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The History of Sir Richard Calmady: a Romance . Malet, Lucas, 1852–1931.
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page: 145

CHAPTER VII

AN ATTEMPT TO MAKE THE BEST OF IT

THE day had been hot, though the summer was but young. A wealth of steady sunlight bathed the western front of the house. All was notably still, save for a droning of bees, a sound of wood‐chopping, voices now and again, and the squeak of a wheelbarrow away in the gardens.

Richard lay on his back upon the bed. He had drawn the blue embroidered coverlet up about his waist; but his silk shirt was thrown open, exposing his neck and chest. His arms were flung up and out across the pillow on either side his gold‐brown, close‐curled head. As his mother entered he turned his face towards the open window. There was vigour and distinction in the profile—in the straight nose, full chin, and strong line of the lower jaw, in the round, firm throat, and small ear set close against the head. The muscles of his neck and arms were well developed. Seen thus, lying in the quiet glow of the afternoon sunshine, all possibility of physical disgrace seemed far enough from Richard Calmady. He might indeed, not unfitly, have been compared to one of those nobly graceful lads, who, upon the frieze of some Greek temple, set forth forever the perfect pattern of temperance and high courage, of youth and health.

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As Katherine sat down beside the bed, Richard thrust out his left hand. She took it in both hers, held and stroked the palm of it. But for a time she could not trust herself to speak. For she saw that, notwithstanding the resolute set of his lips, his breath caught in short quick sobs and that his eyelashes were glued in points by late shed tears. And, seeing this, Katherine’s motherhood arose and confronted her with something of reproach. It seemed to her she had been guilty of disloyalty in permitting her thought to be beguiled even for the brief space of her conversation with Julius March. She felt humbled, a little in Dickie’s debt, since she had not realised to the uttermost each separate moment of his trial as each of those moments passed.

“My darling, I am afraid Dr. Knott has hurt you very much?” she said at last.

“Oh! I don’t know. I suppose he did hurt. He pulled me about awfully, but I didn’t mind that. I told him to keep on till he made sure,” Richard answered huskily, still turning his face from her. “But none of those beastly legs and things fitted. He could not fix them so that I could use them. It was horrid. They only made me more helpless than before. You see—my—my feet are in the way.”

The last words came to Katherine as a shock. The boy had never spoken openly of his deformity, and in thus speaking he appeared to her to rend asunder the last of those veils with which she had earnestly striven to conceal the disgrace of it from him. She remained very still, bracing herself to bear—the while slowly stroking his hand. Suddenly the strong, young fingers closed hard on hers. Richard turned his head.

“Mother,” he said, “the doctor can’t do anything for me. It’s no use. We’ve just got to let it be.”

He set his teeth, choking a little, and drew the back of his right hand across his eyes.

“It’s awfully stupid; but somehow I never knew I should mind so much. I—I never did mind much till just lately. It began—the minding, I mean—the day Uncle Roger came home. It was the way he looked at me, and hearing about things he’d done. And I had a beastly dream that night. And it’s all grown worse since.”

He paused a minute, making a strong effort to speak steadily.

“I suppose it’s silly to mind. I ought to be accustomed to it by this time. I’ve never known anything else. But I never thought of all it meant and—and—how it looked to other people page: 147 till Helen was here and wanted me to show her the house. I supposed everyone would take it for granted, as you all do here at home. And then I’d a hope Dr. Knott might find a way to hide it and so help me. But—but he can’t. That hope’s quite gone.”

“My own darling,” Katherine murmured.

“Yes, please say that!” he cried, looking up eagerly. “I am your darling, mother, am I not, just the same? Dr. Knott said something about you just now. He’s an awfully fine old chap. I like him. He talked to me for a long time after we’d sent Winter away, and he was ever so kind. And he told me it was bad. for you too, you know—for both of us. I’m afraid I had not thought much about that before. I’ve been thinking about it since. And I began to be afraid that—that I might be a nuisance,—that you might be ashamed of me, later, when I am grown up—since I’ve always got to be like this, you see.”

The boy’s voice broke.

“Mother, mother, you’ll never despise me, whoever does, will you?” he sobbed.

And it seemed to Lady Calmady that now she must have touched bottom in this tragedy. There could surely be no farther to go? It was well that her mood was soft, that for a little while she had ceased to be under the dominion of her so sadly fixed idea. In talking with Julius March she had been reminded how constant a quantity is sorrow; how real, notwithstanding their silence, are many griefs; how strong is human patience. And this indirectly had fortified her. Wrung with anguish for the boy, she yet was calm. She knelt down by the bedside and put her arms round him.

“Most precious one—listen,” she said. “You must never ask me such a question again. I am your mother—you cannot measure all that implies, and so you cannot measure the pain your question causes me. Only you must believe, because I tell it you, that your mother’s love will never grow old or wear thin.

It is always there, always fresh, always ready. In utter security you can come back to it again and again. It is like one of those clear springs in the secret places of the deep woods—you know them—which bubble up forever. Drink, often as you may, however heavy the drought or shrunken the streams elsewhere, those springs remain full to the very lip.”—Her tone changed, taking a tender playfulness. “Why, my Dickie, you are the light of my eyes, my darling, the one thing which makes me still care to live. You are your father’s gift to me. And so every page: 148 kiss you give me, every pretty word you say to me, is treasured up for his, as well as for your own, dear sake.”

She leaned back, laid her head on the pillow beside his, cheek to cheek. Katherine was a young woman still—young enough to have moments of delicate shyness in the presence of her son. She could not look at him now as she spoke.

“You know, dearest, if I could take your bodily misfortune upon me, here, directly, and give you my wholeness, I would do it more readily, with greater thankfulness and delight than I have ever done anything in”—

But Richard raised his hand and laid it, almost violently, upon her mouth.

“Oh, stop, mother, stop!” he cried. “Don’t—it’s too dreadful to think of.”

He flung away, and lay at as far a distance as the width of the bed would allow, gazing at her in angry protest.

“You can’t do that. But you don’t suppose I’d let you do it even if you could,” he said fiercely. Then he turned his face to the sunny western window again.—“I like to know that you’re beautiful anyhow, mother, all—all over,” he said.

There followed a long silence between them. Lady Calmady still knelt by the bedside. But she drew herself up, rested her elbows on the bed and clasped her hands under her chin. And as she knelt there something of proud comfort came to her. For so long she had sickened, fearing the hour when Richard should begin clearly to gauge the extent of his own ill‐luck; yet, now the first shock of plain speech over, she experienced relief. For the future they could be honest, she and he,—so she thought,—and speak heart to heart. Moreover, in his so bitter distress, it was to her—not to Mary, his good comrade, not to Roger Ormiston, the Ulysses of his fancy—that the boy had turned. He was given back to her, and she was greatly gladdened by that. She was gladdened too by Richard’s last speech, by his angry and immediate repudiation of the bare mention of any personal gain which should touch her with loss. Katherine’s eyes kindled as she knelt there watching her son. For it was very much to find him thus chivalrous, hotly sensitive of her beauty and the claims of her womanhood. In instinct, in thought, in word, he had shown himself a very gallant, high‐bred gentleman—child though he was. And this gave Katherine not only proud comfort in the present, but cheered the future with hope.

“Look here, Dickie darling,” she said softly at last, “tell me a little more about your talk with Dr. Knott.”

“Oh! he was awfully kind,” Richard answered, turning page: 149 towards her again, while his face brightened. “He said some awfully jolly things to me.”

The boy put out his hand and began playing with the bracelets on Katherine’s wrists. He kept his eyes fixed on them as he fingered them.

“He told me I was very strong and well made—except, of course, for it. And that I was not to imagine myself ill or invalidy, because I’m really less ill than most people, you know. And—and he said—you won’t think me foolish, mother, if I tell you?—he said I was a very handsome fellow.”

Richard glanced up quickly, while his colour deepened.

“Am I really handsome?” he asked.

Katherine smiled at him.

“Yes, you are very handsome, Dickie. You have always been that. You were a beautiful baby, a beautiful little child. And now, every day, you grow more like your father. I can’t quite talk about him, my dear—but ask Uncle Roger—ask Marie de Mirancourt what he was when she knew him first.”

The boy’s face flashed back her smile, as the sea does the sunlight.

“Oh, I say, but that’s good news!” he said. He lay quite still on his back for a little while, thinking about it.

“That seems to give one a shove, you know,” he remarked presently. Then he fell to playing with her bracelets again. “After all, I’ve got a good many shoves to‐day, mother. Dr. Knott’s a regular champion shover. He told me about a number of people he’d known who had got smashed up somehow, or who’d always had something wrong, you know—and how they’d put a good face on it and hadn’t let it interfere, but had done things just the same. And he told me I’d just got to be plucky—he knew I could if I tried—and not let it interfere either. He told me I mustn’t be soft, or lazy, because doing things is more difficult for me than for other people. But that I’d just got to put my back into it, and go in and win. And I told him I would—and you’ll help me, mummy, won’t you?”

“Yes, darling, yes,” Lady Calmady said.

“I want to begin at once,” he went on hurriedly, looking hard at the bracelets. “I shouldn’t like to be unkind to her, mother, but do you think Clara would give me up? I don’t need a nurse now. It’s rather silly. May one of the men‐servants valet me? I should like Winter best, because he’s been here always, and I shouldn’t feel shy with him. Would it bore you awfully to speak about that now, so that he might begin to‐night?”

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Lady Calmady’s brave smile grew a trifle sad. The boy was less completely given back to her than she had fondly supposed. This day was after all to introduce a new order. And the woman always pays. She was to pay for that advance, so was the devoted handmaiden, Clara. Still the boy must have his way— were it even towards a merely imagined good.

“Very well, dearest, I will settle it,” she answered.

“You don’t mind, though, mother?”

Katherine stroked the short, curly hair back from his forehead.

“I don’t mind anything that promises to make you happier, Dickie,” she said. “What else did you and Dr. Knott settle—anything else?”

Richard waited, then he turned on his elbow and looked full and very earnestly at her.

“Yes, mother, we did settle something more. And something that I’m afraid you won’t like. But it would make me happier than anything else—it would make all the difference that—that can be made, you know.”

He paused, his expression very firm though his lips quivered.

“Dr. Knott wants me to ride.”

Katherine drew back, stood up, threw out her hands as though to keep off some actual and tangible object of offence.

“Not that, Richard!” she cried. “Anything in the world rather than that!”

He looked at her imploringly, yet with a certain determination, for the child was dying fast in him and the forceful desires and intentions of youth growing.

“Don’t say I mustn’t, mother. Pray, pray don’t, because”—

He left the sentence unfinished, overtaken by the old habit of obedience, yet he did not lower his eyes.

But Lady Calmady made no response. For the moment she was outraged to the point of standing apart even from her child. For a moment, even motherhood went down before purely personal feeling—and this, by the irony of circumstance, immediately after motherhood had made supreme confession of immutability. But remembering her husband’s death, remembering the source of all her child’s misfortune, it appeared to her indecent, a wanton insult to all her past suffering, that such a proposition should be made to her. And, in a flash of cruelly vivid perception, she knew how the boy would look on a horse, the grotesque, to the vulgar wholly absurd, spectacle he must, notwithstanding his beauty, necessarily present. For a moment page: 151 the completeness of love failed before pride touched to the very quick.

“But, how can you ride?” she said. “My poor child, think—how is it possible?”

Richard sat upright, pressing his hands down on the bedclothes on either side to steady himself. The colour rushed over his face and throat.

“It is possible, mother,” he answered resolutely, “or Dr. Knott would never have talked about it. He couldn’t have been so unkind. He drew me the plan of a saddle. He said I was to show it to Uncle Roger to‐night. Of course it won’t be easy at first, but I don’t care about that. And Chifney would teach me. I know he would. He said the other day he’d make a sportsman of me yet.”

“When did you talk with Chifney?”—Lady Calmady spoke very quietly, but there was that in her tone which came near frightening the boy. It required all his daring to answer honestly and at once.

“I talked to him the day Aunt Charlotte and Helen were here. I—I went down to the stables with him and saw all the horses.”

“Then either you or he did very wrong,” Lady Calmady remarked.

“It was my fault, mother, all my fault. Chifney would have ridden on, but I stopped him. Chaplin tried to prevent me. I—I told him to mind his own business. I meant to go. I—I saw all the horses, and they were splendid,” he added, enthusiasm gaining over fear.—“I saw the stables, and the weighing‐room, and everything. I never enjoyed myself so much before. I told Chaplin I would tell you, because he ought not to be blamed, you know. I did mean to tell you directly I came in. But all those people were here.”—Richard’s face darkened. “And you remember what happened? That put everything else out of my head.”—A pause. Then he said:—“Are you very angry?”

Katherine made no reply. She moved away round the foot of the bed and stood at the sunny window in silence. Bitterness of hot humiliation possessed her. Heretofore, whatever her trial, she had been mistress of the situation; she had reigned a queen‐mother, her authority undisputed. And now it appeared her kingdom was in revolt, conspiracy was rife. Richard’s will and hers were in conflict; and Richard’s will must eventually obtain, since he would eventually be master. Already courtiers bowed to that will. All this was in her mind. And a wounding of feeling, far deeper and more intimate than this—since Katherine’s nobility of character was great and the worldly aspect, page: 152 the greed of personal power and undisputed rule, could not affect her for long. It wounded her, as a slight upon the memory of the man she had so wholly loved, that this first conflict between Richard and herself should turn on the question of horses and the racing‐stable. The irony of the position appeared unpardonable. And then, the vision of poor Richard—her darling, whom she had striven so jealously to shield ever since the day, over thirteen years ago, when undressing her baby she had first looked upon its malformed limbs—Richard riding forth for all the staring, mocking world to see, again arose before her.

Thinking of all this, Katherine gazed out over the stately home scene—grass plot and gardens, woodland and distant landscape, rich in the golden splendour of steady sunshine—with smarting eyes and a sense of impotent misery that wrapped her about as a burning garment. The boy was beginning to go his own way. And his way was not hers. And those she had trusted were disloyal, helping him to go it. Alone, in retirement, she had borne her great trouble with tremendous courage. But how should she bear it under changed conditions, amid publicity, gossip, comment?

Dickie, meanwhile, had let himself drop back against the pillows. He set his teeth and waited. It was hard. An opportunity of escape from the galling restraints of his infirmity had been presented to him, and his mother—his mother after promise given, after the sympathy of a lifetime, his mother, in whom he trusted absolutely—was unwilling he should accept it! As he lay there all the desperate longing for freedom and activity that had developed in him of late—all the passion for sport, for that primitive, half‐savage manner of life, that intimate, if somewhat brutal, relation to nature, to wild creatures and to the beasts whom man by centuries of usage has broken to his service, which is the special heritage of Englishmen of gentle blood—sprang up in Richard, strong, all‐compelling. He must have his part in all this. He would not be denied. He cried out to her imperiously:—

“Mother, speak to me! I haven’t done anything really wrong. I’ve a right to what any other boy has—as far as I can get it. Don’t you see riding is just the one thing to—to make up—to make a man of me? Don’t you see that?”

He sat bolt upright, stretching out his arms to her in fierce appeal, while the level sunshine touched his bright hair and wildly eager face.

“Mummy, mummy darling, don’t you see? Try to see. You can’t want to take away my one chance!”

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Katherine turned at that reiterated cry, and her heart melted within her. The boy was her own, bone of her bone, flesh of her flesh. From her he had life. From her he had also lifelong disgrace and deprivation. Was there anything then, which, he asking, she could refuse to give? She cast herself on her knees beside the bed again and buried her face in the sheet.

“My precious one,” she sobbed, “forgive me. I am ashamed, for I have been both harsh and weak. I said I would help you, and then directly I fail you. Forgive me.”

And the boy was amazed, speechless at first, seeing her broken thus; shamed in his turn by the humility of her attitude. To his young chivalry it was an impiety to look upon her tears.

“Please don’t cry, mother,” he entreated tremulously, a childlike simplicity of manner taking him.—“Don’t cry—it is dreadful. I never saw you cry before.”—Then, after a pause, he added:—“And—never mind about my riding. I don’t so very much care about it—really, I don’t believe I do—after all.”

At that dear lie Katherine raised her bowed head, a wonderful sweetness in her tear‐stained face, tender laughter upon her lips. She drew the boy’s hands on to her shoulders, clasped her hands across his extended arms, and kissed him upon the mouth.

“No, no, my beloved, you shall ride,” she said. “You shall have your saddle—twenty thousand saddles if you want them! We will talk to Uncle Roger and Chifney to‐night. All shall be as you wish.”

“But you’re not angry, mother, any more?” he asked, a little bewildered by her change of tone and by the passion of her lovely looks and speech.

Katherine shook her head, and still that tender laughter curved her lips.

“No, I am never going to be angry any more—with you at least, Dick. I must learn to be plucky too. A pair of us, Dickie, trying to keep up one another’s pluck! Only let us go forward hand in hand, you and I, and then, however desperate our doings, I at least shall be content.”

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