"A bad beginning," said the sweet voice beside me. "Try again."
I tried again, and a third time, and two more half-crowns went to join their fellow.
There was one more chance. White with desperation I drew out my last half-crown, and laid it on the black. A flash, and my neighbour's hand sent the needle whirling. Round and round it went, as though it would never cease; round and round, then slackened, slackened, hesitated and stopped—where?
Where but over the red square opposite me?
For a moment all things seemed to whirl and dance before me. The candles shot out a million glancing rays, the table heaved, the rings upon the woman's fingers glittered and sparkled, while opposite me the devilish finger of Fortune pointed at the ruin of my hopes, and as it pointed past them and at me, called me very fool.
I clutched the table's green border and sank back in my seat. As I did so I heard a low curse from Tom behind me. The overwhelming truth broke in upon my senses, chasing the blood from my face, the hope from my heart. Ruined! Ruined! The faces around me grew blurred and misty, the room and all my surrounding seemed to fade further and yet further away, leaving me face to face with the consequences of my folly. Scarce knowing what I did, I turned to look at Tom, and saw that his face was white and set. As I did so the musical voice beside me murmured—
"The game is waiting: are you going to stake this time?"
I stammered out a negative.
"What? already tired? A faint heart should not go with such a face," and again she swept the pointer round.
"Is it," she whispered in my ear, "is it that you cannot?"
"Ah, it is hard with half-a-sovereign to break the bank. But see, have you nothing—nothing? For I feel as if my luck were going to leave me."
"Nothing," I answered, "nothing in the world."
Her voice was tender and sympathetic, but in her eyes there glanced not the faintest spark of mercy. I sat for a moment stunned and helpless, and then she resumed.
"Can I lend to you?"
"No, for I have no chance of repaying. This was my all, and it has gone. I have not one penny left in the world."
"I thank you. I could not expect you to pity me, but—"
"Ah, but you are wrong. I pity you: I pity you all. Fools, fools, I call you all, and yet I make my living out of you. So you cannot play," she added, as she set the game going once again. "What will you do?"
"Go, first of all."
I shrugged my shoulders.
"No, do not go yet. Sit beside me for a while and watch: it is only Fortune that makes me your enemy. I would willingly have lost to you."
She looked so curious, sitting there with her yellow face, her wrinkles and her innumerable diamonds, that I could only sit and stare.
"I have seen many a desperate boy," continued this extraordinary woman, "sitting beside me in that very chair. Ah, many a young life have I murdered in this way. I am old, you see, very old; older even than you could guess, but I triumph over youth none the less. Sometimes I feel as if I fed on the young lives of others."
She delivered these confidences without a change in her emotionless face, and still I stared fascinated.
"Ah, yes, they sit here for a moment, and then they go—who knows where? You will be going presently, and then I shall lose you for ever, without a thought of what happens to you. Money is my blood: you see its colour in my face. Here they all come, and I suck their blood and fling them aside. They win sometimes; but I can wait. I wait and wait, and they come back here as surely as there is a destiny. They come back, and I win in the end. I always win in the end."
She turned her attention to the game for a moment and then went on:—
"It is a rare drink, this yellow blood: and all the sweeter when it comes from youth. I have had but a drop from you, but I like you nevertheless. Oh, yes, I can pity, my heart is always full of pity as I sit here drinking gold. Your friend is a charming boy, but I like you better: and now you will go. These partings are very cruel, are they not?"
There was not a trace of mockery in her voice, and her eyes were the same as ever. I merely looked up in reply, but she divined my thoughts.
"No, I am not mocking you. I should like you to win—once: I say it, and am perfectly honest about it. You would be beaten in the end, but it would please me while it lasted. Has your friend no money?"
"No, this was all we had between us."
"So he came back and got you to play with your money. That was strange friendship."
"You are wrong," I answered, "he was set against coming; but I persuaded him—or rather, I insisted. It is all my own fault."
"Well," she said, musingly, "I suppose you must, go; but it is a pity. You are too handsome a boy to—to do what you will probably do: but the game does not regard good looks, or it would fare badly with me. Good-bye."
Still there was no shadow of pity in those unfathomable eyes. I looked into them for a moment, but their shining jet revealed nothing below the surface—nothing but inexorable calm.
"Good-bye," I said, and rose to go, for Tom's hand was already on my shoulder. I dared not look in his face. All hope was gone now, all wealth, all—Stay! I put my fingers in my waistcoat-pocket and drew out the Golden Clasp. Worthless to me as any sign of the hiding-place of the Great Ruby, it might yet be worth something as metal. I had carried it ever since the day when Uncle Loveday and I read my father's Journal. But what did it matter now? In a few hours I should be beyond the hope of treasure. Might I not just as well fling this accursed clasp after the rest? For aught I knew it might yet win something back to me—that is, if anyone would accept it as money. At least I would try.
I sank back into my chair again. The woman turned her eyes upon me carelessly, and said—
"What, back again so soon?"
"Yes," said I, somewhat taken aback by her coldness, "if you will give me another chance."
"I give nothing, least of all chance," she replied.
"Well, can you tell me if this is worth anything?"
As I said this I held out the clasp, which flashed brightly as it caught the rays of the large candelabrum overhead. She turned her eyes upon it, and as she did so, for the first time I fancied I caught a gleam of interest within them. It was but a gleam, however, and died out instantly as she said—
"Let me look at it."
I handed it to her. She bent over it for a moment, then turned to me and asked—
"Is this all of it? I mean that it seems only one half of a clasp. Have you not the other part?"
I shook my head, and she continued—
"It is beautifully worked, and seems valuable. Do you wish me to buy it?"
"Not exactly that," I explained; "but if you think it worth anything I should like to stake it against an equivalent."
"Very well; it might be worth three pounds—perhaps more: but you can stake it for that if you will. Shall it be all at once?"
"Yes, let me have it over at once," I said, and placed it on the red square marked 13.
She nodded, and bending over the table, set the pointer on its round.
This time I felt quite calm and cool. All the intoxication of play had gone from me and left my nerves steady as iron. As the needle swung round I scarcely looked at it, but fell to watching the faces of my fellow-gamblers with idle interest. This stake would decide between life and death for me, but I did not feel it. My passion had fallen upon an anti-climax, and I was even yawning when the murmur of many voices, and a small pile of gold and silver at my side, announced that I had won.
"So the luck was changed at last," said the woman. "Be brave whilst it is with you."
In answer I again placed the clasp upon the number 13.
Once more I won, and this time heavily. Tom laid his hand upon my shoulder and said, "Let us go," but I shook my head and went on.
Time after time I won now, until the pile beside me became immense. Again and again Tom whispered in my ear that we had won enough and that luck would change shortly, but I held on. And now the others surrounded me in a small crowd and began to stake on the numbers I chose. Put the clasp where I would the needle stopped in front of it. They brought a magnet to see if this curious piece of metal had any power of attraction, but our hostess only laughed and assured them at any rate there was no steel in the pointer, as (she added) some of them ought to know by this time. When eight times I had put the buckle down and eight times had found a fresh heap of coin at my side, she turned to me and said—
"You play bravely, young man. What is your name?"
Again I fancied I caught the gleam in her eyes; and this time it even seemed as though her teeth shut tight as she heard the words. But she simply laughed a tranquil laugh and said—
"A queer-sounding name, that Trenoweth. Is it a lucky one?"
"Never, until now," said I.
"Well, play on. It does my heart good, this fight between us. But you are careful, I see; why don't you stake your pile as well while this wonderful run lasts?"
Again Tom's hand was laid upon my shoulder, and this time his voice was urgent. But I was completely deaf.
"As you please," said I, coldly, and laid the whole pile down upon the black.
It was madness. It was worse than madness. But I won again; and now the heap of my winnings was enormous. I glanced at the strange woman; she sat as impassive as ever.
"Play," said she.
Thrice more I won, and now the pile beside her had to be replenished. Yet she moved not a muscle of her face, not a lash of her mysterious eyes.
At last, sick of success, I turned and said—
"I have had enough of this. Will it satisfy you if I stake it all once more?"
Again she laughed. "You are brave, Mr. Trenoweth, and indeed worth the fighting. You may win to-night, but I shall win in the end. I told you that I would readily lose to you, and so I will; but you take me at my word with a vengeance. Still, I should like to possess that clasp of yours, so let it be once more."
I laid the whole of my winnings on the red. By this time all the guests had gathered round to see the issue of this conflict. Not a soul put any money on this turn of the wheel, so engrossed were they in the duel. Every face was white with excitement, every lip quivered. Only we, the combatants, sat unmoved—I and the strange woman with the unfathomable eyes.
"Red stands for many things," said she, as she lightly twirled the needle round, "blood and rubies and lovers' lips. But black is the livery of Death, and Death shall win them all in the end."
As the pointer of fortune circled on its last errand, I could catch the stifled breath of the crowd about me, so deep was the hush that fell upon us all. I felt Tom's hand tighten its clutch upon my shoulder. I heard, or fancied I heard, the heart of the man upon my right thump against his ribs. I could feel my own pulse beating all the while with steady and regular stroke. Somehow I knew that I should win, and somehow it flashed upon me that she knew it too. Even as the idea came darting across my brain, a multitude of pent-up cries broke forth from thirty pairs of white lips. I scarcely looked to see the cause, but as I turned to our hostess her eyes looked straight into mine and her sweet voice rose above the din—
"Gentlemen, we have played enough to-night. The game is over."
I had broken the bank.
I stood with Tom gathering up my winnings as the crowd slowly melted from the room, and as I did so, cast a glance at the woman whom I had thus defeated. She was leaning back in her chair, apparently indifferent to her losses as to her gains. Only her eyes were steadily fixed upon me as I shovelled the coin into my pockets. As she caught my eye she pulled out a scrap of paper and a pencil, scribbled a few words, tossed the note to the man with the shovel, who instantly left the room, and said—
"Is it far from this place to your home?"
"That's well; but be careful. To win such a sum is only less dangerous than to lose it. I shall see you again—you and your talisman. By the way, may I look at it for a moment?"
We were alone in the room, we three. She took the clasp, looked at it intently for a full minute, and then returned it. Already the dawn of another day was peering in through the chinks in the blinds, giving a ghastly faintness to the expiring candles, throwing a grey and sickening reality over the scene—the disordered chairs, the floor strewn with scraps of paper, the signs and relics of the debauchery of play. Ghastlier than all was the yellow face of the woman in the pitiless light. But there she sat, seemingly untired, in all the splendour of her flashing gems, as we left her—a very goddess of the gaming-table.
We had reached the door and were stepping into the darkness of the outer passage, when Tom whispered—
"Be on your guard; that note meant mischief."
I nodded, swung open the door, and stepped out into the darkness. Even as I did so, I heard one quick step at my left side, saw a faint gleam, and felt myself violently struck upon the chest. For a moment I staggered back, and then heard Tom rush past me and deal one crashing blow.
"Run, run! Down the passage, quick!"
In an instant we were tearing through the black darkness to the outer door, but in that instant I could see, through the open door behind, in the glare of all the candles, the figure of the yellow woman still sitting motionless and calm.
We gained the door, and plunged into the bright daylight. Up the alley we tore, out into the street, across it and down another, then through a perfect maze of by-lanes. Tom led and I followed behind, panting and clutching my bursting pockets lest the coin should tumble out. Still we tore on, although not a footstep followed us, nor had we seen a soul since Tom struck my assailant down. Spent and breathless at last we emerged upon the Strand, and here Tom pulled up.
"The streets are wonderfully quiet," said he.
I thought for a moment and then said, "It is Sunday morning."
Scarcely were the words out of my mouth when I heard something ring upon the pavement beside me. I stooped, and picked up—the Golden Clasp.
"Well," said I, "this is strange."
"Not at all," said Tom. "Look at your breast-pocket."
I looked and saw a short slit across my breast just above the heart. As I put my hand up, a sovereign, and then another, rolled clinking on to the pavement.
Tom picked them up, and handing them to me, remarked—
"Jasper, you may thank Heaven to-day, if you are in a mood for it. You have had a narrow escape."
"What do you mean?"
"Why, that you would be a dead man now had you not carried that piece of metal in your breast-pocket. Let me see it for a moment."
We looked at it together, and there surely enough, almost in the centre of the clasp, was a deep dent. We were silent for a minute or so, and then Tom said—
"Let us get home. It would not do for us to be seen with this money about us."
We crossed the Strand, and turned off it to the door of our lodgings. There I stopped.
"Tom, I am not coming in. I shall take a long walk and a bathe to get this fearful night out of my head. You can take the money upstairs, and put it away somewhere in hiding. Stay, I will keep a coin or two. Take the rest with you."
Tom looked up at the gleam of sunshine that touched the chimney-pots above, and decided.
"Well, for my part, I am going to bed; and so will you if you are wise."
"No. I will be back this evening, so let the fatted calf be prepared. I must get out of this for a while."
"Where are you going?"
"Oh, anywhere. I don't care. Up the river, perhaps."
"You don't wish me to go with you?"
"No, I had rather be alone. Tom, I have been a fool. I led you into a hole whence nothing but a marvellous chance has delivered us, and I owe you an apology. And—Tom, I also owe you my life."
"Not to me, Jasper; to the Clasp."
"To you," I insisted. "Tom, I have been a thoughtless fool, and— Tom, that was a splendid blow of yours."
He laughed, and ran upstairs, while I turned and gloomily sauntered down the deserted street.
TELLS AN OLD STORY IN THE TRADITIONAL MANNER.
When Tom asked me where I was going, I had suggested an excursion up the river; though, to tell the truth, this answer had come with the question. Be that as it may, the afternoon of that same Sunday found me on the left bank of the Thames between Streatley and Pangbourne; found me, with my boat moored idly by, stretched on my back amid the undergrowth, and easefully staring upward through a trellis-work of branches into the heavens. I had been lying there a full hour wondering vaguely of my last night's adventure, listening to the spring-time chorus of the birds, lazily and listlessly watching a bough that bent and waved its fan of foliage across my face, or the twinkle of the tireless kingfisher flashing down-stream in loops of light, when a blackbird lit on a branch hard by my left hand, and, all unconscious of an audience, began to pour forth his rapture to the day.
Lying there I could spy his black body and yellow bill, and drink in his song with dreamy content. So sweetly and delicately was he fluting, that by degrees slumber crept gently and unperceived upon my tired brain; and as the health-giving distillation of the melody stole upon my parched senses, I fell into a deep sleep.
What was that? Music? Yes, but not the song of my friend the black-bird, not the mellow note that had wooed me to slumber and haunted my dreams. Music? Yes, but the voice was human, and the song articulate. I started, and rose upon my elbow to listen. The voice was human beyond a doubt—sweetly human: it was that of a girl singing. But where? I looked around and saw nobody. Yet the singer could not be far off, for the words, though softly and gently sung, dwelt clearly and distinctly upon my ear. Still half asleep, I sank back again and listened.
"Flower of the May, Saw ye one pass? 'Love passed to-day While the dawn was, O, but the eyes of him shone as a glass.'"
The low, delicate notes came tremulous through the thicket. The blackbird was hushed, the trees overhead swayed soundlessly, and when the voice fell and paused, so deep was the silence that involuntarily I held my breath and waited. Presently it broke out again—
"Bird of the thorn, What his attire? 'Lo! it was torn, Marred with the mire, And but the eyes of him sparkled with fire.'"
Again the voice died away in soft cadences, and again all was silence. I rose once more upon my elbow, and gazed into the green depths of the wood; but saw only the blackbird perched upon a twig and listening with head askew.
"Flower of the May, Bird of the—"
The voice quivered, trailed off and stopped. I heard a rustling of leaves to the right, and then the same voice broke out in prose, in very agitated and piteous prose—"Oh, my boat! my boat! What shall I do?"
I jumped to my feet, caught a glimpse of something white, and of two startled but appealing eyes, then tore down to the bank. There, already twenty yards downstream, placidly floated the boat, its painter trailing from the bows, and its whole behaviour pointing to a leisurely but firm resolve to visit Pangbourne.
My own boat was close at hand. But when did hot youth behave with thought in a like case? I did as ninety-nine in a hundred would do. I took off my coat, kicked off my shoes, and as the voice cried, "Oh, please, do not trouble," plunged into the water. The refractory boat, once on its way, was in no great hurry, and allowed itself to be overtaken with great good-humour. I clambered in over the stern, caught up the sculls which lay across the thwarts, and, dripping but triumphant, brought my captive back to shore.
"How can I thank you?"
If my face was red as I looked up, it must be remembered that I had to stoop to make the boat fast. If my eyes had a tendency to look down again, it must be borne in mind that the water from my hair was dripping into them. They gazed for a moment, however, and this was what they saw:—
At first only another pair of eyes, of dark grey eyes twinkling with a touch of merriment, though full at the same time of honest gratitude. It was some time before I clearly understood that these eyes belonged to a face, and that face the fairest that ever looked on a summer day. First, as my gaze dropped before that vision of radiant beauty, it saw only an exquisite figure draped in a dress of some white and filmy stuff, and swathed around the shoulders with a downy shawl, white also, across which fell one ravishing lock of waving brown, shining golden in the kiss of the now drooping sun. Then the gaze fell lower, lighted upon a little foot thrust slightly forward for steadiness on the bank's verge, and there rested.
So we stood facing one another—Hero and Leander, save that Leander found the effects of his bath more discomposing than the poets give any hint of. So we stood, she smiling and I dripping, while the blackbird, robbed of the song's ending, took up his own tale anew, and, being now on his mettle, tried a few variations. So, for all power I had of speech, might we have stood until to-day had not the voice repeated—
"How can I thank you?"
I looked up. Yes, she was beautiful, past all criticism—not tall, but in pose and figure queenly beyond words. Under the brim of her straw hat the waving hair fell loosely, but not so loosely as to hide the broad brow arching over lashes of deepest brown. Into the eyes I dared not look again, but the lips were full and curling with humour, the chin delicately poised over the most perfect of necks. In her right hand she held a carelessly-plucked creeper that strayed down the white of her dress and drooped over the high firm instep. And so my gaze dropped to earth again. Pity me. I had scarcely spoken to woman before, never to beauty. Tongue-tied and dripping I stood there, yet was half inclined to run away.
"And yet, why did you make yourself so wet? Have you no boat? Is not that your boat lying there under the bank?" There was an amused tremor in the speech.
Somehow I felt absurdly guilty. She must have mistaken my glance, for she went on:—"Is it that you wish—?" and began to search in the pocket of her gown.
"No, no," I cried, "not that."
I had forgotten the raggedness of my clothes, now hideously emphasised by my bath. Of course she took me for a beggar. Why not? I looked like one. But as the thought flashed upon me it brought unutterable humiliation. She must have divined something of the agony in my eyes, for a tiny hand was suddenly laid on my arm and the voice said—
"Please, forgive me; I was stupid, and am so sorry."
Forgive her? I looked up for an instant and now her lids drooped in their turn. There was a silence between us for a moment or two, broken only by the blackbird, by this time entangled in a maze of difficult variations. Presently she glanced up again, and the grey eyes were now chastely merry.
"But it was odd to swim when your boat was close at hand, was it not?"
I looked, faltered, met her honest glance, and we both broke out into shy laughter. A mad desire to seize the little hand that for a moment had rested on my arm caught hold of me.
"Yes, it was odd," I answered slowly and with difficulty; "but it seemed—the only thing to do at the time."
She laughed a low laugh again.
"Do you generally behave like that?"
"I don't know."
There was a pause and then I added—
"You see, you took me by surprise."
"Where were you when I first called?" she asked.
"Lying in the grass close by."
"Then"—with a vivid blush—"you must have—"
"Heard you singing? Yes."
Again there was a pause, and this time the blackbird executed an elaborate exercise with much delicacy and finish. The brown lashes drooped, the lovely eyes were bent on the grass, and the little hand swung the creeper nervously backward and forward.
"Why did you not warn me that I had an audience?"
"Because, in the first place, I was too late. When you began I was—"
"What?" she asked as I hesitated.
"And I disturbed you. I am so sorry."
"I am not."
I was growing bolder as she became more embarrassed. I looked down upon her now from my superior height, and my heart went out to worship the grace of God's handiwork. With a touch of resentment she drew herself up, held out her hand, and said somewhat proudly—
"I thank you, sir, for this service."
I took the hand, but not the hint. It was an infinitesimal hand as it lay in my big brown one, and yet it stung my frame as with some delicious and electric shock. My heart beat wildly and my eyes remained fixed upon hers.
The colour on the fair face deepened a shade: the little chin was raised a full inch, and the voice became perceptibly icy.
"I must go, sir. I hope I have thanked you as far as I can, and—"
"Forgive me that I was about to offer you money."
The hat's brim bent now, but under it I could see the honest eyes full of pain.
"Forgive you!" I cried. "Who am I to forgive you? You were right: I am no better than a beggar."
The red lips quivered and broke into a smile; a tiny dimple appeared, vanished and reappeared; the hat's brim nodded again, and then the eyes sparkled into laughter—
"A sturdy beggar, at any rate."
It was the poorest little joke, but love is not exacting of wit. Again we both laughed, but this time with more relief, and yet the embarrassment that followed was greater.
"Must you go?" I asked as I bent down to pull the boat in.
"I really must," she answered shyly; and then as she pulled out a tiny watch at her waist—"Oh! I am late—so late. I shall keep mother waiting and make her lose the train. What shall I do? Oh, pray, sir, be quick!"
A mad hope coursed through me; I pointed to the boat and said—
"I have made it so wet. If you are late, better let me row you. Where are you going?"
"To Streatley; but I cannot—"
"I also am going to Streatley. Please let me row you: I will not speak if you wish it."
Over her face, now so beautifully agitated, swept the rarest of blushes. "Oh no, it is not that, but I can manage quite well"—her manner gave the lie to her brave words—"and I shall not mind the wet."
"If I have not offended you, let me row."
"Then I have offended."
"Please do not think so."
"I shall if you will not let me row."
Before my persistency she wavered and was conquered. "But my boat?" she said.
"I will tow it behind"—and in the glad success of my hopes I allowed her no time for further parley, but ran off for my own boat, tied the two together, and gently helped her to her seat. Was ever moment so sweet? Did ever little palm rest in more eager hand than hers in mine during that one heavenly moment? Did ever heart beat so tumultuously as mine, as I pushed the boat from under the boughs and began to row?
Somehow, as we floated up the still river, a hush fell upon us. She was idly trailing her hand in the stream and watching the ripple as it broke and sparkled through her fingers. Her long lashes drooped down upon her cheek and veiled her eyes, whilst I sat drinking in her beauty and afraid by a word to break the spell.
Presently she glanced up, met my burning eyes, and looked down abashed.
"Forgive me, I could not help it."
She tried to meet the meaning of that sentence with a steady look, but broke down, and as the warm blood surged across her face, bent her eyes to the water again. For myself, I knew of nothing to say in extenuation of my speech. My lips would have cried her mercy, but no words came. I fell to rowing harder, and the silence that fell upon us was unbroken. The sun sank and suddenly the earth grew cold and grey, the piping of the birds died wholly out, the water-flags shivered and whispered before the footsteps of night. Slowly, very slowly the twilight hung its curtains around us. Swiftly, too swiftly the quiet village drew near, but my thoughts were neither of the village nor the night. As I sat and pulled silently upwards, life was entirely changing for me. Old thoughts, old passions, old aims and musings slipped from me and swept off my soul as the darkening river swept down into further night.
"Streatley! So soon! We are in time, then."
Humbly my heart thanked her for those words, "So soon." I gave her my hand to help her ashore, and, as I did so, said—
"You will forgive me?"
"For getting wet in my service? What is there to forgive?"
Oh, cruelly kind! The moon was up now and threw its full radiance on her face as she turned to go. My eyes were speaking imploringly, but she persisted in ignoring their appeal.
"You often come here?"
"Oh, no! Sunday is my holiday; I am not so idle always. But mother loves to come here on Sundays. Ah, how I have neglected her to-day!" There was a world of self-reproach in her speech, and again she would have withdrawn her hand and gone.
"One moment," said I, hoarsely. "Will you—can you—tell me your name?"
There was a demure smile on her face as the moon kissed it, and—
"They call me Claire," she said.
"Claire," I murmured, half to myself.
"And yours?" she asked.
"Then good-bye, Mr. Jasper Trenoweth. Goodbye, and once more I thank you."
She was gone; and standing stupid and alone I watched her graceful figure fade into the shadow and take with it the light and joy of my life.
"Jasper," said Tom, as I lounged into our wretched garret, "have you ever known what it is to suffer from the responsibility of wealth? I do not mean a few paltry sovereigns; but do you know what it is to live with, say, three thousand four hundred and sixty-five pounds thirteen and sixpence on your conscience?"
"No," I said; "I cannot say that I have. But why that extraordinary sum?"
"Because that is the sum which has been hanging all day around me as a mill-stone. Because that is the exact amount which at present makes me fear to look my fellow-man in the face."
I simply stared.
"Jasper, you are singularly dense, or much success has turned your brain. Say, Jasper, that success has not turned your brain."
"Not that I know of," I replied.
"Very well, then," said Tom, stepping to the bed and pulling back the counterpane with much mystery. "Oblige me by counting this sum, first the notes, then the gold, and finally the silver. Or, if that is too much trouble, reflect that on this modest couch recline bank-notes for three thousand one hundred and twenty pounds, gold sovereigns to the number of three hundred and forty-two, whence by an easy subtraction sum we obtain a remainder of silver, in value three pounds thirteen and sixpence."
"But, Tom, surely we never won all that?"
"We did though, and may for the rest of our days settle down as comparatively honest medical students. So that I propose we have supper, and drink—for I have provided drink—to the Luck of the Golden Clasp."
Stunned with the events of the last twenty-four hours, I sat down to table, but could scarcely touch my food. Tom's tongue went ceaselessly, now apologising for the fare, now entertaining imaginary guests, and always addressing me as a man of great wealth and property.
"Jasper," he remarked at length, "either you are ill, or you must have been eating to excess all day."
"Do I gather that you wish to leave the table, and pursue your mortal foe up and down Oxford Street?"
I shook my head.
"What! no revenge to-night? No thirst for blood?"
"Tom," I replied, solemnly, "neither to-night nor any other night. My revenge is dead."
"Dear me! when did it take place? It must have been very sudden."
"It died to-day."
"Jasper," said Tom, laying his hand on my shoulder, "either wealth has turned your brain, or most remarkably given you sanity."
TELLS HOW I SAW THE SHADOW OF THE ROCK; AND HOW I TOLD AND HEARD NEWS.
A week passed, and in the interval Tom and I made several discoveries. In the first place, to our great relief, we discovered that the bank-notes were received in Threadneedle Street without question or demur. Secondly, we found our present lodgings narrow, and therefore moved westward to St. James's. Further, it struck us that our clothes would have to conform to the "demands of more Occidental civilisation," as Tom put it, and also that unless we intended to be medical students for ever it was necessary to become medical men. Lastly, it began to dawn upon Tom that "Francesca: a Tragedy" was a somewhat turgid performance, and on me that a holiday on Sunday was demanded by six days of work.
I do not know that we displayed any remarkable interest in the Materia Medica, or that the authorities of Guy's looked upon us as likely to do them any singular credit. But Tom, who had now a writing-desk, made great alterations in "Francesca," while I consumed vast quantities of tobacco in the endeavour to reproduce a certain face in my note-book; and I am certain that the resolution to take a holiday on Sunday was as strong at the end of the first week as though I had wrought my faculties to the verge of brain fever.
I did not see her on that Sunday, or the next, though twice my boat explored the river between Goring and Pangbourne from early morning until nightfall. But let me hasten over heart-aching and bitterness, and come to the blessed Sunday when for a second time I saw my love.
Again the day was radiant with summer. Above, the vaulted blue arched to a capstone of noonday gold. Hardly a fleecy cloud troubled the height of heaven, or blotted the stream's clear mirror; save here and there where the warm air danced and quivered over the still meadows, the season's colour lay equal upon earth. Before me the river wound silently into the sunny solitude of space untroubled by sight of human form.
But what was that speck of white far down the bank—that brighter spot upon the universal brightness, moving, advancing? My heart gave one great leap; in a moment my boat's bows were high upon the crumbling bank, and I was gazing down the tow-path.
Yes, it was she! From a thousand thousand I could tell that perfect form as it loitered—how slowly—up the river's verge. Along heaven's boundary the day was lit with glory for me, and all the glory but a golden frame for that white speck so carelessly approaching. Still and mute I stood as it drew nearer—so still, so mute, that a lazy pike thrust out its wolfish jaws just under my feet and, seeing me, splashed under again in great discomposure; so motionless that a blundering swallow all but darted against me, then swept curving to the water, and vanished down the stream.
She had been gathering May-blossom, and held a cluster in one hand. As before, her gown was purest white, and, as before, a nodding hat guarded her fair face jealously.
Nearer and nearer she came, glanced carelessly at me who stood bare-headed in the sun's glare, was passing, and glanced again, hesitated for one agonising moment, and then, as our eyes met, shot out a kindly flash of remembrance, followed by the sweetest of little blushes.
"So you are here again," she said, as she gave her hand, and her voice made exquisite music in my ear.
"Again?" I said, slowly releasing her fingers as a miser might part with treasure. "Again? I have been here every Sunday since."
"Dear me! is it so long ago? Only three weeks after all. I remember, because—"
The fleeting hope possessed me that it might be some recollection in which I had place, but my illusion was swiftly shattered.
"Because," the pitiless sentence continued, "mother was not well that evening; in fact, she has been ill ever since. So it is only three weeks."
"Only three weeks!" I echoed.
"Yes," she nodded. "I have not seen the river for all that time. Is it changed?"
"Perhaps I have changed."
"Well, I hope so," she laughed, "after that wetting;" then, seeing an indignant flash in my eyes, she added quickly, "which you got by so kindly bringing back my boat."
"You have not been rowing to-day?"
"No; see, I have been gathering the last of the May-blossom. May is all but dead."
"And 'Flower of the May'?"
"Please do not remind me of that foolish song. Had I known, I would not have sung it for worlds."
"I would not for worlds have missed it."
Again she frowned and now turned to go. "And you, too, must make these speeches!"
The world of reproach in her tone was at once gall and honey to me. Gall, because the "you too" conjured up a host of jealous imaginings; honey, because it was revealed that of me she had hoped for better. And now like a fool I had flung her good opinion away and she was leaving me.
I made a half-step forward.
"I must go now," she said, and the little hand was held out in token of farewell.
"No! no! I have offended you."
"I have offended you," I insisted, still holding her hand.
"I forgive you. But, indeed, I must go." The hand made a faint struggle to be free.
My voice came hard and unnatural. I still held the fingers, and as I did so, felt the embarrassment of utter shyness pass over the bridge of our two hands and settle chokingly upon my heart.
"Why?" I repeated, more hoarsely yet.
"Because—because I must not neglect mother again. She is waiting."
"Then let me go with you."
"Oh, no! Some day—if we meet—I will introduce you."
"Why not now?"
"Because she is not well."
Even my lately-acquired knowledge of the Materia Medico, scarcely warranted me in offering to cure her. But I did.
She laughed shyly and said, "How, sir; are you a doctor?"
"Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, gentleman, apothecary," I said lightly, "neither one nor the other, but that curious compound of the two last—a medical student."
"Then I will not trust you," she answered, smiling.
"Better trust me," I said; and something in my words again made her look down.
"You will trust me?" I pleaded, and the something in my words grew plainer.
Still no answer.
"Oh, trust me!"
The hand quivered in mine an instant, the eyes looked up and laughed once more. "I will trust you," she said—"not to move from this spot until I am out of sight."
Then with a light "Good-bye" she was gone, and I was left to vaguely comprehend my loss.
Before long I had seen her a third time and yet once again. I had learnt her name to be Luttrell—Claire Luttrell; how often did I not say the words over to myself? I had also confided in Tom and received his hearty condolence, Tom being in that stage of youth which despises all of which it knows nothing—love especially, as a thing contrary to nature's uniformity. So Tom was youthfully cynical, and therefore by strange inference put on the airs of superior age; was also sceptical of my description, especially a certain comparison of her eyes to stars, though a very similar trope occurred somewhere in the tragedy. Indeed therein Francesca's eyes were likened to the Pleiads, being apparently (as I pointed out with some asperity) seven in number, and one of them lost.
I had also seen Mrs. Luttrell, a worn and timid woman, with weak blue eyes and all the manner of the professional invalid. I say this now, but in those days she was in my eyes a celestial being mysteriously clothed in earth's infirmities—as how should the mother of Claire be anything else? Somehow I won the favour of this faded creature— chiefly, I suspect, because she liked so well to be left alone. All day long she would sit contentedly watching the river and waiting for Claire, yet only anxious that Claire should be happy. All her heart centred on her child, and often, in spite of our friendliness, I caught her glancing from Claire to me with a jealous look, as though the mother guessed what the child suspected but dimly, if at all.
So the summer slipped away, all too fleetly—to me, as I look back after these weary years, in a day. But nevertheless much happened: not much that need be written down in bald and pitiless prose, but much to me who counted and treasured every moment that held my darling near me. So the Loves through that golden season wound us round with their invisible chains and hovered smiling and waiting. So we drifted week after week upon the river, each time nearer and nearer to the harbour of confession. The end was surely coming, and at last it came.
It was a gorgeous August evening. A week before she had told me that Saturday would be a holiday for her, and had, when pressed, admitted a design of spending it upon the river. Need it be confessed that Saturday saw me also in my boat, expectant? And when she came and feigned pretty astonishment at meeting me, and scepticism as to my doing any work throughout the week, need I say the explanation took time and seemed to me best delivered in a boat? At any rate, so it was; and somehow, the explanation took such a vast amount of time, that the sun was already plunging down the western slope of heaven when we stepped ashore almost on the very spot where first I had heard her voice.
As the first film of evening came creeping over earth, there fell a hush between us. A blackbird—the same, I verily believe—took the opportunity to welcome us. His note was no longer full and unstudied as in May. The summer was nearly over, and with it his voice was failing; but he did his best, and something in the hospitality of his song prompted me to break the silence.
"This is the very spot on which we met for the first time—do you remember?"
"Of course I remember," was the simple answer.
"You do?" I foolishly burned to hear the assurance again.
"Of course—it was such a lovely day."
"A blessed day," I answered, "the most blessed of my life."
There was a long pause here, and even the blackbird could hardly fill it up.
"Do you regret it?"
(Why does man on these occasions ask such a heap of questions?)
"Why should I?"
(Why does woman invariably answer his query with another?)
"I hope there is no reason," I answered, "and yet—oh, can you not see of what that day was the beginning? Can you not see whither these last four months have carried me?"
The sun struck slanting on the water and ran in tapering lustre to our feet. The gilded ripple slipped and murmured below us; the bronzed leaves overhead bent carefully to veil her answer. The bird within the covert uttered an anxious note.
"They have carried you, it seems," she answered, with eyes gently lowered, "back to the same place."
"They have carried me," I echoed, "from spring to summer. If they have brought me back to this spot, it is because the place and I have changed—Claire!"
As I called her by her Christian name she gave one quick glance, and then turned her eyes away again. I could see the soft rose creeping over her white neck and cheek. Had I offended? Between hope and desperation, I continued—
"Claire—I will call you Claire, for that was the name you told me just four months ago—I am changed, oh, changed past all remembrance! Are you not changed at all? Am I still nothing to you?"
She put up her hand as if to ward off further speech, but spoke no word herself.
"Answer me, Claire; give me some answer if only a word. Am I still no more than the beggar who rescued your boat that day?"
"Of course, you are my friend—now. Please forget that I took you for a beggar."
The words came with effort. Within the bushes the blackbird still chirped expectant, and the ripple below murmured to the bank, "The old story—the old story."
"But I am a beggar," I broke out. "Claire, I am always a beggar on my knees before you. Oh, Claire!"
Her face was yet more averted—the sun kissed her waving locks with soft lips of gold, the breeze half stirred the delicate draperies around her. The blackbird's note was broken and halting as my own speech.
"Claire, have you not guessed? will you never guess? Oh, have pity on me!"
I could see the soft bosom heaving now. The little hand was pulling at the gown. Her whole sweet shape drooped away from me in vague alarm—but still no answer came.
"Courage! Courage!" chirped the bird, and the river murmured responsive, "Courage!"
"Claire!"—and now there was a ring of agony in the voice; the tones came alien and scarcely recognised—"Claire, I have watched and waited for this day, and now that it has come, for good or for evil, answer me—I love you!"
O time-honoured and most simple of propositions! "I love you!" Night after night had I lain upon my bed rehearsing speeches, tender, passionate and florid, and lo! to this had it all come—to these three words, which, as my lips uttered them, made my heart leap in awe of their crude and naked daring.
And she? The words, as though they smote her, chased for an instant the rich blood from her cheek. For a moment the bosom heaved wildly, then the colour came slowly back, and ebbed again. A soft tremor shook the bending form, the little hand clutched the gown, but she made no answer.
"Speak to me, Claire! I love you! With my life and soul I love you. Can you not care for me?" I took the little hand. "Claire, my heart is in your hands—do with it what you will, but speak to me. Can you not—do you not—care for me?"
The head drooped lower yet, the warm fingers quivered within mine, then tightened, and—
What was that whisper, that less than whisper, for which I bent my head? Had I heard aright? Or why was it that the figure drooped closer, and the bird's note sprang up jubilant?
A moment—one tremulous, heart-shaking moment—and then her form bent to me, abandoned, conquered; her face looked up, then sank upon my breast; but before it sank I read upon it a tenderness and a passion infinite, and caught in her eyes the perfect light of love.
As the glory of delight came flooding on my soul, the sun's disc dropped, and the first cold shadow of night fell upon earth. The blackbird uttered a broken "Amen," and was gone no man knew whither. The golden ripple passed up the river, and vanished in a leaden grey. One low shuddering sigh swept through the trees, then all was dumb. I looked westward. Towards the horizon the blue of day was fading downwards through indistinguishable zones of purple, amethyst, and palest rose, the whole heaven arching in one perfect rainbow of love.
But while I looked and listened to the beating of that beloved heart girdled with my arm, there grew a something on the western sky that well-nigh turned my own heart to marble. At first, a lightest shadow—a mere breath upon heaven's mirror, no more. Then as I gazed, it deepened, gathering all shadows from around the pole, heaping, massing, wreathing them around one spot in the troubled west—a shape that grew and threatened and still grew, until I looked on—what?
Up from the calm sea of air rose one solitary island, black and looming, rose and took shape and stood out—the very form and semblance of Dead Man's Rock! Sable and real as death it towered there against the pale evening, until its shadow, falling on my heart itself and on the soft brown head that bent and nestled there, lay round us clasped so, and with its frown cursed the morning of our love.
Something in my heart's beat, or in the stiffening of my arm, must have startled my darling, for as I gazed I felt her stir, and, looking down, caught her eyes turned wistfully upwards. My lips bent to hers.
"Mine, Claire! Mine for ever!"
And there, beneath the shadow of the Rock, our lips drew closer, met, and were locked in their first kiss.
When I looked up again the shadow had vanished, and the west was grey and clear.
So in the tranquil evening we rowed homewards, our hearts too full for speech. The wan moon rose and trod the waters, but we had no thoughts, no eyes for her. Our eyes were looking into each other's depths, our thoughts no thoughts at all, but rather a dazzled and wondering awe.
Only as a light or two gleamed out, and Streatley twinkled in the distance, Claire said—
"Can it be true? You know nothing of me."
"I know you love me. What more should I know, or wish to know?"
The red lips were pursed in a manner that spoke whole tomes of wisdom.
"You do not know that I work for my living all the week?"
"When you are mine you shall work no more."
"'But sit on a cushion and sew a gold seam'? Ah, no; I have to work. It is strange," she said, musingly, "so strange."
"What is strange, Claire?"
"That you have never seen me except on my holidays—that we have never met. What have you done since you have been in London?"
I thought of my walks and tireless quest in Oxford Street with a kind of shame. That old life was severed from the present by whole worlds.
"I have lived very quietly," I answered. "But is it so strange that we have never met?"
She laughed a low and musical laugh, and as the boat drew shoreward and grounded, replied—
"Perhaps not. Come, let us go to mother—Jasper."
O sweet sound from sweetest lips! We stepped ashore, and hand-in-hand entered the room where her mother sat.
As she looked up and saw us standing there together, she knew the truth in a moment. Her blue eyes filled with sudden fear, her worn hand went upwards to her heart. Until that instant she had not known of my presence there that day, and in a flash divined its meaning.
"I feared it," she answered at length, as I told my story and stood waiting for an answer. "I feared it, and for long have been expecting it. Claire, my love, are you sure? Oh, be quite sure before you leave me."
For answer, Claire only knelt and flung her white arms round her mother's neck, and hid her face upon her mother's bosom.
"You love him now, you think; but, oh, be careful. Search your heart before you rob me of it. I have known love, too, Claire, or thought I did; and indeed it can fade—and then, what anguish, what anguish!"
"Mother, mother! I will never leave you."
Mrs. Luttrell sighed.
"Ah, child, it is your happiness I am thinking of."
"I will never leave you, mother."
"And you, sir," continued Mrs. Luttrell, "are you sure? I am giving you what is dearer than life itself; and as you value her now, treat her worthily hereafter. Swear this to me, if my gift is worth so much in your eyes. Sir, do you know—"
Claire drew her mother's head down towards her and whispered in her ear. Mrs. Luttrell frowned, hesitated, and finally said—
"Well, it shall be as you wish—though I doubt if it be wise. God bless you, Claire—and you, sir; but oh, be certain, be certain!"
What incoherent speech I made in answer I know not, but my heart was sore for this poor soul. Claire turned her eyes to me and rose, smoothing her mother's grey locks.
"We will not leave her, will we? Tell her that we will not."
I echoed her words, and stepping to Mrs. Luttrell, took the frail, white hand.
"Sir," she said, "you who take her from me should be my bitterest foe. Yet see, I take you for a son."
Still rapt with the glory of my great triumph, and drunk with the passion of that farewell kiss, I walked into our lodgings and laid my hand on Tom's shoulder.
"Tom, I have news for you."
Tom started up. "And so have I for you."
"Tom, listen: I am accepted."
"Bless my soul! Jasper, so am I."
"This afternoon. Jasper, our success has come at last: for you the Loves, for me the Muses; for you the rose, for me the bay. Jasper, dear boy, they have learnt her worth at last."
"Francesca. Jasper, in three months I shall be famous; for next November 'Francesca: a Tragedy' will be produced at the Coliseum."
TELLS HOW THE CURTAIN ROSE UPON "FRANCESCA: A TRAGEDY."
Again my story may hurry, for on the enchanted weeks that followed it would weary all but lovers to dwell, and lovers for the most part find their own matters sufficient food for pondering. Tom was busy with the rehearsals at the Coliseum, and I, being left alone, had little taste for the Materia Medica. On Sundays only did I see Claire; for this Mrs. Luttrell had stipulated, and my love, too, most mysteriously professed herself busy during the week. As for me, it was clear that before marriage could be talked of I must at least have gained my diplomas, so that the more work I did during the week the better. The result of this was a goodly sowing of resolutions and very little harvest. In the evenings, Tom and I would sit together—he tirelessly polishing and pruning the tragedy, and I for the most part smoking and giving advice which I am bound to say in duty to the author ("Francesca" having gained some considerable fame since those days) was invariably rejected.
Tom had been growing silent and moody of late—a change for which I could find no cause. He would answer my questions at random, pause in his work to gaze long and intently on the ceiling, and altogether behave in ways unaccountable and strange. The play had been written at white-hot speed: the corrections proceeded at a snail's pace. The author had also fallen into a habit of bolting his meals in silence, and, when rebuked, of slowly bringing his eyes to bear upon me as a person whose presence was until the moment unsuspected. All this I saw in mild wonder, but I reflected on certain moods of my own of late, and held my peace.
The explanation came without my seeking. We were seated together one evening, he over his everlasting corrections, and I in some especially herbaceous nook of the Materia Medica, when Tom looked up and said—
"Jasper, I want your opinion on a passage. Listen to this."
Sick of my flowery solitude, I gave him my attention while he read:—
"She is no violet to veil and hide Before the lusty sun, but as the flower, His best-named bride, that leaneth to the light And images his look of lordly love— Yet how I wrong her. She is more a queen Than he a king; and whoso looks must kneel And worship, conscious of a Sovranty Undreamt in nature, save it be the Heaven That minist'ring to all is queen of all, And wears the proud sun's self but as a gem To grace her girdle, one among the stars. Heaven is Francesca, and Francesca Heaven. Without her, Heaven is dispossessed of Heaven, And Earth, discrowned and disinherited, Shall beg in black eclipse, until her eyes—"
"Stay," I interrupted, "unless I am mistaken her eyes are like the Pleiads, a simile to which I have more than once objected."
"If you would only listen you would find those lines cut out," said Tom, pettishly.
"In that case I apologise: nevertheless, if that is your idea of a Francesca, I confess she seems to me a trifle—shall we say?— massive."
"Your Claire, I suppose, is stumpy?"
"My Claire," I replied with dignity, "is neither stumpy nor stupendous."
"In fact, just the right height."
"Well, yes, just the right height."
Tom paid no attention, but went on in full career—
"I hate your Griseldas, your Jessamys, your Mary Anns; give me Semiramis, Dido, Joan of—"
"My dear Tom, not all at once, I hope."
"Bah! you are so taken up with your own choice, that you must needs scoff at anyone who happens to differ. I tell you, woman should be imperial, majestic; should walk as a queen and talk as a goddess. You scoff because you have never seen such; you shut your eyes and go about saying, 'There is no such woman.' By heaven, Jasper, if you could only see—"
At this point Tom suddenly pulled up and blushed like any child.
"Go on—whom shall I see?"
Tom's blush was beautiful to look upon.
"The Lambert, for instance; I meant—"
"Who is the Lambert?"
"Do you mean to say you have never heard of Clarissa Lambert, the most glorious actress in London?"
"Never. Is she acting at the Coliseum?"
"Of course she is. She takes Francesca. Oh, Jasper, you should see her, she is divine!"
Here another blush succeeded.
"So," I said after a pause, "you have taken upon yourself to fall in love with this Clarissa Lambert."
Tom looked unutterably sheepish.
"Is the passion returned?"
"Jasper, don't talk like that and don't be a fool. Of course I have never breathed a word to her. Why, she hardly knows me, has hardly spoken to me beyond a few simple sentences. How should I, a miserable author without even a name, speak to her? Jasper, do you like the name Clarissa?"
"Not half so well as Claire."
"Nonsense; Claire is well enough as names go, but nothing to Clarissa. Mark how the ending gives it grace and quaintness; what a grand eighteenth-century ring it has! It is superb—so sweet, and at the same time so stately."
"And replaces Francesca so well in scansion."
Tom's face was confession.
"You should see her, Jasper—her eyes. What colour are Claire's?"
"Clarissa's are hazel brown: I prefer brown; in fact I always thought a woman should have brown eyes: we won't quarrel about inches, but you will give way in the matter of eyes, will you not?"
"Not an inch."
"It really is wonderful," said Tom, "how the mere fact of being in love is apt to corrupt a man's taste. Now in the matter of voice—I dare wager that your Claire speaks in soft and gentle numbers."
"As an Aeolian harp," said I, and I spoke truth.
"Of course, unrelieved tenderness and not a high note in the gamut. But you should hear Clarissa; I only ask you to hear her once, and let those glorious accents play upon your crass heart for a moment or two. O Jasper, Jasper, it shakes the very soul!"
Tom was evidently in a very advanced stage of the sickness; I could not find it in my heart to return his flouts of a month before, so I said—
"Very well, my dear Tom, I shall look upon your divinity in November. I do not promise you she will have the effect that you look forward to, but I am glad your Francesca will be worthily played; and, Tom, I am glad you are in love; I think it improves you."
"It is hopeless—absolutely hopeless; she is cold as ice."
"What, with that voice and those eyes? Nonsense, man."
"She is cold as ice," groaned poor Tom; "everyone says so."
"Of course everyone says so; you ought to be glad of that, for this is the one point on which what everyone says must from the nature of things be false. Why, man, if she beamed on the whole world, then I might believe you."
From which it will be gathered that I had learned something from being in love.
So sad did I consider Tom's case, that I spoke to Claire about it when I saw her next.
"Claire," I said, "you have often heard me speak of Tom."
"Really, Jasper, you seldom speak of anybody else. In fact I am growing quite jealous of this friend."
After the diversion caused by this speech, I resumed—
"But really Tom is the best of fellows, and if I talk much of him it is because he is my only friend. You must see him, Claire, and you will be sure to like him. He is so clever!"
"What is the name of this genius—I mean the other name?"
"Why, Loveday, of course—Thomas Loveday. Do you mean to say I have never told you?"
"Never," said Claire, meditatively. "Loveday—Thomas Loveday—is it a common name?"
"No, I should think not very common. Don't you like it?"
Here followed another diversion.
"But what I was going to say about Tom," I continued, "is this—he has fallen in love; in fact, I have never seen a man so deeply in love."
"Anyone else," I corrected, "for of course I was quite as bad; you understand that."
"We were talking of Thomas Loveday."
"Oh, yes, of Tom. Well, Tom, you know—or perhaps you do not. At any rate, Tom has written a tragedy."
"All about love?"
"Well, not quite all; though there is a good deal in it, considering it was written when the author had no idea of what the passion was like. But that is not the point. This tragedy is coming out at the Coliseum in November. Are you not well, Claire?"
"Yes, yes; go on. What has all this to do with Tom's love?"
"I am coming to that. Tom, of course, has been attending the rehearsals lately. He will not let me come until the piece is ready, for he is wonderfully nervous. I am to come and see it on the first night. Well, as I was saying, Tom has been going to rehearsals, and has fallen in love with—guess with whom."
Claire was certainly getting very white.
"Are you sure you are well, Claire?" I asked, anxiously.
"Oh, yes; quite sure. But tell me with whom—how should I guess?"
"Why, with the leading actress; one Clarissa Lambert, is it not?"
"Why, Claire, what is the matter? Are you faint?" For my love had turned deathly pale, and seemed as though she would faint indeed.
We were in the old spot so often revisited, though the leaves were yellowing fast, and the blackbird's note had long ceased utterly. I placed my arm around her for support, but my darling unlocked it after a moment, struggled with her pallor, and said—
"No, no; I am better. It was a little faintness, but is passing off. Go on, and tell me about Mr. Loveday."
"I am afraid I bored you. But that is all. Do you know this Clarissa Lambert? Have you seen her?"
"Yes—I have seen her."
"I suppose she is very famous; at least, Tom says so. He also says she is divine; but I expect, from his description, that she is of the usual stamp of Tragedy Queen, tall and loud, with a big voice."
"Did he tell you that?"
"No, of course Tom raves about her. But there is no accounting for what a lover will say." This statement was made with all the sublime assurance of an accepted man. "But you have seen her," I went on, "and can tell me how far his description is true. I suppose she is much the same as other actresses, is she not?"
"Jasper," said Claire, very gently, after a pause, "do you ever go to a theatre?"
"Very seldom; in fact, about twice only since I have been in London."
"I suppose you were taught as a boy to hate such things?"
"Well," I laughed, "I do not expect Uncle Loveday would have approved of Tom's choice, if that is what you mean. But that does not matter, I fear, as Tom swears that his case is hopeless. He worships from afar, and says that she is as cold as ice. In fact, he has never told his love, but lets concealment like a—"
"That is not what I meant. Do you—do you think all actors and actresses wicked?"
"Of course not. Why should I?"
"You are going to see—"
"'Francesca'? Oh, yes, on the opening night."
"Then possibly we shall meet. Will you look out for me?"
"Let me take you, Claire. Oh, I am glad indeed! You will see Tom there, and, I hope, be able to congratulate him on his triumph. So let me take you."
She shook her head.
"Because that is impossible—really. I shall see you there, and you will see me. Is not that enough?"
"If you say so, it must be," I answered sadly. "But—"
"'But me no buts,'" she quoted. "See, it is getting late; we must be going."
A most strange silence fell upon us on the way back to Streatley. Claire's face had not yet wholly regained its colour, and she seemed disinclined to talk. So I had to solace myself by drinking in long draughts of her loveliness, and by whispering to my soul how poorly Tom's Queen of Tragedy would show beside my sweetheart.
O fool and blind!
Presently my love asked musingly—
"Jasper, do you think that you could cease to love me?"
"Claire, how can you ask it?"
"You are quite sure? You remember what mother said?"
"Claire, love is strong as death. How does the text run? 'Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it: if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be contemned.' Claire, you must believe that!"
"'Strong as death,'" she murmured. "Yes, I believe it. What a lovely text that is!"
The boat touched shore at Streatley, and we stepped out.
"Jasper," she said again at parting that night, "you have no doubt, no grain of doubt, about my question, and the answer? 'Strong as death,' you are sure?"
For answer I strained her to my heart.
O fool and blind! O fool and blind!
The night that was big with Tom's fate had come. The Coliseum was crowded as we entered. In those days the theatre had no stalls, so we sat in the front row of the dress circle, Tom having in his modesty refused a box. He was behind the scenes until some five minutes before the play began, so that before he joined me I had ample time to study the house and look about for some sign of Claire.
Certainly, the sedulous manner in which the new tragedy had been advertised was not without result. To me, unused as I was to theatre-going, the host of people, the hot air, the glare of the gas-lights were intoxicating. In a flutter of anxiety for Tom's success, of sweet perturbation at the prospect of meeting Claire, at first I could grasp but a confused image of the scene. By degrees, however, I began to look about me, and then to scan the audience narrowly for sight of my love.
Surely I should note her at once among thousands. Yet my first glance was fruitless. I looked again, examined the house slowly face by face, and again was baffled. I could see all but a small portion of the pit, the upper boxes and gallery. Pit and gallery were out of the question. She might, though it was hardly likely, be in the tier just above, and I determined to satisfy myself after the end of Act I. Meantime I scanned the boxes. There were twelve on either side of the house, and all were full. By degrees I satisfied myself that strangers occupied all of them, except the box nearest the stage on the right of the tier where I was sitting. The occupants of this were out of sight. Only a large yellow and black fan was swaying slowly backwards and forwards to tell me that somebody sat there.
Somehow, the slow, ceaseless motion of this pricked my curiosity. Its pace, as it waved to and fro, was unaltered; the hand that moved it seemingly tireless; but even the hand was hidden. Not a finger could I gain a glimpse of. By some silly freak of fancy I was positively burning with eagerness to see the fan's owner, when Tom returned and took his seat beside me.
"It begins in five minutes; everything is ready," said he, and his voice had a nervous tremor which he sought in vain to hide.
"Courage!" I said; "at least the numbers here should flatter you."
"They frighten me! What shall I do if it fails?"
The overture was drawing to its close. Tom looked anxiously around the house.
"Yes," he said, "it is crowded, indeed. By the way, was not Claire to have been here? Point her out to me."
"She was; but I cannot see her anywhere. Perhaps she is late."
"If so, I cannot see where she is to find a place. Hush! they are ending."
As he spoke, the last strains of the orchestra died slowly and mournfully away, and the curtain rose upon "Francesca: a Tragedy."
This play has since gained such a name, not only from its own merits (which are considerable), but in consequence also of certain circumstances which this story will relate, that it would be not only tedious but unnecessary to follow its action in detail. For the benefit, however, of those who did not see it at the Coliseum, I here subjoin a short sketch of the plot, which the better-informed reader may omit.
Francesca is the daughter of Sebastian, at one time Duke of Bologna, but deposed and driven from his palace by the intrigues of his younger brother Charles. At the time when the action begins, Sebastian is chief of a band of brigands, the remains of his faithful adherents, whom he has taken with him to the fastnesses of the Apennines. Charles, who has already usurped the duchy for some sixteen years, is travelling with his son Valentine, a youth of twenty, near the haunt of his injured brother. Separated from their escort, they are wandering up a pass, when Valentine stops to admire the view, promising his father to join him at the summit. While thus occupied, he is startled by the entrance of Francesca, and, struck with her beauty, accosts her. She, sympathising for so noble a youth, warns him of the banditti, and he hastens on only to find his father lying at the foot of a precipitous rock, dead. He supposes him to have fallen, has the body conveyed back to Bologna, and having by this time fallen deeply in love with Francesca, prevails on her to leave her father and come with him. She consents, and flies with him, but after some time finds that he is deserting her for Julia, daughter of the Duke of Ferrara. Slighted and driven to desperation, she makes her way back to her father, is forgiven, and learns that Charles' death was due to no accident, but to her father's hand. No sooner is this discovery made than Valentine and Julia are brought in by the banditti, who have surprised and captured them, but do not know their rank. The deposed duke, Sebastian, does not recognise Valentine, and consigns him, with his wife, to a cave, under guard of the brigands. It is settled by Sebastian that on the morrow Valentine is to go and fetch a ransom, leaving his wife behind. Francesca, having plied the guards with drink, enters by night into the cave where they lie captive, is recognised by them, and offers to change dresses with Julia in order that husband and wife may escape. A fine scene follows of insistence and self-reproach, but ultimately Francesca prevails. Valentine and Julia pass out in the grey dawn, and Francesca, left alone, stabs herself. The play concludes as her father enters the cave and discovers his daughter's corpse.
The first scene (which is placed at the court of Bologna) passed without disaster, and the curtain fell for a moment before it rose upon the mountain pass. Hitherto the audience had been chilly. They did not hiss, but neither did they applaud; and I could feel, without being able to give any definite reason for the impression, that so far the play had failed. Tom saw it too. I did not dare to look in his face, but could tell his agony by his short and laboured breathing. Luckily his torture did not last long, for the curtain quickly rose for Scene 2.
The scene was beautifully painted and awakened a momentary enthusiasm in the audience. It died away, however, as Sebastian and Valentine entered. The dialogue between them was short, and Valentine was very soon left alone to a rather dull soliloquy (since shortened) which began to weary the audience most unmistakably. I caught the sound of a faint hiss, saw one or two people yawning; and then—
Stealing, rising, swelling, gathering as it thrilled the ear all graces and delights of perfect sound; sweeping the awed heart with touch that set the strings quivering to an ecstasy that was almost pain; breathing through them in passionate whispering; hovering, swaying, soaring upward to the very roof, then shivering down again in celestial shower of silver—there came a voice that trod all conceptions, all comparisons, all dreams to scorn; a voice beyond hope, beyond belief; a voice that in its unimaginable beauty seemed to compel the very heaven to listen.
And yet—surely I knew—surely it could not be—
I must be dreaming—mad! The bare notion was incredible—and even as my heart spoke the words, the theatre grew dim and shadowy; the vast sea of faces heaved, melted, swam in confusion; all sound came dull and hoarse upon my ear; while there—there—
There, in the blaze of light, radiant, lovely, a glorified and triumphant queen, stepped forward before the eyes of that vast multitude—my love, my Claire!
TELLS HOW THE BLACK AND YELLOW FAN SENT A MESSAGE; AND HOW I SAW A FACE IN THE FOG.
As I sat stupefied our eyes met. It was but for an instant, but in that instant I saw that she recognised me and mutely challenged my verdict. Then she turned to Valentine.
The theatre rang with tumultuous plaudits as her song ended. I could feel Tom's grasp at my elbow, but I could neither echo the applause nor answer him. It was all so wildly, grotesquely improbable.
This then was my love, this the Claire whom I had wooed and won in the shy covert of Pangbourne Woods—this deified and transfigured being before whom thousands were hushed in awe. Those were the lips that had faltered in sweet confession—those before which the breath of thousands came and went in agitated wonder. It was incredible.
And then, as Tom's hand was laid upon my arm, it flashed upon me that the woman he loved was my plighted bride—and he knew nothing of it. As this broke upon me there swept over me an awful dread lest he should see my face and guess the truth. How could I tell him? Poor Tom! Poor Tom!
I turned my eyes upon Claire again. Yes, she was superb: beyond all challenge glorious. And all the more I felt as one who has betrayed his friend and is angry with fate for sealing such betrayal beyond revoke.
Whether Claire misinterpreted my look of utter stupefaction or not, I do not know; but as she turned and recognised Valentine there was a tremor in her voice which the audience mistook for art, though I knew it to be but too real. I tried to smile and to applaud, but neither eyes nor hand would obey my will; and so even Claire's acting became a reproach and an appeal to me, pleading forgiveness to which my soul cried assent though my voice denied it. Minute after minute I sat beneath an agonising spell I could not hope to break.
"Congratulate me, Jasper. What do you think of her?"
It was Tom's voice beside me. Congratulate him! I felt the meanest among men.
"She is—glorious," I stammered.
"I knew you would say so. Unbeliever, did ever man see such eyes? Confess now, what are Claire's beside them?"
"Claire's—are—much the same."
"Why, man, Claire's were deep grey but a day or two ago, and Clarissa's are the brownest of brown; but of course you cannot see from here."
Alas! I knew too surely the colour of Claire's eyes, so like brown in the blaze of the foot-lights. And her height—Tom had only seen her walk in tragic buskin. How fatally easy had the mistake been!
"Tom, your success is certain now."
"Yes, thanks to her. They were going to damn the play before she entered. I could see it. Did you see, Jasper? She looked this way for a moment. Do you think she meant to encourage me? By the way, have you caught sight of Claire yet?"
Oh, Tom, Tom, let me spare you for this night! My heart throbbed and something in my throat seemed choking me as I muttered, "Yes."
"Then do not stay congratulating me, but fly. Success spoils the lover. Ah, Jasper, if only Clarissa had summoned me! Hasten: I will keep my eye upon you and smile approval on your taste. Where is she?"
Again something seemed to catch me by the throat; I was struggling to answer when I heard a voice behind me say, "For you, sir," and a note was thrust into my hand. With beating heart I opened it, expecting to see Claire's handwriting. But the note was not from her. It was scribbled hastily with pencil in a bold hand, and ran thus:—
"An old friend wishes to see you. Come, if you have time. Box No. 7."
At first I thought the message must have reached me by mistake, but it was very plainly directed to "J. Trenoweth, Esq." I looked around for the messenger but found him gone, and fell to scanning the boxes once more.
As before, they were filled with strangers; and, as before, the black and yellow fan was waving slowly to and fro, as though the hand that wielded it was no hand at all, but rather some untiring machine. Still the owner remained invisible. I hesitated, reflected a moment, and decided that even a fool's errand was better than enduring the agony of Tom's rapture. I rose.
"I will be back again directly," I said, and then left him.
Still pondering on the meaning of this message, I made my way down the passages until I came to the doors of the boxes, and stopped opposite that labelled "No. 7." As I did so, it struck me that this, from its position, must be the one which contained the black and yellow fan. By this time thoroughly curious, I knocked.
"Come in," said a low voice which I seemed to remember.
I entered and found myself face to face with the yellow woman—the mistress of the gambling-hell.
She was seated there alone, slightly retired from the view of the house and in the shadow; but her arm, as it rested on the cushion, still swayed the black and yellow fan, and her diamonds sparkled lustrously as ever in the glare that beat into the box. Her dress, as if to emphasise the hideousness of her skin and form a staring contrast with her wrinkled face and white hair, was of black and yellow, in which she seemed some grisly corpse masquerading as youth.
Struck dumb by this apparition, I took the seat into which she motioned me, while her wonderful eyes regarded my face with stony impassiveness. I could hear the hoarse murmurs of the house and feel the stifling heat as it swept upwards from the pit. The strange woman did not stir except to keep up the ceaseless motion of her wrist.
For a full five minutes, as it seemed to me, we sat there silently regarding each other. Then at last she spoke, and the soft voice was as musically sympathetic as ever.
"You seem astonished to see me, Mr. Trenoweth, and yet I have been looking for you for a long time."
"I have been expecting you to give me a chance of redeeming my defeat."
"I am sorry," stammered I, not fully recovered from my surprise, "but that is not likely."
"No? From my point of view it was extremely likely. But somehow I had a suspicion that you would be different from the rest. Perhaps it was because I had set my heart upon your coming."
"I hope," said I, "that the money—"
She smiled and waved her hand slightly.
"Do not trouble about that. Had I chosen, I could have gone on losing to you until this moment. No, perhaps it was simply because you were least likely to do so, that I wished you to come back as all other young men would come back. I hope you reached home safely with what you won; but I need not ask that."
"Indeed you need. I was attacked as I left the room, and but for a lucky accident, should now be dead."
"Ah," she said placidly; "you suspect me. Don't say 'no,' for I can see you do. Nevertheless you are entirely wrong. Why, Mr. Trenoweth, had I chosen, do you think I could not have had you robbed before you had gone three paces from the house?"
This was said with such composure, and her eyes were so absolutely void of emotion, that I could but sit and gasp. Once more I recalled the moment when, as I fled down the dark passage, I had seen her sitting motionless and calm in the light of her countless candles.
"But do you think I sent for you to tell you that?" she continued. "I sent for you because you interested me, and because I want a talk with you. Hush! the curtain is rising for the second act. Let us resume when it has finished; you will not deny me that favour at least."
I bowed again, and was silent as the curtain rose—and once more Claire's superb voice thrilled the house. Surely man was seldom more strangely placed than was I, between the speech of my love and the eyes of this extraordinary woman. As I sat in the shadow and listened, I felt those blazing fires burning into my very soul; yet whenever I looked up and met them, their icy glitter baffled all interpretation. Still as I sat there, the voice of Claire came to me as though beseeching and praying for my judgment, and rising with the blaze of light and heated atmosphere of the house, swept into the box until I could bear the oppression no longer. She must have looked for me, and seeing my place empty, have guessed that I condemned her. Mad with the thought, I rose to my feet and stood for a minute full in the light of the theatre. It may not have been even a minute, but she saw me, and once more, as our gaze met, faltered for an instant. Then the voice rang out clear and true again, and I knew that all was well between us. Yet in her look there was something which I could not well interpret.
As I sank back in my seat, I met the eyes of my companion still impenetrably regarding me. But as the curtain fell she said quietly—
"So you know Clarissa Lambert?"
I stammered an affirmative.
"Well? You admire her acting?"
"I never saw it until to-night."
"That is strange; and yet you know her?"
"She is a great success—on which I congratulate myself, for I discovered her."
"You!" I could only exclaim.
"Yes, I. Is it so extraordinary? She and I are connected, so to speak; which makes it the more odd that she should never have mentioned you."
The eyes seemed now to be reading me as a book. I summoned all my courage and tried to return their steady stare. There was a pause, broken only by the light frou-frou of the fan, as it still waved slowly backwards and forwards. Among all the discoveries of this night, it was hard enough to summon reason, harder to utter speech.
"But you will be leaving me again if I do not explain why I sent for you. You are wondering now on my reasons. They are very simple— professional even, in part. In the first place, I wished to have a good look at you. Do you wonder why an old woman should wish to look upon a comely youth? Do not blush; but listen to my other and professional reason. I should greatly like, if I may, to look upon your talisman—that golden buckle or whatever it was that brought such marvellous luck. Is it on you to-night?"
I wore it, as a matter of fact, in my waistcoat pocket, attached to one end of my chain; but I hesitated for a moment.
"You need not be afraid," she said, and there was a suspicion of mockery in her tone. "I will return it, as I returned it before. But if you are reluctant to let me see it (and remember, I have seen it once), do not hesitate to refuse. I shall not be annoyed."
Reflecting that, after all, her curiosity was certain to be baffled, I handed her the Golden Clasp, with the chain, in silence.
"It is a curious relic," said she, as she slowly examined it and laid it on her lap for a moment. "If the question be allowed, how did you become possessed of it?"