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The History of Sir Richard Calmady: a Romance . Malet, Lucas, 1852–1931.
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page: 376

CHAPTER I

IN WHICH THE READER IS COURTEOUSLY ENTREATED TO GROW OLDER BY THE SPACE OF SOME FOUR YEARS, AND TO SAIL SOUTHWARD HO! AWAY

THE south‐easterly wind came fresh across the bay from the crested range of the Monte Sant’ Angelo. The blossoms of the Judas‐trees, breaking from the smooth grey stems and branches—on which they perch so quaintly—fell in a red‐mauve shower upon the slabs of the marble pavement, upon the mimic waves of the fountain basin, and upon the clustering curls, and truncated shoulders, of the bust of Homer standing in the shade of the grove of cypress and ilex which sheltered the square, high‐lying hill‐garden, at this hour of the morning, from the fierceness of the sun. They floated as far even as the semicircular steps of the pavilion on the extreme right—the leaded dome of which showed dark and livid on the one side, white and glistering on the other, against the immense and radiant panorama of mountain, sea, and sky.

The garden, its fountains, neatly clipped shrubs, and formal paved alleys, was backed by a large villa of the square, flat‐roofed order common to southern Italy. The record of its age had recently suffered modification by application of a coat of stucco, of a colour intermediate between faint lemon‐yellow and pearl‐grey, and by the renovation of the fine arabesques—Pompeian in character—decorating the narrow interspaces between its treble range of Venetian shutters. Otherwise the aspect of the Villa Vallorbes showed but small alteration since the year when, for a few socially historic weeks, the “glorious Lady Blessington,” and her strangely assorted train, condescended to occupy it prior page: 377 to taking up their residence at the Palazzo Belvedere near by. The walls were sufficiently massive to withstand a siege. The windows of the ground floor, set in deeply‐hewn ashlar work, were cross‐barred as those of a prison. Above, the central windows and door of the entresol opened on to a terrace of black and white marble, from which, at either end, a wide, shallow‐stepped, curved stairway led down into the garden. The first floor consisted of a suite of noble rooms, each of whose lofty windows gave on to a balcony of wrought ironwork, very ornate in design. The topmost storey, immediately below the painted frieze of the parapet, coincided in height and in detail with the entresol.

The villa was superbly situated upon an advancing spur of hill; so that, looking down from its balconies, looking out from between the pale and slender columns of the pavilion, the whole city of Naples lay revealed below.—Naples, that bewildering union of modern commerce and classic association—its domes, its palms, its palaces, its crowded, hoarse‐shouting quays, its theatres and giant churches, its steep and filthy lanes black with shadow, its reeking markets, its broad, sun‐scorched piazzas, its glittering, blue waters, its fringing forest of tall masts, and innumerable, close‐packed hulls of ocean‐going ships! Naples, city of glaring contrasts—heaven of rascality, hell of horses, unrivalled all the western world over for natural beauty, for spiritual and moral grossness! Naples, breeding, teeming, laughing, fighting, festering, city of music, city of fever and death! Naples, at once abominable and enchanting—city to which, spite of noise, stenches, cruelty and squalor, those will return, of necessity, and return again, whose imagination has once been taken captive in the meshes of her many‐coloured net.

And among the captives of Naples, on the brilliant morning in question in the early spring of the year 1871, open‐eared and open‐eyed to its manifest and manifold incongruities, relishing alike the superficial beauty and underlying bestiality of it, was very certainly Helen de Vallorbes. Several years had elapsed since she had visited this fascinating locality; and she could congratulate herself upon conditions adapted to a more intimate and comprehensive acquaintance with its very various humours than she had ever enjoyed before. She had spent more than one winter here, it is true, immediately subsequent to her marriage. But she had then been required to associate exclusively with the members of her husband’s family, and to fill a definite position in the aristocratic society of the place. The tone of that society was not a little lax. Yet, being notably page: 378 defective in the saving grace of humour—as to the feminine portion of it, at all events—its laxity proved sadly deficient in vital interest. The fair Neapolitans displayed as small intelligence in their intrigues as in their piety. In respect of both they remained ignorant, prejudiced, hopelessly conventional. Their noble ancestresses of the Renaissance understood and did these things better—so Helen reflected. She found herself both bored and irritated. She feared she had taken up her residence in southern Italy quite three centuries too late.

But all that was in the past—heaven be praised for it! Just now she was her own mistress, at liberty—thanks to the fortunes of war—to comport herself as she pleased and obey any caprice that took her. The position was ideal in its freedom, while the intrinsic value of it was enhanced by contrast with recent disagreeable experiences. For the alarms and deprivations of the siege of Paris were but lately over. She had come through them unscathed in health and fortune. Yet they had left their mark. During those months of all‐encompassing disappointment and disaster the eternal laughter—in which she trusted—had rung harshly sardonic, to the breaking down of self‐confidence, and light‐hearted, cynic philosophy. It scared her somewhat. It made her feel old. It chilled her with suspicion of the actuality of The Four Last Things—death and judgment, heaven and hell. The power of a merry scepticism waxed faint amid the scream of shells and long‐drawn, murderous crackle of the mitrailleuse. Helen, indeed, became actively superstitious, thereby falling low in her own self‐esteem. She took to frequenting churches, and spending long, still days with the nuns, her former teachers, within the convent of the Sacré Cœur. Circumstances so worked upon her that she made her submission, and was solemnly and duly received back into the fold of the Church. She confessed ardently, yet with certain politic reservations. The priest, after all, is but human. It is only charitable to be considerate of his feelings—so she argued—and avoid overburdening his conscience, poor dear man, by blackening your own reputation too violently! The practice of religion was a help—truly it was, since it served to pass the time. And then, who could tell but that it might not prove really useful hereafter, as, when all is said and done, those dread Four Last Things will present themselves to the mind in hours of depression with haunting pertinacity. It is clearly wise, then, to be on the safe side of Holy Church in these matters, accepting her own assertion that she is very certainly on the safe side of the Deity.

Yet, notwithstanding her pious exercises, Helen de Vallorbes page: 379 found existing circumstances excessively disturbing and disquieting. She was filled with an immense self‐pity. She feared her health was failing. She became nervously sensible of her eight‐and‐twenty years, telling herself that her youth and the glory of it had departed. She wore black dresses, rolled bandages, pulled lint. Selecting Mary Magdalene as her special intercessor, she made a careful study of the life and legends of that saint. This proved stimulating to her imagination. She proceeded to write a little one‐act drama concerning the holy woman’s dealings, subsequent to her conversion, quite late in life in fact, with such as survived of her former lovers. The dialogue was very moving in parts. Helen read it aloud one bleak January evening, by the light of a single candle, to her friend M. Paul Destournelle, poet and novelist—with whom just then, by her own desire, her relations were severely platonic—and they both wept. The application, though delicate, was obvious. And those tears appeared to lay the dust of so many pleasant sins, and promise fertilisation of so heavy a crop of virtue, that—by inevitable action of the law of contraries—the two friends found it more than ever difficult to say farewell and part that night.

Now looking back on all that, viewing it calmly in perspective, her action and attitude struck Helen as somewhat imbecile. Prayer and penitence have too often a tendency to kick the beam when fear ceases to weight the balance. And so it followed that the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life, presented themselves to her as powers by no means contemptible, or unworthy of invocation, this morning, while she sat at the luxuriously furnished breakfast‐table beneath the glistering dome of the airy pavilion and gazed out between its slender columns, over the curving lines of the painted city and glittering waters of the bay, to the cone of Vesuvius rising, in imperial purple, against the azure sky. To‐day, sign, as she noted, of fine weather, omen, as she trusted, of good fortune, the smoke of its everlasting burnings towered up and up into the translucent atmosphere, and then drifted away—a gigantic, wedge‐shaped pennon—toward Capri and the open sea. And, beholding these things, out of simple, physical well‐being, fulness of bread, conviction of her own undiminished beauty, and the merry devilry begotten of these, she fell to projecting a second, a companion, one‐act drama founded upon the life of the Magdalene, but, this time, before the saint’s conversion, at an altogether earlier stage of her very instructive history. And this drama she would not read to M. Destournelle—not a bit of it. In it he should have neither part nor lot. Registering which determination, she shook her page: 380 charming, honey‐coloured head, holding up both hands with a gesture of humorous and well‐defined repudiation.

For, in truth, the day of M. Destournelle appeared, just now, to be very effectually over. It had been reasonable enough to urge her natural fears in journeying through a war‐distracted land—although guarded by Charles, most discreet and resourceful of English men‐servants, and Zélie Forestier, most capable of French lady’s‐maids—as excuse for Paul Destournelle joining her at a wayside station a short distance out of Paris and accompanying her south. À la guerre comme à la guerre. A beautiful woman can hardly be too careful of her person amid the many and primitive dangers which battle and invasion let loose. De Vallorbes himself—detestably jealous though he was—could hardly have objected to her thus securing effective protection, had he been acquainted with the fact. That he was not so acquainted was, of course, the veriest oversight. But, the frontier once reached—the better part of three weeks had elapsed in the reaching of it—and all danger of war and tumult past, both the necessity and, to be frank, the entertainment of M. Destournelle’s presence became less convincing. Helen grew a trifle weary of his transports, his suspicions, his bel tête de Jesu souffrant, his insatiable literary and personal vanity. The charm, the excitement, of the situation, began to wear rather threadbare, while the practical inconveniences and restrictions it imposed increasingly disclosed themselves. A lover, as Helen reflected, provided you see enough of him, offers but small improvement upon a husband. He is liable to become possessive and didactic, after the manner of the natural man. He is liable to forget that the relation is permitted, not legalised; that it exists on sufferance merely, and is therefore terminable at the will of either party. The last days of that same southern journey had been marked by misunderstandings and subsequent reconciliations, in an ascending scale of acrimony and fervour on the part of her companion. In Helen’s case familiarity tended very rapidly to breed contempt. She ceased to be in the least amused by these recurring agitations. At Pisa, after a scene of a particularly excited nature, she lost all patience, frankly told her admirer that she found him not a little ridiculous, and requested him to remove himself, his grievances, and his bel tête de Jesu elsewhere. M. Destournelle took refuge in nerves, threats of morphia, and his bed‐chamber,—in the chaste seclusion of which apartment Helen left him, unvisited and unconsoled, while, attended by her servants, she gaily resumed her journey.

page: 381

An adorable sense of independence possessed her, of the charm of her own society, of the absence of all external compelling or directing of her movements—no circumscription of her liberty possible—the world before her where to choose! Not only were privations, dismal hauntings of siege and slaughter, left behind, and M. Destournelle, just now most wearisome of lovers, left behind also, but de Vallorbes himself had, for the time being, become a permissibly negligible quantity. The news of more fighting, more bloodshed, had just reached her, though the German armies were marching back to the now wholly German Rhine. For upon unhappy Paris had come an hour of deeper humiliation than any which could be procured by the action of foreign foes. She was a kingdom divided against herself, a mother scandalously torn by her own children. News had reached Helen too, news special and highly commendatory, of her husband, Angelo Luigi Francesco. Early in that eventful struggle he had enlisted in the Garde Mobile, all the manhood and honest sentiment resident in him stirred into fruitful activity by the shame and peril of his adopted country. Now Helen learned he had distinguished himself in the holding of Chatillon against the insurgents, had been complimented by MacMahon upon his endurance and resource, had been offered, and had accepted, a commission in the regular army. Promotion was rapid during the later months of the war, and probability pointed to the young man having started on a serious military career.

“Well, let him both start and continue,” Helen commented. “I am the last person to be otherwise than delighted thereat. Just in proportion as he is occupied he ceases to be inconvenient. If he succeeds—good. If he is shot—good likewise. For him laurels and a hero’s tomb. For me crape and permanent emancipation. An agreeably romantic conclusion to a profoundly unromantic marriage—fresh proof, were such needed, of the truth of the immortal Dr. Pangloss saying, that ‘all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds!’”

In such happy frame of mind did Madame de Vallorbes continue during her visit to Florence and upon her onward way to Perugia. But there self‐admiration ceased to be all‐sufficient for her. She needed to read confirmation of that admiration in other eyes. And the grey Etruscan city, uplifted on its star‐shaped hill, offered her a somewhat grim reception. Piercing winds swept across the Tiber valley from the still snow‐clad Apennines above Assisi. The austere, dark‐walled, lombard‐gothic churches and palaces showed forbidding, merciless almost, through the page: 382 driving wet. Even in fair summer weather suspicion of ancient and implacable terror lurks in the shadow of those cyclopean gateways, and stalks over the unyielding, rock‐hewn pavements of those solemn, mediæval streets. There was an incalculable element in Perugia which raised a certain anger in Helen. The place seemed to defy her and make light of her pretensions. As during the siege of Paris, so now, echoes of the eternal laughter saluted her ears, ironic in tone.

Nor was the society offered by the residents in the hotel, weather‐bound like herself, of a specially enlivening description. It was composed almost exclusively of middle‐aged English and American ladies—widows and spinsters—of blameless morals and anxiously active intelligence. They wrapped their lean forms in woollen shawls and ill‐cut jackets. They pervaded salon and corridors guide‐book in hand. They discoursed of Umbrian antiquities, Etruscan tombs, frescoes and architecture. Having but little life in themselves, they tried, rather vainly, to warm both hands at the fire of the life of the past. Among them, Helen, in her vigorous and self‐secure, though fine‐drawn, beauty, was about as much at home as a young panther in a hen‐roost. They admired, they vaguely feared, they greatly wondered at her. Had one of those glorious young gallants, Baglioni or Oddi, clothed in scarlet, winged, helmeted, sword on thigh, as Perugino has painted them on the walls of the Sala del Cambio—very strangest union of sensuous worldliness and radiant, arch‐angelic grace—had one of these magnificent gentlemen ruffled into the hotel parlour, he could hardly have startled the eyes, and perplexed the understanding, of the virtuous and learned Anglo‐Saxon and Transatlantic feminine beings there assembled more than did Madame de Vallorbes.

For all such sexless creatures, for the great company of women in whose outlook man plays no immediate or active part, Helen had, in truth, small respect. They appeared to her so absurdly inadequate, so contemptibly divorced from the primary interests of existence. More than once, in a spirit of mischievous malice, she was tempted to bid the good ladies lay aside their Baedekers and Murrays, and increase their knowledge of the Italian character and language by study of the Novelle of Bandello, or of certain merry tales to be found in the pages of the Decameron. She had copies of both works in her travelling‐bag. She was prepared, moreover, to illustrate such ancient saws by modern instances, for the truth of which last she could quite honestly vouch. But on second thoughts she spared her victims. The quarry was not worth the chase. What self‐ page: 383 respecting panther can, after all, go a‐hunting in a hen‐roost? So from the neighbourhood of their unlovely clothes, questioning glances, and under‐vitalised pursuit of art and literature, she removed herself to her sitting‐room upstairs. Charles should serve her meals there in future; for to sit at table with these neuters, clothed in amorphous garments, came near upsetting her digestion.

Meanwhile, as she watched the rain streaming down the panes of the big windows, watched thin‐legged, heavily‐cloaked figures tacking, wind‐buffeted, across the grey‐black street into the shelter of some cavernous port cochère, it must be owned her spirits went very sensibly down into her boots. Even the presence of the despised and repudiated Destournelle would have been grateful to her. Remembrance of all the less successful episodes of her career assaulted her. And in that connection, of necessity, the thought of Brockhurst returned upon her. For neither the affair of her childhood—that of the little dancer with blush‐roses in her hat—or the other affair—of now nearly four years back—the intimate drama frustrated, within sight of its climax, by intervention of Lady Calmady—could be counted otherwise than as failures. It was strange how deep‐seated was her discontent under this head. As on Queen Mary’s heart the word Calais, so on hers Brockhurst, she sometimes thought, might be found written when she was dead. In the last four years Richard had given her princely gifts. He had treated her with a fine, old‐world chivalry, as something sacred and apart. But he rarely sought her society. He seemed, rather carefully, to elude her pursuit. His name was not exactly a patent of discretion and rectitude in these days unfortunately. Still Helen found his care of her reputation—as far as association of her name with his own went—somewhat exaggerated. She could hardly believe him to be indifferent to her, and yet— Oh! the whole matter was unsatisfactory, abominably unsatisfactory—of a piece with the disquieting influences of this grim and fateful city, with the detestable weather evident there without!

And then, suddenly, an idea came to Helen de Vallorbes, causing the delicate colour to spring into her cheeks, and the light into her eyes, veiled by those fringed, semitransparent lids. For, some two years earlier, Richard Calmady had taken her husband’s villa at Naples on lease, it offering, as he said, a convenient pied à terre to him while yachting along the adjacent coasts, up the Black Sea to Odessa, and eastward as far as Aden, and the Persian Gulf. The house, save for the actual fabric of it, had become rather dilapidated and ruinate. To page: 384 de Vallorbes it appeared clearly advantageous to get the property off his hands, and touch a considerable yearly sum, rather than have his pocket drained by outgoings on a place in which he no longer cared to live. So the Villa Vallorbes passed for the time being into Richard Calmady’s possession. It pleased his fancy. Helen heard he had restored and refurnished it at great expenditure of money and of taste.

These facts she recalled. And, recalling them, found both the actuality of rain‐blurred, wind‐scourged town without, and anger‐begetting memories of Brockhurst within, fade before a seductive vision of sun‐bathed Naples and of that nobly placed and painted villa, in which—as it seemed to her—was just now resident promise of high entertainment, the objective delight of abnormal circumstance, the subjective delight of long‐cherished revenge. All the rapture of her existing freedom came back on her; while her brain, fertile in forecast of adventure, projected scenes and situations not unworthy of the pen of Boccaccio himself. Fired by such thoughts, she moved from the window, stood before a tall glass at right angles to it and contemplated her own fair reflection long and intimately. An absorbing interest in the general effect, and in the details, of her person possessed her. She moved to and fro observing the grace of her carriage, the set of her hips, the slenderness of her waist. She unfastened her soft, trailing tea‐gown, throwing the loose bodice of it back, critically examining her bare neck, the swell of her beautiful bosom, the firm contours of her arms from shoulder to elbow. Her skin was of a clear, golden whiteness, smooth, fine in texture, as that of a child. Placing her hands on the gilded frame of the mirror, high up on either side, she observed her face, exquisitely healthful in colour, even as seen in this mournful, afternoon light. She leaned forward, gazing intently into her own eyes—meeting in them, as Narcissus in the surface of the fatal pool, the radiant image of herself. And this filled her with a certain intoxication, a voluptuous self‐love, a profound persuasion of the power and completeness of her own beauty. She caressed her own neck, her own lips, with lingering finger‐tips. She bent her bright head and kissed the swell of her cuplike breasts. Never had she received so entire assurance of the magic of her own personality.

“It is all—all, as perfect as ever!” she exclaimed exultantly. “And while it remains perfect, it should be made use of.”

Helen waved her hand, smiling, to the smiling image in the mirror.

“You and I together—your beauty and my brains—I pit page: 385 the pair of us against all mankind! Together we have worked pretty little miracles before now, causing the proud to lay aside their pride and the godly their virtue. A man of strange passions shall hardly escape us—nor shall the mother that bare him escape either.”

Her face hardened, her laughing eyes paled to the colour of fine steel. She lifted the soft‐curling hair from off her right temple, disclosing a small, crescent‐shaped scar.

“That is the one blemish, and we will exact the price of it‐you and I—to the ultimate sous.”

Then she moved away, smitten by sudden amusement at her own attitude, which she perceived risked being slightly ridiculous. Heroics were, to her thinking, unsuitable articles for home consumption. Yet her purpose held none the less strongly and steadily because excitement lessened. She refastened her tea‐gown, tied the streaming azure ribbons of it, patted bows and laces into place, walked the length of the room a time or two to recover her composure, then rang the bell. And, on the arrival of Charles,—irreproachably correct in dress and demeanour, his clean‐shaven, sharp‐featured, rakish countenance controlled to praiseworthy nullity of expression,—she said:—

“The weather is abominable.”

The man‐servant set down the tray on a little table before her, turned out the corners of the napkin, deftly arranged the tea‐things.

“It is a little dull, my lady.”

“How is the glass?”

“Falling steadily, my lady.”

“I cannot remain here.”

“No, my lady?”

“Find out about the trains south—to Naples.”

“Yes, my lady. We can join the Roman express at Chiusi. When does your ladyship wish to start?”

“I must telegraph first.”

“Certainly, my lady.”

Charles produced telegraph forms. It was Helen’s boast that, upon request, the man could produce any known object from a packet of pins to a white elephant, or fully manned battleship. She had a lively regard for her servant’s ability. So had he, it may be added, for that of his mistress. The telegram was written and despatched. But the reply took four days in reaching Madame de Vallorbes, and during those days it rained incessantly. The said reply came in the form of a letter. Sir Richard Calmady was at Constantinople, so the writer page: 386 —Bates, his steward—had reason to believe. But it was probable he would return to Naples shortly. Meanwhile he—the steward—had permanent orders to the effect that the villa was at Madame de Vallorbes’ disposition should she at any time express the wish to visit it. She would find everything prepared for her reception. This information caused Helen singular satisfaction. It was very charming, very courteous, of Richard thus to remember her. She set forth from Perugia full of ingenious purpose, deliciously light of heart.

Thus did it come about that, on the afore‐mentioned gay, spring morning, Madame de Vallorbes breakfasted beneath the glistering dome of the airy pavilion, all Naples outstretched before her, while the blossoms of the Judas‐trees fell in a red‐mauve shower upon the slabs of the marble pavement, and the mimic waves of the fountain basin, and upon the clustered curls and truncated shoulders of the bust of Homer stationed within the soft gloom of the ilex and cypress grove. She had arrived the previous evening, and had met with a dignified welcome from the numerous household. Her manner was gracious, kindly, captivating—she intended it to be all that. She slept well, rose in buoyant health and spirits, partook of a meal offering example of the most finished Italian cooking. Finish, in any department, appealed to Helen’s artistic sense. Life was sweet—moreover it was supremely interesting! Her breakfast ended, rising from her place at table, she looked away to the purple cone of the great volcano and the uprising of the smoke of its everlasting burnings. The sight of this, magnificent, menacing, evidence of the anarchic might of the powers of nature, quickened the pagan instinct within her. She wanted to worship. And even in so doing, she became aware of a kindred something in herself—of an answering and anarchic energy, a certain menace to the conventional works and ways, and fancied security, of groping, purblind man. The insolence of a great lady, the dangerously primitive instincts of a great courtesan, filled her with an enormous pride, a reckless self‐confidence.

Turning, she glanced back across the formal garden, bright with waxen camellias set in glossy foliage, with early roses, with hyacinths, lemon and orange blossom, towards the villa. Upon the black‐and‐white marble balustrade a man leaned his elbows. She could see his broad shoulders, his bare head. From his height she took him, at first, to be kneeling, as, motionless, he looked towards her and towards the splendid view. Then she perceived that he was not kneeling, but standing upright. She page: 387 understood, and a very vital sensation ran right through her, causing the queerest turn in her blood.

“Mercy of heaven!” she said to herself, “is it conceivable that now, at this time of day, I am capable of the egregious folly of losing my head?”

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