticent," said Susanna. "If the unprejudiced observer had his eyes open, would n't it strike him as a perfectly lovely morning?"
"We must not run the risk of spoiling it," Anthony cautioned her, diminishing his voice, "by praising it too warmly to its face."
She gave another light trill of laughter.
"Her laugh is like rainbow-tinted spray. It is a fountain-jet of musical notes, each note a cut gem," thought the infatuated fellow.
"I trust," he hazarded, "that you will not condemn me for a swaggerer, if I lay claim to share with you a singularity. The morning is a morning like another. God is prodigal of lovely mornings. But we two are singular in choosing to begin it at its sweeter end."
"Yes," Susanna assented, "that is a singularity—in England. But in Italy, or in the part of Italy where my habits were formed, it is one of our lazy customs. We like always to be abroad in time to enjoy what we call 'the hours immaculate,'—l'ure immacolae, in our dialect."
"The hours immaculate? It is an uncommonly fine description," approved Anthony. "They will be a race of poets in your part of Italy?"
The graver underglow in Susanna's eyes eclipsed, for an instant, their dancing surface lights.
"They were a race of poets," she said regretfully, "before they learned how to read and write. But now, with the introduction of popular education,"—she shook her head,—"the poetry is dying out."
"Ah," said Anthony, with a meaning flourish of his stick, "there it is. The poetic spirit always dies at the advance of that ghastly fetich." Then he spoke sententiously. "Popular education is a contrivance of the devil, whereby he looks to extinguish every last saving grace from the life of the populace. Not poetry only, but all good things and all good feelings,—religion, reverence, courtesy,—sane contentment, rational ambition,—the right sort of humility, the right sort of pride,—they all go down before it: whilst, in the ignorance which it disseminates, blasphemy, covetousness, bumptiousness, bad taste (and bad art and bad literature, to gratify it), every form of wrong-headedness and wrong-heartedness flourish like the seven plagues of Egypt. But it was all inevitable from the day that meddling German busybody invented printing—if not from the day his heathenish precursor invented letters."
He delivered these sentiments with a good deal of warmth.
Susanna's eyes brightened. I am not sure there was n't a quick little flash of raillery in their brightness.
"I would seem," she mused, "to have touched by accident upon a subject that is near your heart."
Anthony threw up a deploring hand.
"There!" he grieved. "The subjects that are near my heart, it is the study of my life to exclude from my conversation. But sometimes one forgets oneself."
Susanna smiled,—a smile, perhaps, that implied a tacit memorandum and reflection, a subdued, withheld, occult little smile. Again, I am not sure it had n't its tinge of raillery.
"And since I have forgotten myself," Anthony pursued, "I wonder whether you will bear with me if I continue to do so twenty seconds longer?"
"Oh, I beg of you," Susanna politely hastened to accede.
"There is another subject equally near my heart," said he.
Her eyes were full of expectancy.
"Yes—?" she encouraged him.
"I was disappointed not to find you at home when I called yesterday," said he. "I rejoice for a hundred reasons that chance has led to our meeting this morning. Not to mention ninety-nine of them, I am anxious to discharge, with as little loss of time as may be, the very onerous debt I owe you."
Susanna opened her eyes, in puzzlement.
"A debt? I am your creditor unawares."
"My debt of apologies and condolences," he explained.
She knitted her brows, in mental effort.
"I am ignorant alike of my grievance and of your offence," she said.
"I am deeply sensible of your magnanimity," said he; "but I will not abuse it. They have let you the ugliest house in the United Kingdom; and, as the owner, the ultimate responsibility must come home to me."
"Oh," cried Susanna.
It was a gay, treble little cry, that told him he had been fortunate enough to amuse as well as to surprise her. She shook her head, while her eyes were liquid with mirth.
"The house is ugly?" she enquired. "I have read of it as 'a vast and imposing edifice in the style of the Renaissance.'"
"As a confessor of the True Faith," Anthony warned her, "you must never believe what you read in the County History. It was compiled by a Protestant clergyman; it teems with misinformation; it ought to be placed upon the Index. The house in question is a vast and pompous contiguity of stucco, in the style of 1830. It looks like a Riviera hotel a good deal run to seed. It looks like a shabby relation of Buckingham Palace. It looks like a barrack decorated with the discoloured trimmings of a bride-cake."
"Ah, well, be it so," consented Susanna. "The house is ugly—but it is comfortable. And, in any case, your conscience is too sensitive. The ultimate responsibility for my having taken it comes home to no one, unless—well, to be strictly just, unless to a grandfather of mine, who has been dead these many long years."
Which pronouncement may very possibly have struck her listener as enigmatic. But I daresay he felt that he scarcely knew her well enough to press for an elucidation. And, anyhow, without pause, she went on—
"Besides, everything else—the park, the country—is beyond words beautiful."
"Yes," acquiesced Anthony, "the country is beautiful, at this season. That's why everyone abandons it, and scuttles up to town."
Susanna's face lighted, with interest.
"Indeed? Is that the reason? I had observed the fact, but I was at a loss to think what the reason for it could be."
"No," said Anthony, eating his words, "that is not the reason. It were base to deceive you. A normally-constituted Englishman no more objects to beauty, than a deep-sea fish objects to dry weather or the income-tax. He abandons the country during the three pleasantest months of the year, not because it is beautiful, for he is sublimely unconscious that it's beautiful, but because, during those months, in the country, there's nothing that he can course, hunt, or shoot."
"I see," she said. "And is—is there anything that he can course, hunt, or shoot in town?"
"Not exactly," Anthony admitted. "But there are people—to whom he can do the next best thing. There are people whom he can bore. It is an interim sport. It is an annual national tournament. The good knights flock together from the four corners of England, to tilt at one another, and try who shall approve himself the most indefatigable, the most indomitable bore."
Susanna gazed dreamily at the distance for a moment. Then, with sudden actuality, "Apropos of interim sports," she demanded, "what are you going to do about that cat of yours?" A movement of her head indicated Patapouf.
Hovering near them, Patapouf was busy with a game of make-believe—pretending that the longish grass was a jungle, and himself a tiger, stalking I know not what visionary prey: now gingerly, with slow calculated liftings and down-puttings of his feet, stealing a silent march; now, flat on his belly, rapidly creeping forward; now halting, recoiling, masking himself behind some inequality of the ground, peering warily over it, while his tail swayed responsive to the eager activity of his brain; and now, having computed the range to a nicety, his haunches wagging, now, with a leap all grace and ruthlessness,—a flash of blackness through the air,—springing upon the creature of his fancy.
Susanna and Anthony watched him for a little without speaking.
"You can't deny that he has imagination," said Anthony, at length, turning towards her.
"He is beautiful and clever," said Susanna, "I could wish he were as virtuous. This, of course, is sheer play-acting. He 's simply waiting till our backs are turned, to renew his designs upon the bird's nest."
"When I turn my back I 'll carry him with me," Anthony answered. But in his soul he said: "What 's the good of telling her that that will only be to defer the evil moment? Of course he has marked the tree. He will come back to it at his leisure."
"I beg your pardon," said Susanna. "That will merely be to put the evil off. The cat certainly knows the tree. Directly he 's at liberty, he will come back."
"Oh—?" faltered Anthony, a trifle disconcerted. "Oh? Do—do you think so?"
"Yes," she said. "There 's not a doubt of it. But I am acquainted with a discipline, which, if I have your sanction to apply it, will unnerve Monsieur Patapouf, so far as this particular tree is concerned, until the end of time. Cats have a very high sense of their personal freedom—they hate to be tied up. Well, if we tie Monsieur Patapouf to this tree, so that he can't get away, and leave him alone here for an hour or two, he will conceive such a distaste for everything connected with this tree that he will never voluntarily come within speaking distance of it again."
"Really? That seems very ingenious," commented Anthony.
"'T is an old wives' remedy," said Susanna. "You don't happen to have such a thing as a piece of string in your pocket? It does n't matter. But you have a penknife? Thank you. Now please catch your cat."
Anthony called Patapouf, exerting those blandishments one must exert who would coax a hesitating cat.
Patapouf, by a series of etapes and delours, approached, and was secured.
Susanna, meanwhile, having laid her rosary and prayer-book on the grass, unbuttoned her blue flannel jacket, and removed from round her waist, where it was doing duty as a belt, a broad band of cherry-coloured ribbon. This, with Anthony's penknife, she slitted and ripped several times lengthwise, till she had obtained a yard or two of practicable tether.
"Now, first, we must make him a collar," she said, measuring off what she deemed ribbon sufficient for that purpose.
Anthony held Patapouf, who, flattered by their attentions, and unsuspicious of their ulterior aim, submitted quietly, while Susanna adjusted the collar to his neck. They had to stand rather close together during this process; I am not sure that sometimes their fingers did n't touch. From Susanna's garments—from her hair?—rose never so faint a perfume, like the perfume of violets. I am quite sure that Anthony's heart was in a commotion.
"There," she remarked, finishing the collar with a bow, and bestowing upon the bow a little tap of approbation; "red and black—it's very becoming to him, is n't it?"
Then she tied Patapouf to the tree, leaving him, in charity, perhaps twice his own length of tether free, and resumed possession of her book and beads.
An instant later, she had slightly inclined her head, smiled a good-bye into Anthony's eyes, and was moving briskly away, in the direction of Craford New Manor.
Adrian, pink with the livelier pink of Adrian freshly tubbed and razored, and shedding a cheerful aroma of bay-rum, regarded Anthony, across the bowlful of roses that occupied the centre of the breakfast table, with a show of perplexity.
In the end, thrusting forward his chin, and dropping his eyelids, whereby his expression became remote and superior, "The state of mind of a person like you," he announced, "is a thing I am totally unable to conceive."
And he plunged his spoon into his first egg.
"It is inexplicable, it is downright uncanny," Anthony was thinking, as he munched his toast, "the effect she produces upon a man; the way she pursues one, persists with one. I see her, I hear her voice, her laughter, as clearly as if she were still present. I can't get rid of her, I can't shut her out."
Adrian, his announcement provoking no response, spoke up.
"I am utterly unable," he repeated, "to conceive the state of mind of a person like you."
"Of course you are," said Anthony, with affability.
"I suppose," he thought, "it's because she is what they call a pronounced personality,—though that does n't seem a very flattering description. I suppose it's her odylic force."
Adrian selected a second egg, and placed it in his egg-cup.
"You live, you move, you have a sort of being," he said, as he operated upon the egg-shell; "and, apparently, you live contented. Yet, be apprised by me, you live in the manner of the beasts that perish. For the whole excuse, warrant, purpose, and business of life, you treat as alien to your equation."
"The business of life I entrust to my eminently competent man of business," said Anthony, with a bow.
"She 's so magnificently vivid," he thought. "That white skin of hers, and the red lips, and the white teeth; that cloud of black hair, and the sweep of it as it leaves her brow; and then those luminous, lucid, glowing, glowing eyes—that last smile of them, before she went away! She gives one such a sense of intense vitality, of withheld power, of unknown possibilities."
Adrian, with some expenditure of pains, extracted the spine from a grilled sardine.
"These children of the inconstant wave," he mused, "these captives from the inscrutable depths of ocean—the cook ought to bone them before she sends them to table, ought n't she? Labor et amor. The warrant for life is labour, and the business of life is love."
"You should address your complaints to the cook in person," said Anthony.
"That's it—unknown possibilities," he thought. "She 's vivid, but she is n't obvious. It's a vividness that is all reserves—that hints, but does n't tell. It's the vividness of the South, of the Italy that produced her,—'Italy, whose work still serves the world for miracle.' She's vivid, but not in primary colours. I defy you, for example, to find the word for her—the word that would make her visible to one who had never seen her."