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The History of Sir Richard Calmady: a Romance . Malet, Lucas, 1852–1931.
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page: 432

CHAPTER VII

SPLENDIDE MENDAX

UNPUNCTUALITY could not be cited as among Madame de Vallorbes’ offences. Yet, on the morning in question, she was certainly very late for the twelve o’clock breakfast. Richard Calmady—awaiting her coming beneath the glistering dome of the airy pavilion, set in the angle of the terminal wall of the high‐lying garden—had time to become conscious of slight irritation. It was not merely that he was constitutionally impatient of delay, but that his nerves were tiresomely on edge just now. Trifles had power to endanger his somewhat stoic equanimity. But, when at length Helen emerged from the house, irritation was forgotten. Moving through the vivid lights and shadows of the ilex and cypress grove, her appearance had a charm of unwonted simplicity. At first sight her graceful person had the effect of being clothed in a religious habit. Richard’s youthful delight in seeing a woman walk beautifully remained to him. It received satisfaction now. Helen advanced without haste, a certain grandeur in her demeanour, a certain gloom, even as one who takes serious counsel of himself, indifferent to external things, at once actor in, and spectator of, some drama playing itself out in the theatre of his own soul. And this effect of dignity, of self‐recollection, was curiously heightened by her dress—of a very soft and fine woollen material, of spotless white, the lines of it at once flowing and statuesque. While as head‐gear, in place of some startling construction of contemporary, Parisian millinery, she wore, after page: 433 the modest Italian fashion, a black lace mantilla over her bright hair.

Arrived, she greeted Richard curtly; and, without apology for delay, accepted the contents of the first dish offered to her by the waiting men‐servants, ate as though determinedly and putting a force upon herself, and—that which was unusual with her before sundown—drank wine. And, watching her, involuntarily Richard’s thought travelled back to a certain luncheon party at Brockhurst, graced by the presence of genial, puzzle‐headed Lord Fallowfeild and members of his numerous family, when Helen had swept in, even as now, had been self‐absorbed, even as now. Of the drive to Newlands, all in the sad November afternoon, following on that luncheon, he also thought, of communications made by Helen during that drive, and of the long course of event and action directly or indirectly consequent on those communications. He thought of the fog, too, enveloping and almost choking him, when in the early morning driven by furies, still virgin in body as in heart, he had ridden out into a blank and sightless world hoping the chill of it would allay the fever in his blood; and of the fog again, in the afternoon, from out which the branches of the great trees, like famine‐stricken arms in tattered draperies, seemed to pluck evilly at the carriage, as he walked the smoking horses up and down the Newlands drive, waiting for Helen to rejoin him. And now, somehow, that fog seemed to come up between him and the well‐covered breakfast‐table, between him and the radiant expanse of the vivacious, capricious, half‐classic, half‐modern, mercantile city outstretched there, teeming, breeding, fermenting, in the fecundating heat of the noonday sun. The chill of the fog struck cold into his vitals, giving him the strangest physical sensation. Richard straightened himself in his chair, passed his hands across his eyes impatiently. Brockhurst, and all the old life of it, was a subject of which he forbade himself remembrance. He had divorced himself from all that, cut himself adrift from it long ago. By an act of will, he tried to put it out of his mind now. But the fog remained—an actual clouding of his physical vision, blurring all he looked upon, It was horribly uncomfortable. He wished he was alone. Then he might have slipped down from his chair and, according to his poor capacity of locomotion, sought relief in movement.

Meanwhile, silently, mechanically, Helen de Vallorbes continued her breakfast. And as she so continued, in addition to his singular physical sensations of blurred vision and clinging chill, he became aware of a growing embarrassment and constraint page: 434 between himself and his companion. So far, his and her intercourse had been easy and spontaneous, because superficial. Since that first interview on the terrace a tacit agreement had existed to avoid the personal note. Now, for cause unknown, that intercourse threatened entering upon a new phase. It was as though the concentration, the tension, which he observed in her, and of which he was sensible in himself, must of necessity, eventuate in some unbosoming, some act—almost involuntary—of self‐revelation. This unaccustomed silence and restraint seemed to Richard charged with consequences, which, in his present condition of defective volition, he was powerless to prevent. And this displeased him, mastery of surrounding influences being very dear to him.

At last, coffee having been served, the men‐servants withdrew to the house; but the constraint was not thereby lessened. Helen sat upright, her chin resting upon the back of her left hand, her eyes, under their drooping lids, looking out with a veiled fierceness upon the fair and glittering prospect. Richard saw her face in profile. The black mantilla draped her shoulders and bust with a certain austerity of effect. It was evident that—by something—she had been stirred to the extinction of her habitual vivacity and desire to shine. And Richard, for all his coolness of head and rather cynical maturity of outlook, had a restless suspicion of going forth—even as on that foggy morning at Brockhurst—into a blank and sightless world, full of hazardous possibility, where the safe way was difficult of discovery and where masked dangers might lurk. Solicitous to dissipate his discomfort he spoke a little at random.

“You must forgive me for being such an abominably bad host,” he said courteously. “I am not quite the thing this morning, somehow. I had a little go of fever last night. My brain is like so much pulp.”

Helen dropped her hand upon the table as though putting a term to an importunate train of thought.

“I have always understood the villa to be remarkably free from malaria,” she remarked abstractedly.

“So it is. I quite believe that. The servants certainly keep well enough. But so, unfortunately, is not the port.”

Helen turned her head. A vertical line was observable between her arched eyebrows.

“The port?” she repeated.

Richard swallowed his black coffee. Perhaps it might steady him and clear his head. The numbness of his faculties and senses alike exasperated him, filling him with a persuasion he page: 435 would say precisely those things wisdom would counsel to leave unsaid.

“Yes—you know I generally go down and sleep on board the yacht.”

There was a momentary pause. Madame de Vallorbes’ lips parted in a soundless exclamation. Then she pushed back the modest folds of the mantilla, leaving her neck free. The action of her hands was very graceful as she did this, and she looked fixedly at Richard Calmady.

“I did not know that,” she said slowly. Then added, as though reasoning out her own thought:—“And Naples harbour is admittedly one of the most pestilential holes on the face of the earth. Are you not tempting providence in the matter of disease, Richard? Are you not rather wantonly indiscreet?”

“On the contrary,” he answered, and something of mockery touched his expression, “I see it quite otherwise. I have been congratulating myself on the praiseworthy abundance of my discretion.”

And the words were no sooner out of his mouth than Richard cursed himself for a bungler, and a slightly vulgar one at that. But upon his hearer those same words worked a remarkable change. Her gloom, her abstraction, departed, leaving only a pretty pensiveness. She smiled with chastened sweetness upon Richard Calmady—a smile nicely attuned to the semi‐religious simplicity of her dress.

“Ah! perhaps we are both a trifle out of sorts this morning!” she said. “I, too, have had my little turn of sickness—sickness of heart. And that seems unfair, since I rose in the best disposition of spirit. Quite early I went to confession.”

“Confession?” Richard repeated. “I did not know your reconciliation with the Church carried you to such practical lengths.”

“Evidently we are each fated to make small discoveries regarding the habits of the other, to‐day,” she rejoined. “Possibly confession is to me just what those nights spent on board the yacht, lying in that malodorous harbour, are to you!”

Helen’s smile broadened to a dainty naughtiness, infinitely provoking. But pensiveness speedily supervened, She folded her hands upon the edge of the table and looked down at them meditatively.

“I relieved my conscience. Not that there was much to relieve it of, thank Heaven! We have lived austerely enough most of us, this winter in France. Only it becomes a matter of moral, personal cleanliness, after a time, all that—exaggerated, page: 436 but very comfortable. Just as one takes one’s bath twice daily, not that it is necessary but that it is a luxury of physical purity and self‐respect, so one comes to go to confession. That is a luxury of moral purification. It is as a bath to the soul, ministering to the perfection of its cleanliness and health.”

She looked up at Richard smiling, that same dainty naughtiness very present.

“You observe I am eminently candid. I tell you exactly how my religion affects me. I can only reach high‐thinking through acts which are external and concrete. In short, I am a born sacramentalist.”

And Richard listened, interested and entertained. Yet, since that strange blurring of fog still confused his vision and his judgment, vaguely suspicious that he missed the main intent of her speech. Suspicious as one who, listening to the clever patter of a conjurer, detects in it the effort to distract attention from some difficult feat of legerdemain, until that feat has past from attempt merely into accomplished fact.

“And, indirectly, that is where my heart‐sickness comes in,” she continued, with a return to something of her former abstraction and gloom. “I was coming away, coming back here—and I was very happy. It is not often one can say that. And then—pouf—like that,” she brought her hands smartly together, “the charming bubble burst! For, upon the very church steps, I met a man whom I have every cause to hate.”

As she spoke, the fog seemed to draw away, burnt up by the great, flaming sun‐god there. Richard’s brain grew clear—clearer, indeed, than in perfect health—and his still face grew more still than was, even to it, quite natural.

“Well?” he asked, almost harshly.

And Helen, whose faith in her own diplomacy had momentarily suffered eclipse, rejoiced. For the tone of his voice betrayed, not disgust, but anxiety. It stirred her as a foretaste of victory. And victory had become a maddening necessity to her. Destournelle had forced her hand. His natural infirmity of purpose relieved her of the fear he could work her any great mischief. Yet his ingenuity, inspired by wounded vanity, might prove beyond her calculations. It is not always safe to forecast the future by experience of the past in relation to such a being as Destournelle! Therefore it became of supreme importance, before that gentleman had time further to obtrude himself, to bind Richard Calmady by some speech, some act, from which there was no going back. And more than just that. The sight of her ex‐lover, though she now loathed him— page: 437 possibly just because she so loathed him—provoked passion in her. It was as though only in a new intrigue could she rid herself of the remembrance of the old intrigue which was now so detestable to her. She craved to do him that deepest, most ultimate, despite. And passion cried out in her. The sight of him, though she loathed him, had made her utterly weary of chastity. All of which emotions—but held as hounds in a leash, ready to be slipped when the psychological moment arrived, and by no means to be slipped until the arrival of it—dictated the tenor of her next speech.

“Well,” she answered, with an air of half‐angry sincerity altogether convincing, “I really don’t know that I am particularly proud of the episode. I know I was careless, that I laid myself open to the invidious comment, which is usually the reward of all disinterested action. One learns to accept it as a matter of course. And you see Paul Destournelle”—

“Oh, Destournelle!” Richard exclaimed.

“You have read him?”

“Everyone has read him.”

“And what do you think of him?”

“That his technique is as amazingly clever as his thought is amazingly rotten.”

“I know—I know,” she said eagerly. “And that is just what induced me to do all I could for him. If one could cut the canker away, give him backbone and decency, while retaining that wonderful technique, one would have a second and a greater Théophile Gautier.”

Richard was looking full at her. His face had more colour, more animation, than usual.

“If—yes—if,” he returned. “But that same if bulks mighty big to my mind.”

“I know,” she repeated. “Yet it seemed to me worth the attempt. And then, you understand,—who better?—that if one’s own affairs are not conspicuously happy, one has all the more longing the affairs of others should be crowned with success. And this winter specially, among the sordid miseries, disgraces, deprivations, of the siege, one was liable to take refuge in an over‐exalted altruism. It was difficult in so mad a world not to indulge in personal eccentricity—to the neglect of due worship of the great goddess Conventionality. With death in visible form at every street corner, one’s sense of humour, let alone one’s higher faculties, rebelled against the futility of such worship. So many detestable sights and sounds were perpetually presented to one—not to mention broth of abominable things daily for dinner page: 438 —that one turned, with thanksgiving, to beautiful form in art, to perfectly felicitous words and phrases. The meaning of them mattered but little just then. They freed one from the tyranny of more or less disgusting fact. They satisfied eye and ear. One asked nothing more just then—luckily, you will say, since the animal Destournelle has very surely nothing more to give.”

In speaking, Helen pushed her chair back, turning it sideways to the table. Her speech was alive with varied and telling inflections. Her smallest gesture had in it something descriptive and eloquent.

“And so I fell to encouraging the animal,” she continued, almost plaintively, yet with a note of veiled laughter in her voice. “Reversing the order of Circe—Naples inclines one to classic illustration, sometimes a little hackneyed—by the way, speaking of Naples, look at the glory of it all just now, Richard!—I tried to turn, not men to swine, but swine to men. And I failed, of course. The gods know best. They never attempt metamorphosis on the ascending scale! I let Destournelle come to see me frequently. The world advised itself to talk. But, being rather bitterly secure of myself, I disregarded that. If one is aware that one’s heart was finally and long ago disposed of, one ceases to think seriously of that side of things. You must know all that well enough—witness the sea‐born furnishings of my bedroom upstairs.”

For half a minute she paused. Richard made no comment.

“Hard words break no bones,” she added lightly. “And so, to show how much I despised all such censorious cackle, I allowed Destournelle to travel south with me when I left Paris.”

“You pushed neglect of the worship of conventionality rather far,” Richard said.

Helen rose to her feet. Excitement gained on her, as always during one of her delightful improvisations, her talented vivâ voce improvements on dry‐as‐dust fact. She laughed softly, biting her lip. More than one hound had been slipped by now. They made good running. She stood by Richard Calmady, looking down at him, covering him, so to speak, with her eyes. The black mantilla no longer veiled her bright head. It had fallen to the ground, and lay a dark blot upon the mellow fairness of the tesselated pavement. White‐robed, statuesque—yet not with the severe grace of marble, but with that softer, more humanly seductive grace of some figure of cunningly tinted ivory—she appeared, just then, to gather up in herself all the poetry, the intense and vivid light, the victorious vitality, of the clear, burning, southern noon.

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“Ah, well, conventionality proved perfectly competent to avenge herself!” she exclaimed. “The animal Destournelle took the average, the banal view, as might have been anticipated. He had the insane presumption to suppose it was himself, not his art, in which I was interested. I explained his error, and departed. I recovered my equanimity. That took time. I felt soiled, degraded. And then to‐day I meet him again, unashamed, actually claiming recognition. I repeated my explanation with uncompromising lucidity”—

Richard moved restlessly in his chair, looking up almost sharply at her.

“Waste of breath,” he said. “No explanation is lucid if the hearer is unwilling to accept it.”

And then the two cousins, as though they had reached unexpectedly some parting of the ways, calling for instant decision in respect of the future direction of their journey, gazed upon one another strangely—each half defiant of the other, each diligent to hide his own and read the other’s thought, each sensible of a crisis, each at once hurried and arrested by suspicion of impending catastrophe, unless this way be chosen that declined—though it seemed, in good truth, not in their keeping, but in that of blind chance only that both selection and rejection actually resided. And, in this strait, neither habit of society, fine sword‐play of diplomacy and tact, availed to help them. For suddenly they had outpaced all that, and brought up amongst ancient and secular springs of action and emotion before which civilisation is powerless and the ready tongue of fashion dumb.

But even while he so gazed, in fateful suspense and indecision, the fog came up again, chilling Richard Calmady’s blood, oppressing his brain as with an uprising of foul miasma, blurring his vision, so that Helen’s fair, downward‐gazing face was distorted, rendered illusive and vague. And, along with this, distressing restlessness took him, compelling him to seek relief in change of posture and of place. He could not stop to reckon with how that which he proposed to do might strike an onlooker. His immediate sensations filled his whole horizon. Silently he slipped down from his chair, stood a moment, supporting himself with one hand on the edge of the table, and then moved forward to that side of the pavilion which gave upon the garden. Here the sunshine was hot upon the pavement, and upon the outer half of each pale, slender column. Richard leant his shoulder against one of these, grateful for the genial heat.

Since her first and somewhat inauspicious meeting with him in childhood, Helen had never, close at hand, seen Richard page: 440 Calmady walk thus far. She stared, fascinated by that cruel spectacle. For the instant transformation of the apparently tall, and conspicuously well‐favoured, courtly gentleman, just now sitting at table with her, into this shuffling, long‐armed, crippled dwarf was, at first utterly incredible, then portentous, then, by virtue of its very monstrosity, absorbing and, to her, adorable, whetting appetite as veritable famine might. Chastity became to her more than ever absurd, a culpable waste of her own loveliness, of sensation, of emotion, a sin against those vernal influences working in this generous nature surrounding her and working in her own blood. All the primitive instinct of her womanhood called aloud in her that she must wed—must wed. And the strident voice of the great, painted city coming up to her, urgent, incessant, carried the same message; as did the radiant sea, whose white lips kissed the indented coast‐line as though pale and hungry with love. While the man before her, by his very abnormality and a certain secretness inevitable in that, heightened her passion. He was to her of all living men most desirable, so that she must win him and hold him, must see and know.

In a few steps, light as those of the little, rose‐crowned dancer of long ago, she followed him across the shining floor. There was a point of north in the wind, adding exhilaration to the firm sunshine as ice to rare wine. The scent of narcissus, magnolia, and lemon blossom was everywhere. The cypresses yielded an aromatic, myrrh‐like sweetness. The uprising waters of the fountain, set in the central alley, swerved southward, falling in a jewelled rain. Helen, in her spotless raiment, came close and Richard Calmady turned to her. But his eyes no longer questioned hers. They were as windows opening on to empty space, seeing all, yet telling nothing. His face had become still again and inscrutable, lightened only by that flickering, mocking smile. It seemed as though the psychological moment were passed; and social sense, ordinary fashions of civilised intercourse, had not only come back but come to stay.

“I think we will omit Destournelle from our talk in future,” he said. “As a subject of conversation I find he disagrees with me, notwithstanding his felicity of style and his admirable technique. I will give orders which, I hope, may help to protect you from annoyance in future. In this delightful land, by wise exercise of just a little bribery and corruption, it is still possible to make the unwelcome alien prefer to seek health and entertainment elsewhere. Now, will you like to go back to the house?”

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The approach to the pavilion from the lower level of the garden was by a carefully graded slope of Roman brick, set edgewise. At regular intervals of about eighteen inches this was crossed—on the principle of a gang‐plank—by raised, marble treads. Without waiting for his cousin’s reply, Richard started slowly down the slope. At the best of times this descent for him demanded caution. Now his vision was again so queerly blurred that he miscalculated the distance between the two lowest treads, slipped and stumbled, lunging forward. Quick as a cat, Madame de Vallorbes was behind him, her right hand grasping his right elbow, her left hand under his left armpit.

“Ah! Dickie, Dickie, don’t fall!” she cried, a sudden terror in her voice.

Her muscles hardened like steel. It needed all her strength to support him, for he was heavy, his body inert as that of one fainting. For a moment his head rested against her bosom; and her breath came short, sighing against his neck and cheek.

By sheer force of will Richard recovered his footing, disengaging himself from her support, shuffling aside from her.

“A thousand thanks, Helen,” he said.

Then he looked full at her, and she—untender though she was—perceived that the perspective of space on which, as windows might, his eyes seemed to open, was not empty. It was peopled, crowded—even as those steep teeming byways of Naples—by undying, unforgetable misery, by humiliation, by revolt.

“Yes, it is rather unpardonable to be—as I am—isn’t it?” he said. Adding hastily, yet with a certain courteous dignity:—“I am ashamed to trouble you, to ask you—of all people—to run messages for me—but would you go on to the house”—

“Dickie, why may not I help you?” she interrupted.

“Ah!” he said, “the answer to that lies away back in the beginning of things. Even unlucky devils, such as myself, are not without a certain respect for that which is fitting, for seemliness and etiquette. Send one of my men please. I shall be very grateful to you—thanks.”

And Helen de Vallorbes, her passion baulked and therefore more than ever at white heat, swept up the paved alley, amid the sweet scents of the garden, beneath the jewelled rain of the fountain, that point of north in the wind dallying with her as in laughing challenge, making her the more mad to have her way with Richard Calmady, yet knowing that of the two—he and she—he was the stronger as yet.

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