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The History of Sir Richard Calmady: a Romance . Malet, Lucas, 1852–1931.
page: 456



THE furniture, though otherwise of the customary proportions, had all been dwarfed. This had been achieved in some cases by ingenious design in its construction, in others by the simple process of cutting down, thus reducing table and chair, couch and bureau, in itself of whatever grace of style, dignity of age, or fineness of workmanship, to an equality of uncomely degradation in respect of height. The resultant effect was of false perspective. Nor was this unpleasing effect lessened by the proportions of the room itself. In common with all those of the entresol, it was noticeably low in relation to its length and width, while the stunted vaultings of its darkly‐frescoed ceiling produced an impression of heaviness rather than of space. Bookcases, dwarfed as were all the other furnishings, lined the walls to within about two feet of the spring of the said vaulting. Made of red cedar and unpolished, the cornices and uprights of them were carved with arabesques in high relief. An antique, Persian carpet, sombre in colouring and of great value, covered the greater portion of the pale, pink and grey, mosaic pavement of the floor. Thick, rusty‐red, Genoa‐velvet curtains were drawn page: 457 over each low, square window. A fire of logs burned on the open hearth. And this, notwithstanding the unaccustomed warmth of the outside air, did but temper the chill atmosphere of the room and serve to draw a faint aroma from the carven cedar wood.

It was here, to his library,—carried downstairs by his menservants as a helpless baby‐child might be,—that Richard Calmady had come when Helen de Vallorbes departed so blithely to her bed‐chamber. And it was here he remained, though nearly two hours had elapsed since then, finding sleep impossible.

For the wakefulness and unrest of rapidly breeding illness were upon him. His senses and his will had been in very active conflict. Desire had licked him, as with fiery tongues, driving him onward. Honour, self‐contempt in face of temptation to sensual indulgence, an aspiration after somewhat stoic asceticism which had come to influence his action of late, held him back. But now, here and alone, the immediately provoking cause of passion removed, reaction against the strain of all that had very sensibly set in. He felt strangely astray, as though drifting at hazard upon the waters of an unquiet, mist‐blinded sea. He was conscious of a deep‐seated preoccupation regarding some matter, which he was alike unable to forget or to define. Formless images perplexed his vision. Formless thoughts pursued one another, as with the hurry of rumoured calamity, through his mind. A desolating apprehension of things insufficiently developed, of the inconclusive, the immature, the unattained, of things mutilated, things unfinished, born out of due time and incomplete, oppressed his fancy. Even the events of the last few hours, in which he had played so considerable a part, took on a shadowy semblance, ceased to appeal to him as realities, began to merge themselves in that all‐pervading apprehension of defectiveness, of that which is wanting, lopped off, so to speak, and docked. It was to him as though all natural, common sense relations were in abeyance, as though his own, usually precise, mental processes were divorced from reason and experience, had got out of perspective, in short—even as this low, wide, cedar‐scented library, of which the vaulted ceiling seemed to approach unduly close to the marble floor, and all its dwarfed furnishings, its squat tables and almost legless chairs, had got out of perspective.

The alternate purposeless energy and weariful weakness of fever, just as the alternate dry flush and trembling chill of it, distressed him. He had slipped on a smoking‐coat, but even page: 458 the weight of this thin, silk garment seemed oppressive, although, now and again, he felt as though around his middle he wore a belt of ice. Not without considerable exertion he rolled forward a couch—wide, high‐backed, legless, mounted upon little wheels—to the vicinity of the fire. He drew himself up on to it and rested among the piled‐up cushions. Perhaps, if he waited, exercising patience, sleep might mercifully visit him and deliver him from this intolerable confusion of mind. Deliver him, too, from that hideous apprehension of universal mutilation, of maimed purposes, maimed happenings, of a world peopled by beings maimed as he was himself, but after a more subtle and intimate fashion—a fashion intellectual or moral rather than merely physical—so that they had to him, just now, an added hatefulness of specious lying, since to ordinary seeing they appeared whole, while whole they truly and actually were not.

Sternly he tried to shake himself free of these morbid fancies, to bring his imagination under control and force himself once again to join hands with reality and common sense. And, to this end, he turned his attention to the consideration of practical matters. He dwelt on the details of the coaling and revictualling of his yacht, upon the objective of the voyage upon which he proposed to start a few days hence. He reviewed the letters which must be written and the arrangements which must be made with a view to putting his cousin legally in possession of the villa, the rent of which he proposed still to pay to her husband. This suite of rooms he would retain for his own use. That was necessary, obligatory. Yet, why must he retain it? He did not propose to return and live here at any future time. This episode was over—or rather, had it not simply failed of completion? Was it not, like all the rest, maimed, lopped off, ungainly docked? Then, where came in the obligation to reserve these rooms? He could not remember. Yet he knew that he was compelled to do so, because—because—

And, once again, Richard’s power of concentration broke down. Once again his thought eluded him, becoming tangled, fugitive, not to be grasped. While, like swarms of shrill squeaking bats disturbed in the recesses of some age‐old cavern by sudden intrusion of voices and of lights, half‐formed visions, half‐formed ideas, once again flapped duskily about him, torturing in their multiplicity alike to his senses and his brain. He fought with them, striving to beat them off in a madness of disgust, half suffocated by the fanning of their foul and stifling wings. Then, exhausted by the conflict, he stumbled and fell, page: 459 while they closed down on him. And he, losing consciousness, slept.

That unconsciousness lasted in point of fact but for a few minutes. Yet to Richard those minutes were as years, as centuries. At length, still heavy with dreamless slumber, he was aware of the stealthy turning of a key in a lock. Little padding foot‐falls, soft as those of some strong, yet dainty, cat‐creature crossed the carpet. A whisper of silk came along with them, like the murmur of the breeze in an oak grove on a clear, hot, summer noon, or the sibilant ripple of the sea upon spaces of fine‐ribbed, yellow sand. And the impression produced upon Richard was delicious, as of one passing from a close room into the open air. Confusion and exhaustion left him. Energy returned. The energy of breeding fever merely; yet to him it appeared that of refreshment, of renewed and abounding health. He was conscious, too, of a will outside himself, acting upon his will—a will self‐secure, impregnable, working with triumphant daring toward a single end. It certainly was unmaimed—in its present manifestation in any case. It told, and with assurance, of completion, of attainment. Yielding himself to it, with something of the recklessness a man yields himself to the poison which yet promises relief, Richard opened his eyes.

Before him stood Helen de Vallorbes. In one hand she carried a little lamp. In the other her high‐heeled, cloth‐of‐gold slippers. Her feet were bare. In the haste of the journey, from her bed‐chamber upstairs through the great rooms and down the marble stairs, the fronts of the sea‐blue, sea‐green dressing‐gown she wore had flown apart, thus disclosing not only her delicate night‐dress, but—since this last was fine to the point of transparency—all the secret loveliness of her body and her limbs. Her shining hair curled low upon her forehead, half concealed her pretty ears, and lay upon her shoulders like a little, golden cape. And, from out this brightness of her hair, the exultant laughter bubbling in her throat, the small lamp carried high in one hand, she looked down at Richard Calmady.

“I waited till the hours grew old and you did not come to me, so I have come to you, Dickie,” she said. “Let what will happen to‐morrow, this very certainly shall happen to‐night—that with you and me Love shall have his own way, speak his own language, be worshipped with the rites, be found in the sacraments, ordained by himself, and to which all nature is, and has been, obedient since life on earth first began!”

Helen set down her lamp, let drop her slippers upon the floor, sprang across the intervening space, fierce, yet graceful, as page: 460 some lithe and amorous beast, flung herself down beside Richard Calmady upon the couch, and caressed him with quick, lascivious fingers, while her lips fastened on his lips.

Not till the grey of a rain‐washed, windy morning had come, and Naples had put off its merry sinning, changing from a city of pleasure to a city of labour and, too often, of callously inflicted pain, did Helen de Vallorbes leave the cedar‐scented library. The fire of logs had burnt itself out upon the hearth, and other fires, perhaps, had pretty thoroughly burnt themselves out likewise. Then, with the extinguished lamp in one hand and her high‐heeled, cloth‐of‐gold slippers in the other, she had run swiftly, barefoot, up the cold, marble stairs, through the suite of lofty rooms, her image, in the bleak dimness of the wet morning, given back by their tall mirrors as that of no mortal woman but some fear‐driven, hurrying ghost. Carefully closing the door of the bed‐chamber behind her, she threw her dressing‐gown aside and buried herself in the luxurious softness of the unslept‐in bed. And she was only just in time. Servants began to move to and fro. The house was awake.