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The History of Sir Richard Calmady: a Romance . Malet, Lucas, 1852–1931.
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page: 177

CHAPTER III

IN WHICH RICHARD CONFIRMS ONE JUDGMENT AND REVERSES ANOTHER

“HOW magnificently your imagination gallops when it once gets agoing! Here you are bearing away the spoils, when the siege is not even yet begun—never will be, I venture to hope, for I doubt if this would be a very honourable”—

The speaker broke off, abruptly, as the shadow of horse and rider lengthened upon the turf. And, during the silence which followed, Richard Calmady received an impression at once arresting and subtly disquieting.

A young lady, of about his own age, leaned against one of the white pillars of the colonnade. Her attitude and costume were alike slightly unconventional. She was unusually tall, and there was a lazy, almost boyish indifference and grace in the pose of her supple figure and the gallant carriage of her small head. She wore a straight, pale grey‐green jacket, into the pockets of which her hands were thrust. Her skirt, of the same colour and material, hung in straight folds to her feet, being innocent alike of trimming and the then prevailing fashion of crinoline. Further, she wore a little, round matador’s hat, three black pompoms planted audaciously‐upstanding above the left ear. Her eyes, long in shape and set under straight, observant brows, appeared at first sight of the same clear, light, warm brown as her hair. Her nose was straight, rather short, and delicately square at the tip. While her face, unlined, serenely, indeed triumphantly, youthful, was quite colourless and sufficiently thin to disclose fine values of bone in the broad forehead and the cutting of jaw and cheek and chin.

In that silence, as she and Richard Calmady looked full at one another, he apprehended in her a baffling element, a something untamed and remote, a freedom of soul, that declared itself alike in the gallantries and severities of her dress, her attitude, and all the lines of her person. She bore relation to the glad mystery haunting the fair autumn evening. She also bore relation to the chill haunting the stream‐side and the deep places of the woods. And her immediate action ratified this last likeness in his mind. When he first beheld her she was bright, with a certain teasing insouciance. Then, for a minute, even more, she stood at gaze, as a hind does suddenly page: 178 startled on the edge of the covert—her head raised, her face keen with inquiry. Her expression changed, became serious, almost stern. She recoiled, as in pain, as in an approach to fear—this strong, nymphlike creature.

“Helen,” she called aloud, in tones of mingled protest and warning. And thereupon, without more ado, she retired, nay, fled, into the sheltering, sun‐warmed interior of the Temple.

At this summons her companion, who until now had stood contemplating the wide view from the extreme verge of the platform, wheeled round. For an appreciable time she, too, looked at Richard Calmady, and that haughtily enough, as though he, rather than she, was the intruder. Her glance travelled unflinchingly down from his bare head and broad shoulders to that pocket‐like appendage—as of old‐fashioned pistol holsters—on either side his saddle. Swiftly her bearing changed. She uttered an exclamation of unfeigned and unalloyed satisfaction—a little, joyful outcry, such as a child will make on discovery of some lost treasure.

“Ah! it is you—you!” she said, laughing softly, while she moved forward, both hands extended. Which hand, by the same token, she proposed to bestow on Dickie remained matter for conjecture, since in the one she carried a parasol with a staff‐like gold and tortoiseshell handle to it, and in the other, between the first and second fingers, a cigarette, the blue smoke of which curled upward in transparent spirals upon the clear, still air.

As the lady of the grey‐green gown retired precipitately within the Temple, a wave of hot blood passed over Richard’s body. For notwithstanding his three‐and‐twenty years, his not contemptible mastery of many matters, and that same honourable appointment of Justice of the Peace for the county of Southampton, he was but a lad yet, with all a lad’s quickness of sensitive shame and burning resentment. The girl’s repulsion had been obvious—that instinctive repulsion, as poor Dickie’s too acute sympathies assured him, of the whole for the maimed, of the free for the bound, of the artist for some jarring colour or sound which mars an otherwise entrancing harmony. And the smart of all this was, to him, doubly salted by the fact that he, after all, was a man, his critic merely a woman. The bitter mood of the earlier hours of the day returned upon him. He cursed himself for a doting fool. Who was he, indeed, to seek revelation of glad secrets, cherish fair dreams and tempt adventures?

Consequently it fell out when that other lady—she of the cigarette—advanced thus delightfully towards him, Richard’s page: 179 face was white with anger, and his lips rigid with pain—a rigidity begotten of the determination that they should not tremble in altogether too unmanly fashion. Sometimes it is very sad to be young. The flesh is still very tender, so that a scratch hurts more then than a sword‐thrust later. Only, let it be remembered, the scratch heals readily; while of the sword‐thrust we die, even though at the moment of receiving it we seem not so greatly to suffer. And unquestionably as Dickie sat there, on his handsome horse, hat in hand, looking down at the lady of the cigarette, the hurt of that lately received scratch began quite sensibly to lessen. For her eyes, their first unsparing scrutiny accomplished, rested on his with a strangely flattering and engaging insistence.

“But this is the very prettiest piece of good fortune!” she exclaimed. “Had I arranged the whole matter to suit my own fancy it could not have turned out more happily.”

Her tone was that of convincing sincerity; while, as she spoke, the soft colour came and went in her cheeks, and her lips parting showed little, even teeth daintily precious as a row of pearls. The outline of her face was remarkably pure—in shape an oval, a trifle wide in proportion to its length. Her eyebrows were arched, the eyelids arched also—very thin, showing the movement of the eyeballs beneath them, drooping slightly, with a sweep of dark lashes at the outer corner. It struck Richard that she bore a certain resemblance to his mother, though smaller and slighter in build. Her mouth was less full, her hair fairer—soft, glistening hair of all the many shades of heather honey‐comb, broken wax, and sweet, heady liquor, alike. Her hands, he remarked, were very finished—the fingers pointed, the palms rosy. The set of her black, velvet coat revealed the roundness of her bust. The broad brim of her large, black hat, slightly upturned at the sides, and with sweeping ostrich plumes as trimming to it, threw the upper part of her charming face into soft shadow. Her heavy, dove‐coloured, silk skirts stood out stiffly from her waist, declaring its slenderness. The few jewels she wore were of notable value. Her appearance, in fact, spoke the last word of contemporary fashion in its most refined application. She was a great lady, who knew the world and the worth of it. And she was absolute mistress both of that knowledge, and of herself—notwithstanding those outstretched hands, and outcry of childlike pleasure,—there, perhaps, lay the exquisite flattery of this last to her hearer! She was all this, and something more than all this. Something for which Dickie, his heart still virgin, had no name as yet. It was new to his experience. A something clear, simple, and natural, as the sunlight, yet infinitely subtle. page: 180 A something ravishing, so that you wanted to draw it very close, hold it, devour it. Yet something you so feared, you needs must put it from you, so that, faint with ecstasy, standing at a distance, you might bow yourself and humbly worship. But such extravagant exercises being, in the nature of his case, physically as well as socially inadmissible, the young man was constrained to remain seated squarely in the saddle—that singularly ungainly saddle, moreover, with holster‐like appendages to it—while he watched her, wholly charmed, curious and shy, carried indeed a little out of himself, waiting for her to make further disclosures, since he felt absurdly slow and unready of speech.

Nor was he destined to wait in vain. The fair lady appeared agreeably ready to declare herself, and that with the finest turns of voice and manner, with the most coercive variety of appeal, pathos, caprice, and dignity.

“I know on the face of it I have not the smallest right to have taken possession in this way,” she continued. “It is the frankest impertinence. But if you realised how extremely I am enjoying myself, you could not fail to forgive me. All this park of yours, all this nature,” she turned sideways, sketching out the great view with a broad gesture of the cigarette and graceful hand that held it, “all this is divinely lovely. It is wiser to possess oneself of it in an illicit manner, to defy the minor social proprieties and unblushingly to steal, than not to possess oneself of it at all. If you are really hungry, you know, you learn not to be too nice as to the ways and means of acquiring sustenance.”

“And you were really hungry?” Richard found himself saying, as he feared rather blunderingly. But he wanted, so anxiously, the present to remain present—wanted to continue to watch her, and to hear her. She turned his head. How then could he behave otherwise than with stupidity?

“La! la!” she replied, laughing indulgently, and thereby enchanting him still more, “what must your experience of life be if you suppose one gets a full meal of divine loveliness every day in the week? For my part, I am not troubled with any such celestial plethora, believe me. I was ravening, I tell you, positively ravening.”

“And your hunger is satisfied?” he asked, still as he feared blunderingly, and with a queer inward movement of envy towards the wide view she looked upon, and the glory of the sunset which dared touch her hair.

“Satisfied?” she exclaimed. “Is one’s hunger for the page: 181 divinely lovely ever satisfied? Just now I have stayed mine with the merest mouthful—as one snatches a sandwich at a railway buffet. And directly I must get into the train again, and go on with my noisy, dusty, stifling journey. Ah! you are very fortunate to live in this adorable and restful place; to see it in all its fine drama of changing colour and season, year in and year out.”

She dropped the end of her cigarette into a little, sandy depression in the turf, and drawing aside her silken skirts, trod out the red heart of it neatly with her daintily shod foot. Just then the other lady, she of the grey‐green gown, came from within the shelter of the Temple, and stood between the white pillars of the colonnade. Dick’s grasp tightened on the handle of the hunting‐crop lying across his thigh.

“Am I so very fortunate?” he said, almost involuntarily.

His companion looked up smiling, her eyes dwelling on his with a strange effect of intimacy, wholly flattering, wholly, indeed, distracting to common sense.

“Yes—you are fortunate,” she answered, speaking slowly. “And some day, Richard, I think you will come to know that.”

Sudden comprehension, sudden recognition struck the young man—very literally struck him a most unwelcome buffet.

“Oh! I see—I understand,” he exclaimed, “you are my cousin—you are Madame de Vallorbes.”

For a moment his sense of disappointment was so keen, he was minded to turn his horse and incontinently ride away. The misery of that episode of his boyhood set its tooth very shrewdly in him even yet. It seemed the most cruelly ironical turn of fate that this entrancing, this altogether worshipful, stranger should prove to be one and the same as the little dancer of long ago with blush‐roses in her hat.

But, though the colour deepened somewhat in the lady’s cheeks, she did not lower her eyes, nor did they lose their smiling importunity. A little ardour, indeed, heightened the charm of her manner—an ardour of delicate battle, as of one whose honour has been ever so slightly touched.

“Certainly, I am your cousin, Helen de Vallorbes,” she replied. “You are not sorry for that, Richard, are you? At this moment I am increasingly glad to be your cousin—though not perhaps so very particularly glad to be Helen de Vallorbes.” Then she added, rapidly:—“We are here in England for a few weeks, my father and I. Troublesome, distressing things had happened, and he perceived I needed change. He brought me away. London proved a desert and a dust‐heap. There page: 182 was no solace, no distraction from unpleasant thoughts, to be found there. So we telegraphed and came down last night to the kind people at Newlands. Naturally my father wanted to see Aunt Katherine. I desired to see her also, well understood, for I have heard so much of her talent and her great beauty. But I knew they—the brother and sister—would wish to speak of the past and find their happiness in being very sad about it all. At our age—yours and mine—the sadness of any past one may possess is a good deal too present with one still to afford in the least consoling subject of conversation.”—Madame de Vallorbes spoke with a certain vehemence. “Don’t you think so, Richard?” she demanded.

And Richard could but answer, very much out of his heart, that he did indeed think so.

She observed him a moment, and then her tone softened. The colour deepened yet more in her cheeks. She became at once prettily embarrassed and prettily sincere.

“And then, to tell you quite the truth, I am a trifle afraid of Aunt Katherine. I have always wanted to come here and to see you, but—it is an absurd confession to make—I have been scared at the idea of meeting Aunt Katherine, and that is the real reason why I made Honoria take refuge with me in this lovely park of yours, instead of going on with my father to the house. There is a legend, a thrice accursed legend, in our family,—my mother employs it even yet when she proposes to reduce me to salutary depths of humility—that I came,—she brought me —here, once, long ago, when I was a child, and that I was fiendishly naughty, that I behaved odiously.”

Madame de Vallorbes stretched out her hands, presenting the rosy palms of them in the most engaging manner.

“But it can’t—it can’t be true,” she protested. “Why, in the name of all folly, let alone all common decency, should I behave odiously? It is not like me. I love to please, I love to have people care for me. And so I cannot but believe the legend is the malign invention of some nurse or governess, whom, poor woman, I probably plagued handsomely enough in her day, and who, in revenge, rigged up this detestable scarecrow with which to frighten me. Then, moreover, I have not the faintest recollection of the affair, and one generally has an only too vivid memory of one’s own sins. Surely, mon cher cousin, surely I am innocent in your sight, as in my own? You do not remember the episode either?”

Whereupon Dickie, looking down at her,—and still enchanted notwithstanding his so sinister discovery, being first, and always a page: 183 gentleman, and secondly, though as yet unconsciously, a lover, proceeded to lie roundly. Lied, too, with a notable cheerfulness born, as cheerfulness needs must be, of every act of faith and high generosity.

“I remember it? Of course not,” he said. “So let the legend be abolished henceforth and for evermore. Here, once and for all, cousin Helen, we combine to pull down and bury that scarecrow.”

Madame de Vallorbes clapped her hands softly and laughed. And her laughter, having the merit of being perfectly genuine—for the young man very really pleased her fancy—was likewise very infectious. Richard found himself laughing too, he knew not why, save that he was glad of heart.

“And now that matter being satisfactorily disposed of, you will come to Brockhurst often,” he said. It seemed to him that a certain joyous equality had been established between him and his divinity, both by his repudiation of all former knowledge of her, and by their moment of laughter. He began fearlessly to make her little offerings.—“Do you care about riding? I am afraid there is not much to amuse you at Brockhurst; but there are always plenty of horses.”

“And I adore horses.”

“Do you care about racing? We’ve some rather pretty things in training this year. I should like awfully to show them to you.”

But here the conversation, just setting forth in so agreeable a fashion, suffered interruption. For the other lady, she of the grey‐green gown, sauntered forward from the Temple. The carriage of her head was gallant, her air nonchalant as ever; but her expression was grave, and the delicate thinness of her face appeared a trifle accentuated. She came up to Madame de Vallorbes and passed her hand through the latter’s arm caressing]y.

“You know, really, Helen, we ought to go, if we are not to keep your father and the carriage waiting.”—Then she looked up with a certain determined effort at Richard Calmady. “We promised to meet Mr. Ormiston at the first park gate,” she added in explanation. “That is nearly a mile from here, isn’t it?”

“About three‐quarters—hardly that,” he answered. Her eyes were not brown, he perceived, but a clear, dim green, as the soft gloom in the under‐spaces of a grove of ilexes. They affected him as fearlessly observant—eyes that could judge both men and things and could also keep their own counsel.

page: 184

“Will you give your mother Honoria St. Quentin’s love, please?” she went on. “I stayed here with her for a couple of days the year before last, while you were at Oxford. She was very good to me. Now, Helen, come”—

“I shall see you again,” Richard cried to the lady of the cigarette. But his horse, which for some minutes had been increasingly fidgety, backed away down the hillside, and he could not catch the purport of her answer. To the lady of the grey‐green gown and eyes he said nothing at all.

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