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The History of Sir Richard Calmady: a Romance . Malet, Lucas, 1852–1931.
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page: 23

CHAPTER IV

RAISING PROBLEMS WHICH IT IS THE PURPOSE OF THIS HISTORY TO RESOLVE

IT was not without a movement of inward thanksgiving that, the festivities connected with Sir Richard and Lady Calmady’s home‐coming being over, Julius March returned to his labours in the Brockhurst library. Humanity at first hand, whatever its social standing or its pursuits, was, in truth, always slightly disturbing to him. He felt more at home when dealing with conclusions than with the data that go to build up those conclusions, with the thoughts of men printed and bound, than with the urgent raw material from which those thoughts arise. Revelation, authority—these were still his watchwords. And, in face of them, even the harmless spectacle of a country neighbourhood at play, let alone the spectacle of the human comedy generally, is singularly confusing.

He sought the soothing companionship of books with even heightened relief one fair morning some three weeks later. For Mrs. St. Quentin and Mademoiselle de Mirancourt had arrived at Brockhurst the day previously, and Julius had been sensible of certain perturbations of mind in meeting these two ladies, one of whom was a devout Catholic by inheritance and personal conviction, while the other, though nominally a member of his own communion, was known to temper her religion with a wide, if refined, philosophy. Conversation had drifted towards serious subjects in the course of the evening, and Mrs. St. Quentin had admitted, with a playful deprecation of her dear friend’s rigid religious attitude, that no one creed, no one system, offered an adequate solution of the infinite mystery and complexity of life—as she knew it. The serene adherence of one charming and experienced woman to an authority which he had rejected, the almost equally serene indifference on the part of the other to the revelation he held as absolute and final, troubled Julius. Small wonder then, that early, after a solitary breakfast, he retired upon the society of the odd volumes cluttering the shelves of the Long Gallery, that he sorted, arranged, catalogued, grateful for that dulling of thought which mechanical labour brings with it.

But fate was malicious, and elected to make a sport of Julius this morning. Unexpectedly importunate human drama obtruded itself, the deep places of the story—such as, in the innocence page: 24 of his ascetic refinement, he had never dreamed of—began to reveal themselves.

He had climbed the wide, carpeted steps of the library ladder and seated himself on the topmost one, at right angles to a topmost shelf the contents of which he proposed to investigate, duster and notebook in hand. The vast perspective of the gallery lengthened out before him, cool, faint‐tinted, full of a diffused and silvery light. The self‐coloured, unpainted panelling of the walls and bookcases—but one shade warmer in tone than that of the stone mullions and transoms of the lofty windows‐gave an indescribable delicacy of effect to the atmosphere of the room. Through the many‐paned, leaded lights of the eastern bay, the sunshine—misty, full of dancing notes—streamed in obliquely, bringing into quaint prominence of light and shadow a very miscellaneous collection of objects.—A marble Buddha, benign of aspect, his right hand raised in blessing, seated cross‐legged upon the many‐petalled lotus. A pair of cavalier’s jack‐boots, standing just below, most truculent and ungainly of foot‐gear, wooden, hinged, leather‐covered. A trophy of Polynesian spears, shields, and canoe paddles. A bronze Antinous, seductive of bearing and dainty of limb, but roughened by green rust. A collection of old sporting‐prints, softly coloured, covering a bare space of wall, beneath a moose skull, from the broad flat antlers of which hung a pair of Canadian snow‐shoes. Along the inside wall of the great room, placed at regular intervals, were consol tables bearing tall, oriental jars and huge bowls of fine porcelain, filled with potpourri; so that the scent of dried rose‐leaves, bay, verbena, and many spices impregnated the air. The place was, in short, a museum. Whatever of strange, grotesque, and curious, Calmadys of past generations had collected in their wanderings, by land and sea, found lodgment here. It was a home of half‐forgotten histories, of valorous deeds grown dim through the lapse of years; a harbour of refuge for derelict gods, derelict weapons, derelict volumes, derelict instruments which had once discoursed sweet enough music, but the fashion of which had now passed away. The somewhat obsolete sentiment of the place harmonised with the thin, silvery light and the thin sweetness of spices and dead roses which pervaded it. It seemed to smile, as with the pitying tolerance of the benign image of Buddha, upon the heat and flame, the untempered scarlet and purple of the fleeting procession of individual lives, that had ministered to its furnishing. For how much vigorous endeavour, now over and done with, never to be recalled, had indeed gone to supply the furnishing of that room! page: 25 —And, after all, is not the most any human creature dare hope for the more or less dusty corner of some such museum shelf at last? The passion of the heart testified to by some battered trinket, the sweat of the brain by some maggot‐eaten manuscript, the agony of death, at best, by some round shot turned up by the ploughshare? And how shall anyone dare complain of this, since have not empires before now only been saved from oblivion by a few buried potsherds, and whole races of mankind by childish picture‐scratchings on a reindeer bone? Tout lasse, tout passe, tout casse. The individual—his arts, his possessions, his religion, his civilisation —is always as an envelope, merely, to be torn asunder and cast away. Nothing subsists, nothing endures, but life itself, endlessly self‐renewed, endlessly one, through all the endless divergencies of its manifestations. And, as Julius March was to find, hide from it, deny it, strive to elude it as we may, the recognition of just that is bound to grip us sooner or later and hold us with a fearful and dominating power from which there is no escape.

Meanwhile, his occupation was tranquil enough, comfortably remote, as it seemed, from all such profound and disquieting matters. For the top shelf proved not very prolific of interest. One book after another, examined and rejected as worthless, was dropped—with a reproachful flutter of pages and final thud—into the capacious paper‐basket standing on the floor below. Then, at the far end of the said shelf, he came unexpectedly upon a collection of those quaint chap‐books which commanded so wide a circulation during the eighteenth century.

Julius, with the true bibliophile’s interest in all originals, examined his find carefully. The tattered and dogs‐eared, little volumes, coarsely printed and embellished by a number of rough, square woodcuts, had, he knew, a distinct value. He soon perceived that they formed a very representative selection. He glanced at The famous History of Guy of Warwick; at that of Sir Bevis of Southampton; at Joaks upon Joaks, a lively work regarding the manners and customs of the aristocracy at the period of the Restoration; at the record of the amazing adventures of that lusty serving‐wench, Long Meg of Westminster; and at that refreshing piece of comedy known as Merry Tales concerning the Sayings and Doings of the Wise Men of Gotham.

Finally, hidden behind the outstanding frame of the bookcase, he discovered four tiny volumes tied together with a rusty, black ribbon. A heavy coating of dust lay upon them. A large spider, moreover, darted from behind them. Dust clung un‐ page: 26 pleasantly to its hairy and ill‐favoured person. It was a matter of principle with Julius never to take life; yet instinctively he drew back his hand from the books in disgust.

Araignée du matin, chagrin,” he said, involuntarily, while he watched the insect make good its escape over the top of the bookcase.

Then he flicked uneasily at the little parcel with his duster, causing a cloud of grey atoms to float up and out into the room. Julius was perhaps absurdly open to impressions. It took him some seconds to recover from his sense of repulsion and to untie the rusty ribbon around the little books. They all proved to be ragged and imperfect copies of the same work. The woodcuts in them were splotched with crude colour. The title page was printed in assorted type—here a line of Roman capitals, there one in italics or old English letters. The inscription, consequently, was difficult to decipher, causing him to hold the tattered page very close to his short‐sighted eyes. It ran thus—

“Setting forth a true and particular account of the dealings of Sir Thomas Calmady with the Forester’s Daughter and the bloudy death of her Only Child. To which is added her Prophecy and Curse.”

Julius had been standing, so as to reach the length of the shelf. Now he sat down on the top step of the ladder again. A whole rush of memories came upon him. He remembered vaguely how, long ago, in his childhood, he had heard legends of this same curse. Staying here at Brockhurst as a baby‐child with his mother, maids had hinted at it, gossiping over the nursery fire at night; and his mind, irresistibly attracted, even then, by the supernatural, had been filled at once by desperate curiosity and by panic fear. He paused, thinking back, singularly moved, as one on the edge of the satisfaction of long‐desired knowledge, yet slightly contemptuous, both of his own emotion and of the rather vulgar means by which that knowledge promised to be obtained.

The shafts of sunshine fell more obliquely across the eastern end of the gallery. Benign Buddha had passed into shadow; while a painting by Velasquez, standing on an easel near by, caught the light, starting into arresting reality. It represented a hideous and mis‐shapen dwarf, holding a couple of graceful greyhounds in a leash—an unhappy creature who had made sport for the household of some Castilian grandee, and whose gorgeous garments were ingeniously designed to emphasise the physical degradation of his contorted body. This painting, appearing to page: 27 Julius too painful for habitual contemplation, had, at his request, been removed from his study downstairs to its present station. Just now he fancied it looked forth at him queerly insistent. At this distance he could distinguish little more than a flare of scarlet and cloth‐of‐gold, and the white of the hounds’ flanks and bellies, under the strong sunlight. But he knew the picture in all its details; and was oppressed by the remembrance of tragic eyes in a brutal face, eyes that protested dumbly against cruelty inflicted by nature and by mankind alike. He, Julius, was not, so he feared, quite guiltless in this matter. For had there not been a savour of cruelty in his ejection of the portrait of this unhappy being from his peaceful study?

And thinking of this his discomfort augmented. He was assailed by an unreasoning nervousness of something malign, something sinister, about to befall or to become known to him.

Araignée du matin, chagrin,” he repeated involuntarily.

He laid the four little chap‐books back hastily behind the outstanding woodwork of the bookshelf, descended the steps, walked the length of the gallery, and leaning against one of the stone mullions of the great, eastern bay‐window looked out of the wide‐open casement.

The prospect was, indeed, reassuring enough. The softly‐green square of the troco‐ground, the brilliant beds and borders of the brick‐walled gardens, the grey flags of the great terrace —its row of little orange trees, heavy with flower and fruit, set in blue painted tubs—lay below him in a blaze of August sunshine. From the direction of the Long Water in the valley, Richard Calmady rode up, between the thorn trees and the beds of bracken, across the turf slopes of the park. It was a joy to see him ride. The rider and horse were one in vigour and in the repose which comes of vigour—a something classic in the natural beauty and sympathy of rider and of horse. Half‐way up the slope Richard swerved, turned towards the house, sat looking up, hat in hand, while Katherine stood at the edge of the terrace looking down, speaking with him. The warm breeze fluttered her full, muslin skirts, rose and white, and the white lace of her parasol. The rich tones of her voice and the ring of her laughter came up to Julius, as he leant against the stone mullion, along with the droning of innumerable bees, and the cooing of the pink‐footed pigeons—that bowed to one another, spreading their tails, drooping their wings amorously, upon the broad, grey string‐course running along the house‐front just beneath. Mademoiselle de Mirancourt, a small, neat, grey and page: 28 black figure, was beside Katherine, and, now and again, he heard the pretty staccato of her foreign speech. Then Richard Calmady rode onward, turning half round in the saddle, looking up for a moment at the woman he loved. His horse broke into a canter, bearing him swiftly in and out of the shadow of the glistening, domed oaks and ancient, stag‐headed, Spanish chestnuts which crowned the ascent, and on down the long, softly‐shaded vista of the lime avenue. While Camp, the bull‐dog, who had lain panting in the bracken, streaked like a white flash up the hillside in pursuit of his well‐beloved master.

And Julius March moved away from the open window with a sigh. Yet what, after all, of malign or sinister was perceptible, conceivable even, in respect of this glorious morning and these happy people—unless, as he reflected, something of pathos is of necessity ever resident in all beauty, all happiness, the world being sinful, and existence so prolific of pain and melancholy happenings? So he went back, climbed the library steps again, and taking the little bundle of chap‐books from their dusty resting‐place, set himself, in a somewhat penitential spirit, to master their contents. If the occupation was distasteful to him, the more wholesome to pursue it! So, supplying the deficiencies of torn or defaced pages by reference to another of the copies, he arrived by degrees at a clear understanding of the whole matter. The story was set forth in rhyming doggerel. The poet was not blessed with a gift of melody or of style. Absence of scansion tortured the ear. Coarseness of diction offended the taste. And yet, as he read on, Julius reluctantly admitted that the cruel tale gained credibility and moral force from the very homeliness of the language in which it was chronicled.

Thus Julius learned how, during the closing years of the Commonwealth, the young royalist gentleman, Sir Thomas Calmady, dwelling in enforced seclusion at Brockhurst, relieved the tedium of country life by indulgence in divers amours. He was large‐hearted, apparently, and could not see a comely face without attempting intimate acquaintance with the possessor of it. Among other damsels distinguished by his attentions was his head forester’s handsome daughter, whom, under reiterated promise of marriage, he seduced. In due time she bore him a child, ideally beautiful, according to the poet of the chap‐book, blessed with “red‐gold hair and eyes of blue,” and many charms of infantile healthfulness. And yet, notwithstanding the noble looks of her little son, the forester’s page: 29 daughter still remained unwed. For just now came the Restoration, and, along with it, a notable change in the outlook of Sir Thomas Calmady and many another lusty, young gallant; since the event in question not only restored Charles the Second to the arms of his devoted subjects, but restored such loyal gentlemen to the by no means too strait‐laced society of town and court. Thence, some few years later, Sir Thomas—amiably willing in all things to oblige his royal master—brought home a bride, whose rank and wealth, according to the censorious chap‐book, were extensively in excess of her youth and virtue.

Julius lingered a little in contemplation of the quaint woodcut representing the arrival of this lady at Brockhurst. Clothed in a bottle‐green bodice—very generously décolletée—her head adorned by a portentous erection of coronet and feathers, a sanguine dab of colour on her cheek, she craned a skinny neck out of the window of the family coach. Apparently she was engaged in directing the movements of persons—presumably footmen—clad in canary‐coloured coats and armed with long staves. With these last, they treated a female figure, in blue, to, as it seemed, sadly rough usage. And the context informed Julius, in jingling verse, how that poor Hagar, the forester’s daughter, conveniently defiant of custom and of common sense, had stoutly refused to be cast forth into the social wilderness, along with her small Ishmael and a few pounds sterling as price of her honour and content, until she had stood face to face with Sarah, the safely church‐wed, if none too reputable, wife. It informed him, further, how the said small Ishmael—whether alarmed by the violence of my lady’s men‐servants, or wanting merely, childlike, to welcome his returning father—ran to the coach door and clambered on the step; whence, thanks to a vicious thrust —so declares the chap‐book—from “the painted Jezebel within,” he fell, while the horses plunging forward caused the near hind wheel of the heavy, lumbering vehicle to pass over his legs, almost severing them from his body just above the knee.

Thereupon—and here the homely language of the gutter poet rose to a level of rude eloquence—the outraged mother, holding the mangled and dying child in her arms, cursed the man who had brought this ruin upon her—cursed him and, his descendants, to the sixth and seventh generation, good and bad alike. Declaring, moreover, that as judgment on his perfidy and lust, no owner of Brockhurst should reach the life limit set by the Psalmist, and die quiet and page: 30 christianly in his bed, until a somewhat portentous event should have taken place.—Namely, until, as the jingling rhyme set forth:— “—a fatherless babe to the birth shall have come, Of brother or sister shall he have none, But red‐gold hair and eyes of blue And a foot that will never know stocking or shoe. If he opens his purse to the lamenter’s cry, Then the woe shall lift and be laid for aye.”

Julius March, his spare, black figure crouched together, sat on the top step of the library ladder musing. His first movement had been one of refined and contemptuous disgust. Sensuality, and the tragedies engendered by it, were so wholly foreign to his nature and mental outlook, that it was difficult to him to reckon with them seriously and admit the very actual and permanent part which they play, and always have played, in the great drama of human life. It distressed, it, in a sense, annoyed him that the legend of Brockhurst, which had caused him elaborate imaginative terrors during his childhood, should belong to this gross and vulgar order of history. Yet indubitably—as he reluctantly admitted—each owner of Brockhurst had, very certainly, found death in the midst of life, and that according to some rather brutal and bloody pattern. This might, of course, be judged the result of merest coincidence. Had he leisure and opportunity to search them out, he could find, no doubt, plausible explanation of the majority of cases. Only that fact of persistent violence, persistent accident, did remain. It stared him in the face, so to speak, defiant of denial. And the deduction, consequent upon it, stared him in the face likewise. He was constrained to confess that the first clause of the deeply‐wronged mother’s prediction had found ample fulfilment.—Julius paused, shifted his position uneasily, somewhat fearful of the conclusions of his own reasoning.

For how about the second clause of that same prediction? How about the advent of that strange Child of Promise, who pre‐ordained in his own flesh to bear the last and heaviest stroke at the hands of retributive justice, should, rightly bearing it, bring salvation both to himself and to his race? Behind the coarse and illiterate presentment of the chap‐book, Julius began dimly to apprehend a somewhat majestic moral and spiritual tragedy, a tragedy of vicarious suffering crowned by triumphant emancipation. Thus has God, as he reflected with a self‐condemnatory emotion of humility, chosen the base things of the page: 31 world and those which are despised—yea, and the things which are not, to bring to nought the things which are!—His heart, hungry of all martyrdom; all saintly doings, went forth to welcome the idea. But then, he asked himself almost awed, in this sceptical, rationalistic age, are such semi‐miraculous moral examples still possible? And answered, with strong exultation—as one finding practical justification of a long, though silently, cherished conviction—yes, that even now, nineteen centuries after the death of that divine Saving Victim to whose service he had devoted his life and the joys of his manhood, such nobly sad and strange happenings may still be.

And, even while he thus answered, his eyes were drawn involuntarily to the portrait of the unsightly dwarf, painted by Velasquez. The broad shaft of sunlight had crept backward, away from it, leaving the canvas unobtrusive, no longer harshly evident either in violence of colour or grotesqueness of form. It had become part of the great whole merely, modulated to gracious harmony with the divers objects surrounding it, and, like them, softly overlaid by a diffused and silvery light.

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