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The History of Sir Richard Calmady: a Romance . Malet, Lucas, 1852–1931.
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page: 387

CHAPTER II

WHEREIN TIME IS DISCOVERED TO HAVE WORKED CHANGES

HELEN, however, did not stay to debate as to the state of her emotions. She had had more than enough of reflection of late. Now action invited her. She responded. The sweep of her turquoise‐blue, cloth skirts sent the fallen Judas‐blossoms dancing, to left and right, in crazy whirling companies. She did not wait even to put on her broad‐brimmed, garden hat,—the crown of it encircled, as luck would have it, by a garland of pale, pink tulle and pale, pink roses,—but braved the sunshine with no stouter head‐covering than the coils of her honey‐coloured hair. Rapidly she passed up the central alley between the double row of glossy leaved camellia bushes, laughter in her downcast eyes and a delicious thrill of excitement at her heart. She felt strong and light, her being vibrant, penetrated and sustained throughout by the bracing air, the sparkling, crystal‐clear atmosphere. Yet for all her eagerness Helen remained an artist. She would not forestall effects. Thriftily she husbanded sensations. Thus, reaching the base of the black‐and‐white marble wall supporting the terrace, where, midway in its long length, it was broken by an arched grotto of rough‐hewn stonework, in which maiden‐hair fern rooted,—the delicate fronds of it caressing the shoulders of an undraped nymph, with ever‐dripping water‐pitcher upon her rounded hip,—Helen turned sharp to the left, and arrived at the bottom of the descending flight of steps without once looking up. That Richard Calmady still leaned on the bulustrade, some twelve to fourteen feet above that same cool, green grotto, she knew well enough. But she did not choose to anticipate either sight or greeting of him. Both should come to her as a whole. She would receive a single and unqualified impression.

So, silently, without apparent haste, she passed up the flight of shallow steps on to the edge of the wide, black‐and‐white, chequerboard platform. It was sun‐bathed, suspended, as it seemed, between that glorious prospect of city, mountain, sea, and the page: 388 unsullied purity of the southern heavens. It was vacant, save for the solitary figure and the sharp‐edged, yet amorphous, shadow cast by that same figure. For the young man had moved as she came up from the garden below. He stood clear of the balustrade, only the fingers of his left hand resting upon the handrail of it. Seeing him thus, the strangeness, the grotesque incompleteness, of his person struck her as never before. But this, though it did not move her to mirth, as in her childhood, moved her to pity no more now than it then had. That which it did was to deepen, to stimulate, her excitement, to provoke and to satisfy the instinct of cruelty latent in every pagan nature such as hers. Could Helen have chosen the moment of her birth she would have been a great lady of Imperial Rome, holding power of life and death over her slaves, and the mutes and eunuchs with which the East should have furnished her palace in the eternal city, and her dainty villa away there on the purple flanks of Vesuvius at Herculaneum or Pompeii. The delight of her own loveliness, of her own triumphant health and activity, would have been increased tenfold by the sight of, by power over, such stultified and hopelessly disfranchised human creatures. And the first sight of Richard Calmady now, though she did not stop very certainly to analyse the exact how and why of her increasing satisfaction, took its root in this same craving for ascendency by means of the suffering and loss of others. While, unconsciously, the fine flavour of her satisfaction was heightened by the fact that the victim, now before her, was her equal in birth, her superior in wealth, in intelligence and worldly station.

But, as she drew nearer, Richard the while making no effort to go forward and receive her, buoyant self‐complacency and self‐congratulation suffered diminution. For, rehearsing this same meeting during those rain‐blotted days of waiting at Perugia, imagination had presented Dickie as the inexperienced, tender‐hearted, sweet‐natured lad she had known and beguiled at Brockhurst four years earlier. As has already been stated her meetings with him, since then, had been brief and infrequent. Now she perceived that imagination had played a silly trick upon her. The boy she had left, the man who stood awaiting her so calmly were, save in one distressing peculiarity, two widely different persons. For, in the interval, Richard Calmady had eaten very freely of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and that diet had left its mark not only on his character, but on his appearance. He had matured notably, all trace of ingenuous, boyish charm having vanished. His skin, page: 389 though darkened by recent sea‐faring, was colourless. His features were at once finer and more pronounced than of old—the bone of the face giving it a noticeable rigidity of outline, index at once of indomitable will and irreproachable breeding. The powerful jaw and strong muscular neck might have argued a measure of brutality. But happily the young man’s mouth had not coarsened. His lips were compressed, relaxing rarely into the curves which, as a lad, had rendered his smile so peculiarly engaging. Still there was no trace of grossness in their form or expression. Hard living had, indeed, in Richard’s case, been matter of research rather than of appetite. The intellectual part of him had never fallen wholly into bondage to the animal. He explored the borders of the Forbidden hoping to find some anodyne with which to assuage the ache of a vital discontent, rather than by any compulsion of natural lewdness.

Much of this quick‐witted Helen quickly apprehended. He was cleverer, more serious, and mentally more distinguished, than she had supposed him. And this, while opening up new sources of interest and pricking her ambition of conquest, disclosed unforeseen difficulties in the way of such conquest. Moreover, she was slightly staggered by the strength and inscrutability of his countenance, the repose of his bearing and manner. His eyes affected her oddly. They were cold and clear as some frosty, winter’s night, the pupils of them very small. They seemed to see all things, yet tell nothing. They were as windows opening onto endless perspectives of empty space. They at once challenged curiosity and baffled inquiry. Helen’s excitement deepened, and she was sensible it needed all the subjective support, all the indirect flattery, with which the fact of his deformity supplied her self‐love to prevent her standing in awe of him. As consequence her address was impulsive rather than studied.

“Richard, I have had a detestable winter,” she said. “It wore upon me. It demoralised me. I was growing dull, superstitious even. I wanted to get away, to put a long distance between myself and certain experiences, certain memories. I wanted to hear another language. You have always been sympathetic to me. It was natural, if a little unconventional, to take refuge with you.”

Madame de Vallorbes spoke with an unaccustomed and very seductive air of apology, her face slightly flushed, her arms hanging straight at her sides, the long, pink, tulle strings of the hat she carried in her left hand trailing upon the black‐and‐white squares of the pavement.

page: 390

“To do so seemed obvious in contemplation. I did not stop to consider possible objections. But, in execution, the objections become hourly more glaringly apparent. I want you to reassure me. Tell me I have not dared too greatly in coming thus uninvited?”

“Of course not,” he answered. “I hope you found the house comfortable and everything prepared for you? The servants had their orders.”

“I know, I know. That you should have provided against the possibility of my coming some day moved me a little more than I care to tell you.”—Helen paused, looking upon him, and that look had in it a delicate affinity to a caress. But the young man’s manner, though faultlessly courteous, was lacking in any hint of enthusiasm. Helen could have imagined, and that angered her, something of irony in his tone.

“Oh, there’s no matter for thanks,” he said. “The house was yours, will be yours again. The least I can do, since you and de Vallorbes are good enough to let me live in it meanwhile, is to beg you to make any use you please of it. Indeed it is I, rather than you, who come uninvited just now. I had not intended being back here for another month. But there was a case of something suspiciously like cholera on board my yacht at Constantinople, and it seemed wisest to get away to sea as soon as possible. One of the firemen—oh, he’s all right now.—Still I shall send him home to England. He’s a married man—the only one I have on board. A useful fellow, but he must go. I don’t choose to take the responsibility of creating the widow and the fatherless whenever one of my crew chances to fall sick and depart into the unknown.”

Richard talked on, very evidently for the mere sake of passing the ’time. And all the while those eyes, which told nothing, dwelt quietly upon Helen de Vallorbes until she became nervously impatient of their scrutiny. For it was not at all thus that she had pictured and rehearsed this meeting during those days of waiting at Perugia!

“We got in last night” he continued. “But I slept on board. I heard you had just arrived, and I did not care to run the risk of disturbing you after your journey.”

“You are very considerate,” Helen remarked.

She was surprised out of all readiness of speech. This new Richard impressed her, but she resented his manner. He took her so very much for granted. Admiration and homage were to her as her daily bread, and that any man should fail to offer them caused her frank amazement. It did more. It raised in page: 391 her a longing to inflict pain. He might not admire, but at least he should not remain indifferent. Therefore she backed a couple of steps, so as to get a good view of Richard Calmady. And, without any disguise of her purpose, took a comprehensive and leisurely survey of his dwarfed and mutilated figure. While so doing she pinned on her rose‐trimmed hat, and twisted the long, tulle strings of it about her throat.

“You have altered a good deal, Richard,” she said reflectively.

“Probably,” he answered. “I had a good deal to learn, being a very thin‐skinned, young simpleton. In part, anyhow, I have learned it. And I do my best practically to apply my knowledge. But if I have altered, so, happily, have not you.”

“I remain a simpleton?” she inquired, her irritation finding voice.

“You cannot very well remain that which you never have been. What you do remain is—if I may say so—victoriously yourself, unspoiled, unmodified by contact with that singularly stupid invention, society, true to my earliest recollections of you even”—Richard shuffled closer to the balustrade, threw his left arm across it, grasping the outer edge of the broad coping,—“even in small details of dress.”

He looked away over the immense and radiant prospect, and then up at the radiant woman in her vesture of turquoise, pink, and gold.

And, so doing, for the first time his face relaxed, being lighted up by a flickering, mocking smile. And something in his shuffling movements, in the fine irony of his expression, pierced Helen with a sensation hitherto unknown, broke up the absoluteness of her egotism, stirred her blood. She forgot resentment in an absorbed and absorbing interest. The ordinary man of the world she knew as thoroughly as her old shoe. Such an one presented small field of discovery to her. But this man was unique in person, and promised to be so in character also. Her curiosity regarding him was profound. For the moment it sunk all personal considerations, all humorous or angry criticism, either of her own attitude towards him or of his attitude towards her. Silently she came forward, sat down on the marble bench, close to where he stood, and, turning sideways, leaned her elbows upon the top of the balustrade beside him. She looked up now, rather than down at him; and it went home to her, had nature spared him infliction of that hideous deformity, what a superb creature physically he would have been! There was a silence, page: 392 Helen remaining intent, quiet, apprehension and imagination sensibly upon the stretch.

At last Richard spoke abruptly.

“By the way, did you happen to observe the decorations of your room? Do you like them?”

“Yes and no,” she answered. “They struck me as rather wonderful, but liable to induce dreams of Scylla and Charybdis, of the Fata Morgana, and other inconvenient accidents of the deep. Fortunately I was too tired last night to be excursive in fancy, or I might have slept badly. You have gathered all the colours of the ocean and fixed them, somehow, on those carpets and hangings and strangely frescoed walls.”

“You saw that?”

“How could I fail to see it, since you kindly excuse me of being, or ever having been, a simpleton?”—Helen spoke lightly, tenderly almost. An overmastering desire to please had taken her. “You have employed a certain wizardry in the furnishing of that room,” she continued. “It lays subtle influences upon one. What made you think of it?”

“A dream, an idea, which has stuck by me queerly, though all other fond things of the sort were pitched overboard long ago. I suppose one is bound to be illogical on one point, if only to prove to oneself the absolutism of one’s logic on all others. Thus do I, otherwise sane and consistent realist, materialist, pessimist, cling to my one dream and ideal—take it out, dandle it, nourish and cherish it, with weakly sentimental faithfulness. To do so is ludicrous. But then my being here at all, calmly considered, is ludicrous. And it, too, is among the results of the one idea.”

He paused, and Helen, leaning beside him, waited. The sunshine covered them both. The sea wind was fresh in their faces. While the many voices of Naples came up to them confused, strident, continuous, with sometimes a bugle‐call, sometimes a clang of hammers, or quick pulse of stringed instruments, or jangle of church‐bells, or long‐drawn bellow of a steamship clearing for sea, detaching itself from the universal chorus. Capri, Ischia, Procida, floated, islands of amethyst, upon the sapphire of the bay, and the smoke of Vesuvius rolled ceaselessly upward.

“You see and hear and feel all this?” Richard continued presently. “Well, when I saw it for the first time I was pretty thoroughly out of conceit with myself and all creation. I had been experimenting freely in things not usually talked of in polite society. And I was abominably sold, for I found the enjoyment page: 393 such things procure is decidedly overrated. Unmentionable matters, once fully explored, are just as tedious and inadequate as those which supply the most unexceptionable subjects of conversation. Moreover, in the process of exploration I had touched a good deal of pitch, and, the simpleton being still superfluously to the fore in me, I was squeamishly sensible of defilement.”

The young man shifted his position slightly, resting his chin in the hollow of his hands, speaking quietly and indifferently, as of some matter foreign to himself and his personal interests.

“I have reason to believe I was as fairly and squarely wretched as it is possible for an intelligent being to be. I had convinced myself, experimentally, that human existence, human nature, was a bottomless pit and an uncommonly filthy one at that. Reaction was inevitable. Then I understood why men have invented gods, subscribed to irrational systems of theology, hailed and accredited transparently ridiculous miracles. Such lies are necessary to certain stages of development simply for the preservation of sanity, just as, at another stage, sanity, for its own preservation, is necessarily driven to declare their falsehood. And so I, after the manner of my kind, was driven to take refuge in a dream. The subjective, in some form or other, alone makes life continuously possible. And all this we now look at determined the special nature of my attempt at subjective support and consolation.”

Richard paused again, contemplating the view.

“All this—its splendour, its diversity, its caprices and seductions, its suggestion of underlying danger—presented itself to me as the embodiment of a personality that has had remarkable influence in the shaping of my life.”

So far Helen had listened intently and silently. Now she moved a little, straightening up her charming figure, pulling down the wide brim of her hat to shelter her eyes from the heat and brightness of the sun.

“A woman?” she asked briefly.

Richard turned to her, that same flickering of mockery in his still face.

“Oh! you mustn’t require too much of me!” he said. “Remember the simpleton was not wholly eradicated then.—Yes, very much a woman. Of course. How should it be otherwise? It gave me great pleasure to look at that which looked like her. It gives me pleasure even yet. So I wrote and asked de Vallorbes to be kind enough to let me rent the villa. You remember it was not particularly well cared for. There was an air of fallen page: 394 greatness about the poor place. Inside it was something of a barrack.”

“I remember,” Helen said.

“Well, I restored and refurnished it—specially the rooms you now occupy—in accordance with what I imagined to be her taste. The whole proceeding was not a little feeble‐minded, since the probability of her ever inhabiting those rooms was more than remote. But it amused, it pacified me, as prayer to their self‐invented deities pacifies the devout. I never stay here for long together. If I did the spell might be broken. I go away, I travel. I even experiment in things not usually spoken of; but with a cooler judgment and less morbidly sensitive conscience than of old. I amuse myself after more active and practical fashions in other places. Here I amuse myself only with my idea.”

The even flow of his speech ceased.—“What do you think of it, Helen?” he demanded, almost harshly.

“I think it can’t last. It is too intangible, too fantastic.”

“I admit that to keep it intact needs an infinity of precautions. For instance, I can make no near acquaintance with Naples. I cannot permit myself to see the town at close quarters. I only look at it from here. If I want to go to or from the yacht, I do so at night and in a closed carriage. I took on de Vallorbes’ box at the San Carlo. If any good opera is given I go and hear it. Otherwise I remain exclusively in the house and garden. I am not acquainted with a single soul in the place.”

“And the woman?” Helen exclaimed, a singular emotion at once of envy and protest upon her. “Do you treat her with the same cold‐blooded calculation?”

“Of the woman I know just as much and just as little as I know of Naples. It is conceivable there may be unlovely elements in her character, as well as unlovely quarters of this beautiful city. I have avoided knowledge of both. You see the whole arrangement is designed not for her benefit, but for my own. It’s an elaborate piece of self‐seeking on my part; but, so far, it has really worked rather successfully.”

“It is preposterous. It cannot in the nature of things continue successful,” Helen declared.

“I am not so sure of that,” he replied calmly. “Even the most preposterous of religious systems proves to have a remarkable power of survival. Why not this one? In any case, neither the success nor the failure depends on me. I shall be true, on my part. The rest depends on her.”

As Richard spoke he turned, leaning his back against the page: 395 balustrade, his face away from the sunlight and the wide view. Again the extent of his deformity became arrestingly apparent to Madame de Vallorbes.

“Has this woman ever been here?” she asked.

“Yes—she has been here.”

“And then? And then?” Helen cried.

The young man looked up at her, his face keen yet impassive, his eyes—as windows opening onto endless perspectives of empty space—telling nothing. She recognised, once again, that he was very strong. She also recognised that, notwithstanding his strength, he was horribly sad.

“Ah! then,” he said, “the last of the poor, little, subjective supports and consolations seemed in danger of going overboard and joining their fellows in the uneasy deeps of the sea.—But the history of that will keep till a more convenient season, Cousin Helen. You have stood in the mid‐day sun, and I have talked about myself, quite long enough. However, it was only fair to acquaint you with the limited resources in the way of society and amusement offered by your present dwelling. There are horses and carriages of course. Give what orders you please. Only remember both the town and the surrounding country are pretty rough. It is not fit for a lady to drive by herself. Always take your own man, or one of mine, with you if you go out. I hope you won’t be quite intolerably bored. Ask for whatever you want.—You let me dine with you? Thanks.”

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