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The History of Sir Richard Calmady: a Romance . Malet, Lucas, 1852–1931.
page: 422



HELEN DE VALLORBES rose from her knees and slipped out from under the greasy and frayed half‐curtain of the confessional box. The atmosphere of that penitential spot had been such as to make her feel faint and dizzy. She needed to re‐ page: 423 cover herself. And so she stood, for a minute or more, in the clear, cool brightness of the nave of the great basilica, her highly‐civilised figure covered by a chequer‐work of morning sunshine streaming down through the round‐headed windows of the lofty clere‐storey. As the sense of physical discomfort left her she instinctively arranged her veil, and adjusted her bracelets over the wrists of her long gloves. Yet, notwithstanding this trivial and mundane occupation, her countenance retained an expression of devout circumspection, of the relief of one who has accomplished a serious and somewhat distasteful duty. Her sensations were increasingly agreeable. She had rid herself of an oppressive burden. She was at peace with herself and with—almost—all man and womankind.

Yet, it must be admitted, the measure had been mainly precautionary. Helen had gone to confession, on the present occasion, in much the same spirit as an experienced traveller visits his dentist before starting on a protracted journey. She regarded it as a disagreeable, but politic, insurance against possible accident. Her distaste had been increased by the fact that there really were some rather risky matters to be confessed. She had even feared a course of penance might have been enforced before the granting of absolution—this certainly would have been the case had she been dealing with that firm disciplinarian, and very astute man of the world, the Jesuit father who acted as her spiritual adviser in Paris. But here in Naples, happily, it was different. The fat, sleepy, easy‐going, old canon—whose person exuded so strong an odour of snuff that, at the solemnest moment of the confiteor, she had been unable to suppress a convulsive sneeze—asked her but few inconvenient questions. Pretty fine‐ladies will get into little difficulties of this nature. He had listened to very much the same story not infrequently before, and took the position amiably, almost humorously, for granted. It was very wicked, a deadly sin, but the flesh—specially such delicately bred, delicately fed, feminine flesh—is admittedly weak, and the wiles of Satan are many. Is it not an historic fact that our first mother did not escape?—Was Helen’s repentance sincere, that was the point? And of that Helen could honestly assure him there was no smallest doubt. Indeed, at this moment, she abhorred, not only her sin, but her co‐sinner, in the liveliest and most comprehensive manner. Return to him? Sooner the dog return to its vomit! She recognised the iniquity, the shame, the detestable folly, of her late proceedings far too clearly. Temptation in that direction had ceased to be possible.

Then followed the mysterious and merciful words of absolu‐ page: 424 tion. And Helen rose from her knees and slipped out from beneath the frayed and greasy curtain a free woman, the guilt of her adultery wiped off by those awful words, as, with a wet cloth, one would wipe writing off a slate leaving the surface of it clean in every part. Precisely how far she literally believed in the efficacy of that most solemn rite she would not have found it easy to declare. Scepticism warred with expediency. But that appeared to her beside the mark. It was really none of her business. Let her teachers look to all that. To her it was sufficient that she could regard it from the practical standpoint of an insurance against possible accident—the accident of sin proving actually sinful and actually punishable by a narrow‐minded deity; the accident of the veritable existence of heaven and hell, and of Holy Church veritably having the keys of both these in her keeping; the accident—more immediately probable and consequently worth guarding against—that, during wakeful hours, some night, the half‐forgotten lessons of the convent school would come back on her, and, as did sometimes happen, would prove too much for her usually victorious audacity.

But, it should be added that another and more creditable instinct did much to dictate Madame de Vallorbes’ action at this juncture. As the days went by the attraction exercised over her by Richard Calmady suffered increase rather than diminution. And this attraction affected her morally, producing in her modesties, reticencies of speech, even of thought, and prickings of unflattering self‐criticism unknown to her heretofore. Her ultimate purpose might not be virtuous. But undeniably, such is the complexity—not to say hypocrisy—of the human heart, the prosecution of that purpose developed in her a surprising sensibility of conscience. Many episodes in her career, hitherto regarded as entertaining, she ceased to view with toleration, let alone complacency. The remembrance of them made her nervous. What if Richard came to hear of them? The effect might be disastrous. Not that he was any saint; but she perceived that, with the fine inconsistency common to most well‐bred Englishmen, he demanded from the women of his family quite other standards of conduct to those which he himself obeyed. Other women might do as they pleased. Their lapses from the stricter social code were no concern of his. He might, indeed, be not wholly averse to profiting by such lapses. But in respect of the women of his own rank and blood the case was quite otherwise. He was alarmingly capable of disgust. And, not a little to her own surprise, fear of provoking, however slightly, that disgust had become a reigning power with her. Never had page: 425 she felt as she now felt. Her own sensations at once captivated and astonished her. This had ceased to be an adventure dictated by merry devilry, undertaken out of lightness of heart, inspired by a mischievous desire to see dust whirl and straws fly; or undertaken even out of necessity to support self‐satisfaction by ranging herself with cynical audacity on the side of the eternal laughter. This was serious. It was desperate—the crisis, as she told herself, of her life and fate. The result was singular. Never had she been more vividly, more electrically, alive. Never had she been more diffident and self‐distrustful.

And this complexity of sensation served to press home on her the high desirability of insurance against accident, of washing clean, as far as might be possible, the surface of the slate. So it followed that now, standing in the chequer‐work of sunshine within the great basilica, self‐congratulation awoke in her. The lately concluded ceremony, some of the details of which had really been most distasteful, might or might not be of vital efficacy, but, in any case, she had courageously done her part. Therefore, if Holy Church spoke truly, her first innocence was restored. Helen hugged the idea with almost childish satisfaction. Now she could go back to the Villa Vallorbes in peace, and take what measures—

She left the sentence unfinished. Even in thought it is often an error to define. Let the future and her intentions regarding it remain in the vague! She signed to Zélie Forestier—seated on the steps of a side‐chapel, yellow‐paper‐covered novel in hand—to follow her. And, after making a genuflexion before the altar of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, gathered up her turquoise‐coloured skirts—the yellow‐tufa quarries were not superabundantly clean—and pursued her way towards the great main door. The benevolent priest, charmed by her grace of movement, watched her from his place in the confessional, although another penitent now kneeled within the greasy curtain.—Verily the delinquencies of so delectable a piece of womanhood were easily comprehensible! Neither God nor man, in such a case, would be extreme to mark what was done amiss. Moreover, had she not promised generous gifts alike to church and poor? The sin which in an ugly woman is clearly mortal, in a pretty one becomes little more than venial. Making which reflection a kindly, fat chuckle shook his big paunch, and, crossing himself, he turned his attention to the voice murmuring from behind the wooden lattice at his side.

Yet it would appear that abstract justice judged less leniently of the position. For, passing out on to the portico—about the page: 426 base of whose enormous columns half‐naked beggars clustered, exposing sores and mutilations, shrilly clamouring for alms—the dazzling glare of the empty, sun‐scorched piazza behind him, Helen came face to face with no less a personage than M. Paul Destournelle.

It was as though someone had struck her. The scene reeled before her eyes. Then her temper rose as in resentment of insult. To avoid all chance of such a meeting she had selected this church in an unfashionable quarter of the town. Here, at least, she had reckoned herself safe from molestation. And, that precisely in the hour of peace, the hour of politic insurance against accident, this accident of all others should befall her, was maddening! But anger did not lessen her perspicacity. How to inflict the maximum of discomfort upon M. Destournelle with the minimum of risk to herself was the question. An interview was inevitable. She wanted, very certainly, to get her claws into him; but, for safety’s sake, that should be done not in attack, but in defence. Therefore he should speak first, and in his words, whatever those words might be, she promised herself to discover legitimate cause of offence. So, leisurely, and with studied ignorance of his presence, she flung largesse of centissimi to right and left, and, while the chorus of blessing and entreaty was yet loud, walked calmly past M. Destournelle down the wide, shallow steps, from the solid shadow of the portico to the burning sun‐glare of the piazza.

The young maws countenance went livid.

“Do you dare to pretend not to recognise me?” he literally gasped.

“On the contrary I recognise you perfectly.”

“I have written to you repeatedly.”

“You have—written to me with a ridiculous and odious persistence.”

Madame de Vallorbes picked her steps. The pavement was uneven, the heat great. Destournelle’s hands twitched with agitation, yet he contrived not only to replace his Panama hat, but opened his white umbrella as a precaution against sunstroke. And this diverted, even while exasperating, Helen. Measures to ensure personal safety were so characteristic of Destournelle!

“And with what fault, I ask you, can you reproach me, save that of a too absorbing, a too generous, adoration?”

“That fault in itself is very sufficient.”

“Do you not reckon, then, in any degree, with the crime you are in process of committing? Have you no sense of page: 427 gratitude, of obligation? Have you no regret for your own loss in leaving me?”

Helen drew aside to let a herd of goats pass. They jostled one another impudently, carrying their inquisitive heads and short tails erect, at right angles to the horizontal line of their narrow backs. They bleated, as in impish mischief. Their little beards wagged. Their little hoofs pattered on the stone, and the musky odour of them hung in the burning air. Madame de Vallorbes put her handkerchief up to her face, and over the edge of it she contemplated Paul Destournelle. Every detail of his appearance was not only familiar, but associated in her mind with some incident of his and her common past. Now the said details asserted themselves, so it seemed to her, with an impertinence of premeditated provocation.—The high, domed skull, the smooth, prematurely‐thin hair parted in the middle, and waved over the ears. The slightly raised eyebrows, and fatigued, red‐lidded, and vain, though handsome eyes. The straight, thin nose, and winged, open nostrils, so perpetually a‐quiver. The soft, sparse, forked beard which closely followed the line of the lower jaw and pointed chin. The moustache, lightly shading the upper lip, while wholly exposing the fretful and rather sensuous mouth. The long, effeminate, and restless hands. The tall, slight figure. The clothes, of a material and pattern fondly supposed by the wearer to present the last word of English fashion in relation to foreign travel, the colour of them accurately matched to the pale, brown hair and beard.—So much for the detail of the young man’s appearance. As a whole, that appearance was elegant as only French youth ventures to be elegant. Refinement enveloped Paul Destournelle—refinement, over‐sensitised and under‐vitalised, as that of a rare exotic forced into precocious blossoming by application of some artificial horticultural process. And all this—elaborately effective and seductive as long as one should happen to think so, elaborately nauseous when one had ceased so to think—had long been familiar to Helen to the point of satiety. She turned wicked, satiety transmuting itself into active vindictiveness. How gladly would she have torn this emasculated creature limb from limb, and flung the lot of it among the refuse of the Neapolitan gutter!

But, from beneath the shade of his umbrella, the young man recommenced his plaint.

“It is inconceivable that, knowing my cruel capacity for suffering, you should be indifferent to my present situation,” he asserted, half violently, half fretfully. “The whole range of page: 428 history would fail to offer a case of parallel callousness. You, whose personality has penetrated the recesses of my being! You, who are acquainted with the infinite intricacy of my mental and emotional organisation! A touch will endanger the harmony of that exquisite mechanism. The interpenetration of the component parts of my being is too entire. I exist, I receive sensations, I suffer, I rejoice, as a whole. And this lays me open to universal, to incalculable, pain. Now my nerves are shattered—intellectual, moral, physical anguish permeates in every part. I rally my self‐reverence, my nobility of soul. I make efforts. By day I visit spots of natural beauty and objects of art. But these refuse to gratify me. My thought is too turgid to receive the impress of them. Concentration is impossible to me. Feverish agitation perverts my imagination. My ideas are fugitive. I endure a chronic delirium. This by day,” he extended one hand with a despairing gesture, “but by night”—

“Oh, I implore you,” Helen interrupted, “spare me the description of your nights! The subject is a hardly modest one. And then, at various times, I have already heard so very much about them, those nights!”

Calmly she resumed her walk. The amazing vanity of the young man’s speech appeased her in a measure, since it fed her contempt. Let him sink himself beyond all hope of recovery, that was best. Let him go down, down, in exposition of fatuous self‐conceit. When he was low enough, then she would kick him! Meanwhile her eyes, ever greedy of incident and colour, registered the scene immediately submitted to them. In the centre of the piazza, women—saffron and poppy‐coloured handkerchiefs tied round their dark heads—washed, with a fine impartiality, soiled linen and vegetables in an iron trough, grated for a third of its length, before a fountain of debased and flamboyant design. Their voices were alternately shrill and guttural. It was perhaps as well not to understand too clearly all which they said. On the left came a break in the high, painted house‐fronts, off which in places the plaster scaled, and from the windows of which protruded miscellaneous samples of wearing apparel and bedding soliciting much‐needed purification by means of air and light. In the said break was a low wall where coarse plants rooted, and atop of which lay some half‐dozen ragged youths, outstretched upon their stomachs, playing cards. The least decrepit of the beggars, armed with Helen’s largesse of copper coin, had joined them from beneath the portico. Gambling, seasoned by shouts, imprecations, blows, page: 429 grew fast and furious. In the steep roadway on the right a dray, loaded with barrels, creaked and jolted upward. The wheels of it were solid discs of wood. The great, mild‐eyed, cream‐coloured oxen strained, with slowly swinging heads, under the heavy yoke. Scarlet, woollen bands and tassels adorned their broad foreheads and wide‐sweeping, black‐tipped horns, and here and there a scarlet drop their flanks, where the goad had pricked them too shrewdly. And upon it all the unrelenting southern sun looked down, and Helen de Vallorbes’ unrelenting eyes looked forth. One of those quick realisations of the inexhaustible excitement of living came to her. She looked at the elegant young man walking beside her, appraised, measured him. She thought of Richard Calmady, self‐imprisoned in the luxurious villa, and of the possibilities of her, so far platonic, relation to him. She glanced down at her own rustling skirts and daintily‐shod feet travelling over the hot stones; then at the noisy gamblers, then at the women washing, with that consummate disregard of sanitation, food and raiment together in the rusty iron trough by the fountain. The violent contrasts, the violent lights and shadows, the violent diversities of purpose and emotion, of rank, of health, of fortune and misfortune, went to her head. Whatever the risks or dangers, that excitement remained inexhaustible. Nay, those very dangers and risks ministered to its perpetual upflowing. It struck her she had been over‐scrupulous, weakly conscientious, in making confession and seeking absolution. Such timid moralities do not really shape destiny, control or determine human fate. The shouting, fighting youths there, with their filthy pack of cards and few centissimi, sprawling in the unstinted sunshine, were nearer the essential truth. They were the profound, because the practical philosophers. Therefore let us gamble, gamble, gamble, be the stake small or great, as long as the merest flicker of life, or fraction of uttermost farthing, is left! And so, when Destournelle took up his lament again, she listened to him, for the moment, with remarkable lightness of heart.

“I appeal to you in the name of my as yet unwritten poems, my masterpieces, for which France, for which the whole brotherhood of letters, so anxiously waits, to put a term to this appalling chastisement!”

“Delicious!” said Helen, under her breath.

“Your classicism is the natural complement of my mediævalism. The elasticity, the concreteness, of your temperament fertilised the too‐brooding introspectiveness of my page: 430 own. It lightened the reverence which I experience in the contemplation of my own nature. It induced in me the hint of frivolity which is necessary to procure action. Our union was as that of high‐noon and impenetrable night. I anticipated extraordinary consequences.”

“Marriage of a butterfly and a bat? Yes, the progeny should be surprising little animals certainly,” commented Madame de Vallorbes.

“In deserting me you have rendered me impotent. That is a crime. It is an atrocity. You assassinate my genius.”

“Then, indeed, I have reason to congratulate myself on my ingenuity,” she returned, “since I succeed in the assassination of the non‐existent!”

“You, who have praised it a thousand times—you deny the existence of my genius?” almost shrieked M. Destournelle. He was very much in earnest, and in a very sorry case. His limbs twitched. He appeared on the verge of an hysteric seizure. To plague him thus was a charmingly pretty sport, but one safest carried on with closed doors—not in so public a spot.

“I do not deny the existence of anything, save your right to make a scene and render me ridiculous as you repeatedly did at Pisa.”

“Then you must return to me.”

“Oh! la, la!” cried Helen.

“That you should leave me and live in your cousin’s house constitutes an intolerable insult.”

“And where, pray, would you have me live?” she retorted, her temper rising, to the detriment of diplomacy. “In the street?”

“It appears to me the two localities are synonymous—morally.”

Madame de Vallorbes drew up. Rage almost choked her. M. Destournelle’s words stung the more fiercely because the insinuation they contained was not justified by fact. They brought home to her her non‐success in a certain direction. They called up visions of that unknown rival, to whom—ah, how she hated the woman!—Richard Calmady’s affections were, as she feared, still wholly given. That her own relation to him was innocent, filled her with humiliation. First she turned to Zélie Forestier, who had followed at a discreet distance across the piazza.

“Go on,” she said, “down the street. Find a cab, a clean one. Wait in it for me at the bottom of the hill.”

Then she turned upon M. Destournelle.

page: 431

“Your mind is so corrupt that you cannot conceive of an honest friendship, even between near relations. You fill me with repulsion—I measured the depth of your degeneracy at Pisa. That is why I left you. I wanted to breathe an uninfected atmosphere. My cousin is a person of remarkable intellectual powers, of chivalrous ideals, and of superior character. He has had great troubles. He is far from well. I am watching over and nursing him.”

The last statement trenched boldly on fiction. As she made it Madame de Vallorbes moved forward, intending to follow the retreating Zélie down the steep, narrow street. For a minute M. Destournelle paused to recollect his ideas. Then he went quickly after her.

“Stay, I implore you,” he said. “Yes, I own at Pisa I lost myself. The agitation of composition was too much for me. My mind seethed with ideas. I became irritable. I comprehend I was in fault. But it is so easy to recommence, and to range oneself. I accept your assurances regarding your cousin. It is all so simple. You shall not return to me. You shall continue your admirable work. But I will return to you. I will join you at the villa. My society cannot fail to be of pleasure to your cousin, if he is such a person as you describe. In a milieu removed from care and trivialities I will continue my poem. I may even dedicate it to your cousin. I may make his name immortal. If he is a person of taste and ideals, he cannot fail to appreciate so magnificent a compliment. You will place this before him. You will explain to him how necessary to me is your presence. He will be glad to co‐operate in procuring it for me. He will understand that in making these propositions I offer him a unique opportunity, I behave towards him with signal generosity. And if, at first, the intrusion of a stranger into his household should appear inconvenient, let him but pause a little. He will find his reward in the development of my genius and in the spectacle of our mutual felicity.”

Destournelle spoke with great rapidity. The street which they had now entered, from the far end of the piazza, was narrow. It was encumbered by a string of laden mules, by a stream of foot passengers. Interruption of his monologue, short of raising her voice to screaming pitch, was impossible to Madame de Vallorbes. But when he ceased she addressed him, and her lips were drawn away from her pretty teeth viciously.

“Oh! you unspeakable idiot!” She said. “Have you no remnant of shame?”

“Do you mean to imply that Sir Richard Calmady would page: 432 have the insolence, is so much the victim of insular prejudice as, to object to our intimacy?”

Madame de Vallorbes clapped her hands together in a sort of frenzy.

“Idiot, idiot,” she repeated. “I wish I could kill you.”

Suddenly M. Paul Destournelle had all his wits about him.

“Ah!” he said, with a short laugh, curiously resembling in its malice the bleating of the little goats, “I perceive that which constitutes the obstacle to our reunion. It shall be removed.”

He lifted his Panama hat with studied elegance, and turning down a break‐neck, side alley, called, over his shoulder:—

À bientôt très chère madame.”