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The History of Sir Richard Calmady: a Romance . Malet, Lucas, 1852–1931.
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page: 229

CHAPTER VIII

RICHARD PUTS HIS HAND TO A PLOUGH FROM WHICH THERE IS NO TURNING BACK

“DEAREST mother, you look most deplorably tired.”

Richard sat before the large study table, piled up with letters, papers, county histories, racing calendars, in the Gun‐Room, amid a haze of cigar smoke.—“I don’t wonder,” he went on, “we’ve had a regular field‐day, haven’t we? And I’m afraid Lord Fallowfeild bored you atrociously at luncheon. He does talk most admired foolishness half his time, poor old boy. All the same Ludovic shouldn’t show him up as he does. It’s not good form. I’m afraid Ludovic’s getting rather spoilt by London. He’s growing altogether too finicking and elaborate. It’s a pity. Lady Louisa Barking is a rather exterminating person. Her conversation is magnificently deficient in humour. It is to be hoped Barking is not troubled by lively perceptions, or he must suffer at times. Lady Constance is a pretty little girl, don’t you think so? Not oppressed with brains, I daresay, but a good little sort.”

“You liked her?” Katherine said. She stood beside him, that mortal weariness upon her yet.

“Oh yes!—well enough—liked her in passing, as one likes the wild roses in the hedge. But you look regularly played out, mother, and I don’t like that in the least.”

Richard twisted the revolving‐chair half round, and held out his arms in invitation. As his mother leaned over him, he stretched upward and clasped his hands lightly about her neck.—“Poor dear,” he said coaxingly, “worn to fiddle‐strings with all this wild dissipation! I declare it’s quite pathetic.”—He let her go, shrugging his shoulders with a sigh and a half laugh. “Well, the dissipation will soon enough be over now, and we shall resume the even tenor of our way, I suppose. You’ll be glad of that, mother?”

The caress had been grateful to Katherine, the cool cheek page: 230 dear to her lips, the clasp of the strong arms reassuring. Yet, in her present state of depression, she was inclined to distrust even that which consoled, and there seemed a lack in the fervour of this embrace. Was it not just a trifle perfunctory, as of one who pays toll, rather than of one who claims a privilege?

“You’ll be glad too, my dearest, I trust?” she said, craving further encouragement.

Richard twisted the chair back into place again, leaned forward to note the hour of the clock set in the centre of the gold and enamel inkstand.

“Oh! I’m not prophetic. I don’t pretend to go before the event and register my sensations until both they and I have fairly arrived. It’s awfully bad economy to get ahead of yourself and live in the day after to‐morrow. To‐day’s enough—more than enough for you, I’m afraid, when you’ve had a large contingent of the Whitney people to luncheon. Do go and rest, mother. Uncle William is disposed of. I’ve started him out for a tramp with Julius, so you need not have him on your mind.”

But neither in Richard’s words nor in his manner did Lady Calmady find the fulness of assurance she craved.

“Thanks, dearest,” she said. “That is very thoughtful of you. I will see Helen and find out”—

“Oh! don’t trouble about her either,” Richard put in. Again he studied the jewel‐rimmed dial of the little clock. “I found she wanted to go to Newlands to bid Mrs. Cathcart good‐bye. It seems Miss St. Quentin is back there for a day or two. So I promised to drive her over as soon as we were quit of the Fallowfeild party.”

“It is late for so long a drive.”

Richard looked up quickly and his face wore that expression of challenge once again.

“I know it is—and so I am afraid we ought to start at once. I expect the carriage round immediately.”—Then repenting:—“You’ll take care of yourself, won’t you, mother, and rest?”

“Oh yes! I will take care of myself,” Katherine said. “Indeed, I appear to be the only person I have left to take care of, thanks to your forethought. All good go with you, Dick.”

It followed—perhaps unreasonably enough—that Richard, some five minutes later, drove round the angle of the house and drew the mail‐phaeton up at the foot of the page: 231 grey, griffin‐guarded flight of steps—whereon Madame de Vallorbes, wrapped in furs, the cavalier hat and its trailing plumes shadowing the upper part of her face and her bright hair, awaited his coming—in a rather defiant humour. His cousin was troubled, worried, and she met with scant sympathy. This aroused all his chivalry. Whatever she wished for, that he could give her, she should very certainly have. Of after consequences to himself he was contemptuous. The course of action which had shown as wisdom a couple of hours ago, showed now as selfishness and pusillanimity. If she wanted him, he was there joyfully to do her bidding, at whatever cost to himself in subsequent unrest of mind seemed but a small thing. If heartache and insidious provocations of the flesh came later, let them come. He was strong enough to bear the one and crush out the other, he hoped. It would give him something to do—he told himself, a little bitterly—and he had been idle of late!

And so it came about that Richard Calmady held out his hand, to help his cousin into her place at his side, with more of meaning and welcome in the gesture than he was quite aware. He forgot the humiliation of the broad strap about his waist, of the high, ingeniously contrived driving‐iron against which his feet rested, steadying him upon the sharply sloping seat. These were details, objectionable ones it was true, but, to‐day, of very secondary importance. In the main he was master of the situation. For once it was his to render, rather than receive, assistance. Helen was under his care, in a measure dependent on him, and this gratified his young, masculine pride, doomed too often to suffer sharp mortification. A fierce pleasure possessed him. It was fine to bear her thus away, behind the fast trotting horses, through the pensive, autumn brightness. Boyish self‐consciousness and self‐distrust died down in Richard, and the man’s self‐reliance, instinct of possession and of authority, grew in him. His tone was that of command, for all its solicitude, as he said:—

“Look here, are you sure you’ve got enough on? Don’t go and catch cold, under the impression that there’s any meaning in this sunshine. It is sure to be chilly driving home, and it’s easy to take more wraps.”

Helen shook her head, unsmiling, serious.

“I could face polar snows.”

Richard let the horses spring forward, while little pebbles rattled against the body of the phaeton, and the groom, running a few steps, swung himself up on to the back seat, immediately page: 232 becoming immoveable as a wooden image, with rigidly folded arms.

“Oh! the cold won’t quite amount to that,” Richard said. “But I observe women rarely reckon with the probabilities of the return journey.”

“The return journey is invariably too hot, or too cold, too soon, or too late—for a woman. So it is better not to remember its existence until you are compelled to do so. For myself, I confess to the strongest prejudice against the return journey.”

Madame de Vallorbes’ speech was calm and measured, yet there was a conviction in it suggestive of considerable emotion. She sat well back in the carriage, her head turned slightly to the left, so that Richard, looking down at her, saw little but the pure, firm line of her jaw, the contour of her cheek, and her ear—small, lovely, the soft hair curling away from above and behind it in the most enticing fashion. Physical perfection, of necessity, provoked in him a peculiar envy and delight. And nature appeared to have taken ingenious pleasure, not only in conferring an unusual degree of beauty upon his companion, but in finishing each detail of her person with unstinted grace. For a while the young man lost himself in contemplation of that charming ear and partially averted face. Then resolutely he bestowed his attention upon the horses again, finding such contemplation slightly enervating to his moral sense.

“Yes, return journeys are generally rather a nuisance, I suppose,” he said, “though my experience of that particular form of nuisance is limited. I have not been outward‐bound often enough to know much of the regret of being homeward‐bound. And yet, I own, I should not much mind driving on and on everlastingly on a dreamy afternoon like this, and—and as I find myself just now—driving on and seeking some El Dorado—of the spirit, I mean, not of the pocket—seeking the Fortunate Isles that lie beyond the sunset. For it would be not a little fascinating to give one’s accustomed self, and all that goes to make up one’s accepted identity, the slip—to drive clean out of one’s old circumstances and find new heavens, a new earth, and a new personality elsewhere. What do you say, Helen, shall we try it?”

But Helen sat immobile, her face averted, listening intently, revolving many things in her mind, meditating how and when most advantageously to speak.

“It would be such an amiable and graceful experiment to try on my own people, too, wouldn’t it ?” the young man con‐ page: 233 tinued, with a sudden change of tone. “And I am so eminently fitted to lose myself in a crowd without fear of recognition, just the person for a case of mistaken identity.”

“Do not say such things, Richard, please. They distress me,” Madame de Vallorbes put in quickly. “And, believe me, I have no quarrel with the return journey in this case. At Brockhurst I could fancy myself to have found the Fortunate Isles of which you spoke just now. I have been very happy there—too happy, perhaps, and therefore, to‐day, the whip has come down across my back, just to remind me.”

“Ah! now you say the painful things,” Dick interrupted. “Pray don’t—I—I don’t like them.”

Madame de Vallorbes turned her head and looked at him with the strangest expression.

“My metaphor was not out of place. Do you imagine horses are the only animals a man drives, mon beau cousin? Some men drive the woman who belongs to them, and that not with the lightest bit, I promise you. Nor do they forget to tie blood‐knots in the whip‐lash when it suits them to do so.”

“What do you mean?” he asked abruptly.

“Merely that the letters, which so stupidly endangered my self‐control at luncheon, contained examples of that kind of driving.”

“How—how damnable,” the young man said between his teeth.

The red and purple trunks of the great fir trees reeled away to right and left as the carriage swept forward down the long avenue. To Richard’s seeing they reeled away in disgust, even as did his thought from the images which his companion’s words suggested. While, to her seeing, they reeled, smitten by the eternal laughter, the echoes of which it stimulated her to hear.—“The drama develops,” she said to herself, half triumphant, half abashed. “And yet I am telling the truth, it is all so—I hardly even doctor it.”—For she had been angered, genuinely and miserably angered, and had found that odious to the point of letting feeling override diplomacy. There was subtle pleasure in now turning her very lapse of self‐control to her own advantage. And then, this young man’s heart was the finest, purest‐toned instrument upon which she had ever had the chance to play as yet. She was ravished by the quality and range of the music it gave forth. Madame de Vallorbes pressed her hands together within the warm comfort of her sable muff, averted her face again, lest it should betray the eager excitement that gained on her, and continued:—

page: 234

“Yes, whip and rein and bit are hardly pretty in that connection, are they? If you would willingly give your identity the slip at times, dear cousin, I have considerably deeper cause to wish to part company with mine! You, in any case, are morally and materially free. A whole class of particularly irritating and base cares can never approach you. And it was in connection with just such cares that I spoke of the hatefulness of return journeys.”

Helen paused, as one making an effort to maintain her equanimity.

“My letters recall me to Paris,” she said, “where detestable scenes and most ignoble anxieties await me.”

“How soon must you go?”

“That is what I ask myself,” she said, in the same quiet, even voice. “I have not yet arrived at a decision, and so I asked you to bring me out, Dickie, this afternoon.”—She looked up at him, smiling, lovely and with a certain wistful dignity, wholly coercive. “Can you understand that the orderly serenity of your splendid house became a little oppressive? It offered too glaring a contrast to my own state of mind and outlook. I fancied my brain would be clearer, my conclusions more just, here out of doors, face to face with this half‐savage nature.”

“Ah, I know all that,” Richard said. Had not the blankness of the fog brought him help this very morning?—“I know it, but I wish you did not know it too.”

“I know many things better not known,” Helen replied. Her conscience pricked her. She thanked her stars confession had ceased with enlargement from the convent‐school, and was a thing of the past.—“You see, I want to decide just how long I dare stay—if you will keep me?”

“We will keep you,” Richard said.

“You are very charming to me, Dick,” she exclaimed impulsively, sincerely, again slightly abashed. “How long can I dare stay, I wonder, without making matters worse in the end, both for my father and for myself? I am young, after all, and I suppose I am tough. The cuticle of the soul—if souls can have a cuticle—like that of the body, thickens under repeated blows. But my father is no longer young. He is terribly sensitive where I am concerned. And he is inevitably drawn into the whirlpool of my wretched affairs sooner or later. On his account I should be glad to defer the return journey as long”—

“But—but—I don’t understand,” Richard broke out, pity and deep concern for her, a blind fury against a person, or persons page: 235 unknown, getting the better of him. “Who on earth has the power to plague you and make you miserable, or your father either?”

The young man’s face was white, his eyes, full of pain, full of a great love, burning down on her. As once long ago, Helen de Vallorbes could have danced and clapped her hands in naughty glee. For her hunting had prospered above her fondest hopes. She had much ado to stifle the laughter which bubbled up in her pretty throat. She was in the humour to pelt peacocks royally, had such pastime been possible. As it was, she closed her eyes for a little minute and waited, biting the inside of her lip. At last, she said slowly, almost solemnly:—

“Don’t you know that for certain mistakes, and those usually the most generous, there is no redress?”

“What do you mean?” he demanded.

“Mean?—the veriest commonplace in my own case,” she answered. “Merely an unhappy marriage. There are thousands such.”

They had left the shadow of the fir woods now. The carriage crossed the white‐railed culvert—bridging the little stream that taking its rise amid the pink and emerald mosses of the peat‐bog, meanders down the valley—and entered the oak plantation just inside the park gate. Russet leaves in rustling, hurrying companies, fled up and away from the rapidly turning wheels and quick horse hoofs. The sunshine was wan and chill as the smile on a dead face. Lines of pale, lilac cloud—shaped like those flights of cranes which decorate the oriental cabinets of the Long Gallery—crossed the western sky above the bare, balsam poplars, the cluster of ancient, half‐timbered cottages at the entrance to Sandyfield church lane, and the rise of the grey‐brown fallow beyond, where sheep moved, bleating plaintively, within a wattled fold.

The scene, altogether familiar though it was, impressed itself on Richard’s mind just now, as one of paralysing melancholy. God help us, what a stricken, famished world it is! Will you not always find sorrow and misfortune seated at the root of things if, disregarding overlaying prettiness of summer days, of green leaf and gay blossom, you dare draw near, dig deep, look close? And can nothing, no one, escape the blighting touch of that canker stationed at the very foundations of being? Certainly it would seem not—Richard reasoned—listening to the words of the radiant woman beside him, ordained, in right of her talent and puissant grace, to be a queen and idol of men. For sadder than the thin sunshine, bare trees and complaint of the hungry page: 236 sheep, was that assured declaration that loveless and unlovely marriages—of which her own was one—exist by the thousand, are, indeed, the veriest commonplace!

These reflections held Richard, since he had been thinker and poet—in his degree—since childhood; lover only during the brief space of these last ten surprising days. Thus the general application claimed his attention first. But hard on the heels of this followed the personal application. For, as is the way of all true lovers, the universality of the law under which it takes its rise mitigates, by most uncommonly little, either the joy or sorrow of the particular case. Poignant regret that she suffered, strong admiration that she bore suffering so adherent with such lightness of demeanour—then, more dangerous than these, a sense of added unlooked‐for nearness to her, and a resultant calling not merely of the spirit of youth in him to that same spirit resident in her, but the deeper, more compelling, more sonorous call from the knowledge of tragedy in him to that same terrible knowledge now first made evident in her.—And here Richard’s heart—in spite of pity, in spite of tenderness which would have borne a hundred miseries to save her five minutes’ discomfort—sang Te Deum, and that lustily enough! For by this revelation of the infelicity of her state, his whole relation to, and duty towards her changed and took on a greater freedom. To pour forth worship and offers of service at the feet of a happy woman is at once an impertinence to her and a shame to yourself. But to pour forth such worship, such offers of service, at the feet of an unhappy woman—age‐old sophistry, so often ruling the speech and actions of men to their fatal undoing!—this is praiseworthy and legitimate, a matter not of privilege merely, but of obligation to whoso would claim to be truly chivalrous.

The perception of his larger liberty, and the consequences following thereon, kept Richard silent till Sandyfield rectory, the squat‐towered, Georgian church and the black‐headed, yew trees in the close‐packed churchyard adjoining, the neighbouring farm and its goodly show of golden‐grey wheat‐ricks were left behind, and the carriage entered on the flat, furze‐dotted expanse of Sandyfield common. Flocks of geese, arising from damp repose upon the ragged, autumn turf, hissed forth futile declarations of war. A gipsy caravan painted in staring colours, and hung all over with heath‐brooms and basket‐chairs, caused the horses to swerve. Parties of home‐going school‐children backed on to the loose gravel at the roadside, bobbing curtsies or pulling forelocks, staring at the young man and his companion, curious and half afraid. For, in the youthful, bucolic mind, a mystery surrounded page: 237 Richard Calmady and his goings and comings, causing him to rank with crowned heads, ghosts, the Book of Daniel, funerals, the Northern Lights, and kindred matters of dread fascination. So wondering eyes pursued him down the road.

And wondering eyes, as the minutes passed, glanced up at him from beneath the sweeping plumes and becoming shadow of the cavalier’s hat. For his prolonged silence rendered Madame de Vallorbes anxious. Had she spoken unadvisedly with her tongue? Had her words sounded crude and of questionable delicacy? Given his antecedents and upbringing, Richard was bound to hold the marriage tie in rather superstitious reverence, and was likely to entertain slightly superannuated views regarding the obligation of reticence in the discussion of family matters. She feared she had reckoned insufficiently with all this, in her eagerness, forgetting subtle diplomacies. Her approach had lacked tact and finesse. In dealing with an adversary of coarser fibre her attack would have succeeded to admiration. But this man was refined and sensitive to a fault, easily disgusted, narrowly critical in questions of taste.

Therefore she glanced up at him again, trying to divine his thought, her own mind in a tumult of opposing purposes and desires. And just as the contemplation of her beauty had so deeply stirred him earlier this same afternoon, so did the contemplation of his beauty now stir her. It satisfied her artistic sense. Save that the nose was straighter and shorter, the young man reminded her notably of a certain antique, terra‐cotta head of the young Alexander which she had once seen in a museum at Munich, and which had left an ineffaceable impression upon her memory. But, the face of the young Alexander beside her was of nobler moral quality than that other—undebauched by feasts and licentious pleasures as yet, masculine yet temperate, the sanctuary of generous ambitions. Merciless it might be, she fancied, but never base, never weak. Thus was her artistic sense satisfied, morally as well as physically. Her social sense was satisfied also. For the young man’s high‐breeding could not be called in question. He held himself remarkably well. She approved the cut of his clothes moreover, his sure and easy handling of the spirited horses.

And then her eyes, following down the lines of the fur rug, received renewed assurance of the fact of his deformity—hidden as far as might be, with decent pride, yet there, permanent and unalterable. This worked upon her strongly. For, to her peculiar temperament, the indissoluble union in one body of elements so noble and so monstrous, of youthful rigour and page: 238 abject helplessness, the grotesque in short, supplied the last word of sensuous and dramatic attraction. As last evening, in the Long Gallery, so now, she hugged herself, at once frightened and fascinated, wrought upon by excitement as in the presence of something akin to the supernatural, and altogether beyond the confines of ordinary experience.

And to think that she had come so near holding this inimitable creature in her hand, and by overhaste, or clumsiness of statement should lose it! Madame de Vallorbes was wild with irritation, racked her brain for means to recover her—as she feared—forfeited position. It would be maddening did her mighty hunting prove but a barren pastime in the end. And thereupon the little scar on her temple, deftly concealed under the soft, bright hair, began to smart and throb. Ah! well, the hunting should not prove quite barren anyhow, of that she was determined, for, failing her late gay purpose, that small matter of long‐deferred revenge still remained in reserve. If she could not gratify one passion, she would gratify quite another. For in this fair lady’s mind it was—perhaps unfortunately—but one step from the Eden bowers of love to the waste places of vindictive hate.—“Yet I would rather be good to him, far rather,” she said to herself, with a movement of quite pathetic sincerity.

But here, just at the entrance to the village street, an altogether unconscious deus ex machinâ—destined at once to relieve Helen of further anxiety, and commit poor Dickie to a course of action affecting the whole of his subsequent career—presented itself in the shape of a white‐tented miller’s waggon, which, with somnolent jingle of harness bells and most admired deliberation, moved down the centre of the road. A yellow‐washed garden‐wall on one side, the brook on the other, there was not room for the phaeton to pass.

“Whistle,” Richard commanded over his shoulder. And the wooden image, thereby galvanised into immediate activity, whistled shrilly, but without result as far as the waggon was concerned.

“The fellow’s asleep. Go and tell him to pull out of the way.”

Then, while the groom ran neatly forward in twinkling, white breeches and flesh‐coloured tops, Richard, bending towards her, as far as that controlling strap about his waist permitted, shifted the reins into his right hand and laid his left upon Madame de Vallorbes’ sable muff.

“Look here, Helen,” he said, rather hoarsely, “I am inde‐ page: 239 scribably shocked at what you have just told me. I supposed it was all so different with you. I’d no suspicion of this. And‐and—if I may say so, you’ve taught me a lesson which has gone home—steady there—steady, good lass”—for the horses danced and snorted.—“I don’t think I shall ever grumble much in future about troubles of my own, having seen how splendidly you bear yours. Only I can’t agree with you no remedy is possible for generous mistakes. The world isn’t quite so badly made as all that. There is a remedy for every mistake except—a few physical ones, which we euphuistically describe as visitations of God.—Steady, steady there—wait a bit.—And I—I tell you I can’t sit down under this unhappiness of yours and just put up with it. Don’t think me a meddling fool, please. Something’s got to be done. I know I probably appear to you the last person in the world to be of use. And yet I’m not sure about that. I have time—too much of it—and I’m not quite an ass. And you—you must know, I think, there’s nothing in heaven or earth I would not do for you that I could”—

The miller hauled his slow‐moving team aside, with beery‐thick objurgations and apologies. The groom swung himself up at the back of the carriage again. The impatient horses, getting their heads, swung away down Sandyfield Street—scattering a litter of merry, little, black pigs and many remonstrant fowls to right and left—past modest village shop, and yellow‐washed tavern, and red, lichen‐stained cottage, beneath the row of tall Lombardy poplars that raised their brown‐grey spires to the blue‐grey of the autumn sky. Richard’s left hand held the reins again.

“Half confidences are no good,” he said. “So, as you’ve trusted me thus far, Helen, don’t you think you will trust somewhat further? Be explicit. Tell me the rest.”

And hearing him, seeing him, just then, Madame de Vallorbes’ heart melted within her, and, to her own prodigious surprise, she had much ado not to weep.

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