WITH EDGED TOOLS
By Henry Seton Merriman
"Of the same clay he maketh both the vessels that serve for clean uses, and likewise also such as serve to the contrary; but what is the use of either sort, the potter himself is the judge."
TO JAMES PAYN
A TOKEN OF SINCERE REGARD
I. TWO GENERATIONS II. OVER THE OLD GROUND III. A FAREWELL IV. A TRAGEDY V. WITH EDGED TOOLS VI. UNDER THE LINE VII. THE SECRET OF THE SIMIACINE VIII. A RECRUIT IX. TO PASS THE TIME X. LOANGO XI. A COMPACT XII. A MEETING XIII. IN BLACK AND WHITE XIV. PANIC-STRICKEN XV. A CONFIDENCE XVI. WAR XVII. UNDERHAND XVIII. A REQUEST XIX. IVORY XX. BROUGHT TO THE SCRATCH XXI. THE FIRST CONSIGNMENT XXII. THE SECOND CONSIGNMENT XXIII. MERCURY XXIV. NEMESIS XXV. TO THE RESCUE XXVI. IN PERIL XXVII. OFF DUTY XXVIII. A SLOW RECOVERY XXIX. A CHANCE ACQUAINTANCE XXX. OLD BIRDS XXXI. SEED-TIME XXXII. AN ENVOY XXXIII. DARK DEALING XXXIV. AMONG THORNS XXXV. ENGAGED XXXVI. NO COMPROMISE XXXVII. FOUL PLAY XXXVIII. THE ACCURSED CAMP XXXIX. THE EXTENUATING CIRCUMSTANCE XL. SIR JOHNS LAST CARD XLI. A TROIS XLII. A STRONG FRIENDSHIP XLIII. A LONG DEBT XLIV. MADE UP XLV. THE TELEGRAM
CHAPTER I. TWO GENERATIONS
Why all delights are vain, but that most vain Which with pain purchased doth inherit pain.
"My dear—Madam—what you call heart does not come into the question at all."
Sir John Meredith was sitting slightly behind Lady Cantourne, leaning towards her with a somewhat stiffened replica of his former grace. But he was not looking at her—and she knew it.
They were both watching a group at the other side of the great ballroom.
"Sir John Meredith on Heart," said the old lady, with a depth of significance in her voice.
"And why not?"
"Yes, indeed. Why not?"
Sir John smiled with that well-bred cynicism which a new school has not yet succeeded in imitating. They were of the old school, these two; and their worldliness, their cynicism, their conversational attitude, belonged to a bygone period. It was a cleaner period in some ways—a period devoid of slums. Ours, on the contrary, is an age of slums wherein we all dabble to the detriment of our hands—mental, literary, and theological.
Sir John moved slightly in his chair, leaning one hand on one knee. His back was very flat, his clothes were perfect, his hair was not his own, nor yet his teeth. But his manners were entirely his own. His face was eighty years old, and yet he smiled his keen society smile with the best of them. There was not a young man in the room of whom he was afraid, conversationally.
"No, Lady Cantourne," he repeated. "Your charming niece is heartless. She will get on."
Lady Cantourne smiled, and drew the glove further up her stout and motherly right arm.
"She will get on," she admitted. "As to the other, it is early to give an opinion."
"She has had the best of trainings—," he murmured. And Lady Cantourne turned on him with a twinkle amidst the wrinkles.
"For which?" she asked.
"Choisissez!" he answered, with a bow.
One sees a veteran swordsman take up the foil with a tentative turn of the wrist, lunging at thin air. His zest for the game has gone; but the skill lingers, and at times he is tempted to show the younger blades a pass or two. These were veteran fencers with a skill of their own, which they loved to display at times. The zest was that of remembrance; the sword-play of words was above the head of a younger generation given to slang and music-hall airs; and so these two had little bouts for their own edification, and enjoyed the glitter of it vastly.
Sir John's face relaxed into the only repose he ever allowed it; for he had a habit of twitching and moving his lips such as some old men have. And occasionally, in an access of further senility, he fumbled with his fingers at his mouth. He was clean shaven, and even in his old age he was handsome beyond other men—standing an upright six feet two.
The object of his attention was the belle of that ball, Miss Millicent Chyne, who was hemmed into a corner by a group of eager dancers anxious to insert their names in some corner of her card. She was the fashion at that time. And she probably did not know that at least half of the men crowded round because the other half were there. Nothing succeeds like the success that knows how to draw a crowd.
She received the ovation self-possessedly enough, but without that hauteur affected by belles of balls—in books. She seemed to have a fresh smile for each new applicant—a smile which conveyed to each in turn the fact that she had been attempting all along to get her programme safely into his hands. A halting masculine pen will not be expected to explain how she compassed this, beyond a gentle intimation that masculine vanity had a good deal to do with her success.
"She is having an excellent time," said Sir John, weighing on the modern phrase with a subtle sarcasm. He was addicted to the use of modern phraseology, spiced with a cynicism of his own.
"Yes, I cannot help sympathising with her—a little," answered the lady.
"Nor I. It will not last."
"Well, she is only gathering the rosebuds."
"Wisely so, your ladyship. They at least LOOK as if they were going to last. The full-blown roses do not."
Lady Cantourne gave a little sigh. This was the difference between them. She could not watch without an occasional thought for a time that was no more. The man seemed to be content that the past had been lived through and would never renew itself.
"After all," she said, "she is my sister's child. The sympathy may only be a matter of blood. Perhaps I was like that myself once. Was I? You can tell me."
She looked slowly round the room and his face hardened. He knew that she was reflecting that there was no one else who could tell her; and he did not like it.
"No," he answered readily.
"And what was the difference?"
She looked straight in front of her with a strange old-fashioned demureness.
"Their name is legion, for they are many."
"Name a few. Was I as good-looking as that, for instance?"
He smiled—a wise, old, woman-searching smile.
"You were better-looking than that," he said, with a glance beneath his lashless lids. "Moreover, there was more of the grand lady about you. You behaved better. There was less shaking hands with your partners, less nodding and becking, and none of that modern forwardness which is called, I believe, camaraderie."
"Thank you, Sir John," she answered, looking at him frankly with a pleasant smile. "But it is probable that we had the faults of our age."
He fumbled at his lips, having reasons of his own for disliking too close a scrutiny of his face.
"That is more than probable," he answered, rather indistinctly.
"Then," she said, tapping the back of his gloved hand with her fan, "we ought to be merciful to the faults of a succeeding generation. Tell me who is that young man with the long stride who is getting himself introduced now."
"That," answered Sir John, who prided himself upon knowing every one—knowing who they were and who they were not—"is young Oscard."
"Son of the eccentric Oscard?"
"Son of the eccentric Oscard."
"And where did he get that brown face?"
"He got that in Africa, where he has been shooting. He forms part of some one else's bag at the present moment."
"What do you mean?"
"He has been apportioned a dance. Your fair niece has bagged him."
If he had only known it, Guy Oscard won the privilege of a waltz by the same brown face which Lady Cantourne had so promptly noted. Coupled with a sturdy uprightness of carriage, this raised him at a bound above the pallid habitues of ballroom and pavement. It was, perhaps, only natural that Millicent Chyne should have noted this man as soon as he crossed the threshold. He was as remarkable as some free and dignified denizen of the forest in the midst of domestic animals. She mentally put him down for a waltz, and before five minutes had elapsed he was bowing before her while a mutual friend murmured his name. One does not know how young ladies manage these little affairs, but the fact remains that they are managed. Moreover, it is a singular thing that the young persons who succeed in the ballroom rarely succeed on the larger and rougher floor of life. Your belle of the ball, like your Senior Wrangler, never seems to do much afterwards—and Afterwards is Life.
The other young men rather fell back before Guy Oscard—scared, perhaps, by his long stride, and afraid that he might crush their puny toes. This enabled Miss Chyne to give him the very next dance, of which the music was commencing.
"I feel rather out of all this," said Oscard, as they moved away together. "You must excuse uncouthness."
"I see no signs of it," laughed Millicent. "You are behaving very nicely. You cannot help being larger and stronger than—the others. I should say it was an advantage and something to be proud of."
"Oh, it is not that," replied Oscard; "it is a feeling of unkemptness and want of smartness among these men who look so clean and correct. Shall we dance?"
He looked down at her, with an admiration which almost amounted to awe, as if afraid of entering the throng with such a dainty and wonderful charge upon his powers of steering. Millicent Chyne saw the glance and liked it. It was different from the others, quite devoid of criticism, rather simple and full of honest admiration. She was so beautiful that she could hardly be expected to be unaware of the fact. She had merely to make comparisons, to look in the mirror and see that her hair was fairer and softer, that her complexion was more delicately perfect, that her slight, rounded figure was more graceful than any around her. Added to this, she knew that she had more to say than other girls—a larger stock of those little frivolous, advice-seeking, aid-demanding nothings than her compeers seemed to possess.
She knew that in saying them she could look brighter and prettier and more intelligent than her competitors.
"Yes," she said, "let us dance by all means."
Here also she knew her own proficiency, and in a few seconds she found that her partner was worthy of her skill.
"Where have you been?" she asked presently. "I am sure you have been away somewhere, exploring or something."
"I have only been in Africa, shooting."
"Oh, how interesting! You must tell me all about it!"
"I am afraid," replied Guy Oscard, with a somewhat shy laugh, "that that would NOT be interesting. Besides, I could not tell you now."
"No, but some other time. I suppose you are not going back to Africa to-morrow, Mr. Oscard?"
"Not quite. And perhaps we may meet somewhere else."
"I hope so," replied Miss Chyne. "Besides, you know my aunt, Lady Cantourne. I live with her, you know."
"I know her slightly."
"Then take an opportunity of improving the acquaintanceship. She is sitting under the ragged banner over there."
Millicent Chyne indicated the direction with a nod of the head, and while he looked she took the opportunity of glancing hastily round the room. She was seeking some one.
"Yes," said Oscard, "I see her, talking to an old gentleman who looks like Voltaire. I shall give her a chance of recognising me before the evening is out. I don't mind being snubbed if—"
He paused and steered neatly through a narrow place.
"If what?" she asked, when they were in swing again.
"If it means seeing you again," he answered bluntly—more bluntly than she was accustomed to. But she liked it. It was a novelty after the smaller change of ballroom compliments.
She was watching the door all the while.
Presently the music ceased and they made their way back to the spot whence he had taken her. She led the way thither by an almost imperceptible pressure of her fingers on his arm. There were several men waiting there, and one or two more entering the room and looking languidly round.
"There comes the favoured one," Lady Cantourne muttered, with a veiled glance towards her companion.
Sir John's grey eyes followed the direction of her glance.
"My bright boy?" he inquired, with a wealth of sarcasm on the adjective.
"Your bright boy," she replied.
"I hope not," he said curtly.
They were watching a tall fair man in the doorway who seemed to know everybody, so slow was his progress into the room. The most remarkable thing about this man was a certain grace of movement. He seemed to be specially constructed to live in narrow, hampered places. He was above six feet; but, being of slight build, he moved with a certain languidness which saved him from that unwieldiness usually associated with large men in a drawing-room.
Such was Jack Meredith, one of the best known figures in London society. He had hitherto succeeded in moving through the mazes of that coterie, as he now moved through this room, without jarring against any one.
CHAPTER II. OVER THE OLD GROUND
A man who never makes mistakes never makes anything else either.
Miss Millicent Chyne was vaguely conscious of success—and such a consciousness is apt to make the best of us a trifle elated. It was certainly one of the best balls of the season, and Miss Chyne's dress was, without doubt, one of the most successful articles of its sort there.
Jack Meredith saw that fact and noted it as soon as he came into the room. Moreover, it gratified him, and he was pleased to reflect that he was no mean critic in such matters. There could be no doubt about it, because he KNEW as well as any woman there. He knew that Millicent Chyne was dressed in the latest fashion—no furbished-up gown from the hands of her maid, but a unique creation from Bond Street.
"Well," she asked in a low voice, as she handed him her programme, "are you pleased with it?"
She glanced down at her own dress. It was not the nervous glance of the debutante, but the practised flash of experienced eyes which see without appearing to look.
"I am glad," she murmured.
He handed her back the card with the orthodox smile and bow of gratitude, but there was something more in his eyes.
"Is that what you did it for?" he inquired.
"Of course," with a glance half coquettish, half humble.
She took the card and allowed it to drop pendent from her fan without looking at it. He had written nothing on it. This was all a form. The dances that were his had been inscribed on the engagement-card long before by smaller fingers than his.
She turned to take her attendant partner's arm with a little flaunt—a little movement of the hips to bring her dress, and possibly herself, more prominently beneath Jack Meredith's notice. His eyes followed her with that incomparably pleasant society smile which he had no doubt inherited from his father. Then he turned and mingled with the well-dressed throng, bowing where he ought to bow—asking with fervour for dances in plain but influential quarters where dances were to be easily obtained.
And all the while his father and Lady Cantourne watched.
"Yes, I THINK," the lady was saying, "that that is the favoured one."
"I fear so."
"I noticed," observed Lady Cantourne, "that he asked for a dance."
"And apparently got one—or more."
"Apparently so, Sir John."
Lady Cantourne turned on him with her usual vivacity.
"Moreover?" she repeated.
"He did not need to write it down on the card; it was written there already."
She closed her fan with a faint smile
"I sometimes wonder," she said, "whether, in our young days, you were so preternaturally observant as you are now."
"No," he answered, "I was not. I affected scales of the very opaquest description, like the rest of my kind."
In the meantime this man's son was going about his business with a leisurely savoir-faire which few could rival. Jack Meredith was the beau-ideal of the society man in the best acceptation of the word. One met him wherever the best people congregated, and he invariably seemed to know what to do and how to do it better than his compeers. If it was dancing in the season, Jack Meredith danced, and no man rivalled him. If it was grouse shooting, Jack Meredith held his gun as straight as any man. All the polite accomplishments in their season seemed to come to him without effort; but there was in all the same lack of heart—that utter want of enthusiasm which imparted to his presence a subtle suggestion of boredom. The truth was that he was over-educated. Sir John had taught him how to live and move and have his being with so minute a care, so keen an insight, that existence seemed to be nothing but an habitual observance of set rules.
Sir John called him sarcastically his "bright boy," his "hopeful offspring," the "pride of his old age"; but somewhere in his shrivelled old heart there nestled an unbounded love and admiration for his son. Jack had assimilated his teaching with a wonderful aptitude. He had as nearly as possible realised Sir John Meredith's idea of what an English gentleman should be, and the old aristocrat's standard was uncompromisingly high. Public school, University, and two years on the Continent had produced a finished man, educated to the finger-tips, deeply read, clever, bright, and occasionally witty; but Jack Meredith was at this time nothing more than a brilliant conglomerate of possibilities. He had obeyed his father to the letter with a conscientiousness bred of admiration. He had always felt that his father knew best. And now he seemed to be waiting—possibly for further orders. He was suggestive of a perfect piece of mechanism standing idle for want of work delicate enough to be manipulated by its delicate craft. Sir John had impressed upon him the desirability of being independent, and he had promptly cultivated that excellent quality, taking kindly enough to rooms of his own in a fashionable quarter. But upon the principle of taking a horse to the water and being unable to make him drink, Sir John had not hitherto succeeded in making Jack take the initiative. He had turned out such a finished and polished English gentleman as his soul delighted in, and now he waited in cynical silence for Jack Meredith to take his life into his own hands and do something brilliant with it. All that he had done up to now had been to prove that he could attain to a greater social popularity than any other man of his age and station; but this was not exactly the success that Sir John Meredith coveted for his son. He had tasted of this success himself, and knew its thinness of flavour—its fleeting value.
Behind his keen old eyes such thoughts as these were passing, while he watched Jack go up and claim his dance at the hands of Miss Millicent Chyne. He could almost guess what they said; for Jack was grave and she smiled demurely. They began dancing at once, and as soon as the floor became crowded they disappeared.
Jack Meredith was an adept at such matters. He knew a seat at the end of a long passage where they could sit, the beheld of all beholders who happened to pass; but no one could possibly overhear their conversation—no one could surprise them. It was essentially a strategical position.
"Well," inquired Jack, with a peculiar breathlessness, when they were seated, "have you thought about it?"
She gave a little nod.
They seemed to be taking up some conversation at a point where it had been dropped on a previous occasion.
"And?" he inquired suavely. The society polish was very thickly coated over the man; but his eyes had a hungry look.
By way of reply her gloved hand crept out towards his, which rested on the chair at his side.
"Jack!" she whispered; and that was all.
It was very prettily done, and quite naturally. He was a judge of such matters, and appreciated the girlish simplicity of the action.
He took the small gloved hand and pressed it lovingly. The thoroughness of his social training prevented any further display of affection.
"Thank Heaven!" he murmured.
They were essentially of the nineteenth century—these two. At a previous dance he had asked her to marry him; she had deferred her answer, and now she had given it. These little matters are all a question of taste. We do not kneel nowadays, either physically or morally. If we are a trifle off hand, it is the women who are to blame. They should not write in magazines of a doubtful reputation in language devoid of the benefit of the doubt. They are equal to us. Bien! One does not kneel to an equal. A better writer than any of us says that men serve women kneeling, and when they get to their feet they go away. We are being hauled up to our feet now.
"But—?" began the girl, and went no further.
"There will be difficulties."
"No doubt," he answered, with quiet mockery. "There always are. I will see to them. Difficulties are not without a certain advantage. They keep one on the alert."
"Your father," said the girl. "Sir John—he will object."
Jack Meredith reflected for a moment, lazily, with that leisureliness which gave a sense of repose to his presence.
"Possibly," he admitted gravely.
"He dislikes me," said the girl. "He is one of my failures."
"I did not know you had any. Have you tried? I cannot quite admit the possibility of failure."
Millicent Chyne smiled. He had emphasised the last remark with lover-like glance and tone. She was young enough; her own beauty was new enough to herself to blind her to the possibility mentioned. She had not even got to the stage of classifying as dull all men who did not fall in love with her at first sight. It was her first season, one must remember.
"I have not tried very hard," she said. "But I don't see why I should not fail."
"That is easily explained."
"No looking-glass about."
She gave a little pout, but she liked it.
The music of the next dance was beginning, and, remembering their social obligations, they both rose. She laid her hand on his arm, and for a moment his fingers pressed hers. He smiled down into her upturned eyes with love, but without passion. He never for a second risked the "gentleman" and showed the "man." He was suggestive of a forest pool with a smiling rippled surface. There might be depth, but it was yet unpenetrated.
"Shall we go now," he said, "and say a few words in passing to my redoubtable father? It might be effective."
"Yes, if you like," she answered promptly. There is no more confident being on earth than a pretty girl in a successful dress.
They met Sir John at the entrance of the ballroom. He was wandering about, taking in a vast deal of detail.
"Well, young lady," he said, with an old-world bow, "are you having a successful evening?"
Millicent laughed. She never knew quite how to take Sir John.
"Yes, I think so, thank you," she answered, with a pretty smile. "I am enjoying myself very much."
There was just the least suggestion of shyness in her manner, and it is just possible that this softened the old cynic's heart, for his manner was kinder and almost fatherly when he spoke again.
"Ah!" he said, "at your time of life you do not want much—plenty of partners and a few ices. Both easily obtainable."
The last words were turned into a compliment by the courtly inclination of the head that accompanied them.
The exigencies of the moment forced the young people to go with the stream.
"Jack," said Sir John, as they passed on, "when you have been deprived of Miss Chyne's society, come and console yourself with a glass of sherry."
The dutiful son nodded a semi-indifferent acquiescence and disappeared.
"Wonderful thing, sherry!" observed Sir John Meredith for his own edification.
He waited there until Jack returned, and then they set off in search of refreshment. The son seemed to know his whereabouts better than the father.
"This way," he said, "through the conservatory."
Amidst the palms and tropical ferns Sir John paused. A great deal of care had been devoted to this conservatory. Half hidden among languorous scented flowers were a thousand tiny lights, while overhead in the gloom towered graceful palms and bananas. A fountain murmured pleasantly amidst a cluster of maidenhairs. The music from the ballroom fell softly over all.
Sir John Meredith and his son stood in silence, looking around them. Finally their eyes met.
"Are you in earnest with that girl?" asked Sir John abruptly.
"I am," replied Jack. He was smiling pleasantly.
"And you think there is a chance of her marrying you—unless, of course, something better turns up?"
"With all due modesty I do."
Sir John's hand was at his mouth. He stood up his full six feet two and looked hard at his son, whose eyes were level with his own. They were ideal representatives of their school.
"And what do you propose marrying upon? She, I understand, has about eight hundred a year. I respect you too much to suspect any foolish notions of love in a cottage."
Jack Meredith made no reply. He was entirely dependent upon his father.
"Of course," said Sir John, "when I die you will be a baronet, and there will be enough to live on like a gentleman. You had better tell Miss Chyne that. She may not know it. Girls are so innocent. But I am not dead yet, and I shall take especial care to live some time."
"In order to prevent my marriage?" suggested Jack. He was still smiling, and somehow Sir John felt a little uneasy. He did not understand that smile.
"Precisely so," he said, rather indistinctly.
"What is your objection?" inquired Jack Meredith, after a little pause.
"I object to the girl."
"Upon what grounds?"
"I should prefer you to marry a woman of heart."
"Heart?" repeated Jack, with a suspicion of hereditary cynicism. "I do not think heart is of much consequence. Besides, in this case, surely that is my province! you would not have her wear it on her sleeve?"
"She could not do that: not enough sleeve."
Sir John Meredith had his own views on ladies' dress.
"But," he added, "we will not quarrel. Arrange matters with the young lady as best you can. I shall never approve of such a match, and without my approval you cannot well marry."
"I do not admit that."
"Your approval means money," explained this dutiful son politely. "I might manage to make the money for myself."
Sir John moved away.
"You might," he admitted, looking back. "I should be very glad to see you doing so. It is an excellent thing—money."
And he walked leisurely away.
CHAPTER III. A FAREWELL
Since called The Paradise of Fools, to few unknown.
Having been taught to take all the chances and changes of life with a well-bred calmness of demeanour, Jack Meredith turned the teaching against the instructor. He pursued the course of his social duties without appearing to devote so much as a thought to the quarrel which had taken place in the conservatory. His smile was as ready as ever, his sight as keen where an elderly lady looked hungry, his laughter as near the surface as society demands. It is probable that Sir John suffered more, though he betrayed nothing. Youth has the upper hand in these cases, for life is a larger thing when we are young. As we get on in years, our eggs, to use a homely simile, have a way of accumulating into one basket.
At eleven o'clock the next morning Sir John Meredith's valet intimated to his master that Mr. Meredith was waiting in the breakfast-room. Sir John was in the midst of his toilet—a complicated affair, which, like other works of art, would not bear contemplation when incomplete.
"Tell him," said the uncompromising old gentleman, "that I will come down when I am ready."
He made a more careful toilet than usual, and finally came down in a gay tweed suit, of which the general effect was distinctly heightened by a pair of white gaiters. He was upright, trim, and perfectly determined. Jack noted that his clothes looked a little emptier than usual—that was all.
"Well," said the father, "I suppose we both made fools of ourselves last night."
"I have not yet seen you do that," replied the son, laying aside the morning paper which he had been reading.
Sir John smiled grimly. He hoped that Jack was right.
"Well," he added, "let us call it a difference of opinion."
Something in the monosyllable made the old gentleman's lips twitch nervously.
"I may mention," he said, with a dangerous suavity, "that I still hold to my opinion."
Jack Meredith rose, without haste. This, like the interview of the previous night, was conducted upon strictly high-bred and gentlemanly lines.
"And I to mine," he said. "That is why I took the liberty of calling at this early hour. I thought that perhaps we might effect some sort of a compromise."
"It is very good of you to make the proposal." Sir John kept his fingers away from his lips by an obvious exercise of self-control. "I am not partial to compromises: they savour of commerce."
Jack gave a queer, curt nod, and moved towards the door. Sir John extended his unsteady hand and rang the bell.
"Good-morning," he said.
"Graves," he added, to the servant who stood in the doorway, "when you have closed the door behind Mr. Meredith, bring up breakfast, if you please."
On the doorstep Jack Meredith looked at his watch. He had an appointment with Millicent Chyne at half-past eleven—an hour when Lady Cantourne might reasonably be expected to be absent at the weekly meeting of a society which, under the guise and nomenclature of friendship, busied itself in making servant girls discontented with their situations.
It was only eleven o'clock. Jack turned to the left, out of the quiet but fashionable street, and a few steps took him to Piccadilly. He went into the first jeweller's shop he saw, and bought a plain diamond ring. Then he walked on to keep his appointment with his affianced wife.
Miss Millicent Chyne was waiting for him with that mixture of maidenly feelings of which the discreet novelist only details a selection. It is not customary to dwell upon thoughts of vague regret at the approaching withdrawal of a universal admiration—at the future necessity for discreet and humdrum behaviour quite devoid of the excitement that lurks in a double meaning. Let it, therefore, be ours to note the outward signs of a very natural emotion. Miss Chyne noted them herself with care, and not without a few deft touches to hair and dress. When Jack Meredith entered the room she was standing near the window, holding back the curtain with one hand and watching, half shyly, for his advent.
What struck her at once was his gravity; and he must have seen the droop in her eyes, for he immediately assumed the pleasant, half-reckless smile which the world of London society had learnt to associate with his name.
He played the lover rather well, with that finish and absence of self-consciousness which only comes from sincerity; and when Miss Chyne found opportunity to look at him a second time she was fully convinced that she loved him. She was, perhaps, carried off her feet a little—metaphorically speaking, of course—by his evident sincerity. At that moment she would have done anything that he had asked her. The pleasures of society, the social amenities of aristocratic life, seemed to have vanished suddenly into thin air, and only love was left. She had always known that Jack Meredith was superior in a thousand ways to all her admirers. More gentlemanly, more truthful, honester, nobler, more worthy of love. Beyond that, he was cleverer, despite a certain laziness of disposition—more brilliant and more amusing. He had always been to a great extent the chosen one; and yet it was with a certain surprise and sense of unreality that she found what she had drifted into. She saw the diamond ring, and looked upon it with the beautiful emotions aroused by those small stones in the female breast; but she did not seem to recognise her own finger within the golden hoop.
It was at this moment—while she dwelt in this new unreal world—that he elected to tell her of his quarrel with his father. And when one walks through a maze of unrealities nothing seems to come amiss or to cause surprise. He detailed the very words they had used, and to Millicent Chyne it did not sound like a real quarrel such as might affect two lives to their very end. It was not important. It did not come into her life; for at that moment she did not know what her life was.
"And so," said Jack Meredith, finishing his story, "we have begun badly—as badly as the most romantic might desire."
"Yes, theoretically it is consoling. But I am sorry, Jack, very sorry. I hate quarrelling with anybody."
"So do I. I haven't time as a rule. But the old gentleman is so easy to quarrel with, he takes all the trouble."
"Jack," she said, with pretty determination, "you must go and say you are sorry. Go now! I wish I could go with you."
But Meredith did not move. He was smiling at her in evident admiration. She looked very pretty with that determined little pout of the lips, and perhaps she knew it. Moreover, he did not seem to attach so much importance to the thought as to the result—to the mind as to the lips.
"Ah!" he said, "you do not know the old gentleman. That is not our way of doing things. We are not expansive."
His face was grave again, and she noticed it with a sudden throb of misgiving. She did not want to begin taking life seriously so soon. It was like going back to school in the middle of the holidays.
"But it will be all right in a day or two, will it not? It is not serious," she said.
"I am afraid it is serious, Millicent."
He took her hand with a gravity which made matters worse.
"What a pity!" she exclaimed; and somehow both the words and the speaker rang shallow. She did not seem to grasp the situation, which was perhaps beyond her reach. But she did the next best thing. She looked puzzled, pretty, and helpless.
"What is to be done, Jack?" she said, laying her two hands on his breast and looking up pleadingly.
There was something in the man's clear-cut face—something beyond aristocratic repose—as he looked down into her eyes—something which Sir John Meredith might perhaps have liked to see there. To all men comes, soon or late, the moment wherein their lives are suddenly thrust into their own hands to shape or spoil, to make or mar. It seemed that where a clever man had failed, this light-hearted girl was about to succeed. Two small clinging hands on Jack Meredith's breast had apparently wrought more than all Sir John's care and foresight. At last the light of energy gleamed in Jack Meredith's lazy eyes. At last he faced the "initiative," and seemed in no wise abashed.
"There are two things," he answered; "a small choice."
"The first and the simplest," he went on in the tone of voice which she had never quite fathomed—half cynical, half amused—"is to pretend that last night—never was."
He waited for her verdict.
"We will not do that," she replied softly; "we will take the other alternative, whatever it is."
She glanced up half shyly beneath her lashes, and he felt that no difficulty could affright him.
"The other is generally supposed to be very difficult," he said. "It means—waiting."
"Oh," she answered cheerfully, "there is no hurry. I do not want to be married yet."
"Waiting perhaps for years," he added—and he saw her face drop.
"Because I am dependent on my father for everything. We could not marry without his consent."
A peculiar, hard look crept into her eyes, and in some subtle way it made her look older. After a little pause she said:
"But we can surely get that—between us?"
"I propose doing without it."
She looked up—past him—out of the window. All the youthfulness seemed to have left her face, but he did not appear to see that.
"How can you do so?"
"Well, I can work. I suppose I must be good for something—a bountiful Providence must surely have seen to that. The difficulty is to find out what it intends me for. We are not called in the night nowadays to a special mission—we have to find it out for ourselves."
"Do you know what I should like you to be?" she said, with a bright smile and one of those sudden descents into shallowness which he appeared to like.
"Then I shall be a politician," he answered, with loverlike promptness.
"That would be very nice," she said; and the castles she at once began to build were not entirely aerial in their structure.
This was not a new idea. They had talked of politics before as a possible career for himself. They had moved in a circle where politics and politicians held a first place—a circle removed above the glamour of art, and wherein Bohemianism was not reckoned an attraction. She knew that behind his listlessness of manner he possessed a certain steady energy, perfect self-command, and that combination of self-confidence and indifference which usually attains success in the world. She was ambitious not only for herself but for him, and she was shrewd enough to know that the only safe outlet for a woman's ambition is the channel of a husband's career.
"But," he said, "it will mean waiting."
He paused, and then the worldly wisdom which he had learnt from his father—that worldly wisdom which is sometimes called cynicism—prompted him to lay the matter before her in its worst light.
"It will mean waiting for a couple of years at least. And for you it will mean the dulness of a long engagement, and the anomalous position of an engaged girl without her rightful protector. It will mean that your position in society will be quite different—that half the world will pity you, while the other half thinks you—well, a fool for your pains."
"I don't care," she answered.
"Of course," he went on, "I must go away. That is the only way to get on in politics in these days. I must go away and get a speciality. I must know more about some country than any other man; and when I come back I must keep that country ever before the eye of the intelligent British workman who reads the halfpenny evening paper. That is fame—those are politics."
She laughed. There seemed to be no fear of her taking life too seriously yet. And, truth to tell, he did not appear to wish her to do so.
"But you must not go very far," she said sweetly.
"Africa? That does not sound interesting."
"It is interesting: moreover, it is the coming country. I may be able to make money out there, and money is a necessity at present."
"I do not like it, Jack," she said in a foreboding voice. "When do you go?"
"At once—in fact, I came to say good-bye. It is better to do these things very promptly—to disappear before the onlookers have quite understood what is happening. When they begin to understand they begin to interfere. They cannot help it. I will write to Lady Cantourne if you like."
"No, I will tell her."
So he bade her good-bye, and those things that lovers say were duly said; but they are not for us to chronicle. Such words are better left to be remembered or forgotten as time and circumstance and result may decree. For one may never tell what words will do when they are laid within the years like the little morsel of leaven that leaveneth the whole.
CHAPTER IV. A TRAGEDY
Who knows? the man is proven by the hour.
In his stately bedroom on the second floor of the quietest house in Russell Square Mr. Thomas Oscard—the eccentric Oscard—lay, perhaps, a-dying.
Thomas Oscard had written the finest history of an extinct people that had ever been penned; and it has been decreed that he who writes a fine history or paints a fine picture can hardly be too eccentric. Our business, however, does not lie in the life of this historian—a life which certain grave wiseacres from the West End had shaken their heads over a few hours before we find him lying prone on a four-poster counting for the thousandth time the number of tassels fringing the roof of it. In bold contradiction to the medical opinion, the nurse was, however, hopeful. Whether this comforting condition of mind arose from long experience of the ways of doctors, or from an acquired philosophy, it is not our place to inquire. But that her opinion was sincere is not to be doubted. She had, as a matter of fact, gone to the pantomime, leaving the patient under the immediate eye of his son, Guy Oscard.
The temporary nurse was sitting in a cretonne-covered armchair, with a book of travel on his knee, and thoughts of Millicent Chyne in his mind. The astute have no doubt discovered ere this that the mind of Mr. Guy Oscard was a piece of mental mechanism more noticeable for solidity of structure than brilliancy or rapidity of execution. Thoughts and ideas and principles had a strange way of getting mixed up with the machinery, and sticking there. Guy Oscard had, for instance, concluded some years before that the Winchester rifle was, as he termed it, "no go"; and if the Pope of Rome and the patentee of the firearm in question had crossed Europe upon their bended knees to persuade him to use a Winchester rifle, he would have received them with a pleasant smile and an offer of refreshment. He would have listened to their arguments with that patience of manner which characterises men of large stature, and for the rest of his days he would have continued to follow big game with an "Express" double-barrelled rifle as heretofore. Men who decide such small matters as these for themselves, after mature and somewhat slow consideration, have a way of also deciding the large issues of life without pausing to consider either expediency or the experience of their neighbours.
During the last forty-eight hours Guy Oscard had made the decision that life without Millicent Chyne would not be worth having, and in the hush of the great house he was pondering over this new feature in his existence. Like all deliberate men, he was placidly sanguine. Something in the life of savage sport that he had led had no doubt taught him to rely upon his own nerve and capacity more than do most men. It is the indoor atmosphere that contains the germ of pessimism.
His thoughts cannot have been disturbing, for presently his eyes closed and he appeared to be slumbering. If it was sleep, it was the light unconsciousness of the traveller; for a sound so small, that waking ears could scarce have heard it, caused him to lift his lashes cautiously. It was the sound of bare feet on carpet.
Through his lashes Guy Oscard saw his father standing on the hearthrug within two yards of him. There was something strange, something unnatural and disturbing, about the movements of the man that made Guy keep quite still—watching him.
Upon the mantelpiece the medicine bottles were arranged in a row, and the "eccentric Oscard" was studying the labels with a feverish haste. One bottle—a blue one—bore two labels: the smaller, of brilliant orange colour, with the word "Poison" in startling simplicity. He took this up and slowly drew the cork. It was a liniment for neuralgic pains in an overwrought head—belladonna. He poured some into a medicine-glass, carefully measuring two tablespoonsful.
Then Guy Oscard sprang up and wrenched the glass away from him, throwing the contents into the fire, which flared up. Quick as thought the bottle was at the sick man's lips. He was a heavily built man with powerful limbs. Guy seized his arm, closed with him, and for a moment there was a deadly struggle, while the pungent odour of the poison filled the atmosphere. At last Guy fell back on art: he tripped his father cleverly, and they both rolled on the floor.
The sick man still gripped the bottle, but he could not get it to his lips. He poured some of the stuff over his son's face, but fortunately missed his eyes. They struggled on the floor in the dim light, panting and gasping, but speaking no word. The strength of the elder man was unnatural—it frightened the younger and stronger combatant.
At last Guy Oscard got his knee on his father's neck, and bent his wrist back until he was forced to let go his hold on the bottle.
"Get back to bed!" said the son breathlessly. "Get back to bed."
Thomas Oscard suddenly changed his tactics. He whined and cringed to his own offspring, and begged him to give him the bottle. He dragged across the floor on his knees—three thousand pounds a year on its knees to Guy Oscard, who wanted that money because he knew that he would never get Millicent Chyne without it.
"Get back to bed!" repeated Guy sternly, and at last the man crept sullenly between the rumpled sheets.
Guy put things straight in a simple, man-like way. The doctor's instructions were quite clear. If any sign of excitement or mental unrest manifested itself, the sleeping-draught contained in a small bottle on the mantelpiece was to be administered at once, or the consequences would be fatal. But Thomas Oscard refused to take it. He seemed determined to kill himself. The son stood over him and tried threats, persuasion, prayers; and all the while there was in his heart the knowledge that, unless his father could be made to sleep, the reputed three thousand a year would be his before the morning.
It was worse than the actual physical struggle on the floor. The temptation was almost too strong.
After a while the sick man became quieter, but he still refused to take the opiate. He closed his eyes and made no answer to Guy's repeated supplication. Finally he ceased shaking his head in negation, and at last breathed regularly like a child asleep.
Afterwards Guy Oscard reproached himself for suspecting nothing. But he knew nothing of brain diseases—those strange maladies that kill the human in the human being. He knew, however, why his father had tried to kill himself. It was not the first time. It was panic. He was afraid of going mad, of dying mad like his father before him. People called him eccentric. Some said that he was mad. But it was not so. It was only fear of madness. He was still asleep when the nurse came back from the pantomime in a cab, and Guy crept softly downstairs to let her in.
They stood in the hall for some time while Guy told her in whispers about the belladonna liniment. Then they went upstairs together and found Thomas Oscard—the great historian—dead on the floor. The liniment bottle, which Guy had left on the mantelpiece, was in his hand—empty. He had feigned sleep in order to carry out his purpose. He had preferred death, of which the meaning was unknown to him, to the possibility of that living death in which his father had lingered for many years. And who shall say that his thoughts were entirely selfish? There may have been a father's love somewhere in this action. Thomas Oscard, the eccentric savant, had always been a strong man, independent of the world's opinion. He had done this thing deliberately, of mature thought, going straight to his Creator with his poor human brain full of argument and reason to prove himself right before the Judge.
They picked him up and laid him reverently on the bed, and then Guy went for the doctor.
"I could," said the attendant of Death, when he had heard the whole story—"I could give you a certificate. I could reconcile it, I mean, with my professional conscience and my—other conscience. He could not have lived thirty hours—there was an abscess on his brain. But I should advise you to face the inquest. It might be"—he paused, looking keenly into the young fellow's face—"it might be that at some future date, when you are quite an old man, you may feel inclined to tell this story."
Again the doctor paused, glancing with a vague smile towards the woman who stood beside them. "Or even nurse—" he added, not troubling to finish his sentence. "We all have our moments of expansiveness. And it is a story that might easily be—discredited."
So the "eccentric Oscard" finished his earthly career in the intellectual atmosphere of a coroner's jury. And the world rather liked it than otherwise. The world, one finds, does like novelty, even in death. Some day an American will invent a new funeral, and if he can only get the patent, will make a fortune.
The world was, moreover, pleased to pity Guy Oscard with that pure and simple sympathy which is ever accorded to the wealthy in affliction. Every one knew that Thomas Oscard had enjoyed affluence during his lifetime, and there was no reason to suppose that Guy would not step into very comfortably lined shoes. It was unfortunate that he should lose his father in such a tragic way, and the keen eye of the world saw the weak point in his story at once. But the coroner's jury was respectful, and the rest of society never so much as hinted at the possibility that Guy had not tried his best to keep his father alive.
Among the letters of sympathy, the young fellow received a note from Lady Cantourne, whose acquaintance he had successfully renewed, and in due course he called at her house in Vere Gardens to express somewhat lamely his gratitude.
Her ladyship was at home, and Guy Oscard was ushered into her presence. He looked round the room, with a half-suppressed gleam of searching which was not overlooked by Millicent Chyne's aunt.
"It is very good of you to call," she said, "so soon after your poor father's death. You must have had a great deal of trouble and worry. Millicent and I have often talked of you, and sympathised with you. She is out at the moment, but I expect her back almost at once. Will you sit down?"
"Thanks," he said; and after he had drawn forward a chair he repeated the word vaguely and comprehensively—"Thanks"—as if to cover as many demands for gratitude as she could make.
"I knew your father very well," continued the lady, "when we were young. Great things were expected of him. Perhaps he expected them himself. That may have accounted for a tone of pessimism that always seemed to pervade his life. Now, you are quite different. You are not a pessimist—eh?"
Guy gravely examined the back of his gloved hand. "Well, I am afraid I have not given much thought to the question."
Lady Cantourne gave him the benefit of a very wise smile. She was unrivalled in the art of turning a young man's mind inside out and shaking it.
"No! you need not apologise. I am glad you have given no thought to it. Thought is the beginning of pessimism, especially with young men; for if they think at all, they naturally think of themselves."
"Well, I suppose I think as much of myself as other people."
"Possibly; but I doubt it. Will you ring the bell? We will have some tea."
He obeyed, and she watched him with approval. For some reason—possibly because he had not sought it—Lady Cantourne had bestowed her entire approval on this young man. She had been duly informed, a few weeks before this visit, that Miss Millicent Chyne had engaged herself to be married to Jack Meredith whenever that youth should find himself in a position to claim the fulfilment of her promise. She said nothing against the choice or the decision, merely observing that she was sorry that Jack had quarrelled with his father. By way of counsel she advised strongly that the engagement be kept as much in the background as possible. She did not, she said, want Millicent to be a sort of red rag to Sir John, and there was no necessity to publish abroad the lamentable fact that a quarrel had resulted from a very natural and convenient attachment. Sir John was a faddist, and, like the rest of his kind, eminently pig-headed. It was more than likely that in a few months he would recall his son, and, in the meantime, it never did a girl any good to be quarrelled over.
Lady Cantourne was too clever a woman to object to the engagement. On the contrary, she allowed it to be understood that such a match was in many ways entirely satisfactory. At the same time, however, she encouraged Guy Oscard to come to the house, knowing quite well that he was entirely unaware of the existence of Jack Meredith.
"I am," she was in the habit of saying, "a great advocate for allowing young people to manage their affairs themselves. One young man, if he be the right one, has more influence with a girl than a thousand old women; and it is just possible that he knows better than they do what is for her happiness. It is the interference that makes mischief."
So she did not interfere. She merely invited Guy Oscard to stay to tea.
CHAPTER V. WITH EDGED TOOLS
Do not give dalliance Too much the rein; the strongest oaths are straw To the fire i' the blood.
"And what do you intend to do with yourself?" asked Lady Cantourne when she had poured out tea. "You surely do not intend to mope in that dismal house in Russell Square?"
"No, I shall let it if I can."
"Oh, you will have no difficulty in doing that. People live in Russell Square again now, and try to make one believe that it is a fashionable quarter. Your father stayed on there because the carpets fitted the rooms, and on account of other ancestral conveniences. He did not live there—he knew nothing of his immediate environments. He lived in Phoenicia."
"Then," continued Guy Oscard, "I shall go abroad."
"Ah! Will you have a second cup? Why will you go abroad?"
Guy Oscard paused for a moment. "I know an old hippopotamus in a certain African river who has twice upset me. I want to go back and shoot him."
"Don't go at once; that would be running away from it—not from the hippopotamus—from the inquest. It does not matter being upset in an African river; but you must not be upset in London by—an inquest."
"I did not propose going at once," replied Guy Oscard, with a peculiar smile which Lady Cantourne thought she understood. "It will take me some time to set my affairs in order—the will, and all that."
Lady Cantourne waited with perfectly suppressed curiosity, and while she was waiting Millicent Chyne came into the room. The girl was dressed with her habitual perfect taste and success, and she came forward with a smile of genuine pleasure, holding out a small hand neatly gloved in Suede. Her ladyship was looking not at Millicent, but at Guy Oscard.
Millicent was glad that he had called, and said so. She did not add that during the three months that had elapsed since Jack Meredith's sudden departure she had gradually recognised the approaching ebb of a very full tide of popularity. It was rather dull at times, when Jack's letters arrived at intervals of two and sometimes of three weeks—when her girl friends allowed her to see somewhat plainly that she was no longer to be counted as one of themselves. An engagement sits as it were on a young lady like a weak heart on a schoolboy, setting her apart in work and play, debarring her from participation in that game of life which is ever going forward where young folks do congregate.
Moreover, she liked Guy Oscard. He aroused her curiosity. There was something in him—something which she vaguely suspected to be connected with herself—which she wanted to drag out and examine. She possessed more than the usual allowance of curiosity—which is saying a good deal; for one may take it that the beginning of all things in the feminine mind is curiosity. They want to know what is inside Love before they love. Guy Oscard was a new specimen of the genus homo; and while remaining perfectly faithful to Jack, Miss Millicent Chyne saw no reason why she should not pass the time by studying him, merely, of course, in a safe and innocent manner. She was one of those intelligent young ladies who think deeply—about young men. And such thinking usually takes the form of speculation as to how the various specimens selected will act under specified circumstances. The circumstances need hardly be mentioned. Young men are only interesting to young women in circumstances strictly personal to and bearing upon themselves. In a word, maidens of a speculative mind are always desirous of finding out how different men will act when they are in love; and we all know and cannot fail to applaud the assiduity with which they pursue their studies.
"Ah!" said Miss Chyne, "it is very good of you to take pity upon two lone females. I was afraid that you had gone off to the wilds of America or somewhere in search of big game. Do you know, Mr. Oscard, you are quite a celebrity? I heard you called the 'big-game man' the other day, also the 'travelling fellow.'"
The specimen smiled happily under this delicate handling.
"It is not," he said modestly, "a very lofty fame. Anybody could let off a rifle."
"I am afraid I could not," replied Millicent, with a pretty little shudder of horror, "if anything growled."
"Mr. Oscard has just been telling me," interposed Lady Cantourne conversationally, "that he is thinking of going off to the wilds again."
"Then it is very disappointing of him," said Millicent, with a little droop of the eyelids which went home. "It seems to be only the uninteresting people who stay at home and live humdrum lives of enormous duration."
"He seems to think that his friends are going to cast him off because his poor father died without the assistance of a medical man," continued the old lady meaningly.
"No—I never said that, Lady Cantourne."
"But you implied it."
Guy Oscard shook his head. "I hate being a notoriety," he said. "I like to pass through with the crowd. If I go away for a little while I shall return a nonentity."
At this moment another visitor was announced, and presently made his appearance. He was an old gentleman of no personality whatever, who was nevertheless welcomed effusively, because two people in the room had a distinct use for him. Lady Cantourne was exceedingly gracious. She remembered instantly that horticulture was among his somewhat antiquated accomplishments, and she was immediately consumed with a desire to show him the conservatory which she had had built outside the drawing-room window. She took a genuine interest in this abode of flowers, and watered the plants herself with much enthusiasm—when she remembered.
Added to a number of positive virtues the old gentleman possessed that of abstaining from tea, which enabled the two horticulturists to repair to the conservatory at once, leaving the young people alone at the other end of the drawing-room.
Millicent smoothed her gloves with downcast eyes and that demure air by which the talented fair imply the consciousness of being alone and out of others' earshot with an interesting member of the stronger sex.
Guy sat and watched the Suede gloves with a certain sense of placid enjoyment. Then suddenly he spoke, continuing his remarks where they had been broken off by the advent of the useful old gentleman.
"You see," he said, "it is only natural that a great many people should give me the cold shoulder. My story was a little lame. There is no reason why they should believe in me."
"I believe in you," she answered.
He looked at her in a strange way, as if he liked her terse creed, and would fain have heard it a second time. Then suddenly he leant back with his head against a corner of the piano. The fronds of a maidenhair fern hanging in delicate profusion almost hid his face. He was essentially muscular in his thoughts, and did not make the most of his dramatic effects. The next remark was made by a pair of long legs ending off with patent-leather boots which were not quite new. The rest of him was invisible.
"It was a very unpleasant business," he said, in a jerky, self-conscious voice. "I didn't know that I was that sort of fellow. The temptation was very great. I nearly gave in and let him do it. He was a stronger man than I. You know—we did not get on well together. He always hoped that I would turn out a literary sort of fellow, and I suppose he was disappointed. I tried at one time, but I found it was no good. From indifference it turned almost to hatred. He disliked me intensely, and I am afraid I did not care for him very much."
She nodded her head, and he went on. Perhaps he could see her through the maidenhair fern. She was getting more and more interested in this man. He obviously disliked talking of himself—a pleasant change which aroused her curiosity. He was so unlike other men, and his life seemed to be different from the lives of the men whom she had known—stronger, more intense, and of greater variety of incident.
"Of course," he went on, "his death was really of enormous advantage to me. They say that I shall have two or three thousand a year, instead of five hundred, paid quarterly at Cox's. He could not prevent it coming to me. It was my mother's money. He would have done so if he could, for we never disguised our antipathy for each other. Yet we lived together, and—and I had the nursing of him."
Millicent was listening gravely without interrupting—like a man. She had the gift of adapting herself to her environments in a marked degree.
"And," he added curtly, "no one knows how much I wanted that three thousand a year."
The girl moved uneasily, and glanced towards the conservatory.
"He was not an old man," Guy Oscard went on. "He was only forty-nine. He might have lived another thirty years."
She nodded, understanding the significance of his tone.
"There," he said, with an awkward laugh, "do you still believe in me?"
"Yes," she answered, still looking away.
There was a little pause. They were both sitting forward in their chairs looking towards the conservatory.
"It was not the money that tempted me," said Guy very deliberately; "it was you."
She rose from her chair as if to join her aunt and the horticultural old gentleman.
"You must not say that," she said, in little more than a whisper, and without looking round she went towards Lady Cantourne. Her eyes were gleaming with a singular suppressed excitement, such as one sees in the eyes of a man fresh from a mad run across country.
Guy Oscard rose also, and followed more deliberately. There was nothing for him to do but to take his leave.
"But," said Lady Cantourne graciously, "if you are determined to go away you must at least come and say good-bye before you leave."
"Thanks; I should like to do so, if I may."
"We shall be deeply disappointed if you forget," said Millicent, holding out her hand, with a smile full of light-heartedness and innocent girlish friendship.
CHAPTER VI. UNDER THE LINE
Enough of simpering and grimace, Enough of vacuity, trimmed with lace.
"Curse this country! Curse it—curse it!" The man spoke aloud, but there was no one near to hear. He shook his skinny yellow fist out over the broad river that crept greasily down to the equatorial sea.
All around him the vegetable kingdom had asserted its sovereignty. At his back loomed a dense forest, impenetrable to the foot of man, defying his puny hand armed with axe or saw. The trees were not high, few of them being above twenty feet, but from their branches creepers and parasites hung in tangled profusion, interlaced, joining tree to tree for acres, nay for miles.
As far as the eye could reach either bank of the slow river was thus covered with rank vegetation—mile after mile without variety, without hope. The glassy surface of the water was broken here and there by certain black forms floating like logs half hidden beneath the wave. These were crocodiles. The river was the Ogowe, and the man who cursed it was Victor Durnovo, employe of the Loango Trading Association, whose business it was at that season to travel into the interior of Africa to buy, barter, or steal ivory for his masters.
He was a small-faced man, with a squarely aquiline nose and a black moustache, which hung like a valance over his mouth. From the growth of that curtain-like moustache Victor Durnovo's worldly prosperity might have been said to date. No one seeing his mouth had before that time been prevailed upon to trust him. Nature has a way of hanging out signs and then covering them up, so that the casual fail to see. He was a man of medium height, with abnormally long arms and a somewhat truculent way of walking, as if his foot was ever ready to kick anything or any person who might come in his way.
His movements were nervous and restless, although he was tired out and half-starved. The irritability of Africa was upon him—had hold over him—gripped him remorselessly. No one knows what it is, but it is there, and sometimes it is responsible for murder. It makes honourable European gentlemen commit crimes of which they blush to think in after days. The Powers may draw up treaties and sign the same, but there will never be a peaceful division of the great wasted land so near to Southern Europe. There may be peace in Berlin, or Brussels, or London, but because the atmosphere of Africa is not the same as that of the great cities, there will be no peace beneath the Equator. From the West Coast of Africa to the East men will fight and quarrel and bicker so long as human nerves are human nerves. The irritability lurks in the shades of boundless forests where men may starve for want of animal sustenance; it hovers over the broad bosoms of a hundred slow rivers haunted by the mysterious crocodile, the weird hippopotamus. It is everywhere, and by reason of it men quarrel about trifles and descend to brutal passion over a futile discussion.
Victor Durnovo had sent his boatmen into the forest to find a few bananas, a few handsful of firewood, and while they were absent he gave vent to that wild unreasoning passion which is inhaled into the white man's lungs with the air of equatorial Africa. For there are moral microbes in the atmosphere of different countries, and we must not judge one land by the laws of another. There is the fatalism of India, the restlessness of New York, the fear of the Arctic, the irritability of Africa.
"Curse this country!" he shouted, "curse it—curse it! River and tree—man and beast!"
He rose and slouched down to his boat, which lay moored to a snag alongside the bank, trodden hard to the consistency of asphalte by a hundred bare feet. He stepped over the gunwale and made his way aft with a practised balancing step. The after part of the canoe was decked in and closed with lock and key. The key hung at his watch-chain—a large chain with square links and a suggestive doubtfulness of colour. It might have been gold, but the man who wore it somehow imparted to it a suggestion of baser metal.
He opened the locker and took from it a small chest. From this he selected a bottle, and, rummaging in the recesses of the locker, he found an unwashed tumbler. Into half a glass of water he dropped a minute quantity from the bottle and drank off the mixture. The passion had left him now, and quite suddenly he looked yellow and very weak. He was treating himself scientifically for the irritability to which he had given way. Then he returned to the bank and laid down at full length. The skin of his face must have been giving him great pain, for it was scarlet in places and exuding from sun-blisters. He had long ago given up wiping the perspiration from his brow, and evidently did not care to wash his face.
Presently a peacefulness seemed to come over him, for his eyes lost their glitter and his heavy lids drooped. His arms were crossed behind his head—before him lay the river.
Suddenly he sat upright, all eagerness and attention. Not a leaf stirred. It was about five o'clock in the evening, the stillest hour of the twenty-four. In such a silence the least sound would travel almost any distance, and there was a sound travelling over the water to him. It was nothing but a thud repeated with singular regularity; but to his practised ears it conveyed much. He knew that a boat was approaching, as yet hidden by some distant curve in the river. The thud was caused by the contact of six paddles with the gunwale of the canoe as the paddlers withdrew them from the water.
Victor Durnovo rose again and brought from the boat a second rifle, which he laid beside the double-barrelled Reilly which was never more than a yard away from him, waking or sleeping. Then he waited. He knew that no boat could reach the bank without his full permission, for every rower would be dead before they got within a hundred yards of his rifle. He was probably the best rifle-shot but one in that country—and the other, the very best, happened to be in the approaching canoe.
After the space of ten minutes the boat came in sight—a long black form on the still waters. It was too far away for him to distinguish anything beyond the fact that it was a native boat.
"Eight hundred yards," muttered Durnovo over the sight of his rifle.
He looked upon this river as his own, and he knew the native of equatorial Africa. Therefore he dropped a bullet into the water, under the bow of the canoe, at eight hundred yards.
A moment later there was a sound which can only be written "P-ttt" between his legs, and he had to wipe a shower of dust from his eyes. A puff of blue smoke rose slowly over the boat and a sharp report broke the silence a second time.
Then Victor Durnovo leapt to his feet and waved his hat in the air. From the canoe there was an answering greeting, and the man on the bank went to the water's edge, still carrying the rifle from which he was never parted.
Durnovo was the first to speak when the boat came within hail.
"Very sorry," he shouted. "Thought you were a native boat. Must establish a funk—get in the first shot, you know."
"All right," replied one of the Europeans in the approaching craft, with a courteous wave of the hand, "no harm done."
There were two white men and six blacks in the long and clumsy boat. One of the Europeans lay in the bows while the other was stretched at his ease in the stern, reclining on the canvas of a neatly folded tent. The last-named was evidently the leader of the little expedition, while the manner and attitude of the man in the bows suggested the servitude of a disciplined soldier slightly relaxed by abnormal circumstances.
"Who fired that shot?" inquired Durnovo, when there was no longer any necessity to shout.
"Joseph," replied the man in the stern of the boat, indicating his companion. "Was it a near thing?"
"About as near as I care about—it threw up the dust between my legs."
The man called Joseph grinned. Nature had given him liberally of the wherewithal for indulgence in that relaxation, and Durnovo smiled rather constrainedly. Joseph was grabbing at the long reedy grass, bringing the canoe to a standstill, and it was some moments before his extensive mouth submitted to control.
"I presume you are Mr. Durnovo," said the man in the stern of the boat, rising leisurely from his recumbent position and speaking with a courteous savoir-faire which seemed slightly out of place in the wilds of Central Africa. He was a tall man with a small aristocratic head and a refined face, which somehow suggested an aristocrat of old France.
"Yes," answered Durnovo.
The tall man stepped ashore and held out his hand.
"I am glad we have met you," he said; "I have a letter of introduction to you from Maurice Gordon, of Loango."
Victor Durnovo's dark face changed slightly; his eyes—bilious, fever-shot, unhealthy—took a new light.
"Ah!" he answered, "are you a friend of Maurice Gordon's?"
There was another question in this, an unasked one; and Victor Durnovo was watching for the answer. But the face he watched was like a delicately carved piece of brown marble, with a courteous, impenetrable smile.
"I met him again the other day at Loango. He is an old Etonian like myself."
This conveyed nothing to Durnovo, who belonged to a different world, whose education was, like other things about him, an unknown quantity.
"My name," continued the tall man, "is Meredith—John Meredith—sometimes called Jack."
They were walking up the bank towards the dusky and uninviting tent.
"And the other fellow?" inquired Durnovo, with a backward jerk of the head.
"Oh—he is my servant."
Durnovo raised his eyebrows in somewhat contemptuous amusement, and proceeded to open the letter which Meredith had handed him.
"Not many fellows," he said, "on this coast can afford to keep a European servant."
Jack Meredith bowed, and ignored the irony.
"But," he said courteously, "I suppose you find these coloured chaps just as good when they have once got into your ways?"
"Oh yes," muttered Durnovo. He was reading the letter. "Maurice Gordon," he continued, "says you are travelling for pleasure—just looking about you. What do you think of it?"
He indicated the dismal prospect with a harsh laugh.
"A bit suggestive of Hell," he went on, "eh? How does it strike you?"
"Finer timber, I should think," suggested Jack Meredith, and Durnovo laughed more pleasantly.
"The truth is," he explained, "that it strikes one as a bit absurd that any man should travel up here for pleasure. If you take my advice you will come down-stream again with me to-morrow."
He evidently distrusted him; and the sidelong, furtive glance suggested vaguely that Victor Durnovo had something farther up this river which he wished to keep concealed.
"I understand," answered Meredith, with a half-suppressed yawn, "that the country gets finer farther up—more mountainous—less suggestive of—Hell."
The proprietors of very dark eyes would do well to remember that it is dangerous to glance furtively to one side or the other. The attention of dark eyes is more easily felt than the glances of grey or blue orbs.
Jack Meredith's suspicions were aroused by the suspicious manner of his interlocutor.
"There is no white man knows this river as I do, and I do not recommend it. Look at me—on the verge of jaundice—look at this wound on my arm; it began with a scratch and has never healed. All that comes from a month up this cursed river. Take my advice, try somewhere else."
"I certainly shall," replied Meredith. "We will discuss it after dinner. My chap is a first-rate cook. Have you got anything to add to the menu?"
"Not a thing. I've been living on plantains and dried elephant-meat for the last fortnight."
"Doesn't sound nourishing. Well, we are pretty well provided, so perhaps you will give me the pleasure of your company to dinner? Come as you are: no ceremony. I think I will wash though. It is as well to keep up these old customs."
With a pleasant smile he went towards the tent which had just been erected. Joseph was very busy, and his admonishing voice was heard at times.
"Here, Johnny, hammer in that peg. Now, old cups and saucers, stop that grinning and fetch me some water. None of your frogs and creepy crawly thing this time, my blonde beauty, but clean water, comprenny?"
With these and similar lightsome turns of speech was Joseph in the habit of keeping his men up to the mark. The method was eminently successful. His coloured compeers crowded round him "all of a grin," as he himself described it, and eager to do his slightest behest. From the throne to the back-kitchen the secret of success is the art of managing men—and women.
CHAPTER VII. THE SECRET OF THE SIMIACINE
Surtout, Messieurs, pas de zele.
Such was the meeting of Victor Durnovo and Jack Meredith. Two men with absolutely nothing in common—no taste, no past, no kinship—nothing but the future. Such men as Fate loves to bring together for her own strange purposes. What these purposes are none of us can tell. Some hold that Fate is wise. She is not so yet, but she cannot fail to acquire wisdom some day, because she experiments so industriously. She is ever bringing about new combinations, and one can only trust that she, the experimenter, is as keenly disappointed in the result as are we, the experimented.
To Jack Meredith Victor Durnovo conveyed the impression of little surprise and a slight local interest. He was a man who was not quite a gentleman; but for himself Jack did not give great heed to this. He had associated with many such; for, as has been previously intimated, he had moved in London society, where there are many men who are not quite gentlemen. The difference of a good coat and that veiled insolence which passes in some circles for the ease of good breeding had no weight with the keen son of Sir John Meredith, and Victor Durnovo fared no worse in his companion's estimation because he wore a rough coat and gave small attention to his manners. He attracted and held Jack's attention by a certain open-air manliness which was in keeping with the situation and with his life. Sportsmen, explorers and wanderers were not new to Jack; for nowadays one may never know what manner of man is inside a faultless dress-suit. It is an age of disappearing, via Charing Cross station in a first-class carriage, to a life of backwooding, living from hand to mouth, starving in desert, prairie, pampas or Arctic wild, with, all the while, a big balance at Cox's. And most of us come back again and put on the dress-suit and the white tie with a certain sense of restfulness and comfort.
Jack Meredith had known many such. He had, in a small way, done the same himself. But he had never met one of the men who do not go home—who possess no dress-coat and no use for it—whose business it is to go about with a rifle in one hand and their life in the other—who risk their lives because it is their trade and not their pleasure.
Durnovo could not understand the new-comer at all. He saw at once that this was one of those British aristocrats who do strange things in a very strange way. In a degree Meredith reminded him of Maurice Gordon, the man whose letter of introduction was at that moment serving to light the camp fire. But it was Maurice Gordon without that semi-sensual weakness of purpose which made him the boon companion of Tom, Dick, or Harry, provided that one of those was only with him long enough. There was a vast depth of reserve—of indefinable possibilities, which puzzled Durnovo, and in some subtle way inspired fear.
In that part of Africa which lies within touch of the Equator, life is essentially a struggle. There is hunger about, and where hunger is the emotions will be found also. Now Jack Meredith was a past-master in the concealment of these, and, as such, came to Victor Durnovo in the guise of a new creation. He had lived the latter and the larger part of his life among men who said, in action if not in words, I am hungry, or I am thirsty; I want this, or I want that; and if you are not strong enough to keep it, I will take it from you.
This man was different; and Victor Durnovo did not know—could not find out—WHAT he wanted.
He had at first been inclined to laugh at him. What struck him most forcibly was Joseph, the servant. The idea of a man swaggering up an African river with a European man-servant was so preposterous that it could only be met with ridicule; but the thing seemed so natural to Jack Meredith, he accepted the servitude of Joseph so much as a matter of course, that after a time Durnovo accepted him also as part and parcel of Meredith.
Moreover, he immediately began to realise the benefit of being waited upon by an intelligent European, for Joseph took off his coat, turned up his sleeves, and proceeded to cook such a dinner as Durnovo had not tasted for many months. There was wine also, and afterwards a cigar of such quality as appealed strongly to Durnovo's West Indian palate.
The night settled down over the land while they sat there, and before them the great yellow equatorial moon rose slowly over the trees. With the darkness came a greater silence, for the myriad insect life was still. This great silence of Central Africa is wonderfully characteristic. The country is made for silence, the natives are created to steal, spirit-ridden, devil-haunted, through vast tracks of lifeless forest, where nature is oppressive in her grandeur. Here man is put into his right place—a puny, insignificant, helpless being in a world that is too large for him.
"So," said Durnovo, returning to the subject which had never really left his thoughts, "you have come out here for pleasure?"
"Not exactly. I came chiefly to make money, partly to dispel some of the illusions of my youth, and I am getting on very well. Picture-book illusions they were. The man who drew the pictures had never seen Africa."
"This is no country for illusions. Things go naked here—damned naked."
"And only language is adorned?"
Durnovo laughed. He had to be alert to keep up with Jack Meredith—to understand his speech; and he rather liked the necessity, which was a change after the tropic indolence in which he had moved.
"Swearing, you mean," he replied. "Hope you don't mind it?"
"Not a bit. Do it myself."
At this moment Joseph, the servant, brought coffee served up in tin cups.
"First-class dinner," said Durnovo. "The best dinner I have had for years. Clever chap, your man!"
The last remark was made as much for the servant's edification as for the master's, and it was accompanied by an inviting smile directed towards Joseph. Of this the man took no notice whatever. He came from a world where masters and masters' guests know their place and keep it, even after a good dinner.
The evening had turned out so very differently from what he had expected that Durnovo was a little off his balance. Things were so sociable and pleasant in comparison with the habitual loneliness of his life. The fire crackled so cheerily, the moon shone down on the river so grandly, the subdued chatter of the boatmen imparted such a feeling of safety and comfort to the scene, that he gave way to that impulse of expansiveness which ever lurks in West Indian blood.
"I say," he said, "when you told me that you wanted to make money, were you in earnest?"
"In the deadliest earnest," replied Jack Meredith, in the half-mocking tone which he never wholly learnt to lay aside.
"Then I think I can put you in the way of it. Oh, I know it seems a bit premature—not known you long enough, and all that. But in this country we don't hold much by the formalities. I like you. I liked the look of you when you got out of that boat—so damned cool and self-possessed. You're the right sort, Mr. Meredith."
"Possibly—for some things. For sitting about and smoking first-class cigars and thinking second-class thoughts I am exactly the right sort. But for making money, for hard work and steady work, I am afraid, Mr. Durnovo, that I am distinctly the wrong sort."
"Now you're chaffing again. Do you always chaff?"
"Mostly; it lubricates things, doesn't it?"
There was a little pause. Durnovo looked round as if to make sure that Joseph and the boatmen were out of earshot.
"Can you keep a secret?" he asked suddenly.
Jack Meredith turned and looked at the questioner with a smile. His hat had slipped to the back of his head, the light of the great yellow moon fell full upon his clean-cut, sphinx-like face. The eyes alone seemed living.
"Yes! I can do that."
He was only amused, and the words were spoken half-mockingly; but his face said more than his lips. It said that even in chaff this was no vain boast that he was uttering. Even before he had set foot on African soil he had been asked to keep so many secrets of a commercial nature. So many had begun by imparting half a secret, to pass on in due course to the statement that only money was required, say, a thousand pounds. And, in the meantime, twenty-five would be very useful, and, if not that, well, ten shillings. Jack Meredith had met all that before.
But there was something different about Durnovo. He was not suitably got up. Your bar-room prospective millionaire is usually a jolly fellow, quite prepared to quench any man's thirst for liquor or information so long as credit and credulity will last. There was nothing jolly or sanguine about Durnovo. Beneath his broad-brimmed hat his dark eyes flashed in a fierce excitement. His hand was unsteady. He had allowed the excellent cigar to go out. The man was full of quinine and fever, in deadly earnest.
"I can see you're a gentleman," he said; "I'll trust you. I want a man to join me in making a fortune. I have got my hand on it at last. But I'm afraid of this country. I'm getting shaky; look at that hand. I've been looking for it too long. I take you into my confidence, the first comer, you'll think. But there are not many men like you in this country, and I'm beastly afraid of dying. I'm in a damned funk. I want to get out of this for a bit, but I dare not leave until I set things going."
"Take your time," said Meredith, quietly and soothingly; "light that cigar again and lie down. There is no hurry."
Durnovo obeyed him meekly.
"Tell me," he said, "have you ever heard of Simiacine?"
"I cannot say that I have," replied Jack. "What is it for, brown boots or spasms?"
"It is a drug, the most expensive drug in the market. And they must have it, they cannot do without it, and they cannot find a substitute. It is the leaf of a shrub, and your hatful is worth a thousand pounds."
"Where is it to be found?" asked Jack Meredith. "I should like some—in a sack."
"Ah, you may laugh now, but you won't when you hear all about it. The scientific chaps called it Simiacine, because of an old African legend which, like all those things, has a grain of truth in it. The legend is, that the monkeys first found out the properties of the leaf, and it is because they live on it that they are so strong. Do you know that a gorilla's arm is not half so thick as yours, and yet he would take you and snap your backbone across his knee; he would bend a gun-barrel as you would bend a cane, merely by the turn of his wrist. That is Simiacine. He can hang on to a tree with one leg and tackle a leopard with his bare hands—that's Simiacine. At home, in England and in Germany, they are only just beginning to find out its properties; it seems that it can bring a man back to life when he is more than half dead. There is no knowing what children that are brought up on it may turn out to be; it may double the power of the human brain—some think it will."
Jack Meredith was leaning forward, watching with a certain sense of fascination the wild, disease-stricken face, listening to the man's breathless periods. It seemed that the fear of death, which had gotten hold of him, gave Victor Durnovo no time to pause for breath.
"Yes," said the Englishman, "yes, go on."
"There is practically no limit to the demand that there is for it. At present the only way of obtaining it is through the natives, and you know their manner of trading. They send a little packet down from the interior, and it very often takes two months and more to reach the buyer's hands. The money is sent back the same way, and each man who fingers it keeps a little. The natives find the leaf in the forests by the aid of trained monkeys, and only in very small quantities. Do you follow me?"
"Yes, I follow you."
Victor Durnovo leant forward until his face was within three inches of Meredith, and the dark wild eyes flashed and glared into the Englishman's steady glance.
"What," he hissed, "what if I know where Simiacine grows like a weed? What if I could supply the world with Simiacine at my own price? Eh—h—h! What of that, Mr. Meredith?"
He threw himself suddenly back and wiped his dripping face. There was a silence, the great African silence that drives educated men mad, and fills the imagination of the poor heathen with wild tales of devils and spirits.
Then Jack Meredith spoke, without moving.
"I'm your man," he said, "with a few more details."
Victor Durnovo was lying back at full length on the hard dry mud, his arms beneath his head. Without altering his position he gave the details, speaking slowly and much more quietly. It seemed as if he spoke the result of long pent-up thought.
"We shall want," he said, "two thousand pounds to start it. For we must have an armed force of our own. We have to penetrate through a cannibal country, of the fiercest devils in Africa. It is a plateau, a little plateau of two square miles, and the niggers think that it is haunted by an evil spirit. When we get there we shall have to hold it by force of arms, and when we send the stuff down to the coast we must have an escort of picked men. The bushes grow up there as thick as gooseberry bushes in a garden at home. With a little cultivation they will yield twice as much as they do now. We shall want another partner. I know a man, a soldierly fellow full of fight, who knows the natives and the country. I will undertake to lead you there, but you will have to take great care of me. You will have to have me carried most of the way. I am weak, devilish weak, and I am afraid of dying; but I know the way there, and no other man can say as much! It is in my head here; it is not written down. It is only in my head, and no one can get it out of there."
"No," said Meredith, in his quiet, refined voice, "no, no one can get it out. Come, let us turn in. To-morrow I will go down the river with you. I will turn back, and we can talk it over as we go downstream."
CHAPTER VIII. A RECRUIT
Said the Engine from the East, "They who work best talk the least."
It is not, of course, for a poor limited masculine mind to utter heresies regarding the great question of woman's rights. But as things stand at present, as, in fact, the forenamed rights are to-day situated, women have not found comprehension of the dual life. The dual life is led solely by men, and until women have found out its full compass and meaning, they can never lead in the world. There is the public life and the private; and the men who are most successful in the former are the most exclusive in the latter. Women have only learned to lead one life; they must be all public or all private, there is no medium. Those who give up the private life for which Providence destined them, to assume the public existence to which their own conceit urges them, have their own reward. They taste all the bitterness of fame and never know its sweets, because the bitterness is public and the sweets are private.
Women cannot understand that part of a man's life which brings him into daily contact with men whom he does not bring home to dinner. One woman does not know another without bringing her in to meals and showing her her new hat. It is merely a matter of custom. Men are in the habit of associating in daily, almost hourly, intercourse with others who are never really their friends and are always held at a distance. It is useless attempting to explain it, for we are merely reprimanded for unfriendliness, stiffness, and stupid pride. Soit! Let it go. Some of us, perhaps, know our own business best. And there are, thank Heaven! amidst a multitude of female doctors, female professors, female wranglers, a few female women left.