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The History of Sir Richard Calmady: a Romance . Malet, Lucas, 1852–1931.
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page: 62

CHAPTER VIII

ENTER A CHILD OF PROMISE

AFTER closing the door behind the two ladies, Ormiston paused by the near window and gazed out into the night. The dinner had been, in his opinion, far from a success. He feared his relation to Mary Cathcart had retrograded rather than page: 63 progressed. He wished his sister‐in‐law would be more correct in speech and behaviour. Then he held the conversation had been in bad taste. The doctor should have abstained from pressing Julius with questions. He assured himself, again, that the story was not worth a moment’s serious consideration; yet he resented its discussion. Such discussion seemed to him to tread hard on the heels of impertinence to his sister, to her husband’s memory, and to this boy, born to so excellent a position and so great wealth. And the worst of it was that, like a fool, he had started the subject himself!

“The wind’s rising,” he remarked at last. “You’ll have a rough drive home, Knott.”

“It won’t be the first one. And my beauty’s of the kind which takes a lot of spoiling.”

The answer did not please the young man. He sauntered across the room and dropped into his chair, with a slightly insolent demeanour.

“All the same, don’t let me detain you,” he said, “if you prefer seeing Lady Calmady at once and getting off.”

“You don’t detain me,” Dr. Knott answered. “I’m afraid it’s just the other way about and that I must detain you, Captain Ormiston, and that on rather unpleasant business.”

Julius March had risen to his feet. “You—you have no fresh cause for anxiety about Lady Calmady?” he said hurriedly.

The doctor glanced up at the tall, spare, black figure and dark, sensitive face with a half‐sneering, half‐pitying smile.

“Oh no, no!” he replied; “Lady Calmady’s going on splendidly. And it is to guard, just as far as we can, against cause for anxiety later, that I want to speak to Captain Ormiston now. We’ve got to be prepared for certain contingencies. Don’t you go, Mr. March. You may as well hear what I’ve to say. It will interest you particularly, I fancy, after one or two things you have told us to‐night!”

“Sit down, Julius, please.”—Ormiston would have liked to maintain that same insolence of demeanour, but it gave before an apprehension of serious issues. He looked hard at the doctor, cudgelling his brains as to what the latter’s enigmatic speech might mean—divined, put the idea away as inadmissible, returned to it, then said angrily:—“There’s nothing wrong with the child, of course?”

Dr. Knott turned his chair sideways to the table and shaded his face with his thick, square hand.

“Well, that depends on what you call wrong,” he slowly replied.

“It’s not ill?” Ormiston said.

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“The baby’s as well as you or I—better, in fact, than I am, for I am confoundedly touched up with gout. Bear that in mind, Captain Ormiston—that the child is well, I mean, not that I am gouty. I want you to definitely remember that, you and Mr. March.”

“Well, then, what on earth is the matter?” Ormiston asked sharply. “You don’t mean to imply it is injured in any way, deformed?”

Dr. Knott let his hand drop on the table. He nodded his head. Ormiston perceived, and it moved him strangely, that the doctor’s eyes were wet.

“Not deformed,” he answered. “Technically you can hardly call it that, but maimed.”

“Badly?”

“Well, that’s a matter of opinion. You or I should think it bad enough, I fancy, if we found ourselves in the same boat.” He settled himself back in his chair.—“You had better understand it quite clearly,” he continued, “at least as clearly as I can put it to you. There comes a point where I cannot explain the facts but only state them. You have heard of spontaneous amputation?”

Across Ormiston’s mind came the remembrance of a litter of puppies he had seen in the sanctum of the veterinary surgeon of his regiment. A lump rose in his throat.

“Yes, go on,” he said.

“It is a thing that does not happen once in most men’s experience. I have only seen one case before in all my practice and that was nothing very serious. This is an extraordinary example. I need not remind you of Sir Richard Calmady’s accident and the subsequent operation?”

“Of course not—go on,” Ormiston repeated.

“In both cases the leg is gone from here,” the doctor continued, laying the edge of his palm across the thigh immediately above the knee. “The foot is there—that is the amazing part of it—and, as far as I can see, is well formed and of the normal size, but so embedded in the stump that I cannot discover whether the ankle‐joint and bones of the lower leg exist in a contracted form or not.”

Ormiston poured himself out a glass of port. His hand shook so that the lip of the decanter chattered against the lip of the glass. He gulped down the wine and, getting up, walked the length of the room and back again.

“God in heaven,” he murmured, “how horrible! Poor Kitty, how utterly horrible!—Poor Kitty.”

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For the baby, in his own fine completeness, he had as yet no feeling but one of repulsion.

“Can nothing be done, Knott?” he asked at last.

“Obviously nothing.”

“And it will live?”

“Oh! bless you, yes! It’ll live fast enough if I know a healthy infant when I see one. And I ought to know ’em by now. I’ve brought them into the world by dozens for my sins.”

“Will it be able to walk?”

“Umph—well—shuffle,” the doctor answered, smiling savagely to keep back the tears.

The young man leaned his elbows on the table, and rested his head on his hands. All this shocked him inexpressibly—shocked him almost to the point of physical illness. Strong as he was he could have fainted, just then, had he yielded by ever so little. And this was the boy whom they had so longed for then! The child on whom they had set such fond hopes, who was to be the pride of his young mother, and restore the so rudely shaken balance of her life! This was the boy who should go to Eton, and into some crack regiment, who should ride straight, who was heir to great possessions!

“The saviour has come, you see, Mr. March, in as thorough‐paced a disguise as ever saviour did yet,” John Knott said cynically.

“He had better never have come at all!” Ormiston put in fiercely, from behind his hands.

“Yes—very likely—I believe I agree,” the doctor answered. “Only it remains that he has come, is feeding, growing, stretching, and bellowing too, like a young bull‐calf, when anything doesn’t suit him. He is here, very much here, I tell you. And so we have just got to consider how to make the best of him, both for his own sake and for Lady Calmady’s. And you must understand he is a splendid, little animal, clean skinned and strong, as you would expect, being the child of two such fine young people. He is beautiful,—I am old fashioned enough, perhaps scientific enough, to put a good deal of faith in that notion,—beautiful as a child only can be who is born of the passion of true lovers.”

He paused, looking somewhat mockingly at Julius.

“Yes, love is an incalculably great, natural force,” he continued. “It comes uncommonly near working miracles at times, unconscious and rather deplorable miracles. In this case it has worked strangely against itself—at once for irreparable injury and for perfection. For the child is perfect, is superb, but for the one thing.”

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“Does my sister know?” Ormiston asked hoarsely.

“Not yet; and, as long as we can keep the truth from her she had better not know. We must get her a little stronger, if we can, first. That woman, Mrs. Denny, is worth her weight in gold, and her weight’s not inconsiderable. She has her wits about her, and has contrived to meet all difficulties so far.”

Ormiston sat in the same dejected attitude.

“But my sister is bound to know before long.”

“Of course. When she is a bit better she’ll want to have the baby to play with, dress and undress it and see what the queer little being is made of. It’s a way young mothers have, and a very pretty way too. If we keep the child from her she will grow suspicious, and take means to find out for herself, and that won’t do. It must not be. I won’t be responsible for the consequences. So as soon as she asks a definite question, she must have a definite answer.”

The young man looked up quickly.

“And who is to give the answer?” he said.

“Well, it rests chiefly with you to decide that. Clearly she ought not to hear this thing from a servant. It is too serious. It needs to be well told—the whole kept at a high level, if you understand me. Give Lady Calmady a great part and she will play it nobly. Let this come upon her from a mean, wet‐nurse, hospital‐ward sort of level, and it may break her. What we have to do is to keep up her pluck. Remember we are only at the beginning of this business yet. In all probability there are many years ahead. Therefore this announcement must come to Lady Calmady from an educated person, from an equal, from somebody who can see all round it. Mrs. Ormiston tells me she leaves here to‐morrow morning?”

“Mrs. Ormiston is out of the question anyhow,” Roger exclaimed rather bitterly.

Here Julius March, who had so far been silent, spoke, and, in speaking, showed what manner of spirit he was of. The doctor agitated him, treated him, moreover, with scant courtesy. But Julius put this aside. He could afford to forget himself in his desire for any possible mitigation of the blow which must fall on Katherine Calmady. And, listening to his talk, he had, in the last quarter of an hour, gained conviction not only of this man’s ability, but of his humanity, of his possession of the peculiar gentleness which so often, mercifully, goes along with unusual strength. As the coarse‐looking hand could soothe, touching delicately, so the hard intellect and rough tongue could, page: 67 he believed, modulate themselves to very consoling and inspiring tenderness of thought and speech.

“We have you, Dr. Knott,” he said. “No one, I think, could better break this terrible sorrow to Lady Calmady, than yourself.”

“Thank you—you are generous, Mr. March,” the other answered cordially; adding to himself:—“Got to revise my opinion of the black coat. Didn’t quite deserve that after the way you’ve badgered him, eh, John Knott?”

He shrugged his big shoulders a little shamefacedly.

“Of course, I’d do my best,” he continued. “But you see ten to one I shan’t be here at the moment. As it is, I have neglected lingering sicknesses and sudden deaths, hysterical girls, croupy children, broken legs, and all the other pretty little amusements of a rather large practice, waiting for me. Suppose I happen to be twenty miles away on the far side of Westchurch, or seeing after some of Lady Fallowfeild’s numerous progeny engaged in teething or measles? Lady Calmady might be kept waiting, and we cannot afford to have her kept waiting in this crisis.”

“I wish to God my aunt, Mrs. St. Quentin, was here!”’ Ormiston exclaimed. “But she is not, and won’t be, alas!”

“Well, then, who remains?”

As the doctor spoke he pressed his fingers against the edge of the table, leaned forward, and looked keenly at Ormiston. He was extremely ugly just then, ugly as the weather‐worn gargoyle on some mediæval church tower, but his eyes were curiously compelling.

“Good heavens! you don’t mean that I’ve got to tell her?” Ormiston cried.

He rose hurriedly, thrust his hands into his pockets, and walked a little unsteadily across to the window, crunching the shining pieces of Mrs. Ormiston’s sacrificial wine glass under foot. Outside the night was very wild. In the colourless sky stars reeled among the fleets of racing cloud. The wind hissed up the grass slopes and shouted among the great trees crowning the ridge of the hill. The prospect was not calculated to encourage. Ormiston turned his back on it. But hardly more encouraging was the sombre, grey‐blue‐walled room. The vision of all that often returned to him afterwards in very different scenes—the tall lamps, the two men, so strangely dissimilar in appearance and temperament, sitting on either side the dinner‐table with its fine linen and silver, wines and fruits, waiting. silently for him to speak.

“I can’t tell her,” he said, “I can’t. Damn it all, I tell you, page: 68 Knott, I daren’t. Think what it will be to her! Think of being told that about your own child!”—Ormiston lost control of himself. He spoke violently. “I’m so awfully fond of her and proud of her,” he went on. “She’s behaved so splendidly ever since Richard’s death, laid hold of all the business, never spared herself, been so able and so just. And now the baby coming, and being a boy, seemed to be a sort of let up, a reward to her for all her goodness. To tell her this horrible thing will be like doing her some hideous wrong. If her heart has to be broken, in common charity don’t ask me to break it.”

There was a pause. He came back to the table and stood behind Julius March’s chair.

“It’s asking me to be hangman to my own sister,” he said.

“Yes, I know it is a confoundedly nasty piece of work. And it’s rough on you, very rough. Only, you see, this hanging has to be put through—there’s the nuisance. And it is just a question whether your hand won’t be the lightest after all.”

Again silence obtained, but for the rush and sob of the gale against the great house.

“What do you say, Julius?” Ormiston demanded at last.

“I suppose our only thought is for Katherine—for Lady Calmady?” he said. “And in that case I agree with Dr. Knott.”

Roger took another turn to the window, stood there awhile struggling with his natural desire to escape from so painful an embassy.

“Very well, if you are not here, Knott, I undertake to tell her,” he said at last. “Please God, she mayn’t turn against me altogether for bringing her such news. I’ll be on hand for the next few days, and—you must explain to Denny that I am to be sent for whenever I am wanted. That’s all—I suppose we may as well go now, mayn’t we?”

Julius knelt at the faldstool, without the altar rails of the chapel, till the light showed faintly through the grisaille of the stained‐glass windows and outlined the spires and carven canopies of the stalls. At first his prayers were definite, petitions for mercy and grace to be outpoured on the fair, young mother and her, seemingly, so cruelly afflicted child; on himself, too, that he might be permitted to stay here, and serve her through the difficult future. If she had been sacred before, Katherine was doubly sacred to him now. He bowed himself, in reverential awe, before the thought of her martyrdom. How page: 69 would her proud and naturally joyous spirit bear the bitter pains of it? Would it make, eventually, for evil or for good? And then—the ascetic within him asserting itself, notwithstanding the widening of outlook produced by the awakening of his heart—he was overtaken by a great horror of that which we call matter; by a revolt against the body, and those torments and shames, mental, moral, and physical, which the body brings along with it. Surely the dualists were right? It was unregenerate, a thing, if made by God, yet wholly fallen away from grace and given over to evil, this fleshly envelope wherein the human soul is seated, and which, even in the womb, may be infected by disease or rendered hideous by mutilation? Then, as the languor of his long vigil overcame him, he passed into an ecstatic contemplation of the state of that same soul after death, clothed with a garment of incorruptible and enduring beauty, dwelling in clear, luminous spaces, worshipping among the ranks of the redeemed, beholding its Lord God face to face.

John Knott, meanwhile, after driving home beneath the reeling stars, through the roar of the forest and shriek of the wind across the open moors, found an urgent summons awaiting him. He spent the remainder of that night, not in dreams of paradise and of spirits redeemed from the thraldom of the flesh, but in increasing the population of this astonishing planet, by assisting to deliver a scrofulous, half‐witted, shrieking servant‐girl of twins—illegitimate—in the fusty atmosphere of a cottage garret, right up under the rat‐eaten thatch.

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