By E.W. Hornung
I. A Plenipotentiary
II. The Theatre of War
III. First Blood
IV. A Little Knowledge
V. A Marked Woman
VI. Out of Action
VII. Second Fiddle
VIII. Prayers and Parables
IX. Sub Judice
X. The Last Word
XI. The Lion's Mouth
XII. A Stern Chase
XIII. Number Three
Has no writer ever dealt with the dramatic aspect of the unopened envelope? I cannot recall such a passage in any of my authors, and yet to my mind there is much matter for philosophy in what is always the expressionless shell of a boundless possibility. Your friend may run after you in the street, and you know at a glance whether his news is to be good, bad, or indifferent; but in his handwriting on the breakfast-table there is never a hint as to the nature of his communication. Whether he has sustained a loss or an addition to his family, whether he wants you to dine with him at the club or to lend him ten pounds, his handwriting at least will be the same, unless, indeed, he be offended, when he will generally indite your name with a studious precision and a distant grace quite foreign to his ordinary caligraphy.
These reflections, trite enough as I know, are nevertheless inevitable if one is to begin one's unheroic story in the modern manner, at the latest possible point. That is clearly the point at which a waiter brought me the fatal letter from Catherine Evers. Apart even from its immediate consequences, the letter had a prima facie interest, of no ordinary kind, as the first for years from a once constant correspondent. And so I sat studying the envelope with a curiosity too piquant not to be enjoyed. What in the world could so obsolete a friend find to say to one now? Six months earlier there had been a certain opportunity for an advance, which at that time could not possibly have been misconstrued; when they landed me, a few later, there was another and perhaps a better one. But this was the last summer of the late century, and already I was beginning to get about like a lamplighter on my two sticks. Now, young men about town, on two walking-sticks, in the year of grace 1900, meant only one thing. Quite a stimulating thing in the beginning, but even as I write, in this the next winter but one, a national irritation of which the name alone might prevent you from reading another word.
Catherine's handwriting, on the contrary, was still stimulating, if indeed I ever found it more so in the foolish past. It had not altered in the least. There was the same sweet pedantry of the Attic e, the same superiority to the most venial abbreviation, the same inconsistent forest of exclamatory notes, thick as poplars across the channel. The present plantation started after my own Christian name, to wit "Dear Duncan!!" Yet there was nothing Germanic in Catherine's ancestry; it was only her apologetic little way of addressing me as though nothing had ever happened, of asking whether she might. Her own old tact and charm were in that tentative burial of the past. In the first line she had all but won my entire forgiveness; but the very next interfered with the effect.
"You promised to do anything for me!"
I should be sorry to deny it, I am sure, for not to this day do I know what I did say on the occasion to which she evidently referred. But was it kind to break the silence of years with such a reference? Was it even quite decent in Catherine to ignore my existence until I could be of use to her, and then to ask the favour in her first breath? It was true, as she went on to remind me, that we were more or less connected after all, and at least conceivable that no one else could help her as I could, if I would. In any case, it was a certain satisfaction to hear that Catherine herself was of the last opinion. I read on. She was in a difficulty; but she did not say what the difficulty was. For one unworthy moment the thought of money entered my mind, to be ejected the next, as the Catherine of old came more and more into the mental focus. Pride was the last thing in which I had found her wanting, and her letter indicated no change in that respect.
"You may wonder," she wrote just at the end, "why I have never sent you a single word of inquiry, or sympathy, or congratulation!! Well—suppose it was 'bad blood'!! between us when you went away! Mind, I never meant it to be so, but suppose it was: could I treat the dear old you like that, and the Great New You like somebody else? You have your own fame to thank for my unkindness! I am only thankful they haven't given you the V.C.!! Then I should never have dared—not even now!!!"
I smoked a cigarette when I had read it all twice over, and as I crushed the fire out of the stump I felt I could as soon think of lighting it again as I should have expected Catherine Evers to set a fresh match to me. That, I was resolved, she should never do; nor was I quite coxcomb enough to suspect her of the desire for a moment. But a man who has once made a fool of himself, especially about a woman somewhat older than himself, does not soon get over the soreness; and mine returned with the very fascination which made itself felt even in the shortest little letter.
Catherine wrote from the old address in Elm Park Gardens, and she wanted me to call as early as I could, or to make any appointment I liked. I therefore telegraphed that I was coming at three o'clock that afternoon, and thus made for myself one of the longest mornings that I can remember spending in town. I was staying at the time at the Kensington Palace Hotel, to be out of the central racket of things, and yet more or less under the eye of the surgeon who still hoped to extract the last bullet in time. I can remember spending half the morning gazing aimlessly over the grand old trees, already prematurely bronzed, and the other half in limping in their shadow to the Round Pond, where a few little townridden boys were sailing their humble craft. It was near the middle of August, and for the first time I was thankful that an earlier migration had not been feasible in my case.
In spite of my telegram Mrs. Evers was not at home when I arrived, but she had left a message which more than explained matters. She was lunching out, but only in Brechin Place, and I was to wait in the study if I did not mind. I did not, and yet I did, for the room in which Catherine certainly read her books and wrote her letters was also the scene of that which I was beginning to find it rather hard work to forget as it was. Nor had it changed any more than her handwriting, or than the woman herself as I confidently expected to find her now. I have often thought that at about forty both sexes stand still to the eye, and I did not expect Catherine Evers, who could barely have reached that rubicon, to show much symptom of the later marches. To me, here in her den, the other year was just the other day. My time in India was little better than a dream to me, while as for angry shots at either end of Africa, it was never I who had been there to hear them. I must have come by my sticks in some less romantic fashion. Nothing could convince me that I had ever been many days or miles away from a room that I knew by heart, and found full as I left it of familiar trifles and poignant associations.
That was the shelf devoted to her poets; there was no addition that I could see. Over it hung the fine photograph of Watts's "Hope," an ironic emblem, and elsewhere one of that intolerably sad picture, his "Paolo and Francesca": how I remembered the wet Sunday when Catherine took me to see the original in Melbury Road! The old piano which was never touched, the one which had been in St. Helena with Napoleon's doctor, there it stood to an inch where it had stood of old, a sort of grand-stand for the photographs of Catherine's friends. I descried my own young effigy among the rest, in a frame which I recollected giving her at the time. Well, I looked all the idiot I must have been; and there was the very Persian rug that I had knelt on in my idiocy! I could afford to smile at myself to-day; yet now it all seemed yesterday, not even the day before, until of a sudden I caught sight of that other photograph in the place of honour on the mantelpiece. It was one by Hills and Sanders, of a tall youth in flannels, armed with a long-handled racket, and the sweet open countenance which Robin Evers had worn from his cradle upward. I should have known him anywhere and at any age. It was the same dear, honest face; but to think that this giant was little Bob! He had not gone to Eton when I saw him last; now I knew from the sporting papers that he was up at Cambridge; but it was left to his photograph to bring home the flight of time.
Certainly his mother would never have done so when all at once the door opened and she stood before me, looking about thirty in the ample shadow of a cavalier's hat. Simply but admirably gowned, as I knew she would be, her slender figure looked more youthful still; yet in all this there was no intent; the dry cool smile was that of an older woman, and I was prepared for greater cordiality than I could honestly detect in the greeting of the small firm hand. But it was kind, as indeed her whole reception of me was; only it had always been the way of Catherine the correspondent to make one expect a little more than mere kindness, and of Catherine the companion to disappoint that expectation. Her conversation needed few exclamatory points.
"Still halt and lame," she murmured over my sticks. "You poor thing, you are to sit down this instant."
And I obeyed her as one always had, merely remarking that I was getting along famously now.
"You must have had an awful time," continued Catherine, seating herself near me, her calm wise eyes on mine.
"Blood-poisoning," said I. "It nearly knocked me out, but I'm glad to say it didn't quite."
Indeed, I had never felt quite so glad before.
"Ah! that was too hard and cruel; but I was thinking of the day itself," explained Catherine, and paused in some sweet transparent awe of one who had been through it.
"It was a beastly day," said I, forgetting her objection to the epithet until it was out. But Catherine did not wince. Her fixed eyes were full of thought.
"It was all that here," she said. "One depressing morning I had a telegram from Bob, 'Spion Kop taken'—"
"So Bob," I nodded, "had it as badly as everybody else!"
"Worse," declared Catherine, her eye hardening; "it was all I could do to keep him at Cambridge, though he had only just gone up. He would have given up everything and flown to the Front if I had let him."
And she wore the inexorable face with which I could picture her standing in his way; and in Catherine I could admire that dogged look and all it spelt, because a great passion is always admirable. The passion of Catherine's life was her boy, the only son of his mother, and she a widow. It had been so when he was quite small, as I remembered it with a pinch of jealousy startling as a twinge from an old wound. More than ever must it be so now; that was as natural as the maternal embargo in which Catherine seemed almost to glory. And yet, I reflected, if all the widows had thought only of their only sons—and of themselves!
"The next depressing morning," continued Catherine, happily oblivious of what was passing through one's mind, "the first thing I saw, the first time I put my nose outside, was a great pink placard with 'Spion Kop Abandoned!' Duncan, it was too awful."
"I wish we'd sat tight," I said, "I must confess."
"Tight!" cried Catherine in dry horror. "I should have abandoned it long before. I should have run away—hard! To think that you didn't—that's quite enough for me."
And again I sustained the full flattery of that speechless awe which was yet unembarrassing by reason of its freedom from undue solemnity.
"There were some of us who hadn't a leg to run on," I had to say; "I was one, Mrs. Evers."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Catherine, then." But it put me to the blush.
"Thank you. If you really wish me to call you 'Captain Clephane' you have only to say so; but in that case I can't ask the favour I had made up my mind to ask—of so old a friend."
Her most winning voice was as good a servant as ever; the touch of scorn in it was enough to stimulate, but not to sting; and it was the same with the sudden light in the steady intellectual eyes.
"Catherine," I said, "you can't indeed ask any favour of me! There you are quite right. It is not a word to use between us."
Mrs. Evers gave me one of her deliberate looks before replying.
"And I am not so sure that it is a favour," she said softly enough at last. "It is really your advice I want to ask, in the first place at all events. Duncan, it's about old Bob!"
The corners of her mouth twitched, her eyes filled with a quaint humorous concern, and as a preamble I was handed the photograph which I had already studied on my own account.
"Isn't he a dear?" asked Bob's mother. "Would you have known him, Duncan?"
"I did know him," said I. "Spotted him at a glance. He's the same old Bob all over."
I was fortunate enough to meet the swift glance I got for that, for in sheer sweetness and affection it outdid all remembered glances of the past. In a moment it was as though I had more than regained the lost ground of lost years. And in another moment, on the heels of the discovery, came the still more startling one that I was glad to have regained my ground, was thankful to be reinstated, and strangely, acutely, yet uneasily happy, as I had never been since the old days in this very room.
Half in a dream I heard Catherine telling of her boy, of his Eton triumphs, how he had been one of the rackets pair two years, and in the eleven his last, but "in Pop" before he was seventeen, and yet as simple and unaffected and unspoilt with it all as the small boy whom I remembered. And I did remember him, and knew his mother well enough to believe it all; for she did not chant his praises to organ music, but rather hummed them to the banjo; and one felt that her own demure humour, so signal and so permanent a charm in Catherine, would have been the saving of half-a-dozen Bobs.
"And yet," she wound up at her starting-point, "it's about poor old Bob I want to speak to you!"
"Not in a fix, I hope?"
"I hope not, Duncan."
Catherine was serious now.
"That depends on what you mean by mischief."
Catherine was more serious still.
"Well, there are several brands, but only one or two that really poison—unless, of course, a man is very poor."
And my mind harked back to its first suspicion, of some financial embarrassment, now conceivable enough; but Catherine told me her boy was not poor, with the air of one who would have drunk ditchwater rather than let the other want for champagne.
"It is just the opposite," she added: "in little more than a year, when he comes of age, he will have quite as much as is good for him. You know what he is, or rather you don't. I do. And if I were not his mother I should fall in love with him myself!"
Catherine looked down on me as she returned from replacing Bob's photograph on the mantelpiece. The humour had gone out of her eye; in its place was an almost animal glitter, a far harder light than had accompanied the significant reference to the patriotic impulse which she had nipped in the bud. It was probably only the old, old look of the lioness whose whelp is threatened, but it was something new to me in Catherine Evers, something half-repellent and yet almost wholly fine.
"You don't mean to say it's that?" I asked aghast.
"No, I don't," Catherine answered, with a hard little laugh. "He's not quite twenty, remember; but I am afraid that he is making a fool of himself, and I want it stopped."
I waited for more, merely venturing to nod my sympathetic concern.
"Poor old Bob, as you may suppose, is not a genius. He is far too nice," declared Catherine's old self, "to be anything so nasty. But I always thought he had his head screwed on, and his heart screwed in, or I never would have let him loose in a Swiss hotel. As it was, I was only too glad for him to go with George Kennerley, who was as good at work at Eton as Bob was at games."
In Catherine's tone, for all the books on her shelves, the pictures on her walls, there was no doubt at all as to which of the two an Eton boy should be good at, and I agreed sincerely with another nod.
"They were to read together for an hour or so every day. I thought it would be a nice little change for Bob, and it was quite a chance; he must do a certain amount of work, you see. Well, they only went at the beginning of the month, and already they have had enough of each other's society."
"You don't mean that they've had a row?"
Catherine inclined a mortified head.
"Bob never had such a thing in his life before, nor did I ever know anybody who succeeded in having one with Bob. It does take two, you know. And when one of the two has an angelic temper, and tact enough for twenty—"
"You naturally blame the other," I put in, as she paused in visible perplexity.
"But I don't, Duncan, and that's just the point. George is devoted to Bob, and is as nice as he can be himself, in his own sober, honest, plodding way. He may not have the temper, he certainly has not the tact, but he worships Bob and has come back quite miserable."
"Then he has come back, and you have seen him?"
"He was here last night. You must know that Bob writes to me every day, even from Cambridge, if it's only a line; and in yesterday's letter he mentioned quite casually that George had had enough of it and was off home. It was a little too casual to be quite natural in old Bob, and there are other things he has been mentioning in the same way. If any instinct is to be relied upon it is a mother's, and mine amounted almost to second sight. I sent Master George a telegram, and he came in last night."
"Not a word! There was bad blood between them, but that was all I could get out of him. Vulgar disagreeables between Bob, of all people, and his greatest friend! If you could have seen the poor fellow sitting where you are sitting now, like a prisoner in the dock! I put him in the witness-box instead, and examined him on scraps of Bob's letters to me. It was as unscrupulous as you please, but I felt unscrupulous; and the poor dear was too loyal to admit, yet too honest to deny, a single thing."
"And?" said I, as Bob's mother paused again.
"And," cried she, with conscious melodrama in the fiery twinkle of her eye—"and, I know all! There is an odious creature at the hotel—a widow, if you please! A 'ripping widow' Bob called her in his first letter; then it was 'Mrs. Lascelles'; but now it is only 'some people' whom he escorts here, there, and everywhere. Some people, indeed!"
Catherine smiled unmercifully. I relied upon my nod.
"I needn't tell you," she went on, "that the creature is at least twenty years older than my baby, and not at all nice at that. George didn't tell me, mind, but he couldn't deny a single thing. It was about her that they fell out. Poor George remonstrated, not too diplomatically, I daresay, but I can quite see that my Bob behaved as he was never known to behave on land or sea. The poor child has been bewitched, neither more nor less."
"He'll get over it," I murmured, with the somewhat shaky confidence born of my own experience.
Catherine looked at me in mild surprise.
"But it's going on now, Duncan—it's going on still!"
"Well," I added, with all the comfort that my voice would carry, and which an exaggerated concern seemed to demand: "well, Catherine, it can't go very far at his age!" Nor to this hour can I yet conceive a sounder saying, in all the circumstances of the case, and with one's knowledge of the type of lad; but my fate was the common one of comforters, and I was made speedily and painfully aware that I had now indeed said the most unfortunate thing.
Catherine did not stamp her foot, but she did everything else required by tradition of the exasperated lady. Not go far? As if it had not gone too far already to be tolerated another instant longer than was necessary!
"He is making a fool of himself—my boy—my Bob—before a whole hotelful of sharp eyes and sharper tongues! Is that not far enough for it to have gone? Duncan, it must be stopped, and stopped at once; but I am not the one to do it. I would rather it went on," cried Catherine tragically, as though the pit yawned before us all, "than that his mother should fly to his rescue before all the world! But a friend might do it, Duncan—if—"
Her voice had dropped. I bent my ear.
"If only," she sighed, "I had a friend who would!"
Catherine was still looking down when I looked up; but the droop of the slender body, the humble angle of the cavalier hat, the faint flush underneath, all formed together a challenge and an appeal which were the more irresistible for their sweet shamefacedness. Acute consciousness of the past (I thought), and (I even fancied) some penitence for a wrong by no means past undoing, were in every sensitive inch of her, as she sat a suppliant to the old player of that part. And there are emotions of which the body may be yet more eloquent than the face; there was the figure of Watts's "Hope" drooping over as she drooped, not more lissom and speaking than her own; just then it caught my eye, and on the spot it was as though the lute's last string of that sweet masterpiece had vibrated aloud in Catherine's room.
My hand shook as I reached for my trusty sticks, but I cannot say that my voice betrayed me when I inquired the name of the Swiss hotel.
"The Riffel Alp," said Catherine—"above Zermatt, you know."
"I start to-morrow morning," I rejoined, "if that will do."
Then Catherine looked up. I cannot describe her look. Transfiguration were the idle word, but the inadequate, and yet more than one would scatter the effect of so sudden a burst of human sunlight.
"Would you really go?" she cried. "Do you mean it, Duncan?"
"I only wish," I replied, "that it were to Australia."
"But then you would be weeks too late."
"Ah, that's another story! I may be too late as it is."
Her brightness clouded on the instant; only a gleam of annoyance pierced the cloud.
"Too late for what, may I ask?"
"Everything except stopping the banns."
"Please don't talk nonsense, Duncan. Banns at nineteen!"
"It is nonsense, I agree; at the same time the minor consequences will be the hardest to deal with. If they are being talked about, well, they are being talked about. You know Bob best: suppose he is making a fool of himself, is he the sort of fellow to stop because one tells him so? I should say not, from what I know of him, and of you."
"I don't know," argued Catherine, looking pleased with her compliment. "You used to have quite an influence over him, if you remember."
"That's quite possible; but then he was a small boy, now he is a grown man."
"But you are a much older one."
"Too old to trust to that."
"And you have been wounded in the war."
"The hotel may be full of wounded officers; if not I might get a little unworthy purchase there. In any case I'll go. I should have to go somewhere before many days. It may as well be to that place as to another. I have heard that the air is glorious; and I'll keep an eye on Robin, if I can't do anything else."
"That's enough for me," cried Catherine, warmly. "I have sufficient faith in you to leave all the rest to your own discretion and good sense and better heart. And I never shall forget it, Duncan, never, never! You are the one person he wouldn't instantly suspect as an emissary, besides being the only one I ever—ever trusted well enough to—to take at your word as I have done."
I thought myself that the sentence might have pursued a bolder course without untruth or necessary complications. Perhaps my conceit was on a scale with my acknowledged infirmity where Catherine was concerned. But I did think that there was more than trust in the eyes that now melted into mine; there was liking at least, and gratitude enough to inspire one to win infinitely more. I went so far as to take in mine the hand to which I had dared to aspire in the temerity of my youth; nor shall I pretend for a moment that the old aspirations had not already mounted to their old seat in my brain. On the contrary, I was only wondering whether the honesty of voicing my hopes would nowise counterbalance the caddishness of the sort of stipulation they might imply.
"All I ask," I was saying to myself, "is that you will give me another chance, and take me seriously this time, if I prove myself worthy in the way you want."
But I am glad to think I had not said it when tea came up, and saved a dangerous situation by breaking an insidious spell.
I stayed another hour at least, and there are few in my memory which passed more deliciously at the time. In writing of it now I feel that I have made too little of Catherine Evers, in my anxiety not to make too much, yet am about to leave her to stand or to fall in the reader's opinion by such impression as I have already succeeded in creating in his or her mind. Let me add one word, or two, while yet I may. A baron's daughter (though you might have known Catherine some time without knowing that), she had nevertheless married for mere love as a very young girl, and had been left a widow before the birth of her boy. I never knew her husband, though we were distant kin, nor yet herself during the long years through which she mourned him. Catherine Evers was beginning to recover her interest in the world when first we met; but she never returned to that identical fold of society in which she had been born and bred. It was, of course, despite her own performances, a fold to which the worldly wolf was no stranger; and her trouble had turned a light-hearted little lady into an eager, intellectual, speculative being, with a sort of shame for her former estate, and an undoubted reactionary dislike of dominion and of petty pomp. Of her own high folk one neither saw nor heard a thing; her friends were the powerful preachers of most denominations, and one or two only painted or wrote; for she had been greatly exercised about religion, and somewhat solaced by the arts.
Of her charm for me, a lad with a sneaking regard for the pen, even when I buckled on the sword, I need not be too analytical. No doubt about her kindly interest, in the first instance, in so morbid a curiosity as a subaltern who cared for books and was prepared to extend his gracious patronage to pictures. This subaltern had only too much money, and if the truth be known, only too little honest interest in the career into which he had allowed himself to drift. An early stage of that career brought him up to London, where family pressure drove him on a day to Elm Park Gardens. The rest is easily conceived. Here was a woman, still young, though some years older than oneself; attractive, intellectual, amusing, the soul of sympathy, at once a spiritual influence and the best companion in the world; and for a time, at least, she had taken a perhaps imprudent interest in a lad whom she so greatly interested herself, on so many and various accounts. Must you marvel that the young fool mistook the interest, on both sides, for a more intense feeling, of which he for one had no experience at the time, and that he fell by his mistake at a ridiculously early stage of his career?
It is, I grant, more surprising to find the same young man playing Harry Esmond (at due distance) to the same Lady Castlewood after years in India and a taste of two wars. But Catherine's room was Catherine's room, a very haunt of the higher sirens, charged with noble promptings and forgotten influences and impossible vows. And you will please bear in mind that as yet I am but setting forth, from this rarefied atmosphere, upon my invidious mission.
THE THEATRE OF WAR
It is a far cry to Zermatt at the best of times, and that is not the middle of August. The annual rush was at its height, the trains crowded, the heat of them overpowering. I chose to sit up all night in my corner of an ordinary compartment, as a lesser evil than the wagon-lit in which you cannot sit up at all. In the morning one was in Switzerland, with a black collar, a rusty chin, and a countenance in keeping with its appointments. It was not as though the night had been beguiled for me by such considerations as are only proper to the devout pilgrim in his lady's service.
On the contrary, and to tell the honest truth, I found it quite impossible to sustain such a serious view of the very special service to which I was foresworn: the more I thought of it, in one sense, the less in another, until my only chance was to go forward with grim humour in the spirit of impersonal curiosity which that attitude induces. In a word, and the cant one which yet happens to express my state of mind to a nicety, I had already "weakened" on the whole business which I had been in such a foolish hurry to undertake, though not for one reactionary moment upon her for whom I had undertaken it. I was still entirely eager to "do her behest in pleasure or in pain"; but this particular enterprise I was beginning to view apart from its inspiration, on its intrinsic demerits, and the more clearly I saw it in its own light, the less pleasure did the prospect afford me.
A young giant, whom I had not seen since his childhood, was merely understood to be carrying on a conspicuous, but in all probability the most innocent, flirtation in a Swiss hotel; and here was I, on mere second-hand hearsay, crossing half Europe to spoil his perfectly legitimate sport! I did not examine my project from the unknown lady's point of view; it made me quite hot enough to consider it from that of my own sex. Yet, the day before yesterday, I had more than acquiesced in the dubious plan. I had even volunteered for its achievement. The train rattled out one long, maddening tune to my own incessant marvellings at my own secret apostasy: the stuffy compartment was not Catherine's sanctum of the quickening memorials and the olden spell. Catherine herself was no longer before me in the vivacious flesh, with her half playful pathos of word and look, her fascinating outward light and shade, her deeper and steadier intellectual glow. Those, I suppose, were the charms which had undone me, first as well as last; but the memory of them was no solace in the train. Nor was I tempted to dream again of ultimate reward. I could see now no further than my immediate part, and a more distasteful mixture of the mean and of the ludicrous I hope never to rehearse again.
One mitigation I might have set against the rest. Dining at the Rag the night before I left, I met a man who knew a man then staying at the Riffel Alp. My man was a sapper with whom I had had a very slight acquaintance out in India, but he happened to be one of those good-natured creatures who never hesitate to bestir themselves or their friends to oblige a mere acquaintance: he asked if I had secured rooms, and on learning that I had not, insisted on telegraphing to his friend to do his best for me. I had not hitherto appreciated the popularity of a resort which I happened only to know by name, nor did I even on getting at Lausanne a telegram to say that a room was duly reserved for me. It was only when I actually arrived, tired out with travel, toward the second evening, and when half of those who had come up with me were sent down again to Zermatt for their pains, that I felt as grateful as I ought to have been from the beginning. Here upon a mere ledge of the High Alps was a hotel with tier upon tier of windows winking in the setting sun. On every hand were dazzling peaks piled against a turquoise sky, yet drawn respectfully apart from the incomparable Matterhorn, that proud grim chieftain of them all. The grand spectacle and the magic air made me thankful to be there, if only for their sake, albeit the more regretful that a purer purpose had not drawn me to so fine a spot.
My unknown friend at court, one Quinby, a civilian, came up and spoke before I had been five minutes at my destination. He was a very tall and extraordinarily thin man, with an ill-nourished red moustache, and an easy geniality of a somewhat acid sort. He had a trick of laughing softly through his nose, and my two sticks served to excite a sense of humour as odd as its habitual expression.
"I'm glad you carry the outward signs," said he, "for I made the most of your wounds and you really owe your room to them. You see, we're a very representative crowd. That festive old boy, strutting up and down with his cigar, in the Panama hat, is really best known in the black cap: it's old Sankey, the hanging judge. The big man with his back turned you will know in a moment when he looks this way: it's our celebrated friend Belgrave Teale. He comes down in one or other of his parts every day: to-day it's the genial squire, yesterday it was the haw-haw officer of the Crimean school. But a real live officer from the Front we don't happen to have had, much less a wounded one, and you limp straight into the breach."
I should have resented these pleasantries from an ordinary stranger, but this libertine might be held to have earned his charter, and moreover I had further use for him. We were loitering on the steps between the glass veranda and the terrace at the back of the hotel. The little sunlit stage was full of vivid, trivial, transitory life, it seemed as a foil to the vast eternal scene. The hanging judge still strutted with his cigar, peering jocosely from under the broad brim of his Panama; the great actor still posed aloof, the human Matterhorn of the group. I descried no showy woman with a tall youth dancing attendance; among the brick-red English faces there was not one that bore the least resemblance to the latest photograph of Bob Evers.
A little consideration suggested my first move.
"I think I saw a visitors' book in the hall," I said. "I may as well stick down my name."
But before doing so I ran my eye up and down the pages inscribed by those who had arrived that month.
"See anybody you know?" inquired Quinby, who hovered obligingly at my elbow. It was really necessary to be as disingenuous as possible, more especially with a person whose own conversation was evidently quite unguarded.
"Yes, by Jove I do! Robin Evers, of all people!"
"Do you know him?"
The question came pretty quickly. I was sorry I had said so much.
"Well, I once knew a small boy of that name; but then they are not a small clan."
"His mother's the Honourable," said Quinby, with studious unconcern, yet I fancied with increased interest in me.
"I used to see something of them both," I deliberately admitted, "when the lad was little. How has he turned out?"
Quinby gave his peculiar nasal laugh.
"A nice youth," said he. "A very nice youth!"
"Do you mean nice or nasty?" I asked, inclined to bridle at his tone.
"Oh, anything but nasty," said Quinby. "Only—well—perhaps a bit rapid for his years!"
I stooped and put my name in the book before making any further remark. Then I handed Quinby my cigarette-case, and we sat down on the nearest lounge.
"Rapid, is he?" said I. "That's quite interesting. And how does it take him?"
"Oh, not in any way that's discreditable; but as a matter of fact, there's a gay young widow here, and they're fairly going it!"
I lit my cigarette with a certain unexpected sense of downright satisfaction. So there was something in it after all. It had seemed such a fool's errand in the train.
"A young widow," I repeated, emphasising one of Quinby's epithets and ignoring the other.
"I mean, of course, she's a good deal older than Evers."
"And her name?"
"A Mrs. Lascelles."
"Do you happen to know anything about her, Captain Clephane?"
"I can't say I do."
"No more does anybody else," said Quinby, "except that she's an Indian widow of sorts."
"Indian!" I repeated with more interest.
Quinby looked at me.
"You've been out there yourself, perhaps?"
"It was there I knew Hamilton," said I, naming our common friend in the Engineers.
"Yet you're sure you never came across Mrs. Lascelles there?"
"India's a large place," I said, smiling as I shook my head.
"I wonder if Hamilton did," speculated Quinby aloud.
"And the Lascelleses," I added, "are another large clan."
"Well," he went on, after a moment's further cogitation, "there's nobody here can place this particular Mrs. Lascelles; but there are some who say things which they can tell you themselves. I'm not going to repeat them if you know anything about the boy. I only wish you knew him well enough to give him a friendly word of advice!"
"Is it so bad as all that?"
"My dear sir, I don't say there's anything bad about it," returned Quinby, who seemed to possess a pretty gift of suggestive negation. "But you may hear another opinion from other people, for you will find that the whole hotel is talking about it. No," he went on, watching my eyes, "it's no use looking for them at this time of day; they disappear from morning to night; if you want to see them you must take a stroll when everybody else is thinking of turning in. Then you may have better luck. But here are the letters at last."
The concierge had appeared, hugging an overflowing armful of postal matter. In another minute there was hardly standing room in the little hall. My companion uttered his unlovely laugh.
"And here comes the British lion roaring for his London papers! It isn't his letters he's so keen on, if you notice, Captain Clephane; it's his Daily Mail, with the latest cricket, and after that the war. Teale is an exception, of course. He has a stack of press-cuttings every day. You will see him gloating over them in a minute. Ah! the old judge has got his Sportsman; he reads nothing else except the Sporting Times, and he's going back for the Leger. Do you see the man with the blue spectacles and the peeled nose? He was last Vice Chancellor but one at Cambridge. No, that's not a Bishop, it's an Archdeacon. All we want is a Cabinet Minister now; every evening there is a rumour that the Colonial Secretary is on his way, and most mornings you will hear that he has actually arrived under cloud of night."
The facetious Quinby did not confine his more or less caustic commentary to the well-known folk of whom there seemed no dearth; in the ten or twenty minutes that we sat together he further revealed himself as a copious gossip, with a wide net alike for the big fish and for the smallest fry. There was a sheepish gentleman with a twitching face, and a shaven cleric in close attendance; the former a rich brand plucked from burning by the latter, whose temporal reward was the present trip, so Quinby assured me during the time it took them to pass before our eyes through the now emptying hall. A delightfully boyish young American came inquiring waggishly for his "best girl"; next moment I was given to understand that he meant his bride, who was ten times too good for him, with further trivialities to which the dressing-bell put a timely period. There was no sign of my Etonian when I went upstairs.
As I dressed in my small low room, with its sloping ceiling of varnished wood, at the top of the house, I felt that after all I had learnt nothing really new respecting that disturbing young gentleman. Quinby had already proved himself such an arrant gossip as to discount every word that he had said before I placed him in his proper type: it is one which I have encountered elsewhere, that of the middle-aged bachelor who will and must talk, and he had confessed his celibacy almost in his first breath; but a more pronounced specimen of the type I am in no hurry to meet again. If, however, there was some comfort in the thought of his more than probable exaggerations, there was none at all in the knowledge that these would be, if they had not already been, poured into every tolerant ear in the place, if anything more freely than into mine.
I was somewhat late for dinner, but the scandalous couple were later still, and all the evening I saw nothing of them. That, however, was greatly due to this fellow Quinby, whose determined offices one could hardly disdain after once accepting favours from him. In the press after dinner I saw his ferret's face peering this way and that, a good head higher than any other, and the moment our eyes met he began elbowing his way toward me. Only an ingrate would have turned and fled; and for the next hour or two I suffered Quinby to exploit my wounds and me for a good deal more than our intrinsic value. To do the man justice, however, I had no fault to find with the very pleasant little circle into which he insisted on ushering me, at one end of the glazed veranda, and should have enjoyed my evening but for an inquisitive anxiety to get in touch with the unsuspecting pair. Meanwhile the lilt of a waltz had mingled with the click of billiard balls and the talking and laughing which make a summer's night vocal in that outpost of pleasure on the silent heights; and some of our party had gone off to dance. In the end I followed them, sticks and all; but there was no Bob Evers among the dancers, nor in the billiard-room, nor anywhere else indoors.
Then, last of all, I looked where Quinby had advised me to look, and there sure enough, on the almost deserted terrace, were the couple whom I had come several hundred miles to put asunder. Hitherto I had only realised the distasteful character of my task; now at a glance I had my first inkling of its difficulty; and there ended the premature satisfaction with which I had learnt that there was "something in" the rumour which had reached Catherine's ears.
There was no moon, but the mountain stars were the brightest I have ever seen in Europe. The mountains themselves stood back, as it were, darkling and unobtrusive; all that was left of the Matterhorn was a towering gap in the stars; and in the faint cold light stood my friends, somewhat close together, and I thought I saw the red tips of two cigarettes. There was at least no mistaking the long loose limbs in the light overcoat. And because a woman always looks relatively taller than a man, this woman looked nearly as tall as this lad.
"Bob Evers? You may not remember me, but my name's Clephane—Duncan, you know!"
I felt the veriest scoundrel, and yet the words came out as smoothly as I have written them, as if to show me that I had been a potential scoundrel all my life.
"Duncan Clephane? Why, of course I remember you. I should think I did! I say, though, you must have had a shocking time!"
Bob's voice was quite quiet for all his astonishment, his manner a miracle, though it was too dark to read the face; and his right hand held tenderly to mine, as his eyes fell upon my sticks, while his left poised a steady cigarette. And now I saw that there was only one red tip after all.
"I read your name in the visitors' book," said I, feeling too big a brute to acknowledge the boy's solicitude for me. "I—I felt certain it must be you."
"How splendid!" cried the great fellow in his easy, soft, unconscious voice, "By the way, may I introduce you to Mrs. Lascelles? Captain Clephane's one of our very oldest friends, just back from the Front, and precious nearly blown to bits!"
Mrs. Lascelles and I exchanged our bows. For a dangerous woman there was a rather striking want of study in her attire. Over the garment which I believe is called a "rain-coat," the night being chilly, she had put on her golf-cape as well, and the effect was a little heterogeneous. It also argued qualities other than those for which I was naturally on the watch. Of the lady's face I could see even less than of Bob's, for the hood of the cape was upturned into a cowl, and even in Switzerland the stars are only stars. But while I peered she let me hear her voice, and a very rich one it was—almost deep in tone—the voice of a woman who would sing contralto.
"Have you really been fighting?" she asked, in a way that was either put on, or else the expression of a more understanding sympathy than one usually provoked; for pity and admiration, and even a helpless woman's envy, might all have been discovered by an ear less critical and more charitable than mine.
"Like anything!" answered Bob, in his unaffected speech.
"Until they knocked me out," I felt bound to add, "and that, unfortunately, was before very long."
"You must have been dreadfully wounded!" said Mrs. Lascelles, raising her eyes from my sticks and gazing at me, I fancied, with some intentness; but at her expression I could only guess.
"Bowled over on Spion Kop," said Bob, "and fairly riddled as he lay."
"But only about the legs, Mrs. Lascelles," I explained; "and you see I didn't lose either, so I've no cause to complain. I had hardly a graze higher up."
"Were you up there the whole of that awful day?" asked Mrs. Lascelles, on a low but thrilling note.
"I'd got to be," said I, trying to lighten the subject with a laugh. But Bob's tone was little better.
"So he went staggering about among his men," he must needs chime in, with other superfluities, "for I remember reading all about it in the papers, and boasting like anything about having known you, Duncan, but feeling simply sick with envy all the time. I say, you'll be a tremendous hero up here, you know! I'm awfully glad you've come. It's quite funny, all the same. I suppose you came to get bucked up? He couldn't have gone to a better place, could he, Mrs. Lascelles?"
"Indeed he could not. I only wish we could empty the hotel and fill every bed with our poor wounded!"
I do not know why I should have felt so much surprised. I had made unto myself my own image of Mrs. Lascelles, and neither her appearance, nor a single word that had fallen from her, was in the least in keeping with my conception. Prepared for a certain type of woman, I was quite confounded by its unconventional embodiment, and inclined to believe that this was not the type at all. I ought to have known life better. The most scheming mind may well entertain an enthusiasm for arms, genuine enough in itself, at a martial crisis, and a natural manner is by no means incompatible with the cardinal vices. That manner and that enthusiasm were absolutely all that I as yet knew in favour of this Mrs. Lascelles; but they were enough to cause me irritation. I wished to be honest with somebody; let me at least be honestly inimical to her. I took out my cigarette-case, and when about to help myself, handed it, with a vile pretence at impulse, to Mrs. Lascelles instead.
Mrs. Lascelles thanked me, in a higher key, but declined.
"Don't you smoke?" I asked blandly.
"Ah! then I wasn't mistaken. I thought I saw two cigarettes just now."
Indeed, I had first smelt and afterward discovered the second cigarette smouldering on the ground. Bob was smoking his still. The chances were that they had both been lighted at the same time; therefore the other had been thrown away unfinished at my approach. And that was one more variation from the type of my confident preconceptions.
Young Robin had meanwhile had a quick eye on us both, and the stump of his own cigarette was glowing between a firmer pair of lips than I had looked for in that boyish face.
"It's so funny," said he (but there was no fun in his voice), "the prejudice some people have against ladies smoking. Why shouldn't they? Where's the harm?"
Now there is no new plea to be advanced on either side of this eternal question, nor is it one upon which I ever felt strongly, but just then I felt tempted to speak as though I did. I will not now dissect my motive, but it was vaguely connected with my mission, and not unrighteous from that standpoint. I said it was not a question of harm at all, but of what one admired in a woman, and what one did not: a man loved to look upon a woman as something above and beyond him, and there could be no doubt that the gap seemed a little less when both were smoking like twin funnels. That, I thought, was the adverse point of view; I did not say that it was mine.
"I'm glad to hear it," said Bob Evers, with the faintest coldness in his tone, though I fancied he was fuming within, and admired both his chivalry and his self-control. "To me it's quite funny. I call it sheer selfishness. We enjoy a cigarette ourselves; why shouldn't they? We don't force them to be teetotal, do we? Is it bad form for a lady to drink a glass of wine? You mightn't bicycle once, might you, Mrs. Lascelles? I daresay Captain Clephane doesn't approve of that yet!"
"That's hitting below the belt," said I, laughing. "I wasn't giving you my opinion, but only the old-fashioned view of the matter. I wish you'd take one, Mrs. Lascelles, or I shall think I've been misunderstood all round!"
"No, thank you, Captain Clephane. That old-fashioned feeling is infectious."
"Then I will," cried Bob, "to show there's no ill-feeling. You old fire-eater, I believe you just put up the argument to change the conversation. Wouldn't you like a chair for those game legs?"
"No, I've got to use them in moderation. I was going to have a stroll when I spotted you at last."
"Then we'll all take one together," cried the genial old Bob once more. "It's a bit cold standing here, don't you think, Mrs. Lascelles? After you with the match!"
But I held it so long that he had to strike another, for I had looked on Mrs. Lascelles at last. It was not an obviously interesting face, like Catherine's, but interest there was of another kind. There was nothing intellectual in the low brow, no enthusiasm for books and pictures in the bold eyes, no witticism waiting on the full lips; but in the curve of those lips and the look from those eyes, as in the deep chin and the carriage of the hooded head, there was something perhaps not lower than intellect in the scale of personal equipment. There was, at all events, character and to spare. Even by the brief glimmer of a single match I could see that (and more) for myself. Then came a moment's interval before Bob struck his light, and in that moment her face changed. As I saw it next, it appealed, it entreated, until the second match was flung away. And the appeal was to such purpose that I do not think I was five seconds silent.
"And what do you do with yourself up here all day? I mean you hale people; of course, I can only potter in the sun."
The question, perhaps, was better in intention than in tact. I did not mean them to take it to themselves, but Bob's answer showed that it was open to misconstruction.
"Some people climb," said he; "you'll know them by their noses. The glaciers are almost as bad, though, aren't they, Mrs. Lascelles? Lots of people potter about the glaciers. It's rather sport in the serracs; you've got to rope. But you'll find lots more loafing about the place all day, reading Tauchnitz novels, and watching people on the Matterhorn through the telescope. That's the sort of thing, isn't it, Mrs. Lascelles?"
She also had misunderstood the drift of my unlucky question. But there was nothing disingenuous in her reply. It reminded me of her eyes, as I had seen them by the light of the first match.
"Mr. Evers doesn't say that he is a climber himself, Captain Clephane; but he is a very keen one, and so am I. We are both beginners, so we have begun together. It's such fun. We do some little thing every day; to-day we did the Schwarzee. You won't be any wiser, and the real climbers wouldn't call it climbing, but it means three thousand feet first and last. To-morrow we are going to the Monte Rosa hut. There is no saying where we shall end up, if this weather holds."
In this fashion Mrs. Lascelles not only made me a contemptuous present of information which I had never sought, but tacitly rebuked poor Bob for his gratuitous attempt at concealment. Clearly, they had nothing to conceal; and the hotel talk was neither more nor less than hotel talk. There was, nevertheless, a certain self-consciousness in the attitude of either (unless I grossly misread them both) which of itself afforded some excuse for the gossips in my own mind.
Yet I did not know; every moment gave me a new point of view. On my remarking, genuinely enough, that I only wished I could go with them, Bob Evers echoed the wish so heartily that I could not but believe that he meant what he said. On his side, in that case, there could be absolutely nothing. And yet, again, when Mrs. Lascelles had left us, as she did ere long in the easiest and most natural manner, and when we had started a last cigarette together, then once more I was not so sure of him.
"That's rather a handsome woman," said I, with perhaps more than the authority to which my years entitled me. But I fancied it would "draw" poor Bob. And it did.
"Rather handsome!" said he, with a soft little laugh not altogether complimentary to me. "Yes, I should almost go as far myself. Still I don't see how you know; you haven't so much as seen her, my dear fellow."
"Haven't we been walking up and down outside this lighted veranda for the last ten minutes?"
Bob emitted a pitying puff. "Wait till you see her in the sunlight! There's not many of them can stand it, as they get it up here. But she can—like anything!"
"She has made an impression on you, Bob," said I, but in so sedulously inoffensive a manner that his self-betrayal was all the greater when he told me quite hotly not to be an ass.
Now I was more than ten years his senior, and Bob's manners were as charming as only the manners of a nice Eton boy can be; therefore I held my peace, but with difficulty refrained from nodding sapiently to myself. We took a couple of steps in silence, then Bob stopped short. I did the same. He was still a little stern; we were just within range of the veranda lights, and I can see and hear him to this day, almost as clearly as I did that night.
"I'm not much good at making apologies," he began, with rather less grace than becomes an apologist; but it was more than enough for me from Bob.
"Nor I at receiving them, my dear Bob."
"Well, you've got to receive one now, whether you accept it or not. I was the ass myself, and I beg your pardon!"
Somehow I felt it was a good deal for a lad to say, at that age, and with Bob's upbringing and popularity, even though he said it rather scornfully in the fewest words. The scorn was really for himself, and I could well understand it. Nay, I was glad to have something to forgive in the beginning, I with my unforgivable mission, and would have laughed the matter off without another word if Bob had let me.
"I'm a bit raw on the point," said he, taking my arm for a last turn, "and that's the truth. There was a fellow who came out with me, quite a good chap really, and a tremendous pal of mine at Eton, yet he behaved like a lunatic about this very thing. Poor chap, he reads like anything, and I suppose he'd been overdoing it, for he actually asked me to choose between Mrs. Lascelles and himself! What could a fellow do but let the poor old simpleton go? They seem to think you can't be pals with a woman without wanting to make love to her. Such utter rot! I confess I lose my hair with them; but that doesn't excuse me in the least for losing it with you."
I assured him, on the other hand, that his very natural irritability on the subject made all the difference in the world. "But whom," I added, "do you mean by 'them'? Not anybody else in the hotel?"
"Good heavens, no!" cried Bob, finding a fair target for his scorn at last. "Do you think I care twopence what's said or thought by people I never saw in my life before and am never likely to see again? I know how I'm behaving. What does it matter what they think? Not that they're likely to bother their heads about us any more than we do about them."
"You don't know that."
"I certainly don't care," declared my lordly youth, with obvious sincerity. "No, I was only thinking of poor old George Kennerley and people like him, if there are any. I did care what he thought, that is until I saw he was as mad as anything on the subject. It was too silly. I tell you what, though, I'd value your opinion!" And he came to another stop and confronted me again, but this time such a picture of boyish impulse and of innocent trust in me (even by that faint light) that I was myself strongly inclined to be honest with him on the spot. But I only smiled and shook my head.
"Oh, no, you wouldn't," I assured him.
"But I tell you I would!" he cried. "Do you think there's any harm in my going about with Mrs. Lascelles because I rather like her and she rather likes me? I won't condescend to give you my word that I mean none."
What answer could I give? His charming frankness quite disarmed me, and the more completely because I felt that a dignified reticence would have been yet more characteristic of this clean, sweet youth, with his noble unconsciousness alike of evil and of evil speaking. I told him the truth—that there could be no harm at all with such a fellow as himself. And he wrung my hand until he hurt it; but the physical pain was a relief.
Never can I remember going up to bed with a better opinion of another person, or a worse one of myself. How could I go on with my thrice detestable undertaking? Now that I was so sure of him, why should I even think of it for another moment? Why not go back to London and tell his mother that her early confidence had not been misplaced, that the lad did know how to take care of himself, and better still of any woman whom he chose to honour with his bright, pure-hearted friendship? All this I felt as strongly as any conviction I have ever held. Why, then, could I not write it at once to Catherine in as many words?
Strange how one forgets, how I had forgotten in half an hour! The reason came home to me on the stairs, and for the second time.
It had come home first by the light of those two matches, struck outside in the dark part of the deserted terrace. It was not the lad whom I distrusted, but the woman of whose face I had then obtained my only glimpse—that night.
I had known her, after all, in India years before.
A LITTLE KNOWLEDGE
Once in the Town Hall at Simla (the only time I was ever there) it was my fortune to dance with a Mrs. Heymann of Lahore, a tall woman, but a featherweight partner, and in all my dancing days I never had a better waltz. To my delight she had one other left, though near the end, and we were actually dancing when an excitable person came out of the card-room, flushed with liquor and losses, and carried her off in the most preposterous manner. It was a shock to me at the time to learn that this outrageous little man was my partner's husband. Months later, when I came across their case in the papers, it was, I am afraid, without much sympathy for the injured husband. The man was quite unpresentable, and I had seen no more of him at Simla, but of the woman just enough to know her by matchlight on the terrace at the Riffel Alp.
And this was Bob's widow, this dashing divorcee! Dashing she was as I now remembered her, fine in mould, finer in spirit, reckless and rebellious as she well might be. I had seen her submit before a ball-room, but with the contempt that leads captivity captive. Seldom have I admired anything more. It was splendid even to remember, the ready outward obedience, the not less apparent indifference and disdain. There was a woman whom any man might admire, who had had it in her to be all things to some man! But Bob Evers was not a man at all. And this—and this—was his widow!
Was she one at all? How could I tell? Yes, it was Lascelles, the other name in the case, to the best of my recollection. But had she any right to bear it? And even supposing they had married, what had happened to the second husband? Widow or no widow, second marriage or no second marriage, defensible or indefensible, was this the right friend for a lad still fresh from Eton, the only son of his mother, who had sent me in secret to his side?
There was only one answer to the last question, whatever might be said or urged in reply to all the rest. I could not but feel that Catherine Evers had been justified in her instinct to an almost miraculous degree; that her worst fears were true enough, so far as the lady was concerned; and that Providence alone could have inspired her to call in an agent who knew what I knew, and who therefore saw his duty as plainly as I already saw mine. But it is one thing to recognise a painful duty and quite another thing to know how to minimise the pain to those most affected by its performance. The problem was no easy one to my mind, and I lay awake upon it far into the night.
Tired out with travel, I fell asleep in the end, to awake with a start in broad daylight. The sun was pouring through the uncurtained dormer-window of my room under the roof. And in the sunlight, looking his best in knickerbockers, as only thin men do, with face greased against wind and glare, and blue spectacles in rest upon an Alpine wideawake, stood the lad who had taken his share in keeping me awake.
"I'm awfully sorry," he began. "It's horrid cheek, but when I saw your room full of light I thought you might have been even earlier than I was. You must get them to give you curtains up here."
He had a note in his hand and I thought by his manner there was something that he wished and yet hesitated to tell me. I accordingly asked him what it was.
"It's what we were speaking about last night!" burst out Bob. "That's why I've come to you. It's these silly fools who can't mind their own business and think everybody else is like themselves! Here's a note from Mrs. Lascelles which makes it plain that that old idiot George is not the only one who has been talking about us, and some of the talk has reached her ears. She doesn't say so in so many words, but I can see it's that. She wants to get out of our expedition to Monte Rosa hut—wants me to go alone. The question is, ought I to let her get out of it? Does it matter one rap what this rabble says about us? I've come to ask your advice—you were such a brick about it all last night—and what you say I'll do."
I had begun to smile at Bob's notion of "a rabble": this one happened to include a few quite eminent men, as you have seen, to say nothing of the average quality of the crowd, of which I had been able to form some opinion of my own. But I had already noticed in Bob the exclusiveness of the type to which he belonged, and had welcomed it as one does welcome the little faults of the well-night faultless. It was his last sentence that made me feel too great a hypocrite to go on smiling.
"It may not matter to you," I said at length, "but it may to the lady."
"I suppose it does matter more to them?"
The sunburnt face, puckered with a wry wistfulness, was only comic in its incongruous coat of grease. But I was under no temptation to smile. I had to confine my mind pretty closely to the general principle, and rather studiously to ignore the particular instance, before I could bring myself to answer the almost infantile inquiry in those honest eyes.
"My dear fellow, it must!"
Bob looked disappointed but resigned.
"Well, then, I won't press it, though I'm not sure that I agree. You see, it's not as though there was or ever would be anything between us. The idea's absurd. We are absolute pals and nothing else. That's what makes all this such a silly bore. It's so unnecessary. Now she wants me to go alone, but I don't see the fun of that."
"Does she ask you to go alone?"
"She does. That's the worst of it."
I nodded, and he asked me why.
"She probably thinks it would be the best answer to the tittle-tattlers, Bob."
That was not a deliberate lie; not until the words were out did it occur to me that Mrs. Lascelles might now have another object in getting rid of her swain for the day. But Bob's eyes lighted in a way that made me feel a deliberate liar.
"By Jove!" he said, "I never thought of that. I don't agree with her, mind, but if that's her game I'll play it like a book. So long, Duncan! I'm not one of those chaps who ask a man's advice without the slightest intention of ever taking it!"
"But I haven't ventured to advise you," I reminded the boy, with a cowardly eye to the remotest consequences.
"Perhaps not, but you've shown me what's the proper thing to do." And he went away to do it there and then, like the blameless exception that I found him to so many human rules.
I had my breakfast upstairs after this, and lay for some considerable time a prey to feelings which I shall make no further effort to expound; for this interview had not altered, but only intensified them; and in any case they must be obvious to those who take the trouble to conceive themselves in my unenviable position.
And it was my ironic luck to be so circumstanced in a place where I could have enjoyed life to the hilt! Only to lie with the window open was to breathe air of a keener purity, a finer temper, a more exhilarating freshness, than had ever before entered my lungs; and to get up and look out of the window was to peer into the limpid brilliance of a gigantic crystal, where the smallest object was in startling focus, and the very sunbeams cut with scissors. The people below trailed shadows like running ink. The light was ultra-tropical. One looked for drill suits and pith headgear, and was amazed to find pajamas insufficient at the open window.
Upon the terrace on the other side, when I eventually came down, there were cane chairs and Tauchnitz novels under the umbrella tents, and the telescope out and trained upon a party on the Matterhorn. A group of people were waiting turns at the telescope, my friend Quinby and the hanging judge among them. But I searched under the umbrella tents as well as one could from the top of the steps before hobbling down to join the group.
"I have looked for an accident through that telescope," said the jocose judge, "fifteen Augusts running. They usually have one the day after I go."
"Good morning, sir!" was Quinby's greeting; and I was instantly introduced to Sir John Sankey, with such a parade of my military history as made me wince and Sir John's eye twinkle. I fancied he had formed an unkind estimate of my rather overpowering friend, and lived to hear my impression confirmed in unjudicial language. But our first conversation was about the war, and it lasted until the judge's turn came for the telescope.
"Black with people!" he ejaculated. "They ought to have a constable up there to regulate the traffic."
But when I looked it was long enough before my inexperienced eye could discern the three midges strung on the single strand of cobweb against the sloping snow.
"They are coming down," explained the obliging Quinby. "That's one of the most difficult places, the lower edge of the top slope. It's just a little way along to the right where the first accident was.... By the way, your friend Evers says he's going to do the Matterhorn before he goes."
It was unwelcome hearing, for Quinby had paused to regale me with a lightning sketch of the first accident, and no one had contradicted his gruesome details.
"Is young Evers a friend of yours?" inquired the judge.
The judge did not say another word. But Quinby availed himself of the first opportunity of playing Ancient Mariner to my Wedding Guest.
"I saw you talking to them," he told me confidentially, "last night, you know!"
He took me by the sleeve.
"Of course I don't know what you said, but it's evidently had an effect. Evers has gone off alone for the first time since he has been here."
I shifted my position.
"You evidently keep an eye on him, Mr. Quinby."
"I do, Clephane. I find him a diverting study. He is not the only one in this hotel. There's old Teale on his balcony at the present minute, if you look up. He has the best room in the hotel; the only trouble is that it doesn't face the sun all day; he's not used to being in the shade, and you'll hear him damn the limelight-man in heaps one of these fine mornings. But your enterprising young friend is a more amusing person than Belgrave Teale."
I had heard enough of my enterprising young friend from this quarter.
"Do you never make any expeditions yourself, Mr. Quinby?"
"Sometimes." Quinby looked puzzled. "Why do you ask?" he was constrained to add.
"You should have volunteered instead of Mrs. Lascelles to-day. It would have been an excellent opportunity for prosecuting your own rather enterprising studies."
One would have thought that one's displeasure was plain enough at last; but not a bit of it. So far from resenting the rebuff, the fellow plucked my sleeve, and I saw at a glance that he had not even listened to my too elaborate sarcasm.
"Talk of the—lady!" he whispered. "Here she comes."
And a second glance intercepted Mrs. Lascelles on the steps, with her bold good looks and her fine upstanding carriage, cut clean as a diamond in that intensifying atmosphere, and hardly less dazzling to the eye. Yet her cotton gown was simplicity's self; it was the right setting for such natural brilliance, a brilliance of eyes and teeth and colouring, a more uncommon brilliance of expression. Indeed it was a wonderful expression, brave rather than sweet, yet capable of sweetness too, and for the moment at least nobly free from the defensive bitterness which was to mark it later. So she stood upon the steps, the talk of the hotel, trailing, with characteristic independence, a cane chair behind her, while she sought a shady place for it, even as I had stood seeking for her: before she found one I was hobbling toward her.
"Oh, thanks, Captain Clephane, but I couldn't think of allowing you! Well, then, between us, if you insist. Here under the wall, I think, is as good a place as any."
She pointed out a clear space in the rapidly narrowing ribbon of shade, and there I soon saw Mrs. Lascelles settled with her book (a trashy novel, that somehow brought Catherine Evers rather sharply before my mind's eye) in an isolation as complete as could be found upon the crowded terrace, and too intentional on her part to permit of an intrusion on mine. I lingered a moment, nevertheless.
"So you didn't go to that hut after all, Mrs. Lascelles?"
"No." She waited a moment before looking up at me. "And I'm afraid Mr. Evers will never forgive me," she added after her look, in the rich undertone that had impressed me overnight, before the cigarette controversy.
I was not going to say that I had seen Bob before he started, but it was an opportunity of speaking generally of the lad. Thus I found myself commenting on the coincidence of our meeting again—he and I—and again lying before I realised that it was a lie. But Mrs. Lascelles sat looking up at me with her fine and candid eyes, as though she knew as well as I which was the real coincidence, and knew that I knew into the bargain. It gave me the disconcerting sensation of being detected and convicted at one blow. Bob Evers failed me as a topic, and I stood like the fool I felt.
"I am sure you ought not to stand about so much, Captain Clephane."
Mrs. Lascelles was smiling faintly as I prepared to take her hint.
"Doesn't it really do you any harm?" she inquired in time to detain me.
"No, just the opposite. I am ordered to take all the exercise I can."
"Even hobbling, Mrs. Lascelles, if I don't overdo it."
She sat some moments in thought. I guessed what she was thinking, and I was right.
"There are some lovely walks quite near, Captain Clephane. But you have to climb a little, either going or coming."
"I could climb a little," said I, making up my mind. "It's within the meaning of the act—it would do me good. Which way will you take me, Mrs. Lascelles?"
Mrs. Lascelles looked up quickly, surprised at a boldness on which I was already complimenting myself. But it is the only way with a bold woman.
"Did I say I would take you at all, Captain Clephane?"
"No, but I very much hope you will."
And our eyes met as fairly as they had done by matchlight the night before.
"Then I will," said Mrs. Lascelles, "because I want to speak to you."
A MARKED WOMAN
We had come farther than was wise without a rest, but all the seats on the way were in full view of the hotel, and I had been irritated by divers looks and whisperings as we traversed the always crowded terrace. Bob Evers, no doubt, would have turned a deaf ear and a blind eye to them. I myself could pretend to do so, but pretence was evidently one of my strong points. I had not Bob's fine natural regardlessness, for all my seniority and presumably superior knowledge of the world.
So we had climbed the zigzags to the right of the Riffelberg and followed the footpath overlooking the glacier, in the silence enjoined by single file, but at last we were seated on the hillside, a trifle beyond that emerald patch which some humourist has christened the Cricket-ground. Beneath us were the serracs of the Gorner Glacier, teased and tousled like a fringe of frozen breakers. Beyond the serracs was the main stream of comparatively smooth ice, with its mourning band of moraine, and beyond that the mammoth sweep and curve of the Theodule where these glaciers join. Peak after peak of dazzling snow dwindled away to the left. Only the gaunt Riffelhorn reared a brown head against the blue. And there we sat, Mrs. Lascelles and I, with all this before us and a rock behind, while I wondered what my companion meant to say, and how she would begin.
I had not to wonder long.
"You were very good to me last night, Captain Clephane."
There was evidently no beating about the bush for Mrs. Lascelles. I thoroughly approved, but was nevertheless somewhat embarrassed for the moment.
"I—really I don't know how, Mrs. Lascelles!"
"Oh, yes, you do, Captain Clephane; you recognised me at a glance, as I did you."
"I certainly thought I did," said I, poking about with the ferrule of one of my sticks.
"You know you did."
"You are making me know it."
"Captain Clephane, you knew it all along; but we won't argue that point. I am not going to deny my identity. It is very good of you to give me the chance, if rather unnecessary. I am not a criminal. Still you could have made me feel like one, last night, and heaps of men would have done so, either for the fun of it or from want of tact."
I looked inquiringly at Mrs. Lascelles. She could tell me what she pleased, but I was not going to anticipate her by displaying an independent knowledge of matters which she might still care to keep to herself. If she chose to open up a painful subject, well, the pain be upon her own head. Yet I must say that there was very little of it in her face as our eyes met. There was the eager candour that one could not help admiring, with the glowing look of gratitude which I had done so ridiculously little to earn; but the fine flushed face betrayed neither pain, nor shame, nor the affectation of one or the other. There was a certain shyness with the candour. That was all.
"You know quite well what I mean," continued Mrs. Lascelles, with a genuine smile at my disingenuous face. "When you met me before it was under another name, which you have probably quite forgotten."
"No, I remember it."
"Do you remember my husband?"
"Did you ever hear—"
Her lip trembled. I dropped my eyes.
"Yes," I admitted, "or rather I saw it for myself in the papers. It's no use pretending I didn't, nor yet that I was the least bit surprised or—or anything else!"
That was not one of my tactful speeches. It was culpably, might indeed have been wilfully, ambiguous; and yet it was the kind of clumsy and impulsive utterance which has the ring of a good intention, and is thus inoffensive except to such as seek excuses for offence. My instincts about Mrs. Lascelles did not place her in this category at all. Nevertheless, the ensuing pause was long enough to make me feel uneasy, and my companion only broke it as I was in the act of framing an apology.
"May I bore you, Captain Clephane?" she asked abruptly. I looked at her once more. She had regained an equal mastery of face and voice, and the admirable candour of her eyes was undimmed by the smallest trace of tears.
"You may try," said I, smiling with the obvious gallantry.
"If I tell you something about myself from that time on, will you believe what I say?"
"You are the last person whom I should think of disbelieving."
"Thank you, Captain Clephane."
"On the other hand, I would much rather you didn't say anything that gave you pain, or that you might afterward regret."
There was a touch of weariness in Mrs. Lascelles's smile, a rather pathetic touch to my mind, as she shook her head.
"I am not very sensitive to pain," she remarked. "That is the one thing to be said for having to bear a good deal while you are fairly young. I want you to know more about me, because I believe you are the only person here who knows anything at all. And then—you didn't give me away last night!"
I pointed to the grassy ledge in front of us, such a vivid green against the house now a hundred feet below.
"I am not pushing you over there," I said. "I take about as much credit for that."
"Ah," sighed Mrs. Lascelles, "but that dear boy, who turns out to be a friend of yours, he knows less than anybody else! He doesn't even suspect. It would have hurt me, yes, it would have hurt even me, to be given away to him! You didn't do it while I was there, and I know you didn't when I had turned my back."
"Of course you know I didn't," I echoed rather testily as I took out a cigarette. The case reminded me of the night before. But I did not again hand it to Mrs. Lascelles.
"Well, then," she continued, "since you didn't give me away, even without thinking, I want you to know that after all there isn't quite so much to give away as there might have been. A divorce, of course, is always a divorce; there is no getting away from that, or from mine. But I really did marry again. And I really am the widow they think I am."
I looked quickly up at her, in pure pity and compassion for one gone so far in sorrow and yet such a little way in life. It was a sudden feeling, an unpremeditated look, but I might as well have spoken aloud. Mrs. Lascelles read me unerringly, and she shook her head, sadly but decidedly, while her eyes gazed calmly into mine.
"It was not a happy marriage, either," she said, as impersonally as if speaking of another woman. "You may think what you like of me for saying so to a comparative stranger; but I won't have your sympathy on false pretences, simply because Major Lascelles is dead. Did you ever meet him, by the way?"
And she mentioned an Indian regiment. But the major and I had never met.
"Well, it was not very happy for either of us. I suppose such marriages never are. I know they are never supposed to be. Even if the couple are everything to each other, there is all the world to point his finger, and all the world's wife to turn her back, and you have to care a good deal to get over that. But you may have been desperate in the first instance; you may have said to yourself that the fire couldn't be much worse than the frying-pan. In that case, of course, you deserve no sympathy, and nothing is more irritating to me than the sympathy I don't deserve. It's a matter of temperament; I'm obliged to speak out, even if it puts people more against me than they were already. No, you needn't say anything, Captain Clephane; you didn't express your sympathy, I stopped you in time.... And yet it is rather hard, when one's still reasonably young, with almost everything before one—to be a marked woman all one's time!"
Up to her last words, despite an inviting pause after almost every sentence, I had succeeded in holding my tongue; though she was looking wistfully now at the distant snow-peaks and obviously bestowing upon herself the sympathy she did not want from me (as I had been told in so many words, if not more plainly in the accompanying brief encounter between our eyes), yet had I resisted every temptation to put in my word, until these last two or three from Mrs. Lascelles. They, however, demanded a denial, and I told her it was absurd to describe herself in such terms.
"I am marked," she persisted, "wherever I go I may be known, as you knew me here. If it hadn't been you it would have been somebody else, and I should have known of it indirectly instead of directly; but even supposing I had escaped altogether at this hotel, the next one would probably have made up for it."
"Do you stay much in hotels?"
There had been something in the mellow voice which made such a question only natural, yet it was scarcely asked before I would have given a good deal to recall it.
"There is nowhere else to stay," said Mrs. Lascelles, "unless one sets up house alone, which is costlier and far less comfortable. You see, one does make a friend or two sometimes—before one is found out."
"But surely your people—"
This time I did check myself.
"My people," said Mrs. Lascelles, "have washed their hands of me."
"But Major Lascelles—surely his people—"
"They washed their hands of him! You see, they would be the first to tell you, he had always been rather wild; but his crowning act of madness in their eyes was his marriage. It was worse than the worst thing he had ever done before. Still, it is not for me to say anything, or feel anything, against his family...."
And then I knew that they were making her an allowance; it was more than I wanted to know; the ground was too delicate, and led nowhere in particular. Still, it was difficult not to take a certain amount of interest in a handsome woman who had made such a wreck of her life so young, who was so utterly alone, so proud and independent in her loneliness, and apparently quite fine-hearted and unspoilt. But for Bob Evers and his mother, the interest that I took might have been a little different in kind; but even with my solicitude for them there mingled already no small consideration for the social solitary whom I watched now as she sat peering across the glacier, the foremost figure in a world of high lights and great backgrounds, and whom to watch was to admire, even against the greatest of them all. Alas! mere admiration could not change my task or stay my hand; it could but clog me by destroying my singleness of purpose, and giving me a double heart to match my double face.
Since, however, a detestable duty had been undertaken, and since as a duty it was more apparent than I had dreamt of finding it, there was nothing for it but to go through with the thing and make immediate enemies of my friends. So I set my teeth and talked of Bob. I was glad Mrs. Lascelles liked him. His father was a remote connection of mine, whom I had never met. But I had once known his mother very well.
"And what is she like?" asked Mrs. Lascelles, calling her fine eyes home from infinity, and fixing them once more on me.
OUT OF ACTION
Now if, upon a warm, soft, summer evening, you were suddenly asked to describe the perfect winter's day, either you would have to stop and think a little, or your imagination is more elastic than mine. Yet you might have a passionate preference for cold sun and bracing airs. To me, Catherine Evers and this Mrs. Lascelles were as opposite to each other as winter and summer, or the poles, or any other notorious antitheses. There was no comparison between them in my mind, yet as I sat with one among the sunlit, unfamiliar Alps, it was a distinct effort to picture the other in the little London room I knew so well. For it was always among her books and pictures that I thought of Catherine, and to think was to wish myself there at her side, rather than to wish her here at mine. Catherine's appeal, I used to think, was to the highest and the best in me, to brain and soul, and young ambition, and withal to one's love of wit and sense of humour. Mrs. Lascelles, on the other hand, struck me primarily in the light of some splendid and spirited animal. I still liked to dwell upon her dancing. She satisfied the mere eye more and more. But I had no reason to suppose that she knew right from wrong in art or literature, any more than she would seem to have distinguished between them in life itself. Her Tauchnitz novel lay beside her on the grass and I again reflected that it would not have found a place on Catherine's loftiest shelf. Catherine would have raved about the view and made delicious fun of Quinby and the judge, and we should have sat together talking poetry and harmless scandal by the happy hour. Mrs. Lascelles probably took place and people alike for granted. But she had lived, and as an animal she was superb! I looked again into her healthy face and speaking eyes, with their bitter knowledge of good and evil, their scorn of scorn, their redeeming honesty and candour. The contrast was complete in every detail except the widowhood of both women; but I did not pursue it any farther; for once more there was but one woman in my thoughts, and she sat near me under a red parasol—clashing so humanly with the everlasting snows!
"You don't answer my question, Captain Clephane. How much for your thoughts?"
"I'll make you a present of them, Mrs. Lascelles. I was beginning to think that a lot of rot has been written about the eternal snows and the mountain-tops and all the rest of it. There a few lines in that last little volume of Browning—"
I stopped of my own accord, for upon reflection the lines would have made a rather embarrassing quotation. But meanwhile Mrs. Lascelles had taken alarm on other grounds.
"Oh, don't quote Browning!"
"He is far too deep for me; besides, I don't care for poetry, and I was asking you about Mrs. Evers."
"Well," I said, with some little severity, "she's a very clever woman."
"Clever enough to understand Browning?"
If this was irony, it was also self-restraint, for it was to Catherine's enthusiasm that I owed my own. The debt was one of such magnitude as a life of devotion could scarcely have repaid, for to whom do we owe so much as to those who first lifted the scales from our eyes and awakened within us a soul for all such things? Catherine had been to me what I instantly desired to become to this benighted beauty; but the desire was not worth entertaining, since I hardly expected to be many minutes longer on speaking terms with Mrs. Lascelles. I recalled the fact that it was I who had broached the subject of Bob Evers and his mother, together with my unpalatable motive for so doing. And I was seeking in my mind, against the grain, I must confess, for a short cut back to Bob, when Mrs. Lascelles suddenly led the way.
"I don't think," said she, "that Mr. Evers takes after his mother."
"I'm afraid he doesn't," I replied, "in that respect."
"And I am glad," she said. "I do like a boy to be a boy. The only son of his mother is always in danger of becoming something else. Tell me, Captain Clephane, are they very devoted to each other?"
There was some new note in that expressive voice of hers. Was it merely wistful, was it really jealous, or was either element the product of my own imagination? I made answer while I wondered:
"Absolutely devoted, I should say; but it's years since I saw them together. Bob was a small boy then, and one of the jolliest. Still I never expected him to grow up the charming chap he is now."
Mrs. Lascelles sat gazing at the great curve of Theodule Glacier. I watched her face.
"He is charming," she said at length. "I am not sure that I ever met anybody quite like him, or rather I am quite sure that I never did. He is so quiet, in a way, and yet so wonderfully confident and at ease!"
"That's Eton," said I. "He is the best type of Eton boy, and the best type of Eton boy," I declared, airing the little condition with a flourish, "is one of the greatest works of God."
"I daresay you're right," said Mrs. Lascelles, smiling indulgently; "but what is it? How do you define it? It isn't 'side,' and yet I can quite imagine people who don't know him thinking that it is. He is cocksure of himself, but of nothing else; that seems to me to be the difference. No one could possibly be more simple in himself. He may have the assurance of a man of fifty, yet it isn't put on; it's neither bumptious nor affected, but just as natural in Mr. Evers as shyness and awkwardness in the ordinary youth one meets. And he has the savoir faire not to ask questions!"
Were we all mistaken? Was this the way in which a designing woman would speak of the object of her designs? Not that I thought so hardly of Mrs. Lascelles myself; but I did think that she might well fall in love with Bob Evers, at least as well as he with her. Was this, then, the way in which a woman would be likely to speak of the young man with whom she had fallen in love? To me the appreciation sounded too frank and discerning and acute. Yet I could not call it dispassionate, and frankness was this woman's outstanding merit, though I was beginning to discover others as well. Moreover, the fact remained that they had been greatly talked about; that at any rate must be stopped and I was there to stop it.
I began to pick my words.
"It's all Eton, except what is in the blood, and it's all a question of manners, or rather of manner. Don't misunderstand me, Mrs. Lascelles. I don't say that Bob isn't independent in character as well as in his ways, but only that when all's said he's still a boy and not a man. He can't possibly have a man's experience of the world, or even of himself. He has a young head on his shoulders, after all, if not a younger one than many a boy with half the assurance that you admire in him."
Mrs. Lascelles looked at me point-blank.
"Do you mean that he can't take care of himself?"
"I don't say that."
"Then what do you say?"
The fine eyes met mine without a flicker. The full mouth was curved at the corners in a tolerant, unsuspecting smile. It was hard to have to make an enemy of so handsome and good-humoured a woman. And was it necessary, was it even wise? As I hesitated she turned and glanced downward once more toward the glacier, then rose and went to the lip of our grassy ledge, and as she returned I caught the sound which she had been the first to hear. It was the gritty planting of nailed boots upon a hard, smooth rock.
"I'm afraid you can't say it now," whispered Mrs. Lascelles. "Here's Mr. Evers himself, coming this way back from the Monte Rosa hut! I'm going to give him a surprise!"
And it was a genuine one that she gave him, for I heard his boyish greeting before I saw his hot brown face, and there was no mistaking the sudden delight of both. It was sudden and spontaneous, complete, until his eyes lit on me. Even then his smile did not disappear, but it changed, as did his tone.
"Good heavens!" cried Bob. "How on earth did you get up here? By rail to the Riffelberg, I hope?"
"On my sticks."
"It was much too far for him," added Mrs. Lascelles, "and all my fault for showing him the way. But I'm afraid there was contributory obstinacy in Captain Clephane, because he simply wouldn't turn back. And now tell us about yourself, Mr. Evers; surely we were not coming back this way?"
"We were not," said Bob, with a something sardonic in his little laugh, "but I thought I might as well. It's the long way, six miles on end upon the glacier."
"But have you really been to the hut?"
"And where's our guide?"
"Oh, I wouldn't be bothered with a guide all to myself."
"My dear young man, you might have stepped straight into a crevasse!"
"I precious nearly did," laughed Bob, again with something odd about his laughter; "but I say, do you know, if you won't think me awfully rude, I'll push on back and get changed. I'm as hot as anything and not fit to be seen."
And he was gone after very little more than a minute from first to last, gone with rather an elaborate salute to Mrs. Lascelles, and rather a cavalier nod to me. But then neither of us had made any effort to detain him and a notable omission I thought it in Mrs. Lascelles, though to the lad himself it may well have seemed as strange in the old friend as in the new.
"What was it," asked Mrs. Lascelles, when we were on our way home, "that you were going to say about Mr. Evers when he appeared in the flesh in that extraordinary way?"
"I forget," said I, immorally.
"Really? So soon? Don't you remember, I thought you meant that he couldn't take care of himself, and you were just going to tell me what you did mean?"
"Oh, well, it wasn't that, because he can!"
But, as a matter of fact, I had seen my way to taking care of Master Bob without saying a word either to him or to Mrs. Lascelles, or at all events without making enemies of them both.
My plan was quite obvious in its simplicity, and not in the least discreditable from my point of view. It was perhaps inevitable that a boy like Bob should imagine I was trying to "cut him out," as my blunt friend Quinby phrased it to my face. I had not, of course, the smallest desire to do any such vulgar thing. All I wanted was to make myself, if possible, as agreeable to Mrs. Lascelles as this youth had done before me, and in any case to share with him all the perils of her society. In other words I meant to squeeze into "the imminent deadly breach" beside Bob Evers, not necessarily in front of him. But if there was nothing dastardly in this, neither was there anything heroic, since I was proof against that kind of deadliness if Bob was not.
On the other hand, the whole character of my mission was affected by the decision at which I had now arrived. There was no longer a necessity to speak plainly to anybody. That odious duty was eliminated from my plan of campaign, and the "frontal attack" of recent history discarded for the "turning movement" of the day. So I had learnt something in South Africa after all. I had learnt how to avoid hard knocks which might very well do more harm than good to the cause I had at heart. That cause was still sharply defined before my mind. It was the first and most sacred consideration. I wrote a reassuring despatch to Catherine Evers, and took it myself to the little post-office opposite the hotel that very evening before dressing for dinner. But I cannot say that I was thinking of Catherine when I proceeded to spoil three successive ties in the tying.
Yet I can only repeat that I felt absolutely "proof" against the real cause of my solicitude. It is the most delightful feeling where a handsome woman is concerned. The judgment is not warped by passion or clouded by emotion; you see the woman as she is, not as you wish to see her, and if she disappoint it does not matter. You are not left to choose between systematic self-deception and a humiliating admission of your mistake. The lady has not been placed upon an impossible pedestal, and she has not toppled down. In this case the lady started at the most advantageous disadvantage; every admirable quality, her candour, her courage, her spirited independence, her evident determination to piece a broken life together again and make the best of it, told doubly in her favour to me with my special knowledge of her past. It would be too much to say that I was deeply interested; but Mrs. Lascelles had inspired me with a certain sympathy and dispassionate regard. Cultivated she was not, in the conventional sense, but she knew more than can be imbibed from books. She knew life at first hand, had drained the cup for herself, and yet could savour the lees. Not that she enlarged any further on her own past. Mrs. Lascelles was never a great talker, like Catherine; but she was certainly a woman to whom one could talk. And talk to her I did thenceforward, with a conscientious conviction that I was doing my duty, and only an occasional qualm for its congenial character, while Bob listened with a wondering eye, or went his own way without a word.