Skip to Content
Indiana University

Search Options




View Options


The History of Sir Richard Calmady: a Romance . Malet, Lucas, 1852–1931.
previous
next
page: 239

CHAPTER IX

WHICH TOUCHES INCIDENTALLY ON MATTERS OF FINANCE

AS Richard had predicted the fog reappeared towards sunset. At first, as a frail mist, through which the landscape looked colourless and blurred. Later it rose, growing in density, until all objects beyond a radius of some twenty paces were page: 240 engulfed in its nothingness and lost. Later still—while Helen de Vallorbes paid her visit at Newlands—it grew denser yet, heavy, torpid, close yet cold, penetrated by earthy odours as the atmosphere of a vault, oppressive to the senses, baffling to sight and hearing alike. From out it, half‐leafless branches, like gaunt arms in tattered draperies, seemed to claw and beckon at the passing carriage and its occupants. The silver mountings of the harness showed in points and splashes of hard, shining white as against the shifting, universal dead‐whiteness of it, while the breath from the horses’ nostrils rose into it as defiant jets of steam, that struggled momentarily with the opaque, all‐enveloping vapour, only to be absorbed and obliterated as light by darkness, or life by death.

The aspect presented by nature was sinister, had Richard Calmady been sufficiently at leisure to observe it in detail. But, as he slowly walked the horses up and down the quarter of a mile of woodland drive, leading from the thatched lodge on the right of the Westchurch road to the house, he was not at leisure. He had received enlightenment on many subjects. He had acquired startling impressions, and he needed to place these, to bring them into line with the general habit of his thought. The majority of educated persons—so‐called—think in words, words often arbitrary and inaccurate enough, prolific mothers of mental confusion. The minority, and those of by no means contemptible intellectual calibre,—since the symbol must count for more than the mere label,—think in images and pictures. Dickie belonged to the minority. And it must be conceded that his mind now projected against that shifting, impalpable background of fog, a series of pictures which in their cynical pathos, their suggestions at once voluptuous and degraded, were hardly unworthy of the great master, William Hogarth, himself.

For Helen, in the reaction and relief caused by finding her relation to Richard unimpaired, caused too by that joyous devilry resident in her and constantly demanding an object on which to wreak its derision, had by no means spared her lord and master, Angelo Luigi Francesco, Vicomte de Vallorbes. And this only son of a thrifty, hard‐bitten, Savoyard banker‐noble and a Neapolitan princess of easy morals and ancient lineage, this Parisian viveur, his intrigues, his jealousies, his practical ungodliness and underlying superstition, his outbursts of temper, his shrewd economy in respect of others, and extensive personal extravagance, offered fit theme, with aid of little romancing, for such a discourse as it just now suited his very brilliant, young wife to pronounce.

page: 241

The said discourse opened in a low key, broken by pauses, by tactful self‐accusations, by questionings as to whether it were not more merciful, more loyal, to leave this or that untold. But as she proceeded, not only did Helen suffer the seductions of the fine art of lying, but she really began to have some ado to keep her exuberant sense of fun within due limits. For it proved so excessively exhilarating to deal thus with Angelo Luigi Francesco! She had old scores to settle. And had she not this very day received an odiously disquieting letter from him, in which he not only made renewed complaint of her poor, little miseries of debts and flirtations, but once more threatened retaliation by a cutting‐off of supplies? In common justice did he not deserve vilification? Therefore, partly out of revenge, partly in self‐justification, she proceeded with increasing enthusiasm to show that to know M. de Vallorbes was a lamentably liberal education in all civilised iniquities. With a hand, sure as it was light, she dissected out the unhappy gentleman, and offered up his mangled and bleeding reputation as tribute to her own so‐perpetually‐outraged moral sense and feminine delicacy, not to mention her so‐repeatedly and vilely wounded heart. And there really was truth—as at each fresh flight of her imagination she did not fail to remind herself—in all that which she said. Truth?—yes, just that misleading sufficiency of it in which a lie thrives. For, as every artist “in this kind” is aware, precisely as you would have the overgrowth of your improvisation richly phenomenal and preposterous, must you be careful to set the root of it in the honest soil of fact. To omit this precaution is to court eventual detection and consequent confusion of face.

As it was, Helen entered the house at Newlands, a house singularly unused to psychological aberrations, in buoyant spirits, mischief sitting in her discreetly downcast eyes, laughter perplexing her lips. She had placed her cargo of provocation, of resentment, to such excellent advantage! She was, moreover, slightly intoxicated by her own eloquence. She was at peace with herself and all mankind, with de Vallorbes even since his sins had afforded her so rare an opportunity. And this occasioned her to congratulate herself on her own conspicuous magnanimity. It is so exceedingly pleasing not only to know yourself clever, but to believe yourself good! She would be charming to these dear, kind, rather dull people. Not that Honoria was dull, but she had inconveniently austere notions of honour and loyalty at moments. And then the solitary drive home with Richard Calmady lay ahead, full of possible drama, full of, well, Heaven knew what! Oh! how entrancing a pastime is life!

page: 242

But to Richard, walking the snorting and impatient horses slowly up and down the woodland drive in the blear and sightless fog, life appeared quite other than an entrancing pastime. The pictures projected by his thought, and forming the medium of it, caused him black indignation and revolt, desolated him, too, with a paralysing disgust of his own disabilities. For poor Dick had declined somewhat in the last few hours, it must be owned, from the celestial altitudes he had reached before luncheon. Some part of his cousin’s discourse had been dangerously intimate in character, suggesting situations quite other than platonic. To him there appeared a noble innocence in her treatment of matters not usually spoken of. He had listened with a certain reverent amazement. Only out of purity of mind could such speech come. And yet an undeniable effect remained, and it was not altogether elevating. Richard was no longer the young Sir Galahad of the noontide of this eventful day. He was just simply a man—in a sensible degree the animal man—loving a woman, hating that other man to whom she was legally bound. Hating that other man, not only because he was unworthy and failed to make her happy, but because he stood in his—Richard’s—way. Hating the man all the more fiercely because, whatever the uncomeliness of his moral constitution, he was physically very far from uncomely. And so, along with nobler incitements to hatred, went the fiend envy, which just now plucked at poor Dickie’s vitals as the vulture at those of the chained Titan of old. Whereupon he fell into a meditation somewhat morbid. For, contemplating in pictured thought that other man’s bodily perfection, contemplating his property and victim,—the fair modern Helen, who by her courage and her trials exercised so potent a spell over his imagination,—Richard loathed his own maimed body, maimed chances and opportunities, as he had never loathed them before. How often since his childhood had some casual circumstance or trivial accident brought the fact of his misfortune home to him, causing him—as he at the moment supposed—to reckon, once and for all, with the sum total of it! But, as years passed and experience widened, below each depth of this adhering misery another deep disclosed itself. Would he never reach bottom? Would this inalienable disgrace continue to show itself more restricting and impeding to his action, more repulsive and contemptible to his fellow‐men, through all the succeeding stages and vicissitudes of his career, right to the very close?

To her hosts Madame de Vallorbes appeared in her gayest and most engaging humour.—“It was only a flying visit, she page: 243 mustn’t stay, Richard was waiting for her. Only she felt she must just have two words with Honoria. And say good‐bye? Yes, ten thousand sorrows, it was good‐bye. She was recalled to Paris, home, and duty”—She made an expressive little grimace at Miss St. Quentin.

“Your husband will be”—began Mrs. Cathcart, in her large, gently authoritative manner.

“Enchanted to see me, of course, dear cousin Selina, or he would not have required my return thus urgently. We may take that for said. Meanwhile what strange sprigs of nobility flourish in the local soil here.”

And she proceeded to give an account of the Fallowfeild party at luncheon, more witty, perhaps, than veracious. Helen could be extremely entertaining on occasion. She gave reins to her tongue, and it galloped away with her in most surprising fashion.

“My dear, my dear,” interrupted her hostess, “you are a little unkind surely! My dear, you are a little flippant!”

But Madame de Vallorbes enveloped her in the most assuaging embrace.

“Let me laugh while I can, dearest cousin Selina,” she pleaded. “I have had a delightful, little holiday. Everyone has been charming to me. You, of course—but then you always are that. Your presence breathes consolation. But Aunt Katherine has been charming too, and that, quite between ourselves, was a little more than I anticipated. Now the holiday draws to a close and pay‐day looms large ahead. You know nothing about such pay‐days thank Heaven, dear cousin Selina. They are far from joyous inventions; and so”—the young lady spread abroad her hands, palms upward, and shrugged her shoulders under their weight of costly furs—“and so I laugh, don’t you understand, I laugh!”

Miss St. Quentin’s delicate, square‐cut face wore an air of solicitude as she followed her friend out of the room. There was a trace of indolence in her slow, reflective speech, as in her long, swinging stride—the indolence bred of unconscious strength rather than of weakness, the leisureliness which goes with staying power both in the moral and the physical domain.

“See here, Nellie,” she said, “forgive brutal frankness, but which is the real thing to‐day—they’re each delightful in their own way—the tears or the laughter?”

“Both! oh, well‐beloved seeker after truth!” Madame de Vallorbes answered. “There lies the value of the situation.”

“Fresh worries?”

page: 244

“No, no, the old, the accustomed, the well‐accredited, the normal, the stock ones—a husband and a financial crisis.”

As she spoke Madame de Vallorbes fastened the buttons of her long driving‐coat. Miss St. Quentin knelt down and busied herself with the lowest of these. Her tall, slender figure was doubled together. She kept her head bent.

“I happen to have a pretty tidy balance just now,” she remarked parenthetically, and as though with a certain diffidence. “So you know, if you are a bit hard up—why—it’s all perfectly simple, Nellie, don’t you know.”

For a perceptible space of time Madame de Vallorbes did not answer. A grating of wheels on the gravel arrested her attention. She looked down the long vista of ruddily lighted hall, with its glowing fire and cheerful lamps to the open door, where, against the blear whiteness of the fog, the mail‐phaeton and its occupant showed vague in outline and in proportions almost gigantic against the thick, shifting atmosphere. Miss St. Quentin raised her head, surprised at her companion’s silence. Helen de Vallorbes bent down, took the upturned face in both hands and kissed the soft cheeks with effusion.

“You are adorable,” she said. “But you are too generous. You shall lend me nothing more. I believe I see my way. I can scrape through this crisis.”

Miss St. Quentin rose to her feet.

“All right,” she said, smiling upon her friend from her superior height with a delightful air of affection and apology. “I only wanted you just to know, in case—don’t you see. And—and—for the rest, how goes it, Helen? Are you turning all their poor heads at Brockhurst? You’re rather an upsetting being to let loose in an ordinary, respectable, English country‐house. A sort of Mousquetaire au couvent the other way about, don’t you know. Are you making things fly generally?”

“I am making nothing fly,” the other lady rejoined gaily. “I am as inoffensive as a stained‐glass saint in a chapel window. I am absolutely angelic.”

“That’s worst of all,” Honoria exclaimed, still smiling. “When you’re angelic you are most particularly deadly. For the preservation of local innocents, somebody ought to go and hoist danger signals.”

Miss St. Quentin, after just a moment’s hesitation, followed her friend through the warm, bright hall to the door. Then Helen de Vallorbes turned to her.

Au revoir, dearest Honoria,” she said, “and the sooner the better. Leave your shopgirls and distressed needlewomen, page: 245 and all your other good works, for a still better one—namely for me. Come and reclaim, and comfort, and support me for a while in Paris.”

Again she kissed the soft cheek.

“I am as good as gold. I am just now actually mawkish with virtue,” she murmured, between the kisses.

Richard witnessed this exceedingly pretty leave‐taking not without a movement of impatience. The fog was thickening once more. It grew late. He wished his cousin would get through with these amenities. Then, moreover, he did not covet intercourse with Miss St. Quentin. He pulled the fur rug aside with his left hand, holding reins and whip in his right.

“I say, are you nearly ready?” he asked. “I don’t want to bother you; but really it’s about time we were moving.”

“I come, I come,” Madame de Vallorbes cried, in answer. She put one neatly‐shod foot on the axle, and stepped up—Richard holding out his hand to steady her. A sense, at once pleasurable and defiant, of something akin to ownership, came over him as he did so. Just then his attention was claimed by a voice addressing him from the farther side of the carriage. Honoria St. Quentin stood on the gravel close beside him, bare‐headed, in the clinging damp and chill of the fog.

“Give my love to Lady Calmady,” she said. “I hope I shall see her again some day. But, even if I never have the luck to do that, in a way it’ll make no real difference. I’ve written her name in my private calendar, and shall always remember it.”—She paused a moment. “We got rather near each other somehow, I think. We didn’t dawdle or beat about the bush, but went straight along, passed the initial stages of acquaintance in a few hours, and reached that point of friendship where forgetting becomes impossible.”

“My mother never forgets,” Richard asserted, and there was, perhaps, a slight edge to his tone. Looking down into the girl’s pale, finely‐moulded face, meeting the glance of those steady, strangely clear and observant eyes, he received an impression of something uncompromisingly sincere and in a measure protective. This, for cause unknown, he resented. Notwithstanding her high‐breeding, Miss St. Quentin’s attitude appeared to him a trifle intrusive just then.

“I am very sure of that—that your mother never forgets, I mean. One knows, at once, one can trust her down to the ground and on to the end of the ages.”—Again she paused, as though rallying herself against a disinclination for further page: 246 speech. “All captivating women aren’t made on that pattern, unfortunately, you know, Sir Richard. A good many of them it’s wisest not to trust anything like down to the ground, or longer than—well—the day before yesterday.”

And without waiting for any reply to this cryptic utterance, she stepped swiftly round behind the carriage again, waved her hand from the door‐step and then swung away, with lazy, long‐limbed grace, past the waiting men‐servants and through the ruddy brightness of the hall.

Madame de Vallorbes settled herself back rather languidly in her place. She was pricked by a sharp point of curiosity, regarding the tenor of Miss St. Quentin’s mysterious colloquy with Richard. Calmady. She had been able to catch but a word here and there, and these had been provokingly suggestive. Had the well‐beloved Honoria, in a moment of over‐scrupulous conscientiousness permitted herself to hoist danger signals? She wanted to know, for it was her business to haul such down again with all possible despatch. She intended the barometer to register “set fair” whatever the weather actually impending. Yet to institute direct inquiries might be to invite suspicion. Helen, therefore, declined upon diplomacy, upon the inverted sweetnesses calculated nicely to mask an intention quite other than sweet. She really held her friend in very warm affection. But Madame de Vallorbes never confused secondary and primary issues. When you have a really big deal on hand—and of the bigness of her present deal the last quarter of an hour had brought her notably increased assurance—even the dearest friend must stand clear and get very decidedly out of the way. So, while the muffled thud of the horses’ hoofs echoed up from the hard gravel of the carriage drive through the thick atmosphere, and the bare limbs of the trees clawed, as with lean arms clothed in tattered draperies, at the passing carriage and its occupants, she contented herself by observing:—

“I am grateful to you for driving me over, Richard. Honoria is very perfect in her own way. It always does me good to see her. She’s quite unlike anybody else, isn’t she?”

But Richard’s eyes were fixed upon the blank wall of fog just ahead, which, though always stable, always receded before the advancing carriage. The effect of it was unpleasant somehow, holding, as it did to his mind, suggestion of other things still more baffling and impending, from which—though you might keep them at arm’s length—there was no permanent page: 247 or actual escape. The question of Miss St. Quentin’s characteristics did not consequently greatly interest him. He had arrived at conclusions. There was a matter of vital importance on which he desired to speak to his cousin. But how to do that? Richard was young and excellently modest. His whole purpose was rather fiercely focused on speech. But he was diffident, fearing to approach the subject which he had so much at heart clumsily and in a tactless, tasteless manner.

“Miss St. Quentin? Oh yes!” he replied, rather absently. “I really know next to nothing about her. And she seems merely to regard me as a vehicle of communication between herself and my mother. She sent her messages just now—I hope to goodness I shan’t forget to deliver them! She and my mother appear to have fallen pretty considerably in love with one another.”

“Probably,” Madame de Vallorbes said softly. An agreeable glow of relief passed over her. She looked up at Richard with a delightful effect of pensiveness from beneath the sweeping brim of her cavalier hat.—“I can well believe Aunt Katherine would be attracted by her,” she continued. “Honoria is quite a woman’s woman. Men do not care very much about her as a rule. There is a good deal of latent vanity resident in the members of your sex, you know, Richard; and men are usually conscious that Honoria does not care so very much about them. They are quite right, she does not. I really believe when poor, dreadful, old Lady Tobermory left her all that money Honoria’s first thought was that now she might embrace celibacy with a good conscience. The St. Quentins are not precisely millionaires, you know. Her wealth left her free to espouse the cause of womanhood at large. She is a little bit Quixotic, dear thing, and given to tilting at windmills. She wants to secure to working women a fair business basis—that is the technical expression, I believe. And so she starts clubs, and forms circles. She says women must be encouraged to combine and to agitate. Whether they are capable of combining I do not pretend to say. These high matters transcend my small wit. But, as I have often pointed out to her, agitation is the natural attitude of every woman. It would seem superfluous to encourage or inculcate that, for surely wherever two or three petticoats are gathered together, there, as far as my experience goes, is agitation of necessity in the midst of them.”

Madame de Vallorbes leaned back with a little sigh and air of exquisite resignation.

page: 248

“All the same, the majority of women are unhappy enough, Heaven knows! If Honoria, or any other sweet, feminine Quixote, can find means to lighten the burden of our lives, she has my very sincere thanks, well understood.”

Richard drew his whip across the backs of the trotting horses, making them plunge forward against that blank, impalpable wall of all‐encircling, ever‐receding, ever‐present fog. The carriage had just crossed the long, white‐railed bridge, spanning the little river and space of marsh on either side, and now entered Sandyfield Street. The tops of the tall Lombardy poplars were lost in gloom. Now and again the redness of a lighted cottage window, blurred and contorted in shape, showed through the grey pall. Slow‐moving, country figures, passing vehicles, a herd of some eight or ten cows—preceded by a diabolic looking billy‐goat, and followed by a lad astride the hind‐quarters of a bare‐backed donkey—grew out of pallid nothingness as the carriage came abreast of them, and receded with mysterious rapidity into nothingness again. The effect was curiously fantastic and unreal. And, as the minutes passed, that effect of unreality gained upon Richard’s imagination, until now—as last evening in the stately solitude of the Long Gallery—he became increasingly aware of the personality of his companion, increasingly penetrated by the feeling of being alone with that personality, as though the world, so strangely blotted out by these dim, obliterating vapours, were indeed vacant of all human interest, human purpose, human history, save that incarnate in this fair woman and in his own relation to her. She alone existed, concrete, exquisite, sentient, amid the vague, shifting immensities of fog. She alone mattered. Her near neighbourhood worked upon hint strongly, causing an excitement in him which at once hindered and demanded speech.

Night began to close in in good earnest. Passing the broad, yellowish glare streaming out from the rounded tap‐room window of the Calmady Arms, and passing from the end of the village street on to the open common, the light had become so uncertain that Richard could no longer see his companion’s face clearly. This was almost a relief to him, so that, mastering at once his diffidence and his excitement, he spoke.

“Look here, Helen,” he said, “I have been thinking over all that you told me. I don’t want to dwell on subjects that must be very painful to you, but I can’t help thinking about them. It’s not that I won’t leave them alone, but that they won’t leave me. I don’t want to presume upon your confidence, or take too much upon myself. Only, don’t you see, now that I do know it’s page: 249 impossible to sit down under it all and let things go on just the same.—You’re not angry with me?”

The young man spoke very carefully and calmly, yet the tones of his voice were heavily charged with feeling.

Madame de Vallorbes clasped her hands rather tightly within her sable muff. Unconsciously she began to sway a little, just a very little, as a person will sway in time to strains of stirring music. An excitement, not mental merely but physical, invaded her. For she recognised that she stood on the threshold of developments in this very notable drama. Still she answered quietly, with a touch even of weariness.

“Ah! dear Richard, it is so friendly and charming of you to take my infelicities thus to heart! But to what end, to what end, I ask you? The conditions are fixed. Escape from them is impossible. I have made my bed—made it most abominably uncomfortably, I admit, but that is not to the point—and I must lie on it. There is no redress. There is nothing to be done.”

“Yes, there is this,” he replied. “I know it is wretchedly inadequate, it doesn’t touch the root of the matter. Oh! it’s miserably inadequate—I should think I did know that! Only it might smooth the surface a bit, perhaps, and put a stop to one source of annoyance. Forgive me if I say what seems coarse or clumsy—but would not your position be easier if, in regard to—to money, you were quite independent of that—of your husband, I mean,—M. de Vallorbes?”

For a moment the young lady remained very still, and stared very hard at the fog. The most surprising visions arose before her. She had a difficulty in repressing an exclamation.

“Ah! there now, I have blundered. I’ve hurt you. I’ve made you angry,” Dickie cried impulsively.

“No, no, dear Richard,” she answered, with admirable gentleness, “I am not angry. Only what is the use of romancing?”

“I am not romancing. It is the simplest thing out, if you will but have it so.”

He hesitated a little. The horses were pulling, the fog was in his throat thick and choking—or was it, perhaps, something more unsubstantial and intangible even than fog? The spacious barns and rickyards of the Church Farm were just visible on the right. In less than five minutes more, at their present pace, the horses would reach the first park gate. The young man felt he must give himself time. He quieted the horses down into a walk.

“If I were your brother, Helen, I should save you all these sordid money worries as a matter of course. You have no page: 250 brother—so, don’t you see, I come next. It’s a perfectly obvious arrangement. Just let me be your banker,” he said.

Madame de Vallorbes shut her pretty teeth together. She could have danced, she could have sung aloud for very gaiety of heart. She had not anticipated this turn to the situation; but it was a delicious one. It had great practical merits. Her brain worked rapidly. Immediately those practical merits ranged themselves before her in detail. But she would play with it a little—both diplomacy and good taste, in which last she was by no means deficient, required that.

“Ah! you forget, dear Richard,” she said, “in your friendly zeal you forget that, in our rank of life, there is one thing a woman cannot accept from a man. To take money is to lay yourself open to slanderous tongues, is to court scandal. Sooner or later it is known, the fact leaks out. And however innocent the intention, however noble and honest the giving, however grateful and honest the receiving, the world puts but one construction upon such a transaction.”

“The world’s beastly evil‐minded then,” Richard said.

“So it is. But that is no news, Dickie dear,” Madame de Vallorbes answered. “Nor is it exactly to the point.”

Inwardly she trembled a little. What if she had headed him off too cleverly, and he should regard her argument as convincing, her refusal as final? Her fears were by no means lessened by the young man’s protracted silence.

“No, I don’t agree,” he said at last. “I suppose there are always risks to be run in securing anything at all worth securing, and it seems to me, if you look at it all round, the risks in this case are very slight. Only you—and M. de Vallorbes need know. I suppose he must. But then, if you will pardon my saying so, after what you have told me I can’t imagine he is the sort of person who is likely to object very much to an arrangement by which he would benefit, at least indirectly. As for the world,”—Richard ceased to contemplate his horses. He tried to speak lightly, while his eyes sought that dimly seen face at his elbow.—“Oh, well, hang the world, Helen! It’s easy enough for me to say so, I daresay, being but so slightly acquainted with it and the ways of it. But the world can’t be so wholly hide‐bound and idiotic that it denies the existence of exceptional cases. And this case, in some of its bearings at all events, is wholly exceptional, I am—happy to think.”

“You are a very convincing special pleader, Richard,” Madame de Vallorbes said softly.

page: 251

“Then you accept?” he rejoined exultantly. “You accept?”

The young lady could not quite control herself.

“Ah! if you only knew the prodigious relief it would be,” she exclaimed, with an outbreak of impatience. “It would make an incalculable difference. And yet I do not see my way. I am in a cleft stick. I dare not say Yes. And to say No”—Her sincerity was unimpeachable at that moment. Her eyes actually filled with tears. “Pah! I am ashamed of myself,” she cried, “but, to refuse is distracting.”

The gate of the outer park had been reached. The groom swung himself down and ran forward, but confused by the growing darkness and the thick atmosphere he fumbled for a time before finding the heavy latch.

The horses became somewhat restive, snorting and fidgeting.

“Steady there, steady, good lass,” Richard said soothingly. Then he turned again to his companion. “Believe me it’s the very easiest thing out to accept, if you’ll only look at it all from the right point of view, Helen.”

Madame de Vallorbes withdrew her right hand from her muff and laid it, almost timidly, upon the young man’s arm.

“Do you know, you are wonderfully dear to me, Dick?” she said, and her voice shook slightly. She was genuinely touched and moved.—“No one has ever been quite so dear to me before. It is a new experience. It takes my breath away a little. It makes me regret some things I have done. But it is a mistake to go back on what is past, don’t you think so? Therefore we will go forward. Tell me, expound. What is this so agreeably reconciling point of view?”

But along with the touch of her hand, a great wave of emotion swept over poor Richard, making his grasp on the reins very unsteady. The sensations he had suffered last evening in the Long Gallery again assailed him. The flesh had its word to say. Speech became difficult. Meanwhile his agitation communicated itself strangely to the horses. They sprang forward against that all‐encircling, ever‐present, yet ever‐receding, blank wall of fog, to which the over‐arching trees lent an added gloom and mystery, as though some incarnate terror pursued them. The gate clanged‐to behind the carriage. The groom scrambled breathlessly into his place. Sir Richard’s driving was rather reckless, he ventured to think, on such a nasty, dark night, and with a lady along of him too. He was not sorry when the pace slowed down to a walk. That was a long sight safer, to his thinking.

page: 252

“The right point of view is this,” Richard said at last; “that in accepting you would be doing that which, in some ways, would make just all the difference to my life.”

He held himself very upright on the sloping driving‐seat, rather cruelly conscious of the broad strap about his waist, and the high, unsightly driving‐iron against which, concealed by the heavy, fur rug, his feet pushed as he balanced himself. He paused, gazing away into the silent desolation of the now invisible woods, and when he spoke again his voice had deepened in tone.

“It must be patent to you—it is rather detestably patent to everyone, I suppose, if it comes to that—that I am condemned to be of precious little use to myself or anyone else. I share the fate of the immortal Sancho Panza in his island of Barataria. A very fine feast is spread before me, while I find myself authoritatively forbidden to eat first of this dish and then of that, until I end by being every bit as hungry as though the table was bare. It becomes rather a nuisance at times, you know, and taxes one’s temper and one’s philosophy. It seems a little rough to possess all that so many men of my age would give just everything to have, and yet be unable to get anything but unsatisfied hunger, and—in plain English—humiliation, out of it.”

Madame de Vallorbes sat very still. Her charming face had grown keen. She listened, drawing in her breath with a little sobbing sound—but that was only the result of accentuated dramatic satisfaction.

“You see I have no special object or ambition. I can’t have one. I just pass the time. I don’t see any prospect of my ever being able to do more than that. There’s my mother, of course. I need not tell you she and I love one another. And there are the horses. But I don’t care to bet, and I never attend a race‐meeting. I—I do not choose to make an exhibition of myself.”

Again Helen drew her hand out of her muff, but this time quickly, impulsively, and laid it on Richard’s left hand which held the reins. The young man’s breath caught in his throat, he leaned sideways towards her, her shoulder touching his elbow, the trailing plumes of her hat—now limp from the clinging moisture of the fog—for a moment brushing his cheek.

“Helen,” he said rapidly, “don’t you understand it’s in your power to alter all this? By accepting you would do infinitely more for me than I could ever dream of doing for you. You’d give me something to think of and plan about. page: 253 If you’ll only have whatever wretched money you need now, and have more whenever you want it—if you’ll let me feel, however rarely we meet, that you depend on me and trust me and let me make things a trifle easier and smoother for you, you will be doing such an act of charity as few women have ever done. Don’t refuse, for pity’s sake don’t! I don’t want to whine, but things were not precisely gay before your coming, you know. Need it be added they promise to be less so than ever after you are gone? So listen to reason. Do as I ask you. Let me be of use in the only way I can.”

“Do you consider what you propose?” Madame de Vallorbes asked, slowly. “It is a good deal. It is dangerous. With most men such a compact would be wholly inadmissible.”

Then poor. Dickie lost himself. The strain of the last week, the young, headlong passion aroused in him, the misery of his deformity, the accumulated bitterness and rebellion of years arose and overflowed as a great flood. Pride went down before it, and reticence, and decencies of self‐respect. Richard turned and rent himself, without mercy and, for the moment, without shame. He pelted himself with cruel words, with scorn and self‐contempt, while he laughed, and the sound of that laughter wandered away weirdly through the chill density of the fog, under the tall, shadowy firs of the great avenue, over the sombre heather, out into the veiled, crowded darkness of the wide woods.

“But I am not as other men are,” he answered. “I am a creature by myself, a unique development as much outside the normal social, as I am outside the normal physical law. I—alone by myself—think of it!—abnormal, extraordinary.—You are safe enough with me, Helen. Safe to indulge and humour me as you might a monkey or a parrot. All the world will understand that! Only my mother, and a few old friends and old servants take me seriously. To everyone else I am an embarrassment, a more or less distressing curiosity.”—He met little Lady Constance Quayle’s ruminant stare again in imagination, heard Lord Fallowfeild’s blundering speech.—“Remember our luncheon to‐day. It was flattering, at moments, wasn’t it? And so if I do queer things, things off the conventional lines, who will be surprised? No one I tell you, not even the most strait‐laced or censorious. Allow me at least the privileges of my disabilities. I am a dwarf—a cripple. I shall never be otherwise. Had I lived a century or two ago I should have made sport for you, and such as you, as some rich man’s professional fool. And so, if I overstep the usual limits, who page: 254 will comment on that? Queer things, crazy things, are in the part. What do I matter?”

Richard laughed aloud.

“At least I have this advantage, that in my case you can do what you can do in the case of no other man. With me you needn’t be afraid. No one will think evil. With me—yes, after all, there is a drop of comfort in it—with me, Helen, you’re safe enough.”

previous
next