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The History of Sir Richard Calmady: a Romance . Malet, Lucas, 1852–1931.
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page: 403

CHAPTER IV

“MATER ADMIRABILIS”

“THERE, there, my good soul, don’t blubber! Hysterics won’t restore Lady Calmady to health, or bring Sir Richard back to England, home, and duty, or be a ha’porth of profit to yourself or any other created being. Keep your tears for the first funeral. For I tell you plainly I shan’t be surprised out of seven days’ sleep if this business involves a visit to the churchyard before we get to the other side of it.”

John Knott stood with his back to the Chapel‐Room fire, his shoulders up to his ears, his hands forced down into the pockets of his riding‐breeches. Without, black‐thorn winter held the land in its cheerless grasp. The spring was late. Night frosts obtained, followed by pallid, half‐hearted sunshine in the early mornings, too soon obliterated by dreary, easterly blight. This afternoon offered exception to the rule only in the additional discomfort of small, sleeting rain and a harsh skirling of wind in the eastward‐facing casements.—“Livery weather,” the doctor called it, putting down his existing lapse from philosophic tolerance to insufficient secretions of the biliary duct.

Before him stood Clara—sometime. Dickie Calmady’s devoted nurse and playfellow—her eyes very bright and moist, the reds and whites of her fresh complexion in lamentable disarray.

“I’d never have believed it of Sir Richard,” she asserted chokingly. “It isn’t like him, so pretty as he was in all his page: 404 little ways, and loving to her ladyship, and civilly behaved to everybody, and careful of hurting anybody’s feelings—more so than you’d expect in a young gentleman like him. No! it isn’t like him. In my opinion he’s been got hold of by some designing person, who’s worked on him to keep him away to serve their own ends. There, I’d never have believed it of him, that I wouldn’t!”

The doctor’s massive head sank lower, his massive shoulders rose higher, his loose lips twisted into a snarling smile.

“Lord bless you, that’s nothing new! We none of us ever do believe it of them when the little beggars are in long clothes, or first breeched for that matter. It’s a trick of Mother Nature’s—one‐idead old lady, who cares not a pin for morality, but only for increase. She knows well enough if we did believe it of them we should clear them off wholesale, along with the blind kittens and puppies. A bucket full of water, and broom to keep them under, would make for a mighty lessening of subsequent violations of the Decalogue! Don’t tell me King Herod was not something of a philanthropist when he got to work on the infant population of Bethlehem. One woman wept for each of the little brats then; but his Satanic Majesty only knows how many women wouldn’t have had cause to weep for each one of them later, if they’d been spared to grow up.”

While speaking, Dr. Knott kept his gaze fixed upon his companion. His humour was none of the gentlest truly, yet he did not let that obscure the main issue. He had business with Clara, and merely waited till the reds and whites of her comely face should have resumed their more normal relations before pursuing it. He talked, as much to afford her opportunity to overcome her emotion, as to give relief to his own. Though now well on the wrong side of sixty, John Knott was hale and vigorous as ever. His rough‐hewn countenance bore even closer resemblance, perhaps, to that of some stone gargoyle carved on cathedral buttress or spout. But his hand was no less skilful, his tongue no less ready in denunciation of all he reckoned humbug, his heart no less deeply touched, for all his superficial irascibility, by the pains, and sins, and grinding miseries, of poor humanity, than of old.

“That’s right now,” he said approvingly, as the heaving of Clara’s bosom became less pronounced. “Wipe your eyes, and keep your nerves steady. You’ve got a head on your shoulders—always had. Well, keep it screwed on the right way; for you’ll need all the common sense that is in it if we are to pull Lady Calmady through. Do?—To begin with this, give her page: 405 food every two hours or so. Coax her, scold her, reason with her, cry even.—After all, I give you leave to, just a little, if that will serve your purpose and not make your hand shake—only make her take nourishment. If you don’t wind up the clock regularly, some fine morning you’ll find the wheels have run down.”

“But her ladyship won’t have anyone sit up with her.”

“Very well, then sleep next door. Only go in at twelve and two, and again between five and six.”

“But she won’t have anybody occupy the dressing‐room. It used to be the night nursery you remember, sir, and not a thing in it has been touched since Sir Richard moved down to the Gun‐Room wing.”

“Oh, fiddle‐de‐dee! It’s just got to be touched now, then. I can’t be bothered with sentiment when it’s ten to one whether I save my patient.”

Again sobs rose in Clara’s throat. The poor woman was hard pressed. But that fixed gaze from beneath the shaggy eyebrows was upon her, and, with quaint gurglings, she fought down the sobs.

“My lady’s as gentle as a lamb,” she said, “and I’d give the last drop of my blood for her. But talk of managing her, of making her do anything, as well. try to manage the wind, she’s that set in her ways and obstinate!”

“If you can’t manage her, who can?—Mr. March?”

Clara shook her head. Then reluctantly, for though honestly ready to lay down her life for her mistress, she found it far from easy to invite supersession in respect of her, she said:—“Miss St. Quentin’s more likely to get round my lady than anyone else.”

“Well, then, I’ll talk to her. Where is Miss St. Quentin?”

“Here, Dr. Knott. Do you want me?”

Honoria had strolled into the room from the stairhead, her attention arrested by the all‐too‐familiar sound—since sorrowful happenings often of late had brought him to Brockhurst—of the doctor’s voice. The skirt of the young lady’s habit, gathered up in her left hand, displayed a slightly unconventional length of muddy riding‐boot. The said skirt, her tan, covert coat, and slouched, felt hat, were furred with wet. Her garments, indeed, showed evident traces of hard service, and, though notably well cut, were far from new or smart. They were sad‐coloured, moreover, as is the fashion of garments designed for work. And this weather‐stained, mud‐bespattered costume, taken in connection with her pale, sensitive face, her gallant bearing, and the luminous smile with which she greeted not only Dr. Knott but page: 406 the slightly flustered Clara, offered a picture pensive in tone, but very harmonious, and of a singularly sincere and restful quality. To all, indeed, save those troubled by an accusing conscience and fear of detection, Honoria St. Quentin’s presence brought a sense of security and reassurance at this period of her development. Her enthusiasms remained to her; but they were tempered by a wider experience and a larger charity—at least in the majority of cases.

“I’m in a beastly mess,” she observed casually.

“So are we,” Knott answered.—He had a great liking for this young lady, finding in her a certain stoicism along with a quickness of practical help. “But our mess is worse than yours, in that it is internal rather than external. Yours’ll brush off. Not so ours—eh, Clara? There, you can go. I’ll talk things over with Miss St. Quentin, and she’ll talk ’em over with you later.”

Honoria’s expression had grown anxious. She spoke in a lower tone of voice.

“Is Lady Calmady worse?”

“In a sense, yes—simply because she is no better. And she’s ill, I tell you, just as dangerously ill as any woman can be who has nothing whatever actually the matter with her.”

“Except an only son,” put in Honoria. “I am beginning to suspect that is about the most deadly disease going. The only thing to be said in its favour is that it is not infectious.”

John Knott could not quite keep admiration from his eyes, or provocation from his tongue. He richly enjoyed getting a rise out of Miss St. Quentin.

“I am not so sure of that,” he said. “In the case of beautiful women, judging by history, it has shown a tendency to be recurrently sporadic in any case.”

“Recommend all such to spend a few months at Brockhurst then, under existing circumstances!” Honoria answered. “There will be very little fear for them after that; they will have received such a warning, swallowed such an antidote!—It is like assisting at the infliction of slow torture. It almost gets on one’s brain at times.”

“Why do you stay on then?”

Honoria looked down at her muddy boots and then across at the doctor. She was slightly the taller of the two, for in these days his figure had fallen together and he had taken to stooping. Her expression had a delightful touch of self‐depreciation.

“Why does anyone stay by a sinking ship, or volunteer for page: 407 a forlorn hope? Why do you sit up all night with a case of confluent smallpox, or suck away the poisonous membrane from a diphtheritic throat, as I hear you did only last week? I don’t know. Just because, if we are made on certain lines, we have to, I suppose. One would be a trifle too much ashamed to be seen in one’s own company, afterwards, if one deserted. It really requires less pluck to stick than to run—that’s the reason probably.—But about dear Lady Calmady. The excellent Clara was in tears. Is there any fresh mischief over and above the only son?”

“Not at present. But it’s an open question how soon there may be.—Good‐day, Mr. March. Been riding? Ought to be a bit careful of that cranky chest of yours in this confounded weather.—Lady Calmady?—Yes, as I was telling Miss St. Quentin, her strength is so reduced that complications may arise any day. A chill, and her lungs may go, a shock, and her heart. It comes to a mere question of the point of least resistance. I won’t guarantee the continued soundness of any one organ unless we get changed conditions, a let up of some sort.”

The doctor looked up from under his eyebrows, first at Honoria and then at Julius. He spoke bitterly, defiant of his inclination towards tenderness.

“She’s just worn herself out,” he said, “that’s the fact, in the service of others, loving, giving, attempting the impossible in the way of goodness all round. ‘Be not righteous over much’—there’s a text to that effect in the Scriptures, Mr. March, isn’t there? Preach a good, rattling sermon on it next Sunday to Lady Calmady, if you want to keep her here a bit longer. Nature abhors a vacuum. Granted. But nature abhors excess, even of virtue. And punishes it just as harshly as excess of vice.—Yes, I tell you, she’s worn herself out.”

Miss St. Quentin dropped into a chair and sat bowed together, her hands on her knees, her feet rather far apart. The brim of her hat, pulled down in front to let the rain run off, partially concealed her face. She was not sorry, for a movement of defective courage was upon her, evidence of which she preferred to keep to herself. Julius March remained silent. And this she resented slightly, for she badly wanted somebody to say something, either vindictive or consolatory. Then, indignation getting the better alike of reticence and charity, she exclaimed:—

“It is unpardonable. It ought to be impossible one person should have power to kill another by inches, like this, with impunity.”

Ludovic Quayle had sauntered into the room behind Julius page: 408 March. He too was wet and dirty, but such trifles in no wise affected the completeness of his urbanity. His long neck directed forward, as in polite inquiry, he advanced to the little group by the fire, and took up his station beside Honoria’s chair.

“Pardon me, my dear Miss St. Quentin,” he asked sweetly, “but why the allusions to murder? What is unpardonable?”

“Sir Richard Calmady’s conduct,” she answered shortly. She threw back her head and addressed Dr. Knott. “It is so detestably unjust. What possible quarrel has he with her, after all?”

“Ah! that—that—lies very deep. A thing, perhaps, only a man, or a mother, can quite comprehend,” the doctor answered slowly.

Honoria’s straight eyebrows drew together. She objected to extenuating circumstances in this connection, yet, as she admitted, reason usually underlay all Dr. Knott’s statements. She divined, moreover, that reason just now touched upon matters inconveniently intimate. She abstained, therefore, from protest or comment. But, since feminine emotion, even in the least weakly of the sex, is bound to find an outlet, she turned upon poor Mr. Quayle.

“He is your friend,” she said. “The rest of us are helpless. You ought to take measures. You ought to suggest a remedy.”

“With all the pleasure in life,” the young man answered. “But you may remember that you delivered yourself of precisely the same sentiments a year and a half ago. And that, fired with the ardour of a chivalrous obedience, I fled over the face of the European continent in hot pursuit of poor, dear Dickie Calmady.”

“Poor, dear!” ejaculated Honoria.

“Yes, very much poor, dear, through it all,” the young man affirmed. “Breathless, but still obedient, I came up with him at Odessa.”

“What was he doing there?” put in the doctor.

Mr. Quayle regarded him not without humour.

“Really, I am not my friend’s keeper, though Miss St. Quentin is pleased to make me a handsome present of that enviable office. And so—well—I didn’t inquire what he was doing. To tell the truth, I had not much opportunity, for though I found him charming,—yes, charming, Miss St. Quentin,—I also found him wholly unapproachable regarding family affairs. When, with a diplomatic ingenuity upon which I cannot but page: 409 congratulate myself, I suggested the advisability of a return to Brockhurst, in the civilest way in the world he showed me the door. Impertinence is not my forte. I am by nature humble‐minded. But, I give you my word, that was a little episode of which I do not crave the repetition.”

Growling to himself, clasping his hands behind his back, John Knott shifted his position. Then, taken with that desire of clergy‐baiting, which would seem to be inherent in members of the Faculty, he addressed Julius March.

“Come now,” he said, “your pupil doesn’t do you an overwhelming amount of credit it must be admitted, still you ought to be able to give an expert’s opinion upon the tendencies of his character. How much longer do you allow him before he grows tired of filling his belly with the husks the swine eat?”

“God knows, not I,” Julius answered sadly, but without rancour. “I confess to the faithlessness of despair at times. And yet, being his mother’s son, he cannot but tire of it eventually, and when he does so the revulsion will be final, the restoration complete.”

“He’ll die the death of the righteous? Oh yes! I agree there, for there’s fine stuff in him, never doubt that. He’ll end well enough. Only the beginning of that righteous ending, if delayed much longer, may come a bit too late for the saving of my patient’s life and—reason.”

“Do you mean it is as serious as all that?” Ludovic asked with sudden anxiety.

“Every bit as serious!—Oh! you should have let your sister marry him, Mr. Quayle. Then he would have settled down, come into line with the average, and been delivered from the morbid sense of outlawry which had been growing on him—it couldn’t be helped, on the whole he’s kept very creditably sane in my opinion—from the time he began to mix freely in general society. I’m not very soft or sickly sentimental at my time of day, but I tell you it turns my stomach to think of all he must have gone through, poor chap. It’s a merciless world, Miss St. Quentin, and no one knows that better than we case‐hardened old sinners of doctors.—Yes, your sister should have married him, and we might have been saved all this. I doubted the wisdom of the step at the time. But I was a fool. I see now his mother’s instinct was right.”

Mr. Quayle pursed up his small mouth and gently shrugged his shoulders.

“It is a delicate subject on which to offer an opinion,” he said. “I debated it freely in the privacy of my inner conscious‐ page: 410 ness at the time, I assure you. If Lady Calmady had lighted upon the right, the uniquely right, woman—perhaps—yes. But to shore up a twenty‐foot, stone wall with a wisp of straw,—my dear doctor, does that proceeding approve itself to your common sense? And, as is a wisp of straw to such a wall, so was my poor, little sister,—it’s hardly flattering to my family pride to admit it,—but thus indeed was she, and no otherwise, to Dickie Calmady.”

Whereupon Honoria glanced up gratefully at the speaker, for even yet her conscience pricked her concerning the part she had played in respect of that broken engagement. While John Knott, observant of that upward glance, was once again struck by her manifest sincerity, and the gallant grace of her, heightened by those workmanlike and mud‐bespattered garments. And, being so struck, he was once again tempted by, and once again yielded himself to, the pleasures of provocation.

“Marry him yourself, Miss St. Quentin,” he growled, a touch of earnest behind his raillery, “marry him yourself and so set the rest of us free of the whole pother. I’d back you to handle him, or any fellow living, with mighty great success if you’d the mind to!”

For a moment it seemed open to question whether that very fair fish might not make short work of angler as well as of bait. But Honoria relented, refusing provocation. And this not wholly in mercy to the speaker, but because it offered her an opportunity of reading Mr. Quayle a, perhaps useful, lesson. Her serious eyes narrowed, and her upper lip shortened into a delightful smile.

“Hopeless, Dr. Knott!” she answered. “To begin with he’ll never ask me, since we like each other very royally ill. And to end with”—she carefully avoided sight of Mr. Quayle—“I—you see—I’m not what you call a marrying man.”

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