THE UNSPEAKABLE GENTLEMAN
BY J.P. MARQUAND
I have seen the improbable turn true too often not to have it disturb me. Suppose these memoirs still exist when the French royalist plot of 1805 and my father's peculiar role in it are forgotten. I cannot help but remember it is a restless land across the water. But surely people will continue to recollect. Surely these few pages, written with the sole purpose of explaining my father's part in the affair, will not degenerate into anything so pitifully fanciful as the story of a man who tried his best to be a bad example because he could not be a good one.
It was my Uncle Jason who was with me when I learned of my father's return to America. I still remember the look of sympathetic concern on his broad, good-natured face, as I read my father's letter. There was anxiety written there as he watched me, for my uncle was a kindly, thoughtful man. For the moment he seemed to have quite forgotten the affairs of his counting house, and the inventory of goods from France, which a clerk had placed before him. Of late he had taken in me an unaccustomed interest, in no wise allayed by the letter I was holding.
"So he is here," said my Uncle Jason.
"He is just arrived," I answered.
"I had heard of it," he remarked thoughtfully. "And you will see him, Henry?"
"Yes," I replied, "since she asked me to."
"She had asked you? Your mother? You did not tell me that." His voice had been sharp and reproachful, and then he had sighed. "After all," he went on more gently, "he is your father, and you must respect him as such, Henry, hard as it is to do so. I am sorry, almost, that he and I have quarreled, for in many ways your father was a remarkable man who might have gone far, except for his failing. God knows I did my best to help him."
And he sighed again at the small success of his efforts and returned to the papers that lay before him on the counting house table. His business had become engrossing of late, and gave him little leisure.
"Do not be too hard on him, Henry," he said, as I departed.
It was ten years since I had seen my father, ten years when we change more than we do during the rest of a lifetime. Ten years back we had lived in a great house with lawns that ran down to the river where our ships pulled at their moorings. My father and I had left the house together—I for school, and my father—I have never learned where he had gone. I was just beginning to see the starker outlines of a world that has shaken off the shadows of youth when I saw him again.
I remember it was a morning early in autumn. The wind was fresh off the sea, making the pounding of the surf on the beach seem very near as I urged my horse from the neat, quiet streets of the town up the rutted lane that led to the Shelton house. The tang of the salt marshes was in the wind, and a touch of frost over the meadows told me the ducks would soon be coming in from shelter. Already the leaves were falling off the tall elms, twisting in little spirals through the clear October sunlight.
And yet, in spite of the wind and the sea and the clean light of the forenoon, there was a sadness about the place, and an undercurrent of uneasy silence that the rustling of the leaves and the noise of the surf only seemed to accentuate. It was like the silence that falls about a table when the guests have left it, and the chairs are empty and the lights are growing dim. It was the silence that comes over all places where there should be people, and yet where no one comes.
The shrubbery my grandfather had brought from England was more wild and disordered than when I had seen it last. The weeds had choked the formal garden that once grew before the front door. And the house—I had often pictured that house in my memory—with its great arched doorway, its small-paned windows and its gambrel roof. Once it had seemed to me a massive and majestic structure. Now those ten years had made it shrink to a lonely, crumbling building that overlooked the harbor mouth. Clematis had swarmed over the bricks, a tangle of dead and living vines. The paint was chipping from the doors and window ledges. Here and there a shutter had broken loose and was sagging on rusted hinges. Houses are apt to follow the direction their owners take.
I knew I was being watched, though I cannot tell how I knew it. Yet I saw nothing until I was nearly at our door. I remember I was noticing the green stain from the brass knocker on its paneling, when my horse snorted and stopped dead in his tracks. From the overgrown clump of lilacs that flanked the granite stone which served as a door-step something was glinting in the sun, and then as I looked more closely, I saw a face peering at me from between the twigs, a face of light mahogany with thick lips that showed the presence of negro blood. It was Brutus, my father's half-caste servant.
Dark and saturnine as ever, he glided out into the path in front of me, thrusting something back into the sash around his waist, moved toward me, and took my horse's head. His teeth shone when I spoke to him, but he said never a word in return to my greeting. There was a touch of Indian in his blood that made his speech short and laconic. Nevertheless, he was glad to see me. He grasped my shoulder as I dismounted, and shook me gently from side to side. His great form loomed before me, his lips framed in a cheerful grin, his eyes appraising and friendly. And then I noticed for the first time the livid welt of a cut across his cheek. Brutus read my glance, but he only shook his head in answer.
"What do you mean, hiding in those bushes?" I asked him roughly.
"Always must see who is coming," said Brutus. "Monsieur may not want to see who is coming—you understan'?"
"No," I said, "I don't understand."
His grasp on my shoulder tightened.
"Then you go home," he said, "You go home now. Something happen. Monsieur very angry. Something bad—you understan'?"
"He is in the house?" I asked.
"Then take this horse," I said, and swung open the front door.
A draft eddied through the broad old hallway as I stepped over the threshold, and there was a smell of wood smoke that told me the chimneys were still cold from disuse. Someone had stored the hall full of coils of rope and sailcloth, but in the midst of it the same tall clock was ticking out its cycle, and the portraits of the Shelton family still hung against the white panels.
The long, brown rows of books still lined the walls of the morning room. The long mahogany table in the center was still littered with maps and papers. There were the same rusted muskets and small swords in the rack by the fireplace, and in front of the fire in a great, high-backed armchair my father was sitting. I paused with a curious feeling of doubt, surprise and diffidence. Somehow I had pictured a different meeting and a different man. He must surely have heard my step and the jingling of my spurs as I crossed the room, but he never so much as raised his head. He still rested, leaning indolently back, watching the flames dance up the chimney. He was dressed in gray satin small clothes that went well with his slender figure. His wig was fresh powdered, and his throat and wrists were framed in spotless lace. The care of his person was almost the only tribute he paid to his past.
I must have stood for twenty seconds watching him while he watched the fire, before he turned and faced me, and when he did I had forgotten the words I had framed to greet him. I knew he was preparing to meet a hard ordeal. He knew as well as I there was no reason why I should be glad to see him. Yet he showed never a trace of uncertainty. His eye never wavered. His lips were drawn in the same supercilious upward curve that gave him the expression I most often remembered. Ten years had not done much to change him. The pallor I had remembered on his features had been burned off by a tropical sun. That was all. There was hardly a wrinkle about his eyes, hardly a tell-tale crease in his high forehead. Wherever he had been, whatever he had done, his serenity was still unshaken. It still lay over him, placid and impenetrable. And when he spoke, his voice was cool and impassive and cast in pleasant modulation.
"So you are here," he remarked, as though he were weighing each word carefully, "and why did you come? I think I told you in my letter there was no need unless you wished."
There was something cold and unfriendly in his speech. I tried in vain to fight down a rising feeling of antagonism, a vague sense of disappointment. For a moment we glanced at each other coldly.
"I think, sir," I answered, "from a sense of curiosity."
Almost as soon as I had spoken, I was sorry, for some sixth sense told me I had hurt him. With a lithe, effortless grace he rose from his chair and faced me, and his smile, half amused, half tolerant, curved his lips again.
"I should have known you would be frank," he said, "Your letter, my son, refusing to accept my remittances, should have taught me as much, but we grow forgetful as our feet weary of the path of life."
Yet I remember thinking that few people looked less weary than my father as he stood there watching me. The primroses, it seemed, had afforded pleasant footing.
I believe he read my thoughts, for it seemed to me that for an instant genuine amusement was written in his glance, but there were few genuine emotions he allowed free play.
"Perhaps," he suggested pleasantly, "it would interest you to know why I have returned to these rather rigorous and uncongenial surroundings. If not, I beg you to be frank again, Henry. There's nothing that I dread more than being stupid."
"Sir," I objected, "I told you I was curious."
"To be sure you did," he admitted. "Can it be possible that I am becoming absent-minded? Henry, I am going to tell you something very flattering. Can you believe it? It is largely on your account that I consented to revisit these familiar scenes!"
"No," I said, "I cannot, sir, since you ask me."
My father shrugged his shoulders. "Far be it from me to overstrain your credulity, my son," he observed blandly. "Let us admit then there was also some slight factor of expedience—but slight, Henry, almost negligible, in fact. It happened that I was in a French port, and that while there I should think of you."
"Sir," I said, "You startle me!"
But he continued, regardless of my interruption.
"And what should be there also, but the Eclipse, ready to set for home! Quite suddenly I determined to sail her back. I, too, was curious, my son." For a moment his voice lost its bantering note. "Curious," he continued gravely, "to know whether you were a man like me, or one of whom I might have reason to be proud.... So here we are, Henry. Who said coincidence was the exception and not the rule?"
His last words drifted gently away, and in their wake followed an awkward silence. The logs were hissing in the fire. I could hear the clock in the hall outside, and the beating of the vines against the window panes. It was no sound, certainly, that made me whirl around to look behind me,—some instinct—that was all. There was Brutus, not two feet from my back, with my father's cloak over his right arm, and my father's sword held in his great fist.
"Do not disturb yourself, Brutus," said my father. "We are both gentlemen, more or less, and will not come to blows. My cloak, Brutus. I am sorry, my son, that we must wait till later in the day to exchange ideas. Even here in America affairs seem to follow me. Will you content yourself till evening? There are horses in the stable and liquors in the cellar. Choose all or either, Henry. Personally, I find them both amusing."
He stood motionless, however, even when his dark cloak was adjusted to his shoulders, as though some matters were disturbing him; and then he tapped his sword hilt with a precise, even motion of his fingers.
"Brutus," he said slowly, "I shall take my pistols also."
"Your pistols!" I echoed. "You have forgotten you are back in America."
He half turned toward me, and favored me with a serene, incurious glance.
"On the contrary," he said, "I am just beginning to remember."
And so without further words he left me. I followed him through our rear doorway, out over the crumbling bricks of our terrace, which had been built to overlook the river, and watched him walk slowly and thoughtfully down the path with its border of elm trees, to his warehouses, where a half dozen men had already started work.
The river was dark blue under a cloudless sky. The sunlight was playing in restless sparkles where the wind ruffled the water's surface. Out near the channel I could see the Eclipse riding at anchor, her decks littered with bales and gear, and the Sun Maid and the Sea Tern, trim and neat, and down deep in the water as though ready to put to sea. At the head of our wharf were bales and boxes stacked in the odd confusion that comes of a hasty discharge of cargo.
On the terrace where I was standing I could see the other wharves along the waterfront, and the church spires and roofs of the town reared among the trees that lined the busy streets. Toward the sand dunes the marshes stretched away in russet gold into the autumn haze. The woods across the river were bright patches of reds and yellows, pleasant and inviting in the sunlight.
But I saw it all with only half an eye. I was still thinking of the dark hall behind me, and the cold, unwelcome stillness of the shuttered rooms. I could understand his depression, now that he had come back to it. But there was something else.... I was still thinking of it when I looked at the Eclipse again. It would have been hard to find a craft of more delicate, graceful lines. They often said he had a flair for ships and women. A shifting current, some freak of the wind and tide, was making her twist and pull at her anchor, and for a moment the sun struck clean on her broadside. A gaping hole between decks had connected two of her ports in a jagged rent.
It was not surprising. My father's ships were often fired on at sea. Nor was it strange that Brutus had a half-healed scar on his cheek. But why had my father gone armed to his own wharf? Perhaps I might have forgotten if I had not visited the stables.
Our carriage harness still hung from the pegs, dried and twisted by the years, and minus its silver trimmings. The sunlight filtered through cracks in the roof, and danced through the dust mites to the rows of vacant stalls. Near the door my horse was feeding comfortably, and beside him stood two bays that shone from careful grooming. One was carrying a saddle with a pair of pistols in the pocket. Yet not a hair had been turned from riding.
I rode through town that afternoon, and it was not entirely because time hung heavily on my hands. We were proud of our town. The houses were as elegant and substantial as any you could find. Our streets were broad and even. Our walks were paved with brick. There was not a finer tavern than ours to the north of Boston, or better dressed men frequenting it. Men said in those days that we would be a great seaport; that the world would look more and more to that northern Massachusetts river mouth. They had spoken thus of many other harbor towns in the centuries that men have gone down to the sea. I think they have been wrong almost as often as they had predicted. The ships have ceased to sail over the bar. No one heeds the rotting planking of the wharves. The clang of hammers and the sailors' songs have gone, and trade and gain and venture have gone with them.
Strange, as I recall that afternoon. They were building a new L to the tavern. Tradespeople were busy about their shops. Coaches newly painted, and drawn by well-matched horses, rolled by me. Gentlemen in bright new coats, servants in new family livery, sailors from the docks, clerks from the counting houses, all gave the street a busy air—lent it a pleasant assurance of affluence.
I was mistaken when I thought I could ride by as a stranger might. It seemed to me that there was no one too busy to stop and look, to turn and whisper a word to someone else. They had learned already that I was my father's son. I could feel a hot flame of anger burning my cheeks, the old, stinging passion of resentment I had felt so often when my father's name was mentioned. They knew me. Their looks alone told that, but never a nod, or smile of greeting, marked my return.
Though I had never spoken to them, I knew them all—the Penfields, father and son, tall and lean with bony faces and sandy hair and eyebrows, and restless, pale blue eyes—Squire Land, small and ascetic, his lips constantly puckered as though he had tasted something unpleasant. Captain Proctor, stouter than when I had seen him last, with the benign good nature that comes of settled affairs and good living. Over them and over the town, those eight years had passed with a light hand.
But it was not our town I had come to visit. I found Ned Aiken, as I knew I should, with the Eclipse in harbor. He was seated on his door step by the river road, as though he had always been planted in that very place. I remember expecting he would be glad to see me. Instead, he took his pipe from his mouth, and gazed at me steadily, like some steer stopped from grazing. Then he placed his pipe on the stone step, and rose slowly to his feet, squat and burly, his little eyes glinting below his greasy, unbraided hair, his jaw protruding and ominous. Slowly he loosened the dirty red handkerchief he kept swathed about his throat, and raised a stubby hand to push the hair from his heavy forehead. Then his face relaxed into a grim smile, and he seated himself on the step again.
"You've changed since last I saw you," he said; "changed remarkable, you have. Why, right now I thought you might be someone else."
Had Brutus also been laboring under the same delusion?
I told him I was glad we were still on speaking terms, and seated myself beside him. He studied me for a while in silence, leisurely puffing at his pipe.
"You mistook me for someone?" I asked finally.
"Yes," said Mr. Aiken, and slapped his pipe against the palm of his hand. "You've been shootin' up, you have, since I set eyes on you."
He paused, seemingly struck by a genial inspiration.
"Yes, shootin' up." Still looking at me he gave way to a hoarse chuckle.
"Why, boy, we've all been doing some shootin'—you, your dad, and me too—since we seen you last," and he was taken by a paroxysm of silent mirth.
"Now that's what I call wit!" he gasped complacently, and then he repeated in joyous encore:
"You shootin'—me shootin'—he shootin'."
"You weren't shooting at anybody?" I asked with casual innocence.
"And why shouldn't we be, I want to know?" he demanded, but his tongue showed no sign of slipping. His glance had resumed its old stolid watchfulness, which caused me to remain tactfully silent.
"But we wasn't shootin' at anybody," Mr. Aiken concluded, more genially. "Not at anybody, just at selected folks."
He stopped to glance serenely about him, and somehow the dusty road, the river, the trees and the soft sunlight seemed to make him strangely confiding. His harsh voice lowered in gentle patronage.
"Would you like to know who those folks were?" he asked finally.
I must have been too eager in giving my assent, for Mr. Aiken smiled broadly and nodded his head with complacent satisfaction.
"I thought you would admire to," said Mr. Aiken; "like as not you'd give a tooth to know, now wouldn't you? Never do know a tooth is useful till you lose it. Now look at me—I've had as many as six stove out off an' on, and now—But you wanted to know who it was we shot at, didn't you? So you did, boy, so you did. Well, I'll tell you, so I will. Yes, so help me if I don't tell you, boy." And his voice trailed off in a low chuckle.
"It was folks like you," he concluded crisply; "folks who didn't mind their own business."
Gleefully he repeated the sentence. Its ringing cadence and the trend of his whole discourse gave him evident pleasure, and even caused him to continue further with his rebuke.
"There you have it," said Mr. Aiken, "the Captain's own words, b'Gad. 'Mr. Aiken', he says, 'I fancy we may meet a number of people whose affairs will not stop them interfering with our own. If you see any,' he says, 'shoot them, Mr. Aiken'."
He had lapsed into a good-natured, reminiscent mood, and, as he fixed his gaze on the trees across the road, he was prompted to enlarge still further on the episode. He seemed to have forgotten I was there as he continued.
"I wish it had been on deck," he remarked, "instead of a place with damned gold chairs and gold on the ceiling, and cloth on the walls, and velvets such as respectable folks use for dress and not for ornament, and candles in gold sticks, and the floor like a sheet of ice.
"Hell," said Mr. Aiken. "I'd sooner slip on blood than on a floor like that. Yes, so I would. I wonder why those frog eaters don't make their houses snug and decent instead of big as a church. Now, though I'm not a moral man, yet I call it immoral, damned if I don't, to live in a house like that."
"Yet somehow pleasant," I ventured politely, "surely you have found that the beauty of most immoral things. They all seem to be pleasant. Am I not right, Mr. Aiken?"
He looked at me sharply, shrugged his shoulders, and denied me the pleasure of an answer.
"Not that I meant to puzzle you," I added hastily, "but you have sailed so long with my father, that I considered you in a position to know. Now in France—"
Mr. Aiken dropped his pipe.
"Who said anything about France?" he demanded.
"And did you not?" I asked, beginning to enjoy my visit. "Surely you were speaking just now about a chateau, the scene of some pleasant adventure. Pray don't let me interrupt you."
A bead of perspiration rolled down Mr. Aiken's brow, and he tightened his handkerchief about his throat, as though to stifle further conversation. He sat silent for a minute while his mind seemed to wander off into a maze of dim recollections, and his eyes half-closed, the better to see the pictures that drifted through his memory.
"What am I here ashore and sober for," he asked finally, "so I won't talk, that's why, and I won't talk, so there's the end of it. It's just that I have to have my little joke, that's all, or I wouldn't have said anything about the chato or the Captain either.
"Though, if I do say it," he added in final justification, "there ain't many seafaring men who have a chance to sail along of a man like him."
"And how does that happen?" I asked.
"Because there ain't any more like him to sail with."
He sat watching me, and the gap between us seemed to widen. He seemed to be looking at me from some great distance, from the end of the road where years and experience had led him, full of thoughts he could never express, even if the desire impelled him.
"No, not any," said Mr. Aiken.
The dusk was beginning to gather when I rode home, the heavy purple dusk of autumn, full of the crisp smell of dead leaves and the low hanging wood smoke from the chimneys.
My father was reading Voltaire beside a briskly burning fire. Closing his book on his forefinger, he waved me to a chair beside him.
"My son," he said, "they mix better than you think, Voltaire and gunpowder. Have you not found it so?"
"I fear," I replied, "that my experience has been too limited. Give me time, sir, I have only been twice to sea. Next time I shall remember to take Voltaire with me."
"Do," he advised courteously; "you will find it will help with the privateers—tide you over every little unpleasantness. Ah yes, it is advice worth following. I learned it long ago—a little difference of opinion—and the pages of the great philosopher—"
He raised his arm and glanced at it critically.
"Words well placed—is it not wonderful, their steadying effect—the deadly accuracy which their logic seems to impart to the hand and eye? A man can be dangerous indeed with twenty pages of Voltaire behind him."
He took a pinch of snuff, and leaned forward to tap me gently on the knee, his expression coldly genial.
"I have read all the works of Voltaire, Henry, read them many times."
Unbidden, a picture of him came before me in a room with gilt chairs and candelabra whose glass pendants sparkled in the mild yellow light—with a smell of powder mingling strangely with the scent of flowers.
"But why," he concluded, "should I be more explicit than Mr. Aiken? To fear nothing, say nothing. It is a maxim followed by so many politicians. Strange that it still stays valuable. Strange—"
And he waved his hand in a negligent gesture of deprecation.
"Why, indeed, be more explicit," I rejoined. "Your sudden interest is quite enough to leave me overcome, sir, when, after years of neglect, you see to it I ride out safely of an afternoon."
He tapped his snuff box thoughtfully.
"Coincidence again, Henry, that is all. How was I to know you would be outside Ned Aiken's house while I was within?"
"And how should I know that paternal care would prompt you to remain within while I was without?"
For a second it seemed to me that my father was going to laugh—for a fraction of a second something like astonishment seemed to take possession of him. Then Brutus appeared in the doorway.
"My son," he said, as I followed him to supper, "I must compliment you. Positively you improve upon acquaintance."
I had remembered him as a man who disliked talk. I had often seen him sit for hours on end without a word, looking at nothing in particular, with his expressionless serenity. But on this particular evening the day's activities appeared to have made his social instincts vividly assertive, and to arouse him to unusual, and almost unnatural animation. As we sat at a small round table beside the dining room fireplace, he launched into a cheerful discourse, ignoring completely any displeasure I attempted to assume. The great room with its dingy wainscot only half lighted by the candles on the table before us, was cluttered with a hundred odds and ends that collect in a deserted house—a ladder, a stiff, rusted bridle, a coil of frayed rope, a kettle, a dozen sheets of the Gazette, empty bottles, dusty crockery and broken chairs. He surveyed them all with a bland, uncritical glance. From his manner he might have been surrounded by brilliant company. From his conversation he might have been in a pot house.
I noticed at once what many had been at pains to mention to me before—that my father was not a temperate man. Nor did our cellar seem wholly bleak. He pressed wine upon me, and soon had finished a bottle himself, only to gesture Brutus to uncork a second. And all the while he regaled me with anecdotes of the gaming table and the vices of a dozen seaports. With hardly a pause he described a lurid succession of drinking bouts and gallant adventures. He finished a second bottle of wine, and was half way through a third. Yet all the while his voice never lost its pleasant modulation. Never a flush or an increase of animation came to change him. Politely detached, he discoursed of love and murder, gambling and chicanery, drawing on the seemingly exhaustless background of his own experience for illustration. He seemed to have known the worst men from all the ends of the earth, to have shared in their business and their pleasures. He seemed to have been in every discreditable undertaking that came beneath his notice. In retrospect they pleased him—all and every one.
What he saw when he glanced at me appeared to please him also. At any rate, it gave him the encouragement that one usually receives from an attentive listener.
"Brutus, again a bottle. It is at the fourth bottle," he explained, "that I am at my best. It is the fourth bottle, or perhaps the fifth, that seems to free me from the restraints that old habits and early education have wound about me. In vino veritas, my son, but the truth must be measured in quarts for each individual. Some men I know might be drowned in wine and still be hypocrites, so solidly are their heads placed upon their shoulders. But my demands are modest, my son, just as modest as I am a modest sinner."
He called to Brutus to toss more wood upon the fire, leaned back for a while, holding his glass to the light of the flames, and turned to me again with his cool, perfunctory smile.
"Strange, is it not, that men through all the ages have sought fools and charlatans to tell their fortunes, when a little wine is clearer than the most mystic ball of crystal. Before the bottle the priests of Egypt and the Delphic oracle seem as faint, my son, as the echoes in a snail shell. Palmistry and astrology—let us fling them into the whirlpool of vanity! But give a man wine enough, and any observer can tell his possibilities. A touch of it—and where are the barriers with which he has surrounded himself? Another drop, and how futile are all the deceptions which he is wont to practice upon others! In St. Kitts once I drank wine with a most respectable merchant, a man who carried the Bible beside his snuff box, and referred to both almost as frequently as he did to the profit and balance on his ledger. And would you believe it? The next time he met me, he blamed me for the loss of many thousands of pounds. He even laid at my door certain reprehensible indiscretions of his wife, though I could have told him that night over the glasses that both were inevitable long before either occurred.
"But pray do not look at me so blankly, my son. It was not clairvoyance on my part—merely simple reasoning, aided by very excellent and very heady Madeira. How true it is that there is truth in wine—and money too, if the grape is used to the proper advantage.
"Again—some men talk of fortune at cards, good luck or bad, but as for me, I can tell how the luck will run by the number of bottles that are placed beside the table. A little judgment, and the crudest reasoning—that is all. But doubtless mutual friends have already hinted to you of my propensities at cards—and other things. Is it not so, my son?"
Was it the gentle inflection of the question, or his intent glance that made me feel, as I had felt before that day, that I was face to face with an alert antagonist? He called on me to speak, and I was loth to break my silence. If he had only left me to my own bitter thoughts,—but why should I have expected him to be tactful? Why should I have expected him to be different from the gossip that clouded his name?
"Your card playing is still remembered, sir," I told him. "I have heard of it two months back."
Deliberately he pushed one of the candles aside, so that the light should stand less between us, poured himself another glass of wine, and flicked the dust from the bottle off his sleeve.
"Indeed?" was his comment. "Your memory does you credit, even though youthful impressions are apt to lodge fast. Or shall I say it is only another proof of the veracity of my man of business? Two months ago, at a certain little gathering, someone, whose name I have yet to discover, informed you of certain bad habits I had contracted in games of chance. I remember being interested at the time that my reputation lasted so well in my absence. But I beg you—let me confirm the report still further. Am I mistaken in believing you made some apt retort?"
"Sir," I said in a voice that sounded strangely discordant, "I told him he lied."
"Ha!" said my father, and for a moment I thought he was going to commend my act, but instead his eyes moved to the table.
"Brutus," he continued, "is my mind becoming cloudy, or is it true the wine is running low? Open another bottle, Brutus."
There was a silence while he raised his glass to his lips.
"And am I right," he asked, "in recalling that you allowed yourself the liberty—of punctuating that comment?"
"You have been well informed, sir," I answered. "I struck him in the face."
He waved a hand to me in a pleasant gesture of acknowledgment, and half turned in his chair, the better to speak over his shoulder.
"Did I hear aright, Brutus?" he inquired. "There's faith for you and loyalty! He called the boy a liar who called me a cheat at cards! Ah, those illusions of youth! Ah for that sweet mirage that used to glitter in the sky overhead! It's only the wine that brings it back today—called him a liar, Brutus, and gave him the blow!"
"But pardon," he went on. His voice was still grave and slow, though his lips were bent in a bitter little smile. His face had reddened, and it was the wine, I think, that made his eyes dance in the candle light. "Overlook, I beg, the rudeness of my interruption. The exceptional in your narrative quite intrigues me, my son. Doubtless your impulsive action led to the conventional result?"
There he sat, amusedly examining me, smiling at my rising temper. My reply shaped itself almost without my volition.
"Excuse me, sir," I retorted, "if I say the result was more natural than your action upon a greater provocation."
"Had it ever occurred to you, my son, that perhaps my self-control was greater also? Let us call it so, at any rate, and go on with our adventure."
"As you will, sir," I said. "We all make our mistakes."
He raised his eyebrows in polite surprise, and his hand in a gesture of protest.
"Our mistakes? Was I not right in believing you had a competent instructor? I begin to fear your education is deficient. Surely you have agility and courage. Why a mistake, my son?"
"The mistake," I replied, "was in the beginning and not in the end. I made the error in believing he told an untruth."
"Indeed?" said my father. "Thank you, Brutus, I have had wine enough for the evening. Do you not consider your error—how shall we put it—quite inexcusable in view of the other things you have doubtless heard?"
But I could only stare dumbly at him across the table.
"Come, come," he continued. "How goes the gossip now? Surely there is more about me. Surely you have heard"—he paused to drain the dregs in his glass—"the rest?"
I eyed him for a moment in silence before I answered, but he met my glance fairly, indulging apparently in the same curiosity, half idle, half cynical, that he might have displayed before some episode of the theatre. It was a useless question that he asked. He knew too well that the answer was obvious.
"Yes," I said, "I have heard it."
"So," he exclaimed cheerfully, "my reputation still continues. Wonderful, is it not, how durable a bad reputation is, and how fragile a good one. One bounds back like a rubber ball. The other shatters like a lustre punch bowl. And did the same young man—I presume he was young—enlighten you about this, the most fatal parental weakness?"
"No," I said, "I learned of it later."
He raised his hand and began gently stroking his coat lapel, his fingers quickly crossing it in a vain search for some imaginary wrinkle, moving back and forth with a steady persistence, while he watched me, still amused, still indifferent.
"And might I ask who told you?" he inquired.
"Your brother-in-law," I replied, "My Uncle Jason."
"Dieu!" cried my father, "but I grow careless."
He was looking ruefully at his lapel. Somehow the threads had given way, and there was a rent in the gray satin.
"Another coat ruined," he observed, and the raillery was gone from his voice. "How fortunate it is that the evening is well along, and bed time is nearly here. One coat torn in the brambles, and one with a knife, and now—But your uncle was right, quite right in telling you. Indeed, I should have done the same myself. The truth first, my son. Always remember that."
And he turned again to his coat.
"I told him I did not believe it," I ventured, but the appeal in my voice, if there was any, passed him quite unnoticed.
"Indeed?" he said. "Brutus, you will put an extra blanket on my bed, for I fancy the night air is biting."
I pushed back my chair.
"And now, you will excuse me" I said, "if I take my leave."
I rose a trifle unsteadily, and stood before him, with no particular effort to hide my anger and contempt. But apparently I had ceased to be of interest. He was sitting just as I had first seen him that morning, staring into the embers of the fire. As I watched him, even through my anger I felt a vague regret, a touch of pity—pity for a life that was wasted in spite of its possibilities, in boasting and blackguardry. I began hoping that he would speak, would argue or remonstrate. Instead, he said nothing, only sat serenely indifferent, his eyes still on the fire. Stepping around the debris that filled the room, I had placed my hand on the latch, when I heard a stealthy footstep behind me. Brutus was at my elbow. There was a tinkle of a wine glass falling on the hearth. I turned to see my father facing me beside the table I had quitted—the calm modulation gone from his voice, his whole body poised and alert, as though ready to spring through the space that separated us.
"No doubt," he said, drawing a deep breath, "you are leaving this house because you cannot bear to stay under the same roof with a man of my stamp and accomplishments. Come, is that the reason?"
"Only partly," I answered, turning to face him, and then the words tripped off my tongue, hot and bitter, before I had wit to check them. "What right have I to be particular, now that I have found out my inheritance? Why should I pick my company? Why should I presume to hold my head up? I can only be blessed now, sir, like the rest of the meek."
I paused to let my final words sink in, and because I knew they would hurt him, I spoke them with an added satisfaction.
"I shall start at once to acquire merit which the moth cannot corrupt," I continued. "I am leaving to apologize to the man I fought with because he called you a cheat—and to my uncle for doubting his word."
My father's fist came down on the table with a crash.
"Then, by God," he shouted, "you'll not leave this room! You'll not take a single step until you've learned two things, learned them so you'll never forget. Stand where you are and listen!"
I remember the curious feeling I had that my father was gone, that he had vanished while my back was turned, leaving me to face someone else. Then, as I stared at him, still unready and speechless, the light died out of his eyes, his lips relaxed, and his hand went up to arrange the lace at his throat.
"Shun my example," he said, "shudder at the life I have led. Call me dissolute. Call me dangerous company. Say that in every way I'm unfit to be your father—say that I'm an outcast, suitable only as material for slander. I will agree with you. I will teach you that your judgment is correct. Let us only set two limits and do not call them virtues. They are necessities in the life I lead, nothing more. They—"
The sound at the knocker on the front door broke into my father's speech and stilled it. In the pause, while the echoes died away, he shrugged his shoulders negligently, and settled himself back in his chair.
"My son," he sighed, "allow me to point out the misfortune of being a man of affairs. They will never adjust themselves to the proper time and place. Brutus, the two gentlemen about whom I was speaking—show them in at once. And you, my son, there is no need for you to leave. The evening is young yet."
"Where are you, Shelton?" came a sharp, authoritative voice from the hallway. "Damn this dark passage."
"Open the door, Henry," my father said.
As I did so, two gentlemen entered. The taller, without bothering to remove his hat, strode over to my father's chair. The other stood undecided near the threshold, until Brutus closed the door behind him. Without rising from his chair, my father gave first one and then the other, the impartial, casual glance of the disinterested observer.
"This," he remarked politely, "comes near to being unexpected. I had heard you had come to town, but I had hoped to meet you only in some desolate waste of purgatory. I fear your visitation finds me singularly unprepared to do the duties of a host. You found the passage dark? Ah, Lawton, I fear it will be darker still where you are going."
"That's enough, Shelton," interrupted the first gentleman. "I didn't come here to hear you talk. I've heard you do that often enough in the old days. You can talk a woman off her feet, but by God, you can't talk me."
My father waved his hand negligently, as though disavowing some compliment.
"The same forceful character," he observed gently, "the same blunt candor. How refreshing it is, Lawton, after years of intrigue and dissimulation. My son, this is Mr. Lawton, an old, but he will pardon me if I do not add—a valued acquaintance."
For a moment Mr. Lawton's pale eyes looked sharply into mine, and I bowed to him ironically. I saw a high, thin face, resolute and impulsive, a grim ascetic face, with a long, straight nose that seemed pulled too close to his upper lip, and a mouth stamped roughly on a narrow, bony jaw, a mouth, as I looked at it, that seemed ready to utter an imprecation.
"Mr. Lawton and I have met before," I said.
"Indeed? And our friend in the background," my father continued. "Perhaps it is my bad memory that permits his identity still to be a revelation?"
The stranger nervously arranged a fold in his sea cloak, while his little black eyes darted restlessly about the room.
"It's Sims, Captain Shelton," he volunteered, in a gentle, unassuming voice, "and very much at your service."
"Captain Shelton be damned!" snapped Lawton. "Keep your name to yourself, Sims, and watch the nigger and the boy. Now, Shelton, for the reason why I'm here."
"Indeed, I am forced to admit the reason for your visit may have its pertinence," my father admitted. "The fatigues of a long day, coupled with the evening's wine—" He stifled a yawn behind the back of his hand, and smiled in polite deprecation.
Slight as was his speech, Mr. Lawton seemed to take a deep interest in it. Indeed, even while he backed around the table and seated himself in the chair I had occupied, my father's slightest expression engaged his undivided attention. There fell a silence such as sometimes comes at a game of cards when the stakes at the table are running higher than is pleasant. Brutus was watching Mr. Sims with a malignant intensity. Mr. Sims watched Brutus. Mr. Lawton's eyes, as I have said, never left my father, and my father polished his nails on the sleeve of his coat.
"Did I understand you to say," he asked finally, "that you were planning to relieve my mind of the burden of speculation?"
"Quite," said Mr. Lawton, with a poor attempt at dryness. "I have come here tonight to induce or force you to return a piece of stolen property. I give you the liberty of taking your choice. Either—"
His voice raised itself to a sharp command.
"Damn you, Shelton, sit still!"
The picture had changed. Mr. Lawton was leaning across the table, levelling a pistol at my father's head. With a detached, academic interest, my father glanced at the weapon, and, without perceptible pause, without added haste or deliberation, he continued to withdraw the hand he had thrust into his right coat pocket. Beside me I heard Brutus draw a sharp breath. I saw Mr. Sims fumble under his cloak and take a quick step backwards. There was a tense, pregnant silence, broken by Mr. Sims in fervent expletive. My father had withdrawn his hand. He was holding in it his silver snuff box, which he tossed carelessly on the table, where it slid among the wine bottles.
"Why strain so at a gnat, Lawton," he continued in his old conversational manner. "Though one can kill a sparrow with a five pound shot, is it worth the effort? Small as my personal regard is for you, a note penned in three lines would have brought you back your trinket. But when you say it is stolen—"
With a gesture of exasperation, Mr. Lawton attempted to interrupt.
"When you say it is stolen," my father continued, raising his voice, "your memory fails you. I won that snuff box from you fairly, because your horse refused a water jump in Baltimore fifteen years ago."
Mr. Lawton made a grimace of impatience.
"Perhaps I can refresh your memory on a more immediate matter," he interjected harshly, "a matter rather more in keeping with your character. Don't, don't move, I beg of you! At a certain chateau in the Loire Valley, as recently as two months ago, you had an unfortunate escapade with French government agents."
"Let us err on the side of accuracy," said my father in gracious assent, "and add that the affair was rather more unfortunate for the agents than for myself."
"Meaning it was fortunate you ran away, I suppose," suggested Mr. Lawton, "fortunate, but natural. You escaped, Shelton, in the company of a certain young lady they were seeking to apprehend. You retained in your possession a list of names of political importance. It is a part of your damned blackmail, I suppose. I say you stole that paper!"
"Indeed?" said my father. "In that case, permit me! The snuff is excellent, Lawton, although the box is commonplace."
"By God!" shouted Mr. Lawton, "I've had enough of your damned simpering airs? You're a coward, Shelton. Why conceal it from me? A coward, afraid to demand satisfaction after a public insult—a thief with your theft still about you. I've come to get that list, to return it to its rightful owners. Try your drunkard's bragging on stupefied boys, but not on me! For the last time—will you give that letter up?"
My father's hand that held the snuff box trembled. His glance was almost furtive as he looked from Mr. Sims back to Mr. Lawton. For a moment he stared half-puzzled at Mr. Lawton's pistol. Then he moistened his lips.
"Suppose I should refuse?" he asked.
With a wan smile, Mr. Lawton rubbed his left hand over his long chin.
"In that case," he said, "I shall summon five men whom I hold outside. They will search the house, having searched you first. If they do not find the letter, I shall give you one more chance to produce it."
"Of course you realize your action is illegal?" my father interrupted.
Mr. Lawton laughed.
"We've beaten about the bush long enough," he said. "Will I have to remind you again that I didn't come to hear you talk? Come to the point. Will you give up that paper?"
With a sigh of resignation, my father fumbled in his breast pocket. When he spoke, it seemed a weak appeal to justify his action.
"Under the circumstances, what else can I do?" he demanded, "though it seems hard when I had given my word not to part with it."
He produced a long, sealed document, which he handed across the table. Mr. Lawton's eyes glistened with anticipation as he took it. He held it over the table to scan the seal.
"Damn all your caution, Sims!" he exclaimed exultantly. "We've got it just as I said we would! Didn't I tell you—"
His voice choked. He burst into a violent fit of sneezing. My father had thrown the contents of his snuff box into Mr. Lawton's face.
If his chair had been of hot iron, he could not have moved more quickly. Almost the same moment, Mr. Lawton's pistol was in my father's hand, cocked and primed and pointed at Mr. Sims.
"Brutus," said my father, "unburden Mr. Sims of his weapons. Lawton, a breath of night air may relieve you. Let us go to the window and reflect on the slip that may occur between the container and the nose. My son, give Mr. Lawton your arm. Assist me to open the shutters. Now Mr. Lawton, call to your men. Tell them they may go. Louder, louder, Mr. Lawton. Surely your voice has more strength. My ears have been weary this long time with its clamor."
Even today, as I pen these lines, the picture comes back with the same intensity, but little mellowed or softened with the years. The gaunt old room that had entertained so many guests, emptied of its last one, with nothing but the faint chill that had come through the opened window to remind one of their presence—the fitful light of the two candles that had begun spluttering in the tall brass sticks—Brutus with quiet adroitness clearing away the bottles and the dishes—and a sudden burst of flame from the back log in the fireplace that made his shadow jump unevenly over the opposite wall—and my father resting languidly in his chair again, quite as though nothing had happened—I remember looking about me and almost doubting that anything out of the ordinary had passed in the last five minutes. I glanced narrowly at him, but there was nothing in his manner to betray that he had not been sitting there for the past hour in peaceful meditation. Was he thinking of the other nights when the room was bright with silver and candles?
"My son," he remarked presently, "I was saying to you before our callers interrupted that there are just two things I never do. Do you still care to know them? I think that one may be enough for tonight. It is that circumstances oblige me to keep my word."
"You do not care to tell me any more?" I asked him.
"Only that you had better stay, my son. If you do, I can guarantee you will see me at my worst, which is better, perhaps, than hearing of me second hand. And possibly it may even be interesting, the little drama which is starting."
Thoughtfully he balanced the pistol he was still holding on the palm of his hand, and half unconsciously examined the priming, while I watched him, half with misgiving, half with a reluctant sort of admiration. When he turned towards me again, his eyes had brightened as though he were dwelling on a pleasing reminiscence.
"Indeed," he mused, "it might be more than interesting, hilarious, in fact, if it were not for the lady in the case."
"The lady!" I echoed involuntarily.
"And why not indeed?" he said with a shrug. "Let us do our best to be consistent. What drama is complete without a lady in it? It would have been simpler, I admit, if I had stolen the paper, per se, and not the lady with it. The lady, I fear, is becoming an encumbrance."
"Am I to understand you brought a woman with you across the ocean?"
He placed the pistol on the table before him, looked at it critically, and changed its position.
"A lady, my son, not a woman. You will find that the two are quite different species. I fear she had but little choice. That is a pretty lock on Mr. Lawton's weapon."
"You mean she is here now?" I persisted. He must surely have been in jest.
"To be sure!" he acquiesced. "She is, I trust, asleep in the east guest room, and heaven help you if you wake her. But why do you start, my son, does it seem odd to you that I should act as squire?"
"Not in the least," I assured him. "I am only astonished that she should consent to accompany you. You say, sir, that she is a lady?"
"At least," he replied, "I am broadening your education. That in itself, Henry, quite repays me for any trouble I may have taken—but I fear you are putting a bad construction on it. I beg of you, do not judge me so harshly. Launcelot himself—what am I saying?—Bayard himself, up to the present moment, could only commend my every action."
"Even to bringing her to this house," I suggested coldly.
"Precisely," he replied. "That in itself was actuated by the highest piece of altruism heaven has vouchsafed humanity—the regard a father has for his son."
"Do you mean to think," I demanded angrily, "that you can bring me into this business?"
I was still on my feet, and took a quick step toward him.
"Is it not enough to find you what you are? You've done enough to me tonight, sir, without adding an insult."
My father nodded, quite as though he were receiving a compliment. Seemingly still well pleased, he helped himself again to his snuff, and dusted his fingers carefully with his lace handkerchief.
"You misunderstand me," he said gently. "My present occupation requires a shrewder head and a steadier hand than yours."
"And a different code of morals," I added, bowing.
"Positively, my son, you are turning Puritan," he remarked. "A most refreshing change for the family."
I had an angry retort at the tip of my tongue, but it remained unspoken. For the second time that evening, the dining room door opened. I swung away from the table. My father leapt to his feet, bland and obsequious. A girl with dark hair and eyes was standing on the threshold, staring at us curiously, holding a candle that softened the austerity of her plain black dress. There in the half light there was a slender grace about her that made her seem vaguely unreal. In that disordered room she seemed as incongruous as some portrait from a house across the water, as coldly unresponsive to her surroundings. I imagined her on the last canvas of the gallery, bearing all the traits of the family line—the same quiet assurance, the same confident tilt of the head, the same high forehead and clear cut features.
Evidently a similar thought was running through my father's mind.
"Ah, Mademoiselle," he said swiftly in the French tongue, "stay where you are! Stay but a moment! For as you stand there in the shadows, you epitomize the whole house of Blanzy, their grace, their pride, their beauty."
She tried to suppress a smile, but only half succeeded.
"I fear the Captain has been drinking again," she said quietly. "Not that I am sorry. The wine improves you, I think."
"Mademoiselle lures me to a drunkard's grave," exclaimed my father, bowing low, "but pray be seated. A chair for the lady, my son. Early this afternoon they told me not to expect you. I trust you have had everything possible done for your comfort?"
For a moment she favored me with an incurious glance.
"I was unable to see you on the ship, captain, and I wanted to have a word with you at the first opportunity. Otherwise I would not have favored you with a tableau of the house of Blanzy. I wanted to speak with you—alone."
She had declined the chair I offered her, and was standing facing him, her eyes almost on a level with his.
"This," said my father, bowing again, "is delightfully unexpected! But I forget myself. This is my son, Henry Shelton. May I present him to Mlle. de Blanzy?"
"I suppose you may as well," she replied, holding a hand toward me indifferently. "Let us trust he has your good qualities monsieur, and none of your bad ones. But I wanted to speak to you alone."
"My son is discretion itself," said my father, with another bow. "Pray let him stay. I feel sure our discussion will not only interest but instruct him."
Mademoiselle frowned and tapped an angry foot on the floor.
"You heard what I said, sir. Send him out," she demanded.
"Stay where you are, Henry," said my father gently. "Stay where you are," he repeated more loudly, as I started for the door. "I have something further to say to you before you leave this house."
"Your pardon," he explained, turning again to Mademoiselle, "but my son and I have had a slight falling out over a question of ethics which I think directly concerns the matter you wish to discuss. Pray forgive me, Mademoiselle, but I had much rather he remained."
Mademoiselle glanced at me again, this time with an appeal in her eyes which I read and understood. It seemed to me a trace more of color had mounted to her cheeks. She seemed about to speak but paused irresolutely.
I made a bow which I did my best to render the equal of my father's, and for the first time I was glad I had entered his house.
"Mademoiselle," I said, "it is a pleasure to render you even so small a service."
And I turned to my father, and met his glance squarely.
"I cannot see any profit to either of us for me to remain longer," I observed, "either here or in this house," and I turned to the door.
"Brutus!" called my father sharply. "Stand by the door. Now sir, if you leave this room before I am ready, my servant shall retain you by force. Mademoiselle will pardon this domestic scene," he added, "the boy has an uncertain temper."
I looked to see Brutus' great bulk grinning at me from the doorway. I saw my father half smiling, and fingering the lace at his throat. I saw Mademoiselle watching me, partly frightened, but partly curious, as though she had witnessed similar occurrences. Then my pent up anger got the better of me. Mr. Lawton's pistol still lay on the table. Before my father could divine my intention, I had seized it, and held it pointed at Brutus' head.
"Sir," I said, breathing a trifle faster than usual, "I am not used to being threatened by servants. Order him to one side!"
My father looked at me almost admiringly, and his hand, that had been fingering the lace, groped toward an empty bottle.
"Anything but a bottle, father," I said, watching him from the tail of my eye, "anything but a bottle. It smacks of such low associations."
"Your pardon, Henry," he said quickly, "the movement was purely unconscious. I had thought we were through with pistols for the evening, and Mademoiselle must be fatigued. So put down the pistol, Henry, and let us continue the interview."
"Certainly," I replied, "as soon as you have fulfilled your part of the contract. As soon as you call off your servant, I shall wish you a very good evening. Stand where you are, Brutus."
"Come, come," said my father patiently, "we have had enough of the grotesque this evening. It is growing late, my son. Put down the pistol."
"Brutus," I called, "if you move again, backwards or forwards, I'll fire," and I backed towards the wall.
"Good," said my father. "Henry, you have an amount of courage and foresight which I scarcely expected, even in a son of mine, yet not enough foresight to see that it is useless. Put down the pistol. Put it down before I take it from you!"
His hand had returned again to his torn lapel, and he was leaning slightly forward.
"One instant, father!" I said quickly. "If you come a step nearer, I shall fire on your servant. Pray believe I am serious, father."
"My son!" he cried in mock alarm. "You distress me! Never be serious. Life has too many disappointments for that. Have you not read Marcus Aurelius?"
"Have you reloaded your snuff box?" I asked him.
"Not that," he said, shaking his head, "but I know a hundred ways to disarm a man, otherwise I should not be here witnessing this original situation. My son, I could have killed you half a dozen times since you have been holding that weapon."
"Admitted," I answered, "but I hardly think you will go to such lengths. We all must pause somewhere, father."
"No," he agreed, "unfortunately I am of a mild disposition, and yet—" he made a sudden move toward me—"Do you realize your weapon is unprimed?"
"Shall I try it?" I asked.
"Excellent!" said my father. "You impress me. Yes, I have underrated your possibilities, Henry. However, the play is over—"
He leaned towards the table abruptly and extinguished both the candles. The glow of embers in the fireplace could not relieve the darkness of the shuttered room.
"Now," he continued, "Mademoiselle is standing beside me, and Brutus is between you and me and approaching you. I think it would be safer if you put the pistol down. One's aim is uncertain in the dark, and, after all, it is not Mademoiselle's quarrel. Tell him to put down the pistol, Mademoiselle."
Her voice answered from the darkness in front of me.
"On the contrary," she said lightly, "pray continue. I have not the heart to stop it—nor the courage to interfere in a family quarrel."
"Quite as one would expect from Mademoiselle," his voice replied, "but fortunately my son also has not forgotten his manners. Henry, have you set down the pistol?"
I tossed it on the floor.
"Unfortunately," I said, "I have no woman to hide behind."
I hoped the thrust went home, but my father's voice answered without a tremor.
"You are right, my son. A woman is often useful, though generally when you least expect it. The candles, Brutus."
He rubbed his fingernails on his sleeve and glanced about him with a pleasure he seemed quite unable to conceal. Mademoiselle's cold stare seemed to react upon him like a smile of gratitude. The contempt on my face he seemed to read in terms of adulation.
"Brutus, pick up the pistol. My son, you are more amusing than I had hoped. Indeed, Mademoiselle, perhaps the old saying is right, that the best is in our door-yard. I have had, perhaps, an exceptional opportunity to see the world. I have spent a longer time than I like to think collecting material for enlivening reminiscence, but I cannot recall having been present before at a scene with so many elements of interest. You harbor no ill feelings, my son?"
"None that are new," I said. "Only my first impressions."
"And they are—?" He paused modestly. He might have been awaiting a tribute.
"Father!" I remonstrated. "There is a lady present!"
"You had almost made me forget," he sighed regretfully. "You wished to have a word with me, Mademoiselle? I am listening. No, no, my son! You will be interested, I am sure. The door, Brutus!"
But it was not Brutus who stopped me. Mademoiselle had laid a hand on my arm. As I looked down at her, the bitterness and chagrin I had felt began slowly to ebb away. Her eyes met mine for a moment in thoughtful appraisal.
"You have been kind," she said softly, "Kind, and you know you have no reason—."
She might have continued, but my father interrupted.
"No reason," he said, "No reason? It is only Mademoiselle's complete disregard of self that prevents her from seeing the reason. A reason," he added, bowing, "which seems to me as natural as it is obvious."
I turned toward him quickly. From the corner of my eye I could see Brutus move nearer, and then Mademoiselle stepped between us.
"We have had quite enough of this," said Mademoiselle, and she looked from one to the other of us with a condescension that was not wholly displeasing. Then, fixing her eyes on my father, she continued:
"Not that I am in the least afraid of you, Captain Shelton. We have had to employ too many men like you not to know your type. Your son, I think, must take after his mother. I fear he thinks I am a damsel in distress. I trust, captain, that you know better, though for the moment, you seem to have forgotten."
"Forgotten?" my father echoed, raising his eyebrows.
"Yes," she said, speaking more quickly, "forgotten that you are in the pay of my family. You had contracted to get certain papers from France, which were in danger of being seized by the authorities."
Seemingly undecided how to go on, she hesitated, glanced at me covertly, and then continued.
"I accompanied you because—"
"Because you did not care to share the fate reserved for the papers?" my father suggested politely.
For a moment she was silent, staring at my father almost incredulously, while he inclined his head solicitously, as though ready to obey her smallest wish. Again I started to turn away.
"The door, Brutus," said my father.
"I am beginning to see I made a mistake in not remaining," Mademoiselle said finally. "Yet you—"
"Contrived to rescue both the papers and Mademoiselle, if I remember rightly," said my father, bowing, "an interesting and original undertaking, but pray do not thank me."
"Be still!" she commanded sharply. "You were not paid to be impertinent, captain. I have only one more request to make of you before I leave this house tomorrow morning."
He shrugged his shoulders, and glanced at me, as though definitely to assure himself that I was listening.
"I do not think that Mademoiselle will leave the house at that date," he said, with a second bow.
"And what does the captain mean by that?" she asked quickly.
"Simply that the house is already watched," said my father, "watched, Mademoiselle, by persons in the pay of the French government. Do not start, Mademoiselle, they will not trouble us tonight, I think."
For the first time her surprising self-confidence left her. She turned pale, even to her red lips, stretched out a hand blindly, and grasped the table.
"And the paper?" she whispered. "You have destroyed it?"
My father shook his head.
"Then," gasped Mademoiselle, "give it to me now! At once, captain, if you please!"
"Mademoiselle no longer trusts me?" asked my father, in tones of pained surprise. "Surely not that!"
"Exactly that!" she flung back at him angrily.
He bowed smilingly in acknowledgment.
"And Mademoiselle is right," he agreed. "I have read the paper. I have been tempted."
"You rogue!" she cried. "You mean—"
"I mean," he interrupted calmly, "that I have been tempted and have fallen. The document I carry has too much value, Mademoiselle. The actual signatures of the gentlemen who had been so deluded as to believe they could restore a king to France! Figure for yourself, my lady, those names properly used are a veritable gold mine, more profitable than my Chinese trade can hope to be! Surely you realize that?"
"So you have turned from cards to diplomacy," I observed. "How versatile you grow, father!"
"They are much the same thing," my father said.
"And you mean," Mademoiselle cried, "you are dog enough to use those names? You mean you are going back on your word either to destroy that list or to place it in proper hands? You mean you are willing to see your friends go under the guillotine? Surely not, monsieur! Surely you are too brave a gentleman. Surely a man who has behaved as gallantly as you—No, captain, I cannot believe it!"
"Mademoiselle," he said blandly, "still has much to learn of the world. Take myself, for instance. I am a gentleman only by birth and breeding. Otherwise, pray believe I am quite unspeakable, quite. Do you not see that even my son finds me so?"
He nodded towards me in graceful courtesy.
"For me," he continued smoothly, "only one thing has ever remained evident, and well-defined for long, and that, my lady, is money. Nearly everything else seems to tarnish, but still money keeps its lustre. Ah! Now we begin to understand each other. Strange you should not realize it sooner. I cannot understand what actuated so many persons, supposedly rational, to sign such a ridiculous document. That they have done so is their fault, not mine. I believe, Mademoiselle, in profiting by the mistakes of others. I believe in profiting by this one. Someone should be glad to pay a pretty price for it."
He stopped and shrugged his shoulders, and she stood before him helpless, her hand raised toward him in entreaty. For a moment my father glanced away.
"You couldn't! Oh, you couldn't!" she began. "For God's sake, Monsieur, think what you are doing. I—we all trusted you, depended on your help. We thought you were with us. We—-"
Her voice choked in a sob, and she sank into a chair, her face buried in her hands. My father looked at her, and took a pinch of snuff.
"Indeed," he said, "I am almost sorry, but it is the game, Mademoiselle. We each have our little square on the chess board. I regret that mine is a black one. A while ago I was a pawn, paid by your family. Then it seemed to me expedient to do as you dictated—to take you out of France to safety, to deliver both you and a certain paper to your brother's care. But that was a while ago. I am approaching the king row now. Forgive me, if things seem different—and rest assured, Mademoiselle, that you, at least, are in safe hands as long as you obey my directions."
He made this last statement with a benign complacency, and once more busied himself with his nails. I took a step toward him, and he looked up, as though to receive my congratulations.
"So you leave us, my son," he said briskly. "I fear you will meet with trouble before you pass the lane. But you seem surprisingly able to look out for yourself. Brutus will help you to saddle."
"You are mistaken," I said. "I am not leaving."
And I bowed to Mademoiselle, who had started at the sound of my voice, and was staring at me with a tear-stained face.
"I have decided to stay," I cried, "If Mademoiselle will permit me."
But she did not answer, and my father regarded us carefully, as though balancing possibilities.
"Not leaving!" Whether my statement was surprising or otherwise was impossible to discern. He raised his eyebrows in interrogation, and I smiled at him in a manner I hoped resembled his.
"I fear you may tire of my company," I went on, "because I am going to stay until you have disposed of this paper as Mademoiselle desires. Or if you are unwilling to do so, I shall take pleasure in doing it myself."
My father rubbed his hands, and then tapped me playfully on the shoulder.
"Somehow I thought this little scene would fetch you," he cried. "Excellent, my son! I hoped you might stay on."
"And now, sir," I said, "the paper, if you please."
"What!" exclaimed my father, with a gesture of astonishment. "You too want the paper! How popular it is becoming, to be sure!"
"At least I am going to try to get it," I began gravely, when a sudden change in his expression stopped me.
"Wait," he said coldly. "Look before you leap, my son. Allow me to make the situation perfectly clear before you attempt anything so foolish. In the first place, let us take myself. I am older than you, it is true, but years and excitement have not entirely weakened me. I have been present in many little unpleasantnesses. I have fought with Barbary pirates and Chinese junks, and with assorted Christians. The fact that I am here tonight proves I am usually successful. Even if I were alone, I doubt if you could take the paper from me. But you forget another matter—"
He turned and pointed to Brutus in the doorway. Brutus grinned back and nodded violently, his eyes rolling in pleased anticipation.
"Eight years ago," my father continued, "I saved Brutus from the gallows at Jamaica. He has a strangely persistent sense of gratitude. I have seen Brutus only last month kill three stronger men than you, my son. I fancy the document is safe in my pocket, quite safe."
He half smiled, and took another pinch of snuff.
"But let us indulge in the impossible," he continued. "Suppose you did get the paper. Let us examine the paper itself."
And slowly he drew it from his pocket, and flicked it flat in the candle light.
"Come, Henry, draw up a chair, and let us be sensible. Another bottle of Madeira, Brutus. And now, tell me, what do you know of French politics?"
"Sir," I objected, "it seems to me you are forgetting the point. What have politics to do with you and me?"
It seemed to me I saw another opportunity. With a sense of elation I did my best to conceal, I watched him quickly drain his glass, and I thought his eyes were brighter, and his gestures less careful and alert.
"Politics," he said, "and politics alone, Henry, are responsible for this evening's entertainment. Surely you have perceived that much. The glasses, Brutus, watch the glasses! These are parlous times, my son." He raised his glass again—
"Mademoiselle will tell you as much. We made an interesting journey through the provinces, did we not, my lady? It is a pity your father, the Marquis, could not have enjoyed it with us. He had a penchant for interesting situations, and in France today anything may happen. In a few scant months dukes have turned into pastry cooks, and barbers' boys into generals. Tomorrow it may be a republic, or a monarchy that governs, or some bizarre contrivance that is neither one nor the other. Just now it is Napoleon Bonaparte, a very determined little man. Ah, you have heard of him, my son? I sometimes wonder if he will not go further than many of us think."
Yes, we had already begun to hear his name in America. We had already begun to wonder how soon his influence would be overthrown, for it was in the days before he had consolidated his power. He was still existing in a maze of plots, still facing royalists and revolutionists, all conspiring to seize the reins.
"I sometimes wonder, Mademoiselle," he continued thoughtfully, "if your friends realized the task before them when they attempted to kill Napoleon. Ah, now you grow interested, my son? Yes, that is what this paper signifies. Written on this paper are the signatures of fifty men—signatures to an oath to kill Napoleon Bonaparte and to restore a king to France. You will agree with me it is a most original and intriguing document."
"So they didn't kill him," I said.
"Indeed not," he replied; "quite the contrary. They gave him a new lease of life."
"Then why," I demanded, "didn't they burn the paper. Why—"
"Ah!" said my father, with an indulgent smile. "There you have it, to be sure. You have hit the root of the whole matter."
"It was the old Marquis's idea. He told me of it at the time. If everyone in the plot signed the oath, it would be a dangerous thing indeed for anyone to inform on the rest, because they would immediately produce the paper which showed him as guilty as they. There are commendable points in the Marquis's idea, my son. Now that the plot has failed, the existence of this paper is all that keeps many a man from telling a valuable and dangerous little story. In these signatures I read names of men above suspicion, men high in the present government. Somehow Napoleon's police have learned of the existence of this paper. It has become almost vital for Napoleon to obtain it. He has tried to get it already. Since it reposed in the strong box at the Chateau of Blanzy, it has cost him five men. It has cost me new halliards and rigging for the Eclipse, and Brutus a disfigured countenance—not that I am complaining. Someone shall pay me for it. And the game is just beginning, my son. Mr. Lawton—have you wondered who he is? He is a very reckless man in the pay of France. He will get that paper if he can, if not by force, by money. Even now his men are watching the house. Suppose you held the paper in your hands, my son, you still have Mr. Lawton."
He folded the paper, and replaced it in his pocket.
"It is safer here at present," said my father. "There will be others who will want it presently, and then, perhaps, we will dispose of it."
"In other words, you intend to sell the people who entrusted you with the paper to the highest bidder?" I inquired.
He glanced towards Mademoiselle, and back to me again, and smiled brightly.
"That," he admitted pleasantly, "is one way of looking at it, though it might be viewed from more congenial angles."
I started to speak, but he raised his voice, and for the second time that evening became entirely serious.
"The paper," he said, "has nothing to do with your being in this house tonight. You are becoming more of a hindrance than I expected, but you are here, and here you will stay for another reason. I have heard much of the good examples parents set their children. For me to set one is a patent impossibility. I have never been a good example. But perhaps I can offer you something which is even better, and that, my son, is why I asked you to this house. Can you guess what it is?"
"There is no need to guess," I said, "you have been perfectly clear."
Gossip had it that my father always loved the theatre, though perhaps the Green Room better than the footlights. The marked passages in his library still attest his propensity. He now looked about him with a keen appreciation, as though my words were all that he required to round out his evening. Like a man whose work is finished, and who is pleasantly fatigued by his exertions, he leaned back in his chair.
"My son," he said, "you have a keenness of wit, and a certain decision, which I confess I overlooked in you at first—"
The moment must have pleased him, for he paused, as though on purpose to prolong it.
"You are right," he continued finally. "I am here to set you a bad example, Henry, and, believe me, it will be no fault of mine if it is not more effective than a good one. Listen, my son, and you too, Mademoiselle, I have been many things, tried many things in this life, most of them discreditable. I have wasted my days and my prospects in a thousand futilities. I have lost my friends. I have lost my position. Sneer at me, my son, laugh at me, curse me if you wish. I shall be the first to commend you for it. I am broad-minded enough to recognize your position.
"But above all things watch me. Watch me, and remember the things I do. Recall my ethics and my logic. They are to be your legacy, my son. What money I may leave you is doubtless tainted. But the things I do—of course you perceive their value?"
"Only in a negative sense," I replied pushing the bottle toward him.
"You are right again," he said, refilling his glass. "Their value, as you say, is purely negative. Yet, believe me, it does not impair them. You have only to place them before you and do exactly opposite. It is the best way I can think of for you to become a decent and self-respecting man. And now you have the only reason why I permit you in my society. The lesson has already started—an original lesson, is it not?"
As though to close the interview, he sprang up lightly, and bowed to Mademoiselle. It seemed to me he was combating a slight embarrassment, for he paused, seemingly uncertain how to begin, but only for a moment. Mademoiselle had regained her self-possession, and was regarding him with attention, and a little of the contempt which became her so well.
"Mademoiselle," he said, "even the pain of distressing you is lessened by the unexpected pleasure of your company tonight. I hope you have found the hour not entirely unprofitable. It has sometimes seemed to me, my lady—pardon the rudeness of suggesting it—that you may have seen something romantic, something heroic in me from time to time. I trust you have been disillusioned tonight. The fight on the stairs, the open boat—you see them all as they should be, do you not, the necessary parts of a piece of villainy? Pray forget them—and good night, Mademoiselle."
Suddenly both he and I started, and involuntarily his hand went up to cover his torn lapel. Mademoiselle was laughing.
"Captain," she cried, "you are absurd!"
"Absurd!" exclaimed my father uncertainly.
"You of all people! You cannot sell the paper!"
He sighed with apparent relief.
"And why not?" he asked.
"Because," said Mademoiselle, "you are one of those who signed it."
"Mademoiselle forgets," said my father, bowing, "that her name and mine were written at the bottom of the list. It is a precaution I always take with such little matters. The first thing I did, Mademoiselle, was to cut both off with my razor. Brutus, light the stairs for the lady."
Without another glance at either of us, she walked slowly away, her chin tilted, her slender fingers clenched. I knew that anger, fear, and disappointment were walking there beside her, and yet she left the room as proudly as she had entered it.
I stood listening to her step on the stairs.
"Ah," said my father, "there is a woman for you."
The last few minutes seemed to have wearied him, for he sank back heavily in his chair. For a minute we were silent, and suddenly a speech of his ran through my memory.
"May I ask you a question?" I inquired.
"It is my regret if I have not been clear," he said.
"It is not that," I assured him, "but you have appeared to allow yourself a single virtue."
He raised his eyebrows.
"You have admitted," I persisted, "that circumstances force you to keep your word."
"That," my father said, "is merely a necessity—not a virtue."
"Possibly," I agreed. "Yet, in your conversation with Mr. Lawton you stated that you had given your word not to surrender this paper. My question is—how can you reconcile this with your present intentions?"
For almost the only time I can remember, my father seemed puzzled for an answer. He started to speak, and shook his head—drew out his handkerchief and passed it over his lips.
"Circumstances alter even principles," he answered finally, "and this, my son, is one of the circumstances. Brutus, the boy has been trying to get me drunk long enough. Show him to his bedroom, and bring me my cloak and pistols."
Brutus lifted one of the candlesticks, grinned at me, and nodded.
"A very good night to you, Henry," said my father tranquilly.
I bowed to him with courtesy which perhaps was intuitive.
"Be sure," I told him, "to keep your door locked, father."
"Pray do not worry," he replied. "I have thought out each phase of my visit here too long for anything untoward to happen. Until morning, Henry."
"I am not worrying," I rejoined. "Merely warning you—pardon my incivility, father—but I might grow tired watching you be a bad example. Did you consider that in your plans?"
My father yawned, and placed his feet nearer the coals.
"That is better," he said, "much better, my son. Now you are speaking like a gentleman. I had begun to fear for you. It has seemed to me you were almost narrow-minded. Never be that. Nothing is more annoying."
I drew myself up to my full height.
"Sir—" I began.
He slapped his hand on the table with an exclamation of disgust.
"And now you spoil it! Now you begin to rant and become heroic. I know what you're going to say. You cannot see a woman bullied—what? Well, by heaven, you can, and you will see it. You cannot stand an act of treachery? Come, come, my son, you have better blood in you than to pose as a low actor. All around us, every day, these things are happening. Meet them like a man, and do not tell me what is obvious."
I felt my nails bite into my palms.
"Your pardon, father," I said. "I shall behave better in the future."
He glanced at me narrowly for a moment.
"I believe," he said, "we begin to understand. A very good night to you, Henry. And Henry—"
A change in his tone made me spin about on my heel.
"I am going to pay you a compliment. Pray do not be overcome. I have decided to consider you in my plans, my son, as a possible disturbing factor. Brutus, you will take his pistols from his saddle bags."
In silence Brutus conducted me into the cold hall and up the winding staircase, where his candle made the shadows of the newel posts dance against the wainscot. I paused a moment at the landing to look back, but I could see nothing in the dark pit of the hall below us. Was it possible I could remember it alight with candles, whose flames made soft halos on the polished floor? Brutus touched my shoulder, and the brusque grasp of his hand turned me a trifle cold.
"Move on," I ordered sharply, "and light me to my room."
My speech appeared to amuse him.
"No, no—you first," said Brutus. "I go—perhaps you be angry. See?"
And he became so involved in throes of merriment that I hoped he might extinguish the candle.
I thought better of an angry command, which I knew he would not obey, and turned through the arched moulding that marked the entrance to the upper hall, and at his direction opened a door. As I paused involuntarily on the threshold, Brutus deftly slipped past, set the candle on a stand, and bent over my saddle bags. Still chuckling to himself, he dropped my pistols into his shirt bosom. Then his grin died away. His low forehead became creased and puckered. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other irresolutely, and drew a deep breath.
"Mister Henry—" he began.
"Well," I said.
"Something happen. Very bad here. You go home."
His sudden change of manner, and the shadowy, musty silence around me threatened to shake the coolness I had attempted to assume. Unconsciously my hand dropped to the hilt of my travelling sword. I looked across at him through the shadows.
"You go home," said Brutus.
"Something will happen, or something has happened?" I asked.
But Brutus only shook his head stupidly.
"Very bad. You go home," he persisted.
"You go to the devil," I said, "and leave that candle. I won't burn down the house."
He moved reluctantly towards the door.
"Monsieur very angry," said Brutus.
"Shut the door," I said, "the draft is blowing the candle."
He pulled it to without another word, and I could hear him fumbling with the lock.
For the last ten years I doubt if anything had been changed in that room, except for the addition of three blankets which Brutus had evidently laid some hours before on the mildewed mattress of the carved four post bed. My mother must have ordered up the curtains that hung over it in yellowed faded tatters. The charred wood of a fire that had been lighted when the room was new, still lay over the green clotted andirons. The dampness of a seaside town had cracked and warped the furniture, and had turned the mirrors into sad mockeries. The strange musty odor of unused houses hung heavy in the air.
I sat quiet for a while, on the edge of my bed, alert for some sound outside, but in the hall it was very still. Then my hand fell again on the hilt of my travelling sword. That my father had overlooked it increased the resentment I bore him.
Slowly I drew the blade and tested its perfect balance, and limbered my wrist in a few idle passes at the fringe of the bed curtain. Then I knotted it over my hand, tossed a blanket over me, and blew out the light. From where I lay I could see the running lights of the Shelton ships swaying in a freshening breeze, three together in port for the first time in ten years. The sky had become so overcast that every shape outside had merged into an inky monotone. I could hear the low murmur of the wind twisting through the branches of our elms, and the whistle of it as it passed our gables. Once below I heard my father's step, quick and decisive, his voice raised to give an order, and the closing of a door.
Gradually the thoughts which were racing through my mind, as thoughts sometimes do, when the candle is out, and the room you lie in grows intangible and vast, assumed a well-balanced relativity. I smiled to myself in the darkness. There was one thing that evening which my father had overlooked. We both were proud.
He still seemed to be near me, still seemed to be watching me with his cool half smile. If his voice, pleasant, level and passionless, had broken the silence about me, I should not have been surprised. Strange how little he had changed, and how much I had expected to see him altered. I could still remember the last time. The years between seemed only a little while. We had been very gay. The card tables had been out, and he had been playing, politely detached, seemingly half-absorbed in his own thoughts and yet alertly courteous. I could see him now, pushing a handful of gold towards his right hand neighbor, and the clink of the metal and its color seemed to please him, for he ran his fingers lightly through the coins. And then, yes, Brutus had lighted me to my room. Could it have been ten years ago?
As I lay staring at the blackness ahead of me, my thoughts returned to the room I had quitted. Had she been about to thank me? I heard his slow, cynical voice interrupting me, and felt her hand drop from my arm. Then, in a strange, even cadence a sentence of his began running through my memory.
"It might be interesting, hilarious, in fact, if it were not for the lady in the case...."
Something was pressing on my shoulder, thrusting me slowly into consciousness. Half awake, I wrenched myself free, snatching for my sword as I did so. It was a chill and cloudy morning, and Brutus was standing by my bed, holding a bowl of chocolate between a thumb and forefinger, that made the piece of china look as delicately fragile as a flower.
"Eleven o'clock," he said. "You sleep late."
I looked at him blankly, still trying to shake off the drowsiness that crowded upon me. It seemed only a few minutes back that he had lighted me to that room. He must have detected a shade of suspicion in the look I gave him.
"Too much wine," said Brutus quickly.
But when he spoke, I knew it was not wine that made me sleep the whole night through. He thrust the bowl he was holding nearer to me.
"And now you poison me," I remarked, but he shook his head in emphatic negation.
"Hah!" he grunted, and emitted a curious chuckle that caused me to give him my full attention.
"You find the morning amusing, Brutus?" I asked.
He gulped and nodded in assent.
"Last night you kill me. Now I give you chocolate. He! He!"
I glanced at him over the edge of the chocolate bowl. It was the first time I had heard anyone laugh at so truly a Christian doctrine.
"Monsieur sends compliments," he said.
"Brutus," came my father's voice across the hall, "tell him I will see him as soon as he has finished dressing."
He was sitting before his fire, wrapped in a dressing gown of Chinese silk, embroidered with flowers. By the tongs and shovel lay a pair of riding boots, still so wet and mud-spattered that he must have pulled them off within the hour. A decanter of rum was near him on a stand. On his knee was a volume of Rabelais, which was affording him decorous amusement.
Brutus was busy gathering up the gray satin small clothes of the previous day, which had been tossed in a careless heap on the floor, and I perceived that they also bore the marks of travel. Careful mentors, who had taken a lively pleasure in their teaching, had been at pains to tell me that he was a man of irregular habits. Yet with indulgent politeness he remained blandly reticent. For him the day seemed to have started afresh, independent and unrelated to other days. It had awakened in him a genial spirit, far brighter than the morning. He greeted me with a gay wave of the hand and a nod of invitation towards the rum. My refusal served only to increase his courteous good nature.
"A very good morning to you, my son," he said. "So you have slept. Gad, how I envy you! It is hard to be a man of affairs and still rest with any regularity."
He waved me to a chair in a slow, sweeping gesture, timed and directed so that it ended at the rum decanter.
"You will pardon my addressing you through Brutus," he continued confidentially, "but it is a habit of mine which I find it hard to break. I am eccentric, my son. I never speak to anyone of a morning till I have finished my cup of chocolate. I have seen too many quarrels flare up over an empty stomach."
He stretched a foot nearer the blaze, and smiled comfortably at the hissing back log.
"And it would be a pity to have a falling out on such a morning as this, a very great pity, to be sure."
The very thought of it seemed to give him pause for pleased, though thoughtful contemplation, for he sipped his rum in silence until the tumbler was half empty.
"Once in Bordeaux," he volunteered at last, "there was a man whom I fear I provoked quite needlessly—all because I was walking in the garden with a headache, and my chocolate was late—Lay out the other shirt, Brutus, I must be well dressed today. What was it I was saying?"
"That you were walking in the garden with a headache," I reminded him. "Surely you had something better to walk with near at hand?"
He shrugged his shoulders, drained his glass, and wiped his fingers carefully on a cambric handkerchief.
"Either that or my conscience," he replied, "and oddly enough, I preferred the headache. He might have been alive today if I had had my chocolate. Poor man!" he sighed.
"You wanted to see me?" I asked, "or simply to impress me?"
He raised a hand in shocked denial.
"Pray do not believe I am so vulgar," he replied. "Yes, I wished to see you, Henry, for two reasons. First, I was absentminded last evening. I find I do not know the name of the gentleman with whom you had the falling out. If you tell me—who knows—the world is small."
He waited expectantly, and I smiled at him. I had hoped he would ask me.
"You really care to know his name?"
"It might be useful," he confessed. "As I said—who knows? Perhaps we may have something in common—some little mutual interest."
"I am sure you have," I told him. "The man I fought with was Mr. Lawton—at my uncle's country house."
For a fraction of a second I thought he was astonished. I thought that the look he gave was almost one of respect, but it was hard to tell.
"And you wounded him?" he asked quickly.
"I hardly think Mr. Lawton expected it," I acknowledged.
"I fear," he mused, "that the years are telling on Mr. Lawton—and your Uncle Jason knew of this unpleasantness?"
"Not until afterwards."
"Of course he was shocked?"
I nodded. "You had another reason for seeing me?" I asked.
"Yes," he replied, "a simple one. I did not want you to go downstairs till I went with you. Another cup of chocolate, Brutus. This morning, my son, I am consuming two cups of chocolate instead of one."
"You expect to find me irritable?" I suggested.
He shook his head in smiling contradiction.
"It is because I have a surprise in store for you. Who do you think has come to see me?"
"I am utterly at a loss," I said, bowing, "unless it is the constable."
"On the contrary," he replied, "it is the man I hate more than anyone else in the world."
Only his words, however, hinted that the contingency was unpleasant. His tone was one of pleased anticipation. He hummed a little tune, as Brutus knelt before him to help him on with a new pair of top boots, spotless and shining.
A few minutes later he stood before his mirror critically examining a coat of blue broadcloth. It evidently satisfied him, for he smiled back indulgently at his image in the glass, and watched complacently while Brutus smoothed its folds.
"A gentleman should always have twenty coats," he remarked, turning toward me. "Personally, I never travel with less than twenty-five—a point in my favor, is it not, my son?"
"And when we remember the lady who accompanies the coats—" I bowed, and he turned slowly back to the mirror.
"Let us trust," he replied coldly, "you will not be obliged to remind yourself often that she is a lady, and that she shall be treated as one both by you and by me as long as she remains beneath this roof."
I felt a pleasing sense of triumph at the success of my remark, and abruptly determined to drive it home.
"Sir," I said, "You astound me."
"Astound you?" He left his neckcloth half undone, and stepped toward me, alertly courteous. "You mean you take exception to what I have just said?"
"Indeed not," I replied, with another bow. "I find you changed this morning—into a good example instead of a bad one."
And then before he could reply, I leaned over the chair he had quitted. Lying in the corner of the faded upholstery was an oval of gold. Before he perceived my intention, I had picked it up, and almost at the same moment his hand fell on my arm. I looked up quickly. His face was close to mine, closer than I had ever seen it, placid still, but somehow changed, somehow so subtly different that I wrenched myself free, and stepped a pace away. Brutus dropped the coat he was folding, and shuffled forward hastily.
"How careless of me to have left it there," said my father gently. "Hand me the locket, if you please, my son, and many thanks for picking it up."
The jewelled clasp was under my thumb I pressed it, and the gold locket I was holding flew open, but before I could look further, he had struck a sharp blow at my wrist, and the locket fell from my hand.
"Pick it up, Brutus," he said, his eyes never leaving mine, and we watched each other for a second in silence.
"Come," he said, "let us go down stairs. You may find it instructive to see how I treat my enemies."
"I am afraid," I said slowly, "that you will do better without me."
Slowly the thin line of his lips relaxed, and he raised his hands to adjust his neckcloth.
"Your episode with Mr. Lawton makes me quite sure of it," he answered, in a tone he might have used to an ambitious school boy. "But you forget. You are still pursuing part of your education. Never, never neglect an opportunity to learn, my son. Something tells me even now you will be repaid for your trouble. Come, we are late already."
So I followed him down the, creaking stairs to the morning room. I could not suppress a start as I passed over the threshold. In front of our heavy mahogany table, attentively examining some maps and charts that had been scattered there, was my Uncle Jason.
Of all the people I had expected to see that morning he was the last. Almost unconsciously I recalled the little kindnesses he had rendered me. Busy as he had been with commercial ventures, there was never a time when he had not stood ready with his help. And even my father's name—he had never recalled it, except with regretful affection in his sad little reminiscences of older, pleasanter days.