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The History of Sir Richard Calmady: a Romance . Malet, Lucas, 1852–1931.
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page: 52

CHAPTER VII

MRS. WILLIAM ORMISTON SACRIFICES A WINE GLASS TO FATE

MRS. ST. QUENTIN’S health became increasingly fragile that autumn; and the weight of the sorrow which had fallen upon Brockhurst bowed her to the earth. Her desire was to go to Lady Calmady, wrap her about with tenderness and strengthen her in patience. But, though the spirit was willing, the flesh was weak. Daily she assured Mademoiselle de Mirancourt that she was better, that she would be able to start for England in the course of the next week. Yet day after day, week after week, passed by, and still the two ladies lingered in the pretty apartment of the rue de Rennes. Day by day, and week by week, moreover, the elder lady grew more feeble, left her bed later in the morning, sought it earlier at night, finally resigned the attempt to leave it at all. The keepers of Lucia St. Quentin’s house of life trembled, desire—even of gentle ministries—began to fail, the sound of the grinding was low. Yet neither she, nor her lifelong friend, nor her doctor, nor the few intimate acquaintances who were still privileged to visit her, admitted that she would never set forth on that journey to England at all, but only on that quite other journey,—upon which Richard Calmady had already set forth in the fulness of his manhood,—and upon which, the manifold uncertainties of human existence notwithstanding, we are, each one of us, so perfectly certain to set forth at last. Silently they agreed with her to treat her increasing weakness with delicate stoicism, to speak of it—if at all—merely as a passing indisposition, so allowing no dreary, lamentable element to obtrude itself. Sad Mrs. St. Quentin might be, bitterly sad at heart, perplexed by the rather incomprehensible dealings of God with man. Yet, to the end, she would remain charming, gently gay even, both out of consideration for others and out of a fine self‐respect, since she held it the mark of a cowardly and ignoble nature to let anything squalid appear in her attitude towards grief, old age, or death.

But Brockhurst she would never see again. The way was too great for her. And so it came about that when Lady Calmady’s child was born, towards the end of the following March, no more staid and responsible woman‐creature of her family was at hand to support her than that lively, young lady, her brother, William Ormiston’s wife.

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Meanwhile, the parish of Sandyfield rejoiced. Thomas Caryll, the rector, had caused the church bells to be rung immediately on receipt of the good news; while he selected, as text for his Sunday‐morning sermon, those words, usually reserved to another and somewhat greater advent—“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.” Good Mr. Caryll was innocent of the remotest intention of profanity. But his outlook was circumscribed, his desire to please abnormally large, and his sense of relative values slight. While that Lady Calmady should give birth to a son and heir was, after all, a matter of no small moment—locally considered at all events.

Brockhurst House rejoiced also, yet it did so not without a measure of fear. For there had been twenty‐four hours of acute anxiety regarding Katherine Calmady. And even now, on the evening of the second day, although Dr. Knott declared himself satisfied both as to her condition and that of the baby, an air of mystery surrounded the large, state bedroom—where she lay, white and languid, slowly feeling her way back to the ordinary conditions of existence—and the nursery next door. Mrs. Denny, who had taken possession by right divine of long and devoted service, not only did not encourage, but positively repulsed visitors. Her ladyship must not be disturbed. She, the nurse, the baby, in turn, were sleeping. According to Denny the god of sleep reigned supreme in those stately, white‐panelled chambers, looking away, across the valley and the long lines of the elm avenue, to the faint blue of the chalk downs rising against the southern sky.

John Knott had driven over, for the second time that day, in the windy March sunset. He fell in very readily with Mrs. Ormiston’s suggestion that he should remain to dinner. That young lady’s spirits were sensibly on the rise. It is true that she had wept copiously at intervals while her sister‐in‐law’s life appeared to be in danger—keeping at the same time as far from the sick‐room as the ample limits of Brockhurst House allowed, and wishing herself a thousand and one times safe back in Paris, where her devoted and obedient husband occupied a subordinate post at the English Embassy. But Mrs. Ormiston’s tears were as easily stanched as set flowing. And now, in her capacity of hostess, with three gentlemen—or rather “two and a half, for you can’t,” as she remarked, “count a brother‐in‐law for a whole one”—as audience, she felt remarkably cheerful. She had been over to Newlands during the afternoon, and insisted on Mary Cathcart returning with her. Mrs. Ormiston was a Desmolyns. The Cathcarts are distantly connected with that family. And, page: 54 when the girl had protested that this was hardly a suitable moment for a visit to Brockhurst, Charlotte Ormiston had replied, with that hint of a brogue which gave her ready speech its almost rollicking character:—

“But, my dear child, propriety demands it. I depart myself to‐morrow. And, now that we’re recovering our tone, I daren’t be left with such a houseful of men on my hands any longer. While we were tearing our hair over poor Kitty’s possible demise, and agonising as to the uncertain sex of the baby, it did not matter. But now even that dear creature, Saint Julius, is beginning to pick up, and looks less as if his diet was mouldy peas and his favourite plaything a cat‐o’‐nine‐tails. Scourge?—Yes, of course, but it’s all the same in the application of the instrument, you know. And then in your secret soul, Mary dear,” she added, not unkindly, “there’s no denying it’s far from obnoxious to you to spend a trifle of time in the society of Roger.”

Mrs. Ormiston carried her point. It may be stated, in passing, that this sprightly, young matron was brilliantly pretty, though her facial angle might be deemed too acute, leaving somewhat to be desired in the matter of forehead and of chin. She was plump, graceful, and neat waisted. Her skin was exquisitely white and fine, and a charming colour flushed her cheeks under excitement. Her hair was always untidy, her hairpins displaying abnormal activity in respect of escape and independent action. Her eyes were round and very prominent, suggestive of highly‐polished, brown agates. She was not the least shy or averse to attracting attention. She laughed much, and practised, as prelude to her laughter, an impudently, coquettish, little stare.—And that, finally, as he sat on her right at dinner, her rattling talk and lightness of calibre generally struck John Knott as rather cynically inadequate to the demands made by her present position. Not that he underrated her good‐nature or was insensible to her personal attractions. But the doctor was in search of an able coadjutor just then, blessed with a steady brain and a tongue skilled in tender diplomacies. For there were trying things to be said and done, and he needed a woman of a fine spirit to do and say them aright.

“Head like an eft,” he said to himself, as course followed course and, while bandying compliments with her, he watched and listened. “As soon set a harlequin to lead a forlorn hope. Well it’s to be trusted her husband’s some use for her—that’s more than I have anyhow, so the sooner we see her off the premises the better. Suppose I shall have to fall back on Ormiston. Bit of a rake, I expect, though in looks he is so page: 55 curiously like that beautiful, innocent, young thing upstairs. Wonder how he’ll take it? No mistake, it’s a facer!”

Dr. Knott settled himself back squarely in his chair and pushed his cheese‐plate away from him, while his shaggy eyebrows drew together as he fixed his eyes on the young man at the head of the table.

“A facer!” he repeated to himself. “Yes, the ancients knew what they were about in these awkward matters. The modern conscience is disastrously anæmic.”

Although it looks on the terrace, the dining‐room at Brockhurst is among the least cheerful of the living rooms. The tapestry with which it is hung—representing French hunting scenes, each panel set in a broad border pattern of birds, fruits and leaves, interspersed with classic urns and medallions—is worked in neutral tints of brown, blue, and grey. The chimney‐piece, reaching the whole height of the wall, is of liver‐coloured marble. At the period in question, it was still the fashion to dine at the modestly early hour of six; and, the spring evenings being long, the curtains had been left undrawn, so that the dying daylight without and the lamplight within contended rather mournfully for mastery, while a wild, south‐easterly wind, breaking in gusts against the house front, sobbed at the casements and made a loose pane, here and there, click and rattle.

And it was in the midst of a notably heavy gust, when dessert had been served and the servants had left the room, that Captain Ormiston leaned across the table and addressed his sister‐in‐law.

The young soldier had been somewhat gloomy and silent during dinner. He was vaguely anxious about Lady Calmady. The news of Mrs. St. Quentin was critical, and he cherished a very true affection for his great‐aunt. Had she not been his confidante ever since his first term at Eton? Had she not, moreover, helped him on several occasions when creditors displayed an incomprehensibly foolish pertinacity regarding payment for goods supplied? He was burdened too by a prospective sense of his own uncommon righteousness. For, during the past five months while he had been on leave at Brockhurst, assisting Katherine to master the details of the very various business of the estate, Ormiston had revised his position and decided on heroic measures of reform. He would rid himself of debt, forswear expensive London habits, and those many pleasant iniquities which every great city offers liberally to such handsome, fine gentlemen as himself. He actually proposed, just so soon as Katherine could conveniently spare him, to decline from the splendid inactivity of the Guards, upon page: 56 the hard work of some line regiment under orders for foreign service. Ormiston was quite affected by contemplation of his own good resolutions. He appeared to himself in a really pathetic light. He would like to have told Mary Cathcart all about it and have claimed her sympathy and admiration. But then, she was just precisely the person he could not tell, until the said resolutions had, in a degree at all events, passed into accomplished fact! For—as not infrequently happens—it was not so much a case of being off with the old love before being on with the new, as of being off with the intermediate loves, before being on with the old one again. To announce his estimable future, was, by implication at all events, to confess a not wholly estimable past. And so Roger Ormiston, sitting that night at dinner beside the object of his best and most honest affections, proved but poor company; and roused himself, not without effort, to say to his sister‐in‐law:—

“It’s about time to perform the ceremony of the evening, isn’t it, Charlotte, and drink that small boy’s health?”

“By all manner of means. I’m all for the observance of ancient forms and ceremonies. You can never be sure how much mayn’t lie at the bottom of them, and it’s best to be on the safe side of the unseen powers. You’ll agree to that now, Mr. March, won’t you?”—She took a grape skin from between her neat teeth and flicked it out on to her plate.—“So, for myself,” she went on, “I curtsey nine times to the new moon, though the repeated genuflexion is perniciously likely to give me the backache; touch my hat in passing to the magpies; wish when I behold a piebald; and bless my neighbour devoutly if he sneezes.”

At the commencement of this harangue she met her brother‐in‐law’s rather depreciative scrutiny with her bold little stare—in his present mood Ormiston found her vivacity tedious, though he was usually willing enough to laugh at her extravagancies—then she whipped Julius in with a side glance, and concluded with her round eyes set on Dr. Knott’s rough‐hewn and weather‐beaten countenance.

“I’m afraid you are disgracefully superstitious, Mrs. Ormiston,” the latter remarked.

She was a feather‐headed chatterbox, he reflected, but her chatter served to occupy the time. And the doctor was by no means anxious the time should pass too rapidly. He felt slightly self‐contemptuous; but in good truth he would be glad to put away some few glasses of sound port before administering the aforementioned facer to Captain Ormiston.

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“Superstitious?” she returned. “Well, I trust my superstition is not chronic, but nicely intermittent like all the rest of my many virtues. Charity begins at home, you know, and I would not like to keep any of the poor, dear creatures on guard too long for fear of tiring them out. But I give every one of them a turn, Dr. Knott, I assure you.”

“And that’s more than most of us do,” he said, smiling rather savagely. “The majority of my acquaintance have a handsome power of self‐restraint in the practice of virtue.”

“And I’m the happy exception! Well, now, that’s an altogether pretty speech,” Mrs. Ormiston cried, laughing. “But to return to the matter in hand, to this hero of a baby—I dote on babies, Dr. Knott. I’ve one of my own of six months old, and she’s a charming child I assure you.”

“I don’t doubt that for an instant, having the honour of knowing her mother. Couldn’t be otherwise than charming if she tried,” the doctor said, reaching out his hand again to the decanter.

Mrs. Ormiston treated him to her little stare, and then looked round the table, putting up one plump, bare arm as she pushed in a couple of hairpins.

“Ah! but she’s a real jewel of a child,” she said audaciously. “She’s the comfort of my social existence. For she doesn’t resemble me in the least, and therefore my reputation’s everlastingly safe, thanks to her. Why, before the calumniating thought has had time to arise in your mind, one look in that child’s face will dissipate it, she’s so entirely the image of her father.”

There was a momentary silence, but for the sobbing of the gale and rattling of the casements. Then Captain Ormiston broke into a rather loud laugh. Even if they sail near the wind, you must stand by the women of your family.

“Come, that will do, I think; Charlotte,” he said. “You won’t beat that triumphant bull in a hurry.”

“But, my dear boy, so she is. Even at her present tender age, she’s the living picture of your brother William.”

“Oh, poor William!” Roger said hastily.

He turned to Mary Cathcart. The girl had blushed up to the roots of her crisp, black hair. She did not clearly understand the other woman’s speech, nor did she wish to do so. She was admirably pure‐minded. But, like all truly pure‐minded persons, she carried a touchstone that made her recoil, directly and instinctively, from that which was of doubtful quality. The twinkle in Dr. Knott’s grey eyes, as he sipped his port, still more the tone of Roger Ormiston’s laugh, she did understand some‐ page: 58 how. And this last jarred upon her cruelly. It opened the flood‐gates of doubt which Mary—like so many another woman in respect of the man she loves—had striven very valiantly to keep shut. All manner of hints as to his indiscretions, all manner of half‐told tales as to his debts, his extravagance, which rumour had conveyed to her unwilling ears, seemed suddenly to gather weight and probability, viewed in the moral light—so to speak—of that laugh. Great loves mature and deepen under the action of sorrow and the necessity to forgive; yet it is a shrewdly bitter moment, when the heart of either man or woman first admits that the god of its idolatry has, after all, feet of but very common clay. Her head erect, her eyes moist, Mary turned to Julius March and asked him of the welfare of a certain labourer’s family that had lately migrated from Newlands to Sandyfield. But Ormiston’s voice broke in upon the inquiries with a determination to claim her attention.

“Miss Cathcart,” he said, “forgive my interrupting you. I can tell you more about the Spratleys than March can. They’re all right. Iles has taken the man on as carter at the home‐farm, and given the eldest boy a job with the woodmen. I told him to do what he could for them as you said you were interested in them. And now, please, I want you to drink my small nephew’s health.”

The girl pushed forward her wine glass without speaking, and, as he filled it, Ormiston added in a lower tone:—

“He, at all events, unlike some of his relations, is guiltless of foolish words or foolish actions. I don’t pretend to share Charlotte’s superstitions, but some people’s good wishes are very well worth having.”

Unwillingly Mary Cathcart raised her eyes. Her head was still carried a little high and her cheeks were still glowing. Her god might not be of pure gold throughout—such gods rarely are, unfortunately—yet she was aware she still found him a very worshipful kind of deity.

“Very well worth having,” he repeated. “And so I should like that poor, little chap to have your good wishes, Miss Cathcart. Wish him all manner of nice things, for his mother’s sake as well as his own. There’s been a pretty bad run of luck here lately, and it’s time it changed. Wish him better fortune than his forefathers. I’m not superstitious, as I say, but Richard Calmady’s death scared one a little. Five minutes beforehand it seemed so utterly improbable. And then one began to wonder if there could be any truth in the old legend. And that was ugly, you know.”

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Dr. Knott glanced at the speaker sharply.—“Oh! that occurred to you, did it?” he said.

“Bless me! why, it occurred to everybody!” Ormiston answered impatiently. “Some idiot raked the story up, and it was canvassed from one end of the county to the other last autumn till it made me fairly sick.”

“Poor boy!” cried Mrs. Ormiston. “And what is this wonderful story that so nauseates him, Dr. Knott?”

“I’m afraid I can’t tell you,” the doctor answered slowly. A nervous movement on the part of Julius March had attracted his attention. “I have never managed to get hold of the story as a whole, but I should like to do so uncommonly.”

Julius pushed back his chair, and groped hurriedly for the dinner‐napkin which had slipped to the ground from his knees. The subject of the conversation agitated him. The untidy, little chap‐books, tied together with the tag of rusty ribbon, had lain undisturbed in the drawer of his library table ever since the—to him—very memorable evening, when, kneeling before the image of the stricken Mother and the dead Christ, he had found the man’s heart under the priest’s cassock and awakened to newness of life. Much had happened since then; and Julius had ranged himself, accepting, open‐eyed, the sorrows and alleviations of the fate he had created for himself. But to‐night he was tired. The mental and emotional strain of the last few days had been considerable. Moreover, John Knott’s presence always affected him. The two men stood, indeed, at opposing poles of thought—the one spiritual and ideal, the other material and realistic. And, though he struggled against the influence, the doctor’s rather brutal common sense and large knowledge of physical causes, gained a painful ascendency over his mind at close quarters. Knott, it must be owned, was slightly merciless to his clerical acquaintances. He loved to bait them, to impale them on the horns of some moral or theological dilemma. And it was partly with this purpose of harrying and worrying that he continued now:—

“Yes, Mrs. Ormiston, I should like to hear the story just as much as you would. And—it strikes me, if he pleased, Mr. March could tell it to us. Suppose you ask him to!”

Promptly the young lady fell upon Julius, regardless of Ormiston’s hardly concealed displeasure.

“Oh! you bad man, what are you doing,” she cried, “trying to conceal thrilling family legends from the nearest relatives? Tell us all about it, if you know, as Dr. Knott declares you do. I dote on terrifying stories—don’t you, Mary?—that send the page: 60 cold shivers all down my back. And if they deal with the history of my nearest and dearest, why, there’s an added charm to them. Now, Mr. March, we’re all attention. Stand and deliver, and make it all just as bad as you can.”

“I am afraid I am not an effective improvisatore,” he replied. “And the subject, if you will pardon my saying so, seems to me too intimate for mirth. A curse is supposed to rest on this place. The owners of Brockhurst die young and by violent means.”

“We know that already, and look to you to tell us something more, Mr. March,” Dr. Knott said dryly.

Julius was slightly nettled at the elder man’s tone and manner. He answered with an accentuation of his usual refinement of enunciation and suavity of manner.

“There is a term to the curse—a saviour who, according to the old prediction, has the power, should he also have the will, to remove it altogether.”

“Oh, really, is that so? And when does this saviour put in an appearance?” the doctor asked again.

“That is not revealed.”

Julius would very gladly have said nothing further. But Dr. Knott’s expression was curiously intent and compelling as he sat fingering the stem of his wine glass. All the ideality of Julius’s nature rose in revolt against the half‐sneering rationalism he seemed to read in that expression. Mrs. Ormiston, who had an hereditary racial appreciation of anything approaching a fight, turned her round eyes first on one speaker and then on the other provokingly, inciting them to more declared hostilities, while she bit her lips in the effort to avoid spoiling sport by untimely laughter or speech.

“But unhappily,” Julius proceeded, yielding under protest to these opposing forces, “the saviour comes in so questionable a shape, that I fear, whenever the appointed time may be, his appearance will only be welcomed by the discerning few.”

“That’s a pity,” Dr. Knott said. He paused a minute, passed his hand across his mouth.—“Still, if we are to believe the Bible, and other so‐called sacred histories, it’s been the way of saviours from the beginning to try the faith of ordinary mortals by presenting themselves under rather queer disguises.”—He paused again, drawing in his wide lips, moistening them with his tongue. “But since you evidently know all about it, Mr. March, may I make bold to inquire in what special form of fancy dress the saviour in question is reported as likely to present himself?”

“He comes as a child of the house,” Julius answered, with page: 61 dignity. “A child who in person—if I understand the wording of the prophecy aright—is half angel, half monster.”

John Knott opened his mouth as though to give passage to some very forcible exclamation. Thought better of it and brought his jaws together with a kind of grind. His heavy figure seemed to hunch itself up as in the recoil from a blow.

“Curious,” he said quietly. Yet Julius, looking at him, could have fancied that his weather‐beaten face went a trifle pale.

But Mrs. Ormiston, in the interests of a possible fight, had contained herself just as long as was possible. Now she clapped her hands, and broke into a little scream of laughter.

“That’s just the most magnificently romantic thing I ever heard!” she cried. “Come now, this requires further investigation. What’s our baby like, Dr. Knott? I’ve seen nothing but an indistinguishable mass of shawls and flannels. Have we, by chance, got an angelic monstrosity upstairs without being aware of it?”

“Charlotte!” Roger Ormiston called out sternly. The young man looked positively dangerous. “This conversation has gone quite far enough. I agree with March, it may all be stuff and nonsense, not worth a second thought, still it isn’t a thing to joke about.”

“Very well, dear boy, be soothed then,” she returned, making a little grimace and putting her head on one side coquettishly. “I’ll be as solemn as nine owls. But you must excuse a momentary excitement. It’s all news to me, you know. I’d no notion Katherine had married into such a remarkable family. I’m bound to learn a little more. Do you believe it’s possible at all, Dr. Knott, now tell me?”

“The fulfilment of prophecy is rather a wide and burning question to embark on,” he said. “With Captain Ormiston’s leave, I think we’d better go back to the point we started from and drink the little gentleman’s health. I have my patient to see again, and it is getting rather late.”

The lady addressed, laughed, held up her glass, and stared round the table with a fine air of bravado, looking remarkably pretty.

“Fire away, Roger, dear fellow,” she said. “We’re loaded, and ready.”

Thus admonished, Ormiston raised his glass too. But his temper was not of the sweetest, just then, he spoke forcedly.

“Here’s to the boy,” he said; “good luck, and good health, page: 62 and,” he added hastily, “please God he’ll be a comfort to his mother.”

“Amen,” Julius said softly.

Dr. Knott contemplated the contents of his glass, for a moment, whether critically or absently it would have been difficult to decide. But all the harshness had gone out of his face, and his loose lips worked into a smile pathetic in quality.

“To the baby.—And I venture to add a clause to your invocation of that heartless jade, Dame Fortune. May he never lack good courage and good friends. He will need both.”

Julius March set down his wine untasted. He had received a very disagreeable impression.

“Come, come, it appears to me, we are paying these honours in a most lugubrious spirit,” Mrs. Ormiston broke in. “I wish the baby a long life and a merry one, in defiance of all prophecies and traditions belonging to his paternal ancestry. Go on, Mr. March, you’re shamefully neglecting your duty. No heel taps.”

She threw back her head, showing the whole of her white throat, drained her glass and then flung it over her shoulder. It fell on the black, polished boards, beyond the edge of the carpet, shivered into a hundred pieces, that lay glittering, like scattered diamonds in the lamplight. For the day had died altogether. Fleets of dark, straggling cloud chased each other across spaces of pallid sky, against the earthward edge of which dusky tree‐tops strained and writhed in the force of the tearing gale.

Mrs. Ormiston rose, laughing, from her place at table.

“That’s the correct form,” she said, “it ensures the fulfilment of the wish. You ought all to have cast away your glasses regardless of expense. Come, Mary, we will remove ourselves. Mind and bid me good‐bye before you go, Dr. Knott, and report on Lady Calmady. It’s probably the last time you’ll have the felicity of seeing me. I’m off at cock‐crow to‐morrow morning.”

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