Taught me the worth of love in man’s estate,
And what proportion love should hold with power.
The world, when men and women meet,
Is full of sage remark, nor stints to strew
With roses and with myrtle fields of death.
“And you are sure?” said Lord Belmont.
“I am sure,” said Sibylla. “There is no room for doubt. My only doubt has been whether I could give up my life with the dearest of fathers.”
“But you know that it was my earnest wish,” her father answered. “It is my earnest wish whatever it cost me. Your marriage with Montcalm will cost me as small a sacrifice as any marriage could. He is such a busy man that you will still have some spare hours to give me.”
“Always!” said Sibylla, taking his hand fondly. “I would enter on no life that was to rob me of that! but I mean to be a busy woman, too, to share my husband’s business—to aid him in politics, in society: a woman who works hard can do so much.”
“Some women can,” said Lord Belmont. “You, Sibylla, more than most; I have often told you, efficiency is your strong point. I have always imagined you a leading figure in a political circle. That is your rôle. It is your natural domain: you will rule your world, and your world, with Montcalm to share your throne, will be worth ruling. But the great thing is that you are happy—thoroughly happy. He is all you wish?”
“He is all I wish; I am thoroughly happy,” said Sibylla, with a rapt look, and a tone of determination; for her father’s enquiry seemed to throw a shade of doubt on a point which she wished to be, for the future, outside the possibility of doubt. “He loves me in a way that must make any woman happy—in a way worthy of himself, worthy of a noble nature. I have told him what I feel.”
“Then he must be happy too,” said her father. “Well, Sibylla, I wish you joy—much joy and peace—the happiness, greatest that life can give, of happy and congenial married life. To me, too, it means happiness. Charles Montcalm is everything that I could wish, though I cannot share his political enthusiasm; but then I have been too long outside politics to be an enthusiast. But he fills a great place; he will rise higher still. He is ambitious; his ambition will be gratified—one great part of it is already gratified. He has succeeded; he will succeed. A charming wife is the great success of life; she makes other successes inevitable.”
Charles Montcalm was not a man whom it would be easy to despise as a son-in-law. His character, his position, his achievements made him remarkable. He belonged to a distinguished set, and enhanced its distinction. By years of steady devotion, by regular attendance in Parliament, by exceptional mastery of several important subjects, by an occasional speech of special merit, he had achieved a first-rate parliamentary reputation. Everybody who knew anything, knew that when his friends came into power Montcalm would have the offer of office, and that he was not in office only because no good enough place was available for him. He was entitled to a seat in the Cabinet, and it was certain that, when the time came, he would have one. Meantime he was influential in debate. His attacks, weighty, well conducted, well reasoned, carried consternation into the enemy’s ranks. His passionless, deliberate demeanour did not mar the effect of his speeches; for a secret vein of passion sometimes broke to light in phrases which glowed with volcanic fire, and burnt themselves deep in the popular recollection. His youth had been passed, as a younger son, in laborious preparation for a diplomatic career: but his elder brother had disappeared in painful circumstances, and his death, a year or two before his father’s, had made Charles Montcalm the heir to a considerable fortune. He was ambitious, and his wealth and position commanded all that society could contribute to the gratification of ambition. They justified him in aspiring to a brilliant match. And his engagement to Sibylla Belmont was brilliant. Her father was a great man, in the best sense of the word—greater than the common multitude supposed, who never read his name among the active leaders of the day. In his youth he had been for some years in the House of Commons, and had once been in a Cabinet. But an insuperable modesty, perhaps some constitutional indolence, had tended to keep him in the background. He shrank from active participation in public life. He was profoundly interested in it, but it was the interest of the philosopher, who looks on and watches the game. He had no wish to play it. Since his wife’s death, ten years before, he had lived in retirement, in the society of a few choice friends, who appreciated his rare gifts, and with the companionship of his daughter. His judgment was greatly prized. The leaders of his party, politicians, hot from the bustle of the fray, came frequently to consult an adviser, whose insight was profound, and who, removed from actual combat, took a cooler, more discriminating view than was possible for themselves.
His appearances in society had been fitful and rare. Some winters he had passed in Rome, some on the Riviera. In London he had slowly and with difficulty forced himself from the quietude in which the earlier years of his sorrow had been passed. They lived much in the country. Sibylla had been well content with the occasional gaieties which accident threw in her way, and with a circle of chosen friends, who frequented her father’s house and table whenever opportunity offered. Lord Belmont was not a man whom his friends found it easy to forget.
Her father, meanwhile, devoted himself to Sibylla’s education—that higher education which is not concerned with information or accomplishments, and which transcends the domain of masters and professors. Under his guidance Sibylla had become a most cultivated woman; she had read, she had learnt to think. Nature, without any external assistance, had taught her how to feel. She was now, as her father made no secret of thinking, a delightful companion.
“I hope to help him,” she said, as father and daughter discussed the husband’s prospects; “that way ambition lies. It is a joy to me that we feel alike about my engagement. We do, do we not, father?”
“I am not in love with him,” said Lord Belmont; “but I am well content that you should be. Since you are happy, Sibylla, I am happy too, though he robs me of one great source of happiness. But I will not be selfish; I believe that I can forgive him more easily than I could any of his compeers. I esteem him sincerely; I admire his ability, his character, his tone. I shall welcome him as a son-in-law. Ah, there he is!”
“Then I will escape,” said Sibylla. “When you have finished your talk you will send for me.”
She embraced her father tenderly and quitted the library by one door as Montcalm entered by another,—a man of high breeding and noble presence, a classic brow, fine blue eye, a self-possessed manner, as of one who was accustomed to feel himself master of the situation, who has learnt to confront opposition with coolness and to deal composedly with great consequences. He was now feeling extremely shy, but even Lord Belmont’s eye could detect no symptom of shyness. Nor did he himself betray it. They were both too accomplished in social diplomacy to let a hint escape; only they greeted each other with a marked cordiality that bespoke a special occasion.
“Sibylla has just been telling me,” said Lord Belmont, “that all is well between you. I cordially wish you both joy. It is a pleasure to me, my dear Montcalm, to welcome as a son-in-law the son of so old and dear a friend as your father was to me; you, too, are an old friend.”
“Your son for the future, Lord Belmont,” Montcalm said with fervour; “I began my apprenticeship in public life under your guidance. You have helped and advised me a thousand times. I am delighted to owe a fresh allegiance to the man I honour most in the world. You know how sincerely I speak.”
“I know it,” said Lord Belmont; “I will return the compliment by saying that I cordially rejoice in Sibylla’s happiness. I resign her to you cheerfully. I can say no more. There are things one cannot talk about. She has been my constant companion of late years, a delightful, a most delightful one, the great solace of existence. May she be as much to you.”
“I am confident,” said Montcalm, in measured tones, “that she will be all that I could wish. I know of what I am robbing you,—how much, how dear. You must forgive me; I will try to deserve it.”
There was something in Montcalm’s reply that jarred on Lord Belmont’s nerves, and did not encourage him to proceed with his panegyric. Montcalm had touched a wrong note. He was unable to respond in Lord Belmont’s key. He was sincerely in love; but companionship as the one solace of existence was not the form of bliss to which he looked forward in marriage.
“Public business,” he continued, “involves so much solitude—many matters that one must deal with alone. It is one of its many misfortunes. One charm of your position must be that agreeable companionship is more achievable. By the way, you have heard about the Dissolution.”
“No,” said Lord Belmont, “I am out of the way of hearing anything except such crumbs of gossip as good friends, like you, are charitable enough to bring me. Is it settled?”
Montcalm assumed a serious almost an impassioned air. “I speak,” he said, sinking his voice a little, “in the most absolute confidence, and for your ear alone, but it is settled. I have leave to tell you. It is not, unless anything unexpected occurs, to be this autumn. It may possibly be next spring. It was decided at the Cabinet yesterday—a momentous decision, in my opinion, for I believe, when the next election comes, we shall be beaten; and if we are beaten, we shall have chaos.”
“Let us hope not,” said the other. “I have seen many dissolutions, and some bad defeats. Chaos has frequently been predicted. It has never come off. Perhaps we may be as useful out of office as in,—sometimes, I have thought, even more useful.”
“Surely not,” cried Montcalm; “I confess I look with absolute horror at the men, whose influence would be paramount, who would govern the country and ruin it—for it would be ruin, the ruin of all one cares about. No effort must be spared. I go to Scotland the day after to-morrow for a fortnight’s canvassing. It is an old engagement which does not, however, in existing circumstances make it any the pleasanter. I have a big meeting on Wednesday.”
“Then,” said Lord Belmont, “you have no time to waste, meanwhile, in discussing politics, and I have no right to monopolise you. We will let Sibylla know that you are here.”
Having despatched Montcalm to his tête-à-tête, Lord Belmont sat alone and reviewed the situation.
The prospect was not altogether exhilarating. His daughter’s engagement,—always contemplated as a disagreeable probability, had come at last as a shock. It meant the end of many pleasant things—of things which had grown dearer to Lord Belmont as years went on. It meant the loss of congenial companionship; it meant something that he dreaded—a life of domestic solitude. Nor was Lord Belmont wholly without solicitude as to his daughter’s happiness. It was impossible to object; the match was one to which no reasonable exception could be taken. Montcalm’s position was all that could be wished; his private character above reproach; his social standing excellent; his parliamentary reputation of the highest; yet Lord Belmont was surprised that his daughter should have come to care for him, could now feel certain that she loved him. For one thing Montcalm was, Lord Belmont felt, too complete for human love. The ninety-nine just men who need no repentance, stir no such joy, we know, in angelic breasts as the single repenting sinner. The same thing is true, no doubt, with mortals. Montcalm had nothing to repent. He produced on Lord Belmont’s nerves a sense of uninteresting perfection. He had no weak points, no pleasant shortcomings, no amiable infirmities such as incline one to unbend, to show one’s weak side, to claim the fellowship of human frailty. Such men may be esteemed; but loved? are they compounded of the stuff which produces delightful, effortless companionship? are they fit for the humble, familiar incidents of everyday life? its hours of depression, its disappointments, its failures? Can one really make friends of them? Can they be really lovers?
So Lord Belmont,—a man of quick sensibilities and a lively sense of humour,—had to confess to himself, that,—say what he might to his daughter,—he regarded her engagement, if not with uneasiness, certainly without enthusiasm. Her newborn devotion to Montcalm was to him unintelligible. Lord Belmont, however, was reckoning without due allowance for the forces by which the female heart is swayed. Woman’s faculty for falling in love is incomprehensible to the perceptions of the duller sex.
Montcalm had made a deep impression on his future wife, an impression of power, of strength—strength of character, of will, of feeling. He had, on one or two occasions, thrown off his habitual veil of composure and reticence, and shown the secrets of a profound nature, stirred to its inmost depths by strong emotion. He had spoken, with passion, which seemed struggling for mastery, which all but overpowered him. He had convinced Sibylla of his sincerity. An instant’s wavering of fidelity,—a disloyal sentiment was inconceivable. He could be tender, too, on occasion—the tenderness of a powerful nature in its gentle mood. He could be wounded, and the wound would cut deep and be mortal. Disappointment would be a death blow. Sibylla had not felt the wish, nor, if the wish had existed, the power to strike it. She had given him her heart.
Tell me not, sweet, I am unkind,
That from the nunnery
Of thy chaste breast and quiet mind
To war and arms I fly.
Sibylla was not able to repress a movement of surprise, when, in the course of their conversation, her lover announced that he was to start two days later on an election campaign in Scotland. It was the wise and right thing, no doubt, since Charles Montcalm had decided to do it; but a deflection from wisdom and rightness would, it occurred to her, have been excusable in a man whose plighted troth was only a few hours old.
“Must you really go so soon?” she asked; “surely the election is a long way off.”
“Do you think so?” said Montcalm; “who knows? Anyhow my agent tells me that there is not a moment to be lost. It is everything to be first in the field, and to have one’s constituency well in hand. Mine is a very exacting one. I have been neglecting it of late. I received a pressing letter this morning. I am to make fourteen speeches in the next six days, sometimes three a day. You pity me, do you not?”
“Pity you?” cried Sibylla, to whose imagination an election depicted itself in glowing colours. “No. How I wish I could come with you! I should like nothing better. I am a splendid canvasser. If we were married I would come with you!”
“Indeed,” said Montcalm, “I am thankful that you cannot. You little know, Sibylla—happily you can know nothing of the—well—the brutalities, there is no other word—of an election. A canvass is the very nadir of civilised existence—the blackest, most degraded quarter of an hour known to modern man—everything that is most horrid in life brought into prominence, horrible things to be done and said, horrible people to be consorted with, conciliated, courted, caressed! horrible shakings of dirty hands! horrible meetings! I never see a great mob yelling and cheering—often at something one has had, oneself, the misfortune to say—without feeling tempted to turn away in scorn and disgust from such an exhibition of human folly! It makes one wish to have been born a peer!”
“Indeed!” said Sibylla; “that is a new view of it to me! I have often been to meetings with my father, and we have both of us enjoyed them extremely. I have sometimes regretted that he became a peer so early and had no more inspiriting audience than the House of Lords to address. It has made him a dilettante; it is a loss to a man not to be confronted with his fellow creatures. To be able to move them—to guide, to influence, to teach them the way they ought to go—to instruct, to inspire. Surely that is no mean power, no ignoble task!”
“A noble, generous theory!” said her companion, “and like yourself, Sibylla; but still theory. The practice is dismally different. To play upon human nature, you must know the stops and know the sort of tune it will respond to. Unfortunately it is not often a nice one. And then when numbers of people get together and are excited they become hysterical. The public speaker’s business is to stimulate their hysterics.”
“Well,” said Sibylla, with a sigh, “it is fortunate, perhaps, that my going is out of the question. But are politics a forbidden field? That would be a disappointment to me. I am a great politician. My dream has been to have a political salon! I feel as if I could do it!”
“No one could do it better, more charmingly,” said her companion, “but the less political the better. There is no one in society more qualified to shine in it—to be a force, to charm, to impress, to influence. It would be degrading such powers to employ them in anything so commonplace as politics. We can have some political At Homes, of course; that is a duty to one’s party.”
“But that is not at all the sort of thing I mean,” said Sibylla; “I do not think much of At Homes. They are characterless, uninteresting, and unprofitable. May not a woman do something more than fill her drawing-room, two or three times a season with a crowd—”
“—and be herself the most fascinating person in it,” said Montcalm; “for that will be your rôle, Sibylla. Is it not rôle enough—to reign queen of a coterie which finds in you its greatest charm, with your husband as your warmest, most fervent admirer, and with all the world of your husband’s opinion. It is a tremendous power; is it not enough?”
“I am a happy woman, at any rate,” said Sibylla, laying her hand on Montcalm’s, as if deprecating his praise, “a fortunate woman. I have the best of lovers. Politics or no politics, I shall be well content.”
Two days later Montcalm went away for his fortnight of speech-making, and Sibylla entered upon that serious epoch of an engagement, a correspondence. She was herself a profuse letter writer. Montcalm was anything rather than profuse. His letters were something of a disappointment. They were necessarily, in the circumstances, brief—written often in intervals of pressing business; but they need not, an inward voice whispered to Sibylla, have been so matter-of-fact and so businesslike. They were too political. They told her little of her lover’s self, his actual feeling, except that the meetings were good, the tone favourable and state of constituency sound. “After all,” he wrote, “the good sense of these Scotch artisans is, despite the agitators who would lead them to folly, remarkable. They have a wise partiality for existing traditions over dreams of imaginary perfection. They show real insight in the resolution with which they stick to a man, whom they believe honest and rational, however little he courts them. I feel confidence in my countrymen.”
Sibylla felt as if Montcalm were making a political speech to her—one of the fourteen which he had to deliver. She used to read parts of her letters aloud to her father. She was mortified to discover how rare were the occasions when there was anything to skip, how little there was which did not admit of becoming public property, how seldom the writer allowed himself to unbend—how few were the lover’s secrets which it would be sacrilege to reveal even to a father’s eye. Charles Montcalm did not, it must be confessed, shine as a correspondent.
What was the cause of such unnatural, inopportune reserve? Was it the shyness of a man unaccustomed to give his feelings outward expression, and who more than ever shrank from such expression when it assumed the form of a letter? Was it merely the Englishman’s affected stolidity? It was not, Sibylla assured herself, that the passion was not there. It flashed out every now and then in chance phrases which betrayed the speaker’s feeling, almost, as it were, in spite of himself. There were some of his letters which Sibylla read with a beating heart, treasured as priceless possessions, and studied, again and again, with tears of thankfulness and joy.
“There is great excitement in speaking,” he had written in one of these,—“a pleasurable excitement of nerve and brain. One is never so conscious of power over others, never so unreserved. I wish it could have come at another time. Canvassing, always a horrid process, is doubly hateful now, that it takes me from the one companion with whom I want to be. What a joy those last days were to me! Every hour that I pass away from you is a misfortune. I did right to come, I suppose; I long for the hour of release—to be with you once again. Meanwhile my Committee is in excellent spirits. All, the agents tell us, is going well.”
Our acts our angels are, or good or ill—
Our fatal shadows that walk by us still.
Charles Montcalm and his brother Frank had started life with all the advantages which an Englishman of wealth and position can secure for his sons. Old Mr. Montcalm had a good estate and a country house, which, under his administration, had grown out of solid comfort into some magnificence. He had been for many years in Parliament, took a leading part in county business and had a wide and influential circle of friends. He had become a widower early in life. The two boys had never known their mother. They were sent to Eton at the same time; for Charles, the younger by a year, had already more than overtaken his elder brother, and their father fondly hoped, might now help to keep him straight. Charles readily responded to the good traditions of his family. While still a boy, he was fired with ambition of public life. At Eton he lived in a set of companions who, however gay and extravagant, never forgot that their real business was to equip themselves as brilliant politicians and accomplished members of society. They read the debates; they chose their sides; they harangued each other in debating clubs on the interests of the Empire and the policy of the Government. Amidst the seductions of pleasure Charles Montcalm kept his head. His abilities made him the centre of a brilliant clique, catholic enough in its tastes to take a wide sweep of enjoyment, but whose main inspiration was a sense of what the path of future statesmen ought to be. They worked hard; their boyish follies were tempered with the self-restraint which arises from a settled purpose and definite aim. They preferred wasting money to wasting time. If they were sometimes profuse, it was because profusion was a failing of which no gentleman need be ashamed. If they gave champagne luncheons and sometimes played whist when they ought to have been in bed, they remembered that Mr. Pitt was devoted to port, and that Charles Fox redeemed a night at faro by a morning of Greek odes and Platonic philosophy.
Frank’s course was different. He was one of the natures to whom the want of a mother’s care means ruin. As a child he was more attractive than his younger brother—gay, facile, insinuating, unreserved, disposed to be friends with every one, and to induce every one to spoil him. His father had succumbed to the temptation. Frank was his pet; it was difficult not to pet him. Governesses, however, when they tried to do anything but pet, found him beyond control. When the epoch of private tutors arrived, there were complaints of invincible inattention, thoughts which no contrivance could arrest, diligence which was always flagging, and which, at the first appearance of difficulty, capitulated. The impossibility of teaching Frank anything became a standing family joke; but the fun died out when, in course of time, he had to be sent to school, and at once sank, lead-like, to the bottom of every aggregate of which he formed a part. Then came news of a scrape, the first of a long series with which Mr. Montcalm, in after years, became horribly familiar, each one graver than its predecessor. Frank’s Eton career came to a premature and ignominious close. Oxford fared no better. By the time he was twenty-one, Frank had made it clear to his father’s reluctant eyes that he was on the high-road to a catastrophe, with every qualification for speedily arriving at his journey’s end. The truth could no longer be ignored. The darling of his father had now become his scourge.
It was natural that, with such widely different tastes and aspirations, the two brothers should see but little of each other. They had nothing in common. They lived in different sets, and on the rare occasions when they met at their father’s house the estrangement became painfully apparent. There was the restraint of mutual uncongeniality and mutual disapproval. There was an under-current of insolence in Frank’s manner to his brother. As a boy he had always regarded him as a paragon of dull correctness, a prig. He now despised his devotion to politics, his indifference to all the common enjoyments of life.
Charles, on the other hand, though resenting his brother’s line of reckless pleasure as ignoble in itself and disgraceful to his family, followed his father in cherishing a lurking fondness for the prodigal, a lurking hope for his reclamation. Frank, however, showed no symptoms of wishing to be reclaimed. With unvarying bent he passed through the stages of spoilt child, idle and refractory school-boy, the fast Oxonian. He was now a wild pleasure-hunter, with pronounced weakness for bad company, gambling and drink. His father had repeatedly paid his debts and rescued him from the hands of the sharpers who gather, vulture-like, around the moneyed profligate. But the rescue was invariably bootless. There would be a few months’ respite, during which nothing was heard of him; then would come news of some new entanglement. At last it became obvious that a scandal was inevitable. Before long the scandal came—a desperate card scandal at a gambling club, in which mutual charges of dishonourable behaviour were bandied about by all concerned. Men of high standing were involved; they demanded a formal investigation. A committee was appointed. The result was deplorable for Frank Montcalm. He was found to have been systematically cheating; he was shown to be hopelessly involved. He had been gambling in a desperate mood, on an enormous scale, in utter recklessness. His so-called debts of honour were enormous. Other debts on a huge scale were brought to light. To put the finishing touch to the edifice of shame, he forged his brother’s name to a heavy acceptance, and suddenly disappeared.
Mr. Montcalm, who hitherto had said no word, now wrote to the chairman of the committee to ask for a list of Frank’s debts of every kind. Next day he sent a cheque for the amount with a request that all might be forthwith discharged. The forged acceptance was duly honoured. A few weeks later it was known that Mr. Montcalm’s town house—a fine old London mansion, where he had been accustomed to live in considerable splendour—was for sale. Mr. Montcalm never again appeared in London society, but lived, in complete seclusion, at his country place, Frampton. Nobody, except one or two intimate friends, had ever seen him. Those who did see him found a broken-hearted man—shattered alike in body and mind. Charles was his only confidant. When the news of the disaster first arrived he had consulted with him as to the course to be pursued.
“The debts must be paid,” he had said. “We must take up the forged note. But the sacrifice will be more yours than mine, Charles. For me life is over; money—everything indeed—is a matter of absolute indifference. I shall not be here for long. But for you the cost is serious. It will greatly cripple your future fortune. I will do nothing without your full concurrence. Some men might consider it quixotic to pay a brother’s debts—and such a brother’s. I will tell you plainly how matters stand. I intend to make you my heir. The estate is practically yours; so is this house, on which we have spent so much thought and money, as a family centre. I can meet these claims only by selling my town house and the most valuable of the pictures, and raising the rest by mortgage on Frampton. That seems to me the proper course; but it is for you to decide. Take your time to consider it.”
“No, father,” said Charles; “it needs no consideration. Your view is mine. Whatever dirt is thrown about, let our own hands be clean. We must save our family honour. No one need know about all this horrid business—not about the forgery at any rate—but ourselves.”
“It would have killed me if you had decided otherwise,” said his father with a great sigh of relief. “You have my warmest thanks, Charles. You will still have a competence. You will be able to live here, and need not give up Parliament. And you will never tell the story to any one, will you?”
So the cheque had been sent, and the Montcalm scandal, after being a three days’ topic of fashionable gossip, sank under the whirling eddies of London life, and was forgotten—everywhere but in one or two hearts, where it remained a rooted sorrow, blotting out all the pleasure of existence and clouding the serene heaven of an honourable life.
Nothing was known of Frank’s movements; but two years later a police report, copied from a far west American newspaper, mentioned that an Englishman of the name of Montcalm had been shot in a drunken brawl at the Eldorado Mines, the most recent of the great gold fields of Columbia.
Charles, at his father’s request, had instituted enquiries about the murdered man. Mr. Strutt, the family solicitor, had been set to work, and had despatched a special agent to the spot. His investigation left no doubt that the murdered man was no other than Frank. There had been, the agent wrote, a formal police enquiry into the circumstances of the murder, a copy of the proceedings at which he forwarded with his letter. Montcalm had been familiarly known among a gang of adventurers, who had come together to the mine, and whose unruly behaviour had given much trouble to the authorities. He was known to be an Englishman and a gentleman by birth. There had been much drinking and gambling, and constant quarrels in which life and limb were endangered. The corpse had been discovered, several days after death, in an almost inaccessible locality, where the fight had, apparently, taken place. It had not been thought necessary to bring it into headquarters, as the finder had identified it, and other circumstances sufficiently established the identity. The murdered man’s coat was recognised by several of his acquaintance, and in it was found his ticket of location, corresponding with the register in which Frank Montcalm had been duly entered. There was found upon his person a clasp knife, and a pipe, on both of which his name was engraved. These were now forwarded to his father. Charles knew the knife only too well. It was one which his brother had possessed since boyhood—his father’s gift. Frank had a boyish fondness for it. Absolutely careless in everything else, he had stuck to this, and piqued himself on his successful care of it. It was one of the small signs of grace with which Mr. Montcalm had endeavoured to console himself. Putting all the evidence together, there seemed no reasonable ground for doubt, Mr. Strutt wrote, that Frank was the murdered man. If any of Mr. Montcalm’s arrangements depended on the occurrence of Frank’s death, that event might and ought now to be assumed.
“No arrangement depends on his death, poor fellow,” Mr. Montcalm said to Charles; “the only thing is this: at the time of his trouble, when you joined with me in paying off the debts, I exercised a power of appointment, which I had under my marriage settlement, of giving Frampton and the bulk of the estate to whichever of my children I chose. The settlement provided that, in default of such an appointment, the place was to go to the eldest son of the marriage, living at my death, or to his son, with remainder over to my other sons. Provision was made for the other children—and handsome provision; for I was a rich man then. Still you would have had only a younger son’s portion. Frank’s trouble made it necessary to make a change. Practically I disinherited him and left everything to you. It was only just; but I never felt happy about it. That appointment weighed on my spirits. It was a record of our family disgrace. Strutt insisted that I must set out all the circumstances—the payments I had made, and which you had made, on Frank’s behalf. Strutt made me do it so, in justice to you. But I hated doing it. Now that poor Frank is gone, it is unnecessary. I shall be happier when I know that it is destroyed. I mean to destroy it. Newspaper men nowadays go to Doctor’s Commons and pry into people’s wills, and so they get into the newspapers. I cannot bear the idea of that. The settlement now does all that I wish. It will give everything to you.”
“Poor Frank,” Mr. Montcalm continued. “I was weak about him, Charles, was I not? He was my weak point. I doted on him. He was the great sorrow of my life. He died unforgiven, because he would never come home to give me a chance of forgiving him. He was ashamed, I suppose, to tax my powers of forgiveness again, to take any more of my money and yours. Well, that was a good trait, was it not? He had good in him, poor boy—much good. I suppose I had spoilt him. I could have borne anything if only I had been allowed to see him once more before he died, and to speak my forgiveness and to part in peace. Now, at any rate, I need not record his disgrace, and disinherit him. His death has spared me that.”
Mr. Strutt, when consulted on the subject, urged strongly that the appointment should be left in force until, at any rate, the subject had received careful consideration. There was not, primâ facie he admitted, any necessity for preserving it, except as a safeguard against possible mishap and litigation hereafter; but why destroy a safeguard? He proposed to come down and stay at Frampton and talk the matter over with his two clients.
The question of destroying the appointment greatly excited Mr. Montcalm. He could talk of nothing else. Charles observed with anxiety its effect on his father’s nerves. He was unnaturally over-wrought. The document was his bête noire. Its destruction seemed to him like the sweeping away of the evidence of a family disaster, the clearing of the family record of a shameful story. He read Mr. Strutt’s letter as impliedly admitting that there was now no practical necessity for its preservation. His visit, and the further consideration which he represented as essential, were merely the superabundant precautions which a solicitor is professionally bound to recommend. Charles, on coming into the library, one morning, found his father standing, poker in hand, before the fireplace, holding down a blazing piece of paper.
“I have destroyed it,” Mr. Montcalm said excitedly; “I feel a comfort in having done so; my heart is lighter. I feel better. If anything further is necessary, Strutt can draw it up when he comes. That wretched appointment has plagued me. I have had my revenge upon it.”
Mr. Strutt’s services, however, were presently needed for another phase of the Montcalm family affairs. Mr. Montcalm’s health had been for some time failing. He had been nervous, excitable; greatly depressed at one time, elated at another; always increasingly feeble. His doctor had often spoken to Charles of his father’s enfeebled vitality and weak heart—of the absolute necessity of avoiding any shock. Mr. Montcalm had now manufactured a cause of excitement out of nothing. He had worked himself into an agitation which was too much for his shattered frame. It soon became apparent that he was extremely ill. He began to wander. His thoughts were busy with the far past. He spoke of his wife; he confused Charles with Frank. He kept talking of one of Frank’s boyish scrapes. Charles, greatly alarmed, despatched a message to summon the doctor, and to hurry Mr. Strutt. But before doctor or solicitor could come, Mr. Montcalm’s troubles were at an end. Mr. Strutt, on his arrival, found the household in the first bewilderment of a domestic tragedy. His client had died the previous night.
Mr. Strutt looked very grave indeed when Charles Montcalm told him of the destruction of the appointment,—unnecessarily grave, Charles thought. “I cannot see what harm can come of it,” he said, as he concluded the narrative.
“Can you not?” cried Mr. Strutt; “I wish that I could not. I trust that nothing may come of it. We must hope for the best; but, with people like your brother Frank and his associates, you can never tell what mischief may turn up. You are, I suppose, certain that your father was quite master of himself, and was fully conscious of what he was doing, when he destroyed the appointment?”
“It never occurred to me that he was not,” said the other; “he was growing feebler day by day; but he was quite himself.”
“Well,” said Mr. Strutt, with a shrug of his shoulders, which often served him for the close of an inconvenient conversation, “we can only hope for the best.”
Charles Montcalm, as eldest, indeed as only, son of the deceased, and his executor, wound up his father’s affairs, and took possession of the estate. There was little to be done; everything was in perfect order. There was practically no change of master, for Charles had of late undertaken the chief part of the management. Frampton was, except for occasional visits, shut up. Charles had a lodging in St. James Street and was busy with his Parliamentary work. The first important break in the even current of his life was his engagement to Sibylla.
Ah! the man
Is worthy, but so given to entertain
Impossible dreams of superhuman life,
He sets his virtues on so high a shelf,
To keep them at the grand millennial height,
He has to mount a stool to get at them;
And, meantime, lives on quite the common way
With everybody’s morals.
The writers of romance are accustomed to take leave of lovers at the moment of their engagement, as if everything were over, and the vessel were safely brought to a haven of safety. On the contrary, the voyage is just beginning. Into what perilous seas the youthful pair are steering, with their precious freight of human happiness! What difficulties and perils beset it! What grave anxieties, what risks of tragic, disastrous shipwreck! For the people most immediately concerned the hour is critical. It calls for all the tact, the delicacy, the refinement of soul, the skilful handling, that their resources, mental and moral, can furnish for the accomplishment of a difficult task. The man is, necessarily, almost always a disappointment. He cannot live up to the romantic ideal of the woman, who believed him perfect. Fortunate if he can temper the disappointment, can lighten the shock—show some solid merits to compensate for vanishing illusions, and lay a firm hold on affection and esteem, as the rose-tinted clouds of imagination dissolve and disappear.
It is, accordingly, in the nature of things that the course, even of true love, should not run smooth, and that the happiness of lovers—of thoughtful lovers, at any rate—should be largely tempered by anxiety. It can hardly be otherwise. To both parties the period of courtship is a voyage of discovery—a delightful voyage, no doubt—interesting, entrancing, but not without the excitements and vicissitudes incidental to sailing in unmapped seas. The woman, in most cases, has everything to learn. She is making real acquaintance, for the first time, with the race of man—that strange combination of conflicting impulses and desires, of waywardness, of inconsistencies, of unintelligible idiosyncrasies. What innumerable strains are mixed in each man’s blood; what a host of inherited tendencies of taste and habit and impulse, driving him this way and that, and making him often a mystery to himself, still more mysterious to the woman whose business it is to understand him. Till now he has shown her nothing but his most charming phase—the phase of the adoring lover. The slight intercourse which precedes an engagement makes it difficult for him to show her any other. His future wife has to take many things on trust—things which are vital to her happiness. Happily she is generally in the mood to do so. She is happy; she is hopeful, and hope makes her deafen her ear to the jarring note which might breathe of disillusion.
Thus, though Sibylla was happy in her engagement, she was occasionally beset with shadowy misgivings. Charles Montcalm was a noble creature, she was sure of that; but he sometimes surprised, sometimes perplexed her. A rational woman, thoroughly in love, is ready to make generous allowance for her lover’s idiosyncrasies. They interest, they amuse her. They are the shadows necessary for an effective portrait. They are the outcome of originality—the accompaniment, sometimes the symptom, of genius. Sibylla fortified herself with the reflection that her future husband would not, at any rate, be commonplace. In her weaker moments she caught herself wishing that he could be more expansive, less self-disciplined and self-suppressed, more prompt in the confidential utterances which Nature sets flowing from a lover’s lips. Reserve is of all habits the most unintelligible, the most depressing to the unreserved. Sibylla’s spirits, too, were sometimes damped by the consciousness of something in her father’s feeling about Charles Montcalm, which fell short of what she would have liked. Lord Belmont was elaborately cordial in his behaviour to his future son-in-law, and always spoke of him with warm esteem; but it was due to the circumstances of the position that he should do so. Sibylla seemed to herself to detect an absence of heartiness, of spontaneity in her father’s eulogium. There was something in Montcalm’s character, she felt, which jarred,—something with which her father could not sympathise. She puzzled herself with conjectures as to what it was. She more than once essayed to get him to talk about her lover; never, however, with great success.
“Charles is tremendously political, is he not?” Lord Belmont said on one of these occasions: “some men are born like that. His father was just the same. It is bred in the bone. Their families, I suppose, have been at the business for generations. It is part of their existence; they feel it to be of supreme importance. They are the loyalest of partisans. Charles would sacrifice himself for his party, just as he would die for his country.”
“Of course,” cried Sibylla. “Noblesse oblige. We should all do that, I suppose.”
“Should we?” said her father, “let us hope so; but not, I fear, with Charles’s enthusiasm. He is a political enthusiast. I am not sure that such enthusiasm is as common as you think, Sibylla. Anyhow, in the guise in which Charles shows it, it is an admirable quality. He will do something heroic in politics before he has done with them.”
“I am glad that you feel that,” said Sibylla, taking her father’s hand, as she was apt to do when he especially pleased her; “you always feel the right thing—the dear thing. I feel that strongly myself; I know it. There is something heroic in Charles. Some day, when the occasion offers, he will show it. But there is something more in him than heroism; when you come to know him better you will feel it as I do.”
“I feel all that I could wish about my dear daughter’s lover,” said Lord Belmont. “No one could ever, in my thoughts, have been good enough for her. But I like Montcalm extremely. The difference between him and me—if there is one—lies in our attitude towards public affairs. I have not for a long while been enough in the thick of politics to feel as vivid an interest in them as he does. Much about them does not interest me at all. The party-fight part of the business is intolerable, if you look at it in cold blood and without having, yourself, a share in the fight.”
“But that is part of the game,” said Sibylla, “a necessary part. And the game is the best sort of thing for a man to take up, is it not?—the only thing for a rich man with no profession. By the way, father, tell me what you know about Charles’s boyhood. You remember him as a boy, do you not?”
“Perfectly,” said Lord Belmont. “His father was one of the friends of my youth. He was so charming; I quite loved him; a delightful companion! His eldest son gave him trouble: Charles was his comfort; he behaved admirably about his brother.”
“And what became of the brother?” asked Sibylla.
“He disappeared from London in disgrace—some desperate money scandal—and died, I believe, in America. But nothing was ever known for certain. It was not a subject that I could mention to Montcalm. The Montcalms, father and son, joined in paying the prodigal’s debts. They had to dip pretty deep into the family revenues to do it. They said that it cost them half the estate. Charles never mentions it; it is like him not to do so, since it redounds to his credit.”
“But it sounds interesting,” said Sibylla; “one ought to know one’s husband’s virtues, his virtuous acts,—ought not one? I feel inquisitive.”
“Then,” said her father, laughing, “you must ask him. I have told you all I know.”
Charles Montcalm showed no inclination to relieve Sibylla’s inquisitiveness. He could not be brought within a hundred miles of the subject.
Any allusion to it—any approach to it—seemed to plunge him in impenetrable reserve. His lips were sealed. Sibylla had to recognise the unwelcome fact that, when her lover chose, he could be reticence itself, and that there were some topics which were forbidden in their intercourse. Such a discovery is unfortunate at a moment when mutual confidence is the great desideratum. A future husband must, above everything, be frank.
This view of the matter had not occurred to Charles Montcalm. He considered it due to his father, his brother, his family, himself, that absolute silence should be observed on a subject in which their common honour was involved. His father had bound him to silence. It had been his passionate desire to bury the subject in oblivion, to shroud it from publicity. There seemed a sort of piety in concealing it even from her who had most right to read his secret thoughts. The subject disgusted him; it seemed all the more disgusting when he thought of it in connection with the new life opening upon him, and the unsullied purity and nobility which had charmed him in his future wife. She was the last person to whom it would be endurable to make a revelation of family dishonour.
Meantime there were circles in which Charles Montcalm’s qualifications as Sibylla’s accepted suitor were canvassed with more freedom than indulgence. Her relations generally disapproved. Mrs. Ormesby, Lord Belmont’s sister, was a shrewd old lady, with a keen faculty of perception, a turn for satire and a vigorous tongue. In a family conclave, in her drawing-room, Sibylla’s engagement was discussed with considerable animation. Mrs. Ormesby herself was not partial to Montcalm, and was not too well pleased at her niece’s decision. It struck her as uninteresting. Her views on the subject were warmly seconded by her daughter, Lady Holte, wife of a sporting baronet—an extremely smart and not specially sensible young woman, who piqued herself on being clever, modern, frivolous, and in awe of nobody except, perhaps, her uncle Belmont, whose penetrating eye and occasional sarcasm struck terror into a soul which few things could abash. Olivia Holte particularly disliked Charles Montcalm, to whose grave soul her frivolity was anti-pathetic. He was one of the men whom she condemned as “impossible.” It was impossible, at any rate, to betray him into the merest semblance of a flirtation. She had received the news of her cousin’s engagement with outbursts of irreverent laughter. “I was always certain that Sibylla would marry a stick. She is so sublime, and she likes a prig. But Mr. Montcalm! Well, it is Sibylla’s foible to be original. She has achieved it now with a vengeance!”
“I see nothing original about it,” said Montague, Mrs. Ormesby’s favourite nephew, and an assiduous frequenter of her drawing-room at tea time; “such matches are common and commonplace. Society is over-run with dull mediocrities bent on improving themselves into a reputation.”
“No, Fred!” said his aunt, “that is not fair. Charles Montcalm is no mediocrity. He is too good for worldlings like you and Olivia to appreciate. But he lacks the fairy kiss in his cradle that would have given him gaiety and charm. He is essentially stiff—not on comfortable terms with anybody or anything—not even an abstract idea. How he got through his proposal I can’t imagine. He must have done it with a protocol.”
“He is an abstract idea himself,” cried Lady Holte, “a political abstraction. For my part when it comes to men, I prefer the concrete.”
“He is swamped in politics and in himself,” said Montague: “a man so self-absorbed is a standing hardship on his unabstracted fellows—especially his wife. His body is present, but his spirit is hovering about the Speaker’s chair, toying with a blue book, or wrapt in the contemplation of a Parliamentary manoeuvre. When men’s souls go a star-gazing, they ought to take their bodies with them.”
“The complaint is an old one,” said Mrs. Ormesby. “I was reading the other day about some old philosopher or other—Hermotimus or some one; he possessed this objectionable faculty of severing body and soul, and wandering in spirit about the earth, leaving the corporeal part of him in charge of his wife, with many injunctions to preserve it from molestation. His wife grew tired of this sort of conjugal infidelity, burnt his body, and so put an end to the arrangement. She was a sensible woman.”
“Bravo! Mrs. Hermotimus!” cried Lady Holte; “but Sibylla will never burn her lord, will she? She is too conscientious.”
“I wish you had half her conscientiousness, Olivia,” said her mother, “or half her common-sense. She is worth a dozen of you.”
“But there are not a dozen women like Olivia in all London,” said her cousin; “she is the epitome of smartness—and what a lovely dress she wears this afternoon! It is a pleasure to look at her.”
“And you are the epitome of chaff,” said Lady Holte, getting up and embracing her mother. “I will not stay to be chaffed. I must go and spread the news.”
Linger, I cried, O radiant Time! thy power
Has nothing more to give; life is complete:
Let but the perfect present, hour by hour,
Itself remember and itself repeat.
The Stage, the wisest of mankind has observed, is more beholden to love than is the life of man. It serves the stage, “for love is ever matter of comedies, and, now and then, of tragedies; but in life it does much mischief, sometimes like a Siren, sometimes like a Fury.” It was the siren that now guided the newly-wedded husband and wife by enchanted shores, fairy haunted bays, and islands of the blest. The air was resonant with siren songs—the songs of joy, of hope, of affectionate exhilaration. They travelled slowly and luxuriously across Italy; and at each halting-place Montcalm’s research, artistic culture and refined appreciativeness gave his wife a new and higher sense of the enjoyment of travel than she had ever experienced on previous occasions. The grand old cities of Lombardy, with their long historic pedigree and far-reaching associations, fired him with an enthusiasm which Sibylla was not slow to catch. Charles Montcalm’s father had been a picture-lover. His taste as a connoisseur was attested by the choice collection of paintings which adorned Sibylla’s future home. It had been sadly despoiled at the time of Frank’s disgrace. Still, in its diminished glory, Charles took pride in the collection, and enriched it occasionally by some costly addition. It was his one extravagance. He was delighted now to have his judgment reinforced by Sibylla’s. His fancy now was, he told his bride, that they should jointly choose some picture, whose loveliness should be associated in the minds of them both with the pleasures of their wedding tour. “It shall be my honeymoon present,” he said, “to the dear mistress of Frampton. It must hang in your boudoir.”
But it was not in matters of art alone that the two happy lovers found a delightful conformity of taste. These weeks in Italy were to both of them a time of ideal perfection—the perfection of happiness. Sibylla recognised the realisation of her girlish dreams of a companionship of absolute sympathy and understanding of her every feeling. Charles forgot politics in the entrancement of a more thrilling interest. For once he could unbend.
“This is a revelation,” he broke out, as they sat, one blazing day, pretending to read, in a refuge of shade on the mountain side—a cool stream, turgid from its glacier, rushing by, and Monte Rosa, faintly pencilled on the horizon, peeping through the chestnuts—“a revelation of happiness. I have never lived till now. I have grovelled, like a slave in a mine, in darkness and toil. But I have never known the joy of life—its exquisite pleasure—till now. I can scarcely believe my good fortune. What right has a hard-working Englishman among these scenes of romance? This is a good description, is it not? that I have just come uponƒ”—
In cities should we English lie
Where cries are many, ever new,
And men’s incessant stream goes by;— We who pursue
Our business with unslackening stride,
Traverse in troops, with care-filled breast,
The soft Mediterranean side,
The Nile, the East;
And see all sights from pole to pole.
And glance and nod and bustle by.
And never once possess our soul
Before we die.
“Well,” said Sibylla, “we will possess our souls to-day, at any rate. Besides I deny the imputation. We are not so prosy as Matthew Arnold loved to paint us. There is a great deal of poetry in cities.”
“Don’t mention them,” said her husband, by this time in the full swing of excitement at his new-found mood; “at any rate, not the famous city of Westminster, with its poetry of a long debate. I am delighted with Matthew Arnold. Why have I never read him before, Sibylla? You must take my education in hand.”
“But you must choose the nice ones,” said Sibylla, taking the volume out of her husband’s hand. “Is this your vein?”—
Some girl who here, from castle-bower,
With furtive step and cheek of flame,
‘Twixt myrtle hedges all in flower,
By moonlight came,
To meet her pirate-lover’s ship;
And from the wave-kissed, marble stair
Beckoned him on, with quivering lip
And floating hair.
And lived some hours in happy trance—
“That is the life to lead,” cried Montcalm, “a happy trance! Mine is a happy trance just now. I dread the awakening to the dull business of existence.”
“Enjoy it,” said Sibylla, putting her hand on his; “why trouble about the awakening?”
I have before me a volume of Sibylla’s journal, faded now almost into indistinctness, but written in her beautiful, firm hand-writing, unmarred by blot or erasure—a type of her clear-cut mind and steady resolution.
“Let me record these hours as best I can,” she writes in one place; “something tells me that they are the happiest of my life. I have an adoring husband; I am, I know, an adoring wife. Is mutual adoration a folly, a delusion? Possibly—but a delightful and enchanting one. ‘Egoisme á deux,’ as I was reading just now—but how sweet a selfishness! Every day reveals to us new fields of sympathy, new plains in which our minds move at the same level and are tuned to the same key—new topics that are common property. I am under a spell, I know,—incapable of anything but enjoyment. I am in no hurry to be disenchanted. The air is full of delicious sounds. I am happy, happy! Dear life, that brings one such happiness!”
Their days were busily employed. At Rome they found kind friends at the Embassy, and an agreeable cardinal, who was a scholar and antiquarian, told them of the last new excavations, and arranged for them a private interview with the Holy Father.
At Venice a friend’s yacht had been placed at their disposal, and when they had drunk their fill of palaces, picture-galleries, churches and studios, they embarked for a cruise among lovely Greek islands, bathed in the exquisite atmosphere, which makes cliff and headland, wave-kissed islet and mountain towering in the background, seem like a dream of fairyland. The Mediterranean was in its sweetest mood, and seemed but to caress the shores on which its ripples broke—the very type of loving gentleness.
“We live in an enchanted world,” Sibylla writes of one of these days; “I was reading this morning: ‘We mortals have our divine moments, when love is satisfied in the completeness of the beloved object.’ These divine moments are mine just now. I am more than satisfied. Charles realises the best of all I ever dreamed about him.”
Into this summer tranquillity a mandate from England fell like a bolt from the blue. Things had been going badly with the Government, one of the whips wrote to Montcalm. It looked as if the dissolution could not be much longer delayed. It might even be an affair of weeks. There was a letter, too, from Charles Montcalm’s election agent, giving a still gloomier view of the position, and announcing that his opponent’s party were busily at work, and were gaining ground with dangerous rapidity. The local leaders were strongly of his opinion that Montcalm’s presence was essential. His success at the impending election depended on an immediate personal canvass.
“That is the worst of Fellows,” said Montcalm in a tone of annoyance, as he tossed the letter across the table to Sibylla; “he is invaluable as an agent,—energetic, assiduous, and loyal to the core; but he is always in a fuss. I do not believe matters are as serious as he makes out; but I cannot be sure that they are not. I must go at once. There is the curse of Parliamentary life! It is a form of slavery—a bad form; some philanthropist should preach a crusade against it!”
“We have had a delightful month,” said Sibylla; “we are fortunate to have been left so long.”
“We are unfortunate to be cut so short,” her husband grumbled; “I never felt less inclined to obey an unwelcome call. Unfortunately in life the unpleasanter of two courses is generally the right one. I suppose I ought to go.”
“Then let us go at once,” said Sibylla. “Nothing is a misfortune that we do together.”
The spell was broken. Montcalm presently became another man—busy, reserved, preoccupied. He was no longer the delightful lover. His head now was full of political speculations, political anxieties—political plots. Sibylla was impressed by the suddenness and the completeness of the change in her husband’s mood. It had been settled that they should go to her father’s London house on their return for the season.
“I must stipulate,” Lord Belmont had said, “that you come to me in Portman Square for your first season in London. That will give you time to look about you and make up your minds at leisure about your future abode. Then you must ask me to come and stay with you at Frampton in the autumn, when I come back from Homburg. I shall make no other engagement. I shall enjoy having you to myself while Charles is away at his election, should you not be with him. When he comes back he shall have the library, where no one ever goes, and which will be as quiet as the grave. He can see his constituents there, and be as independent as he pleases, and as undisturbed.”
The prospect was highly attractive to Sibylla. She was suffering a reaction from her recent exalted mood. Home thoughts had begun to assert their sway. She was conscious of finding the prospect of her father’s society delightful. His note of cordial, unconscious fondness touched her. She was longing to see him again. The thought of being with him once more lifted a load from her spirits, and restored her natural gaiety. It needed restoration, for, since her husband’s plunge back into politics, she had felt half-deserted. The isolation depressed her.
“You will like to pay your father a visit, Sibylla, while I am in the north,” Montcalm had said, “will you not? He will be so delighted to have you.”
“But,” objected Sibylla, “he would be delighted to think of me being at your election. He would think it my natural place. If it is possible, Charles, I should like to go with you. It is my strong wish. I know that you do not understand it; but you must indulge me. Our tour is broken off. I am well content that it should be, for such a cause; but let me share in the fight. Perhaps I could help you; at any rate, no one could wish so ardently for your success.” Montcalm was touched by the sort of imploring tone and ardent affection of his wife’s appeal,—touched but not convinced. He was immovable.
“My dear Sibylla,” he answered, “you must believe my experience, unfortunately a prolonged one. You do not know what you ask when you wish to plunge into the mire of an election. It is all that is detestable; its detestableness would be enhanced if I felt, all the time, that you were exposed to it—were in the thick of it. An election is the last place where a refined woman ought to peril her refinement. Be guided by me. Do me the great favour of not renewing a request which I should feel it dishonourable to comply with. Ask me anything but that.”
“There is an end of it, of course,” said Sibylla, in a tone of deep disappointment; “but do you not hate elections overmuch? Peril one’s refinement! How many of my friends are doing it?”
Her husband had pronounced his ultimatum, and was not inclined to prolong the conversation. He had carried his way, but as despots carry it, by sheer assertion of personal will. Sibylla was unconvinced. He had not seriously attempted to convince her. Her submission was simply powerlessness to resist. She felt wounded and aggrieved, almost inclined to a rebellious mood.
Lord Belmont was delighted to welcome his daughter and her husband. He was evidently surprised at their sudden return, and did not perceive its necessity.
“I did not expect you,” he said; “political zeal is all very well; but on a wedding tour! was it really necessary?”
“Unluckily,” said Montcalm, with some irritation in his tone, and turning pale, as he did whenever he spoke under excitement or the influence of strong feeling, “politics will not wait for wedding tours or anything else. You maybe sure, Lord Belmont, that I should not have cut short our tour without sufficient cause. It was an intense disappointment to both of us.”
“I am admiring your virtue, my dear Montcalm,” said Lord Belmont; “it is admirable; may fortune crown it—as it deserves to be crowned—with success.”
“But there really was no doubt about its being necessary,” said Sibylla with eagerness; “the enemy is already in force, and almost in possession of the field.”
It turned out that the agent was right. A few days later the Government encountered an unexpected defeat, more pronounced than any of its predecessors; the cry for a dissolution gathered sudden strength. The Times, in a solemn leader, whose gravity wore the air of inspiration, pronounced that the moment had arrived when an appeal to the country could no longer be honourably delayed. The evening Opposition papers howled a responsive chorus. Even the Government organs hinted that the position was becoming untenable. Every hour fresh rumours filled the air. The clubs were crowded with men seeking gossip or retailing it. Before the week was out ministers were again in a minority. A dissolution was announced. Montcalm brought his Address for his father-in-law’s criticism and advice. He was proceeding to read it.
“Stop!” said Lord Belmont, getting up and ringing the bell; “let us send for Sibylla. She has a fine ear for style. I always get her opinion on anything that I write of importance.”
“It is no question of style,” said Montcalm; “the good people of Belhaven do not know what it means, happily for me. I only wanted your opinion as to how to deal with one or two awkward points.”
“Well,” said Lord Belmont, “you shall have my opinion, reinforced by Sibylla’s—which is more than twice as good: but perhaps you have consulted her already.”
“It had not occurred to me,” Montcalm answered, “that she would care to be consulted, or would have an opinion on the subject. It is more a question of an election agent’s judgment than a woman’s taste.”
“My dear Charles,” said his father-in-law, “a wise woman’s judgment is the wise man’s best touchstone: and here comes the wise woman!”
“I was not prepared for an audience,” said Charles, as his wife came and sat down by him. “Now, Sibylla, please imagine yourself an enlightened and independent Belhavenite, and say how this strikes you.”
“Business-like, at any rate,” said Lord Belmont, as Montcalm’s dry, well-balanced phrases closed; “and safe, I suppose; but inspiring? Does it do justice to the occasion—the gravity of the occasion. It is a crisis, remember. Is it not a little tame?”
“Oh!” said Montcalm, a little taken aback by his father-in-law’s criticism, “you cannot make that sort of thing too tame. It is what the British voter likes. I have reduced my addresses to the perfection of tameness. The thing to do with a crisis is to say as little as possible about it. Then you are committed to nothing.”
“But you will have a fight?” asked Sibylla.
“A fight?” cried Lord Belmont; “I should rather think he will—a good stand-up, hard-fought battle. The Belhaven elections are notorious. I wish I could be there. My blood warms to it already.”
“And mine,” cried Sibylla, catching her father’s mood, which was several degrees more mercurial than that of her husband; “but there is no doubt about victory?”
“Then it would not be a battle,” said Montcalm, laughing; “the point of a fight—a political fight most of all—is its uncertainty. The only certain thing is that the improbable generally comes off. This time, however, I mean to succeed. I shall wear your badge. I will carry it to victory!”
“To victory!” cried Lord Belmont, the ashes of old election fights springing suddenly into a blaze.
“To victory!” echoed Sibylla; “my dear and gallant knight! my song last night was prophetic!
“Cock up your beaver, and cock it f u’ sprush!
We’ll over the Border and give them a brush!
There’s somebody coming ‘ll teach better behaviour;
Heh! Charlie lad, cock up your beaver”!
There was inspiration in Sibylla’s tones, a charming brightness in her eye, animation in her gesture, as she declaimed the verse—animation, pathos, infectious enthusiasm. She had never seemed so beautiful. Charles Montcalm’s cool temperament warmed with an unaccustomed glow. The scene touched him—the fine, old, courtly statesman, the lovely woman, stirred by zeal for his success—for him. A sudden pang of delight throbbed through recesses of a nature where such genial influences had hitherto been but seldom felt. Life had given him nothing so good as this. It was a supreme moment—a revelation! He seized Sibylla’s hand, he carried it to his lips. He kissed it with fervour. There was a profound tenderness—rapture—in his look.
“You are adorable,” he breathed too low for any ear but hers: “I am a dull dog—you must inspire me!”
Sibylla knew that with her husband such a demonstration meant much. He was profoundly moved. She rewarded him with a look of love. Two days later he was in the thick of his election. He had made no further allusion to Sibylla’s wish to share its fortunes with him, nor had she chosen to allude to it. Once more she found herself alone with her father, her only special share in the election—which had now become the one absorbing topic of attention—the daily bulletin from her husband, telling her, in hurried but cheerful language, of the progress of his canvass. “Everything,” he wrote, “is going well.”
A vulgar comment will be made of it,
And that supposed by the common rout,
Against your yet ungallèd estimation,
That may with foul intrusion enter in
And dwell upon your grave when you are dead.
An incident which occurred at one of Montcalm’s meetings, and to which his letters had made no allusion, was hardly consistent with his cheerful account of his expedition. There was a crowded, noisy gathering in a suburb of Belhaven, where Radicalism was rampant, and Montcalm’s opponents were entrenched in strength. His organising committee had, all along, regarded the place with anxiety. The question of the management of the occasion had been discussed. Nervous advisers had suggested the ignominious precaution of a “ticket” meeting. If it were “open” there was the likelihood, they said, of serious disturbance.
“By all means,” exclaimed Montcalm, on whom the possibility of danger always had an exhilarating effect, “let us have an open meeting! I don’t care for a packed audience; I hate preaching to the converted. I would rather risk a row.”
The appearance of the Hall on the evening of the meeting justified the anticipations of the prudent party. A densely packed audience filled it—floor, gallery, and passage—and rendered impossible all extraneous attempts to maintain orderly behaviour. There were numerous knots of roughs, who were acting, apparently, on a preconcerted plan, and abetted each other’s efforts to disturb the harmony of the evening. The Police Superintendent came into the committee-room with a grave face to say that all things pointed to a stormy meeting. It was obvious to any one, who could read the signs, that a large portion of the multitude was ready for a row, and that there were not a few present who intended to produce one. Montcalm’s appearance on the platform was greeted with shouts in which the yells of the opposing faction were not completely drowned. But the appearance of the candidate was impressive: it bespoke calmness, determination, undaunted courage. Montcalm’s first few sentences—nervous, resolute, and unflinching—caught the ear of the multitude. His speech, though continually interrupted, was listened to with attention. At its close the candidate invited interrogation. Numerous questions had been asked and answered, as satisfactorily as such an occasion allows. These interrogations were always intensely distasteful to Montcalm. They brought into painful distinctness the unreality, the superficiality, the vulgarity of the whole concern. They emphasised the essential misfortune of an extended suffrage—that it places upon the political stage thousands of ignorant individuals who have no qualification for serious political thought, and no real aspiration to it. How to reason seriously with such an audience? It was a sort of dishonesty to pretend to reason. The old-fashioned bribery and corruption were less immoral. Their questions were so irrelevant, irrational, so irritatingly narrow in scope, so wide of the real issues. Montcalm’s composure of mind and demeanour stood him in good stead under the ordeal. Experience gave him confidence. Odious as it all was, he had borne it before: he could bear it again. If nothing else could be done, he was conscious of the faculty of looking absolutely unmoved, and saying something, the coolness of which disconcerted his assailant.
The evening was drawing onward to its close. The crowd had become interested and excited. The shyness which checked some would-be interpellators at the outset, had worn off, and had given place to a half-impudent familiarity. Presently it became obvious that something unusual was going on at the further end of the Hall. There was an angry altercation, something of a scuffle, the eager cries of onlookers, hostile or sympathetic. At last an excited, miserable-looking man—his haggard face alight with the fire of fanaticism—got himself hoisted on to his companions’ shoulders. He said something which produced a sudden silence around him, the silence of suspense, interest, inquisitiveness. The silence spread in an instant through the whole assembly. His voice rang out now clear and piercing, with the distinctness of a practised speaker. It reached the listeners on the platform.
“I want to know,” he said, “a piece of family history—our member’s family and mine. What has become of Lizzie Marsh?”
A chorus of cries of “Shame!” “Order!” attested the general sense of disapproval of a question that was, on the face of it, outrageous. Montcalm rose to the occasion. His marble features, always pale, now deadly white, bespoke a lofty indignation. His mien was intrepid, he drew himself up, and stood erect and undaunted. His eye flashed. A fine scorn curved his lip. He looked the type of courage. There was complete silence as he began to speak. Thousands were holding their breath in expectation, anxious to lose no syllable of his reply.
“We are here,” he said, “for politics. I am here to explain my political views; you are here to learn them, and to ask such questions as will help you to do so. Such questions I am answering to the best of my power. You are in your rights. But I refuse to be insulted. I refuse to answer questions whose one object is to insult—questions which have no sort of bearing on public affairs—which it is base to ask, and which it would be infamy to answer.”
A shout of applause drowned the concluding phrases of Montcalm’s answer. It was taken up through the assembly. It pealed and crashed—a solid mass of sound—through the great Hall. It died away: it broke out afresh and rolled on in a succession of diminuendos, crescendos, fortissimos, till fatigue necessitated a respite. Montcalm’s bold, defiant reply had produced a great effect. Britons hate a foul blow. This was felt to be one. Montcalm had received it with fortitude: he had repelled it effectively. His sentences had sent a thrill through the huge assembly to its utmost confines. For once he had aroused personal enthusiasm—an achievement which, as a rule, his proud temperament and reserved dignity of manner rendered impossible. He had been the object of a gross insult, an outrage on the accepted rules of the game in political warfare. He had comported himself in a manner that even his enemies admired, and which his friends regarded as heroic. He was no longer a mere political abstraction—the representative of a party, the exponent of a creed. He had shown himself a man. It is easier to feel warmly about a man than about an abstraction. So far Montcalm had profited by the occurrence. He had achieved popularity.
But there was another, less agreeable aspect. When the first momentary effect of Montcalm’s answer had died away, there remained in the minds of all but the most thoughtless a reflection that there was something within the member’s knowledge which, for some reason or other, he did not care to disclose, and that he resented the demand for disclosure. It was a disagreeable reflection.
The question had been improper, of course, unjustifiable. None the less, the fact remained that it had been unanswered. A sense of mystery was engendered in some, a suspicion in others. The unruly portion of the audience had discovered a congenial instrument of unruliness—if needs be, of persecution—the apt material for mischief. They were loath to abandon a phrase which had a delicious flavour of ribaldry. Again and again some mischievous spirit yelled out the query, “What has become of Lizzie Marsh?” and the fact that he was speedily suppressed in no degree diminished the force of the enquiry. More than once the name rang in Montcalm’s ears as he drove homeward through the crowded streets to his committee-room. The committee had already assembled. There was a sudden pause in the conversation as Montcalm entered. He took his place with perfect composure. But for the slight additional pallor of his face, there was no symptom of disturbance or distress. He spoke of the meeting as encouraging. The tone was less hostile than it had been, a week before, at similar gatherings. The audience was a rough one, but it had listened with interest, and had been, on the whole, friendly. Montcalm completely ignored the episode which was uppermost in the thoughts of all—the unexpected interruption. It might, for any notice that he vouchsafed to it, have been a mere piece of boisterous nonsense, bawled out by some half-tipsy onlooker, and no sooner uttered than forgotten. More than one member of the committee would have given much to know the truth, if only he had dared to ask. But there was no man present who was courageous enough for that. There was something in Montcalm’s air and look which discouraged familiarity—which made familiarity, which he might regard as impertinent, impossible. Each one felt that, if Montcalm intended to say anything on the subject, he would do it without invitation, and that an unwelcome enquiry might provoke a disagreeable retort. All things, accordingly, went on in their accustomed course. The reports of the day were read; the arrangements for the morrow were discussed and settled. The committee broke up. Montcalm walked back to his hotel with one of his committee-men. They parted at the entrance. Montcalm mounted to his room, set his servant at liberty, and locked the door. At last he was alone. Alone: but no peaceful solitude! Now that the necessity for outward calm had ceased, Montcalm felt incapable any longer of self-repression. The event of the evening had stirred his nature to its profoundest depths. A rude hand had been laid on nerves where a feather’s touch meant agony. He had endured that torture with a stoical show of indifference; but his whole system was quivering with its effect. His heart was thumping loud and quick. He was brought face to face with the one thing in life he really feared, the feeling of disgrace. His hand shook, his powers of self-control were exhausted. For once he had ceased to be master of himself. “What has become of Lizzie Marsh?” The horrid query was ringing in his ear. “What a question to be asked of me, and how many more such are hereafter to be asked? Do evil things never die—not even when those who did them are dead and gone? Am I to be persecuted to the end about poor Frank’s misdeeds, by every scoundrel who chooses to fling a piece of dirt at me—at me? at us?” The thought flashed through his brain that he was now a hundred times more assailable than heretofore; that disgrace meant something new and more terrible; that a new and infinitely more delicate sense of shame had been developed in his mind. In old days a scandal could have been confronted, like any other disagreeable thing, with a sturdy stoicism, not quite remote from indifference. But Sibylla’s husband could not be stoical. He could not be indifferent to a family dishonour, which should, in however remote a degree, involve her in its contamination. Montcalm’s daily letter to Sibylla had still to be written to catch the midnight mail. He sat down to write it: but it was in vain. Brain and hand declined their accustomed offices. The very idea of bringing Sibylla into contact with the hateful scene was intolerable. It seemed a sort of profanation to think of her in such a connection. Charles at last forced himself to write: but how jejune and barren a performance! How impossible that there should be nature, spontaneity, real outpouring of sentiment with this detested secret lurking in the background, stifling the genial outflow of love.
Sibylla gave a sigh, next day, as she perused, only too quickly, the few poor lines which contained all that her husband had to tell her about himself. A secret is benumbing, and Montcalm’s better self was half benumbed. He could not bring himself to say anything on this hateful topic to his wife. She need never know of it. She must not.
The letter written and directed, Montcalm sat on—the victim of a tumultuous rush of thought. It was in vain to think of sleep, in vain to read or write. His reverie was presently broken by a knock at the door, and an enquiry by one of the inn servants, whether he would receive a constituent. Montcalm had always encouraged his constituents to consult him in private on any point on which they desired enlightenment as to his views: he had announced that, when not publicly engaged, he would always be glad to receive any of them who wished for an interview. Some had come and been received in the evenings, and there were strict orders that no one should be denied. The servant who announced this visitor evidently thought him something exceptional. The man, he said, seemed very much excited—was, he should say, under the effects of liquor. He looked as if he might easily become violent. On the whole he doubted whether Montcalm would do well to admit him. It might be well to send for the police.
“Nonsense,” said Montcalm, with a slight tone of contempt, “show him up at once.”
In another moment a forlorn, weird being, in the dress of the better sort of artisan, stood before him. Montcalm recognised his visitor at once. It was the disturber of the evening meeting. His features were haggard, careworn, sorrow-stricken. His dilated, eager eye bespoke the fanatic. His mobile lips were quivering; his gesture was restless, impassioned. He looked like a melancholy madman. Everything about him told of intense excitement.
Montcalm’s face wore the aspect of profound calm, which was his instinctive method of confronting danger. The intruder seemed cowed by his immovable demeanour; he found it impossible, apparently, to speak. The two men looked at each other in silence, as though measuring their strength for the encounter.
“You want to see me,” Montcalm said at last. “There is a chair—sit down, and tell me what it is you want.”
The man took no notice of the invitation to sit down. He still could hardly trust himself to speak: his voice trembled.
“My name is Jennings,” he said. “I will tell you what I want, Mr. Montcalm. I want to know what I asked you to-night at the meeting—what I will ask you wherever I get the chance, till you are forced to tell me. Where is your brother and the girl he ruined—my Lizzie? She was betrothed to me—mine in God’s sight. He seduced her; he stole her from parents and home. He befooled her into loving him. He was a gentleman by birth: that helped him to do it. He spared nothing—he spared no one. It killed her father. Her mother, broken down by shame, sorrow, and misery, still lives with me—if life it can be called. That home—and mine—was broken up: we are dishonoured, ruined; and all to please a rich man’s whim, his wicked, cruel whim. And then you wonder we working men are socialists and hate the rich! I hate him—I have sworn revenge. Why could he not leave us alone? We did no harm to any one. We were quiet folk and God-fearing—we are Methodists. I used to preach; I was a good preacher, but I shall never preach again! How could I preach, or pray, or tell men to trust a merciful God, with this foul wrong burning at my soul. I can think of but one thing. I have sworn to find her, if she is to be found on earth. I have sworn to find him too! Where are they now?” Jennings’s face by this time was livid with fury. The fire of the fanatic was consuming him. His unconscious rhetoric was telling on himself, was overpowering him. He advanced now close to the table in front of Montcalm and repeated his question with a solemn vehemence: “Where are they?”
Montcalm met him with an air of supreme coolness. His nerve served him well in such scenes. His attitude was unchanged. He betrayed nothing but the busy man’s impatience at a bootless interruption.
“I gave you my answer this evening,” he said, “the only answer that I will give to a question so asked—not for the purpose of information, but, as you confess, for revenge, malice, and hatred. If any of the accusations you bring against my brother be true, I would do anything in my power to alleviate the sorrow, to atone, if possible, for the wrong. But I will aid no scheme of revenge—and I will yield to no menace. No one shall force me to speak, supposing I were able to tell you what you want. You may do your worst. If this is all you have to say, you had better go.”
Montcalm moved his hand to ring the bell which stood on the table before him.
“Stop,” cried the other, suddenly changing tone; “do not send me away like that! Have mercy. I threaten you with nothing. I am half mad with sorrow and shame. I was a happy man, none happier—a prosperous man. Lizzie was a good girl, good as the best. I loved her—I know that she loved me. We were happy lovers—most happy; we had no thought but thoughts of honest love. There was no shade of difference between us. Then came your brother—and then our troubles began. She knew that they were beginning; she felt it, as did I. She could not resist him—he was too strong; his flattery too sweet. He lavished presents on her. Then I grew angry, like a fool, and was rough to her. He dazzled her. At last she yielded. She went off: she wrote her father a letter. I have it here. We have heard nothing of her since, nothing but a rumour—a rumour that she was married to your brother, and that she died in America. You know, surely, if it is true. It would cure her mother’s sorrow to know she died an honest woman, or, if she lives, to help her back to honest life. I am trying to find out: for God’s sake, help me.”
“You go a curious way to get my help,” said Montcalm; “a curious way—the wrong way. You begin by doing all you can—such as it is—to hurt me. You thought you could injure me at the meeting—perhaps you think so still. If so, you can do your worst. I shall meet you always as I did tonight. Then you talk about revenge. Is it likely that I should help you to that, against my own brother, if he were still alive? As to his alleged marriage, now that you talk like a reasonable being I will answer you. No word concerning it has ever reached me till you spoke. I know no more about it than you do, and have as little means of finding anything out. I know nothing but that my brother was killed in America. I can give you no help.”
The man gave a groan, the groan of a baffled, helpless animal, raging in impotent fury and suffering.
“You could help me if you wished,” he said as he turned to go; “I knew that you would not. It is like your cursed, cursed race. Our time is coming—to us, as to the Frenchmen a hundred years ago. They had their turn; we shall have ours. It is near, near! Without you, despite you, I shall learn the truth. My Lizzie, I am certain, died an honest woman. I shall find it out. I’ll prove it. You do not want it proved, because you would scorn her for a kinswoman. Your pride would revolt. To suit you she must remain a—”
By this time Montcalm’s hand was on the bell. The servant speedily appeared.
“Show this man the door,” he said, as he bent again over his writing. “Remember that I have some letters to go by the midnight post.”
Montcalm’s unwelcome visitant showed no symptom of the violence which his first appearance had suggested. He had, apparently, no wish to stay. Sobbing and declaiming, he followed the servant downstairs, and went out into the street.
Montcalm was once more alone. He sat on far into the night. Silence reigned: the noisy, excited world around him was sunk in sleep. He sat and reviewed the events of the evening. They had been a tremendous shock. Jennings’s revelation had brought home to him with dreadful distinctness the conviction that there were unfathomed depths into which his brother might have plunged. The man’s story had every appearance of truth. There was a clue. Was he not, Charles Montcalm asked himself, bound to follow it—to help on the discovery: to rescue the woman if she were capable of restoration—to atone if atonement were still possible. He would write at once to Mr. Strutt—bid him communicate with Jennings, and get hold of any scrap of information which might help to the desired discovery. But was it desired? It was a revolting task: it would drag some horror to life—some dreadful, degraded, aggrieved woman, who would trade on her wrong and Frank’s guilt,—some wretched child of sin and shame whose birth would make him head of the Montcalms. Horrible, horrible idea!
It must be faced, however painful. It could be borne. But one thing Montcalm could not face, the necessity of telling his wife. He resented the thought of any obligation to let another person into the secret of his father’s and his own misfortune. He would never have married, if he had had to reckon with this horrible necessity. He would never have exposed his pride to the risk of such a humiliation. Life would not be worth having if he were obliged to humble himself before Sibylla by such a revelation. No one—not even one’s wife—has a right to secrets which concern oneself alone. Why, too, need Sibylla share the misery which he was now enduring? Why need this deplorable episode cast its shade over the brightness of her life?
Charles Montcalm resolved on concealment.
ROSENCRANTZ. “You do surely bar the door upon your own liberty, when you deny your griefs to a friend.”
The reporters who despatched a telegraphic summary of the meeting for the next morning’s London papers, made no reference to the concluding episode except by a parenthetical remark that there had been considerable disturbance on the part of a gang of roughs; that the speakers had some difficulty in making themselves heard; and that, for a time, it seemed likely that the meeting would break up in confusion. Such systematic rowdyism was, the Government organs observed, a disgrace to a respectable community, and, however convenient as a reply to Mr. Montcalm’s unanswerable arguments, could not, in the long run, fail to react unfavourably against the party in whose interest it was resorted to. A little local print, however, of the extremest Socialist order, was less reticent on the subject. The Anarchist was largely read by the working men of Belhaven, and identified itself with their interests. It took up Jennings’s supposed wrongs as a congenial topic—an admirable illustration of the vices and cruelties of the upper classes. An accusation had impliedly been made: it had not been denied. It was safe—it was reasonable to assume the worst. The flavour of scandal was appetising. Local gossip added zest to the report. It was notorious, the Anarchist observed, that the girl, who was betrothed to Jennings, had disappeared from her home in a manner which her family recognised as disgraceful. The name of Montcalm had been popularly connected with her flight and her disgrace. There were, everybody knew, substantial grounds for such a popular belief. Mr. Montcalm had refused publicly to throw any light on a painful mystery. What was the obvious inference from such a refusal? And was it likely that a community, outraged by such a breach of morality, would confide its political interests to the keeping of a candidate who came before them under such conditions? The days were, happily, past when the excesses of each petty local despot were condoned by society and submitted to by classes too wretched, too degraded to know the barest rights of humanity. Such excesses could now be regarded only as survivals from the cruel, feudal times when nothing was sacred from aristocratic greed. Mr. Charles Montcalm might be assured that the English democracy would tolerate no such barbarous survivals. The people would, assuredly, reject the Parliamentary candidate who sought their suffrages, tainted by so dishonourable an association.
A copy of the Anarchist, as ill luck would have it, found its way into Lord Belmont’s letter-bag, and was duly opened, cut, aired, and laid out for perusal, with a host of others, on his library table. Sibylla usually devoted the hour after breakfast to reading the morning’s news to her father. Her eye was caught by an unusual name. She began the article and came suddenly upon the passage which dealt with the topic of the interruption before she was aware of its import. She stopped short in confusion, and made a bold skip to another paragraph which she could see was dealing with another subject. Lord Belmont merely thought that she had lost her place. He was giving no special heed to the article, and the abrupt break in Sibylla’s reading did not rouse his attention. Afterwards, Sibylla took the paper to her room and read it with a beating heart. She was impressed by her husband’s speech, by the coolness, the dignity, the courage of his reply. She loved and admired him for it. The tears sprang to her eyes as she pictured him to herself, standing calm, impressive, and unfaltering in the midst of the huge concourse—many of them his bitter foes,—boldly meeting his assailants in open fight. He was a husband of whom any woman might be proud. But there was evidently a mystery. Why was it that Frank Montcalm’s name was never mentioned either by her husband or her father? Why had all her attempts to induce either of them to enlighten her on the subject been met with decisive refusal? Why had Charles’s letter, written immediately after the disturbance at the meeting, made no reference to it? What was his connection with the story on which his interrogator had touched? Why this secretiveness?
Agitating questions for an affectionate wife! Try as she would, Sibylla could not put them from her thoughts. The first discovery of concealment is an epoch in married life: it is a shock to confidence. Sibylla now experienced it.
She consoled herself with the reflection that her husband’s return would not be much longer delayed. The election would presently be over, and he would, doubtless, take the first opportunity of talking to her openly on a subject which must have been occupying so large a space in his thoughts. It was not difficult to imagine reasons why he should refrain from doing so by letter, and prefer to postpone a painful communication till he could make it in personal intercourse.
A week later came the news of Montcalm’s election, and, two days afterwards, the successful candidate himself arrived in Portman Square. Sibylla was conscious of watching for the hour of her husband’s arrival with strange impatience, a new-born excitement. Her heart beat painfully as she watched the carriage drive up which was bringing him from the station. She ran downstairs to greet him in the hall. He was entering as she descended.
His appearance and demeanour impressed her—resolute, self-confident, self-contained—the personification of strength, fortitude, and success. No trace of a humiliating contretemps had written itself on that fine, clear brow. Sibylla watched him coming toward her. His approach chilled her, even in the midst of her excitement. She instinctively shrank from any demonstration of feeling. She dared not be effusive. Charles Montcalm, she was certain, would of all things dislike a scene. A display of sentiment—with footmen looking on, and an impassive butler silently observant in the background—would fill him with horror. Sibylla, however, found it difficult to restrain her feelings. She was more moved than she had expected to be—than the occasion justified. The tears stood in her eyes. It had been their first separation—a short one, but it had cost her some pangs. It was a relief to have her husband again. She took his arm and led him to the library, which of late she had made her principal abode.
They were alone. Montcalm took her with tenderness in his arms: he embraced her with a real devotion. He watched her face with the solicitude of love.
“Tears, Sibylla?” he said, with the tone of petting a child, and giving her another kiss.
“Foolish tears, I know,” said Sibylla; “tears of joy. I am thankful that our separation is over. I rejoice to have you again, Charles. I have a weak horror of separations. Let us have as few as possible.”
“I say Amen to that,” said her husband. “These electioneering expeditions have now a new ingredient of horror. They rob me of my wife—the worst sort of robbery.”
“And all things went well?” said Sibylla.
“All things went well,” said her husband, resolutely; “the majority was a splendid one, was it not? It is perfectly satisfactory; but the most satisfactory thing about the election is that it is over.”
“How you dislike it,” said his wife. “It is unfortunate.”
“It is all detestable,” said Montcalm, “detestable and degrading—but inevitable, I suppose. One sees mankind at its worst and vulgarest—not an ennobling sight.”
“And contact with it, in this phase, is naturally disagreeable?” said Sibylla.
“Most disagreeable,” said her husband, emphatically; “so disagreeable that it seems a profanation to mar the delight of our meeting by recalling it. Let us choose a pleasanter topic. Tell me, how is your father?”
“Thank you,” said his wife, “father is as well as possible, and in the best spirits about the election. We do not think it profanation to talk and think about it when we are together. We followed the news anxiously from day to day, and I read father all the speeches. He admires yours so much. They read well. I wish I could hear one. Ah! here he comes!”
“A thousand congratulations, my dear Charles,” Lord Belmont said, as he came forward with an air of cordiality which pronounced him to be in the highest spirits. “Your victory was really magnificent. In these days one can never tell how matters will go. We were getting thoroughly nervous. It was so good of you to order us so ample a supply of telegrams. They were a great comfort. You had some rough meetings, too, I saw.”
Sibylla saw her husband turn pale as Lord Belmont approached the unwelcome topic.
“The Belhaven suburbs are rough,” Montcalm said with composure, “and mass meetings are meant to be noisy. They are a bore, but not the worst form of boredom in which an election involves one. Thank heaven, we shall now have a respite!”
Later in the afternoon, Mrs. Ormesby came in to have tea with Sibylla, and to offer her congratulations. She was a keen politician, and entered heartily into the enjoyment of the triumph.
“Charles has done well,” she said, “and the party has done well. What a comfort! The Government will be as strong as they need to be—strong enough for all practical purposes. It is a mistake to have too large a majority. The rank and file get careless and the waverers think they are at liberty to indulge their own fancies. Talking of waverers, I see that brilliant young gentleman, Mr. Amersham, has got in again. I am half sorry for it, though he is a protégé of mine. I discovered him and made him the fashion. But politically he is dangerous—too independent and fond of airing his independence. Our people ought to catch him. He should be turned to good account, or else be given something or other, and so be silenced for ever. He is too good to leave alone.”
“We hardly ever see him,” said Lord Belmont; “he is a difficult person to catch. When he is not at the House he is always too much engaged for such quiet people as we are to have a chance.”
“Oh,” said Mrs. Ormesby, “he is in immense request, especially among the women. He is a flirt, like every man who is worth anything, except your Charles, Sibylla; and he is the saintly exception that proves the rule. Not but what he, probably, has a flirtation on hand somewhere or other, if we only knew it. But Mr. Amersham is an insatiable, indefatigable flirt. He adores every charming creature he comes across. The only trouble is that there are so many of them. He can never make up his mind, any more than they can, which of them it is that he adores the most.”
“The worst of it is,” said Lord Belmont, “that his butterfly propensities are not confined to women. That might be forgiven him. But he is a political flirt—he likes a new opinion almost as well as a new love. It is time that he settled down respectably. As it is, I have a conviction that he is slipping from us; we shall lose him. It will be a blow to the party, and we do not want any more blows. The Opposition know his value. They are working hard to catch him. All sorts of influences, male and female, are being rained upon him—all in the wrong direction. Lady Egeria is having him to her little dinners; and Lady Egeria’s little dinners, to a young politician, mean destruction. Something must be done. Sibylla, you must try your hand upon him.”
“I!” cried Sibylla; “what an idea! I am a bad hand at that sort of work. I scarcely know Mr. Amersham; and if I did, it would be no easy task to convince or to influence him. Besides, Charles disapproves, I believe, of female propaganda.”
“And who, pray,” said Mrs. Ormesby, “are to be the propagandists if women decline the task? What are women for, I should like to know, in this world of silly men, each craving guidance from a sensible woman? My dear Sibylla, propagandism is our speciality. To disapprove it is just one of Charles’s silly fads. He has so many. The kindest thing to do is to ignore them.”
“Ignore one’s husband’s fads?” cried Sibylla, with a laugh that was not without a tinge of bitterness; “Aunt Constance, what a prescription for matrimonial bliss!”
“That, my dear,” said Mrs. Ormesby, “is a sort of bliss that has quite gone out. Anyhow, it cannot be any one’s duty to encourage a husband in what is absurd on the face of it. As for Mr. Amersham, ask him to dinner, at any rate. Let your father give him a lecture, and you give him another. See how you get on. It would be a real achievement to secure him. And ask us the same night. He is delightful, and, what is most delightful—devoted to me.”
“There can be no harm in being civil at any rate,” said Lord Belmont; “Sibylla is an accomplished controversialist. She must do her best.”
SIR NATHANIEL. “I praise God for you, Sir. Your reasons at dinner have been sharp and sententious, witty without affection, audacious without impudency, learned without opinion, and strange without heresy.”—Love’s Labour Lost
Lord Belmont’s dinner-parties were of the amusing, interesting, and informal order. His tastes were catholic, and his habit of giving oral invitations, which were apt to slip from his own memory or his intended guests’, produced occasional mishaps. These, however, signified the less as host and guests alike were bent on enjoyment, and versed in the arts and habits which tend to produce it. Lord Belmont’s hospitable instincts shrank from the contact of a bore.
A goodly party had already assembled in the drawing-room when Amersham made his appearance. As he glanced round the room he recognised many familiar faces. Several members, from whom he had just parted at the House, were grouped round Lord Belmont. Montague, amongst them, was standing next to his uncle.
“Ah!” he said, as Amersham, after a word or two with his host, passed on into the crowd, “there goes the rising man, his honours thick upon him. How good he was last night! He has been speaking better and better all the session. Last night he was at his best—quite brilliant.”
“More brilliant than useful,” said Lord Belmont; “his cleverness is alarming. It sounds a dubious note. It breathes of treachery, desertion. He is making up his mind as to which side he means to join. Who will it be?”
“That’s telling,” said Edenbridge, a young author, whose last volume of essays had established his reputation for cleverness and won him admission, by the royal road, to membership of the Athenaeum—
“Τυδείδηυ ούκ άν γνοίης ποτέροισι μετείη—”
“Tydides does not quite know himself,” said Montague. “Well, whoever gets him will gain a valuable recruit. He knows it, and appreciates the position. He knows his worth, and he means the Government to know it. That was what his speech meant.”
“I am not so sure of his worth, after all,” said Lord Belmont. “Is he merely a brilliant opportunist, or has he the making of a statesman? Time will show.”
“We all believe in him!” cried Montague—“all his college friends. That is in his favour, is it not? We are confident that he will succeed.”
“Confidence,” said his uncle, “is a plant of slow growth in aged breasts—mine among others. It is so easy to dazzle one’s contemporaries. But theirs is not the final verdict. We shall see.”
On the opposite side of the drawing-room, Mrs. Ormesby, the splendour of whose attire bespoke her intention of ending the evening in a gayer scene, was listening with a somewhat resigned air to the Bishop of Blackfriars, a courtly prelate, an old college friend of Lord Belmont, and now his frequent guest. The bishop was witty, learned, and agreeable, but Mrs. Ormesby had a prejudice against bishops, and would have been glad if Amersham had come to her relief. Amersham, however, stayed but just long enough for the purposes of politeness, and passed on to greet another friend, who was encouraging his approach with a kindly smile. Lady Holte had the good sense to be proud of her uncle, and was always delighted to come to his parties. They gave her an agreeable sense of respectability; they flattered her vanity at a sensitive point; they consoled her for the humiliations which her mother’s caustic tongue sometimes inflicted. Mrs. Ormesby thought slightingly of her daughter, and made no secret of ridiculing her pretensions to being taken seriously. But Lady Holte had aspirations—aspirations to cultivated society, rational conversation, and clever men. She had a disagreeable consciousness of falling short in all these directions. Her surroundings were sometimes wanting in good taste, and the mirth of her drawing-room was apt to lapse into a romp. One of the people most conducive to the romping sat beside her. Miss Everard was one of the great successes of the day. Her beauty and her cleverness had carried herself, her parents, her brothers and sisters to the dizzy pinnacles of fame. Everybody acknowledged her to be an extraordinary girl,—extraordinary even among the extravagances of modern London and an expiring century. She was certainly extraordinarily talkative, and, if not extraordinarily clever, at any rate clever enough to make her talk pleasant to distinguished men, and good looking enough to make commonplace remarks acquire an aroma of wit. Kitty Everard was, moreover, extraordinarily audacious. She stuck at nothing, and frequently acted without hesitation, when discretion would have bid her pause. Never giving herself time to see how things would look from other points of view than her own, she occasionally shocked decorum, and often outraged taste. But she was very fond of Lady Holte, and Lady Holte was very fond of her, and was not easily shocked.
Both ladies greeted Amersham with effusion.
“How late you are!” cried Lady Holte; “unfortunately it is the dull people who are always punctual; we arrived to the minute.”
“A brilliant exception to the rule,” said Amersham.
“No!” cried Miss Everard, “we arrived dull, and have been growing duller ever since. I believe the half hour before dinner is the most exhausting known to mortals. Why don’t we expunge it?”
“But we shall be all right now that you are come,” said Lady Holte, gaily. “Sit down here and tell us something amusing.”
“Amusing!” cried Amersham. What a request to a poor overworked drudge! We come to you to be amused,—you happy beings whose only business, like the lilies, is to look delightful. Miss Everard, I am positive, never does a stroke of work.”
“Never,” said the young lady in question, with the slightest possible frown, as she saw Amersham preparing to escape. “By the way, I sometimes knit my brows—like this.”
“And wreathe smiles?” said Amersham; “I believe that is the proper phrase, though I have not a notion how it’s done or what it means. Something pleasant, at any rate, if Miss Everard does it. I should like to have a wreath of them to take home with me.”
Lady Holte was as little able as her mother had been to bring Amersham’s onward progress to a halt. He had caught sight of a face which drew him across the room.
“Lady Cynthia!” he exclaimed, as he joined her; “what a delightful surprise! I had no notion that you were in town.”
“I am paying Mrs. Montcalm a visit,” the other answered. “My mother comes next week.”
“That means that she is better, I trust?” asked her companion, with an air of the warmest interest.
“Much better, thank you,” Lady Cynthia answered. “Mentone was a great success. But we are glad to be at home again.”
“And we are glad!” cried Amersham with fervour. “The world is so much pleasanter when you are here. What ages you have been away! That horrid Riviera! we owe it a grudge. It empties so many drawing-rooms, where a poor shivering mortal might go to get a cup of tea and a little timely consolation. It blackens a November fog to think of the sunshine and the mimosas and the daffodils! But now you are back; and I have a thousand things to tell you and to ask. Let me sit down by you here. Ah! how provoking! Here, I am certain, is Lord Belmont coming to take you in to dinner! But we must have a chat afterwards.”
Amersham’s devotion was amply justified. Lady Cynthia was one of the choice women, whom even triflers worship seriously. Nature had fashioned her, mind and body, with a loving solicitude, into a rare perfection. Three years before, when she first made her appearance in society, it had been the fashion to say that she was a living Romney. There were some Romney touches, certainly, in the pose of the head, the long delicate neck, the faint glow which warmed the cheek. Romney would, no doubt, have liked to paint her. Other admirers in search of a concise description were wont to describe her as reproducing, or at any rate recalling, Sir Joshua’s “Saint Cecilia.”
There was something of the artist, something of the saint in her appearance, in the absolute unstudiedness of attitude, in her abstracted look, which gave her the air of scarcely belonging to the world in which she moved. When she raised her beautiful violet eyes, which were apt to droop, and bent their full radiance on her companion, there was a pathos in them which seemed to claim reverential devotion. There was pathos, too, in her voice and manner,—a woman who might easily be hurt, and whom to hurt would be a misfortune or a crime.
Amersham had admired her extremely from the first day of their acquaintance, and had spared no pains to let her feel his admiration. He had devoted himself to her mother, an invalid old lady, for whose broken health and failing spirits the interests and pleasures of life were becoming too heavy a burthen. Amersham behaved to her exactly as he should, with deference, considerateness, assiduous care to save her trouble or promote her comfort. There was no trouble that he was not overjoyed to take in her behalf. Lady Cynthia felt grateful, and had shown her gratitude with unsuspicious frankness. The two had speedily become fast friends. His presence cheered; his conversation—fresh from all the turmoil of the great world outside—was a relief, an amusement. He became a welcome, a privileged guest. Lady Cynthia, ministering by the invalid’s sofa, seemed to him a half sacred being. A few words from her, a smile, a gracious look of thanks were enough to make an afternoon delightful. Amersham, whatever his shortcomings, had taste enough to appreciate his good fortune, and to know that the society of two such women was among the rare privileges of life, of which the lucky possessor can never make enough.
On the present occasion he was destined to a less ethereal companion.
“What luck for me,” Miss Everard said, as presently Amersham led her downstairs; “why is it that kind fortune sends us so seldom in to dinner together? I hope you are in a charming mood.”
“Most charming,” said Amersham; “a man’s charm is merely the reflection of his neighbour’s; Miss Everard’s neighbour is bound to be delightful. But I have robbed you of a destined honour; you were to have had the bishop. Luckily for me some one failed at the last moment, and I was promoted.”
“Imagine!” said Miss Everard, “a bishop! and I such a wretched theologian! My weakest point! but I should have made him tell me all about it. It is immensely curious and interesting, I believe, when you put it in the right way.”
“Yes,” said Amersham, “the way that bishops put it. That is what bishops are for.”
“But,” said Miss Everard, turning a pair of eyes, bright with fun, full upon her neighbour, “I would rather have it in your way—your nicest way. Imagine me a South Sea Islander, and yourself a missionary bent on my conversion. I need it, I am a Pagan. You can begin in the Garden of Eden—”
“In Paradise,” cried Amersham, “where I always am when you are kind to me and smile like that. Well, you know, in the South Sea Islands you would insist on my being tattooed, and then you would give me a kiss. What a profane idea!”
“So many pleasant ideas are,” cried Miss Everard, “but we have become a little tropical. The South Sea Islands are relaxing; let us steer for cooler latitudes. Mrs. Montcalm is dying, I am certain, to know what news you bring us from the House.”
“Yes,” said Sibylla, who was Amersham’s other neighbour, and who now turned at the sound of her name from Lord Bourne, a rising Conservative light, who had taken her in to dinner; “Lord Bourne has just been asking me. What has been happening this afternoon?”
“The usual story,” said Amersham. “Ministers have been having a bad quarter of an hour. They have so many. They always do when it comes to a hand-to-hand fight. They are deficient in reply—very deficient. The art of really effective reply is almost a lost one.”
“The first condition is,” said Lord Bourne, “that an effective reply should be possible. Nowadays, so often it is not. In that case the nearest approach to effectiveness is that which throws most dust in your opponent’s eyes and most completely leads the public off the scent.”
“Machiavellian,” cried Amersham, “but true! As some great conjuror, who happened not to be a politician, used to say, the secret of success is to misdirect the attention of the spectators. Well, this afternoon’s trick would have puzzled any conjuror. The Government had not a leg to stand on. They had no case. Egremont put it as admirably as adroitness could achieve; but the fact remains that the appointment was a job of the purest water; and a job it will always remain, despite Egremont’s adroitness.”
“They never have a case,” said Sibylla. “Their best friends feel it most. My husband was saying only this morning that the Session has been a series of disasters. They are fighting in the last ditch.”
“That is such a nice place to fight in,” cried Amersham; “that is why, just now, I am a ministerialist. It is so dull to be on the winning side when victory is easy and one’s aid superfluous. I like to march in the ranks of the beaten army, fighting a desperate battle or making a desperate retreat. Every man is sure of doing something, being of some use, and there is, at any rate, excitement.”
“But you figure as a free lance, Mr. Amersham?” said Sibylla. “I read your speech this morning to my father. He called you Mr. Facing-Bothways. The first condition of serious politics is to choose your party and stick to it.”
“Yes, but you see,” said Amersham, “I am so excessively conscientious, and so candid, I often cannot make up my mind. I get puzzled: sometimes I perfectly understand a subject till Harfleur begins to explain it.”
“Naturally,” said Edenbridge across the table. “Explanations are a tribute to propriety. You must have them, or the thing would look absurd. But they are meant to puzzle. The function of a Minister is to give lucid explanations of what he does not understand himself.”
“I thought that was the prerogative of the theologians,” said Amersham.
“No,” said Edenbridge, “Theology formulates the inexplicable, and emphasises it. The very point of it is that most things cannot be explained.”
“Yes,” cried Miss Everard, “and that you give creeds, like prisoners, the benefit of the doubt.”
“Well,” said Sibylla, “you must admit that conscientiousness is sometimes the pretext of indifference, the refuge of the coward.”
“Yes,” said Amersham, “I accept the impeachment! Laziness and cowardice, two great motive powers of the world—my world, at any rate.”
“Who would have thought it!” cried Sibylla. “I had fancied that your foible was a restless audacity. What do you say. Lord Bourne?”
“Oh,” said Lord Bourne, “I am before everything a party man. I am not a philosopher like Amersham, and do not aspire to see more sides than one of a question—my own and my party’s.”
“And,” asked Sibylla, “has Mr. Amersham no opinions of his own?”
“None,” said Amersham with cheerful vehemence. “For one thing, Mrs. Montcalm, I am too young. Young people, like poor people, cannot afford to keep opinions, any more than they can carriages. I had one or two, but it was more than I could manage; I had to retrench. I put them down. Nowadays one must be economical.”
“But poor people are excessively opinionative,” said Sibylla.
“Only the reckless ones,” said Amersham, “who will presently be bankrupt, and who are poor enough to laugh at insolvency. There are many things that a poor man cannot afford, any more than he can have a place in the country or a diamond necklace for his wife. He cannot afford to make an enemy. Hatred and hatred’s outcome,—insolence, sarcasm, the crushing rejoinder, the stinging repartee,—are luxuries which he must leave to millionaires. These harmless pleasures never reach the poor. Quarrelling is a most costly investment. Revenge—”
“But revenge,” said Miss Everard, “is immoral—forbidden by religion.”
“Which makes it all the more expensive,” said Amersham; “you run up a bill in both worlds. But the grand economy is to have no opinions but the commonplace ones that everybody has—which are so much public property that no one can be said to have them—like the grass on a common that geese and donkeys graze on.”
“What a comparison,” said Miss Everard; “it makes one more resolved than ever not to be common-fed or commonplace. Community of ideas is the worst form of socialism. Who steals my purse, steals dross—that is when there happens to be any in it; but my ideas shall be sacredly my own.”
“Your own and your country’s!” cried Amersham. “Miss Everard’s ideas, like Kepler’s, belong to the universe—the penalty of genius!”
Afterwards, over coffee and cigarettes, the event of the afternoon was eagerly discussed by a group of politicians.
“It is unfortunate,” said Addison, a permanent Under-Secretary of State, who looked upon jobbery as the natural attribute of all Administrations—“so conspicuous and so dreadfully indefensible! That is the worst of the Duke’s jobs. They are as bad as they look, which is saying a great deal for their badness. Egremont does not care for the disgrace of having to defend this one. The Duke is furious, naturally; but Egremont could not be expected to risk a defeat for the sake of providing one of the Duke’s protégés with a comfortable berth.”
“The Duke’s protégé!” cried Amersham. “He would not matter. It is the Duchess. This job is one of hers. They have a family likeness. I know her touch, her consummate touch. It is genius.”
“Hereditary genius!” said Edenbridge; “her ancestors have been at it ever since the first family-job in the days of the Tudors.”
“The secret of greatness!” Amersham cried, “the necessities of a minister or the foibles of a king. That is how to make blue blood.”
“Anyhow,” said Edenbridge, “the Duchess is ineffable. She realises one’s ideal of human greatness. She dominates society, she dazzles the fashionable mob, she wire-pulls the Cabinet, she rules from pole to pole, from Mayfair to Lombard Street. Her parties are the finest in London, and her jobs—the jobs she gets other people to perpetrate for her—the worst. When I see her rolling by, gorgeous, triumphant, the centre of a hundred successful intrigues, the cynosure of a hundred grateful recipients of favours, promised or received, I can think only of the mother of the gods. She is the modern Cybele”—
Laeta Deum partu, centum complexa nepotes,
Omnes caelicolas, omnes supera alta tenentes!
“How nice for the nephews!” cried Amersham. “I wish I was one of them. But they play the deuce with a department. We have too many of them at the Pumps and Fountains already.”
Of all social strategy none calls for nicer generalship than the invasion of the drawing-room after dinner. A dexterous movement and timely daring secure victory in the shape of a delightful companion for the most agreeable half hour of existence. The man who hesitates is lost; so is the man who blunders. Amersham never hesitated or blundered. Fortune always placed him where he wished to be. He had now caught Sibylla in a disengaged moment. He seemed anxious to renew their talk.
“I am afraid,” he said, “that I sank in your good opinion by what I said at dinner.”
“You must remember,” said Sibylla, “that I am a professional propagandist. I have a special mission to convert you. I would do anything to win a vote for our side—my husband’s side—a vote or an ally. I am bound to denounce indifferentism—”
“And to call it by all the ugliest names you can think of—idleness and cowardice, for instance?”
“Yes,” said Sibylla. “It does not do to be indifferent. This is no world for indifferentism. It is only cowards and idlers who are indifferent—”
“And philosophers,” said Amersham. “There was some philosopher or other—Hegel, I believe—who calmly finished his treatise on logic the day that the battle of Jena was being fought a mile or two away. That always struck me as highly philosophical.”
“The philosophy of a pedant!” cried Sibylla, with scorn; “you might as well quote the Paris entomologist who collected butterflies all through the Reign of Terror.”
“How wise! how truly great!” cried Amersham, “and saved his neck, and was safe and sound, butterflies and all, when the storm was over! No doubt he made a splendid collection. I hope that he christened some lovely creature or other after the guillotine! It is a good hint for our behaviour, when our Reign of Terror comes. It is coming, the prophets tell us.”
“When it comes,” Sibylla said, with seriousness, “Englishmen will meet it as becomes them, with gravity and courage and good sense. I confess I feel but a cool admiration for the fine French ladies and gentlemen who set so much prize on maintaining their exquisite behaviour to the last. It was too theatrical.”
“Theatrical, but heroic,” said Amersham. “There was philosophy in it too, was there not?”
“But what a philosophy,” said Sibylla, “too fine for real life, a Dresden China style of hoops and periwigs! It wanted seriousness.”
“But one cannot take politics seriously,” said her companion; “one has seen too much of them. They are the best invention for wasting time that the world has ever seen.”
“Because you are all so weak in letting it be wasted,” said Sibylla; “it is deplorable. If you were in earnest you would contrive some plan or other to prevent the wanton waste of time.”
“Heaven and earth fight in vain against a bore,” said Amersham. “The remark is Schiller’s, I believe. Whosever it is, at any rate, it is true. If a man does not mind being a bore he is like the assassin who does not intend to escape. Nothing can stop him, not even the Speaker with his mace and his direful threats. Never mind what the question is, the bores have it.”
“I see,” said Sibylla, “that you are a long way from conversion. You are not even penitent. Do you never talk seriously?”
“I am serious now,” said Amersham. “In my creed, then, there are serious things in life, but politics are not among them.”
“I consider them extremely serious,” said Sibylla. “Do you think that it signifies nothing how the country is governed—whether that Reign of Terror you mentioned just now is to come or not?”
“Now,” said Mrs. Ormesby, rustling across the room—portly, comfortable, radiant in satin and diamonds—and taking the place which Amersham vacated for her on the sofa, “I am not going to have Mr. Amersham monopolised. You had him at dinner, Sibylla. It is my turn now. I need amusement. I have had a frightfully dull evening. The bishop and I are mutually depressing. Has she converted you, Mr. Amersham? It was a plot, you know, a political conspiracy. They want to catch you. You cannot say I did not put you on your guard.”
“Mrs. Montcalm has done that already,” said Amersham, settling himself comfortably in an armchair in front of the two ladies; “I was forewarned; but I am converted, all the same; or rather I do not need conversion. Mrs. Montcalm and I agree.”
“No, indeed,” said Sibylla; “we have not even found the point of possible agreement.”
“Yes,” said the other, “we both believe in seriousness; only my standard is higher than yours, and I will not admit politics to the category of serious things. How can one? that is the worst of it. Everything political is so common, vulgar, ignoble—especially motives. Each man wears them on his sleeve, the ugliest form of sleeve ornament ever devised, but still fashionable.”
“I like his pessimism,” said Mrs. Ormesby, gleefully; “do not you, Sibylla? It is a sign of youth and health and conscious success. It is like Lord Bourne, who, as he has a hundred thousand a year, a charming wife, several delightful places, and the pleasantest house in London, is naturally in low spirits. I commiserated him sincerely, as you may imagine. But as for politics now, I agree with Mr. Amersham. They are too degrading. The only thing is to take them as a joke—a dull joke—that sorry pleasantry, representative government, as Dizzy said in his nice way. What is good statesmanship, pray, but a shrewd guess which way the cat, the democratic cat, intends to jump. And what a jumper she is!”
“The democratic cat!” cried Amersham; “she is mistress of the situation! That was the sort the Egyptians worshipped, no doubt. How different from the purring, fireside tabbies of our maiden aunts! Nowadays you must have an instinct which way the breeze intends to blow: we all become weather-prophets. Do you remember Lord Shaftesbury in Hudibras?”—
As old sinners have all points
O’ the compass in their bones and joints— Can by their pangs and aches find
All turns and changes of the wind;
So guilty sinners in a State
Can by their crimes prognosticate,
And in their consciences feel pain
Some days before a shower of rain.
“Some days before the deluge!” cried Mrs. Ormesby, “I feel some nasty twinges of my own. The storm is near.”
PROTEUS. “Yet writers say, as in the sweetest bud
The eating canker dwells, so eating love
Inhabits in the finest wits of all.”
“Well,” said Lord Belmont, when the last guest had departed, and Sibylla and Lady Cynthia had sunk into easy chairs in attitudes of well-earned repose after the fatigues of the evening, “and what are you doing to-night. Lady Cynthia? Is Sibylla to take you to a ball?”
“No,” said Lady Cynthia, “we have consecrated this evening to rest, friendship, and talk. You must stay and help us. Lord Belmont.”
“Charles will be late to-night,” said Sibylla: “he may have to speak. In any case he cannot get away in time to join us. So we determined to stay at home; Cynthia and I have a world of things to say to each other.”
“And what did you make of your neophyte, Sibylla?” her father asked: “he wants a great deal of converting, does he not? But you got on well?”
“Splendidly,” said Sibylla; “I found him delightfully light in hand—original, a nice sort of originality, which is what one does not always get. As for his conversion, I am not sure that he needs it.”
“But that looks as if he were converting you,” said Lord Belmont; “that would be a fiasco. Take care, Sibylla! Conversion is a game that two can play at. You may catch a Tartar and be made a prisoner yourself while you are endeavouring to make one.”
“No,” said Sibylla, “he will not convert me, and for the best of reasons. He is wandering in chaos. He has not yet discovered a creed. He wants to find one.”
“But those are the most dangerous of proselytisers,” said her father; “the preachers who are not certain what doctrine they wish to preach.”
“Ah, but Mr. Amersham has a creed!” said Lady Cynthia, “the creed of the political agnostic—the Agnostic with a large A. Nothing can be known.”
“Something can be known about politics,” said Lord Belmont,—“known or shrewdly guessed. I have no patience with hoverers. A man should make up his mind and choose his side.”
“But that is so commonplace,” said Sibylla, “and Mr. Amersham’s foible is originality. The thing that everybody does is, on the face of it, to be abhorred.”
“Ah,” said her father; “well, I suppose Amersham has a real touch of originality. That is what makes him so impressive.”
“Impressive?” said Sibylla, “I cannot say that I am impressed; or rather, perhaps, I was impressed, but not altogether agreeably. He is clever, brilliant, but a sort of brilliancy which fatigues one and depresses—the brilliancy of the marble which takes a good polish because it is so hard. I dislike cynicism—the good-natured cynicism of agreeable members of society most of all. It is such an old story and such a dull one. But he is extremely good-looking.”
A little later when the two ladies had passed to that stage of déshabille, which is supposed to be essential to the most confidential utterances of female souls, Sibylla, flitting ghost-like through dimly-lighted passages to her friend’s room, came to say good-night, and to take a final sip of affectionate gossip. She now spoke more openly of the effect which Amersham had produced upon her.
“So you thought him a cynic?” said Lady Cynthia; “no wonder he shocked you. I know him too well to be shocked.”
“Have you known him for long?” asked Sibylla.
“For ages,” said her companion, “we are very old friends. He was a bright, particular star of my first Season. It was the fashion to rave about him. We all did it.”
“And you were all right,” said Sibylla. “Bright particular stars do not shine for nothing. It was something better than fashion. The fact is that he is charming. I could do a little raving myself.”
“Do,” said her companion. “I shall like to hear it; my raving days are over.”
“He interested me,” Sibylla continued; “he is so uncommon. What a relief that sort of man is! It makes one realise what a fatigue the other sort—the wrong, the usual sort, can be!”
“They can be very fatiguing when they try,” said her companion, “especially when they try to be agreeable. I had a weary time with Lord Hunstanton. I am afraid I was rude to him.”
“Let us forget him,” said Sibylla, “him and all the other bores. I want to talk about the other, the nice one, who is not a bore. You see I was impressed after all.”
“So I perceive,” said Lady Cynthia. “It is natural that you should be. He impresses everybody at first.”
“And then?” asked Sibylla; “is he not nice at heart?”
“That begs the question,” said the other; “is it certain that he has one? No one is perfect. Mr. Amersham would be too perfect for a fallen world if his heart were all right, and there were enough of it.”
“I should not have guessed him to be heartless,” answered Sibylla.
“I daresay that you are right,” Lady Cynthia said with a fatigued air; “my idea is not worth discussion. But, as you said to Lord Belmont, his brilliancy rather chills one.”
“But when he is serious?” asked Sibylla.
“When!” said Lady Cynthia; “but it is so seldom. He is a butterfly and flitters from flower to flower in the sunshine of society; or rather, perhaps, the busy bee, improving each shining hour and tasting all the sweets of life. A pleasant existence, no doubt; but these bees and butterflies have their limitations. People call him unscrupulous. I do not do that; but his scruples are not those of ordinary folk. Anyhow he is agreeable; and agreeableness is nine, if not ten, points of the law.”
The conversation passed to other topics, and presently Sibylla rose to go.
Lady Cynthia sat pondering when her friend had left her. Her reverie was long, and not exhilarating. She rose with a sigh. Her heart was aching. She had been talking coldly, bitterly, with a superficial sarcasm, which was merely Nature’s trick of concealment. She had done it so often, that it was easy. After all, and despite of all, she loved him. Perhaps it was her doom. Anyhow, as matters stood, it was her misfortune.
Amersham, this evening, had behaved as on so many previous occasions,—had greeted her with great cordiality, had exchanged a few sentences, which implied an intimate—almost a confidential relationship; had promised to renew their talk. A careless promise! lightly made, as lightly put aside! In the shifting of the cards, he had found himself on Sibylla’s sofa and there had been content to stay for the rest of the evening. In the sudden interest of a new acquaintance, he had forgotten to rejoin Lady Cynthia—though they had not met for months; had wished her good-night with a sentence or two, which took intimacy for granted,—evidently, with no consciousness that there had been any shortcoming in his behaviour, or suspicion that she could feel neglected or aggrieved. He was right, of course. He gave her what he gave all his friends—all that friendship could claim,—kindness, courtesy, amusement. But how vain are such offerings, how tasteless, how dispiriting to her who gives something more and craves for something more in return! It was an old story. For long she had been hardening her heart to bear the pang, to conceal it, to smile while she suffered. It would become less acute by use—in time. But, meanwhile, how dull, disappointing, unsatisfying an affair existence seemed! Human intercourse—what but a tedious game of cross-purposes! the pleasures of life how tasteless! Life itself—how little worth the toils, the sufferings, the heartaches it costs us! It was sad, sad! Lady Cynthia tried in vain to sleep. It was easier, now that detection was impossible, to let the tears, long held back by resolute will, flow as Nature bade them. One need have no secrets with one’s pillow; there was no longer any need for self-restraint. Lady Cynthia’s tears flowed, silently and long, through the still hours of the night.
Toute passion profonde a sa pudeur, et porte un voile qu’elle ne leve jamais devant les profanes.
Sibylla, as next day she recalled the events of the previous evening, was fain to acknowledge that Amersham had interested her more seriously than she had at first supposed. His looks, his gestures, his expressions kept recurring to her thoughts. He had aroused her curiosity. He was unusual. But what was he? Not certainly the mere audacious trifler that he was pleased to depict himself.
The careless cynicism which he affected was obviously a mask; but what was there behind it? What were his real feelings? What was his real character? And why was it that Sibylla felt a sudden wish to know? Greatly as she disapproved of many of his views, Sibylla was conscious of a charm, and asked herself its secret. There was something, perhaps, in a strong personality, impressing his will on those whom he cared to dominate. Something, too, of a magnetic power in his physique,—a well-chiselled, nervous mouth, grave, pathetic eyes, a fine, open brow, mobile features, across which each fresh shade of feeling wrote itself in striking character—a manner inscrutable, but, to her who could read the mystery, bespeaking sincere homage, the true courtesy of soul. That homage Sibylla had recognised as proffered to herself, the homage that is engendered of sympathy, and claims to be sympathetic,—that craves for the fuller interchange of thought, that only awaits permission to be outspoken. Amersham had encountered a nature capable of influencing him, and wished to be influenced. He was accustomed to dominate his surroundings, but he had no thought of dominating Sibylla. He felt a sudden, instinctive hope that she would dominate him, would care enough about him to be a force in moulding his opinions, in guiding his acts. When Sibylla had laughingly proclaimed that it was her business to convert him, she unconsciously touched the very string that was vibrating in his nature. He was already a disciple on the road to conversion. Sibylla had experienced something which in his most adoring moods her husband had never given her—the delightful consciousness of influence. No woman could have influenced Montcalm’s politics. He would have resented the attempt to do so. It was a highly pleasurable sensation to Sibylla to find a politician who welcomed her into his sphere, and seemed to appeal to her to assist in the process of arriving at a conclusion. She felt a dawning consciousness that her acquaintance with Amersham would ripen into friendship.
There was another thing which made Amersham interesting. An idea had dawned upon Sibylla—vague, baseless, improbable—but which, none the less, refused to be ignored. Lady Cynthia’s way of talking about Amersham, when they discussed him in midnight session, had surprised her. It was harsh, cynical, altogether unlike herself. Was there an explanation? They had been intimate, evidently. What had their intimacy meant? To what hopes, wishes, disappointments, might it not have given rise? Amersham, it was certain, had admired her, and he was not a man whom, when he was bent on pleasing, it would be easy to resist. His advance would be bold, rapid, not to be denied.
What had he been—what, Sibylla asked herself, was he—what might he be to Lady Cynthia? She had often, in past times, indulged in those vague questionings of the future which, it may be surmised, fill some space in most women’s thoughts about each other. One of the things that we wish for delightful friends is to see them happily married. Sibylla had frequently revolved in her mind the question of Lady Cynthia’s marriage. She would marry, surely. She had every charm which dominates the heart of man. She was born for love. Who was the fortunate mortal to whom this choice prize was destined to fall? Interesting, exciting speculation! It was impossible, even for a woman, to think about Lady Cynthia without interest and anxiety. She was so rare, so choice, so unlike and so much above the common crowd. She fascinated her friends. Many men, it was certain, would worship; but it would require the courage of conscious merit to claim this delightful being for one’s own particular adoration. Few would dare, and those few might have reason to regret their temerity. Sibylla had, in mental survey, satisfied herself that there was no one in the circle of her own acquaintance to whom that achievement was attainable. Lady Cynthia was exquisite, critical, fastidious. She was an ardent friend; on the other hand, not too easy to please. Her aversions were prompt, hearty, and sincere. Her judgment was nice, and did not always err on the side of indulgence. Her standard of taste was high. She felt a genuine contempt for many of the foibles of mankind; she possessed the dangerous faculty of expressing her contempt in speeches, whose irony was the more cutting for being unconscious. She kept the world at a distance. She had some pronounced enemies. She was not an easy person for whom, even in imagination, to find a fitting husband.
The idea now dawned on Sibylla that Amersham was, of all the men whom London Society had hitherto revealed to her, the one whose disqualifications for the post of aspirant to Lady Cynthia’s hand were least conspicuous. He was clever enough to cope with her wit. He was romantic enough for her most soaring mood. His cynicism would touch a kindred point in her melancholy. He had a vein of feeling which would appeal to hers. Could it be that he was the destined man?
The more Sibylla played in thought with this pleasing project, the more she liked it—liked it for both parties concerned. She had for years past been feeling an affectionate anxiety for Lady Cynthia’s happiness. She was conscious now of liking Amersham sufficiently well to be interested in his future, to indulge in projects for him—projects of success. Lady Cynthia, Sibylla had now convinced herself, was the very woman to make such success achievable. She would, of course, be a delightful companion—a choice ornament of existence. But she would be more than that. She would not only adorn her husband’s life, but ennoble it. She would be an antidote against a thousand baleful influences which beset the youthful politician, the brilliant member of society. Such influences, Sibylla knew, were actively at work around Amersham. They threatened his soul’s health. They exposed him to dreadful risks,—risks of failure, of deterioration. She felt a longing to save him. Such a man was worth saving. It would be a real achievement so to fortify him against the seductions of a world where dangers abound and the strongest and best are liable to fall.
So ran Sibylla’s dreams for her two friends. Would this piece of good fortune befall them? What had destiny decreed? Was this a case in which the light touch of a dexterous, friendly hand might, in ever so slight a degree, aid destiny in accomplishing its decrees?
From women’s eyes this doctrine I derive;
They sparkle still the right Promethean fire:
They are the books, the arts, the academes,
That show, contain, and nourish all the world:
Else none at all in aught proves excellent.
Many women failed to understand Amersham: but all considered him delightful. A portion of his delightfulness was, it may be conjectured, due to an impressible nature, quickly varying mood, and eloquently tell-tale looks. His features in repose suggested power, seriousness, a pathetic, almost a tragic melancholy. Then, as he spoke, the melancholy was dissipated by the gayest, sweetest smile. The dark, unfathomable eyes sparkled with mirth, or melted with tenderness. The woman who witnessed this agreeable metamorphosis, took credit for having produced it, and was charmed with him and with herself. No one could be more agreeably confidential. Each favoured woman had her especial confidence, and believed, in spite of appearances to the contrary, that she was the one with whom Amersham found entire communion of sentiment, the one person who thoroughly understood her, and by whom he was fully understood. His natural versatility rendered this comprehensive sympathy an easy task, involving neither effort nor hypocrisy. His courtesy was deep ingrained. A chivalrous homage for women was his natural mood; the particular woman whom, for the moment, he admired, found an ample supply of that homage at her command. He would say anything, he would do anything for the delightful being whose ascendency he avowed. Be the cause what it might, Amersham was the centre of much social interest, the moving spirit of a clever clique, who found in him their true raison d’être and their most redoubtable champion. He had begun public life, fresh from college honours, as a great minister’s private secretary. His academic companions had prophesied a brilliant career. Amersham had lost no time in making their prophecies come truer than such prophecies generally prove. He took to politics as to a natural element. His first public speech—trenchant, audacious, amusing—showed the true oratorical touch. Such gems are not allowed to blush unseen in the ocean solitudes of modern politics. Discriminating wire-pullers discerned the coming man. He was soon provided with a seat. Taking the tide of fortune at the turn, he had carried society and Parliament by storm, and established his position as the rising politician of the day—risen, indeed, and, though still not far from the horizon, bound for the zenith. Good judges admitted him—after one or two successes—to the select list of impressive speakers—fluent, ready, resourceful—capable, at the right moment, of real eloquence. Where do some favoured mortals learn—as by instinct—this precious art, which others—well qualified, one might have thought—court sedulously and vainly for a life-time? Amersham, at any rate, possessed it. His method was audacious, but he justified his audacity. Old Parliamentary onlookers held their breath, when this modern David came cheerfully out, with sling and smooth stones from the brook, and essayed battle with Goliaths, tall in stature and formidable with the prestige of a hundred victories. But David’s smooth stones were aimed with no faltering hand, and the Goliaths grew uneasy when he invited them to single combat. Naturally he defied convention. Why should such men be conventional? They lead the way in thought and behaviour. Amersham’s line in the House showed an independence which baffled the calculations of the managers of rival parties. While he was posing as a Tory, he could calmly propound doctrines at which staunch Radicals winced, as revolutionary. His was, he explained gravely, the modern, the progressive, the democratic Conservatism, the most truly Conservative of all. Then, when Radicals had begun to deem him their own, the reaction came and the budding Revolutionist talked about change, as Lord Eldon would have wished to talk. Amersham was never heard to greater advantage than when he was dashing the hopes of silly enthusiasts, or exposing the fallacies of a too sanguine reformer. The improvement of humanity, he pointed out, was not a topic about which wise men could be either hopeful, confident, or enthusiastic. Its natural tendency was to deteriorate. The attempt to check a natural tendency might easily intensify it.
Such a speaker naturally excited the hopes and fears of either side. He need not be despaired of: on the other hand, he could not be relied on, except to essay ever newer and bolder flights into the realm of the unexpected.
“I hope,” Amersham had said, as he wished Mrs. Montcalm good-bye, the night of Lord Belmont’s dinner, “that I may come some day and complete my conversion. You must give me some more good advice. You know how much I need it.”
“I will give you some tea, at any rate,” said Sibylla, “any evening after six.”
“Tempting offer!” cried Amersham. “It is the hour for conversions. I shall certainly come.”
Sibylla was conscious of hoping that he would do so. She felt that he would be more discoverable, more manageable when she had him tête-à-tête. In society he was practically unapproachable, safeguarded by a rampart of battering worldliness. His talk at her father’s dinner and afterwards had been obviously, almost ostentatiously, superficial. Was his manner a blind to his real feelings and character? As he chose to show himself, no one could seem less amenable to management or conviction. How to convince a man who protests that he has no convictions, whose nearest approach to principle is political expediency, whose deepest feeling lurks beneath a sneer? The undertaking seemed unpromising. Sibylla’s spirit of enterprise was piqued by the difficulty of her task—by the opposition with which she felt that her approaches would be met. When she had him to herself, she would have a better chance of seeing the real man, and so be one step on the road towards influencing him. She felt an increasing desire to exercise this influence.
She was pleased, therefore, when, a few evenings later, Amersham was announced, especially pleased that she happened, at the moment, to have no other visitor. The sort of talk she wanted would not admit of an uncongenial third—of any third. It was to be interesting, serious, perhaps confidential. Sibylla was not accustomed to fail in her social enterprises. She now meant business.
But if Sibylla meant business, Amersham meant pleasure, and speedily made his hostess aware of his intention. He had come to tea with her as the pleasantest thing at the moment within his reach. He was in an idle mood—in the best possible spirits. He had been all the morning at a dull Committee. An afternoon sitting was dragging its dreary length along—the very personification of profitless bewilderment. He was exulting in the sense of escape. The whips would be angry: in fact he had just escaped from one who was extremely angry. Amersham had received notice that he might be wanted to speak. “On the Sirbonian Bog Reclamation Scheme!” he cried, as he described the scene to Mrs. Montcalm, “if the member in charge happened not to be at hand, and none of the other leaders were inclined to speak! And when I had a a chance of having tea with you! A man who could bear that would be a slave, and deserve his fate. The great thing in political life,” he went on, “is not to be submerged, or rather, though you are submerged—for we are all that—to get your head now and then above water. One must come up sometimes out of the mud to breathe and look about one. The effect of a party Government is to keep every one but the leaders deep in the mud, and repress every effort to escape suffocation as disloyalty.”
“But you do not look in the least suffocated,” said Sibylla, “or likely to become so. And the Sirbonian Bog Project is a tremendous affair. The Government are to stand or fall by it—are they not? Mr. Egremont will be displeased. How did you dare to come away? My husband would not.”
“Ah!” said Amersham; “but then he has convictions and a character to lose, which I have not—and do not wish to have, if it would prevent my coming to tea with you whenever you will let me.”
“But my business is to help you to earn a character,” said Sibylla, “a character for political consistency on the right side—on our side—not to abet you in playing truant, as you are to-day. I believe I ought to send you off to the House forthwith.”
“Be merciful,” said Amersham. “The first principle of education is indulgence at the outset. Indulge me to-day. I will do better next time. But you have no conception, Mrs. Montcalm, what a bore it all is. But for a little occasional rebellion one would perish of ennui—a bad way of dying, is it not?”
“A bad way!” cried Sibylla, with some impatience in her tone—“a dull way! What have men like you to do with ennui? You, who have ambition, opportunity, success achieved, the prospect of success to come—everything that makes life interesting?”
“Yes, but,” answered Amersham, “is one sure that it is interesting—even with all these good things thrown in? That is the horrid doubt.”
“Who can seriously doubt it?” cried Sibylla. “It is only too interesting.”
“There have been several great authorities for the contrary opinion,” rejoined her companion: “from Job downwards. Even the great Achilles had to confess to Priam that existence was a misfortune, and conqueror and conquered alike the victims of their doom—the doom of unhappiness. The futility of existence was one of man’s earliest discoveries. Each generation has made the discovery afresh.”
“No,” cried Sibylla, “each generation has found profounder interests, a higher purpose, a sublimer hope. As for Achilles and his melancholy, he was—what no reasonable being should be—in the sulks. But you talk like a heathen, or that bad order of heathen, a Frenchman of the decadence. What do you believe in?”
“In the best of all possible worlds,” said her companion, “so long as Mrs. Montcalm is its champion. By the bye, I was at Oxford the other day, and saw in the Sheldonian Theatre the oldest writing known to man—some indefinitely pre-historical old Egyptian king or other, several dynasties before the flood—our flood, you know. It is a lament over his dead son, and its burthen is the complaint that the world has grown dreadfully old, that mankind is in its dotage, and the sorrows and pleasures of existence alike a passing phantasm. So it is an old story—old and bad.”
“The worse it is, the more need for good people to mend it,” said Sibylla.
“That is what we coming politicians try to do,” said her companion gaily.
“And what is your programme—yours and your set’s?”
“Our programme? Wilke’s programme for the young M.P.—‘Be as merry as you can, as independent as you can, and say the first thing that comes uppermost.’ It is an excellent recipe. I have tried it. No one can guess what line we shall take. That is what makes us so interesting.”
“And your theory of life?” asked Sibylla, “of the world?”
“A hotel—a bad hotel, crowded, bustling, expensive. If you pay handsomely, and make sufficient fuss, and insist peremptorily on good attendance, you will fare moderately well. You get your dinner and make the best of it. In a few hours you pay your bill, inscribe your name in the guest book, and are gone. Your rooms are already filled with the next traveller’s luggage!”
“What a simile!” cried Sibylla. “A tourist’s simile, a Cook’s Tourist’s. Suppose, by way of a change, you were to begin to talk rationally? I will bring you to book. People say that you are a butterfly, and take friendship as lightly as everything else.”
“The friendships of society,” said the other, “cannot be taken too lightly. They are delightful: they solace the tedium of life: they give it zest, excitement, sometimes a touch of romance. But they are essentially fugitive. They bind us to nothing—to constancy least of all.”
“What a horrible way to talk,” cried Sibylla, “even in joke. For my part, inconstancy in friendship is the unforgivable sin.”
“Why call it inconstancy?” asked Amersham; “circumstances decree that certain people are to meet in certain drawing-rooms, at certain balls, in a series of country houses, every day for a few weeks or months. Two of them find each other out—blissful discovery—as congenial companions. They are never bored with each other—never at a loss for talk; they set each other’s tongues loose, and each other’s ideas—they sharpen each other’s wits. A half-hour, otherwise the acme of tedium, flies briskly away. They naturally haunt each other. Human nature struggles against boredom. They are pledged to nothing; they mean nothing except to be amused. Nothing is more amusing than variety. Then idiotic Society denounces the woman as a flirt, and the man as a trifler. How monstrously unjust!”
“Unjust if you please,” said Sibylla; “but is there not a risk sometimes of treating real friendships in this cavalier fashion, and so being guilty of a sort of sacrilege? We have to ask our hearts.”
“I should not like to ask my heart any such home-questions,” said the other, gaily: “they might be embarrassing! But no; I have a clear conscience. I am the most faithful of friends. Let me become your friend and prove it.”
“You talk,” said Sibylla, “as if friendship were an affair of will—a boon to be conferred. It has to grow, surely, apart from, sometimes in spite of, anything we will. But it is nice that you should wish ours to grow. I hope that it will.”
The Sirbonian Bog Reclamation Project was, as Sibylla said, a tremendous affair—the biggest, fiercest, most inveterate of modern controversies. By this time it lay buried under a superincumbent mass of blue-books, debates, commissions, and enquiries, before which the average diligence of humanity shrank abashed. The only thing known for certain about it was that it was practically inexhaustible. Many reputations had been lost in it; several Governments had come to grief in abortive schemes of improvement. More than one great Minister had had reason to regret the day when he admitted it to a place in his programme. Great Ministers, however, cannot afford to pick and choose. The Sirbonians, a quick-witted race, appreciated the advantages of their position and turned them to the best account. Amersham’s speech in the last Sirbonian Bog Debate had not been as serious as the occasion demanded. He supported the Bill indeed, but his support was of the flimsiest order. Several passages in his speech conveyed to ministerial breasts the horrid suspicion that they were being chaffed. Its indifference was ostentatious, almost insolent. The speech, none the less, was a success. A crowd of charming women heard it with admiration behind the grille. It was gossiped about that evening in a hundred drawing-rooms as the one amusing incident of a portentously dull debate. Amersham was congratulated on his adroitness in committing himself to nothing beyond the general principle of the desirability of draining bogs. Naturally enough, he preferred drinking tea with Mrs. Montcalm to the wearisome processes of a committee, whose final goal had not come within the scope of political vision.
This something-settled matter in his heart,
Whereon his brains still beating, puts him thus
From fashion of himself.
While Sibylla was experiencing the interest and excitement of a new intimacy, her husband’s thoughts were less agreeably occupied.
Ignore as he might in his communications with his wife, belittle it as he tried to do in his own private reflections, Charles Montcalm found that Jennings’s story was likely to become a dominant factor in his life. The topic which it suggested, once admitted, presently became disagreeably self-assertive. It obtruded itself with obstinate, persistent recurrence. It monopolised attention. Till now the one thing that Charles Montcalm had known about his brother, since his flight from England, had been the fact of his violent death at the Eldorado Mine. There had seemed an end of him. No clue to his previous life in America presented itself. There was nothing more to do or say, nothing but silence, and, if possible, oblivion. Now for the first time there had come a hint of something more. There was a starting-point for enquiry. Jennings’s story that Frank Montcalm had landed in New York in company with a woman, whom he had subsequently married, if it could be substantiated, gave a hint, a vague hint indeed, but still enough to serve as nucleus for more solid information. It rested on rumour. What obligation, Charles asked himself, does such a rumour impose? It was, after all, nothing but bare conjecture. Is an honourable man bound to act on conjectures? is he, as a rational being, with duties and responsibilities in other directions, justified in so acting? Mr. Strutt, with whom Montcalm discussed the subject at length, was vehement against any action being taken. Great expenditure had, he said, been already incurred in remedying—in obliterating the consequences of Frank’s misbehaviour. That expenditure had been, in one sense, wasted. Nothing had come of it. Why throw good money after bad? Why waste any more? It was mere romance, the solicitor urged, and Mr. Montcalm was not rich enough to be romantic. There was a limit to everything. He had more than reached that limit, when he honoured his brother’s forged bill. Old Mr. Montcalm had shown his deliberate intention by his will. He had destroyed it, as they both knew, only because he believed it to be unnecessary. He had died before his ill-considered act could be repaired. Why should Charles start an enquiry, which his father had not considered necessary—which was certain to be costly—which would probably be abortive, and which, if not abortive, could produce nothing but disaster. This, if ever there was one, was a case in which it was well to leave well alone, and to let sleeping dogs lie. Why stir a dirty business?
“Because,” said Charles, “my brother may be at the bottom of it—my brother, or those whose interests, for his sake, my father’s, and my own, I am bound to protect.”
“The matter is dead,” persisted Mr. Strutt. “It will not come to life unless you revive it. Surely no rule of conscience obliges you to do so?”
“Well,” said Montcalm, “my conscience does oblige me, and that settles the question. It is a matter of duty. No misconduct on my brother’s part could relieve me of it. If Frank married, as this man asserts, there may be those who have rights under my father’s will. If there was a son, that son is entitled to the estate. It would be robbery on my part to keep him out of it: it is robbery, just as much, not to help him to his rights. I will never be guilty of it. Who can say how my father would have acted, had he known of such a son’s existence, or suspected it? The last thing that he ever said to me was, that if Frank had come back and asked for forgiveness, he would have forgiven him. In fact he did forgive him. Surely it is clear that, as my father’s executor, I am bound to my own conscience to take sedulous care that my brother’s child, if there be one, gets whatever my father’s settlement has given him.”
“Your brother’s child!” cried Mr. Strutt, in consternation; “you will have plenty of them about you if once it is known that you are on the search. Pray, Mr. Montcalm, hold your hand while you can. There is another thing, too,” added the solicitor, with the embarrassed air of a man whose conscience obliges him to say something which he would rather leave unsaid; “you must forgive me for saying it. I am bound to speak out to you. The decision which you are now forming does not concern yourself alone. It may revolutionise your life. It may involve you in troubles of which no one can guess the end. It may ruin a career of honour and public usefulness. It is a tremendous, as I regard it, unnecessary, if not unjustifiable, step, even as regards yourself. But you do not stand alone. Ought you not, at any rate, before you take it, to consult those whose interests are involved just as much as your own?”
“I regard it as a mere matter of honesty,” said Montcalm, with a decisive air that put an end to further talk; “there is no room for doubt, and none, therefore, for consultation. We will discuss it no longer, if you please, Mr. Strutt; you are right to say whatever you think that I ought to hear. But it does not alter my opinion. I must act on my own responsibility, and by my own lights. I have decided to follow up every obtainable clue to the utmost possible length. I do not care what it costs. I should like you to see Jennings and find out all he knows, and get what help he can give you: and I wish some one to be sent to America, to the Eldorado Mine, to see if, by chance, any sort of hint may be gathered there.”
Mr. Strutt took his instructions and went, himself, to Scotland. In the course of the following week he wrote Charles an account of his proceedings. He had had a long interview with Jennings, and found that all he knew was the merest rumour, the gossip of some returned Irish emigrant, who, in passing through Liverpool, had happened to see a member of Lizzie Marsh’s family, by whom the news had been brought to Belhaven. It was all third-hand hearsay. No one had the faintest idea of what had become of the Irish emigrant, or how to get upon his track. Jennings, Mr. Strutt reported, seemed a mere fanatic without a single qualification for sifting truth from falsehood. Having been deserted by his sweetheart, he had constructed a conjectural grievance against some supposed wrongdoer. There was no grain of solid fact in Jennings’s rhapsodies, except that Frank Montcalm was said to have known the girl. Nor could anything be discovered in other directions. Mr. Strutt had made diligent enquiries at the offices of mail companies and emigration agencies, but without result. Frank Montcalm, it was certain, would have travelled under an assumed name. There was nothing which suggested a trace of the fugitives. There was no clue to follow. The enquiry, Mr. Strutt presumed, must now be allowed to close.
Charles Montcalm was not to be so easily discouraged. There was the chance of something being discovered at the Eldorado Mine, and Mr. Strutt’s emissary was, accordingly, despatched with orders to search diligently for anything which might throw light on Frank’s previous life, and help to clear up the question of his marriage. It was in vain that Mr. Strutt protested against the futility of the enquiry. “If there had been a wife, we should have heard of her before this,” he said; “the wives and widows of men like your brother are not so slow to make themselves felt. I shudder to think what the wife, in this instance, would be likely to be, if we were unlucky enough to discover her.”
“My great wish is that she should be discovered if she is in existence,” said Charles, with more show of temper than was usual with him; “and I look to you to further it. It will be time enough to shudder when you have found her. Meanwhile, pray instruct your agent to spare no effort in the search. I will not do the thing by halves.”
The enquiry at the Eldorado Mine, however, promised as little success as that in Scotland. Mr. Strutt’s confidential agent wrote that he could discover nothing. He had seen the police commissioner, by whom the inquest on Frank Montcalm had been conducted. This gentleman, a busy, hard-worked official, on being supplied with the date, and referring to his books, was able to remember the inquest. Frank Montcalm was recorded as a troublesome, dangerous character, a hard drinker, an inveterate gambler, a leading spirit in a bad set, known to the police by frequent outbreaks of lawlessness. He was generally near the confines of trouble and frequently over the line. Beyond this the commissioner could give no information. The witnesses in the case had disappeared. There had been few; for the evidence clearly showed that the dead man had fallen by violence, and that the murderer had fled. “Our criminal administration up here,” the commissioner told the agent, “was, at that time, of the roughest. It was all that we could do to hold our own. Murderous assaults were of daily occurrence. The affair attracted little attention. Such things were too common.”
The agent wrote that he was at a loss to suggest any further clue. He was completely baffled, and proposed—unless otherwise instructed—to return home at once.
Meanwhile the revival of a hateful topic and the anxieties of the enquiry began to tell on Montcalm’s nerves. He was doing the right thing, he told himself. Life would be unendurable if he had failed to do it; but, even now, it was almost unendurable. The pleasant things of existence had ceased to please. Politics had lost their flavour. His wife only reminded him of a subject which she served to make more full of horror. It was on her account that he disliked it so intensely. It was in vain that he buried it deep in the secret places of his heart. Its effect was discernible in increased coldness of manner, in reserve which, more than ever, defied every attempt to penetrate it. When a man has a secret locked up in one chamber of his heart, he can give but a cold welcome to visitors to the rest of the house. One topic so easily leads to another. He never knows at what point embarrassment may arise. He is uneasy, suspicious, on his guard. He entrenches himself in silence. Then only he feels secure. So Charles Montcalm unconsciously repelled his wife’s endeavour to woo him to a confidential mood. Sibylla was chilled by the sense of failure. Her husband was becoming daily more hopelessly remote, more unapproachable. Each failure on Sibylla’s part put them further apart.
There was another cause, if Sibylla could but have known it, which was beginning now to intensify her husband’s reserve. He was the last man to be jealous. It was an infirmity to which he felt no leaning, and for which, in others, he felt little indulgence. It was a low, degrading feeling, and, in the case of such a wife as Sibylla—a wife of whose loyalty he felt as assured as of his own existence—it became fatuous—an indignity, almost an outrage. Short of jealousy, however, it was possible for Charles Montcalm to be haunted by a certain aching sensation that there was a space in his wife’s thoughts which he failed to fill, and where another was more congenial than himself. Without the barest approach to watching, he could scarcely shut his eyes to the fact that Amersham and his wife had become extremely intimate. He had come home, more than once, from the House and found Amersham at his wife’s tea-table, engaged, apparently, in familiar, interesting, confidential talk. Sibylla had greeted him with affection, Amersham with perfect unrestraint and cordiality. It was evident that they had nothing to conceal. Yet Montcalm felt a horrid consciousness of being de trop. The conversation, suddenly interrupted, refused to resume its course, despite the obvious efforts of Sibylla to welcome her husband with kindness and conjugal devotion. When two friends have been talking in a certain vein of thought and feeling, it is impossible, on the arrival of a third person, to pass into another key without the momentary discord, which covers the transition. So all parties felt a pang of discomfort; all were vexed to feel it, for the consciences of all were clear. No one harboured a dishonourable thought. Why should there be discomfort? Montcalm had gone back to the House sometimes, oppressed by the reflection that Amersham—a younger man than himself, more brilliant, more companionable, more gay, more attractive—was becoming an influence in his wife’s existence, and, possibly, in his own—a force that had to be reckoned with—an anxiety, a possible danger for himself—for Sibylla. Amersham had gifts in which Charles Montcalm felt himself greatly defective,—brightness, versatility, sentiment, and fun. Montcalm appreciated the force of fun in other men; he admired his wife’s gaiety; but he could as easily have flown as himself been gay. Amersham had splendid spirits. Montcalm’s stood at a steady level, seldom sinking to melancholy, never rising far above it. A danger now loomed on the horizon. Sibylla was, in a hundred ways, a perfectly delightful woman, transcendently delightful. Montcalm had frequently, since his marriage, felt a new access of admiration and devotion. He could recall scenes in which she had acted or spoken or looked in a manner that he, at the moment, and now in retrospect, felt to be simply adorable. Other people, no doubt, would feel the same charm—would be prompted, too, to offer adoration. What would be the effect of such adoration upon her? What, if ever it came to pass that his own ascendency in her affections should be endangered? Life had brought him already some unexpectedly bitter things. Suppose that it should bring him this crowning calamity! Was it already within the range of possibility that this misfortune should befall him? This was the thought which, deep in the recesses of his soul, was beginning to torture Charles Montcalm. It blotted out the day, it turned all things to night and chaos. He despised himself for harbouring it. He knew that it was baseless, irrational. Yet the idea persistently presented itself. His fancy kept playing with it. He was indignant at his own infirmity, an unworthy weakness. He would, at any rate, conceal it. He would be kinder, politer, more courteous than ever to the man whom he was allowing himself to suspect as a possible rival. Such a suspicion was degrading. It would be ignominious to betray it, or to do or say anything which could be construed as betraying it. He would show an unshaken equanimity. It was easy enough to do this with Amersham: but with one’s wife! How, when one is harbouring such a suspicion, can one behave, so that the delicate sense of love should perceive no difference, should be unconscious of constraint, of effort, of intercourse less free, less unstudied than of old, of a subtle something which has grown up between husband and wife, an imperceptible barrier, but none the less real, none the less effective? So it came about that talk between Montcalm and his wife sometimes languished. There were distressing pauses in the conversation, which used to flow so free and strong. Each had something to conceal. Montcalm harboured the germ of a suspicion; Sibylla’s soul was withering under a sense of isolation.
This is such a creature
Would she begin a sect might quench the zeal
Of all professors, else make proselytes
Of who she but bid follow.
There are occasions in the history of every friendship, when, without conscious intention or wish on either side—sometimes despite them—intimacy takes a sudden leap forward. A new vantage-ground is gained. Some barrier is passed; some dividing, obscuring cloud is swept away. Two natures—they know not how or why—have drawn sensibly closer to each other—are more to each other than they were yesterday. Delightful sensation! not without its questionings, its scruples, its anxieties—but still delightful!
Amersham had now an agreeable consciousness of having passed through such a stage in his friendship with Sibylla. He could not trace the process; certain it was that he had advanced in intimacy. The truth was that he presented the attraction which, at this moment, Sibylla felt to be especially powerful—the offer of cordial and sympathetic companionship. He wished to be her friend. He valued her opinion; he desired her esteem. Such an approach is irresistible to a heart that is aching for want of sympathy at home. Charles Montcalm was anything rather than sympathetic. He was engrossed in his work to a degree that his wife felt to be distinctly selfish. He wanted no one to share it; he resented intrusion into the mental world in which he lived alone. He guarded his family secret—whatever it might be—with jealous care. No one—not his wife, certainly—might hope to share it. Such a man’s wife is likely to be oppressed by a sense of the solitariness of existence.
Into this void Amersham’s sociability poured like a refreshing flood upon a thirsty soil. It refreshed, revived, brought new life with it. Here, at any rate, was a companion, who found pleasure in exchange of thought, in comparison of ideas, in frank expression of feeling. Sibylla was weary of isolation. She longed for companionship, geniality, enlivenment, kindness. Every healthy nature feels such a want. Amersham brought all these good things in opportune abundance.
Nothing surprised Sibylla more than the contrast between the Amersham of society—the brilliant creature of drawing-rooms and little dinners—and the man who was now rapidly becoming her confidential friend. His air with her was as far removed as possible from the audacious flippancy with which he confronted the world at large. The cup of tea which he drank in her drawing-room might have been a magic potion, administered by an enchantress, so altered a being did Amersham appear. The fact was that he had been from the first moment of their meeting delighted with his companion. He had been thinking about her ever since. He was bent on conciliating her, on cultivating her friendship, on finding and touching a sympathetic chord.
Under such fostering conditions intimacy grew apace. Sibylla began to discover that they were nearer to each other in thought and feeling than she had at first supposed. Despite superficial differences, there was a fellow-feeling between them. Stripped of its cynical garb, Amersham’s view of life was not far removed from her own—as of something sad, unsatisfying, and disappointing, even to those best supplied with its blessings—full of horrors to the less fortunate. Some things which Amersham said seemed shocking; but, when their meaning was understood, Sibylla was fain to confess to herself that there was little real occasion to be shocked. He, like herself, cherished dreams of the ideal revolution, so many ages waited for, which is to bring bliss and refreshment to a weary world. Both of them were convinced that, if life is to be worth living, it must be stirred with better ingredients than from the average constituents of society. So much in it is dull and petty, so much is commonplace, so much sordid, base, and bad. Short of the criminal classes, there are the semi-criminal—the odious people, the heartless, the mean, the cruel, the treacherous. The great thing is not to come across them, or, if needs be, to fight them courageously on behalf of the oppressed, the weak. In the great world around one, there is such dire need of help on every side, if any one can but give it rightly, and such delight in giving—the true enthusiasm of humanity. Sibylla drank largely of this delight; she was an enthusiast.
Amersham shared her discontent with the world, if not her enthusiasm for its improvement, or her belief in its improvability. In any case he was delighted to let Sibylla try her hand at improving him.
Sibylla had, one day, been hearing his political confession—his apology and explanation of a recent vote, to which she had, at first, vehemently objected. Amersham defended himself with earnestness, and took the greatest pains to win his companion to his view.
“No,” said Sibylla, “I am not convinced; but I see that you are—seriously convinced—that your advocacy is honest. That is what one really cares about in one’s friends.”
“Ah!” said Amersham. “You care. That is so charming. You take an interest in one’s career. I shall be eternally grateful. No woman has ever been interested in me before, except as a matrimonial speculation; but you are so delightfully disinterested.”
“No!” said Sibylla, laughingly, “I am anything but disinterested: I want you for our party. My special mission is to secure you; I have always told you so. But, apart from that, I feel an interest in your conversion. It is in the right order of things that you should belong to us.”
“I know that you are perfectly disinterested and perfectly sincere,” said Amersham with an air of enthusiasm; “that is why I prize your friendship as a precious possession. You are such a help to me.”
“Ah, but,” said Sibylla, “I do not feel so sure of that. Sometimes I feel as if I could give you least help where I should most wish to give it.”
“Indeed,” said Amersham: “you help me immensely. I am ten times better whenever I have been with you—better, happier, more interested, more everything that one ought to be and is not. You have my salvation on your hands.”
“The first step towards salvation,” said Sibylla, is to hope for the best—to wish to hope; not to preach the dismal lesson of despair.”
“Yes, I know,” said her companion; “dismal and degrading, is it not? I feel ashamed of it when I am with you and catch your delightful hopefulness. But the world, after all, is not a brilliant success. Despite all its clever discoveries, humanity has had a bad time of it, and may be going to have a worse. Some agreeable Frenchman or other described man as the cleverest and worst-behaved of the animals,”
“Treason!” cried Sibylla. “Think of him as Hamlet did—as the paragon of the Universe, noble in reason, in action like an angel, in apprehension like a God.”
“That is not the sort of man whom one meets at the House,” said Amersham; “our apprehension is not God-like, nor our behaviour like any angels except the fallen ones. As for reason, it is such a poor affair, that all sensible people have, long ago, abandoned argument as a method. One sees men struggling against their fate, constantly led astray, falling this way or that. They cannot help it. They are so constructed that they can no more argue straight than a ball with a bias can run straight on the lawn. One has a bias oneself, and cannot roll straight any more than the rest, if one only knew it. Happily one does not.”
“Yes,” said Sibylla; “I know mine, and allow for it. I am on the side of the angels.”
“Then,” cried Amersham, “I will be on the side of the angels too,—on their side and yours.”
“Poor angels!” said the other; “what will they think of the alliance? But you must discard your pessimism. That is an essentially unangelic mood. The use of great men is to make the world better, and the greatest have been those who have loved their species the best. You seem to dislike it.”
“There is much to dislike,” said Amersham, “and much to pity. Man made a bad start of it at the outset and has been doing badly ever since. The gods must pity him surely—his ghastly blunders, his savage moods, his odious superstitions, his fanatic delusions—what a story it has been and is!”
“You forget its sublime side,” said Sibylla, “the saints, the martyrs, the heroes—the good people who ennoble their generation and make life worth living.”
“Is it worth living?” said Amersham, a sudden melancholy in his tone. “Look at its catastrophes, its fragile tenure of happiness, most fragile to the happiest—a thread, which any of a thousand accidents may snap in a moment! And it is of such accidents that life consists. Given its conditions, it may be a mistake to cultivate our feelings as we do—to have any deep feelings at all. They involve so much suffering—”
“On the other hand,” said Sibylla, “so much pleasure, such rapture. Surely you would not give up these?”
“One does not give them up,” said Amersham, “and so the world goes on. But it might be sensible to do so. The Stoic’s idea has much to say for itself. Suffering is the fate of all, and to cultivate endurance the aim of the wise man. The first step towards endurance is indifference.”
“A horrible doctrine!” cried Sibylla. “What has thrown you into such a gloomy mood? For my part I dislike Stoics and disbelieve in Stoicism. It is too stagey. The Roman Statesman opening his veins, gracefully despatching himself, on a mandate from the Emperor, and making a polite and appropriate observation! I was reading of Seneca’s death this morning. He could not achieve suicide, in proper stoical fashion, for the excellent reason that he had not got a drop of blood in his veins. It was so characteristic. Philosophy had dried him up—fine sentences and all.”
“Perhaps we are drying up!” cried Amersham with a laugh; “but one thing, happily, does not dry up—the devotion which a noble woman inspires in her friends—the best sort of inspiration for feeble hearts and a decadent century. Who could despair when Mrs. Montcalm is hopeful, or falter when she preaches enthusiasm? So far, at any rate, I am an enthusiast.”
He loves no play,
As thou do’st, Anthony; he hears no music;
Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort,
As if he mocked himself, and scorned his spirit,
That could be moved to smile at anything.
One of the unwholesome fallacies which endanger married life, is the flattering unction, laid to a misguided husband’s soul, that it is, in the nature of things, possible for him to be equally well loved when he has ceased to be lovable—that a man may be morose, secretive, despotic, in fact detestable, and yet reign undisturbed in his wife’s affections. Woman’s inexhaustible long-suffering, her power of bearing in submission every species of ill-treatment, and of smiling serenely through endless vexations and humiliations, is largely responsible for this delusion. But a delusion it is. Every unlovely act and word is a stab to love, for love is the harmony of two well-attuned hearts. When the harmony is jarred, love itself has no charm to shield the sensitive ear from the discord which ensues.
One of Sibylla’s sorrows, just now, was the growing consciousness of such discords—a terrified sense that there were moments when she loved her husband less than before—moments of disappointment, vexation, annoyance, distress, when she could hardly, in a strict sense, be said to love him at all. The shrine where she had so devoutly worshipped was growing dark and cold: the flame was sinking low. Where all had once been brightness and a genial warmth, there was a growing heap of dust and ashes. Charles, by cold act and word, by reserve, by careless neglect of love’s observances, by a denial of love’s rights, was constantly adding to the heap. Sibylla’s heart grew cold at the thought of approaching disaster and her powerlessness to arrest it. It was the march of doom—quiet, merciless, irresistible.
When matters have reached such a stage, shortcomings, which in happier times could be ignored or made light of, force themselves into importance, and aggravate the embarrassment of the situation. Charles’s matter-of-fact, prosaic view of things had been a recognised joke between them all. Lady Holte, who particularly resented his lack of mirth, and his incapacity for the sort of mild flirtation for which she found the generality of mankind prepared, had been accustomed to air her pleasantries on the subject with a freedom which sometimes taxed her cousin’s good nature, and Charles’s politeness.
“Here, Charles,” she had said, one morning, when caught, curled up on a sofa by the drawing-room fire, immersed in a Review, “here is just the sort of Shakespearian critic you would like—Von Hartman. Juliet, he says, was a naughty, forward girl, of whom German maidens would do well to beware; and Romeo a misdemeanant and trespasser, who, under the German Police Act, would have got a fine of twenty-five thalers and three weeks’ imprisonment.”
“Excellent criticism!” said Montcalm, looking down at his assailant with unperturbed solemnity; “yes, I approve it. Romeo was a philanderer. There is a practical side, even to Shakespeare. There was an old woman who summarised the impressions made on her by the Prince of Denmark by observing, with tears in her eyes, ‘Them Hamlets had a deal of trouble.’”
“Come and sit down and tell me another story like that,” said the temptress; “you might for once.”
“Impossible!” said her companion. “I have a heap of letters to write. By the way, when you have finished your studies, will you send me the Edinburgh into the library? I am in the middle of an article on bi-metallism.”
“You would not care to explain bi-metallism to me?” asked Lady Holte, some impudent flashes of merriment playing round eyes and lips; “you can tell me all about it.”
“That I shall do better when I have finished the article,” said Montcalm, with a stately bow. “Meanwhile, pray take your leisure with Von Hartman.”
Nor was it in the family circle alone that Montcalm’s increasing gravity began to be observed.
“Why does the great Duke Humphrey knit his brows,
As frowning at the pleasures of the world?”
Miss Everard, with her habitual sauciness, had asked her companion, as Charles, who was to meet his wife on his way home from the House, stood in the doorway of a crowded drawing-room—pale, self-centred, unconscious, his thoughts, apparently, a hundred miles away from his surroundings. “The Government are in a bad way, we all know, but why look so sad about it?”
“The cares of State,” said Edenbridge, who was standing, fast blocked, behind her, “the business of a rising politician. You must take it seriously. The first qualification of a successful augur is not to smile when he meets another augur. And there are a great many augurs here to-night.”
“Yes, indeed; you amongst them. It is tremendously official. We must take care. Well, if political success is as solemn a business as that, I am not sorry to be a woman. Mr. Montcalm knows his business, I suppose.”
“He does,” said Edenbridge, sententiously. “The paths of glory lead but from the grave.”
But the gravity which the outer world could afford to joke about was no joking matter in Charles Montcalm’s home. Sibylla felt it increasingly oppressive. She had not till now fully appreciated how bright, in comparison, how gay, how light in hand her father was, how enlivening a tonic his companionship. Life looks portentous when you take it point-blank, with no alleviating touch of humour. No man, and certainly no woman, can live on bread alone—not even on the honest, home-baked loaf of good sense, high principles, and laudable intentions. Charles Montcalm was designed for a patriot. He was public-spirited to the core. He loved his country; he meant to serve it. No amount of trouble, of sacrifice, was too great that would enable him to do so. But the business of patriotism is a grave one for the looker-on. It needs relief. The patriot should now and then unbend. It is a comfort to think of Mr. Pitt, in a holiday moment, digging Wilberforce’s hat into the flower-beds. It would not have occurred to any one to take such a liberty with one of Charles Montcalm’s hats.
And now, as so often happens, when the relations of husband and wife have ceased to be perfectly comfortable, the malignity of circumstance lent its aid to enhance the difficulty and precipitate a crisis.
Charles Montcalm was not what Dr. Johnson would have called a clubbable man. He had no small talk, none of the easy sociability which renders club-life congenial, and makes a man popular among his fellows. His shyness took the form of a reserve, which even his intimates felt to be chilling, and which the world at large recognised as “stand off.” He shrank from familiarity. Those whom he thus repelled accused him of standing on his dignity. So Montcalm, when he went to his club, often found it a solitude. He generally went, however, on his way to the House, looked at the Papers and Reviews, and exchanged a few sentences with some of his Parliamentary companions.
One afternoon as he sat reading, deep sunk in the luxury of a large arm-chair, he became aware of a conversation behind him, which suddenly arrested his attention.
“There goes Amersham!” cried one of a group of idlers, who stood in the bay-window, overlooking St. James’s Street, and welcomed any topic from without which was likely to aid a halting, desultory talk. “What the deuce becomes of him all the afternoon? He is never to be found in the House. He never comes here. He is not a whist player. There must be a mystery.”
“As mystery is one word for woman, there probably is,” said a bystander; “but it is not a difficult mystery to solve. He is going to consult his Egeria. He is so affectionate.”
“Of course,” cried a profane young diplomatist, who at this moment joined the circle, “nowadays every smart young gentleman has some kind friend whose mission it is to give him five-o’clock tea and help and guidance.”
“Help and guidance!” said another of the group. “Is that what they call it? That sounds extremely smart.”
“Yes,” said the diplomat, “Amersham is above every thing a smart young gentleman. He likes to be in the fashion, and he adores five-o’clock tea. It is the only meal, he says, that a civilised being can enjoy. But the virtue of tea, we all know, depends entirely on who makes it. It is so easy to make it badly. Who is the fascinating tea-maker?”
Montcalm got up and walked away before the question could be answered. He would not acknowledge to himself that he dreaded to hear the answer. What mattered to him the random, ribald talk of a chance group of gossips in a club window? Still, the horrid possibility kept recurring to his imagination that the explanation of Amersham’s daily disappearance from his accustomed haunts was the true one, and that the woman was Sibylla. He had more than once found Amersham by his wife’s tea-table, chatting on, it seemed, in pleasant unconsciousness of the flight of time. Could it be that it was with her that his afternoons were spent? that his habit of doing so was known in society, and that men dared to breathe her name as the heroine of a vulgar flirtation—her name—Sibylla, the very embodiment of all that was high-minded, refined and scrupulously, exquisitely pure? Life would indeed have ceased to be worth living if this were so. All intrusion into domestic privacy—the sacred privacy of married life—was an abomination. But intrusion of this kind—the intrusion of the frivolous searcher for scandal or amusement, of the careless gossip-monger, of the amused onlooker, who see nothing bat fun in the ruin of happy homes and honourable lives! It was horrible even in imagination.
Montcalm sat stubbornly through the debate that night, his hat over his brow, his arms crossed, biting his nether lip, lost to all around him. There are horrors in married life—possible horrors—of which he had never dreamed. They were becoming more than possible. They were close at hand. A deep gloom was settling on his soul.
There was a great entertainment that evening, a quasi-political function which it was desirable to make as brilliant as might be. Sibylla, it was settled, should attend it. Her husband was to meet her there; and thither, when the House rose, Charles Montcalm took his way.
The crowd was enormous, the heat oppressive, Sibylla was not in force or spirits, and, but that she was to wait for her husband, would have been glad to get away. The heat, the noise, the crush distressed her. “Surely the most barbarous of all forms of entertainment!” she had said to Amersham as they met in the tide-way of a well-blocked staircase. “Why do people give them? And how is one to breathe?”
“I know this house of old,” said Amersham; “let me take you to a cool retreat. There is a verandah at the end of the passage where we can breathe in peace. The night air will refresh you, and when talk fails, we can look out for Jupiter’s fifth moon.”
“I shall be thankful,” said Sibylla; “but we shall miss Charles. He is to come here from the House: the long gallery is our rendezvous.”
“I will leave a message for him at the door,” said Amersham. “The porter is a particular friend of mine. I can trust him implicitly.”
“I have left a message,” he said, re-emerging, a few minutes later, from the crowd through which he had made his way. “The porter is watching at the door. We can go and enjoy ourselves with an easy conscience. You must follow me.”
The verandah was half empty. Only the initiated were aware of it; and of the initiated, only a wise few preferred the night, the stars, and the silent heaven, to the blaze of satin, diamonds, and electric lights and the roar of talk indoors. Sibylla sank wearily into an easy chair.
“The pleasures of life,” she said, “are the least pleasant thing about it. I feel dreadfully oppressed.”
“We belong to an oppressed class,” cried Amersham, bringing a comfortable chair near to Sibylla’s; “the other classes oppress us. They talk of their grievances; but think of ours! It is we who are the martyrs.”
“Martyrs?” said Sibylla; “I am haunted by the consciousness of wanting a little martyrdom and deserving it. We have too much enjoyment.”
“Too much enjoyment!” cried Amersham; “we have all the worst of it. Everybody else fares better than we. Who can doubt, for instance, that servants are far happier than their masters. It is natural that they should be. One is tempted to repine at the inequality of human lots. Just compare our footmen and ourselves, such a night as this. You have been half an hour getting here—two streets at the rate of a slow funeral. You were confronted by a human avalanche on the stairs. But for my happy thought, you would now be engaged in a veritable struggle for life in a bediamonded mob—across which Mr. Montcalm, when he arrives, would look at you in mute despair. It will take you three-quarters of an hour to get away. You will presently enact the same scene at the rival great party of the evening on the other side of the square. You did the same yesterday. You will do the same to-morrow—every to-morrow till July.”
“Heaven forbid!” cried Sibylla.
“Now think of that privileged being, your footman. Having disposed of you at your host’s door, he goes away without a care. He sits at ease outside in the cool, delicious night. He watches the procession of the stars, the setting moon, Aurora’s first faint blush as she smiles upon the world. He feels the wholesome dews. He need not talk unless he likes, or rack his brains for an appropriate remark. He speaks when he pleases and says what he means. While you are being hustled in the quest of a cup of tea or an ice, he quaffs a pot of beer—cool, frothy, ambrosial, much nicer than tea or champagne—and smokes a friendly pipe. He has no care, no anxiety, no duty but to go where the policeman tells him and wait till he is called. He stands serene and unmoved while the linkman bawls out your name and shocks the shuddering ear of night with the announcement that Mrs. Montcalm’s carriage stops the way! Which of you has the best of it? and who, with such an instance before him, would dare to assert that the favours of Heaven are equally bestowed?”
Amersham defended his paradox with the mock earnestness that its silliness deserved. He was talking nonsense; the theme and the argument were equally nonsensical. It was pleasant to him to talk and watch Sibylla half-resting, half-amused. Now, however, a look which spoke neither of rest nor amusement, portrayed itself on Sibylla’s features.
Amersham turned round and saw Montcalm standing behind him with an angry expression in his eyes, his lips tightly drawn, his air as imperative as politeness would allow—altogether an uncongenial intruder. He gave Amersham the coldest possible recognition.
“I have been looking everywhere for you, Sibylla,” he said; “we agreed to meet in the long gallery.”
“Yes,” said Sibylla, “but I was suffering from the heat. Mr. Amersham was kind enough to get me out of the crowd. He left word for you at the door to come and find us here.”
“That faithless porter!” cried Amersham. “How came he to miss you? But sit down now, Montcalm, and cool yourself, or go to the buffet and reward your labours by a glass of Lord Hunstanton’s excellent champagne.”
“Thank you,” said Montcalm with his coldest and most dignified air, “I believe that my wife will be glad to get home. Come, Sibylla. Good-night, Amersham.”
Amersham, thus summarily dismissed, looked after the departing couple in blank amazement. He had read the same amazement in Mrs. Montcalm’s eyes as he wished her good-night. Montcalm was evidently in a rage—too great a rage to be polite. His wife would have a disagreeable drive home; and what a home, if this was the way in which Montcalm was accustomed to behave! Sibylla’s occasional melancholy looks were easily explained! It was amusing, at any rate, to have seen the just man made perfect for once off his balance, and in a common, human passion. But poor Mrs. Montcalm!
Unkindness may do much;
And his unkindness may defeat my life,
But never taint my love.
“I am so sorry that we missed each other,” Sibylla said, as the brougham door closed upon her husband and herself; “I am sure you had a horrid hunt for us—and what a crowd! I was thankful to get out of it. The heat distressed me. It was so unlucky that the porter should have let you go by.”
Sibylla stopped short, for something in her husband’s movements bespoke an angry man.
“You are not vexed?” she said, laying her hand on his.
Woe to the husband who rejects the wife’s offer of conciliation—the proffered forgiveness of his ill-temper. A word of affection at this moment—a gesture—a tone of kindness, would have sealed the desired peace-making. But Montcalm was in no mood for peace. His heart was aching. Life seemed very bitter. If he was to answer truthfully, he was vexed, sorely vexed. Worst of all, he knew that he had shown his vexation. He had been guilty of an undignified display of ill-temper. He was out of sorts with life, with himself, his wife, his fellow-men. Sibylla’s sweetness took him by surprise—embarrassed him. He was not prepared for an interchange of affectionate speeches. His Englishman’s awkwardness beset him. In an evil moment for his own happiness, for Sibylla’s, he showed himself cold, uncordial, unresponsive. The sight of his wife sitting, listening with evident interest to Amersham—Amersham talking to her with ease and freedom, had sunk into his soul, exasperated him. Why would not his own talk flow with equal ease? Why did their conversation halt? Whose was the fault? Why now did he find it difficult to speak?
There was a few seconds’ pause before he was ready with his reply—a few seconds: but for how many thoughts, fears, suggestions, influences will not a second’s space suffice? That momentary silence was eloquent, fatally eloquent. Sibylla’s heart began to beat quicker. She longed for her husband to speak. A pang of resentment at his injustice, his obduracy, his unresponsiveness shot into her soul. She was doing all that love could prompt; why was he silent? At last the answer came.
“It is not worth talking about,” Montcalm said in a tone of sullen displeasure; “I was bored, of course. You, at any rate, escaped boredom.”
Sibylla withdrew her hand with a sort of horror. It was as though her husband had struck her. The cold, dry tone, the measured rudeness, was as bad as a blow. She tried to make light to herself of the rebuff—but how vain the attempt! Each instant the pain grew more acute. In silence, she sat, thankful for the darkness that hid her face from her companion.
Equally vain was Montcalm’s secret wish that he could recall his cross reply, recall or amend it. His angry mood held him tongue-tied. Sibylla’s silence was the worst reproof. He could not bring himself to speak. He could not judge how his words had sounded to Sibylla’s ear. Had it been a declaration of war? A few minutes later they arrived at home. Montcalm helped his wife out of the carriage. Sibylla passed hurriedly across the hall and went upstairs. She needed to be alone. She was dreadfully perturbed. Silent, reserved, undemonstrative as her husband had, of late, increasingly become, he had never before been guilty of overt unkindness. To-night he had been unkind and unreasonable. He had put himself wrong alike with his wife and his friend. His displeasure was irrational. Amersham could not be charged with anything to which the most exacting upholder of conjugal rights could take exception. He had been merely polite. He had taken some trouble to promote Sibylla’s comfort. Their conversation, it so happened, had been of the kind that all the world would have been welcome to hear. Montcalm, instead of being grateful for a small act of kindness shown to his wife, had behaved like a bear. Sibylla had felt it, had felt ashamed of it. She had now something more of which to feel ashamed—ashamed and aggrieved. She sat in her room, restless, miserable, with no thought of sleep, hoping that her husband would come and be reconciled, hesitating whether it would be well to go to him. She sat on in solitude. She heard his step on the stairs. He passed onward to his room. It was clear that he did not intend to come. Sibylla sat and reviewed her married life: the retrospect was painful. There had been some great disappointments: she had tried to ignore them, but now they were not to be ignored. She had dreamed of an ideal union of hearts—in which the most absolute confidence should reign. How far was this ideal from being attained! Confidence, perfect and complete, was the last word which would fitly describe her husband’s attitude towards her. She knew that he had some secret, safe locked in the recesses of his heart, which his wife’s eye was forbidden to read. He chose to live alone. He went his way, by himself, in no need of help from her, with no wish for friendly confidence, consultation, advice. Sibylla was pining for sociability. Such companionship was the thing which her husband seemed least able to give: he himself did not care about it; he could not understand the need of it in another. The presence of a companion disturbed the true balance of his thoughts; it agitated the still atmosphere in which a logical conclusion could be worked out with mathematical precision. That was the way, Montcalm felt positive, in which a sensible man should think. The intrusion of a woman’s temperament—eager, sensitive, sentimental, nervous—was a fatal disturbance. The highest work, experience had taught him, must be done in solitude. So Sibylla’s attempts to share her husband’s thoughts and opinions had constantly been repelled. Husband and wife lived in separate worlds. Married life must, it had become clear to Sibylla, mean something very different from, something very inferior to, her girlhood’s ideal. She had borne the disappointment with fortitude, good nature, even cheerfulness. Now it seemed as if even the outward semblance of affection was to disappear.
Sibylla was pining for sympathetic companionship! One danger which threatens the man who resolves to ignore such a craving on his wife’s part, is that some sympathetic companion will, probably, be forthcoming, ready with the boon which he refuses to confer. This danger now threatened the Montcalms. Amersham was above everything companionable. His intellect was of the sociable order. It would not work in solitude. That which Montcalm regarded as an intrusion was to him a help. He needed to test his views by comparison with other people’s—by the concurrence or disagreement of a friendly critic. He liked to place an argument before Sibylla, to see how it struck her, to consult her on questions of expediency, justice, or taste. Would such-and-such a reply be the right one in the circumstances of the case? Was this the wise line to take? What would be felt about it? What would the best minds feel about it? Sibylla’s view on such topics was to him an important guide. Such requests for advice are the choicest form of flattery,—the subtlest, the pleasantest, the most persuasive. From such topics as these, how easy to pass to problems of a more personal interest—questions affecting life, its aims, its limitations, its reverses—the small philosophy of existence which each individual constructs for himself! Such interchange of thought leads naturally to great intimacy—intimacy which grows silently and quickly before one is aware of it. Sibylla found that she and Amersham had become very intimate. She valued the intimacy. It gave a new pleasure, a new charm to existence, a new interest. Nothing is so interesting as to come into real contact with another mind—to read another’s character, to feel that one can influence another person’s action, that one goes for something in his thoughts. This interest had become Sibylla’s; and now her husband not only declined to share any such interest with her, but was driving her by actual unkindness, to find it in the society of the person most capable of arousing it. Charles’s affection had sunk to so low an ebb that he could bear to be unkind, to find in the petty mishaps of daily life material for unkindness.
To how critical a stage had love been brought! Sibylla was in a despairing mood. Married life, with its privileges of love, confidence, and tenderness denied—the dismal, decent, conventional relation of two unsympathetic natures, hiding their mutual indifference from the eyes of mankind under the cloak of cold civility—was this to be her doom? Would such a life be endurable?
Till down upon the filthy ground I dropped,
And tore the violets to get the worms:
“Worms! worms!” was all my cry.
There is something in Eastern life, it has been often said, which exercises a deteriorating effect upon the European character. Nowhere is such deterioration more painfully conspicuous than in the Englishman, whose crimes or misfortunes have sunk him to the level of what his countrymen in India denounce as a “loafer.” He is the lost spirit of the ruling race, deserted by all the wholesome influences which membership of a ruling race exercises upon its members. He has lost prestige; he has abandoned respectability; his degradation has been exhibited to the humblest of a community, which he regards as socially, morally, and physically far below himself. Henceforth no further humiliation is conceivable. Shame has emptied her vials upon his head. He is steeped in disgrace: he is clawed by fierce necessity. He has wrung whatever may be extorted from the compassionateness of his countrymen, the credulity of natives too ignorant to gauge the fraud of his pretensions. He has begged, bullied, and lied as opportunity gave a chance of the pittance which will stave off starvation for another day. If man spares him, the cruel climate is unsparing. The fierce, pitiless sun fills him with agony and drives him, panting and exhausted, to the first covert which presents itself. The tropical downpour drenches his aching bones: the night frosts pierce him to the very marrow, and send him out shivering and miserable into the chilly dawn, to begin another day of bootless struggle for life. Week by week his shattered frame becomes less capable of resistance to baneful physical surroundings—surroundings which strong men, instinct with hope and purpose, would scarcely dare to face. Malaria lays its deadly hand upon him, and the ineffectual struggle draws to its close. Fortunate, if, at the last dread moment, some friendly compatriot’s hand can be found to hold a cup to dying lips, and to breathe into ears, where already all things sound faintly, some pious thought of England and of home.
Such was the plight of an Englishman who lay, one summer night, in a wretched native hostelry in the suburbs of Faustabad, one of the great military stations of Upper India. There was a crowd of natives around him; for Faustabad is a busy place, a centre of a great industry in corn and seeds, the meeting-point of many official threads which the spider-like industry of the English administration has woven thick in every direction across the country. Hither, at the appointed seasons, come governors and generals, commissioners and judges, and with them the satellites, which orb in splendour,—only less impressive than their own,—around the greater luminaries of the official heaven. Below the satellites comes a vast array of humbler ministrants to the many necessities, in the way of pomp, business, or comfort, of the Anglo-Indian dignitary. Faustabad, accordingly, abounds in crowds.
There is a famous shrine, too, where, beneath an immemorial peepul tree, the pious pilgrim loves to worship, and a sacred river, in which, when the moon moves into the proper quarter, and the solemn moment has come, it is bliss to bathe, and a multitudinous rabble plunge into the well-churned, turgid flood, happy in the hope of a propitiated deity and a blissful hereafter.
So the Faustabad bazaars were lively with throngs of traders and customers, holiday-makers and devotees, and the Serai,—the bequest of a charitable corn-merchant and money-lender to the scene of his prosperity—was in constant request. It was crowded just now with groups of travellers, cooking their evening meal, tending their bullocks, or pouring out the stream of talk that flows—unexhausted and inexhaustible, where natives congregate—through the livelong night. On one side were long rows of bullock-carts, the cattle tethered in front of them, busily munching their forage. Further away a string of Cabul camels lay chewing the cud and contemplating sadly the burthens, under which they had groaned to-day and would groan again to-morrow. They might well groan, for the day had been one long sultry blaze, and the night had scarcely brought relief. The air was heavy with foetid, sickening odours. Everything—walls, trees, and soil—was radiating the heat absorbed through the long burning hours. The moon, blazing in a cloudless sky, seemed actually to scorch: huge bats flapped lazily among the boughs of the peepul trees, which overshadowed the scene. A thick cloud of dust and smoke—offspring of a sultry, bustling day—hung overhead, like a pall across some city of the doomed. Here and there, wherever a damp, cool spot was to be found, a dog lay panting, his hind legs stretched limply out as if in utter exhaustion. The ground was thickly strewn with recumbent human forms—sleeping, or that seemed to sleep, save when, now and again, they tossed with weary gestures of unease, or sought, with little wooden fans, a momentary respite from the glowing air.
The weary hours crept on, the groups of talkers, one by one, subsided into silence and rest. The embers of the cooking fires died out; the moon was sinking in the heaven; a new gloom settled over the scene; darkness was gathering upon the earth. All slept—all but the Englishman, whom sleep refused to release, for a moment, from his horrid surroundings,—his pangs of body and soul. No sleep for him, but raging fever, raging heat, raging thirst, parched lips, aching limbs, and the dreadful prostration of an exhausted frame. His senses were acutely awake; he listened anxiously for the sound of a horse’s feet—the horse that might bring him aid, comfort, and deliverance. He had managed, that evening, to send a message to the station surgeon—a message that an European was dying in the Serai and implored his help. There were a hundred chances that such a message would never reach its destination, would not be correctly delivered, for it had to pass through several native messengers, the barrier of venal underlings and servants, hard to surmount without the aid of gold. It might not be understood; it might not be attended to. On the other hand, it might. There was the one chance that the surgeon would come, and on that chance the sick man’s hopes were hanging. He listened, hour after hour, for the much-wished-for foot-fall. Night filled his ear with other sounds. Some pariah dogs in distant villages were howling, in hateful response, at the moon. A pack of jackals swept, like an escaped demon-troupe, across the open side of the Serai. Their chorus sounded satanic, sad with the misery of suffering souls. Is there another sound in nature of such unutterable, abysmal melancholy? The sounds fell upon Frank Montcalm’s dying ears like the knell of doom. For he was dying. He had often been near to death, but never so close as now. Excess, misery, exposure, delirium tremens, and now fever, had at last done their work. He had made his way from Sydney to Madras as one of the grooms in attendance on a cargo of Australian horses—had eluded the local authorities, who would have enforced his reshipment to Australia, and had tramped across India, supporting a precarious existence by such wretched expedients, in the way of swagger, cringing, beggary or imposture, as fortune threw in his way. Now the end was come. He could struggle no more. His one hope, his one desire was to find some countryman who would befriend him in his last and sorest emergency—would see him through the last terrible hours which still remained to him, say a kindly word before he died, and carry a last farewell, a message of peace, a cry for forgiveness to his brother in England.
Dawn began to break; hour by hour the fever gathered force, and burnt with fiercer heat. The native lad whom the sick man had sent with the message had delivered it, as best he could, to one of the “Doctor Sahib’s” subordinates. No answer had come through the long, long night of weary watching, of baffled expectancy, the heart-sickening chill of hope deferred. And now Frank Montcalm’s thoughts began to travel, with dreadful rapidity, dreadful distinctness, over his past life—a horrid retrospect of failure, disgrace, dishonour, crime. He was at home again, and appeasing his father’s wrath at some boyish misdoing by an excuse—the first that offered. How easy to find an excuse good enough for that indulgent tribunal! He was with Lizzie Marsh again—poor Lizzie! What had become of her? Dead, perhaps, and better so. It had been a bad business all along. How ill she was when the child was born, the little ailing baby, which died in her arms as she lay, half dead herself with sorrow, suffering, and the shame of dishonoured motherhood! It was no bastard, however, on which her mother’s tears were shed, for he had yielded to her entreaties—her terror of living on in sin—her passionate prayer to him to save her child from dishonour. He had at the last moment married her; and much good it had done her! He had left her, like the brute he was. Nor was she the only woman he had deserted. What was the good of thinking of it? Yes; but how not to think! The sick man shut his eyes, as if to shut out unwelcome sights; but the objects which memory, cruelly acute, conjured up before his mind’s eye, were not so easily shut out. A horde of accusing spirits flocked in upon him; each with its burthen of shame, fraud, cruelty; each crying ‘Guilty! guilty!” Conscience was roused at last, and roused into a mood that would not, as so often heretofore, be silenced or gainsaid. It was in vain to try to think of something else. What else was left to think of? He saw his life lying out behind him in dreadful distinctness—all self-deceptions, illusions, palliations, convenient forgettings swept mercilessly away, like leaves that hide a ruin’s outline. The ruined, wasted, dishonoured life stood, stark and clear, a loathsome sight to eyes already dim with death! appalling record to a despairing soul!
Then his thoughts travelled back to a remoter region, a period which had so long and so utterly passed away from his memory that its recurrence now seemed like an apparition from another world, from another person’s existence—a period of innocence, happiness, and sweet maternal pettings. A mother’s eyes were looking down upon him, full of delight, tenderness, adoring love. A voice that breathed only benedictions—a gentle hand that caressed him as no other ever had—a bosom where he had nestled safe from the troubles of the world outside—dear hiding-place where his baby sorrows had been cried to rest. How often, as a boy, had he gone to that good mother for aid or consolation, and there forgotten his troubles! He could see himself again burying his face in her lap in some paroxysm of childish grief: he felt her tender, caressing touch. If he could only go to her now and be nursed and petted and forgiven, and be a child again with life—innocent, unsoiled, unspoilt, the trailing brightness of Heaven still glorifying it—lying before him, instead of the ghastly wreck that lay behind! What a contrast between now and the time when that dear form had passed away, and with it Frank’s best chance of a happy and virtuous life!
The native lad sat by the sick man’s side, and from time to time moistened his lips with water. He was getting frightened, for the Englishman was evidently mad: his wild ravings, his staring eyes, his cries and groans and oaths, his frantic gestures, were proofs of madness. It was dangerous to be near him; it was dangerous to go away. The boy’s eyes were heavy with fatigue, but the madman gave him no chance of sleep. By this time it was broad daylight, and the Serai was all astir. Frank Montcalm lay in the verandah, alive and only just alive—prostrate with exhaustion, too exhausted to have any but a faint consciousness, when the surgeon came driving into the Serai, and was presently kneeling over him, and feeling his pulse. His attention was arrested by the long, fine hand, which bore no marks of honest toil. It told of a tragic fall from better things.
“He is mad,” the boy said with unemotional conciseness; “mad since the moon set this morning: he is dying. I gave him water. The fault is not mine.”
“He will be dead if he stays here another hour,” said the surgeon: “go and fetch a dhoolie. He must go to the Infirmary. Be quick, I will give you pice.”
The boy ran off on his behest, and presently the dhoolie-bearers—nimble, fragile, and intended by nature, one would have guessed, for anything rather than beasts of burden—came staggering in, grunting rhythmically under the pole, which their bare shoulders supported. Frank Montcalm gave but slight signs of life as he was lifted up and borne away. “I will drive on and have all things ready,” the surgeon said, as they emerged from the Serai; “come quickly: there is no time to lose.”
Some days later Frank Montcalm lay in a cool room in the Infirmary—bloodless, emaciated, without motion or power to move, but still alive. The surgeon had befriended him, and spared neither time or trouble in helping him to recovery. It was long since the sick man had fared so well; longer still since any one had regarded him with anything but fear, hatred, or contempt. It was a new sensation—new and indescribably delightful.
“You are the first man in India,” Montcalm said one morning, as the surgeon paid him his usual visit, “that has not treated me like a dog. It was thanks to you I did not die that morning in the Serai. You have been very good to me. You would not be if you knew all.”
“I know that you are very ill,—ill and destitute,” said the doctor; “that is all that concerns me. I want to know nothing more.”
“But I want to tell you,” said the other; “I have sunk low, but I was born a gentleman. I am son of Mr. Montcalm of Frampton. Charles Montcalm, member for Belhaven, is my younger brother. I want you to take him a message. Say that he has heard the last of Frank. He will be glad to hear that. I shall trouble and disgrace him no more. Have me decently buried, doctor, and ask Charles to pay for it, and to make a present to the Hospital. Thanks to it and you, these have been the pleasantest days I have spent since—I don’t know when. I am dying, all the same; I feel it.”
“Don’t talk about dying, man,” said the other; “lie still and give yourself a chance. But whatever happens, I will do what you ask me: Charles Montcalm of Frampton, you said?”
“Yes,” said the sick man; “and give him this—this old ring; he will know it fast enough. Father gave us both rings when we were schoolboys. It is my mother’s hair—I wore it round my neck for luck. Give it to Charles, and tell him it was all I had to leave him. Bid him forgive all the wrongs I did him.”
After this the sick man grew very communicative. The doctor’s visit was his thread of communication with the outside world after which he still hankered. He loved a chat, and the surgeon was good-natured in gratifying the invalid’s whim. It was better for him to talk, to listen, than to lie all day in silence and solitude, busied with his own thoughts. Gradually he confided to his kind listener many passages of his life, narrow escapes, strange adventures, unedifying episodes of lawlessness and profligacy. Amongst the rest he told of his escape from the Eldorado Mine. “That was a wild time,” he said; “no mistake about it—a wild time and bad. We were a bad lot, all of us; each man had a black mark for something. I had run away from my wife. I left her at New Wigan. I had married her under a false name,—Fairfield, one of my father’s farms. I am sorry now that I did it. I was sorry from the first; but I fancied her, and I could get her in no other way. Anyhow she made me sorry before she had done with me. She was a fine girl, and very handsome, but a perfect devil in temper; drink made her ten times more devilish. At last I could bear it no longer; I heard of the mine and I went off. It was a low trick, for she was near being a mother; but I was doing no good, and living with her was a hell on earth. On my way to the mine I had my usual luck, and fell in with a man who had known me in England and bawled out my real name before a room full of listeners. It was no good to try to conceal it, so I became Frank Montcalm again. I was doing pretty well, and was meaning to send my wife something; but I got into trouble and had to bolt. Since then I have been almost always nearly starving. I have heard no word of her, or her child, if she had one.”
“And what was the trouble you had to bolt for?” asked the surgeon, gently encouraging his patient’s flow of talk.
Montcalm’s face darkened. His voice dropped.
“Did you ever kill a man?” he said. “I did once. I don’t mind telling you now. I am not worth hanging, and you will not betray me. It sounds nasty, doesn’t it? and looks nasty, I can tell you, when you have to face the man you have killed, alone, and to handle him as I had. His eyes were open. I often see them now. There was some blood on his cheek. This was how it was. There was a row one night in an old store, two miles from the Mine, where a few of us used to go to drink and gamble. I was more than half drunk, and had lost every farthing I had earned. There was a man there who kept angering me. He had won most that night; we came to fierce words, he drew his pistol and was covering me. I shot him in the face. He fell back with a groan and never moved again. When the others saw he was dead, they all scuttled. I don’t blame them. It was putting your neck in the halter to stay. But I stayed. I had not a farthing to fly with. Then I remembered what a run of luck the dead man had been having. I took his coat and hat and his waistcoat. His pockets were full of money; I took it. I left my own clothes. The jury found, I read in the papers, that it was Frank Montcalm who had been murdered. But Frank Montcalm was making his way across the mountains to Frisco. I was nearly starved! But when I got to Frisco, the dead man’s money served me to get a passage to Sydney. There I soon lost all I had in a gambling hell. I worked my way from Sydney to Madras with a cargo of horses. That was a rough job. There was a storm. We had to throw a hundred of them overboard. The police in Madras got hold of me; they were going to send me back to Sydney; but I slipped through their fingers, and tramped my way across India. It is a hell of a country, when you have to beg your way. Twice I had sunstroke. I got drunk on native spirits whenever I had the chance. At last I came to ground here; and you have been the good Samaritan to me. Now you know my story.”
A week later Frank Montcalm took a turn for the worse, and next day at sunrise Surgeon Crowder attended, as only mourner, at a very humble ceremonial, while the body of an English loafer was deposited in one of those receptacles, which are to be seen, ready dug, in most Indian cemeteries, awaiting the requirements of the first applicant. The ground closed over the frailties and misfortunes of Frank Montcalm. Surgeon Crowder, who was just starting for his furlough in England, kept a note of the name and packed up the ring, in case Mr. Montcalm of Frampton should care to be reminded of a fallen brother.
Pourquoi, me disais-je, est on si souvent le bien-venu, quand on rompt le tête-à-tête morose d’un mari et de sa femme? C’est qu’ils sont enchainds, mais pas unis.
A long spell of hot weather was bringing the London season to an early close. Everybody who could get away was escaping to the mountain heights, cool ocean breezes, or the shady solitudes of a country home. The politicians had still a long list of business to be disposed of before their holiday could begin. The usual massacre of the innocents had been announced, dashing the hopes of some, bringing to others a welcome relief from embarrassing duty or inconvenient pledge. Enough, however, remained for several weeks of steady work. But the end was in sight. The longing for escape was beginning to temper the ardour of party polemics. The most earnest workers began to flag. The bores had tired even themselves and forgot to be troublesome. Lord Hunstanton, to everybody’s relief, was safe at Homburg. Mr. Egremont had impressed his followers and his foes with the solemn truth that the date of their release depended on themselves. It was within measurable distance, and the desire to attain it became the ruling passion of the hour. Montcalm was far from sharing the general impatience for a holiday. He dreaded it; for its compulsory leisure would only accentuate the discomfort of his strained relations with his wife. Meanwhile he remained unflagging at his post. Sibylla, too, remained at hers.
She was in the depths of low spirits. So far as any real intercourse with her husband went, she might as well—perhaps even better—have been away: for local proximity only emphasised estrangement. Husband and wife were on a deplorable footing. Charles Montcalm seemed to be living in an icy atmosphere of coldness and reserve. There was no outspoken complaint; his demeanour, however, conveyed distinctly enough an impression of dissatisfaction, displeasure, estrangement. Some heavy care, it was obvious, was weighing on his spirits. Sibylla, ignorant of its nature, naturally connected it with herself. Her husband was estranged. The thought was an ever-present pain. It haunted her. Its injustice, its unreasonableness, its cruelty, cut her to the quick. To be wroth with one we love, the poet tells us, doth work like madness in the brain. Some such malign influence seemed now to be at work in Charles Montcalm, paralysing the pulse of love, chilling all genial warmth, creating a dreary, death-like void. His better, softer self was dead. Such chills are infectious. The same benumbing influence had, Sibylla felt, begun to beset herself. Husband and wife were thoroughly estranged.
A blazing July day had run its course and done its work on limb and nerve. There was exhaustion in the air. The world seemed baked, sulphurous, devoid of vital spring. Sibylla shared the general prostration. She was enfeebled, nervous, depressed, never less mistress of herself. She had been having a farewell chat with her aunt under the trees in the Park, and had dropped her on the way home. Mrs. Ormesby was to leave London next day; Lord Belmont was already in the country. Sibylla felt a pang of solitariness. She dreaded going home. There was something to be confronted there which, now that her father and her aunt were no longer at hand, she dreaded more than ever. Charles was absorbed in his work, and engaged all day in scenes where it was possible to lose sight of a domestic trouble. But Sibylla had nothing to break the dreary sense of alienation. It loomed, daily, larger and larger, and crowded out every other topic of thought. It made all life uninteresting, profitless, pleasureless. It was impossible to read—even a novel. Sibylla’s own personal romance had become too painfully absorbing.
On her arrival at her home, she found, awaiting her in the hall, one of Charles Montcalm’s laconic notes, saying that he should be kept at the House, and should not return for dinner. Montcalm could be laconic when he pleased. Sibylla had become accustomed to such messages of late—not so well accustomed, however, that they should cease to give her pain. This matter-of-fact message seemed to give the last touch of dreariness to her despondent mood. The house, silent and gloomy, frowned at her like a sepulchre. As she passed upstairs she caught sight of the dining-room, where the table was being prepared, as usual, for her husband and herself, in case of his arrival. What hard work some of those dinners had been! How dismal! How dismal it would have been to-night, in Sibylla’s present mood! It was a relief that her husband was staying away; and yet how sad that it should be so! how hard! What a reversal of the vows and hopes of earlier days, when the possibility of unhappiness had seemed incredible to her joyous faith! How quickly the sky, bright with the promise of a cloudless day, had been overcast. Was this the way, then, in which the happiness of married life gets wrecked? Sibylla felt herself drawing near to shipwreck. She sank—her husband’s open note in her hand—into an arm-chair in the drawing-room, too tired, too spiritless to go upstairs. The motive-spring of life seemed wanting, even for its most trivial acts. What was to be the end? Could such a life as her present one go on? Was such a life worth going on with? Which of them was to blame? It mattered not. Whosever the fault, the result was equally disastrous.
“There are things,” Sibylla had been reading, “that we must renounce in life: some of us must resign love.” The thought was borne in upon her that this dismal renunciation was likely now to be her fate.
Her reverie was broken by the entrance of a servant. He came to announce a visitor. It needed a strong effort to throw off her melancholy mood, and assume the conventional cheerfulness, which is nature’s trick of concealment against unwelcome invasion. Before Sibylla had time to force her features to a smile, the intruder stood beside her. It was Amersham.
“Forgive me for coming so late,” he said. “The clock, as I passed it in the hall, reproached me. I was on my way to the House, when the bright idea occurred to me of coming to see how you had got through the miseries of this appalling day. May I stop for a few minutes?”
“Do,” said Sibylla, “I am glad to see you. I am in need of a companion. Yet I half wish you had not come. You catch me at a bad moment. I am bad company for any one, even myself. The day has indeed deserved the worst names we can call it.”
There was something in Sibylla’s tone and manner which seemed to Amersham like an appealing cry for help—something which told him that she was in a mood of unaccustomed feebleness.
It was a new phase. He had a hundred times seen her courageous, hopeful, high-spirited, instinct with enthusiasm, fired with ambition, caring immensely for the prizes of existence, the very type of joyous energy. Now her voice and air were as of one broken in spirit: there was a suggestion of lassitude, of womanly infirmity, of despondency. It invested her with a new and touching charm.
“Then it is a good thing that I have come,” he said as he sat down. “I too am in need of consolation. It will do you good to do me good—as you always do—and give me a delightful half hour in the midst of a day of boredom. What an evening to spend in the House of Commons, with some hundred wretches as wretched as oneself! We have a dreadful evening before us!”
“Ah,” said Sibylla, “Charles has been kept at the House. I have just had a note from him. He dines there. Is it something important?”
“A party skirmish,” said Amersham—“only important because we choose to make it so. Anything does for the Opposition to worry Egremont with. No one really cares a straw about it. But we have been ordered down to vote, some of us to speak, if necessary. I was obeying it. A blessed inspiration turned me here for a sip of pleasure before such a dose of duty.”
“Duty!” cried Sibylla, “one gets tired of the word, when it means slaving in Parliament—and for what? to help a leader or abet an intrigue. How wearisome it all is! How little comes of it!”
“Well,” said Amersham, “if we are to confess, I am weary of it too. It is an old malady with me. I have been so for long. Some day, I believe, I shall throw it all up. Meantime we will refresh ourselves by forgetting it. An audacious idea has come into my head. Suppose you were to let me stay and dine with you. It would be delightful!”
“Ought you not to go to the House?” said Sibylla, struggling feebly against a proposal which was full of agreeableness; “I suppose if Charles has to be there, you ought also?”
“Not till nine,” answered Amersham. “Now that I think of it, I am starving. I had forgotten dinner. It is impossible to dine alone—equally impossible not to dine at all. Take pity on a starving martyr to duty.”
“You will have a very bad dinner,” said Sibylla: “But pray stay if you wish. Will you ring the bell? We will hurry matters on, and set you free as soon as may be. Perhaps you are going to speak? I always know when Charles is going to speak by his being so absorbed.”
“That is the true statesman,” said Amersham: “I can never achieve it. My speeches never will absorb me. I wish they would.”
“So much the better for our dinner,” said Sibylla, a sudden gaiety in her tones; “I hope I do not encourage you in taking politics too lightly.”
“It is impossible to take them too lightly,” said her companion; “encourage me! No, indeed. It is only your caring about them so much that enables me to care at all. But as for what we have on hand tonight, no one pretends to care—not even an enthusiast like your husband.”
“He cares too much to come away,” said Sibylla; “he needs no encouragement.”
Unfortunately at this moment Charles Montcalm was on his legs, making a speech on a subject, which not only had not absorbed him, but about which he knew little and cared less. He was speaking against time, which, of all things, his soul abhorred. It was an incidental duty, which nothing but his unwavering devotion to his Chief enabled him to undertake. He regarded it with absolute disgust. He did it as badly as his worst enemy could wish. But to-night it was a case of necessity. The debate had been expected to last all the evening. Several long Opposition speeches were known to be forthcoming, and would occupy the House, at any rate, till after dinner. Their very order had been agreed upon. Everybody knew beforehand the sort of speeches they would be—long, dull expositions by well-informed provincials, each replete with his own statistics, fired with local enthusiasm and terribly in earnest. It occurred to many minds at once that an hour or two might be more agreeably spent than in listening to them. The risk of mishap seemed infinitesimal. The flesh is weak. There was a general dispersion of the supporters of the Government to home, friend’s home, or club. The House, the lobbies, the library, the dining-rooms, the smoking-room presently became a desert. The occasion had come. The evil sprite that hovers at the ear of whips and wire-pullers whispered a Machiavellian suggestion. Suppose that sundry Opposition speakers could be induced to hold their peace and let their forthcoming orations repose in the womb of the unuttered! Suppose that the debate collapsed! Might not a division be hurried on before the dinner-hour was over—before the Government had time to rally its scattered forces? The fell intention soon became apparent. The Opposition speakers, with new-born unanimity, found it unnecessary to address the House, or did so in a few concise sentences. As one after another sat down. Government speakers became hard to find. “You really must,” an agonised whip had answered to Montcalm’s protest against a sudden mandate to speak on a subject to which he had never given a moment’s thought, “and go on, please, till I come and give you leave to stop. It is a plant, as you see; we must defeat it. If the division comes on we are beaten, for a certainty. In half an hour there will be plenty of people here—some one, at any rate, to set you at liberty. Will you speak when this man sits down?” So Montcalm—furious at his predicament, furious with the idlers whose flight had occasioned it, furious with the meanness of the Opposition manoeuvre, furious with a topic whose obscurities he had never cared to investigate—had risen to speak, had no difficulty in catching the Chairman’s eye as it ranged over a solitude of empty benches, and was speaking as brilliantly as a man will, who suddenly finds himself upon his legs with nothing to say and no audience to address. Never did a half-hour creep with such torturing tardiness away. Never did the fount of Montcalm’s thought flow with less copious stream, or his accustomed clearness of intellectual vision lapse into more Stygian gloom. At last, when the last agonies of exhaustion had been endured, and Montcalm’s stock of phrases and ideas had been consumed to the very dregs, his torturer reappeared—hot, anxious, flurried—and whispered that he was at liberty to stop. “We have got men enough to save the division,” he said, as Montcalm sat down, “so at least we believe—as many, at any rate, as we are likely now to get. They can close the debate when they please.”
Unconscious of her lord’s predicament, Sibylla was surrendering herself to the enjoyment of the pleasant hour which fortune had brought to her guest and herself. She rose presently to leave the room.
“Dinner,” she said, “will be ready presently. Meanwhile I must leave you to your own devices. Can you amuse yourself?”
“Admirably,” said Amersham; “I shall be occupied in thinking how delightful it is to be sitting here, cool, quiet, and happy in the prospect of your return, instead of being in another place, enduring the boredom of a speech, perhaps even the acuter boredom of trying to make one. A speech! Fancy-speaking on such a night as this! I may have to do it, though, before the night is over.”
“Well,” said Sibylla, “you can rehearse your speech here in peace. Sofas and chairs are an excellent audience! Ours have had many speeches addressed to them.”
“Then,” said Amersham, “I am afraid they would not care to listen to me. At any rate, I shall not try them.”
Sibylla left the room, and Amersham, instead of rehearsing his speech, as his hostess had bidden him, wandered away to a side of the room, where, he knew of old, hung a portrait of Sibylla, taken when, as a girl, she had made her first appearance in the London world.
It was a delightful picture—a great artist’s happiest achievement. He had been charmed with his subject, and his work breathed the influence of the charm. It showed Sibylla at the perfect moment of girlhood—fresh, gay, courageous, above everything, pathetic. It showed her noble pose, her energetic gesture, her delightful gentleness and refinement. It was life-like with frankness and sympathy, a woman whom it was joy to have known, a possession to remember. Lady Holte derided it as a piece of flattery to Sibylla’s transcendentalism. Some critics pronounced it a fanciful idealisation, an artist’s dream, rather than the portraiture of a real woman. But Sibylla’s friends unanimously pronounced it admirable in its intelligent, faithful interpretation. It was the real Sibylla whom they knew and loved,—the woman whom Nature had designed to make. To Amersham, as he stood in a half-adoring mood before it, and contrasted its bright joyousness with the Sibylla who had just left him, it spoke of something else. There were touches in her face now, which the artist’s keen eye would not have missed, nor his cunning hand failed to catch—touches of disappointment, melancholy, dashed hopes, and baffled ideals. Sibylla was an unhappy woman. Amersham had known it before. He knew it now more clearly as he compared the living woman with the portrait of the girl. There was another thing, too, which he knew now, for the first time, as the truth was borne in upon him, a sudden, irresistible revelation—he loved her!
Sibylla came back presently, arrayed in white attire—loose, flowing, deliciously cool—a single string of pearls her only ornament. Lady Holte was accustomed to criticise her cousin’s toilette as one of her most characteristic shortcomings—as old-fashioned, pedantic, and generally falling short of the requisite standard of smartness. To more discerning eyes it had the charm of a certain unlaboured exquisiteness which was more than artistic. To Amersham, at any rate, it now seemed exquisite.
He was standing, lost in a reverie, before the picture when Sibylla entered, and was not aware of her approach till she passed close by him. She saw not, or chose not to see, what his employment had been. At any rate she ignored it.
“Do not let me stop your rehearsal,” she said, as she moved onward to a writing-table; “I had forgotten that I had a note which I must write before dinner. Go on with your speech. You will not disturb me.”
Amersham experienced a sudden access of shyness—a guilty sense of being surprised in a furtive act of adoration. Did Sibylla know? had she read his heart? He had been, in truth, adoring her. He was still a stranger to his newly-revealed passion. It terrified, while it delighted him. It reigned supreme. It dominated every other feeling, motive, thought. He had grown suddenly reckless—reckless of consequences. Consequences, indeed! what consequence could be to him of a hundredth part the importance of the transcendent influence, which now swept every other from the field? His conscious look when Sibylla broke in upon his reverie—his embarrassment—his faltering tone as he turned to answer her—so different from his usual self-confident ease of manner,—told a tale which, had she been in the mood to notice it, a less experienced eye than Sibylla’s could scarce have failed to read.
There are moments when women become magnetic, and radiate a subtle influence which man is powerless to resist. Amersham felt that magnetism now. He was under the spell. Sibylla was enchanting. He could do nothing but yield to the enchantment.
“Do you know,” she said, as she rose from the table and came across the room with the note in her hand, “I believe that I ought not to let you stay. I have a presentiment that you should be at the House, and that you will get into a scrape for not being there, and I for abetting you. I feel nervous.”
“But there is no need for nervousness,” said Amersham, sitting down beside Sibylla’s sofa; “I have my orders and shall obey them. Let me stay for a few minutes—the pleasantest of the day—of my day—as the minutes I pass with you always are. I shall speak all the better for having had a taste of real enjoyment. Life must have its respites. If only I might come and dine with you two nights a week I could endure the rest.”
“What would the world say?” asked Sibylla,—“the great, good-natured world?”
“The world!” cried Amersham; “the mob of stupid people always on the look-out for a hint how to amuse themselves and how to behave? We should be showing them both. It would be a delightful fashion. You are the very person to set it.”
“But I am not at all ambitious of setting the fashion to any one,” said Sibylla. “It is not in my line. There are too many people wanting to do it already. I am tired of the whole thing. I want to be out of it.”
“You ought to be out of Town,” said Amersham. “London is unendurable just now. Leave Montcalm to me: I will take care of him. Go and join Lord Belmont. He wants you, I am sure. It would do you both good. You need it. You are tired.”
“I am tired,” said Sibylla; “we all are, I suppose. Life sometimes seems a terrible fatigue. To-day, for instance, I have been feeling bored to death.”
“Clear proof that you should be in the country!” said her companion. “But you to be bored, Mrs. Montcalm! You, whose business it is to banish the boredom which all the rest of us produce. Fancy what it will be like when you are gone! Is it not heroic of me to advise you to go?”
“Well,” Sibylla said, “now you know how much I have deceived you. I wear a masque. I am as little cheerful as the rest. For me, too, life has had its lesson of disappointment. If it be a crime to be unhappy I must plead guilty.”
“You give your friends the greatest happiness,” said Amersham: “what a gift to be able to do so! What a transcendent power! Why should you be unhappy?”
“Ah!” cried Sibylla, “why, indeed, except that it is the common doom, and life is frightfully perverse? Anyhow I value your friendship. It has been a help to me—a great help and pleasure; and it has come to me at times when I was sorely in need of both.”
“If I may think that,” said Amersham, in a tone which startled his companion by its seriousness, and fixed the sentence in her recollection, “I have not lived in vain. But you surprise me, Mrs. Montcalm. Surely your life is one of more than usual perfection—with little need of help from anything or anybody outside it. You are the strong one of us all—the inspirer of strength to feebler folk around!”
“Ah,” cried Sibylla, “how little you know! Strong, indeed! no: but a weak woman with burthens that sometimes seem too great to bear. Tonight I can hardly bear them, as you see. I am talking like a child. It eases my pain to tell it. I need consolation.”
While they yet talked there was a sudden turmoil outside. A cab, dashing along the quiet street, filled it with uproar. It stopped under the dining-room windows. There was a hurried knock—a noisy ring as of a messenger who knows his importance too well to brook delay. Presently a servant entered with a note for Amersham. It bore outside the alarming superscription, “Urgent.” “Please come at once,” the missive ran, “and be prepared to speak. We are short-handed. Division may be earlier than we expected.”
“I hate being persecuted by whips,” said Amersham with an air of vexation, as he folded the note up and consigned it to his pocket; “these messengers are always pursuing me. They track one like a runaway, and are always catching one exactly at the moment when one does not want to be caught. It is in the nature of whips, I suppose, to be fond of raising false alarms, and frightening themselves and the rest of the world, when there is nothing to be frightened at but their own nervousness. I get one of these urgent messages about three times a week. I know their worth—a safety-vent for official zeal. I cannot and will not speak. If I tried I should only disgrace myself.”
“You ought really to go,” said Sibylla, “I beg you to do so. Pray do not stay.”
While Amersham still lingered, a second messenger arrived, bearing a mandate against which not even Amersham’s indifference was proof. The man had been to his club, his quarters in the Albany, where nothing was known of him—had gone back in despair to the club, where a porter, who had more than once heard Amersham give orders to his driver, thought it possible that the wanderer might be heard of at Mr. Montcalm’s house. The steaming, panting horse bespoke a strenuous pursuit. “Pray come at once,” read Amersham: “none of our people are here. The Opposition are trying to close the debate and snatch a division. Not one of them will speak. Montcalm is on his legs, but cannot go on much longer. There is no one to follow him. The debate may collapse at any moment. If it collapses now, we shall be beaten. Not a moment to be lost.” Amersham folded up the note.
“Montcalm is speaking and needs relief,” he said. “I must go and relieve him; but what slavery it is! What a thing it is to serve one’s country.”
“Charles speaking!” cried Sibylla. “Fly, fly! My presentiment was right, you see; I shall never forgive myself if you are not in time!”
In another moment she was alone. Her solitude seemed intenser than before. Amersham’s visit, his summons, the excitement of his hurried departure had produced a moment’s excitement, a momentary forgetfulness of the pain that was aching at her heart, the consciousness of her dismal surroundings. It had been a welcome respite. Sibylla’s melancholy mood now returned, blacker than ever. Amersham’s solicitude, his devotion, his sympathy had, in truth, been delightful. They reminded Sibylla how full of delightful things life is; how far beyond her reach those delights now seemed to be. She was longing for kindness, for a congenial spirit—for companionship. She had an evening of solitude before her to-day—to-morrow her husband’s tacit hostility which made solitude seem a blessed relief. She rose with a sigh. She went to the piano—that kindly confidant of how many women’s moods, how many untranslatable feelings, how many unuttered sorrows! She laid her hands on the keys; she let them travel, almost automatically, into old familiar, favourite airs, as one after another they occurred to recollection, and seemed to claim expression. It was a relief to play on—yes, but the very relief was full of sadness. Sibylla needed no light, no book,—happily, for she could have read nothing. Her eyes, she knew, were swimming with tears. The tears had come—idle tears—no—but the very cry of suffering nature, the cry that she had been longing to utter. Her melancholy mood had forced itself to light. She ceased to play—she could struggle no longer—she rose from the piano—she hurried to her room. There, safely barricaded from the possibility of intrusion, she opened the flood-gates of her melancholy and let the tide rush in upon her bewildered soul.
The dreary fact could no longer be concealed. She was an unhappy wife.
Moths will burn
Their wings—which proves that light is good for moths,
Who else had flown not where they agonise.
Amersham drove away with a beating heart. He was greatly excited. He had been torn from the most delightful hour of his life—too delightful not to be dangerous. He had before had love-passages in plenty—but nothing ever that had touched him as he now was touched. It was, perhaps, well that a rough, imperative interruption had come to his rescue. He was conscious of being no longer master of himself.
As his cab dashed along the streets the seriousness of the emergency began to come home to him. It beset him more instantly as he approached the scene of action. While he had been with Sibylla he had been under a spell—more than half in dream-land, the land of poetry, sentiment, overpowering, absorbing emotion. The other world—the world of business, of politics, of political men and political battles, of divisions, whips, and secretaries—seemed far off, indistinct, unimportant, unreal. Nothing really signified but the one topic—the one person, who occupied his thoughts, whose society was the charm of existence, the centre of interest, the only thing about which it was possible to care.
But now, as he came under the shadows of Westminster, the actual world—the practical necessities of the hour—once more took possession of his thoughts. Would he be in time? It seemed scarcely likely: but the chance was worth a strenuous effort. He began to wish vehemently that he might be,—to realise the inconvenience, the annoyance of being late. He watched his onward progress with anxiety. An occasional stoppage in the streets quickened his impatience. He reached the Members’ entrance at last in a fever of excitement.
He sprang out of the cab, and hurried along the corridor. The clatter of an electric bell told him that it was an affair of seconds. “You must be quick, sir,” a policeman called out as he passed; “you will just be in time.” Amersham dashed forward, mounted a flight of steps and came, in a few moments, upon a little crowd which had formed in front of a glass door, a barrier, alas! which precluded further progress. It was inexorably closed. Amersham was too late. He could see, on the other side, members moving to the division—one familiar face after another passed—friend or foe—Montcalm, among the rest, with a harassed look upon his fine brow—an eager, agitated look in his eyes which bespoke his keen interest in the occasion. The sight of him grated on Amersham’s nerves. He felt conscious of a pang of dislike—dislike and contempt. Friend or foe, which was he now? What manner of man must he be to get absorbed in things such as this, and for them to neglect the most perfect woman in the world?
Meanwhile the group of unfortunates who, like himself, had come a few minutes too late for the Division and had been shut out, was every instant increasing in numbers. All were loud in protests against the manoeuvre which had occasioned the disaster, or the bad luck which had defeated their efforts to be in time. Amersham felt no inclination to publish his own experiences of the evening. He stood in silent annoyance and helplessness among the rest.
Presently there came the sound of distant cheering. The result of the Division had been declared. The glass door opened; the belated ones passed in. It became known at once that the Government had been beaten. Amersham pushed in with the crowd, and made his way into the lobby. He had not gone many yards before he came across Montcalm—cold, self-contained, and impressive as ever; but there was anger on his brow, in his stormy eye, anger too in his tone. “You were shut out, were you not?” he asked as Amersham came up; “it was a dirty trick, was it not? They had led us to believe that the debate would last the night. Two of their people were known to have speeches prepared, and to be good for an hour apiece. At the last moment they thought better of it. They saw the chance of snatching a division. There was a conspiracy of silence. As usual we were unprepared, and half our people scattered Heaven knows where. Our discipline is deplorable; the Opposition know it and turn it to excellent account.”
“Excellent, do you call it?” cried Amersham, in tones of profound vexation; “who could have thought that they would stoop to this? I went away with orders to be back at nine. On my way to the House I called on Mrs. Montcalm. She was good enough to let me invite myself to dinner. We had not begun when the messenger found me. He had a long chase after me and caught me at last, just too late to be of any use. It was very unfortunate.”
“Most unfortunate,” said Montcalm, with laconic severity, and without another word passed on, and was lost in the crowd. He could not have trusted himself to speak. As it was he had said too much. He had betrayed his annoyance. Amersham’s lighthearted admission was like a sword-stroke that cut him to the quick. The pang was the more acute in that it must be borne in silence.
He made his way back to his place in the House, and sat through the rest of the evening, unconscious of what was going on, busied with his own thoughts. They were far from pleasant. It was true, then—the gossip which he had overheard. His wife was the attraction which, for weeks past, had been tempting Amersham away from his duties in Parliament, and had made his remissness noticeable. The absentees on this critical occasion would be the topic of common talk. Their excuses would be known, would be canvassed. Amersham’s excuse would be that he was dining tête-à-tête with Mrs. Montcalm at the very moment when Mrs. Montcalm’s husband was sacrificing himself, in the most disagreeable manner possible, on behalf of his party. There was a comic aspect to the whole thing which Montcalm shuddered to think of—the old-fashioned comedy of the husband who comes off second-best in his encounter with an adroit rival. Montcalm had undoubtedly come off second-best. He felt excessively aggrieved. The more he thought about it, the deeper became his resentment against both parties concerned. His friend and his wife had combined to render him ridiculous. Amersham had taken a liberty; Sibylla had allowed it. It was unforgivable. They had begun a flirtation! It was extraordinary, inconceivable, that Sibylla should have lent herself to such an escapade. It had a tinge of commonness, of vulgarity. It emphasised the least dignified side of Amersham’s character, his weakness for a mild intrigue. It was an old joke against him. Oftentimes before now he had excited the amusement of some of his compeers, the sneers of others, by his undisguised preference of ladies’ society to the dull drudgery of Parliamentary work. He was to be found at tea on the Terrace, chatting with a group of charming women, or safely ensconced in some drawing-room with a few delightful beings, when less impressible or sterner natures were sitting through a dull debate, hearing witnesses and lawyers in committee, or busy in the library in the drudgery of a blue-book. Montcalm regarded such infirmities with contemptuous dislike. They were weak—undignified—unbecoming a man with serious political pretensions. It gave the whole thing an air of frivolity, of pleasure-hunting, of shallowness. Montcalm would as soon have thought of flying as of inviting his wife to figure at such entertainments. He made no secret that he would greatly have disapproved her participation in them. If ladies wanted, for any special reason, to hear a debate—a piece of feminine inquisitiveness not, on the whole, deserving of encouragement,—there was the gallery, where their curiosity could be gratified without publicity or inconvenience. It was objectionable to have the solemnity of a Senate disturbed by the picnics of idle young women for whose appetite their own silly amusements were not enough. It was a pity that a man of Amersham’s quality should encourage a foolish fashion. So Montcalm generally disapproved. There was a long interval, however, between mere general disapproval and the deep sense of personal grievance which Amersham’s latest performance had aroused in Montcalm’s mind. It had placed him in an undignified, an absurd position. It might mean—Society would take it as meaning—so much. It cast a shade upon his name—his home—his wife. Sibylla would be talked of. Every man’s story as to how he came to be shut out would be the topic of small -talk in a hundred drawing-rooms,—Amersham’s, of course, amongst the rest, more than the rest. A few hours’ gossip would invest it with the delicious piquancy of a scandal.
So Montcalm sat through the remaining business of the evening—his hat well down upon his forehead—cold, self-centred, determined in attitude and appearance, but in reality sick at heart. Deep down in his heart he loved this woman from whom circumstances were estranging him, from whom he seemed daily going further apart, who had now, by her unwisdom, her carelessness for his feelings, contributed so intensely to annoy him. Of her loyalty he was well assured. It would be madness to doubt it. But he had begun to doubt. Montcalm turned in horror from the thought. It was mere madness—too monstrous to be harboured for an instant. But Amersham was like other men, and Amersham, it was certain, was devoted to his wife. Sibylla, it would seem, had not thought it necessary to discourage his devotion. Now all London would know of it. The cruel pang of jealousy shot across Montcalm’s aching heart and left him in agony. You cannot argue with a pang. Montcalm knew that his jealousy was irrational: none the less it tormented him.
He arrived at home less than ever able to cloak his discomfort and displeasure under a conciliatory manner. He dreaded meeting Sibylla. He would have to say something about Amersham; and he was conscious of an irresistible impulse to say something disagreeable. It was a disagreeable topic, for he intended to convey to Sibylla his view that she had been guilty of an indiscretion. The idea seemed absurd on the face of it, yet the facts of the case were an ample justification. Sibylla’s ill-timed hospitality had betrayed Amersham into remissness in his public duty; and his remissness and that of half a dozen other defaulters had entailed a defeat on the Government. They had blundered into notoriety.
“How did things go last night, Charles?” asked Sibylla when she met her husband next morning; “Mr. Amersham came here on his way to the House and stayed to dine with me. While we were waiting for dinner a messenger came to say that you were speaking and that a division was imminent. I trust he was in time.”
“No,” said her husband, turning pale with suppressed excitement; “he was not in time, he came too late. The Government was beaten. Amersham and some others were shut out. Mr. Egremont is naturally excessively annoyed; so are we all. If I may advise you, Sibylla, I would not ask my friends to dinner on the nights when they are wanted in their place in Parliament. It is embarrassing for them, and may entail, as in this instance it does, excessive annoyance upon others. Spare me such annoyance for the future.”
Montcalm wore his coldest, driest, most formal air—the air of an aggrieved man who does not care to insist upon his wrongs, but who none the less does not ignore them. His deliberate, measured phrases fell like so much ice on Sibylla’s suffering soul. They were cruel, unjust, monstrous; Their injustice revolted her. He knew, or might have known, that the mishap was due to a chapter of accidents with which Sibylla had the slightest possible connection—no shade certainly of an intention to abet them. The accusation was false; she had invited no one to dinner. Ought she to have refused a friend who, by chance, claimed so obvious, so commonplace an act of hospitality? Could it have occurred to her, to any one, that the minutes which Amersham passed in her drawing-room were minutes of torture to her husband, which Amersham’s absence intensified? Sibylla’s heart was aching: she felt weary, bruised, and in dire need of kindness, tenderness, love. She needed a caress: her husband’s way of behaving hurt like a blow: she was never nearer to disliking him.
Montcalm never more disliked himself. He was acting, he knew, like a madman, yielding to a base, irrational anger—to jealousy which he knew to be groundless—to suspicions which he blushed to formulate even to himself. He knew that he was jeopardising his happiness and his wife’s; yet the Furies drove him on. He was wretched, and wretchedness is seldom wise. His very love for his wife made him furious at the malign influences that had driven them apart—that were daily, more and more estranging them. He might have taken her to his arms and in a single embrace swept away the bitterness, the misery, the mockery that life had been of late. But pride, shyness, and a morose sense of wrong held him back from salvation.
Sibylla stood tongue-tied before him; she was essaying to speak. But before she could do so Montcalm had turned and left her without another word.
—Only I discern
Infinite passion and the pain
Of finite hearts that yearn.
There was a flutter in certain official circles, for it became known that the Governorship of the South-western Dominions would presently be in the market. The post was one of considerable prestige and emolument. Some very distinguished men had not been ashamed to hold it: others, not less distinguished, had aspired to do so. The five years of expatriation, which its occupancy involved, were deemed to be usefully employed in coming face to face with colonial problems and getting to understand the temper of colonial democracy. Several rising statesmen had had their first taste of active service in the post. It required a man of shrewdness, ability, adroitness, and a good speaker. There was a rumour of its being offered to Amersham.
Lord Belmont was inscrutable on the subject, from which Sibylla inferred that he had been consulted about it. Amersham himself laughed at the idea, and mentioned it to Sibylla as an amusing specimen of the political canard.
“My pride and my modesty,” he said, “alike make me certain that it is impossible. If it be given to any one in the House, it will be some one whom the Government dread, or whose seat they want for a more valuable occupant. I am quite sure that the Government do not dread me. On the other hand, I am fain to hope that they are not so anxious for my seat as to wish to extinguish me. I have been a particularly good boy since my last scrape.”
“But you would refuse it, of course?” said Sibylla; “it would be, as you say, extinction.”
“An agreeable form of extinction, though,” replied her companion; “a fine salary, a comfortable Government House, and as much honour and glory as you like—excellent sport, a delicious climate, and nothing to do but to keep people quiet and avoid a row. I rather like the idea of it.”
“And give up Parliament, and London, and everything that is interesting, and come back five years hence—dull, middle-aged, colonialised—all the bloom off your wits, and perfect master of some dreadful colonial controversy which nobody wishes to understand, or could, if they wished. What an ambition!”
“But one would come back respectable, weighty, an authority. Besides, I could marry. You would have to find me a wife, Mrs. Montcalm.”
“For the colonies! No, thank you. No cycles of Cathay for me, or for the charming women whom I have in store for charming men. You will marry a South-Western Dominionite. How pleasant for you when you reappear, and how pleasant for us!”
“Then you would disapprove?” asked Amersham.
“Emphatically,” said Sibylla; “you would be throwing away your chance, waste five precious years, and have to begin again, with all your Parliamentary reputation to earn. Meanwhile we should all have forgotten you.”
“A dreadful threat!” cried Amersham; “I must stay to keep my memory green. But what a sacrifice! Imagine me taking the greatest South-West Dominion lady in to dinner, and summoning some colonial beauty—perhaps a dusky one—to share the honours of a birthday ball. It is heart-rending to resign it!”
A few weeks afterwards, Amersham came late in the afternoon to see Mrs. Montcalm. He had evidently been under great excitement, and was so still.
“Well,” he said, as soon as they were alone, “the deed is done. I have refused the post. I wrote to the Duke this morning. He made the offer in flattering terms, with a kind message from Egremont. I could not but be flattered—not to say tempted. But I declined decisively. I shall have no such chance again. The Rubicon is passed. There is no retreat.”
“Why should you wish to retreat, or think of it?” said Sibylla: “I am glad that you have committed yourself; you will not regret it.”
“No,” said Amersham, with sudden earnestness, in the strongest possible contrast with his accustomed levity of demeanour, “I shall never regret it. It was done advisedly, on grounds which must always be the same to me—must always be paramount—for which I should always be ready to surrender anything.”
“What grounds?” said Sibylla, flushing up, for there was something in Amersham’s air which surprised her. “he only grounds on which I should care to see you act are principle and conviction—honest conviction. It is a great pleasure to me that they lead you to act as you have done—in the way that I believe is right. You would never sacrifice them, I know.”
“But I would!” cried Amersham; “conviction or principle or anything else. You think too highly of my political virtue, Mrs. Montcalm. I will be honest, at any rate, with you. You may as well know the truth—my real controlling motive. I refused the post because you bade me. Bid me do something else more difficult than that! The one thing in life I care about is to please you.”
There was truth in Amersham’s tones—fervent, impassioned truth in his eyes, which dwelt on Sibylla with tender longing and devotion—truth in his gestures and attitude—truth, sincerity, and passion.
Sibylla’s heart was beating loud and quick. The blood had left her cheek; she was conscious of a dreadful sensation of helplessness, caught suddenly into this fierce tide of vehement emotion. Her first instinct was to belittle it—to treat it as a silly extravagance.
“Do not say that sort of thing,” she said, “even in joke. It is not a joke I like. It displeases me. You must not say such things, or think them. They are unworthy of you. I wish for your success—success of the best sort—the success of doing the right, the wise thing. I hope to see you a statesman. It is a happiness to me that your views and mine as to good statesmanship agree—a great happiness; but the happiness would be gone if I knew that you had any motive but the right one.”
“Statesmanship!” cried Amersham: “I do not believe in it. Who could, who has seen what it comes to, who knows it as we do? But I believe in you, Mrs. Montcalm,—the best, the noblest, the sweetest woman I have ever known. You hold the key of my character: your wishes guide my career, your sympathy is my greatest pleasure, your friendship my best possession, the only possession I care two straws about.”
“Stop!” cried Sibylla, ‘‘before you say too much and spoil everything, and make our friendship impossible. You are excited, Mr. Amersham, and not yourself. You have been talking rashly. Thank you for your friendship. I prize it, as you know. Except my husband and my father, you are the greatest friend I have ever had: but remember, please, that there are some kinds of friendship which it is degradation to a married woman to share. Take care lest you degrade me, and, with me, yourself.”
“Degrade you!” cried Amersham, “degrade what I worship as the incarnation of all that is best and noblest in the world! Call it degradation or what you please. Take it, or leave it, or trample on it as a disgrace, as I daresay you will. I am helpless. I worship you.”
Sibylla, for some seconds, sat speechless. She had been haunted by the dread that this would come. Now that it had come, it was worse than she had expected it to be,—more painful, more overpowering, less easy to confront. Her moral forces seemed to reel. Her fate was trembling in the balance. It was a critical moment, one of the turning-points, when the course of a life, of two lives, perhaps, may be dominated, diverted by a phrase, a word, a look.
“It is not what I call it,” she said at last, in the broken tones of one who is making a supreme effort at self-repression, “but what it is. You know that you are wrong. I too am wrong. I must have been wrong—dreadfully wrong—that such a scene as this should have been possible. I reproach myself bitterly, bitterly! Now the end has come. Our friendship has ended, as they tell one such friendships always do,—the common end, the wretched end, that brings one face to face with dishonour. It is a dreadful disappointment, the greatest of my life. Our friendship was a great source of happiness to me—too great, I suppose; too dangerous, as now I know. Anyhow, it has ended.”
Sibylla’s utterance came abruptly to a close. She suddenly found herself inarticulate. The effort had been too great. Another word and she would have burst into tears. She was looking down to hide the revelation of distress which she knew was written in her face. She dared not look at her companion. In his face, too, a revelation would, she knew, be written, which she dreaded to confront.
“Ended?” said Amersham. “Do friendships like ours—a devotion like mine, end at a word, at will, because one of us is betrayed into telling the truth—is guilty of a too presumptuous phrase? What have words to do with it? Some people choose them more nicely than others. I have no such art. I am saying what I feel, what I know to be the truth—the transcendent truth for me. I know not what you can give me in return, perhaps nothing. Be that as it may, my soul is yours.”
“My soul is not mine to give,” cried Sibylla; “you forget that I am a wife, a loving wife. I love my husband. If you have failed to read this in me, you have read me wrong, utterly wrong. I love him. I am confident that my love is returned. I will be no traitress to myself or him. I should be a traitress if I let you talk like that.”
“Be it so,” said Amersham. “I ask you to no treason. But I may still be your friend?”
“People say that such friendships are impossible,” said Sibylla, despair in her tones. “They would be, of course, if you were ever to talk again as you have talked to-day, or if you continue to feel as you talked. For myself, I wish to tell you plainly, I have no such feeling. You have been a friend—most kind, most congenial, most serviceable to me at moments when I have sorely needed help. I know the worth of such friendship. I always shall be most grateful. I shall never forget it. Only let there be nothing in our friendship that either of us would not care to remember.”
“When it comes to be a matter of remembrance,” said Amersham, “I shall remember nothing but that, whatever else life fails in, it has brought me some hours that I have passed with you—some delightful, inspiring, ennobling hours—hours that shed their fragrance over a lifetime of failure and disappointment.”
“Failure and disappointment!” cried Sibylla. “What words to use! You, whose cup of pleasure and success is so full!”
“Pleasures that do not please,” said Amersham, with bitterness, “and success that, before you can put the cup down, palls on the taste. That is what life has brought me hitherto. No; happiness for me lies elsewhere.”
“I believe it does,” said Sibylla: “I have often thought so. I think so now more than ever. I have had dreams of happiness for you: but not in scenes like this, which can end only in remorse and shame.”
“My only dream of happiness,” said Amersham, “is that you should forgive me, and remain my friend. I may still hope for that? Our relations will remain unchanged?”
“How can they be unchanged?” answered Sibylla; “you have chosen to change them. You have spoilt our friendship—our friendship which I believed wholly honourable. That was what made it so charming. How deceived I was! You have given it a tinge of guilt; you have broken the spell! A rash, wretched act, a sort of sacrilege! How can I forget it? How can one ignore a personal humiliation? It would be folly to attempt to pretend to do so—worse folly on my part than all that has gone before. But I am unnerved. I need to be alone. I must ask you to leave me. Good-bye.”
“But I may come again?” cried Amersham in dismay; for Sibylla had risen, and evidently intended to close the interview; “I forgot myself just now. I spoke rashly. I was hurried into saying what I did. I was wrong, deplorably wrong. Only forgive me, and let it be unsaid.”
“It is no question of forgiveness,” cried Sibylla. “Would that it could be unsaid—unsaid and unthought!”
Not to have tasted is the best.
The wine of bliss, so rich, so clear,
To which our mortal lips are pressed.
Once drunk on earth makes heaven less dear.
Give me the fever of the soul;
Sweeter its thirst than any bowl.
Amersham was gone, and Sibylla was left alone with her thoughts. She was dreadfully perturbed. She seemed to herself never till now to have known what agitation meant. Her soul was tempest-tossed—driven hither and thither by influences, whose power over herself, her will, her judgment, she had not dared to gauge. Could she hold her own amid them? Was she holding her own, as an honourable woman ought? She had put a stop to Amersham ‘s advances by the best barrier that, in such cases, the defender of the endangered garrison can employ—an explicit declaration of her attachment to her husband. A good barrier, indeed! But was it, in Sibylla’s case, impregnable? Had anything impaired its efficiency? Sibylla loved her husband. Despite all that happened to dim the happiness of love, she had no doubt about that. She had a profound sense of the obligation which such love imposes. She felt no temptation to belittle or ignore it. But when the husband whom a woman loves, makes no response—when he meets affection with coldness and reserve—when he neglects the small duties of love—small, indeed, but still essential to its completeness—when he carelessly leaves the field open to those who are longing to intrude, and whose earnestness seems to justify intrusion—in how difficult, how dangerous a pass does he place her! How embarrassed does conjugal devotion become! The commonplace rules of life fail at the very point at which guidance is required. It is so easy to lay down general propositions of morality: so difficult to apply them to one’s own individual case, with its subtle shades of difference, its nice distinctions, its special peculiarities. The more ardently one loves, the more acutely does one feel love’s wrongs—the more does one resent any deflection from the standard of perfect devotion. In Sibylla’s case not even love itself could be blind to the fact that her husband was behaving badly to her—harshly, cruelly, with unjustifiable reserve and neglect. He went his way in a world of his own, to which all access was forbidden her. He repelled all the advances of affection. He seemed almost to dislike them. He effectually barricaded himself against any real intercourse of soul with soul. His thoughts, his cares, his feelings were his own, as jealously shrouded from the eye of his wife as from those of the intermeddling stranger. In such a case, what is the wife’s obligation? Does any reasonable code of morals make it incumbent on her to refuse the kindness, the friendship, the cordiality which meet her on her path, and light up an existence, threatening to grow dreary, with their genial glow? And if that kindness becomes a few shades too tender—that friendship too outspoken, is she to turn her back on these good things, and live on in a half-frozen world, in which a careless husband leaves her—all the pleasant healthy qualities of life perishing meanwhile from inanition and disuse? Is she to accept the isolation to which a husband’s selfishness dooms her as her irreversible fate without a struggle, when the struggle is so easy—when all that delightful companionship can do to sweeten life lies close within her reach, if she chooses to accept it? Is she bound to reject the proffered boon, to discard the friend whose only fault is his too hearty devotion—whose one ambition is to gratify her—who finds in her society ample reward for any sacrifice—who is everything that a neglectful husband fails to be? The selfishness of man, easily enough, lays down strict canons of behaviour, the one object of which is to guard against the possibility of danger to a husband’s supremacy. But what of the woman’s rights—her needs—her sufferings—the dull misery of isolation—the slow martyrdom of disappointed hopes and unsatisfied cravings?
So Sibylla found herself tossed this way and that by conflicting currents of thought, which bore her nowhere at last, but kept her in a tumult. She knew not what to do—scarcely what to think.
Amersham, on his part, was in the greatest distress. He was humiliated by his repulse, and in a rage with his own unskilfulness. His outburst had been unconsidered, unpremeditated, unworthy of Sibylla or himself. Her behaviour had been a rude awakening. For weeks past he had been growing gradually accustomed to his own state of feeling, and had forgotten that Sibylla did not share it. He had lapsed gradually into imagining that she did. It had proved to be a delusion. How to repair so egregious a blunder? Was it irreparable, as Mrs. Montcalm had said? Was it conceivable that their previous relations should be abruptly closed?
He realised the inconsistency of his behaviour. He had spoken sincerely, when he had said that he would be horror-struck at the idea of doing his well-beloved friend any harm. But, as he calmly reviewed his own feelings, he began to be haunted by the consciousness that friendship, so rigidly prescribed, would not suffice him. He had deceived himself. As long as their relations allowed this deception to lurk in obscurity, all had gone well: but this agreeable self-delusion had now come to an end. His feelings towards Sibylla had forced themselves into definite expression; and, so expressed, they were, he knew, indefensible. Veil it as he would to himself, he loved her. His love was not returned. The husband, whatever his shortcomings, was still paramount. Wounded, distrusted, neglected, Sibylla, it was clear, was still in love with Charles Montcalm. As a man of sense, a man of honour, Amersham could not continue to proffer a devotion for which no place could be found in Sibylla’s heart, and which, now that its true nature was disclosed, she resented as an indignity. Yet it was impossible to give her up.
Several days passed of sore disquietude to Amersham. He had parted from Sibylla without any understanding as to when and how they were to meet again. It was doubtful whether she intended that there should be any such meeting. It was certain that she felt aggrieved, distressed, humiliated. A wrong had been done to her husband and herself. She was not a woman who would take such a wrong lightly. How would she act? She would, it was certain, be uncompromising where a question of right and wrong was involved. She would unflinchingly adopt the right course, at whatever cost to herself or others. It was possible—it was probable—that she would regard any proposal to renew their intercourse as an additional wrong. On the other hand, she was, above everything, a woman, in the best sense of womanliness. She would be reasonable, considerate, forbearing, everything that a large-minded and generous nature could enjoin. For Amersham to acquiesce in final dismissal without an effort to retrieve the lost position would argue pusillanimity—almost indifference. It would place him in a false position; for it would mean that, when once assured that their relations were not to go beyond honourable friendship, he did not care to cultivate the intimacy. This was as far as possible from his intention. At no time would he have admitted to himself that his relations to Sibylla could be anything but pure and honourable. He would have thought himself accursed if he could be imagined doing her a wrong. Unfortunately this was not the view which Sibylla had taken of his recent outburst. It was above all things necessary to put himself right—so far as the case admitted of being put right—to palliate, even if it was impossible to justify.
He could not bring himself to write. She might not like it. Now that the truth about him had escaped, the most formal note was compromising. Still less could he venture to force himself upon Mrs. Montcalm without her permission. Fortune solved the difficulty.
Before many evenings had passed they met in society. The party was a large one. There was a crowd—a block. There was nothing in Sibylla’s manner that bespoke embarrassment. She was gracious, natural, and perfect mistress of herself, more than ever the perfect woman of Amersham’s dreams.
Amersham, embarrassed and excited, found presently the opportunity for a few words in quiet.
“I have not ventured to call,” he said, “without your leave to do so. I did not like to write. I should be most grateful if you would let me come and see you, if only for a few moments. I shall say nothing, of course, that could give you annoyance; but it would be an intense relief to me. I hope that you will let me come.”
“Is that a wise request?” said Sibylla; “I scarcely think so. It will only give you pain and give me pain. There is really nothing more to say but what must be distressing to both of us. I shrink from it. I should be glad to be spared it.”
“Then, of course,” said Amersham, “my request must be withdrawn. I can ask nothing that it pains you to concede. For myself, no pain can be greater than a friendship so closed, in haste, displeasure, mutual misunderstanding. Is my offence unforgivable, unredeemable? I would give anything to redeem it. If only you could give me the chance.”
Sibylla hesitated to reply. There was something in Amersham’s tones which touched her heart, and made her pause. Had she the right to refuse to see him—she asked herself—the right to do a cruel act? It would be cruel: was it not also cowardly—the cowardice which dreads to confront a painful scene? It would be better, safer, perhaps, to let him speak: it would be better herself to speak, and let him clearly understand how matters for the future were to stand between them. To shrink from being explicit was an admission of weakness—a weakness which Sibylla did not feel; for she was quite assured of what she ought and meant to say.
The conviction was gaining upon her that she was the stronger of the two. Hers was the clearer judgment, the firmer will, the nicer sense of right and wrong. Amersham had shown weakness—a faltering rectitude of purpose, a moral infirmity. He could easily be led into a fatal lapse from honour. On the other hand, he might be helped, strengthened, saved. Sibylla felt a noble, womanly desire to save him.
“I can trust you not to come,” she said, “not to propose coming, unless what you come to say will raise you in my esteem, and be good for us both. Can you promise that?”
“I promise it most solemnly,” said Amersham; “that is the one thing in life I care to do. It will be the greatest kindness if you will give me the chance. I shall not abuse it. You may trust me.”
“I trust you,” said Sibylla. “Come to tea with me to-morrow. Ah, there is my husband! Will you take me to him?”
Romney. I am come
To speak, beloved.
Aurora, Wisely, Cousin Leigh,
And worthily of us both!
Romney, Yes, worthily.
Passionately as he had desired it, profoundly grateful as he felt to Sibylla for her consent, Amersham had never felt more frightened at an impending interview than now. He had spoken sincerely when, by promises and protestations of innocence, he obtained her permission to visit her. He believed himself innocent; he was resolved at all costs to be so. His relations to Mrs. Montcalm were to be, for the future, all that the severest standard of rectitude could prescribe. So the Fates decreed. Sibylla had ordained it. Her wish was law. It was his wish too—his profoundest wish. Amersham assured himself that, in the nature of things, it must be so. Sibylla’s greatest charm was her nobleness of character, her dignity, innocence, and loftiness of soul. What worse desecration than to dim this exquisite crystal with a profane breath—to mar the perfection of this fair flower—to impair this nobility—to derogate in the slightest degree from this purity! Perish the thought! Cost the struggle what it might—at whatever sacrifice of personal happiness—this feat of abnegation, this triumph over one’s lower self had, Amersham vowed, to be achieved.
Nevertheless, when these exemplary resolutions were recorded in the tribunal of conscience, Amersham could not rid himself of a profound sense of embarrassment in meeting the person in whose honour they were made. What is the worth of such resolutions, such protestations, to the woman who is loved, and who knows that she is loved by the protester? Was Sibylla wise in allowing an interview? Had Amersham been wise in asking it? What, in such circumstances, does reticence mean but that the truth is being violently crushed out of sight? And then, is not the very silence more eloquent than words—the very restraint of behaviour a sort of elaborate hypocrisy which only emphasises the fact which it professes to conceal?
These self-questionings set Amersham’s heart beating as he entered the drawing-room at Lord Belmont’s, which was to be the scene of the interview. Sibylla was not there. He sat down to await her. The genius loci breathed a sweet influence around. What hours of happiness that room had witnessed—happy, blissful hours! He knew each detail of the place so well; he loved it. The romance of natural scenery is an old story; but who has done justice to the romance of rooms—of furniture—the flower, the piece of work, the open book, the chair, the foot-stool, which bespeak the recent presence of some well-loved being—which breathe of her personality, and bring her, in living guise, before an adoring eye? Everything around was eloquent of Sibylla, pathetically eloquent—her grace, her charm, her refinement. The place was sacred—sacred ground—sacred to happiness, to Sibylla. Never had Amersham been in a more adoring mood.
When Sibylla presently entered the room Amersham was at once conscious of a change—a change of manner, of tone. It was subtle, undefinable. Affection’s keen sense alone might have detected it; but Amersham knew that Sibylla was not quite the same. She received him with perfect cordiality. She was gracious, gentle, dignified—all that a woman should be who claims the fealty of mortal hearts. She had never seemed more perfectly charming. But her composure was not spontaneous; it was the result of self-restraint, of effort, of a moral triumph over one’s weaker self. That self-mastery was assured. Something in Sibylla’s demeanour warned Amersham that, if his good resolution should waver, she would remain immovable. She was strong in a fixed, deliberate resolve. Her mind was made up. He was to be kept rigidly to his bargain.
There was not, it was certain, to be another scene.
“It is so good of you to let me come,” he said; “so like yourself. I cannot say how great a boon I feel it.”
“A doubtful boon,” said Sibylla; “friendships like ours may easily become a man’s greatest misfortune. It is the woman’s part to guard against that. I wish to do so; I mean to do so.”
“Come what may,” cried Amersham, “I shall always regard the fact that you have thought me worthy to be your friend as the great achievement of my life—the first great step to good—the beginning of greatness, true greatness.”
“I have wished it to be so,” said Sibylla; “I hoped that it might be. It was a vain, presumptuous dream. It has ended for me in failure and humiliation. Still, it was my wish. It is still my wish, my hope. You have it in you to be great. Do not miss greatness. It is so easy to miss it. To miss it by some baseness would be worst of all; and suppose that I was your accomplice!”
“My accomplice!” cried Amersham,—“my guardian angel. Baseness, at any rate, I shall escape so long as I have you for a guide!”
“Well,” said Sibylla, “you know my wish. It is that you may rise to the greatness which I believe you have it in you to achieve—the greatness of an English statesman. It is a noble aim. I am greatly interested in your achieving it. I hope that you will.”
The vein in which Sibylla was speaking was no unfamiliar one between the two friends. She had often before shown a keen desire for his success, an earnest solicitude as to the means of attaining it. She was now beneficently intent, Amersham became aware, on helping him to good—to better things than he had yet achieved, or could achieve without her guidance and inspiration. She had great projects for him, projects of influence, power, public usefulness. “You may have to save your country some day,” she said. “It sounds extravagant; but who knows? It is the epoch of the unexpected. Be prepared—be able to do it when the moment comes.”
“Save my country!” cried Amersham with a laugh. “You take me too seriously, Mrs. Montcalm; you over-rate my capacities. I shall be well content if I can play a humble part in helping my party.”
“You must lead it,” cried Sibylla; “you can, if only you dare, and if you will. You must begin by not being its slave, and by determining to be yourself. Dare to be original, to judge of right and wrong, wisdom and unwisdom, by some higher standard than the level of the men around you—the level of clubs and coteries, or the blind momentary cravings of the mob. Abjure the abject opportunism of the modern politician. Take your own line. Do not creep timorously about creeks and shallows amid the familiar landmarks of home. Strike out into the open ocean and steer by the stars.”
“I steer by one star,” exclaimed Amersham, “the only star I care about—the approval of the noblest woman I have ever known.”
“That will not do,” said Sibylla, nervously, “even if it were true; you cannot give your conscience into another person’s keeping. The nobility I want for your actions must be your own.”
“But the inspiration must be yours,” said her companion, “the inspiration, the guidance. You see the right thing so clearly. Experience has taught me that when I particularly want to go right and am in doubt, the way is to follow your advice. I shall always do so.”
“It is a serious responsibility,” said Sibylla, “but I will not shrink from it. I seem to see your career—what ought to be your career—so plainly. I can help you so far, at any rate. I wonder that you do not see it for yourself. You must have a grand ideal, and refuse everything that falls short of it. You must believe in yourself and in your profession. Statesmanship is a grand affair, you know.”
“An ideal!” cried Amersham, with a bitter laugh, “and politics a grand affair! I don’t think that even you could help me to that. They seem to me so petty, ignoble, degrading.”
“Degrading?” said Sibylla—“yes, to the men who are ready to be degraded—who accept degradation as the necessary price of success, influence, office—whose notion of leading the nation is to find out which road it wants to go and go themselves on it the first and the quickest.”
“Opportunism, of course,” said Amersham,—“but it is the condition of politics. You must be an opportunist, or you are swamped. That is why I hate the whole affair.”
“Never!” cried his companion. “If I thought that I should hate it too, and bid you turn your back on politics. But it is not so. The great man makes his opportunity. He shapes it as he will. He stamps his impress on his age. Surely the England which Pitt saved, is theatre enough for any greatness. But let your rôle be a grand one. You can do it if you try. Leave little things and base pleasures to those who like them. Take your life seriously, and ennoble it.”
“You flatter me, Mrs. Montcalm—you bid me achieve what I can hardly aspire to. It is too grand a flight—I should collapse, like Phaethon. Take life seriously? That is the very last thing I feel capable of doing, or inclined to do. I have missed the one thing that could have made it serious to me. The difficulty now is to care two straws about it.”
“You dash all my good hopes for you,” cried Sibylla, “when you say that. It is faint-hearted, ignoble. Life is no rose-strewn procession for any of us—not to you, not to me—no ‘charmante promenade.’ It is a rough path. Let us tread it heroically. Above everything beware of the Slough of Despond, where the faint hearts perish! That is my hope, my prayer for us both—the seal of our friendship.”
“Ah!” cried Amersham, “but if you knew how little I am worthy of such a friend!”
Pour chasser de sa souvenance
On se donne tant de souffrance
Pour peu d’effet.
Une si douce fantaisie
En songeant qu’il faut qu’on l’oublie,
On s’en souvient.
The pang which stern Duty’s tasks involve does not cease with their accomplishment. There is an after-pang which, when the deed is done and the excitement has passed, is apt to assert supremacy over every other feeling. It is done: it was right to do it: it could, if needs be, be done again. But the sacrifice has been greater than we had reckoned on. We had not counted the cost. We wonder that we had the nerve, the heroism to do it. Its achievement leaves a dull aching pain—a depression of spirits—a sense of void, of despondency. We have climbed the steep, rough path, and stand on a sublime height. But sublime heights have a chill, a dreariness of their own. The air is too keen for mortal lungs; the scenery too grandly solemn for mortal eye. We think regretfully of the fruits and flowers, the snug homesteads, the smiling faces of the valley we have left below. We remember the long, weary climb that brought us to this chilling vantage ground. Martyrs, it has been said, have moments when zeal itself falters before the bliss of martyrdom.
Sibylla was no martyr. None the less, now that the triumph of duty was secured, her woman’s nature suffered. The pain, while she tried to ignore it, became severe. Despite herself her displeasure with Amersham was evaporating. She had borne herself firmly. She had shown no sign of faltering, of weakness. She had conceded nothing. She had spoken no word which fatuity itself could construe into a condonation of the past or indulgence for the future. She had trampled on Amersham’s proffered devotion. She had renounced the great friendship of her life. She had discarded her greatest friend. It was right; it was necessary; she did not regret it. But it was a cruel process—cruel to him, and, as she was now discovering, cruel to herself.
The discovery was mortifying and alarming. She was not so strong a woman as she had imagined herself to be. Amersham’s relations to her were critical. The position was, she now began to realise, dangerous, impossible. She had been persuaded into temporising with a wrong on which she ought to have turned her back once and for ever.
No words that either of them could utter, nothing that either of them could do, sufficed to efface the past, to alter their real relations—the lover and the loved. Amersham talked and behaved with the utmost discretion: but the truth remained the same for both. It was in vain that Sibylla had prescribed with unsparing distinctness the limits which were henceforth to restrain their intimacy; in vain that Amersham loyally obeyed them. The merest commonplaces are enough when once the truth has been avowed. Sibylla’s conscience began to reproach her. She had allowed their intercourse to be renewed. It was an unwise, a wrong concession—most wrong of all, perhaps, to the man whom she was allowing to dally with his fate, to go on nursing a bootless hope. She was resolved to crush that hope once for all—to make Amersham understand the relations on which she chose to stand. Amersham was not cured, was scarcely on the road towards a cure. A remedy must, at all hazards, be found—a deep-reaching, painful, effectual remedy for an inveterate disease. Nothing could be too strong, too painful. Sibylla had such a remedy in store. Amersham had resumed his old habit of coming to her for advice. She resolved now to give him a piece of advice which would make it clear for ever that they could be no more than friends. “You are such an excellent adviser,” he said one day, when he had been telling her of the line he meant to take on a puzzling public question; “you cannot imagine what it is to me to come and be advised. I always do exactly what you tell me. I shall always do so.”
“Always?” said Sibylla. “Do you speak seriously?”
“Most seriously,” said Amersham. “Can you doubt it? Try me.”
“Take care!” answered Sibylla, “I might take you at your word.”
“I wish to be taken at my word,” cried the other; “nothing would please me more. Have you a wish for me?”
“Well,” said Sibylla, “I have. Have you never divined it? Does your conscience give you no hint?”
“No hint,” said the other. “I must be dreadfully obtuse; I have no idea of what you mean. Yet I can often read your wishes. Enlighten me.”
There was a tremor in Sibylla’s voice as she answered—the tremor of intensity, of conquered weakness. She was wrought up to the mood in which heroic deeds are done. She dreaded saying what she had now to say. All the more she was resolved—cost what it might—to say it.
“Have you never guessed the success, which I, as your warm friend, and wishing for you always to do the best and highest thing within your reach, have hoped to see you achieve—the success that is worth all the others ten times told?”
“You talk like a Sphinx,” cried Amersham, lost in bewilderment; “I declare I have not the barest idea of what you mean. You must solve the riddle yourself.”
“Well,” said Sibylla, “since you are determined to be dull, I must tell you. My wish is a sufficiently commonplace one—homely, but wholesome all the same. I should like to see you happily married.”
“Married!” cried Amersham, turning pale with the sudden chill, which seemed, as Sibylla spoke, to strike him to the heart and freeze his very blood; “your wishes and hopes about my marriage! My conscience tells me nothing but that I could not honestly marry any one. You must know that, surely. I am confident I never shall.”
Sibylla had braced herself to her self-imposed task. She had resolved to go through with it unflinchingly, though it cut her to the quick. The more sick the patient seemed, the less was it possible to be nice in the choice of remedies—to spare the suffering of an efficacious cure.
“Rash confidence!” she cried. “You ought to marry; you will. I have always thought so; I think so now more than ever. Yes, and I will tell you the woman whom I should like to see your wife—the choicest woman I have ever known, a noble creature. You, or any man, would be fortunate to win her. It would be worth trying. You ought to try. I know nothing of your chances; but the chance of success is worth a risk. But you must first deserve her. The first step towards deserving her is to purge your soul of all that is not best.”
“My feelings towards you,” cried Amersham, “are the best that I have ever had—the best, the purest, the highest—the worship of all that is most adorable! Is it this that you prize so lightly, that you bid me purge my soul of it as a preliminary to the heroic achievement of courting a woman I do not love?”
“Not love her?” said Sibylla; “are you sure of that? I know both your characters so well—your tastes, your likes and dislikes, your views of life. You have been great friends. I will not believe that that friendship is not destined to grow into something more. You are made for one another. You would improve each other, if indeed it were possible that Lady Cynthia should be improved. You would be happy, I am confident. And you will! I am a prophetess: I am inspired. I prophesy your happiness. At any rate, such is my hope, my prayer for the two greatest friends I have ever had. You have said that you would be guided by my judgment, my wish. That is my heartfelt wish.”
Sibylla’s tone, which had been at times gay, almost playful, had risen at the close into a passionate vehemence, a pathetic earnestness, half solemn admonition, half entreaty. She was profoundly moved; she was betrayed into showing more feeling than she had meant to show, or was conscious of showing. Her face was lit up with the glow of the enthusiast, the zeal of triumphant self-sacrifice. To Amersham she seemed like a creature half inspired.
“Ah,” he said, “you are too cruel; you do not know how cruel, or you would never speak so! Please say no more. I cannot bear it. It is impossible, impossible! Cancel that hope and wish! Unsay that prayer. Not that way lies happiness for me! Only, whatever happens, remain my friend.”
Scenes like this did not leave Sibylla a happier woman. She dreaded, of all things, giving pain, and the pain that she had now given was, she knew, exquisite. She cared about Amersham far too much not to be grieved at wounding him. She was stronger, she felt, than he—stronger in character, in principle, in the circumstance that she felt no temptation to return his love. But he had been a kind, faithful, sympathetic, altogether delightful friend. And now friendship was becoming impossible!
Montcalm’s behaviour just now did not tend to diminish the difficulties of the situation. He was not an easy man to love; never more difficult than now. He had always been reserved, but his reserve seemed now to be developing into unkindness, none the less aggressive that it was veiled under a ceremonious courtesy. There was in his behaviour an ill-concealed note of displeasure, of grievance, almost hostility. He was feeling aggrieved. Sibylla became more and more conscious of his feeling. Was he aggrieved at her intimacy with Amersham? If so, he was yielding to au unjust, an unworthy suspicion. Sibylla had been loyal to him: she had sacrificed everything to loyalty. He had but to unbend, to give her the rights of a loyal, devoted wife—the confidence which such a wife can justly, must necessarily claim—which is the best, the only antidote to any other influence. All might have been well between them. Unfortunately Charles Montcalm had chosen this critical moment to make his isolation more complete than ever. Sibylla felt dreadfully alone. She had banished her friend—the sympathetic, congenial, devoted friend. After their last interview their friendship could never be the same again. Her advice to Amersham had been, she well knew, cruel in its severity, in its disregard for the feelings which were predominant forces in his life. It had been wise, good advice; she did not repent having given it. None the less it was a blow. It had cost her a pang to strike it. And having struck it, in an heroic mood, had she not the right to be supported in her heroism by the love and tenderness of the husband for whose sake she was trampling on so many feelings—remorselessly thrusting aside so much devotion, so much happiness.
Had Sibylla known all, she might have made excuses for her husband. His troubles were gathering thick upon him. Surgeon Crowder had not been many days in England before he called on Mr. Montcalm, delivered his message and the ring. He told Frank’s story as he had gathered it from the sick man’s rambling talk.
“There must be some mistake,” Charles Montcalm had exclaimed, when his visitor began to reveal the object of his mission. “My brother was killed at the Eldorado Mine in America three years ago. There was a police enquiry at the time and an inquest. No question was ever raised as to his identity. We have never had a doubt on the point.”
“Of course I know nothing but what the sick man told me,” said the surgeon; “you are the judge of that. He seemed to be speaking the truth. He was evidently a gentleman. He knew he was dying. It did not occur to me that his story was a lie. What could be his motive? Anyhow I have kept my promise to him in telling you.”
“Then,” cried Montcalm, turning ashy pale, “if it is true, my brother was a murderer and a thief as well as all the rest. That is what your story comes to. So there was a wife and perhaps a child at New Wigan? And he begged me to forgive him?”
Charles’s hand was playing nervously with the ring. It looked horribly familiar. He had seen it a hundred times. He was at the moment wearing its counterpart. He knew it only too well. The horrid conviction flashed into his mind that the story was a true one. He sat silent, motionless. He could not trust himself to speak. It was a crushing blow.
“I fear,” said his visitor, “that I have been too abrupt in telling you. I blame myself for being so inconsiderate. The secret, if secret it be, is, of course, perfectly safe. No one has ever heard it but ourselves, nor, as far as I am concerned, will any one ever hear it. My duty is now fulfilled. My connection with the subject ceases. The man was buried in the Faustabad Cemetery. This is the number of his grave if you care to know it.”
“I am exceedingly grateful to you,” said Montcalm, his stoicism in vain attempting to master a tone of despair; “you have been most kind in the matter. I confess that your communication has given me a shock. I need to be alone. On some future day I shall, I daresay, venture to ask you for another interview. Meanwhile I thank you for your promise of secrecy. It may be of more importance than you think. I may rely on it?”
“Absolutely,” said the surgeon, as he took his leave; “send for me when you please.”
“A thief and a murderer!” Charles Montcalm, as he sat alone, repeated the dreadful words and let their whole import flow in upon his soul. The cup of disgrace, then, was not yet full. There was a further abyss in his brother’s fall—a fresh piece of scandal for the lovers of strange stories to gloat over! There was a wife, and, probably, a child! And what then? To what horrible complications might not the discovery give rise? It might all be a myth: the caprices of mendacity are unfathomable. The sick man’s confidences might be nothing but the random romancing of a broken-down profligate, in whose conscience the barriers of truth and falsehood were obliterated, and to whom it was congenial to garnish a narrative with lies. But then, on the other hand, the story might be true. The person who had heard the story evidently thought that it was. Anyhow the mention of the wife, deserted at New Wigan, gave a clue. It was the want of a clue that had brought the former enquiry to a close. That hateful enquiry must now begin again. Montcalm’s feelings about the subject moved from vague disquietude to a personal and very active anxiety. It might, of course, all come to nothing. Even assuming the story to be true, nothing could be more probable than that all traces of the alleged wife should have disappeared. The lives of such people are precarious. It was more than likely that, in the course of the years which had elapsed, something would have occurred to bring her residence at New Wigan to a close. By this time she might—she probably must—have died or disappeared. On the other hand—and as Montcalm turned the matter over in his thoughts, this possibility assumed an ever-increasing distinctness—she and her child might be living where her husband left her. Why not? And if she were, and if the identity were proved, how close—how appallingly close the crisis had come! At any time the dreadful moment might arrive at which Sibylla must be told of the catastrophe which had befallen her husband and herself—at which the family disgrace must leap to light, and the detail of the ruin of the Montcalms be once again a society scandal—the theme for newspapers and gossip-mongers, the text for the moralist ever ready to turn his neighbour’s misfortunes and disgraces to a good account. But, above all and worst of all, Sibylla must be told. Charles Montcalm hated the idea. The more Sibylla charmed him, the more he hated it. Her tenderness—for she had been especially tender to him of late, and more than ever bent on letting a loving mood break out in acts and words of love—only served to intensify his distress. It was dreadful to think of having to make a revelation of family shame to such a woman—of having to tell her that her brother-in-law had been a forger—a robber—that his hands were dyed with blood—that he had died a tramp, and that this man’s offspring was to oust her husband from his heritage and land him and his wife almost in poverty. Montcalm felt that he could have faced death better than the prospect of making such a revelation. The possibility of having to make it was now imminent. How is a man with such a horrid care gnawing at his heart to wear a smiling face and conform pleasantly to the small amenities of daily life? How look into his wife’s frank, honest eyes and feel how grave a disaster was hanging over her, and might at any moment descend upon them both? No wonder that Charles Montcalm’s behaviour was such as his wife found it difficult to explain and impossible to forgive!
Could I see his face
I wept so? Did I drop against his breast,
Or did his arms constrain me? ...
. . . There were words
That broke in utterance—melted in the fire— Embrace that was convulsive—then a kiss
As long and silent as the ecstatic night,
And deep, deep shuddering breaths which meant beyond
Whatever could be told by word or kiss.
Mr. Strutt, for whom Montcalm sent as soon as his Indian visitor had left him, was in absolute dismay at the idea of reopening the enquiry into Frank’s possible family. Mr. Montcalm had done his duty, he insisted—more than his duty—in instituting the original investigation into the circumstances of his brother’s end. They had the best possible evidence of his death. There had been a legal enquiry; the facts of the case were clearly proved; no doubt as to his identity had been suggested; Charles himself had received satisfactory assurance of that point. The man’s death was as certain as legal proof could make it. As to the Indian surgeon’s story, what was there for any rational man to go upon? It was hearsay, and hearsay of the worse possible order—the random talk of a broken-down vagabond, in the last stage of moral and physical infirmity, who was, on his own showing, wholly disentitled to a moment’s credence. Who would venture to take such a story into court? And was Mr. Montcalm prepared, asked Mr. Strutt indignantly, on the strength of it, to jeopardise his position, his wife’s comfort, his family, his fortune? Broken-down drunkards are invariably untruthful. Their brains are full of delusions. Their sense of honour is hopelessly impaired. They lie for lying’s sake—from vanity, greed, the first trifling cause which presents itself—the love of mischief, some crazy hope of benefiting themselves. In the present instance the motive was obvious. The man, who described himself to the Faustabad surgeon as Frank Montcalm, was in need of a plausible story to encourage the surgeon’s good-nature to him and to support his pretension to being a ruined gentleman. Did Mr. Montcalm seriously intend, on no better evidence than this, to dip into the sea of dirt and disgrace in which his brother’s luckless course had been steered, and to set about unravelling the complications which might be there discovered? Such a course was, urged Mr. Strutt, uncalled for, unnecessary, and in the highest degree injudicious. No one could say in what trouble they might not find themselves immersed—what horrid doubts might not be conjured up, which, now that Frank’s death must be assumed, there would be no one to clear away—what baseless claims might be advanced by the speculators and adventurers who are always on the lookout for an opportunity of legal plunder.
“You may, sir,” Mr. Strutt said, in tones faltering with distress and anxiety, “you may spend the rest of your life in litigation of the most hopeless, expensive, ruinous order, fighting an unseen foe, and getting rid of one trouble only to make way for another. Your brother, for aught we know, may have enacted scenes like this, and involved himself in complications with women through a dozen cities in America. Why not? Such claims, once started, are difficult to refute. Assuming,” cried Mr. Strutt, passionately—“which God forbid it should be—that this story is true—that Frank Montcalm left a son whose legitimacy can be established, have you realised how absolutely disastrous to you the consequences would be? Your brother’s son would be the heir under your father’s settlement. Your share would be merely the portion provided for a younger son. The trustees would be bound to make provision for the widow out of the estate. There is power in the settlement to do that. Moreover, the child would be entitled to an account of the mesne profits of the estate—that is, of all you have drawn out of it, since your father’s death, in excess of your legal portion, with accruing interest. Do you know—can you imagine what that would come to?” cried Mr. Strutt, striding about the room in his excitement, and wringing his hands. “It would be ruin, absolute ruin! For God’s sake, Mr. Montcalm, hold your hand, and think well before you bring this fearful trouble upon yourself and your family!”
Charles Montcalm sat silent, and, as his solicitor thought, exasperatingly calm. A slight increase in the habitual pallor of his face was the only symptom of mental stress. He was weighing something in his thoughts, Mr. Strutt could see; he was forming some momentous decision. Perhaps his good advice was bearing fruit, and Mr. Montcalm was determining to refrain from an act of irrational self-sacrifice. Mr. Strutt considered that he had put the case cogently; and his case, whoever put it, was a very strong one. He waited for Charles Montcalm to speak. Montcalm, however, was wrapt in thought. Mr. Strutt at last could bear the other’s silence no longer.
“Do you agree to my view of the matter?” he enquired.
“I beg your pardon,” said Montcalm; “I was not attending. As to going on with the enquiry, I shall, of course, do that. Every reason for it which existed before is strengthened tenfold now. But I was thinking of another matter, a more immediate one. I have just made up my mind to one thing: I mean to tell my wife. I ought to have told her long ago.”
“Then you are determined to recommence the enquiry?” asked the solicitor.
“Absolutely determined,” said Montcalm. “Send your agent to New Wigan, and let him see whether there is anything to corroborate the story. The sooner the better. He can inform you by telegraph; so there need be but little delay.”
Mr. Strutt took his departure in tragic gloom, and Charles Montcalm set about preparing himself for the most disagreeable task which life as yet had brought him. Nothing had ever taxed his fortitude so sorely. It was an abasement at which his native pride recoiled in absolute disgust. He had had his share of disagreeable things. He had borne them unflinchingly. But it was difficult not to flinch at this. In fact, he had flinched. There had been some cowardice in his behaviour. He had been afraid to tell Sibylla. Now he was forced to do it. It is rash, it has been said, to underrate the resources of Destiny in the line of unimagined horrors. Destiny, Charles Montcalm felt, was now laying on him the burthen which, of all others, he felt himself least able to sustain.
But it had to be done, and the sooner the better. There was no use in waiting for an opportunity. Such communications transcend occasion. They are too bad to have their badness alleviated by time or mode. It mattered little how the impending ruin of Charles Montcalm’s House was revealed to her to whom that ruin meant the most.
“Sibylla,” he said, when, that evening, her father left them, “I have something very serious to say to you—something which may—which probably will—make a great difference in both our lives—a terrible discovery. I have thought of it for long as possible. To-day it has assumed another phase—the phase of a near and probable disaster. I cannot any longer forbear to speak. Would to God I had spoken long ago! You must forgive me! I was acting, as I believed, for the best—in the way most calculated to save you pain. Even now I can hardly bear to say it.”
“Nothing that you say,” said Sibylla, “can give me half the distress that your silence has given me, and does give me. You need not be afraid, Charles, of hurting me in that way.”
Sibylla had never seen her husband so profoundly moved. He was unnerved, agitated, as unlike as possible to his usual self-contained and resolute self. She loved him all the better for it. Her compassion was aroused. She saw his distress and pitied it.
“An old fear,” continued Montcalm, “an old trouble has culminated at last in a distinct probability—the probability that I am a ruined man—that we are a ruined family. It has for long been looming in the distance, but it seemed too bad to be possible. I determined not to speak while it was still remote; but it is remote no longer. I wished to spare you the anxiety that has been weighing on myself, crushing my very life. I was wrong, I know. It is the story of a family misfortune, a family disgrace. It was my father’s earnest desire to hide it from every one—a foolish desire, perhaps, but still sacred to me. He and I made great sacrifices to that end. He enjoined it on me as a duty. I shared his feeling. I shrank from telling even you.”
“It was a mistake,” said Sibylla; “Charles, I am your wife. We share everything, good and bad. Your honours, your sorrows, and, if needs be, your humiliations are our common property—better borne for each other’s companionship. What is a wife for?”
“Well,” said Montcalm, “now you must know all. I have never spoken to you of my brother Frank. His life was unfortunate, shameful. It ended in disaster. He was my father’s idol as a child, and ended by breaking his heart. A great part of my father’s property was expended in rescuing him from the results of his follies, or in repairing the breaches which his conduct threatened to make in our family honour. At last he went away in the blackest disgrace; he took no leave of his father or of me; he could not; he dared not. He left no trace. His story was such that we were glad to be able to say that we had no notion of his whereabouts or his mode of life. My father crippled his fortune in paying every discoverable debt. That done, he made a will, exercising a power he had under his marriage settlement, and leaving everything to me. Then came the news of Frank’s death, a dreadful end—sad as all the rest of the story. He was shot, we learned, in a gambler’s riot at a Californian mine. His death was officially notified. We had a further enquiry, which, we believed, cleared up every doubt. His identity was clearly established. I had now become my father’s eldest son. My father had always been greatly troubled by the existence of his will. He regarded it as a record of family disgrace, as, in fact, it was. Shortly before his death he bethought himself of destroying it, as no longer necessary, and thereby reviving the provisions of his settlement. I came into the room one morning and found him in the act of burning it. Our family solicitor, when he heard of my father’s act, was apprehensive of possible difficulties, and urged him to execute another will. He had prepared it and actually fixed a day to come for its execution, when my father was seized with what proved to be his last illness. He lost consciousness. In a day or two he died. I succeeded to the estate under the settlement as only son, and have held it ever since. Two years ago an accident led me to imagine that Frank might have married in America. I felt bound to try to find out if it were so. Our enquiries led to nothing, not even to anything on which further enquiry could be based. I seemed to have done all I could. But to-day I have heard a story from India, which, if true, breaks down the story of Frank’s murder in America, and substantiates the fact of his marriage—the time and place of its occurrence, the name of his wife, the prospect of her becoming a mother. If she had a boy and that boy is alive, he takes the position of the eldest son. Frampton and the bulk of the estate passes away from me to him. I shall not be quite a beggar. I take a younger son’s portion under the settlement. I have had some legacies from my uncles. Your own fortune will be a great help; but we shall not be rich people any more. Mr. Strutt has been all the afternoon endeavouring to persuade me to drop the enquiry. I have told him that I am resolved to press it to the bitter end. I shall have your approval in that, I am confident.”
“My approval, my warmest sympathy,” Sibylla exclaimed with fervour, laying her hand on her husband’s. “It is a resolution worthy of yourself, and like yourself, Charles. I am proud to have a share in it. I shall rejoice to share in whatever sacrifices it entails. Why did you not tell me sooner?”
“Ah,” said Montcalm, “why, indeed? But you must forgive me, Sibylla. It was the great blunder of my life—the worst of many bad mistakes, its worst misfortune. I have not a word to say for it or myself. The only thing is now for you to forgive me. Can you? will you?”
He took her tenderly to his arms. He embraced her with devotion. The stern, cold exterior had disappeared. The ice had melted. He was a new man—ardent, effusive, impassioned. His face was bright with rapture; his voice trembled with emotion, with pathos. He was once more—as Sibylla remembered him as a lover—irresistible.
“There are moments which one would be glad to buy with a lifetime of unhappiness,” he said; “this is one of them. You are, indeed, my good angel—dear angel of peace and joy.”
“So long as you think that,” said Sibylla, “whatever happens I shall be perfectly happy. I have never felt happier than at this moment.”
“How brave, how like yourself, Sibylla!” cried her husband; “I knew that it would be so. I have always known it. I was demented not to ask you, two years ago, to share my anxiety, to confront the sacrifice. You would have borne it better than I have. It will be a pang to give up Parliament.”
“Such sacrifices are lighter to women than to men,” said Sibylla. “But you will not have to give up Parliament, I trust. I should deplore that. For the rest, what does it signify? Much of what wealth has brought us—of late years especially—has been only a burthen. It has kept us in a bustle. I love my friends. I shall now, perhaps, get a chance of seeing something of them.”
“And I, perhaps,” said Montcalm, with a passionate seriousness in his tone, “shall have a chance of seeing something of my wife. I have seen too little, far too little. I have been a fanatic about politics. I have been absorbed. They have crowded all other things out of my life—other things and better things. I see it now. I have given up everything for them—even the society of the one person I love on earth—the wife whom, cold though I am sure you must think me, I adore. I will be a slave to them no longer. I want leisure to adore my wife. I have long arrears of adoration to make up. I will never have another secret from you, Sibylla. Secrets are disastrous. I have learnt it by a cruel experience. I shall not forget my lesson. I have been very wrong. I repent it bitterly, bitterly I Can you forgive me?”
“Do not talk of forgiveness,” said Sibylla, taking his hand fondly, “our mistakes are common misfortunes; we will repair them together. I agree that secrets are wrong between those who should read each other’s hearts. I trust that we may never have another. I will not deny that yours has cost me some unhappiness.”
“Unhappiness!” cried Montcalm: “I have been more profoundly wretched than I could have believed it possible for a man, who has tasted the bitters of life as often as I have, to be. That is my only atonement for my outrageous behaviour. I was fury-driven—the blind fury of folly and anger. I acted like a madman—I was one. But I loved you all the same. I was torturing myself at my most sensitive point. I suffered. Now I can only ask for forgiveness.”
“Stop!” cried Sibylla, “perhaps I need forgiveness not less than you. I too have had a secret. I have one; but it concerns another rather than myself. You have never really doubted my love, my allegiance, have you?”
“Never,” said her husband; “not in my maddest moments. I cannot imagine myself doubting it. The idea is too monstrous, even for a madman. But I know that I behaved as if I did. That was my madness. But the sane part of me never doubted.”
“You are right,” said Sibylla; “my devotion has never wavered. My heart has been always yours; it always will be—wholly yours. But there have been times when a less faithful nature than yours might have found ground for doubt—when a suspicious temper would have found food for suspicion—when a feebler trust might have been disturbed. You know to what I refer?”
“I believe I do,” said Montcalm, “yes—to speak frankly—I know: but I knew all along that my honour was safe in your hands. Thank God, I can honestly say so much for myself, madly as I have acted. That faith remained without a cloud. If another man was fascinated where I have found the one fascination of existence—well—I can understand that and forgive it. It has cost me some pangs—some cruel pangs. I wish to know no more. Such friendships are critical. It is so easy for a man to lapse from the nice point of honour—to go too far—to feel, to say too much. I wish to continue to esteem my friend, my wife’s friend. I would rather hear nothing that would lessen my esteem. With you he could not go far wrong. You would guide him aright. I feel—I have always felt—the most absolute confidence that everything you did or said or felt would be the perfection of goodness. The hour that shattered that belief would end my life. I should have nothing to care for.”
“You deserve a good wife,” said Sibylla; “and you shall have one. Henceforth we will have no corner of our hearts hidden from one another’s eye. I have shown you mine. I look forward to happiness, more perfect happiness than we have ever yet enjoyed. The past shortcomings of my happiness have been greatly my own fault—due to my infirmity, to my weakness of love and trust. I am not so strong as you. The fact of a secret ought not to have troubled me as it did. Anyhow I am thankful that it is past!”
“It is past!” cried Montcalm; “thank God for that. We read one another’s hearts.”
“That you may read mine to the bottom,” said Sibylla, “I wish to tell you something more about myself. There have been times in our married life when I have been very unhappy, when I have almost despaired of happiness, when I have been tempted, in my desperation, to dream of seeking elsewhere than from my husband the comfort, the support, the help of mutual confidence and sympathy. It was a dream, a bad dream, the offspring of unhappiness. A woman’s heart—my heart at any rate—cannot live alone, it needs support. That dream, I am thankful to say, soon passed away. It is ended; but do not let me dream again!”
Here are a few of the unpleasantest words
That ever blotted paper—
Before many weeks had passed the much-dreaded letter came, and more than realised the worst that Mr. Strutt’s prophetic soul had anticipated. Mr. Lewis, his confidential clerk—a venerable gentleman, only less impressive than Mr. Strutt himself—had proceeded to New Wigan, had opened enquiries, and had soon come upon facts which corroborated a part, at any rate, of the dying tramp’s story at Faustabad. The police authorities of the place remembered the circumstances of the disappearance of a man who went by the name of Fairfield—his desertion of his wife—her destitute condition—the birth of her son. The woman herself was, they believed, still working at a neighbouring factory. Great indignation had been felt in the place, they told Mr. Lewis, at Fairfield’s heartless behaviour. There had been a police enquiry with a view to tracing the fugitive and enforcing his liability for his wife’s support. When this proved abortive, some kind people had started a subscription for the woman and her child; and so public attention had been drawn to the case. Ultimately the two found refuge in a charitable establishment of nuns, who compassionated their resourceless plight. Thereupon Mr. Lewis approached the Mother Superior at the convent. This lady supplemented the police official’s narrative. She remembered the incident distinctly. The handsome Irish girl had come from New York, where she had been in service, with a letter of introduction to the convent. Her beauty had everywhere attracted attention, and exposed her to its natural dangers. She had successfully defended her virtue, however, amid the many vicissitudes of low emigrant life; and, though of somewhat disorderly habits, had never completely broken away from the nuns who befriended her on her first arrival.
Among many aspirants to her hand, the man Fairfield had carried the day. His good looks, his superior bearing, his daring talk, something about him which, however obscured, showed traces of a gentleman, gained him an ascendency over the young Irishwoman’s heart, which no rival could endanger. He had lighted upon a profitable piece of work, and was, for the moment, well supplied with funds. The girl, however, pertinaciously rejected his overtures, except on the footing of a religious marriage—a condition for which her lover showed an undisguised reluctance. At last he consented, and the marriage was formally celebrated by the priest of the convent. It was duly attested and recorded in the official register of the adjoining church.
The married life of the young couple had not, the Mother Superior went on to say, been happy or reputable. Fairfield had not been long in showing himself in his true colours. He broke away into dissolute life, was convicted of gross misconduct, lost his situation, and joined a gang of unemployed ne’er-do-weels, who hung about the drinking and gambling saloons of New Wigan. He had behaved infamously to his wife. There had been violent recriminations between them; the injured woman had more than once consulted the Mother Superior as to the advisability of separating from her husband, whose profligacy had become notorious and seemed to be inveterate. Shortly afterwards there had come news of a great find of gold at the Eldorado Mine, 300 miles to the north, and there had been a general stampede of the movable population for the new scene of wealth. At this moment Fairfield had disappeared; but he had never been traced, nor could anything be heard of him at the Eldorado Mine. His wife, who was within a few weeks of her confinement, knew nothing of the fugitive’s destination. He had often, she said, threatened to desert her. She had now been left in destitution. The nuns were interested in her case and anxious to save her and the child from the disreputable life which seemed their too probable destiny. They had busied themselves to find her employment. The woman had soon got service, and was now living in the neighbourhood. The nuns took charge of the child. He was kept in the convent nursery. His mother came to see him every Sunday.
On the next Sunday, accordingly, Mr. Lewis visited the convent, and had an interview with Mrs. Fairfield. She was a stalwart, tawdry Irishwoman, with traces of some beauty, much marred by hard work, trouble, and, Mr. Lewis thought, excess. She at once became suspicious and evasive in her replies. Why did the gentleman want to know about her, and what business was it of anybody else’s to learn who her husband was, and what had become of him? She was a married woman, as she could prove; there was no doubt of that. Her husband, she believed, was dead. Anyhow she knew nothing about him. She was a lone woman, earning a livelihood for herself and her child; and a hard job it was. The nuns were her best friends.
Then Mr. Lewis considered that the moment had arrived when he should play his trump card. “I should advise you to tell me what you know,” he said; “it can do you no harm: it may do you good. Some friend of your husband’s may want to befriend you.”
“Some friend of my husband’s?” the woman cried passionately; “a likely story! My Frank’s friends were his worst enemies and mine. They were a pretty lot—birds of a feather. He has got into trouble again, I suppose, and you are in search of him. I know your style. You are a detective. You will get nothing from me.”
“No,” said Mr. Lewis, “I give you my word for it. I am nothing of the sort. There is no such idea. Your husband, if he was the person I suppose, has been dead for several years. No evil can befall him or you. The people who employ me to come here have, I suppose, some object in spending their money as they do: and they have money to spend. There is money to be made. I am authorised, as it is, to give you a present, to show that I am worth dealing with.”
The woman’s eyes glistened. “A present!” she exclaimed: “how much?”
“That depends on yourself,” said her visitor, “and on how much your information is worth. I can only pay for value received. What do you know?”
Thus encouraged, the woman became confidential, threw aside her suspicious mood, and began to think only of the possible reward.
“Will you give me a couple of hundred dollars if I tell you all I know?” she asked with avidity.
“If what you know is worth anything, I will,” said Mr. Lewis. “Come now, I will give you a hundred down, and another hundred if your information is of any use. You must leave it to me to decide whether it is so.”
“Are you sure that it can do Frank no harm, or me?”
“Nothing you tell me can do him or you any harm. How could it? On the other hand, it may be to your advantage. Now will you have your hundred dollars, or shall I go?”
“I will have them,” cried the woman; “there is no need for you to go;—and another hundred if I tell you something valuable that you don’t know?”
“Another hundred before I go away. My word for it,” said Mr. Lewis, watching with calm satisfaction the working of the spell.
“Can I trust you?” said the woman. “Put the other hundred down, for me to take when you give me leave.”
Mr. Lewis produced a goodly bundle of notes, selected two of the requisite amount, handed one to Mrs. Fairfield and laid the other on the table. “If you tell me all you know, it is yours,” he said.
“Well,” said the woman, lowering her voice, “to begin with, his real name was not Fairfield. He made me swear an oath not to tell any one. It would mean imprisonment, he said, if it came out that he had married under a false name. He was finely scared when I found out his real name. He never would tell me why he changed it. He had been in trouble, I suppose, somewhere else, and wanted to hide. He was always in trouble. Drink and gambling ruined him.”
“And how did you find it out?” asked the clerk.
“This was how it was,” said the woman, her eyes still fixed on the note. “He was three parts drunk one night, sitting in his shirt, with his sleeve open. ‘What is that F. M. tattooed on your arm?’ I said. He looked scared, I can tell you, and dumbfoundered at first. He was not ready with his lie. He pulled down his shirt sleeve. ‘Free Mason,’ says he, trying to laugh it off. ‘Don’t you know all freemasons are marked so?’—‘Freemason?’ said I. ‘No, I did not know that, and I did not know that you were a mason.’ An idea had come into my head. I knew he was lying. There was a lodger in the same house where we were who was a mason, and a high one, and proud of it. He was very sweet on me, and wanted to be friends. I got him to find out if Frank was a mason. He soon found out that he was not. Then I was certain that Frank had been lying. I said nought, but bided my time. I had him in my power. When we quarrelled I knew how I could master him. But I wanted his real name, and this was how I found it out. He had given me his photo—I have got it now; I will show it you when you have paid me the other hundred dollars. Well, one day in the rainy season the gum got loose with the damp—the glass fell out: it was all to pieces. I took it out of its paper frame. I looked at its back, and there I found what I wanted—‘Frank Montcalm.’ Then I knew I had him. I said nothing, but next time we quarrelled I faced him with it. ‘Don’t try to bully me, Frank Montcalm,’ said I: ‘you are not man enough for that—I know you, you see. I know your real name, and why you changed it.’ He rapped out a string of oaths, and turned as pale as a ghost. He was frightened, despite all he tried to bluster. ‘Well,’ said he, ‘if Fairfield is not my name, you had best say nought about it, or you will ruin us both. I am doing well now; I will do better. I will drink no more. I’ll be good to you, dear Molly. You will be a good girl now, and promise never to say a word.’ He could always get round me. I meant to promise; but I teased him a bit first for the fun of keeping him begging me. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘you are my wedded wife anyhow—you have the certificate,—you took me for better, for worse. If you choose to blab and ruin a man who loves you, it may be the worse for you. You can do it. You will only ruin yourself as well as me; and your ruin will be the worst of the two.’—‘I never meant to blab, Frank,’ said I: ‘you can trust me.’—‘Promise now,’ he said, ‘and swear it.’—‘I swear it,’ said I, ‘ by Holy Church and Jesus and Mary. ‘—‘Tell me how you came to find it out?’ he asked. ‘You tell me,’ said I, ‘how you came to do it?’—‘It was convenient to change it,’ said he. ‘And it is convenient to me not to tell you how I found it out,’ I cried. ‘One secret is worth another.’—‘Anyhow you know it,’ said he sulkily; ‘for God’s sake, Molly, never say a word to any one.’ Ever after that he was afraid of me. I suppose that was why he deserted me. Afterwards I heard that a man named Montcalm had been shot at the Eldorado. I thought that it must be my Frank. But it was no use to speak. He was dead and gone. I have never heard a word of him ever since. That is all I know. Now can I have that other hundred-dollar note?”
“Stop a minute,” said Mr. Lewis. “You had a child, you said.”
“Yes,” said the woman. “He was born in the convent, and has been there ever since—a pretty boy. They are making a Christian of him. They kept him for me when I first got service. I can visit him on Sundays. I have been with him to-day. He is a beauty—his father’s image. Would you like to see him?”
“Yes,” said Mr. Lewis, “I should like to see him. But, meanwhile, about the photograph? What has become of that? I must see that before I pay you.”
“I have it at home,” the woman answered; “but I will not part with it. It may be valuable.”
“Possibly,” said the other, “but I must see it, all the same. You can bring it to-morrow. We will deposit it with the bankers for the sake of safety. I should like, first, to have it photographed.”
“I ought to have another hundred dollars for that,” said the woman with ill-suppressed eagerness. The delightful sensation of having information which could be coined into gold was beginning to take effect. Her appetite was growing by what it fed on.
“I should not object to that,” said Mr. Lewis, “though it is more than I bargained for; but you must be quick about it. Go home now, and fetch it; to-morrow we will go together to the photographer’s. I must have a copy of it. Meanwhile say nothing to any one of what you have told me. Has any one seen it?”
“Any one here can tell you it is my husband,” said the woman; “ask the Reverend Mother.”
So, next day, the photograph was brought and submitted to the Mother Superior, and identified by her and the other nuns, without an instant’s hesitation, as being that of Mrs. Fairfield’s husband.
“And the boy?” said Mr. Lewis. “I should like to have a look at him.”
“He is his father’s image,” said the woman. “His face tells his story. You can judge for yourself.”
Presently one of the nuns brought a little, frightened, pouting urchin, the very repetition of the photograph. There could be no doubt, even if other things had left room to doubt, of his paternity. He was a Montcalm.
Mr. Lewis, having heard the nun’s report, secured several copies of the all-important likeness, and deposited the original at a banker’s for safe custody, considered that a stage had been reached at which it would be well to wait for further instructions from England. Mrs. Fairfield went her way, rejoicing in the novel sensation of being the owner of three hundred-dollar notes, and stirred by the delicious possibility of still further benefits to come from the same mysterious benefactor. As to this point Mr. Lewis had entirely declined to enlighten her. Still, it was possible to brood comfortably on the nest-egg of hope; and a nest lined with hundred-dollar notes is no disagreeable brooding-place for one so well accustomed as was Mrs. Fairfield to the sordid uses of necessity.
AMIENS. “Happy is your grace
That can translate the stubbornness of Fortune
Into so quiet and so sweet a style.”
While Mr. Strutt’s emissary was prosecuting his enquiries in the Western States, Charles Montcalm and his wife were devoting themselves strenuously to the necessary preparations for the changed life which was opening upon them. The programme of retrenchment—the altered arrangements which it involved—proved excellent material for confidential talk. For the first time in their married life there were serious domestic consultations. Nothing engenders intimacy more speedily, or makes intercourse easier than a common difficulty to be confronted, and a common sentiment as to how it should be done. The Montcalms now wanted, above everything, to be confidential with each other. Their feelings harmonised in the wish to veil themselves and their misfortunes as completely as might be from the public eye, from the vulgar inquisitiveness and chattering tongue of Society. Charles Montcalm’s desire for retirement was more absolute than his wife’s. He was haunted by his father’s passion for privacy. It was revolting to be talked about, to have one’s private or family concerns become the prey of busybodies and chatterers. With such a story of shame as now promised to disclose itself, there could be but one course—that of retreat from public life. Such troubles must be endured alone.
Sibylla, though naturally more sociable, easily caught her husband’s mood, and gladly acquiesced in his views and wishes on the subject. They agreed in resolving that their seclusion should be effectual, and that their country home should be thoroughly countrified.
Sibylla cherished some private dreams of delightful visits from her friends,—Lady Cynthia, for instance,—whose charms it was impossible to enjoy in the crowd and bustle of London life. She was looking forward with pleasure to the luxury of a small menage and a tranquil existence. Both she and Charles had seen enough of wealth, and tasted too freely of all that it can bring, to be greatly troubled at its loss. They had been so rich that the idea of enforced economy had some of the exciting flavour which appertains to the unknown. No man ever got less enjoyment out of his money than had Charles Montcalm. He could hardly have told how it had gone. Except the occasional purchase of a picture, he had not a single expensive taste. His establishment, indeed, had been a somewhat costly one. It had gone on after his father’s death, almost as a matter of course, on the scale to which his wife and he had been accustomed all their lives, and which they accepted, without much thought, as necessary to and befitting Charles Montcalm’s position as a prominent member of his party, and Sibylla’s as a leading personage in society. They had entertained largely in London. There were great dinners, which not all the hostess’s skill could fashion into interest or amusement. Sibylla’s evening parties had acquired celebrity, were greatly frequented, and were regarded as of political significance. At Frampton they had received a succession of visitors, all through the autumn, and several big housefuls of sportsmen for the pheasants in October. There was nothing in the idea of giving up such hospitality which inspired any feeling but that of relief—a welcome relief. It had cost a good deal of trouble, a great deal of time, many troublesome arrangements, much profitless letter-writing, not a little bodily and mental fatigue. It would have been ill-natured and spiritless not to do it when circumstances enjoined it as appropriate; but when circumstances were obliging enough to point in another direction, the dispensation might be accepted with cheerfulness. It was easy to be resigned.
Montcalm at heart welcomed any escape from general society. He was not a man to shine in it, or to enjoy it. He was not a ready talker or brilliant. Many sorts of talk he despised. His nature could not play at ease except with one or two intimate friends, who understood him and his point of view. He needed solitude; he was fond of books and the chosen companions who are a sort of living book. The ordinary commerce of his species depressed him. Sibylla had a circle of devoted friends; but the hurry of a London season had made it difficult to see anything of them. So the Montcalms had often found the claims of society oppressive. The House of Commons is an undeniable excuse for giving such claims the slip. Montcalm had not failed to avail himself freely of his rights. He had gone through such social duties as could not be shirked with the same unflinching resolution with which he confronted other distasteful incidents of life. Distasteful or not, however, hospitality is expensive, and Montcalm, without giving much time or thought to the subject, had sometimes found himself none too rich.
Now, however, it was clear that there must be a complete change of their way of life. Frampton and the Frampton income would pass away. A large sum would have, if the heir’s claim were established, to be refunded to the trust. Their London house involved an establishment wholly beyond their expected resources. It must be let or sold. Such a change would at no time have been unwelcome to Charles. Now, if a family disgrace had to be endured, it was eminently congenial. If his name was to be trailed through the dirt of a public scandal, he would, he had determined, bear his fate in privacy. He would cease to figure before the public eye. His career was ended. He would retire from Parliament. He would devote himself to his wife, to his books, and his home life. Such an existence was, after all, one which a rational man should find pleasurable enough. He had made up his mind to enjoy it.
So Charles Montcalm and Sibylla made various pleasant excursions into the country together to look at places which they thought would do. They had agreed that nothing should be said to any one except Lord Belmont till the result was definitely known. But meanwhile it was possible, without attracting attention, to prepare for the change which seemed to become daily more inevitable.
On one of these occasions they spent a pleasant day in exploring a quaint Sussex manor-house, of which Montcalm had chanced to hear, and which was to be had for an old song. There was little about it to attract the public eye; it had been growing year by year less attractive. It was far from a railway station. It was on the road to nowhere. It had been forgotten. Its owners, unable to live in it, equally unable to find a tenant, had consoled themselves by spending the barest pittance that would stave off a lapse into absolute ruin, and by stripping it of such of its contents as could be turned to any account elsewhere. But there were still tables and chairs enough to justify its description as “furnished.” Some faded, old-fashioned finery—some portraits of unknown gentlemen and ladies, which no collector had thought it worth his while to carry-off—some decrepit chandeliers still hanging in the drawing-room, seemed to be uttering a silent protest against the desolation which had overtaken the scene of their departed glories—a haunt where the ghosts of vanished beauties might still seem to glide. There were huge collections of dingy books—theological and political, pamphlets and plays—tales of adventure and volumes of poetry which had all too quickly passed into oblivion—a very mausoleum of bootless literary toil! Everything had an air of picturesque decay. Sibylla was delighted. She roamed about, finding everywhere new charms, fresh possibilities of beauty or convenience. “This will make a good library for you, Charles,” she cried, “safe from all invaders, supposing an invasion were possible. I see you at work in it already. These shelves were made for blue-books! Here will be your standing desk, with a good light from that window. As for the garden, I am in love with it already. It will be lovely in summer. It is lovely even now in its winter dress. These old-fashioned, untidy walks are exactly to my taste, and these cedars are delightful. Under this one I shall make my summer drawing-room! And what a delicious lawn! One could live here with the utmost content, and forget the world outside! It is an ideal place to ‘make one’s soul’ in!”
“But our bodies!” cried Montcalm, by this time in the best of spirits, and actually jocose; “we shall be miserable, Sibylla—you will see—without a French chef and a hall-full of powdered footmen!
“Love in a hut, with water and a crust,
Is—Lord forgive us—cinders, ashes, dust.”
“Roses, violets, and mignonette!” cried Sibylla. “By the way, Charles, you have no idea what a splendid cook I am. I learnt to make omelettes in France. I am going to make one for luncheon to-day! You will see!”
Charles Montcalm was in the right vein for the occasion, thoroughly in love with his wife—her fortitude, her serenity, her enthusiasm, her sweet gaiety of nature. What a woman to have neglected, wounded, almost estranged! He felt a sudden pang of self-reproach, a sudden glow of adoration. He was in the mood to worship, a mood that would not be repressed. “My dear good genius!” he cried, taking his wife tenderly to his arms. “This place or any other, so long as I have you and you can be content with me! Forgive me and love me still! I will try to deserve it!”
Sibylla travelled back to Town that afternoon a happy woman. Her heart was light. She was at peace. The old, sad past had faded from her life, no longer credible. The man whom she loved was all to her that love could wish. The short winter day was closing in; the mists of the country were darkening into a London fog: but the dingy scene around was bright enough for her—bright with joy and hope. With these good helps to cheerfulness, how bravely one can meet the blows of fate, the little cares of life! “I have been thinking,” she said to her husband, as they neared London, “that Poverty comes in for a great deal of unfair abuse. To-day has been a joy that will last for a lifetime. We owe it to the prospect of our being poor.”
“Then,” cried Montcalm, taking her hand with an air of devotion, “all hail to Poverty! She has been a guardian angel in disguise.”
Tandis que la femme aimée, au coeur pudique, confiante et saus desir, est assez comblée de voir à côté d’elle son ami, de lui abandonner au plus sa main pour un instant, et de le traiter comme une soeur, sa soeur chérie, l’homme, fût-il doué du ciel comme Abel ou Jean, souffre inévitablement en secret de sa position incomplète et fausse: il se sent blessé dans sa nature secondaire, sourdement grondante, agressive: les moments, en apparence les plus harmonieux, lui deviennent vite une douleur, un péril, une honte; de là les retours irrités et cruels.
The arrangements which mortals propose for the control of their feelings and the conduct of their lives are liable to one fatal shortcoming: they can never be trusted. The unexpected supervenes and upsets the best-settled plan, the firmest resolution. Some unknown quantity, which has not been taken into account, refuses to be ignored, and makes itself felt as a disturbing force. So the sum does not work out right, and we find ourselves sailing in different latitudes than those for which we meant to steer: our wise plans have ended in foolishness; our good resolves have transformed themselves into something less than good, perhaps even its opposite. Amersham was now learning by painful experience how completely he was out of his reckoning—how much he fell short of the sort of man he had believed himself to be, and had intended to show himself. An unforeseen and unwelcome mood had taken possession of him. He was profoundly assured of the sincerity, the intensity, the chivalry of his devotion to Sibylla. There was no strain, he told himself, which that devotion was not capable of sustaining, not even the strain of such a rebuff as that which she had inflicted. He could—he would, bear any burthen which she chose to lay upon him. He would submit to any conditions rather than surrender a possession so transcendently precious as her friendship. They were to remain, he had settled with himself, the same in all things to each other as they had been before—in all, that is, except the one phase of their relations which Sibylla had forbidden. That excision would not affect the rest: it would improve it. It would bring elevation, refinement. The too exuberant growth having been pruned away, the plant of lawful friendship would flourish all the more. The sober, the rational, the platonic epoch of friendship—restricted to its lawful limits, duly safeguarded from violence or excess—was now to begin. Sibylla was his friend—his confidential, delightful friend: what more need he desire?
So Amersham’s dream had run. But, as weeks and months went by, he had the mortification of discovering that it was as far as any dream could be from reality. He learnt how little he had, in reality, thought out the situation. He had invested it with romance. He had thought of himself as of a person who transcended ordinary rules of custom and morality—who was to be governed by a special standard—for whom the common code must be relaxed.
Sibylla had brought him and his vague theories to a rigid test. She had turned the dry, clear light of common sense upon all his sentimental visions, his convenient indistinctness. The effect was to disillusionise him. His relations to her, clearly defined by the limits of conventional propriety, lost their especial charm. He had been sailing in summer seas of romance, where charts are incomplete, soundings uncertain, and the pointings of the moral compass are apt to deflect from the true north. He was now in the dull, precisely-mapped latitudes of prose, with a sluggish tide, a leaden sky, and a heavy atmosphere. He was becalmed in the doldrums. So his intercourse with Sibylla became less and less pleasurable. It had grown constrained, unreal, uninteresting. There was present an arrière pensée, and that not a pleasant one. Sibylla’s very goodness seemed oppressive. She was kind, gracious, sympathetic, sometimes, Amersham felt, almost patronising.
It was an annoyance that the woman, for whom he had felt ready to go all lengths, to throw right and wrong to the winds, to wreck his career, to sacrifice everything, if needs be, should, all unconscious of his plight, be bent on being a sort of monitress to him, on doing him good—on raising his ideal—criticising, helping, advising him in the strict path of duty. This was not the sort of thing—Amersham to his dismay discovered—for which he was really craving, or with which it was possible to be content.
His visits to Mrs. Montcalm gradually became rarer. Such a change was inevitable. It made an enormous difference in Amersham’s life—hardly short of a revolution; but Sibylla seemed hardly to notice it. If she did notice it, it was not certainly with regret or disapproval. It was, her manner seemed to say, exactly what she wished. Then it occurred to Amersham to make his visits still less frequent; and still Sibylla cheerfully acquiesced. They met in society, when days or weeks had passed without a moment of real intercourse, and nothing in her manner or look could be read as intimating that she had been missing him. There was something painful, something a little humiliating, in such an uncompromising dismissal of the past. Amersham experienced a stinging sense of disappointment, of failure. As his visits became more occasional they gradually lost their charm of ease, intimacy, confidence. One topic absolutely forbidden, it was sometimes difficult to find another. Conversation halted, or at any rate needed an effort to keep it on the flow. The suspicion of such an effort is, of course, a death-blow to pleasant conversation. There flashed into Amersham’s mind the dreadful apprehension that it was possible that he might become a bore. Sibylla’s interest in politics was far more ardent than his own; he felt it to be sometimes oppressive. Try as he would, Amersham felt at heart that he did not care two straws whether Mr. Egremont’s Administration was gaining ground or losing the country’s confidence—whether some debate had brought it new strength, or knocked another nail in its coffin—whether Egremont’s last speech had been up to his usual form—what would be the result of to-morrow’s Division—what would be the next development of the popular mood. If Egremont sustained defeats, or won victories which were only just better than defeats, Amersham consoled himself easily enough. Sibylla, discussing it all with her father, and living in an atmosphere where each turn of the balance was eagerly watched and acutely felt, cared about the subject with a vehement earnestness, to which Amersham was more and more conscious that nothing in himself responded. What he really cared about was Sibylla; and this care—in any real and interesting sense—was now forbidden him. Sibylla, he knew only too well, had never cared for him. A growing sense of estrangement—of mortification took possession of his soul. He had been dethroned from the seat in which he believed himself secure. His fool’s paradise was broken up. His devotion had found no response. He had been betrayed into a mistake, and it is humbling to have been mistaken. Still more mortifying—when he came really to look into his heart, he was forced to admit to himself that he was feeling aggrieved at Charles Montcalm’s ascendency in his wife’s affections—aggrieved and, monstrous as it sounded, jealous. He did not like Montcalm, and thought him very unworthy of his wife. Unfortunately Montcalm’s wife did not share this opinion. Amersham had conceived for himself a sort of prerogative, based on a tacit understanding with Sibylla that there were shortcomings in her husband which he was capable of supplying—sympathies and feelings which her husband could not share. That prerogative, Amersham began now to feel, was gone—or, rather, it had never existed except in his own imagination. Montcalm’s position in his wife’s affections—whatever might have been his shortcomings, whatever her sense of them—was unassailed and unendangered. The result was profound disappointment. Amersham had asked for bread and had received a stone, or, if not a stone, some of those precious balms which break the head as effectually as the hardest materials known to mortal skulls.
Natures ardent and versatile like Amersham’s do not accept misfortune with a light heart, nor do they like to suffer in solitude. It is part of their amiability to be sociable at moments of trouble, when other men would betake themselves to unsociability. Amersham felt dull and in danger of melancholy; he was craving for something to fill the gap which the break in his relations with Sibylla had occasioned. Nature, he began to feel, abhors a vacuum. There were plenty of kind consolers ready to occupy the deserted throne, and to be as cordial and sympathetic as Amersham could desire. His reappearance in his former haunts occasioned no surprise. Sibylla and Amersham had kept their secret well; and no one in the circle of their acquaintance had any reason to suppose that there had been a crisis between them. Miss Everard, for instance, thought it only natural that human intimacies should, like the stars, vary from time to time in intensity. Lady Holte was not surprised that Amersham should have grown tired of Sibylla. She had herself often found her fatiguing. She, too, regarded it as in the natural order of things that a flirtation should run its course and in due time come to a close. Amersham’s flirtation with Sibylla had lasted long enough.
“What have you been about all these months?” she had cried, with a pleasant air of scolding him, the first time that Amersham presented himself in her drawing-room; “and why, pray, have you chosen to desert your friends? Politics and committees, of course,—the regular excuse! but that won’t do for me, Mr. Amersham! I forgive you, however, now that you have repented.”
“Do not ask a repenting sinner to explain his sin,” said Amersham. “Sins are always inexplicable. Suffice it that I am a penitent. Delightful penitence that brings me here! Seal my forgiveness with a cup of tea—”
“And a muffin,” said Miss Everard, who happened to be having tea with her friend, and now uncovered the delicacy in question; “we all forgive you, Mr. Amersham. But our young hearts have ached. You must not do it again. We can bear anything but desertion.”
“Desertion!” cried Amersham, with a tone of the tenderest reproach, “what an accusation!”
“Well, now,” said Lady Holte, “you must be particularly charming, to make up for lost time!”
“And for lost opportunities!” cried Miss Everard. “What risks you have run! You might have lost us both. Perhaps you have. Who knows!”
Lady Holte was not a little excited to perceive that Amersham was once again passing into the range of her influence. She was an ambitious woman; her mother was accustomed to disparage her; but, for all that, she was conscious of powers of attraction and of a desire to exercise them. She had her own little sphere, in which she loved to shine, and in which, indeed, she shone with a brightness which, although it occasionally suffered eclipse, was not without its charm. Her ascendency, such as it was, was fully worth the trouble that it cost her to maintain it. One of its most brilliant phases had been her success in getting on with Amersham. It was a success of which any woman might be proud. Amersham being now again—for some reason or other—available, Lady Holte lost no time in putting forward her claims to his devotion. She had the merit of caring intensely about it. As a young married woman of fashion she required such an appendage. It was as indispensable as her lovely dresses, her smart Victoria, the diamonds which at night blazed about her comely head and neck, the pretty toys and trinkets which she spent many agreeable hours in transferring from the treasure-houses of Bond Street to their destined niche in her boudoir. She was conscious of qualifications which deserved success. She was pretty; she valued her prettiness; she spared no pains, no art by which her prettiness might be enhanced. No young lady in London was more beautifully dressed. When she started off in the afternoon, equipped for business and enjoyment—a little shopping, a round of agreeable visits—charming music or recherchés teas—she was a sight for gods and men—especially men. Everything about her, from her prancing horses to the tips of her exquisite gloves, was as perfect as care, taste, and money could make it. She herself—radiant with youth, health, good looks, satisfaction with the world, and the comfortable assurance of success—was as perfect as the rest. Nor was the perfection merely physical. Lady Holte’s mind was as well turned out as her carriage or her dress. Her intellect was as smart as all her other belongings. She was posted up with the last literary fashion, the last new book, the last bon-mot, the idea of the moment. She soon knew all that she wanted to know about them—all that was necessary for the purposes of society. These interesting topics came surging, one after another, on the eddies of her brain, spun there for an evening, and disappeared to make room for successors, destined themselves to be as speedily superseded in favour of a later arrival. The residuum of solid thought was, naturally, not immense; but the effect was brilliant, and it was brilliancy upon which Lady Holte’s ambition was set. Nobody around her cared, or had leisure to enquire, how the brilliancy was produced, or what was the particular alloy which was capable of producing it. Such finished specimens of civilisation can be achieved only by a machine as complex and intricate, as delicate as modern society; and modern society is naturally proud of the achievement.
This brilliant young person, her pretty drawing-room, her excellent dinners, her ambrosial toilettes, and her eccentric and amusing friend, were all now at Amersham’s disposal, were devoted to the sacred cause of winning his regards, of securing his intimacy, or at any rate a sufficient semblance of it to be shown to an admiring world. Lady Holte was really ingratiating. She had wearied of lesser conquests. They were so easy: she was bent on the capture of a worthy prey. To captivate Amersham would establish her position among the brilliant women of society. The charm began to work. Lady Holte’s pretty face and caressing manner, Miss Everard’s unconventionality and wit, pleasant doses of flattery, judiciously administered by lovely hands,—the general air of brightness, good-nature, indulgence, were steeping Amersham’s soul in welcome ease. He was surrendering. Lady Holte had more reason than ever to think well of herself, her friend, her successes, and a world which pretty women could subjugate at will. But there were other and more worthy haunts to which Amersham’s footsteps would often turn. It was natural for him to go, as in old days, to Mrs. Ormesby, and to find himself again in a house where he had for long been a favoured habitué. It was natural, and it was pleasant; for Mrs. Ormesby was delighted to have him, and her drawing-room was the haunt of interesting people. Mrs. Ormesby welcomed the returned truant, skilfully avoided all reference to the cause of the truancy, and, by way of killing the fatted calf for him, took especial care that he should be well amused.
With all these various attractions at his command, Amersham found no lack of employment for the leisure afternoons, which, now that Mrs. Montcalm’s drawing-room was no longer available, might, otherwise, have hung heavy on his hands.
En amour il n’y a que les commencements qui soient charmants; et c’est pour cela qu’on éprouve tant de plaisir à recommencer souvent.
One of the attractions of Mrs. Ormesby’s drawing-room to Amersham was that Lord Belmont frequently came there about tea-time, and with Lord Belmont some of his and his sister’s especial friends. Such gatherings were greatly to Amersham’s taste. Mrs. Ormesby, who loved her brother and hated a crowd, made a point of collecting about her the sort of people he would like to meet, and tempting him with the attraction of a congenial coterie. On these occasions, surrounded by intimate friends. Lord Belmont threw off his shyness. His nature played at ease; his reserve vanished; his spirits rose. He betrayed a gaiety of spirit which, when beset by no depressing influence,—such as Montcalm’s seriousness,—soon rose to mirth. He was delighted with Amersham and greatly interested in his career.
“Dizzy was right,” he would tell his sister, “youth is the trump card. The beginners are so interesting. We old stagers are apt to forget how quickly the scene shifts and the new players come on. Boys constantly startle us by their maturity. We think of them still as the children we remember—we bought cups for their christening—and are surprised to find them full-blown statesmen. I am all for youth. The trade of being famous should be begun early in life. If a man has not discovered his aptitude for it by thirty, he may give up the search. Young men renovate an exhausted world; they keep up the supply of oxygen. I like Mrs. Browning—
“Reverence for the young, I cry:
In that new Church, for which the world’s near ripe.
You’ll have the younger in the elder’s chair.
Presiding with his ivory front of hope
O’er foreheads clawed by cruel carrion birds
Of life’s experiences—”
“What a dreadful description!” cried Mrs. Ormesby. “Our foreheads are not all as bad as that. Moreover, ‘the ivory front of hope’ is sometimes bound in brass. I console myself with the reflection that Columbus discovered America after he was fifty. As for Dizzy’s rhapsodies about youth, they were mere flatteries of the clever clique of boys with whom he fancied he could reconstruct his party. He himself went on improving to the last.”
“Well,” said Lord Belmont, “let us hope for the best. It must be a bore, though, to wake up every morning of one’s life surprised not to find oneself famous, which, I suppose, is some men’s lot.”
Sometimes, however, Amersham had Mrs. Ormesby to himself, and their talk on these occasions became increasingly serious. Mrs. Ormesby was a good friend—wise, shrewd, sympathetic, and not above giving a valuable hint. Amersham relied more and more on her friendship. She gave him her views of life. She vehemently disapproved of much that she saw going on around her.
One evening they had been discussing a feminine escapade, the exceptional vulgarity of which had achieved renown. It was the last thing in fastness, only rendered respectable by the distinction of the delinquents.
“It is a pity,” said Amersham, “and the pity is the greater because everybody knows it. In twenty-four hours every young man and maiden in England will have learnt how a smart girl in polite society thinks it becoming to show her smartness.”
“They think it necessary to be canaille,” said Mrs. Ormesby. “Rowdiness is the fashion. The question now becomes who can do it best, who dares go furthest, like school-boys on thin ice. Presently the ice breaks and then some one gets a —”
“And comes up muddy and bedraggled,” said Amersham, “or perhaps does not come up at all. It is a pity, is it not? But then what delightful exceptions there are! The really nice girl, as we know her, is surely as adorable as the nice girl of our grandfathers. Can woman, in any age, have been nearer perfection than some women that we know?”
“Lady Cynthia, for instance?” suggested Mrs. Ormesby, who had been watching an opportunity for approaching her companion on a delicate subject.
“Ah,” said Amersham, changing tone suddenly; “but then she is an instance of nothing but her own perfection. She would be exceptional in any age. She ranges at a higher level than ordinary mortals. She is one of a million. I am happy to say that she and I are old friends—old friends and firm. Her friendship is one of the things in life I am proudest of. I am devoted to her.”
“Are you?” said Mrs. Ormesby. “Such delightful possessions need to be sedulously treasured. They need a pious observance. One cannot guard them too carefully.”
“You mean something particular,” said Amersham; “you are scolding me, I feel, for some misdeed. But what? I am honestly unconscious. My conscience tells me nothing.”
“Perhaps,” said Mrs. Ormesby, “that is because your conscience has not been encouraged to speak.”
“No,” said Amersham, “it is clear of offence. We have never, to my knowledge, had the least misunderstanding. She is among my greatest friends. Tell me, Mrs. Ormesby, what you mean?”
“I mean,” said his companion, “merely what I say, that the choicest friendships deserve the most observant care.”
“I have done something wrong, I see,” said Amersham. “I repent; but repentance is difficult till one knows one’s sin. Tell me what it is.”
“I wonder,” said Mrs. Ormesby, “whether I am an old enough friend to give you a piece of honest advice, or whether you would consider it an impertinence. I have been long in doubt.”
“I am sorry that you should have doubted,” said her companion. “I hoped that our friendship was too assured for such a doubt. However, please doubt no more. There is no one whose judgment I value more than yours. I can feel nothing but the sincerest gratitude for any advice you will give me.”
“I am not so sure of that,” said Mrs. Ormesby; “it is on a subject about which a man least likes to be advised.”
“What subject can that be? I like to be advised by you about everything. But I am becoming nervous. I wish to have it over.”
“You promise not to be angry? Well then, has it ever occurred to you what a delightful husband you would make? It is a pity that you should be wasted. Not, indeed, that you are wasted, because we all get the benefit of your being at large. But still, you have had some years of that sort of thing, and have had all the fun you can want. The other thing is dull and dignified, but there is a solid comfort in it. Some people put it off too long—”
“And become old fogies!” cried Amersham. “I am to settle and become respectable before I grow bald and have had the gout! What a dreadful prescription! And who is the heroic woman who will undertake me? Some enterprising widow with a good position and a rich stock of experience?”
“How can one advise a mocker?” said Mrs. Ormesby with some irritation in her tone. “And you—who are so devoted to women!”
“You forget,” cried Amersham, “what an infinite difference there is between being devoted to a woman, and being harnessed to her—blinkers, bit, and bearing-rein, and the cut of the coachman’s whip if you fidget or do not stand exactly as you should. I could never stand it.”
“What an absurd simile!” said Mrs. Ormesby. “You are not a pair of carriage horses. You would be master of the situation.”
“Possibly,” said her companion; “but one might like it none the better for that. Marriage, at best, is an irrevocable flirtation, as some clever woman or other said. One would resent its irrevocability. The point of a flirtation is its being revocable at the will of either party—‘ Il n’y a que le provisoire qui dure!’”
“You talk like a libertine,” cried Mrs. Ormesby.
“A chartered one,” said the other, “with the best possible intentions; that is my ideal relationship!”
“What an ideal for a rational being!” said Mrs. Ormesby, more and more nettled at the other’s imperturbable levity. “I will give you a piece of my mind. Many of you charming young people—men as much as women—mistake vanity for love. They are delighted at their own prowess. They enjoy homage. Incense streams up; it is agreeable to be adored. Great kings have liked it; so do you young men and maidens, often without caring particularly about the devotee. They take hearts as boys do birds’ eggs, in mere wanton mischief, for the pleasure of breaking them. The one is as childish cruelty as the other.”
“I have not been bird’s-nesting,” cried Amersham, “I give you my honour.”
“You are incorrigible, Mr. Amersham,” said Mrs. Ormesby; “do you not see that I am serious?”
“Well,” said Amersham, “and so will I be. It is a serious subject. Heaven knows. Well then, if you wish to know, I have no idea of marrying. I am not aware that I could if I wished. Happily, I do not wish. Perhaps you can suggest the lady.”
“Not I!” said Mrs. Ormesby, “if your own feelings do not suggest one. I should have thought, from the way you talked just now, that they would.”
“Lady Cynthia!” cried Amersham, striving with but indifferent success to look unconscious; “surely I said nothing that could suggest that I was profane enough to think of her in that way. I should regard it as profanity. Some women are born, they say, for worship and some for love. Lady Cynthia was made to be worshipped; I worship her. Seriously, she is a thousand times too good for me. I could never live up to her. She would oppress one with a sense of one’s shortcomings, and that would make one hate her. Self-satisfaction is the food of love, conjugal love at any rate. One’s wife must flatter one.”
“What nonsense you talk!” cried Mrs. Ormesby. “You want to put me off; but I will go through with it, now that I have begun. Do you think that I have no eyes, and have not seen you hovering about Lady Cynthia any time these three years? Worshipping her indeed! No!—but having an uncommonly good time of it with a charming girl, who was pleased to think you charming too.”
Amersham’s conscience presented him with a too long list of occasions on which Lady Cynthia and he had enjoyed one another’s society to their hearts’ content, to make it easy to reply.
“So, that is the point of your scolding,” he said at last. “You mean that I have been behaving badly to her. What a monstrous charge! She would be the first to deride it.”
“I do mean it,” said Mrs. Ormesby; “I am positive that I am right. I am not the only person who thinks so.”
“No?” said Amersham. “It is flattering to be gossiped about: but gossip is generally wide of the mark.”
“It is no gossip,” said Mrs. Ormesby; “it is the deliberate opinion of your intimate friends and hers, who think her happiness imperilled, if not something more, and that the fault is yours. If it is so, remember that it is no common woman at whose expense you have been amusing yourself.”
“Common!” cried Amersham, “and amusing myself! Good heavens, Mrs. Ormesby, you bewilder me! Your accusation seems so grotesquely wide of the truth.”
“Lay it to heart,” said his monitress; “you will find it truer than you think: and remember that I am too old a friend to have spoken lightly to you on such a theme. I do not speak without thinking. My idea is that you are made for one another. It would be a delightful match. May you achieve it! That is my best wish for you! Now I have freed my soul.”
“And perturbed mine,” said Amersham. “But seriously, you don’t mean—”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Ormesby, “I mean the worst. It is a conjecture, of course; but an old lady’s conjectures are often right. A charming woman’s happiness is in your hands. Get out of the scrape as you think best. Now I have said my say and you may go away to your committee!”
A strain of lyric passion for a life
Which, in the spending, is a chronicle
With ugly pages.
Mrs. Ormesby had, at any rate, succeeded in making Amersham thoroughly uncomfortable. It would have been well for him—as they say of Henry the Eighth—to have been born into a world in which women did not figure as a necessary part of creation. Woman was for ever betraying him into scrapes. The Sibylla scrape had been a bad one; it had hurt dreadfully; it had, however, Amersham reflected, left him free. There was nothing to do but to bear it as best he might and console himself with his freedom. The present scrape was beset with complications. It called for action. It involved the responsibility of a decision, and on that decision what various issues hung, not for himself alone! Another’s happiness was involved. The necessity for decision, for action, in such a case, was supremely distressing.
Protested in a world of ways, save one
Hinting of marriage,
had hitherto been Amersham’s device. To admire, to offer homage, to adore—how easy! but to be a husband, like ten thousand others—one of the conventional gang! The last thing, surely, to do with a charming woman is to marry her. It closes the game. It ends the epoch of interest, adventure, romance. It brings in that of settlements, house-keeping, and stereotyped respectability. It is to exchange the wild life of the freebooter for the dull safety of a fortress—stone walls, portcullis, rampart, ditch—a prison to the garrison which it protects. The very thought was stifling. Amersham had learnt to think of himself as a sort of privileged being, for whose benefit the race of husbands and wives existed—whose prerogative it was to step in where husbands failed, and teach some yearning, dissatisfied soul how charming man could be, if only you found the right man. Once a husband, this agreeable occupation would be gone. His career would be ended.
On the other hand. Lady Cynthia touched a very tender spot in a heart which was nowhere the reverse of soft. She was one of his oldest friends, and his dearest. It was dreadful to think of her being hurt by any one; but that the blow should be his own! There was a pathos about her, a gentleness, a refinement of thought and feeling, which it would be sacrilege to approach with careless soul or irreligious hand. Had he, Amersham asked himself, been guilty of this sort of brutal irreligion? Her companionship was among his choicest pleasures. Had he, while enjoying this companionship, forgotten everything but his own enjoyment, forgotten that, perhaps, her very exquisiteness arose from her own suffering, like the precious odour expressed by the rude handling of some rare exotic. It was a leading doctrine of Amersham’s creed to be chivalrous, to invest the relations of man to woman with romance, sanctity—all that devotion claims. Had he now been guilty of the worst sort of selfishness in which a selfish sex permits itself—of high treason to the sacredness of love?
A victim to these distracting thoughts, Amersham made himself profoundly wretched, so wretched that some means of escape became a matter of necessity. The thought of Lady Cynthia haunted him. When they met in society—which it was their fate to do, somewhere or other, on several evenings of the week—nothing could be more perfect than her appearance and demeanour. Everything about her breathed distinction, a choiceness in taste and thought which Amersham felt to be supremely charming. She realised the ideal woman. Other women—the average women—how commonplace, how common, how inferior, as compared with her! And this charming creature, Mrs. Ormesby would have him believe, was within his reach—was waiting to be wooed—was secretly chiding the delay of a too deliberate lover! What was such deliberation but mere baseness and cowardice? He had broken with Mrs. Montcalm. He was free. Why should he any longer deliberate?
Some weeks of moral harassment of this order produced their natural result. Amersham was wrought into a mood which demanded action. His doubts had disappeared. Delightful sensation! He was in love.
It was part of Lady Cynthia’s good-breeding that she showed no outward sign of broken-heartedness. Amersham and she had talked a great deal of sentiment in former days. It was easy then. He had flattered himself that it would be still easier now. To his surprise Amersham found it unexpectedly difficult. Lady Cynthia’s attitude was distinctly unsentimental. She was cordial, unconstrained, perfectly at her ease, wishing to be amused, ready herself to contribute to amusement:—no longer the romantic, interesting, pathetic being who lived in Amersham’s recollection. But women are adepts at concealment; and a secret attachment is the thing they most skilfully conceal. Amersham, undiscouraged, rushed upon his fate.
Lady Cynthia’s reply was all the more distressing because it was evidently the result of deliberation. She had deliberated. It was a foregone conclusion. There was no room for debate, argument, entreaty. Her decision had been pronounced beforehand. Amersham, himself greatly excited, was surprised at her composure.
“I will speak honestly,” she said; “we are old friends. I am sorry that you should have been mistaken as to my feelings. I was in the dark as to yours. I cannot, I am sorry to say, give you what you ask. As that is my feeling, there is, of course, an end of it.”
Amersham was aghast at the coldness, the composure, the harsh decisiveness of her reply—so little like herself—so little befitting the occasion—so cruel.
“The end of it?” he cried. “That is very summary, cruelly summary, when a man’s happiness is at stake. You know how intensely I have admired you for years past—admired, and, if you will not deem it presumptuous in me to say so, loved. You must have known it.”
“I have known it,” said Lady Cynthia—“yes, and for years past—all that there was to know, only too well;—but it was not love. It is not love, believe me, whatever you believe it just now. Experience has taught me a bitter lesson.”
“What lesson was that?” said Amersham, a sudden chill at his heart; “it must, indeed, have been a bitter one to make you talk so.”
“The lesson of resigning one’s dreams of happiness,” said Lady Cynthia, with some bitterness. “They are illusions.”
“But are they illusions?” cried Amersham, “or is the rest of life illusion, and the true part that which people call their dreams—the part that hope, enthusiasm, imagination gild with a ray of heaven? Do you mean that I deceived you?”
“By no means,” said Lady Cynthia. “I deceived myself. But years have brought wisdom. Let us be wise. We are friends. We should imperil our friendship if we laid on it a burthen which love alone can bear.”
“Love!” cried Amersham. “Then you do not believe in mine? You are strangely unfeeling!”
“Unfeeling!” said Lady Cynthia, with a sudden outburst of passion—the colour flushing in her cheek, her dreamy eyes flashing with unaccustomed fire—“and you accuse me of that! Think of three years ago, and of all that passed between us then! You devoted yourself to charming me—I was fascinated. I was, I suppose, in love. You could have had me for the asking. You had but to speak the word; and you knew it, I am positive. Yet that word was never spoken. You preferred freedom, variety, perhaps the dreams of ambition, perhaps the flattery of the world, to love—to me. You see how I have thought it all out. I have had reason to do so.”
“But you have thought it out wrong,” cried Amersham. “You have misjudged me!”
“No, no,” said Lady Cynthia. “I could not be deceived. The world was very bright to you; life was very sweet,—sweeter, I imagine, than it was to me. Many women smiled upon you. You were delighted with their smiles, too delighted to weigh nicely what another might be feeling. I passed some sad times—the saddest of my life. I had to give you up. I resolved to do it. I convinced myself that we were very different—in taste, character, and our view of life. We should, no doubt, have been unhappy. It was a sad conviction. Years have deadened the pain it cost me. I am heart-whole. But heart-whole or not, I can never unlearn the past. I would never trust myself to love you. I never will.”
“How cruel women are,” cried Amersham, “even you who look like an angel of mercy—cruel and unjust!”
“And you can say that!” said Lady Cynthia, by this time in too great turmoil of mind to weigh her words; “let me ask you a question. How long is it since you breathed in another woman’s ear the very protestations you have been making now to me? I have a right to ask it. Do you call that love? No! the first thing in a lover is that he should have a heart to offer!”
“I have offered you mine, such as it is,” said Amersham with dignity, “a loyal offer. It is yours, however you are pleased to trample on it. You might have spared me that. Your answer would have been pain enough.”
“You might have spared me something too,” said Lady Cynthia, “the pain of such a scene as this. Your offer only wounds me. It is made too late. What prompted you to make it now? Perhaps some one told you that you ought? That would be indeed an indignity!”
“Spare me and spare yourself,” cried Amersham; “you hurt us both by your cruel speeches. You know as well as I do that I could as soon fly as act or think about you in any way but one—the way of reverence, homage, and, though you think it an indignity, love. Indignity! and from me to you! I, who have always dreamed of you as half angelic—who think you half angelic even now when you are rejecting me with scorn. Think of me as you will, only disabuse your mind of so monstrous an idea. If I have done wrong, forgive me!”
“Forgive me,” said Lady Cynthia. “I have been very rude; but my heart is sore. I shall always think of you as one of my oldest friends: I hope that you will always so think of me.”
“Always,” said Amersham. “Now I will torment you no longer. Good-bye.”
People talk about first love; but the thing they talk about is a fiction, just as the Golden Age is. First love in reality is like a first attempt on the fiddle. The magic and the music come with experience. To love successfully you must often have loved in vain. To make love complete, it must not only be a giver of joy, but a healer of sorrow also—a resurrection of hope rather than its birth.
The battle was over. Both parties to the encounter had retired in discomfiture. Lady Cynthia, though mistress of the position, was more supremely wretched than she had conceived it possible to be—the wretchedness of having given full scope to a long-cherished grudge. She had oftentimes mentally rehearsed the scene of Amersham’s rejected offer, supposing that it should ever come. It was an old story, painfully familiar. She had been feeling, for years, aggrieved at his behaviour. It had wounded her to the quick. For years he had been trifling, romancing, playing at sentiment, and playing with all the ease of indifference. To Lady Cynthia it had been anything but play. Pride had, indeed, enabled her to carry a courageous exterior. The world had not been allowed to see her weakness. No confidante’s ear had ever caught a whisper of her suffering. None the less she had suffered—the long, slow pang of unrequited love. It had been a weary business. Oftentimes she had forced herself to gaiety when she felt anything but gay—when the coldness, the dreariness, the sadness of existence seemed to be crushing her to the ground. Then had come the time when Amersham’s devotion to Sibylla had dawned on Lady Cynthia,and had gradually become a matter of certainty. A thousand proofs convinced her. They might escape the notice of the careless world, of casual acquaintance, of those who saw them only in the crush and hurry of society. But Lady Cynthia was intimate with both of them. She was Sibylla’s closest friend, and though Sibylla spoke no word—though she sedulously avoided the subject, Lady Cynthia had known instinctively how matters stood. Sibylla’s very avoidance of the topic—her reluctance to talk about the man whom she had at first found so interesting to criticise and discuss, itself told a tale, clear enough to the keen ear, the nervous sensibility, the penetrating glance of love—love, that can do nothing but look on, silent and helpless, while others play the game. Lady Cynthia could follow the history of Amersham’s devotion. She had watched its birth, its rapid growth to a dominating passion—Amersham’s pretexts, precautions, attempts at concealment. How bootless are such attempts with a woman who loves, who watches, who sees the man whom she loves falling, day by day, more and more under the dominion of another—more and more unconscious of her own hidden treasures of affection, veiling indifference under good-natured levity and the shallow expedients of politeness! Cynthia had known it all with the clearness, the certainty of an intuition. She was now aware that the intimacy had abruptly closed. What cause could there have been for that but one—the cause which she had always expected to close it—whose operation she had been surprised to see so long delayed? She had been certain how Sibylla would act. The moment she had become aware of Amersham’s real feeling—the moment she had realised the position, she had dismissed him. Then the dismissed lover had turned—as dismissed lovers will—in mortification, disappointment, to the woman whose weakness he knew, on whose compliance he could reckon. He had brought for her acceptance the worthless offering which another woman had declined—which, so far as he was concerned, was another woman’s still. Humiliating thought!—only to be met, as such outrages deserve, with all the stern fortitude that the object of the outrage can summon to her aid. The collision had been forced upon her. She had tried to avert it. She had warned Amersham from his attempt to be sentimental. That had been outrage enough. When he determined to complete the outrage by the overtures of a lover, there was nothing to do but to stand at bay—to reject the degrading offer with all the ignominy it deserved, and to shame the offender by an outspoken denunciation of his offence.
Such was Lady Cynthia’s programme. She had realised it with courage and success, only to discover that its realisation brought her not the least relief. He heart was aching as badly as ever—worse than ever. She was in the right. Her position was unassailable; but, unluckily, unassailable positions are no cure for low spirits and an aching heart. Worst of all, George Amersham—the traitor, the trifler, the careless freebooter whom she had sent about his business with so much well-deserved contempt—was still the George Amersham whom she loved. He had borne himself in their encounter with a chivalrous, a manly gentleness, dear to a woman’s heart. Ignore it as she might, the dreadful truth swept back and re-established itself in her soul with the quiet, resistless inflow of a returning tide. Protest as she might to the contrary, she loved him; and the consolation to be found in exposing, denouncing, or rejecting the man you love—however richly he merits his fate—is, Lady Cynthia now discovered, one of those false and transient joys for which one pays dearly in remorse. Consoled indeed! She was ten times more than ever in need of consolation.
Amersham was in an equally pitiable plight. He had been all his life accustomed to succeed. Repulse was a new and remarkably disagreeable experience. For one thing, it had taught him how very much in love he was. He had never seen this particular phase of the feminine temperament. Lady Cynthia’s grave, refined beauty had borrowed a new charm from her indignant mood. She had never seemed more entrancingly lovely. Her agitation would have marred any common beauty. It only enhanced Lady Cynthia’s. She had told her story with pathos, dignity, and a touching, convincing honesty. Never till now had Amersham known how adorable she was, and how fiery a spirit burnt beneath that placid exterior. Then a new question suggested itself. How came Lady Cynthia to be so fully informed of his enslavement to Sibylla—that luckless escapade which he had been striving, not quite unsuccessfully, to forget? There must have been treachery. Who had betrayed him? Who was the traitress? Whose the prying eye? Whose the malicious hand that had been so busy in poisoning Lady Cynthia’s mind, and marring his chances of success? Were all women then—the best, the purest—traitors at heart? Was this sort of treachery—at which any woman, the commonest, would blush—to be found in those who in aim, in ideal, in choiceness of character, seem to stand on a pedestal apart from and above the rest? So much for superior women, who profess a sublimer standard than their neighbours! So much for the attempt to pitch intercourse between men and women at a higher level! After all it is an absurd attempt! It is in vain to take women seriously, or to humour the fanciful beings, who aim at being seriously taken! The only safe relations are those whose superficial and transitory character is openly acknowledged on either side—where nothing but amusement is expected or promised by either party to the bargain, where nothing tends to seriousness or can involve remorse. Mrs. Montcalm and Lady Cynthia were no better than the rest! He had idealised them. It had been an absurd, a bootless process, ending naturally in discomfiture! Sore at heart, humiliated, conscious of disappointment and reverse, Amersham determined to be, at any rate, amused.
Amusement was not far to seek. In Miss Everard’s home—in which her brilliant personality extinguished all the duller elements—Amersham was certain of a circle in which the escape from dulness was the one serious end—the ruling motive of existence. Miss Everard herself was gaiety, health, vivacity personified. Her smile was a couplet from “L’Allegro,” and the smile had a charming background in a perfect set of teeth, which, by some lucky exemption, had escaped the common doom of our enfeebled civilisation. Her bright, crisp hair, her firm tread, her brisk movements (and Miss Everard, when other things failed, had been known to regale her friends with a performance on the trapeze), the firm, cordial grasp of her nervous hand—all spoke of energy, strength, life. Who could mope in a world in which Kitty Everards were still to be found, a living protest against the malaise of modern invalidism? She found life, indeed, as Renan described it, a “promenade charmante.” It was full of amusement. She herself was indefatigable in the research of what she found most amusing—new and vivid impressions. They were as necessary to her comfort as the oxygen in the air she breathed. As vivid impressions are not always available, Miss Everard was, not unfrequently, herself constrained to create them. One obvious way of impressing men is to flirt with them, and flirtation of an audacious and unconventional order was a resource to which, when other resources failed. Miss Everard betook herself with a confidence which long experience had shown not to be misplaced. She now found that Amersham, for whom hitherto she had woven her spells in vain, was open to a flirtation. He evidently meant business. He allowed her to monopolise him. He showed her the pronounced attention which scorns the timid maxims of conventionality and boldly challenges the public eye. Miss Everard, on her part, was fully prepared to dazzle a wondering world by a brilliant performance in a new and congenial part. It suited her to perfection. She experienced a delightful sensation of shocking even those who knew her too well to be easily shocked. She was proud of the achievement, proud of the companion by whose aid it was achieved. Lady Holte heartily abetted her friend’s enterprise. If she could not capture Amersham for herself, it was something to have him captured by an ally. He was now in their camp. He was won from the Ethereals. He no longer aspired to be ethereal. He was at last, as Lady Holte long had been, tired of Sibylla’s sublimities. He had discovered that Lady Cynthia, if romantic in a grand style, could be dull. He had been having a dull time. He needed recreation. He had come to his new friends in search of amusement. It would be their fault if he did not find it.
Miss Everard’s suppers were an institution. Her father’s splendid and splendidly equipped mansion lent itself to an ornate repast. There was a sort of gorgeousness about the whole thing which might have been oppressive at dinner-time, but which at an after-the-theatre banquet merely contributed to exhilaration. Miss Everard herself, as sparkling as a glass of champagne, produced an agreeable sensation of revelry by night. The revelry was unconstrained by parental criticism, for Mr. Everard, in gratifying his vivacious daughter’s every whim, placed his well-stored cellar, his army of servants, his French chef at her disposal, on the single condition of being himself allowed to go to bed in peace. Mrs. Everard found the young people’s fun—protracted far into the small hours—a little too fast and furious for her taste, and followed her husband’s example. Kitty Everard was well able to take care of herself and her guests. Her air of abandon—hovering deliciously on the confines of impropriety—was, everybody felt, a stroke of genius. She was the brightest, the most fascinating of Bohemians. She was now fired with a high emprise—to Bohemianise Amersham.
The party was gathering for supper. Everybody seemed hungry, talkative, and in the best possible spirits. After three hours of intermittent silence, the imprisoned rush of conversation naturally became torrential. Earliest among the arrivals was Mrs. Araby, a frisky old lady who was always to be found wherever any fun was in the air, and whose presence Miss Everard was pleased to regard as throwing a halo of respectability over her entertainments. Montague had escorted her from the theatre. Amersham brought Mrs. Montague, a brilliant brunette, whose flashing eyes, bright smile, and splendid attire threw a sort of glory around her. Lady Holte had dropped her husband at his club, where an hour or two of baccarat were more to his taste than Miss Everard’s fine supper and sharp speeches. Unattached bachelors came dropping in from neighbouring entertainments: Edenbridge, fresh from a newspaper office, where he had scamped his evening’s article to be present, and Fontenoy, an agreeable guardsman, on whom a circle of affectionate friends had conferred the soubriquet of “the Seraph.” Their hostess flitted about, the impersonation of gaiety. Presently the great actress of the season arrived, conscious of greatness, and flushed with triumph—the plaudits of the closing scene still ringing in her ears—bright, gracious, and bent on being delightful.
All the party greeted her with acclamation. Miss Everard held her hand and beamed affectionately on her.
“So good of you to come!” she said. “How exhausted you must be. I am quite exhausted with merely looking at you and listening. You were at your best to-night! It was absolutely terrific.”
“I come to get rid of my exhaustion!” answered the other—“good cheer and good company are the best of restoratives. You, Miss Everard, would restore any one!”
“Welcome back to life!” cried Amersham. “We could not spare you! What would the world be without the charming Mrs. L’Estrange?”
“And now for supper,” cried Miss Everard; “everybody is famished I am certain—to judge by myself. Mental emotions, they say, increase the appetite. Good tragedies involve good suppers!”
“And we have got one here!” cried Amersham, sitting down by his hostess, and putting Mrs. L’Estrange on his other side. “Nothing is so tragic as hunger! That fury, at any rate, can always be appeased! But what a double-dyed villain your lover was! I wish you had stabbed him before your suicide. La Tosca, with her carving-knife, has shown you how to do it!”
“No, no,” cried Lady Holte: “it is quite horrible enough as it is! I was nearly screaming—I could not have borne another crime! One of the dreadful things about the world is that the sexes do each so much harm. I really do not know which is the worst!”
“Oh,” said Mrs. Araby, “the men are worst. It has been so ever since our first parents in Eden. It would be Paradise still if the women had it to themselves.”
“Too true!” cried Amersham, exploring the treasures of a mysterious salmi, “it is the men that spoil everything! What sadder sight than virtuous woman diverted from the path of duty by the appearance of inevitable man upon the scene? Look at Dido, a paragon of propriety, building her city, governing her infant State, refusing the proposals of neighbouring potentates, mourning for the late Mr. Dido, all in most exemplary fashion. Then comes the pious AEneas with his tales of flood and foe, and the execrable little god of love abetting him, and, thereupon, thunderstorms and caves—tears, shame, and remorse—broken vows, the suicidal pyre, and Heaven knows what not!”
“I could fancy doing anything in a thunderstorm!” cried Mrs. Araby.
“And I in a cave,” said Miss Everard. “But Dido’s suicide was a tribute to the sacred cause of morality!”
“Morality!” cried Montague, who was fond of parading as a décadent,—“a question of taste, latitude, fashion! I was reading in Darwin this morning that, if women lived under the conditions of the bees, the growth of moral sense would point to the sacred duty of unmarried females murdering their brothers, and mothers stinging their daughters to death on their first appearance in society.”
“How many weary chaperons would be glad to do it!” cried Mrs. Araby gaily; “how many do it! Our moral sense has grown that way already. One feels the propriety. I should have done it to my girls if they had not provided for themselves their first season. It is a grand idea!”
“What a close to the season!” said Lady Holte, “and what a wholesome stimulus to matrimony! and how nice for the marrying men! Somebody would be sure to take them. Even Lord Hunstanton would manage not to be refused. There would be a chance for the Seraph!”
“But fancy a season opening with an entirely new set of girls,” said the Seraph, “all bonâ-fide débutantes—innocent, ignorant, expectant, and bound to get married in the next three months. What a business to educate them! and what a pity to lose the educated ones!”
“Precious education!” cried Amersham, “to valse with the Seraph, to read Montague’s love poems, and to study mankind through the miasma of a decadent novel!”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Araby, “Mr. Montague, your sonnets are disgraceful. I sent my copy back to Mudie the moment I had read it, and complained that they should have such a book on their list—”
“And then went about telling everybody that it is not fit to read,” said Montague—“the two very things to help a deserving author on! It was so good of you! But, Mrs. Araby, is not your view a little behind the age? No book is moral or immoral, they tell us. It is a question of style. The artist who has an ethical sympathy commits an unpardonable mannerism.”
“That, I suppose,” said Mrs. Araby, “explains why so many women in pictures are allowed to dispense with their clothes.”
“It gives warmth of colouring,” said Montague. “The age requires it. The modern writer must dip his brush in lightning and eclipse—the lightning of passion and the eclipse of propriety. The virtuous people are meaningless to the aesthetic. Their extravagance is their only charm. Look at Lady Paragon, that piece of faulty perfection—adorably pretty! but what could an artist do with her?”
“She is an admirable woman,” cried Mrs. Araby, whose rôle it was occasionally to check the flights of her co-revellers—“and so good-natured to every one. She is one long, sweet smile.”
“Too long and too sweet,” cried Montague, “an inartistic monotony! She is as dull as a national motto. Semper eadem.”
“Or ‘Simper eadem,’” suggested Amersham; “she reminds one that ‘Virtue, how awful’ may sometimes mean ‘how awfully dull.’”
“‘A thing of duty is a bore for ever,’” cried Montague. “That comes out of Endymion.”
“Outrageous,” cried Mrs. Araby. “What does the proverb say? ‘A virtuous woman is a crown to her husband.’”
“Yes,” said Montague, “but then, ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.’ Such husbands know their privilege and groan under it.”
“Well,” said Mrs. Araby, “one comfort is, your book will never live. The charm of impropriety is ephemeral.”
“I know,” said Montague; “sic transit gloria immundi. It is a cruel fate. But then my poems were not meant to be immortal. It is a great mistake for an author to take himself too seriously.”
“Right!” cried Amersham, “or for a politician either! Some people are always wanting to have their small-beer bottled as a promising vintage for posterity, instead of being drunk on the premises as a passing refreshment.”
“This champagne deserves to be immortal,” cried the Seraph as his glass was filled. “I wish it could be.”
“It is high time that we all went to bed,” said Mrs. Araby; “you young men are all so horribly depraved. Please, Seraph, ring and ask if my carriage has arrived.”
Miss Everard had concluded the banquet with a cigarette. She was in the highest spirits—a modernised edition of a lovely Bacchante. She had been devoting herself to Amersham. Her brightness, her mirth, her sparkling looks, her radiant smile, frank, ready sympathy, her quick replies made her a delightful companion. She suited Amersham’s present mood to perfection. She was not, possibly, an ideal woman; but she could at any rate amuse. Her high spirits were infectious. She was refreshingly clever. Her wit was ready and unstudied. But she had something more than wit, high spirits, and good companionship. There was a touch of feeling, of passion in her warm, kind glance. She stood among the departing guests while the ladies were putting on their cloaks.
“Do not go yet,” she said, her hand lingering an instant in Amersham’s, as he was wishing her goodnight; “come out on to the verandah, finish your cigar and devote yourself to the moonlight and to me. We have had a merry evening. We will crown it with a tête-à-tête.”
Moi qui même auprès des belles
Voudrais vivre en passager,
Que je porte envie aux ailes
De l’oiseau vif et léger!
The fact of Amersham’s intimacy with Miss Everard, Lady Holte, and their coterie was not likely to remain for long a secret. Neither of these ladies was in the habit of hiding her light under a bushel. On the contrary they lived, and liked to live, in the fullest blaze of publicity. Amersham had always been fond of relieving the monotony of his duties as a legislator by dinner-parties at the House of Commons, afternoon teas on the Terrace, and other amusements of an order that caught the general eye. These parties were as brilliant as beautiful women—each with a toilette as beautiful as herself—clever and agreeable men, good fare, good talk and good company could make them. Their brilliancy enhanced itself. Whatever of wit or wisdom was generated in the commerce of London society was popularly attributed to these classic entertainments. Outsiders, who were, from time to time, honoured with an invitation to join the party, felt the greatness of the privilege, and took back into the common world glowing accounts of all that they had seen and heard. So rumours spread—good, bad, and indifferent—all alike transformed by the exaggeration, inaccuracy, and intentional mendacity which go to the manufacture of society gossip—all alike remote from the uninteresting tameness of the truth. The consequence was that Mrs. Ormesby, who was a confirmed gossip, very speedily came to know that Amersham had taken a plunge into polite Bohemia, that he was a favoured habitué in Mrs. Everard’s drawing-room and a professed admirer of her daughter.
So discreetly had Amersham and Lady Cynthia conducted their proceedings, the previous summer, that no one but themselves had an idea of what had taken place between them. No one, accordingly, had the means of connecting Amersham’s lapse into rowdyism with the break in their intimacy. Lady Cynthia had the valuable gift of being, when she pleased, inscrutable. Amersham was far too well versed in the arts of social diplomacy to let anything in his language or behaviour give a clue to the real condition of affairs. No one, not even Mrs. Ormesby, could have read rejected lover in his air. To her he seemed merely to be indulging the weakest, least nice, least interesting side of his character,—his worst impulses—his lowest tastes. He had, she considered, a weakness for Bohemianism—for common things, and for the worst of common things—common women—for vulgarity. It provoked her to think of so deplorable a falling away from a promise of better things. It was, Mrs. Ormesby reflected, what men are always doing—disappointing one. Sibylla, to whom she confided her views on the subject, sympathised heartily in Mrs. Ormesby’s disappointment, and found a further topic of indignation in her view of Amersham’s behaviour to Lady Cynthia. It had been heartless, unworthy, unprincipled. The two friends had seen much of each other of late, and Lady Cynthia had not succeeded in concealing her melancholy mood. She had, indeed, made no open avowal. But, with the insight of affection, Sibylla had divined it. She attributed it unhesitatingly to the way in which Amersham, after years of intimacy, had at last deserted her.
While Sibylla and her aunt were still denouncing Amersham’s delinquency. Lord Belmont joined them. His view of the defection was less serious than Mrs. Ormesby’s or Sibylla’s; but it confirmed their worst apprehensions. Amersham was now, he told them, known to be the heart and soul of Miss Everard’s set. He was committed to a thorough-going flirtation with the young lady herself—a flirtation from which it might be difficult for the male-moth to escape with unsinged wings.
“They make themselves talked about,” Lord Belmont said. “They go about together in the most bare-faced manner, like a pair of Americans. They have accidental meetings, evidently pre-arranged. They sit through the evening in each other’s pockets. They are inseparable in the Row. Some people say they are engaged. Everybody protests that they ought to be.”
Meantime the two indiscreets went their way rejoicing, enjoyed themselves to their hearts’ content, and, apparently, regarded the strictures of society, the gossip of some, the satire of others, the disapproval of all with amused indifference. All right-minded people regarded Kitty Everard’s behaviour as a dangerous innovation upon the good rules which English custom has prescribed for the safety of the rising generation of young ladies. Amersham and Miss Everard defied them. They were too intimate. Such relations might be possible in America, but were impossible in London. A fashionable lady satirised Miss Everard in a monthly magazine as one of the evil products of a democratic epoch and a demoralised society. She and her tribe of imitators, and the class to which she belonged, were modernising Society, vulgarising and debasing it.
“I hope it will do her good,” Mrs. Ormesby had said fiercely, as she finished the article. “She needs it.”
“Society can take care of itself,” cried Sibylla. “If it can be vulgarised and debased by a girl like Kitty Everard, it is not worth preserving. What I really care about is Mr. Amersham’s behaviour to Cynthia. What a woman to play fast and loose with! I could forgive him anything but that. It is unforgivable. I shall banish Mr. Amersham from my list of friends. I am not sure, by the way, that he has not already banished himself.”
“My dear Sibylla,” said her father with a flash of merriment in his eye, “you have yet to learn that men are fallen creatures and need a great deal of forgiveness. As for Amersham, he is only like the rest of the world; he finds Miss Everard very good company. Small blame to him. I find her excellent company myself. I am becoming one of her set. She was pleased to take possession of me, the other evening, at the Duchess’s, carried me off to a sofa, talked to me, laughed at me, looked at me, amused me—in fact, I believe, flirted with me for half an hour.”
“I know,” said Mrs. Ormesby, “we had to wait for you, Belmont. I thought it a piece of her impertinence. I dislike impertinent girls.”
“Well,” said Lord Belmont, “her impertinence will trouble you no more, nor will Amersham’s flirtations, if it be true, as I have just heard, that they are actually engaged.”
“Engaged!” cried Mrs. Ormesby and Sibylla simultaneously. Their consternation was too complete for words.
“It is impossible,” at last Sibylla said, in a faltering tone, which betrayed her want of confidence in her own assertion; “impossible, incredible!”
“I heard it on excellent authority,” said Lord Belmont, “a friend of both parties.”
“I shall go and see Mrs. Everard,” said Mrs. Ormesby, “and learn the worst. As for its being impossible, Sibylla, it is just because it ought to be impossible that I am inclined to believe it. About young men it is generally safe to believe whatever is most wrong and idiotic! But this would be a length of idiocy I had not given Mr. Amersham credit for. But I really must find out.”
Mrs. Ormesby was fortunate in finding Mrs. Everard at home. A hansom cab was waiting at the door. On the stairs she met Miss Kitty herself, arrayed in her habit—gay—frank—unburthened, apparently, by a single thought of anything but enjoyment. Her appearance half disarmed Mrs. Ormesby’s indignation.
“You will find mamma in the drawing-room,” she said without hesitation; “she will be so glad to see you. I wish that I could come back with you, but I have an engagement, and I am disgracefully late as it is. We have a delightful scheme on hand. We are going to drive to Richmond and then to ride in the Park. The foliage is so charming.”
“No doubt,” said Mrs. Ormesby, with the tone of a grand inquisitor; “and when you have done looking at the foliage, what then?”
“Then,” continued Miss Everard with unabashed good humour, “we are to have tea under one of the great oaks—Moselle cup, iced asparagus and strawberries and cream—the only sort of fare for this weather. Then we are to rehearse an act of As You Like It, with natural scenery, oak-trees, deer and fern, and so forth. A stag is to be driven by for Jaques. I am supposed to make an excellent Rosalind. We all come back in the moonlight on the top of an omnibus—three-pence all the way—and finish up with supper here at twelve. Won’t you come with us? Only, you must bring a man—anybody you please, except Mr. Ormesby—nobody is allowed to bring their own husband. It is one of our rules, though most of us have not husbands to bring.”
“An excellent rule,” said Mrs. Ormesby. “And I may come if only I can find a man?”
“Do!” cried Miss Everard with enthusiasm, “it will be delightful. I am in luck, for I go with Mr. Amersham. I drew him.”
“You drew him?” asked Mrs. Ormesby in amazement.
“Yes,” said the other, “everybody wanted to go with him: so we raffled him—seven of us—I was the lucky one. The unlucky part of it is that he was very cross about it. He does not care a bit about me, and I am so devoted to him—we all are. Everybody must be. He is too charming, but so heartless.”
“As there are seven of you, and all so affectionate,” said Mrs. Ormesby, “perhaps that is just as well. Well, I must not keep you any longer. Good-bye.”
“Come to supper at any rate,” said Miss Everard, as she sped gleefully on her behest; “any time from twelve to two. Mrs. Araby is coming to make it respectable.”
“Respectable!” ejaculated Mrs. Ormesby, as she continued her upward journey—“a pretty sort of respectability which Mrs. Araby makes out of such materials as that! She drew him, indeed! Well—thank Heaven, she cannot be going to marry him! To-morrow I will give him a piece of my mind.”
Est-ce ma faute à moi si j’aime mieux les femmes que j’aime que les femmes que je n’aime pas?
“How atrociously you have behaved to me,” said Mrs. Ormesby as, next day, Amersham was ushered into her drawing-room; “you see I am reduced to the humiliating expedient of asking you to lunch. I am glad you had grace enough not to refuse my invitation.”
“Don’t give me a scolding,” cried Amersham with his most ingratiating smile; “I know I deserve one. I get so many. You can have no idea how hard they are working me this Session. They presume on my diligence. I am on two new committees.”
“Come, come,” said Mrs. Ormesby, leading the way to the dining-room, “we are too old friends for that sort of thing. Don’t let us waste our time with it. Committees, indeed! I know all about your goings on, Mr. Amersham—omnibuses, midnight suppers and all.”
“And at what o’clock should suppers be, if not at twelve?” asked Amersham with an uneasy laugh; “I see nothing particularly wicked in that. As to omnibuses, it is a tribute to democracy. We must live up to the times. King Demos likes a ‘bus, and so do I.”
“Especially when you share it with half a dozen of the rowdiest young women in London. But, seriously, Mr. Amersham, you must let me preach you a lecture. You are too nice to lose. I feel as if we were losing you.”
“Nice lectures that begin like that!” cried Amersham. “But I fear it is I who am losing you. What, pray, is my offence?”
“You are wasting your time; you are keeping bad company; you are going to the bad and spoiling your career. It is so easy to do it, and when nice people do it, such a pity! Your conscience has told you so already, I am confident.”
“My conscience is far too polite to tell me anything of the kind,” answered Amersham, “even if it were true. I should give it warning on the spot. But when you talk of wasting time, what can be worse waste of time than the ordinary, orthodox ways of employing it—listening to dull debates, and making them duller by one’s own contribution—going to dull dinners—frequenting dull drawing- rooms—”
“Mrs. Ormesby’s, for example!” cried his hostess. “No, Mr. Amersham. There are plenty of respectable drawing-rooms which are not dull, as you know well enough. You have not a word to say for yourself. You must hear the truth for once. I told you, once before, what you ought to do—what you might do, if you tried. And this is the way you set about doing it.”
“Oh, but,” said Amersham, colouring slightly, “some things are easier to advise than to do. Making love to Lady Cynthia is one of them. She did not like it, or like me. I always told you she is too good for me. She thinks so too, I am certain. She considers me a reprobate.”
“Naturally, when you live with reprobates and behave like one. It is worse than being a reprobate. There may be excuse for that. But this is mere silliness.”
“But one must be amused,” said Amersham, “somehow or other.”
I don’t see the necessity,” replied his monitress; “I do not approve of your companions.”
“Nor do I,” said Amersham; “but they amuse me, all the same, and I want amusement above everything. The truth is, I am bored to death. Man delights me not, nor woman either.”
“Not even rowdy woman?” said Mrs. Ormesby. “Well, you are in a bad way if you have to go so low for amusement—you, who have tasted better things and know what it is to be amused. It is unworthy of yourself—a sort of treason to your old companions.”
“Treason!” cried Amersham. “I like that. Suppose that one’s old companions do not care about one.”
“But they do,” said Mrs. Ormesby; “I do, for one, as you see. And there are others more important than I. Mrs. Montcalm is wounded and aggrieved, naturally.”
“Ah,” cried Amersham, with a sudden cry of pain, as of one whose unhealed wound has been suddenly touched; “she abuses me, does she?”
“Do real friends abuse one when they are wounded and hurt?” asked Mrs. Ormesby; “surely you know her too well to think that! No—but you have hurt her, all the same. It could not but be so. Others of your friends, no doubt, feel the same. The truth is that you have been spoilt by too much good fortune, too much success. You have had what no man can ever resist—a lot of pleasant women flattering you. You have had the world at your feet, till you have ceased to care about it. Now you are throwing away your chances. As an old friend who cares about you, I am sorry to see it. That is why I am preaching to you.”
“You preach to the converted,” said Amersham; “I entirely agree with all you say. Only, you do not know my story, or you would never talk to me of success. I have been the deadest of failures. I have missed the mark—missed all I cared about in life. I have ceased to care. One must take such pleasures as come within one’s reach. That is philosophical, is it not?”
“A poor philosophy!” said Mm, Ormesby—“the philosophy of the angry child, not of a reasonable man. When do you mean to become reasonable? Seriously, you astonish me. You miss your mark! You, to talk of failure! You, the lucky one, whom men delight to honour, and every woman likes! Surely your good fortune must have turned your head! For once some one has crossed you, I suppose. Well, less fortunate mortals get a whole lifetime of such crosses, and manage to survive it, and live their lives worthily. Why should not you?”
Mrs. Ormesby’s voice was full of serious feeling: she laid her hand with a kind, motherly tenderness on Amersham’s. “You have the world before you, my friend; you have gifts, perhaps a touch of genius that will carry you far. All the more important is it that you should go in the right direction—aim at the highest and the best. You will succeed. Don’t let impatience or temper betray you to the second-rate; and remember that of all second-rate things a second-rate woman is the worst.”
Yes, foolish sweet,
You love this man. I’ve watched you when he came,
And when he went, and when we’ve talked of him:
I am not old for nothing: I can tell
The weather-signs of love: you love this man.
Was it an instinctive, unconscious sympathy that prompted Sibylla, on leaving her aunt’s house, to drive straight away to Lady Cynthia. Sibylla was herself longing for sympathy. She was sore at heart. After all, this man had loved her; and he was lovable. Though appearances were against him, he was no common trifler. There was an element of weakness in him, but that did not make him less lovable. He was capable of profound emotion, as she had good cause to know. His gaiety, his brightness, his happy, versatile temperament were but the mask for strong passion and a serious, tender melancholy. He had been ready to be her slave. She had rejected him. It was not for her, at any rate, to turn against him, however much outward circumstances might seem to justify disapproval. The subject of Amersham’s behaviour had been always sedulously avoided between Lady Cynthia and herself. Each more than suspected the feelings of the other. Neither ventured to approach it. Each feared to trespass upon the secret of the other, or to reveal her own.
Now, however, Sibylla felt that the time for reserve was passed. The crisis was too acute. George Amersham was in danger; he was sinking below his natural level. He was degrading himself: for it was degradation, surely, for a man with such gifts, such aspirations, such tastes, such fine natural qualities to be betaking himself to the commonplace, superficial, vulgar pleasures of a mere worldling—the tiresome, dull frivolity of the common herd—the sort of thing that anybody could do, that everybody did. He was meant for better things. She had rejected his proffered devotion—and rightly. Conscience, duty, loyalty to her husband demanded it: but it was not so easy to banish the recollection of pleasant hours—of talks when one’s nature seems to expand under the genial influences of a kindred soul—regrets that declined to be put aside and ignored. She had found no other friend so inspiring, so congenial, so sympathetic—no one whose society brought so much to her, so much interest, solace, amusement.
She had banished him, however. It had been right to banish him: but his banishment was none the less a perceptible diminution of enjoyment. She remembered him with regret. It intensified that regret to know that his companionship was now bestowed on those who would appreciate only its least worthy side.
So Sibylla reached her friend in very low spirits. They talked of other things—of the current topic of the moment, of their engagements, their plans. Then Sibylla struck a more serious vein.
“What a bore it all is, and how thankful one will be when it is over and one is safe, for some months at any rate, in the country. I prefer it more and more every year. I find London life wearisome, disappointing, barren of all one really cares about.”
“Do you?” said Lady Cynthia. “But you are in the thick of the fun, Sibylla; you have your husband’s career—that is interesting, surely.”
“I am not sure that I am not tired of politics too,” said Sibylla; “they are barren and disappointing like the rest. They are dreadfully monotonous. One Session is so exactly like another, and how little comes of it!”
“You are unhappy,” said Lady Cynthia, “as unlike yourself as possible. You, who are a standing lesson in cheerfulness! I think of you when I wish to be cheerful. What is the matter?”
Sibylla hesitated to reply.
“Tell me,” said Lady Cynthia, insistently.
“Well,” said Sibylla, “I am unhappy. An old friend of ours has deserted us. He was a friend I cared about more than most. Mr. Amersham is lost. He is engaged, they say—to whom, do you think?”
“Impossible to guess,” said her companion; “I don’t know his set. Some political woman?”
“To Kitty Everard. I do not know why I mind it so much. It hurts me.”
Lady Cynthia’s cheek was colourless. She essayed to speak, but self-control—usually so perfectly maintained—was, for the moment, lost. No spoken word would come.
Sibylla instantly divined how matters stood. The announcement had been a shock, too great a shock to allow of concealment—of the maintenance of the conventional composure, under which so many joys, sorrows, excitements lie safely hid. She had come upon her friend’s secret—the sad secret of her life—unawares, undesignedly. She had unwittingly forced it. Retreat was impossible; but it was possible to come to Lady Cynthia’s aid in the emergency of the moment. Sibylla could spare her the necessity of speaking by herself continuing to speak. She must say something—anything that would cover her companion’s silence.
“He was a great friend of mine,” she said, “one of the greatest I have ever had. He interested me greatly. He still interests me. I confess I am astonished at what he is doing now. It is incomprehensible. I suppose he is, at heart, a trifler. Yet I cannot believe it.”
“You are right,” said Lady Cynthia, breaking out with sudden passion; “never believe that. He is no trifler. I have good cause to know.”
“And yet,” said Sibylla, “I have sometimes thought that you were the person he trifled worst with. I could have forgiven him everything but that.”
“There is nothing to forgive him,” said Lady Cynthia; “I had better tell you all. He would wish me to do so. It is only just to him that I should. It is no fault of his that we were not married a year ago. He asked me—he begged and prayed—he said all that a lover should. But I could not accept him. I can’t tell you the cause. It is a long story. Our friendship had been long and intimate. But I could only answer as I did. I had been deeply wounded and, I daresay, spoke sternly, cruelly. Please, when you think of him or speak of him, remember that he deserves no blame so far as I am concerned.”
“You have taken a load from my soul,” said Sibylla; “I have feared sometimes that you were unhappy.”
“I have not said that I am happy,” said Lady Cynthia. “Few of us are. Refusals do not tend to make one happier, according to my experience. If I am to tell the truth, I have never been happy since. I did not mean to talk about myself. All I wanted was that you should not blame him unjustly. If any one was to blame, I was the culprit, unhappily, not he.”
“I wish it could have been otherwise,” said Sibylla.
“I wish it could,” said Lady Cynthia. “However, now the only thing is to wish that he may have found the right wife. One can never tell, can one?”
“Indeed one can,” cried Sibylla; “I am absolutely certain that he has found the wrong one, and has lost the wife who would have made his life as delightful, as noble, as it will now be wretched and contemptible. I will never believe it of him. But, Cynthia, why did you upset all my plans for his happiness and yours?”
Lady Cynthia sat still an instant, looking the picture of misery.
“It is too late to ask me that,” she said, “or for me to ask myself. The Fates decreed it.”
“Cruel Fates!” cried Sibylla, “and cruel woman! Why do all things go perversely wrong in this bad world of ours? And why am I the most luckless of match-makers?”
“At any rate,” said Lady Cynthia, embracing her companion tenderly, “you are the best of friends, and the dearest.”
Sibylla’s anxieties as to Amersham’s engagement were destined to be speedily assuaged. A few nights later she met him in a drawing-room which was a closed country to Miss Everard and her associates. He was in his nicest mood—quiet, friendly, and perfectly sincere. He was evidently delighted to meet her. He was himself again—the charming friend whose extinction Sibylla had been lamenting—as charming as ever. He was evidently unconscious of any possible cause of estrangement. He had no secret to hide or to reveal. He spoke of Mrs. Ormesby with real affection and respect. “She is a good woman,” he said fervently, “a good friend, who cares enough about one to tell one the truth. She gave me a good scolding, which I richly deserved, I know. I have been profiting by it ever since.”
It was obvious that the Everard engagement was a myth. Sibylla was ashamed of having so easily believed it. She was smiling upon her companion with the cordiality of old times. Her tone startled Amersham by its new-found cordiality. It spoke of renewed good-will.
“Why do we so seldom meet?” said Amersham, “I have so much to say to you.”
“And I,” said Sibylla, “have something very particular to say to you. Let us find some place where we can talk in peace.”
Amersham, greatly flattered, carried off the gracious lady to a desirable retreat.
“Here,” said Sibylla, looking round to see that they were not within reach of inconvenient listeners, “we can have our talk to ourselves. This is what I have to say. You remember some advice I once gave you?”
“Yes,” said Amersham, “I followed it; but in vain. It all came to nothing. You were mistaken.”
“Well,” said Sibylla, “now I give it you again, more strongly than ever. I am not mistaken this time. You will get her if you try.”
Hush! I will give you this leaf to keep,
See, I shut it inside this sweet, cold hand;
There, that is our secret: go to sleep,
You will wake, remember, and understand.
In a small room of an unpretentious house in the outskirts of an American town there was being enacted, about this time, the last scene of one of those small tragedies of which human history is, to so large an extent, composed. It was commonplace enough, but full of pathos to the parties principally concerned. A woman lay dying. She had been lovely once—she was lovely still, in spite of all that sorrow, hardship, remorse, a lifetime of repentance, of self-reproach, had done to mar her girlish beauty. Nay, she was lovelier, in the eyes of one man at least, to whom she was, as it were, a beatific vision, accorded at last to his prayers, his tears, his long, wearisome, but never-flagging search. He had known all along that he should find her. His companions had derided him as a maniac; his own kith and kin had ceased to think of him, save as a sorrow-crazed fanatic, tempest-tossed by a single wild idea. But his faith had never flagged. Love held out a guiding hand and supported his faltering steps. He had laboured on in darkness, confusion, sometimes almost despair, but he had never despaired. And now he sat by her couch, held her hand, pressed his lips to that dear, white, haggard face, drank the full meaning of those dear eyes—bright now with the transient glow of illness, but still the bright eyes of his remembered boyhood, brighter now for the wreck of all around—bent over her again and again with tears of adoring tenderness.
He had been with her for two weeks—two weeks, to each of them, of paradise. Those blissful, long-delayed hours of communion for which their hearts had been aching were now a realised delight. Poor Jennings had attained his heart’s desire.
“Ah, Will,” the woman said, holding his hand secure in hers; “and you can forgive me? It seems impossible. It was more than I dared to pray for. You have forgiven me my sin?”
“Do not talk like that, Lizzie,” her companion said in solemn, heart-felt tones. “May God forgive us all! May He forgive my many sins—my long-cherished fury—the curses I have breathed against that poor sinful soul who wrecked our lives—the many times that in thought I have clutched his throat, or stabbed him to the heart, or laughed to see his drowning agony. I have been a murderer in thought and will; the good God has saved me from the act. I would have killed him if I had had the chance. Now, as I hope to be forgiven, may God forgive him too! I have put away my last thought of hatred and revenge. You bade me do it. It is my thank-offering for God’s mercy to me. But for you, my Lizzie, my own dear one, it is no question of forgiveness. Your misfortunes are mine. I have never ceased an instant to love you, through all, and despite of all. How could I? I should love you always, whatever you did to me. Saint or sinner you must always be the darling of my heart. In my darkest hour you were dear to my soul. You always have been. You are so now, only dearer than ever. Let us think only of our love. These days have brought me the fruit of many years of sorrowful waiting, of hoping against hope, of faith in God’s goodness. I have you once again. There is nothing—no shade—between us? As in God’s presence, tell me the truth!”
“Nothing,” said the woman, “as God reads my heart, and sees my inmost thoughts—nothing but the remembrance of my sin, my dreadful sin and folly. I was mad, dear Will—mad and bad. I don’t know what possessed me. Oh, what a lifetime of woe comes of a moment of girlish folly, of silly pique, a moment’s angry mood! I was besotted with folly. I knew I was destroying myself. I knew it then—just as I know it now. I have never had a happy moment since.”
“Never till now,” cried Jennings. “Say that you are happy now, happy and at peace. Then I can die happy too.”
“I am happy and at peace,” said the woman faintly—a last faint flush of colour mantling in her cheek; “happier a thousand times than I deserve, or than I had fancied possible. God has been merciful to me. And you, dear Will, good and faithful unto death, through worse than death a hundred-fold. I can scarcely bear to think of it. I am a blest woman indeed!”
“Then,” cried Jennings, with a rapt look and speaking in a sort of ecstasy, “my prayers are heard at last. You have been granted to my prayers. I was tempted to curse God and to pray no more. But I never ceased to pray. They told me it was madness to pray and hope. But I held on. I had faith in God, who reads our hearts, and has mercy on our sufferings. I was certain He would give me back my well-beloved one. And He has given you back. We come to our journey’s end together. The end is near to us both. It is well that it has come, for I was nearly spent. God has been good to me.”
The sinking invalid lay with closed eyes. The tears were falling fast—tears of love, gratitude, repentance. She pressed his hand. It was all the answer she could give. It was enough.
So these two weary travellers, after their long pilgrimages in solitude, found their courses lie side by side at last. They were to travel a little in company before the end. Hand in hand they approached that solemn term of human sorrows, disappointment, and disasters. They watched the hours pass, and the sands of Lizzie Marsh’s brief span of life running lower and lower. Her life was ebbing fast. Soon, too soon, the end came.
Her last look on mortal things was one of inexpressible love, answering the sad eyes that watched her failing breath. Her lover sat beside her: he held her hand: he bent over the dead woman with a cry of misery too deep for words—”Thou who hast compassion on the broken-hearted, to me, too, let the end be not long delayed!”
Then kindly hands led him from the room; and a week later Jennings started for Europe. His life’s mission was still not all fulfilled.
…The art o’ the Court,
As hard to leave as keep; whose top to climb
Is certain falling, or so slippery that
The fear’s as bad as falling.
The introduction of Mr. Egremont’s famous Bill to make the better provision for the drainage of the Sirbonian Bog, his great speech in introducing it, the hostile reception accorded to it in the House of Commons, the tremendous debate in which through a whole Session its fortunes were discussed, the defeat which the Government ultimately sustained, the dissolution which ensued thereupon, the still more pronounced condemnation pronounced by the country at a general election, and the consequent fall of the Egremont Ministry are matters which lie beyond the scope of the present modest chronicle. They belong to it only as they affected the personal history of some of those with whose fortunes we have been concerned. Suffice it to say that, on the resignation of the Egremont Ministry, the traditional epoch of confusion, expectancy, conjecture, assertion, and contradiction set in with all its accustomed severity. Mr. Egremont had an interview with his Sovereign, and suggested his successor. In a day or two it became known that the Duke of Chilworth had been sent for to Windsor, and in a day or two more the names of several members of his proposed Cabinet found their way to the papers. The list embraced several of Egremont’s late supporters, several more political magnates, whom Egremont had frightened by his flights of imaginative politics, shocked by opportunist concessions, or alienated by spontaneous aberrations from the orthodox creed. The Duke had a wide personal influence, a powerful following. He was known to be acceptable to his Sovereign; he commanded the confidence of the Country. Each evening’s paper contained a longer list of Statesmen who, it was believed, were prepared to serve under his leadership. The Ministry was nearing completion. Montcalm began to feel anxious; for the Duke, with whom he had generally acted in common, had in times past assured him that, if ever he had the formation of a Cabinet, he intended to offer Montcalm a place in it. He was not a man to forget a promise. A place still remained unbestowed for which Montcalm had always felt an especial longing. The post of Secretary of State for the Economic Department had, for years, been the goal of his ambition—nor of his alone. It was a post which many coveted; it was distinguished, interesting, and of first-class importance. For days past the papers had been full of surmises as to its destined occupant. Montcalm’s name was frequently mentioned. His claims were freely criticised and compared with Amersham’s. Montcalm was the man of longer experience, riper judgment, on the whole, more weight. Amersham was unquestionably the better speaker, the more striking personality. There was something about him which impressed the House, the Press, the Public—something which Montcalm, with all his wide knowledge, his familiarity with Parliamentary tactics, his grasp on most subjects which came under discussion, his ready flow of lucid and well-chosen language, could never emulate. There was the prestige of brilliancy, though Amersham’s effects were sometimes more brilliant than useful to his country or his friends. Thus opinions were divided. The Duke felt no hesitation. He had determined on Montcalm. But among those, whom the Duke thought it well to consult on the subject, there was a decided divergence of opinion. There were those who thought that Amersham’s rare gifts were precisely those which the incoming Government could not afford to throw away. His cleverness, his brilliancy, his audacious strokes, his happy rejoinders, his crushing attack, would make a material difference in the resources of the Government, both for defence and attack. Montcalm was an excellent politician, and would, no doubt, be an industrious and loyal colleague; but Amersham would be something more than that—something more special, more valuable. He might be reckoned on to rise to an emergency. In a crisis he would take the world by storm. There was another motive which weighed with some of the new Minister’s advisers. Montcalm’s loyalty was known to be assured; nothing would endanger it. But if Amersham were left out in the cold, who could say what change of mood or view might befall so incalculable, so unconventional, so erratic a politician? He had already astonished mankind by several daring flights. Might he not attempt another and a bolder? Some tempting combination, some unforeseen opportunity, would present itself, and he might be found wanting—perhaps even in the enemy’s camp—at the very moment when his aid was most sorely needed.
The Duke listened with attention while Mr. Pierpoint, a faithful henchman, profoundly versed in the gossip of clubs and smoking-rooms, expounded this view of the position. He was not a man who wasted either time, words, or confidence. In particular, he was never confidential with men like Mr. Pierpoint, though he had no objection to picking their brains and hearing such echoes of public talk as they were able to collect.
“So they say that, do they?” he remarked, as Mr. Pierpoint’s story came to a close; “well now, I have offered the post to Montcalm, and I mean him to have it. There is my letter to him making the offer. I want you to take it to him, and let him understand how sincerely I mean it.”
“By all means,” said Mr. Pierpoint, somewhat taken aback by the decisiveness of the Duke’s announcement, and concealing under a polite smile the shock which the sudden eclipse of Amersham’s chance had occasioned him. “I will go to him at once.”
“He will like to answer it in person, I daresay,” said the Duke. “I shall be at home till five o’clock.”
So Mr. Pierpoint sped on his behest, and found Montcalm in his study and alone. Sibylla was away on one of her pilgrimages to the Manor-house. “I am come from the Duke,” he said; “I daresay you can guess what about. This letter, at any rate, will tell you.”
Montcalm’s heart was beating violently; but no tremor in his voice, or in his hand, as he received the fateful letter, betrayed any disturbance of the inner man. He read it with a calm, deliberate air. Mr. Pierpoint watched him with curiosity. “He takes it coolly,” he thought; “a cool hand! he must have known before.”
Montcalm waited for his visitor to speak.
“The Duke desired me to assure you of the sincere cordiality with which the offer is made. That is what I am here for.”
“He is very good, I am sure,” said Montcalm. “Am I to send my answer by you?”
“No,” said Pierpoint. “The Duke thought that you might like to bring it yourself, and talk the matter over. He will be in St. James’s Square all the afternoon. Shall I tell him to expect you?”
“I will be with him in an hour,” said Montcalm; ‘*many thanks to you for coming.”
“I have seldom had a task I liked better,” said Pierpoint good-naturedly. “Accept my cordial congratulations. You have served the party well. I am delighted that the Duke has seen his way to make you the offer. You have fairly earned it. We all feel it. You had, of course, only one formidable rival.”
“Ah!” cried Montcalm, “and who was that? Amersham, I suppose.”
“You have seen what the papers have been saying; and what the papers say at election times is being said by a hundred people and in a hundred different places. It is in the air. The prize lay between Amersham and you. No one else was in the running. I congratulate you, and I congratulate the Government on his Grace’s decision.”
“Do you mean that if I refuse, Amersham will have the offer?” asked Montcalm.
“Please don’t understand me to say anything of the kind,” said the other, “or to imply it. The Duke has never breathed a word to me on the subject. On the contrary, he sent me expressly to make his offer in the kindest form. I have no authority to say one word besides.”
“But speaking without authority and as a private friend,” said Montcalm, “is it the fact that my acceptance will keep Amersham out of office? That would be serious.”
“How can I say that?” said Pierpoint. “How can any one say it? The Duke wishes you to have a perfectly free hand, and to consider nothing but your own wishes. You would not have a free hand if you knew that another man’s—particular individual’s—chance of office depended on your refusal. Of course, in one sense, you know, it is inevitable that, when you accept a post, you should prevent another man’s having the chance of accepting it. So much we all know. But all you have to think of is your own wish in the matter. If you like to act with him, the Duke will be delighted to have you.”
“But tell me, Pierpoint,” said Montcalm, “in confidence. You know what the papers—our papers—have been saying about Amersham and me—the importance of securing him. Many of the Duke’s supporters, I am certain, feel it. I believe that I feel it myself. Does the Duke know about it?”
“I have reason to believe that he does,” said the other with some nervousness of manner. “It is inevitable that he should, if his friends are feeling it.
“And his friends are feeling it?” asked Montcalm, this time with a tremble in his voice which he was unable to master. “Tell me the truth.”
“I will say only what I was told to say,” said Mr. Pierpoint, “that the Duke will cordially welcome you as a colleague. That is all you have to consider.”
“Not quite all,” said Montcalm. “Well, if you are going back to St. James’s Square, will you let me send a note by you? I will be with the Duke by three o’clock.”
Montcalm spent a painful hour, the most painfully agitating of his life. This was the very crisis of his fate—the moment for which he had worked and waited—the achievement which, ever since he was a boy, had filled his dreams and fired his ambition.
He was ambitious to the core. The prize was within his grasp. Was he to take it? or did something higher even than ambition lay upon him the obligation of declining it? He knew perfectly well from Pierpoint’s manner and words—he had known perfectly well before—that the matter was narrowed to a single issue: should he give way to Amersham—to Amersham, of all men in England—the last by whom it was agreeable to be superseded! But it was no question of agreeableness. What ought he—as a loyal member of the party, a loyal supporter of the Duke’s Government—to do? He was not vain enough to flatter himself that his mere accession to the Cabinet would give it strength. He could bear his fair share of the burthen of Office, and bear it creditably; but Amersham would give it éclat, brilliancy, power. There could—the horrid conviction forced itself upon Montcalm’s conscience—be no doubt as to what was his duty. His mind was now made up. A few minutes before three he was closeted with the Duke. “Well,” said the great Minister, “you have come to give me your decision. Whatever it is let me say, Montcalm, there is no one whom I should like better as a colleague than yourself. We understand one another, do we not?”
“So well, Duke, that I can tell you frankly the grounds on which I have decided to decline what, viewed by itself, is the greatest honour and gratification of my life. I have seen, of course, what the papers are saying. I know what society is saying—what your colleagues feel. It is, we both know, the truth. Room cannot be found for Amersham and me. Having promised me a place, you are too generous to lay on me the burthen of consciously excluding a man whom you ought to have. But that makes it all the more incumbent on me to remember it. I tell you with perfect frankness the grounds on which I act. I beg you to act on them without hesitation. If the fulfilment of your promise to me involves Amersham’s exclusion, and if, but for that promise, you would decide on having him, I wish to release you. I could not honourably accept your offer, and I have now come—with my warmest thanks to you—to decline it.”
“You are most generous,” said the Duke, with an almost imperceptible movement of the lips which told of a mental smile; “if only such generosity were common, the business of ministers and Cabinet makers would be easier than it is. I shall meet it with equal frankness. The truth is that I should be reluctant to take office without Amersham as a colleague. He has prestige and ability. I wish to be able to rely on him at a pinch. His special gifts are essential just now in Parliament. We need him as a platform speaker. He might easily be lost. Any one who aided me in securing him would relieve me of a grave embarrassment and place me under a lasting obligation.”
“I have given your Grace my decision,” said Montcalm. “I am glad to be able to serve the party in any way, even by political suicide.”
“Happily,” said the Duke, “there is no need for that. The fact is, my dear Montcalm, that you have been acting nobly, but on a wrong hypothesis—the hypothesis that my cabinet has not room for both of you. I am glad to say that it has. A dear old friend and former colleague of mine, whose absence from political life I regard as a public misfortune, and who had consented to join us, wrote to me this morning to beg off on the ground of failing health. I shall still have his assistance, but he shrinks from official responsibility and the work of a Minister in Parliament. You can guess, I daresay, who it was—your father-in-law,—Lord Belmont. I have offered Amersham the post this morning. I am glad to say that he has accepted. He is upstairs with the Duchess. Go and congratulate him and receive his congratulations. My list is now complete. I go to Windsor this afternoon to submit it to the Queen.”
Quod optanti nemo promittere Divûm
Auderet, volvenda dies, en, attulit ultro.
A month later the quiet of Charles Montcalm’s morning was disturbed by the announcement that a man, a working man, was waiting in the hall, asking permission for an interview. He gave the name of Jennings, and refused to say more. He looked strange and excited, the servant said, and very ill, scarcely right in his mind. Charles Montcalm knew at once who his visitor was.
“Let him come,” he said, “I will see him here.”
In another minute Jennings entered the room, and advanced to Montcalm’s table. He stood silent. He looked wilder, more haggard, more shattered than ever; ten years older than when he had last confronted Montcalm.
He stood at the table, fumbling with his hat, his lips trembling as if unable to find words for the thought which claimed utterance.
“Well?” said Montcalm, sitting, pen still in hand, and looking up from an unfinished letter; “will you not take a seat?”
“You know me?” asked the intruder, taking no notice of the invitation.
“Perfectly,” answered Montcalm; “you are the Methodist preacher who made a disturbance at one of my meetings at Belhaven. Then you came to see me at my hotel. I told you then all I knew. Since then I have sent to Belhaven in search of you; but you had left the place. I wanted you because I have been making search for my brother’s wife. We believe that we have found her. But she is not the person you are thinking of. She is an Irishwoman. My brother, on his death-bed, sent me a message from India as to her probable residence; and we found her at New Wigan. She knows nothing about Belhaven or about you. I wished you to see her to make sure. We have examined the facts carefully, and have now no doubt that my brother married her and that her boy is his son. I have made up my mind to recognise him and to hand over the property, to which, as my father’s grandson, he is entitled. The woman with whom my brother left England—the woman you want to know about—has, I fear, disappeared.”
“Not so,” said the other; “I laid her in the grave three weeks ago. She died in my arms. I know not what woman you have found, or who she claims to be. I know not and I care not. It matters not to me. But I know that Frank Montcalm’s lawfully wedded wife died last month. I have all the proofs.”
Montcalm’s heart stood still. He sat silent for some instants. He could not trust himself to speak. He was giddy with the shock of the revelation—a revelation of unexpected rescue from the trouble which so long had weighed upon his spirits. It had come—as horrid in realisation as it had been hateful in prospect. It had embittered all the pleasant excitement of official life. No one but his father-in-law, the Duke, and one or two intimate friends had been told. Mr. Strutt had advised that secrecy should be observed till everything was prepared for the disclosure. The arrangements were now almost complete. Was it possible that now, at the last moment, deliverance was to come, and from this man’s hand?
“Your story interests me greatly,” he said at last, steadying his voice as best he could, and suppressing the agitation which he felt to be fast mastering him; “I have a personal interest in it. Pray sit down and tell it me at your leisure.”
Thus encouraged, Jennings proceeded, as well as his excitement permitted, to tell his story. By dint of patient enquiry he had come at last on a returned emigrant who had crossed to America with Frank Montcalm. This man had given a first clue to the track of the two fugitives in that country,—a lodging-house in New York, where Frank had gone on arrival. A woman was with him, the man reported, who passed for his wife, a very pretty woman. After that he had lost sight of them. Armed with this piece of information, Jennings had thrown up his employment, had sent the girl’s mother to be cared for by some of his own relations, and had started in search of Frank Montcalm and Lizzie Marsh. In New York he had found more than one person who had known and remembered Frank Montcalm and his handsome companion. They were then still in funds and bent more on amusement than business. Frank’s old habits had soon resumed their sway, and he was remembered in various drinking saloons and gambling hells as a conspicuously daring profligate. His striking good looks, his profuse expenditure, his recklessness about money, his lawless talk and behaviour, had made him a recognised and distinguishable figure in whatever society he found himself. From New York the indefatigable searcher had traced the two runaways from one resting-place to another, where Frank had found employment, soon to be broken off in some outburst of misbehaviour. “At last,” Jennings went on, half oblivious of his auditor and lost to everything but his own intense interest in his story, “I came upon her. I was just in time, for she was dying when I found her; but I had some happy hours with her, hours of reconciliation, forgiveness, love. Forgiveness! It was not for me to talk of forgiving! She had made her peace with God. If He forgave her, who was I to judge the woman I loved? Those days with her were worth a life of sorrow, even such sorrow as mine. They have left me a happy man for the rest of my days. She lay with her hand in mine, too ill to move; we seemed at the door of Heaven. She told me all the story of her trouble, the dreadful times she had been through—how she became a mother and lost her child and was near to death herself. Then her conscience woke: she dared not die in sin. Your brother at last was driven to keep his promise, and married her, as he thought, on her death-bed. But she was not to die just then. For weeks she hung between life and death. Her dead child seemed like God’s judgment on her sin. She was resolved to sin no more. Her people were Methodists as I was, and had taught her religion. She remembered it now with sorrow and shame. The old sense of duty came back, the sense of duty and the fear of God. She had passed through a dark season of terror and remorse. She had tasted the bitterness of sin, the hollowness of sinful pleasure. She turned her back upon it in abhorrence. Her husband was already sickening of the monotony of respectable employment. Lizzie implored him to stick to it; but what was the use of imploring such a man? He was longing to be upon the tramp. Lizzie herself found a decent situation among kind people who befriended her. Her husband was sick of her religious mood, and incensed at her refusal to share his wicked life. He played the villain once more and deserted her. Lizzie was left alone in the world. The same good ladies took care of her. With them she led a pure life, a religious life—the life that she was meant to live. But she could never make up her mind to write to her parents or to me. We could never forgive; she thought it was better that we should forget her. Forget her! God gave me those few days that I might have something pleasant to remember. She lay there looking like an angel. She took my hand in hers. It was cold and white with death already. Her tears were flowing fast: ‘Forgive, forgive,’ she said…. ‘Dear faithful heart, you crown my sorrow; you make it more keen than ever. I was a mad woman. I have never known a moment’s happiness since I was mad enough to leave you. It was madness and nothing else. May God forgive me, and will you?’”
Jennings’s voice trembled, his utterance had become thick. He had forgotten his surroundings; his wild eyes beheld nothing but the scene, the person with whom his thoughts were busied. He was on the point of breaking down. He could not utter another word. Montcalm came to his aid.
“I am much obliged to you for telling me all this,” he said. “It is a sad story; I sympathise in its sadness; I share it. What can I do for you?”
“Nothing for me,” cried the other…. “What good can anything in life do me? Your brother made that impossible. He ruined her; he ruined me; he killed her father; he broke her mother’s heart and mine—at last he deserted her, like the scoundrel that he was. But one thing he did, was forced to do, he married her. He had to keep his word for once. He made her his lawful wife. I have proved her what I was certain, despite all and everybody, she would prove herself—a good, an honest woman. Do you think that there is no good to hearts grieving and shamed, like mine and her mother’s, in that? We care for honour—our honour—as much as you great people do for yours—perhaps more. We have nothing else to care for. Anyhow I have kept my vow. It has cost me years of toil, sore labour, weary, weary journeys, the savings of a lifetime. I must begin again, and I don’t feel like beginning, or look it, do I? But I have accomplished my end. I told you that I would. I traced her, I found what I had sworn to find—the proof that she died a married woman. I have her marriage certificate; I found people who knew her and loved her, with whom she was in service, and when she died. She was your kinswoman, your brother’s lawful wife!”
“I understand perfectly,” said Montcalm; “I am much obliged to you. Will you increase the obligation by letting me have copies of the proofs—the marriage certificate? I will place them in the hands of my lawyer. I do not question their authenticity. If, after examining them, he is satisfied, I shall be ready to do anything that the circumstances demand, anything that you wish. Can you suggest anything?”
“Yes,” said the man, “that is why I have come. There is one thing which I have to ask—not for myself, I want nothing. It is a small matter, but her mother wishes it. It is that there may be a memorial tablet in Frampton Church, recording her marriage. She wants it placed there by your family—to show that you acknowledge her. We will pay for it ourselves; we will be beholden to you for nothing but the acknowledgment of the truth. Will you grant this request?”
Montcalm was deliberate in replying. His visitor stood glaring at him in a tremor of excitement. The seconds dragged slowly along. At last the answer came.
“There is no monument to my brother in Frampton Church. My father did not wish it: it would suggest nothing but pain and disgrace. There are some men whom it is better for the world to forget. The story is one which you yourself can hardly wish remembered. What is the good of publishing—of perpetuating it? I must consider and consult before I answer your request.”
“Then you refuse!” cried Jennings, in a tone of suppressed fury; “I was certain that you would.”
“No,” said Montcalm, “I have not refused. I have merely said that I choose to deliberate before replying to an unusual—an unprecedented request. That is but reasonable, surely. But if you are so anxious about it, I will answer you at once. If my solicitors are satisfied with the evidence of the marriage, and I am satisfied, and her mother and you desire it, what you wish shall be done. It is only justice; the mother has a right to claim it. As for the cost, I am the proper person to pay for such a tablet.”
“Never!” cried the other. “I have saved the money for it. I have gone without food rather than touch it. It is my last service to my poor Lizzie; almost—thanks to your wicked brother—my only one. No one shall share it with me; you and your family least of all!”
“As you please,” said Montcalm, who saw the hopelessness of arguing with a half madman; “I will not thwart you. There is another thing which I was going to propose. Your search has been one in which my family was greatly concerned. Your enquiries must have cost you much. Your trouble, with which I sincerely sympathise, has, no doubt, unfitted you for the common business of life. You have the girl’s mother on your hands. It would be a satisfaction to me, a great satisfaction, in case the proofs of the marriage are duly established, if you will let me, as my brother’s representative, defray all your past outlay in this matter and provide for you and the mother for the future.”
Jennings stood glaring at him in silent fury. “You want to insult me,” he cried at last. “I would die a thousand times, and so would my Lizzie’s mother, rather than touch a farthing of your accursed money. Be your pensioner! live on your charity indeed! God forbid it!”
“As you please,” said Montcalm. “I can only make the offer. Some day, perhaps, you will learn to think of me as what I wish to be—your friend.”
“I have forgiven everybody,” said Jennings, “you, and even your brother; Lizzie made me promise. But my forgiveness does not go as far as that. I cannot touch your money, Mr. Montcalm. I thank you for the offer, however. It was kindly meant.”
“Stop!” said Montcalm, as Jennings turned to leave the room. “I should like to introduce you to my wife. She will make forgiveness easy to you and friendship too. Do you mind waiting while I go to fetch her?”
As Charles Montcalm, scarcely yet realising the full import of the story just told by his visitor, was hurrying to Sibylla’s room, she met him on the stairs, radiant with the joyfulness of the bringer of pleasant intelligence.
“I have a piece of news for you,” she cried. “What do you think has happened? Lady Cynthia and George Amersham are engaged!”
“And I have a piece of news for you, Sibylla,” said Montcalm; “but it is too serious to be told out here. Come back with me to your room.”
An hour later Jennings left the Montcalm’s house—an altered, a better, a happier man. He had had a long interview with Sibylla, had told her his story, and had experienced the potent charm of a woman’s tenderness and sympathy. His angry mood had vanished at the magic touch of pity—his latent rage died down. Sibylla had been profoundly touched. Her emotion acted like a spell. Jennings knew at once that he had found a friend. They were fellow-mourners, fellow-sufferers. The bitterness was purged from his soul. No room was left for a resentful thought. Henceforward the remembrance of his sorrow could stir no angry thought to life. The pious Moslem’s dream of Paradise is brightened by the hope that “All grudges shall be taken away out of their hearts.” So much of Heaven had Sibylla’s consolation wrought in one weary human heart.
The world waits
For help. Beloved, let us love so well
Our work shall be the better for our love,
And still our love be better for our work,
And both commended, for the sake of each.
By all true workers and true lovers born.
Mr. Strutt was summoned and speedily arrived upon the scene, to advise upon the new phase of the Montcalm family fortunes which Jennings’s revelation had brought to light. His proceedings soon sufficed to clear the subject of every remaining doubt. The story which Jennings had told was completely substantiated. There was abundant testimony to the identity of the woman by the friends with whom she had lived ever since her desertion. The documentary evidence spoke for itself. The clergyman, who had performed the marriage ceremony for Frank Montcalm, had been interested in the troubles of the young wife, became her fast friend, and had been her frequent visitor during her last illness. The first marriage thus established, the second became a nullity. The pretender at New Wigan, before she learnt how near she had been to a still grander destiny, was made happy with an allowance, which more than realised her wildest dreams of wealth for herself and her child. The ugly spectre which had threatened the Montcalms’ position dissolved into thin air. Charles, relieved from the care which had been hanging like a load round his neck, threw off his gloom and his reserve and became once more the ardent lover of his early marriage days; but the ardour was fired by a finer enthusiasm, a profounder homage, a juster sense of the part which a wife like Sibylla plays, or ought to play, in her husband’s life. She had become his indispensable counsellor, his touchstone of the right and good, his guide in moments of perplexity. “Oh,” he cried, one day, when he came to her for advice in a critical emergency,
“I must feel your brain prompt mine,
Your heart anticipate my heart;
You must be just before, in fine, See, and make me see, for your part,
New depths of the Divine!”
“Too much!” cried Sibylla. “Too high a destiny for me. If only we may travel hand-in-hand!”
So Charles Montcalm became delightfully confidential.
“After all,” he said, “I might have spared you the anxiety which the New Wigan story cost us, might I not, if I had held my tongue about it to the end? Perhaps I ought to have done so?”
“And denied me the delight of the relief which we are feeling now,” cried Sibylla: “for it is a relief, is it not, Charles? All the same, our preparation for poverty was a pleasant time to me, one of the pleasantest of my life. It drew us together. I learnt to know my husband, who had been pleased to be mysterious. I shall always love that dear old manor-house for its associations. I am sorry not to be going to live there.”
“But we will live there,” cried her husband. “Why not? We want a summer refuge, for quiet Sundays when we cannot get to Frampton. It is perfect for that. I love it too; for there it was that I learnt how strong a support to me—how good, how calm, how cheerful my wife would prove in the hour of trouble. I knew it before, but now I have felt it. It is an experience worth having at any cost. It has thawed my reserve, please God, for good and all. By the way, I have bad news of poor Jennings. He is very ill—dying, I fear. I have a mind to go and see him. Suppose that we make the pilgrimage together?”
“I should like of all things to see him once more,” said Sibylla; “he touches me more than any one I know. He has all the good things that no one has nowadays—faith, love, enthusiasm—a noble soul! He would like us to be with him, I am confident. Do let us go.”
But before his friends could reach him Jennings’s troubles were past. A few days later, Charles Montcalm and Sibylla, true mourners, followed this faithful lover on the last of his many journeys to his last, long home; and bent, not without some kindly tears, over the grave where he was laid to rest. Sweet be thy sleep, true and constant heart! We will not wish thee back to a life which had brought for thee so many cruel wrongs and disappointments, sorrow and toil, heart-sickening, long-deferred hope, dark hours of weariness and despair, redeemed by one brief taste of bliss. It had nothing more to give thee. Death’s kindly hand brought thee but a welcome release. Of the blessed ones it is said that they rest from their labours.