THE MORALS OF MARCUS ORDEYNE
by William J. Locke
For reasons which will be given later, I sit down here, in Verona, to write the history of my extravagant adventure. I shall formulate and expand the rough notes in my diary which lies open before me, and I shall begin with a happy afternoon in May, six months ago.
London:—To-day is the seventh anniversary of my release from captivity. I will note it every year in my diary with a sigh of unutterable thanksgiving. For seven long blessed years have I been free from the degrading influences of Jones Minor and the First Book of Euclid. Some men find the modern English boy stimulating, and the old Egyptian humorous. Such are the born schoolmasters, and schoolmasters, like poets, nascuntur non fiunt. What I was born passes my ingenuity to fathom. Certainly not a schoolmaster—and my many years of apprenticeship did not make me one. They only turned me into an automaton, feared by myself, bantered by my colleagues, and sometimes good-humouredly tolerated by the boys.
Seven years ago the lawyer's letter came. The post used to arrive just before first school. I opened the letter in the class-room and sat down at my desk, sick with horror. The awful wholesale destruction of my relatives paralysed me. My form must have seen by my ghastly face that something had happened, for, contrary to their usual practice, they sat, thirty of them, in stony silence, waiting for me to begin the lesson. As far as I remember anything, they waited the whole hour. The lesson over, I passed along the cloister on my way to my rooms. I overheard one of my urchins, clattering in front of me, shout to another:
"I'm sure he's got the sack!"
Turning round he perceived me, and grew as red as a turkey-cock. I laughed aloud. The boy's yell was a clarion announcement from the seventh heaven. I had got the sack! I should never teach him quadratic equations again. I should turn my back forever upon those hateful walls and still more abominated playing-fields. And I was not leaving my prison, as I had done once or twice before, in order to continue my servitude elsewhere. I was free. I could go out into the sunshine and look my fellow-man in the face, free from the haunting, demoralising sense of incapacity. I was free. Until that urchin's shriek I had not realised it. My teeth chattered with the thrill.
I was fortunately out of school the second hour. I employed most of it in balancing myself. A perfectly reasonable creature, I visited the chief. He was a chubby, rotund man, with a circular body and a circular visage, and he wore great circular gold spectacles. He looked like a figure in the Third Book of Euclid. But his eyes sparkled like bits of glass in the sun.
"Well, Ordeyne?" he inquired, looking up from letters to parents.
"I have come to ask you to accept my resignation," said I. "I would like you to release me at once."
"Come, come, things are not as bad as all that," said he, kindly.
I looked stupidly at him for a moment.
"Of course I know you've got one or two troublesome forms," he continued.
Then I winced. His conjecture hurt me horribly.
"Oh, it's nothing to do with my incompetence," I interrupted.
"What is it, then?"
"My grandfather, two uncles, two nephews and a valet were drowned a day or two ago in the Mediterranean," I answered, calmly.
I have since been struck by the crudity of this announcement. It took my chief's breath away.
"I deeply sympathise with you," he said at last.
"Thank you," said I.
"A terrible catastrophe. No wonder it has upset you. Horrible! Six living human beings! Three generations of men!"
"That's just it," said I. "Three generations of my family swept away, leaving me now at the head of it."
At this moment the chief's wife came into the library with the morning paper in her hand. On seeing me she rushed forward.
"Have you had bad news?"
"Yes. Is it in the paper?"
"I was coming to show my husband. The name is an uncommon one. I wondered if they might be relatives of yours."
I bowed acquiescence. The chief looked at the paragraph below his wife's indicating thumb, then he looked at me as if I, too, had suffered a seachange.
"I had no idea—" he said. "Why, now—now you are Sir Marcus Ordeyne!"
"It sounds idiotic, doesn't it?" said I, with a smile. "But I suppose I -am."
And so came my release from captivity. I was profoundly affected by the awful disaster, but it would be sheer hypocrisy if I said that I felt personal grief. I knew none of the dead, of whom I verily believe the valet was the worthiest man. My grandfather and uncles had ignored my existence. Not a helping hand had they stretched out to my widowed mother in her poverty, when one kindly touch would have meant all.
They do not seem to have been a lovable race, the Ordeynes. What my father, the youngest son, was like, I have no idea, as he died when I was two years old, but my mother, who was somewhat stern and puritanical, spoke of him very much as she would have spoken of the prophet Joel, had he been a personal acquaintance.
Seven years to-day have I been a free man.
Feeling at peace with all the world I called this afternoon on my Aunt Jessica, Mrs. Ordeyne, who has borne me no malice for stepping into the place that should have been the inheritance of her husband and of her son. Rather has she devised to adopt me, to guide my ambitions and to point out my duties as the head of the house. If I refuse to be adopted, avoid ambitions and disclaim duties, the fault lies not with her good-will. She is a well-preserved worldly woman of fifty-five, and having begun to dye her hair in the peroxide of hydrogen era has not the curiosity to abandon the practice and see what colour will result. I wish I could like her. I can't. She purrs. Some day I feel she will scratch. She received me graciously.
"My dear Marcus. At last! Didn't you know I have been in town ever since Easter?"
"No," said I. "I am afraid I didn't." Which was true. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"I would have asked you to dinner, but you will never come. As for At Home cards I never dream of sending them to you. It is a waste of precious half-penny stamps."
"You might have written me a nice little letter about nothing at all," I suggested.
"For you to say 'What is that woman worrying me with her silly letters for?' I know what you men are." She looked arch.
This is precisely what I should have said. As I am not an inventive liar, I could only smile feebly. I am never at my ease with Aunt Jessica. I am not the kind of person to afford her entertainment. I do not belong to her world of opulence, and if even I desired it, which the gods forbid, my means would not enable me to make the necessary display. My uncle, thinking to retrieve the fallen fortunes of the title, amassed enormous wealth as a company promoter, while I, on whom the title has descended, am perfectly contented with its fallen fortunes. I have scarcely a thought or taste in common with my aunt. In fact, I must bore her exceedingly. Yet she hides her boredom beneath a radiant countenance and leads me to understand that my society gives her inexpressible joy. I wonder why.
She is always be-guide-philosopher-and-friending me. I resent it. A man of forty does not need the counsels of an elderly woman destitute of intellect. I believe there are some women who are firmly convinced that their sheer sex has imbued them with all the qualities of genius. To-day my aunt tackled me on the subject of marriage. I ought to marry. I asked why. It appeared it was every man's duty.
"From what point of view?" I asked. "The mere propagation of the human race, or the providing of a superfluous young woman with a means of livelihood? If it is the former, then, in my opinion, there are too many people in the world already; and if the latter, I'm afraid I'm not sufficiently altruistic."
"You are so funny!" laughed my aunt.
I was not aware of being the least bit funny.
"But, seriously," she continued, "you must marry." She is a woman who has an irritating way of speaking in Italics. "Are you aware that if you have no son the title will become extinct?"
"And if it does," I cried, "who on this earth will care a half-penny-bun?"
I am growing tired of the title. At first it was rather amusing. Now it appears it is registered in Heaven's chancery and hedged about with divine ordinances. Only the other day an unknown parson requested me to open a church bazaar, and I gathered he had received his instructions direct from the Almighty.
"Why, every one would care," exclaimed my aunt, genuinely shocked. "It would be monstrous. You owe it to your descendants as well as to your ancestors. Besides," she added, with apparent irrelevance, "a man in your position ought to live up to it."
"I do," said I, "just up to it."
"Now you are pretending you don't understand me. You ought to marry money!"
I smiled and shook my head. I don't think my aunt likes me to smile and shake my head, for I saw a flicker in her eyes. "No, my dear aunt; emphatically no. It would be comfortless. If I kissed it, it would be cold. If I put my arms round it, it would be full of sharp edges which would hurt. If I tried to get any emotion out of it, it would only jingle."
"What do you want then?"
"Nothing. But if I must—let it be plain flesh and blood."
"Cannibal!" said my aunt.
We both laughed.
"But you can have plenty of flesh and blood, with money as well, for the asking," she insisted; and thereupon my two cousins, Dora and Gwendolen, entered the drawingroom and interrupted the conversation. They are both bouncing, fresh-faced girls, in the early twenties. They ride and shoot and bicycle and golf and dance, and the elder writes little stories for the magazines. As I do none of these things, I am convinced they regard me as a poor sort of creature. When they hand me a cup of tea I almost expect them to pat me on the head and say, "Good dog!" I am long, lean, stooping, hatchet-faced, hawknosed, near-sighted. I have not the breezy air of the jolly young stockbrokers they are in the habit of meeting. They rather alarm me. Moreover, they have managed to rear a colossal pile of wholly incorrect information on every subject under the sun, and are addicted to letting chunks of it fall about one's ears. This stuns me, rendering conversation difficult.
As I had not seen Dora since her return from Rome, where she had spent the early spring, I asked, in some trepidation, for her impressions. Before I could collect myself, I was listening to a lecture on St. Peter's. She told me it was built by Michael Angelo. I suggested that some credit might be given to Bramante, not to speak of Rosellino, Baldassare Peruzzi and the two San Gallo's.
"Oh!" said my young lady, with a superb air of omniscience. "It was all Michael Angelo's design. The others only tinkered away at it afterwards."
After receiving this brickbat I took my leave.
To console myself I looked up, during the evening, Michael Angelo's noble letter about Bramante.
"One cannot deny," says he, "that Bramante was as excellent in architecture as any one has been from the ancients to now. He placed the first stone of St. Peter's, not full of confusion, but clear, neat, and luminous, and isolated all round in such a way that it injured no part of the palace, and was held to be a beautiful thing, as is still apparent, in such a way that any one who has departed from the said order of Bramante, as San Gallo has done, has departed from the truth."
Michael Angelo did not like San Gallo; neither did he like Bramante-who was his senior by thirty years-but this makes his appreciation of the elder's work all the more generous.
Tinkered away at it, indeed!
I spent all the morning at work by the open window.
I have a small house in Lingfield Terrace, on the north side of the Regent's Park, so that my drawing-room, on the first floor, has a southern aspect. It has been warm and sunny for the past few days, and the elms and plane-trees across the road are beginning to riot in their green bravery, as if intoxicated with the golden wine of spring. My French window is flung wide open, and on the balcony a triangular bit of sunlight creeps round as the morning advances. My work-table is drawn up to the window. I am busy over the first section of my "History of Renaissance Morals," for which I think my notes are completed. I have a delicious sense of isolation from the world. Away over those tree-tops is a faint purpurine pall, and below it lies London, with its strife and its misery, its wickedness and its vanity. Twenty minutes would take me into the heart of it. And if I chose I could be as struggling, as wretched, as much imbued with wickedness and vanity as anybody. I could gamble on the stock exchange, or play the muddy game of politics, or hawk my precious title for sale among the young women of London society. My Aunt Jessica once told me that London was at my feet. I am quite content that it should stay there. I have much the same nervous dread of it as I have of an angry sea breaking in surf on the shingle. If I ventured out in it I should be tossed hither and thither and broken on the rocks, and I should perish. I prefer to stand aloof and watch. If I had a little more of daring in my nature I might achieve something. I am afraid I am but a waster in the world's factory; but kind Fate, instead of pitching me on the rubbish-heap, has preserved me, perhaps has set me under a glass case, in her own museum, as a curiosity. Well, I am happy in my shelter.
I was interrupted in my writing by the entrance of my cook and housekeeper, Antoinette. She was sorry to disturb me, but did Monsieur like sorrel? She was preparing some veau a l'oseille for lunch, and Stenson (my man) had informed her that it was disgusting stuff and that Monsieur would not eat it.
"Antoinette," said I, "go and inform Stenson that as he looks after my outside so do you look after my inside, and that I have implicit confidence in both of you in your respective spheres of action."
"But does Monsieur like sorrel?" Antoinette inquired, anxiously.
"I adore it even," said I, and Antoinette made her exit in triumph.
What a reverential care French women have for the insides of their masters! At times it is pathetic. Before now, I have thrown dainty morsels which I could not eat into the fire, so as to avoid hurting Antoinette's feelings.
I came across her three years ago in a tiny hostelry in a tiny town in the Loire district. She cooked the dinner and conversed about it afterwards so touchingly that we soon became united in bonds of the closest affection. Suddenly some money was stolen; Antoinette, accused, was dismissed without notice. I had a shrewd suspicion of the thief—a suspicion which was afterwards completely justified—and indignantly championed Antoinette's cause.
But Antoinette, coming from a village some eighty miles away, was a stranger and an alien. I was her only friend. It ended in my inviting her to come to England, the land of the free and the refuge of the downtrodden and oppressed, and become my housekeeper. She accepted, with smiles and tears. And they were great big smiles, that went into creases all over her fat red face, forming runnels for the great big tears which dropped off at unexpected angles. She was alone in the world. Her only son had died during his military service in Madagascar. Although her man was dead, the law would not regard her as a widow because she had never been married, and therefore refused to exempt her only son. "On ne peut-etre Jeune qu'une fois, n'est-ce pas, Monsieur?" she said, in extenuation of her early fault.
"And Jean-Marie," she added, "was as brave a fellow and as devoted a son as if I had been married by the Saint-Pere himself."
I waved my hand in deprecation and told her it did not matter in the least. The della Scalas, supreme lords of Verona for many generations, were every man jack of them so parented. Even William the Conqueror—
"Tiens," cried Antoinette, consoled, "and he became Emperor of Germany—he and Bismarck!"
Antoinette's historical sense is rudimentary. I have not tried since to develop it.
When I brought my victim of foreign tyranny to Lingfield Terrace, Stenson, I believe, nearly fainted. He is the correctest of English valets, and his only vice, I believe, is the accordion, on which he plays jaunty hymn-tunes when I am out of the house. When he had recovered he asked me, respectfully, how they were to understand each other. I explained that he would either have to learn French or teach Antoinette English. What they have done, I gather, is to invent a nightmare of a lingua franca in which they appear to hold amicable converse. Now and again they have differences of opinion, as to-day, over my taste for veau a l'oseille; but, on the whole, their relations are harmonious, and she keeps him in a good-humour: Naturally, she feeds the brute.
The duty-impulse, stimulated by my call yesterday on one aunt by marriage, led my footsteps this afternoon to the house of the other, Mrs. Ralph Ordeyne. She is of a different type from her sister-in-law, being a devout Roman Catholic, and since the terrible affliction of two years ago has concerned herself more deeply than ever in the affairs of her religion. She lives in a gloomy little house in a sunless Kensington by-street. Only my Cousin Rosalie was at home. She gave me tea made with tepid water and talked about the Earl's Court Exhibition, which she had not visited, and a new novel, of which she had vaguely heard. I tried in vain to infuse some life into the conversation. I don't believe she is interested in anything. She even spoke lukewarmly of Farm Street.
I pity her intensely. She is thin, thirty, colourless, bosomless. I should say she was passionless—a predestined spinster. She has never drunk hot tea or lived in the sun or laughed a hearty laugh. I remember once, at my wit's end for talk, telling her the old story of Theodore Hook accosting a pompous stranger on the street with the polite request that he might know whether he was anybody in particular. She said, without a smile, "Yes, it was astonishing how rude some people could be."
And her godfathers and godmothers gave her the name of Rosalie. Mine might just as well have called me Hercules or Puck.
She told me that her mother intended to ask me to dine with them one evening next week. When was I free? I chose Thursday. Oddly enough I enjoy dining there, although we are on the most formal terms, not having got beyond the "Sir Marcus" and "Mrs. Ordeyne." But both mother and daughter are finely bred gentlewomen, and one meets few, oh, very, very few among the ladies of to-day.
I reached home about six and found a telegram awaiting me.
"Sorry can't give you dinner. Cook in an impossible condition. Come later. Judith."
I must confess to a sigh of relief. I am fond of Judith and sorry for her domestic infelicities, though why she should maintain that alcoholized wretch in her kitchen passes my comprehension. If there is one thing women do not understand it is the selection, the ordering, and the treatment of domestic servants. The mere man manages much better. But, that aside, Antoinette has spoiled me for Judith's cook's cookery. I breathed a little sigh of content and summoned Stenson to inform him that I would dine at home.
A great package of books from a second-hand bookseller arrived during dinner. Among them were the nine volumes of Pietro Gianone's Istoria Civile del Regno di Napoli, a copy of which I ought to have possessed long ago. It is dedicated to the "Most Puissant and Felicitous Prince Charles VI, the Great, by God crowned Emperor of the Romans, King of Germany, Spain, Naples, Hungary, Bohemia, Sicily, etcetera." Is there a living soul in God's universe who has a spark of admiration for this most puissant and most felicitous monarch crowned by God Emperor and King of the greater part of Europe (and docked of most of his pretensions by the Treaty of Utrecht)? We only remember the forcible-feeble person by his Pragmatic Sanction, and otherwise his personality has left in history not the remotest trace. And yet, on the 12th February, 1723, a profoundly erudite, subtle, and picturesque historian grovels before the man and subscribes himself "Of your Holy Caesarean and Catholic Majesty the most humble and most devoted and most obsequious vassal and slave Pietro Gianone." What ruthless judgments posterity passes on once enormous reputations! In Gianone's admirable introduction we hear of "il celebre Arthur Duck, il quale oltro a' con confini della sua Inghilterra volle in altri a piu lontani Paesi andav rintracciando l'uso a l'autorita delle romane leggi ne' nuovi domini de' Principi cristiani; e di quelle di ciascheduna Nazione volle ancora aver conto: le ricerco nella vicina Scozia, e nell' Ibernia; trapasso nella Francia, e nella Spagna; in Germania, in Italia, a nel nostro Regno ancora: si stese in oltre in Polonia, Boemia, in Ungheria, Danimarca, nella Svezia, ed in piu remote parti." A devil of a fellow this celebrated English Arthur Duck, who besides writing a learned treatise De Usu et Auth. Jur. Civ. Rom. in Dominiis Principum Christianorum, was a knight, a member of Parliament, chancellor of the diocese of London, and a master in chancery. Gianone flattens himself out for a couple of pages before this prodigy whom he lovingly calls Ariuro, as who should say Raffaelo or Giordano; and now, where in the hearts of men lingers Sir Arthur Duck? For one thing he had a bad name. Our English sense of humour revolts from making a popular hero of a man called Duck. Yet we made one of Drake. But there was something masculine about the latter: in fact, everything.
I am afraid it was rather late when I got to Judith.
I wonder whether I should be happier now if I had lived in a garret "in the brave days when I was twenty-one," if I had undergone the lessons of misery with the attendant compensations of "une folle maitresse, de francs amis et l'amour des chansons," and had joyous-heartedly mounted my six flights of stairs. I lived modestly, it is true; but never for a moment was I doubtful as to my next meal, and I have always enjoyed the creature comforts of the respectable classes; never did Lisette pin her shawl curtain-wise across my window. Sometimes, nowadays, I almost wish she had. I never dreamed of glory, love, pleasure, madness, or spent my lifetime in a moment, like the singer of the immortal song. Often the weary moments seemed a lifetime.
And now that I am forty, "it is too late a week." Boon companions, of whom I am thankful to say I have none, would drive me crazy with their intolerable heartiness. I once spent an evening at the Savage Club. As for the folle maitresse—as a concomitant of my existence she transcends imagination.
"What are you thinking of?" asked Judith.
"I was thinking how the 'Dans un grenier qu'on est bien a vingt ans' principle would have worked in my own case," I answered truthfully, for the above reflections had been Passing through my mind.
"You in a garret? Why, you haven't got a temperament!"
I suppose I haven't. It never occurred to me before. Beranger omitted that from his list of attendant compensations.
"That's the difference between us," she added, after a pause. "I have a temperament and you haven't."
"I hope you find it a great comfort."
"It is ten times more uncomfortable than a conscience. It is the bane of one's existence."
"Why be so proud of having it?"
"You wouldn't understand if I told you," said Judith.
I rose and walked to the window and gazed meditatively at the rain which swept the uninspiring little street. Judith lives in Tottenham Mansions, in the purlieus of the Tottenham Court Road. The ground floor of the building is a public-house, and on summer evenings one can sit by the open windows, and breathe in the health-giving fumes of beer and whisky, and listen to the sweet, tuneless strains of itinerant musicians. When my new fortunes enabled me to give the dear woman just the little help that allowed her to move into a more commodious flat, she had the many mansions of London to choose from. Why she insisted on this abominable locality I could never understand. It isn't as if the flat were particularly cheap; indeed the fact of its being situated over a public-house seems to enhance the rent. She said she liked the shape of the knocker and the pattern of the bathroom taps. I dimly perceive that it must have had something to do with the temperament.
"It always seems to rain when we propose an outing together. This is the fourth time since Easter," I remarked.
We had planned a sedate country jaunt, but as the day was pouring wet we remained at home.
"Perhaps this is the way the bon Dieu has of expressing his disapproval of us," said Judith.
"Why should he disapprove?" I asked.
A shrug of her shoulders ended in a shiver.
"I am chilled through."
"My dear girl," I cried, "why on earth haven't you lit the fire?"
"The last time I lit it you said the room was stuffy."
"But then it was beautiful blazing sunshine, you illogical woman," I exclaimed, searching my pockets for a match-box.
I struck a match. To apply it to the fire I had to kneel by her chair. She stretched out her hand—she has delicate white hands with slender fingers—and lightly touched my head.
"How long have we known each other?" she asked.
"About eight years."
"And how long shall we go on?"
"As long as you like," said I, intent on the fire.
Judith withdrew her hand. I knelt on the hearthrug until the merry blaze and crackle of the wood assured me of successful effort.
"These are capital grates," I said, cheerfully, drawing a comfortable arm-chair to the front of the fire.
"Excellent," she replied, in a tone devoid of interest.
There was a long silence. To me this is one of the great charms of human intercourse. Is there not a legend that Tennyson and Carlyle spent the most enjoyable evenings of their lives enveloped in impenetrable silence and tobacco-smoke, one on each side of the hob? A sort of Whistlerian nocturne of golden fog!
I offered Judith a cigarette. She declined it with a shake of the head. I lit one myself and leaning back contentedly in my chair watched her face in half-profile. Most people would call her plain. I can't make up my mind on the point. She is what is termed a negative blonde—that is to say, one with very fair hair (in marvellous abundance—it is one of her beauties), a sallow complexion and deep violet eyes. Her face is thin, a little worn, that of the woman who has suffered—temperament again! Her mouth, now, as she looks into the new noisy flames, is drawn down at the corners. Her figure is slight but graceful. She has pretty feet. One protruded from her skirt, and a slipper dangled from the tip. At last it fell off. I knew it would. She has a craze for the minimum of material in slippers—about an inch of leather (I suppose it's leather) from the toe. I picked the vain thing up and balanced it again on her stocking-foot.
"Will you do that eight years hence?" said Judith.
"My dear, as I've done it eight thousand times the last eight years, I suppose I shall," I replied, laughing. "I'm a creature of habit."
"You may marry, Marcus."
"God forbid!" I ejaculated.
"Some pretty fresh girl."
"I abominate pretty fresh girls. I would just as soon talk to a baby in a perambulator."
"The women men are crazy to marry are not always those they particularly delight to converse with, my friend," said Judith.
I lit another cigarette. "I think the sex feminine has marriage on the brain," I exclaimed, somewhat heatedly. "My Aunt Jessica was worrying me about it the day before yesterday. As if it were any concern of hers!"
Judith laughed below her breath and called me a simpleton.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because you haven't got a temperament."
This was a foolish answer, having no bearing on the question. I told her so. She replied that she was years older than I, and had learned the eternal relevance of all things. I pointed out that she was years younger.
"How many heart-beats have you had in your life—real, wild, pulsating heart-beats—eternity in an hour?"
"That's Blake," I murmured.
"I'm aware of it. Answer my question."
"It's a silly question."
"It isn't. The next time you see a female baby in a perambulator, take off your hat respectfully."
I am afraid I am clumsy at repartee.
"And the next time you engage a cook, my dear Judith," said I, "send for a mere man."
She coloured up. I dissolved myself in apologies. Her wounded susceptibilities required careful healing. The situation was somewhat odd. She had not scrupled to attack the innermost weaknesses of my character, and yet when I retaliated by a hit at externals, she was deeply hurt, and made me feel a ruffianly blackguard. I really think if Lisette had pinned up that curtain I should have learned something more about female human nature. But Judith is the only woman I have known intimately all my life long, and sometimes I wonder whether I shall ever know her. I told her so once. She answered: "If you loved me you would know me." Very likely she was right. Honestly speaking, I don't love Judith. I am accustomed to her. She is a lady, born and bred. She is an educated woman and takes quite an intelligent interest in the Renaissance. Indeed she has a subtler appreciation of the Venetian School of Painting than I have. She first opened my eyes, in Italy, to the beauties, as a gorgeous colourist, of Palma Vecchio in his second or Giorgionesque manner. She is in every way a sympathetic and entertaining companion. Going deeper, to the roots of human instinct, I find she represents to me—so chance has willed it—the ewige weibliche which must complement masculinity in order to produce normal existence. But as for the "zieht uns hinan"—no. It would not attract me hence—out of my sphere. I could commit an immortal folly for no woman who ever made this planet more lustrous to its Bruderspharen.
I don't understand Judith. It doesn't very greatly matter. Many things I don't understand, the spiritual attitude towards himself, for example, of the intelligent juggler who expends his life's energies in balancing a cue and three billiard-balls on the tip of his nose. But I know that Judith understands me, and therein lies the advantage I gain from our intimacy. She gauges, to an absurdly subtle degree, the depth of my affection. She is really an incomparable woman. So many insist upon predilection masquerading as consuming passion. There is nothing theatrical about Judith.
Yet to-day she appeared a little touchy, moody, unsettled. She broke another pleasant spell of fireside silence, that followed expiation of my offence, by suddenly calling my name.
"Yes?" said I, inquiringly.
"I want to tell you something. Please promise me you won't be vexed."
"My dear Judith," said I, "my great and imperial namesake, in whose meditations I have always found ineffable comfort, tells me this: 'If anything external vexes you, take notice that it is not the thing which disturbs you, but your notion about it, which notion you may dismiss at once, if you please!' So I promise to dismiss all my notions of your disturbing communication and not to be vexed."
"If there is one platitudinist I dislike more than another, it is Marcus Aurelius," said Judith.
I laughed. It was very comfortable to sit before the fire, which protested, in a fire's cheery, human way, against the depression of the murky world outside, and to banter Judith.
"I can quite understand it," I said. "A man sucks in the consolations of philosophy; a woman solaces herself with religion."
"I can do neither," she replied, changing her attitude with an exaggerated shaking down of skirts. "If I could, I shouldn't want to go away."
"Go away?" I echud.
"Yes. You mustn't be vexed with me. I haven't got a cook—"
"No one would have thought it, from the luncheon you gave me, my dear."
The alcoholized domestic, by the way, was sent out, bag and baggage, last evening, when she was sober enough to walk.
"And so it is a convenient opportunity," Judith continued, ignoring my compliment—and rightly so; for as soon as it had been uttered, I was struck by an uneasy conviction that she had herself disturbed the French caterers in the Tottenham Court Road from their Sabbath repose in order to provide me with food.
"I can shut up the flat without any fuss. I am never happy at the beginning of a London season. I know I'm silly," she went on, hurriedly. "If I could stand your dreadful Marcus Aurelius I might be wiser—I don't mind the rest of the year; but in the season everybody is in town—people I used to know and mix with—I meet them in the streets and they cut me and it—hurts—and so I want to get away somewhere by myself. When I get sick of solitude I'll come back."
One of her quick, graceful movements brought her to her knees by my side. She caught my hand.
"For pity's sake, Marcus, say that you understand why it is."
I said, "I have been a blatant egoist all the afternoon, Judith. I didn't guess. Of course I understand."
"If you didn't, it would be impossible for us."
"Have no doubt," said I, softly, and I kissed her hand.
I came into her life when she counted it as over and done with—at eight and twenty—and was patiently undergoing premature interment in a small pension in Rome. How long her patience would have lasted I cannot say. If circumstances had been different, what would have happened? is the most futile of speculations. What did happen was the drifting together of us two bits of flotsam and our keeping together for the simple reason that there were no forces urging us apart. She was past all care for social sanctions, her sacred cap of good repute having been flung over the windmills long before; and I, friendless unit in a world of shadows, why should I have rejected the one warm hand that was held out to me? As I said to her this afternoon, Why should the bon Dieu disapprove? I pay him the compliment of presuming that he is a broad-minded deity.
When my fortune came, she remarked, "I am glad I am not free. If I were, you would want to marry me, and that would be fatal."
The divine, sound sense of the dear woman! Honour would compel the offer. Its acceptance would bring disaster.
Marriage has two aspects. The one, a social contract, a quid of protection, maintenance, position and what not, for a quo of the various services that may be conveniently epitomized in the phrase de mensa et thoro. The other, the only possible existence for two beings whose passionate, mutual attraction demands the perfect fusion of their two existences into a common life. Now to this passionate attraction I have never become, and, having no temperament (thank Heaven!), shall never become, a party. Before the turbulence therein involved I stand affrighted as I do before London or the deep sea. I once read an epitaph in a German churchyard: "I will awake, O Christ, when thou callest me; but let me sleep awhile, for I am very weary." Has the human soul ever so poignantly expressed its craving for quietude? I fancy I should have been a heart's friend of that dead man, who, like myself, loved the cool and quiet shadow, and was not allowed to enjoy it in this world. I may not get the calm I desire, but at any rate my existence shall not be turned upside down by mad passion for a woman. As for the social-contract aspect of marriage, I want no better housekeeper than Antoinette; and my dining-table having no guests does not need a lady to grace its foot; I have no a priori craving to add to the population. "If children were brought into the world by an act of pure reason alone," says Schopenhauer, "would the human race continue to exist? Would not a man rather have so much sympathy with the coming generation as to spare it the burden of existence? or at any rate not take it upon himself to impose that burden upon it in cold blood?" By bringing children into the world by means of a marriage of convenience I should be imposing the burden of existence upon them in cold blood. I agree with Schopenhauer.
And the dreadful bond of such a marriage! To have in the closest physical and moral propinquity for one hundred and eighty-six hours out of the week, each hour surcharged with an obligatory exchange of responsibilities, interests, sacrifices of every kind, a being who is not the utter brother of my thoughts and sister of my dreams—no, never! Au grand non, au grand jamais!
Judith is an incomparable woman, but she is not the utter brother of my thoughts and the sister of my dreams; nor am I of hers.
But the comradeship she gives me is as food and drink, and my affection fulfils a need in her nature. The delicate adjustment of reciprocals is our sanction. Marriage, were it possible, would indeed be fatal. Our pleasant, free relations, unruffled by storm, are ideal for us both.
Why, I wonder, did she think her proposal to go away for a change would vex me?
The idea implies a right of veto which is repugnant to me. Of all the hateful attitudes towards a woman in which a decent man can view himself that of the Turkish bashaw is the most detestable. Women seldom give men credit for this distaste.
I kissed the white hand of Judith that touched my wrist, and told her not to doubt my understanding. She cried a little.
"I don't make your path rougher, Judith?" I whispered.
She checked her tears and her eyes brightened wonderfully.
"You? You do nothing but smooth it and level it."
"Like a steam-roller," said I.
She laughed, sprang to her feet, and carried me off gaily to the kitchen to help her get the tea ready. My assistance consisted in lighting the gas-stove beneath a waterless kettle. After that I sprawled against the dresser and, with my heart in my mouth, watched her cut thin bread-and-butter in a woman's deliciously clumsy way. Once, as the bright blade went perilously near her palm, I drew in my breath.
"A man would never dream of doing it like that!" I cried, in rebuke.
She calmly dropped the wafer on to the plate and handed me the knife and loaf.
"Do it your way," she said, with a smile of mock humility.
I did it my way, and cut my finger.
"The devil's in the knife!" I cried. "But that's the right way."
Judith said nothing, but bound up my wound, and, like the well-conducted person of the ballad, went on cutting bread-and-butter. Her smile, however, was provoking.
"And all this time," I said, half an hour later, "you haven't told me where you are going."
"Paris. To stay with Delphine Carrere."
"I thought you said you wanted solitude."
I have met Delphine Carrere—brave femme if ever there was one, and the loyalest soul in the world, the only one of Judith's early women friends who has totally ignored the fact of the Sacred Cap of Good Repute having been thrown over the windmills (indeed who knows whether dear, golden-hearted Delphine herself could conscientiously write the magic initials S.C.G.R. after her name?); but Delphine has never struck me as a person in whose dwelling one could find conventual seclusion. Judith, however, explained.
"Delphine will be painting all day, and dissipating all night. I can't possibly disturb her in her studio, for she has to work tremendously hard—and I'm decidedly not going to dissipate with her. So I shall have my days and nights to my sequestered and meditative self."
I said nothing: but all the same I am tolerably certain that Judith, being Judith, will enjoy prodigious merrymaking in Paris. She is absolutely sincere in her intentions—the earth holds no sincerer woman—but she is a self-deceiver. Her about-to-be-sequestered and meditative self was at that moment sitting on the arm of a chair and smoking a cigarette, with undisguised relish of the good things of this life. The blue smoke wreathing itself amid her fair hair resembled, so I told her in the relaxed intellectual frame of mind of the contented man, incense mounting through the nimbus of a saint. She affected solicitude lest the life-blood of my intelligence should be pouring out through my cut finger. No, I am convinced that the recueillement (that beautiful French word for which we have no English equivalent, meaning the gathering of the soul together within itself) of the rue Boissy d'Anglais is the very happiest delusion wherewith Judith has hitherto deluded herself. I am glad, exceedingly glad. Her temperament—I have got reconciled to her affliction—craves the gaiety which London denies her.
"And when are you going?" I asked.
"Why not? I wired Delphine this morning. I had to go out to get something for lunch (my conviction, it appears, was right), and I thought I might as well take an omnibus to Charing Cross and send a telegram."
"But when are you going to pack?"
"I did that last night. I didn't get to bed till four this morning. I only made up my mind after you had gone," she added, in anticipation of a possible question.
It is better that we are not married. These sudden resolutions would throw my existence out of gear. My moral upheaval would be that of a hen in front of a motor-car. When I go abroad, I like at least a fortnight to think of it. One has to attune one's mind to new conditions, to map out the pleasant scheme of days, to savour in anticipation the delights that stand there, awaiting one's tasting, either in the mystery of the unknown or in the welcoming light of familiarity. I love the transition that can be so subtly gradated by the spirit between one scene and another. The man who awakens one fine morning in his London residence, scratches his head, and says, "What shall I do to-day? By Jove! I'll start for Timbuctoo!" is to me an incomprehensible, incomplete being. He lacks an aesthetic sense.
I did not dare tell Judith she lacked an aesthetic sense. I might just as well have accused her of stealing silver spoons. I said I should miss her (which I certainly shall), and promised to write to her once a week.
"And you," said I, "will have heaps of time to write me the History of a Sequestered and Meditative Self—meanwhile, let us go out somewhere and dine."
When I got home, I found a card on my hall-table. "Mr. Sebastian Pasquale."
I am sorry I missed Pasquale. I haven't seen him for two or three years. He is a fascinating youth, a study in reversion. I will ask him to dinner here some day soon. It will be quieter than at the club.
Something has happened. Something fantastic, inconceivable. I am in a condition to be surprised at nothing. If a witch on a broomstick rode in through my open window and lectured me on quaternions, I should accept her visit as a normal occurrence.
I have spent hours walking up and down this book-lined room, wondering whether the universe or I were mad. Sometimes I laughed, for the thing is sheerly ridiculous. Sometimes I cursed at the impertinence of the thing in happening at all. Once I stumbled over a volume of Muratori lying on the floor, and I kicked it across the room. Then I took it up, and wept over the loosened binding.
The question is: What on earth am I to do? Why has Judith chosen this particular time to shut up her flat and sequester herself in Paris? Why did my lawyers appoint this particular morning for me to sign their silly documents? Why did I turn up three hours late? Why did I walk down the Thames Embankment? And why, oh, why, did I seat myself on a bench in the gardens below the terrace of the National Liberal Club?
Yesterday was one of the most peaceful and happy days of my existence. I worked contentedly at my history; I gossiped with Antoinette who came to demand permission to keep a cat.
"What kind of a cat?" I asked.
"Perhaps Monsieur does not like cats?" she inquired, anxiously.
"The cat was worshipped as a god by the ancient Egyptians," I remarked.
"But this one, Monsieur," she said in breathless reassurance, "has only one eye."
I would sooner talk to Antoinette than the tutorial staff of Girton. If she woke up one morning and found she had a mind she would think it a disease.
In the afternoon I strolled into Regent's Park and meeting the McMurray's nine-year-old son in charge of the housemaid, around whom seemed to be hovering a sheepish individual in a bowler hat, I took him off to the Zoological Gardens. On the way he told me, with great glee, that his German governess was in bed with an awful sore throat; that he wasn't doing any lessons; that the sheepish hoverer was Milly's young man, and that the silly way they went on was enough to make one sick. When he had fed everything feedable and ridden everything ridable, I drove him to the Wellington Road and deposited him with his parents. I love a couple of hours with a child when it is thoroughly happy and on its best behaviour. And the enjoyment is enhanced by the feeling of utter thankfulness that he is not my child, but somebody else's.
In the evening I read and meditated on the happiness of my lot. The years of school drudgery have already lost their sharp edge of remembered definition, and sometimes I wonder whether it is I who lived through them. I had not a care in the world, not a want that I could not gratify. I thought of Judith. I thought of Sebastian Pasquale. I amused myself by seeking a Renaissance type of which he must be the reincarnation. I fixed upon young Olgiati, one of the assassins of Gian Galeazzo Sforza. Of the many hundreds of British youths who passed before my eyes during my slavery, he is the only one who has sought me out in his manhood. And strange to say we had only a few months together, during my first year's apprenticeship to the dismal craft, he being in the sixth form, and but three or four years younger than I. He was the maddest, oddest, most diabolical and most unpopular boy in the school. The staff, to whom the conventional must of necessity be always the Divine, loathed him. I alone took to the creature. I think now that my quaint passion for the cinquecento Italian must have had something to do with my attraction. In externals he is as English as I am, having been brought up in England by an English mother, but there are thousands of Hindoos who are more British than he. The McMurrays were telling me dreadful stories about him this afternoon. Sighing after an obdurate Viennese dancer, he had lured her coachman into helpless intoxication, had invested himself in the domestic's livery, and had driven off with the lady in the darkness after the performance to the outskirts of the town. What happened exactly, the McMurrays did not know; but there was the devil to pay in Vienna. And yet this inconsequent libertine did the following before my own eyes. We were walking down Piccadilly together one afternoon in the hard winter of 1894. It was a black frost, agonizingly cold. A shivering wretch held out matches for sale. His hideous red toes protruded through his boots. "My God, my God!" cried Pasquale, "I can't stand this!" He jumped into a crawling hansom, tore off his own boots, flung them to the petrified beggar and drove home in his stocking-feet. I stood on the curb and, with mingled feelings, watched the recipient, amid an interested group of bystanders, match the small shapely sole against his huge foot, and with a grin tuck the boots under his arm and march away with them to the nearest pawnbroker. If Pasquale had been an equally compassionate Briton, he would have stopped to think, and have tossed the man a sovereign. But he didn't stop to think. That was my cinquecento Pasquale. And I loved him for it.
I went to bed last night, as I have indicated, the most contented of created beings. I awoke this morning with no greater ruffle on my consciousness than the appointment with my lawyers. The sun shone. A thrush sang lustily in the big elm opposite my bedroom windows. The tree, laughed and shook out its finery at me like a woman, saying: "See how green I am, after Sunday's rain." Antoinette's one eyed black cat (a hideous beast) met me in the hall and arching its back welcomed me affably to its new residence. And on my breakfast-table I found a copy of the first edition of Cristoforo da Costa's "Elogi delle Donne Illustri," a book which, in great diffidence, I had asked Lord Carnforth, a perfect stranger, to allow me the privilege of consulting in his library, and which Lord Carnforth, with a scholar's splendid courtesy, had sent me to use at my convenience.
Filled with peace and good-will to all men, like a personification of Christmas in May, I started out this morning to see my lawyers. I reached them at three o'clock, having idled at second-hand bookstalls and lunched on the road. I signed their unintelligible document, and wandered through the Temple Gardens and along the Embankment. When I had passed under Hungerford Bridge, it struck me that I was warm, a little leg-weary, and the Victoria Embankment Gardens smiled an invitation to repose. I struck the shady path beneath the terrace of the National Liberal Club, and sat myself down on a comfortable bench. The only other occupant was a female in black. As I take no interest in females in black, I disregarded her presence, and gave myself up to the contemplation, of the trim lawns and flower-beds, the green trees masking the unsightly Surrey side of the river, and the back of the statue of Sir Bartle Frere. A continued survey of the last not making for edification (a statue that turns its back on you being one of the dullest objects made by man), I took from my pocket a brown leather-covered volume which I had fished out of a penny box: "Suite de l'Histoire du Gouvernement de Venise ou L'Histoire des Uscoques, par le Sieur Houssaie, Amsterdam, MDCCV." A whole complete scholarly history of a forgotten people for a penny. The Uscoques were originally Dalmatians who settled at Segna on the Adriatic and became the most pestiferous colony of pirates and desperadoes of sixteenth century Europe. I opened the yellow-stained pages and savoured their acrid musty smell. How much learning, thought I, bought with the heart's-blood, how many million hours of fierce intellectual struggle appeal to mankind nowadays but as an odour, an odour of decay, in the nostrils of here and there a casual student. I thought this, and my eye caught, repeated many times, the name of the Frangipani, once lords of Segna. As men, their achievements are wiped out of commonly remembered history; but their name is distilled into a sensuous perfume which perchance may be found in the penny scent fountains of to-day. I was smiling over this quaint olfactory coincidence, and wondering whether any human being alive at that moment had ever read the Sieur Houssaie's book, when a tug at my arm, such as a neglected terrier gives with his paw, brought me back to the workaday world. I turned sharply and met a pair of melting, brown, piteous, imploring dog's eyes, belonging not to a terrier, but to the disregarded female in black.
"Will you please, sir, to tell me what I must do."
I stared. She was not in the least like what my half-conscious glance at the female in black had taken her to be. She was quite young, remarkably good looking. Even at the first instant I was struck by her eyes and the mass of bronze hair and the twitching of a childish mouth. But she had an untidy, touzled, raffish appearance, due to I knew not what investiture of disrepute. Her hands—for she wore no gloves—wanted washing.
"What a young girl like yourself must not do," said I, "is to enter into conversation with men in public places."
"Then I shall have to die," she said, forlornly, edging away from my side.
She had the oddest little foreign accent. I looked at her again more critically, and discovered what it was that made her look so disreputable. She was wearing an old black dress many sizes too big for her. Great pleats of it were secured by pins in unexpected places, so that quaint chaos was made of the scheme of decoration—black velvet and bugles—on the bodice. Instinctively I felt that a middle-aged, fat, second-hand-clothes-dealing Jewess had built it many years ago for synagogue wear. On the girlish figure it looked preposterous. Preposterous too was her head-gear, an amorphous bonnet trimmed in black, with a cheap black feather drooping brokenly.
Her eyes gave me a reproachful glance and turned away again. Then she shrugged her shoulders and sniffed. My mother had a housemaid once who always sniffed like that before beginning to cry. My position was untenable. I could not remain stonily on the seat while this grotesquely attired damsel wept; and for the life of me I could not get up and leave her. She looked at me again. Those swimming, pleading eyes were scarcely human. I capitulated.
"Don't cry. Tell me what I can do for you," I said.
She moved a few inches nearer.
"I want to find Harry," she said; "I have lost him."
"Who's Harry?" I naturally inquired.
"He is to be my husband."
"What's his other name?"
"I have forgotten," she said, spreading out her hands.
"Don't you know any one else in London?" I asked.
She shook her head mournfully. "And I am getting so hungry."
I suggested that there were restaurants in London.
"But I have no money," she objected. "No money and nothing at all but this." She designated her dress. "Isn't it ugly?"
"It is decidedly not becoming," I admitted.
"Well, what must I do? You tell me and I do it. If you don't tell me, I must die."
She leaned back placidly, having thus put upon my shoulders the responsibility of her existence. I did not know which to admire more, her cool assurance or the stoic fortitude with which she faced dissolution.
"I can give you some money to keep you going for a day or two," said I, "but as for finding Harry, without knowing his name—"
"After all I don't want so very much to find him," said this amazing young person. "He made me stay in my cabin all the time I was in the steamer. At first I was glad, for it went up and down, side to side, and I thought I would die, for I was so sick; but afterwards I got better—"
"But where did you come from?" I asked.
"What were you doing there?"
"I used to sit in a tree and look over the wall—"
"The wall of my house-my father's house. He was not my father, but he married my mother. I am English." She announced the fact with a little air of finality.
"Indeed?" said I.
"Yes. Father, mother—both English. He was Vice-Consul. He died before I was born. Then his friend Hamdi Effendi took my mother and married her. You see?"
I confessed I did not. "Where does Harry come in?" I inquired.
She looked puzzled. "Come in?" she echoed.
I perceived her knowledge of the English vernacular was limited. I turned my question differently.
"Oh," she said with more animation. "He used to pass by the wall, and I talked to him when there was no one looking. He was so pretty—prettier than you," she paused.
"Is it possible?" I said, ironically.
"Oh, yes," she replied with profound gravity. "He had a moustache, but he was not so long."
"Well? You talked to Harry. What then?"
In her artless way she told me. A refreshing story, as old as the crusades, with the accessories of orthodox tradition; a European disguise, purchased at a slop dealer's by the precious Harry, a rope, a midnight flitting, a passage taken on board an English ship; the anchor weighed; and the lovers were free on the bounding main. A most refreshing story! I put on a sudden air of sternness, and shot a question at her like a bullet.
"Are you making all this up, young woman?"
She started-looked quite scared.
"You mean I tell lies? But no. It is all true. Why shouldn't it be true? How else could I have come here?"
The question was unanswerable. Her story was as preposterous as her garments. But her garments were real enough. I looked long into her great innocent eyes. Yes, she was telling me the truth. She babbled on for a little. I gathered that her step-father, Hamdi Effendi, was a Turkish official. She had spent all her life in the harem from which she had eloped with this pretty young Englishman.
"And what must I do?" she reiterated.
I told her to give me time. One is not in the habit of meeting abducted Lights of the Harem in the Embankment Gardens, beneath the National Liberal Club. It was, in fact, a bewildering occurrence. I looked around me. Nothing seemed to have happened during the last ten minutes. A pale young man on the next bench, whom I had noticed when I entered, was reading a dirty pink newspaper. Pigeons and sparrows hopped about unconcernedly. On the file of cabs, just perceptible through the foliage, the cabmen lolled in listless attitudes. Sir Bartle Frere stolidly kept his back to me, not the least interested in this Gilbert a Becket story. I always thought something was wrong with that man's character.
What on earth could I tell her to do? The best course was to find the infernal Harry. I asked her how she came to lose him. It appears he escorted her ashore at Southampton, after having scarcely set eyes on her during the voyage, put her into a railway carriage with strict injunctions not to stir until he claimed her, and then disappeared into space.
"Did he give you your ticket?"
"What a young blackguard!" I exclaimed.
"I don't like him at all," she said.
How she managed to elude the ticket collector at Vauxhall I could not exactly discover. Apparently she told him, in her confiding manner, that Harry had it, and when he found no Harry in the train and came back to say so, she turned her dewy imploring eyes on him and the sentimental varlet melted. At Waterloo a man had told her she must get out of the carriage—she had travelled alone in it—and she had meekly obeyed. She had wandered out of the station and across a bridge and had eventually found herself in the Embankment Gardens. Then she had asked me how to find Harry. Really she was ridiculously like Thomas a Becket's Saracen mother crying in London for Gilbert. And the most ludicrous part of the resemblance was that she did not know the creature's surname.
"By the way," said I, "what is your name?"
"Carlotta what?" I asked.
"I have no other name."
"Your father—the Vice-Consul—had one."
She wrinkled her young forehead in profound mental effort.
"Ramsbotham," she said at last, triumphantly.
"Now look here, Miss Ramsbotham—no," I broke off. "Such an appellation is anachronistic, incongruous, and infinitely absurd. I can't use it. I must take the liberty of addressing you as Carlotta."
"But I've told you that Carlotta is my name," she said, in uncomprehending innocence.
"And mine is Sir Marcus Ordeyne. People call me 'Sir Marcus.'"
"Seer Marcous," said Carlotta.
She did not seem at all impressed with the fact that she was talking to a member of the baronetage.
"Quite so," said I. "Now, Carlotta," I resumed, "our first plan is to set out in search of Harry. He may have missed his train, and have followed by a later one, and be even now rampaging about Waterloo station. If we hear nothing of him, I will drive you to the Turkish Consulate, give you in charge there, and they will see you safely home to Alexandretta. The good Hamdi Effendi is doubtless distracted, and will welcome you back with open arms."
I meant to be urbane and friendly.
She rose to her feet, grew as white as paper, opened her great eyes, opened her baby mouth, and in the middle of the Embankment Gardens plumped on her knees before me and clasped her hands above her head.
"For God's sake get up!" I shrieked, wrenching her back acrobatically to the bench beside me. "You mustn't do things like that. You'll have the whole of London running to look at us."
Indeed the sight had so far roused the pale young man from his lethargy that he laid his dirty pink paper on his knees. I kept hold of Carlotta's wrists. She began to moan incoherently.
"You mustn't send me back—Hamdi will kill me—oh please don't send me back—he will make me marry his friend Mustapha—Mustapha has only two teeth—and he is seventy years old—and he has a wife already—I only went with Harry to avoid Mustapha. Hamdi would kill me, he would beat me, he would make me marry Mustapha."
That is what I gathered from her utterances. She was frightened out of her wits, even into anticlimax.
"But the Turkish Consul is your natural protector," said I.
"You wouldn't be so cruel," she sobbed. The guttural sonority with which she rolled the "r" in "cruel" made the epithet appear one of revolting barbarity. She fixed those confounded eyes upon me.
I wonder whether such a fool as I has ever lived.
I promised, on my honour, not to hand her over to the Turkish consulate.
I took a four-wheeled cab from the rank on the Embankment and drove her to Waterloo. On the way she reminded me that she was hungry. I gave her food at the buffet. It appears she has a passion for hard-boiled eggs and lemonade. She did not seem very much concerned about finding Harry, but chattered to me about the appointments of the bar. The beer-pulls amused her particularly. She made me order a glass of bitter (a beverage which I loathe) in order to see again how it was done, and broke into gleeful laughter. The smart but unimaginative barmaid stared at her in bewilderment. The two or three bar-loafers also stared. I was glad to escape to the platform.
There, however, a group of idlers followed us about and stood in a ring round us when we stopped to interview a railway official. The beautiful, bronze-haired, ox-eyed young woman in her disreputable attire—I have never seen a broken black feather waggle more shamelessly—was a sight indeed to strike wonderment into the cockney mind. And perhaps her association with myself added to the incongruity. I am long and lean and unlovely, I know; but it is my consolation that I look irreproachably respectable. Of the two I was infinitely the more disturbed by the public attention. "Calm and unembarrassed as a fate" she returned the popular gaze, and appeared somewhat bored by my efforts to find Harry. In the midst of an earnest discussion with the station-master she begged me for a penny to put into an automatic sweetmeat machine, which she had seen a small boy work successfully. I refused, curtly, and turned to the station-master. A roar of laughter interrupted me again. Carlotta, with outstretched hand and pleading eyes, like an organ-grinder's monkey, had induced the boy to part with the sticky bit of toffee, and was in the act of conveying it to her mouth.
"I'll call to-morrow morning," said I hurriedly to the station-master. "If the gentleman should come meanwhile, tell him to leave his name and address."
Then I took Carlotta by the arm and, accompanied by my train of satellites, I thrust her into the first hansom-cab I could see.
There was no sign or token of Harry. No pretty young man was hanging dejectedly about the station. None had torn his hair before the officials asking for news of a lost female in frowsy black. There was no Harry. There was no further need therefore to afford the British public a gratuitous entertainment.
"Drive," said I to the cabman. "Drive like the devil."
"Where to, sir?"
I gasped. Where should I drive? I lost my head.
"Go on driving round and round till I tell you to stop." The philosophic cabman did not regard me as eccentric, for he whipped up his horse cheerfully. When we had slid down the steep incline and got free of the precincts of that hateful station, I breathed more freely and collected my wits. Carlotta sucked her sticky thumbs and wiped them on her dress.
"Where are we going?" she asked.
"Across Waterloo Bridge," said I.
"What to do?"
"To dispose of you somehow," I replied, grimly. "But how, I haven't a notion. There's a Home for Lost Dogs and a Home for Stray Cats, and a Lost Property Office at Scotland Yard, but as you are neither a dog nor a cat nor an umbrella, these refuges are unavailable."
The cab reached the Strand.
"East or west, sir?" inquired the driver.
"West," said I, at random.
We drove down the Strand at a leisurely pace. I passed through a phase of agonised thought. By my side was a helpless, homeless, friendless, penniless young woman, as beautiful as a goddess and as empty-minded as a baby. What in the world could I do with her? I looked at her in despair. She met my glance with a contented smile; just as if we were old acquaintances and I were taking her out to dinner. The unfamiliar roar and bustle of London impressed her no more than it would have impressed a little dog who had found a kind master.
"Suppose I gave you some money and put you down here and left you?" I inquired.
"I should die," she answered, fatalistically. "Or, perhaps, I should find another kind gentleman."
"I wonder if you have such a thing as a soul," said I.
She plucked at her gown. "I have only this—and it is very ugly," she remarked again. "I should like a pink dress."
We crossed Trafalgar Square, and I saw by Big Ben that it was a quarter to six. I could not drive through London with her for an indefinite period. Besides, my half past seven dinner awaited me.
Why, oh, why has Judith gone to Paris? Had she been in town I could have shot Carlotta into Tottenham Mansions, and gone home to my dinner and Cristoforo da Costa with a light heart. Judith would have found Carlotta vastly entertaining. She would have washed her body and analysed her temperament. But Judith was in retreat with Delphine Carrere, and has left me alone to bear the responsibilities of life—and Carlotta.
The cab slowly mounted Waterloo Place. I had thought of my aunts as possible helpers, and rejected the idea. I had thought of a police station, a hotel, my lawyers (too late), a furnished lodging, a hospital. My mind was an aching blank.
"Where do you live?" asked Carlotta.
I looked at her and groaned. It was the only solution. "Up Regent's Park way," I replied, aware that she was none the wiser for the information.
I gave the address to the cabman through the trap-door in the roof.
"I'm going to take you home with me for to-night," I said, severely. "I have an excellent French housekeeper who will look after your comfort. And to-morrow if that infernal young scoundrel of a lover of yours is not found, it will not be the fault of the police force of Great Britain."
She laid her grubby little hand on mine. It was very soft and cool.
"You are cross with me. Why?"
I removed her hand.
"You mustn't do that again," said I. "No; I am not in the least cross with you. But I hope you are aware that this event is of an unprecedented character."
"What is an unprecedented character?" she asked, stumbling over the long words.
"A thing that has never happened before and I devoutly hope will not happen again."
Her face was turned to me. The lower lip trembled a little. The dog-look came into those wonderful eyes.
"You will be kind to me?" she said, in her childish monosyllables, each word carefully articulated with a long pause between.
I felt I had behaved like a heartless brute, ever since I thrust her into the cab at Waterloo. I relented and laughed.
"If you are a good girl and do as I tell you," said I.
"Seer Marcous is my lord and I am his slave," was her astounding reply.
Then I realised that she had been brought up by Hamdi Effendi. There is something salutary, after all, in the training of the harem.
"I'm very glad to hear it," I said.
She closed her eyes. I saw now she was very tired. I thought she had gone to sleep and I looked in front of me puzzling out the problem. Presently the cab-doors were thrust violently open, and if I had net held her back, she would have jumped out of the vehicle.
"Look!" she cried, in great excitement. "There! There's Harry's name!"
She pointed to a butcher's cart immediately in front of us, bearing, in large letters, the name of "E. Robinson."
"We must stop," she went on. "He will tell us about Harry."
It took me from Oxford Circus to Portman Square to convince her that there were many thousands of Robinsons in London and that the probability of the butcher's cart being a clue to Harry's whereabouts was exceedingly remote.
At Baker Street station she asked, wearily: "Is it still far to your house?"
"No," said I, encouragingly. "Not very far."
"But one can drive for many days through streets in London, and there will be still streets, still houses? So they tell me in Alexandretta. London is as big as the moon, not so?"
I felt absurdly pleased. She was capable of an idea. I had begun to wonder whether she were not merely half-witted. The fact of her being able to read had already cheered me.
"Many hours, yes," I corrected, "not many days. London seems big to you?"
"Oh, yes," she said, passing her hand over her eyes. "It makes all go round in my head. One day you will take me for a drive through these wonderful streets. Now I am too tired. They make my head ache."
Then she shut her eyes again and did not open them until we stopped at Lingfield Terrace. I modified my first impression of her animal unimpressionability. She is quite sane. If Boadicea were to be brought back to life and be set down suddenly at Charing Cross, her psychological condition would not be far removed from that of an idiot. Yet in her own environment Boadicea was quite a sane and capable lady.
My admirable man Stenson opened the door and admitted us without moving a muscle. He would betray no incorrect astonishment if I brought home a hippogriff to dinner. I have an admiration for the trained serving-man's imperturbability. It is the guardian angel of his self-respect. I ordered him to send Antoinette to me in the drawing-room.
"Antoinette," said I, "this young lady has travelled all the way from Asia Minor, where the good St. Paul had so many adventures, without changing her things."
"C'est y Dieu possible!" said Antoinette.
"Give her a nice hot bath, and perhaps you will have the kindness to lend her the underlinen that your sex is in the habit of wearing. You will put her into the spare bedroom, as she is going to pass the night here, and you will look generally after her comfort."
"Bien, M'sieu," said Antoinette, regarding Carlotta in stupefaction.
"And put that hat and dress into the dust-bin."
"And as Mademoiselle is broken with fatigue, having come without stopping from Asia Minor, she will go to bed as soon as possible."
"The poor angel," said Antoinette. "But will she not join Monsieur at dinner?"
"I think not," said I, dryly.
"But the young ducklings that are roasting for the dinner of Monsieur?"
"If they were not roasting they might be growing up into ducks," said I.
"Oh, la, la!" murmured Antoinette, below her breath.
"Carlotta," said I, turning to the girl who had seated herself humbly on a straight-backed chair, "you will go with Antoinette and do as she tells you. She doesn't talk English, but she is used to making people understand her."
"Mais, moi parley Francais un peu," said Carlotta.
"Then you will win Antoinette's heart, and she will lend you her finest. Good-night," said I, abruptly. "I hope you will have a pleasant rest."
She took my outstretched hand, and, to my great embarrassment, raised it to her lips. Antoinette looked on, with a sentimental moisture in her eyes.
"The poor angel," she repeated.
Later, I gave Stenson a succinct account of what had occurred. I owed it to my reputation. Then I went upstairs and dressed for dinner. I consider I owe that to Stenson. It was eight o'clock before I sat down, but Antoinette's ducklings were delicious and brought consolation for the upheaval of the day. I was unfolding the latest edition of The Westminster Gazette with which I always soothe the digestive half-hour after dinner, when Antoinette entered to report progress.
She was sound asleep, the poor little one. Oh, but she was tired. She had eaten some consomme, a bit of fish and an omelette. But she was beautiful, gentle as a lamb; and she had a skin on dirait du satin. Had not Monsieur noticed it?
I replied, with some over-emphasis, that I had not.
"Monsieur rather regards the inside of his books," said Antoinette.
"They are generally more worth regarding," said I.
Antoinette said nothing; but there was a feminine quiver at the corners of her fat lips.
She was comfortably disposed of for the night. I drew a breath of relief. To-morrow Great Scotland Yard should set out on the track of the absconding Harry. Carlotta's happy recollection of his surname facilitated the search. I lit a cigarette and opened The Westminster Gazette.
A few moments later I was staring at the paper in blank horror and dismay.
Harry was found. There was no mistake. Harry Robinson, junior partner of the firm of Robinson & Co., of Mincing Lane. Vain, indeed, would it be to seek the help of Great Scotland Yard. Harry had blown out his brains in the South Western Hotel at Southampton.
I have read the newspaper paragraph over and over again to-night. There is no possible room for doubt that it is the same Harry.
The ways of man are past interpretation. Here is an individual who lures a girl from an oriental harem, attires her in disgusting garments, smuggles her on board a steamer, where he claps her, so to speak, under hatches, and has little if anything to do with her, sets her penniless and ticketless in a London train, and then goes off and blows his brains out. Where is the sense of it?
I have not a spark of sympathy for Harry—a callow, egotistical dealer in currants. He ought to have blown out his brains a year ago. He has behaved in a most unconscionable manner. How does he expect me to break the news to Carlotta? His selfishness is appalling. There he lies, comfortably dead in the South Western Hotel, while Carlotta has literally not a rag to her back, her horrific belongings having been dropped into the dust-bin. Who does he think is going to provide Carlotta with food and shelter and a pink dress? What does he imagine is to become of the poor waif? In all my life I have never heard of a more cynical suicide.
I have walked about for hours, laughing and cursing and kicking the binding loose of my precious Muratori. I have wondered whether the universe or I were mad. For there is one thing that is clear to me—Carlotta is here, and here Carlotta must remain.
Devastating though it be to the well-ordered quietude of my life, I must adopt Carlotta.
There is no way out of it.
Shall I be accused of harbouring a bevy of odalisques at No. 20 Lingfield Terrace? Calumny and Exaggeration walk abroad, arm in arm, even on the north side of Regent's Park. If they had spied Carlotta at my window this morning, they would have looked in for afternoon tea at my Aunt Jessica's and have waylaid Mrs. Ralph Ordeyne outside the Oratory. The question is: Shall Truth anticipate them? I think not. Every family has its irrepressible, impossible, unpractical member, its enfant terrible, who is forever doing the wrong thing with the best intentions. Truth is the enfant terrible of the Virtues. Some times it puts them to the blush and throws them into confusion; at others it blusters like a blatant liar; at others, again, it stutters and stammers like a detected thief. There is no knowing how Truth may behave, so I shall not let it visit my relations.
I must confess, however, that I feared the possible passing by of the two decrepit cronies, when Carlotta stood at my open French window this morning. She is really indecently beautiful. She was wearing a deep red silk peignoir, open at the throat, unashamedly Parisian, which clung to every salient curve of her figure. I wondered where, in the name of morality, she had procured the garment. I learned later that it was the joy and pride of Antoinette's existence; for once, in the days long ago, when she was femme de chambre to a luminary of the cafes concerts, it had met around her waist. She had treasured the cast-off finery of this burned-out star—she beamed in the seventies—for all these years, and now its immortal devilry transfigured Carlotta. She was also washed specklessly clean. An aroma that no soap or artificial perfume could give disengaged itself from her as she moved. Her gold-bronze hair was superbly ordered. I noticed her arms which the sleeves of the gay garment left bare to the elbows; the skin was like satin. "Et sa peau! On dirait du satin." Confound Antoinette! She had the audacity, too, to come down with bare feet. It was a revelation of pink, undreamed-of loveliness in tus.
I repeat she is indecently beautiful. A chit of a girl of eighteen (for that I learn is her age) has no right to flaunt the beauty that should be the appanage of the woman of seven and twenty. She should be modestly well-favoured, as becomes her childish stage of development. She looked incongruous among my sober books, and I regarded her with some resentment. I dislike the exotic. I prefer geraniums to orchids. I have a row of pots of the former on my balcony, and the united efforts of Stenson, Antoinette, and myself have not yet succeeded in making them bloom; but I love the unassuming velvety leaves. Carlotta is a flaring orchid and produces on my retina a sensation of disquiet.
I broke the tidings of the tragedy as gently as I could. I had news of Harry, I said, gravely. She merely looked interested and asked me when he was coming.
"I'm afraid he will never come," said I.
"If he does not come, then I can stay here with you?"
Her eyes betrayed a quiver of anxiety. For the life of me I could not avoid the ironical.
"If you will condescend to dwell as a member of my family beneath my humble roof."
The irony was lost on her. She uttered a joyous little cry and held out both her hands to me. Her eyes danced.
"Oh, I am glad he is not coming. I don't like him any more. I love to stay here with you."
I took both the hands in mine. Mortal man could not have done otherwise.
"Have you thought why it is that you will never see Harry again?"
She shook her beautiful head and held it to one side and puckered up her brows, like a wistful terrier.
"Is he dead?"
"Would it grieve you, if he were?"
"No-o," she replied, thoughtfully.
"Then," said I, dropping her hands and turning away, "Harry is dead."
She stood silent for a couple of minutes, regarding the row of pink toes that protruded beneath the peignoir. At last her bosom shook with a sigh. She glanced up at me sweetly.
"I am so glad," she said.
That is all she has vouchsafed to say with regard to the unhappy young man. "She was so glad!" She has not even asked how he met his death. She has simply accepted my statement. Harry is dead. He has gone out of her life like yesterday's sunshine or yesterday's frippery. If I had told her that yesterday's cab-horse had broken his neck, she could not be more unconcerned. Nay, she is glad. Harry had not treated her nicely. He had boxed her up in a cabin where she had been sick, and had subjected her to various other discomforts. I, on the contrary, had surrounded her with luxuries and dressed her in red silk. She rather dreaded Harry's coming. When she learned that this was improbable she was relieved. His death had turned the improbable into the impossible. It was the end of the matter. She was so glad!
Yet there must have been some tender passage in their brief intercourse. He must have kissed her during their flight from home to steamer. Her young pulses must have throbbed a little faster at the sight of his comely face.
What kind of a mythological being am I housing? Did she come at all out of Hamdi Effendi's harem? Is she not rather some strange sea-creature that clambered on board the vessel and bewitched the miserable boy, sucked the soul out of him, and drove him to destruction? Or is she a Vampire? Or a Succubus? Or a Hamadryad? Or a Salamander?
One thing, I vow she is not human.
If only Judith were here to advise me! And yet I have an uneasy feeling that Judith will suggest, with a certain violence that is characteristic of her, the one course which I cannot follow: to send Carlotta back to Hamdi Effendi. But I cannot break my word. I would rather, far rather, break Carlotta's beautiful neck. I have not written to Judith. Nor, by the way, have I received a letter from her. Delphine has been whirling her off her legs, and she is ashamed to confess the delusion of the sequestered life. I wish I were enjoying myself half as much as Judith.
"I have adopted Mademoiselle," said I to Antoinette this morning. "If she returned to Asia Minor they would put a string round her neck, tie her up in a sack, and throw her into the sea."
"That would be a pity," said Antoinette, warmly.
"Cela depend," said I. "Anyhow she is here, and here she remains."
"In that case," said Antoinette, "has Monsieur considered that the poor angel will need clothes and articles of toilette—and this and that and the other?"
"And shoes to hide her shameless tus," I said.
"They are the most beautiful toes I have ever seen!" cried Antoinette in imbecile admiration. She has bewitched that old woman already.
I put on my hat and went to Wellington Road to consult Mrs. McMurray. Heaven be thanked, thought I, for letting me take her little boy the day before yesterday to see the other animals, and thus winning a mother's heart. She will help me out of my dilemma. Unfortunately she was not alone. Her husband, who is on the staff of a morning newspaper, was breakfasting when I arrived. He is a great ruddy bearded giant with a rumbling thunder of a laugh like the bass notes of an organ. His assertion of the masculine principle in brawn and beard and bass somewhat overpowers a non-muscular, clean-shaven, and tenor person like myself. Mrs. McMurray, on the contrary, is a small, bright bird of a woman.
I told my amazing story from beginning to end, interrupted by many Hoo-oo-oo-oo's from McMurray.
"You may laugh," said I, "but to have a mythical being out of Olympiodorus quartered on you for life is no jesting matter."
"Olymp—?" began McMurray.
"Yes," I snapped.
"Bring her this afternoon, Sir Marcus, when this unsympathetic wretch has gone to his club," said his wife, "and I'll take her out shopping."
"But, dear lady," I cried in despair, "she has but one garment—and that a silk dressing-gown of horrible depravity that belonged to a dancer of the second Empire! She is also barefoot."
"Then I'll come round myself and see what can be done."
"And by Jove, so will I!" cried McMurray.
"You'll do such thing," said his wife
"If I gave you a cheque for 100," said I, "do you think you could get her what she wants, to go on with?"
"A hundred pounds!" The little lady uttered a delighted gasp and I thought she would have kissed me. McMurray brought his sledgehammer of a hand down on my shoulder.
"Man!" he roared. "Do you know what you are doing—casting a respectable wife and mother of a family loose among London drapery shops with a hundred pounds in her pocket? Do you think she will henceforward give a thought to her home or husband? Do you want to ruin my domestic peace, drive me to drink, and wreck my household?"
"If you do that again," said I, rubbing my shoulder, "I'll give her two hundred."
When I returned Carlotta was sitting, Turkish fashion, on a sofa, smoking a cigarette (to which she had helped herself out of my box) and turning over the pages of a book. This sign of literary taste surprised me. But I soon found it was the second volume of my edition de luxe of Louandre's Les Arts Somptuaires, to whose place on the shelves sheer feminine instinct must have guided her. I announced Mrs. McMurray's proposed visit. She jumped to her feet, ravished at the prospect, and sent my beautiful book (it is bound in tree-calf and contains a couple of hundred exquisitely coloured plates) flying onto the floor. I picked it up tenderly, and laid it on my writing-table.