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The History of Sir Richard Calmady: a Romance . Malet, Lucas, 1852–1931.
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page: 195

CHAPTER V

TELLING HOW QUEEN MARY’S CRYSTAL BALL CAME TO FALL ON THE GALLERY FLOOR

THIS world is unquestionably a vastly stimulating and entertaining place if you take it aright—namely if you recognise that it is the creation of a profound humorist, is designed for wholly practical and personal uses, and proceed to adapt your conduct to that knowledge in all light‐heartedness and good faith. Thus, though in less trenchant phrase since she was still happily very young, meditated Madame de Vallorbes, while standing in the pensive October sunshine upon the wide flight of steps which leads down from the main entrance of Brockhurst House. Tall, stone pinnacles alternating with seated griffins—long of tail, fierce of beak and sharp of claw—fill in each of the many angles of the descending stone balustrade on either hand. Behind her, the florid, though rectangular, decoration of the house‐front ranged page: 196 up, storey above storey, in arcade and pilaster, heavily‐mullioned window, carven plaque and string course, to pairs of matching pinnacles and griffins—these last rampant, supporting the Calmady shield and coat‐of‐arms—the quaint forms of which break the long line of the pierced, stone parapet in the centre of the facade, and rise above the rusty red of the low‐pitched roofs, until the spires of the one and crested heads of the other are outlined against the sky. About her feet the pea‐fowl stepped in mincing and self‐conscious elegance—the cocks with rustlings of heavy‐trailing quills, the hens and half‐grown chicks with squeakings and whifflings—subdued, conversational—accompanied by the dry tap of many bills picking up the glossy grains of Indian‐corn which she let dribble slowly down upon the shallow steps from between her pretty fingers. She had huddled a soft sable tippet about her throat and shoulders. The skirt of her indigo‐coloured, poplin dress, turning upon the step immediately above that on which she stood, showed some inches of rose‐scarlet, silken frill lining the hem of it.

Helen de Vallorbes had a lively consciousness of her surroundings. She enjoyed every detail of them. Enjoyed the gentle, south‐westerly wind which touched her face and stirred her bright hair, enjoyed the plaintive, autumn song of a robin perched on a rose‐grown wall, enjoyed the impotent ferocity of the guardian griffins, enjoyed the small sounds made by the feeding pea‐fowl, the modest quaker greys and the imperial splendours of their plumage. She enjoyed the turn of her own wrist, its gold chain‐bracelet and the handsome lace falling away from and displaying it, as she held out the handfuls of corn. She enjoyed even that space of rose‐scarlet declaring itself between the dull blue of her dress and the grey, weathered surface of the stone.

But all these formed only the accompaniment, the ground‐tone, to more reasoned, more vital, enjoyments. Before her, beyond the carriage sweep, lay the square lawn enclosed by red walls and by octagonal, pepper‐pot summer‐houses, whereon—unwillingly, yet in obedience to the wild justice of revenge—Roger Ormiston had shot the Clown, half‐brother to Touchstone, racehorse of mournful memory. As a child Helen had heard that story. Now her somewhat light, blue‐grey eyes, their beautiful lids raised wide for once, looked out curiously upon the space of dew‐powdered turf; while the corners of her mouth—a mouth a trifle thin lipped, yet soft and dangerously sweet for kissing—turned upward in a reflective smile. She, too, knew what it was to be angry, to the point of revenge; had indeed page: 197 come to Brockhurst not without purpose of that last tucked away in some naughty convolution of her active brain. But Brockhurst and its inhabitants had proved altogether more interesting than she had anticipated. This was the fourth day of her visit, and each day had proved more to her taste than the preceding one. So she concluded this matter of revenge might very well stand over for the moment, possibly stand over altogether. The present was too excellent, of its kind, to risk spoiling. Helen de Vallorbes valued the purple and fine linen of a high civilisation; nor did she disdain, within graceful limits, to fare sumptuously every day. She valued all that is beautiful and costly in art, of high merit and distinction in literature. Her taste was sure and just, if a little more disposed towards that which is sensuous than towards that which is spiritual. And in all its many forms she appreciated luxury, even entertaining a kindness for that necessary handmaid of luxury—waste. Appreciated these the more ardently, that, with birth‐pangs at the beginning of each human life, death‐pangs and the corruption of the inevitable grave at the close of each, all this lapping, meanwhile, of the doomed flesh in exaggerations of ease and splendour seemed to her among the very finest ironies of the great comedy of existence. It heightened, it accentuated the drama. And among the many good things of life, drama, come how and where and when it might, seemed to her supremely the best. She desired it as a lover his mistress. To detect it, to observe it, gave her the keenest pleasure. To take a leading part in and shape it to the turn of her own heart, her own purpose, her own wit, was, so far, her ruling passion.

And of potential drama, of the raw material of it, as the days passed, she found increasingly generous store at Brockhurst. It invaded and held her imagination, as the initial conception of his poem will that of the poet, or of his picture that of the painter. She brooded over it, increasingly convinced that it might be a masterpiece. For the drama—as she apprehended it—contained not only elements of virility and strength, but an element, and that a persistent one, of the grotesque. This put the gilded dome to her silent, and perhaps slightly unscrupulous, satisfaction. How could it be otherwise, since the presence of the grotesque is, after all, the main justification of the theory on which her philosophy of life was based—namely the belief that above all eloquence of human speech, behind all enthusiasm of human action or emotion, the ear which hears aright can always detect the echo of eternal laughter? And this grim echo did not affect the charming young lady to sadness as yet. Still less page: 198 did it make her mad, as the mere suspicion of it has made so many, and those by no means unworthy or illiterate persons. For the laugh, so far, had appeared to be on her side, never at her expense—which makes a difference. And the chambers of her House of Life were too crowded by health and agreeable sensations, mental activities and sparkling audacities to leave any one of them vacant for reception, more than momentary, of that thrice‐blessed guest, pity.

And so it followed that, as she fed the mincing pea‐fowl, Madame de Vallorbes’ smile changed in character from reflection to impatience. A certain heat running through her, she set her pretty teeth and fell to pelting the pea‐hens and chicks mischievously, breaking up all their aristocratic reserve and making them jump and squeak to some purpose. For this precious, this very masterpiece of a drama was not only here potentially, but actually. It was alive. She had felt it move under her hand—or under her heart, which was it?—yesterday evening. Again this morning, just now, she had noted signs of its vitality, wholly convincing to one skilled in such matters. Impatience, then, became very excusable.

“For my time is short and the action disengages itself so deplorably slowly!” she exclaimed.—“Pah! you greedy, conceited birds, which do you hold dearest after all, the filling of your little stomachs, or the supporting of your little dignities? Be advised by a higher intelligence. Revenge yourselves on the grains that hit and sting you by gobbling them up. It is a venerable custom that of feasting upon one’s enemies. And has been practised, in various forms, both by nations and individuals. There, I give you another chance of displaying wisdom—there—there!—La! la! what an absurd commotion! You little idiots, don’t flutter. Agitation is a waste of energy, and advances nothing. I declare peace. I want to consider.”

And so, letting the remaining handfuls of corn dribble down very slowly, while the sunshine grew warmer and the shadows of the guardian griffins more distinct upon the lichen‐encrusted stones, Helen de Vallorbes sank back into meditation.—Yes, unquestionably the drama was alive. But it seemed so difficult to bring it to the birth. And she wanted, very badly, to hear its first half‐articulate cries and watch its first staggering footsteps. All that is so entertaining, you yourself safely grown‐up, standing very firm on your feet, looking down!—And it would be a lusty child, this drama, very soon reaching man’s estate and man’s inspiring violence of action, striking out like some blind, giant page: 199 Samson, blundering headlong in its unseeing, uncalculating strength.—Helen laid her hands upon her bosom, and threw back her head, while her throat bubbled with suppressed laughter. Ah! it promised to be a drama of ten thousand, if she knew her power, and knew her world—and she possessed considerable confidence in her knowledge of both. Only, how on earth to set the crystal free of the matrix, how to engage battle, how to get this thing fairly and squarely born? For, as she acknowledged, in the flotation of all such merry schemes as her present one, chance encounters, interludes, neatly planned evasions and resultant pursuits, play so large and important a part. But at Brockhurst this whole chapter of accidents was barred, and received rules of strategy almost annihilated, by the fact of Richard Calmady’s infirmity and the hard‐and‐fast order of domestic procedure, the elaborate system of etiquette, which that infirmity had gradually produced. At Brockhurst there were no haphazard exits and entrances. These were either hopelessly official and public, or guarded to an equally hopeless point of secrecy. A contingent of tall, civil men‐servants was always on duty. Richard was invariably in his place at table when the rest of the company came down. The ladies took their after‐dinner coffee in the drawing‐room, and joined the gentlemen in the Chapel‐Room, library, or gallery, as the case might be. If they rode, Richard was at the door ready mounted, along with the grooms and led‐horses. If they drove, he was already seated in the carriage.

“And how, how in the name of common sense,” Madame de Vallorbes exclaimed, stamping her foot, and thereby throwing the now thoroughly nervous pea‐fowl into renewed agitation, “are you to establish any relation worth mentioning with a man who is perpetually being carried in procession like a Hindu idol? My good birds, one’s never alone with him—whether by design and arrangement, I know not. But, so far, never, never, picture that! And yet, don’t tell me, matchless mixture of pride and innocence though he is, he wouldn’t like it!”

However, she checked her irritation by contemplation of yesterday.—Ah! that had been very prettily done assuredly. For riding in the forenoon along the road skirting the palings of the inner park, while they walked their horses over the soft, brown bed of fallen fir‐needles,—she, her father, and Dick,—the conversation dealt with certain first editions and their bindings, certain treasures, unique in historic worth, locked in the glass tables and fine Florentine and piétra dura cabinets of the Long Gallery. Mr. Ormiston was a connoisseur and talked well. And page: 200 Helen had sufficient acquaintance with such matters both to appreciate, and to add telling words to the talk.

“Ah! but I cannot go without seeing those delectable things, Richard,” she said. “Would it be giving you altogether too much trouble to have them out for me?”

“Why, of course not. You shall see them whenever you like,” he answered. “Julius knows all about them. He’ll be only too delighted to act showman.”

Just here the road narrowed a little, and Mr. Ormiston let his horse drop a few lengths behind, so that she, Helen, and her cousin rode forward side by side. The tones of the low sky, of the ranks of firs and stretches of heather formed a rich, though sombre, harmony of colour. Scents, pungent and singularly exhilarating, were given off by the damp mosses and the peaty moorland soil. The freedom of the forest, the feeling of the noble horse under her, stirred Helen as with the excitement of a mighty hunting, a positively royal sport. While the close presence of the young man riding beside her sharpened the edge of that excitement to a perfect keenness of pleasure.

“Ah, how glorious it all is!” she cried. “How glad I am that you asked me to come here.”

And she turned to Richard, looking at him as, since the first day of their meeting, she had not, somehow, quite ventured to look.

“But, oh! dear me! please,” she went on, “I know Mr. March is an angel, a saint—but—but—mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, I don’t want him to show me those special treasures of yours. He’ll take the life out of them. I know it. And make them seem like things read of merely in a learned book. Be very charming to me, Richard. Waste half an hour upon me. Show me those moving relics yourself.”

As she spoke, momentary suspicion rose in Dickie’s eyes. But she gazed back unflinchingly, with the uttermost frankness, so that suspicion died, giving place to the shy, yet triumphant, gladness of youth which seeks and finds youth.

“Do, Richard, pray do,” she repeated.

The young man had averted his face rather sharply, and both horses, somehow, broke into a hand gallop.

“All right,” he answered. “I’ll arrange it. This evening, about six, after tea? Will that suit you? I’ll send you word.”

Then the road had widened, permitting Mr. Ormiston to draw up to them again. The remainder of the ride had been a little silent.

Yes, all that had been prettily done. Nor had the piece that page: 201 followed proved unworthy of the prelude. She ran over the scene in her mind now, as she stood among the pecketing peafowl, and it caused her both mirth and delightful little heats, in which the heart has a word to say.—Madame de Vallorbes was ravished to feel her heart, just now and again. For, contradictory as it may seem, no game is perfect that has not moments of seriousness.—She recalled the aspect of the Long Gallery, as one of those civil, ever‐present men‐servants had opened the door for her, and she waited a moment on the threshold. The true artist is never in a hurry. The breadth of the great room immediately before her showed very bright with candle‐light and lamp‐light. But that died away, through gradations of augmenting obscurity, until the extreme end, towards the western bay, melted out into complete darkness. This produced an effect of almost limitless length which moved her to a childish, and at first pleasing, fancy of vague danger—an effect heightened by the ranges of curious and costly objects standing against, or decorating, the walls in a perspective of deepening gloom. Turquoise‐coloured, satin curtains, faded to intimate accord with the silvered surface of the panelling, were drawn across the wide windows. They reached to the lower edge of the stonework merely, leaving blottings of impenetrable shadow below. While, as culmination of interest, as living centre to this rich and varied setting, was the figure of Richard Calmady—seen, as his custom was, only to the waist—seated in a high‐backed chair drawn close against an antique, oak table, upon which a small piétra dura cabinet had been placed. The doors of the cabinet stood open, displaying slender columns of jasper and porphyry, and, little drawers encrusted with raised work in marble and precious stones. The young man sat stiffly upright, as one who listens, expectant. His expression was almost painfully serious. In one hand he held a string of pearls, attached to which, and enclosed by intersecting hoops of gold, was a crystal ball that shone with the mild effulgence of a mimic moon. And the great room was so very quiet, that Helen, in her pause upon the threshold, had remarked the sound of raindrops tapping upon the many window‐panes as with impatiently nervous fingers.

And this bred in her a corresponding nervousness—sensation to her, heretofore, almost unknown. The darkness yonder began to provoke a disagreeable impression, queerly challenging both her eyesight and her courage. Old convent teachings, regarding the Prince of Darkness and his emissaries, returned upon her. What if diabolic shapes lurked there, ready to page: 202 become stealthily emergent? She had scoffed at such archaic fancies in the convent, yet, in lonely hours, had suffered panic fear of them, as will the hardiest sceptic. A certain little scar, moreover, carefully hidden under the soft hair arranged low on her right temple, smarted and pricked. In short, her habitual self‐confidence suffered partial eclipse, She was visited by the disintegrating suspicion, for once, that the eternal laughter might, possibly, be at her expense, rather than on her side.

But she conquered such suspicion as contemptible, and cast out the passing weakness.—The bare memory of it angered her now, causing her to fire a volley of yellow corn at a lordly peacock, which sent him scuttling down the steps on to the gravel in most plebeian haste. Yes, she had speedily cast out her weakness, thank Heaven! What was all the pother about after all? This was not the first time she had played merry games with the affairs and affections of men. Madame de Vallorbes smiled to herself, recalling certain episodes, and shook her charming shoulders gleefully, as she looked out into the sunny morning. And then, was there not ample excuse? This man moved her more than most—more than any. She swore he did. Her attitude towards him was something new, something quite different, thereby justifying her campaign. And therefore, all the bolder for her brief self‐distrust and hesitation, she had swept across the great room, light of foot, and almost impertinently graceful of carriage.

“Here you are at last!” Dickie had exclaimed, with a sigh as of relief. “I shan’t want anything more, Powell. You can come back when the dressing‐bell rings.”—Then, as the valet closed the door behind him, he continued rapidly:—“Not that I propose to victimise you till then, Helen. You mustn’t stay a moment longer than you like. I confess I’m awfully fond of this room. I’m almost ashamed to think how much time I waste in it. Doing what? Oh, well, just dreaming! You see it contains samples of the doings of all my father’s people, and I return to primitive faiths here and perform acts of ancestor worship.”

“Ah! I like that!” Helen said. And she did. Picture this man, long of arm, unnaturally low of stature, and astonishingly—yes, quite astonishingly—good‐looking, moving about among these books and pictures, these trophies of war and of sport, these oriental jars, tall almost as himself, and all the other strange furnishings from out distant years and distant lands! Picture him emerging from that wall of soft darkness yonder, for instance! Helen’s eyes danced under their arched and page: 203 drooping lids, and she registered the fact that, though still frightened, her fright had changed in character. It was grateful to her palate. She relished it as the bouquet of a wine of finest quality. Meanwhile her companion talked on.

“The ancestor worship? Oh yes! I daresay you might like it for a change. Getting it as I do, as habitual diet, it is not remarkably stimulating. The natural man prefers to find occasion for worshipping himself rather than his ancestors, after all, you know. But a little turn of it will serve to fill in a gap and lessen the monotony of your visit. I am afraid you must be a good deal bored, Helen. It must seem rather terribly humdrum here after Paris and Naples, and—well—most places, at that rate, as you know them.”

Richard shifted his position. And the crystal moon encompassed by golden bands, crossing and intersecting one another like those of a sidereal sphere, gleamed as with an inward and unearthly light, swinging slowly upon the movement of his hand.

“You must feel here as though the clock had been put back two or three centuries. I know we move slowly, and conduct ourselves with tedious deliberation. And so, you understand, you mustn’t let me keep you. Just look at what you like of these odds and ends, and then depart without scruple. It’s rather a fraud, in any case, my showing them to you. Julius March, as I told you, is much better qualified to.”

“Julius March, Julius March!” Madame de Vallorbes broke in. “Do, I beseech you, dear cousin Richard, leave him to the pious retirement of his study. Is he not middle‐aged, and a priest into the bargain?”

“Unquestionably,” Dickie said. “But, pardon me, I don’t quite see what that has to do with it,”

Thereupon Madame de Vallorbes made a very naughty, little grimace and drummed with her finger‐tips upon the table.

“La! la!” she cried, “you’re no better than all the rest. Commend me to a clever man for incapacity to apprehend what is patent to the intelligence of the most ordinary woman. Look about you.”—Helen sketched in their surroundings with a quick descriptive gesture. “Observe the lights and shadows. The ghostly wavings of those pale curtains. Smell the pot‐pourri and spices. Think of the ancestor worship. Listen to the lamenting wind and rain. See the mysterious treasure you hold in your hand. And then ask me what middle‐age and the clerical profession have to do with all this! Why, nothing, just precisely nothing, nothing in the whole world. That’s the point page: 204 of my argument. They’d ruin the sentiment, blight the romance, hopelessly blight it—for me at least.”

The conversation was slightly embarrassed, both Helen and Richard talking at length, yet at random. But she knew that it was thus, and not otherwise, that it behoved them to talk. For that which they said mattered not in the least. The thing said served as a veil, as a cloak, merely, wherewith to disguise those much greater things which, perforce, remained unsaid.—To cover his and her lively consciousness of their present isolation, desired these many days and now obtained. To conceal the swift, silent approaches of spirit to spirit, so full of inquiry and self‐revelation, fugitive reserves and fugitive distrusts. To hide, as far as might be, the existence of the hungry, all‐compelling joie de vivre which is begotten whensoever youth thus seeks and finds youth.—These unspoken and, as yet, unspeakable things were alone of real moment, making eyes lustrous and lips quick with tremulous, uncalled‐for smiles irrespective of the purport of their speech.

“Ah! but that’s rather rough on poor dear Julius, you know,” Dickie said. “I suppose you wanted to learn all”—

“Learn?” she interrupted. “I wanted to feel. Don’t you know there is only one way any woman worth the name ever really learns—through her emotions? Only the living feel. Such men as he, if they are sincere, are already dead. He would have made feeling impossible.”

A perceptible hush descended upon the room. Richard Calmady’s hand usually was steady enough, but, in the silence, the pearls chattered against the table. He went rather pale and his face hardened.

“And are you getting anything of that which you wanted, Helen?” he asked. “For sometimes in the last few days—since you have been here—I—I have wondered if perhaps we were not all like that—all dead”—

“You mean do I get emotion, am I feeling?” she said. “Rest contented. Much is happening. Indeed I have doubted, during the last few days, since I have been here, whether I have ever known what it is to feel actually and seriously before.”

She sat down at right angles to him, resting her elbows upon the table, her chin upon her folded hands, leaning a little towards him. One of those pleasant heats swept over her, flushing her delicate skin, lending a certain effulgence to her beauty. The scent of roses long faded hung in the air. But here was a rose sweeter far than they. No white rose of paradise, it must be confessed. Rather, like her immortal namesake, that page: 205 classic Helen, was she rosa mundi, glowing with warmth and colour, rose‐red rose altogether of this dear, naughty, lower world!

“Richard,” she said impulsively, “why don’t you understand? Why do you underrate your own power? Don’t you know that you are quite the most moving, the most attractive—well—cousin, a woman ever had?”

She looked closely at him, her lips a little parted, her head thrown back.

“Life is sweet, dear cousin. Reckon with yourself and with it, and live—live.”—Then she put out her hand and held up the crystal between her face and his. “There,” she went on, “tell me about this. I become indiscreet, thanks I suppose to your Brockhurst habit of putting back the clock, and speak with truly Elizabethan frankness. It belongs to semi‐barbaric ages, doesn’t it, thus, to tell the true truth? Show me this. It seems rather fascinating.”

And Richard obeyed mechanically, pointing out to her the signs of the Zodiac, those of the planets, and other figures of occult significance engraved on the encircling, golden bands. Showed her how those same bands, turning on a pivot, formed a golden cradle, in which the crystal sphere reposed. He lifted it out from that cradle, moreover, and laid it in the softer cradle of her palm. And of necessity, in the doing of all this, their heads—his and hers—were very near together, and their hands met. But they were very solemn all the while, solemn, eager, busy, as two babies revealing to each other the mysteries of a newly acquired toy. And it seemed to Madame de Vallorbes that all this was as pretty a bit of business as ever served to help forward such gay purposes as hers. She was pleased with herself too—for did she not feel very gentle, very sincere, really very innocent and good?

“No, hold it so,” Richard said, rounding her fingers carefully, that the tips of them might alone touch the surface of the crystal. “Now gaze into the heart of it steadily, fixing your will to see. Pictures will come presently, dimly at first, as in a mist. Then the mist will lift and you will read your own fortune and—perhaps—some other person’s fate.”

“Have you ever read yours?”

“Oh! mine’s of a sort that needs no crystal to reveal it,” he answered, with a queer drop in his voice. “It’s written in rather indecently big letters and plain type. Always has been.”

Helen glanced at him. His words whipped up her sense of drama, fed her excitement. But she bent her eyes upon the page: 206 crystal again, and the hush descended once more, disturbed only by that nervous tapping of rain.

“I see nothing,—nothing,” she said presently. “And there is much I would give very much to see.”

“You must gaze with a simple intention.”—The young man’s voice came curiously hoarse and broken. “Purify your mind of all desire.”

Helen did not raise her head.

“Alas! if those are the conditions of revelation my chances of seeing are extremely limited. To purify one’s mind of all desire is to commit emotional suicide. Of course I desire, all the while I desire. And equally, of course, you desire. Every one who is human and in their sober senses must do that. Absence of desire means idiotcy, or”—

“Or what?”

For an instant she looked up at him, a very devil of dainty malice in her expression, in the shrug of her shoulders too, beneath their fine laces and the affected sobriety of that same dull‐blue, poplin gown.

“Or priestly, saintly middle‐age—from which may Heaven in its mercy ever deliver us,” she said.

Richard shifted his position a little, gathering himself back from her so near neighbourhood—a fact of which the young lady was not unaware.

“I’m not quite sure whether I echo your prayer,” he said slowly. “I doubt whether that attitude, or one approximate to it, is not the safest and best for some of us.”

“Safest, no doubt.”—Madame de Vallorbes’ eyes were bent on the crystal sphere again. “As it is safer to decline a duel, than go out and meet your man. Best? On that point you must permit me to hold my own opinion. The word ‘best’ has many readings according to the connection in which it isemployed. Personally I should always fight.”

“Whatever the odds?”

“Whatever the odds.”—And almost immediately Madame de Vallorbes uttered a little cry, curiously at variance with her bold words, “Something is moving inside the crystal, something is coming. I don’t half like it, Richard. Perhaps we are tempting Providence. Yes, it moves, it moves, like mist rising off a river. It is poisonous. Some woman has looked into this before—a woman of my temperament—and read an evil fortune. I know it. Tell me, quick, how did the crystal come here, to whom did it belong?”

“To Mary Stuart—Mary, Queen of Scots,” Dickie said.

page: 207

“Ah! unhappy woman, ill‐omened woman! You should have told me that before and I would never have looked. Here take it, take it. Lock it up, hide it. Let no woman ever look in it again!”

As she spoke Helen crossed herself hastily, pushing the magic ball towards him. But, as though endowed with life and volition of its own—or was it merely that Dick’s hand was even yet not quite of the steadiest?—it evaded his grasp, fell off the table edge and rolled, gleaming moonlike, far across the floor, away behind the pedestal of the bronze Pompeian Antinous, into the dusky shadow of those ghostly‐waving, turquoise, satin curtains.

With a sense of catastrophe upon her Helen had sprung to her feet.—Even now, standing in the peaceful warmth of the autumn sunshine, among the feeding pea‐fowl, the remembrance of it caused her a little shiver. For at sight of that gleaming ball hurrying across the carpet, all the nervousness, the distrust of herself, and the vague spiritual alarms, which had beset her on first entering the room, returned on her with tenfold force. The superstitious terrors of the convent‐bred girl mastered the light‐hearted scepticism of the woman of the world, and regions of sinister possibility seemed disclosing themselves around her.

“Oh! how horrible! What does it mean?” she cried.

And Richard answered cheerily, somewhat astonished at her agitation, trying to reassure her.

“Mean? Nothing, except that I was abominably awkward and the crystal abominably slippery. What does it matter? We can find it again directly.”

Then, self‐forgetful in the fulness of his longing to pacify her, Richard had pushed his chair back from the table, intending to go in search of the vagrant jewel. But the chair was high, and its make not of the most solid sort; and so he paused, instinctively calculating the amount of support it could be trusted to render him in his descent. And during that pause Helen had felt her heart stand still.—She set her little teeth now, recalling it. For the extent of his deformity was fully apparent for once. And, apprehending that which he proposed to do, she was smitten by immense curiosity to realise the ultimate of the grotesque in respect of his appearance as he should move, walk, grope in the dimness over there after the lost crystal. But there are some indulgences which can be bought at too high a price, and along with the temptation to gratify her curiosity came an intensification of superstitious alarm. What if page: 208 she had sinned, and trafficked with diabolic agencies in trying to read the future? Payment of an actively disagreeable character might be exacted for that, and would not such payment risk disastrous augmentation if she gratified her curiosity thus further? Helen de Vallorbes became quite wonderfully prudent and humane.

“No, no, don’t bother about it, don’t move, dear Richard,” she cried. “Let me find it, please. I saw exactly the direction in which it went.”

And to enforce her speech, and keep the young man in his place, she laid her hands persuasively upon his shoulders. This brought her charming face, so pure in outline, set in its aureole of honey‐coloured hair, very near to his, she looking down, he up. And in this position the two remained longer than was absolutely necessary, silent, quite still, while the air grew thick with the push of unspoken and as yet unspeakable matters, and Helen’s hands resting upon his shoulders grew heavy, as the seconds passed, with languorous weight.

“There are better things than crystals to read in, after all, Richard,” she said at last. Then she lifted her hands almost brusquely and stepped back.—“All the same it is stupid I should have to go away,” she continued, speaking more to herself than to him. “I am happy here. And when I am happy it’s easy to be good—and I like to be good.”

She crossed the room and passed behind the bronze Pompeian Antinous. Under the shadow of the curtains, in the angle of the bay, against the wainscot, Queen Mary’s magic ball glowed softly luminous. Helen could have believed that it watched her. She hesitated before stooping to pick it up and looked over her shoulder at Richard Calmady. His back was towards her, his chair close against the table again. He leaned forward on his elbows, his face buried in his hands. Something in the bowed head, in the set of the almost crouching figure reassured Madame de Vallorbes. She picked up the crystal without more ado, with, indeed, a certain flippancy of gesture. For she had received pleasing assurance that she had been frightened in the wrong place, and that the eternal laughter was very completely on her side after all.

And just then a bell had rung in some distant quarter of the great house. Powell, incarnation of decent punctualities, had appeared. Whereupon the temperature fell to below normal from fever‐heat. Drama, accentuations of sensibility, in short all the unspoken and unspeakable, withered as tropic foliage at a touch of frost. No doubt it was as well, Madame de Vallorbes page: 209 reflected philosophically, since the really psychological moment was passed. There had been a dinner party last night, and—

But here the young lady’s reminiscences broke off short. She gathered up her blue, poplin, scarlet‐lined skirts, ran down the steps, scattering the pea‐fowl to right and left, and hastened across the gravel.

“Wait half a minute for me, dear Aunt Katherine,” she cried. “Are you going to the conservatories? I would so like to see them. May I go too?”

Lady Calmady stood by the door in the high, red‐brick wall. She wore a white, lace scarf over her hair—turned up and back, dressed high, as of old, though now somewhat grey upon the temples. The lace was tied under her chin, framing her face. In her grey dress she looked as some stately, yet gracious, lady abbess might—a lady abbess who had known love in all fulness, yet in all honour—a lady abbess painted, if such happy chance could be, by the debonair and clean‐hearted Reynolds. She stood smiling, charmed—though a trifle unwillingly—by the brilliant vision of the younger woman.

“Assuredly you may come with me, if it would amuse you,” she said.

“I may? Then let me open that door for you. La! la! how it sticks. Last night’s rain must have swelled it”—and she wrestled unsuccessfully with the lock.

“My dear, don’t try any more,” Katherine said. “You will tire yourself. The exertion is too great for you. I will go back and call one of the servants.”

“No, no”—and regardless of her fine laces, and trinkets, and sables Madame de Vallorbes put her shoulder against the resisting door and fairly burst it open.

“See,” she cried, breathless but triumphant, “I am very strong.”

“You are very pretty,” Katherine said, almost involuntarily.

The steeply‐terraced kitchen‐gardens, neat box edgings, wide flower borders in which a few clumps of chrysanthemum and Michaelmas daisy still resisted the frost, ranged down to greenish, brown ponds in the valley bottom spotted with busy, quacking companies of white ducks. Beyond was an ascending slope of thick wood, the topmost trees of which showed bare against the sky line. All this was framed by the arch of the door, Madame de Vallorbes glanced at it, while she pulled down the soft waves of hair, which her late exertions had slightly disarranged, over her right temple. Then she turned impulsively to Lady Calmady.

page: 210

“Thank you, dear Aunt Katherine,” she said. “I would so like you to like me, you know.”

“I should be rather unpardonably difficult to please, if I did not like you, my dear,” Lady Calmady answered. But she sighed as she spoke.

The two women moved away, side by side, down the path to the glistering greenhouses. But Camp, who, missing Richard, had followed his mistress out of the house for a leisurely morning potter, turned back sulkily across the gravel homewards, his tail limp, his heavy head carried low. His instincts were conservative, as has been already mentioned. He was suspicious of new‐comers. And, whoever liked this particular new‐comer, Madame de Vallorbes, he was sorry to say—and on more than one occasion he said it with quite inconvenient distinctness—he did not.

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