WAY OF AMBITION
Author of "The Garden of Allah," "The Fruitful Vine," "The Woman with the Fan," "Tongues of Conscience," "Felix," etc.
WITH A FRONTISPIECE IN COLOR AND FOUR ILLUSTRATIONS IN BLACK-AND-WHITE BY J. H. GARDNER SOPER
NEW YORK FREDERICK A. STOKES COMPANY PUBLISHERS
Copyright, 1913, by ROBERT HICHENS Copyright, 1912, 1913, by THE BUTTERICK PUBLISHING CO. August, 1913
"'Charmian, what's all this about an extraordinary Cornish genius? D'you like him so much?'" Frontispiece
"'This is the last thing I've done'" 40
"'Of course we wives of composers are apt to be prejudiced'" 242
"At her feet the crouching Arabs never stirred" 258
"'Claudie, I want you to win, I want you to win!'" 378
THE WAY OF AMBITION
"We want a new note in English music," said Charmian, in her clear and slightly authoritative voice. "The Hallelujah Chorus era has gone at last to join all the Victorian relics. And the nation is drifting musically. Of course we have a few composers who are being silly in the attempt to be original, and a few others who still believe that all the people can stand in the way of home-grown products is a ballad or a Te Deum. But what we want is an English composer with a soul. I'm getting quite sick of heads. They are bearable in literature. But when it comes to music, one's whole being clamors for more."
"I have heard a new note in English music," observed a middle-aged, bald and lively-looking man, who was sitting on the opposite side of the drawing-room in Berkeley Square.
"Oh, but, Max, you always—"
"An absolutely new note," interrupted Max Elliot with enthusiastic emphasis, turning to the man with the sarcastic mouth who had just spoken. "Your French blood makes you so inclined to incredulity, Paul, that you are incapable of believing anything but that I am carried away."
"As sometimes happens, I admit. But you will allow that in matters musical my opinion is worth something, my serious and deliberately formed opinion."
"How long has this opinion been forming?"
"Some months!" exclaimed Charmian. "You've kept your new note to yourself all that time! Is it a woman? But of course it can't be. I don't believe there will ever be a great woman composer."
"It is not a woman."
"Was it born in the gutter?" asked Paul Lane.
"Don't say it's aristocratic!" said Charmian, slightly screwing up her rather Japanese-looking eyes. "I cannot believe that anything really original in soul, really intense, could emanate from the British peerage. I know it too well."
"It is neither aristocratic nor from the gutter. It is of the middle classes. Its father is a banker in the West of England."
"A banker!" said Charmian in a deplorable voice.
"It is Cornish."
"Cornish! That's better. Strange things sometimes come out of Cornwall."
"It has a little money of its own."
"And its name—"
"Is Claude Heath."
"Claude Heath," slowly repeated Charmian. "The name means nothing to me. Do you know it, Mr. Lane?"
Paul Lane shook his smooth black head.
"Heath has not published anything," said Max Elliot, quite unmoved by the scepticism with which the atmosphere of Mrs. Mansfield's drawing-room was obviously charged.
"Not even a Te Deum?" asked Charmian.
"No, though I confess he has composed one."
"If he has composed a Te Deum I give him up. He is vieux jeu. He should go and live in the Crystal Palace."
"And it's superb!" added Max Elliot. "Till I heard it I never realized what the noble words of the Te Deum meant."
Suddenly he got up and moved toward the window murmuring, "All the Earth doth worship Thee, the Father Everlasting."
There was a silence in the room. Charmian's eyes suddenly filled with tears, she scarcely knew why. She felt as if a world was opening out before her, as if there were wide horizons to call to the gaze of those fitted to look upon them, and as if, perhaps, she were one of these elect.
"Father Everlasting!" The words, and the way in which Max Elliot had spoken them, struck into her heart, and so made her feel keenly that she was a girl who had a heart that was not hard, that was eager, desirous, perhaps deep. As to Paul Lane, he stared at his remarkably perfect boots, and drew down the corners of his lips, and his white face seemed to darken as if a cloud floated through his mind and cast a shadow outward.
In the pause the drawing-room door opened, and a woman with blazing dark eyes and snow-white hair, wearing a white tea-gown and a necklace of very fine Egyptian scarabs, came in, with an intense, self-possessed and inquiring look. This was Mrs. Mansfield, "my only mother," as Charmian sometimes absurdly called her.
"You are talking, or you were talking, of something or somebody interesting," she said at once, looking round her at the three occupants of the room.
Max Elliott turned eagerly toward her. He rejoiced in Mrs. Mansfield, and often came to her to "warm his hands at her delightful blaze."
"Of somebody very interesting."
"Whom we don't know?"
"Whom very few people in London know."
"A composer, my only mother, who never publishes, and who is the son of a banker in the West of England."
Charmian seemed suddenly to have recovered her former mood, but she blinked away two tears as she spoke.
"Why shouldn't he be?" said Mrs. Mansfield, sitting down on a large sofa which stood at right angles to the wood fire.
"I know, but it doesn't seem right."
"Don't be ridiculously conventional, my only child."
Charmian laughed, showing lovely, and very small teeth. She was not unlike her mother in feature, but she was taller, more dreamy, less vivid, less straightforward in expression. At times there was a hint of the minx in her. She emerged from her dreams to be impertinent. A certain shrewdness mingled with her audacity. At such moments, as men sometimes said, "you never knew where to have her." She was more self-conscious and more worldly than her mother. Secret ambition worried at her mind, and made her restless in body. When she looked at a crowd she sometimes felt an almost sick sensation as of one near to drowning. "Oh, to rise, to be detached from all these myriads!" she thought. "To be apart and recognized as apart! Only that can make life worth the living." She had been heard to say, "I would rather sink forever in the sea than in the sea of humanity. I would rather die than be one of the unknown living." Charmian sometimes exaggerated. But she was genuinely tormented by the modern craze for notoriety. Only she called it fame.
Once she had said something to her mother of her intense desire to emerge from the crowd. Mrs. Mansfield's reply was: "Do you believe you have creative force in you then?" "How can I know?" Charmian had answered. "I'm so young." "Try to create something and probably you'll soon find out," returned her mother. Since that day Charmian had tried to create something, and had found out. But she had not told Mrs. Mansfield. She was now twenty-one, and had been just eighteen when her mother's advice had driven her into the energy which had proved futile.
Max Elliot crossed the room and sat down on the sofa by Mrs. Mansfield. He adored her quite openly, as many men did. The fact that she was a widow and would never marry again made adoration of her agreeably uncomplex. Everybody knew that Mrs. Mansfield would never marry again, but nobody perhaps could have given a perfectly clear explanation of how, or why, that knowledge had penetrated him. The truth was that she was a woman with a great heart, and had given that heart to the husband who was dead, and for whom she had never worn "weeds."
"What are we to do for Charmian, my dear Max?" continued Mrs. Mansfield, throwing a piteous look into her mobile face, a piteous sound into her voice. "What can anyone do for a young woman of twenty-one who, when she is thinking naturally, thinks it impossible for a West of England banker to cause the birth of a son talented in an art?"
"I always said there was intellectual cruelty in mother," said Charmian, drawing her armchair nearer to the fire.
"It's bracing, tones up the mind," said Paul Lane. "But what about this new note? All we know is a Cornish extraction, a banker papa and a Te Deum."
"Oh—a Te Deum!" observed Mrs. Mansfield, looking suddenly sceptical.
"I know! I know!" said Max Elliot. "I didn't want to hear it till I had heard it. And then I wanted to hear nothing else. The touch of genius startles everything into life."
"Another genius!" said Paul Lane.
And thereupon, as if acting on a sudden impulse, he got up, said good-bye, and went away with his curiosity, if he had any, ungratified.
"He's spoilt by the French blood his mother gave him," said Mrs. Mansfield as the door closed. "If he had been all French, one might have delighted in him, taken him on the intellectual side, known where one was, skipped the coldness and the irony, clung to the wit, vivacity and easy charm. But he's a modern Frenchman, boxing with an Englishman and using his feet half the time. And that's dreadful. In an English drawing-room I don't like the Savate. Now tell us, tell us! I am so thankful he is not a celebrity."
"Nor ever likely to be unless he marries the wrong woman."
"What do you mean by that?" asked Charmian with curiosity.
"A woman who is ambitious for him and pushes him."
"But if this Claude Heath has so much talent, surely it would be a fine thing to make him give it to the world."
"That depends on his temperament, I daresay," said Mrs. Mansfield. "I believe there are people who ought to hide their talents in a napkin."
"Oh, mother! Explain!"
"Some plants can only grow in darkness."
"Very nasty ones, I should think! Deadly nightshade! That sort of thing!"
"Poor dear! I gave her light in a vulgar age. She can't help it," said Mrs. Mansfield to Max Elliot. "We are her refined seniors. But sheer weight of years has little influence. Never mind. Go on. You and I at least can understand."
As she spoke she laid her hand, on which shone several curious rings, over Charmian's, and she kept it there while Max Elliot gave some account of Claude Heath.
"He's not particularly handsome in features. He's quite conventional in dress. His instinct would probably be to use the shell as a close hiding-place for anything strange, unusual that it contains. He crops his hair, and, I should think, wets it two or three times a day for fear people should see that it has a natural wave in it. His neckties are the most humdrum that can be discovered in the shops."
"Does he dislike his appearance?" asked Charmian.
"I daresay. The worst of it is that he has eyes that give the whole thing away to a Mrs. Mansfield."
"What, and not to me?" said Charmian, in an injured note.
"She's fairly sharp, poor dear!" observed Mrs. Mansfield, in a rescuing voice. "You mustn't be too hard on her."
Max Elliot smiled.
"And a Charmian Mansfield."
"What color are his eyes?" inquired Charmian.
"I really can't tell you for certain, but I should think dark gray."
"And where does he live?"
"In a little house not far from St. Petersburg Place on the north side of the Park, Mullion House he calls it. He's got a studio there which opens into a pocket-handkerchief of a garden. He keeps two women servants."
"Any dogs?" said Charmian.
"Not that I know of."
"I don't feel as if I should like him. Does he compose at the piano?"
"No, away from it."
"He's unsympathetic. Cropped hair watered down, humdrum neckties, composing away from the piano, no animals—it's all against me except the little house."
"Because you take the wholly conventional view of the musician," said her mother. "If I dared to say such a thing to my own child I might add, without telling a dangerous lie, because you are so old-fashioned in your views. You can't forget having read the Vie de Boheme, and having heard, and unfortunately seen, Paderewski when you were a schoolgirl at Brighton."
"It is my beloved mother's fault that I ever was a schoolgirl at Brighton."
"Ah, don't press down that burden of crime upon my soul! Lift it, by freeing yourself from the Brighton tradition, which I ought to have kept for ever from you. And now, Max, tell us, whom does Mr. Heath know?"
"I know very little about his acquaintance. I met him first at Wonderland."
"What's that?" asked Charmian. "It sounds more promising."
"It's gone now, but it was a place in Whitechapel, where they had boxing competitions, Conky Joe against the Nutcracker—that kind of thing."
"I give him up, Te Deum, Conky Joe and all!" she exclaimed in despair.
"Do you mean me to meet him, Max?" asked Mrs. Mansfield.
"Yes. I can't keep him to myself any longer. I must share him with someone who understands. Come to-morrow evening, won't you, after dinner? Heath is dining with me."
"Yes. Is Charmian invited?"
Max Elliot looked at Charmian, and she steadily returned his gaze.
"You know," he said after a pause, "that you've got a certain hankering after lions?"
"Hankering! Don't, don't!"
"But you really have!"
"I will not be put with the vulgar crowd like that. I do not care for lions. Tigers are my taste."
"Do come then. But remember, there are plants which can only grow in darkness. And I believe this is one of them."
When Max Elliot had gone, Charmian sat for two or three minutes looking into the fire, where pale, steely-blue lights played against the prevailing gold and red. All the absurdity, the nonsense, had dropped away from her.
"Max Elliot seems quite afraid of me," she said at last. "Am I so very vulgar?"
"Not more so than most intelligent young women who are rather 'in it' in London," returned her mother.
"Surely I'm not a climber, without knowing it!"
"No, I don't think so. But your peculiar terror of mixing with the crowd naturally makes you struggle a little, and puff and blow in the effort to keep your head above water."
"How very awful! I don't know why it is, but your head always is well above water without your making any effort."
"I don't bother as to whether it is or not, you see."
"No. But what has it all to do with this Mr. Heath?"
"Perhaps we shall find out to-morrow night. Max may think you'll be inclined to rave about him."
"Rave about a cropped head that composes away from the piano!"
"Ah, that Brighton tradition!" said Mrs. Mansfield, taking up Steiner's Teosofia.
In the comedy of London Mrs. Mansfield and her daughter did not play leading parts, but they were, in the phrase of the day, "very much in it." Mrs. Mansfield's father had been a highly intelligent, cultivated, charming and well-off man, who had had a place in the Isle of Wight, and been an intimate friend of Tennyson, and of most of the big men of his day. Her mother had possessed the peculiar and rather fragile kind of beauty which seems to attract great English painters, and had been much admired and beloved in Melbury Road, Holland Park, and elsewhere. She, too, had been intelligent, intellectual and very musical. From Frederick Leighton's little parties, where Joachim or Norman Neruda played to a chosen few, the beautiful Mrs. Mortimer and her delightful husband were seldom missing. They were prominent members of that sort of family party which made the "Monday Pops" for years a social as well as an artistic function. And their small, but exquisite house in Berkeley Square, now inherited by their daughter, was famous for its "winter evenings," at which might be met the creme de la creme of the intellectual and artistic worlds, and at which no vulgarian, however rich and prominent, was ever to be seen.
Mrs. Mansfield, quite instinctively and naturally, had carried on the family tradition; at first with her husband, Arthur Mansfield, one of the most cultivated and graceful members of their "set," and after his death alone. She was well off, had a love of beauty and comfort, but a horror of display, and knew everyone she cared to know, without having the vaguest idea who was, or was not, included in "the smart set." Having been brought up among lions, she had never hunted a lion in her life, though she had occasionally pulled the ears of one, or stroked its nose. She had been, and was, the intimate friend of many men and women who were "doing things" in the world. But she had never felt within herself the power to create anything original, and was far too intelligent, far too aristocratic in mind, to struggle impotently to be what she was not meant to be, or to fight against her own clearly seen limitations.
Unlike Mrs. Mansfield in this respect Charmian struggled, and her mother knew it.
On the following evening, when Charmian and her mother were dining together before going to Max Elliot's, she said rather abruptly:
"Why didn't Mr. Elliot invite us to dinner to-night, do you think?"
"Why should he have invited us?"
"Well, perhaps it wasn't necessary. But surely it would have been quite natural."
"Probably he wanted to prepare the new note for you."
"Why should I require preparation?"
"The new note!"
"Why should the new note require preparation against me?"
"I said for you. Possibly we may find out this evening. Besides Delia is in a rest cure as usual. So there is no hostess."
Delia was Max Elliot's wife, a graceful nonentity who, having never done a stroke of work in her life, was perpetually breaking down, and being obliged to rest expensively under the supervision of fashionable doctors. She was now in Hampstead, enclosed in a pale green chamber, living on milk and a preparation called "Marella," and enjoying injections of salt water. She was also being massaged perpetually by a stout young woman from Sweden, and was deprived of her letters. "No letters!" was a prescription which had made her physician celebrated.
"Oh, the peace of it!" Mrs. Elliot was faintly murmuring to the athletic masseuse, at the very moment when Charmian said:
"There very seldom is a hostess. Poor Max Elliot!"
"He's accustomed to it. And Delia must be doing something. This time she may be cured. Life originally issued from the sea, they say."
"Near Margate, I suppose. What a mystery existence is!"
"Are you going to be tiresome to-night?"
"No, I won't, I won't. But if he plays his Te Deum I know I shall sleep like a tired child."
"I don't suppose he will."
"I feel he's going to."
"Then why were you so anxious to go?"
"I don't like to be left out of things. No one does."
"Except the elect. How thoughtful of you to dress in black!"
"Well, dearest, you are always in white. And I love to throw up my beautiful mother."
Mrs. Mansfield put an arm gently round her as they left the dining-room.
"You could make any mother be a sister to you."
Just before ten their motor glided up to the Elliots' green door in Cadogan Place.
Max Elliot was the very successful senior partner of an old-established stockbroking firm in the City. This was a fact, so people had to accept it. But acceptance was made difficult by his almost strangely unfinancial appearance and manner. Out of the City he never spoke of the City. He was devoted to the arts, and especially to music, of which he had a really considerable knowledge. All prominent musicians knew him. He was the friend of prime donne, a pillar of the opera, an ardent frequenter of all the important concerts. Where Threadneedle Street came into his life nobody seemed to know. Nevertheless, his numerous clients trusted him completely as a business man. And more than one singer, whose artistic temperament had brought her—or him, as the case might be—to the door of the poorhouse, had reason to bless Max Elliot's shrewd business head and generous industry in friendship. He had a good heart as well as a fine taste, and his power of criticism had not succeeded in killing his capacity for enthusiasm.
"He's not begun yet!" murmured Charmian to her mother, as the butler led them sedately down a rather long hall, past two or three doors, to the music-room which Elliot had built out at the back of his house.
"I never heard that he was going to begin at all. We haven't come here for a performance, but to make an acquaintance."
Charmian twisted her lips, and the butler opened the door and announced them.
At the end of the room, which was panelled with wood and was high, by a large open fireplace, Max Elliot was sitting with Paul Lane and two other people, a woman and a young man. The woman was large and broad, with brown hair, reckless hazel eyes, and a nose and mouth which suggested a Roman emperor. She looked about thirty-five. In her large ears, which were set very flat against her head, there were long, diamond earrings, and diamonds glittered round her neck. She was laughing when the Mansfields came in, and went on laughing while Max Elliot went to receive them.
"Mrs. Shiffney has just come," he said. "Paul has been dining."
"And—the other?" murmured Charmian, with a hushed air of awed expectation which was not free from a hint of mockery.
Mrs. Mansfield sent her a glance of half-humorous rebuke.
"Claude Heath," answered Elliot.
"How wonderful he is."
"Charmian, don't be tiresome!" observed her mother, as they went toward the fire.
The two men got up, and Charmian had an impression of height, of a bony slimness that was almost cadaverous, of irregular features, rather high cheek-bones, brown, very short hair, and large, enthusiastic and observant eyes that glanced almost piercingly at her, and quickly looked away.
Mrs. Shiffney remained in her armchair, moved her shoulders, and said in a rather deep, but not disagreeable voice:
"Mr. Heath and I are hearing all about 'Marella.' It builds you up if you are a skeleton and pulls you down if you are enormous, as I am. It makes you sleep if you suffer from insomnia, and if you have the sleeping sickness it wakes you up. Dr. Curling has patented it, and feeds his patients on nothing else. Delia is living entirely on it, and is to emerge looking seventeen and a female Sandow. Mr. Heath is longing to try it."
She had held out a powerful hand to the new arrivals, and now turned toward the composer, who stood waiting to be introduced.
"Oh, but no, please!" said Heath, speaking quickly and almost anxiously, with a certain naivete that was attractive, but that did not suggest simplicity, but rather great sensitiveness of mind. "I never take quack medicines or foods. I have no need to. And I think they're all invented to humbug us."
Max Elliot took him by the arm.
"I want to introduce you to a dear friend of mine, Mrs. Mansfield."
He paused and added:
"Mr. Claude Heath—Miss Mansfield."
Paul Lane began talking to Charmian when the two handshakes—Heath had shaken hands quickly—were over. She looked across the room, and saw her mother in conversation with the composer. And she knew immediately that he had conceived a strong liking for her mother. It seemed to her in that moment as if his liking for her mother might prevent him from liking her, and, she did not know why, she was aware of a faint sensation of hostility toward him. Yet usually the fact that a man admired, or was fond of, Mrs. Mansfield predisposed Charmian in his favor.
Perhaps to-night she was in a tiresome mood, as her mother had hinted.
As she talked to Paul Lane, whom she had known pretty well for years, and liked as much as she could ever like him, she was secretly intent on the new note. Her quick mind of an intelligent girl, who had seen many people and been much in contact with the London world, was pacing about him, measuring, weighing, summing up with the audacity of youth. Whether he pleased her eyes she was not sure. But through her eyes he interested her.
Heath was tall, and looked taller than he was because he was almost emaciated, and he was a plain man whom something made beautiful, not handsome. This was a strange, and almost mysterious imaginativeness which was expressed by his face, and even, perhaps, by something in his whole bearing and manner. It looked out certainly at many moments from his eyes. But not only his eyes shadowed it forth. The brow, the rather thin lips, the hands, and occasionally their movements, suggested it. His face was not what is often called "an open face." Although quite free from slyness, or anything unpleasantly furtive, it had a shut, reserved look when his eyes were cast down. There was something austere, combined with something eager and passionate, in his expression and manner. Charmian guessed him to be twenty-six or twenty-seven.
He was now turned sideways to Charmian, and was moving rather restlessly on the sofa beside Mrs. Mansfield, but was listening with obvious intentness to what she was saying. Charmian found herself wondering how she knew that he had taken a swift liking to her mother.
"Did you have an interesting time at dinner?" she asked Paul Lane.
"Not specially so. Music was never mentioned."
"Well, Mr. Elliot said he and Mr. Heath met first at a place in Whitechapel where Conky somebody was fighting the Nutcracker."
Lane smiled with his mouth.
"I suspect the new note to be a poseur, not quite of the usual species, but a poseur. Most musicians are ludicrously of their profession. This one is too much apparently detached from it to be quite natural. But the truth is, nobody is really natural. And no doubt it's a great mercy that it is so."
Charmian looked at him for a few seconds in silence. Then she observed:
"You know there's something in you that I can't abide, as old dames say."
This time Lane really smiled.
"I hope so," he said. "Or else I should certainly lack variety. Well, Max, what is it?"
"Mrs. Shiffney wants you."
"I always want him. I swim in his irony and can't sink, like a tourist in the Dead Sea."
"What a left-handed compliment!"
"A right-handed one would bore you to death, and my aim in life is—"
"To avoid being bored. How often do you succeed in your aim?"
"Whenever I am with you in this delightful house."
"It is delightful," said Charmian to her host. "But why? Of course it is beautiful. But that's not all. It's personal. Perhaps that's it."
She got up, and walked slowly away from the fire, very naturally, with a gesture, just touching her soft cheek and fluttering her fingers toward the glow, as if she were too hot. Max Elliot accompanied her.
"And all the lovely music that has sounded here," she continued, "perhaps lingers silently in the air, and, without being aware of it, we feel the vibrations."
She sat down on a sofa near the Steinway grand piano, which stood on a low dais, looked up at Max Elliot, and added, in quite a different voice:
"Shall we hear any of his music to-night?"
"I believe now we may."
Elliot looked toward Mrs. Mansfield.
"Because of mother, you mean?"
"He likes her."
"Anyone can see that."
After a moment she added, with a touch of irritation:
"He's evidently very difficile for an unknown man."
"No, it isn't that at all. If you ever know him well, you will understand."
"What?" she asked with petulance.
"That his reserve is a right instinct, nothing more. Between ourselves," he bent toward her, "I made a little mistake in asking Mrs. Shiffney, delightful though she is."
"I wondered why you had asked her, when you didn't want even to ask me."
"Middle-aged as I am, I get carried away by people. I met Mrs. Shiffney to-day at a concert. She was so absolutely right in her enthusiasm, so clever and artistic—though she's ignorant of music—over the whole thing, that—well, here she is."
"And here I am!"
"Yes, here you are!" he said genially.
He had been standing. Now he sat down beside her, crossed one leg over the other, held his knee with his clasped hands, and continued:
"The worst of it is Mrs. Shiffney has made him bolt several doors. When she looked at him I could see at once that she made him feel transparent."
"Poor thing! Tell me, do you enjoy very much protecting all the sensitive artistic temperaments that come into this room? Do you enjoy arranging the cotton-wool wadding so that there may be no chance of a nasty jar, to say nothing of a breakage?"
He pursed his rather thick lips, that smiled so easily.
"When the treasure is a treasure, genuinely valuable, I don't mind it. I feel then that I am doing worthy service."
"You really are a dear, you know!" she said, with a sudden change, a melting. "It was good of you to ask me, when you didn't want to."
She leaned a little toward him, with one light hand palm downward on the cushion of the sofa, and her small, rather square chin thrust forward in a way that made her look suddenly intense.
"I'll try not to be like Mrs. Shiffney. I'll try not to make him feel transparent."
"I'm not sure that you could," he said, smiling at her.
"How horrid of you to doubt my powers! Why, why will nobody believe I have anything in me?"
She brought the words out with a force that was almost vicious. As she said them it happened that Claude Heath turned a little. His eyes travelled down the room and met hers. Perhaps her mother had just been speaking to him of her, had been making some assertion about her. For he seemed to look at her with inquiry.
When Charmian turned away her eyes from his she added to Max Elliot:
"But what does it matter? Because people, some people, can't see a thing, that doesn't prove that it has no existence. And I don't really care what people think of me."
"This—to your old friend!"
"Yes. And besides, I expect one must possess to discover."
Her voice was almost complacent.
"You deal in enigmas to-night."
"One ought to carry a light when one goes into a cave to seek for gold."
But Elliot would not let her see that he had from the first fully understood her impertinence.
"Let us go back to the fire," he said. "Unless you are really afraid of the heat. Let us hear what your mother and Heath are talking about."
"I'm not afraid of anything except a Te Deum."
"There's Mrs. Shiffney speaking to him. I don't think we shall have it to-night."
"Then I'll venture to draw near," said Charmian, again assuming a semblance of awe.
The minx was evidently uppermost in her as they approached the others. She walked with a dainty slowness, a composed consciousness, that were almost the least bit affected, and as she stood still for a minute close to her mother, with her long eyes half shut, she looked typically of the world worldly, languid, almost prettily disdainful.
Mrs. Shiffney was speaking of the concert of that afternoon with discrimination and with enthusiasm.
"Of course he's a little monkey," she concluded, evidently alluding to some artist. "But what a little monkey! I was in the front row, and he called my attention to everything he was going to do, sometimes in Russian, sometimes in dreadful French, or in English that was really a criminal offense, and very often with his right elbow. He has a way of nudging the air in one's direction so that one feels it in one's side. Animal magnetism, I suppose. And he begs for sympathy as if it were a biscuit. Do you know him, Mr. Heath?"
"No, not at all. I know very few big artists."
"But all the young coming ones, I suppose? Did you study abroad?"
"I went to the Royal College at Kensington Gore."
Mrs. Shiffney, who was very cosmopolitan, had a flat in Paris, and was more often out of England than in it, slightly raised her eyebrows.
"You haven't studied in France or Germany?"
Heath began to look rather uncomfortable, and slightly self-conscious.
"No," he said quickly.
He paused, then as if with a decided effort he added:
"I think the training a student gets at the Royal College is splendid."
"Of course it is," said Max Elliot, heartily.
Mrs. Shiffney shook her shoulders.
"I'm sure it's quite perfect," she said, in her rather deep voice, gazing at the young composer with eyes in which a light satire twinkled. "Don't think I'm criticizing it. Only I'm so dreadfully un-English, and I think English musicians get rather into a groove. The Hallelujah bow-wow, you know!"
At this point in the conversation Charmian tranquilly interposed.
"Mr. Heath," she said, slightly protruding her chin, "when you've done with my only mother"—Mrs. Shiffney's lips tightened ever so little—"I want you to be very nice to me."
"Please tell me," said Heath, with the almost anxious eagerness that seemed to be characteristic of him.
Mrs. Mansfield fixed her blazing eyes on her daughter, slightly drawing down her gray eyebrows.
"Well, it's rather a secret."
Charmian glanced round at the others, then she added:
"It's about the Nutcracker."
Heath puckered up his forehead.
"Yes." She moved a little, and looked at the chair not far from the fire on which she had sat when first she came into the room. "I care rather for boxing. Now"—she went slowly toward the chair, followed by Heath, "what I want to know, and what you can tell me, is this"—she sat down, and leaned her chin on her upturned palm—"on present form do you believe the Nutcracker is up to Conky Ja-ky Joe?"
As Claude Heath sat down to reply to this question, Mrs. Shiffney said:
"Conky Jarky Joe! I thought I was dans le mouvement up to my dog-collar, but I know nothing about the phenomenon. Where does it belong to?"
"Wonderland," said Elliot, in a gravely romantic voice.
"That's the land I've never seen, although I've had the yacht for so many years."
"Nor I!" said Paul Lane. "I don't believe it exists, or we must have been there. We have both been everywhere."
"Tell the poor things about it," said Mrs. Mansfield. "Then Adelaide can get up steam on The Wanderer and realize her dreams."
"But Mr. Elliot told me he met you there, and I remember distinctly his saying the fight was on between those two pets of the ring," said Charmian plaintively, after a certain amount of negation from Claude Heath.
"Yes, but I'm sure he didn't tell you I was an authority on boxing form."
"But you want to be?"
"I shouldn't mind. But it isn't my chief aim in life."
Charmian was silent. She leaned back, taking her chin from her hand, and at last said gravely:
"It isn't that, then?"
"That—what?" exclaimed Heath, looking at her and away from her.
"That you want. It's something else. Because you know you want a very, very great deal of something."
"Oh, a good many of us do, I suppose."
"I don't think I do. I'm quite satisfied with my life. I have a good mother, a comfortable home. What should a properly-brought-up English girl, who has been educated at Brighton, want more?"
"I'm very glad indeed to know that a Brighton education stands its receiver in such good stead in the after years, very glad indeed!"
"You are laughing at me. And that's unchristian."
"Oh, but—but you were laughing at me!"
Despite Heath's eagerness, and marked social readiness of manner, Charmian was disagreeably conscious of a mental remoteness in him. Only the tip of his mind, perhaps scarcely that, was in touch with hers. Now she almost regretted that she had chosen to begin their acquaintance with absurdity, that she had approached Heath with a pose. She scarcely knew why she had done so. But she half thought, only half because of her self-respect, that she had been a little afraid of him, and so had instinctively caught up some armor, put a shield in front of her. Was she really impressed by a well-spoken-of Te Deum? She glanced at Heath inscrutably, as only woman can, and knew that she was not. It was the man himself who had caused her to fall into what she already thought of as a mistake. There was in Heath something that almost confused her. And she was not accustomed to be confused.
"I've made a bad beginning," she almost blurted out, not able to escape from artifice, yet speaking truth. "And I'm generally rather good at beginnings. It's so easy to take the first step, I think, despite that silly saying which, of course, I'm not going to quote. It's when one is getting to know a person really well that difficulties generally begin."
"Yes, because it's then that very reserved people begin hurriedly building barricades, isn't it? I ask you, because I'm not at all reserved."
"But how should I know any better than you?"
"You mean, when you're so unreserved, too? No, that's true."
Heath's eyes troubled Charmian. She was feeling with every moment less at ease in his companionship and more determined to seem at ease. Being generally self-possessed, she had a horror of slipping into shyness and so retrograding from her usual vantage ground. She expected him to speak. It was his turn. But he said nothing. She felt sure that he had seen through her last lie, and that he was secretly resenting it as a heavy-footed approach to sacred ground. What a blunderer she was to-night! Desperation seized her.
"We must leave the question to the reserved," she said. "Poor things! I always pity them. They can never taste life as you and I and our kind are able to. We are put here to try to know and to be known. I feel sure of that. So the reserved are for ever endeavoring to escape their destiny. No wonder they are punished!"
"I am not sure that I entirely agree with your view as to the reason why we are put here," observed Heath, without a trace of obvious sarcasm. Nevertheless, the mere words stung Charmian's almost childish self-conceit.
"But I wasn't claiming to have pierced the Creator's most secret designs!" she exclaimed. "I was simply endeavoring to state that it can scarcely be natural for men and women to try to hide all they are from each other. I think there's something ugly in hiding things; and ugliness can't be meant."
"Ugliness is certainly not meant," said Heath, and for the first time she felt as if she were somewhere not very far from him. "Except very often by man. Isn't it astonishing that men created Venice and that men have now put steam launches in the canals of Venice!"
Venice! Charmian seized upon the word, mentally leaped upon and clung to the city in the sea. From that moment their conversation became easier, and gradually Charmian began to recover from her strange social prostration. So she thought of it. She forced the note, no doubt. Afterward she was unpleasantly conscious of that. But at any rate the talk flowed. There was some give and take. The joints of their intercourse did not creak as if despairingly appealing to be oiled. Of course it was very banal to talk about Italy. But, still, these moments must come sometimes to all those who go much into the world. And what is Italy, beautiful, siren-like Italy, for if not to be talked about? Charmian said that to herself afterward, and was amazed at her own vulgarity of mind. Ah, yes! That was what she had disliked in Claude Heath—his faculty of making her feel almost vulgar-minded, vulgar-intellected! She coined horrible bastard words in her efforts to condemn him. But all that was later on, when she had even said good-night to her only mother.
Their tete-a-tete was broken by Mrs. Shiffney's departure to a reception at the Ritz. She must surely have been disappointed in the musician; but, if so, she was too clever to show it. And she was by way of being a good-natured woman and seldom seemed to think ill of anybody. "I have so many sins on my own conscience," she sometimes said, "that I decline to see other people's. I want them to be blind to mine. Sin and let sin is an excellent rule in social life." She seldom condemned anyone except a bore.
"If you ever pay a call, which I doubt," she said to Claude Heath as she was going, "I'm in Grosvenor Square. The Red Book will tell you."
She looked at him with her almost insolently self-possessed and careless eyes, and added:
"Perhaps some day you'll come on the yacht and show me the course to set for Wonderland. Mr. Elliot says you know it. And of course we all want to. I've been everywhere except there."
"I doubt if a yacht could take us there," said Heath, smiling as if to cover something grave or sad.
A piercing look again came into Mrs. Shiffney's eyes.
"I really hope I shall see you in Grosvenor Square," she said.
Without giving him time to say anything more she went away, accompanied from the room by Max Elliot, walking carelessly and looking very powerful and almost outrageously self-possessed.
Within the music-room there was a moment's silence. Then Paul Lane said:
"Yes," said Mrs. Mansfield. "Adelaide is delightful. And why? She always thinks of herself, lives for herself. She wouldn't put herself out for anyone. I've known her for years and would never go to her in a difficulty or trust her with a confidence. And yet I delight in her. I think it's because she's so entirely herself."
"She's a darling!" said Lane. "She's so preposterously human, in her way, and yet she's always distinguished. And she's so clever as well as so ignorant. I love that combination. Even on a yacht she never seems to have a bad day."
Charmian looked at Claude Heath, who was silent. She was wondering whether he meant to call in Grosvenor Square, whether he would ever set sail with Mrs. Shiffney on The Wanderer.
When Max Elliot came back they gathered round the fire, no longer split up into duets, and the conversation was general. Heath joined in frequently, and with the apparent eagerness which was evidently characteristic of him. He had facility in speaking, great quickness of utterance, and energy of voice. When he listened he suggested to Charmian a mind so alive as to be what she called "on the pounce." He had an odd air of being swayed, carried away, by what those around him were saying, even by what they were thinking, as if something in his nature demanded to acquiesce. Yet she fancied that he was secretly following his own line of thought with a persistence that was almost cold.
Lane led the talk at first, and displayed less of his irony than usual. He was probably not a happy man, though he never spoke of being unhappy. His habitual expression was of discontent, and he was too critical of life, endeavor, character, to be easily satisfied. But to-night he seemed in a softer mood than usual. Perhaps he had an object in seeming so. He was a man very curious in the arts. Elliot, who knew him well, was conscious that something in Heath's personality had made a strong impression upon him, and thought he was trying to create a favorable atmosphere in the hope that music might come of it. If this was so, he labored in vain. And soon doubtless he knew it. For he, too, pleaded another engagement, and, like Mrs. Shiffney, got up to go.
Directly the door shut behind him Charmian was conscious of relief and excitement. She even, almost despite herself, began to hope for a Te Deum; and, hoping, she found means to be wise. She effaced herself, so she believed, by withdrawing a little into a corner near the fire, holding up her Conder fan open to shield her face from the glow, and taking no part in the conversation, while listening to it with a pretty appearance of dreaminess. She was conscious of her charming attitude, of the line made by her slender upraised arm, and not unaware of the soft and almost transparent beauty the light of a glowing fire gives to delicate flesh. Nevertheless, she really tried, in a perhaps half-hearted way, to withdraw her personality into the mist. And this she did because she knew well that her mother, not she, was en rapport with Claude Heath.
"I'm out of it," she said to herself, "and mother's in it."
Mrs. Shiffney had been a restraint, Lane had been a restraint. It would be dreadful if she were the third restraining element. She would have liked to be triumphantly active in bringing things about. Since that was evidently quite out of the question she was resolved to go to the other extreme.
"My only chance is to be a mouse!" she thought.
At least she would be a graceful mouse.
She gazed at the delicate figures on her Conder fan. They, those three a little way from her, were talking now, really talking.
Mrs. Mansfield was speaking of the endeavor of certain Londoners to raise the theater out of the rut into which it had fallen, and to make of it something worthy to claim the attention of those who did not use it merely for digestive purposes. She related a story of a disastrous theater-party which she had once joined, and which had been arranged by an aspiring woman with little sense of fitness.
"We dined with her first. She had, somehow, persuaded Burling, the Oxford historian, Mrs. Hartford, the dear poetess who never smiles, and her husband, and Cummerbridge, the statistician, to be of the party. After dinner where do you think she took us?"
"To the Oxford?" said Elliot, flinging his hands round his knee and beginning to smile.
"To front row stalls at the Criterion, where they were giving a knockabout farce called My Little Darling in which a clergyman was put into a boiler, a guardsman hidden in a linen cupboard, and a penny novelette duchess was forced to retreat into a shower-bath in full activity. I confess that I laughed more than I had ever done in my life. I sat between Burling, who looked like a terrified hen, and Mr. Hartford, who was seriously attentive from beginning to end, and kept murmuring, 'Really! Really!' And I had the poetess's sibylline profile in full view. I was almost hysterical when it was over. As we were coming out Mr. Hartford said to his wife, 'Henrietta, I'm glad we came.' She rolled an eye on him and answered, with tears in the voice, 'Why?' 'It's a valuable lesson. We now know what the British public needs.' Her reply was worthy of her."
"What was it?" said Elliot, eagerly.
"'There are many human needs, Gabriel, which it is criminal to gratify.' Burling went home in a four-wheeler. Cummerbridge had left after the first act—a severe attack of neuralgia in the right eye."
Elliot's full-throated laugh rang through the room. Heath was smiling, but almost sadly, Charmian thought.
"Perhaps it was My Little Darling which brought about the attempt at better things you were speaking of," he said to Mrs. Mansfield.
"Ah, but their prophet is not mine!" she answered.
An almost feverish look of vitality had come into her face, which was faintly pencilled by the fingers of sorrow.
"Sometimes I think I hate the disintegrating drama more than I despise the vulgar idiocies which, after all, never really touch human life," she continued. "No doubt it is sheer weakness on my part to be affected by it. But I am. Only last week Charmian and I saw the play that they—the superior ones—are all flocking to. The Premier has seen it five times already. I loathed its cleverness. I loathed the element of surprise in it. I laughed, and loathed my own laughter. The man who wrote it would put cap and bells on St. Francis of Assisi and make a mock of OEdipus."
She paused, then, leaning forward, in a low and thrilling voice she quoted, "'For we are in Thy hand; and man's noblest task is to help others by his best means and powers.'"
Claude Heath gazed at her while she was speaking, and in his eyes Charmian, glancing over her fan, saw what she thought of as two torches gleaming.
"I came out of the theater," continued Mrs. Mansfield, "and I confess it with shame, feeling as if I should never find again the incentive to a noble action, as if the world were turned to chaff. And yet I had laughed—how I had laughed!"
Suddenly she began to laugh at the mere recollection of something in the play.
"The wretch is terribly clever!" she exclaimed. "But he seems to me destructive."
"Well, but—" began Elliot. "Some such accusation has been brought against many really great men. The Empress Frederick told a friend of mine that no one who had not lived in Germany, and observed German life closely, could understand the evil spread through the country by Wagner's Tristan."
"Then the fault, the sin if you like, was in the hearers," said Heath, almost with excitement.
He got up and stood by the fire.
"Wagner was a builder. I believe Germany is the better for a Tristan, and I believe we should be the better for an English Tristan. But I doubt if we gain essentially by the drama in cap and bells."
Elliot, who was fond of defending his friends, came vigorously to the defense of the playwright, to whom he was devoted and whose first nights he seldom missed. In the discussion which followed Charmian saw more clearly how peculiarly in tune her mother's mind was with Heath's.
"This is the beginning of a great intimacy," she said to herself. "One of mother's great intimacies."
And, for the first time she consciously envied her mother, consciously wished that she had her mother's brains, temperament, and unintentional fascination. The talk went on, and presently she drifted into it, took her small part in it. But she felt herself too brainless, too ignorant to be able to contribute to it anything of value. Her usually happy and innocent self-conceit has deserted her, with all her audacities. She was oddly subdued, was almost sad.
"How old is he really?" she thought more than once as she looked at Claude Heath.
There was no mention of music, and at last Mrs. Mansfield got up to go.
As they said good-night she looked at Heath and remarked:
"We shall meet again?"
He clasped her hand, and answered, slightly reddening:
"Oh, I hope so! I do hope so!"
That was all. There was no mention of the Red Book, of being at home on Thursdays, no "If you're ever near Berkeley Square," etc. All that was unnecessary. Charmian touched a long-fingered hand and uttered a cold little "Good-night." A minute more and her mother and she were in the motor gliding through damp streets in the murky darkness.
After a short silence Mrs. Mansfield said:
"Well, Charmian, you escaped! Are you very thankful?"
"Escaped!" said a rather plaintive voice from the left-hand corner of the car.
"The dreaded Te Deum."
"Is he a musician at all? I believe Max Elliot has been humbugging us."
"He warned you not to expect too much in the way of hair."
"It isn't that. How old do you think he is?"
"Certainly not thirty."
"What did you tell him about me?"
"About you? I don't remember telling him anything."
"Oh, but you did, mother!"
"What makes you think so?"
"I know you did, when I was sitting near the piano with Max Elliot."
"Perhaps I did then. But I can't remember what it was. It must have been something very trifling."
"Oh, of course I know that!" said Charmian almost petulantly.
Mrs. Mansfield realized that the girl had not enjoyed her evening, but she was too wise to ask her why. Indeed she was not much given to the putting of intimate questions to Charmian. So she changed the subject quietly, and they were soon at home.
Twelve o'clock was striking as they entered the house. The evening, Mrs. Mansfield thought, had passed quickly. She was a bad sleeper, and seldom went to bed before one, but she never kept a maid sitting up for her.
"I'm going to read a book," she said to Charmian, with her hand on the door of the small library on the first floor, where she usually sat when she was alone.
Charmian, taller than she was, bent a little and kissed her.
"What nonsense you talk; but only to me, I know!"
"Other people know it without my telling them. You jump into minds and hearts, and poor little I remain outside, squatting like a hungry child."
"And that is greater nonsense still. Come and sit up with me for a little."
"No, not to-night, you darling!"
Almost with violence Charmian kissed her again, released her, and went away up the stairs between white walls to bed.
Charmian had been right when she had said to herself, "This is the beginning of one of mother's great intimacies."
Claude Heath called almost at once in Berkeley Square; and in a short time he established a claim to be one of Mrs. Mansfield's close friends. She had several, but Heath stood out from among them. There was a special bond between the white-haired woman of forty-five and the young man of twenty-eight. Perhaps their freemasonry arose from the fact that each held tenaciously a secret: Mrs. Mansfield her persistent devotion to the memory of her dead husband, Heath his devotion to his art. Perhaps the two secrecies in some mysterious way recognized each other, perhaps the two reserves clung together.
These two in silence certainly understood each one something in the other that was hidden from the gaze of the world.
A fact in connection with their intimacy, which set it apart from the other friendships of Mrs. Mansfield, was this—Charmian was not included in it.
This exclusion was not owing to any desire of the mother. She was incapable of shutting any door, beyond which she did not stand alone, against her child. The generosity of her nature was large, warm, chivalrous, the link between her and Charmian very strong. The girl was wont to accept her mother's friends with a pretty eagerness. They spoiled her, because of her charm, and because she was the child of the house in which they spent some of their happiest hours. Never yet had there lain on Charmian's life a shadow coming from her mother. But now she entered a faintly shadowed way, as it seemed deliberately and of her own will. She tacitly refused to accept the friendship between her mother and Claude Heath as she had accepted the other friendships. Gently, subtly, almost mysteriously, she excluded herself from it.
Or was she gently, subtly, almost mysteriously excluded from it by Claude Heath?
She chose to think so. And there were moments in which he chose to think that she obstinately declined to accept him as her mother accepted him, because she disliked him, was perhaps jealous of his intimacy with Mrs. Mansfield.
All this was below the surface. Charmian seemed friendly with Heath, and he, generally, at ease with her. But when he was alone with Mrs. Mansfield he was a different man. At first she thought little of this. She attributed it to the fact that Heath had a reserved nature and that she happened to hold a key which could unlock it, or unlock a room or two of it, leaving, perhaps, many rooms closed. But, being not only a very intelligent but a delicately sensitive woman, she presently began to think that there was some secret antagonism between her child and Heath.
This pained her. She even considered whether she ought not to put an end to her intimacy with Heath. She had grown to value it. She was incapable of entering into a sentimental relation with any man. She had loved deeply, had had her beautiful summer. It had died. The autumn was upon her. She regretted. Often her heart was by a grave, often it was beyond, seeking, like a bird with spread wings above dark seas seeking the golden clime it needs and instinctively knows of. But she did not repine. And she was able to fill her life, to be strongly interested in people and in events. She mellowed with her great sorrow instead of becoming blunted by it or withering under it. And so she drew people to her, and was drawn, in her turn, to them.
Claude Heath had brought into her life something her other friends had not given her. She realized this clearly when she first considered Charmian in connection with herself and him. If he ceased from her life, sank away into the crowd of unseen men, he would leave a gap which another could not fill. She had a feeling that she was valuable to him. She did not know exactly how or why. And he was valuable to her.
But of course Charmian was the first interest in her life, had the first claim upon her consideration. She sat wondering what it was in Heath which the girl disliked, what it was in Charmian which, perhaps, troubled or irritated Heath.
Charmian was out that day at an afternoon concert, and Mrs. Mansfield had made an engagement to go to tea with Heath in his little old house near St. Petersburg Place. She had never yet visited him, although she had known him for nearly three months. And she had never heard a note of his music. The latter fact did not strike her as strange. She had never mentioned her dead husband to him.
Max Elliot had at first been perturbed by this reticence of the musician. He had specially wished Mrs. Mansfield to hear what he had heard. After that evening in Cadogan Square he had several times asked: "Well, have you heard the Te Deum?" or "Has Heath played any of his compositions to you yet?" To Mrs. Mansfield's invariable unembarrassed "No!" he gave a shrug of the shoulders, a "He's an extraordinary fellow!" or a "Well, I've made a failure of it this time!" Once he added: "Don't you want to hear his music?" "Not unless he wants me to hear it," Mrs. Mansfield replied. Elliot looked at her for a minute with his large, prominent and kind eyes, and said: "No wonder you're adored by your friends!" Several times since the evening in Cadogan Square he had heard Heath play his compositions, and he now began to feel as if he owed this pleasure to his busy and almost vulgar curiosity about musical development and the progress of artists, as if Heath's reserve were his greatest proof of regard and friendship. He had not succeeded in persuading Heath to come to one of his Sunday musical evenings, at which crowds of people in society and many artists assembled. Mrs. Mansfield taught him not to attempt any more persuasion. He realized that his first instinct had been right. The plant must grow in darkness. But he was always being carried away by artistic enthusiasms, and had an altruistic desire to share good things. And he dearly loved "a musical find." He had a certain name as a discoverer of talent, and there's so much in a name. The lives that have been changed, moulded, governed by a hastily conferred name!
Mrs. Mansfield was inclined to believe that Heath had invited her to tea with the intention of at last submitting his talent to her opinion. They had sometimes talked together of music, but much oftener of books, character, people, national movements, topics of the day. As she went to her bedroom to dress for her expedition, she felt a certain hesitation, almost a disinclination to go. To go was to draw a step or two nearer to Heath, and so, perhaps, to retreat a step or two from her child. To-day the fact that Charmian and Heath did not quite "hit it off together" vexed her spirit, and the slight mystery of their relation troubled her. As she went down to get into the motor she was half inclined to speak to Heath on the subject. She was quite certain that she would not speak to Charmian.
The month was February, and by the time Mrs. Mansfield reached Mullion House evening was falling. A large motor was drawn up in front of the house, and as Mrs. Mansfield's chauffeur sounded a melodious chord the figure of a smartly dressed woman walked across the pavement and stepped into it. After an instant of delay, caused by this woman's footman, who spoke to her at the window, the car moved off and disappeared rapidly in the gathering darkness.
"Was that Adelaide?" Mrs. Mansfield asked herself as she got out.
She was not certain, but she thought the passing figure had looked like Mrs. Shiffney's.
The door of Mullion House stood open, held by a thin woman with very large gray eyes, who smiled at Mrs. Mansfield and made a slight motion, almost as if she mentally dropped a curtsey, but physically refrained out of respect for London ways.
"Oh, yes, ma'am, he is in! He's expecting you."
The emphasis on the last word was marked. Mrs. Mansfield looked at this woman, toward whom at once she felt friendly.
"There's some here and there that would bother him to death, I'm sure, if they was let!" continued the woman, closing the little front door gently. "But it will be a pleasure to him to see you. We all knows that!"
"I'm very glad to hear it!" responded Mrs. Mansfield, liking this unconventional but very human servant. "Mr. Heath has spoken of my coming, then?"
"I should think so, ma'am. This way, if you please!"
Mrs. Searle, Heath's cook-housekeeper, crossed the little dimly lit hall and walked quickly down a rather long and narrow passage.
"He's in the studio, ma'am," she remarked over her narrow shoulder, sharply turning her head. "Fan is with him."
"Who's Fan? A dog?"
"My little girl, ma'am."
"Oh, I beg your pardon!"
"Not knowing you were there, when the other lady went I sends her in to him for company as he wasn't working. 'Run, Fan!' says I. 'Go and cheer Mr. Heath up, there's a good girl!' I says. I knows very well there's nothing like a child to put you right after you've been worried. They're so simple, aren't they, ma'am? And we're all simple, I b'lieve, at 'eart, though we're ashamed to show it. I'm sure I don't know why!"
As she concluded she opened a door and ushered Mrs. Mansfield into the composer's workroom.
At the far end of it, in a flicker of firelight, Mrs. Mansfield saw him stooping down over a very fair and Saxon-looking child of perhaps three years old, whose head was thickly covered with short yellow hair inclined to be curly, and who was dressed in a white frock with an almost artful blue bow in the front. As Mrs. Mansfield came in the child was holding up to Heath a small naked doll of a rather blurred appearance, and was uttering some explanatory remarks in the uneven but arresting voice that seems peculiar to childhood.
"Mrs. Mansfield, if you please, sir!" said Mrs. Searle. Then, with a change of voice: "Come along, Fan! And bring Masterman with you, there's a good girl! We must get on his clothes or he'll catch cold." (To Mrs. Mansfield.) "You'll excuse her, ma'am, but she's that nat'ral, clothes or no clothes it's all one to her."
Fan turned round, holding Masterman by one leg and staring with bright blue eyes at Mrs. Mansfield. Her countenance expressed a dignified inquiry combined, perhaps, with a certain amount of very natural surprise at so unseemly an interruption of her strictly private interview with Claude Heath and Masterman. Her left thumb mechanically sought the shelter of her mouth, and it was obvious that she was "sizing up" Mrs. Mansfield with all the caution, if not suspicion, of the female nature in embryo.
Heath took her gently by the shoulder as he came forward, smiling, and propelled her slowly toward the middle of the large dim room.
"Welcome!" he said, holding out his hand. "Yes, Fantail, I quite understand. He's been sick and now he's getting better. Go with mother!"
Fan was exchanged for Mrs. Mansfield and vanished, speaking slowly and continuously about Masterman's internal condition and "the new lydy," while Mrs. Mansfield took off her fur coat and looked around her and at Heath.
"I didn't kiss her," she said, "because I think it's a liberty to kiss one of God's creatures at first sight without a special invitation."
"I know—I know!"
Heath seemed restless. His face was slightly flushed, and his eyes, always full of a peculiar vitality, looked more living even than usual. He glanced at Mrs. Mansfield, then glanced away, almost guiltily, she thought.
"Do come and sit down by the fire. Would you like a cushion?"
"No, thank you! What a nice old settle!"
"Yes, isn't it? I live in this room. Alling, the painter, built it for his studio. The other rooms are tiny."
"What a delightful servant you have!"
"Mrs. Searle—yes. She's a treasure! Humanity breaks out of her whatever the occasion. And my goodness, how she understands men!"
He laughed, but the laugh sounded slightly unnatural.
"Fantail's delightful, too!" he added.
"What is her real name?"
"Fanny. I call her Fantail." He paused. "Well, because I like her, I suppose."
There was a moment of silence, in which Mrs. Mansfield glanced about the room. Despite its size it was cozy. It looked as if it were lived in, perpetually and intimately used. There was nothing in it that was very handsome or very valuable, except a fine Steinway grand pianoforte; but there was nothing ugly or vulgar. And there were quantities of books, not covered with repellent glass. They were ranged in dark cases, which furnished the walls, and lay everywhere on tables, among magazines and papers, scores and volumes of songs and loose manuscript music. The piano was open, and there was more music on it. The armchairs were well worn but comfortable, and looked "sat in." Over the windows there were dim orange-colored curtains that looked old but not shabby. On the floor there were some rather good and very effective Oriental rugs. The only flowers in the room were bright yellow tulips, grouped together in a mass on an oak table a long way from the fire. Opposite to the piano there was a large ebony crucifix mounted on a stand, and so placed that anyone seated at the piano faced it. The room was lit not strongly by oil lamps with shades. A few mysterious oil paintings, very dark in color, hung on the walls between the bookcases. Mrs. Mansfield could not discern their subjects. On the high wooden mantelpiece there were a few photographs, of professors and students at the Royal College of Music and of a serious and innocent-looking priest in black coat and round white collar.
To Mrs. Mansfield the room suggested a recluse who liked to be cosy, who, perhaps, was drawn toward mystery, even mysticism, and who loved the life of the brain.
"And you've a garden?" she asked, breaking the little pause.
"The size of a large pocket-handkerchief. I'm not at all rich, you know. But I can just afford my little house and to live without earning a penny."
A woman servant, not Mrs. Searle, came in with tea and retreated, walking very softly and slowly. She looked almost rustic.
"That's my only other servant, Harriet," said Heath, pouring out tea.
"There's something very un-Londony in it all," said Mrs. Mansfield, again looking round, almost with a puzzled air.
"That's what I try for. I'm fond of London in a way, but I can't bear anything typical of London in my home."
"It is quite a home," she said; "and the home of a worker. One gets weary of being received in reception-rooms. This is a retreat."
Heath looked at her with his bright almost too searching and observant eyes.
"I wonder," he said almost reluctantly, "whether—may I talk about myself to-day?" he interrupted himself.
"Do, if you like to."
"I think I should."
"I wonder whether a man is a coward to raise up barriers between himself and life, whether it is a mistake to have a retreat, as you rightly call this room, this house, and to spend the greater part of one's time alone in it? But"—he moved restlessly—"the real question is whether one ought to let oneself be guided by a powerful instinct."
"I expect one ought to."
"Do you? Oh, you're not eating anything!"
"I will help myself."
"Mrs. Shiffney wouldn't agree with you."
"Didn't—didn't you see her? She went just before you came."
"I saw someone. I thought it might be Adelaide. I wasn't sure."
"It was she. I hadn't asked her to come and wasn't expecting her."
He stopped, then added abruptly:
"It was wonderfully kind of her to come, though. She is kind and clever, too. She has fascination, I think...."
"I'm sure she has."
"And yet, d'you know, there's something in her, and in lots of people I might get to know, I suppose, through her and Max Elliot, that I—well, I almost hate it."
"What is it?"
"Well, whenever I come across one of them by chance I seem to hear a voice repeating, 'To-morrow we die—to-morrow we die—to-morrow we die.' And I seem to see something inside of them with teeth and claws fastening on pleasure. It's—it's like a sort of minotaur, and it gives me horrors. And yet I might go to it."
Mrs. Mansfield said nothing for a moment. She had finished her cup of tea, and now, with a little gesture, refused to have another.
"It's quite true. There is the creature with teeth and claws, and it is, perhaps, horrible. But it's so sad that I scarcely see anything but its sadness."
"You are kinder than I."
He leaned forward.
"D'you know, I think you're the kindest human being I ever met, except one, that priest up there on the mantelpiece."
"Forgive me," she said, making allowance for herself to-day because of Heath's evident desire to talk intimately, a desire which she believed she ought to help, "but are you a Roman Catholic?"
"Oh, no! I wish I was!"
"But I suppose you can't be?"
"Oh, no! I suppose I'm one of those unsatisfactory people whose soul and whose brain are not in accord. That doesn't make for inward calm or satisfaction. But I can only hope for better days."
There was something uneasy in his speech. She felt the strong reserve in him always fighting against the almost fierce wish to be unreserved with her.
"They will come, surely!" she said. "If you are quite sincere, sincere with yourself always and sincere with others as often as is possible."
"You're right about its not being possible to be always sincere with others."
"They simply wouldn't let you!"
"No," he said. "I feel as if I could be rather sincere with you sometimes."
"Specially to-day, perhaps."
"Yes, I think so. We do get on, don't we?"
"Yes, we do."
"I often wonder why. But we do. I'll move the table if you've really finished."
He put the table away and sat down on the settle beside her, at the far end. And he turned, leaning his back against the upright end, and stretching one arm along the wooden top, on which his long fingers restlessly closed.
"I was sorry I went to Max Elliot's till you came into the room," he said. "And ever since then I've been partly very glad."
"But only partly?"
"Yes, because I've always had an instinctive dread of getting drawn in."
"To the current of our modern art life. I'm sure you mean that."
"I do. And of course Elliot is in the thick of it. Mrs. Shiffney's in it, and all her lot, which I don't know. And that fellow Lane is in it too."
"And I suppose I am in it with Charmian."
Heath looked at the floor. Ignoring Mrs. Mansfield's remark, he continued:
"I have some talent. It isn't the sort of talent to win popularity. Fortunately, I don't desire—in fact, I'm very much afraid of popularity. But as I believe my talent is—is rather peculiar, individual, it might easily become—well, I suppose I may say the rage in a certain set. They might drop me very soon. Probably they would—I don't know. But I have a strong feeling that they'd take me up violently if I gave them a chance. That's what Max Elliot can't help wanting. He's such a good fellow, but he's a born exploiter. Not in any nasty way, of course!" Heath concluded hastily.
"I quite understand."
"And, I don't want to seem conceited, but I see there's something about me that set would probably like. Mrs. Shiffney's showed me that. I have never called upon her. She has sent me several invitations. And to-day she called. She wants me to go with her on The Wanderer for a cruise."
Heath shrugged his shoulders.
"In the Mediterranean, I believe."
"Doesn't that tempt you?"
"Yes, terribly. But I flatly refused to go. But she knew I was tempted. It's only curiosity on her part," he added, with a sort of hot, angry boyishness. "She can't make me out, and I didn't call. That's why she asked me."
Mrs. Mansfield mentally added a "partly" to the last sentence.
"You're very much afraid of exposing yourself—or is it your talent?—to the influence of what we may as well call the world," she said.
"I suppose one's talent is oneself, one's best self."
"Perhaps so. I have none. You know best about that. I expect you are right in being afraid."
"You don't think I'm merely a rather absurd coward and egoist?"
"Oh, no! But some people—many, I think—would say a talent is meant to be used, to be given to the light."
"I know. But I don't think the modern world wants mine. I"—he reddened—"I always set words from the Bible nearly or from the Prayer-Book."
Smiling a little, as if saving something by humor, he added:
"Not the Song of Solomon."
"But don't the English—"
He stopped her.
"Good heavens! I know you are thinking of the Handel Festival and Elijah in the provinces!" he exclaimed. "I know you are!"
"I should like to play you one or two of my things," he said impulsively. "Then you'll see at once."
He went toward the piano. She sat still. She was with the striking unreserve of the reserved man when he has cast his protector or his demon away. With his back to her Heath turned over some music, moved a pile of sheets, set them down on the floor under the piano, searched.
"Oh, here it is!"
He grasped some manuscript, put it on the music-stand, and sat down.
"This is the last thing I've done. The words are taken from the sixteenth chapter of Revelation—'And I heard a great voice out of the temple saying to the seven angels, "Go your ways, and pour out the vials of the wrath of God upon the earth."' And so on."
With a sort of anger his hands descended and struck the keys. Speaking through his music he gave Mrs. Mansfield indications of what it was expressing.
"This is the sea. 'The second angel poured out his vial upon the sea, and it became as the blood of a dead man.... The fourth angel poured out his vial upon the sun, and power was given unto him to scorch men with fire.... The sixth angel poured out his vial upon the great River Euphrates, and the water thereof was dried up, that the way of the Kings of the East might be prepared.'"
The last words which Heath had set were those in the fifteenth verse of the chapter—"Behold, I come as a thief. Blessed is he that watcheth and keepeth his garments lest he walk naked and they see his shame."
When he had finished he got up from the piano with a flushed face and, again speaking in a boyish and almost naive manner, said quickly:
"There, that gives you an idea of the sort of thing I do and care about doing. For, of course, I never will attempt any subject that doesn't thoroughly interest me."
He stood for a moment, not looking toward Mrs. Mansfield; then, as if struggling against an inward reluctance, he again sat down on the settle.
"Have you orchestrated it?" she asked.
"Yes. I've just finished the orchestration."
"Surely you want to hear it given with voices and the orchestra? Frankly, I won't believe you if you say you don't."
The reluctance seemed to fade out of him.
"The fact is I'm torn between the desire to hear my things and a mighty distaste for publicity."
He sprang up.
"If you'll allow me I'll just give you an idea of my Te Deum. And then I'll have done."
He went once more to the piano.
When he was sitting beside her again Mrs. Mansfield felt shy of him. After a moment she said:
"You are sincere in your music?"
He did not seem specially anxious to get at her exact opinion of his work, and this fact, she scarcely knew why, pleased Mrs. Mansfield.
"I had two or three things done at the College concerts," Heath continued. "I don't think they were much liked. They were considered very clever technically. But what's that? Of course, one must conquer one's means or one can't express oneself at all."
"And now you work quite alone?"
"Yes. I've got just a thousand a year of my own," he said abruptly.
"You are independent, then."
"Yes. It isn't a great deal. Of course, I quite realize that the sort of thing I do could never bring in a penny of money. So I've no money temptation to resist in keeping quiet. There isn't a penny in my compositions. I know that."
Mrs. Mansfield thought, "If he were to get a mystical libretto and write an opera!" But she did not say it. She felt that she would not care to suggest anything to Heath which might indicate a desire on her part to see him "a success." In her ears were perpetually sounding the words, "and the water thereof was dried up, that the way of the Kings of the East might be prepared." They took her away from London. They set her in the midst of a great strangeness. They even awoke in her an almost riotous feeling of desire. What she desired she could not have said exactly. Some form of happiness, that was all she knew. But how the thought of happiness stung her soul at that moment! She looked at Heath and said:
"I quite understand about Mrs. Shiffney now."
"You have the dangerous gift of a very peculiar and very powerful imagination. I think your music might make you enemies."
Heath looked pleased.
"I'm glad you think that. I know exactly what you mean."
They sat together on the settle and talked for more than an hour. Mrs. Mansfield's feeling of shyness speedily vanished, was replaced by something maternal with which she was much more at ease.
Mrs. Searle let her out. She had said good-bye to Heath in the studio and asked him not to come to the front door.
"Good-night, Mrs. Searle!" she said, with a smile. "I hope I haven't stayed too long?"
"No, indeed, ma'am. I'm sure you'd ado him good. He do like them that's nat'ral. But he don't like to be bothered. And there's people that do keep on, ma'am, isn't there?"
"I daresay there are."
"Specially with a young gentleman, ma'am. I always do say it's the women runs after the men. More shame to us, ma'am."
"Has Fan begun yet?"
Mrs. Searle blushed.
"Well, ma'am, really I don't know. But she's awfully put out if anyone interrupts her when she's with Mr. Heath."
"I must take care what I'm about."
"Oh, ma'am, I'm sure—"
The motor moved away from the little old house. As Mrs. Mansfield looked out she saw a faint gleam in the studio. Involuntarily she listened, almost strained her ears. And she murmured, "And the water thereof was dried up, that the way of the Kings of the East might be prepared."
The gleam was lost in the night. She leaned back and found herself wondering what Charmian would have thought of the music she had just heard.
Mrs. Shiffney had more money than she knew how to spend, although she was recklessly extravagant. Her mother, who was dead, had been an Austrian Jewess, and from her had come the greater part of Mrs. Shiffney's large personal fortune. Her father, Sir Willy Manning, was still alive, and was a highly cultivated and intelligent Englishman of the cosmopolitan type; Mrs. Shiffney derived her peculiar and attractive look of high breeding and her completely natural manner from him. From her mother she had received the nomadic instinct which kept her perpetually restless, and which often drove her about the world in search of the change and diversion which never satisfied her. Lady Manning had been a feverish traveller and had written several careless and clever books of description. She had died of a fever in Hong-Kong while her husband was in Scotland. Although apparently of an unreserved nature, he had never bemoaned her loss.
Mrs. Shiffney had a husband, a lenient man who loved comfort and who was fond of his wife in an altruistic way. She and he got on excellently when they were together and quite admirably when they were parted, as they very often were, for yachting made Mr. Shiffney feel "remarkably cheap." As he much preferred to feel expensive he had nothing to do with The Wanderer unless she lay snug in harbor. His hobby was racing. He was a good horseman, disliked golf, and seldom went out of the British Isles, though he never said that his own country was good enough for him. When he did cross the Channel he visited Paris, Monte Carlo, Homburg, Biarritz, or some place where he was certain to be in the midst of his "pals." The strain of wildness, which made his wife uncommon and interesting, did not exist in him, but he was rather proud of it in her, and had been heard to say more than once, "Addie's a regular gipsy," as if the statement were a high compliment. He was a tall, well-built, handsome man of fifty-two, with gray hair and moustache, an agreeable tenor voice, which was never used in singing, and the best-cut clothes in London. Although easily kind he was thoroughly selfish. Everybody had a good word for him, and nobody, who really knew him, ever asked him to perform an unselfish action. "That isn't Jimmy's line" was their restraining thought if they had for a moment contemplated suggesting to Mr. Shiffney that he might perhaps put himself out for a friend. And Jimmy was quite of their opinion, and always stuck to his "line," like a sensible fellow.
Two or three days after Mrs. Shiffney's visit to Claude Heath her husband, late one afternoon, found her in tears.
"What's up, Addie?" he asked, with the sympathy he never withheld from her. "Another gown gone wrong?"
Mrs. Shiffney shook her powerful head, on which was a marvellous black hat crowned with a sort of factory chimney of stiff black plumes.
Mr. Shiffney lit a cigar.
"Poor old Addie!" he said. He leaned down and stroked her shoulder. "I wish you could get hold of somebody or something that'd make you happy," he remarked. "I'm sure you deserve it."
His wife dried her tears and sniffed two or three times almost with the frankness of a grief-stricken child.
"I never shall!"
"Why not, Addie?"
"There's something in me—I don't know! I should get tired of anyone who didn't get tired of me!"
She almost began to cry again, and added despairingly:
"So what hope is there? And I do so want to enjoy myself! I wonder if there ever has been a woman who wanted to enjoy herself as much as I do?"
Mr. Shiffney blew forth a cloud of smoke, extending the little finger of the hand which held his cigar.
"We all want to have a good time," he observed. "A first-rate time. What else are we here for?"
He spoke seriously.
"We are here to keep things going, I s'pose—to keep it up, don't you know? We mustn't let it run down. But if we don't enjoy ourselves down it goes. And that doesn't do, does it?"
He flicked the ash from his cigar.
"What's the special row this time?" he continued, without any heated curiosity, but with distinct sympathy.
Mrs. Shiffney looked slightly more cheerful. She enjoyed telling things if the things were closely connected with herself.
"Well, I want to start for a cruise," she began. "I can't remain for ever glued to Grosvenor Square. I must move about and see something."
She had just been for a month in Paris.
"Of course. What are we here for?" observed her husband.
"You always understand! Sit down, you old thing!"
Mr. Shiffney sat down, gently pulling up his trousers.
"And the row is," she continued, shaking her shoulders, "that I want Claude Heath to come and he won't. And, since he won't, he's really the only living man I want to have on the cruise."
"Who is he?" observed Mr. Shiffney. "I've never heard of him. Is he one of your special pals?"
"Not yet. I met him at Max's. He's a composer, and I want to know what he's like."
"I expect he's like all the rest."
"No, he isn't!" she observed decisively.
"Why won't he come? Perhaps he's a bad sailor."
"He didn't even trouble himself to say that. He was in such a hurry to refuse that he didn't bother about an excuse. And this afternoon he called, when I was in, and never asked for me, only left cards and bolted, although I had been to his house to ask him to come on The Wanderer."
"Afraid of you, is he?"
"I don't know, I'm sure. He's never been among us."
"Poor chap! But surely that's a reason for him to want to get in?"
"Wouldn't you think so? Wouldn't anyone think so? The way I'm bombarded! But he seems only anxious to keep out of everything."
"A pose very likely."
"I don't believe it is."
"I leave it to you. No one sharper in London. Is he a gentleman—all that sort of thing?"
"Oh, of course!"
Mr. Shiffney pulled up his trousers a little more, exposing a pair of striped silk socks which emerged from shining boots protected by white spats.
"To be sure. If he hadn't been he'd have jumped at you and The Wanderer."
"Naturally. I shan't go at all now! What an unlucky woman I always am!"
"You never let anyone know it."
"Well, Jimmy, I'm not quite a fool. Be down on your luck and not a soul will stay near you."
"I should think not. Why should they? One wants a bit of life, not to hear people howling and groaning all about one. It's awful to be with anyone who's under the weather."
"Ghastly! I can't stand it! But, all the same, it's a fearful corvee to keep it up when you're persecuted as I am."
"Poor old Addie!"
Mr. Shiffney threw his cigar into the grate reflectively and lightly touched his moustaches, which were turned upward, but not in a military manner.
"Things never seem quite right for you," he continued.
"And other women have such a splendid time!" she exclaimed. "The disgusting thing is that he goes all the while to Violet Mansfield."
"She's dull enough and quite old too."
"No, she isn't dull. You're wrong there."
"I daresay. She doesn't amuse me."
"She's not your sort."
"Too feverish, too keen, brainy in the wrong way. I like brains, mind you, and I know where they are. But I don't see the fun of having them jumped at one."
"He does, apparently, unless it's really Charmian."
"The girl? She's not bad. Wants to be much cleverer than she is, of course, like pretty nearly all the girls, except the sporting lot; but not bad."
"Jimmy"—Mrs. Shiffney's eyes began once more to look audacious—"shall I ask Charmian Mansfield to come on the yacht?"
"You think that might bring him? Why not ask both of them?"
"No; I won't have the mother!"
"Because I won't!"
"The best of reasons, too."
"You understand us better than any man in London."
She sat reflecting. She was beginning to look quite cheerful.
"It would be rather fun," she resumed, after a minute. "Charmian Mansfield, Max—if he can get away—Paul Lane. It isn't the party I'd thought of, but still—"
"Which of them were you going to take?"
"I don't. And where did you mean to go?"
"I told him to the Mediterranean."
"But it wasn't!"
"Oh, I don't know! Where can one go? That's another thing. It's always the same old places, unless one has months to spare, and then one gets bored with the people one's asked. Things are so difficult."
"One place is very much like another."
"To you. But I always hope for an adventure round the corner."
"I've been round a lot of corners in my time, but I might almost as well have stuck to the club."
"Of course you might!"
She got up.
"I must think about Charmian," she said, as she went casually out of the room.
Mrs. Shiffney turned the new idea over and over in her restless mind, which was always at work in a desultory but often clever way. She could not help being clever. She had never studied, never applied herself, never consciously tried to master anything, but she was quick-witted, had always lived among brilliant and highly cultivated people, had seen everything, been everywhere, known everyone, looked into all the books that had been talked about, cast at least a glance at all the pictures which had made any stir. And she gathered impressions swiftly, and, moreover, had a natural flair for all that was first-rate, original, or strange. As she was quite independent in mind, and always took her own line, she had become an arbiter, a leader of taste. What she liked soon became liked in London and Paris throughout a large circle. Unfortunately, she was changeable and apt to be governed by personal feeling in matters connected with art. When she cast away an artist she generally cast away his art with him. If it was first-rate she did not condemn it as bad. She contented herself with saying that she was "sick of it." And very soon a great many of her friends, and their friends, were sick of it, too. She was a quicksand because she was a singularly complete egoist. But very few people who met her failed to come under the spell of her careless charm, and many, because she had much impulse, swore that she had a large heart. Only to her husband, and occasionally, in a fit of passion, to someone who she thought had treated her badly, did she show a lachrymose side of her nature. She was noted for her gaiety and joie de vivre and for the energy with which she pursued enjoyment. Her cynicism did not cut deep, her irony was seldom poisoned. She spoke well of people, and was generous with her money. With her time she was less generous. She was not of those who are charitable with their golden hours. "I can't be bothered!" was the motto of her life. And wise people did not bother her.